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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: Early July 2010


While I was waiting for the digest zines to appear in my mailbox I had the time to look at the stories in some new publications.

Zines Reviewed



Bull Spec #1, Spring 2010

The debut issue of this SF printzine, a fairly glossy, full-color production. The material here is eclectic: fiction offerings are short stories, a novel excerpt, and a graphic tale; there are also interviews, reviews, poetry and other stuff. The introductory editorial says the focus will be on “local” authors, which seems to mean the southeast US.

The short stories are labeled as fantasy, science fiction and steampunk. I don’t know if this will be a regular breakdown. There are two original works, one reprint.

“Rise Up” by C S Fuqua

Fantasy. Bobby is a musician who hangs around at a music shop run by an old Appalachian woman who claims to know when someone has the power; she tells Bobby that he has it. Bobby and his girlfriend Wynne are headed home after a performance when he goes off the road. Wynne seems to be dead. Bobby can’t stand the thought of losing Wynne, and he sings her back to life. But Bobby hasn’t quite got the hang of his power.

Her skin shone milky in the cold bathroom light, and faint bruises dotted her arms and back, but what worried Bobby most were her lower legs and feet. They appeared pale purple and swollen.

A riff on the Orpheus myth, which was itself both a love story and a Cautionary Tale about messing with death.

“Almost a Good Day to Go Outside” by Peter Wood

Planetary colonization takes a long time. The colonists are suffering from depression, cooped up as they are in the cramped quarters of their habitat. Ricardo is better off than most. As a surveyor, he gets to work outside; as a higher-status colonist, his family has more living room. For a diversion, many of the colonists start to catch the signals of old TV shows from Earth that are just reaching them. Ricardo’s wife Lori starts to skip work and spend all day watching the shows.

This one, too, is a sort of cautionary tale, about the potential of psychological strain on the participants in such projects. But aside from the improbability of the TV shows, the setup works against the story, which is about an isolated group irrevocably separated from its homeworld, trapped in a dismal existence. The colony project obviously has some form of FTL transportation. Supply ships arrive twice a year. Presumably, they return on that schedule to Earth. Thus, when the doctor tells Ricardo that the project can’t possibly send him home, this seems to be false. They aren’t really trapped, after all, and that was the main point.



Redstone Science Fiction, June 2010

Another debut issue, this one a new online science fiction zine. The title suggests a focus on spaceflight; one of the stories is set on a spaceship.

The format should be familiar to online readers: two new pieces of fiction, several essays and interviews. The fiction is quite short. The format also annoyingly breaks down the stories into tiny bits requiring many clickthroughs. I consider it an unwise thing to provide readers so many opportunities to say of a story, “Oh, to hell with it.” There will apparently be a writing contest, at which I look somewhat askance, as I prefer zines oriented towards readers rather than prospective authors.

“Raising Tom Chambers” by Daniel Powell

Post-apocalypse. When the human population of Earth was almost wiped out by epidemics, it also doomed the Martian parasites called Astras. Ruth Crump spent the immediate post-epidemic months searching for human survivors and repelling desperate Astras, but one morning she woke up with one of them attached to her chest, feeding. They eventually become attached emotionally, as well.

Here is an instance where the standard advice to authors – Show, don’t tell – would have been apt. This story is about human emotion, about loneliness, about our need for connection with others. But the author spends too much of the short text telling us things and not enough time inside the feelings of his character; the effect is distancing, and it blunts the emotional impact.

“Freefall” by Peter Roberts

A character comes to consciousness and slowly recalls the events that have led to her present situation. Here, also, the emotional force is dissipated when the character, supposedly waking in panic, immediately seems to fall back asleep. This has been done before, and better.



Fantasy Magazine, June 2010

There seems to be more sentiment than usual in the stories here this month.

“The Slavesinger” by Louise Marley

In the city of Arquin, the palace is served by slaves who must speak only in the slave language in which they must refer to themselves as “this slave.” The most valuable of them are the singers, and the most valuable of the singers are Andri and her daughter Linya. When Andri dies, she passes on to Linya the Word, which most of the slaves regard as only a myth. Linya must now keep silent until the right moment to use the Word.

