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Monday, March 29, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction - late March 2010


Zines Reviewed


Interzone #227, March-April 2010


The stories this month seem to come in contrasting pairs. There is less cyberpunkish and dystopian fiction than this zine typically offers, more conventionally-future SF.


"The History of Poly-V" by Jon Ingold


A small group of scientists develop a drug product by testing it on themselves, the process documented by the narrator. The drug alters and improves the experience of memory.
The experience is not new. We have not invented it, only switched it on. It is as though, through some fluke of evolution, humans have lost the true use of our memory along with our tails and appendix. Poly-V restores to us something we had forgotten that we had.
The product is commercially successful, but after a while the narrator begins to have strange experiences.

This is a story about the unreliability of memory and, by extension, of all science and knowledge. The point is not the phenomenon, but how the scientist copes with it. While I enjoyed the prose, I have several problems with the story: first, it is hard to imagine exactly what the drug does and how it would be commercially successful. Second, the tone is quite sciencefictional, creating a milieu in which there seems no room for the fantastic. Yet the effects can only be understood as fantastic, as inexplicable not in the way of science but of non-science.

"Dance of the Kawkawroons" by Mercurio D. Rivera


The second drug story involves the exploitation of aliens in order to obtain a substance called Inspiration, found in the eggs of the Kawkawroons, who may be the descendants of a lost, advanced civilization. It is by using Inspiration that the humans develop the means of acquiring the eggs; the substance vastly increases intellectual abilities in those who take it. But there are other consequences.

The Kawkawroons are a colorful and exotic alien creation. But this story is grounded more firmly in scientific principles than it first appears to be, although they are never openly discussed — more so, in fact, that the previous story which is ostensibly about the scientific process.

"Chimbwi" by Jim Hawkins


Global climate change has worked to the disadvantage of Europe and the benefit of Africa. Zambia, in particular, has exploited new breakthroughs in physics, which they guard assiduously from the rest of the world. Physicist Jason Johns is a refugee from England who has found work with the Zambians, but it has been difficult to obtain their trust. He offers to prove himself by undergoing a traditional ordeal, the warrior's climb.
The hyenas were spaced out amongst the trees, in perfect tactical formation. He had nothing. His spear was in the river, along with his axe-head. He'd come so far, he'd climbed up Kalambo, and it seemed unjust that he'd finally be taken down by these evil snouts and bodies with mismatched front and back legs. He pulled himself up into the nearest tree, six feet, eight feet high. The hyenas watched and waited expectantly. Saliva dripped from their muzzles.
Although the ordeal makes a fascinating and well-told adventure tale, the story here is one of trust, of outsiders integrating into a closed society. It is an overly-idealized society, in which all the villains seem to be outside, kept at bay. The ethics of this policy are not directly examined in the story.

"Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allan


Another tale about the relationship between individual and society, leaving rather than entering. When she was very young, Anita's mother was part of the space program and died when a rocket was sabotaged. Now [her lover?] Rachel has volunteered for a more advanced program which involves subjecting herself to a drastic process of alteration in order to survive the long transit.
"The drain triggers a permanent change in the way cells grow," Anderson had told her. "Crudely put it's a form of cancer."
Anita struggles to let her go, and with her own need to know a mother she can't remember, the old loss revived by the new one.

This is a story of love in its different manifestations, and coping with loss. Anita and her grandmother, who raised her after her mother's death, are particularly well-realized characters.

RECOMMENDED

"Johnny's New Job" by Christ Beckett


When a child is killed, it officially becomes a case of Welfare Knew And Did Nothing (within the meaning of the Summary Judgment Act), so the Public Accuser gets to work stirring up the retributory mob, much in the manner of Orwell's Two Minute Hate. This one comes directly from the headlines and expresses the author's fresh outrage, serving as an example of why this may not be the best way to produce effective fiction. The delivery of the message is unsubtle and the character a stock placeholder.

"the glare and the GLOW" by steve rasnic tem


The narrator and his wife seem to have led a dull ["peaceful"] existence for quite some time, the narrator being particular about the quality of light from artificial fixtures. One day they acquire a box of "bad bulbs" which are clearly abnormal. The narrator compares them to eggs, and indeed, they seem to contain some sort of embryo. But the quality of the illumination they provide is extraordinary.
You could see that light creep across the details of the room, at varying rates no doubt due to the varying densities of detail encountered. So, gradually, shadows were eaten, and things were revealed, so that old scars in the woodwork suddenly became remembered, the residue of stains recalled, unevenness of tile, and dirt in areas I'd thought completely clean.
Tem is a master of subtle dark fantasy, and here is an excellent example: a very short work in which a man finds that it is possible to see too clearly.

RECOMMENDED

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


This one posted in March.


"The Nonesuch" by Brian Lumley


The narrator, who may be named George, has a history of encounters with weird malevolent entities. He also has a history of alcohol abuse, which makes his accounts less than totally reliable. This time, while taking a holiday, he comes upon a small hotel with a cheerful view of the sea. But the innkeeper is nervous at the idea of renting out the only vacant room. [Cue ominous music.] Instead of looking out at the sea, the narrator spends his time staring at another, derelict hotel nearby and pumping the staff for information about the recent deaths in the place. No one, not even the narrator, is really surprised at what occurs next.
Can it be coincidence, pure and simple? Or is it that I am in fact a lodestone, a lightning-rod for the weird and the wonderful? Because if the latter is true, then it seems I’m actually destined to be drawn to such things: to these thin people, these clowns-on-stilts, these nuns and nonesuches. In which case so be it.
Lumley is one of the masters of classic horror, and this one is in his Cthulhic mode, with a [too] prolonged first-person narration slowly building up an ominous mood. But the mode is subdued and the ominous mood casts only a faint shadow. We know from the beginning that the hotel room is connected to some sinister event, we know that the narrator knows it, we know he will encounter and survive it. But if he had driven away, like a sensible person, there would be no story.

Fantasy Magazine, March 2010


A superior month for fiction from this zine.


"Bearing Fruit" by Nikki Alfar


Seduced by a mango while bathing in the river.
By the next morning, the mango has precipitously gone to seed; and the equally precipitous bulge of your previously flat belly makes it difficult to imagine that you are anything other than abruptly pregnant.
So you decide to go up the river and seek out the mango tree responsible.

The sort of charmingly surreal tale frequently found in this zine. The second-person narrative voice works well in the telling, and the structure hints of the fairy tale before subverting it.

RECOMMENDED

"The City of Lobster, or, The Dancers on Anchorage Street" by Alex Dally MacFarlane


The narrator is a travel writer who visits a city that lives on tourism based on its lobster fishery. Lobsters, lobsters, everywhere, as long as the tourist season lasts. There is also the legend of a lobster woman, but this probably has no basis in fact, which means this piece has no real fantastic content, no more than a hint of slipstream.

"In the Emperor's Garden" by Jay Lake and Shannon Page


Magical combat in San Francisco's hidden places. The protagonists are Him, a human whose magic is learned, and Her, a member of the Fae whose magic is natural and strong. Both are surprised at being seen by the other, but only Him can see that she is being stalked by yet another, a being possible stronger than either.
Every power, every effect, every phenomenon, has its correspondent. Not necessarily an opposite, though often shit works out that way. I can be invisible, therefore to some people I am irreducibly visible. Almost everyone can't notice me, so there must be a few people out there who can’t help but noting me.
This is primarily a story of setting, in which much is left unsaid about the intriguing magical milieu. It's always interesting, in the case of a collaboration, to speculate about which character may have been written by which co-author — if, indeed, this was their method. In this case, I find that Him's narrative voice is stronger and more personable, particularly his remarks on the nature and uses of magic.

"Saving the Gleeful Horse" by KJ Bishop


The troll[?] Molimus hates children for their cruelty in breaking open the fragile painted animals to get at the treasure inside. One day he finds a treasure horse that still has a hint of life. The sorceress known as the White Ma'at explains to him that the children can't see that the treasure animals are living things, but she provides Molimus with the help he needs to save the Gleeful Horse.

Here is an original, imaginative vision, full of the fantastic.
As you must, I walked around the cloister with the sun a certain number of times, then against the sun another number, then with the sun again, so that the brambles withdrew underground, all the thorny bundles coming apart and slithering below in one rush as if a giant in the earth had them on a rope (the effect on the eye is striking). After this, where all was a wild saw-toothed muddle just a moment or two ago, in another moment the lawn of trefoil and clover grew, which grows no matter the season—as dainty a green spread as you could wish for a picnic or a wedding.
But it is a dark fantasy, offering insights into the origins of the tales children tell of monsters in the night.

RECOMMENDED

Strange Horizons, March 2010


The stories this month are all fantasy, and most are placed in secondary worlds instead of the contemporary settings more common in this zine.


"Small Burdens" by Paul M. Berger


A girl stops Clock on the street and hands him a bag with a baby inside. He takes it home to Moth, but things aren't working out with it.
The baby cried constantly. It apparently sensed that she was ambivalent towards it at the best of times, and it shrieked with extra intensity when she picked it up or tried to hold it. The one good thing about it getting steadily weaker was that it wasn't so loud any more.
A very different take on changelings.

RECOMMENDED

"Who in Mortal Chains" by Claire Humphrey


The narrator, a sort of berserker called Gus, once lived in the sort of idealistic community popular around 1965, with artisans and craftworkers making ale and mead and handwoven stuff. While she would have liked to become one of them, she knew that the violence of her nature would at some point make it necessary for her to leave — as it always does.
It wasn't my fault, either. It was the fault of two guys who were drunk and impolite. They offered violence. It's an offer I can't help but accept.
This is a story of loneliness. Gus suffers from a double curse, when immortality is curse enough. But she understands her nature, she knows how to deal with it, and she has learned how to live with the consequences and protect herself from the worst of the pain.

"The Kiss" by Lauren LeBano


It is well-known from fairy tales that goblins take children. What they do with them is not so well known. Annie's mother was visited by a goblin long ago, and she gave him a child, in exchange, the reader presumes, for Annie. But the goblin has returned, wanting Annie, claiming he wants to marry her. Annie's mother warns her that a goblin's kiss will make her invisible, and Annie resents his attempt to steal her away from her life.
I pulled over and sat on a rock beneath a pine tree. I sat there until the sun rose behind tree trunks and threw shadows on the ground. My shadow barely flickered at first, but it grew stronger as time passed. A rabbit hopped by, and I reached down to pet it. It hopped away, scared of my presence. I had a presence again.
There is a lot that is problematic about this story. We have to wonder about the fate of the child that Annie's mother gave to the goblin. We have to wonder if it was the influence of the goblin that made Annie a sort of weird, unpopular kid in school. But mostly we have to wonder about the goblin's kiss, which certainly would make Annie invisible to everyone but the goblin. Annie gave up the goblin to have a presence in the world, but her life appears to be a complete absence, someone whom the world would never miss.

"Merrythoughts" by Bill Kte'pi


Angels and superheroes. The angels are the fallen kind, and the superheroes are relatives — or at least one of them seems to be. The day they cut off Jaima's brother's wings, the Typhoon comes to visit after an injury in the fighting among the superheroes, but Jaima's elders suspect his motives.

One of those stories where the author slowly plays out hints and the reader is supposed to guess what's really going on, which involves wars in heaven and enemies on Earth. There are too many hints about stuff going on far from the story, which is about family reconciliation. I am more interested in the question of how a boy can live with wings in this world until the age of thirteen with no one noticing.

Tor.com, March 2010


Prose fiction posted this month.


"The Final Now" by Gregory Benford


Cosmology. As the universe winds down, Deity attempts to explain to mortal creation that all things must end, and that it has been so from the Beginning.
"You made this all for eternity—that we believed! You said so."

She corrected, "We did not. Yourselves, all you mortals, you said so. Not us."

One insisted, "The assembled Host, we who worshipped you—we thought that time would spool on for eternity."
SF used to have more stories like this. Benford saves this one from talking-headdom with colorful descriptions of the dying universe and with the evident love of the deity for all creation. And a pretty neat last line.

"The Next Invasion" by Robert Reed


The director of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with his driver and assistant, gives a ride one night to what seems to be a teenaged girl. But there is something strange about her. As the director and his staff become increasingly unsettled, the girl displays firm opinions about alien invasions and how they might really take place.
Nothing about the girl shows tension. Not her posture or voice. She shrugs and says, "If there were body snatchers." Another pause. "If they were real, then they would be nothing like they are in the movies. Nature does not and never will work that way."
This one is not really ambiguous; from the beginning, we know what the girl is. What the author leaves to the reader's imagination is the kind of change she and her kind will bring to this world. Thought-provoking.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2010


Demon month, featuring another Lord Yamada story from Richard Parks, unfortunately broken in half to accommodate its length. Good stories.


"Sanji's Demon" by Richard Parks


The Sago Clan has been demon-killers for generations, preserving their trophies in a family shrine.
The building was long and relatively narrow, ending against the rock face at the north end of the compound. The walls were lined with the skulls of demons: some very old by the look of them, others gleaming white as if they had just returned from the rendering vat. There were greater and lesser demons, monsters, and a few creatures I could not identify and frankly had no wish to.
Now the most important trophy, the body of the first demon killed by the founder of the clan, has been stolen under mysterious circumstances. Demon-hunting detective Lord Yamada must unravel the web of deceit.

The stories in this series about medieval Japan tend to have intricate plots. Yamada is a logical detective in the Holmes mode, solving mysteries both with reasoning power and his familiarity with the ways of demons, about which the author is obviously quite knowledgeable.

"In Memoriam" by Alys Sterling


More demons. The narrator, having possessed the body of the man who summoned him with a defective spell of protection, is bored in his new human body.
A catalogue of all the women who had made me swear off their sex would have taken the rest of the afternoon. But when you don’t need to eat or drink, can’t be killed in a duel or even lose at cards without trying, what else is there to do?
Thus he accepts the challenge of spending the night in a haunted chateau. What he finds is more dangerously unexpected than mere human ghosts.

Here is wonderfully imaginative stuff, with several different dimensions of peril to which even a demon is not immune. I would recommend it unreservedly, except for one thing: it is told in the first person by a narrator who can not possibly know what he is telling. This would not have been a problem with a nice third-person narrator, not often enough seen in this zine.

