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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early April


Here are the usual first-of-the-month ezines, together with a batch of quarterly and bimonthly publications. My Good Story award goes to E Lily Yu’s fable of wasps and bees in Clarkesworld. I also recommend an usual not-really-SF piece by M David Blake in Bull Spec.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, April 2011

One story I love, one story I don’t.

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu

A Chinese village is home to a uniquely wondrous species of paper wasps whose nests turn out to be “beautifully accurate maps of provinces near and far, inked in vegetable pigments and labeled in careful Mandarin that could be distinguished beneath a microscope.” When the villagers discover the maps and seize the nests, the surviving wasps escape to find a new home in the wild. Nearby is a honeybee hive, which the wasps conquer, demanding tribute.

Whereas the hive before the wasp infestation had been busy but content, the bees now lived in desperation. The natural terms of their lives were cut short by the need to gather enough honey for both the hive and the wasp nest. As they traveled farther and farther afield in search of nectar, they stopped singing. They danced their findings grimly, without joy. The queen herself grew gaunt and thin from breeding replacements, and certain ministers who understood such matters began feeding royal jelly to the strongest larvae.

Under the stress of captivity, certain bees, exposed to foreign education, developed revolutionary ideas.

A delightful fable, an original idea with prose that’s a pleasure to read. The author maintains a perfect balance between anthropomorphism and entomological truth that manages to express a great deal of the essence of the two species.

–RECOMMENDED

“Matchmaker” by Erin M Hartshorn

The narrator is a young woman who would rather study politics, but whose overbearing mother is determined to get her married at an early age, to which end she has engaged a matchmaker. The matchmaker turns out to be one of the aliens with whom humans share this world, and she has a very special match in mind.

This is supposed to be humor with a moral about racial prejudice, but the humor is too leaden to be effective, and the text is weighed down with infodumpfery about implants for space pilots, which has only a tenuous connection to the subject matter of the story.



Analog, May 2011

A rather frustrating issue. Several stories with considerable promise have annoying flaws that keep me from wholeheartedly recommending them. The Sparhawk story, while not ambitious, is the most successful here at doing what it sets out to do.

“Tower of Worlds” by Rajnar Vajra

The tower is an immense structure with a large number of levels, each level the habitat for a sentient species. On the human level, a royal clan has taken power and developed an immortality treatment. The Queen has now decided to conquer other levels, and to do this is conducting experiments in genetic engineering to develop an army that can survive in other environments. Erik is chosen by a lottery to be an experimental subject, but his transformation is something of a marvel.

He pulled his sandals off and tested the leg restraints. They remained tight as ever. With that unhappy thought, his ankles tingled, his feet seemed to fill with jelly, and they twisted into twin helices. As he gawked, the cuffs slid off his now screw-like feet, making a double clunk when they hit the bottom, nearly masked by the general racket. The freed feet un-kinked and he felt the bones within harden.

After a miraculous escape, he is met – as if by appointment – by a strange committee of humans and aliens who inform him that they are working for the Captains of the tower to thwart the Queen’s plot. Which mostly involves Erik doing the hard leg [or tail] work as it slowly dawns on him in his few unengaged moments that the entire situation is pretty fishy.

Here’s a long skiffy adventure full of derring-do, perils and escapes, and fantastic transformations both hideous and superheroic. All this qualifies it as a Fun Read. Yet even when one of the characters in a story points out all the improbable coincidences in the plot, they are still coincidences and still take some of the fun out of the adventure. It’s one thing when we think Erik’s escape is desperate, another when we learn it was a set-up from the beginning. It’s one thing when we believe the fate of the entire human level is at stake, another when we begin to strongly suspect that the aliens in charge could have stopped the Queen any time they really wanted to; the excuses we hear are awfully lame when we consider there has been a lot of real suffering. And all for what? A recruiting scheme? Another point: although the tower of worlds is in theory a Neat Idea, we don’t really see anything of it outside the human level. A missed opportunity.

“Ellipses…” by Ron Collins

The narrator has noticed something odd in his neighbors’ yard – a series of mounds about the size and shape of a human body. The narrator writes mysteries; he thinks of such things.

I admit I stopped at the kitchen and glanced out over the Fergusons’ yard.

No one was there, but the light was on in their basement.

There’s only one thing to do: dig up the bodies. But the narrator also writes science fiction.