I am not convinced. The word in question has too little weight to be a Word, to have such devastating consequences, despite its symbolic value in the story. And the author makes repeated use of a particular image that strikes me as quite wrong:

The Word, that could change everything in an instant, would not rest in Linya’s mouth and mind, but racketed about, clamoring for release, battering at her tightly-folded lips.

For a word to reach the lips, it must first be voiced in the throat, in the larynx. If a word is struggling to be released, this is where the struggle would be taking place, not the lips. I may be making a big deal of this, but the author made rather a great deal of the image.

“Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archaeology” by Christopher Howard

The lives of Army brats, who live in a succession of houses yet never have a home. But each house has a spirit comprised of the many successive inhabitants.

The house is the spirit that heals you, the house makes you whole, the house shortens longing, closes wounds, tube-feeds you when you’ve forgotten how to eat, and softens the hard edge of the stairs when you fall down them. The house spirit is there because no one has a home.

The fantasy element here is almost negligible; the house spirit might easily be only the children’s imagination, created as consolation for the displacment in their lives. It is the pain of dislocation that we feel here, as when a pet dog is lost during a move. But I can enjoy the active imagination of the Army brats of a generation ago, children running free in packs, building forts and tree houses of their own, as temporary as the official Army housing.

“Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” by Paul M Berger

The Elves have returned to Earth to conquer. At the Gray Fort, humanity made its last, valiant stand. Now its remains are a tourist site full of cheap souvenir stands. The elflord Loran has come here with his human bride Jessica, where they view the stereogram which has been created especially for pair-bonded Elves who share each others’ sensations.

And then, as if a third mind straddling the two of ours had suddenly divined how the marks were meant to align, the images from her eye and mine snapped together and revealed a single, meaningful prospect. What we were looking at was the Gray Fort, not the massive ruin that stood outside, but as she was in the days of her glory—when her unblemished walls rose with the graceful curve of a ship’s prow from the knees of the mountain behind her, and her towers and turrets caught the morning sun as they stood tall into the blue sky, and gold gleamed from her domes, and her long pennants made whip-cracks in the breeze.

The narrative follows the stereogram pattern by relating the story first from Loran’s point of view and then Jessica’s. What’s going on here is subversion of the notion of the noble High Elf, as Loren regards himself, revealing them as a race that would destroy another civilization to give its people the perverse gift of recovering their own capacity for martial glory – and themselves a partner for war that they could consider worthy even as they destroy them. Loren’s own words indict him even more thoroughly than Jessica’s version of the events. I love the vision of the ruined fort, the scene of former glories, even knowing that the vision is false. But too much of this story depends on the notion of the marital pair-bond, which I can’t help finding contrived.

“Abandonware” by An Owomoyele

David’s older sister has been killed in an accident, and he is trying to salvage what he can of her from her old computer. What he discovers is a strange program that seems to predict future events. But if Andy knew in advance of her accident, why didn’t she try to avoid it? And why did she label the program disk BURN THIS DISK?

What mattered was that I had to know why Andrea had a program that could tell the future, I had to know and Andy wasn’t there to tell me, and for a second it mattered more that she couldn’t tell me than she wasn’t there.

This one is more on the science fictional side of the genre than most stories found at this zine, yet the focus is not on the paradoxes of predicting the future and the possibilities of cyber-immortality, but on loss and grief and the present ties of family. David spends most of the story evading his father’s attempts at consolation, yet readers know that he will end up crying in his arms.



Strange Horizons, June 2010

There is nothing like a Lavie Tidhar story to perk up an issue of any SF zine.

“Kifli” by Rose Lemberg

The narrator’s mother always phones her at inconvenient times, being a mother, wanting to manage her daughter’s life by sending unwanted gifts that she has decided her daughter needs. Even a witch is still a mother. Nice little maternal fantasy vignette.

“The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar

Cyberpunk, sort of. The assassin/bodyguard working for the part-toad crimelord Boss Gui is scanning the station in Bangkok for potential assassins, but she is also reminiscing about her former lover, an alien who body-surfs humans, who turned her on to violence and danger but left her empty when he deserted her.

