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Methuselah’s Daughter: A Review of The Age of Adaline

by Gary Westfahl

In many respects, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is exactly what it announces itself to be: a classic Hollywood “women’s film.” And one expects that, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) (review here), a seemingly novel trope borrowed from science fiction – here, the secret immortal pretending to be an ordinary person – would be deployed in a perfunctory manner solely to generate an otherwise familiar tale about a tumultuous romance. Yet The Age of Adaline proves to be surprisingly attentive to the demands of science fiction, and amidst its emotional turmoil the film is also striving to thoughtfully explore the possible effects of human immortality. It thus qualifies as a worthwhile addition to a long tradition of science fiction stories about immortality, ranging from Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) to Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long and Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (2007) (editorial review here).

The film’s trailer reveals its fantastic premise: in the late 1930s, a widow named Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a near-fatal car accident and afterwards discovers that, for some reason, she has stopped aging. Many screenwriters would have said nothing more about this remarkable event, confident that audiences would accept this scientific magic without further justification. Yet in J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s screenplay, the (at times intrusive) narrator (Hugh Ross) patiently explains that, when her car plunged into cold water, Adaline experienced an “anoxic reflex” causing her to stop breathing and her heart to beat more slowly; then, when a lightning bolt struck the car, this “defibrillated” her heart, “jolted” her to start breathing, and, by inducing “electron compression” in her “deoxyribonucleic acid” (DNA), made her “immune to the ravages of time,” destined to “never age another day” – all in accordance with scientific principles to be discovered in the year 2035. Actual scientists now working to extend the human lifespan would no doubt consider this “explanation” of immortality a nonsensical assemblage of jargon, but the screenwriters were obviously eager to persuade their audience that Adaline did not represent a one-time miracle, but was rather the accidental beneficiary of a procedure that will someday become routine.

As Adaline gradually realizes what has happened to her, she must radically change her lifestyle in ways that have long been recognized in other stories about immortals. First, she must conceal her condition by constantly traveling and adopting new identities, because otherwise both governments and private individuals would try to capture her and place her in a laboratory to discover her secret – the problem faced by the Howard Families of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958), Ben Richards of the short-lived television series The Immortal (1969), and many others. In her case, after improbably contriving to escape from the FBI, Adaline begins a new life of starting over with a new name and job every decade, the same rhythm adopted by Bixby’s John Oldman. When the film begins, she is Jennifer Larson, working in the Pacific Archives in San Francisco and preparing to move to Oregon and become Susan Fleischer.

Second, as a necessary consequence of her situation, Adaline can never have a lasting relationship with any man, as she must spurn all advances to maintain her secret; thus, stories of immortality often become cautionary tales, warning readers of the condition’s negative consequences. Suffering from perpetual loneliness, Adaline might have echoed the lament of Shelley’s “Mortal Immortal”: “Thus I have lived for many a year – alone and weary of myself …. [T]he ardent love that gnaws at my heart, never to be returned – never to find an equal on which to expend itself – lives there only to torment me.” Learning that she has rejected a man she felt attracted to, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), her now-elderly daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) urges her to reconsider: “don’t you miss having someone to love?” Later, receiving similar advice from Ellis’s father William (Harrison Ford), she is told, “You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” There is, of course, a simple solution to this dilemma – find a partner willing to keep your secret and share a life with someone who never grows old – which is precisely what occurs in the most memorable section of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973) and at the conclusion of Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth; and any viewer has to suspect that this will also be the happy ending of this film. Yet presenting a male companion as the necessary solution to Adaline’s plight is arguably a bit sexist; after all, both Oldman and another one of Bixby’s male immortals, Flint of the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), stoically soldiered on for millennia without ever finding True Love, and this film repeatedly demonstrates that Adaline is, as William says, “an extraordinary woman,” more than capable of living a fulfilling life without a male partner.

Indeed, in carefully developing the probable characteristics of a woman with a very extended lifespan, the film at times seems to be working at cross purposes to its sentimental premise. Adaline is impressively knowledgeable: she speaks several languages and can even read braille in Norwegian; she effortlessly wins a game of Trivial Pursuit; and she knows enough about the streets of San Francisco to provide a cab driver with a good alternate route to her destination. She is remarkably observant, emulating Sherlock Holmes as she glances at a man at a party and immediately makes accurate deductions about his background and activities. Preparing to launch a new life, she confidently purchases a home in rural Oregon and obtains the necessary forged identification cards. Adaline needs a man, in other words, like a fish needs a bicycle.

There are also intimations that an immortal, liberated from concerns about aging and death, might develop a more detached perspective, considering everyday worries as unimportant in the broader scheme of things. This is communicated by another aspect of the film that seems related to science fiction, its repeated references to astronomy. The film begins and ends with images of Earth as seen from space, emphasizing how small humans are from a cosmic viewpoint; Adaline’s positive effect on William’s life was to encourage him to abandon medical school and pursue a career as an astronomer; William becomes famous for discovering a comet that he names for Adaline (“Della,” the name she was using at the time he knew her), and he likens her to that comet, which will provide a spectacular show for humans but, as a “near miss,” will come close to but not reach the Earth; she surprises Ellis by taking him to “someplace he’s never been before” – an abandoned, enclosed drive-in theatre with a roof covered with glowing stars forming the constellations; and the narrator finally informs us that Adaline’s car accident was the last in a chain of events inaugurated by the impact of a meteor on the Moon centuries ago. Ellis is interested in the stars in another way, as we observe a copy of Louis MacNeice’s Astrology (1964) on his desk.

Even more intriguing, perhaps, are the film’s subtle suggestions that an immortal, while rising above petty concerns, might be able to transcend gender boundaries as well. Although Lively’s Adaline is a beautiful and glamorous woman, I sometimes detected an aura of androgyny in her performance, as brusque actions and comments suggested that she had been directed to act like a man in woman’s clothing. Perhaps this was intended solely to communicate her unusual independence, but it led me to recall that Bixby’s Oldman did seem like an unusually gentle and sensitive man, almost feminine in his inability to be harsh or violent. Living many lives, and keeping one’s distance from society, might therefore enable immortals to get in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides. And this would naturally influence their choice of companions, as Huisman’s Ellis is a preternaturally nice guy who patiently endures a series of rude rejections and happily welcomes her without complaints when she finally decides to seek out his company. He is, in other words, the sweet Boy Next Door that the typical romantic heroine would unhesitatingly reject in favor of the colder but more appealing Tall Dark Stranger. Adaline, clearly, is not a typical romantic heroine.

In being lonely, knowledgeable, wise, detached, and slightly androgynous, Adaline is arguably similar to other science fiction immortals; but in one respect, she falls short of her precursors, since she has accomplished nothing. Flint, after all, had previously lived as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Brahms, and other luminaries, and Oldman had been Jesus Christ Himself; but Adaline has always been a nonentity. True, when William celebrates his fortieth wedding anniversary by proclaiming that “I could have no greater ambition in life than to be the best possible husband for my wife,” he suggests that, in keeping with the traditions of the romance novel, forging an enduring relationship is the greatest thing that anyone could achieve. Yet William’s own career as a noted astronomer indicates that he in fact had other, more conventionally greater ambitions, and the need to aspire to lofty goals – to reach for the stars, one might say – is a recurring theme in the film. One of the first things that Adaline says, to the talented young man who forges her documents, Tony (Richard Harmon), is “I just hate to see wasted potential,” and when she first meets Ellis, who has become rich after a chance discovery proved immensely profitable, he remarks that “If you want to make a real difference in the world, it’s harder than it seems.” Adaline is just as intelligent and capable as William, Jeff, and Ellis, if not more so, but her only victory is literally “Trivial.” Her desire to avoid becoming “a specimen” has forced her to become invisible, and after living for over a century, she has left absolutely no mark on the world.

This thought opens up another, entirely different way to look at this film, which is signaled by its title. Of course, Adaline’s most remarkable feature is her “age,” which is 108 years as the film begins, and one way to read the title is as “Adaline’s Age.” However, when the phrase “The Age of” precedes someone’s name, it is usually describing a period of time that was dominated by that individual, like “the Age of Pericles” or “the Age of Napoleon.” Interpreted that way, the title is describing the time period covered in the film – from 1908 to 2015 – as an era dominated by Adaline Bowman, which would be ludicrous because virtually no one during that time was even aware of her existence. If we see Adaline as a symbol of immortality, though, one could read the title as a reference to the twentieth century as “the age of immortality” – and arguably that is an apt description.

For this was the era when one way to achieve a form of immortality – photography – became ubiquitous. True, the art was first mastered by professionals in the 1850s, but only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for virtually everyone to own a portable camera, and thus to have the ability to forever preserve their own images. Photographs permeate this film: Adaline keeps a photo album to remember her only companions, her dogs; she stares at a photograph of her wedding in her apartment, and while attending a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel, she sees a photograph of herself on the wall, celebrating during the same event decades earlier; people are regularly interested in taking her photograph; and in the final scene, we see that she still owns an old-fashioned camera. When William suspects that Adaline is the woman he met many years ago, he rifles through a box of old photographs to find one photograph that might provide definitive evidence. The twentieth century also ushered in a new way to record moving images – motion pictures – and these figure in the film as well, as one of Adaline’s early tasks at the Pacific Archives is to prepare some old newsreels for digitization, and she happily watches old films of San Francisco in 1906 and other eras. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (1966) blaring on Ellis’s car radio references the new way that twentieth-century people could also preserve their voices – sound recordings – and Adaline carries with her the modern device that enables anyone today to produce their own photographs, movies, and recordings, a smartphone. Thus, while we can read accounts or look at paintings of life in earlier centuries, the twentieth century is the first century that people will always be able to actually look at and listen to – the first immortal century.

Ironically, throughout the film, Adaline displays an aversion to being photographed; and there are practical reasons for this, since she has no desire to create potential evidence of her agelessness. But since she always looks the same – she dismisses photographs of herself by telling her daughter, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” – Adaline also has no need for photography, explaining why she never wants to be photographed. Blessed with true immortality, she has no desire for the ersatz immortality provided by photography.

