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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January


New year’s stuff, with a little leftover old year’s stuff. I dust off the Good Story award for the de Bodard piece from Clarkesworld.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, January 2012

Beginning the new year with three new stories, all SF.

“Scattered Along the River of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard

Set in a far future. Xu Wen has come to the funeral of her grandmother, the great hero who liberated the Mheng space colonies from the occupying San-Tay by turning their own bots against them. Wen has never met Xu Anshi and knows almost nothing about her, but we learn in flashbacks of her revolutionary career and the poems she wrote about it.

Summoning bots I washed away
Ten thousand thousand years of poison
Awakening a thousand flower-flames, a thousand phoenix birds
Floating on a sea of blood like cresting waves
The weeping of the massacred millions rising from the darkness

A story about language and the course of revolution, which isn’t over when it’s over. There’s truth here. The narrative might be confusing to some readers until they realize just who is telling this story.

–RECOMMENDED

“What Everyone Remembers” by Rahul Kanakia

Post-apocalypse. While the land burns, two survivors in a boat offshore have bioengineered an intelligent cockroach. They agree on little; one calls the insect “she”, the other “it”. One expects it to repopulate the Earth, the other to assist human survivors [although it is not clear how.]

A lot of irony here, though it’s beneath the surface, which is narrated by the cockroach, who is both naive and uninformed.

“All the Painted Stars” by Gwendolyn Clare

Space battle. Ohree is an enforcer on patrol when it comes across a fight in progress, six cruisers attacking a ship that once belonged to an allied race.

Even through the haze of plasma blasts dispersing over their shields, I recognize the ship as a Bright construct—too much glass, arranged in sharp geometric panels so the entire upper surface glitters with reflected starlight. Still, I know the pilots must not be Brights. First, because they fly clumsily and appear not to know how to fire the main cannon. Second, because the Brights went extinct some twelve hundred solar cycles ago.

Ohree is rashly eager to get involved in the fight, which leaves it stranded, with no more purpose for its existence, inside the Bright ship with its human crew.

This one has the sense of a sequel, although I can’t identify another story with this setting. It turns quite positive by the end, perhaps too much so, too easily. I don’t really like the species name “Sheekah”, which has other connotations.



Tor.com, December 2011

I’d say, “I knew I’d forgotten something” at the end of last year, except that wouldn’t be exactly true. I knew I would forget something.

“If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear” by Ken Sholes

Mel Farrelly and her father celebrated the feast of Dragon’s Mass Eve every year until he died on that day.

If Dragon’s Mass Eve be cold and clear
The Santaman’s grace may find us here.
But if Dragon’s Mass Eve be clouded sky
The Santaman’s grace may pass us by.

Mel has never seen the Santaman and doesn’t believe he will ever come; she’s never quite understood why they sang the hymn if they didn’t believe in it. In the meantime, she keeps up the mine, even though it’s been eighty years since it’s yielded a shred of hope, and despite the menace of the raiders in the north.

What this one has is a well-imagined universe, derived in some way from our own, when “myth became life.” The world rested on a dragon’s back until its back was broken, and the hope of the Santaman keeps everyone going, as long as they can pretend to believe. We don’t get a detailed explanation, only a few snippets of story and song, as well as the unremarked fact that Drummond Farrelly was a troll. The rest is left to the active readerly imagination. A warm-hearted seasonal tale about hope.

“A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings” by James Alan Gardner

The editorial blurb informs us that this one is reminiscent of Damon Runyon. If Runyon is writing about aliens, or what people in the story are calling spacemen.

I think the green drips must be the dead guy’s blood, and this raises serious questions about the guy’s place of origin. I have seen several persons with holes of this nature, so I know what most citizens have in their stomachs. It is not black wires and green blood.

The narrator operates a specialist cleaning service, and Madame Rosa, in whose establishment the spaceman is perforated, wants a “clean sweep” of the body and associated fluids. The problem being that there are more spacemen around and they keep coming, because what they are after is Kitty, the new doll in Madame Rosa’s employ.

Entertaining. A reader could find some faults, if looking for them, but the story is still fun.



Apex Magazine, January 2012

Authors mine the horror inherent in popular culture.

