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Monday, March 8, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #3


Zines Reviewed


Asimov's, April/May 2010


An amazing total of three novellas in this double issue. Most of the stories are unambiguously science fiction.


"The Union of Soil and Sky" by Gregory Norman Bossert


Alien archeology. A familiar scenario: Humans have settled an alien world rich in minerals; archeologists race to document a site before mining operations begin, thwarted by the local human authorities, who deprecate the aliens and their culture and hate the Earth-based archeologists interfering in their business. When an important discovery is made, the bureaucrats shut down the dig, but the scientists are not so easily deterred.

What raises this one above the shopworn scenario are the detailed descriptions of the archeological process [although I'm doubtful than an archeologist would attempt to lift such a fragile cup from its matrix] and the uncovered artifacts:
In front of Winifred and Ant, the soil had miraculously parted. On the left, there was a perfect cross-section, layers of topsoil and clay, and then a long low arch of glass, thick and laced with fantastic, feathery buttresses of the same material. On the right, there was nothing; the ridge had collapsed in, a hole about three meters square, perfectly square, in fact, and sloping down into darkness.

The translations of the alien sign language are also well-done [the union of soil and sky means "glass"]. The characters of the archeologists are sympathetic, but the human settlers, seen only from the point of view of the diggers, are regrettably clichéd.

"Mindband" by Pamela Sargent


Chris Szekely was a TV reporter when she was caught up in a mob that collapsed a bridge with great loss of life; she was one of the few survivors. Ever since, she has suffered from flashbacks, the sense that she is hearing other people's voices inside her mind. Now she has determined that a company called MindData Associates was behind the tragedy, operating a transponder that can project one person's thoughts into another's mind. She wants them to pay for what they did, inciting the mob.
"You thought it was all over, that anybody who survived wouldn't know enough to come after you, would be too traumatized to want to do anything but forget. We'd think it was mass hysteria, picking up other people's thoughts like that. We'd blame ourselves for what happened, not you."

A story of characters, the people whose minds briefly touch each other's, working out release from the weight of their own depressions. From the moment we see the transponder aimed directly at the bed and breakfast across from the company headquarters, we know that Chris's suspicions are not groundless. The only question is whether she will succeed in confronting her demons.

"Jackie's-Boy" by Stephen Popkes


Post-apocalypse. This time it started with plagues and went downhill in a cascade of unintended consequences. "If I believed in God, I'd go out and kill a calf on a rock or something. We sure as hell pissed him off." Most people are dead and cannibalistic gangs rule the cities. Young Michael finds refuge in the zoo, then accompanies Jackie the talking elephant on her quest for other modified elephants like herself. Jackie isn't very fond of humans, but she and Michael need each other to survive.

This turns out to be a surprisingly positive adventure story, as Michael and Jackie encounter Komodo Dragons, crocodiles, and a helpful ferryboat captain. The dialogue is entertaining, the characters engaging.

"Alten Kameraden" by Barry B Longyear


In the closing weeks of WWI, sniper Kurt Wolff kills an enemy sniper before he could kill the runner from HQ.
Kurt turned from his position, bringing his rifle with him, as a baffling feeling of dread filled him. For a slice of existence it was as though all the world's dead mounted the edges of their graves at the same time and beckoned him. He couldn't catch his breath.

In the closing days of WWII, retired policeman and electrician Kurt Wolff is summoned to fix the ventilator fan in the bunker of the old comrade whose life he once saved, Adolph Hitler. But Hitler wants more from him now.

The harrowing settings here are meticulously detailed to the point where readers may almost feel themselves choking on the smoke and odors of decay. A story that seems to be alternate history turns into something else at the end. I only doubt that Hitler, at this point in his life, would have had such a sane and altruistic motive.

RECOMMENDED

"Unforeseen" by Molly Gloss


The narrator is an insurance investigator for a company offering remediation [revival] after sudden unexpected death. Their ad claims:
Don't make the mistake of thinking, as we did, that because your children are young, Remediable Death Insurance is unnecessary or an extravagance. We'd give anything to bring back our children. And if they'd been insured, they'd be with us right now.
But in fact, the company's policy is full of fine print excluding almost any possible cause of death, and the narrator's job is to find cause for denying claims. It's a job that inspires morbid thoughts.

