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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: mid-October


I found two outstanding pieces of fiction in this batch of stories.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, Nov/Dec 2010

A ghostly issue, starring an excellent novella by Robert Reed. Mostly light entertainment from Cowdrey and quite a few of the other usual regulars are here as well, and a reprint from Bruce Sterling, previously reviewed.

“Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed

A murder mystery, an SF ghost story, but mostly the story of a group of runners who train together in a declining near-future America. One of their group has been brutally murdered, but Wade lives on in virtual form as an AI, a backup meticulously maintained during his lifetime. He keeps in touch with the group as a kind of trainer, calling them every morning to remind them to run and downloading their stats. But Wade doesn’t know who killed him, or why, and he wants to find out. The evidence points towards Carl Jaeger, an arrogant runner whom no one likes, but Jaeger has just been released when the police couldn’t make a case. Now, as the pack gathers for the early morning run through the woods, they are ready to run Jaeger to ground.

There are some writers who are just superior, and this novella demonstrates that Reed is one of them. The setting is created with authority; it feels a lot like our own world because it is real, down to the potholes and the darkened streetlights. The protagonist, Lucas, is a fully-realized character: a runner, of course, but Lucas has Issues, chief among them alcohol. Reed does not have to flesh out the reasons with a lot of backstory, he simply portrays Lucas as he is. At the end, Lucas has not undergone some miraculous transformation resolving all his problems; he is still the Lucas he was, only with a new insight. Most vivid of all are the running scenes, the long, exhausting chase through the woods. We see every tree root on the trail, hear the derelict plank bridge bucking and creaking as the runners cross.

Jaeger collapses to a squat, unable to find his breath. The air is full of diesel fumes. He tries cursing and can’t. He wants to stand and can’t. All those weeks in jail have eaten at his legs, and for athletes in their forties lay-offs are crippling. Jaeger won’t win another important race in his life. He knows this, and Lucas see it, and then the beaten man stands, his entire body shaking.

–RECOMMENDED

“Plinth without Figure” by Alexander Jablokov

Frederick and Andrea, his ex, are both in very different ways architects of public spaces. Frederick is now working at Carver Square, where he is concerned about signs of a ghostly manifestation. Andrea insists it is a real ghost and furthermore a ghost they once encountered. But Frederick suspects her, as he already knows she has subtly been subverting his work.

A really neat title, and the architecture details are interesting, as is the ghost stuff, the theme of things we don’t see that are there and things we see that are not. Less so the ex-spousal bickering.

“Swamp City Lament” by Alexandra Duncan

Post apocalypse. Nothing grows anymore, and most people don’t seem to be fertile, so the Nomarch of Swamp City keeps a string of concubines. The queen has just died; Miren’s ruthless mother plans to be her replacement, and Miren had better not interfere. Miren, of course, plans to do just that.

Miren is a nice spunky protagonist and the setting is effectively dismal. But some things just don’t make sense. Why are the concubines parked so far away in the suburbs? And how do the iguanas survive if there are no plants?

“Death Must Die” by Albert E Cowdrey

George Martin is a psychic investigator hired by the new owner of 419 Merritt Street, which is haunted by the ghost of Wellington Meeks, prohibitionist and professional executioner. Meeks is not pleased when his house hosts a cocktail party for a death penalty abolition group, and the owner is not pleased at the executioner’s manifestation.

“Goddamn him,” he growled, audibly grinding his teeth, “I’m gonna go home tonight and get sloshed. I’m gonna change my registration from Republican to Democrat. I’m gonna take the anti-death-penalty case pro bono and fight it all the way to the Supreme Court. I’m gonna find Meeks’s goddamn grave and piss on it.”

Martin is not a very effective psychic investigator, and he seems powerless to exorcise Meeks’s puritanical ghost. It seems that he mostly relies on his dead mother, whom he summons with the libation of an Old Fashioned, complete with cherry.

This is a lite ghost story, not a dark one. Cowdrey has left his usual haunts near New Orleans, and this one is short on the eccentric local color but still entertaining.

“Crumbs” by Michaela Rossner

Winifred makes gingerbread houses, using the latest techniques.

