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Monday, March 29, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction - late March 2010

Zines Reviewed

Interzone #227, March-April 2010

The stories this month seem to come in contrasting pairs. There is less cyberpunkish and dystopian fiction than this zine typically offers, more conventionally-future SF.

"The History of Poly-V" by Jon Ingold

A small group of scientists develop a drug product by testing it on themselves, the process documented by the narrator. The drug alters and improves the experience of memory.
The experience is not new. We have not invented it, only switched it on. It is as though, through some fluke of evolution, humans have lost the true use of our memory along with our tails and appendix. Poly-V restores to us something we had forgotten that we had.
The product is commercially successful, but after a while the narrator begins to have strange experiences.

This is a story about the unreliability of memory and, by extension, of all science and knowledge. The point is not the phenomenon, but how the scientist copes with it. While I enjoyed the prose, I have several problems with the story: first, it is hard to imagine exactly what the drug does and how it would be commercially successful. Second, the tone is quite sciencefictional, creating a milieu in which there seems no room for the fantastic. Yet the effects can only be understood as fantastic, as inexplicable not in the way of science but of non-science.

"Dance of the Kawkawroons" by Mercurio D. Rivera

The second drug story involves the exploitation of aliens in order to obtain a substance called Inspiration, found in the eggs of the Kawkawroons, who may be the descendants of a lost, advanced civilization. It is by using Inspiration that the humans develop the means of acquiring the eggs; the substance vastly increases intellectual abilities in those who take it. But there are other consequences.

The Kawkawroons are a colorful and exotic alien creation. But this story is grounded more firmly in scientific principles than it first appears to be, although they are never openly discussed — more so, in fact, that the previous story which is ostensibly about the scientific process.

"Chimbwi" by Jim Hawkins

Global climate change has worked to the disadvantage of Europe and the benefit of Africa. Zambia, in particular, has exploited new breakthroughs in physics, which they guard assiduously from the rest of the world. Physicist Jason Johns is a refugee from England who has found work with the Zambians, but it has been difficult to obtain their trust. He offers to prove himself by undergoing a traditional ordeal, the warrior's climb.
The hyenas were spaced out amongst the trees, in perfect tactical formation. He had nothing. His spear was in the river, along with his axe-head. He'd come so far, he'd climbed up Kalambo, and it seemed unjust that he'd finally be taken down by these evil snouts and bodies with mismatched front and back legs. He pulled himself up into the nearest tree, six feet, eight feet high. The hyenas watched and waited expectantly. Saliva dripped from their muzzles.
Although the ordeal makes a fascinating and well-told adventure tale, the story here is one of trust, of outsiders integrating into a closed society. It is an overly-idealized society, in which all the villains seem to be outside, kept at bay. The ethics of this policy are not directly examined in the story.

"Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allan

Another tale about the relationship between individual and society, leaving rather than entering. When she was very young, Anita's mother was part of the space program and died when a rocket was sabotaged. Now [her lover?] Rachel has volunteered for a more advanced program which involves subjecting herself to a drastic process of alteration in order to survive the long transit.
"The drain triggers a permanent change in the way cells grow," Anderson had told her. "Crudely put it's a form of cancer."
Anita struggles to let her go, and with her own need to know a mother she can't remember, the old loss revived by the new one.

This is a story of love in its different manifestations, and coping with loss. Anita and her grandmother, who raised her after her mother's death, are particularly well-realized characters.


"Johnny's New Job" by Christ Beckett

When a child is killed, it officially becomes a case of Welfare Knew And Did Nothing (within the meaning of the Summary Judgment Act), so the Public Accuser gets to work stirring up the retributory mob, much in the manner of Orwell's Two Minute Hate. This one comes directly from the headlines and expresses the author's fresh outrage, serving as an example of why this may not be the best way to produce effective fiction. The delivery of the message is unsubtle and the character a stock placeholder.