A sharply bitter and cynical look at the business of profiting by raising false hopes. This is not a story about the future.

"Adrift" by Eugene Fischer


An interesting scenario: automated shipping containers make their own way across the oceans.
Millions of dots representing FloatNet nodes covered the Atlantic, bunched together in some areas and sparse in others, like a great flock of birds frozen in flight. Janet pointed out the rectilinear smudges representing Platform Beryl in the south and Platform Grouper in the north.
The world being what it is, smugglers have begun to use the net to transport illicit cargo such as drugs and refugees. When one young refugee family finds itself on Platform Beryl, the director is caught in a moral and legal quandary.

Neat SFnal premise, humane story.

"They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show them! I'll Show Them all, I Tell You!" by Tim McDaniel


A mad scientist don't get no respect. The fools!

"Malick Pan" by Sara Genge


A post-apocalyptic world in which the cities have sealed themselves off and feral clans scratch out an existence outside, hiding from the sun. Malick was a young child when he ran from the city, escaping a man we assume was a sexual predator. Ever since, the city has sent out clouds of nanobots, hoping to find him and bring him back. But Malick prefers the life outside where he has a friend, and has ordered the nanobots to keep his body small as a child's so he can fit into the hiding places where the big-hungries can't. Malick considers himself superior to the big-hungries, but he doesn't realize how much he relies on the nanners, what he would be without them.

Malick may think he's pretty smart, but he's not very wise.

"Pretty to Think So" by Robert Reed


A sudden emergency. The news reports that a comet is going to crash into the Earth. The presidential staff privately admits that this is only what they told the people to avert panic. Even the scientists aren't sure.
And really, nobody knows anything for certain. But people . . . you know how people are. We hear something that sounds a little familiar, and right away we jump to the easiest conclusion. I said, 'Life,' and he heard, 'Alien.' I talked about the runaway cascade, and he heard, 'Invasion.' "
As a psychological study of humanity under emergency conditions, this is interesting. More so than the explanation when it finally comes.

Analog, May 2010


A mix of science fiction stories, typical of this zine.


"Page Turner" by Rajnar Vajra


The narrator is trapped in the aftermath of an earthquake and losing hope of rescue.
I'm in trouble, real trouble, and can't do a blessed thing about it. And I'm hurting and tired and cold, and God knows I'm scared. So the game's name for me right now is SURVIVAL, which means I've got to invent distractions and more distractions to fight this urge I'm getting to—to just give up.

To divert herself, she begins to tell an imaginary listener the story of how things may have happened, centering on the appearance of a live flatfish at the doorstep of the bookstore where she works. She warns us at the outset that much of what she says will not be true and leaves us to guess which elements are false, from the insectoid leprechauns to the teleportation machine.

This is a clever premise, but for such a metafiction [metafiction in Analog?!] about the telling of effective stories, the author has followed up her hook with a long and tedious passage about the denizens of the bookstore that does a great deal to diminish reader interest. The narrator is owed a certain amount of slack considering her situation, but too much digression makes for less of a page turner.

"Hanging by a Thread" by Lee Goodloe


The ocean planet Teresa looks benignly Earthlike to Amy, but its acid ocean is deadly. The onworld floating station is connected to the space station by a space elevator, and when Matt the station commander tells Amy, twice, that the stalk had to be re-engineered for flexibility because of the waves, it is no surprise when it snaps as soon as a big storm comes along. Now the immediate task is to evacuate the injured back up to the space station.

Here is an urgent situation, an emergency calling for courage and skill. An ideal setting for a tense and exciting story, as suggested by the title. But by the time the emergency actually happens, the story is almost over. The author has wasted most of the text on bland and banal Amy, a character who generates no interest at all. When she asks, "Why is someone like that wasting time on someone like me, who doesn't even know why she's here?" I can only echo the question to the author.

