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Monday, March 1, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #2

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010

Stories posted on this site during February.

"The Heart of a Mouse" by K. J. Bishop

Post-apocalypse. This apocalypse being an unexplained event wherein everyone was transmogrified into something else. As the narrator calls it, "the big search and replace." The narrator is now a giant mouse and his son a sort of gopher thing he calls "the runt." As they wander the wilderness avoiding dangers, he is trying to bring up his son to be able to survive on his own, without much hope of success.
You think you have enough brains to sort bullshit from fact once you get them confused? What happens if you start believing bactyls are nice or that you can eat whatever you want? But I can see he isn’t taking it in. These ideas are too much for him.

It's impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator's mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

"Harboring Pearls: A Lucifer Jones Story" by Mike Resnick

An episode in an ongoing series featuring the title character, a wandering grifter whose intelligence is even lower than his morals. "If we ever see you on this continent again, we’ll tar and feather you, hang you from the highest tree, set fire to you, and chop up what’s left of you as fishbait.” Here, Jones washes up in Pearl Harbor, where he is soon recruited by a group of thieves whom he then tries to double-cross. I am not amused by the Charlie Chan parody detective.

"The Library of Babble" by Michael Bishop

A double tribute: to Borges' famous story and to the author's late son Jamie Bishop, on whose notes this piece is based. Fulgencio, an indulgent father, takes his son to the eponymous library, said to be the founder's response to the ubiquitous Silencio signs that plagued her childhood. The true and more fitting name of the institution is the Library of Inescapable Cacophony, for the building is filled with discordant noise, which severely pains Fulgencio.
This never-ending uproar occludes thought. It invades the aural cavities, flushing from them all reservoirs of coherency or peacefulness. One’s blood pressure soars. Migraines and a menacing sense of intellectual bankruptcy flood one’s being. The impulse to flee from such orchestrated cacophony–to press one’s skull between one’s palms and to scream like the anguished figure in the famous painting by Edvard Munch–assumes the weight of obligation and does not depart.

His son, on the other hand, is delighted with the place.

The charm of this tale is created primarily by the narrative voice and the setting in some fabulist otherwhere, but its greatest interest should be to readers familiar with Borges' classic.

Realms of Fantasy, April 2010

Bimonthly full-color printzine filled with reviews and articles as well as fiction.

"Just Another Word" by Carrie Vaughn

Suppose that Janis Joplin once had an encounter with the Queen of Elfland. How might that have gone?

"Hanuman's Bridge" by Euan Harvey

A near-future world in which tensions in Asia have gone nuclear and India has forcibly annexed Sri Lanka, building a bridge to connect the two land masses. Davis, who designed the bridge, is present for the official opening and falls into conversation with a local man who explains its connection to the epic Ramayana and the submerged natural causeway known as the Nala Sethu that once connected island and mainland.

This is a too-talky story, in which the narrator goes on at excessive length about Pakistan's nukes, and the mysterious Raban goes on even longer about the legends of the monkey god who built the ancient causeway. While it is possible that a bridge architect or engineer might not be familiar with ancient Sanskrit myths, it is inconceivable that he would be so unfamiliar with a 30-mile natural causeway paralleling the route of his bridge and affecting the currents in the vicinity.

"The Hag Queen's Curse" by M.K. Hobson

An alternate 1798, when the US Navy commissions warlocks to fight sorcerous piracy. But during Lt Rodgers' attempted arrest of one body-stealing pirate, he mistakenly spills the Sea Hag's ale, upon which she transports them both Elsewhere to 1986 Oregon, where the pirate takes over Jeff's body.
He's wearing a swirling black trenchcoat, a ruffled gold-lamé shirt unbuttoned to the navel, and a whole costume-jewelry box of glittering trinkets. Evil looks good on Jeff, Kat is surprised to realize.

Kat is determined to get her friend Jeff back. And because Kat loves him, although not in that way, she is inadvertently protecting the pirate in possession of Jeff's body from the force of Rodgers' spells.

