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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early June 2010


Featuring the new online science fiction magazine Lightspeed and other new or rarely-seen SF publications as well as the usual zines coming out around the first of the month.

Zines Reviewed



Lightspeed, June 2010

The debut issue of the new science fiction companion to Fantasy Magazine offers four pieces of original fiction ranging from 2800 to 7000 words. Subsequent issues will have two original and two reprint works of science fiction, as well as nonfiction features.

While this publisher’s fantasy zine staked out from the beginning a very specific segment of its genre, it is not yet clear where this publication will fit into the SF spectrum. The publishers stress the diversity of the genre, but their comments also suggest that they are interested in stories accessible to mainstream readers less familiar with skiffy tropes. This makes me suppose that the zine’s title may symbolize a preference for the mundane side of SF rather than the pulp-spawned tradition of pan-galactic space opera and rousing Sensawunda. The debut offerings, while eclectic, suggest such an orientation.

“I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan

Literary SF: a love affair told in physics metaphors. The narrator and her lover have had an on-and-off relationship for most of their lives. Even when separated by time dilation, they always return to find each other again.

With you, the electromagnetic pull bonded us together. We could ionize briefly, visiting other molecules and forming weak bonds—but we always came back together, circling each other endlessly. An electron and a proton. You and me.

Neat idea, nice use of the metaphors to illustrate the complications of human relationships. Still, I can’t personally figure what she sees in this guy.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Cassandra Project” by Jack McDevitt

Jerry is doing publicity for the upcoming US/Russian moon landing when a tabloid picks up something from a bunch of old photos from the Soviet archives – a dome in the Cassegrain crater, taken in 1967, before the Apollo moon landing. Photos from NASA the subsequent year show nothing there. But Jerry can’t leave the mystery alone.

He was the fourth of the Apollo-era astronauts I talked with during those two weeks. And when I asked about a Cassegrain Project, his eyes went wide and his mouth tightened. Then he regained control. “Cassandra,” he said, looking past me into a
distant place. “It’s classified.”

A story more of politics than space exploration, in which we find perhaps the greatest discovery of all human history collecting dust in a cardboard box because the truth is politically inconvenient. The author does not seem confident that things will be all that much better in the future than they were in the Nixon era. McDevitt’s style is low-key and grounded, which lends this account solidity and credibility, if it does not raise the pulse.

“Cats in Victory” by David Barr Kirtley

Humans, it seems, created the catmen, dogmen and other creatures as soldiers, but they created too well and now the catmen have almost exterminated the rest, including their creators. This, they believe, is a divine command. So when Lynx, exercising forbidden curiosity, comes upon a surviving pair of dogmen, the authorities step in.

Templars! Holy ones, invincible warriors of Cat. In ages past, their order had eradicated the frogmen, the birdmen, and the monkeymen, and now only the dogmen remained.

This may nominally be science fiction, but it can not really be taken seriously as such. It works more as a children’s fable: How Lynx Lost His Tail and Learned that Curiosity May Not Always Be Bad.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn

A future in which life is ruled by quotas, including quotas for bearing children. Penalties are severe. Marie’s mother bore her illicitly but was not allowed to keep her. And the stigma of her birth remains, even after she has become a successful captain of her own fishing boat.

I climbed up to the dock with my folk after securing the boat, and saw that Anders was the scalemaster on duty. The week’s trip might as well have been for nothing, then. Thirty five years ago, my mother ripped out her implant and broke up her household. Might as well have been yesterday to a man like Anders.

This is not a dystopia, rather the opposite. It is clear that the quotas are not only necessary, they work well to optimize the population. The characters are, with one exception, agreeable people of good will and principles. It is pleasant to see for a change a hopeful vision of the future, even if we might doubt that it could ever come to pass.



Clarkesworld Magazine, June 2010

The editors have picked two character-driven stories with a strong emotional impact.