Still, Adaline remains captivated by images of other people, much like almost everyone else, and this might be regarded as a harmless diversion, a new way to be entertained. But The Age of Adaline also indicates that having access to all these records of the past might have harmful effects, as it sometimes seems that everyone in the film has an unhealthy obsession with the past. Adaline’s job at the Pacific Archives involves preserving old books and films, and facing the challenge of showing each other something they are not familiar with, both Ellis and Adaline do not turn to some new attraction, but rather to an ancient artifact – a nineteenth-century boat buried underground and an early drive-in theatre. William’s harmonious forty-year marriage is briefly disrupted when he first sees Adaline and starts babbling about how wonderful this woman he once knew was, inspiring his wife to complain that she is now feeling like his “second choice.” Certainly, any marriage might be threatened if the wife discovered that her husband had saved photographs of an old girlfriend, which is precisely why William kept his photographs of Adaline hidden away in a storage room, inside a box with a misleading label. William also muses that as astronomical instruments keep improving, astronomers keep look further and further into the past. The narrator’s reference to 2035 is thus jarring because nobody else in the film seems to be thinking about twenty years in the future – or even one year in the future; instead, their eyes, and their thoughts, are constantly drawn back to the enticingly clear images of the past that surround them.

The film itself, despite its virtues as a work of science fiction, is also studiously avoiding any consideration of the future it envisions – a world in which human immortality is not a rare accident, but something that scientists can achieve as a matter of routine. Since Adaline will still be alive in 2035, the filmmakers could conceivably craft a sequel wherein she lives to witness the emergence of such a world, but one doubts very much that they would ever do so. For there are many fanciful films about immortal vampires, and films about solitary immortals or handfuls of immortals (as in the Highlander films), but other than the cartoonish Zardoz (1974), one is hard pressed to come up with examples of films that ponder the implications of an entire society where immortality is commonplace. To find such stories, which do not lend themselves to conventional Hollywood formulas, one must turn to the literature of science fiction, not its films.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available this month.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Algernon Blackwood

The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings, Algernon Blackwood, edited by Mike Ashley (Stark House 978-1933586700, $19.95, 222pp, hc) March 2015.

If you see a book with the byline of Mike Ashley on it, as either editor or author, buy it. You won’t go wrong. Ashley is a scholar of fantastika who exhibits a populist touch and an academic’s depth of knowledge. Readability and historical importance go hand-in-hand in his spelunking through the vast untapped storehouse of forgotten fantasy, science fiction and horror. Moreover, he knows these hidden nooks and crannies of the field better than nine-tenths of the rest of us alleged experts, and can be relied on to ferret out concealed treasures. Also, he is scrupulous in his documentation and annotations.

Now, when you yoke Ashley to the somewhat neglected yet canonical fantasist Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951, most famous for “The Wendigo”), you know you are in for a special treat, mainly because Ashley has previously produced a book-length biography of Blackwood and inhabits this terrain especially well.

This current Ashley-compiled volume from Stark House—a superb small press which concentrates on rescuing groovy vintage noir, but which has also reprinted ten Blackwood novels and story collections previously—features rare stories and essays from the early years of Blackwood’s career. Some thirty entries in the generous table of contents preclude an item-by-item discussion, so I shall have to cite just a few of my favorites.

The initial section of the collection is “Early Tales,” and it kicks off with Blackwood’s very first piece of published fiction, from when he was a mere twenty years old. “The Mysterious House” is very creepy, and presents a youthful flair and exuberance without a lot of sophistication. But that latter quality, along with more craftsmanship, shows up pretty quickly, for Blackwood was a natural storyteller. I don’t see how else someone could make a haunted piece of luggage, for goodness’s sake, really horrific, as he does in “The Kit-Bag.” Blackwood had a knack for coining really unsettling phrases, as in this story, that expressed uncanny symptoms and phenomena. “It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something that was strongly objected to by another person, a person, moreover, who had some right to object.” And the title story is a small masterpiece, because it leaves you in doubt right up to the end. Yes, the mad professor believed our planet was a sentient beast that demanded sacrificial victims. But just because he was possessed with this monomania, was he so very wrong?

Ashley segregates four stories into the second section under the rubric “Imagination Awakes,” because they all illuminate Blackwood’s notion of the powers of the non-mimetic mind. “Stodgman’s Opportunity” is an amusing piece about a fellow utterly devoid of that vital power of fancy. But the strongest item here is “The Night-Wind,” in which Uncle Henry, an author, summons up by his oral fairytales a deity which the children in his presence help to reify, joyfully but spookily.

Section three, “Nature Inspires,” consists of journalistic essays by Blackwood that give us further insights into the sources of his literary powers and the passions that served as the engines of his daily life. Many of them display a Thoreauvian quality, for Blackwood was in love with natural creation like that old Walden chap. “‘Mid the Haunts of the Moose” might call up comparisons to Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, with a similar mix of closely observed nature and philosophy. But “Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe” conjures up not Thoreau, but rather the gentle idle humor of Jerome K. Jerome.

Our final segment, “Conflicts of the Soul,” is a mix of fiction and non-fiction which surveys a sea-changed Blackwood who emerged from the horrors of World War I as a semi-shattered man and had to rebuild his soul. The standout item here is the story “Onanonanon.” In a very compact space, we get a seminal and semi-mystical childhood incident recounted in hallucinatory detail. Then we jump ahead by several decades to the recurrence of the incident, with mortal variations. If you were to read this story in, say, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, you would think it utterly congruent with Kelly Link’s own postmodern fiction, and acclaim it as the work of some hot new millennial fabulist.

With a fair shake, this collection should drive thousands of readers to seek out Blackwood’s mature work, rewarding the efforts and faith of both Ashley and Stark House, whilst procuring much reading pleasure for themselves.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

Featuring a special issue of Analog, plus its sister zine and a couple of online publications.

Publications Reviewed

Analog, June 2015

This issue marks a very notable milestone for the magazine: number one thousand, counting from the Astounding era. That’s venerable. That’s longevity. To mark the occasion, there are a number of commemorative essays, which, being nonfiction, I won’t review here, but which will doubtless be of interest to readers. As for the fiction, the ToC lists two novelettes, both among the best Hard SF I’ve seen from this zine. Both involve human contact with aliens, but these are well-done science-fictional aliens, not the silly kind with tentacles and snouts. Indeed, their presence is known primarily through inference, as the humans try to interpret the evidence for their existence. I’d like to see more pieces like these in the course of the next thousand issues.

The large number of short pieces, some very short, also include several dealing with aliens and/or war, but most aren’t particularly compelling.

“The Wormhole War” by Richard A Lovett

Forces on Earth are attempting to establish a wormhole link to a planet they call Gaia205c. On a day that Zeke happens to be in control, the wormhole explodes. Earth sends out more wormholes to find out what happened; they also explode, closer and closer to Earth. No one has any idea how to penetrate the mystery until after Zeke’s wife dies and he starts to spend more time in bars, where he explores a new notion of using the wormhole for time travel, taking advantage of the time dilation. Paradoxes ensue, whereupon Zeke and his colleagues realize that their wormholes aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood.

What do you do if entities unknown shoot multi-billion-dollar wormholes at you faster than you can get your own into their territory? Build more and fire them back even faster, the newly formed Planetary Defense Commission concluded. Going to Gaia 205c was now out of the question. The goal was to keep Gaia 205c from coming to Earth.

Genuine Hard SF, based on the hardest of the sciences, physics, married to military SF. The premise is a crucial one: what do you do if you inadvertently start a war against a power stronger than you are? One beneficial side effect is that Earth is forced to become truly united against a common danger. For Zeke, the central character, the situation is a tragedy. He can’t forget the days when wormholes meant exploration and new frontiers, not war and the threat of planetary destruction. While he becomes increasingly familiar with military strategy, he isn’t happy about what he’s becoming in the process.

I quite like the wormhole war, but I could have done without Zeke’s family problems, which aren’t really central to the story but are brought onstage at intervals, I assume to provide an unnecessary humanizing touch.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen

Jander opens the story by informing us that he’s the sole survivor of a five-person exploration ship sent to survey Abyss, an extrasolar planet now in the Oort Cloud region. Thus we want to know both what happened and why he’s telling us. Upon reaching their goal, the crew’s priority is refueling for the return trip. Fortunately, the planet’s rings are full of ice. Upon examining a sample, they discover specimens that make it clear the system harbors some form of life, probably in a subsurface ocean on one of the planet’s icy moons, after the model of Europa. A team of three is sent to probe further, and they are detonating sounding charges when they abruptly disappear, their bodies replaced by an equal mass of ice. The survivors realize there is an alien civilization beneath the ice with teleportation ability. Then the bodies of the crew start to rematerialize in the ship, animated by the presence of an alien intelligence.

An auditory scan showed that his heart was beating and that he was taking breaths. His head turned back and forth, and his eyes focused on some nearby instruments. Things that did not understand eyes were looking through his eyes.

The two lifeforms are studying each other, the humans only directly, but the aliens through the minds of the reanimated crew. The humans become increasingly alarmed at the evidence of the Abyssans’ abilities, and the fact that they are obviously very interested in their visitors and their ship. Now, alone on the ship except for an alien zombie watching his every move, Jander is convinced that they might pose a threat to Earth.

A neat story idea, well executed. The problem posed to Jander isn’t entirely original, but his solution is novel and clever. The crew’s speculation on the nature of the aliens is interesting, as they note that to these ice-dwellers, humans must seem like beings living on the surface of a sun. And there’s irony as Jander complains early in the story that he has no opportunity to practice his skills of disaster recovery. I only wonder why, after he has taken such great pains to eliminate all evidence that might point the aliens in the direction of Earth, he takes the risk of transmitting the warning message that is this story.