"The Leafsmith in Love" by KJ Kabza


When he sees the Lady Zuhanna pirouetting in innocent joy, Jesper, the Master Leafsmith of Holdt Castle, falls in love.
Around them, the Arboretum sang and rustled and clicked. Jesper’s heart rose up, past the gleaming webs, the thousands of clockwork creatures on uncountable hybrid branches, the interlocking cogs nestled in the forest’s crown. A flock of real birds rushed overhead, and a score of ticking dragonflies took flight; they settled around her blooming petticoats in a ring, baffled by the spinning laughter in their midst.
Alas, the vile Princess Kanna observes them together and is jealous. Love has many obstacles to overcome.

Delightful fantasy love story with more hints of a fairy tale than cyberpunk, being quite devoid of punk, with magic in its place.

Flurb! #9, Spring/Summer 2010


Rudy Rucker presents another batch of weird, surreal, and generally entertaining stuff. I could wish that fewer tyops had made it through the editorial process.


"The Palmetto Man" by Danny Rubin


An episode of sloppiness in the lab has Consequences. Maurice, conceived there in the normal way of in vitro conceptions, grows up and marries Sherry, who discovers, flipping on the kitchen light switch one night, that Maurice has a half-brother. This discovery leads to doubts and mixed loyalties.
With one identical brother on each side of her, Sherry sat, proud, confused, bookended. She alone knew the torment facing the man on her right, the man who so suavely sported a dinner jacket, yet would forever feel naked without an exoskeleton. And on her left, another tormented man, a decent man who would never know the joys of molting.
A nice bit of absurdity.

"Search" by Kek


It seems that the quantum signatures of dead people hang around in space for a while, and now some of them have been installed in artificial bodies, not very human-like. Deadguys make up their own communities, but Arthur has been contacted by his dead uncle Jack, who wants to share memories of his sister, Arthur's mother. They have a lot of emotional baggage to work through, first.

I like the core of this story, the situation of the Deadguys and Arthur's relationship with Jack, but the author has unfortunately given Arthur an implanted GoogleLobe, which allows him to fill the text with unwanted infodumps.

"The Goddess of Discord Lives on Mulberry Street" by Adam Calloway



The Goddess, who seems to represent Chaos more than Discord, vs Ian Michael Carmichael, an accountant who seems to have more than a touch of OCD. The Goddess is taking over Mulberry Street, one house at a time, and with each expansion, the Goddess increases her power. Her manifestations become more real, with permanent consequences.
The front bumper melted into a swirling pool of blue sherbet. The car inched further. Engine parts, belts and such, mixed with assorted fruit threatened to loosen his footing. Further. The glass buckled inward and the car filled with a swarm of crystalline bees, criss-crossing, figure-eighting, and shredding the Neon's interior.
Now only Ian's house remains.

The manifestations of the Goddess are entertaining when they are only semi-hallucinations, but when they apparently begin to involve the deaths of real people, it becomes harder to regard this piece as merely fun.

"Val and Me" by Rudy Rucker


Jim is a pothead who got fired from his job in bioengineering but keeps it up as a hobby, using stolen equipment acquired from a creepy guy called Skeeve, who claims to have smoked Amenhotep's mummy. Jim marries Val, cleans up, and they are happy together, meaning to start a family, when tragedy strikes.
To top things off, just as we came, lightning struck a power pole across the street. The lights went out, and the scanning-tunneling microscope on the porch made a popping noise that was lost in the astonishing clap of thunder.
This has been excerpted from a longer work, and as such doesn't come to any conclusion, but as a sample, it's full of neat, imaginative stuff. I'm not sure at this point how seriously to take it, but most of the evidence seems to suggest serious isn't the point.

"Ticks" by Robert Guffey


If you have a giant ape, it stands to reason that it might have giant parasites and that the parasites might spread epidemic disease on a giant scale. Which is bad enough without getting the military involved. Alternate take on the Kong story, sort of an "If this had gone on."

"Insect Girl Climbs to Paradise" by Philip Harris


A dystopian landscape dominated by a vast, uncrossable wall. Mary, like much of the population, is sure things must be better on the other side.
There were animals there, and trees. And people, she was sure of it. Somehow people had gotten over The Wall. Or perhaps they had always been there.
But Mary is clever and determined; she constructs a climbing apparatus out of electromagnets.

The best parts here are the descriptions of Mary inventing her climbing device and a harrowing scene of her trapped in a lightning storm next to the metal wall.

"Cairo, Goodbye" by Richard A Lupoff


Arlen and his wife have won an all-expenses vacation to Miami Beach, but he is overcome with nostalgia when he reads that the Cairo Cinema, where he worked as an usher when he was young, is going to be demolished. He sneaks into the old building and loses himself in dreams of the past. Slipstreamy rather than fantastic.

"Technical Difficulties" by Alex Roston


The narrator, being interviewed for a news broadcast, is a professional suicide bomber, who works for pay.
Every "People’s Front for the Liberation of Stupidistan" has suicide bombers; that’s a longstanding tradition, but in a world where anyone can make a personality backup and have it poured into a new body, killing yourself is not a real sign of commitment.

I like the twist better than the narrator's canned spiel.

"Alphabet Island" by Jessy Randall


Experiment #589 has failed, and the narrator has written an exculpatory report on the matter.
If you have received conflicting reports on this matter from my colleagues, I could meet with you in person to explain reality and smooth out any wrinkles or discrepancies. I am quite sure that I, more than any other linguo-scientist involved, am capable of being objective and not allowing emotion to cloud my judgment.
Mockery of ridiculous experiments and self-serving "scientists."

"IntheBeginning™" by Christopher B Shay


Virtual reality. Winifred is doing quality control for a new game when he keeps encountering dangerous nodes, pockets of alternate reality in which players might become trapped. When he is searching for the invisible dachshund that seems to be the locus of all the glitches, a co-worker shoots him in the physical head. Now he has to find the dog and eliminate his murderer, who is also somewhere in the game.
"You have a right to a body," [the Boss] said, cheerfully. "If you do not have a body, a qubit simulation of your body in a court-approved standard afterlife environment will be provided for you."
A pretty typical "lost in VR" scenario. These can be a lot of fun, but the author unfortunately puts the fun on PAUSE to deliver a huge load of infodump about quantum foam and other neepery that doesn't really help a reader to follow the course of Winifred's adventures, which have a sort of Wonderland feel to them.

"DarliJ's House of Tea" by Mari Mitchell


A charming but faintly sinister twist on a classic tale. Nicely done short.

"Clod, Pebble" by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz


Trying too hard. A divorced father stands in line for the perfect gift for his daughter's birthday. This non-fantastic piece is aptly titled from a William Blake poem.

Cabinet des Fées, January 2010


A small press zine devoted to fairy tale literature, now shifted from print to electronic format. Much of the content is nonfiction, but a three-times-a-year section offers poetry and a few short prose tales.


"Her Heart Would Surely Break in Two" by Michelle Labbé


A lesbian variation of "The Goose Girl" without a talking horse. Not much else left to it.

"Nor Yet Feed the Swine" by Keyan Bowes


When nursery rhymes become literal. A fairy prince is attracted by the narrator's extravagant curly hair. When he calls her "Curlylocks" and asks "wilt thou be mine," she doesn't realize that this is a contract, or how much she would come to hate strawberries and needlework. The sinister aspect is related to the swine, and in case readers might wonder who the prince's mother is, there is no letter "C" in the Greek alphabet.

RECOMMENDED

"In the Forest of Thorn" by Anna Yardney


The Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the forest outside the castle, where the princes stay on their last night before they die on the thorns. The narrator was fathered by the first of the princes but brought up by her peasant mother to act as a sort of servant to them. The conclusion is pretty easy to see coming.

"The Wolf I Want" by Virginia M. Mohlere


An unusual variation on the "Red Riding Hood" tale in which both Red and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the wolf and transformed by long immersion in lupine stomach acid. Both emerge wolf-like, but in different ways.
The woodsman stood bare-chested, black-haired, brown-skinned, gleaming with sweat as he swung his axe. Grandmother stared, and her mouth drew back in a smile that made her teeth seem to grow.
Weird and erotic.

Popcorn Fiction


I don't know too much about this website, except what it says on its "about" page, that it is a place for screenwriters to post the kind of "pulpy" stories they have adapted for the screen. Most of the stories are not SF and tend to be unoriginal in concept. It doesn't seem to publish on a frequent schedule.


"Tipping Point" by Todd Stein


With global drastic overpopulation, people like the narrator are employed to do away with unauthorized children. The author seems more concerned with providing background bits than the story, which is something that most readers of this column will not find original.

"When We Get Home" by Jeff Lowell


The presence of a jerk leads to violence along national lines in the close confines of the space station. But they soon have larger problems to concern them. This one seems to be set in some alternate history when the Cold War is underway yet space stations have mixed-nationality crews and space tourists, which gives it a retro sensibility.

"Still Life" by Mark Bomback


The narrator is one of those guys who has more money than is good for him. When he unaltruistically saves a bum from being hit by a car, the bum insists, rather forcefully, in rewarding him in a manner "equal to what you just did for me," a phrase which should serve to alert readers that this reward may turn out to have a catch.

Although the "curse of immortality" story is not original, the author has given it some freshness, of sorts, by placing his fountain of youth in the city sewers eeeeuuw!).
It was neither hot nor cold, but perfectly lukewarm. Its texture resembled that of water, however I sensed a sort of film between it and my skin—not slime per say, but a barrier of some sort. It was gritty too, but a grit caused by particles that must have been finer than sand, because I couldn’t quite make out any floating as I raised my cupped hands.


"Eugene" by Jacob Sager Weinstein


The eponymous narrator is an enhanced dog or canine/human chimera serving in the police with a human partner, with whom his bond is essential. Nothing original added to this familiar scenario.


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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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Searching for Tomorrow: A Second Look at FlashForward

by Gary Westfahl


Now that ABC is finally bringing back its new series FlashForward (unseen since last November, it will relaunch on Thursday, March 18), a discussion of its first ten episodes might function as a helpful orientation for new and returning viewers. Such a progress report could have been completed in early December; however, I missed two of the first ten episodes when they first aired and, amidst various distractions, it took me a while to track down all the episodes, rewatch those I had seen, and belatedly watch the unseen episodes. And that observation in itself constitutes a critical commentary on the series; clearly, if I had been utterly fascinated by what I was watching, I never would have allowed myself to miss one minute of a single episode.

As to why I have not been utterly fascinated by FlashForward, in a sense it is puzzling. Certainly, I have no complaints about the overall quality of the acting, writing, and production values, and the series has some distinctive virtues. For example, the character of physicist Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan) — brilliant, arrogant, caustic, witty, and somehow charmingly childlike — reminds me of actual scientists I have known much more than Hollywood's typical representatives of the profession, and amidst various plot threads all designed to tug at the heartstrings, at least one of them worked for me: the story, featured in "Believe," of physician Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton), suffering from a terminal disease, and Japanese roboticist Keiko Arahida (Yuko Takeuchi), oppressed by match-making parents and her paternalistic corporation, who discover through their FlashForwards that they are soulmates of sorts and begin searching for each other.

Still, the series finds ways to make itself irritating, one factor being the egregious cynicism that radiates from the entire project. Now, I am not naïve, and I know that every series in the history of television has been created and produced primarily as a way to make money. Yet the series that people remember, the series that people care about — with examples ranging from Star Trek to Seinfeld — always manage to project the impression (truthfully or not) that it wasn't all about the money, that the creators and writers went about their work because they sincerely wanted to convey something of importance to a wide audience. The creators of FlashForward, Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, have not yet been able to project such an impression. Thus, if you ask me what this series is about, there is only one answer I can give: it is about persuading me to watch the next episode.

And this is a shame, since the series did inherit a genuinely interesting idea from the Robert J. Sawyer novel which "inspired" it: how would people and their society be changed if everyone could get a brief glimpse of their probable futures, either twenty years from now (in the novel) or six months from now (in the series)? To date, except for a few portentous comments during occasional calm intervals between the pyrotechnics, the series' answers are all obvious: since the blackouts that were a byproduct of the FlashForwards caused numerous deaths and injuries, the basic phenomenon is perceived as an evil, requiring stalwart FBI agents Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), Demetri Noh (John Cho), Janis Hawk (Christine Woods), and boss Stanford Wedeck (Courtney B. Vance) to track down the perpetrators and prevent them from doing it again. As for the effects of the individual FlashForwards: people who saw pleasant futures are elated and look forward to the future; people who saw unpleasant futures are saddened and desperately want to avoid the future; and people who saw nothing at all, presumably meaning that they are destined to die within the next six months, become deeply depressed or nihilistic. It is extraordinarily difficult to interpret any of these reactions as an insightful revelation about the effects of prophetic visions.

The series is also less than adventurous in the ways that Braga and Goyer are visibly endeavoring to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their convoluted plot while never doing anything that might offend anyone — testifying to their cleverness if not their integrity. It is easy to envision the story conferences that led to particular plot threads: "Okay, we need a way to work the war in Afghanistan into the story while appealing to both pro-war and anti-war viewers." "Wait, I know — let's say Mark Benford's friend and fellow ex-alcoholic Aaron Stark (Bryan O'Byrne) has a beautiful daughter who became a soldier in Afghanistan, and everyone thinks she was killed, but it turns out she is really alive, only she has been on the run, hiding out because she has information about covered-up atrocities committed by members of a Blackwater-like private security unit who will kill her if they think she'll tell anybody what she knows." "Yeah, that'll work." Or consider the character of Joyce Clemente (Barbara Williams), a powerful, capable senator in line to become vice president, or even president — a nod to feminists. But she's a raving bitch whom everyone despises — a nod to misogynists.