“Futures in the Memories Market” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Itzal is a bodyguard for the memory mod star Geeta Tilrassen. Her memods are intensely vivid. “Every module Geeta makes is fresh and innocent, and every time you use one, you feel as though it’s the first time.” But Geeta is in effect a slave to the corporation that owns her contract. The process of recording her memories erases them; this is the price of her freshness and innocence. She is like a child prevented from reaching adulthood, from knowing herself. She asks Itzal to help her acquire a forbidden memod of her own experience.

Geeta’s situation inspires strong sympathy, in part because of that naive and trusting innocence that makes her experiences such a valuable commodity. Hoffman’s skill at creating characters is well showcased here.

–RECOMMENDED

“My Father’s Singularity” by Brenda Cooper

Paul grows up on a farm in Washington, where his father tells him that he will one day become immortal. “Maybe there’ll be a door, a shining door, and you’ll go through it and you’ll be better than human.” But Paul wants to grow up to be like his father.

He was the kindness in my life, the smile that met me every morning and made me eggs with the yolks barely soft and toast that melted butter without burning.

Neither of these futures come to pass, and Paul, attempting to save what he loves best, loses it.

This is a tale of loss, inevitable but unbearably sad. Here is another story in which the well-wrought characters are its heart. The emotion is genuine, the situation universal, the future too familiar in its disappointment.

–RECOMMENDED



Subterranean, Spring 2010

Posted in May, seems to be the cover story, unless there are two bears.

“Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi

It seems that someone was fooling around with nanoware and the people were turned into gods. The city is sentient and malevolent, surrounded by a firewall that keeps the gods out. Kosonen rejected it all and retreated into the woods to live with a talking, boozing bear and write poetry, but the poems never work. Until his goddess wife came to ask a favor.

The rain was sudden and cold like a bucket of water poured over your head in the sauna. But the droplets did not touch the ground, they floated around Kosonen. As he watched, they changed shape, joined together and made a woman, spindle-thin bones, mist-flesh and muscle. She looked like a glass sculpture.

It seems that the city has become sentient and malevolent, surrounded by a firewall that excludes them. They need a real human to retrieve something important from it.

A lot of neat images here in a world transformed into something fantastic and not very explicable. There is a fragmentary story about Kosonon and his son, and parental guilt, but mostly this is a world incomprehensibly transformed and a man trying to find his place it in.



Strange Horizons, May 2010

A 5-story month.

“Waiting” by Eilis O’Neal

A love story. Maura was turned into a sword by her lover because she refused to give up battle. After two centuries, Affric inherited the sword from his father but eventually came to hate battle; he has retired to the silence at the edge of the Waste. With the sword hung up and unused, the curse is lifted and Maura returns to her human form, which is remarkably swordlike.

She was thin, as thin as a shaft of midwinter sunlight in the forests of the east, and tall, nearly as tall as he was. Black hair hung just past her ears, the edges as sharp as the rocks of the Waste.

They become lovers, but the old tension returns. Maura’s centuries as a sword have only made her crave battle the more.

The woman turned into a sword is at risk of being a genre cliché, but this one, with the center in Affric, not Maura, succeeds in evading that trap. It becomes a simple but well-told story of a couple trying to overcome difficulties in their relationship.



Tor.com, May 2010

“The Cockroach Hat” by Terry Bisson

Sam read the Kafka story in college, which may be why he turned into a giant cockroach. Or not. But at least he is somewhat prepared when it happens.

I had a plan. I knew that with all the renovations in Brooklyn all the writers had ended up in one building, an old warehouse that wasn’t hard to find. There were their names on the mailbox: Auster, Lethem, Whitehead, etc., and a bunch of unknowns.

The writers don’t help him, but an old Kabbalist does. And the cockroach thing turns out to have a number of advantages.

Darkish, absurd fantasy. The blurb calls this one “a literary love story.” I don’t think they’re serious, no more than this story is – more like a literary version of Bisson’s recent series of “Billy” fables. Love the last line.



Three-lobed Burning Eye #19, May 2010

This small press fantasy zine comes out very irregularly. The subhead is Stories that Monsters Like to Read, which suggests a certain darkness of tone, but I also found a hint of the literary. Overall, I liked it. Also, though I am not in the habit of commenting on artwork, the cover’s steampunk drakosaur with a scorpion-tail tongue is way neat.

