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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early May 2010


Zines Reviewed



Electric Velocipede #20, Winter 2010

A particularly sciencefictional issue. I would not have been surprised to find some of these stories in a certain zine devoted to hard SF.

“The Mikarr Way” by Lyn Battersby

Sean is from Earth and Dulat is from Mika, but when they combine their DNA they pledge to raise the child in the Mikarr Way. Except that Mikarr children grow to maturity in year, and First’s genes make her different. Will there be a place for her on either world?

Dulat’s hand moves across my chest and strokes First’s arm. She sings a few bars of the bonding song, soothing First and lulling her to sleep. I sigh in relief at the momen­tary reprieve. We are living the Mikarr way. They may not love for long, but the love is complete while it lasts.

This is both a love story and a cautionary tale. The love is strongly portrayed, but the caution left to be inferred by the reader. Sean’s optimism is misguided; love can not be counted on to overcome biology, especially when love pulls in two different directions.

“The Lost Continent” by Ian Shoebridge

As a boy, the narrator saw flying saucers, a product of his wishful thinking.

I used to sit and watch, and wish to be abducted. I waved at them with my towel, and waved a bright flag, I tried smoke signals, and a giant “Take Me” carved in the sand . . ..

When the aliens fail to abduct him, he sets off on a quest to discover the magic missing in his life and discovers many strange marvels. But there is a catch.

The author attempts to convince us that this is all about the observer effect, about the way we can alter reality by perceiving it. But I know a fairy tale when I read it.

–RECOMMENDED

“T Me” by J H Jennings

Joan Ellen always wanted a gifted child, so she employed a little off-the-shelf technology when she was pregnant. Patrick does turn out to be a gifted child, performing inventive experiments at age ten.

Masses of wire and plastic drinking straws repurposed as tubing snaked their way from each module to the chicken, connecting to it by sewing needles and hair-fine copper filaments.

Then come the seizures, which are only the beginning.

There is often a blurred line between the wondrous and the horrific. If alien flying saucers abduct you, if you grow another brain, is this a good thing or a bad? The author leaves the answer as an exercise for the reader, but it occurred to me several times that things could have been a lot worse.

“Liminal” by Sean Melican

The heavy ice miners stage a strike, and the narrator is their hostage. His only hope is to manipulate the miners, who resent the narrator for being an avant, an engineered human model.

“Throwbacks can’t control their urges, right? If we want to kill something, we kill it. If we want to fuck it, we do. So how come I haven’t killed Ron, or him me, or any of us one of the others?”

This psychological drama raises interesting questions about what makes us human and what is human superiority, although it’s a bit talky at times. The last line makes up for it. There is also quite a bit of physics neep about the properties of deuterium, making it hard SF.

“And to My Wife . . .” by Shira Lipkin

Time travel short-short with twist.

“Mile Zero” by Daniel Braum

Kayla is pregnant and doesn’t want her child brought up in the US police state, so she escapes with the help of her former lover Jillian.

Everything was fine in Miami, officially. But the denials didn’t change the fact that General Barion’s rebellious Fourth Ocean Cavalry Division had been holding the city for the last eighteen months.

This political SF is a bit confused, starting out as if Kayla were escaping to get an abortion. It’s not clear why she cuts the ID chip out of her head before reaching Miami, when the absence of it could get her arrested.

“Daughters of Fortune” by Cyril Simsa

In the spring of 1932, Zora decides to leave Paris for Prague, where she meets the fascinating Frida Hroznysova at a screening of Nosferatu. Frida studies local folklore, specializing in such phenomena as rusalkas and vampyres When she invites Zora to her apartment to see her etchings, Zora has a shock.

And then, all of a sudden, I realised why the portrait was so profoundly disturbing: for belatedly, I noticed that the girl’s head was no longer attached to its shoulders. At some point, before she had been laid out on the grass, she had been crudely decapitated.