"The Day the Music Died" by H.G. Stratmann


Terrorists have broadcast a piece of music that hijacks the brain of anyone who hears it. Millions have been incapacitated by "the most powerful earworm ever created." This one plays off the commercial use of music in manipulating the emotions.

"Farallon Woman" by Walter L. Kleine


The narrator is part of a secret group studying an alien spaceship discovered on the ocean floor. Then he meets Tara Farallon, an amnesiac woman who was reportedly rescued from a shipwreck. Astonishingly, it takes the narrator a long time to make the connection that is immediately obvious to any reader. Instead, he first falls in love with her. Jack spends a long time imagining her in the ship, imagining what she would say if he showed it to her, let her know that he knew.
I'd been through that conversation in my head a million times, fantasizing everything from, "I suppose it could be. I don't remember a thing," to, "You've got my ship? Let me help you make it fly again!" None of the fantasies, I was sure, would be real . . . but I kept hoping her response might be something in the direction of the latter.


This is a love story, an idyllic one, with the bond between these two people strongly evoked, yet not icky.

RECOMMENDED

"A Talent for Vanessa" by David W. Goldman


Marv Pennypacker is a Special Talent agent. Most of his clients are savants created through surgery; an operation that damages certain parts of the brain seems to release savant Talents. Sometimes. Occasionally rich young people want to have the operation, and surgeons hire Marv to try to talk them out of it. This is the case with ditzy Vanessa, who says she wants a Talent so people will invite her to more parties. But Marv smells something funny about her.

An improbable premise, too hard to take seriously.

"Fishing Hole" by Rick Cook


A paleontologist dining at a sushi restaurant in Seattle recognizes that the shellfish on his plate is an extinct trilobite. Shortly afterward, invertebrate specialist Tim Valdez is visited by an agent of the Fish and Wildlife Department, Sally Lund, who enlists his help tracking down whoever is illegally taking extinct shellfish and selling them to the restaurants.
The dumpster behind another restaurant on Sally's list contained a half-dozen ammonite shells and several clumps of cup-like shells Tim identified as belonging to an extinct oyster-like animal called a rudist. There were also the remains of a couple of very suspicious teleost fish (one served almondine, one in a tomato sauce).

An entertaining, cleverly-done scientific detective story with a particularly neat twist at the end.

RECOMMENDED

"Teaching the Pig to Sing" by David D. Levine


Edvard Roderick Zachary Sigmund von Regensberg, Defender of Humanity, Viceroy of Germany and Austria, and Royal Colonel of the European Army is part of a royal caste bred and brainwashed to rule the world. Revolutionaries have captured him and reversed his conditioning. Now, his mind free for the first time, he has to decide where his true loyalties are.

This one leaves the royal narrator on the sharp edges of a dilemma, where either option will exact a high price. Happily, the author doesn't go overboard with political lectures.

Clarkesworld #42 , March 2010


Both this month's stories are science fiction.


"Alone with Gandhari" by Gord Sellar
In a nearish future dominated by fattening fast food, Kenny is miserable in his obesity until he meets the Guru. Through VR therapy, he experiences union with the mother-cow goddess.
Heart swooning, he made his way to her rear, and as he did so, she steadied herself, bracing. Gently, and with the greatest of reverence, he stuck a hand into her, and then another. He pried her open, drew a deep breath, and slid headfirst into the peace of the divine mother-cow's womb.
When not thus engaged, he participates with other disciples in "Mac attack" raids on fast-food franchises, steadfastly ignoring the evidence that the Guru's motives may not be entirely pure.

Striking imagery. Apart from the VR sequences, this is a story about cults and their exploitation of the vulnerable. I'm not aware of any Hindu text in which Gandhari took the form of a cow, or in which the cow goddess had that name.