While she waited for the finials’ patina to dry, Winifred glued the tiny doorknob-and-keylatch on the house’s front door with isomalt. The restructured sugar made a far better cement than the traditional royal icing. A quick blast with compressed chilled air and the pastiage hardware set in place like a rock.

But Winifred is more than what she wants people to see, and she’s been making these houses for a long, long time.

This is a nicely sinister updating of the old story to a contemporary setting. The insulin is a neat touch.

“Venues” by Richard Bowes

A writer story, authors shilling for publicity by giving the usual readings in the usual venues as well as weird stunts like an Arts Zoo where they are locked in cages. Ghosts of dead writers attend because they like the company. It’s an insider sort of story and barely fictional, reflecting the current sad state of literary affairs when only writers are interested in other writers and even your lover doesn’t bother to come to your reading.

“Planning Ahead” by Jerry Oltion

The night he was out of toilet paper, booze and condoms when he should have been making love with Frieda turned Nathan into a hoarder who vows he will never run out of anything again, as long as he lives. But there is one contingency he hasn’t counted on.

A funny look at a phenomenon that really isn’t; Nathan doesn’t quite seem to fit the pathological profile of the classic hoarder, as he isn’t in denial about what he’s doing.

“Free Elections” by Alan Dean Foster

Latest in a series of tall tales featuring mountain man Mad Amos Malone. Malone visits a town where an interloper is holding the spring for ransom.

“Funny old coot rode his wagon into town weeks ago. Did no harm at first. Even ate here once or twice. Then one day he unlimbered this old chair he had tied to his wagon, dragged it through town, set himself down atop the spring cap, closed the main valve, and wouldn’t move. Can’t no one get past his feet or that chair to open it back up.”

Malone, of course, knows how to shift him. Amusing stuff, even the pun.

“Ware of the Worlds” by Michael Alexander

Alien cylinders fall out of the sky that supply people with anything they wish for. Things get out of hand. The curmudgeon narrator, a typical SFnal Competent Lone Man, figured they would, and he made sure he was prepared.

Governments were attempting to round up as many of the cylinders as possible and get them as far away from people as possible. So far, they appeared to be losing. People were thinking about protecting their cylinders with what reports said ranged from force fields in Idaho (a bunch of Survivalists) to dragons in Wales (go Cymru).

Another light entertaining piece, this one a cautionary tale, with a pun.

“The Closet” by John Kessel

A day in the angry life of Carson. The twist is a surreal notion, but we have no idea how changing will change Carson.

“Teen Love Science Club” by Terry Bisson

The Science Club builds a Black Hole. It’s one way to leave their disagreeable universe.



Songs of Love and Death, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

Subtitled: Tales of Star-Crossed Love. A cross-genre project collecting love stories in settings from science fiction, fantasy and, inevitably, romance. Most of the authors are Big Names, and some, but not all of their stories are set in established series. I prefer the ones that are not. The quality is uneven, but one story stands out so far above the others that it makes the rest of the volume seem dull and pedestrian in contrast. Tanith Lee has written one of the very best fantasies of the year.

“Love Hurts” by Jim Butcher

A Harry Dresden story. Harry being “the only wizard on the planet earning a significant portion of his income working for a law enforcement agency.” This being the Special Investigations unit of the CPD, currently concerned with a series of apparent suicide pacts between lovers. Harry suspects mental compulsion is involved, making unlikely couples to fall obsessively in love, with mutual death the only way out. His colleague Sergeant Murphy traces the malign influence to the State Fair in Springfield, where they follow their suspect into the Tunnel of Terror. But it turns out to be a tunnel of love – artificial love. Problem is, it feels real and it feels good.

As an opening selection, it directly confronts the theme of freedom/compulsion in love. But it is a weak one, as it assumes a high level of familiarity with this series, its backstory and characters as well as the organization of the occult world, with its Red Court and White Court of vampires, as Harry spends much story time explaining. The immediate story, aside from all this series baggage, feels perfunctory.