The author strongly suggests that we will encounter vampyres, and indeed we do, although not in the form we might have expected. The story’s milieu and the characters are quite well-realized, a period piece evoking one of the fleetingly magical times and places in history.

–RECOMMENDED



Clarkesworld Magazine, May 2010

From a space station to a Chinese lantern festival.

“A Jar of Goodwill” by Tobias S Buckell

Space opera. Alex is an engineered Friend, bred for deep understanding of human body language; this skill also makes him a lie detector. He takes a contract with a secretive group of freelance biologists who have located a planet inhabited by antlike creatures who may or may not be intelligent, which means Alex and his employers may or may not get rich by exploiting them. A member [a "drone"]of a telepathic human hive culture has been engaged to help determine the Vesians’ intelligence; Alex’s job is to keep tabs on the drone, but he suspects his actual employers are up to no good.

The are-they-intelligent? alien scenario is so old it has a long gray beard. This one takes its interest from the various fascinating sorts of cyborged, mutated and otherwise alien humans knocking around the setting, as well as the various alien aliens. The plot has a few stumbling points. I don’t see why the plotters brought on the Compact drone, who would inevitably see through their scheme. I don’t see how they thought they could keep their secret from the Gheda when the Gheda were crewing their ship. The prose likewise caused me to stumble on such lines as: “Even in the most packed places in space, you needed a cubby of one’s own.”

“A Sweet Calling” by Tony Pi

Ao is a candyman, a sort of magician-artist who creates figures out of liquid sugar like a glass-blower. He can also animate them. He has just set up business in the town of Chengdu during the lantern festival when a jealous sorcerer creates a fire monkey to burn down the shop of a girl who has spurned his attentions.

Motes of burning paper rained down on us as the fire monkey leapt from one lantern to another, then another and another, until it landed on the thatched roof of the yuanzi girl’s family teahouse. With mad glee, it set the thatch ablaze, and the flames regenerated its tail.

Ao’s heroic effort to quench the flames makes a rousing story, and the candy-magic is a neat trick. Unfortunately, once the danger is over, the story becomes talky as Ao mentally sorts through the possible suspects to find the jealous culprit.



Subterranean, Spring 2010

An issue guest-edited by Jonathan Strahan, with fiction appearing more or less weekly in the usual way of this website.

“The Naturalist” by Maureen McHugh

A scenario reminiscent of Escape From New York and similar works. The authorities have solved the zombie problem by shutting the revenants into reserves in the old decayed cities such as Cleveland. To kill another bird, they have been shipping criminals there as well. Cahill has to learn about zombies in order to survive in the reserve, but he soon begins to take a stronger interest in them, wanting to know how they recognize living humans and how they react to fire. And of course to learn, he has to conduct experiments.

Cahill was watching the other zombies. They didn’t react to the noise at all. Even when there was blood all over, they didn’t seem to sense anything. Cahill reflected, not for the first time, that it actually took people a lot longer to die than it did on television or in the movies. He noted that the one that had mauled and eventually killed LaJon did not seem to prefer brains.

A common technique in horror fiction is to show the narrator slowly succumbing to madness, all the while convinced that his acts are perfectly normal. Here, however, the narrative fails to chill, as we don’t know whether Cahill was demented to begin with or driven mad by his surroundings, which, as described, don’t seem sufficiently horrific, except for Cahill.

“Brownian Emotion” by Tom Holt

Physics and paradoxes. Martin Beech is on his way to meet Jenny Musgrove and propose marriage when he bumps into Jenny Musgrove, who has hated him ever since he stood her up nine years ago, going off with an older woman. Younger Jenny is a particle physicist who goes on to develop the equations that lead to the Even Larger Hadron Collider. Older Jenny is a businesswoman who gave up physics after Martin dumped her.

“Are you seriously asking me to believe that the evil blonde bimbo bitch who stole you from me nine years ago and trashed my self-esteem and fucked up my entire life was me?