“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare

More aliens. This one appears to be a sequel to a previous tale in which human exobiologist Becca goes to the planet Albedo and ends up adopting an Albedan child. Now she and two Albedans are with a human exploration party on a different world where the indigenes are extinct. Or so they assume, although I have no idea why. Communication ensues—indeed, it’s the story’s theme. Kind of dull.

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F Wu

War is mean and cruel and bad and inspires cynical stories.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins

Short-short variation on the mother’s eternal “You never call” theme. Supposed to be funny, I find it rather depressing, considering a world full of young people with no prospects, no future.

“The Odds” by Ron Collins

War is treacherous. Another cynical short-short, told strangely in the 2nd person, instructing the individual assigned to commit an act of betrayal at a peace conference between two species. We assume that one of these is likely human, that the person being addressed is the human, but there is no guarantee of this, since both species in question are perhaps equally warlike and treacherous. There is also no guarantee that the other side isn’t planning just the same sort of betrayal.

The narrative makes this somewhat intriguing, being mostly abstract speculation. The odds, it seems, favor the fact that such species will evolve. May the worst side win, as usual.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C C Finlay

It isn’t, as the infodump makes tediously clear, a vaccine, but a gene therapy that eliminates the subject’s capacity for empathy. Our narrator, a prospective client, calls it “a performance-enhancing drug for corporate management”, which is to say for creating a psychopath. Alas, while the idea has some interest, the execution is clumsy and one of the worst cases of “how is he telling this story” that I’ve encountered.

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson

A millennium or so in the past, facing some crisis, Earth sent out a fleet of seedships to propagate human populations on different worlds. Now, in the ideal condition of a “liberal democratic state” and apparently full of misgivings, it has sent out a new mission:

Locate the seedship colonies, the frozen progeny scattered by a younger and more desperate Earth. Study these new humanities. And in the most extreme situations: remove existential threats to mankind.

That’s pretty arrogant, but the reality is even moreso. There are three members of the mission, one with a predisposition to kill entire populations, one to reject the idea, and Shinobu, our narrator, as the tiebreaker. They also have a template for the approved sort of society, one that fosters art and culture, and a list of social diseases including the “Duong-Watts malignant”. This is a theoretical society in which humans have been engineered to suppress their individual self-consciousness. On Mitanni, this seems to have happened. The society resembles a global ant hive*, with each individual working for the survival of the whole. Now the mission has to decide whether to destroy it.

This piece is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. The characters spend a great deal of time debating whether Mitanni does or does not qualify as a “Duong-Watts malignant”, a term pretty meaningless. It’s really monstrous to decide that a world’s population should be exterminated simply because it doesn’t meet a pre-existing template of acceptability. The real question ought to be instead whether the society constitutes a threat to other worlds or to humanity as a whole. The three judges assume that it does, because Mitanni is preparing its own seedships. But I don’t think this follows at all from the assumptions given. Mitanni reproduction is artificial, and as such is controlled, which means overpopulation is unlikely. Since their imperative is survival, they will produce only the number of new births to optimize success. So spreading beyond their own world is not an imperative. In short, I don’t think this scenario makes sense.

Worse, the three characters seem primarily concerned, not with their mission but each other, not hurting each other’s feelings. They apparently have a long history together, which the story fails to show us directly. There is a clear sense that they are inclined to commit massive genocide as an apology to one character who was overruled on the prior occasion and took it badly [although, again, this is something we never actually see]. I find this particularly monstrous.

[*] One character insists that Mitanni does not resemble the model of ants, but I believe she is wrong about ants.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser

A crewmember from a high-c spaceship likes to bullshit the locals in the bars while his ship is in port. Tall tales.

Asimov’s, June 2015

This issue features a quartet of longer novelettes; I prefer the shorter Naylor.

“The End of the War” by Django Wexler

Military SF, of course. As the spearpoint of this conflict in black space we have individual operators commanding mobcoms, which stands for something like “mobile command”. They go out alone for 120-day tours, fighting to take resources and deny them to the enemy by deploying hordes of mobile devices. Because the solitude can drive an operator crazy, most of them have illicit communication devices to chat with any other operators in range—on either side. This tends to make their encounters seem more like a nonlethal, convivial game, and they do seem to have more in common than with the other personnel on their own sides, primarily their support and their commanders, who keep extending their tours.

Every operator has been tempted, at some point. It would certainly be a lot easier if we could just trade off, instead of fighting it out every time. But command won’t have it, and it’s common knowledge that our mobcoms spy on us, upload our out battle records into the big iron back on the Ark. A little unauthorized communication is one thing, but throw a fight and there’d be hell to pay.

The milspeak jargon here can be a bit off-putting at first, but the author paces things deliberately, with a slow reveal of the dire situation the combatants have fought themselves into. Nothing remains but the war, winding down to the last resources of both sides. Their home worlds have long since been annihilated, their populations removed to ark ships where they breed the next generations of combatants. Their battles now are fought over the salvage of earlier generations of war ships, rich with resources that seem profligate to these combatants. The situation proves more grim than it seems at first, when readers will be reminded of gaming scenarios; this war, in the end, is no game.

“The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien

It’s a bit jarring to go directly from the grim scenario above to this comedy of manners, featuring characters with names like Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe. The setting resembles the Gilded Age, when fortunes were made from whaling and railroads, and the possessors thereof summered at Newport to vie among themselves in games of social status, such as competing to own the most unique garden and sit the closest to Mrs Vanderbilt.

Now I’m fond of a good comedy of manners, full of cleverness, wit, and allusions to Jane Austen. In this case, though, what we have is a parody, a social commentary on the uses of extravagant wealth that actually descends to tragedy. Nevertheless a parody in the form of a comedy of manners has to succeed as a comedy of manners, with a light, subtle touch. This one plods heavy-footed through the gardens of farce, trampling the foliage of wit underfoot.

The deck of the ship was alive with speculation until the clarion at the top of the pulley sounded, indicating that the passengers were ready to be retrieved. The pulley was cranked to draw the diving bell back up along the rails and onto the platform and the passengers were disgorged. All of Newport society saw Mrs. Howland-Thorpe weeping quietly onto her husband’s shoulder. She lifted her kerchief from her face to shake her fist and cry “Saboteuse!”

I have another objection, rather more science-fictional. The narrative repeats several times that “It could not be known” what disastrous effects the sea-roses would have on the marine environment. But of course it could have, should have been known, since these organisms were artificially bred by “enterprising botanists at Harvard University” over a period of time sufficient to observe their pernicious habits. As farce, this scenario isn’t really required to stand the test of scientific reason, but the text shouldn’t rub it in.

“Ghosts of the Savannah” by M Bennardo

Some time in the apparent Paleolithic*, the narrator and her sister/friend Sedu are members of a band of cursorial hunters in which the primary skill of a hunter is the ability to run [the gazelle being their primary prey]. These two young women are excellent runners and have earned their place in the band, but a certain male leader resents them for it; the narrator knows he wants to take Sedu to bear children for him and keep his house. But if she can’t continue to be a hunter, Sedu would rather die.

Sedu doesn’t crow or cheer as we return, but simply glows with satisfaction. Everyone can see how often she wears the blood splashes of the dead gazelle. Everyone can see when she is the one who has driven the killing blow.

The descriptions here are well and vividly detailed, but the story premise is one that readers may find overly-familiar. Moreover, there is no real fantastic or science-fictional element present; this is straight prehistorical fiction.

[*] The actual era of this setting seems to be the Olduwan, the earliest known period of tool making. The hominins of the story work flint, crudely, and have fire, though we don’t see how they make it. But they have no spears or projectile weapons. The characters in this story are not at all modern humans, possibly australopithecine or Homo habilis. This suggests they are not yet well adapted for running, which makes the female runners of the story significant in evolutionary terms. Unfortunately for their own personal desires, it means their species would benefit more from their bearing children to carry on this trait, rather than running after game, as they would prefer. Evolution is like that. I do question, however, their inability to survive by foraging and gathering, as hominins of this era most likely did, not yet being so efficient as hunters. It’s a perplexing situation.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker

Luce and her band are on the road in a future where the road is dying, driving in their restaurant-grease van from one gig to the next as they become fewer and farther between as the venues slowly disappear, along with the few remaining live bands. All entertainment now comes as holos.

Town after town, we saw the same thing. And of course most people didn’t see anything at all, puttering along on the self-driving highways, watching movies instead of looking out the windows, getting from point A to point B without stopping in between.

She does it for the music, for the live music and the few people who still come to see it, but it’s a dying way of life, as they get older and creakier, scrounge in dumpsters for food and sleep in the funk of the van, constantly looking out for cops who’ll harass them on general suspicion. Anything but sell out to the holo corporations.

This one is mainly atmosphere, a future when where everything is artificial but only a few people recognize it. I can’t say whether it’s a dystopia; we only see the backwaters of this society, where depopulation is underway. The focus, though, is on Luce. She meets aging people who tell her, “I used to have a band,” but she lives the grimy reality of that life, and it’s wearing her down. The offer of the holo corporations is starting to become tempting. The details of existence on the road are compelling; I felt strongly impelled to take a shower with degreaser after reading it.

“Mutability” by Ray Naylor

In a quiet café somewhere in the Mideast, Sebastian encounters a woman who shows him a very strange photograph: he and she together, perhaps four hundred years ago. Neither of them have any memory of each other.

He turned left and went down the embankment, turning details over in his mind and trying to remember things. Did he remember her? Now that he had seen the picture, it seemed as if he did, but he knew the way these false memories could be constructed by the mind: you would remember a moment, but in the memory, you would be looking into your own face, or looking down at yourself from above—which meant it couldn’t possibly be real. And they said that every time you remembered something, you subtly changed the memory to suit the present moment.

Or perhaps we change the present to suit the memory.

This is an elegant, elegiac tale, a subtle mystery of memory. The setting is sketched with a fine economy; we don’t know exactly where or when we are, but it’s clearly way past our own time. People are very long-lived, and some appear to be living with no visible present means of support. Things here don’t greatly change. The café has been there for decades, if not centuries, largely unaltered. The story makes us slightly curious about these matters, but the real concern is with the alterations we discern.


