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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January


Some first-of-the-month ezines, one from last year, and a new print anthology upcoming in February.

The best stories this time are both from Clarkesworld.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, January 2011

Starting out the year on a strong chord with this dyad of stories. Both are science fiction; the first is out there in the territory of Clarke’s Divide, while the second is unfortunately too real today.

“Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee

When Lisse was a young child, her world Rhaion was devastated by an attack by mercenaries in the Imperial employ. As was the custom of her people, she was given a ghost to carry, and it was her constant companion as she grew up to become an Imperial cadet, always mindful of revenge.

[The ghost] was composed of cinders of color, a cipher of blurred features, and it had a voice like entropy and smoke and sudden death.

When she discovers a derelict mercenary war-kite, she embarks on her mission of vengeance with the ghost as her co-pilot.

This is a work to be savored with great care and enjoyment. The prose is rich with detail and symbolism, creating a world in which the deadly reality of war hides behind a veneer of artistry. The war-kite is an origami creation, but its shaping is lethally functional. Readers may wonder about many of the details, but by the end the devastating answers have been revealed.

–RECOMMENDED

“Tying Knots” by Ken Liu

In a remote village in the Burmese mountains, Soe-bo is the keeper of his tribe’s history, written in knotted ropes. The knot records tell him that rainfall is decreasing, threatening the village’s rice crops, although not that the cause is global climate change. One day a stranger comes from far-off America, who is intrigued with the knotted books as a medium of information.

Strung together like Buddhist prayer beads, the knots form words, sentences, stories. Speech is given substance and form. Run the hand down the string, and you can feel the knotters’ thoughts in your fingers and hear their voices through your bones.

There is a great deal of nonsense being blathered these days about “cultural appropriation.” Here is the real thing. The story is more effective because it is told in part from the stranger’s point of view, a man who insulates himself in deliberate ignorance of the consequences of his acts. Be angry.

–RECOMMENDED



Apex Magazine, January 2011

Issue #20 of this ezine, although it seems to me it’s been around a lot longer, under a similar name. The publisher is trying a new subscription model; these stories from the January issue won’t be posted free to nonsubscribers until next month.

“The Itaewon Eschatology Show” by Douglas F Warrick

The narrator is an expat living in Korea for no particular reason that we can tell. He meets a guy named Kidu who claims to know the secret of the end of the world. The two dress up as night clowns on stilts and offer their visions to the crowd. Is it real magic or only illusion?

My balloon is red and crawling with a lattice of veins. An excised tumor, an organ shuttering in my hand. It pulses. It squirms. Blood sloshes beneath translucent rubber skin, backlit by the spinning barber poles and pink neon lights of Hooker Hill, cast into silhouette.

While this appears to be an ambiguous fantasy, the evidence suggests the magic is real. The images they present to the crowds, however, are surreal and uninformative; they only pretend to be illuminating, like dreams and drugged hallucinations from which we wake to find the vision slipping from our grasp. The narrator and his friend are addicted to their own dreams, which are far more vivid than the faded banality of their daylight lives. While we have to concede the magic is probably real, it might as well be an illusion.

“The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells” by Seanan McGuire

Diana Weston is a mad scientist, a microbiologist who has decided to exterminate the human race because she thinks it is too stupid to live.

When I was young, I dared to believe in the good of man. When my beliefs proved flawed, I set a challenge before the world. Given the wrong lessons, shown the wrong examples, would they cleave to survival, or would they let themselves be led?

Like all mad scientists, she is compelled to explain herself at length, making this piece an extended gloating mwa-ha-ha-ha. We know she is insane because she keeps calling her supergerms her “daughters,” which is really irritating, as is the repeated mention of bells. It’s not clear, however, how she convinced her assistants to go along with the project. Did they share her madness? While the insanity of the narrator is unconvincing, this piece is unsettling as a reminder that a project such as this one is hardly impossible for someone perhaps more malevolent than deranged.



Three-lobed Burning Eye, October 2010

A small ezine that comes out very irregularly with six fantasy stories ranging from very short to very very short, a length that does not lend itself easily to review. The tone is predominately dark and often surreal, offering some strikingly fantastic images.

“The Birdstories of Jaywalker” by Jennifer Strakes

Jay, who does not seem to be a bird, is a wandering storyteller. He has a mystery. It is not clear why his stories are bird, or capitalized. Some nice prose. Although the author tells us that “He moved with the rhythmic patience of those who never get to where they are going, and are not sad when they don’t arrive,” in fact he is quite urgent about reaching his final destination in time.

“Kohl-lined” by Shweta Narayan

In a world where technological modifications can make mortals seem otherwise, the Hindu gods go onstage as themselves. Which is today’s way of being worshiped.