In addition, anyone familiar with Sawyer's work will keep noticing how this series both keeps drawing upon, and dumbing down, material from his novel. For one thing, after killing some time and provoking some violence by foregrounding the silly theory that the FlashForwards were caused by malevolent terrorists, the series seemingly is now acknowledging that, as in the novel, they were the inadvertent effect of a physics experiment overseen by noted scientist Lloyd Simcoe (Jack Davenport) and a colleague — Theo Procopides in the novel and Campos in the series. But the writers are unwilling to risk alienating an audience they clearly have little respect for by offering a detailed explanation as to what sort of experiment it was (in the novel, it was the use of a high-energy particle accelerator in an effort to detect the Higgs boson). The novel also describes a young Greek waiter and aspiring writer who is very discouraged when his FlashForward indicates that, twenty years from now, he will still be working as a waiter, proving that his dreams of authorial success are doomed to failure; the resulting depression soon drives him to commit suicide, thereby proving that the FlashForwards are not inevitable and that people's observed futures can be changed. Granted, the series' shift from FlashForwards twenty years in advance to FlashForwards six months in advance made this precise scenario unworkable, since a lack of progress toward becoming a renowned writer in six months would be of no special significance. But there was a broader problem: all people who read science fiction novels probably have at least briefly considered becoming writers themselves and hence could readily sympathize with someone in anguish over the news that their fervent desire for recognition as a talented writer would forever be unfulfilled. However, the Joe Six-Packs who are presumably this series' main target audience might struggle to understand the situation: "So he ain't going be a big-time writer? So what? Maybe he'll win the lottery." Therefore, in the series, FBI agent Al Gough (Lee Thompson Young) commits suicide and thus demonstrates the malleability of the future because, according to his FlashForward, he was destined to accidentally cause the death of a single mother with two sons. Hey, everybody can relate to that.

It is perhaps inevitable, but still disheartening, that the series further disappoints by so regularly falling back upon the tired tropes of television drama: whenever the story seems to be slowing down, mysterious assailants burst upon the scene to provoke a fierce gunfight with the heroic FBI agents, or a dying patient is miraculously saved in the operating room by the masterful efforts of surgeons Olivia Benford (Sonya Walger) and Varley. To be sure, science fiction novels may also feature such incidents, and indeed, Sawyer's Flashforward itself includes a gun battle involving Procopides and a would-be assassin. But Sawyer at least provided a novel backdrop for the action — the corridors of a particle accelerator — instead of the street corners, parking garages, and abandoned warehouses where Mark Benford and company keep encountering their armed assailants. Another minor annoyance is that, reflecting the fact that most people are continually pondering their FlashForwards, the series keeps repeating the same clips of those visions — a defensible device, I suppose, but I am surely not the only person who has figured out that this practice is economically enabling the producers to give ABC 41-minute episodes with only, say, 40 minutes of new footage. Moreover, since seeing the same thing over and over again can get tiresome, I am surely not the only viewer who is now thinking, "if I see Simcoe looking over his shoulder while Olivia calls him 'honey' one more time, I'm going to scream!"

Still, all of these quibbles are secondary to my major issue with the series, which is that, like so many stories crafted for "mainstream" audiences, FlashForward both is, and is not, really science fiction.

Throughout the last century, one can find innumerable adventures not written by science fiction authors, or not published in science fiction venues, which feature some sort of amazing new invention, qualifying them by many definitions as science fiction. Yet the innovation is routinely presented as the work of a single, isolated scientist, who either unknowingly or deliberately causes tremendous harm to society by means of his discovery, and the happy ending is that the scientist is either killed, or volunteers to destroy all of his notes and equipment, so that the knowledge needed to create the invention is forever lost and the status quo is restored. Yet science fiction writers, who understand how science really works, recognize that advances in science are invariably produced by teams of scientists who consider themselves part of a community, that new results will always be shared with other scientists or eventually duplicated by other researchers, and that major discoveries, for better or worse, cannot and never will be erased from human consciousness. Thus, by one argument, a genuine science fiction story will involve not only significant scientific progress, but a civilization permanently altered because of that progress. Sawyer's novel moves in such a direction when the people of Earth, once they learn that their FlashForwards were caused by a physics experiment, do not respond by condemning the scientists as villains, understanding that they had no criminal intent, and after the scientists cautiously suggest that it might be interesting to repeat the experiment, everyone agrees to permit it — as long as precautions are taken this time to avoid deaths or accidents during the blackout period. So, the stage is set for a depiction of a transformed future world in which all citizens periodically receive glimpses of their personal futures — so as to profitably inspire them with images of their coming achievements, to allow them to take certain steps to ensure desirable futures, and to provide opportunities for them to avoid undesirable fates. Yet Sawyer is ultimately unwilling to take his story to that natural denouément: when the vast majority of people see absolutely nothing during their second blackouts, they conclude that the prophecies were a one-time anomaly, and no plans are made for another experiment. (In fact, FlashForwards did happen again, but this time on a much vaster time scale, so that only a few people destined for effective immortality were treated to cosmic visions of unimaginable human advances.)

And, if Sawyer himself cannot bring himself to imagine a society permanently changed by periodic FlashForwards, one can be sure that the producers of this television series will also do nothing of that kind. As noted, the entire phenomenon of the FlashForwards, following the pattern of "mainstream" science fiction, has been universally regarded as a malevolent interruption of society's desirable routine, to be properly investigated and remedied by law enforcement officials, and a major priority that Wedeck announces in the very first episode is to make sure that they never happen again. When Simcoe reveals in the tenth episode that his experiment probably caused the FlashForwards, he is verbally and physically attacked, condemned as a mass murderer by a rabble-rousing television commentator, and violently abducted by mysterious figures, as society displays the attitude toward pioneering scientists long observed in popular culture, dating back to the vicious mobs who traditionally went after Dr. Frankenstein in film adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel. If it indeed turns out that Simcoe's experiment was responsible for the FlashForwards (the series, in attempting to generate suspense in as many ways as possible, has not yet established this unequivocally), one can anticipate a conclusion in which either he and his colleague will be killed, purportedly taking the information needed to create FlashForwards to their graves, or they will contritely burn all their data, smash all their equipment, and promise to never do it again.

And FlashForward is visibly committed to preserving the status quo in another way. As I pointed out during a panel at the 2009 Loscon, the entire series is structured as a mystery, the genre in which a temporary disruption of standard conditions (usually, an unsolved murder) is resolved by a charismatic detective, restoring normalcy, until the detective (if the adventure proves popular) is again confronted with a temporary disruption of standard conditions, which the detective again resolves, and so on and so on as long as the author is able to write such stories and the readers are willing to buy them. The overall structure of this series is similarly clear: whenever one mystery is cleared up, another one is going to be introduced, and so on and so on until either the producers or the viewing public gets bored by it all. And this represents another departure from the typical nature of science fiction, wherein even long series, in print or on television, tend to change and progress over time instead of constantly running in place in the manner of most television series. So it is that, while I will be watching, out of morbid curiosity if nothing else, the series' final first-season episode on or around April 29, 2010 — the date observed in the FlashForwards — I entertain no hopes that all of the mysteries so far generated by the series will be completely resolved at that time — because, as it happens, the producers have admitted from the very start that they will not. For Mark Benford's FlashForward has already shown us that on April 29, he will still be utterly baffled by everything, he will still be vainly trying to put all the pieces together, and he will still be dodging bullets from unknown enemies. The only difference is that, by that time, the whole situation will have driven him to drink. Hey, some viewers will be able to relate to that.


Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include a collection of essays, Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser; the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature; and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.











FlashForward. Television series created and produced by Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer, "inspired" by the novel Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer.

Episodes to date: "No More Good Days," September 24, 2009; "White to Play," October 1, 2009; "137 Sekunden," October 8, 2009; "Black Swan," October 15, 2009; "Gimme Some Truth," October 22, 2009; "Scary Monsters and Super Creeps," October 29, 2009; "The Gift," November 5, 2009; "Playing Cards with Coyote," November 12, 2009; "Believe," November 19, 2009; and "A561984," November 30, 2009.

Starring Joseph Fiennes, John Cho, Sonya Walger, Zachary Knighton, Jack Davenport, Dominic Monaghan, Peyton List, Brian O'Byrne, Christine Woods, Courtney B. Vance, Ryan Wynott, and Lennon Wynn.

Official Website: ABC.com - FlashForward


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Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Overview of International Science Fiction/Fantasy in 2009

Compiled by Jeff VanderMeer



Although my year's best selections included some international fiction, I thought it would be of use to compile a few "core samples" of work mostly in other languages that my contacts found of particular interest in 2009. Except for the books from places like Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines, these titles are not yet available in English. It's worth noting, too, that the term "International Fiction" or "World SF" requires further specificity of detail, in the sense that some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting non-realistic fiction than others. In addition, some countries have a stronger tradition of supporting their own authors than others. (For example, the Russian books noted represent just a fraction of Russian authors published there.)

I would also note that this is of necessity a haphazard sample — some of my queries went unanswered and some people did not have time to compile lists. Still, an incomplete overview is better than no overview at all. My thanks to all the respondents and to Cheryl Morgan and Lavie Tidhar for their help with intel. —Jeff


Australia, recommended by writer Deborah Biancotti and editor Alisa Krasnostein

Slice of Life, Paul Haines, pub. The Mayne Press
— The cover says it all: a man digging into his own side with a knife. If you've never read Haines before, then brace yourself. This book features 17 stories "from the decaying mind" (to quote the blurb) of one of the country's creepiest writers. All proceeds go to Haines' cancer fund.




Slights, Kaaron Warren, pub. Angry Robot
— Kaaron Warren's debut novel from Angry Robot is getting rave reviews all over the place, so you may have heard about it already. But in case you haven't: Stephanie goes to hell and finds it full of people she's slighted. But that's not the worst of it. In other good news, Warren has two MORE (stand-alone) books already in the Angry Robot schedule.




Make Believe: A Terry Dowling Reader, edited by Russell Farr & published by Ticonderoga Publications
— Twelve essential stories by one of Australia's most respected prose stylists. Dowling is a WFA nominee and International Horror Guild Award winner. We predict this book will be a must-have for fans and a perfect intro for new readers.




X9, Coeur de Lion
— Coeur de lion brings us the 'novellanthology' - an anthology comprising 6 novella-length short stories from some of the current leading Australian writers. Paul Haines' "Wives" is not to missed.





Brazil, recommended by translator/writer Fabio Fernandes


Xochiquetzal by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (Editora Draco)
— Considered the foremost name in Alternate History in Brazil, Lodi-Ribeiro had published so far three short story collections and had stories published in Brazil and Portugal. This is his first novel, in which he depicts a 16th Century where Portugal, not Spain, leads the discovery of the Americas (christened Cabralias in that timeline, in honor of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Portuguese navigator who discovered Brazil). The story of the novel is a chronicle of adventure written by the Aztec princess Xochiquetzal, wife of Vasco da Gama — in that timeline, the Aztecs were incorporated to the Portuguese Empire, not massacrated. The story "Xochiquetzal e a Esquadra da Vingança", which opens the volume as a prologue, was translated to English and was a finalist of Sidewise Awards 2000.




Steampunk—Histórias de Um Passado Extraordinário, edited by Gianpaolo Celli (Tarja Editorial)
— This is the first Brazilian Steampunk anthology, with nine stories ranging from weird to Alternate Fiction (both Brazilian and foreign) also presenting characters from Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. There is also a story of mine in there, a version of a story previously published in English earlier in 2009. Steampunk is growing fast as a subculture in Brazil, and this anthology has been meriting a lot of attention in several reviews among steamers' blogs and sites.




Padrões de Contato, by Jorge Luiz Calife (Editora Devir)
— Calife is the man that started it all. In the early 80s, when Arthur C. Clarke published 2010, Calife's name was in his acknowledgments. That happened because Calife sent Clarke a short story called "2002" and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. Clarke didn´t use the story, but it came to him as an inspiration to write the long-awaited sequel to 2001—A Space Odyssey. Calife became famous in Brazil overnight; a science and tech journalist, he soon published his first novel, "Padrões de Contato" (1985) , a fix-up of four novellas set up in a the far future, where humankind lived in a Clarkean-inspired utopia. This novel was followed by other two in the same setting, "Horizonte de Eventos" (1986) and "Linha Terminal" (1991). In 2009, the classic trilogy was finally republished in an omnibus volume.


China, recommended by writer and professor Wu Yan, Beijing Normal University

Cross by Wang Jinkang (Chongqing Publishing Co. Ltd.)
— Sept. 12, a bio-crisis which stems from extremists spreading a dangerous virus in the United States. The only difference is, a Chinese female scientist is involved. How will the international relationship change and human beings survive? Wang Jinkang is a award winner of many Galaxy Awards and very famous in the Chinese SF field in the past 20 years.


Czech Republic, recommended by editor Martin Sust

Asfalt (Asphalt) by Štĕpán Kopřiva (Crew)
— Possibly the Czech SF/F book of the year, the author has told a bloody action-packed but also absurdist tale about the last job of a mercenary commando and his subsequent journey to Hell. It's very funny and really enjoyable.

Beton, kosti a sny (Concrete, Bones and Dreams) by Pavel Renčín
— This short story collection by one of the most interesting Czech authors of last few years showcases Renčín's natural talent for city myths and poetic language.




Kočičí noci (Feline Nights) by Blanka Jirušková
— A poetic visit to the atmospheric port of Darín, published in three books. A very promising debut by a new author.

Lota (Lota) by Petra Neomillnerová
— One of the Czech Republic's most prolific authors publishes one of her best creations: a short story collection revolving around the female witch Lota. Neomillnerova is a master at portraying intimate relations in a cynical and believable manner.




Vítr v piniích (The Wind in the Umbrella Pines) by Františka Vrbenská & Jakub D. Kočí
— Eastern fantasy in a secondary world setting, this novel takes place at the end of a great war between two empires. Several travelers take a dangerous journey for the good of the reconciliation of the two lands.

Strážcové Varadínu (Guardians of the Varadín) by Juraj Červenák
— This novel by a Slovak author is the start of the new series, a historical fantasy from the time of the attempted Turkish invasion of Europe.


Finland, recommended by editor/writer Jukka Halme

Tornit (Towers) by Jyrki Vainonen (Tammi)
— Finnish magical realism at its very best. After dismembering his dead (witch) mother, Henrik is taken by the great flood and carried into fantastical islands. Surrealistic fantasy about sex plants, dead witches and princesses with eyes on their backs. Vainonen dives ever deeper into the fantastical and weird, while coming up with trumps.

