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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early February


And now the stories have been pouring in. Quite a few good ones this time, I’m happy to say. The best are “Movement” by Nancy Fulda in Asimov’s and “Like a Hawk in its Gyre” from Redstone.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld #53, February 2011

Two unhappy political scenarios — one in the future, one in the past.

“Diving After the Moon” by Rachel Swirsky

As a boy, Norbu loved his mother Jamyang’s story about the monkeys who saw the moon’s reflection in the well and climbed down to rescue it. Norbu wanted go up to the moon as a taikonaut, and his ambition was eventually fulfilled. But while his expedition is there, a dispute among greater powers on Earth cuts off their radio contact, and as they are running out of oxygen, Norbu thinks of his mother, who is devastated when she hears the news.

An odd piece, balancing on the cusp between realistic science fiction and impossible fantasy as Jamyang climbs up a chain of monkeys to reach the moon and rescue her son. Readers may at first be perplexed, but the last lines resolve the situation in a very apt way. While the science-fictional aspect is deeply pessimistic about the greater world, its heart is a story of the power of love between mother and son.

“Three Oranges” by D Elizabeth Wasden

A story of the Stalinist era. Stepan is an agent of the NKVD and, appropriately, a sadist. His current assignment is to convince the composer Prokofiev to return to Moscow, and Stalin also wants him to return the Three Oranges. Stepan does not wish to relinquish the Oranges to Stalin, although he is not averse to using them to persuade Prokofiev.

I plucked them from the tree. Rubbed them across my lips, flicked my tongue over them. Tasted them. Knew them. Never let it be said that I have no control, for I placed them in the pocket of my greatcoat.

Readers should definitely be familiar with Prokofiev’s opera or, better yet, the folktale on which it was based, in order to properly appreciate this work. It is both disturbing and depressing, driven by powerful images. The description of the Oranges, the taste and scent and texture of them, is cruelly sensuous, expressing a twisted love that must always end badly, and the spectre of Stalin, here called the Cockroach, spreads a dark miasma over the scene.

–RECOMMENDED



Subterranean, Winter 2011

Here is the last story listed on the cover. I have no idea whether more fiction will be posted for this issue, but if this is it, it’s certainly been a good one. There is also an audio version of an Elizabeth Bear story, for those readers who have speakers and other such devices.

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” by K J Parker

The narrator is a professor of music, respected in his profession but limited in talent. His student, however, known to the world as Subtilius of Bohec, is a natural genius whose works were met with the highest acclaim until he committed murder and was sentenced to hang. The narrator visits him in prison, begging to be allowed to complete his last, unfinished work, but the composer declines.

“No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the–” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said.

The professor is disconcerted to learn that shortly after his visit, the condemned man has escaped his cell. And come to the professor’s own rooms to hide, and to make him an offer he can’t bring himself to refuse.

A brilliantly Mephistophelean tale of temptation, jealousy and revenge, a fascinating study of character. We get to look deep into the narrator’s soul, where the dominant tone is fear and insecurity, to see how his life is entirely upset by the encounter with an amoral man who is everything he would have wanted to be. I do wish the author had given us his name.

–RECOMMENDED



Asimov’s, March 2011

Stories about people in different situations, more about the people than the situations. The Fulda story is outstanding.

“Clean” by John Kessel

Dan McClendon is a professor of electrical engineering now suffering from Alzheimer’s and considering an experimental treatment in which much of his memory will be erased to restore the memory function. The more that’s erased, the better the potential outcome.

McClendon was different. He didn’t need to forget anything for emotional reasons — he was dealing with a physiological condition. Alzheimer’s was going to empty his mind like a jug with a dozen leaks, and in the process break him. He was here to empty himself prematurely, with the hope that it would leave him unbroken.

The question for him now is: what are the memories he wants to retain?

I’m not really convinced by the premise of this medical procedure, but it really isn’t the main point. The story is about the people, Dan and his wife and daughter, and what both the disease and the cure do to their family; it’s a story about love and losing it. It’s also a story about personal identity and how much of it lies in our memories.