“The Edge of the World” by DeAnna Knippling

The narrator was taken as a changeling when he was a baby, but he made a deal to get out of the fairy realm and become mortal again. Except there was a catch. Now the fairies need a new changeling, and he’s supposed to steal it for them.

Essentially a child abuse story. The wise-ass prose makes it entertaining:

But they didn’t understand, of course. Fairies don’t have souls. It was like trying to talk to someone at the DMV.

“Totentanz” by Justin Lee

Horror. A homicidal madman taunts his latest victim.

You must have many questions. I apologize for removing your tongue, but certain circumstances require certain measures, and my resolve tends to flag at many questions and pleas. And tonight calls for resolve.

There are few valid excuses for letting out all the stops with this sort of prose, but a homicidal madman will do it.

“No Signal” by Seth Cadin

In a surreal setting, explorers land [somewhere] and encounter a giant buffalo that can swim between planets.

In a quick sharp dip of its shaggy head, it ate the lander, belching back a purple cloud of fuel that put them all to sleep. Another rotation and they scrambled awake to find the lander’s legs jutting from the marshmallow, but nothing else — just a few dangling wires spitting thick golden sap.

This one is sort of like science fiction on really heavy drugs.

“Inside the Ganges” by Jennifer Hollie Bowles

Jones dives down to the bottom of the Ganges to discover what is down there chanting the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. From what he can see, it’s a “telepathic-boil-covered-mantra-chanting-human-limbed-purple-eyed Catfish Dolphin.” And it doesn’t like him. Weird, more icky than scary.



GigaNotoSaurus, January 2011

“Work, with Occasional Molemen” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Alien mole men have tunneled into Mel’s basement and drunk up all his beer. More worrisome, the plant where he works is about to lay off the human workers and hire mole men, who work at less than union rates. But Mel’s real problem is his extortionate family, which keeps all its members in perpetual debt slavery. This bunch makes trailer trash something to look up to.

[Pawnbroker] Jerry the Jew looked up from an antique six-shooter he was cleaning as the door alarm beeped overhead. Of course he wasn’t actually a Jew — his family went to the same church as ours did, and anyway, I can count the number of Jews I’ve met in Kansas on one hand. Didn’t matter though. In the Old Man’s logic, Jerry was a money changer, and all money changers were Jews.

This ought to be funny, but mostly it’s not, because the situation with Mel’s family is too hopelessly dismal, too close to real for laughing.

–RECOMMENDED



Welcome to the Greenhouse, edited by Gordon Van Gelder

An anthology about the consequences of change in the global climate, subtitled: New Science Fiction on Climate Change. In about 340 pp, there are sixteen stories, most by authors well-known in the science fiction field. The settings are generally near-future, the scenarios more or less apocalyptic, but the tone varies from grim and dismal to the comic. While some of the stories are hopeful, it’s usually a limited sort of hope, of surviving the coming crisis rather than averting it. Most, however, offer a more negative outlook.

“Benkoelen” by Brian W Aldiss

Coyne was brought up on this isolated island off the coast of Sumatra, later purchased by the wealthy woman for whom he works.

Many another island sank forever beneath the waves, many a coastline was consumed. Benkoelen remained, seeming to stand proud above the storms like a bundle of fossilized corks.

Dodging tsunamis, he has now returned to the island, where his sister Cass runs a conservation project for orangutans. He has bad news for her. But in this world, there seems to be no other kind.

The editor’s introduction says that these stories offer more questions than answers, and it is certainly the case here. In this case it is highly appropriate. We know that change is coming, we know we aren’t going to like it, but we can’t know exactly what it holds for us. The conversational narrative voice makes the island’s future seem personal, and the author succeeds in making us see the vulnerability of its inhabitants, human and animal. A good choice for opening the volume, the best story in it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Damned When You Do” by Jeff Carlson

Jack Shofield’s wife Margie gave birth to a boy who wasn’t quite God but could have been the world’s savior. The world needed a savior by then, and from the moment of his birth Albert could control the rotation of the planet.

How did our infant son survive? Utter strangers fed and changed him as he passed. Folks kept him warm with the clothes off their backs. They emptied their wallets to get bottles and formula when store owners didn’t put those things in their hands for free.

The premise addresses the notion that it would take something on the order of divine intervention to fix the mess than humans have made of the world. And even then, it might not be enough. A tragedy.

“The Middle of Somewhere” by Judith Moffett

Kaylee is a teenager doing a nest-monitoring project on the property of an older woman who is living a low-impact lifestyle in the country. Tornadoes have become more common, and a big twister hits the property, leaving Kaylee and Jane alive in the basement of the destroyed house. Kaylee learns a lot about survival as well as the consequences of climate change.

By the third day Jane and Kaylee have developed a routine. They’ve run out of bottled water for washing and cooking, so Kaylee hauls it a bucket at a time from the cistern—the pump house is gone but the cistern is below grade and is still there, still full—and Jane purifies it with tablets from the first-aid box.