“The Marrying Maid” by Jo Beverly

Fantasy romance. The Loxleigh [yep] family of Five Oaks has been for many generations caught up in a quarrel within the Faerie Court. Titania has given them rich gifts, but they are conditioned upon the heir marrying a maid chosen for him before his twenty-fifth birthday. While Oberon tries to make her hard to find, Rob Loxleigh knows he will recognize her at once when he sees her. His maid is plain, practical spinster Martha Darby, who wants nothing to do with the strange sensations his presence arouses and scoffs at his tale of faeries.

She was the one, the one, the one, his marrying maid, which meant that at first kiss his talent would awake, and when they lay together, it would roar into full power. He would be at last a true trouvedor of Five Oaks, and his family would be saved.

This non-series piece is a mix of conventional historical romance, Shakespearean faeries and Robin Hood, including puns. As a light entertainment, it doesn’t engage with the more serious issue that the previous story dealt with upfront: is “destined” love a denial of freedom? Is Martha a victim of coercion when she gives in, so easily, to an act so contrary to her principles?

“Rooftops” by Carrie Vaughn

In a world full of superheroes, Charlotte’s play is supposed to be deconstructing them as a trope, but after the dress rehearsal she is having misgivings about the entire thing. Then an actual superhero rescues her from a gang of bank robbers.

He was nondescript, but the mask made all the difference. Without it, she’d have glanced at him once, maybe admired the muscled shoulders under the almost too tight T-shirt. No uniform, just T-shirt and jeans, plain black boots, well-worn.

It’s great publicity for the play. The play is a success. But all Charlotte can think of is the man in the mask, rather than her boyfriend, too busy at his DA job to attend her opening night.

Nice realistic look at first-sight attraction.

“Hurt Me” by M L N Hanover

When Corrie buys the house, she already knows about the ghost that has driven away so many previous residents. In fact, this seems to be the reason she bought it. Corrie has a history and the scars to prove it from her ex; why has she moved out of her kind lover’s apartment into this place, where she seems to be inviting the ghost to confront her?

Something within the house shifted. Walls that had been only block and plaster and paint turned their attention to her. The windows hid behind their blinds like closed eyes. She kicked off her shoes, chuckling to herself. The floor felt colder than it should have. Naked in front of the full-length mirror, she watched the scars on her legs and elbows — the tiny circles no bigger than the tip of a lit cigarette; the longer, thinner ones where a blade had marred the skin — blur and fade and vanish.

The author does an effective job of ramping up the tension in this thriller, reeling in the spool of clues at just the right rate to keep the reader caught. But the story is one of revenge, not love.

“Demon Lover” by Cecilia Holland

Fioretta, crippled and starving, still rejects the unwanted advances of Palo, the bailiff’s pockmarked son. She is thinking she will be sheltered at the convent when an old man makes her a better offer. Soon she finds herself whole and beautiful, queen in the castle of the wizard king, surrounded by adoring courtiers. But there is something wrong with the castle, and there is no way out.

The wall was of pale stone, the surface carved intricately into vines and leaves. At first she saw nothing, but then, in the spaces between the leaves, eyes appeared.

Desperate, gleaming with tears, they turned on her, and through a crevice between the stone vines a hand reached out.

Then she discovers that Palo has followed her to the castle, is also trapped there. If she can’t save herself, maybe she can save him.

A pretty standard plot in this fairy tale scenario.

“The Wayfarer’s Advice” by Melinda M Snodgrass

Science fiction. Two decades ago, until he was framed and cashiered from the service, plebian Tracy was at the Imperial space academy where he fell in love with fellow cadet the Infanta Mercedes, heir to the empire. Tracy has become captain of a tramp trader while Mercedes commands an Imperial task force conquering breakaway worlds. One world manages to destroy the naval task force while committing mass suicide rather than submit to the empire. But the heir to the throne survives in a life capsule that Tracy’s ship just happens to find. Naturally they consummate the aborted love affair from their youth as they head back to return Mercedes to her Imperial duties.

The story literally epitomizes the anthology’s theme of lovers crossed by fate, but the scenario is so dreadfully improbable it’s impossible to take seriously. The aliens are well-done. The promise is wasted.

“Blue Boots” by Robin Hobb

Orphaned Timbal is a kitchenmaid at Timberrock Keep, where she impractically lets herself be seduced by Lady Lucent’s flirtatious minstrel, Azen, who admires the blue boots her father bought her just before he was killed.