This is a story of intolerance and prejudice, of the way we see and don’t see differences. The theme is tied into the narrator’s family, with his adopted daughter from Mexico who is sometimes the object of hostile remarks. Here’s a case in which the plot tension would have been a lot more effective if the narration had not been in the first person. And we might have learned the character’s name.

“Blind Spot” by Bond Elam

A detective story. Harry Carver’s new client, Lucas Van Buren, is being blackmailed out of his prized Botticelli. The Van Buren corporation is in neuropharmacology, and Carver’s job is to recover a stolen mindwipe drug named Oblivion as well as saving the painting. Carver isn’t real eager to take the job, if not for Van Buren’s executive assistant.

Ms. Radcliff, on the other hand, had class. Real class. Too much class, I should have realized, to be working for a crusty old curmudgeon like Van Buren.

At least he doesn’t call her a dame. The case doesn’t go well. The thief escapes with the painting. All the suspects develop sudden holes in their memories. And Carver is left holding the bag, which finally put him on to the real perpetrator.

A nicely complex mystery, full of turns and neat twists of the plot. Unfortunately, the text is heavily overloaded with infodump about the workings of memory, most of which lacks relevance to the plot. And this is another case where the first-person narrative does not work. Despite this being the convention of detective stories, it can not work, not here. I’m surprised that with all the work the author put into his plot, he overlooked this obvious point.

“Boumee and the Apes” by Ian McHugh

Sentient pachyderms encounter apes who hunt, who dare to attack and kill a grown pachyderm. A young bull argues for co-existence, that the apes are also people. The older members of his clan are more concerned with ensuring their safety and that of their children. “If a lion spoke, would you trust it? If it said that it would not hunt Ush, could you believe it?”

I’m not sure if this one is meant to be fantasy or speculative history – if the author is suggesting that this might have been how the mammoths, for example, became extinct. Certainly, given the intelligence of elephants, the premise is not so far-fetched. But the real question is, who is right? Is peace impossible between herbivores and carnivores? Or does war only lead to war and genocide? The treatment is simple but the question is real.

“The Wolf and the Panther Were Lovers” by Walter L Kleine

Ace is a traveling cardsharp who is planning to cheat the denizens of an isolated town when a wolf and a panther come strolling into the saloon. The old-timers assure him that Lupe and Kitty are good people; Ace assumes it must be some kind of trick.

Ace tried to ignore the wolf. Good act, he thought with admiration. Who’d expect a mark to be able to concentrate while staring at a panther with a wolf looking over his shoulder?

It probably wouldn’t have made much difference if Ace had believed the old-timers’ story.

This one starts out as if it were going to be humor, possibly a Tall Tale, but it’s actually straight SF.

“The Old Man’s Best” by Bud Sparhawk

Working on a space station around Jupiter, Allen finds himself craving a beer.

The damned petty administrators on the station forbade alcoholic beverages of any kind. “Too much risk of fire, fumes, and drunken workers,” the uncivilized officials proclaimed. This didn’t give the damned tea-sipping Indians any grief, nor the coffee-swilling Americans, but what was a Canadian Irishman to do for comfort in such a God-forsaken environment?

His buddy Angus comes up with the answer: brew their own.

Humor. Anyone who’s ever put up a batch of beer will recognize where the characters go wrong in their attempts to keep their project from the administrators’ notice. But the special complications of fermentation on a space station add to their troubles. Nice entertaining piece.



GigaNotoSaurus, April 2011

“The Elgin Age” by S Hutson Blount

The title refers to the age of British Imperialism and its rape of the cultural treasures remaining from the ancient world. But here we have a reversal, as the Olympian immortals have returned to support the Greeks in their revolution against the Ottomans.

With the consequence that the US battle cruiser Atlanta now carries an officer from the office of Olympic Affairs as it steams into the eastern Med to the rescue of the crew of the merchantman Lainie Kathcarte, missing under unknown circumstances. Lieutenant Reed’s services are soon required, as various Olympian powers confront the ship on its voyage – sometimes in verse.

“Blind, Atalanta was
But not sightless.
Is this eyeless ship
A mockery of her plight
Or a gift to her fair tormentor?”

There is tension among the officers and crew, who are not all of one mind about the supernatural phenomena, but there is outright war among the Olympians as they struggle to reestablish their influence in an altered world. Into this conflict steams the Atlanta on its mission.