"The History Within Us" by Matthew Kressel


In a far future, humanity acquired great powers and used them to destroy most of the stars in the galaxy. Other species naturally resent this. They have built Eluder ships with which they hope to escape the dying universe on the collapsing wave of a dying star. Betsy has joined the aliens on an Eluder ship, thinking they don't know what she is. Betsy is one of a small group of humans set apart because they had a visual record of their ancestors coded into their DNA. Now Betsy carries the record on an ancient wrist computer and watches one or two scenes obsessively, trying to decide whether to carry this record of human depravity through into a new universe.

I can't find myself moved by this premise, which seems highly contrived. I don't care about Betsy's lost lover, I can't credit her obsession with a few old images, and definitely can't credit the aliens' interest in them.

Apex Magazine, March 2010


A special, all-Mary Robinette Kowal issue. It offers a novelette and an original short story from this author, and two reprints, both previously published by this zine.


"The Bride Replete"
The biology of the people in this story is patterned after honey ants, in whose nests there is a caste of repletes that keep their abdomens vast and full of nectar, with which they feed the rest of the nest. Pimi is an adolescent girl who is eager to have the full, round crop of a bride. Status in her country is displayed in the size of the belly.
[Mother] reclined on a couch accepting food from the hands of their deep-family. Pimi's cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings wore their Fest Day tunics. Red and orange scarves lay over their scalps and fluttered about their shoulders like fire, as they carried dishes to Mother. Her long, slender limbs lay in beautiful contrast to her speckled blue belly, which ballooned onto the floor.
But when her family moves overseas, they find that customs are different; only servants have distended crops, and the local aristocrats pride themselves on their narrow waists. Then Pimi and her mother are kidnapped by raiders who mean to force-feed them as replete slaves.

Kowal has created not only one fascinatingly alien society, but two, based on the same physiology. Pimi and her family don't quite seem human, but they are convincingly people, and not particularly ant-like.

RECOMMENDED

"Beyond the Garden Close"


Living on a generation ship, far from their destination, Lena and Phoebe are lovers. Phoebe yearns to have one of the few children allowed in each generation, but she carries a genetic flaw that can not be passed on. Lena, with no desire for a child of her own, is going through the tedious process of selection for her lover's sake.
The endless rituals of ship life touched every act. Sometimes she wondered if an OCD strain had gotten in, all unnoticed, and infected every line. But it was really just a way to pass the time until the next generation took over and then the generation after that, all biding time until they reached Planetfall.

Lena is more than a match for the testing scenario, but this very short story is supposed to be driven by her love for Phoebe, and we never see them together; we never see their love.

Electric Velocipede #19, Fall 2009


A belated review. This small press printzine comes out somewhat irregularly a few times a year. The prevailing mode of the fiction shades through weird to surreal; the current issue is in cyberpunk tones.


"The Lost Technique of Blackmail" by Mark Teppo


Max is the Security Theorist of InterCore Express [ICE], which sounds good but actually represents a kick up the corporate ladder to nowhere, his previous security function now deemed obsolete by progress. The tedium of his existence is broken when a package is delivered via an obsolete route, containing a term paper once plagiarized by the firm's CEO. Someone is blackmailing the boss; the route, however, means it is also a threat to Max.

A data-detective story, unusually long for this venue. The author has worked to create a strong sense of future strangeness by embedding the plotline in a thick matrix of jargon:
Depot 12-B4 was a half-shell unit—an electro-bonded extrusion of ceramic with a pneumatic receptor and a battered 4ts-mon. Archaic, by any standard. I had d/l'ed their Lifecycle Management Protocol during the drop to Emporium 31. They had been EOLed shortly after the SI & R, but some middle manager down-chain had modded the LMP to only remove them as they broke down, a decision which failed to consider the high QA standard for this early generation of pre-fab. They made them to last counterclockwise.
Some readers will find this impenetrable, to others [such as the usual readers of this zine], it will probably come as Added Value. The underlying plot is highly intricate and rewarding.

RECOMMENDED

"Frayed" by Jonathan Brandt


In a world where everyone can teleport with the aid of companion sheep, Henry is engaged to the President-elect, a woman with many political enemies. An assassin, missing her, has killed her daughter. Henry, as State Forensics Director, has reanimated the killer in order to prevent a repeat assassination attempt, but his plans are thwarted.