Karsta (Soot) by J. Pekka Mäkelä (LIKE)
— The fourth novel by the man who translates Philip K. Dick into Finnish, is a another quiet masterpiece of bystander-sf. Humanity has lost the interstellar war and aftermath means cleaning up the places. Mäkelä solidifies his place as an important sociopolitical-sf writer.

Valeikkuna (False Window) by Leena Krohn (Teos)
— In this future, the world is not plagued by overpopulation, but infertility. Many people live in virtual reality and take minute-long space travels. The barrier between dream and reality, possible and fantastical is blurred once more by the masterful language by Krohn.





France, recommended by writer Gio Clairval

Le Déchronologue by Stéphane Beauverger (La Volte)
— On seventeenth-century Caribbean seas, Captain Henri Villon and his crew struggle to defend their freedom in a world torn apart by merciless temporal fluctuations. Their weapon is called "The Dechronologue", a ship with cannons that shoot time. The latest novel by Stéphane Beauverger, an established Fantasy author, is carried by an epic feel.

Chien du Heaume by Justine Niogret (Mnemos)
— Chien (Dog) is a woman, ugly, short and brawny. No one swirls an ax as she does. Such ability comes in handy when you are a mercenary in high Middle Age and its never-ending winters. Chien is after her real name, identity and past. It's a short novel featuring characters of extraordinary presence. The best surprise among the new francophone Fantasy authors of 2009.




Outrage et Rébellion by Catherine Dufour (Denoel, Lune d'Encre)
— Marquis, a teenager guest of a Shanghais institution, challenges authority by creating a punk rock band whose popular success threatens the foundations of an entire society. After her acclaimed collection published by Bélial, Catherine Dufour signs the SF transfiguration of Please Kill Me (The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.


Germany, recommended by writer Jakob Schmidt

Vilm—der Regenplanet and Vilm—die Eingeborenen by Karsten Kruschel (Wurdack Verlag) is an episodic sf novel in two parts, chronicling the adventures of involuntary settlers on an inhospitable world. Thematically, it focuses on how environment and people change each other and, over the generations, combine into something new. Exploring this classic concept through vivid characters, Kruschels' novel is reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, and it was actually written around the same time, at the beginning of the 90s. However, it was first published in 2009 by the dedicated small press sf publisher Wurdack.

Gebissen by Boris Koch (Heyne) was published in the wake of the Twilight vampire hype, but is very much its own animal. Koch's vampires are neither romantic nor mysterious — they are more akin to dangerous bullies, and their brutality and bloodthirst is just an amplified form of the violence ordinary people inflict on each other. Set in contemporary Berlin, Gebissen perfectly captures the scary side of the city — and it's also a highly readable page turner.

Sie Schläft by Dietmar Dath (kuk/edition phantasia) is, as most of Dath's books, hard to categorize. It's a mainstream novel with elements of surreal fantasy and has a few essayistic segments. Thematically, it deals with the absurdities of life as part of the "lumpenproletariat intelligentsia" and with the effort to generate meaning through love and art. If that sounds grandiose, it shouldn't. Sie Schläft is actually a pretty straightforward story, a touching and convincing anti-romance, narrated from the perspective of one very real quixotic fool and peopled by equally real and strange characters. It is easily Dath's most accessible book.


Israel, recommended by publisher/editor Rani Graff

Waiting in the Wings by Asaf Asheri (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— A remarkable Fantasy and Horror novel by one of Israel's most promising young writers. Based on biblical mythology, this stunning page turner takes place in modern day Israel where a secret police unit headed by a charismatic young woman employs paranormal methods based on Jewish mysticism and Kabala is trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of young women all over Tel Aviv. The solution will take the characters into a dark and sinister upperworld where angelic and biblical characters are involved in a battle that will rattle the very fabric of existence as we know it. After reading this book you will never be able to read the bible in the same way.

To Be by Yoav Avni (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— Set in a very near future Tel Aviv, this original funny and mesmerizing book is centered around Chong Levi, a young man who's the descendent of a Chinese worker and an Israeli handyman, who find himself in a crazy affair involving Mossad agents, Hi Tech gadgets, the Israeli Prime Minister and a mysterious object that might or might not change reality, while all he really wants is just to run his own trendy coffee shop in the heart of Tel Aviv. And there's a girl. The one who doesn't believe in Mathematics. Yoav Avni managed to achieve real emotion out of the loony SF and Fantasy elements that assemble the story, which makes it — in my mind — one of the best novels published in Israel during 2009.

With Both Feet on the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature Edited by Danielle Gurevitch & Hagar Yanai (Graff Publishing)
— The new Hebrew literature, the one that has been written in Israel during the last 60+ years, produced some marvelous literary works. However, almost none of those contained fantastical elements, let alone true SF or Fantasy works. Only in the last decade, with the introduction of a new generation of young writers and editors Israel is witnessing a small renaissance of SF & F works. This collection of essays, written by twenty writers, editors, critics and academics, examines that very issue: How come that in a country that is based on a SF novel ("Altnoylend", by Herzl) there has been so few literary genre works of fiction. How come it that the Jewish culture which is so rich with fantastical and paranormal elements, was totally ignored by the writers of the new founded state? This collection of essays is also the first genre non-fiction related book ever to be published in Israel.

The Book of Creation by Sarah Blau (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— The old legend of the Golem takes a whole new turn in this gloomy tale of a young Jewish orthodox woman who can't find a husband, a truly horrible thing in the super puritan society of the ultra orthodox community she belongs to. In her despair she creates the man of her dreams out of mud and clay. But dreams may turn into nightmares once they invade reality. Blau, who comes from an orthodox family herself, portrays an alien world of desperation and despair that exists only a few miles out of Tel Aviv, one of the most liberal cities in the world. It's not an easy read, but a well worth one.

Hydromania by Assaf Gavron (Zmora Bitan Publishing)
— Toward the end of the 21st Century Israel is a very different country than the one we know today: The ongoing struggle with the Palestinians has taken its toll and now, after the fall of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and rest of the country into Palestinian hands, the only Israeli remaining cities are Caesarea and Tiberias. With a global water shortage, Chinese mega conglomerates controlling the world's water supply, and cloud wars breaking every once in a while in the region, one young woman finds that she may have the key to the region's water shortage. But before she does she's got to find her missing husband who may have been kidnapped in the underwater city of Caesarea while leaving her pregnant, helpless and with hardly any water, the new currency in a thirsty world. "Hydromania" is a fast paced political futuristic SF thriller written by one of Israel's promising next generation's writer. In my mind one of the best SF books I've read in 2009.


Italy, recommended by editor/publisher Armando Corridore


E un giorno a Siena l'Orco acchiappò la Mammifera (And one day in Siena the Orc grabbed the She-Mammal) by Ugo Malaguti (Elara )
— In a future very far from now the Walking-dreams are the last inhabitants of earth. They are artificially produced humans shaped to work in special secluded Towns where popular fables and stories are put to life to entertain normal humans. But Humans left earth may centuries ago and the walking-dreams have to find another reason to live. A posthuman Orc, a genetically enhanced pleasure girl named Snow-white and a Cardinal travel across a bizarre End-of-the -World Italy to reach Siena in order to find the She-Mammal, the last human on earth accordingly to an old Robot legend. She, maybe, knows all answers. After more than 30 years devoted only to editing Ugo Malaguti returns as a writer with a novel in which the many topoi of SF are masterly used to draw an ironic and bitter portrait of our times. The novel is included in the anthology "The mystery of the 8th floor" containing other interesting stories of modern Italian sf authors.


Japan, recommended by translator, publisher, and editor Yoshio Kobayashi

U Yuu Shi Tan (Whither This Tale Were) by Enjoh Toe (pronounced as en-joe toe)
— A hypertext novelette. Mr. Enjoh, a darling child of SF and Literature critics here, makes this brief novelette like a very interesting wikipedia entry. The protagonist is suffering from existential anxiety and becomes dissolved into a hole that falling ashes fill. A typical Kafkaesque absurdist story, yet it has a lot of multi-layered annotations, which are mostly whimsical musings of the author. It probably fits well into the tradition of writings like Pillow Book, Hojoki, and Tsurezuregusa. A very interesting and aesthetically beautiful story, which should have been published as an e-Book.

Bokuboku Sensei 3: Kocho No Nakushimono (Master PuPu: Lost Thing of Butterflies) by Hideyuki Niki
— The third book in a Chinese Historical Fantasy series featuring a Xian Taoist immortal sage, Master BokuBoku (PuPu) and a young apprentice Oben (Wang Bian). Oben is in love with his master who takes a form of a cute young girl, yet is a very powerful magus (Xian) and takes Oben on a whimsical journey. This time they are hunted by a group of assassins, Kocho (Butterflies) and have a fantastic adventure. As you might guess from Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Fuyumi Ono (or maybe even from the Dragonball), we have a very long tradition of fantastic literature that is set in (historical) China. The tone is very humorous and happy, a kind of coming of age story, yet features the magical Taoist mysticism. The second sequel to his Japan Fantasy Award winning novel, Bokubokusensei, and the series will continue.

Seitetsu Tenshi (Iron Angels) by Kazuki Sakuraba
— Again a remote sequel to the author's award winning novel Akakuchibaki No Densetsu (The Legend of Akakuchiba), but this time it's a YA-flavored magic realism fiction. Our protagonist is a very young girl, who inherits the supernatural ability to control every iron-made thing from her old iron mill family, and with that ability she forms an all-girl motorcycle gang to conquer the entire western Honshu Chugoku region all-girl gangs. Although written like a light novel (our manga-influenced popular YA genre), it's a very powerful magic realism novel.


(Kobayashi further notes: "As you might well guess, 2009 was a very bad year for book publishing in Japan. Although SF had a much-devoted audience, there were fewer titles and fewer good novels in the traditional SF genre, while YA "light novels" prospered. So my best list doesn't include a proper SF this year. Yet, in the slipstream fantastic literature, I saw many interesting trends... luckily each title represents particular trend.")


Netherlands, recommended by reviewer Floris Kleine, as facilitated by writer/editor Jetse de Vries

De Scrypturist by Paul Evanby (Mynx)
— A highly imaginative and relevant fantasy novel with excellent worldbuilding and strong characters. Debut novelist Evanby, who carries respectable short story credits already, brings his well-paced, multi-faceted, and riveting story to a breathless finale even as he unobtrusively slips in social commentary on issues as diverse as drug abuse, immigration law and cyberspace. In this case, the standard publishing practice of labeling any fantasy novel as volume I of a trilogy is reason for joy and cheer.

Een masker met een tong (A Mask with a Tongue) by Marcel Orie (Verschijnsel)
— A collection of ten linked stories revolving around the enigmatic figure of Cagliostro — alchemist, puppeteer, adventurer — ranging from Victorian London via Alice's Wonderland and pre-WWII Japan to Europe in 2026. Inspired by, among other things, Commedia dell'arte, westerns, manga, masked vigilantes and historical rumour, this ouroboric almost-but-not-quite-a novel proves Orie's talent as a teller of wildly imaginative tales that are as gripping as they are insightful.


New Zealand, recommended by writer Grant Stone

Voyagers, edited by Mark Pirie and Tim Jones (Interactive Publications)
— Science fiction poetry from some of New Zealand's finest. There's a very wide definition of science fiction used here, which results in a diverse collection including Fleur Adcock and Owen Marshall. An excellent and rewarding collection.





Philippines, recommended by blogger/writer Charles Tan

Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Francis Alfar & Nikki Alfar (Kestrel IMC)
— An annual anthology that features short stories from the Philippines, the latest volume is the most daring to date and features a mixture of both old and new voices such as Andrew Drilon, Apol Lejano-Massebieau, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Eliza Victoria.





Poland, recommended by translator/writer Jan Żerański

Fantasy:

Trzeci swiat (The Third World) by Maciej Guzek (Agencja Wydawnicza Runa, paperback, 288pp) is a debut novel from a highly talented novelist, written in a form of a documentary, inspired by the works of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish essayist. The novel is set in a fantasy world, seen through the eyes of a Polish journalist trying to find out why Poles, after years of conquering the unknown land of The Legends (Poles are delivering magic to our dimension and gain power as well as wealth), are closing the whole experiment. To an intriguing form and narrative style, Guzek adds fascinating astrophysical and ethical mysteries. I think if Ryszard Kapuscinski had become a fantasy writer, he would have created something similar.

Letni deszcz. Sztylet (Summer rain: Dagger) by Anna Brzezinska (Agencja Wydawnicza Runa, paperback, 608 pp) is a long-awaited final volume of the tetralogy "Saga o zboju Twardokesku"/ "Twardokesek the Ruffian's Saga" from the Queen of Polish Fantasy. In four novels we see The Realms of the Interior Sea getting drowned in blood, war and plots, as one, mysterious warrior-woman named Szarka, not necessarily on purpose, becomes dri deonem which means — as people from The Realms say — being a lover and a protégé of the goddess Fea Flisyon. For the first time in history a woman takes over a position preserved for males only and then she commits an even greater blasphemy: she leaves the goddess alone and, having rescued the old ruffian Twardokesek, sets off with him on a journey which might change the world. But even if the first layer of the storyline sounds familiar and the world itself is quasi-medieval, the novels are truly original and full of ideas, with very realistic characters and beautiful language; if Sapkowski is the King of Fantasy, Brzezinska definitely is the Queen of the genre, tearing classical fantasy into scraps.

Opowiesci z Meekhanskiego Pogranicza: Polnoc-Poludnie (Tales from the Meekhan Borderland: North and South) by Robert M. Wegner (Powergraph, paperback, 576 pp) is another fantasy debut. Axe and rock are the treasures of the North, while heat and daggers are the treasures of the South. No matter where you live, whether you are a highlander or a desert warrior, honor and pride are sometimes the last that remain. The book is a wonderful short story collection written in a George R.R. Martin style, with magic hidden in the background, focused on characters and not necessarily a world-building, and I will be very surprised if it doesn't win any awards for 2009. The second collection set in the same world, entitled "Tales from the Meekhan Borderland: East and West", will be published by Powergraph in 2010, and the Czech edition (Laser Books) is forthcoming.