At which point the ELHC blows up and Martin is arrested for sabotage. Because there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Clever temporal paradox, clever title.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Bodhisattvas” by Gord Sellar

More physics, this time with Buddhism. The criminal ancestors poisoned the Earth, then left to find some other world to pollute with their presence. The survivors are all noncelibate monks, modified to survive in the environment and capable of transmitting themselves across space to new bodies. One group has taken to generating micro black holes in an act of creation, but it seems that there is a problem, which Yana has been asked to solve.

Yana’s eyes searched all the other displays, and found them all showing the same strangeness. Cameras were flooded with a blinding haze, and the ship’s readings were flickering between a multitude of conflicting signals, all coming through on the same channel. A siren blared, and suddenly, the ship’s readings flickered back into unity.

Although there is a lot of physics neep here, the story’s themes are spiritual: compassion and forgiveness. Some basic knowledge of Buddhism is probably more useful to readers than a physics text.



Abyss and Apex #34, 2nd Quarter 2010

“Talking to Elephants” by Mary Ann Mohanraj

There is war in a fantasy version of Sri Lanka, where the large royal family controls magic and the peasant rebels have guns. Ezi is a useless prince, whose only power is speaking to animals who won’t agree to fight for them. He also writes poetry and suffers from naive delusions about making peace with the enemy. But drastic events change everything.

This is a political work, if only because it evokes comparison to current events. As such, it can not be seen as simply a children’s fairytale about a young prince earning his crown. Thus it is unsatisfying to see the events from only a single point of view, in which the king is good and kind and wise and the rebels are the most clichéd of terrorists. And the elephants, whom everyone knows to be wise, are gravely deluded.

“Burning Bright” by Jennifer Hykes

Lori is leading a life she increasingly cares nothing about when a small dragon appears in her yard and declares it will eat her in a month, when it is larger. The prospect of imminent consumption concentrates Lori’s mind and leads her to recall the sort of life she had once wanted – making fudge. Not really a fantasy, as the dragon is no more than a catalyst for a standard life-transformation story.

“Boneless Corpse” by E Bundy

The narrator is a psychic detective in a world where humans coexist uneasily with dwarfs, although they occasionally do business. The dwarfs have discovered a murdered dwarf whose corpse is boneless, and they suspect the man who runs an exhibit of plasticized corpses, including a boneless one. But how do you murder a person by dissolving his bones?

Here’s an interesting world, with several different and disagreeable species of near-humans involved in political and criminal conspiracies. I like the narrator’s attitude, manipulating the misogynistic dwarfs with their own prejudices, as well as the dwarfs themselves.

A professional shovel-carrying dwarf is called a skovlmand, a word we might translate as “goon.” They hone the blades until they are able to slice your leg in half with the flick of a gnarled arm. I once saw a skovlmand split an oak trunk the size of a barrel with a thrown shovel.

“Mind’s Eye View” by David Schibi

SF. Eli is a scientist working on Bio-Cybernetics, transferring human minds into artificial bodies. The government uses the cyborgs primarily for military and security functions. But human minds need to dream in order to properly function, and this ability was omitted from the programming. This is the problem that Eli is attempting to solve.

The author warns readers in the first line that none of this is real, and when things aren’t real, we pretty well know what they are. What isn’t clear is the reason why the dream problem is so intractable, and why, decades or centuries later, the cyborgs are still called prototypes, although they have been in common use for a long time. Unless that problem isn’t real, either. Or perhaps it has long since been solved, but Eli simply doesn’t know it. And we will never know.

“The Black Sheep of Vaerlosi” by Desmond Warzel

SF. The narrator is a customs inspector, and his professional interest is stimulated by the arrival in his sector of a notorious smuggler, Gilbert Nwachakwu. Nwachakwu claims to have cleared himself of legal entanglements, and the records confirm this. But the narrator is certain he is smuggling something on his numerous trips to Vairlosi.

We scanned the hull for compartments; we checked the density of the fuel reserves; we rifled Nwachakwu’s clothing and toiletries; we unpacked the crates and cross-checked each AI module’s serial number; we weighed each individual unit, looking for deviations; we even X-rayed the cockpit seat cushions. All for naught.

