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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early September


Publications Reviewed



Realms of Fantasy, October 2010

A Halloween issue, of course, although the cover, with its BDSM-themed image, doesn’t exactly suggest the season.

“Cutter in the Underverse” by Daniel Hood

Fantasy detective story. Cutter is a detective in the Miscellaneous Events division when he gets a threatening message that something is about to go down in the Manhattan Underverse. This is a realm of ghosts and monsters trapped in the past, a dimension with a glamour:

the nostalgic allure that everything possessed in the Underverse, the magic of black-and-white, the glamour of sepia.

This time it is the gangster Arnold Rothstein, who wants to settle accounts with the man who killed him.

Nicely-done noir. While Cutter may be a bit thin, the Underverse is a well-developed setting dominated by futility. As McManus says, “I’m always supposed to go downtown.” Over and over.

“Middle” by Eilis O’Neal

Strange things are happening in Jenny’s world. Dogs give birth to puppies with wings, and her little brother’s maybe-not-imaginary were-llama is eating the neighbor’s garden. But her real problem is her sister Addy, who has been sleeping for over a week while her dreams play on the ceiling above her bed.

Most disappear or just morph into the next one, but sometimes one will get scrunched up in the corner of the ceiling and linger for a few days.

With her parents obsessed by Addy’s condition, Jenny acts out to attract their attention.

Essentially, as the title suggests, this is a tale of family dynamics, of the neglected middle child caught between more interesting siblings.

“The Fall of the Moon” by Jay Lake

A tiny human settlement ekes out its existence in a place it doesn’t belong, while Hassan dreams of escape, of setting sail across the Sea of Murmurs at the Tide of Spring, before the fall of the moon. He builds a boat of driftwood and his grandfather’s bones and waits for the tide, resisting the pressure from the rest of the village to resign himself, to settle for mere survival.

The Round Moon was just bellying over the obsidian cliffs to the east. First and Third Little Moons danced in the mid-sky as always. But al-Maghrib, the Soulful Moon of Paradise, was too large, too low.

The fantastic setting is the story here, lushly imagined. Explanations are not offered, and indeed they would ruin the mood. If this were a realistic piece, we might suspect that Hassan is a fool to think he could cross that sea, but in a world where the sea bursts into flower, he may actually be right.

“Saint’s-Paw” by Alan Smale

Rachel’s curiosity gets her accused of witchcraft when she decides to dissect her father’s body to discover what killed him. She takes sanctuary in the church where the hand of the martyr St Stephan is preserved.

The setting of this revenge fantasy is questionable. The text suggests it takes place in our own history, at the time of the Crusades, but it is otherwise generically medievaloid. And the prose is entirely inappropriate when Rachel says things like, “I’m getting there. This is background.”

“Halloween: Comprising a Cautionary Acrostic of Nine Bedtime Stories for Reading to the Tiresome or Disobedient Child” by Euan Harvey

The subtitle sums it up. These tales are not original but rather the classic scary stories where some monster gets the kid, but the author weaves them together neatly using the acrostic form. I note that they are not, however, actual cautionary tales meant to frighten children with the potential consequences of bad behavior. They are simply meant to frighten, as the children have not really invited the bad ends to which they come.



Analog, November 2010

Most of the fiction in this issue is set in space.

“Phantom Sense” by Richard A Lovett & Mark Niemann-Ross

Kip McCorbin has spent twenty years in black ops and three years trying to recover from the traumatic loss of the Sense, the input from a swarm of cyberized bugs constantly transmitting data to him.

The world’s still there but you can no longer fully interact. Worse, in fact, because people at least know what a sense of touch is. Here, the only ones you can talk to are Corps psychs who only think they relate. How could someone understand what it would be like to lose the sense of touch if he’d never had it in the first place?

His career has cost him his family, but he has surreptitiously kept track of his daughter Cora Ann. Now he discovers that a fellow veteran who had been dating his daughter has abducted her, and he has acquired a bootleg swarm of bugs that will make it difficult for anyone without the Sense to confront him.

This is an action-filled thriller based on a well-thought-through SFnal scenario, a story of people who are used up and discarded by government agencies when they burn out from use. A bit of redundancy in the flashbacks.