Horror:


Swiety Wroclaw (Holy Wroclaw) by Lukasz Orbitowski (Wydawnictwo Literackie, paperback, 300pp) is a short horror ballad about a district in the modern city of Wroclaw. One day, citizens discovers that inside the walls of their homes, under the layers of plaster, other walls appeared, black as obsidian and warm as hell itself, so they take out axes and hammers, start hitting the walls and can't stop doing that as if in a quasi-religious ecstasy... Nothing is more important than the block of darkness. What Mieville, Gaiman and Rowling did to London, changing the city into a place of wonders, after Marek Krajewski's noir crime stories Lukasz Orbitowski, one of the most talented Polish horror writer does to Breslau, telling us a story of madness, love and horror.

Cztery pory mroku (Four seasons of darkness) by Pawel Palinski (Fabryka Slow, paperback, 416 pp) is another debut short story collection. Palinski wrote his debut short story for the most prestigious speculative fiction magazine, "Nowa Fantastyka", and now provides us with more short stories and novelettes, inspired by American literature. Don't be mistaken, though, the author had not only read his mentor, Stephen King, but also classical modern American fiction: Updike, DeLillo or Roth. I would keep an eye of him, if I were a publisher.

Wroniec by Jacek Dukaj (Wydawnictwo Literackie, hardcover, 248pp) is a short horror novel about the trauma of the Martial Law in Poland during the communism in 1981. Dukaj, mostly recognized as a hard science fiction author, returns after two years of silence with a grim fairy tale for young adults, set in the times of Solidarity, with a storyline inspired by Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland". It's December 1981 and Solidarity is being crushed by the secret police of the communist regime, when a strange creature captures our protagonist's father. Little Adam is seven now and doesn't understand what's happening, why there's a military leader speaking on TV instead of the usual kids program, but he knows he has to rescue his father and get him back home. So Adam enters the night, the sad, gray, dark world full of psychedelic visions and fears. This outstanding work, with great illustrations and songs written by the author himself, has already been nominated to some mainstream awards and praised as a breakthrough in Polish speculative fiction.


Portugal, recommended by translator/editor Luis Rodrigues

Enciclopédia da Estória Universal, Afonso Cruz (Quetzal)

— This (all-too-short) collection of pithy vignettes, ironic aphorisms and quotes from "books that rarely exist" by writer, illustrator and musician Afonso Cruz is one of the best Portuguese-language books to have been released in 2009, a twisting maze of golems, giants, heretics, kabbalists, humble nabobs and the nature of opposites, determinism and DNA. While not exactly an original concept, Afonso Cruz braves this labyrinth without flinching in the shadow of his main influences, Jorge Luis Borges and Milorad Pavic, and I was happy to follow the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves behind.


Russia, recommended by translator Nikolai Karayev


Malaya Glusha by Maria Galina (EKSMO)
— Two interrelated magic realism novelettes set in Soviet era. The title novelette starts as a rural quest: a man and a woman go to the village Malaya Glusha (a place name like Little Backwoods) wishing to bring back the beloved dead. No border separates the reality and the mythological spacetime, the Styx is ubiquitous, and the road changes travellers irretrievably, may it be the troubled trail to Malaya Glusha or the life itself.





Tsifrovoy (The Digital) by Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko (EKSMO)
— A technofantasy by two Ukrainian authors about a teenage Faust tempted by a cyber age Mephisto. While plunging in the online RPG, Arsen gets into some real trouble, is saved by an enigmatic man and only later realizes that his savior is a kind of an evil god, maybe even an alien (very Phildickian one, though much more friendly than Palmer Eldritch). This novel is a dark, tragic metaphor of becoming less human in the deceitful and illusive play-or-be-played world.





S nami bot (The bot with us) by Yevgeny Lukin (AST)
— An outstanding collection of one of the leading Russian SF writers is full of satire and irony. In the title novelette (which won several awards), a loser becomes voluntarily possessed by the analyzing device that generates simple verbal reactions. He immediately succeeds, as the society we live in (argues Lukin) is based mostly on the thoughtless speeches and mindless activities.





t by Victor Pelevin (EKSMO)
— A new novel of a famous fiction writer revolves around the adventures of Count T. who is recognizable as Leo Tolstoy in a strange, absurd setting. Before long Count becomes aware that he is merely a character in the commercial novel that is being composed by five bad writers. As always, Pelevin lets his character walk the path to enlightenment — and shows the strong contempt for the market-oriented art industry.





South Africa, recommended by writer Nick Wood

Remembering Green by Lesley Beake (Frances Lincoln Children's Books)
— A well written YA SF/F novel set in 2250 at the tip of an Africa ravaged by climate change involving a technological elite looking to harvest the last remaining resources of the continent, including a young captured girl for her ancestral knowledge. Beake's books are historically rich in African imagery and date back over twenty years with many garnered awards.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
— A strong debut SF novel segueing between characters under pressure in a near-future dystopian Cape Town, unravelling towards a moving climax. Beukes is definitely a writer to watch and is following up with a much anticipated but unrelated SF novel entitled 'Zoo City' in 2010.

The Book of the Dead by Kgebetli Moele (Kwela Books)
— A gripping tale tracing a man born in poverty but making a life for himself only to contract HIV; the virus itself finds a voice in the unfolding narrative. Moele follows up powerfully to his debut novel 'Room 207', which won the Herman Charles Bosman prize.


Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have recently appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Miami Herald, and more. Forthcoming books include the story collection The Third Bear, The Steampunk Bible, the web comic "The Situation" (with Eric Orchard), and a hundred-year overview of short weird fiction co-edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, and The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (written with Ann).


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Monday, March 8, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Alice in Wonderland



Both: This must have looked like a really good idea on paper.

Lawrence Person: Another week, another visually-impressive-but-thematically-empty remake. This is better than The Wolfman, but not as interesting as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They tried to graft a standard Plot Coupon fantasy quest onto what was a surreal dreamscape lacking any narrative spine. Big mistake.

Howard Waldrop: The only problem is, it's Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, not Carroll's (of course, you could say the same thing about all versions, from the 1933 all-star one to Disney's 1951 animated feature.)

In this one, Alice's story has become tied to the quest to defeat the Jabberwock. There's a high-Victorian backstory that pokes some fun at 19th century expectations, and Alice is in her early 20s. This all adds nothing to the original going-to-sleep-on-a–picnic setup for a younger girl.

LP: The framing device is all kinds of wrong: 1) It's dull and slows the movie down; 2) Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there's no correspondence between real and dreamland characters; 3) It's a work of distinct moral cowardice. By holding up the mores of 19th century English high society for 21st century American audiences to feel smugly superior to, nothing in the film challenges its target audience's beliefs in even the slightest way. (Laugh while you can; some 120 years hence, you'll look every bit as stupid and prejudiced a rube as Lord Ascot the Younger looks here.)

HW: The visuals are of course pretty good. All the trappings of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (and a little of Through the Looking Glass) are here. It reminded me in many ways of the Dennis Potter Dreamchild (1985), where the Alice story was used (both biography and fiction) to make some real observations about the nature of dreams.

The characters are here: the movie tries to make daylight sense out of what essentially is a dream-narrative, to not very great effect. Placing the Jabberwock quest over the Wonderland narrative makes things both clearer and more diffuse at the same time.

LP: Once it becomes your stand good-vs.-evil dynastic succession plot, the whole thing is on rails and the movie has no more surprises left up its sleeves. Alice dithers over picking up the vorpal sword, but no one over the age of 14 will have the slightest doubt what she'll choose in the end. (China Miéville's Un-Lun-Dun, in which a secondary character becomes incensed at being relegated to the Funny Sidekick role in the Grand Prophecy and short circuits the entire creaky machination, has more courage in its little finger than this has in the entire movie.)

And stripped of their dream-logic, many elements cease to be surreal and start becoming deeply stupid. Why can't Alice just chow down enough Eat Me to grow big enough to crush the Jabberwock like a bug? If the Cheshire Cat can materialize and dematerialize at will, why not let him retrieve the vorpal sword? Etc.

HW: Depp's role (the Mad Hatter) is ill-defined on the Wonderland level, but okay within Burton's narrative. He's not mad enough on one level, but over-the-top in others. It just doesn't go far enough to bring across the mercury-poisoned pathos of the book. (The Henson Workshop creature of Dreamchild did.)

LP: Depp's Hatter switches between a sort of High English Twee and a vaguely menacing Bobbie Burns-esque brogue. Like most of his non-realistic roles, his portrayal is an odd choice that he somehow makes work though his complete mastery of the character's exterior qualities.

HW: Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a one-note storybook Evil Older Sister role (so's the book's Queen). I'm sure it's not all that easy to act when your head, like Betty Boop's, is wider than your shoulders (or so it seems).

LP: In many ways the relish with which Carter's Red Queen devours the virtual scenery is one of the best things about the film. She obviously had fun with the role, and there's something supremely satisfying about the line "Prepare the Jabberwock for war!" (Now if only she and the Knave of Hearts didn't keep reminding me of the video for Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"...)

Sadly, Mia Wasikowska's Alice doesn't have the presence to carry the movie. She's not the main problem, but she doesn't come across as a particularly strong protagonist, and she lacks real chemistry with Depp's pseudo-love-interest Hatter.

HW: Christopher Lee voiced the Jabberwock's resident-evil lines, and Michael Gough's dodo's pretty good, and even has the cane right out of Tenniel's illustrations. (Must have seemed like Hammer Films in 1962 on the set.) The voices are mostly just right (although I miss Percy Helton's squeaking White Rabbit from the 1951 Disney movie).

LP: Any movie version of Alice in Wonderland sets itself up for a difficult task, namely to recapture the mixture of whimsy and menace a young reader has upon first encountering the book. (Which is why, on paper, a Tim Burton version must have looked like such a sure thing, as Beetle Juice and A Nightmare Before Christmas both come so close to the sort of balance a successful version would require.) All movie adaptations of it fail for one reason or another; Burton's Wonderland fails because the linear nature of the plot derails the head-long, out-of-control dream-logic of the original, the feeling of being plunged into a world where nothing makes any sense and things keep changing too fast to escape. It fails because it's ultimately entirely too predictable and safe. When you can make friends with the Bandersnatch, Wonderland has all the menace of a trip to Hot Topic.

HW: This reminded me of nothing so much as Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, a movie I don't generally like. Stunning, in some cases, visuals (I saw it flat). [LP: I saw it in 3D IMAX, and wished I hadn't, as the 3D actually made it harder to focus on what was going on; the scene of her falling down the rabbit hole was particularly annoying. And for all the ballyhoo around the "new" 3D, it still looks more like receding lines of successive planes (like a Renaissance trompe l'oeil backdrop) than real life. Unless you're a fan of the technique, I don't think the extra money is worth it.] The wrong (but a similar) story with all the characters used in a revisionist way. It's not a mess, it's just not Lewis Carroll, either.

This is not the book: it's the book's little brother.


Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Slashdot.org, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.












Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

Official Website: Alice in Wonderland: Characters


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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #3


Zines Reviewed


Asimov's, April/May 2010


An amazing total of three novellas in this double issue. Most of the stories are unambiguously science fiction.


"The Union of Soil and Sky" by Gregory Norman Bossert


Alien archeology. A familiar scenario: Humans have settled an alien world rich in minerals; archeologists race to document a site before mining operations begin, thwarted by the local human authorities, who deprecate the aliens and their culture and hate the Earth-based archeologists interfering in their business. When an important discovery is made, the bureaucrats shut down the dig, but the scientists are not so easily deterred.

What raises this one above the shopworn scenario are the detailed descriptions of the archeological process [although I'm doubtful than an archeologist would attempt to lift such a fragile cup from its matrix] and the uncovered artifacts:
In front of Winifred and Ant, the soil had miraculously parted. On the left, there was a perfect cross-section, layers of topsoil and clay, and then a long low arch of glass, thick and laced with fantastic, feathery buttresses of the same material. On the right, there was nothing; the ridge had collapsed in, a hole about three meters square, perfectly square, in fact, and sloping down into darkness.

The translations of the alien sign language are also well-done [the union of soil and sky means "glass"]. The characters of the archeologists are sympathetic, but the human settlers, seen only from the point of view of the diggers, are regrettably clichéd.

"Mindband" by Pamela Sargent


Chris Szekely was a TV reporter when she was caught up in a mob that collapsed a bridge with great loss of life; she was one of the few survivors. Ever since, she has suffered from flashbacks, the sense that she is hearing other people's voices inside her mind. Now she has determined that a company called MindData Associates was behind the tragedy, operating a transponder that can project one person's thoughts into another's mind. She wants them to pay for what they did, inciting the mob.
"You thought it was all over, that anybody who survived wouldn't know enough to come after you, would be too traumatized to want to do anything but forget. We'd think it was mass hysteria, picking up other people's thoughts like that. We'd blame ourselves for what happened, not you."

A story of characters, the people whose minds briefly touch each other's, working out release from the weight of their own depressions. From the moment we see the transponder aimed directly at the bed and breakfast across from the company headquarters, we know that Chris's suspicions are not groundless. The only question is whether she will succeed in confronting her demons.

"Jackie's-Boy" by Stephen Popkes


Post-apocalypse. This time it started with plagues and went downhill in a cascade of unintended consequences. "If I believed in God, I'd go out and kill a calf on a rock or something. We sure as hell pissed him off." Most people are dead and cannibalistic gangs rule the cities. Young Michael finds refuge in the zoo, then accompanies Jackie the talking elephant on her quest for other modified elephants like herself. Jackie isn't very fond of humans, but she and Michael need each other to survive.

This turns out to be a surprisingly positive adventure story, as Michael and Jackie encounter Komodo Dragons, crocodiles, and a helpful ferryboat captain. The dialogue is entertaining, the characters engaging.