Readers will suspect that this is a case of hiding in plain sight, and so it proves, rather cleverly.

“The Monks of Udom Xhai” by Lavie Tidhar

One day, a strange monk comes to Udom Xhai in Laos.

He was not a Buddhist, for his robes were black, not saffron, and looked expensive besides. If one looked hard one could almost imagine there were shapes fleeting across the shimmering expanse of robe, images darting hither and yon upon the light-swallowing surface of the cloth. He could have been falang, it was agreed, and everyone knew the ways of the Europeans were strange – but none could tell for sure.

That night, a procession of black-robed monks move through the town and into the mountains, from which strangeness begins to propagate on the radio waves.

This is a sort of mystical fantasy, in which the powers of God may or may not be involved. Something has changed, but we don’t know what. It is a mystery, not one that we will solve.

–RECOMMENDED

“I Expect There Will Be a Reason Soon” by Mark Cole

Short-short. Marcus is undergoing a test. He passes.

It took me two weeks but I finally made it to Istanbul. It hadn’t been as difficult as I expected. A train derailed in the station at Irkutsk, but the deadly gas that spilled out of a shattered tanker car didn’t spread fast enough to catch me. An escaped lunatic tried to knife me in Samarkand; the boat carrying me across the Caspian sank; I had to dive through a window to avoid the police in Ankara after a fleeing drug dealer planted his merchandise on me.

Some ingenious stuff here, a bit of fun. A reason does reveal itself, but it is less interesting than the Cadillac that falls out of the sheik’s cargo plane and lands on Marcus’s camel.



Apex, May 2010

An interesting month for this small press ezine. Apex Book Company frequently uses an issue of their magazine as promotion for one of their anthologies. In this case, the anthology is titled Dark Faith, set at the intersection of religion and horror. The two stories in this magazine issue are not included in the anthology.

“The Last Stand of the Ant Maker” by Paul Jessup

Benjamin makes the ants down in his basement, carefully painting them with tiny brushes, creating an entire model world of ants, with Benjamin as their god. On his rare emergences into the world, he makes sort of a friend of the young woman next door. But while Benjamin is down in the basement, things are happening, and eventually he realizes that his castle is under siege. By the plants. He had tried to ignore the plants. Now he is creating an ant army to defeat the invading plants.

Emily dropped by. But this time it wasn’t Emily. But it was. She was very pregnant. Yet she wasn’t. Her eyes were full of green fluid. Leaking onto her cheek. Her face was spotted. Cracking. Her hair had vines wrapped up in the blonde curls. When she smiled, Benjamin saw leaves behind her teeth.

A surreal fantasy that may or may not be a hallucination on the part of Benjamin. I suspect not. A scenario in which everyone either dies or is transformed into plant organisms might seem at first glance to be horror, but Jessup makes this world weirdly beautiful. It only remains to be seen if Benjamin, with his armies of model ants, can prevail against the plant-people. Was it Meant To Be? The author isn’t telling.

“City of Refuge” by Jerry Gordon

Post apocalypse. The world seems to have fallen to hordes of zombie-like revenants, and a religious cult has taken over the human survivors. The cult’s archbishops hear of a strange young girl, perhaps a prophet, and they want to learn her secrets. David, their messenger, comes to believe that Jenna may hold the key to human survival.

She talked about a world where humanity could live alongside the Fallen. She talked about her father’s certainty there were others with gifts like hers.

But he knows that the archbishops will misuse her gifts for their own benefit.

This one is a sort of mash-up – the stereotypical Evil Church with zombies – neither original. The plot is strewn with red herrings, as Jenna retracts one lie only for another, until it begins to seem that everything she says is worthless, including the Biblical references that everyone seems to find so significant and her reputed powers of prophesy. Even David’s hope seems misplaced, as there is no evidence that there are others with her gift.


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 address:

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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