“Howl of the Seismologist” by Carl Frederick

Alex and his earthquake-sensing dog Wegener are doing a postdoc at Fermilab, where, as at any particle physics institution, he finds a neurobiologist interested in earthquake-sensing dogs. And a physicist who believes that earthquakes are caused by high-energy particles loosening the connections of spacetime. And if all the theories are correct, with the Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider both in operation, it could cause a level-9 earthquake.

In February of this year, a 3.8 earthquake was felt in Batavia, Illinois, location of Fermilab [which is not within the area of the New Madrid fault.] I can’t help supposing that the author’s inspiration came from this event. The text reveals the author’s familiarity with particle physics research, but the piled-on coincidences make for a silly story with low credibility.

“Outbound” by Brad R Torgersen

War has broken out, destroying Earth and the near orbital stations. Mirek and his little sister Irenka manage to get on board a ship escaping the station, but an automated killsat targets it, and only Mirek survives.

The big rings of the station rotated beautifully while our ship thrust away from it. The gee from thrusting tugged at my stomach , then shifted ninety degrees. I was being pushed sideways, the view in the window spinning just as the station began to disintegrate.

Picked up by another refugee, they head for the Kuiper Belt, following the trail of the rumored Outbounders.

A harrowing survival story for most of its length, as Mirek barely escapes from a succession of disasters that threaten to wipe out the human species. The positive, feelgood conclusion, however, is too facile. This feels like one of those stories where the people who live in space are all superior and virtuous, the more so the further from Earth they go. But in fact, almost everyone Mirek encounters is kind and good, to the point of sacrificing themselves in attempts to save the child refugees. We see no Badguys, yet humanity has somehow destroyed itself in a war for no apparent advantage to anyone.

“Zoo Team” by Allen M Steele

Astronauts. In order to avoid more psychological problems among the Mars expedition crews, Skycorp builds an orbiting simulator. The narrator and his goof-off buddies are aware that they have no chance at being chosen for the actual crew; they were only picked for the simulator project in order to make the other teams look good. But if they are supposed to fail, they decide they will fail in their own way.

Entertaining but by-the-numbers space adventure in which hands-on competence and experience win out over the humorless followers of the book.

“Contamination” by Jay Werkheiser

The colonists from Earth have been living in the orbit of Nouvelle Terre for almost two centuries without ever coming close enough to the living world to contaminate its unique lifeforms. Now an unexpected ship has arrived from the parent world full of new colonists who intend to land, disregarding the wishes of the original expedition. Ari happens to be the only magsail pilot in position to intercept the Earth shuttle, and his orders are to block the landing even if it means sacrificing his life.

No real villains here, just radically different points of view between populations that have grown apart. The society of Nouvelle Terre seems to have evolved in interesting directions, but we don’t get a detailed look at it. The positive ending where everyone decides to get along is pretty didactic.

“The Deadliest Moop” by Michael A Armstrong

“Material out of place.” There’s a lot of moop orbiting Earth, because someone has been mining the orbits with cluster bombs. Addressing this problem, crabbers like the Anna Marie have been contracted to clear out the debris. All is routine this time out until they pull in the squid.

They called it the squid ’cuz that’s what it looked like: a torpedo-shaped cylinder with fifteen wriggly arms that unrolled five meters long after Sheila dumped it out of the cage with a bunch of other moop onto the sorting belt. The body wasn’t more than two meters, if that, clean and shiny and not pitted like it would have been if it had been in space for longer than a decade.

Entertaining anecdote set in orbital space.



Clarkesworld #48, September 2010

Another good issue. Both stories this month are science fiction.

“Cull” by Robert Reed

Humanity has just about run out of options. Attempts to colonize space have failed, as have the large, self-enclosed “stations” on Earth. Now only smaller stations survive as long as failing lifesupport keeps their residents alive. Key to the stations’ survival are the cyborg doctors, who regulate the mood of the residents to a level of constant contentment. But such marginal, enclosed communities can not afford disruptive elements, and that would be obnoxious Orlando, who is at age fourteen out of control. The residents demand that he be culled, as the law dictates, while his parents are in denial.

Two smart, scared adults watched me. I could offer a variety of appealing lies, but they wouldn’t help anybody. The station was ruled by happiness, so deeply engrained that only the doctor sees its pernicious effects. If I wasn’t blunt — if I diluted my words or my tone — these clever, joyous people were going to invent some ridiculous excuse not to believe me.