"Alten Kameraden" by Barry B Longyear


In the closing weeks of WWI, sniper Kurt Wolff kills an enemy sniper before he could kill the runner from HQ.
Kurt turned from his position, bringing his rifle with him, as a baffling feeling of dread filled him. For a slice of existence it was as though all the world's dead mounted the edges of their graves at the same time and beckoned him. He couldn't catch his breath.

In the closing days of WWII, retired policeman and electrician Kurt Wolff is summoned to fix the ventilator fan in the bunker of the old comrade whose life he once saved, Adolph Hitler. But Hitler wants more from him now.

The harrowing settings here are meticulously detailed to the point where readers may almost feel themselves choking on the smoke and odors of decay. A story that seems to be alternate history turns into something else at the end. I only doubt that Hitler, at this point in his life, would have had such a sane and altruistic motive.

RECOMMENDED

"Unforeseen" by Molly Gloss


The narrator is an insurance investigator for a company offering remediation [revival] after sudden unexpected death. Their ad claims:
Don't make the mistake of thinking, as we did, that because your children are young, Remediable Death Insurance is unnecessary or an extravagance. We'd give anything to bring back our children. And if they'd been insured, they'd be with us right now.
But in fact, the company's policy is full of fine print excluding almost any possible cause of death, and the narrator's job is to find cause for denying claims. It's a job that inspires morbid thoughts.

A sharply bitter and cynical look at the business of profiting by raising false hopes. This is not a story about the future.

"Adrift" by Eugene Fischer


An interesting scenario: automated shipping containers make their own way across the oceans.
Millions of dots representing FloatNet nodes covered the Atlantic, bunched together in some areas and sparse in others, like a great flock of birds frozen in flight. Janet pointed out the rectilinear smudges representing Platform Beryl in the south and Platform Grouper in the north.
The world being what it is, smugglers have begun to use the net to transport illicit cargo such as drugs and refugees. When one young refugee family finds itself on Platform Beryl, the director is caught in a moral and legal quandary.

Neat SFnal premise, humane story.

"They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show them! I'll Show Them all, I Tell You!" by Tim McDaniel


A mad scientist don't get no respect. The fools!

"Malick Pan" by Sara Genge


A post-apocalyptic world in which the cities have sealed themselves off and feral clans scratch out an existence outside, hiding from the sun. Malick was a young child when he ran from the city, escaping a man we assume was a sexual predator. Ever since, the city has sent out clouds of nanobots, hoping to find him and bring him back. But Malick prefers the life outside where he has a friend, and has ordered the nanobots to keep his body small as a child's so he can fit into the hiding places where the big-hungries can't. Malick considers himself superior to the big-hungries, but he doesn't realize how much he relies on the nanners, what he would be without them.

Malick may think he's pretty smart, but he's not very wise.

"Pretty to Think So" by Robert Reed


A sudden emergency. The news reports that a comet is going to crash into the Earth. The presidential staff privately admits that this is only what they told the people to avert panic. Even the scientists aren't sure.
And really, nobody knows anything for certain. But people . . . you know how people are. We hear something that sounds a little familiar, and right away we jump to the easiest conclusion. I said, 'Life,' and he heard, 'Alien.' I talked about the runaway cascade, and he heard, 'Invasion.' "
As a psychological study of humanity under emergency conditions, this is interesting. More so than the explanation when it finally comes.

Analog, May 2010


A mix of science fiction stories, typical of this zine.


"Page Turner" by Rajnar Vajra


The narrator is trapped in the aftermath of an earthquake and losing hope of rescue.
I'm in trouble, real trouble, and can't do a blessed thing about it. And I'm hurting and tired and cold, and God knows I'm scared. So the game's name for me right now is SURVIVAL, which means I've got to invent distractions and more distractions to fight this urge I'm getting to—to just give up.

To divert herself, she begins to tell an imaginary listener the story of how things may have happened, centering on the appearance of a live flatfish at the doorstep of the bookstore where she works. She warns us at the outset that much of what she says will not be true and leaves us to guess which elements are false, from the insectoid leprechauns to the teleportation machine.

This is a clever premise, but for such a metafiction [metafiction in Analog?!] about the telling of effective stories, the author has followed up her hook with a long and tedious passage about the denizens of the bookstore that does a great deal to diminish reader interest. The narrator is owed a certain amount of slack considering her situation, but too much digression makes for less of a page turner.

"Hanging by a Thread" by Lee Goodloe


The ocean planet Teresa looks benignly Earthlike to Amy, but its acid ocean is deadly. The onworld floating station is connected to the space station by a space elevator, and when Matt the station commander tells Amy, twice, that the stalk had to be re-engineered for flexibility because of the waves, it is no surprise when it snaps as soon as a big storm comes along. Now the immediate task is to evacuate the injured back up to the space station.

Here is an urgent situation, an emergency calling for courage and skill. An ideal setting for a tense and exciting story, as suggested by the title. But by the time the emergency actually happens, the story is almost over. The author has wasted most of the text on bland and banal Amy, a character who generates no interest at all. When she asks, "Why is someone like that wasting time on someone like me, who doesn't even know why she's here?" I can only echo the question to the author.

"The Day the Music Died" by H.G. Stratmann


Terrorists have broadcast a piece of music that hijacks the brain of anyone who hears it. Millions have been incapacitated by "the most powerful earworm ever created." This one plays off the commercial use of music in manipulating the emotions.

"Farallon Woman" by Walter L. Kleine


The narrator is part of a secret group studying an alien spaceship discovered on the ocean floor. Then he meets Tara Farallon, an amnesiac woman who was reportedly rescued from a shipwreck. Astonishingly, it takes the narrator a long time to make the connection that is immediately obvious to any reader. Instead, he first falls in love with her. Jack spends a long time imagining her in the ship, imagining what she would say if he showed it to her, let her know that he knew.
I'd been through that conversation in my head a million times, fantasizing everything from, "I suppose it could be. I don't remember a thing," to, "You've got my ship? Let me help you make it fly again!" None of the fantasies, I was sure, would be real . . . but I kept hoping her response might be something in the direction of the latter.


This is a love story, an idyllic one, with the bond between these two people strongly evoked, yet not icky.

RECOMMENDED

"A Talent for Vanessa" by David W. Goldman


Marv Pennypacker is a Special Talent agent. Most of his clients are savants created through surgery; an operation that damages certain parts of the brain seems to release savant Talents. Sometimes. Occasionally rich young people want to have the operation, and surgeons hire Marv to try to talk them out of it. This is the case with ditzy Vanessa, who says she wants a Talent so people will invite her to more parties. But Marv smells something funny about her.

An improbable premise, too hard to take seriously.

"Fishing Hole" by Rick Cook


A paleontologist dining at a sushi restaurant in Seattle recognizes that the shellfish on his plate is an extinct trilobite. Shortly afterward, invertebrate specialist Tim Valdez is visited by an agent of the Fish and Wildlife Department, Sally Lund, who enlists his help tracking down whoever is illegally taking extinct shellfish and selling them to the restaurants.
The dumpster behind another restaurant on Sally's list contained a half-dozen ammonite shells and several clumps of cup-like shells Tim identified as belonging to an extinct oyster-like animal called a rudist. There were also the remains of a couple of very suspicious teleost fish (one served almondine, one in a tomato sauce).

An entertaining, cleverly-done scientific detective story with a particularly neat twist at the end.

RECOMMENDED

"Teaching the Pig to Sing" by David D. Levine


Edvard Roderick Zachary Sigmund von Regensberg, Defender of Humanity, Viceroy of Germany and Austria, and Royal Colonel of the European Army is part of a royal caste bred and brainwashed to rule the world. Revolutionaries have captured him and reversed his conditioning. Now, his mind free for the first time, he has to decide where his true loyalties are.

This one leaves the royal narrator on the sharp edges of a dilemma, where either option will exact a high price. Happily, the author doesn't go overboard with political lectures.

Clarkesworld #42 , March 2010


Both this month's stories are science fiction.


"Alone with Gandhari" by Gord Sellar
In a nearish future dominated by fattening fast food, Kenny is miserable in his obesity until he meets the Guru. Through VR therapy, he experiences union with the mother-cow goddess.
Heart swooning, he made his way to her rear, and as he did so, she steadied herself, bracing. Gently, and with the greatest of reverence, he stuck a hand into her, and then another. He pried her open, drew a deep breath, and slid headfirst into the peace of the divine mother-cow's womb.
When not thus engaged, he participates with other disciples in "Mac attack" raids on fast-food franchises, steadfastly ignoring the evidence that the Guru's motives may not be entirely pure.

Striking imagery. Apart from the VR sequences, this is a story about cults and their exploitation of the vulnerable. I'm not aware of any Hindu text in which Gandhari took the form of a cow, or in which the cow goddess had that name.

"The History Within Us" by Matthew Kressel


In a far future, humanity acquired great powers and used them to destroy most of the stars in the galaxy. Other species naturally resent this. They have built Eluder ships with which they hope to escape the dying universe on the collapsing wave of a dying star. Betsy has joined the aliens on an Eluder ship, thinking they don't know what she is. Betsy is one of a small group of humans set apart because they had a visual record of their ancestors coded into their DNA. Now Betsy carries the record on an ancient wrist computer and watches one or two scenes obsessively, trying to decide whether to carry this record of human depravity through into a new universe.

I can't find myself moved by this premise, which seems highly contrived. I don't care about Betsy's lost lover, I can't credit her obsession with a few old images, and definitely can't credit the aliens' interest in them.

Apex Magazine, March 2010


A special, all-Mary Robinette Kowal issue. It offers a novelette and an original short story from this author, and two reprints, both previously published by this zine.


"The Bride Replete"
The biology of the people in this story is patterned after honey ants, in whose nests there is a caste of repletes that keep their abdomens vast and full of nectar, with which they feed the rest of the nest. Pimi is an adolescent girl who is eager to have the full, round crop of a bride. Status in her country is displayed in the size of the belly.
[Mother] reclined on a couch accepting food from the hands of their deep-family. Pimi's cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings wore their Fest Day tunics. Red and orange scarves lay over their scalps and fluttered about their shoulders like fire, as they carried dishes to Mother. Her long, slender limbs lay in beautiful contrast to her speckled blue belly, which ballooned onto the floor.
But when her family moves overseas, they find that customs are different; only servants have distended crops, and the local aristocrats pride themselves on their narrow waists. Then Pimi and her mother are kidnapped by raiders who mean to force-feed them as replete slaves.

Kowal has created not only one fascinatingly alien society, but two, based on the same physiology. Pimi and her family don't quite seem human, but they are convincingly people, and not particularly ant-like.

RECOMMENDED

"Beyond the Garden Close"


Living on a generation ship, far from their destination, Lena and Phoebe are lovers. Phoebe yearns to have one of the few children allowed in each generation, but she carries a genetic flaw that can not be passed on. Lena, with no desire for a child of her own, is going through the tedious process of selection for her lover's sake.
The endless rituals of ship life touched every act. Sometimes she wondered if an OCD strain had gotten in, all unnoticed, and infected every line. But it was really just a way to pass the time until the next generation took over and then the generation after that, all biding time until they reached Planetfall.

Lena is more than a match for the testing scenario, but this very short story is supposed to be driven by her love for Phoebe, and we never see them together; we never see their love.

Electric Velocipede #19, Fall 2009


A belated review. This small press printzine comes out somewhat irregularly a few times a year. The prevailing mode of the fiction shades through weird to surreal; the current issue is in cyberpunk tones.


"The Lost Technique of Blackmail" by Mark Teppo


Max is the Security Theorist of InterCore Express [ICE], which sounds good but actually represents a kick up the corporate ladder to nowhere, his previous security function now deemed obsolete by progress. The tedium of his existence is broken when a package is delivered via an obsolete route, containing a term paper once plagiarized by the firm's CEO. Someone is blackmailing the boss; the route, however, means it is also a threat to Max.

A data-detective story, unusually long for this venue. The author has worked to create a strong sense of future strangeness by embedding the plotline in a thick matrix of jargon:
Depot 12-B4 was a half-shell unit—an electro-bonded extrusion of ceramic with a pneumatic receptor and a battered 4ts-mon. Archaic, by any standard. I had d/l'ed their Lifecycle Management Protocol during the drop to Emporium 31. They had been EOLed shortly after the SI & R, but some middle manager down-chain had modded the LMP to only remove them as they broke down, a decision which failed to consider the high QA standard for this early generation of pre-fab. They made them to last counterclockwise.
Some readers will find this impenetrable, to others [such as the usual readers of this zine], it will probably come as Added Value. The underlying plot is highly intricate and rewarding.

RECOMMENDED

"Frayed" by Jonathan Brandt


In a world where everyone can teleport with the aid of companion sheep, Henry is engaged to the President-elect, a woman with many political enemies. An assassin, missing her, has killed her daughter. Henry, as State Forensics Director, has reanimated the killer in order to prevent a repeat assassination attempt, but his plans are thwarted.

This plot summary might suggest a political thriller, but the tone and setting are absurd.
[Wade's] stately ewes, their jaws slackened, their eyes wild, collapsed. Claire bleated smugly at this, but she was interrupted by the urgent baying of the Booroola Merinos, who butted the high police officials as arrays of scanners and pagers strapped to their flanks squawked in unison.

The result is a piece that treats death and grief too lightly. Unsatisfying.

"Darkest Amber" by Erin Hoffman


Kali is a badass independent auto mechanic working mean streets ruled by gang bosses. Her partner is her illegal petroleum-burning car, JH, her only legacy from a beloved father. But there is a new boss on the streets now, and a new enforcer who wants to prove he's more badass than anyone else and picks Kali as his example.
Kali—was all the warning she had before an override signal followed by a priority-authorized disable command shattered the whole visualization, not only dissolving her setup but shutting down her plant entirely. In a quick reflex she activated the plant's backup, then turned from the sedan, eyes regaining focus on meatspace, fury growling eight-cylinder thunder under her skin.
A dark, cyberpunkish setting and characters to match.

"Life at the Edge of Nowhere" by Kjell Williams


Post-apocalypse. Warring corporations have used deadly biological weapons to destroy much of civilization. Now Jim is working with a survey team trying to restore what remains. What he finds is impossible:
A small house stood among the skeletal remains of the surrounding neighborhood. It looked weathered, but sturdy, with faded, yellow paint. Staring at the house like it was a rosebush on a battlefield full of corpses, he smiled at the light blooming through its windows.
But the house turns out to be a portal to Nowhere, another world, inhabited by people who couldn't exist. And the corporation he works for is determined to find their secret, one way or another.