“I Was Nearly Your Mother” by John Creasey

Marian’s mother died four years ago and she is living with her grandparents when a strange woman shows up at the house and announces that she is her mother from an alternate universe in which she aborted her pregnancy. The visit doesn’t go well. Life doesn’t offer easy do-overs.

“This would have happened anyway,” Marian went on, “even if you hadn’t had an abortion. Your own child would have grown up and rebelled against you, rejected you, called you a shriveled old bitch who doesn’t understand. That’s how it is. Deal with it.”

Creasey does a good job with the truculent teenager; Marian is real, and she’s already learned a lot more from life than Della ever will. The story offers a lot to ponder about the possibility of learning from an alternate’s mistakes. Unfortunately, Marian ponders this at the conclusion at rather too much length. I found myself wondering whether her grandparents were her mother’s parent or her father’s — a part of the story that seems to be missing, as the grandparents were conveniently out of town.

“The Most Important Thing in the Word” by Steve Bein

The most important thing is what you leave by mistake in the back seat of a cab. Ernie knows. He’s been driving a cab for thirty-two years. This kid left his silver case there when Ernie took him to Harvard for a physics conference.

Inside there’s this funny-looking suit, a bit like a wetsuit but with copper wires running all over the outside. The fabric smells strongly of neoprene. It’s the same shade of blue the Royals wear, and with the hood and goggles it looks like something you’d wear if you wanted to get in a fistfight with Spider-Man. On the chest there’s a steel box with a little readout screen and what looks like a phone keypad.

It turns out to be a time travel suit, and Ernie just has to try it on and try it out. It seems like the answer to all his problems, which are mostly that his wife Janine has left him because he spends too much time in the cab reading paperback novels instead of working. But of course that’s too easy to be true.

Ernie is a great character, and his narrative voice carries this story to a satisfactory conclusion.

“Purple” by Robert Reed

A godlike entity [or so it seems to those who call it "master"] rescues badly wounded creatures and houses them in a compound where they have [almost] everything they need. Some are healed and returned to their homeworlds. Some, more severely maimed, remain at the compound for life. Tito, blinded and with one arm missing, is one of these, but he misses his lover Adola, who has gone back to Earth.

The author’s note says that the story was inspired by a visit to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, and being familiar with such a place, I can say that he has captured what is real about it. To Tito and the others, the master and his motives are incomprehensible.

The master’s voice has no gender, but that’s the only quality it lacks. Each word is clear and strong, and despite being quicker than human speech, it is easily understood. This is how stone would sound, given the capacity for conversation. This is a great mountain speaking to a little man, and it is a blessing to be noticed by a life as special and vast as the master’s.

But the story is primarily about the strength of love and the lengths that people will go for it.

“Where” by Neal Barrett Jr

The author tells us he doesn’t explain this stuff and readers have to figure it out by themselves. So I figure this has to be a very devolved future in which everyone is a robot or maybe some kind of clone, although they’re called peeple and all seem to be either a tom or a perry. Somewhere is a factory where they are all being made. Khids are robots and jimmies, and the peeple rent them for jobs until they break. The jimmie in the story has lost a nub and is worried about this. He’s seen the pile of broken jimmies.

There were arms, legs, elbows and knees, bent, broken, splintered and snapped, poking this way and that. Plastic bellies spilled tangled, strangled strings of wire. Blue eyes stared at him from a shiny chrome head. “I know him,” jimmie said aloud. “I know him and everybody else here, too.”

The narrative voice has some interesting peculiarities [tom buys a sex for three monies, but it's not clear just what this entails] but I find this overall a depressing work. The author says that the lives of these peeple seem real to them, which is all that counts for any of us. But they don’t seem count for much, which seems also to be true for any one us: we’re made, dumped out of the truck into life, and eventually replaced. Or at least that’s how I read it.

