With the digests coming in for review, I found myself reading a greater proportion of science fiction than fantasy, which made for a change.
The theme for this issue seems to be exploration.
"Earth III" by Stephen Baxter
Humans fleeing a drowned Earth have settled on a planet tidally locked to its dim red star. The culture has devolved to a preindustrial level, and a really ridiculous religion maintains a shaky hegemony over various resentful states and settlements. Trouble begins when the manipulative daughter of the religion's Speaker convinces a stranger to take her away from her boring life as a vestal virgin. The Speaker and his bullying son get up an army and follow in pursuit, all the way to the dark side of the world, where they find a real Wonder.
While the story may be an Iliad, there are no heroes; indeed, no particularly appealing characters. Selfish Vala should have been thrown off the boat first thing, and Khilli is a villain straight from the cliché closet. The most interesting thing here is the world and its evolutionary history. This one, like the author's previous "Earth II," is a sequel to his Flood novels, leading to the usual problem: backstory, which in this case is excessive. Perhaps readers of Baxter's Ark will be fascinated to hear what became of Helen Gray, but I suspect that others will not know or care why everyone keeps talking about her.
"Emperor of Mars" by Allen M Steele
Jeff Halbert was what we called a "Mars monkey." We had a lot of people like him at Arsia Station, and they took care of the dirty jobs that the scientists, engineers, and other specialists could not or would not handle themselves. One day they might be operating a bulldozer or a crane at a habitat construction site. The next day, they'd be unloading freight from a cargo lander that had just touched down.But Jeff's family is killed while he is away on Mars and he falls into depression. To divert himself, he starts reading old Martian science fictions and soon becomes obsessed with the outdated fantasies of the Red Planet.
A nice, low-key piece of Real [nonfantastic] science fiction.
"Petopia" by Benjamin Crowell
Mina's family scrapes by on the streets, which is to say that Mina and her mother do the scraping. Her father is hopeless, but Mina wishes her brother would grow up and start contributing.
Nga was worried, of course perhaps in the same way one would worry about a goat that had jumped a fence, and might damage someone else's garden but what could she do? She had to clean the rooms at the Novotel in the day, and then go and sell the toilet paper at the bus station in the evening.One day while salvaging discarded computer parts, Mina finds a fuzzy purple cybertoy, and Jelly proves to be useful in many ways.
Not really an original premise but nicely told, in a lively and realistic near-future milieu.
"Monkey Do" by Kit Reed
A writer story, a variation on the monkeys and typewriters. The narrator originally bought Spud while researching his Monkey Planet book, which tanked. After which, it was impossible to get rid of the creature.
Spud got bored or jealous or some damn thing whenever I sat down to write. Worse, every time I walked away to get coffee or look out the window for inspiration, which was often, he hopped up on the table and started bopping away at my keyboard with his little fists, bonka-bonka-bonka, and one day when I came back from gazing into the bathroom mirror, I found words.
I must say that writer stories in general are not my favorite thing, but this one is funny stuff.
"The Peacock Cloak" by Chris Beckett
Virtual reality. Fabbro created an idyllic world and copies of himself to live in it, but the copies eventually began to get ideas of their own, and ambitions. Finally, after rebellions and wars, Fabbro has entered the world he made and Tawus has come to confront him, to justify himself.
"I used to think about you looking in from outside," he said. "When we had wars, when we were industrializing and getting people off the land, all of those difficult times. I used to imagine you judging me, clucking your tongue, shaking your head. But you try and bring progress to a world without any adverse consequences for anyone. You just try it."
There is more here than virtual reality. Tawus embodies the contradictions between determinism and free will, between progress and stagnation. This is the retelling of a much older story of creation and rebellion.
"Voyage to the Moon" by Peter Friend
The astronomer Thithiwith has cultivated a large house pod until it is capable of flight. He means to explore the heavens, although he has had to tell the Queen that the purpose of his journey is to bring her a petal of the moon flower. Highly fantastic adventures ensue.
Before we could celebrate our freedom, the star lashed out with long tendrils, and we were surrounded by blindly fleeing cloud worms. The Glory lurched and I saw it too had been struck by a tendril. We were slowly dragged towards the flowerlike mouth along with thousands of worms.This is definitely not our world. I thought at first that it was excessively silly, but like the quarrelling astronomers, this tale is more clever than it first appeared and full of imaginative stuff.