A confusing scenario, with too much backstory hiding behind the immediate world of Nowhere. We grasp that there were evils and horrors, but never really see any of them close or clearly.

"The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall" be Ken Scholes


The other kids called him Slinky and liked to throw him down the stairs.
He went down making only a slight whooshing noise, then lay still at the bottom. The first few times, of course, he'd sprung to his feet with a bit of a flourish. But after that, when he realized that it was going to be an ongoing fete, he just laid there and waited for Ninja Bob and an ever-changing gang to scoop him up and haul him back to the top.
His ability was sometimes a problem but sometimes an advantage.

A rather strange little fantasy about a person we never really get to know.

"A Mouse Ran Up the Clock" by A.C. Wise


Historical fantasy. In a world where Hitler or someone like him is the Emperor, clockmaker Simon Shulewitz experiments by making cyborged mice. This comes to the attention of the head of the Emperor's secret police, who sets him to work with another craftsman named Bielski.
Then the mouse on the table twitched. There was a click and a whir, and its eyes flew open. Simon gasped. The eyes were blood red, and it took Simon a moment to realize they were colored glass or some kind of translucent stone. Simon watched in amazement as the mouse scurried forward and leapt nimbly off the edge of the table.
Their creations are technically successful, but Simon is appalled when he realizes how they are used to repress the other Jews in the ghetto where the Emperor has confined them.

Cyborged animals have become a commonplace in today's SF, but it is not clear that Simon's clockwork mice have any real advantage over natural ones; the spy-mice he helps Bielski create are essentially robotic. But what Bielski devises is a creature of fantasy and not ultimately convincing or original. In our history, Bielski was the name of a Jewish partisan group who fought the Nazis.

"Nightlight" by Celia Marsh


Adrian is a Sensitive. As a child, he had visions and visitations in his dreams.
"I liked the ghosts," Adrian said, following Jessie's plumed tail along the path. "I stopped telling you about them after that since you'd made them go away."
Now as an adult he is an apprentice exorcist, although he still dislikes banishing the ghosts. He encounters one particularly determined ghost, a young girl whose body turns out to be on lifesupport in the hospital, her parents not convinced she is really dead. But she resists the usual rites of exorcism.

Interesting speculation about the relationship of body and soul, the nature of death.


In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.


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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Peter Straub

The publication of Peter Straub's The Skylark and A Dark Matter only a handful of months apart gives readers a unique opportunity to see how one of the most talented living writers of fantastic fiction cuts a rough diamond of a novel into a brilliant gem. The two are essentially the same book, save that The Skylark is an earlier draft that weighed in 200 manuscript pages heavier than the tale told in the final trade edition. In Straub's own words, it's "a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version of the book." Straub did this dual publication trick once before with "Mrs. God", an homage to the strange stories of Robert Aickman's that anchored his collection House Without Doors in its novella form, and also appeared in its full short novel length from specialty publisher Donald M. Grant in 1990. Comparing the two versions of his latest, one gets a fascinating glimpse into the creative process, and perhaps an inkling of how Straub conceived the vast backstory for his Millhaven Mythos (referring to the fictional Wisconsin community where so many of his novels are set or begin) from which he periodically carves out novels.

A Dark Matter is not set in Millhaven, but in Madison, and it's primarily the narrative of Lee Harwood, a writer of the same stripe as Tim Underhill, who has figured prominently in (and/or been portrayed as the "author" of) most of Straub's novels since Koko (1988). Harwood achieved bestsellerdom with his thriller The Agents of Darkness, for which he fictionalized the adventures of four high school friends, including the woman who eventually became his wife. Years later, blocked on the writing of his latest novel, Harwood shifts abruptly to writing a memoir in which he hopes to finally divulge the truth about the experience that inspired his bestseller. In order to do this, he decides to reacquaint himself with a close-knit quartet whose circle he was, by choice, only on the periphery of, and hear from their own mouths what happened.

One fall day in 1966, under the influence of a charismatic Svengali named Spencer Mallon, these four friends — Donald "Dilly-O" Olson, Howard "Hootie" Bly, Jason "Boats" Boatman, and Harwood's wife-to-be Lee "The Eel" Truax — joined with three students at the local university in a quasi-occult ceremony in the school's agronomy meadow. Mallon, a shady shaman who had studied up on Cornelius Agrippa (AKA Paracelsus) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was of the opinion that through the ceremony they "just might change the world." They did, indeed, though not quite in the positive spiritual way they thought they might. Owing to missed timing (as is later revealed) and Mallon's corrupt motives and ineptness (as is largely suspected) something goes horribly wrong: one of the college students is torn to pieces, another vanishes from the face of the Earth, and the four high school friends are left with emotional and psychological scars that shaped the people whom they have become in their adult lives.

Stories in which friends reconvene as adults to come to terms with a terrifying shared traumatic experience from their youth have been a staple of modern horror fiction since Straub all but introduced the form in 1979 with Ghost Story (and which he acknowledges at one point in the novel with a reference to that tale's femme fatale, Alma Mobley). But instead of arriving at some version of consensual truth, the four friends in A Dark Matter find that they all saw and experienced something different that fateful day. Donald, who becomes Mallon's protégé, became aware of a phalanx of vaguely anthropomorphic doglike creatures who prowl on the periphery of our reality, helping to contain the kind of mischief that irresponsible occultists like Mallon unleash. Hootie, who has become so unbalanced that he is incapable of speaking in anything other passages quoted from novels (significantly The Scarlet Letter, and its ripe rhetoric on sin and evil), saw a dark and menacing otherworld intersect our own. Boats, who has spent much of his adult life working as a professional thief, saw a field stacked with the bloody corpses of young children. The Eel, who has slowly gone blind over the intervening years, ironically saw even more: her consciousness "rose," and from the height it attained she was able to observe the full panorama of horrifying marvels, including an extradimensional door that swallowed one student, and the emergence of hideous demonic entity that tore the other student apart. Straub's skillful juxtaposition and interweaving of each character's story in Rashomon-like fashion helps to suggest a horror so otherworldly and profound that any one person can only glimpse a facet or fragment of it. To try and understand it in its entirety would invite madness.

It's possible to read this rich and inventive novel on many levels, but two major interpretations emerge from Straub's deftly structured narrative. The events of 1966 unfold while the war in Vietnam is raging and student unrest is sparking protests on campus and brutal reprisals against them. Mallon's hope to transform the Earth involves the use of a "sacred violence" to end the violence of the war and the times. Keith Hayward, the student who is slaughtered, is a sociopath and sadist whom Mallon believes can help catalyze his cosmic scheme. But Mallon is neither up to the audacity of his actions nor prepared for the enormity of what he introduces into our world, and Straub implies that the disorder and chaos of the Vietnam era and its aftermath could be attributed to the forces that Mallon unleashed. A Dark Matter fits very comfortably on the same continuum that includes George R.R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag (1985), Stephen Wright's M31 (1989), Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss (2008), and countless other novels concerned with the dark side of the sixties counterculture and the dreams of transcendence that curdled into nightmares.

Quite possibly, though, Straub is getting at something a little less momentous but a little more salient as regards the tale of modern horror. From her superior vantage point above the agronomy meadow, The Eel observes the rampaging demon inadvertently summoned by Mallon and sees it not as a being of insuperable supernatural Evil, but "the famous Noonday Demon... the savage demon of the second rate, the demon of everyday evil."

No one was ever supposed to see it as it made its way to and fro in the world, causing men to fall off ladders, and babies to stiffen and die, and corn crops to wither, women to lose unborn babies in a bloody flux, drunken drivers to steer into oncoming lanes, husbands to beat wives, women to roast their husbands alive in their beds like cockroaches, old friends to quarrel and separate. It moved through its boundless territory, bringing chaos and disorder, bringing despair.

Straub seems to be saying here that the worst consequences of the event in the agronomy meadow possibly were not the dismemberment of Keith Hayward and the disappearance of the other student — which could only be explained in terms of the supernatural Evil one finds in horror fiction — but the arousal of those indefinable and indistinguishable forces of personal fate that set the characters (like ordinary people) on the path to mediocre adult lives full of disappointment, disillusionment, and the inescapable sense that they live (as Straub eloquently phrases it in The Skylark) "in an empty world aggressively devoid of meaning."

Since the 1960s, the modern horror tale has increasingly shifted its focus from the supernatural menaces that defined the genre from the Gothic through the pulp eras to unsettling expressions of what might be called the dark side of everyday life. The generation of writers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, among them Straub, gave us a whole new type of horror fiction rooted in the fears of people navigating a world that seemed chaotic, confusing, unpredictable, unrelenting, and full of unforeseeable drama. The body of work they created has largely redefined the iconic monsters and tropes that once summarized supernatural Evil (with a capital "E") in terms of the everyday evil Straub describes in A Dark Matter. His novel is a powerful and eloquent crystallization of the ambitions of the modern horror story.

As regards the differences between the two versions of the novel, The Skylark provides a more detailed linear account of events leading up to the event in the agronomy meadow, and fuller backstories for the characters. In particular, it develops the character of Keith Hayward, and his bond with an uncle who encourages his sociopathy and who himself is a serial killer whose murders inspire insightful discussions among the novel's other characters of the nature of evil. To craft the tale as A Dark Matter, Straub amplified the role played by Lee Harwood and shifted from an omniscient to a more first-person narrative voice. Each novel is very enjoyable on its own. The publication of the two together constitutes a major event in horror publishing this early in the 21st century.


Read more! This is one of many reviews from the March issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.













A Dark Matter

Peter Straub


(Doubleday 978-0-385-51638-9, $26.95, 352pp, hc) February 2010




















The Skylark

Peter Straub


(Subterranean Press 978-1-59606-271-9, $50.00, 592pp, hc) November 2009





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Faren Miller reviews N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is a highly promising debut. It's the first of a trilogy set in a world whose three major gods went to war eons ago. That conflict almost fatally weakened the Nightlord who emerged first from chaos, when his sibling the Bright Lord (Skyfather) came to ascendance and crushed all opponents except for some forgotten minor gods. These godlings still exist as prisoners, slaves, or weapons capable of the occasional horrific act, and not just plagues: "Occasionally the population of an entire city will vanish overnight. Once, jagged steaming pits appeared where there had been mountains."

Between Darkness and Light lie the transitional states of dawn and dusk, various wise/trickster demigods who only pay lip service to Light, and the ostensibly pious mortal world. Over the centuries, they all have interacted to the point where no divinity is free from human traits, none stands aloof from the world. Even though the time of mortal/divine couplings is over, its "demon" offspring extinct, in this place atheism would be blind optimism — for the interplay goes on.

If this sounds complicated, it is, and so is the human politics of kingdoms and ruling families, but it can also be a lot of fun. Jemisin's heroine Yeine has been drawn from her "barbarian" homeland (whose female rule and respect for the land actually sound appealing) to the political heart of the kingdoms, the extraordinary city known as Sky. Though her mother had been a runaway princess from the ruling family, Yeine is shocked to be named the third heir of Sky's ailing king. Inheritance traditionally passes to the only survivor among the nominees, and she wants neither the fight (with a pair of nasty, if very different, opponents) nor the prize. But her mother died under mysterious circumstances, and this seems a likely place to track down the villain(s). Though she doesn't know it, the gods also have reason to take interest in her.

Blunt, smart, and socially inept, Yeine doesn't much resemble standard fantasy heroines who are just coming into their powers or busy kicking asses. After she learns just what part the gods played in her background, she tells it her own way, beginning with a struggle for words:
Once upon a time there was a
Once upon a time there was a
Once upon a time there was a
Stop this. It's undignified.

When she finds the tone she wants, it's irreverent and observant, a clear eye focused on the family life of immortal siblings.

A similar blend of inventiveness, irreverence, and sophistication — along with sensuality — brings vivid life to the setting and other characters: human or otherwise, "good" or "bad." In an interview Extra, Jemisin notes that the main thing missing from this royal drama is ordinary people, and they'll show up in Book Two of the Inheritance Trilogy. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms definitely leaves me wanting more of this delightful new writer.


Read more! This is one of many reviews from the March issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.













The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

N.K. Jemisin


(Orbit 978-0-316-04391-5, $13.99, 422pp, tp) February 2010





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Monday, March 1, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #2




Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


Stories posted on this site during February.


"The Heart of a Mouse" by K. J. Bishop


Post-apocalypse. This apocalypse being an unexplained event wherein everyone was transmogrified into something else. As the narrator calls it, "the big search and replace." The narrator is now a giant mouse and his son a sort of gopher thing he calls "the runt." As they wander the wilderness avoiding dangers, he is trying to bring up his son to be able to survive on his own, without much hope of success.
You think you have enough brains to sort bullshit from fact once you get them confused? What happens if you start believing bactyls are nice or that you can eat whatever you want? But I can see he isn’t taking it in. These ideas are too much for him.


It's impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator's mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

"Harboring Pearls: A Lucifer Jones Story" by Mike Resnick


An episode in an ongoing series featuring the title character, a wandering grifter whose intelligence is even lower than his morals. "If we ever see you on this continent again, we’ll tar and feather you, hang you from the highest tree, set fire to you, and chop up what’s left of you as fishbait.” Here, Jones washes up in Pearl Harbor, where he is soon recruited by a group of thieves whom he then tries to double-cross. I am not amused by the Charlie Chan parody detective.

"The Library of Babble" by Michael Bishop


A double tribute: to Borges' famous story and to the author's late son Jamie Bishop, on whose notes this piece is based. Fulgencio, an indulgent father, takes his son to the eponymous library, said to be the founder's response to the ubiquitous Silencio signs that plagued her childhood. The true and more fitting name of the institution is the Library of Inescapable Cacophony, for the building is filled with discordant noise, which severely pains Fulgencio.
This never-ending uproar occludes thought. It invades the aural cavities, flushing from them all reservoirs of coherency or peacefulness. One’s blood pressure soars. Migraines and a menacing sense of intellectual bankruptcy flood one’s being. The impulse to flee from such orchestrated cacophony–to press one’s skull between one’s palms and to scream like the anguished figure in the famous painting by Edvard Munch–assumes the weight of obligation and does not depart.