“Witchwood” by Georgina Bruce

The setting is a sort of Mitteleuropan village where fairy tales are found and people wash clothes in the frigid water of the stream, except that the shopkeeper owns a car. There is a sinister forest nearby

and in the forest there is nothing but bitter black roots and mice and broken wings to live on, and no one can live on this except something as evil and misgiving as the forest itself. Like the witch, who they say steals babies out of wombs and turns breast milk sour; the witch whose own womb is full of earwigs and dust.

But in fact the real danger lurks in the village, where the narrator’s parents scheme to sell her to the shopkeeper, the guy with the car.

There is actual magic in the forest, although it is not clear why the narrator’s mother sends her there to find it. The best thing is the prose, which evokes some nicely imaginative images.

“A Feather’s Weight” by Jessica Reisman

Edward is suffering from dreams and hallucinations, unable to distinguish them from reality. The only certainty seems to be that he visited/is visiting an archeological dig conducted by his friend Arminius, and something unspeakable happened there to his wife and son, or was it someone else entirely?

Yes, what is wrong, Edward thinks, what is wrong? Vertigo falls through him, the world at odd angles, himself, standing — or lying down?

The prose is full of vivid descriptions, heavy with symbolic import: oranges, feathers. The story suffers from its reliance on a rather improbable and overly-involved legend of evil, which the characters remember in unlikely detail.

“The Biologie of Paradise” by Adam Browne

The great taxonomist Linneaus, having died, explores the wonders of Paradise, which are a lot more wondrous than those of mortal Earth.

Looking to the limitless horizon, I witness great flocks of Staphylococcus auræus — the febrile distemper that took my daughter Sara Magdalena. Grown large as wrens (Uropsila leucogastra), and become wrenshaped withal, Staphylococci flash and wheel in golden flights, forming first this shape, then that, from globe to lens to wimpling pyramid, now rising knifelike, now plunging in a gush that disperses a moment before it meets the buttercupped ground.

A neat idea, well-executed. Paradise should be so good when we get there.

–RECOMMENDED

“The End of Her World” by J M McDermott

Inside a couple of thin narrative shells is the story of a TV reality show in which the population of a city is afflicted by a deadly plague, with the viewers of the show deciding who will contract the disease and who will not.

Each week these people inside the show watched the men in yellow isolation suits appear, take half of the survivors by the arm, and lead them away to who knows where off-screen. The rest got a bottle of pills for the week — placebos, I assumed.

There is a lot of emotional distancing here, as the story of the reality show is told by a soldier visiting the prostitute, who then tells his story to an anonymous narrator. There are suggestions that the reality show may not be merely a show. There are suggestions that this world, superficially like our own, may instead be involved in some apocalyptic war. It is a story of annihilations, personal and global, hinted at through a haze of narrative filters.

“Botch’s Astronomy” by Cheryl W Ruggerio

Botch calls himself a troll but seems to be more of a golem, created by the evil Queen to be her servant and enforcer. Botch loathes the form in which he was created.

We have no real mouths, just gaps in our heads for Swallowing. Queenie only gave us gaps, and bound the senses of see, hear and smell into our mud flesh, just enough to serve her. She doesn’t seem to realize that we listen or seem to care.

Botch’s situation engages our sympathy. This one comes close to a conventional secondary-world fantasy, but in the end it also steps outside for a different point of view, and we see in Botch more than just a golem.

“Dead Prophecies” by Ferrett Steinmetz

Here, the author is overtly subverting the most overdone trope of fantasy fiction: the hero foretold to defeat the evil overlord. The Chosen One is now running a tavern in the Emperor’s domain, trying to dissuade the young would-be heroes who come down the road, determined to carry out the deed at which the Chosen One failed.

“‘I want to live my own life,’ I told Ardena. ‘I feel like I’m just reciting lines in someone else’s script.’ So when the time came to defeat Grixai, the Night-Soaked Emperor of All Worlds, I didn’t sneak off, empty-handed, to meet him in his courtyard at the stroke of midnight. ‘That’s crazy,’ said I. ‘That shit will get me killed.’ Instead, I raised a mighty army to face him down on the battlefield.”