"Dreadnought Neptune" by Anna Tambour
If a spaceship suddenly appeared on the street, who would rush to crowd onboard? Jules Thomas would, and he bring his young son Eugene along to share the adventure, to prove to himself that Eugene is another incarnation of his father and not his stolid wife Agnes.
It is hard at first to figure just what is going on, except for a throng of people crushed together in an enclosed space, farting. The eventual explanation is hard to credit, and harder to credit is Agnes not seeming to have heard a word of it, given the drastic outcome of the event.
In addition to the usual, there are several authors here whose names are unfamiliar to me. It's good to see new writers.
"The Anunnaki Legacy" by Bond Elam
Yet Another tale of dedicated scientists vs the greedy mining consortium. Anunnaki is the human name for the alien race that supposedly once visited Earth and raised its creatures to sentience. Humans have launched a fleet to track them down but until now met with scant success; the relict ship discovered on iron-rich Slag may be the best lead yet discovered. The indigenous lifeforms there appear to have been genetically modified. The fix, however, is in, and despite all their protests, the science officers are given only 96 hours until the mining ships arrive to suck out Slag's core.
Once past the dreadfully clichéd opening with its snarling villain, I found sufficient stuff to like here, particularly the evolutionary science. The plot develops real tension; the situation of the scientists goes from dire to direr, and they strongly suspect the Evile mining boss is trying to kill them. Unfortunately, he also did his best to kill the story, which has potential for interest despite the unoriginal scenario.
"Space Aliens Taught My Dog To Knit!" by Jerry Oltion & Elton Elliott
Delmer is a conspiracy nut who is currently obsessed by his conviction that there is an alien base on the dark side of the moon, which is being covered up by NASA and other government agencies. The problem is, no one believes him. But in his quest for convincing evidence, he gets too close to the truth.
The ramp slid back into the saucer, the lights brightened, and the UFO rose up into the air again. Delmer expected it to shoot straight up, but instead it slid silently up the road straight at their car.
Fun stuff inspired by the tabloids. There is not, however, a dog.
"Connections" by Kyle Kirkland
Ellam K Troy is a detective and also a member of the Opposition to the ruling nanny state, doing his best to subvert it, as most of the population does, while evading rehab for such crimes as eating sugary food.
Sandra was about to say something when the alarm bell rang. An instant later a bot rolled up to our table and tilted it, collecting every scrap into the incinerator in its belly. Another bot wiped our faces and squirted masque in our mouths. We rinsed and spit into the bot's cuspidor.
Ellam's former mentor's AI has contacted him to ask for help resolving the cause of his death, which the government claimed as an accident. It turns out that Arden Kirst had a lot of secrets, some of which might lead to the downfall of the hated government.
While the scenario here involves a conflict between freedom and stifling security, the narrative is happily free from ponderous lectures on this subject; the overall tone is light, oriented more towards entertainment than ideology. Accordingly, I'm not too much bothered by how easily Ellam and his illegal car escape capture by to too-incompetent government cops.
"Heist" by Tracy Canfield
A couple of sentient AIs run a con on an innocent mark recruited in an online game.
HELLO, S-BANK CUSTOMER: CURRENT BALANCE: $411,537.00
Bill nearly closed the window in reflexive shock, as if it had started blasting an advertising jingle or looping an animation of a dead kitten. With a caution that would have done credit to a hand surgeon, he brought up the account history.
A neat variation on an SF classic. The character makes the game work.
"At Last the Sun" by Richard Foss
Out on a shrimp boat in the Gulf, a group of scientists are studying the expanding dead zone caused by chemicals washed down the Mississippi when they spot something on the fish finder that certainly shouldn't be down there on the lifeless seafloor.
The two sets of tentacles on each side pulsed in rhythm, while the fins worked independently to both steer and add momentum. Something gaped and closed next to each to the three compound eyes, and there was movement in the huge triangular mouth each time it opened. A dark band encircled its body just behind the tentacles, irregular bulges dangling from it.
An environmental story, yet there are no heavy-handed lectures on the subject from the nicely-done cast of characters, who appreciate the complexity of the current situation. Neat idea.
"A Time for Heroes" by Edward M Lerner
Travis is a pro gamer, hired by the developers to test virts before release to the public. The virt he is testing now is a war game, but after a number of sessions, something seems wrong about the enemy bots; they don't act quite like bots. Are they other players, like himself? He gradually realizes that something is very wrong.