She would never be able to look her husband in the face and say, “Never have I known any man but you.” That was gone, carried off by the golden tongue of a minstrel.

But Azen leaves with the Lady on a rumored assignation, and Timbal realizes she has been a fool.

A traditional romance with a well-realized, likable protagonist in Timbal. It’s easy to be happy at her eventual good fortune. The character names are unfortunate, however.

“The Thing About Cassandra” by Neil Gaiman

Back when he was at school, Stuart had no girlfriend, so he made up Cassandra. Twenty years later he is still single and trying to convince his mother he isn’t gay, when people start mentioning they’ve talked to Cassandra, asking about him. His mother runs into her, shopping.

“I told her about the pencil drawing you did, and she seemed very up-to-date on your activities. She was thrilled when I told her that you were having a gallery opening this week.”

We know from the beginning that something strange is going to happen. It does. A satisfying twist and just about the most interesting story in this volume.

“After the Blood” by Marjorie M Liu

Post-apocalypse. A plague has the surviving countryside reverted to a 19th century level and changed much of the surviving life. There are monsters in the woods that used to be living men, and several years ago Amanda and Henry were attacked and changed. Amanda’s blood is now full of power, but Henry became a vampire, which he has tried ever since to deny. His religious parents and the rest of the community fear devils and witchery, and vampires, even their own sons.

His hands wrapped around my waist, and then my chest, and he leaned over my body in a warm, unflinching embrace. His mouth pressed against my ear. “I couldn’t protect my mother, and I couldn’t protect you. But I had to try. Nothing else mattered.”

At first I feared this might be “vampire romance,” but fortunately it is not. The love story here takes second place to the aftermath of the apocalypse, although the love story is far stronger. Amanda and Henry’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other demonstrates the depth of their love, but it also extends to their families; they are good, strong and brave people. But Amanda spends too much story time talking around the attack in the woods, so much that I wonder if this one is a sequel to a previous story details those events. And the changes don’t really make much sense, aren’t really very credible, which weakens the story.

“You, and You Alone” by Jacqueline Carey

Set in the author’s Terre d’Ange universe. Anafiel promises his foster sister that he will inform her if her prospective husband Prince Rolande is not perfect, but instead Anafiel falls in love with the prince himself, promising himself “to you, and you alone.”

I wanted… gods! Wanted to kiss his generous mouth, the line of his jaw. Wanted to slide my hands up his strong arms, to feel the muscles working in his broad shoulders. I wanted to take him up on that subtle challenge, to pit my strength against his, our naked bodies straining and wrestling together until one of us surrendered, and the other claimed a sweet victory…

Tragedy ensues. The court is full of political intrigue and Anafiel becomes a spymaster to protect Roland and, after his death, his heir.

The narrator is the dying Anafiel, who interrupts his own life story at frequent intervals to moan and lament his fate in awful, overheated prose. This series has become quite popular, so obviously there are many readers not repulsed by the writing. They will probably enjoy this story without a rising of their gorge.

“His Wolf” by Lisa Tuttle

Katherine falls for a guy with a wolf.

I watched him go, light and strong and quick on his feet as he sprinted away into the deep, shadowy forest, and although his movements didn’t have the amazing grace of the fleet, four-legged animal, still he had his own male, human beauty, and when he vanished into the dark, I felt something squeeze my heart.

Unfortunately, Cody is the local drug dealer. For Katherine’s sake, he promises to quit, but instead he is murdered. The wolf then adopts Katherine, and she names him Cody.

From the beginning, this one gives off the vibes of a werewolf story, so it’s more of a surprise to find the wolf is a wolf and the man is a man than it is when matters change. The love-at-first-sight thing is played pretty heavily.

“Courting Trouble” by Linnea Sinclair

Space opera. Plots and conspiracies. The Star of Pandea has been set up. Filar, the crooked Dockmaster of Jabo station, has been extorting exorbitant fees from cargo ships docked there. He now threatens to impound the Pandea‘s cargo and seize the ship. What the part-owner and captain, Serri Beck, doesn’t know is that the Dalvarr authorities have tagged her cargo so they can trace it. And their agent is her former friend Nic Talliger, who has always been secretly in love with her. Adventures ensue, ending, of course, in romance.

