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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late November


The reviews this time will focus on the current issues of the Dell digests, beginning with the Analog double. Time to get my fingers used to typing “1212”. I also review the ezine stories that didn’t make it into the last column.

Publications Reviewed


Analog, January/February 2012

I suppose it’s not a surprise to see a serialized novel started in this double issue. There’s still plenty of shorter fiction here, a little more than in a single issue, but it promises a decreased supply in months to come. The best stories are alternate histories.

“Project Herakles” by Stephen Baxter

Alternate history: official secrets and conspiracies in 1968 Britain. As reactionary forces are plotting a coup against Harold Wilson, Defense Ministry agent Chapman Jones discovers a not-well-kept secret project breeding giants on the Salisbury Plain.

They were all male, all young, all dark-haired, and they wore clothes of what looked like leather inlaid with metal panels. Their faces were indistinct in the misty distance. As they strode along the road, laboring to make their slow, heavy steps, the trucks rolling at their feet were like toys.

The giants know they are being used by the military and have demands, but unfolding events soon give them leverage.

As the author’s note points out, this story is based on real and fascinating events; in our own timeline, Lord Mountbatten refused to stand as the plot’s figurehead, and it never materialized. In large part, it’s a political thriller, with references not only to the Wilson government but the British alliance with the US during the days of the Vietnam War. The plot, given the setup, is pretty predictable. I found the giant thread to be less interesting than the political one, but Baxter gives us a serious explanation of the physiological problems involved. Although there are several references to events from a previous story featuring some of these characters, the present one is quite independent.

“Doctor Alien and the Spindles of Infinity” by Rajnar Vajra

Another in a series that I have not cared for. The eponymous doctor is a human psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of aliens, achieving cures as much by luck as anything else. He currently has two alien patients and a crisis brought by his alien sponsor, but as matters resolve themselves, the entire situation turns out to be a setup, vetting his suitability to assist the aliens in making a truly cosmic decision.

At this new magnification, I couldn’t begin to fathom the complexities. Those eerie suns that had puzzled me weren’t stars, they were entire galaxies: incredibly intricate maelstroms of effulgence, more plentiful than seemed possible, some more bizarrely configured than seemed probable. What I’d thought might be faceted stars were star clusters. The magnitude of all this made it hard to believe that my vision could encompass such a thing. Its beauty seemed to expand the more I gazed, as if it was feeding my soul, growing my capacity to appreciate beauty.

The story is excruciatingly slow getting started, and larded throughout with page after page of backgrounding, infodump and digression. Nevertheless, I liked this one, relatively, better than its predecessors. It presents a profound problem and treats it seriously. And it avoids most of the unbearable silliness and ponderous attempts at humor of its antecedents.

“Humanity by Proxy” by Mark Niemann-Ross

Engineering. A series of linked stories about the engineers who optimize a robotic device for the sake of the people who will depend on it. Unfortunately, the concept entirely overwhelms the minimal story with a pall of dullness.

“Ninety Thousand Horses” by Sean McMullen

Alternate rocketry history. The narrator, now known as Professor Clermont, explains to the War Office why they must bomb the German rocket production at Peenemunde. It seems that at the end of the previous century, an arrogant lord caused the death of the woman his son wanted to marry, driving him to construct an elaborate scheme of revenge in the form of a steam-driven rocket. The narrator, a mathematical genius, is employed by the lord to spy on his factory disguised as a housemaid, and she discovers what his son is planning.

The steam chamber had pipes for admitting liquid oxygen and paraffin into a space for combustion, and a large nozzle for taking it out to drive the turbine, yet no turbine smaller than a house could make use of so much steam and carbon dioxide heated to over two thousand degrees Celsius. It made more sense to eliminate the turbine altogether and just use the exhaust gases alone to propel…

A Neat Thing. The author deploys his physics with authority and manages to convince me that the rocket was possible as his narrator describes it. I’m less convinced that it could have been kept such a secret. I’m quite fond of the narrator, a woman who has risen from dubious origins to a place where she can enjoy her authority and a bit of revenge on the twits who thwarted her on the way up.

–RECOMMENDED

“An Interstellar Incident” by Catherine Shaffer

Once again, an author decides to bore her readers by describing at length a boring meeting. Worse, opening with it, so there is no accrued interest to keep readers going. So we have aliens. Aliens with predatory eating habits.