The character development of Travis within the game is effective, but a lot depends on the character of real-life before-the-game Travis, whom we don't really know.
"Cargo" by Michael F Flynn
Post-apocalypse. After the Fall, it became a deadly sin to remember such things as cities and supermarkets and books, even though the ruins lie all around, not yet entirely covered by wilderness. Nob's gramper was a small boy when it happened and he was stoned for remembering, as Nob's mother was, as well, for passing on the stories. Now Nob is old and drinks to forget, but young Will, who might be his son, is trying to bring the stories to life, and Nob can't stand to witness another stoning.
"It's an ancient prophecy. 'If you build it, they will come.' He figures if he builds a supermarket, someone will come stock it."
It's not inconceivable that some isolated communities might have reverted to a primitive religion after the fall of civilization, because there is no idea so demented that some group of humans won't adopt it. But the real point of this one is the way people can live within a technologically complex civilization without understanding how it works, just as if it were magic.
I'd been waiting with some interest for the final issue of this ezine, wondering if it would go out with a great spectacular bang like a fireworks show that saves the biggest display for last. Not so, however, in the case of JBU; the finale contains only five complete original stories. Still, the majority of these final tales are not of diminished quality.
"Afterimage" by J Kathleen Cheney
Murder mystery. Detective William Greene views the corpse, felled by an EM blast that took out his heart regulator.
His body looked too fit to be natural, the kind of fitness only the wealthy could afford metabolism regulator chips, continual isometric toning programs, possibly even a few DNA alterations. A man like that didn't have gray in his hair unless he wanted to.Suspicion falls first on a cult opposed to all cyberenhancements, which worries Greene, who relies heavily on his own vision implants. But a detective can still function without sight.
Well-done detective story with a nice cast of cops and possible suspects.
"Trappers" by Stoney Compton
Alien contact. While Caleb is trapping beaver, Ta'ffil is planning to trap the trapper instead of the gold she is supposed to be obtaining on this planet as fuel for the ship. But Ta'ffil is fatally reckless, and now her partner is left with the task. Except that Caleb has gotten to the gold first. In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny: "This means war."
An engaging and deadly duel between two species, pretty evenly matched in ingenuity despite the alien's technological superiority.
"Storming Venus" by John Lambshead
A sequel. As usual with these, there is a backstory problem, but this time the problem is an insufficiency of backgrounding, rather than the usual excess. Readers unfamiliar with this milieu may not readily grasp that Sarah Brown, as a pilot in Her Majesty's Royal Navy, is a female spiritualist who brings ships through the interplanetary aether. This time, Captain Fitzwilliam has commandeered her to guide him on a mission of espionage to Venus, where the Nazis Prussians have established a secret base at which they may be working black magic. Adventures ensue.
The inadequate backstory is not the only problem here. The author drops the reader straight into a gratuitous dungeon as Sarah is interrogated by a spittle-spraying inquisitor in consequence of events in the previous installment. This was the weakest point of an otherwise interesting premise in the original story, and just in case readers might take seriously the threat of Sarah being burned to death as a witch, she refers to her situation "a beastly, silly, pottage of a pickle." Once Captain Fitzwilliam rescues her, the witch matter is dropped entirely out of the plot. Throughout the ensuing adventures, we must endure endless tedious banter of the "don't bother your pretty, empty head" variety from both Fitzwilliam and Sarah's spirit guide Captain Hind; this one-note song soon loses its charm. On the other hand, the author displays a nice touch with horror:
She touched the wood and her mind dropped into a dark pit of despair. Newts armed with stabbing spears ran in a circle along a fixed track from which they could not deviate. Each newt cut at the back of the newt in front to make it go faster so that the striker could try to escape the cuts from the newt behind. Each cut inflicted savage pain that spurred the victim forward. The newts were locked in an eternal cycle of misery.
"Hollywood Ending" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Hollywood magic. In 1946, aspiring writer Elizabeth is working at the studio lot for a famous screenwriter when four little men show up.
They looked like they'd walked out of a fairy tale. They were astonishing little and unbelievably old, the kind of old you rarely see any more, the wizened wrinkled shrunken old that made them all look like peeled apples left too long in the sun.Whatever they tell him is devastating to her mentor, but it is just as disconcerting to Elizabeth when the little men tell her she is expected to take his place. But how? And doing what?
