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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-February


A month’s worth of online publications plus one more 2011 leftover, mostly on the weird and absurd side. Some nice not-the-same-old stuff to be read.

Publications Reviewed


Electric Velocipede #23, Winter 2011

Another one overlooked in 2011, as this publication shifted from print to electronic, using the Really Annoying method of posting one piece at a time over a prolonged period, during which one forgets it’s there at all. I might also complain that the website makes a reader do an excessive amount of work to discover the access to actually reading the fiction. Perhaps these matters will be worked out in future issues.

The stories are mostly humorous.

“The Art Disease” by Dennis Danvers

The narrator tells us that Emily and Derek have the art disease, but it looks more like Derek is a failed poet who decides to start his own religion. [Does this sound familiar?] He turns out to be surprisingly good at filling the collection plate.

Would they continue to be so generous, [Emily] wondered, if they discovered he wasn’t a madman who preached an insane religion, but an artist inventing a religion as an art form out of channel surfing and word salad, nabbing both grant money and tax-free status while he was at it?

The controlled craziness here reaches a lofty climax. Fun stuff, sending up fake religions.

“Dancing in the Winter Rooms” by David Tallerman

A generation ship in which the passengers migrate through an annual cycle of seasonal rooms, which they believe is meant to acclimate them to the seasonal changes of planets. Doc, however has discovered that the cycle is futile; they should have arrived at their programmed destination generations ago. Doc is discovering that their traditions are wrong about a lot of things, and he wants to stop the unnecessary deaths that happen every time they camp in the Winter Rooms.

I know the real function of this place now; one aspect of my new knowledge, and perhaps the least comforting. Once the vast central chamber and smaller spaces off it were filled to brimming with food, sealed and frozen against decay. All of that must have been mined long ago by our ancestors, but it explains the strange metal containers we occasionally dig from the snow banks at least.

The author raises an interesting point in his afterward, when he says that he doesn’t really understand how conditions on the ship got to be as they are by the time of Doc’s story. Now, a lot of authors would supply a backstory to explain this, but in this case, with Doc as narrator, we only know as much as he does – which isn’t much. Still, we have to wonder, does the situation make sense? Can it have come about in some reasonable way? It’s one thing to say that the author doesn’t need to tell us all about it, but I sort of think he ought to have some idea, himself.

“Fastening” by Patricia Russo

“It’s time to fasten the men!” Geraldine shouted. She swept her arm across the table, knocking over the tea cups Tenzile had just set down. “It’s time, goddamn it!”

“Fastening,” however, doesn’t mean exactly what readers might suppose. I’m not quite sure, in fact, exactly what it entails, or how it’s accomplished – which strikes me as impossible, once finally revealed. But this is a world in which mutation is rampant and “ducks” have scaly black tails and teeth, so it’s hard to gauge expectations of what might be possible there. At any rate, it seems that the female residents, the majority of what seems to be a residence for the aged, are about to make a drastic move.

This is a dialogue story, and the dialogue gets kind of dotty at times, as the residents talk around and around the problem at hand to delay coming to the actual point of doing something. Weirdly amusing.

“Fish out of Water” by Deborah Fitchett

A wizard’s apprentice is forced to cope when the wizard changes himself into a goldfish and the goldfish into something like a mermaid.

I thought of trying a spell to make the wizard able to talk so he could tell me what to do, but then I remembered that chapter in Dragulescu and Perkins about how you can’t turn things back into themselves because they already are. I never understood that chapter but I think this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.

Funny stuff, thanks to the narrative voice. I quite like “Dragulescu and Perkins”.

“A Reason to Crave Life, a Reason to Fear Death” by Andrew Kaye

Ortega is a curandero, summoned back to Saturnina where a plaguewalker has been at work. This is a sorcerous disease.

A person couldn’t sicken and die from the plague. They could only sicken and live. Therein lay the cause of greatest concern: a victim would live in a miserable state of near-immortality unless someone killed them—and after only a few days of infection, they often wished that someone would.

