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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #1

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010

This site posts fiction and other stuff on a rather random schedule.

"Second Journey of the Magus" by Ian R. MacLeod

Balthasar the doubter, this time alone, repeats his journey to Jerusalem, more than thirty years after he brought a gift of myrrh to the god he had never expected to find. Now he discovers that the god Jesus has established his kingdom on Earth.
The first angel Balthasar witnessed was standing at a crossroads, and he took it at first to be tall golden statute until he realized that it wasn’t standing at all. The creature hovered two or three spans in the air above the fine-set paving on four conjoined wings flashing with many glittering eyes, and it had four faces pointing in each of the roadway’s four directions, which were the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
The conquering Christian armies are spreading across the world, and not even the might of Rome can stand against them.

While Balthasar feels unease at the sight of the heavenly Jerusalem, the reader is aware that Jesus, in this version of the tale, had accepted the invitation of the Tempter, had cast himself as if to certain death before the gathering crowds, only for the sky to rent from horizon to horizon as many varieties of angels flew down to bear him up. What concerns Balthasar is his own responsibility for what has come to pass. What had he wrought, so long ago, when he brought a gift of myrrh, the incense of death, to the newborn god?

With this powerfully disturbing tale of faith and doubt, MacLeod joins a notable list of authors who have reimagined the temptations of Christ. It is not really an alternate history; Jesus' choice has taken the story entirely out of history into eschatology. This vision of Jerusalem transformed by a Satanic Christ is strongly unsettling in its resemblance to the heavenly city of so many pious imaginations. But the conclusion may leave the reader puzzled as Balthasar finally makes his own choice, which the author leaves us to imagine.


"The Bohemian Astrobleme" by Kage Baker

Continuing a series of historical SF adventures featuring the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, a mysterious group whose members are scientifically far in advance of their times. In this case, the time is 1845 and the Gentlemen are in Bohemia to track down the source of a rare meteoric gemstone that produces an electric charge in combination with acetic acid. The locals are not forthcoming with information, but prostitute-spy Lady Beatrice easily overcomes their reticence.

Baker's work tends to be connected, and this series represents an earlier stage in the development of the time-traveling Company featured in many of her novels. It also partakes of the currently-popular steampunk spirit, which adds an entertaining interest to the detective-thriller plot with such delightful anachronisms as the Ascending Room. But the key to the mystery is found through plain scientific reasoning, in a manner that suggests a premature Sherlock Holmes. A lot of fun, intelligently crafted.

As I write this, news comes that Kage Baker has left this life after a struggle against cancer. For readers who did not know her personally, perhaps the saddest fact of her death is that she will write no more of these stories. But a writer leaves a legacy to us all: her work, and hers has been a rich gift.

"At the Store" by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Billy and Bob have perfected a business plan suited for their world.
Isn’t a smell that can get away from Bob. Hog hearts dog parts lemon tarts and shit. Dust mites crotch bites parasites and pricks. Bob gets them all, drops ‘em in a sack, brings them back to me.
The smells undergo further refinement and processing until the final product is ready. Essentially, this is a complex, elaborate and improbable fart joke, as gross as one might expect. What the author neglects to mention is how the boys are paid for their efforts, and in what coin.

"Flu Season" by Barbara Roden

Caroline has taken a week off work and seems to have nothing to do but visit her dying mother in the hospital every evening. She spends the entire day ignoring the faint and ignorable signs that there may be something wrong.
She finished her coffee–which was now lukewarm–and contemplated going outside to pick up the newspapers; it appeared unlikely that anyone else would do it. There were few houses on her street, and no one seemed to be about; certainly she had heard no cars, and there was no sign of movement anywhere.

This one could be considered horror, except the horror comes so late in the story that it is anticlimactic and disappointing. The reader, having been frustrated by so much tedious mundanity as Caroline somnambulates obliviously through the day, has the right to expect something more original when the revelation finally comes.

Jim Baen's Universe, February 2010

As this ezine winds down to its penultimate issue, there is less original short fiction. The best stories this time reveal the downside of extremely extended life.

"Tiny Elephants" by Gregory Benford

A vignette in which Arctic surveyors come across a surviving herd of pygmy mammoths. It is unlikely that this revelation would have come as a surprise to any readers, even if the opening illustration did not clearly portray them.

"The Hunt" by Shauna Roberts

This is one of those generic fantasies that call themselves science fiction by virtue of switching caravanserais to spaceports, privileged nobles to privileged traders named "Domeni", wizards to "transmuters." The plot is a sufficiently complex knot to engage reader attention: Valuable jewels have been stolen from the Domeni ship Bold Falcon, then stolen again from the fence. Thadow the Transmuter has been assigned to retrieve them. In the meantime, spoiled Domeni teenagers are causing havoc in the market with their thefts in a scavenger hunt game. In the end, justice is done, but unevenly.