A pessimistic vision, reminding readers of the cold equations. It is not really possible to tell if Orlando is simply a bright teenager chafing in a restrictive environment or a young sociopath. But the doctor knows that it doesn’t really make a difference when the good of the station is at stake. And there is a strong hint that despite all its efforts, the human species has just about managed to cull itself.

–RECOMMENDED

“Paper Cradle” by Stephen Gaskell

Koryo became an astronaut in part from his love for origami, the art passed on to him by his mother, a victim of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The solar mirrors on which he works are unfolded in space to their final configuration, like a paper crane. The mirrors were originally supposed to supply solar energy to Earth, not function as a weapon, but the mission has changed, and Koryo isn’t happy about it.

We don’t move. We don’t speak. We don’t look each other in the eye. None of us signed up to NASA, FKA, or JAXA for this. We thought the human exploration of space meant understanding spider’s webs in microgravity, testing our species’ limits, and important things like learning how to say rude words in each other’s mother tongue.

Strong although rather obvious use of the symbol of the paper crane.



Subterranean, Summer 2010

Here is the third of the promised novellas for the summer issue. Whether any more fiction will be posted in this round, I have no clue.

“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky

Naeva was the queen’s sorcerer and lover, killed by treachery and her soul captured so she could serve her after death. Naeva was a nasty person before she died, and death has not improved her disposition as one ruler after another consults her for advice on defeating their enemies and solving their other problems.

Men treated me differently than women had. I had been accustomed to being summoned by Queens and commanders awaiting my advice on incipient battles. Men eschewed my consult; they sought to steal my powers. One summoned me into a box, hoping to trap me as if I were a minor demon that could be forced to grant his wishes. I chanted a rhyme to burn his fingers. When he pulled his hand away, the lid snapped shut and I was free.

After uncounted ages and long stretches of oblivion, she begins to discover empathy and rediscovers love. Yet she will not relinquish her native conviction that women’s magic must not be revealed to men.

This one braids together two familiar story strands: gender politics and eternity/immortality. There is interest in both. Naeva’s birthland is ruled by women, but females are divided into two castes: women and broods, who do the children of the others. This practice may have doomed them. But more than this, it is a character study in which we follow a stubborn and often disagreeable character through a series of changing environments in which the understanding of magic has also changed. The author succeeds in creating some sympathy for a character who seems at first entirely unlikely to deserve it.



Apex Magazine, September 2010

The second issue edited by Valente.

“Portage” by An Owomoyela

It begins with a promising idea: The souls of the dead are distilled from their skulls and given to their heirs for final disposal in the sea. But the bowl meant to carry the soul of the protagonist’s father is broken.

She stood in rank with them as the soul-preparers poured distillations from the cleaned skulls of the dead. When they came to her, a girl whose name was soon-after forgotten, she set her jaw and cupped her hands like a beggar. “Give me my father,” she said.

But the soul threatens to spill away and be lost, so the daughter, with no other alternative, swallows it.

From the promising start, the story turns to fixate on the issues of gender and power. The society’s repression of women is so extreme that females are forbidden to speak in their own defense and the father’s servant, by virtue of being a male, is empowered to take over the household and beat the wife and daughter. So extreme, in fact, as to be less credible than absurd. The impact of the situation is blunted by the paucity of characterization; it is hard to feel her suffering when she has so little individuality. There is potential for story in the family situation, the relationship between daughter and mother, between mother and servant, but it is potential that mostly goes unrealized.

“L’esprit de L’escalier” by Peter M Ball

The Endless Stairwell. Marlo made Rat promise they would climb down it one day, but instead she died. Now he is carrying her ashes down, as far as he can go, commemorating their relationship on the stairs in the ink of a Sharpie.

It is easy to assume the stairwell has an end because that’s what stairwells do, but the fact that no-one has ever reached the bottom leaves the question open. No-one ever thinks of stairwells as being bottomless, not even the people who stand on top of big buildings like the Empire State where the ground is a distant and hazy memory over 1,800 steps below. There’s a hierarchy to such things determining what truly can go on forever.

Definitely a Neat Idea. As the heat increases with the descent, it’s hard not to think of infernal regions: the Stairway to Hell. The author comments several times that the staircase smells like yeast, which is to say, not brimstone. But I suspect the odor would more likely come from bodily excretions, as there seem to be no comfort stops on the stairs.