“So Glad We Had This Time Together” by Cat Rambo

Proving that there could be something even more horrible than reality TV: Unreality TV. A bright young thing has the idea for a survivor game in a haunted house, with real vampires and demons.

Think “Fear Factor” with more blood. Think “Survivor” with life or death. Think “Punked” with ghosts.”

This is dark humor, not horror, and the target is the TV industry, with a bloodsucking punch line.

“Sweetheart Showdown” by Sarah Dalton

Extreme plastic surgery crossed with extreme beauty pageants where the evening gown category seems to have been replaced with the gladiatorial arena.

“Boy, have we got some hot honeys for you today. In just a few moments they’ll be fighting for their lives and the Super Sweetheart trophy…”

This one carries the absurdity so far that the effect is lost.



GigaNotoSaurus, January 2012

“Mother Doesn’t Trust Us Anymore” by Patricia Russo

The setting is vaguely postapocalyptic, but the world may not be Earth or the characters human. At least as we know them. What it is, is dark; that is, there isn’t any natural light, which seems to be hidden by clouds. The boys have discovered a new light in the ground and the gray kiddies seem to know how to make it work. But Mother doesn’t want them to go near the gray kiddies.

It wasn’t because they were gray, Mother explained. It wasn’t because they had six fingers, or eyes that were too big and too round. It was because they weren’t really people, and real people needed to stay away from things that looked almost like people but weren’t.

A dismal scenario, yet intriguing, as readers will try to figure out what’s going on. I doubt they will have much success. But at the heart of this strange scenario is the constant of family love, despite everything.



Redstone SF, January 2012

A pair of dystopian visions, in which mood-enhancing chemicals are used for evil purposes.

“Ice in Our Veins” by Rhiannon Held

In this case, “Ice” is an illegal street drug. Artemesia is a drug counselor whose latest client seems to know too much and spins her a conspiracy theory about corporate masters who use drugs for control.

“When the target is loyal, reward them with a dose of pleasure. When they’re not, let them crash into depression. Make them need the next dose, until they’ll do anything you say. Build yourself a corps of brainwashed slaves.”

Artemesia makes the mistake of not believing him.

One of those stories that’s all idea, no drama. The narrative is mostly people talking to each other in an office, and not much actually happens. Stories are better with happening.

“Motherhood” by Christopher Miller

Prefaced by dire warnings about “adult themes”, we have a corporation that picks defective children out of the trash, repairs their brains, and trains them as sex slaves. It seems also to be a world in which euthanasia is routinely practiced. Not nice.

There is strongly vivid language here that makes it clear the narrator loves her charge Prissy, even down to her snot.

She breathes through her nose, a bubble of clear mucous expanding and popping with each breath. Each is beautiful. She is beautiful. I study one tiny crystal balloon. In it I can almost see the future, before it bursts.

The scenario strikes me as unrealistic. The neurological work of repairing and enhancing damaged brains is not cost-effective when it’s clear that this is a world in which perfectly sound children will be routinely discarded, easily picked up at less expense. In addition to the sexual exploitation, there are also offensive descriptions of several ethnic groups, making this a work that, despite some strengths, many readers will regard with distaste.



Kaleidotrope, Winter 2012

Eight stories, ranging from very dark to very ridiculous. This issue doesn’t rise to the level of the previous.

“The Unexpected Geographies of Desire” by Fábio Fernandes

Using the Brazilian urban legend of the dead blonde in the school bathroom. The narrator is a Brazilian photographer who spent some time in his youth in Europe, where he became fatally involved with a Finnish girl. After subsequent years of sexual dissatisfaction, he returns to the site of his youthful infatuation and encounters its ghost.

A creepy work, the genesis of a serial killer. Although it might be considered horror, the element of the fantastic is negligible. The narrative is disjointed, which lessens its impact.

“The End of Owln’s Malt” by A A Garrison

A cynical and sometimes surreal piece, in which a malign force plots to harvest the souls of a town’s residents. It begins when posters appear, advertising a public debate on a nonexistent bill. It then falls into a nightmarish timeloop, intersects another timeloop, and comes out approximately where it began, in what may or may not be ordinary human fanaticism, may or may not be a duel between God and the Evil One.