“God in the Sky” by An Owomoyela

A new light has appeared in the sky. Suddenly people are acting like it’s the End Times, or at least the end of the world. Katri has trouble with this.

But the light, for all that it had sent Dad to Liberia and Josey to Tennessee, hadn’t sent me seventy minutes down the interstate to drink coffee in my grandfather’s kitchen. That had been Josey, it had been Dad, it had been the people buying gas and generators like they’d need to dig in tomorrow for a white night sky—maybe—in twenty years.

Although Katri is a scientist and sees the event as a scientist, the story isn’t really about science, it’s about people and the way they react to events that suggest there may be something in the universe greater than they had known. About the way it makes love and personal connections suddenly seem more important. Katri’s grandfather is a good character and a wise man.

“Movement” by Nancy Fulda

Hannah has a condition called temporal autism, which refers to time and not the part of the brain; she experiences time differently and is fascinated by the slow changes in objects, in evolution. Her distressed parents are considering an experimental treatment to change her.

“Would you like that, Hannah? Would you like to be more like other teenagers?”

Neither yes nor no seems appropriate, so I do not say anything. Words are such fleeting, indefinite things. They slip through the spaces between my thoughts and are lost.

When I review a story this well-written, I find myself admiring one expression after the other and wanting to quote them all, to tell readers, “Look at this! Admire this!” Hannah’s thoughts are wondrous, but unlike her, Fulda can express them. The basic situation is one that SF has done hundreds of times before, e.g. the Kessel story above, but the prose makes all the difference. The ending is so poignant. I urgently want Hannah’s parents to understand what she is saying; I fear what might be lost if they do not.

–HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“Lost in the Memory Palace, I Found You” by Nick Wolven

Ray is living the fast life, but he’s been having memory problems. He gets lost a lot — or places aren’t where they used to be. He seems to have forgotten his name — or everyone else has. Things in his world change too fast to recall, and a lot of people don’t even try anymore.

“What have you done with Ruben?”

Jurgen’s face puckers with confusion. “Who?”

“Ruben,” I say. “Tall guy. Good taste in shirts. He was filling in for Claire.”

“Who?”

“Claire. She works for FoodWay. I mean, Vendi. I mean, Lodexho-Yu.”

We are Lodexho-Yu.”

“So Claire no longer works for you?”

“Who is this Claire?”

He has had a flashback in which a girl appears, along with the feeling of hope. Ray could use hope. He decides to find her.

The lively prose here has a sort of strobing effect: flash, flash, flash, and everything is different the next time it appears. An entertaining and disorienting look at memory and change and the problems of a world moving too fast.



Analog, April 2011

Featuring an “Andrea Cort” novella by Adam-Troy Castro. Also some nice very short pieces.

“Hiding Place” by Adam-Troy Castro

Part of the author’s series featuring the protagonist/narrator, murder investigator Andrea Cort. As we begin: The only prisoner in the interrogation room consisted of two women and one man. The reader thinks, “huh?” then realizes the author is telling us that the three physical humans are one person, their minds cylinked. [Only a few paragraphs later, however, he undermines this by referring to "three prisoners".] As the narrator observes, cylinking comes with pronoun problems, which is key to this mystery, so they are a murder suspect. Cort has been called in by her old classmate Lyra Bengid because of her familiarity with cylinked persons, as there is a legal complication in the case, despite a confession and a surveillance recording of the crime. While the man named Harriman did the actual killing, he was a single-mind at the time and only linked with the two Diyamens after the crime was committed. Bengid is convinced they are trying to game the legal system to get away with murder, and determined not to let them get away with it.

“If we charge Harriman alone and throw his ass in prison, then it’s no real punishment for him. He could languish in the most subterranean dungeon in existence and still continue to enjoy freedom by proxy, as long as Diyamens are out in the world, living however they want.”

But as Cort takes on the case, it raises questions about her own decision to link with her own cylinked-pair lover.