“The Muses of Shuyedan-18″ by Indrapramit Das

Really neat aliens, very well imagined. Tani and Mi come across one of the creatures they call lifecastles just as it separates from the progenitor that budded it.

It wasn’t birth, it was a battle, full of lust and fury and what we might call blood, misting the air and falling upon us in a drizzle that glimmered on our faceplates as we watched. Strings of dark tissue stretched between the aliens like a cat’s cradle, scythes of cartilage emerging to snap them off. Steaming in the red light, Shuyedan pulled away and lay across the loamy ground, ultraviolet reflections storming across its fresh skin like lightning. A giant twisting to articulate itself, groaning to life. Its progenitor gasped flickering blood and shuddered away, its part done.

These creatures are artists, their own bodies their canvas. As the humans watch, crude images of their spacesuited selves appear on its integument. Later, overcome by the experience just witnessed, they have sex, and are surprised shortly afterwards to see images of their copulation forming a frieze across its carapace.

The naturalists I know would be disapproving of this scene, of humans imprinting a newborn creature, warping the expression of its art. Even Tani and Mi express some misgivings on this score. It’s a worthy subject for an SF story. Alas, this story veers away to consider the relationship between Tani and Mi, which is a lot less intriguing. Quarrels between lovers are a tedious commonplace in fiction; what is this worth, in comparison to really neat aliens? What effects did this imprinting experience have on Shuyedan, and did it contribute to its early death? The author doesn’t seem sufficiently concerned with these questions, and that saddens me.

Unlikely Story, April 2015

Another mini-issue, this one subtitled Unlikely Coulrophobia—which is to say clowns. Unfortunately, these pieces are all “flash fiction” [a term I have never liked], mostly too short for optimum impact. The five stories avoid most of the usual evil-clown clichés, but they tend to repeat some of the same themes among themselves.

“Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do” by Derek Manuel

This one starts out on a mundane note, so that readers may think: yes, indeed, this is good mundane advice for a mundane clown to emulate. But it gradually becomes clear that the clowns in question are not mundane at all. The slow reveal at work.

“Perfect Mime” by Sarah K McNeilly

A particularly creepy story in which the clown is the victim, a puppet being played by her masters. The plasticity of makeup obscuring the face beneath is used effectively to suggest the exploitation of women, but I find the scariest part the invisible ropes and belts that leave physical scars, unseen by the audience, which can’t hear her cry out from a mime’s silence.

“A Million Tiny Ropes” by Virginia M Mohlere

The ropes make up the net that the clowns hold to catch JennyAnne when she drops from the trapeze. A net can be safety and salvation, and it can be a trap, as this vignette illustrates.

“Everyone’s a Clown” by Caroline M Yoachim

When the narrator takes her daughter to the circus, she sees everyone’s face transformed into a clown’s. This, apparently, is how Amelia has always seen the world, the clown faces reflecting the inner reality of the individuals. While the visions are disturbing, particularly the cat, this is in essence a story of a mother attempting to do the best for her child in a difficult situation, even if she has to share it with her.

“Break the Face in the Jar by the Door” by Carlie St George

Another mother and daughter. The 2nd-person narrator, already afflicted with an emotionally abusive husband, now finds her young daughter afflicted with “coulrodermatism”, “that creepy clown disease”. It turns out that this is the child’s way of expressing her feelings about her oppressive home life.

This one repeats the themes of some of the previous pieces, which do it rather better.

Kaleidotrope, Spring 2015

Five stories, mostly fantasy, of rather medium quality at best. This zine will have to do better for me to keep reading.

“The Spine of Worlds” by Eric Rosenfield

After a harrowing youth in which he lost everyone he had, more than once, Hal discovered the Tower, full of multiple gates to the multiverse. Adventurers were constantly coming through the place on some quest or other, but Hal has realized that the goal of his own quest is the Tower itself, the only place in the multiverse where it’s safe. He’s lived there alone in contentment, scavenging, until the arrival of Aris, on her quest to regain her stolen shadow. For once, Hal helps an adventurer. Hal is falling in love.

In his years in the Tower he’d watched and listened, keeping to the shadows as the adventurers tromped through. He named the galleries and remembered what was said to be beyond each door. He’d never found an end to them — every time he thought he had, he discovered more uncharted space — but he didn’t think there was a living person who knew them better. If the Gnome King wouldn’t help her, and she didn’t know where to turn next, he could point her on the right path.

A nice, warmhearted little secondary world fantasy, in which I see two problems. First, it makes sense that the traumatized Hal would cling to a guarantee of safety, but just where is this guarantee? Who grants and enforces it? The place is a regular route of armed adventurers, who are often a ruthless bunch. If Aris was the first to put a knife to his throat, she probably wouldn’t be the last. Hal’s haven seems to be a delusion, or if not, the author hasn’t show us why. Secondly, this world is populated with generic fantasy figures [e.g. gnomes] and creatures of the author’s imagination. But one figure, Baba Yaga, is out of place here. She belongs to a specific folklore, a specific setting, which this isn’t.

“Monkey King, Faerie Queen” by Zen Cho

Here’s an intriguingly original idea: Monkey, the Chinese trickster god, finds himself in a foreign realm. Cultural dissonance ensues.

In foreign countries people don’t do things the way we do them. Instead of calling nice nice and not nice not nice, they like to say that what is bad is good and what is good is bad. So this benighted ragtag group of unreverenced lesser godlings were known as the Fair Folk, despite their pinched unpleasant faces. They were the Good Neighbors, even though they soured their human neighbors’ milk and stole the occasional baby. They were called the People of Peace, even though their favorite past-time was declaring war and perpetrating grotesque crimes upon each other.

Entertaining magical encounter, in which the Fae don’t come off well.

“Echoes of Life” by Jetse de Vries

Science fiction, sort of. Blaze has come to Europa to investigate the discovery of indigenous lifeforms and arbitrate between any native Europans and the human pressure for colonization. It would seem that the only real scientist on Europa is an eight year old named Jason, who’s discovered a creature he names the zeppelinfish. Jason also believes in Santa Claus, or rather the Dutch version, which prevails on this world’s small colony. Upon arrival on Europa, Blaze goes directly to Jason’s mother, apparently on account of her hotness, as no other reason is given. They immediately jump into the sack, leaving Jason to solve the mystery of Europan life, which he does with suspicious ease.

I’m not buying any of this, although I might be willing to buy the zeppelinfish under other circumstances, such as a different story.

“The Face of Atrocity” by Charles Ebert

Baba Yaga again, this time in an appropriate setting, a German military camp in occupied Russia during WWII. She is in league with the partisans and supplies Ivan with mushrooms to poison the Germans. This is a blow not struck without a cost.

Ivan eyed the witch with dread. In every tale he had ever heard with Baba Yaga in it, she made deals, offering to fix the hero’s troubles with the evil prince or stepmother, in exchange for something impossible or unspeakable. When the hero found himself unable to keep his side of the bargain, Baba Yaga would get upset and start loading firewood into her oven.

It seems that Baba Yaga is a Russian patriot, with a history of aiding the people against invaders. This doesn’t mean the witch is a nice person, and people associated too closely with her may absorb the taint. A cruel and vengeful tale, which is suited to this history. Unfortunately, the usual clichés and stereotypes abound.

“The Maquette” by Nicole M Taylor

A variation on the Pygmalion story, to the point that the sculpture, come to life, calls herself Galatea. It’s a moral tale about the futility of the quest for sterile perfection, in which we find no real surprises.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Tom Purdom

Romance on Four Worlds: A Casanova Quartet, Tom Purdom (Fantastic Books 978-1627556354, $12.99, 150pp, hc) April 2015.

For two decades now, Tom Purdom has slowly and slyly, regardless of my dim-witted inattention, been building up a series of stories centered on a fellow who might be succinctly—if reductionistically—described as an “interplanetary Casanova.” The stories all begin with the word “romance” and have all appeared in Asimov’s. This volume collects the quartet under the lovely and somewhat Vancian title Romance on Four Worlds, a title which blithely plays with the dual meanings of romance as carnal, emotional affection, a love affair, and romance as adventure, as in “scientific romances,” that great old term that predated “science fiction.”

Let us get acquainted first with our narrator and hero, Joseph Louis Baske. He’s relatively uncomplicated, having decided early on “to make the strange feelings a member of the other sex could evoke…the central concern of my life. I didn’t want to waste one hour of my life listening to committee reports.” When we meet him in the first tale, “Romance in Lunar G,” he is already seventy-four years old, and has used the historical Casanova and his philosophy and exploits as his template and spiritual mentor for the past twenty years.

But in this final quarter of the twenty-first century, being a septuagenarian does not mean what it once did. For medical science has brought with it longer vibrant lifespans, and various physical enhancements. (Need I mention that Baske has complete control of his amatory physiology?) More consequentially, in Baske’s estimation, science has allowed for understanding and tailoring mentalities, reining in or boosting certain baseline human impulses and brain abilities. As a connoisseur of feelings, Baske is very sensitive to modifications among his partners and interlocutors.

This whole moderately transhuman milieu of the initial adventure—to be ramped up as we progress—illustrates Purdom’s ability and desire to write the best postmodern SF that he can. While not as complex or ramified as the future imagined by Hannu Rajaniemi—nor as sometimes willfully opaque—Purdom’s future seems to foreshadow that mode: it’s not any off-the-shelf inhabited Solar System scenario, but a clever fleshing out of trends visible in our present day.

Despite the centrality of romance in his pursuits, Baske seems a proficient jack-of-all-trades when it comes to professions, with a sideline of mild espionage thrown in, just like his role model. But his fortunes have sunk to a low in the first story. Nonetheless, he has spent a lot of money to go on a lunar tourist excursion just to be next to the current woman of his fancies and fantasy, an artist named Malita Divora. Unfortunately, Malita wants nothing to do with Baske, being partnered with a politician-cum-journalist named Wen Kang. Trailing the pair to a secret assignation with a renegade secret agent, Baske finds himself fighting for his life on the harsh surface of the Moon, with his stoical sangfroid intact: “In spite of all the traditions of romantic fiction, it’s been my experience that heroic feats are an overrated form of courtship.”