The text is unsettling in a number of different ways that horror can take, including torture, madness and ick:

When he could wait no longer, he bent to the dog and, straining, eviscerated it into several crude pieces that didn’t look like they would fit back together. It came apart with the brittle of a walnut shucked, bones and ligaments tearing in desiccated snaps. Rodney went tailor-style and perused the apportioned beast, absorbed in this work. A car passed, and the driver gave Rodney a look.

A less ambitious author would have gone directly from opening to close without all the looping, which turns it from absurd to something more disturbing. I would just as soon not have read it, which is a mark of success in something like this.

“Gallery of Vanquished Art” by Daniel Ausema

A memorial to genocides.

[The Abarians'] . . . highest form of art was a display of smoke rising from a carefully tended fire. With particular woods dried to a specified degree and placed in elaborate arrangements, they made sculptures of smoke, towering monoliths and delicate intricacies that lasted only as long as the next breeze. It is fitting, then, that the only memorial to them here is the fleeting memories of their brief resistance among those of us who fought.

Very short, rather repetitive, seen it before, but perhaps not with such an ominous final line.

“Tea in the Sahara” by Daniel Braum

Three sisters from London are traveling around the world when they meet a mysterious stranger who declares he can give them their hearts’ desire in exchange for three wishes – one from each of them. Petra and Helene are game for it, but Marti holds back.

Her mind simply said, no way. This can’t be. But beneath the logic was that part of her that so very much wanted to throw her hat in with Petra. No one’s asking you to believe, it said, just to say yes. Listening to this inner voice was what had brought them out here in the first place, away from schoolbooks and potential husbands, and dreary old London.

I really like this fantastic setting, Arabian Nights mixed with a touch of fairy tale, and the story holds neat surprises.

–RECOMMENDED

“Bird Nest Soup” by Madeline Bridgen

Bernhard lives by harvesting birds’ nests in the Borneo jungle. One day he wakes to a strange silence. All the birds and animals seem to be in a trance.

They were crowded all over the ceiling, resting in their rubbery nests. They chirped in unison, as if brainwashed, or possessed, singing along with the pulse. Not a single beak broke the pattern. They sat without responding to him, lolling as if dead, the only sign of life in them the high-pitched monotonous cry that pricked into his mind like the teeth of spiders. Overwhelmed by revulsion, Bernhard lashed out at the nests. When he knocked their perches off the wall, the birds still didn’t respond; they just fell limp to the floor below.

Bernhard falls, too – further than he could have believed.

This one quickly goes bizarro, along with an unsubtle bit of role-reversal. I wasn’t amused.

“Double Rations” by Nicky Drayden

More bizarrity, culminating in awful pun.

“The Red Threads and the Green Man” by Kenneth Burstall

Dark and secret rites in late-medieval England. Not very credible.

“The Falcon” by Michael Aronovitz

Adam is born with wings that his mother unsympathetically tries to keep sewn shut, but when he makes love with Katie Claypool he makes the mistake of letting them be seen.

A story of revenge, conventional in most respects. But it’s not clear why the mob doesn’t settle for cutting off his wings, or why they refer to the way “them zealots up in Coatesville did to them other Jews.” Are we to understand this literally, that Jews in this universe are diabolically winged? Or does the term just mean a stranger, someone different, a convenient victim?



Fantastique Unfettered #4 (Ralewing), Winter 2011/2012

Another example of the kind of zine I tend to like, when done well: surreal and strange fantasy based on unusual ideas. This one is clearly a labor of love. It has a variety of content: fiction, verse, interviews and other editorial matter, and full-page illustrations. The issue features Mike Allen and Hal Duncan. There are seven original stories.

The editors say the issue coalesced around a theme of Death; I would say, rather, peril. The tone is definitely a darker one.

“Three Tales of the Devil’s Wife” by Carmen Lau

A set of vignettes, each quite different from the others. The first, “when I was a human girl,” is just that: a few paragraphs suggesting that the girl who eventually married the Devil was once a normal one, nothing suggesting how this unusual union might have come to pass. The second story has the classic fairytale form and seems vaguely familiar if devils were giants, or vice versa. The third, most interesting, suggests the many legends in which the Devil is tricked or taken advantage of, but it raises more questions, particularly about the Devil’s baby, which seems demand a story of her own, that we do not get.