This is not steampunk or clockwork fantasy, but straight historical fantasy and a whole lot of fun, particularly for the classically-inclined as well as fans of sea stories. I do believe that Leukothea, for several pedantic reasons to numerous to mention, is not the right goddess for that particular place, and it’s too bad about the whales, but then no one ever said the gods were kind, except euphemistically.



Apex Magazine, April 2011

Two fantasies, one from this world and one from another. Although these stories are available online, they are behind a paywall, so there are no direct links.

“The Eater” by Michael J DeLuca

A tribe of people who seem to be new to the world they live in, who are only beginning to learn it and name it. The Speaker, in the village, gives the words to things, but it is the Eater who goes out into the forest and discovers the things, learning them the most intimate way, the most risky way, taking them into himself, becoming them. The narrator wants to become the next Eater; her brother the next Speaker. He believes nothing can be known without words; they make up words for what does not exist. But the Eater disagrees.

“Words,” the Eater whispers, “allow us to share what we could not, letting many think and act as one. But a category of experience exists for which no words have been invented, and if they were, would not suffice.

A rather enigmatic piece, playing off a classic philosophical question. We don’t know who these people are, or where, or why. Or how they and the shamblers have diverged. The author may be saying that only words make us human, and without them we are no more than cannibals. And do we believe him?

“Biba Jibun” by Eugie Foster

Rinako’s mother was a rabbit spirit who tricked her father into marriage when he was rich. Then he lost his position.

When next the full moon beckoned, Mama turned into a silver rabbit scented with Envy by Gucci, a platinum Bulgari watch around her throat, and flew out into the night.

After her father died of grief, Rinako was sent to live with her uncle and aunt in Tokyo, where she is snubbed by the spoiled, bitchy girls in her new high school. A girl named Yumi befriends her and teaches her how to extort money from dirty old salarymen. The title is Yumi’s personal motto: “Live for the self.”

This one is a tour through Japanese materialistic gyaru culture, for which the rabbit spirit serves as an apt metaphor. It’s a distasteful vision: a society of falseness, exploitation and materialism, with not a redeeming face in sight.



Subterranean, Spring 2011

Completing the lineup shown on the cover. One story from the near past, another from a near future.

“The Crane Method” by Ian R MacLeod

Historian Richard Talbot is a man betrayed. This is a common condition in 1928 at Welbeck College, Cambridge, among the students of Professor Crane.

To be invited into the professor’s private confidence on the new method of indexing and cataloguing on which he was working for his master’s thesis was beyond his wildest imaginings. Also beyond imagining was how Professor Crane could then describe the same method to his fellow academics at a symposium held shortly after as if it was something entirely of his own invention.

As a consolation, Richard has recently been appointed to a post at the Welbeck Museum, full of the Anglo-Saxon artifacts obtained by Crane on his mysterious expeditions. One day Richard notices a scrap of parchment hidden in the hilt of an ancient sword, giving details of the burial place of Cynewald, king of Mercia, along with the usual curse on whoever disturbs the grave. Immediately, Richard sets out to find it.

Readers will not be surprised at the outcome of this expedition, but they will not be disappointed in the telling. The story is full of hints and shadowy apparitions that suggest something fascinating behind the surface.

“Water to Wine” by Mary Robinette Kowal

As global warming has shifted growing zones, Emma works at a family winery, the only one in the Portland area with Pinot Noir vines and actual oak casks for aging the wine. She loves her work, so she is devastated when her father announces that a wealthy distributor is trying to buy out local wineries in order to “re-wild” the land, and incidentally control the market. But Emma is convinced there is more going on than the migration routes of the local deer.

“It comes down to a disagreement about how we want to make wine.” I lifted my glass. “This is the only old-vine Pinot Noir you’ll find aged in oak. Do you think we should change our approach?”

A lot of neat stuff here about winemaking and the relationship of the vines with the land, told in loving detail by a character who knows and cares for her subject; this is how it should be done, in contrast with dull infodump. But the heart of the story is family dynamics and the problems of embracing change. The family characters are well-realized, but the villain’s concern with “re-wilding” is pretty obviously bogus.



Intergalactic Medicine Show, 22 April 2011

Stories of exile and loss dominate this issue.