His son, on the other hand, is delighted with the place.

The charm of this tale is created primarily by the narrative voice and the setting in some fabulist otherwhere, but its greatest interest should be to readers familiar with Borges' classic.

Realms of Fantasy, April 2010


Bimonthly full-color printzine filled with reviews and articles as well as fiction.


"Just Another Word" by Carrie Vaughn


Suppose that Janis Joplin once had an encounter with the Queen of Elfland. How might that have gone?

"Hanuman's Bridge" by Euan Harvey


A near-future world in which tensions in Asia have gone nuclear and India has forcibly annexed Sri Lanka, building a bridge to connect the two land masses. Davis, who designed the bridge, is present for the official opening and falls into conversation with a local man who explains its connection to the epic Ramayana and the submerged natural causeway known as the Nala Sethu that once connected island and mainland.

This is a too-talky story, in which the narrator goes on at excessive length about Pakistan's nukes, and the mysterious Raban goes on even longer about the legends of the monkey god who built the ancient causeway. While it is possible that a bridge architect or engineer might not be familiar with ancient Sanskrit myths, it is inconceivable that he would be so unfamiliar with a 30-mile natural causeway paralleling the route of his bridge and affecting the currents in the vicinity.

"The Hag Queen's Curse" by M.K. Hobson


An alternate 1798, when the US Navy commissions warlocks to fight sorcerous piracy. But during Lt Rodgers' attempted arrest of one body-stealing pirate, he mistakenly spills the Sea Hag's ale, upon which she transports them both Elsewhere to 1986 Oregon, where the pirate takes over Jeff's body.
He's wearing a swirling black trenchcoat, a ruffled gold-lamé shirt unbuttoned to the navel, and a whole costume-jewelry box of glittering trinkets. Evil looks good on Jeff, Kat is surprised to realize.

Kat is determined to get her friend Jeff back. And because Kat loves him, although not in that way, she is inadvertently protecting the pirate in possession of Jeff's body from the force of Rodgers' spells.

This is fun, a lite adventure, but I fear that much of it may have been contrived to make use of a very dated cliché about girls who hang out with gay guys.

"A Close Personal Relationship" by Thomas Marcinko


The Second Coming may have pleased dominionist Christians, but Ted still retains his fondness for dinosaurs and other forbidden things. Thus he is nervous when it comes time for his own personal interview with Junior. The Message here is not particularly subtle.

"The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard Van Oost and Oludara" by Christopher Kastensmidt


Gerard van Oost has come to colonial Brazil with the hope of joining a company of adventurers but discovers his Protestant religion makes him unwelcome. He has the good fortune, however, to meet a remarkable African hero, now enslaved.
"I alone held off thirty rival warriors armed with harquebuses for three days so that my people could escape. They came raiding for slaves to sell to the Portuguese. That is how I know of the inaccuracy of the harquebuses."

If Gerard can find forty thousand réis, he will be able to buy Oludara's freedom and start his own company. But Gerard is so penniless he is in danger of being imprisoned as a vagrant.

An entertaining mix of adventure and folklore in a fantastic world where monsters roam the forests of Brazil and Africa. Oludara in particular is an engaging character, and there is a bit of wry humor in the narrative voice. It would seem that the author intends to send these two on a series of continuing adventures.

RECOMMENDED

Tor.com


This is a more of a website/community blog than a conventional magazine, with various features other than fiction, much of which is serialized.


"Vilcabamba" by Harry Turtledove


Alien invasion. Humans lost. Now the hereditary US President, Harris Moffatt III, presides from Grand Junction, Colorado, over the remnant of the country that the Krolp didn't bother conquering. Until the Krolp discover a rich lode of silver.

This time, the echoes come from Turtledove's own extended Worldwar series, in which small incompetent aliens attempt to conquer Earth and humans resist with some success. But Turtledove subverts expectations. Here the aliens are near-omnipotent and resistance is truly futile; what the Krolp really want, they will take. The title refers to the last outpost of the Inca Empire after the Spanish conquest, in case readers are too dense to get the point. Some may find the outcome to be pessimistic or depressing; others, realistic. It might have been tragic, but the lightness of the narrative tone is too much at odds with the inevitable course of the story's events, too close to humor [aliens with names like Grelch are not conducive to a tragic mood].

"Tourists" by Sean Craven


Grandma converts the aliens to Christian Science, but something may have been lost in the translation. Something was definitely lost in the translation of Grandma when she went off with the aliens to spread the word – but maybe the narrator found something.

This one is unfortunately played mostly for laughs. Names like Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie overwhelm the moments of poignancy that might otherwise be more strongly felt.

Strange Horizons, February 2010


A weekly ezine offering a new story every week, along with poetry, nonfiction and reviews. The fiction tends to be contemporary fantasy and light SF.


"Cory's Father" by Francesca Forrest


The narrator's mother is trapped on this mundane side of the fay/mundane border with far too many children from too many fathers, unable to return to the place where she was called Willow's Daughter.
She was watching the border between here and there rippling closer. The border comes rolling in like the shadow of a cloud moving across the land. It feels like the air before a thunderstorm, and it smells like sweet fern.

There is a story for each father, except for the narrator's and for Cory's, but the narrator knows the story of Cory's father; she was there at the time, a young child, watching.

A very short and rather depressing tale that leaves the reader both wanting to know more of the stories and thinking that someone ought to tell this woman about the Pill.

"After We Got Back the Lights" by Eric Del Carlo


SF. Post a minor apocalypse in which the town was cut off from the rest of the world for several years and the residents had to fend for themselves, which they did pretty well, considering. Corey took on the role of town lawman. Now the old normalities are being restored, but the shadows of things that happened still darken people's memories.
I knew where I was, of course. Knew the tall redwood that was the only tree here. This wasn't a restful place; but I felt a calming nonetheless, a sure reminder of my past purpose. I stared and stared at that tree.


A nice, humane story. The thoughts and feelings of the characters ring true.

"Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions" by Saladin Ahmed


Nobody loves to sit through office meetings, not even the members of the Society of Supercriminals. The boss is always a long-winded bore, and this includes Overlord. SH has a fondness for superhero angst stories, but it takes a lot these days to sell me on yet another one. This vignette doesn't go much beyond its premise.

"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam


Vampires have taken over, and the "unblessed" are required to deliver a pint every week to the blood bank. This makes it harder for Rita to cope with her father, suffering from dementia. Essentially, this is a mundane story about coping with a parent with dementia, the vampire element grafted on.

Fantasy Magazine, February 2010


Another weekly ezine with short fiction and other features. The material is the fantastic, and the editor prefers prose on the literary side. This month's offerings are more SFnal than is usual for this venue.


"Stranger" by Patricia Russo


Roday is an old woman living with the Blue Heart band but not closely related to anyone. A distant cousin's family has always taken her into their shelter when the season of stinging rain comes, but this time, Roday gradually comes to realize that they do not intend to make the offer. She fears she will be left to die. It is different when a stranger comes.
A place would be found for the man. All of the circles would give a share from their stores to provide his food. The young folks tasked with hauling water from the covered wells would make a few extra trips.


This society, and the place of a solitary old woman within it, is well-portrayed. But I have trouble crediting the premise. If "Blue Heart people are true people," the sort of people who will take in a random stranger, I can't really believe they would leave a member of their band to certain death in the stinging rains.

"The Armature of Flight" by Sharon Mock


Leo is a scion of extreme wealth, living for the moment in a modest way until he inherits. William is a poseur, a hustler, looking for a rich hook-up. They become lovers, but Leo can not commit himself fully to the relationship and William wants what he won't or can't give.
William insisted he could find them somewhere nicer. But Leo couldn’t afford what William wanted, not on a junior manager’s salary. His inheritance was still in the future, predicated on the very things that would tear him away. A wife, an heir.


This is the story of a failed relationship in which money becomes an issue between the lovers when the real problem is commitment. The SFnal aspect is primarily metaphorical; William gets the wings, but they represent slavery, not freedom.

"Tenientes" by Nathaniel Williams


A revenge story. A woman returns from the death to avenge herself on a series of randomly-chosen men.
Since the night she died, she’s been called beautiful five thousand, two hundred and seven times by five thousand, two hundred and seven different tenientes. Each one has his own, peculiar stiffness as he clings to her, as his veneer of restraint chars and peels back like pages in a burning book.


The word teniente, or lieutenant, means one who takes the place of another, in this case, takes another man's punishment. The nameless ghost's victims may be innocent, but she, too, is trapped by the eternal cycle of revenge.

"A Stray" by Scott William Carter and Ray Vukcevich


Jim Delaney has more problems than possibly going blind.
[Claudia] was gone. His mother was gone. He’d be losing his job any day now. And he was spraying the windows black and feeding chicken noodle soup to a sometimes headless stray cat in the house where his father had killed himself. What else could go wrong?

For one thing, someone claiming to be the cat's owner is sending hostile notes attached to its collar. For another, that person may be Jim's dead father when he was a young man. For yet another, Jim may be hallucinating some of this, and his mother may be recruiting deprogrammers to save him from himself.

Intriguing story of a character on the blurring edge between insanity and the impossible.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2010


This ezine comes out every two weeks with two short stories and no additional content. The offerings are "literary adventure fantasy" set in secondary worlds.


"To Slay With a Thousand Kisses" by Rodello Santos


Tocho seems to be a sort of vampire, but he is actually the victim of a vengeful curse, bound to return every fifty years to the village of his dead mistress where he will take and kill another bride, conveniently staked out for him by the villagers. This time, however, instead of a maiden, he finds three young men bound to stakes awaiting death at the hands of an even more fearsome, more hungry monster, stronger than Tocho.
In amazement, I watched the ground catch her, then throw her back at me. I had barely gotten to my feet, and her new assault sent us tumbling, this time into the cornfield, crushing the dead stalks.


There are echoes here of an old fairy tale. But in fairy tales, the power to curse is mostly limited to the otherworldly. This seems to be a world in which seemingly-ordinary people can generate some seriously potent curses, all the way to immortality and quasi-divine powers, and other people seem to have uncanny knowledge of the way to break them. I find myself reluctant to credit all this. The curses are supposedly punishment or vengeance for some sin, but the real sufferers seem to be the innocents of the Blue Sparrow clan who are doomed to feed the hungers of the accursed.

"The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind" by T. F. Davenport


When brains are worlds. In this fantastic landscape, kingdoms occupy the heights and valleys of the cerebral world-god, corresponding to the regions of the human brain: the Motor Country, the Mirror Kingdom. And they fight wars. As this tale begins, the army of the Motor King is just about the conquer the Mirror Kingdom, while the selfish young Mirror Queen urges his own troops to fight to the death. Her court cerebromancer, Daniel, helps her to escape, but he soon begins his own journey of discovery.

A lot of fascinating stuff is packed into this narrative. As a cerebromancer, Daniel predicts the future by what he sees in the mirrors manufactured in the sector; the cerebromancers of the Motor region interpret the lines of electroencephalographs. For most of the story, these cerebral aspects of the setting fade into the background of a tale of war, rebellion and conspiracy. The Mirror Kingdom manufactures mirrors of glass and silver; the Motor Kingdom produces ball bearings and machinery in vast factories where "rank upon rank of men and women worked in synchronous motion, welding components, lowering presses, riveting, oiling, cutting, drilling." Yet from time to time, the true nature of the world breaks through, as when Daniel reaches the summit of the gyrus and sees for the first time the sky, complete with a sun and clouds.
Above them, most magnificent of all, turned another world. The roofs of its gyri, glass and metal, flared in the sunlight. The sulci, narrow dark canyons, wrinkled the globe like an ancient face. An alien god tumbled through the sky, about as large as my fist at arm’s length.

At the end, though, the cerebral elements emerge into the foreground, as we learn the importance of the mirror neurons' connection to the motor cortex and the function of the individual cells in the mental activities of the Great Being, the system on which the entire world is run, and against which Daniel now rebels.

This is a first-rate fantastic idea, a fully-extended metaphor that comes vividly to life as a fantasy world. It seems to be considerably longer than the typical piece appearing at this site, and I am happy to see that the editor has not split it into parts.

RECOMMENDED

"A Skirt of Many Colors" by Catherine Mintz


The narrator is a girl at the edge of womanhood, living near a volcanic mountain where the inhabitants are unaware of its dangerous past, although sometimes sensing the presence of ghosts. It is at first a quotidian tale in which the narrator goes about the routines of her life, saying farewell to her childhood and looking forward to putting on the skirt that will mark her as a woman; readers will not be so oblivious to the imminent danger, to the spectres of Pompeii being evoked by the author.

The setting suggests the Aegean [the name of the mountain is Leukothea, but this does not seem to be the sea goddess from the myths we know] but not the ancient world of our history. The author places a great symbolic weight on the color of the woman's skirt, but the story doesn't really deliver on it. Indeed, I find the whole skirt thing a distraction from the sulfurous ghosts.

"Pale" by Kathryn Allen


Old West Archetypes. The narrator was once a living man but is now trapped in the eternal role of a Deputy. Someone has summoned revenge, so the story has to be played out to the end. But this time it is the Deputy who encounters the woman, and the story changes; the narrator acquires a name and a new role.
"Scars.” She traces the lines with one finger. The slashes of knives, the dots and stars of bullet holes, the ragged seam of an amputation: pale silver marks that aren’t true scars but the ghosts of my wounds. Death upon death recorded on my skin. Her hand drifts up, to the circle of the hangman’s noose.


Readers will probably find something familiar in this scenario, perhaps the role of non-player characters in gaming or the mythagos of the late Robert Holdstock's fiction. I am particularly reminded of the denizens of the Commons in the stories of Matthew Hughes. Allen shows us the tragic side of the scenario at the same time that she holds out a faint hope for the possibility of escaping the eternal story loop. The shift of storylines is nicely done.


In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.


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