"the glare and the GLOW" by steve rasnic tem

The narrator and his wife seem to have led a dull ["peaceful"] existence for quite some time, the narrator being particular about the quality of light from artificial fixtures. One day they acquire a box of "bad bulbs" which are clearly abnormal. The narrator compares them to eggs, and indeed, they seem to contain some sort of embryo. But the quality of the illumination they provide is extraordinary.
You could see that light creep across the details of the room, at varying rates no doubt due to the varying densities of detail encountered. So, gradually, shadows were eaten, and things were revealed, so that old scars in the woodwork suddenly became remembered, the residue of stains recalled, unevenness of tile, and dirt in areas I'd thought completely clean.
Tem is a master of subtle dark fantasy, and here is an excellent example: a very short work in which a man finds that it is possible to see too clearly.


Subterranean Online, Winter 2010

This one posted in March.

"The Nonesuch" by Brian Lumley

The narrator, who may be named George, has a history of encounters with weird malevolent entities. He also has a history of alcohol abuse, which makes his accounts less than totally reliable. This time, while taking a holiday, he comes upon a small hotel with a cheerful view of the sea. But the innkeeper is nervous at the idea of renting out the only vacant room. [Cue ominous music.] Instead of looking out at the sea, the narrator spends his time staring at another, derelict hotel nearby and pumping the staff for information about the recent deaths in the place. No one, not even the narrator, is really surprised at what occurs next.
Can it be coincidence, pure and simple? Or is it that I am in fact a lodestone, a lightning-rod for the weird and the wonderful? Because if the latter is true, then it seems I’m actually destined to be drawn to such things: to these thin people, these clowns-on-stilts, these nuns and nonesuches. In which case so be it.
Lumley is one of the masters of classic horror, and this one is in his Cthulhic mode, with a [too] prolonged first-person narration slowly building up an ominous mood. But the mode is subdued and the ominous mood casts only a faint shadow. We know from the beginning that the hotel room is connected to some sinister event, we know that the narrator knows it, we know he will encounter and survive it. But if he had driven away, like a sensible person, there would be no story.

Fantasy Magazine, March 2010

A superior month for fiction from this zine.

"Bearing Fruit" by Nikki Alfar

Seduced by a mango while bathing in the river.
By the next morning, the mango has precipitously gone to seed; and the equally precipitous bulge of your previously flat belly makes it difficult to imagine that you are anything other than abruptly pregnant.
So you decide to go up the river and seek out the mango tree responsible.

The sort of charmingly surreal tale frequently found in this zine. The second-person narrative voice works well in the telling, and the structure hints of the fairy tale before subverting it.


"The City of Lobster, or, The Dancers on Anchorage Street" by Alex Dally MacFarlane

The narrator is a travel writer who visits a city that lives on tourism based on its lobster fishery. Lobsters, lobsters, everywhere, as long as the tourist season lasts. There is also the legend of a lobster woman, but this probably has no basis in fact, which means this piece has no real fantastic content, no more than a hint of slipstream.

"In the Emperor's Garden" by Jay Lake and Shannon Page

Magical combat in San Francisco's hidden places. The protagonists are Him, a human whose magic is learned, and Her, a member of the Fae whose magic is natural and strong. Both are surprised at being seen by the other, but only Him can see that she is being stalked by yet another, a being possible stronger than either.
Every power, every effect, every phenomenon, has its correspondent. Not necessarily an opposite, though often shit works out that way. I can be invisible, therefore to some people I am irreducibly visible. Almost everyone can't notice me, so there must be a few people out there who can’t help but noting me.
This is primarily a story of setting, in which much is left unsaid about the intriguing magical milieu. It's always interesting, in the case of a collaboration, to speculate about which character may have been written by which co-author — if, indeed, this was their method. In this case, I find that Him's narrative voice is stronger and more personable, particularly his remarks on the nature and uses of magic.

"Saving the Gleeful Horse" by KJ Bishop

The troll[?] Molimus hates children for their cruelty in breaking open the fragile painted animals to get at the treasure inside. One day he finds a treasure horse that still has a hint of life. The sorceress known as the White Ma'at explains to him that the children can't see that the treasure animals are living things, but she provides Molimus with the help he needs to save the Gleeful Horse.