It was simply that the Tuladan idea of a dinner party was to release a pack of prey into a room and then bounce around hunting and eating them. Kills made by jumping long distances were especially respected. It could become very noisy with the traditional hunting cry — something like a screeching bird of prey. All of this would go over quite poorly at a typical black-tie embassy dinner.

Naturally, someone has arranged such a dinner, not out of idiocy but in order to sabotage negotiations. Stacy has been put in charge of the human side of arrangements, and she employs the services of her friend Mark, the Mafia wedding planner.

Humor not totally ineffective once past the boring part, if one assumes that human society at this point in the future is entirely unaltered from today’s.

“Listen Up, Nitwits” by Jack McDevitt

With the world heading as usual towards another war, a message is received from a transmitter on Jupiter:

“Now hear this, Nitwits.” It was a male voice. Deep baritone. Calm, cool, vaguely annoyed. “You seem determined to kill yourselves off. Stop the fighting. Stop the nonsense. While you still have that option.”

For some reason, Pete Marshak of SETI is picked by the source to be the spokesman for Earth.

Stories that start like this usually have superweapons that blast the Earthly sinners to prove they mean business. This one is different, low key, rather underwhelming. Most people, including Pete, don’t really believe the voice’s explanation, which isn’t a very plausible one. They would have preferred it be God or super aliens. But maybe the message sinks in anyway. I’m not sure why the title says “Listen up” when the message says “Now hear this”. Or why no one corrected the misspelling of “al-Qaida”, which can legitimately be spelled a number of different ways, but not with a letter U.


Asimov’s, January 2012

The longer stories are the better ones for this issue.

“In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” by Elizabeth Bear

A murder mystery.

When police had broken down the door — the emergency overrides had been locked out — they had found this. This pink tube. This enormous sausage. This meaty object like a child’s toy “eel,” a long squashed torus full of fluid.

It seems that Dr Dexter Coffin had been working in a new line of biomedical engineering and somehow been turned inside out, perhaps by a colleague. Police Sub-Inspector Ferron and her assistant Indrapramit suspect foul play. But the real story is the future world the investigation is set in, and how the characters are products of that word. It becomes a story of identity and interpersonal connections, a world of people who live in virtual reality or mask themselves from the rest of the world, in which they can never be sure exactly who anyone is.

Bear paints her setting in brilliant tones and vivid details, from the suntrees to the street food to the hyacinth parrot cat that Ferron inadvertently inherits from the deceased. There may be a bit too much neat stuff; the subthread about the astronomical phenomenon distracts more than it adds, I fear, even though it supplies the title. But there is still very much to like.

–RECOMMENDED

“Bruce Springsteen” by Paul McAuley

Placed in the author’s “Jackaroo” universe, though only minimally dependent on it. The narrator, at a low point in his life, is tending bar when he meets an attractive woman who leads him off on an adventure that goes bad, in search of stolen alien treasure. Or so she tells him.

Rachel was staring out of the windshield at the starlit necropolis. I waited for her to speak. I didn’t much care why we here, to be straight with you. Or where we were going. I only knew that I was glad to be there. In that moment. In a stolen pickup that smelled of pizza. A gun digging into the small of my back. The freedom of not knowing what came next.

The title reference is to Springsteen’s song “Nebraska”, about the Starkweather killing spree. Rachel suggests their own adventure will end badly, as well. But there is more going on that the two of them don’t understand at the time, and the author hints but leaves questions unanswered, particularly the line from the song: They wanted to know why I did what I did. It raises the question of the value of a person’s story when no one knows its meaning – if stories can be said to have meanings at all. If lives can be said to be stories.

“Recyclable Material” by Katherine Marzinsky

Short-short about a recycling robot that makes an unusual discovery. The author is trying too hard with her prose, making it awkward in places. One does not “eviscerate” the streamers attached to a bicycle: “snap, snap, snap”.

“Maiden Voyage” by Jack McDevitt

A series prequel. Priscilla Hutchins qualifies for her license to pilot interstellar spacecraft, making stops at various worlds where humans are pillaging the remains of prior inhabitants. A cross between a travelogue and a driver’s license test, which makes it pretty dull stuff. I don’t know what it is with the Jack McDevitt stories this month, but no one seems to be able to decide what their titles should be – is it Voyage or Flight?