This is fun, a lite adventure, but I fear that much of it may have been contrived to make use of a very dated cliché about girls who hang out with gay guys.

"A Close Personal Relationship" by Thomas Marcinko

The Second Coming may have pleased dominionist Christians, but Ted still retains his fondness for dinosaurs and other forbidden things. Thus he is nervous when it comes time for his own personal interview with Junior. The Message here is not particularly subtle.

"The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard Van Oost and Oludara" by Christopher Kastensmidt

Gerard van Oost has come to colonial Brazil with the hope of joining a company of adventurers but discovers his Protestant religion makes him unwelcome. He has the good fortune, however, to meet a remarkable African hero, now enslaved.
"I alone held off thirty rival warriors armed with harquebuses for three days so that my people could escape. They came raiding for slaves to sell to the Portuguese. That is how I know of the inaccuracy of the harquebuses."

If Gerard can find forty thousand réis, he will be able to buy Oludara's freedom and start his own company. But Gerard is so penniless he is in danger of being imprisoned as a vagrant.

An entertaining mix of adventure and folklore in a fantastic world where monsters roam the forests of Brazil and Africa. Oludara in particular is an engaging character, and there is a bit of wry humor in the narrative voice. It would seem that the author intends to send these two on a series of continuing adventures.


This is a more of a website/community blog than a conventional magazine, with various features other than fiction, much of which is serialized.

"Vilcabamba" by Harry Turtledove

Alien invasion. Humans lost. Now the hereditary US President, Harris Moffatt III, presides from Grand Junction, Colorado, over the remnant of the country that the Krolp didn't bother conquering. Until the Krolp discover a rich lode of silver.

This time, the echoes come from Turtledove's own extended Worldwar series, in which small incompetent aliens attempt to conquer Earth and humans resist with some success. But Turtledove subverts expectations. Here the aliens are near-omnipotent and resistance is truly futile; what the Krolp really want, they will take. The title refers to the last outpost of the Inca Empire after the Spanish conquest, in case readers are too dense to get the point. Some may find the outcome to be pessimistic or depressing; others, realistic. It might have been tragic, but the lightness of the narrative tone is too much at odds with the inevitable course of the story's events, too close to humor [aliens with names like Grelch are not conducive to a tragic mood].

"Tourists" by Sean Craven

Grandma converts the aliens to Christian Science, but something may have been lost in the translation. Something was definitely lost in the translation of Grandma when she went off with the aliens to spread the word – but maybe the narrator found something.

This one is unfortunately played mostly for laughs. Names like Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie overwhelm the moments of poignancy that might otherwise be more strongly felt.

Strange Horizons, February 2010

A weekly ezine offering a new story every week, along with poetry, nonfiction and reviews. The fiction tends to be contemporary fantasy and light SF.

"Cory's Father" by Francesca Forrest

The narrator's mother is trapped on this mundane side of the fay/mundane border with far too many children from too many fathers, unable to return to the place where she was called Willow's Daughter.
She was watching the border between here and there rippling closer. The border comes rolling in like the shadow of a cloud moving across the land. It feels like the air before a thunderstorm, and it smells like sweet fern.

There is a story for each father, except for the narrator's and for Cory's, but the narrator knows the story of Cory's father; she was there at the time, a young child, watching.

A very short and rather depressing tale that leaves the reader both wanting to know more of the stories and thinking that someone ought to tell this woman about the Pill.

"After We Got Back the Lights" by Eric Del Carlo

SF. Post a minor apocalypse in which the town was cut off from the rest of the world for several years and the residents had to fend for themselves, which they did pretty well, considering. Corey took on the role of town lawman. Now the old normalities are being restored, but the shadows of things that happened still darken people's memories.
I knew where I was, of course. Knew the tall redwood that was the only tree here. This wasn't a restful place; but I felt a calming nonetheless, a sure reminder of my past purpose. I stared and stared at that tree.

A nice, humane story. The thoughts and feelings of the characters ring true.

"Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions" by Saladin Ahmed

Nobody loves to sit through office meetings, not even the members of the Society of Supercriminals. The boss is always a long-winded bore, and this includes Overlord. SH has a fondness for superhero angst stories, but it takes a lot these days to sell me on yet another one. This vignette doesn't go much beyond its premise.

"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam

Vampires have taken over, and the "unblessed" are required to deliver a pint every week to the blood bank. This makes it harder for Rita to cope with her father, suffering from dementia. Essentially, this is a mundane story about coping with a parent with dementia, the vampire element grafted on.

Fantasy Magazine, February 2010

Another weekly ezine with short fiction and other features. The material is the fantastic, and the editor prefers prose on the literary side. This month's offerings are more SFnal than is usual for this venue.

"Stranger" by Patricia Russo

Roday is an old woman living with the Blue Heart band but not closely related to anyone. A distant cousin's family has always taken her into their shelter when the season of stinging rain comes, but this time, Roday gradually comes to realize that they do not intend to make the offer. She fears she will be left to die. It is different when a stranger comes.
A place would be found for the man. All of the circles would give a share from their stores to provide his food. The young folks tasked with hauling water from the covered wells would make a few extra trips.

This society, and the place of a solitary old woman within it, is well-portrayed. But I have trouble crediting the premise. If "Blue Heart people are true people," the sort of people who will take in a random stranger, I can't really believe they would leave a member of their band to certain death in the stinging rains.

"The Armature of Flight" by Sharon Mock

Leo is a scion of extreme wealth, living for the moment in a modest way until he inherits. William is a poseur, a hustler, looking for a rich hook-up. They become lovers, but Leo can not commit himself fully to the relationship and William wants what he won't or can't give.
William insisted he could find them somewhere nicer. But Leo couldn’t afford what William wanted, not on a junior manager’s salary. His inheritance was still in the future, predicated on the very things that would tear him away. A wife, an heir.

This is the story of a failed relationship in which money becomes an issue between the lovers when the real problem is commitment. The SFnal aspect is primarily metaphorical; William gets the wings, but they represent slavery, not freedom.

"Tenientes" by Nathaniel Williams

A revenge story. A woman returns from the death to avenge herself on a series of randomly-chosen men.
Since the night she died, she’s been called beautiful five thousand, two hundred and seven times by five thousand, two hundred and seven different tenientes. Each one has his own, peculiar stiffness as he clings to her, as his veneer of restraint chars and peels back like pages in a burning book.

The word teniente, or lieutenant, means one who takes the place of another, in this case, takes another man's punishment. The nameless ghost's victims may be innocent, but she, too, is trapped by the eternal cycle of revenge.

"A Stray" by Scott William Carter and Ray Vukcevich

Jim Delaney has more problems than possibly going blind.
[Claudia] was gone. His mother was gone. He’d be losing his job any day now. And he was spraying the windows black and feeding chicken noodle soup to a sometimes headless stray cat in the house where his father had killed himself. What else could go wrong?

For one thing, someone claiming to be the cat's owner is sending hostile notes attached to its collar. For another, that person may be Jim's dead father when he was a young man. For yet another, Jim may be hallucinating some of this, and his mother may be recruiting deprogrammers to save him from himself.

Intriguing story of a character on the blurring edge between insanity and the impossible.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2010

This ezine comes out every two weeks with two short stories and no additional content. The offerings are "literary adventure fantasy" set in secondary worlds.

"To Slay With a Thousand Kisses" by Rodello Santos

Tocho seems to be a sort of vampire, but he is actually the victim of a vengeful curse, bound to return every fifty years to the village of his dead mistress where he will take and kill another bride, conveniently staked out for him by the villagers. This time, however, instead of a maiden, he finds three young men bound to stakes awaiting death at the hands of an even more fearsome, more hungry monster, stronger than Tocho.
In amazement, I watched the ground catch her, then throw her back at me. I had barely gotten to my feet, and her new assault sent us tumbling, this time into the cornfield, crushing the dead stalks.