Ortega’s job is to locate and kill the plaguewalker, but he also has to cope with the recollection of his last visit to that place, and what he left behind.

The title does a good job of suggesting the darkness of this fantasy. Here is also a rich, imaginative setting, with volcanoes and enslaved revenants [what we used to call zombies before they took up eating brains]. Readers will probably also catch a glimpse of the steampunkish in the airships and infernal machines employed by Ortega to destroy his quarry.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Empire Never Ended” by Brian Trent

Alternate history, with a technologically advanced Sino-Roman empire invaded by the Tlaxcala coalition of barbarians. Glabrio and Sun Pin are on a crucial mission to deliver a secret weapon, if they can evade the Tlaxcalans now occupying Egypt.

The impulse to over explain is very strong in AH, and this author has unfortunately succumbed. His main interest seems to be in telling us how the world has become divided into these two warring powers, giving only cursory attention to Glabrio and his mission.

“Through the Uprights” by Richard Butner

The narrator’s wacked-out loser of a college roommate Robin decides he will kick a field goal, despite a total lack of experience in this field. He makes his own eccentric ball, and they repair to the old football field.

He backed up five steps and then ran up and booted the ball solidly. I thought of the full Coke can inside, wondering if it would explode. The ball shot up toward the goalposts, gleaming in the faint light from the other end of the field.

It went through the goalposts, and then it vanished. I don’t mean we couldn’t see it any more. I mean it ceased to exist.

This is a mystery that demands investigation.

A strong storyline to this humorous tale of an eccentric character. I wouldn’t be his roommate for a dorm full of money, but I’d have to admit it would be an interesting experience.


Lightspeed, February 2012

Some original and imaginative ideas in this month’s stories.

“Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring” by Brooke Bolander

One of those titles. Rosa made the mistake of falling in love with a serial killer [although they didn’t use that term back then] who calls himself Captain Todd [and we know what that name means]. She intended to run off with him, except that she first discovered the bodies of his twenty-four earlier victims. Then she vows to hunt him down, so she steals her brother’s gun and goes to the bruja to ask the aid of Santa Muerte, which comes in the unexpected form of ghost vixens that she vomits up into the world.

Some are stout red matrons with shaggy coats and black masks. Others are small and sandy and whippy-thin as barn cats, quick to jump when Santiago’s iron-shod hoof strikes a rock. The heat doesn’t seem to bother them. They flow through the sage in a tireless wave, not even stopping to hunt or drink or mark bushes—a ghost army made real, called up by patent medicine and whatever dark forces for revenge lurk in Rosa’s craw.

A Neat Fantasy Idea, with hints of dream and hints of fairytale, but mostly Western horror, which doesn’t, in the end, fit the title. I’m not sure all the flashbacking was quite necessary.

“War 3.01” by Keith Brooke

Hacking. Kevin is walking down the street with his brain bombarded constantly by the usual messages and spam, when it suddenly all shuts down for a single message: “There was a war. You lost.” That’s it. It’s all over. Or is it? No one knows what to think, what to do.

“Stand down? What do they mean, stand down?” grunted one of the squaddies, the one with a ginger buzz-cut and cartoon-square features. “We’s not even fucking stood up.”

A very short piece with a single idea, but perhaps not short enough, a bit much infodumpfery for a premise that’s gotten very familiar.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genevieve Valentine

The town of Konstan Spring has hired the best gravedigger they can find, but John has little call for his work, since the townspeople tend not to die, or to stay dead when they do, all because of the water from the spring. There are a few transients and drifters coming through town, but will that be enough?

In the normal way of things, strangers would have a drink at the saloon and a girl at the whorehouse and ride out the next day, but there was no record of travelers once they were this far into the wild; not everyone can be missed.

The narrative voice carries this one with a quiet, understated humor, so that the absurdity of the situation sinks in slowly. The semi-Scandinavian setting adds an intriguing note.