First, the author gets the sequel thing right. Much of this story depends on understanding the dysfunctional personality of the narrator, established in previous works, but this necessary background is effectively presented in the story at hand without weighing it down. The nature of the cylinked personalities, also, is shown effectively through illustration rather than explanation. It’s neat when Cort’s lover speaks simultaneously in both voices.

When the male Oscin and the female Skye spoke together, as they did much of the time, they balanced the tones of their respective individual voices to create a shared one that didn’t seem to originate from either mouth but rather from some compromise location between them.

The plot is essentially that of a murder mystery, resting on interrogation and logic rather than action, which is absent here. But this is one place I see a problem, because Cort has brought her cylinked lover along, and it seems pretty clear that with their greatly superior understanding of linked personalities, they should have solved the problem long before she did, indeed almost immediately. But then we wouldn’t have had a story.

I have another problem, a more subjective one. I completely disagree with the author about the consequences of cylinking in these two cases — the potential of damage to the minds that enter the link. I think he has it backwards. My judgment rests on the fact, as established in the story, that the murder was justifiable, a sort of self-defense. Which brings me to a lesser but bothersome point. If we lived in a perfect world without bigotry, it’s something I might not even notice. But recent events have sensitized me to these issues. So I have to wonder when I notice that the villain, a person described as so vile that he must deserve to be murdered a dozen times over, is the only character here given a name linking him with a particular religion, a name that stands out from the other character names: Aman al-Afiq. Sure, everyone has to be named something. But why not Armstrong? Or Angelotti? Or Abraham?

“Ian’s Ions and Eons” by Paul Levinson

The name belongs to a time-travel agency. In fact, the only time-travel agency. Ian didn’t invent the process, he’s just the local agent. The narrator books a trip back to 2000. The instructions in the itinerary are lengthy and detailed. This fact alone makes us suspect that something will go wrong, and if there were any doubt, his guide tells him, “And the guiding principle, always, is that once a plan is in motion, there are few certainties, positive or negative….” Of course he is planning to change history, even though he claimed he was not when he signed the contract.

There’s some clever stuff here about the agency and its operations, but stuck in the center of it is the narrator’s dull plot to change the outcome of the presidential election. Wrapper’s OK, filling tasteless.

“Balm of Hurt Minds” by Thomas R Dulski

Tomma Lee is a journalist assigned to do a story for the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of the aliens called Neighbors, who have brought significant advancements to humanity, including a sleep aid called Somnomol. Which is interesting to Tomma Lee, as Neighbors don’t sleep. At the same time, various strangers are hearing disembodied voices. Naturally, being a sharp journalist Tomma Lee realizes these phenomena are connected.

A fairly ordinary piece, complete with infodumps on the chemistry of sleep and other stuff.

“The Flare Weed” by Larry Niven

A “Draco Tavern” short-short. A plant that flowers only during a solar flare. Clever, neat ending.

“Two Look at Two” by Paula S Jordan

Something is up in the woods at Jason and Sarah’s place. Animals show up, injured but repaired. Vivisection? Then their old collie takes off after something, and Jason goes for the scythe.

Still, Sara had seen it — a hideous wound extending almost the length of the shorn area. It was new, no question about that, but already more than half healed.

A nice short alien contact story, taking a sensible and humane point of view.

“Blessed Are the Bleak” by Edward M Lerner

“As This Goes On.” Malcolm Jenkins is a computer guy working unhappily to reduce costs for Universal [health] Care, fondly known as Yuck. His own time he spends in virtual reality as a Caped Crusader, but lately even this refuge is being overrun by Virts, downloaded personalities who no longer have a physical existence, which means no healthcare costs. A devious plot is laid.

While this scenario is larger than a political screed, the author links the problem to government-run healthcare. But I’ve seen the same practices he describes in the profit-based system. It’s not who runs these things, but how.

“Remembering Rachel” by Dave Creek

Murder mystery. The moon is under occupation by the Earth Alliance, which complicates Constable Dacia Stark’s investigation of the killing.