This is a story about time and people who can control it, stop it, slow it down; who can change history. We know from the beginning that this is not our own timeline, but it takes a long time to learn what Jackson Holden Carter had to do with the change, and it is never really clear what Elizabeth's role is supposed to be, except to remember. The Hollywood setting is quite vividly realized and the narrative voice rings true. However, Jackson's secrets are not discovered by Elizabeth in the course of the plot but instead delivered by the narrator as a Revelation; and they have the sense of something contrived.
"Little Things" by J F Keeping
Mick is the lonely AI in charge of an army of bots sent to a prospective colony world to prepare it for human colonization. There seem to be no indigenous lifeforms higher than bacterioids, but Mick discovers that something is causing his bots to malfunction and the effect is spreading rapidly.
Essentially, this is a scientific mystery, but not a very deep one; the solution is pretty obvious from the setup. The narrative is excessively heavy with infodump, and it is hard to credit an AI as angst-ridden and emotionally needy as Mick.
Tales from two of fantasy's rising stars, although the first is actually science fiction.
"Between Two Dragons" by Yoon Ha Lee
Even when empires have spread across space, some things remain the same. Cho lies between the greater powers of Feng-Huang and Yamat, whose ambitious ruler has invaded Cho's space. Admiral Yen Shenar is Cho's most capable military leader, but his success has created a jealous enemy of higher rank. To save himself, he has to lose part of himself. His story is told to him in absentia by the programmer from the Ministry of Virtuous Thought who wiped his mind at his own request and now awaits news of his ultimate battle, that will determine the fate of all Cho.
The poetry of war:
We wither under a surfeit of light as readily as we wither beneath drowned hopes. When photons march soldier-fashion at an admiral's bidding, people die.But this is a tale less of combat than of the honor of individuals on the field of political intrigue. The metaphor of the title evokes an old tale of Korea, a tiger between the powerful dragons of larger empires.
"January" by Becca De La Rosa"
January has suddenly disappeared, and now Fionn can't even remember her clearly.
"Some people just aren't real," Mara said, as if she had sensed a faux pas and wanted to remedy it. "You can tell by the sound of their names. She is not a real person, or not the kind of person it's easy to find in reality, at any rate."But Mara, Fionn's wife, is not entirely real herself, being a ghost who inhabits his oven. Swan is also concerned about January, claiming to be her sister, but then Swan nibbles on glass, making her reality a bit suspect, as well.
According to January, there are more states of being than alive and dead, although she does not define them. This leaves a number of possibilities: it seems quite probable that everyone in this story is dead, or at least not alive; it is quite probable that Fionn, who seems the most likely to be alive, is dreaming this entire thing. It's that sort of fiction. One thing seems clear, that ties among people persist beyond life. Besides that, however, I must admit that I haven't a clue to make sense of this.
This novella was serialized throughout March.
"Her Deepness" by Livia Llewellyn
Dark fantasy. Gillian was an orphan, a child of the mines with a strong affinity for the seams of anthracite. She escaped to become a stone worker, unusually capable of bringing out the form that lies hidden in the stone. But she has now fallen into the hands of a cult that believes it has discovered a stone containing a god; they want her to bring it to life. Except that most of Gillian's story is not true, and her true journey is inward, into the geologic deepness where she was born, into the truth about herself.
Everything here is highly fantastic. There are ancient cosmic and chthonic gods, there are a billion years of living stone, there are half-inhuman sibyls that can see into the deepness of a soul to what is hidden. This aspect of the story is more vaguely sensed than seen, at the place where dream and metaphor flow into each other. On the other hand, the continent-vast city of Obsidia, with its mines and factories and railways, with its poisoned air, is quite vividly seen, a creation more monstrous in its own way than the elder gods which, seen up close, inevitably disappoint with their mundanity, for some things are better imagined than seen, while others appear in vivid images.
From her feet to the horizon, Obsidia stretches out and up: deep valleys of smoking furnaces and factories to snow-capped peaks of the Tenebroso crowned with stacks a hundred stories high, jetting green fire against the red disk of the rising sun. Countless train tracks catch the morning rays as they shoot from the bowels of the city, filled with the riches of the earth–copper, coal, silver, potassium nitrate and iron ore–and disperse up the hemisphere to all corners of the world. And in between the dark edges of industry, hazy spherical glimpses of another city rise from Obsidia's midst, the strange geometries of their god's city made real as it's pulled from dark ocean waters thousands of miles away, and reassembled in their midst.