A personal-scale look at the force of natural systems, and a lot of lessons learned.

“Not a Problem” by Matthew Hughes

If God can’t reverse climate change, maybe money can. Bunky Sansom has plenty of it, but unfortunately, he looks for his solution from extraterrestrials and finds one of the hoariest closing lines in science fiction. Highly unfortunate.

“Eagle” by Gregory Benford

Elinor is an environmental activist and certainly what Homeland Security would call a terrorist, now in Anchorage to sabotage a program meant to reverse the warming of the Arctic by spraying hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. Such a too-facile solution would, in the opinion of her faction, blunt the imperative for the real lifestyle changes needed to cut carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

She kept to herself, loved the vibrant natural world around her, and lived by making others pay the price of their own foolishness. An eagle caught hapless fish. She struck down those who would do evil to the important world, the natural one.

In lesser hands, this kind of piece runs the risk of becoming a polemic, with two-dimensional villains delivering ideologically-charged speeches. For the most part, Benford avoids this, giving us a taut technothriller with a real moral issue at its core, although there is no doubt as to his judgment on Elinor’s mission. The hydrogen sulfide project seems realistically plausible, and Elinor and her team are convincing as paramilitary activists and as characters.

“Come Again Some Other Day” by Michael Alexander

It turns out that the causes of global climate change aren’t as simple as we first supposed. It turns out that people are sending bad climate back from the future. Hap and Gladys are part of a new program set up to send it back, or somewhen else. This makes the situation even more complicated as climate bounces back and forth in time. Things are getting out of hand.

It’s possible to spot periods where lots of climate swiping and swapping were going on by the increase in strange or inexplicable occurrences. You can only move so much climate to or from any given time before the probability side effects get bad, and then you end up with unbelievable stuff like frogs raining out of the sky or the First World War.

An entertainingly improbable story about improbability, which is to say, absurdity. The ending seems relatively probable, given all the rest of what’s going on.

“The Master of the Aviary” by Bruce Sterling

The Resilient, Survivable, Sustainable Shelter has survived but not unchanged. The residents now call it Selder, a city of shining glass.

Sometimes, when spared by the storms, refugees found the old grassy highways, and traveled incredible distances. Vagrants came from the West Coast, and savages from the East Coast. Pirates came from the North Coast, where there had once been nothing but ice. The South was a vast baking desert that nobody dared to explore.

Mellow Julian Nebraska had once been such a refugee who came to Selder in search of ancient knowledge; now he enjoys a simple life of scholarship and avoids political entanglements. But political entanglements seek him out.

A cynical postapocalyptic tale, suggesting that politics may change its form but not its essence, and that moral courage is less common than expediency. The connection to the matter of climate change is tenuous, except to suggest that there will probably be some survivors, somewhere.

“Turtle Love” by Joseph Green

Rising water has condemned the Florida family home of Amos and Stephanie Beyers. The US has mobilized in a vast effort to save what it can of the nation’s land.

Private homes and giant condominiums, office towers and supermarkets, all would be torn down, the concrete block walls and pillars salvaged and cut up into manageable pieces, becoming part of the riprap covering the sloping surfaces of twenty-foot-high dikes.

Amos agrees that the location of their house makes it impractical to try to save it, but Stephanie falls into depression.

A rare positive story about this subject, in which the immediate threat of climate change leads the nation to unify, more or less, to meet the common threat. It’s quite a bit more optimistic than I can credit, almost as if global warming is a blessing. It’s also hard to share Stephanie’s pain when there would seem to be many others much worse off, although the story does not mention them.

“The California Queen Comes A-Calling” by Pat MacEwen

Rising water has turned much of the US into an inland sea, with a resulting loss of law and order. The California Queen is now a floating circuit court, and Taiesha is one of its public defenders. Justice on this new frontier can be rough.

Three hours later, they pulled into Atwater. Four dead pirates hung from the rails on the starboard side. The two they’d captured were chained to the same rails, spread-eagle, one of them wailing about it. The rest of them had either escaped or their bodies had been too much work to recover.

A look at the tough moral conflicts among law, order and justice in a setting where cannibalism is still common. But in such a setting, I find problems with the disparity in technology between the official establishment that sends the boat equipped with sophisticated DNA testing and the towns where refugees are starving and eating each other. I particularly don’t see how it’s possible to restrict births, as this system is doing. How are people at the subsistence level supposed to manage that without access to a modern medical system?

“That Creeping Sensation” by Alan Dean Foster

Atmospheric change has resulted in a greatly increased percentage of oxygen in the air, which has allowed the growth of bigger, badder insects. Extermination is now a job for the military.

One three-foot roach wouldn’t damage the specially armored truck, but if they’d hit it full on they would have had to explain their carelessness to the cleanup crew back at base.