The second story, “Romance in Extended Time,” occurs in 2089, and jacks up the transhumanism quotient. We are in a nanoengineered biome that encircles the planet Mercury, full of exotic humans and animals. (Cue hints of John Varley here, and perhaps even the “four worlds” title is meant to invoke Varley’s famed Eight Worlds future.) Baske has fallen in love with one Ling Chime, who is acting as secretary/bodyguard to Elector Katrinka Oldaf-Li. To be next to his reluctant inamorata, he has agreed to accompany the pair on a small journey, providing the transportation. But Baske has not realized that the powerful Yan family, opposed to the Elector’s policies, intends to sabotage her journey with everything short of fatal firepower. The resulting battle of wits fills about two-thirds of the story, leaving plenty of space for a coda involving Baske and Chime’s subsequent relationship. And auguries of further stages in human self-directed evolution come into play as well.

In “Romance with Phobic Variations,” Baske is on one of the Martian moons, in love with a woman named Nento. But it takes the intervention of a new pal, the adolescent genius named Sori, son of another woman in Baske’s life, to inform the Casanova that Nento has been deliberately remodeled just to push all of Baske’s buttons so that she can run a money-draining scam on him. Undone by his own lusts, Baske and Sori seek to scam the scammer, but run afoul of some of her tough pals.

In the final entry, “Romance for Augmented Trio,” we exist in the total post-scarcity, posthuman milieu, cleverly imagined and depicted. Baske and his latest gal pal, the superhuman Ganmei, are in a little spaceship heading for the Kuiper Belt on a multi-year journey. Out there they encounter a bad apple whom they nickname Red Boots for his Ming the Merciless-style costume. But Red Boots, thanks to his machine-intelligence linkup, proves a formidable foe, and it’s only through synergizing their talents that Ganmei and Baske escape his merciless grasp, after some suspenseful action. To praise the story properly, I’ll say that it reads like an episode of the original Star Trek as if written by John Wright.

While not exploring the matter of sexual and emotional love to the depth of a Theodore Sturgeon or a Samuel Delany, Purdom nevertheless succeeds in fashioning some farcical yet genuinely speculative and authentic romps along themes that are noticeably and regrettably absent from so much SF.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Ellen Datlow’s Nightmare Carnival

Nightmare Carnival, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse Books 978-1-61655-427-9, $19.99, 384pp, tp) October 2014.

For her anthology Nightmare Carnival, Ellen Datlow has assembled 15 new stories that explore the horrific possibilities inherent in carnivals and their entertainments. The dark carnival theme has been a staple of weird fiction since the early part of the twentieth century, and over the decades numerous writers have written stories drawn from its most familiar inspirations, notably sideshow performers whose incredible feats border on the uncanny, and the grotesque physical horrors of the freak show. Several of the stories in Nightmare Carnival fit this bill, but to Datlow’s credit a number of her selections take the dark carnival theme into provocative new territory.

Among the book’s more traditional tales are N. Lee Wood’s ‘‘Scapegoats’’, which fictionalizes an actual historical incident that occurred in Erwin TN in 1916, when angry townspeople compelled the grisly execution by hanging of a traveling carnival elephant who had the day before killed one of her handlers. The most horrifying aspect of the story is the cruelty of the townspeople, who see the spectacle of the elephant’s death as just another form of entertainment. Wood grafts a twist ending onto her tale that will put readers in mind of Tod Browning’s cult film Freaks, whose source material – Tod Robbins’s pulp story ‘‘Spurs’’ – was possibly the very first dark carnival story. The lynch mob spirit pervasive in Wood’s story also permeates Nick Mamatas’s ‘‘Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip’’, a period tale that leavens its grim depiction of racial bigotry in early twentieth century America with ironic reflections on the artifice of carnival entertainments and the treatment of sideshow exotics as outsiders to normal human society.

It’s a given in most dark carnival stories that, at some point, entertainments that seem inexplicably fantastic are revealed to be genuinely so. In Jeffrey Ford’s ‘‘Hibbler’s Minions’’, a second-rate carnival runs full tilt into the supernatural when its virtuoso flea-circus performers, who have been harvested from the corpse of a sideshow monstrosity, prove to be formidable monsters in their own right. The heroine in Priya Sharma’s ‘‘The Firebrand’’ presents her formidable fire-wielding talents as just a well-staged act, until her troubled relationship with two other carnival employees forces her to reveal their true nature. Similarly, the singing acrobat in Dennis Danvers’s ‘‘Swan Song and Then Some’’ – whose nightly act involves swan-diving to her death and then resurrecting herself – proves to have a much more profound explanation for her talents than the incantatory power of her song. For readers who prefer their carnivals unabashedly weird behind the guise of glitzy entertainment, there’s A.C. Wise’s ‘‘And the Carnival Leaves Town’’, about a traveling sideshow that leaves a legacy of death and disappearance in each town it passes through, and Terry Dowling’s wonderfully unconventional ‘‘Corpse Rose’’, in which a traveling carnival’s offbeat attractions prove to be encoded with malignant meaning that determine the type mayhem the carnival will secretly wreak upon the world.

Two of the book’s selections are sequels or sidebars to earlier stories by their authors. Glen Hirshberg’s ‘‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’’ is a follow-up to ‘‘Mr. Dark’s Carnival’’, his World Fantasy Award-nominated story from 2000 about a carnival of the dead that manifests on Halloween and snares a university professor studying its lore and legendry. The new story recapitulates the events of its predecessor, with academic colleagues drawing a newly tenured professor into the same web of eerie incidents that overwhelmed the protagonist of the earlier tale. In Laird Barron’s ‘‘Screaming Elk, MT’’, the heroine of his 2013 story, ‘‘Termination Dust’’, who survived an attack by a supernaturally empowered serial killer, plays a crucial role in ending a curse that has dogged a traveling carnival for half a century. Barron’s protagonist, Jessica Mace, is a wonderfully feisty fighter with a badass streak, who can easily hold her own with any of the tale’s macho male characters. She’d make a great series character in future stories.

A handful of stories in Nightmare Carnival approach their carnival props more obliquely, to evoke the carnival midway’s spirit of strangeness. In Genevieve Valentine’s ‘‘The Lion Cage’’, the reason for the narrator’s strong aversion to a carnival’s pair of caged lions lies tantalizingly just beyond explanation, and this intensifies the menace and mystery of the tale’s events. Likewise with Stephen Graham Jones’s ‘‘The Darkest Part’’, the characters’ obsessive interest in killing a carnival clown (something that will resonate with any reader who remembers being terrified of clowns as a kid) cripples them with haunting visions and memories after the act. Robert Shearman’s ‘‘The Popping Fields’’ is a poignant meditation on life and art that juxtaposes the pregnancy of the daughter of a carnival-following balloon artist with the nightly parade of malformed balloon animals who come to him to be euthanized.

And then there’s Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘‘Skullpocket’’, the story in Nightmare Carnival that reads the most noticeably as an homage to the fiction of Ray Bradbury, the leading exponent of the dark carnival tale. In his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, the wraparound story for his collection The Illustrated Man, several stories in his short-fiction first collection – the aptly named Dark Carnival – and elsewhere, Bradbury used the monsters of the midway as mirrors for reflecting the dark side of the human condition. ‘‘Skullpocket’’ will put readers in mind of these tales, as well as Bradbury’s tales of the Elliott family, fixed up as his novel From the Dust Returned: supernatural outsiders who live on the fringe of human society and who number among themselves witches, werewolves, vampires, and the occasional misbegotten mortal. For his tale, Ballingrud has created a fully realized culture of ghouls who haunt the cemetery of a seaside everyville named Hob’s Landing. They go by names such as Wormcake, Slipwicket, and Stubblegut, and they all worship at the Church of the Maggot and participate in rites and rituals particular to ghoul culture. The event at the center of the story is the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair – ‘‘skullpocket’’ refers to a game played by the young that might best be described as an extreme ghoul version of kick-the-can – to which a select audience of human children are invited and told how and why the fair came into being.

The ghoul point of view of Ballingrud’s tale is marvelously inverted. Events are recounted predominantly from the viewpoint of Jonathan Wormcake, one of three mischievous young ghouls who, a century before, disobeyed their parents and left the confines of their cemetery to venture into human society. The trio goes unrecognized because, to humans, they look simply like ‘‘sickly children, afflicted with some mysterious wasting illness that blued their flesh and tightened the skin around their bones.’’ The ghouls, on the other hand, are horrified at the pageant of the living that they see at a carnival whose grounds they’ve intruded upon: they are used to seeing ‘‘humans in repose, quiet little morsels in their thin little boxes.’’ This is all part of the story being told to the children at the Skullpocket Fair, and just when it seems that Ballingrud’s tale will end as a child’s history of human/ghoul social assimilation, it takes a startling turn into the darker territory that its events have paved the way for. Like the story told to the children, ‘‘Skullpocket’’ proves, in the words of one of its characters, a type of ‘‘mythmaking’’ designed to make palatable the gruesome realities of death and dissolution that are the hallmarks of human mortality. Ballingrud’s tale is a magnificent piece of storytelling. Accompanied by another 14 estimable acts, it makes admission into Nightmare Carnival well worth the price.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

Harrison Squared, Daryl Gregory (Tor 9780765376954, $25.99, 320pp, hc) March 2015.