This plot summary might suggest a political thriller, but the tone and setting are absurd.
[Wade's] stately ewes, their jaws slackened, their eyes wild, collapsed. Claire bleated smugly at this, but she was interrupted by the urgent baying of the Booroola Merinos, who butted the high police officials as arrays of scanners and pagers strapped to their flanks squawked in unison.

The result is a piece that treats death and grief too lightly. Unsatisfying.

"Darkest Amber" by Erin Hoffman


Kali is a badass independent auto mechanic working mean streets ruled by gang bosses. Her partner is her illegal petroleum-burning car, JH, her only legacy from a beloved father. But there is a new boss on the streets now, and a new enforcer who wants to prove he's more badass than anyone else and picks Kali as his example.
Kali—was all the warning she had before an override signal followed by a priority-authorized disable command shattered the whole visualization, not only dissolving her setup but shutting down her plant entirely. In a quick reflex she activated the plant's backup, then turned from the sedan, eyes regaining focus on meatspace, fury growling eight-cylinder thunder under her skin.
A dark, cyberpunkish setting and characters to match.

"Life at the Edge of Nowhere" by Kjell Williams


Post-apocalypse. Warring corporations have used deadly biological weapons to destroy much of civilization. Now Jim is working with a survey team trying to restore what remains. What he finds is impossible:
A small house stood among the skeletal remains of the surrounding neighborhood. It looked weathered, but sturdy, with faded, yellow paint. Staring at the house like it was a rosebush on a battlefield full of corpses, he smiled at the light blooming through its windows.
But the house turns out to be a portal to Nowhere, another world, inhabited by people who couldn't exist. And the corporation he works for is determined to find their secret, one way or another.

A confusing scenario, with too much backstory hiding behind the immediate world of Nowhere. We grasp that there were evils and horrors, but never really see any of them close or clearly.

"The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall" be Ken Scholes


The other kids called him Slinky and liked to throw him down the stairs.
He went down making only a slight whooshing noise, then lay still at the bottom. The first few times, of course, he'd sprung to his feet with a bit of a flourish. But after that, when he realized that it was going to be an ongoing fete, he just laid there and waited for Ninja Bob and an ever-changing gang to scoop him up and haul him back to the top.
His ability was sometimes a problem but sometimes an advantage.

A rather strange little fantasy about a person we never really get to know.

"A Mouse Ran Up the Clock" by A.C. Wise


Historical fantasy. In a world where Hitler or someone like him is the Emperor, clockmaker Simon Shulewitz experiments by making cyborged mice. This comes to the attention of the head of the Emperor's secret police, who sets him to work with another craftsman named Bielski.
Then the mouse on the table twitched. There was a click and a whir, and its eyes flew open. Simon gasped. The eyes were blood red, and it took Simon a moment to realize they were colored glass or some kind of translucent stone. Simon watched in amazement as the mouse scurried forward and leapt nimbly off the edge of the table.
Their creations are technically successful, but Simon is appalled when he realizes how they are used to repress the other Jews in the ghetto where the Emperor has confined them.

Cyborged animals have become a commonplace in today's SF, but it is not clear that Simon's clockwork mice have any real advantage over natural ones; the spy-mice he helps Bielski create are essentially robotic. But what Bielski devises is a creature of fantasy and not ultimately convincing or original. In our history, Bielski was the name of a Jewish partisan group who fought the Nazis.

"Nightlight" by Celia Marsh


Adrian is a Sensitive. As a child, he had visions and visitations in his dreams.
"I liked the ghosts," Adrian said, following Jessie's plumed tail along the path. "I stopped telling you about them after that since you'd made them go away."
Now as an adult he is an apprentice exorcist, although he still dislikes banishing the ghosts. He encounters one particularly determined ghost, a young girl whose body turns out to be on lifesupport in the hospital, her parents not convinced she is really dead. But she resists the usual rites of exorcism.

Interesting speculation about the relationship of body and soul, the nature of death.


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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