“Serri, this is dangerous.”

“And this is my ship, and Quin’s my partner. I’m not stupid enough to let you stroll out of here with only your word as guarantee. I had a taste of your trustworthiness six years ago, thank you very much.” She tugged her rifle forward. “I’m going with you or you’re going nowhere.”

A lot of action and adventure going on amidst layers of conspiracies that make the presence of both Nic and Serri at the station not really the coincidence it appears. I would have preferred less distracting backstory at the beginning.

“The Demon Dancer” by Mary Jo Putney

“Urban fantasy.” Dave is a magical Guardian and also a cop, and someone is leaving the corpses of derelicts around the city, all with blissful smiles on their dead faces. There’s a succubus in town. Dave and his Guardian mentor Bethany hunt her down, but the demon is powerful, and Dave as a male is too susceptible to her power. Bethany, with decades of experience, is not.

The demon looked startled that I was still standing. Then she laughed with rich, sexy pleasure. “A tall, dark, and dangerous Guardian hunter! You’re going to taste delicious, my lad! I’ll have you for dinner, then your ancient friend for dessert. Usually I prefer young males, but Guardian energy is too rare to waste. When I have absorbed the life-force of two hunters, I’ll be unstoppable!”

This prose is awfully infelicitous, and the capital-Guardians are a hoary fantasy cliché.

“Under/Above the Water” by Tanith Lee

Zaeli has lived in grief since the man she loved was drowned, and now she is visiting the Lake of Loss, which covers a city drowned by a moon striking the earth. There are legends about this city, about its king and his loss of the woman he loved. A fisherman who is not a fisherman takes Zaeli out onto the lake in his boat and shows her a vision.

Zaeli thought that the light of the star had dazzled her. Then she saw that the round mirror of gold that had appeared just beyond the vessel, there on the water’s surface, was neither a reflection nor an afterimage. It was really there. It shone up into her face. And staring, suddenly she saw right through it, as if through a lamp-hung tunnel and a medley of luminous lattices and iridescent pillars and lacy, gilded branches, into a golden room.

An exquisitely lovely, magical story, told in prose that rings as true as a bell, about lovers who pass in opposite directions through time and loss and death to find each other and the love that had evaded them in another life.

–HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“Kaskia” by Peter S Beagle

Martin is pretty much a loser, with a wife who holds him in contempt. One day he buys a very strange computer from his shady cousin. He doesn’t know how, but it works better than perfectly. But there is One Key, one unmarked key, that Martin knows he shouldn’t touch. Knows it, and one day presses it anyway.

The sparkling scene vanished, to be replaced by the image of a face. It was not a human face. Martin knew that immediately, for while it provided the usual allotment of features, they were arranged in a configuration that could only be described as shockingly, impossibly beautiful — Martin actually lurched back, as though hit in the stomach, and made a softer version of the sound that one makes on such occasions.

Martin falls in love with Kaskia, although he knows she might be on some distant galaxy, forever unreachable.

A sad story about love that can never be and a man who will never have more.

“Man in the Mirror” by Yasmine Galenorn

Laurel comes to Breakaway Farm to recover after she is almost murdered by her husband Jason. But the house is haunted in a strange way, with the souls of people trapped behind its mirror. One of them is Galen, her husband’s cousin. Galen is desperate to escape, but the only way is to exchange places with another. With Laurel, whom he has come to love.

This one seems to be setting up something more, but it ends rather abruptly and leaves some matters unresolved — like how Jason’s ghost got into the house and what he’s doing there.

“A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows” by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel. Jerry MacKenzie is a WWII Spitfire pilot picked for a special mission. He never makes it. His plane malfunctions and crashes in training, and he finds himself mysteriously transported back to some nasty and brutish era. Back home, his wife Dolly refuses to accept his loss.