“The Butterfly Collection of Miss Letetia Willoughby Forbes” by Alma Alexander

A haunted house story with overtones of Sleeping Beauty. A pair of burglars decide to break into the unlived-in mansion and steal the valuable collection of butterflies reputed to be there. The house has other ideas.

“It’s as though that house doesn’t mind in the least that people get into it, or how they get into it. It does seem to have an opinion about people getting out though.”

About the most straightforward and least unusual of the tales here. The prose is sufficiently interesting to retain readers who know, from the beginning, that things will not go well for our crooks.

“Mr White Umbrella” by Georgina Bruce

A cross between Alice in Wonderland and manga. Mr White Umbrella is a regular customer in the coffee shop where Kiko works. One time, he slips her a card telling her to come to the Crocodile Bar. From then on, things get very weird as time fragments, trapping her.

“See how you shot me dead just now? That really happened. But I don’t feel like dying today. So what to do, what to do? I just pluck the moment out of time. Just like a feather out of a bird. Pluck!”

Weird, fractured narrative may take some work to follow, but there is a real, nightmarish story here.

“Azif” by Lynne Janmeck

An author’s note tells us that the title is from the Arabic, meaning “Whistling (of the wind); weird sound or noise.” Vivienne studies inscriptions at a museum, so she doesn’t understand why a colleague has recommended her to help a scientist with a very odd theory: that massed groups of insects can produce human language.

An ambiguous fantasy, with the preponderance of the text on the side of Emile being batshit crazy, but just enough doubt to make the story subtly disturbing.

“The Bachorum Principle” by Brenda Stokes Barron

A dystopia from nightmare. After some undisclosed apocalypse, a dictator rules a barren world premised on forgetting. One thing they are supposed to forget is the existence of women, who are Impure, but this doesn’t work out very well. The women sort of suspect that they exist, anyway, and the men keep crawling into their tents.

It is easier without us, He says. We are a liability because of our vulnerability. I struggle to hold my breath when the urge comes to speak the impossible words: The Invaders were nothing more than a man’s dream. So he became He. And the Invaders became the Impure.

Not a scenario to be taken literally, this is a metaphor for misogyny, for cultish mind control. Disturbing but not convincing.

“Vérité” by D Harlan Wilson

A surreal scenario in which recognizing an actor on the streets makes him disappear.

… According to preordained estimates, the abduction process exceeded the combined span of the film’s fight sequences. It unfolded in slow motion, and the actor disappeared into the sky on a beam of white noise.

About the artificial nature of celebrity. I think.

“Sons of the Law” by Hal Duncan

The Bible condensed into the archetypes of Western film. It works surprisingly well that way, but essentially it’s a polemic.

Over this, from outside, there comes the slow creak . . . creak . . . creak of wood under a swinging weight.

We immediately know who it is swinging from that gallows, and the author isn’t particularly coy about the identities of the other figures, either.



Ishtar, edited by Amanda Pillar and K V Taylor

Sometimes it’s steam engines, sometimes it’s steampunk. 2011 seemed to be the time for revived interest in the Mesopotamian love goddess variously known as Inanna and Ishtar, in particular the story of her descent to the underworld. Here we have a rather unusual anthology from Australia: three novellas from as many authors on the subject of Ishtar – in past, present and future settings. The tales contain links to each other and share a strong feminist sensibility. It’s an ambitious project and an interesting one, but alas, not entirely successful.

I find it strange that the stories all focus, more or less, on one of the goddess’s more obscure aspects, as leader of an army of the stillborn dead. I would have liked to see greater variety, more attention paid to the power of sexual love, for which she is best-known. In this, the Warren story is most successful, as it looks at all the aspects of the goddess’s power. Yet of the three, it has the least conventional plot. I also find it jarring that the pieces by Biancotti and Sparks seem to take place in Australia, a place with which Ishtar is not normally associated.

“The 5 Loves of Ishtar” by Kaaron Warren

Recapitulating the mythological material, the story is narrated by the line of Ishtar’s washerwomen [Ishtar's clothes get very dirty] who know the goddess better than anyone, including her lovers. It’s the story of her five favorite lovers and of the gradual decline in the goddess’s power as her lovers become less godlike, from the divine consort Tammuz, to the demigod Gilgamesh, to mortal kings.