The story consists entirely in following a crew on its rounds and counting the local megabugs they blast away. While I agree with the author that ants are likely to be the biggest problem in this scenario, I think he’s wrong in preferring evil giant yellowjackets to nice giant honeybees. But then, I may be prejudiced.

“The Men of Summer” by David Prill

If global warming means endless summer and endless summer means endless summer romance, it can start to get tiresome. A trivial bit of nonsense.

“The Bridge” by George Guthridge

Andromeda is an Ingalikmiut girl on Little Diomede Island, in a world where the waters are rising and the animals are gone.

She looks back toward the village. People move like phantoms among buildings that, aproned with snow, hug the island’s mountain. The ancient shacks of dunnage and tin roofs now line the shore, the government houses that HUD sent having been disassembled and moved up near the school, because of the rising waters.

There is nothing left to hunt, so the village’s only income is the money some teenage thugs bring in by selling their emotions over the internet. No one will protect Andromeda from the thugs, not the government nor her white father nor the villagers, perhaps because she is half-white or because her mind is strange – Andromeda can see the auras of the living and the darkness when they fade.

This is a very depressing story, a story of people who love but are not able to save each other, a story of moral degradation in a people whose native heritage has been destroyed, of a bureaucracy that does nothing to help the helpless. It is also a confusing one, told from three points of view that are all the same, in which too much seems to depend on a character whom we never see and can not understand, unless we are to understand that a mother will deliberately abandon her own children to suffering so as to drive the earth to rise up in anger in response.

“FarmEarth” by Paul Di Filippo

FarmEarth is a longterm universal project in which people can take virtual control of some segment of the environment to remediate the damage of the past. Although it is spoken of as a game, it is in fact so serious that Cheo’s brother Adán once got five years for subverting the system. For an impatient thirteen-year-old like Crispian, the restrictions on his access are burdensome, so he and his friends jump at the chance to hook up with the supposedly-rehabilitated Adán for a chance at Master status. Naturally, trouble ensues. “I felt at that moment that maybe FarmEarth Master privileges were kept away from us kids for a reason.” Perhaps for example when Crispian virtually hitches a ride on a copulating stallion.

A YA lesson story with a teenaged narrator, this one has a lively neo-slang and a positive attitude about the possibility of cleaning up the mess.

“Sundown” by Chris Lawson

One fine morning, the sun starts to go out. As the narrator says, the Earth is and always was doomed, “but we used to think we had a few billion years to spare.” A group of people in New Zealand get together to form a survival commune, tapping geothermal energy.

That evening, we all went out to watch the sunset. As it went down in the west, the sun gave a feeble red cast over a stand of huge kauri trees that were now encased in rivulets of ice. But there, standing between us and the trees, was our little bit of hope. We stood on the shore of a small pond of liquid water in the surrounding ice. Steam rose from the surface, lit red by the dying light.

This very short piece is narrated from a point in the future when the community has solved its basic problems, thanks mostly to a fortuitous circumstance. They now propose a new, hazardous adventure that may save part of the rest of the world. But readers are stuck in the moment between, when everything interesting has already been accomplished or is yet to be done. Both stories would probably be good reads, but we don’t get to see either of them.

“Fish Cakes” by Ray Vukcevich

Rising heat has driven most people inside to live virtual lives, but now Tyler has left his physical home in Oregon to travel to heat-baked Arizona in order to comfort his virtual friend Ilse after her grandmother dies. Grandmother has left Ilse the recipe for her “famous” fish cakes, along with the Secret Ingredient. This one is less about global warming than the potential for disappointment with reality. The description of “security” for physical air travel in this future is certainly a strong argument for a virtual existence.

“True North” by M J Locke

A post-apocalypse scenario with global warming sending refugees north towards Canada, which has sealed its borders. Bear and his wife Orla survived pretty well in their cabin near the border until Orla fell sick and died. He lived alone for a few years until a pack of child refugees comes through, escapees from a work camp, led by a resourceful teenager named Patty. Patty tells him of the Arctic refuge created by her parents, part of a group of Mexican academics dedicated to preserving as much knowledge as possible. She is determined to make it there, and Bear decides to help her along, despite the odds against them.

The longest story in the collection. It’s is a fairly hopeful one, as post-apocalypses go. The characters are too much either heroic or villainous, but strongly described.

He was so pale his skin had peeled and burned in successive layers over the years, always revealing deeper, ruddier ones. Each layer also added freckles and age spots, too, till now he looked like a ruined patchwork man.

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

Electronic versions can be sent to: loist a*t sff.net

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

Comments

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Time January 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm

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Comment from Ulrich Elkmann
Time January 26, 2011 at 11:35 am

“… in a setting where cannibalism is still common …” – STILL? You mean: as in America today?


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