“The War Is Over and Everyone Wins” by Zachary Jernigan

A not-post-racial dystopia. A generation ago, someone engineered a virus that wiped out all the whites. Mike’s father was involved in some way. Part-whites, like Mike’s grandfather, suffered the effects. Mike is called home to Little Calcutta because his grandfather has finally died, but he finds as expected only the same old family conflicts. Everywhere else, walled enclaves of different nationalities engage in racial warfare. It seems that getting rid of the whites didn’t really solve much, although Mike’s father insists that it has.

This is primarily a story of family dysfunction, but the larger scenario is not quite clear. The setting appears to be America, which is of course a mixed-race nation, but we know nothing of what has happened elsewhere in the world, in more racially homogenous regions. Perhaps, elsewhere, other tribes are busy killing each other off with some other excuse. This should be depressing, but it would be more so if easier to believe.

“The Burst” by C W Johnson

Cayla is a very talented astrophysics graduate student who considers herself lucky to be working with a senior researcher. She also seems to be fortunate in finding a boyfriend. After a long dry spell, she believes she has made a potentially important discovery in the data she’s been analyzing. Then, just when she discovers more confirmation of her theory, she also discovers that her boyfriend may have a malignant growth. Personal crises and science seem to be pulling her apart.

There’s a lot of physics neep here, but this is an effectively moving story about people and their pain, shared and unshared.

“Friendlessness” by Erik Del Carlo

In a world where everyone’s social score is open for everyone else to see, Daric Dandry is a friendless loser. In spite of this, he managed to achieve financial success, but he squandered everything on a professional Friend he couldn’t afford. Now he is ruined and no longer trying, which turns out to make a difference.

Still, there had been a time before all that, before he received his socweb ’plant. Daric Dandry had, inevitably, once been a boy. And friendships had been different back then.

I tend to see this as a metaphor for growing up, which may not be what the author intends. But the notion of social scores that rank popularity seems especially junior-high. It provides a positive message.


Tor.com, November 2011

A couple of good ones to give thanks for.

“Moto” by Nnedi Okorafor

Three friends decide to make themselves wigs that will give them strong magical powers. We aren’t sure why. Rain, who actually made the wigs, tells us that she meant well, that they were supposed to make things better. But her two friends have been corrupted by so much power. She has to stop them. If she can.

The story is very short and strongly informed by its Nigerian setting, but the magic comes out of a computer. The author makes her readers guess about a lot: about the initial motives of the characters, which we never see, and about the outcome, which we also never see. Somehow, this works better than it ought to.

“Ghost Hedgehog” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

YA ghost story. Although Jack has been seeing ghosts all his life, but the time he is in fifth grade he knows better than to mention it to anyone. Until his teacher has a fatal stroke while berating another student. Mrs Jernigan is quick to notice that Jack is the only person who can see her, and she attaches herself. Worse, she grabs other ghosts, like Roger, who was murdered the other day and is worried about his mother, with dementia. This is how Jack ends up calling Roger’s sister and finally getting his parents to believe him.

A warm and humane story, sad with just the right leavening of humor. Mrs Jernigan proves to be a much better ghost than she ever was a teacher. The visit to Roger’s mother is particularly poignant, with a wise point of view into the condition of dementia.

–RECOMMENDED


Fantasy Magazine, November 2011

“Red Dawn: A Chow Mein Western” by Lavie Tidhar

In a fantasy world where the Qi [magical power] is becoming scarce, a group of Englishmen come to China to claim a newly-discovered mine. They enslave the people of a village where a young boy lives, with the potential to be a powerful wizard, and carry off his sister with the rest. The boy vows to retrieve her.

The magic goes away. Used over thousands of years, the Qi had been steadily depleted. Now only few places remained: Deep under the sea, it was said, the Qi was still rich, and Kraken yet lived, and high up in the Himalayas the Yeti still roamed, though they were growing less numerous with each passing year, and seeking out the higher altitudes as the Qi grew scarce…

There are marks of Tidharian cleverness here, but the story itself is not very original.


Strange Horizons, November 2011

“Tomorrow is Waiting” by Holli Mintzer

Anji decides to create a Kermit the Frog bot for her AI class. The project is more interesting than she’d thought it would be.

The thing was, her little AI was getting kind of interesting. It had started writing its own code about the time she’d gotten it keyed to Kermit properly, which was one of the project requirements, but Anji hadn’t expected much more than a few badly parsed lines. Nobody else in her class was getting more than that, but Anji’s AI was producing more code all the time. And weird code, too.

Sentimental fantasy, not at all credible in any SFnal sense.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

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


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