“Love, Cayce” by Marie Brennan

Not perhaps the most auspicious note on which to begin a correspondence:

Dad, despite what it’s going to sound like, it wasn’t Bjartald’s fault. So please don’t go charging off to Stoneheart Hall, because Helga will only drop you off the Bridge of Granthun Tol again, and then you’ll have to bribe the under-gnomes to let you out, and I know Mom’s still ticked about the promises you made last time.

But it lets the reader know that this is that kind of fantasy, and that it will be light in tone. The eponymous Cayce was not originally enthusiastic about her parents’ nostalgic plan for her to go off adventuring with the offspring of their old fellow-adventurers. Their inexperience makes for a lot of fun, but it’s a bonding experience of sorts.

The author doesn’t seem to have left of any of the of adventure fantasy from her skewering. It’s supposed to be funny. It probably would be funny if the prose were light enough to lift the weight of the clichés.

“We Who Steal Faces” by Tony Pi

Flea is a spy for England’s Queen Elizabeth in her war against the Spanish, and an assassin is eliminating all his contacts in Europe, one by one. He is also a member of the Elect, a quasi-immortal and a shapeshifter whose magic allows him to assume the face of others. Now he is determined to save his agent in Venice by obtaining the legendary universal poison antidote of Mithridates.

A gondolier by trade, Mafeo had given me my first tour of the city by canal thirty years ago. I had grown fond of the young Venetian during our explorations, even more so after he tried to cut the strings of my purse at the end of the day.

But the antidote is in the possession of a much older, more powerful member of the Elect, who has reason not to trust Flea. And his enemy is older and more powerful still.

A compelling adventure through a deadly labyrinth designed by the original Minotaur, full of traps and treachery.

“Exodus Tides” by Aliette de Bodard

Émilie was born long after the merpeople had fled the sea into exile on land, but even half-human, she can’t still her longing for the sea and the sense that it is the element where she belongs. Her only notions of that lost way of life come from the stories of her older relatives – those who will talk about it at all:

the times we’d been blessed and chosen by the sea, before the exile, before the Dark King and the exodus that had reduced us to those small, awkward beings who just couldn’t seem to fit in anywhere on dry land. But I didn’t feel up to voicing the shame of that.

But she has been lied to, told myths to hide the truth. Now she is grown and determined to make her own choices.

The hidden backstory here is only glimpsed briefly, but it holds a strong fascination. Yet this story is less about merpeople than about exile, about belonging. The author compares Émilie to her friend Jamila who came from Morocco, another alien. Jamila, however, is determined to be French. Perhaps it is because she wasn’t told lies about her origins. It’s not quite clear why Émilie’s parents have so assiduously kept the truth from her, but it hasn’t done anyone much good.

“Exiles of Eden” by Brad R Torgersen

A few dozen posthumans have survived the obliteration of humanity by alien entities they call Swarmers. They have assumed for a very long time that none of their biological species remains alive, until a planetful of humans is discovered living in an apparently primitive state on a world the posts call Eden. The posts speculate that it has been the absence of advanced technology that keeps the Swarmers from discovering them, until they discover some old cave paintings.

Like the ancient glyphwork of Earth, these pictograms were child-like in their rendering: stick people and stick animals, representations of rituals and hunts, killing, feasting, dying, and living again. But one image seemed remarkably unlike the others. It was a particularly precise diamond, inset with what appeared to be three eyes. The middle eye was larger than the other two, and each of them was split through with what appeared to be triskele-shaped irises.

The Swarmers have been here.

The story is about humanity and how the posthumans rediscover its value, in contrast with their previous existence in artificial bodies. But I find it alarming that the protagonist seems to be taking the exactly wrong path and thereby probably dooming Eden and its people, who would be well-advised to bash in his head with a rock and stuff him down the nearest volcano, to save themselves. And I don’t think this is the lesson the author is intending to impart.

“The Long Way Home” by G Norman Lippert

This is not what I would call a hook:

Jake, his son, had been a baby when Henry’s ex-wife, Stephanie, had moved them to the rusty little town of Buena Vista, Virginia, and Henry had followed, abandoning his manager’s job at Blake Construction and taking what he’d expected to be a temporary shift as an assembly operator at the local Dana plant.

The author is cramming way too much information, too many names, into a single stultifying second sentence. Suffice it to say that things haven’t gone well for Henry in the intervening ten years and he regrets the life he left behind and the life before that, as a boy with his best friend Adam, when he was Jake’s age.