–RECOMMENDED



Flurb #10, Fall/Winter 2010

It’s that time of year again. According to the editorial blurb, there is a political theme to the stories, although just about anything is political if viewed through the right squint. I’d say that the common thread is virtual reality, the very short pieces mostly fun stuff but a few quite grim. And some that manage to be both.

“A Peculiar Fashion Business” by Jon Armstrong

Rags to riches. The narrator begins as the indentured employee of a cloth jobber but develops the skill of snagging bits from the fabric of any piece of clothing.

The infinity chiffon was the softest thing I had ever felt. It was like fresh corn silk and distant whispers and I touched it a split second longer than I might have just to experience its excruciatingly tender hand.

The peculiar business is a world where such things as snips of yarn can have such import. I think I see Lady Gaga. The unsatisfyingly abrupt ending is explained by this being the first chapter or a novel — something of which we find too much in this issue.

“Six Days on the Road and I’m Gonna Make it Home Tonight” by Kek

A world in which the boundaries between the virtual and the real are dissolving. The narrator is over-involved in a VR world based on a vintage Rock Tour game, and it isn’t good for his head.

I had a sudden flash of paranoia. What if it was me who was somehow making things happen or appear outside? What if my subconscious was able to shape the landscape — summon up Monsters From The Id, like that dude from Forbidden Planet?

His friends want him to become more involved in contemporary political causes, but there seems to be little difference between virtual music stars and cyberpresidents.

This rather nihilistic picture of the VR future is also a virtual hotbed of the 1970s country-rock drug scene, centering on the decline and death of Gram Parsons. Dropped names everywhere underfoot. The author’s avoidance of scene breaks contributes to the sense of disconnect, and the narrator’s uncertain identity is underscored by the fact that we only know him by the name of his adopted persona. The ending is surprisingly upbeat, despite the dystopian notes.

“The Hidden Neosurrealism of the Early to Mid 21st Century” by Adam Calloway

A historical summary of the weirdnesses that doomed the human race several times over. Alternatively, a compendium of weird sci-fi premises taken to extremes. Such a work should seem imaginative, but there is a staleness to the ideas, which resemble much that we have seen before.

Here: muscles made of old Nikes flexed. Here: multiple brains of iPod Classics, AOL discs, and VHS players in parallel structure formed their first thoughts. Here: sparks of conquest flew between ganglia on Nokia handsets. Here: the end of mankind began.

“The Skug” by Rudy Rucker

A continuation of the alternate, happier history of Alan Turing. Finding refuge in Tangier, he pursues his researches into morphogenesis, attempting to recreate what seem to be stem cells in hope of regenerating his failing grafted face. The results are more than he had expected.

The culture rippled and formed sprouts like little snail-antennae, like the horns of tiny pink cows, dozens of tiny purple-tipped tendrils feeling the air.

This is fun stuff with a classic sci-fi monster, but I suspect the storyline is more comprehensible for readers familiar with the earlier installment, which appeared in the April 2008 Interzone.

“Zombies, Condoms and Shenzhen: The Surprising Link Between the Undead and the Unborn” by Madeline Ashby

The narrator feels a strong affinity for a physician named Andrea Dupuis, who discovered a neurological problem affecting many of the women in Shenzhen’s megafactories and tragically fell victim to the same disorder. Together with a fannish video artist, she investigates and exposes the Dupuis story, leading to significant social change.

The description of the neurological disorder is interesting science fiction in itself, but the true focus here is in the process of uncovering and disseminating the story, and the alteration in the ways information spreads.

Increasingly, it seems as though history is being made not by the people in our capitols or great cities, but by the invisible and anonymous online, those people who find their passion and hear the call to action from their friends and not their leaders.

–RECOMMENDED

Doctora Xilbalba’s Datura Enema” by Ernest Hogan

The enema in question is administered by, not taken by the doctora, to Special Agent Johnny Garcia of the Arizona Department of Security. The consequences are intense.

The ground—the Earth—seemed to be above me. I crashed into it face first. I felt no pain, just thousands of tiny feet marching all over my face and down into my pores.

This is the most overtly political piece in the issue, a devastating sendup of Arizona’s imminent transformation into a “security-based economy.”