There are echoes here of an old fairy tale. But in fairy tales, the power to curse is mostly limited to the otherworldly. This seems to be a world in which seemingly-ordinary people can generate some seriously potent curses, all the way to immortality and quasi-divine powers, and other people seem to have uncanny knowledge of the way to break them. I find myself reluctant to credit all this. The curses are supposedly punishment or vengeance for some sin, but the real sufferers seem to be the innocents of the Blue Sparrow clan who are doomed to feed the hungers of the accursed.

"The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind" by T. F. Davenport

When brains are worlds. In this fantastic landscape, kingdoms occupy the heights and valleys of the cerebral world-god, corresponding to the regions of the human brain: the Motor Country, the Mirror Kingdom. And they fight wars. As this tale begins, the army of the Motor King is just about the conquer the Mirror Kingdom, while the selfish young Mirror Queen urges his own troops to fight to the death. Her court cerebromancer, Daniel, helps her to escape, but he soon begins his own journey of discovery.

A lot of fascinating stuff is packed into this narrative. As a cerebromancer, Daniel predicts the future by what he sees in the mirrors manufactured in the sector; the cerebromancers of the Motor region interpret the lines of electroencephalographs. For most of the story, these cerebral aspects of the setting fade into the background of a tale of war, rebellion and conspiracy. The Mirror Kingdom manufactures mirrors of glass and silver; the Motor Kingdom produces ball bearings and machinery in vast factories where "rank upon rank of men and women worked in synchronous motion, welding components, lowering presses, riveting, oiling, cutting, drilling." Yet from time to time, the true nature of the world breaks through, as when Daniel reaches the summit of the gyrus and sees for the first time the sky, complete with a sun and clouds.
Above them, most magnificent of all, turned another world. The roofs of its gyri, glass and metal, flared in the sunlight. The sulci, narrow dark canyons, wrinkled the globe like an ancient face. An alien god tumbled through the sky, about as large as my fist at arm’s length.

At the end, though, the cerebral elements emerge into the foreground, as we learn the importance of the mirror neurons' connection to the motor cortex and the function of the individual cells in the mental activities of the Great Being, the system on which the entire world is run, and against which Daniel now rebels.

This is a first-rate fantastic idea, a fully-extended metaphor that comes vividly to life as a fantasy world. It seems to be considerably longer than the typical piece appearing at this site, and I am happy to see that the editor has not split it into parts.


"A Skirt of Many Colors" by Catherine Mintz

The narrator is a girl at the edge of womanhood, living near a volcanic mountain where the inhabitants are unaware of its dangerous past, although sometimes sensing the presence of ghosts. It is at first a quotidian tale in which the narrator goes about the routines of her life, saying farewell to her childhood and looking forward to putting on the skirt that will mark her as a woman; readers will not be so oblivious to the imminent danger, to the spectres of Pompeii being evoked by the author.

The setting suggests the Aegean [the name of the mountain is Leukothea, but this does not seem to be the sea goddess from the myths we know] but not the ancient world of our history. The author places a great symbolic weight on the color of the woman's skirt, but the story doesn't really deliver on it. Indeed, I find the whole skirt thing a distraction from the sulfurous ghosts.

"Pale" by Kathryn Allen

Old West Archetypes. The narrator was once a living man but is now trapped in the eternal role of a Deputy. Someone has summoned revenge, so the story has to be played out to the end. But this time it is the Deputy who encounters the woman, and the story changes; the narrator acquires a name and a new role.
"Scars.” She traces the lines with one finger. The slashes of knives, the dots and stars of bullet holes, the ragged seam of an amputation: pale silver marks that aren’t true scars but the ghosts of my wounds. Death upon death recorded on my skin. Her hand drifts up, to the circle of the hangman’s noose.

Readers will probably find something familiar in this scenario, perhaps the role of non-player characters in gaming or the mythagos of the late Robert Holdstock's fiction. I am particularly reminded of the denizens of the Commons in the stories of Matthew Hughes. Allen shows us the tragic side of the scenario at the same time that she holds out a faint hope for the possibility of escaping the eternal story loop. The shift of storylines is nicely done.

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.



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