He hadn’t talked this freely, this easily, with anyone in decades. There was simply no adult replacement for the simple, sweet friendships forged in youth. A shudder of loss shook Henry to his heels.

Then something happens, and he is back there again.

After getting past the awkward opening, I have to say that the rest of this story of fathers and sons, and redemption, is effectively done. The concluding scene is poignant in a simple way, avoiding mawkishness. It makes the story. The fantasy element is ambiguous at most.

“The Bus Stop” by David Lugar

This one is in a section of its own, titled “Tales for the Young and Unafraid” – I’m not quite sure why, but it’s a subtly ominous tale of a boy who gets off the school bus at the wrong stop. In this very short piece, the author skillfully conveys the definite impression of wrongness without any overt cues.



Bull Spec #5, Spring 2011

The original fiction in this printzine is quite short, mostly some sort of fantasy.

“Cael’s Continuum” by Preston Grassmann

The narrator recalls his dead twin brother and the drawings of train tracks he used to make, and he begins to see visions of them.

I began building my own steam-trains and making model cities out of remaindered brass and copper from my father’s shop. I had gardens and trees and clock towers and streets. The streets had exotic names, like Peake, Anubis, and Babel. They were named after my brother’s favorite books and paintings, and they were designed from his drawings.

This short-short is nominal fantasy, as the visions can most likely be explained as imaginary, despite the nice, hopeful last line.

“Bother” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell

The inconvenience of a dragon moving into the neighborhood.

“It’s everywhere! The heat warps our buildings, and the dung is piling up all the way to Fifth. We’re assaulted with a constant avalanche of ash the moment we step outside. That’s not even counting all the trees that have burned.”

The draconian presence affects Jonah and Susan’s marriage. He tries to live with the situation, she is obsessed with trying to kill the dragon.

The sort of thing that might have once been called “urban fantasy” before the term was debased. This situation would make more sense if there were vast hordes of dragons everywhere, so that moving out of the neighborhood wouldn’t be the obvious option, but the author doesn’t make it clear. Nor do we know why people are trying to kill the dragon with swords and arrows when, the last time I looked, there was an expensive military establishment available for such tasks. These are not the real concerns of the story, but it would be more satisfactory if they were addressed.

“Hell’s Lottery” by Tim Pratt

Lucifer invents an excruciating new torment for the damned: a lottery. The lucky winner will get two days of freedom back in the world.

“What’s the catch?” Belphagor polished a needle-thin spike, doubtless a component in some larger grinding, tearing, biting machine.
You have to admire his attention to detail, Lucifer thought, even as you curse his blindness to the wider view. “No catch.”

Of course there is a catch, as temporarily reprieved Myra Hitomi discovers. Amid the sarcasm of the narrative, there is some serious consideration of damnation and the consequence of actions.

“The Coffeemaker’s Passion” by Cat Rambo

Humor. Caffeinophilic Lorna’s new coffeemaker becomes neurotic and possessive.

She found herself refusing to bring anyone up to her apartment. The coffeemaker was temperamental and resented even her female friends. When she went out, it demanded a detailed accounting.

Not really original, but well-executed.

“Absinthe Fish” by M David Blake

A lovely hallucinatory meditation on the metaphors of infinite possibility.

Schrödinger’s cat frequently brings wet paws, and tiny, cold droplets of water make their way into the absinthe. Absinthe also frequently makes its way into the cat, which undoubtedly contributes to the feline’s pixelated state.

The sort of thing that makes short-short fiction worthwhile, because something like this can not possibly be longer and remain readable.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Messengers” by Benjamin Paul

Can the messengers bring news of the peace treaty before the massed armies take the irrevocable step into battle?

We both started yelling at the armies, in an attempt to stop them. But we were too small and there were too many people. To them we were completely insignificant. There was no way we could distract them from the war that they were so intent to wage.

The winner of the zine’s teen writing contest. I hate writing contests. I especially hate contests for young authors, since it would seem mean-spirited to judge a neophyte by my usual cranky standards, yet condescending not to. Are seventh-graders even aware that there are such monsters as critics in the world? Worse, in this case the authors have been handicapped by a restrictive word limit and a foolish theme. Given these limitations, I should not make too much of my skepticism that a world in which there are aircraft would not have radio or some other more reliable means of communication. The solution adopted by the characters displays ingenuity. Overall, this is a promising work. If it is not condescending to say so, I could not have done so well myself, at the author’s age.

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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