Since I’ve already mentioned Daryl Gregory as a writer of unannounced left turns, it’s very helpful of him to provide me with evidence. In last year’s We Are All Completely Fine, Gregory introduced us to a therapy group of trauma survivors, one of whom was Harrison Harrison, whose real-life experience in the Lovecraftian town of Dunnsmouth had led to a series of YA novels about a boy detective/monster hunter. In some ways, that short novel read like a sketchbook of ideas for horror stories, and his new novel, Harrison Squared, is basically one of those YA novels. It’s a lot of fun, and Gregory is shrewd enough to pepper it with allusions that offer something for everyone from young readers (the setup of going to a new high school where everyone is weird is basic R.L. Stine), to horror fans (research buoys named after famous horror writers), to more literary types who’ll enjoy allusions to everything from Coleridge and Melville to Auntie Mame. The main template, though, is Lovecraft, and particularly ‘‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’’, although Lovecraft fundamentalists might take exception to the light-hearted liberties Gregory takes with the mythos. One of the fish-people, for example, turns out to be a teen with a passion for comic books, and when something called the Toadmother erupts from a subterranean pool, she’s more Ursula the Sea-Witch than shoggoth: ‘‘scarlet lipstick, pink eye shadow, a smear of blush on each cheek like a rash.’’ Even the ghosts and monsters here are more cranky and petulant than terrifying.

As a child, Harrison lost a leg and his father in a nautical incident that he barely remembers, and now he’s accompanying his marine-biologist mother on a month-long research trip to the remote, off-the-grid New England village of Dunnsmouth, where she supposedly is seeking evidence of the colossal squid. The local high school he enrolls in turns out to be a cavernous, labyrinthine Gothic castle, where the spookily placid students communicate through an elaborate finger-code and the teachers are obsessed with the virtues of totalitarianism, reanimating dead frogs with electricity, and teaching such things as the arcana of local history and tying knots to make nets. When his mother’s research vessel disappears, Harrison’s blithely clueless New York sophisticate Aunt Sel shows up to look after him (though it later becomes apparent she has her own reasons for going off the grid). Determined to find his mom, even after the somewhat suspect local authorities have abandoned the search, Harrison manages to enlist the aid of a few classmates, including a girl named Lydia, and the aforementioned fish-boy, whom he first encounters trying to steal Harrison’s favorite comic-strip omnibus. They find themselves up against not only the eldritch cult that seems to involve all the adults in town, but such monstrous figures as the Toadmother and the terrifying Scrimshander (of whom we also got a brief preview in We Are All Completely Fine), as well as dark secrets that go back generations.

Despite some genuinely scary moments – mostly in the few chapters that shift to Harrison’s mother’s point of view – the generally good-natured tone of the tale, along with wonderful characters like Aunt Sel and the fish-boy Lub, suggest Daniel Pinkwater as much as Lovecraft, and despite the HPL furniture Harrison Squared is in no sense an imitation or pastiche. Even though it seems everyone has had a go at it, I don’t think you can really get the full Lovecraft effect without a measure of the gnarly hostility that seemed to govern his worldview, and Gregory is anything but a hostile writer. After all, if he can turn a zombie into a civil-rights leader in Raising Stony Mayhall, why shouldn’t he turn an exasperated Elder One into Jack Benny?

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Faren Miller reviews Brenda Cooper

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (Pyr 978-1-63388-050-4, $18.00, 408pp, tp) March 2015. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

Brenda Cooper established the far-future background for Edge of Dark, Book One of duology The Glittering Edge, some years ago in The Creative Fire (2012) and The Diamond Deep (2013), but newcomers won’t have much difficulty getting their bearings as she moves forward a generation and introduces three new viewpoint characters to a solar system whose human settlements and satellites face a growing threat from long-isolated deep space where colonies of ‘‘undesirables’’ have managed to survive – and vastly extend their lives – through forms of high tech that make them resemble shape-shifting robots.

Until now, these humanoids who call themselves the Next have limited their contact with humans largely to raids on the fringes of civilization, brief attacks by ‘‘ice pirates’’ who don’t look like an advance guard scouting out territory for invading armies. None of the lead characters have reason to suspect what’s coming. Charlie works as a ranger on Lym, a planet twice trashed by colonists but now being ‘‘rewilded’’ to something like its original state. Nona, a biology teacher who has never gone beyond vast satellite The Diamond Deep, comes into unexpected wealth with her mother’s death and resolves to leave both parents’ ashes under the skies of Lym, as they intended. Chrystal, a former schoolmate and friend of Nona’s who moved a smaller satellite where the closest thing to farm life consists of breeding strange evolutionary variant plants and animals on the gardened inner walls of a metal cylinder, expects to spend long years there with her ‘‘family’’ (another female and two males) as part of a romantic foursome.

While Nona is on Lym with Charlie as her guide, a group of Next take over Chrystal’s satellite. When all communications cease and the place seems to vanish, human complacency suffers a major jolt. In changing times, viewpoint characters get drawn into the most dangerous game of all: political manoeuvering between major powers, with a reluctant Nona and a horrified Charlie obliged to represent the satellites and planets as best they can in a fractured political landscape. Chrystal and her family, moved from bodies into more enduring, sensorally heightened quasi-robotic forms, are bitterly resentful (for the most part), yet can’t ignore the links between Man and Machine, knowing they were designed to bridge the gap.

Edge of Dark brings events on a grand scale down to the level of individuals, portrayed with an intimacy we can’t deny, and capable of suffering and feeling loss – whether or not they fit into a standard definition of humanity.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Mike Allen

Unseaming, Mike Allen (Antimatter Press 978-0-9889124-1-0, $15.95, 224pp, tp) October 2014.

In ‘‘Monster’’, the final story in Mike Allen’s collection Unseaming, a self-described monster describes the reality of the world he inhabits in terms of ‘‘the possibilities of curves that are infinite in length, even though they occupy a finite space,’’ and ‘‘a universe that can contain infinitely many things within its borders, and yet outside be no larger than this table.’’ This sort of ‘‘Escher landscape,’’ as he refers to it, reveals itself in most of the book’s stories. Their characters move in a world of seemingly stable reality, only to discover that, as a character in one story thinks of it, ‘‘the pylons of reality have ripped free of the ocean floor,’’ pitching them into a realm of surreal and horrific possibilities.

In ‘‘Gutter’’, an investigative reporter trying to expose police negligence in their handling of a crime-ridden alleyway, discovers that its victims are part of a greater scheme to propitiate the terrible entities ‘‘who really run the show.’’ ‘‘The Hiker’s Tale’’ is set in a rural landscape where a seam between realities opens to draw unsuspecting victims in and let horrifying abominations out. In ‘‘Humpty’’, a man who remembers his childhood nightmares of a stuffed doll that terrified him discovers that the doll has a sinister hold on him in his adult life. A number of these tales open with characters already trapped in a fractured reality, striving desperately to keep their lives under control. In ‘‘The Blessed Days’’, everyone in the world wakes up one morning to find themselves drenched in blood. The cosmic vision vouchsafed to the story’s protagonist when he experiments with lucid dreaming is a nightmare straight out of Lovecraft. ‘‘Her Acres of Pastoral Playground’’, whose characters spontaneously mutate into tentacled monsters, was actually written for an anthology of Lovecraftian horror stories.

Several of Allen’s stories have the sensibility of dark fairy and folktales. At ‘‘The Music of Bremen’’ farm, invaders of a witchy old woman’s home are subject to the same fate that befell the robbers in the Grimm’s fairy tale ‘‘The Bremen Town-Musicians’’. ‘‘Stone Flowers’’ tells of an artist who sought approval for his work from the fabled Queen of the Copper Mountain, and wound up in a bargain that sacrifices the future happiness of him and his family. A pair of interconnected stories wrap around the majority of the contents. In the title tale, a nominee for the Nebula Award, a young man’s quest to find a beloved niece who disappeared into drugs and dissipation, eventually vanishing, leads him to the shop of a mysterious merchant who reveals himself to be not of this world. Years later, in ‘‘The Quiltmaker’’, that young man returns home, traumatized by his experience and inflicting the transformation it has wrought in him on others in his neighborhood.

Allen can write as lyrically and as viscerally as the best of them, sometimes in the same paragraph. This is how he describes a monster that manifests in ‘‘The Hiker’s Tale’’: ‘‘Wicked hooks of bone protruded at every joint from a hide like layers upon layers of burn scars. The pulpy mound of its head spilled over its chest and shoulders in a cascade of sucking mouths and writhing eyestalks. Spined organs that had to be genitalia jutted from its abdomen like tusks.’’ In ‘‘Condolences’’, a woman experiences overwhelming grief as an alien sound that merits this remarkable passage of descriptive synaesthesia: ‘‘She could only frame it in terms of the pictures that formed as the noise tore her mind open. A dead body dried to paper in a pit of scorching sand. A crack in the floor of the ocean where no lava burned, no sea worms bred, colder than absolute zero. A space outside the universe where no light would ever reach.’’ This is an exceptional debut collection, and its stories show an imaginative writer with a very original voice working at the top of his game.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Genevieve Valentine

Persona, Genevieve Valentine (Saga 9781481425124, $24.99, 315pp, hc) March 2015.

Dream Houses, Genevieve Valentine (WSFA Press 978-1-936896-06-6, $25.00, 128pp, hc) October 2014.

Well intentioned as it may be, the problem with praising someone as a promising new writer is that it seems to imply an undefined and unsolicited obligation: promising what, exactly, and who made the promise in the first place, and to whom? Genevieve Valentine has been publishing short fiction for seven or eight years now, and her Crawford-winning first novel Mechanique, vaguely redolent of steampunk but more so of Angela Carter, should fit anyone’s definition of a promising debut. But Valentine, along with Daryl Gregory, Karen Lord, and a few other novelists who have emerged in the last few years, has chosen unexpected turns for each of her follow-up novels. This, to my mind, is a healthy sign for a writer who wants to be a writer, though perhaps less so for a writer who wants to be a franchise. Instead of returning to the colorful world of the Circus Tresaulti for her second novel, Valentine chose to combine a sepia-colored Jazz Age New York with a clever fairytale redaction in The Girls of the Kingfisher Club, and now strikes out in entirely different directions again with both her new novel Persona and the novella Dream Houses. The former is a near-future espionage and political thriller, while the latter is set aboard an interstellar spaceship with a lone survivor. There’s not a post-apocalyptic circus or a dancing princess anywhere in sight in either story, but both deal with issues of trust and betrayal that were prominent in the earlier novels.