What Tidhar is giving us here might be described as an imagination-spill. It is mostly a street scene, full of exotic futuristic wonders. The plot is minimal, primarily there to hang the sights and sounds on, but they are fantastic sights and sounds indeed. Like the slug train. And the toads.

Boss Gui finally came gliding down the platform—fat-boy Gui, the Old Man, olfala bigfala bos in the pidgin of the asteroids. His Toads surrounded him—human/toad hybrids with Qi-engines running through them: able to inflate themselves at will, to jump higher and farther, to kill with the hiss of a poisoned, forked tongue—people moved away from them like water from a hot skillet.

–RECOMMENDED

“How to Make Friends in Seventh Grade” by Nick Poniatowski

It is a measure of the viciousness of the junior high milieu that Ashley is less interested in the arrival of an alien spaceship than in avoiding the attention of the class bullies. Ashley’s sexuality has already attracted their interest, and he is quite willing to throw Tyler, his former best friend, to the wolves if it will divert their attention to another victim. But for Tyler, a typical fannish geek with an abusive home, the aliens are everything.

Another YA story, very familiar and complete with concluding moral.

“Out of Sombra Canyon” by Kyri Freeman

The narrator and her husband are a team; their project is the Green-Tailed Hummingbird, Archilochus viridiens, of which the only known remaining population can be found in remote Sombra Canyon. It is a migratory species, but they can not discover where the birds go. The narrator’s husband is more than obsessed with the mystery; he seems to be growing detached from everything else, including her.

The plot of this story is not unexpected, but it is well-told. By which I don’t mean the narrator’s addressing her husband in the second-person, but the clear and vivid description of the birds, the terrain.

After a long time you shift and sigh, and I reach for my pack, and then it’s there, a male, his black feathers impossibly iridescent in the sun, his pale green tail plumes bobbing. His wings make a metallic whir. He feeds on the chuparosa for a while, and then he’s gone, darting away, seeming to just vanish.



Cosmos, June 2010

Recently-posted fiction from the online edition of this Australian science magazine. The subject matter is science-oriented and the prevailing tone seems to be humor – actually funny humor. I only wish the site did not make readers click through entirely too many screens to read the stories.

“All the Wrong Places” by Val Nolan

The narrator is a particle physicist whose research focuses on the Higgs boson, the existence of which is only hypothetical. It has never been seen until the narrator spots it at an Italian restaurant.

There it was, brooding under a great black umbrella and with a grey woolen coat thrown across its shoulders. It passed me in the street and went into the restaurant.

Soon there are sightings everywhere. The Higgs becomes fashionable. It hosts an episode of Saturday Night Live.

This is really funny, light absurdity. No one ever mentions how they recognize the Higgs. The only wrong note is that the scientists at CERN don’t seem to have heard of the sightings when they are already widespread.

“The Trouble with QWERTY” by Stephen Ross

The narrator, a novelist, makes the mistake of upgrading his computer to include a speech capacity. QWERTY takes on a mind of its own, changes its name to Oscar, offers unwanted advice on split infinitives, and begins to write a screenplay. But the last straw comes when it steals the narrator’s girlfriend.

I arrived home. I parked the car. I went inside and made my way to my office. As I climbed the stairs, I could hear voices. I could hear Oscar, and I could hear Ruby. Oscar was telling Ruby his Ernest Rutherford joke. When he got to the punch line, she cackled with laughter.

Stories about a writer’s sentient computer are neither few nor original, but this one is short, sweet and funny.



Shareable Futures, June 2010

Shareable.net continues to post original fiction, some from significant figures in the SF field, reflecting its vision of a communal future.

“The Exterminator’s Want-ad” by Bruce Sterling

The socialist revolution has come, and the capitalists and their minions have been through re-education camps before being released back into the altered society. The unrepentantly individualist narrator lays it all out in his ad for an assistant in his new, socially useful business.

I have, like, a very bad trust rating on this system. I have rotten karma and an awful reputation. “Don’t even go there, don’t listen to a word he says: because this guy is pure poison.”