To her distaste, an Alliance peacekeeper, armored and with a pulse rifle shouldered, stood several doorways down. He was just far enough away not to be intruding upon the scene, but close enough to see what was going on.

The complication is that the victim was the fiancée of Grayson Whitford, the primary negotiator on the Lunar side. If his reputation falls, so the negotiations and the possibility of freeing the moon from occupation. And both sides are acutely aware of this.

A very promising dilemma, if not entirely original, pitting a nation’s freedom against the execution of the law. But the plot failed to live up to the potential. I’m not sure why Dacia was immediately so sure that Stark was guilty. My own immediate surmise was quite different — and also wrong. But the conclusion we actually get provides a too-simplistic solution to an interestingly complicated problem.

“Quack” by Jerry Oltion

Dustin debunks quacks and snakeoil salesmen on TV, although his only pay is “the satisfaction of speaking out for true science in the face of vast public ignorance.” He is expecting to eviscerate a homeopath, but instead the man makes a proposal in the spirit of true science, a clinical trial under the auspices of the CDC. And Dustin can’t refuse.

A light look at the scientific method and the nature of proof.



GigaNotoSaurus, February 2011

“Karaluvian Fale” by Cat Rambo

House Fale is in straitened circumstances, which Kara is desperately trying to conceal just as she conceals her real qualities under the public persona of a brainless female, while her wastrel brother Lunaris spends the family deeper into debt. It seems like the answer to all her problems when the Beneficence Gracchus takes her under his protection.

Here is a highly mannered and decadent society that evokes Renaissance Italy. Bread and circuses keep the population amused, while the public monies find their way into the purses of the nobles.

“Remember the party last year where you had the coach races and the party guests pulling them with the mounts inside, sticking their heads out the windows and rolling their eyes at the spectacle? And you can use the Kadian silks to make yourself a new dress for each day of the Festival.”

Kara’s schemes are entertainingly Machiavellian.



Redstone Science Fiction #9, February 2011

I’m happy to see that this ezine has altered its format to be more readable. The editor announces that the issue’s theme is genetic engineering.

“Like a Hawk in its Gyre” by Philip Brewer

Kurt used to work for a black military project that transformed hawks into self-directed missiles. Now he is free to concentrate on his own project, modifying bicycles with living tissue. Almost free. His brain has been conditioned to protect his old secrets and avoid unrecorded contacts.

The urge to find surveillance cameras — the need to do nothing that wasn’t observed — was one that he’d had some time to get used to. Even, to an extent, come to terms with. What his brain needed was watching eyes. It wanted surveillance cameras, but those weren’t the only kind of eyes.

So when he spots another cyclist behind him on the deserted trail, it creates a state of panic, which turns out to be quite justified. His pursuer is after his secrets, after his hawks.

A nicely-done look at mental conditioning more than genetic engineering. It’s interesting to see how Kurt responds to the stimulus, how his free will and conditioned response interact, particularly when his pursuer overrides the programming. We also get a glimpse of the ruthlessness of people who would contemplate such a project, the lengths to which they would go. But the strongest aspect is the character of Kurt, the man himself behind the programming, the man who has to decide how free he wants his will to be.

–RECOMMENDED

“Fatherhood” by Kristin Lee Knaap

Octopus is a consummate cyberwarrior, designed for the work by his father. His ambition is to carry on his father’s work and grow a child of his own. This will take a lot of money, so he accepts the assignment to introduce a virus into the neural network of his client’s rival.

A rather typical cyberpunk/action story, complete with plots and betrayals. Most of it is the description of all the flaming chromatic stuff, on which the author has gone a bit overboard:

I run, never ceasing even when a plethora of daruma killers hobble towards me from the security bulkheads, cybernetic eyes fixated on me. The combat-state obscures my sight, blurs my memory as predictors and processors assume control of my body. I roll under plasma pulses, dodge laser shots and lead projectiles.

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.

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