Persona is pointedly restrained in its use of SF invention. Brazil and Peru have joined to form the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation, and Suyana Supaki represents them as their ‘‘Face’’ – a kind of camera-friendly but essentially powerless spokesperson, answerable to diplomat ‘‘handlers’’ – at a UN-like economic summit called the International Assembly. Papparazi, or ‘‘snaps’’, are equipped with what amounts to Google-glass implants (not so different from those in Simon Ings’s Wolves) which can continuously record whatever they see and hear, although the other central character, Daniel Park, prefers the old-fashioned camera. We barely have a moment’s breath to learn this, however, as Valentine launches us immediately into a nonstop action-movie scenario that begins with an attempted assassination that seriously wounds Suyana, details her flight through Paris with the assistance of Daniel (who was trying to get a picture of her at the moment of the gunshots), and develops into a dance of shifting loyalties and betrayals that calls into question not only who is trying to kill Suyana, but where her own true loyalties and those of Daniel lie. The narrative, broken up occasionally by bureaucratic photo-index descriptions and appointment schedules, efficiently touches all the bases of the classic paranoid thriller and gradually reveals unexpected depths in Suyana, Daniel, and some of their pursuers and would-be allies, but it’s never entirely clear what the reasonable but modest SF elements add to the novel.

Dream Houses, on the other hand, opens as a classic SF mystery. Amadis Reyes, a low-level crew member on a seven-year supply run to one of the extrasolar planets of Gliese, emerges from her sleep-pod to find the other crew members dead, apparently of asphyxiation, and herself with insufficient supplies to keep her alive for the remaining years of the journey (she quite reasonably doesn’t want to go back into the pod). The ship’s AI, Capella, is amenable enough to chatting with Amadis, but when she asks what’s in the cargo hold – which shows up as empty on the video feed – the answer is a chillingly cryptic ‘‘invalid query.’’ This is familiar furniture that wouldn’t have been out of place in Planet Stories in 1950, but it’s not what makes the story remarkable. Instead, the space adventure – and we do get a few answers eventually – is primarily a frame for a far more complex and nuanced story involving Amadis’s childhood, her earlier career as a long-distance trucker, her passion for large-scale choral music (hence names like Amadis and Capella), and most of all her troubled lifelong relationship with her brother, who may or may not have ever truly loved her, and who played a crucial role in her decision to spend years of her life in space. In an odd way, the story this most reminds me of is Kelly Link’s similarly titled ‘‘Two Houses’’, in which a space voyage also frames more tragic and haunting tales that might have been told without the apparatus of SF at all. But the manner in which Valentine overlays these themes and voices, like an increasingly complex Renaissance motet, is masterful, and it makes Dream Houses, despite its familiar surface trappings, the most unexpected fugue on a space adventure that I’ve seen in quite a while.

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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early April

I manage to sift out some good stories this time, most noticeably in Clarkesworld.

Publications Reviewed

F&SF, May/June 2015

Regular readers of this magazine will be aware that despite the presence of a new editor onboard, there is still a lot of existing inventory stored in the hold. Some may wish to entertain themselves speculating as to which fiction originated with which editorial regime. I’m not attempting to make such identifications myself, but I do hope that future issues won’t too much resemble this one.

“Entrepreneurs” by Robert Grossbach

Opening in 1952, this piece of retro-fiction could easily have been printed at the time, saving a few minor details. Only in 1952 would there be a girl named Lois, who grows up to become the loyal wife of our protagonist Morty, whom we find soldering the connections of his first crystal radio, on which he hears a brief transmission from alien entrepreneurs looking to exploit the cheap labor of Earth. Morty grows up to be exploited by a succession of mean earthling bosses and yearning to achieve more than he has. After several failures, the fated connection is made.

Comedy, at once cynical and farcical, particularly when involving the aliens, of the silly variety. At the center is a critique of capitalist economics, with a strain of the pathetic, as Morty has to wait until almost the end of his life before achieving the success he’s always dreamed of. Since Morty is a good and honest guy [which is why success has eluded him] this is sad. For nostalgia-lovers.

“Teardrop” by Lisa Mason

Based, according to the editorial blurb, on the Massive Attack song. The piece begins in alien incomprehensibility from the point of view of a local, NanaNini, working as a bartender in the joint where the humans come looking for her human lover, who has gone native with a vengeance. From him, we learn that humans have come, as usual, to exploit the world’s resources and enslave its population, but Dixon, in charge of the process, has seen the light, which is to say, the air.

Under Policy, the natives of XYK-834 are classified as Grade 12 primitives clinging in barbaric innocence to their wildly beautiful mountaintops. The mountains soar high above a dense lower atmosphere so thick and turbulent you can — with a coldsuit and a long, slim board made of laminated stalks of a local vegetation called wiliwili wood — float and career atop the swooping gas currents. Till the currents tumble you, breathless, on the flanks of the tallest mountaintop the lokes reverently call Mother Bu.

For all the imagination gone into the setting, the basic story here is a same old one, a sad one, the song a lament.

“Entanglements” by David Gerrold

A “thematic sequel”, says the editorial blurb, to the author’s award-winning “The Martian Child”. Which means . . . What? Both stories are autobiographical fiction, with narrator and author not clearly distinguished. But “The Martian Child” is a story about something the narrator did: adopting a son and the consequences this had in his life. “Entanglement” is at its heart about what didn’t happen: a void in his life and its consequences; the narrator is the passive observer of events that never took place.

That, however, isn’t the real problem with the piece. The real problem is that it’s 30 pages long, and for the first 2/3 of the text, the narrator is just gibbering. At one point, he describes himself staring at a blank screen, blocked, and filling in the empty space with pointless dithering. That’s this story, as if the author couldn’t get around to actually writing it. Instead, there are long blithering descriptions of a despised acquaintance, a party, cleaning up from the party, and a giraffe, until the despised acquaintance holds up a skiffy gizmo and takes over the gibbering temporarily with jargon like: “This is a trans-dimensional parallelithonic resonating transceiver. It contains a 64-core multi-fractal array of entangled particles. Call it a quantum empathizer for short.”

Finally, at last, we get to the point: the gizmo identifies all the points of divergence in the narrator’s life where it would have gone differently, if only. It gives him the history of all these alternate selves, including the works they have authored. Some of these are worse, some better, in different respects. The narrator repines, “Somewhere else, I had the life I’d planned. Here, I had the life that had happened anyway.”

These are painfully moving personal revelations, uncomfortably so, when we reflect how very closely the narrative line follows the author’s own life. He’s sharing a lot with us. If only he’d gotten on with it a lot sooner instead of evading the confrontation for so long.

“Trapping the Pleistocene” by James Sarafin

What the title says, after some backstory. We’re in a future when most of humanity [the North American part, at least] appears to have retreated to towers where they communicate directly through brain implants. In the relative absence of human habitation, wildlife has rebounded, aided by programs to repopulate native species. This allows people like Jack to make a living hunting and trapping; there are “cultural” enclaves in which retro populations [although slightly advanced from our current level of tech] are allowed to live and maintain their primitive ways of life. Now the government intends to reintroduce extinct species from the period before humanity entered the continent; time travel makes this possible, but they need people with obsolete skills like trapping to acquire specimens. They’ve already sent Jack’s buddy Hank back to the Pleistocene for giant beaver, but Harry has gone missing; Jack agrees to go after him.

Essentially, this is a neat wilderness adventure in a real wilderness; the Pleistocene is known for its megafauna. There’s good stuff here.

He was passing upwind of a grove of aspen when he startled some huge animal. Maybe it was his unfamiliar smell or the clink of steel in his pack. All he could see at first was a moving patch of long-haired, light-brown coat. Brush was snapping and treetops shaking as it made its ponderous way down toward the river. It broke into a clearing on the riverbank and turned to look back toward him.

Jack makes it clear that he thinks the government is foolish in this project and naïve about the potential consequences. Although the author seems to agree, we don’t really get enough information about the tower setup to judge. How, for example, do they produce their food? We see farmers in the enclave, but it’s more likely that they only trade among themselves than that the towers depend on actual agriculture. We also get no information about conditions in other parts of the world; while this doesn’t impact the story at hand, it makes me curious.

Problems: The author establishes early that Jack has a bad knee; a knock from a cleaning bot sets it off. Now Jack is out there in the past humping a wood-frame pack, a duffle, traps and a rifle, across a lot of uneven terrain; he has wrestling matches with oversized carnivores. Not a twinge. Bad knees are a matter of familiarity to me, and I’m not buying this. I’m also not liking the dead ten-year-old daughter the author has thrown in for sentimental effect. But for many readers, the issue here is going to be the trapping scenes, and it may make little difference that Jack and Hank are ethical trappers, within those parameters. I do think there is irony in the notion that the Pleistocene megafauna could turn out to have been exterminated by time-travelers attempting to restore the extinct species.

“The Laminated Man” by Albert E Cowdrey

Mystery/horror. Cairns is an FBI agent investigating the death of a con man who was last seen alive under mysterious circumstances by his building’s security guard.

Christian stood for a few minutes under the building’s green canvas canopy while Nip opened locks at the top, left-center, and bottom of the door. He was straightening up, puffing, when a sudden wind struck the canopy, making it flap wildly, even pop loose from its metal frame in two places. Christian looked to his right (Nip’s left), his mouth fell open, and he stiffened “like a guy been knocked silly but ain’t fell down yet.” Then — with the guard at hand, the door unlocked though not yet open, and the well-lit lobby only a few yards distant — he turned and ran the other way across Central Park West, where two screeching cabs almost nailed him.

This description is an exception. For an account involving multiple gruesome murders, this one is decidedly dull for most of its length, like paging through the officialese of police reports as Cairns plods along investigating, interviewing, and conjecturing. The author lays out the facts, but it’s up to readers to do most of the work of making a story from them.