The narrative voice is engaging in a negative, reprehensible way. There’s a nice ironic touch that Bob’s choice of public-spirited careers involves exterminating termites, the most socially-organized of insects. Still, I could wish that this one were less timely, less didactically pushing the cause.



Retro Spec: Tales of Fantasy and Nostalgia, Sept 2010

An anthology of original and reprint speculative fiction looking back at the 20th century. Editor Karen A Romanko has assembled a couple dozen pieces of speculative fiction and poetry set in the years between 1920 and 1980. There is a great variety of style, and some of the prose fiction is quite short, vignettes more than complete stories. Although some of these pieces are only nominally related to the time of their setting, overall, what we have here are moments from the recent past, viewed aslant.

“Hula Hoop” by Jude-Marie Green

Abused-kid story has a strong sense of its time, but is only nominally fantastic.

“Storm on Fifth Avenue” by Neil Coghlan

Ghosts. When the girders of the Empire State Building’s 58th and 59th floors are made from steel salvaged from the German warship Blücher, the ironworkers experience strange visions.

“The Mustache” by Lyn C A Gardner

Julia and James are folk singers, hippies who come to visit their more conventional relatives on the farm. James’ overgrown mustache causes consternation when it grows jealous of Julia.

“I hate kissing you!” the mustache wailed. “He never thinks of me anymore! He never grooms me, just lets me grow wild! I was meant to be a handlebar, not a walrus!”

A “what were they smoking?” moment, just as one would expect of hippies.

“The Day Alan Turing Came Out” by Leonard Richardson

Alternate history in which Alan Turing was treated as a war hero instead of cruelly persecuted by the British government. A moving vision from a happier world, although AH contradicts the nostalgic premise of this anthology.

“New and Improved” by Jennifer Rachel Baumer

In the course of the battle against alien bugs, time warrior Mattie spends some time as 1950s housewife Martha, whose soap operas are the highlight of her dismal life. A sci-fi story fit for the times.

“Chalk Circles” by K Curran Mayer

At a sort of Hogwartish academy of the arcane, a student gets into trouble trying to scry the next day’s competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Only tenuously connected to the history.

“R101 is Burning” by Cliff Winnig

Superheroes and spies battle robots aboard a German airship. Steampunkish in a pulpy way.

“Dreams like Snowflakes” by Todd Wheeler

Kids from disadvantaged homes meet a boy who can grant their most secret wishes. A cautionary tale that might have been set at any time.

“Zeb” by Karen A Romanko

A lackluster tale of an alien who picks up girls in discos.

“Ticktock Girl” by Cat Rambo

The history of a mechanical woman built by a titled suffragette spans a long time period beginning in 1895. One might expect steampunk or clockwork fantasy, but it is more of a superhero tale than either of these.

“All That Remains is the Middle” by Lon Prater

A man meets a girl whose “love is a force strong enough to take a man outside of time, outside of himself, even.” But alas, it doesn’t last forever. Not really tied to any historical period, this is another one that could haven taken place at any time.

“Slipstream Fiction” by Don D’Ammassa

The slip in question is a timeslip, as the narrator discovers a carton of books that their famous authors have not written in our timeline. Set at a time when the works of F Scott Fitzgerald don’t satisfy “present day sensibilities,” according to the rejection slips.

“The Fix” by Marge Simon

Toppy’s family has powers. Greatgran fixes things in history. She made Leonardo Da Vinci invent scissors. She made TV be in color. Toppy wants to make fixes, too.

“The Last Time I was in Vienna” by Nancy Ellis Taylor

The narrator is a courier trying to deliver Hitler’s head to the catacombs in Paris. “We were going to crush that skull and hide the dust among the dead, never to unleash harm again.” A surreal fantasy vignette fueled by absinthe and morphine, and perhaps even stronger substances.

“U8: Alexanderplatz (1989) by C D Covington

Just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, guards at the Alexanderplatz subway station notice crowds of ghosts filling the empty platform. Here is one very much of its moment.