An outtake of sorts from one of the author’s novels, which creates a rather disjointed effect. We spend a lot of time with Jerry in the cockpit as he learns to operate wing cameras — that he never uses. We spend a lot of time following him as he blunders around Darker Scotland. The whole wodge of pages might as well be ripped out of the book for all that they lead to anything. The point is: Jerry goes missing, and for Dolly that’s the only point. I sort of get the impression that the extraneous time travel scenes are there just to tie this story to the novel, and because readers are supposed to expect this author’s characters to end up in a different time, for whatever reason. But the historical scenes that matter are with Dolly, the vivid descriptions of homefront life in WWII Blighty.



Subterranean, Fall 2010

The major piece of this new online issue.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang

After several abortive career starts, Ana takes a job on the development team of a line of digients — virtual pets. These are virtual AIs that have to be taught and nurtured, rather than being programmed. They are also designed to be physically and psychologically appealing so their owners will bond with them. The highly empathetic Ana is well-suited to this task, which is essentially that of a teacher/nanny, and bonds strongly with robot model Jax. The line is at first successful, but eventually, as is the fate of all such products, customers lose interest and abandon their virtual pets. Eventually the company folds. Ana takes custody of the Jax model, and her entire life thereafter is devoted to Jax’s wellbeing.

Subterranean has been vigorously promoting this long novella, and it is the showcase of the current issue of the online zine. I began reading with high anticipation, as one always does in the case of a new work by Chiang, and his longest to date. But this feeling soon gave way to disappointment. There is a staleness about the story, a lack of originality. The AI pet thing has already been done in reality, as far back as the Tamagotchi, and in fiction perhaps most notably by Richard Chwedyk. This piece brings little new to the subject. And the virtual worlds in which the characters spend most of their lives can essentially be located on this map. The great disaster that befalls the digients, the shutting-down of their virtual world, is something I’m sure has already happened repeatedly to every reader of this zine.

Though much of this author’s output has been cerebral, this one appears to be a story about emotional attachment; yet the episodic form of the narrative is emotionally distancing. “Over the course of the following year.” “It’s a year later.” “Two more years pass. Life goes on.” All this time, Ana never seems to change, never gets an actual life, although there is a lover we never see. Derek, another digient “parent,” is a more realistic character with a life over and beyond his virtual children. Which is the role the digients play in their lives. They may have been intended as virtual pets, most are modeled after cute baby animals, but they are more like children — children never intended to grow up, developmentally and emotionally programmed for dependency. Several times the author compares them to Down children. They are clearly supposed to generate warm sympathetic fuzzies in the readerly heart, but I found the lithping cutesiness cloying. As for Ana, I began to develop a strong urge to kick her in the butt.

I rather wonder if this was the author’s intent. Did he mean this to be read as a horror story, Ana as a smothering monster-mom? Do we have here a cautionary tale about cyberaddiction, people who can’t tell virtuality from reality, who lose themselves in an artificial world? Is he using the digients to illustrate the seductive emotional trap of artificial reality? How different, really, is Ana from the ubergeek Felix, one of “a small group of devotees who have become almost monomaniacal. From what Derek has been able to determine, most of them are unemployed and rarely leave their bedrooms in their parents’ homes; they live their lives in Data Mars.”

Only belatedly does the story develop a conflict over the maturation of the digients, their growing desire to live independent lives and take responsibility for their own decisions, despite their limited capacity, and the dilemma this creates for their guardians. However, at this crucial point, the author abruptly stops the story and leaves the issue unresolved, leaves the lifecycle of these software objects incomplete. Or maybe that’s the point, to illustrate their limited nature and the futility of expecting more from them. The thing is, I don’t care. And with a story so steeped in emotion and empathy, that’s a failure.



Asimov’s, December 2010

The missing story from the last issue.

“Uncle E” by Carol Emshwiller

With Mom’s death, twelve-year-old Sarah takes charge of the other kids, fearful that interfering authorities will show up and split apart the family. The problem is, this guy keeps coming around.

I must admit, there’s something familiar about him. Is he kind of like Dad? I don’t think so. But we won’t let him in, no matter what.

He says, “Here, at least take this milk.”

Howard says, “It might be poison.”

I say, “What makes you think we don’t have enough milk, because we do?”

The man says, “You know, things will get worse.”

Things are so fine, I wonder what makes him think that.

A warmhearted look at the strength of family ties.

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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