"Shuffle Up and Deal" by Denise McCune

Aliens have come to Earth and their leader wants to play in the World Series of Poker. Fred the alien proves to be very good at poker and ends up at the final table, facing the narrator.
People at the tables around Fred started singing the Imperial Death March when a new player and his chip stack got moved to Fred's table, because chances were good those chips would be in Fred's hands within the hour. It made us cranky. Very cranky.
But it seems that there are problems with the translation and the humans haven't correctly understood the stakes. Pretty standard punchline.

"The Thrill of the Hunt" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A long time ago, there was war among Europe's magic-users, and the black wizard called The Great Wulf wiped out most of his enemies. Hilda is one of the few survivors, who has become an assassin to take revenge. She has finally tracked down Wulf.
She wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t seen it for herself. She tracked him here, watched him enter that ruined building. He looked like so many German exiles in this part of Argentina, back bowed, too thin, defeated.
While Hilda lies in wait for her target to show himself, she spins out a [too] lengthy backstory of her life, contrasting with the vividly immediate description of the Argentinean setting.

The author has purposely linked this tale of revenge with the activities of the Nazi-hunters after WWII. This causes some initial confusion before the backstory kicks in. Wulf is clearly established as evil as any Nazi, but it seems odd and wrong that Hilda is more obsessed with her own personal losses than with the devastation of all Europe in successive wars. This does not make her a sympathetic character, but maybe that's just how it is for sortof-immortals.

"The Vessel Never Asks for More Wine" by Sandra M. Odell

One day, Eileen almost steps into the path of a bus, but a stranger pulls her back to the curb. She seeks out the man to thank him and finds him strange indeed, with the strange name of Borgio Yilmaz.
The only remarkable feature in an otherwise plain face were his eyes, almond shaped, the right slightly larger than the left, and the caramel gold that edged a desert dune at sunrise. Ashes and the shadows of memories lingered in the creases around those eyes, unexpected in a man his age.
Eileen soon comes to suspect he has been stalking her, but the reason is not what she supposed.

Here is a poignant tale about the tragedy of immortality, strongly colored by loss. The title is very appropriate.


Clarkesworld #41, February 2010

If there are two authors that regular readers of ezines will encounter pretty constantly these days, they are likely to be Jay Lake and Lavie Tidhar. Here, we have both together in the same issue of this zine, which regularly offers superior fiction.

"Torquing Vacuum" by Jay Lake"

SF. Spanich is a drive technician, a working stiff on Estacada Orbital.
Spanich had been up three shifts straight working on a drive alignment issue aboard ICV Mare Ibrium {13 pairs}. She was a charter — a rare thing, in a starship, which signified pockets deeper than planetary budgets — and the passengers reportedly wanted to lift out, but her pilot wasn't lighting up without the alignment problem being solved.
Afterwards, he meets up with that new hot kid who's been hanging around the station. Too soon, he discovers that neither the kid nor the ship are what they seem, and he's in Big Trouble.

Nice story with some grit on its edges, carried effectively by Spanich, a character capable of realistically assessing himself and his chances of both luck and survival.


"The Language of the Whirlwind" by Lavie Tidhar

Post-apocalypse. Tel Aviv, and presumably the rest of the world, has been destroyed in a storm of whirlwinds and suddenly-risen mountains where powerful entities now dwell. The few survivors cope however they can, raising rats for their meat and asking no question about their kosher status. But the man now known as the priest believes he has witnessed a divine visitation, that there must be some meaning in it all. He is founding his own religion.
The Holy Book currently filled half an A4 notepad that he had originally found in an abandoned stationary shop. His disciples were not many, but when they gathered, in the place that had once been a pharmacy and was now a slaughterhouse and a church, he read to them passages from the book, and they repeated the words, so they could spread them.

A story of the human impulse to create religions, to create meaning from the inaccessible and inexplicable. This is not a tale of hope; there may be powerful entities up on the mountain, but no Messiahs are going to arrive.

Abyss & Apex 33, First Quarter 2010

Despite the Abyss in this zine's title, the contents tends to be soft SF and fantasy, not horror.

"How We Fly" by Lisa A. Koosis

A love story. Jamie meets Jeannette in the Ward of Hopeless Cases, where they share the same disease, but Jeannette's case is more advanced. Together, they try a new visualization therapy, which works well for Jamie.
Sometimes the Phoenix particles are dragons, dark-scaled and fanged like the ones I paint, and my white blood cells are knights on tall steeds, lances at the ready. I come to look forward to each session, to the new techniques and imageries.

But Jeannette fails at the visualization; she is going to die. Jamie's love is so strong that he volunteers to be reinfected with the disease so he can visualize for her.

As a story of the extreme measures that people will take for love, this one is a strong example. As a case of medical ethics, it seems Highly Dubious. As a matter of prose, I wish that the author, having hit upon a felicitous simile in describing the skin of the dying as like vellum, had not been so pleased with the phrase that she kept repeating it throughout the text.