“Today’s Smarthouse in Love” by Sarah Pinsker

Sentient houses again. It’s hard to do something original with this trope. The slight piece here makes me think it’s a good thing houses are actually dumb.

“Four Seasons in the Forest of Your Mind” by Caroline M Yoachim

The narrator is an entity, part of the invasive Omnitude that has assimilated the native organisms of this planet and other colonist species. It has taken up residence in the brain of a newborn human colonist and cultivates her neurons, pruning and training. At first, this activity might seem benign, but eventually we learn otherwise, when “you” see something the Omnitude does not wish you to consider.

We trim dendritic branches and strip myelin sheaths from axonal roots. We prune your thoughts and memories. When you return to the colony dome, all that remains is a sense of awe at the unending lightning.

The forest makes a natural metaphor for the structure of the brain. I liked the piece better before the purpose of the parasitism was revealed, which proved to be less interesting and original.

“In the Time of Love” by Amy Sterling Casil

When a story, such as this one, comes with a personal dedication, we can assume it has some special meaning to the author, not necessarily detectable by readers. The rest of us, however, may find no reason to appreciate this piece about a scumbag who uses the time-stopping device designed by his wife to screw around with his skanky girlfriend, while the wife is working to support him.

“A Turkey with Egg on His Face” by Rob Chilson

Georgie Plunkett is in love, and his design to win the fair Chloey involves building her a brick bread oven. But his design is in jeopardy.

Harry Markesan just laughed his bluff manly laugh. “Naw, naw,” he said. “I’ll do it. I can do a lot better job than you. And,” with a wink and a tchk-tchk, “she’ll be grateful that a big well-set-up man like me done her such a good deed.” And he smirked the smirk of the complacent male beast.

Fortunately for Georgie, he has a secret weapon.

Here’s a good example of a story that rests primarily on the narrative voice. Although there are some strong characters here, particularly the deputy sheriff, the tale’s success is in the telling. I do have to express my doubts, however, that a baker would be happy to substitute ostrich eggs for the usual henfruit in her cake batter.

Clarkesworld, April 2015

A couple of fine stories this time.

“The Empress in her Glory” by Robert Reed

Another thought-provoking story from this author. It would be inaccurate to say that Earth has been conquered, as conquest implies a conflict. Instead the world has simply and unobtrusively been taken over by aliens. To control it efficiently, they chose a human representative, who at first had no idea what was happening.

Waking at ten after five, as usual, she discovered e-mails and classified reports from mainland China. Asking for origin reports, the new software told reasonable lies about failures to encrypt and a nameless hacker who must have left her cleverness sit exposed for too long.

Adrianne Hammer was an analyst and a blogger; in both capacities she focused on future trends. Now her analysis has become predictive to a new degree. As she realizes the extent of her power, she discovers the ability, on some occasions, to dictate events as well as foretell them; it isn’t always possible to know which.

“Nothing about this is reasonable,” Adrianne continued. “But this world is built on unreasonable coincidences. Until we understand what’s happening, I’m going to be the Empress of Everything. And for as long as I have the job, I should at least try to do my best.”

This is political/economic science fiction, exploring the ways certain factors might be controlled to produce certain results. It’s also a story of character, considering the sort of individual who might be trusted with such power, and how she might wield it. A number of points are noteworthy: Adrianne seems to pay little attention to the possible extent of her power, rarely testing it. She does essentially what she said she would, try to do her best. These are likely qualities that we might want in an Empress. But what she doesn’t know, and we don’t, is what the aliens actually want. Are they benevolent rulers, attempting to do their best for the world? Or for themselves? Did the aliens merely predict the catastrophic dam failure in China that killed millions, or did they cause it? Did they consider this cost necessary for some greater good, or was it simply to make the people of Earth pay attention? And what kind of human can cope with the uncertainties involved?

I do have to wonder, if Adrianne is so wise, how she managed to choose so poorly when it came to a mate. But perhaps she learned better, once it was too late.


“Let Baser Things Devise” by Barrien C Henderson

Pierre is a chimpanzee who was abducted from the wild as an infant, then subjected to uplifting techniques that have now earned him official personhood and autonomy. He reads Elizabethan poetry and has now gone to the moon, where he discovered the bodies of two previously lost astronauts, giving him a greater measure of fame. But Pierre is lonely and isolated, his best friend a sentient robot. He’s haunted by dreams of his former life in the jungle.

This is a fine, poignant psychological portrait of an individual trapped in an ambivalent state, neither fully chimpanzee nor human. While Pierre yearns for a return to the jungle of his birth, he is aware that he can never really become what he was or might have been. He has been irrevocably altered by humans who considered him an experiment, a tool. His capture, his treatment in the lab, were nightmarishly traumatic when he couldn’t understand them, but worse in another way once he could. Sentience itself was a torment, and the presence of implants in his brain makes him constantly susceptible to headaches.

The real nightmare, the waking one, happened when he fell asleep and woke to the reality of his uplifting and a flood of information, a cascade of new schema expanding exponentially—the synaptic flood churning and frothing in his mind from the cerebral implant. He understood the cries of the other animals the way an adult understands a child’s cries—a mixture of sympathy tinged with the patina of intellectual distance.

The story is a strong ethical work. To the humans he works with, Pierre is a fortunate case, being in many respects as good as human. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that being human is not necessarily a good, or that Pierre was never given a choice in the matter. His personal autonomy has been irrevocably violated. Many of his problems are the consequence of his exploitation by his employers, formerly his owners. His trip to the moon was a PR scheme, and his discovery of the Apollo 20 astronauts may also have been manipulated. While he is compensated, we have to wonder what would happen if he refused to cooperate.

Perhaps his primary personal problem is isolation, but this, too, is a problem. There are other uplifted apes in the world, but he seems to be uniquely privileged. He’s glad to be part of the space program instead of working in recycling, as most of the others do, but this deprives him of the possibility of companionship and perhaps mates. The story neglects these possibilities, turning instead to the impossible dream of the jungle.


“The Petals Abide” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

If readers hack through the accretion of verbiage here, they will encounter an artificial entity calling herself a memorialist, whose instructions materialize as petals in her mouth—a grotesquely pretentious notion in keeping with the exotic, decadent, and affected setting. The memorialist is instructed to revive an assassin from a heap of bones and similes.

The edges of [the casket] are sharp as invasion, its casing radiant as war-beads, its lid heavy as regret. Around this a homunculus of encryption hovers, epidermis full of paradoxes clenched shut. She coaxes them open, by intuition and determination.

This done, a relationship between the two entities ensues.

The function of prose should be to tell a story, not obfuscate or upstage it with flashy effects. Here, the story weighed down by the ornate layers of overdone imagery is a purported romance without real feeling, its characters little more than contrivances, though if we look closely, we may discern a monster.

“Postcards from Monster Island” by Emily Devenport

Somewhere in New York City, a monster wades onshore, causing general destruction, panic and evacuation. The narrator doesn’t evacuate because she’s too sick, and some of her neighbors remain instead, witnesses to the futile attempts of the military.

They did no damage to Behemoth. But they did plenty of damage to our city. Just when I thought they would wise up and stop with the bombs, a troops of marines jumped out of an airplane and parachuted onto him. They bounced off too. When they landed, the ones who didn’t get tangled in their parachutes launched grenades at him. He turned and walked away from them, toppling several buildings that had been damaged by the bombs.

Then more monsters materialize.

A light, amusing take on Godzilla movies and other monstrous apparitions, always assumed by authorities to be mortal threats. This isn’t a new theme, not since klaatu barada nicto or, indeed, Frankenstein’s monster, but this is an entertaining take on it.

Lightspeed, April 2015

An unusually long piece from Dale Bailey this time, with the rest of the stories proportionally shorter.

“The Ministry of the Eye” by Dale Bailey

Dark dark fantasy. Gerst works in Acheron, as everyone does, in a white-collar position which he won by turning in his brother.

By the time Gerst found his cubby and shucked his coat, a woman—a gray, affectless specimen of the sex with whom he had never exchanged a word—had already arrived with a wheeled cart piled high with four-by-eight punch cards. Gerst would spend the rest of the day sliding them into the nine color-coded slots in his desk, each a different shade of red. The distinctions were subtle (they ran from rust to dried blood) and the work demanded his whole attention.

But one day he catches a rare glimpse of beauty—an oil slick in a mud puddle, which says something about the esthetic level of this version of hell. From that moment, his feet are set on a downward path, because in hell there is always a lower level.

At first, this seems a pretty conventional image of an industrial hell, the damned being herded into the burning pits, etc. But a twist at the end shows Gerst what suffering really means.

“Quiet Town” by Jason Gurley

The water is rising. The last remaining residents realize they can’t stay any longer.

This brief piece is a character study, a woman in denial who clings to normality as long as she can.

“We’ll Be Together Forever” by Joseph Allen Hill

You can tell things aren’t going well, when your girlfriend tells you, “Sometimes I just want very badly for you not to be so . . . you.” But this couple do some heavy-duty analysis of their dysfunctions.

This was a proxy argument. The real argument was about us moving in together. I had been passive-aggressively suggesting it was time for the past two months, and she hadn’t reacted well.

Anthony thinks a love potion might revive their relationship, after which, things get weird.

Amusingly demented. And weird.

“The Universe, Sung in Stars” by Kat Howard

The music of the spheres. A fantasy in which newborn pocket universes need to learn to sing in harmony, so they’re assigned guardians until they can sing on their own. Vera has a knack for stellar nurturing, so she adopts a baby universe, but she refuses to give up the waning white dwarf she’s been harboring, even when her mentor warns it will alter the newborn universe’s song.

It would be easy to dismiss this as absurd—people walking around with universes in their hair, shedding stars like dandruff flakes, but Howard makes it seem, if not plausible, quite charming. I will not, however, accept it as science fiction, no matter what laws of physics author invokes.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

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