The narrative voice is of course disrespecting the epic and heroic version of the tale, as well as the overtly unheroic lesson that the Chosen One is vainly attempting to convey. Another story with this theme might offer philosophical insights on the conflict between determinism and free well, but this one doesn’t go there, content with the broad and darkly humorous.



Apex, May 2010

The May issue of this ezine, which I reviewed last month, contained two stories related to the Apex anthology Dark Faith. At the end of the month another piece was added, labeled as a reprint from the anthology. Normally, I don’t review reprints, but since this one is so very new, a piece that I have not previously seen or reviewed, and because it is by one of my favorite new authors, Catherynne M Valente, I decided to go for it. Valente is now the zine’s new editor, and I gather that it will remain dormant until August while she assembles her first issue.

“The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” by Catherynne M Valente

After the apocalypse, when most of the population became zombies, Caitlin begins to write a journal in children’s notebooks. These are the days recorded in the notebooks with the flaming motorcycle on the covers. Life isn’t all that much different from normal existence in Augusta, Maine, even with a zombie for a father. It’s because of her father that Caitlin remains.

I know that sounds bizarre, but there’s nothing like a parent who bites you to make you incapable of leaving them. Incapable of not wanting their love. I’ll probably turn thirty and still be stuck here, trying to be a good daughter while his blood dries on the kitchen tiles.

But Caitlin’s father cries. He can still say her name. And, together with the other zombies, he builds a tower where they hold a sort of cannibalistic sacred communion. Or so it seems.

The zombies are essentially the same persons they used to be before they were altered, except for the loss of social inhibition; they are now free to do, to be what they have always wanted to be. Yet still, they are compelled to create a religion, to invent a god. Which is saying something not about zombies but about humans and about their cathedrals, even if more impressive than a pile of toasters.



Shareable, Shareable Futures

This website is an ideological one, promoting a Cause. As such, it follows that the fiction published here in what is called the Shareable Futures series is also going to be concerned with that cause, which is individuals freely sharing their resources. But given that the authors seem to be the likes of Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and Benjamin Rosenbaum, a dose of ideology seems like a fair price to pay for a good read.

“The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening” by Cory Doctorow

Fingo is a member of Britain’s economic underclass whose youthful adventures in filesharing have caused significant punitive hardship to his family. Now on his own, he has hooked up with Cecil’s gang and his Great Work, a mash-up biopic of Keith Kennenson. The Great Work is to culminate in a great feat of public sharing, for which Fingo needs to acquire the phone.

The Screenparty I was the first-ever phone ever delivered with a little high-powered projector built into it, and the only Android phone that had one, because ten minutes after it shipped, Apple dusted off some old patent on putting projectors in handheld devices and used the patent to beat the Screenparty I to death.

The Message here is neither subtle nor hidden, but lesser authors can take a lesson from Doctorow, that you can get a Message across and still deliver a story, a fun read. There is a certain amount of neep involved, the sort does tend to make my eyes glaze over a bit, from my position back here in the rear guard of the trailing edge. And it is possible to take issue with Fingo’s ethics, as he does, after all, steal the phone from the pawnshop guy, even though he exchanges something of greater potential monetary value for it. But there is a story here, and a surprisingly uplifting ending, and that’s the main thing.



M-Brane SF, May 2010

This one seems to be billed as a gay-oriented SF zine, but what I find here is an unremarkable SF zine.

“Why Look Down” by Glen Lewis Gillette

Alien encounters. Members of the Herd have come to colonize Earth but one group has met with disaster because of Jubal Hoe, who has managed to snatch an essential piece of their medical technology, which he calls the Rig. Jubal has set himself up as a healer, and when he starts to get country music stars as his clients he figures he has it made. But Jubal’s sensible wife Mattie, a herbal healer herself, doesn’t like the idea of Jubal getting carried away with visions of grandeur.

A riff on the SF classic of the “Little Black Bag.”