“The Devil Went Down to the Sunset Strip” by Dayle A Dermatis

The narrator recalls how she stopped a hair metal band from signing a record contract that consigned their souls to the devil.

“Art Deco and the Infestation of New America” by Paul Abbamondi

The Hive of spreadheads works to make New America beautiful. “Every building along the East Coast had sprouted wings, as well as crystal-rimmed dimples that have caused many to stop and admire. But they are never satisfied. This highly imaginative fantasy may have been inspired by the Art Deco era, but it certainly isn’t set in the history that we know.

“Nucleon” by David D Levine

The narrator is a kind of artist who makes junk sculptures, and he can always find just what he needs at Carl Tatyrczinski’s place, STUFF FOR SALE. Even stuff that probably never existed, like the neat nuclear-powered car. A subtly magical place.



Clarkesworld #46, July 2010

Clarkesworld strikes again with two very different visions of hell on Earth.

“Beach Blanket Spaceship” by Sandra McDonald

Astronaut Colonel Frank Merullo is supposed to be on his way to Titan, but he finds himself trapped in the endless summer of a “Beach Blanket” movie.

He’s wearing his full NASA spacesuit, including boots, gloves and a closed helmet with reflective shielding. He doesn’t sing along with the gang.

He insists that this must be a virtual-reality scenario and waits rather patiently to be returned to his ship and crew.

Readers will doubtless figure what’s going on before the colonel, but this doesn’t make the scenario any less nightmarish.

“The Association of the Dead” by Rahul Kanakia

In a world where existence has been thoroughly nanoized and reincarnation is automatic, if your contract so stipulates, Sumith’s karma, as determined by the votes of the network, is agreeably high, even after a recent suicide. The problem is his former, discarded self, who does not plan to go gentle into whatever place former people with nonfunctioning nanoware are supposed to go.

“You promised. Right before you flashed yourself you promised yourself that if you got really hungry you’d let yourself eat yourself. You know all this extruded food does for me is make me shit bricks, you know that!”

Lowercase sumith kills and eats his reincarnated self and takes up residence in Sumith’s house, which doesn’t recognize him without an active nanoware ID. But the reincarnation company ["Thanks for choosing Phoenix for your reincarnation needs."] duly keeps delivering the new copies of Sumith back to his home, where sumith is waiting with an EMP gun to flash him. The trend spreads, and before long, the lowercase outnumber the nanoized, with everyone blaming Sumith. His karma drops to zero.

Hysterically gruesome black humor, a perverse twist on the themes of Zelazny’s Lord of Light.

–RECOMMENDED



Apex Magazine #14, July 2010

Both original stories this month use a science fiction setting or language but conclude in fantasy.

“Artifact” by Peter Atwood

Davis works as a skimmer on a colonized planet, harvesting alien mollusks for the antimony in their bodies. His prospects are not good. A corporation has plans to dredge the entire lake instead of buying from the independent skimmers, and his wife Reeda has fallen into a deep depression after the death of their baby. Then he finds the artifact.

The bin was half-full of sludge. He stirred the orange goop with the end of the gaff. Only a few flat mollusks had been collected so far. Then he saw it: black and round, a fat object, the size of a large buoy, almost submerged. Beads of orange slipped across it, leaving its surface pristine.

The colonization scenes are quite convincing, showing vividly how a damaged door seal can be a life-threatening circumstance on a world where the storms can eat away human flesh. The artifact, less so.

“Schrödinger’s Pussy” be Terra LeMay

Another love story in physics metaphors, this time in an infinity of possible worlds. The suggestion of porn in the title does not really materialize.

One of us looked into a scrying mirror. One of us learned time travel (quantum mechanics/psychomancy/telepathy). One of us learned that photons exist in two places at once, or two times at once, and we learned to split them and share them with you, with me, with each other. One of us fell into a black hole.


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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Time July 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tara O'Connor. Tara O'Connor said: RT @pabba: RT @davisac1 Advance review of Retro Spec at Locus http://bit.ly/awuaKJ Incl. @catrambo, @pabba, @daviddlevine, et moi (poetr … [...]

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