The use of the original material is sound and effective. The author presents Ishtar as a goddess of war as well as sexual pleasure, but definitely not a goddess of wisdom [that is the role of the washerwomen]. She is impulsive, she is ruled more by desire than her brains, she is often capriciously cruel. As Gilgamesh famously pointed out, her favor is as likely to be a curse as a blessing. It is a feminist work, celebrating the carnal source of the goddess’s power: lust and desire. But the tone of the story is depressing as Ishtar’s power fades, as her temples are deserted and men worship other gods.

Now, womanhood was used as a curse. Ishtar heard this once; a man cursing another to become a woman. She was so furious she struck the curser down and turned him into a maggot wriggling in a sour, stinking dead camel’s stomach.

It’s a long story – too long, particularly as Ishtar begins to take her mortal lovers. It becomes repetitive. Kings wage wars, the land suffers from drought, again and again. The repetition, of course, is true to the history of the ancient land where the tale is set, and it’s also necessary to the story, illustrating the decline from an age of divine green to warlike mortal iron. But it unfortunately makes the reading drag in several places.

“And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” by Deborah Biancotti

A murder mystery turns to horror in a contemporary Australia [of all places]. Adrienne is a detective investigating a strange serious of murders that she thinks might be linked to male prostitution and possibly to a cult of goddess-worshipers. But she is reluctant to consider supernatural involvement, despite the impossible condition of the bodies. At first.

The body looks like a sack pushed up against the grate, spread out, blocking nearly the whole outlet. Water rushes around it, making the skin ripple. It’s naked, and the dark hairs on its chest and arms and legs, the dark V of hair around its genitals, are pressed flat by the weight of water. The insides must’ve floated away by now, out to sea.

This is Ishtar goddess of war, with her army of the dead. Powerful, and evil with it, insane with it. The images of the dead are quite strongly disturbing, which contrasts with the diminutive figure of the goddess, who doesn’t seem quite sure of the extent of her power or why, exactly, she is choosing to exercise it as she does. As a character, her motives are unclear, but she is a goddess, above that sort of thing. At one point, the author seemed to be hinting that Adrienne herself was becoming an avatar of the goddess, or, at another point, the triunion of Adrienne, Nina and Grace [warrior, lover, mother] could challenge her; alas, these interesting possibilities remained unrealized.

“The Sleeping and the Dead” by Cat Sparks

Out in the middle of a post-apocalypse desert, Dr Anna [guess who?] runs a fertility clinic; desperate would-be mothers make their way to her in hopes of implanting an embryo; insane child nuns create a cult of death. When three soldiers show up, escaped from a deep desert bunker, Anna thinks of them at first as sperm donors and warns them about the child-nuns, knowing that the men, being men, won’t listen. Then she learns about their leader and his lion tattoo, and knows it to be her lover Thomas.

Nothing else matters when love is true and strong. Not the ravages of time, nor the cruelties of truth — small things so insubstantial in the face of passion and divinity. When you love so deeply and completely, flames cannot be diminished. Nothing can hold you back from destiny.

This one presents itself at the outset as dystopian SF, but it resolves as fantastic horror. For the story to work at all, Anna must actually be an avatar of Ishtar/Inanna. But I find the references to myth [Thomas/Tammuz, etc] to be too overt and consequently less effective; there is more of Mad Max here than Uruk. And if the setting is in fact Australia, the goddess is badly out of place.

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

Comment from T.A. Wardrope
Time January 8, 2012 at 10:00 am

The reviews, as usual, offer as much to the writer as the reader. I have to wonder about the references to Ishtar being out of place in Australia. There are many other stories with mythic figures out of their historical context, do you take issue with the whole approach or this anthology’s particular treatment?

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Comment from Lois Tilton
Time January 10, 2012 at 8:25 am

wrt Ishtar in Australia – this is a god traditionally tied to a specific locale, and if I find her in some highly unexpected place, I tend to wonder how she got there. And it’s hard to think of a place more disconnected to Mesopotamia than Australia.

Now in the Biancotti story, we are given an explanation for this; gods rush in to fill a void. OK. In the Sparks story, otoh, the divinity just seems to be there, in various myth-specific ways. Almost as if she were indigenous. I found this jarring.


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