“The End of Mirth” by Howard V Hendrix

The Pied Piper legend morphed into a cyberfuture. This short-short version works. A VR funworld is a definite upgrade on the old magic mountain.

“Sphincter and Sphinx” by Th. Metzger

The Private Parts Detective Agency. A client is in search of a missing hole, and Sphincter checks out the usual pornish haunts.

Two tiny manta-ray twinlets with flapping devil fins came up blowing sloppy kiss-slaps on the raw nerve-meat of their own dorsal surface mucosa. Closer, I looked at the pulsing gill slits, wet and convulsive, the blind lips grasping for the mollusk mood muscle. Then I was in, yanked under the rolling oily waves by a bivalve suction vortex.

I found this too gross to be amusing.

“Deepscreen” by Marc Laidlaw

Peter’s addiction has cost him just about everything else, but when he learns that his son is in the hospital, he rushes to Seattle to be with him. Where he discovers it is all part of a plot.

It’s actually rather startling, after all the previous weirdnesses, to find what seems to be a conventional story – with real-seeming people in it, dealing with normal-seeming problems. But when it breaks off and ends, we see it is actually the opening of a novel.

“Wasps/Spiders” by Brendan Byrne

Experiences can now be imagined, packaged and sold. While most of the market is in fantasy [by which I don't think the narrator means elves], he specializes “in a sick, strange little market comprised of people who are interested, primarily, in experiencing the trauma generated by terrorist attacks.” He discovers that an old friend has been killed in an attack on the battlefield of the terror war, and there is immediate demand for the product.

A cynical look at what our world is becoming. The spider is the device that collects the imagined experience for sale; the wasp is the drone that strikes from the sky and makes it possible.

“The Paranoid Critical Method” by Bruce Sterling

A propitious moment in the youth of Salvatore Dali. His future wife seems to have been prophetic, because she quotes William Burroughs as well as predicting, “…you will shatter every limit between yourself and your perceptions. You will hurt reality so much that people won’t believe the real is really real.”

“The Seduction of a Very Special Music Box” by Kris Saknussemm

Novel excerpt, taken from somewhere other than the beginning, so that while readers may find this dream weirdly fascinating, it doesn’t make sense.

They took off their hats and veils. They were not men, or women either. They were… I know not what. Creatures. Ghosts. Their apparent bodies were but masks, camouflage. Their true forms were hideous and impalpable.

“The Gravity Fetishist” by Annalee Newitz

When Chris gets the opportunity to leave Mars and deliver an academic paper on Ceres, he’s more interested in the Ceres fetish district than the conference. But kinky reality fails to live up to his fantasies of sexy gravity.

It wasn’t quite as transcendent as Chris had hoped it would be. All these other people and the machinery reminded him that he wasn’t surrendering to the pull of a gravity field that streamed suddenly out of nowhere and captured him, naked and trembling, in its invisible clutches.

Some things are best left to the imagination.

“Rim” by Carter Scholz

Tourists visit a canyon rim, the site of several forest fires where people have lost their lives. The sentiments of their memorials are contrasted with the banality of tourist comments. According to the author’s note, nonfiction.

“Intelligent Design 2.0″ by Ian Watson

Adam and Eve get busy naming things. Pondering what comes first, names or concepts, language or thought? Also silliness.

“Buried in Time” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Time travel. Bette has assisted in preventing the Kennedy assassination, causing a timeline branch that might led to profound improvements in the human condition, but now she is separated from her family, who are being targeted by her enemies. She has to decide whether to contact them or sever herself to keep them safe. This might have been, as the editorial blurb suggests, a deep and sensitive piece, except for the fact that over half the text is a lengthy lecture in which people talk too much, which is probably because this is Yet Another novel excerpt, or rather, outtake.

“Bitters” by John Shirley

Extreme addiction. The narrator is addicted to the neurotoxins that he sucks, vampire-like, out of the brains of other addicts, gone berserk with it. Until he gets busted.

And those claw fingers of his rip off the quickface, that living face of real human skin I paid a good three hundred WD for, and peels it off, its blood spits out, and there’s my face as exposed as that buggering guy’s ass. And what do I see but the police surveillance vidfly hovering in front of me getting a nice long shot of my face as I suck up this guy’s brains into my nose…

There’s something morbidly fascinating about the narrator’s perverse logic and the extreme to which he takes it. Really extreme.

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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