Here is an original, imaginative vision, full of the fantastic.
As you must, I walked around the cloister with the sun a certain number of times, then against the sun another number, then with the sun again, so that the brambles withdrew underground, all the thorny bundles coming apart and slithering below in one rush as if a giant in the earth had them on a rope (the effect on the eye is striking). After this, where all was a wild saw-toothed muddle just a moment or two ago, in another moment the lawn of trefoil and clover grew, which grows no matter the season—as dainty a green spread as you could wish for a picnic or a wedding.
But it is a dark fantasy, offering insights into the origins of the tales children tell of monsters in the night.


Strange Horizons, March 2010

The stories this month are all fantasy, and most are placed in secondary worlds instead of the contemporary settings more common in this zine.

"Small Burdens" by Paul M. Berger

A girl stops Clock on the street and hands him a bag with a baby inside. He takes it home to Moth, but things aren't working out with it.
The baby cried constantly. It apparently sensed that she was ambivalent towards it at the best of times, and it shrieked with extra intensity when she picked it up or tried to hold it. The one good thing about it getting steadily weaker was that it wasn't so loud any more.
A very different take on changelings.


"Who in Mortal Chains" by Claire Humphrey

The narrator, a sort of berserker called Gus, once lived in the sort of idealistic community popular around 1965, with artisans and craftworkers making ale and mead and handwoven stuff. While she would have liked to become one of them, she knew that the violence of her nature would at some point make it necessary for her to leave — as it always does.
It wasn't my fault, either. It was the fault of two guys who were drunk and impolite. They offered violence. It's an offer I can't help but accept.
This is a story of loneliness. Gus suffers from a double curse, when immortality is curse enough. But she understands her nature, she knows how to deal with it, and she has learned how to live with the consequences and protect herself from the worst of the pain.

"The Kiss" by Lauren LeBano

It is well-known from fairy tales that goblins take children. What they do with them is not so well known. Annie's mother was visited by a goblin long ago, and she gave him a child, in exchange, the reader presumes, for Annie. But the goblin has returned, wanting Annie, claiming he wants to marry her. Annie's mother warns her that a goblin's kiss will make her invisible, and Annie resents his attempt to steal her away from her life.
I pulled over and sat on a rock beneath a pine tree. I sat there until the sun rose behind tree trunks and threw shadows on the ground. My shadow barely flickered at first, but it grew stronger as time passed. A rabbit hopped by, and I reached down to pet it. It hopped away, scared of my presence. I had a presence again.
There is a lot that is problematic about this story. We have to wonder about the fate of the child that Annie's mother gave to the goblin. We have to wonder if it was the influence of the goblin that made Annie a sort of weird, unpopular kid in school. But mostly we have to wonder about the goblin's kiss, which certainly would make Annie invisible to everyone but the goblin. Annie gave up the goblin to have a presence in the world, but her life appears to be a complete absence, someone whom the world would never miss.

"Merrythoughts" by Bill Kte'pi

Angels and superheroes. The angels are the fallen kind, and the superheroes are relatives — or at least one of them seems to be. The day they cut off Jaima's brother's wings, the Typhoon comes to visit after an injury in the fighting among the superheroes, but Jaima's elders suspect his motives.

One of those stories where the author slowly plays out hints and the reader is supposed to guess what's really going on, which involves wars in heaven and enemies on Earth. There are too many hints about stuff going on far from the story, which is about family reconciliation. I am more interested in the question of how a boy can live with wings in this world until the age of thirteen with no one noticing., March 2010

Prose fiction posted this month.

"The Final Now" by Gregory Benford

Cosmology. As the universe winds down, Deity attempts to explain to mortal creation that all things must end, and that it has been so from the Beginning.
"You made this all for eternity—that we believed! You said so."

She corrected, "We did not. Yourselves, all you mortals, you said so. Not us."

One insisted, "The assembled Host, we who worshipped you—we thought that time would spool on for eternity."
SF used to have more stories like this. Benford saves this one from talking-headdom with colorful descriptions of the dying universe and with the evident love of the deity for all creation. And a pretty neat last line.