–RECOMMENDED

“Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil” by Carrie Vaughn

A steampunkish alternate history featuring Princess Maud of Wales, aka Harry, as an Indiana Jones-type adventurer who steals an alien artifact from the Icelandic cave where it is being worshipped by a debased tribe of barbarians.

The tunnels had merged into a large cavern; oblique shafts had been dug to the surface to let in faint glimmers of arctic light. Polished squares of silver reflected the sunlight, directing the rays to strike a mural above the altar: a mosaic of bone and shell, in the shape of some inhuman god—an Aetherian pilot, Harry knew, with its plates of bone and curling tentacles.

It’s clear that this is part of a series involving Harry and her sidekick Marlowe in sundry pseudo-Victorian adventures during a displaced version of WWI with Germany, complete with airships, rockets, and various gizmos powered by alien tech. This is cramming a whole lot of premise-elements into one airship gasbag, but the story is the adventure, the thrill of running the German blockade of Great Britain, as well as the hints of forbidden romance between the protagonists. There is no real reason to call this sort of thing science fiction, when the essence of it is fantastic.


Strange Horizons, February 2012

Another month with only two original stories, one of them serialized, although it’s hardly long enough to justify this. Both fantasy, although one will tell you it’s SF.

“Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Post-apocalypse. That is, the aftermath of a viral zombie plague, although the narrator calls them Turners, and the officially-approved name is Infected.

There were sprays of blood as she bit into the woman’s hospital scrubs, and when the second nurse—a man—tried to intervene, the old woman leaped and threw her whole body on him. She sat on his chest as he shouted in surprise and tried to flip her over. She actually ate half of his neck and one cheek—we could see her swallowing. Her face was devoid of expression.

There is now a Cure, and the world is recovering, coping with guilt and trauma. The narrator is trying to live with the husband who was once infected and is now in some form of denial.

The zombie thing is awfully old and shopworn, so it takes some really original variation on it to capture my interest. What this one has is a variation in which ex-zombies become cured and return to what passes for normal life. Yes, there’s some originality to that. But mostly we have backstory – how I lived through the zombie attacks – mixed with aftermath – how I live with my husband now. The descriptions of the attacks are pretty realistically vivid, but most of it is still the same old.

“Tornado’s Siren” by Brooke Bolander

Given that this is SH, readers undoubtedly know from the outset that the title will turn out to have some other meaning than the mundanely obvious. Sure enough:

Rhea is nine years old when she first meets the tornado that will fall in love with her.

Being courted by a tornado involves a lot of inconvenience, even if it means well, and Rhea longs for banal normality. Until she gets it.

This is so SH, contemporary fantasy with a hint of myth but mostly about troubled relationships. Unfortunately, it’s a rather cursory narrative with no real insight into the characters.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #88,89, February 2012

Some interesting stories this time, with unusual premises. A pretty good month for this ezine.

“The Empire of Nothingness” by Geoffrey Maloney

Pukka sahibs in the clandestine service of an alternate British empire, exploring the back-country desert of Australia for a rumored inland sea. Captain Aspley of Intelligence is almost convinced that the expedition’s leader, Major Powell, is a madman leading them all to their deaths.

Yet Major Powell remains undaunted. He has that wild look in his eye, a fearless gaze set towards the horizon, the very same one he gets when he has been over-doing the laudanum, and a relentless zeal about his whole manner that brushes all argument aside.

But the end of the journey is far more fantastic than Aspley could have imagined.

Readers may not quite know what to expect from this one. Powell seems at first such a close copy of Colonel Blimp that we anticipate humor, if not actual farce, but this is contradicted by sinister indications, as when Powell executes the British boatmen who take him and his men on the first leg of their journey, just to preserve his secret. What the expedition actually finds is something quite unanticipated, despite dreamish hints. A vainglorious addict, a poet, and possibly a pederast, Powell strongly draws the reader’s attention, but the real protagonist is the rational Aspley. In part, the story is a commentary on the hubris of imperialism, which Powell certainly epitomizes.