“Pieces of You” by Kay T Holt

Jeffrey is aging out of the system, starting his first day at college. It will also be his last day with the robot Guardian that has raised him. Jeffrey is going to miss Kappa and wants to remain in contact, but he knows this is impossible.

A heartwarming piece, unmawkish. I am left thinking that this would be a damn good system and better than our current system for caring for wards of the state.

“this electronic life” by t j mcintyre

An individual evolved into a state of pure information, told in the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Or so saieth the author, but while Joyce wrote in a stream of consciousness he didn’t exclude punctuation or paragraph breaks or present his story as an unrelieved block of text:

…or at least the world through mine eyes which arent even eyes anymore not really they are nothing but software locked in endless loops on a network that goes round and round and round without ever really going anywhere and boy do i miss touch the touch of soft flesh against flesh…

Fortunately, this doesn’t go on very long.

“Passion in the Year 2090″ by Sean Eads

Momus, by recreating the forgotten techniques of method acting, has revived the live theatre festival. But the novelty of his performance has worn off, and now the manager intends to replace him with the latest marvel, an electronic projection. To Momus, this is the ultimate betrayal. After so many years playing the son, he must now play the father. Then, worse, he is not even allowed to do that.

The notion of artificial actors is not a new one. The story belongs to Momus, to his feelings of loss and betrayal, losing his place in a world that is moving on to where he does not want to go. However, it is not convincing when the manager puts the invention onstage before an audience in such an unprepared state. And the author stumbles badly by calling his brave new virtual world Second Life. A system invented in 2003 will certainly be long forgotten and superseded in 2090, as much as Momus is.

“Mad Dogs of Mercury” by Michael Andre-Driussi

The hominid mineworkers on Mercury have started an uprising. With their boss killed, his bodyguards and secretary decide to bug out with the case full of cash he’d been carrying, pursued by the rebels and racing the rising heat.

“It is a mad dog thing, a mad dog run. Nobody goes out in the Mercury sunlight after e-day eleven. Good luck to you all.”

A fairly standard planetary adventure. The hominid workers are an interesting touch, but I have my doubts about a future with cases full of cash.

“Wake” by Bob Labar

Waking up in bed with a strange man you do not remember.

Now you are even more confused, sitting on your couch in an unfamiliar living room, trying to figure this all out. So, you try to remember. Think. Think. What happened yesterday?

But the real difference is that Lawrence is alive. In the reality you remember, he died in an accident two years ago.

Usually, a second-person narration resolves itself in the course of the text. A character is talking to another, or to herself. Here, it is possible that the version of the character in one timeline is addressing this version, who finds herself shifted to a timeline in which her lover Lawrence [she seems to have had a lot of lovers] has not died. But the narrative also shifts around: to an omniscient script, to a dream, to a story manuscript written by Lawrence. It makes for an interesting read, except for the infodump about parallel lives, although in the end I think that the second-person doesn’t really resolve.

–RECOMMENDED


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.

Comments

Comment from Michael Ray
Time June 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Ms. Tilton,
I invite you to come have a look at the new fiction published this month at Redstone Science Fiction – http;//redstonesciencefiction.com. It’s our first issue, and we will publish SF short stories on the first of every month.
Thanks,
Michael Ray, Editor, Redstone SF

Comment from Chris
Time June 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Thanks, Lois, for your comments on the May M-BRANE SF. I’d quibble a bit, however, with the statement that it “seems to be billed as a gay-oriented SF zine,” unless the facts that the editor is gay and that it is friendly to content with gay characters makes it such. But, in fact, M-BRANE SF has not in 17 issues so far actually published very much gay-oriented fiction. I would, however, be open to more of it, and I do as a matter of policy exclude ANTI-gay material and other such things from the pages. But to characterize the publication as a whole as “gay-oriented” would probably not be any more accurate than describing some of the other ones above, where their editors whose are known to be straight, as “straight-oriented” zines.

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time June 26, 2010 at 11:21 am

Chris – the link I was sent to your magazine indicated it was “gay-oriented.” I would not have drawn such a conclusion from the contents, which are clearly “SF-oriented.”

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