"The Tortuous Path" by Bud Sparhawk

Alessandro is an acolyte in a monastic order of eunuchs whose special mission is the distortion of space that allows interstellar travel. But the order no longer has a monopoly on this function, and the Brothers of the Order fear becoming obsolete. Alessandro, however, is fascinated.
A machine that could twist space meant that there would be no need for him to memorize vast tracts of the Epiphedra, no need to endure the raging headaches that came with twisting, and especially not have that damned Vulture dogging his every move or Caffarelli questioning his every thought.

All of which meant that a ship that could twist space was a marvelous idea.

The practice of gelding the acolytes is a twist on the classic fantasy trope of virgins possessing magical powers. Alessandro is an engaging character who faces a difficult decision.

"Deutoroi" by Samantha Henderson

Merea was born to be a Thessa, an essential part of the Hunt ritual that makes a king in Cambria. Only a Thessa can track the Deutoroi, the White Stag of the Narcos Wade, but the Hunt brings insanity, which Merea both fears and craves.
The horror of losing herself in the wind that lashed the tops of the trees, or giving in to the voice that called her from the west, from the Narcos Wade. The horror and delight of it.
She has hidden a long time –too long—from her destiny, but now a would-be king has tracked her down.

The heart of this tale is powerfully mythic, evoking familiar ancient images yet original enough not to seem derivative. The descriptions of the Hunt are thrilling, with the voices of the trees aiding in the chase, the confrontation with the stag, the shocking revelation of its true nature. I really wish a good copyeditor had worked on the text to eliminate a host of irritating small errors and infelicitous name choices, such as the Steward –- is he Korinth [a Greek city?] or Korish? The story starts out by dumping a confusing number of capitalized names on the reader, several of them ("Narcos" and "Hebrai") just as jarring. While I believe I have figured out that "Deutoroi" refers to the stag's dual nature, I'm not sure why it can't just be called a stag. These are minor, nit-picky annoyances, but it's frustrating to see such an otherwise strong story so marred.

"Night of the Manticore" by Tony Pi

Academic rivalry results in disaster. On the eve of the Great Exhibition of Lyonesse, Professors Voss and Mason dispute the nature of the extinct manticore. Mason plans to triumph over his longterm rival by reviving a mummified specimen.
Now that it had nearly returned to full life, I confirmed Mason's assessment of its sex: the distinctive dark ruff to its jawline might confuse a casual observer into thinking it was a male's mane, but in fact the creature was anatomically female. She began prowling around the isle, and whilst in motion her furred forepaws resembled the pincer-shaped pedipalps of a scorpion.
But Mason has miscalculated.

Pi starts this one out slowly, with faux-pedantic disputes that are, like genuine pedantic disputes, boring. Action picks up once we get the manticore rehydrated.

"The Wishing Stone" by Edward Greaves

Arrod is a master at cutting charms into gemstones, but he is plagued by powerful and discontented noble ladies demanding love charms. When a young woman comes for a charm to cure her brother she changes Arrod's life, bringing him new customers, commoners who are grateful that he can help them.

The details of gemstones gives this one some interest, but it is otherwise a fairly typical problem story with a heartwarming ending.

"Anything Chocolate" by Caryn Gussoff

The narrator's elderly father belongs to the last generation that will die, the generation before nanobots. The narrator copes as well as she can, loving her father with the knowledge of his eventual death always in her mind.

"When White Roses Freeze" by Amy Power Jansen

A dysfunctional family, the adjectives that describe their personalities, e.g. frigid, literalized.

Apex Magazine, February 2010

A small ezine with the motto: Where Science Fiction and Horror Collide. It prints two original short stories every month.

"p.a. chic" by Tobias Amadon Bengelsdorf

post. apocalypse. Possibly the last man still alive counts down his remaining pills every day as he tries to find the cool in it all, recording his most clever insights: Dystopia is best viewed from a distance.

The art of dying. Not as annoying as it appeared at first glance.

"The Lady or the Tiger" by J.M. McDermott

Simsa, as a boy of ten, has to make a hard choice after a crash on Io kills a woman he loves as a mother and his brother is injured. The choice is complicated by his knowledge of his brother's guilty secret. The story is complicated by a backstory about terrorists who turned into tigers and live on the backs of giant lizards. Simsa identifies his brother with the terrorist, but he seems to end up taking the terrorist's place on the lizard. I don't find this very clear. There seem to be two separate, potentially interesting, stories going on at the same time and I don't think they have knitted together very well.

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.



OpenID shineanthology said...

Hi Lois,

Good to see you continuing to review short fiction here at Locus online.

Two questions:

1) Do you review short fiction mainly from magazines and online sources, or will you also consider anthologies?

2) Where can a short fiction editor and/or publisher contact you (regarding a new publication or so)?

Keep up the good work!


February 25, 2010 9:28 AM  
OpenID dr-phil-physics said...

Thank you and LocusOnline for continuing these short fiction reviews. Every month I would go to the Lois Tilton reviews first in IROSF. (grin)

Dr. Phil

March 17, 2010 12:52 PM  

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