The text is odd; divided between an omniscient narrator and excerpts from Aspley’s journal. I’m not sure this is the optimal strategy.

“The Proof of Bravery” by David Milstein

The memoir of Bonaparte’s Marshal Ney, who escaped his own execution and became a mathematics teacher in North Carolina. This much is known legend. To it, and in explanation, the author adds an encounter with two differently legendary characters. This speculation has interest, but the real story here is the portrait of Ney as a lover of the rational, and, by extension, his emperor.

Not only was he an unparalleled general. By enforcing the système métrique, he changed the way the world measured and weighed. As he gave order to the world of matter, so too did Bonaparte bring order to the rules of men, in the form of the code civil. Evenhandedness, clarity, fairness, justice, efficiency: so was his system of law.

“A Place to Stand” by Grace Seybold

The village sorceress guides all the young people to a fulfilling life path, but she can’t seem to find the right path for Sharide.

“I’ve dreamed you through dozens of futures, Sharide, and there’s deep grief in all of them. For you, or for others. Normally it only takes me two or three tries; most people can be happy easily enough. But not you. I don’t understand it.”

A moral story of freedom and determinism, and the dangers of messing with destiny. Readers will probably see soon enough where the author is going, but just as she gets there, the story takes a different turn. I find the rationalization for this rather facile, but other readers can decide for themselves.

“Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” by Justin Howe

The title suggests Lovecraft, but this setting is a world of wizardry in which the polisomancer is a sort of city manager. Hjel, the old polisomancer, has suddenly decamped, leaving his apprentice to try to cope with a crisis beyond his ability.

Here is mystery in a squalid, sinister atmosphere, full of slime and decay. Well done dark fantasy.

The chamber beyond the bridge reeked so thickly of mildew and rot that Yengec covered his mouth. Hollows had been carved into the walls, one atop the other. Each held a shrouded body propped upright, a crude plaster mask affixed over the face. A deeper chill touched Yengec. Nightmares worse than rats flashed in his head. The air was thick, the invisible cobweb strands more tangible. And there was more. Whispering.

–RECOMMENDED


Journal of Unlikely Entomology #2.5, February 2012

Because I like a little absurdity. This is a sort of mini-issue of the bugzine, posted for Valentine’s Day. There are three short-shorts, of which I am not generally fond, but this sort of thing is one of the cases when short is best.

“Green They Were, and Golden-Eyed” by E Catherine Tobler

The premise takes some figuring out. It would seem that the insect characters are the creation of a scientist, bred for ornamental purposes to mimic a flowering twig. I think.

Together they formed an intricate blossom along this dead wood, a blossom with assigned seating for each of its petals; a blossom which was not meant to become smitten with another part of itself.

In consequence, the individuals are inhibited from leaving their assigned places, which puts rather a kibosh on reproduction. [What the doctor planned to do about this isn’t clear.] Nonetheless, Fool has fallen for Love and yearns for her in vain, until Events intervene.

A true love story, ardent protagonists with whom a reader can sympathize.

“Love Letters” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

Starving in a dungeon can lead a person to desperate measures, so that when Zavir sees a cockroach enter his cell, he only thinks of it in terms of protein, until he notices the words written on its back.

The archaic diction gave them an exotic flavor, a spice sizzling on the tongue. He certainly knew what it meant to die to all the world. He read the words a third time. The dull red-brown letters barely stood out from the brown of the cockroach’s body. He knew that color all too well. Dried blood.

A very unlikely romantic correspondence, in which, again, the strength of the expressions of love overcomes what readers might initially find repulsive.

“Goodbye Beetle” by D K Mok

Ryan’s lover dumps him, leaving only a Christmas beetle as an explanation. Being the obsessive sort, Ryan saves the dead beetle as it turns slowly to dust, searching for the message it must conceal.

A lighter piece than the others, more conventionally romantic in human terms.

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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