"The Next Invasion" by Robert Reed

The director of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with his driver and assistant, gives a ride one night to what seems to be a teenaged girl. But there is something strange about her. As the director and his staff become increasingly unsettled, the girl displays firm opinions about alien invasions and how they might really take place.
Nothing about the girl shows tension. Not her posture or voice. She shrugs and says, "If there were body snatchers." Another pause. "If they were real, then they would be nothing like they are in the movies. Nature does not and never will work that way."
This one is not really ambiguous; from the beginning, we know what the girl is. What the author leaves to the reader's imagination is the kind of change she and her kind will bring to this world. Thought-provoking.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2010

Demon month, featuring another Lord Yamada story from Richard Parks, unfortunately broken in half to accommodate its length. Good stories.

"Sanji's Demon" by Richard Parks

The Sago Clan has been demon-killers for generations, preserving their trophies in a family shrine.
The building was long and relatively narrow, ending against the rock face at the north end of the compound. The walls were lined with the skulls of demons: some very old by the look of them, others gleaming white as if they had just returned from the rendering vat. There were greater and lesser demons, monsters, and a few creatures I could not identify and frankly had no wish to.
Now the most important trophy, the body of the first demon killed by the founder of the clan, has been stolen under mysterious circumstances. Demon-hunting detective Lord Yamada must unravel the web of deceit.

The stories in this series about medieval Japan tend to have intricate plots. Yamada is a logical detective in the Holmes mode, solving mysteries both with reasoning power and his familiarity with the ways of demons, about which the author is obviously quite knowledgeable.

"In Memoriam" by Alys Sterling

More demons. The narrator, having possessed the body of the man who summoned him with a defective spell of protection, is bored in his new human body.
A catalogue of all the women who had made me swear off their sex would have taken the rest of the afternoon. But when you don’t need to eat or drink, can’t be killed in a duel or even lose at cards without trying, what else is there to do?
Thus he accepts the challenge of spending the night in a haunted chateau. What he finds is more dangerously unexpected than mere human ghosts.

Here is wonderfully imaginative stuff, with several different dimensions of peril to which even a demon is not immune. I would recommend it unreservedly, except for one thing: it is told in the first person by a narrator who can not possibly know what he is telling. This would not have been a problem with a nice third-person narrator, not often enough seen in this zine.

"The Leafsmith in Love" by KJ Kabza

When he sees the Lady Zuhanna pirouetting in innocent joy, Jesper, the Master Leafsmith of Holdt Castle, falls in love.
Around them, the Arboretum sang and rustled and clicked. Jesper’s heart rose up, past the gleaming webs, the thousands of clockwork creatures on uncountable hybrid branches, the interlocking cogs nestled in the forest’s crown. A flock of real birds rushed overhead, and a score of ticking dragonflies took flight; they settled around her blooming petticoats in a ring, baffled by the spinning laughter in their midst.
Alas, the vile Princess Kanna observes them together and is jealous. Love has many obstacles to overcome.

Delightful fantasy love story with more hints of a fairy tale than cyberpunk, being quite devoid of punk, with magic in its place.

Flurb! #9, Spring/Summer 2010

Rudy Rucker presents another batch of weird, surreal, and generally entertaining stuff. I could wish that fewer tyops had made it through the editorial process.

"The Palmetto Man" by Danny Rubin

An episode of sloppiness in the lab has Consequences. Maurice, conceived there in the normal way of in vitro conceptions, grows up and marries Sherry, who discovers, flipping on the kitchen light switch one night, that Maurice has a half-brother. This discovery leads to doubts and mixed loyalties.
With one identical brother on each side of her, Sherry sat, proud, confused, bookended. She alone knew the torment facing the man on her right, the man who so suavely sported a dinner jacket, yet would forever feel naked without an exoskeleton. And on her left, another tormented man, a decent man who would never know the joys of molting.
A nice bit of absurdity.

"Search" by Kek

It seems that the quantum signatures of dead people hang around in space for a while, and now some of them have been installed in artificial bodies, not very human-like. Deadguys make up their own communities, but Arthur has been contacted by his dead uncle Jack, who wants to share memories of his sister, Arthur's mother. They have a lot of emotional baggage to work through, first.

I like the core of this story, the situation of the Deadguys and Arthur's relationship with Jack, but the author has unfortunately given Arthur an implanted GoogleLobe, which allows him to fill the text with unwanted infodumps.

"The Goddess of Discord Lives on Mulberry Street" by Adam Calloway

The Goddess, who seems to represent Chaos more than Discord, vs Ian Michael Carmichael, an accountant who seems to have more than a touch of OCD. The Goddess is taking over Mulberry Street, one house at a time, and with each expansion, the Goddess increases her power. Her manifestations become more real, with permanent consequences.
The front bumper melted into a swirling pool of blue sherbet. The car inched further. Engine parts, belts and such, mixed with assorted fruit threatened to loosen his footing. Further. The glass buckled inward and the car filled with a swarm of crystalline bees, criss-crossing, figure-eighting, and shredding the Neon's interior.
Now only Ian's house remains.

The manifestations of the Goddess are entertaining when they are only semi-hallucinations, but when they apparently begin to involve the deaths of real people, it becomes harder to regard this piece as merely fun.

"Val and Me" by Rudy Rucker

Jim is a pothead who got fired from his job in bioengineering but keeps it up as a hobby, using stolen equipment acquired from a creepy guy called Skeeve, who claims to have smoked Amenhotep's mummy. Jim marries Val, cleans up, and they are happy together, meaning to start a family, when tragedy strikes.
To top things off, just as we came, lightning struck a power pole across the street. The lights went out, and the scanning-tunneling microscope on the porch made a popping noise that was lost in the astonishing clap of thunder.
This has been excerpted from a longer work, and as such doesn't come to any conclusion, but as a sample, it's full of neat, imaginative stuff. I'm not sure at this point how seriously to take it, but most of the evidence seems to suggest serious isn't the point.

"Ticks" by Robert Guffey

If you have a giant ape, it stands to reason that it might have giant parasites and that the parasites might spread epidemic disease on a giant scale. Which is bad enough without getting the military involved. Alternate take on the Kong story, sort of an "If this had gone on."

"Insect Girl Climbs to Paradise" by Philip Harris

A dystopian landscape dominated by a vast, uncrossable wall. Mary, like much of the population, is sure things must be better on the other side.
There were animals there, and trees. And people, she was sure of it. Somehow people had gotten over The Wall. Or perhaps they had always been there.
But Mary is clever and determined; she constructs a climbing apparatus out of electromagnets.

The best parts here are the descriptions of Mary inventing her climbing device and a harrowing scene of her trapped in a lightning storm next to the metal wall.

"Cairo, Goodbye" by Richard A Lupoff

Arlen and his wife have won an all-expenses vacation to Miami Beach, but he is overcome with nostalgia when he reads that the Cairo Cinema, where he worked as an usher when he was young, is going to be demolished. He sneaks into the old building and loses himself in dreams of the past. Slipstreamy rather than fantastic.

"Technical Difficulties" by Alex Roston

The narrator, being interviewed for a news broadcast, is a professional suicide bomber, who works for pay.
Every "People’s Front for the Liberation of Stupidistan" has suicide bombers; that’s a longstanding tradition, but in a world where anyone can make a personality backup and have it poured into a new body, killing yourself is not a real sign of commitment.

I like the twist better than the narrator's canned spiel.

"Alphabet Island" by Jessy Randall

Experiment #589 has failed, and the narrator has written an exculpatory report on the matter.
If you have received conflicting reports on this matter from my colleagues, I could meet with you in person to explain reality and smooth out any wrinkles or discrepancies. I am quite sure that I, more than any other linguo-scientist involved, am capable of being objective and not allowing emotion to cloud my judgment.
Mockery of ridiculous experiments and self-serving "scientists."

"IntheBeginning™" by Christopher B Shay

Virtual reality. Winifred is doing quality control for a new game when he keeps encountering dangerous nodes, pockets of alternate reality in which players might become trapped. When he is searching for the invisible dachshund that seems to be the locus of all the glitches, a co-worker shoots him in the physical head. Now he has to find the dog and eliminate his murderer, who is also somewhere in the game.
"You have a right to a body," [the Boss] said, cheerfully. "If you do not have a body, a qubit simulation of your body in a court-approved standard afterlife environment will be provided for you."
A pretty typical "lost in VR" scenario. These can be a lot of fun, but the author unfortunately puts the fun on PAUSE to deliver a huge load of infodump about quantum foam and other neepery that doesn't really help a reader to follow the course of Winifred's adventures, which have a sort of Wonderland feel to them.

"DarliJ's House of Tea" by Mari Mitchell

A charming but faintly sinister twist on a classic tale. Nicely done short.

"Clod, Pebble" by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz

Trying too hard. A divorced father stands in line for the perfect gift for his daughter's birthday. This non-fantastic piece is aptly titled from a William Blake poem.

Cabinet des Fées, January 2010

A small press zine devoted to fairy tale literature, now shifted from print to electronic format. Much of the content is nonfiction, but a three-times-a-year section offers poetry and a few short prose tales.

"Her Heart Would Surely Break in Two" by Michelle Labbé

A lesbian variation of "The Goose Girl" without a talking horse. Not much else left to it.

"Nor Yet Feed the Swine" by Keyan Bowes

When nursery rhymes become literal. A fairy prince is attracted by the narrator's extravagant curly hair. When he calls her "Curlylocks" and asks "wilt thou be mine," she doesn't realize that this is a contract, or how much she would come to hate strawberries and needlework. The sinister aspect is related to the swine, and in case readers might wonder who the prince's mother is, there is no letter "C" in the Greek alphabet.


"In the Forest of Thorn" by Anna Yardney

The Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the forest outside the castle, where the princes stay on their last night before they die on the thorns. The narrator was fathered by the first of the princes but brought up by her peasant mother to act as a sort of servant to them. The conclusion is pretty easy to see coming.

"The Wolf I Want" by Virginia M. Mohlere

An unusual variation on the "Red Riding Hood" tale in which both Red and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the wolf and transformed by long immersion in lupine stomach acid. Both emerge wolf-like, but in different ways.
The woodsman stood bare-chested, black-haired, brown-skinned, gleaming with sweat as he swung his axe. Grandmother stared, and her mouth drew back in a smile that made her teeth seem to grow.
Weird and erotic.

Popcorn Fiction

I don't know too much about this website, except what it says on its "about" page, that it is a place for screenwriters to post the kind of "pulpy" stories they have adapted for the screen. Most of the stories are not SF and tend to be unoriginal in concept. It doesn't seem to publish on a frequent schedule.

"Tipping Point" by Todd Stein

With global drastic overpopulation, people like the narrator are employed to do away with unauthorized children. The author seems more concerned with providing background bits than the story, which is something that most readers of this column will not find original.

"When We Get Home" by Jeff Lowell

The presence of a jerk leads to violence along national lines in the close confines of the space station. But they soon have larger problems to concern them. This one seems to be set in some alternate history when the Cold War is underway yet space stations have mixed-nationality crews and space tourists, which gives it a retro sensibility.

"Still Life" by Mark Bomback

The narrator is one of those guys who has more money than is good for him. When he unaltruistically saves a bum from being hit by a car, the bum insists, rather forcefully, in rewarding him in a manner "equal to what you just did for me," a phrase which should serve to alert readers that this reward may turn out to have a catch.

Although the "curse of immortality" story is not original, the author has given it some freshness, of sorts, by placing his fountain of youth in the city sewers eeeeuuw!).
It was neither hot nor cold, but perfectly lukewarm. Its texture resembled that of water, however I sensed a sort of film between it and my skin—not slime per say, but a barrier of some sort. It was gritty too, but a grit caused by particles that must have been finer than sand, because I couldn’t quite make out any floating as I raised my cupped hands.

"Eugene" by Jacob Sager Weinstein

The eponymous narrator is an enhanced dog or canine/human chimera serving in the police with a human partner, with whom his bond is essential. Nothing original added to this familiar scenario.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Materials for review such as magazines and original anthologies can be sent to the following

Lois Tilton
POBox #4617
Wheaton, IL 60189

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



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