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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early March


A short column this time. I wanted to take a look at Arc, the new futurist fictionzine from Britain’s New Scientist, but technical difficulties prevented. Next time, I hope. In the meanwhile, the usual monthly ezines offer no really superior fiction.

Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld, March 2012

Three stories, science-fictional in different ways.

“Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald

Superheroes. Seth calls them “shadow organizations.” They operate as part of the war on terrorism.

Because it’s their job to save the world. They’re everywhere already, and so many of them wear masks. They say it’s to protect their identities, but it’s also so that we’re never sure who’s one of them, who’s watching. They’re always anonymous again in daylight.

Seth is a nethead, a computer security adept called in to their facility at Albuquerque, ostensibly to address a virus. But he has a personal agenda.

There are strong echoes here of certain current events. A rather moralistic piece, although clearly the author sees the arguments on both sides.

“The Bells of Subsidence” by Michael John Grist

Humans have spread across the universe, but the wave has subsided and failed. Vessels called Bells now travel the anthropic plane from one world to another, picking up new classes of young children, whose minds will be used as propulsion until they are stripped clean. Aliqa is one of the talented children who will go to the Bell, and her friend Temetry will be left behind.

“I love you,” I whisper to him. His fingers tighten, rippling over mine in Euclidean gymnastics, until our hands are joined partway between a reticulated conch shell and an intersecting Klein bottle.

But the Bell takes everything from Aliqa, including her memories, and at last she loses Temetry. Only his name remains.

This is the kind of literary SF that uses the language of science for metaphorical and even poetic effect, without any actual meaning. That is, if “plancking the branes” means anything specific, I don’t know what it is. But none of it is necessary for readers to get at the heart of the story, which is the force of human connections. Some of the images are striking and euphonious, except where too much capitalization is used, and the story is moving although readers will not be surprised at the ending.

“From Their Paws, We Shall Inherit” by Gary Kloster

Dystopia. Things fell apart. Cesar is a young smuggler, trapped between the pirates and the Coast Guard, when out of the water climbs a monkey with good advice. Interleaved with his story are messages from a dissident who was tracking the appearance of alien spacecraft that seem to have dropped something into the ocean – in case the readers wonder where the monkeys came from.

Hopefulthinkium. It would certainly be nice if aliens showed up to save humanity from itself, but I’m not sure what would motivate them.


GigaNotoSaurus, March 2012

“Tattooed Love Boys” by Alex Jeffers

Emma’s parents have brought her and her brother on a working vacation to somewhere that might or might not be in the vicinity of the Netherlands, then unwisely abandoned the teenagers to their own devices. It’s Emma, the younger, who is the more mature, Emma who first finds the tattoo shop, although Theo is the one wanting a tattoo. Things change, however. They change a whole lot – not unrelated to the local history, which claims a witch’s house in town several centuries ago.

As he strode away and Emma hesitated, puzzled, it appeared to her the inky spikes and blades and flourishes on his back were writhing, contorting, blushing with blots of clear color, but when she blinked and looked again, hurrying after him, they had resolved into intricate flowers tangled in wreaths and garlands on his shoulder and upper arm.

This is a story of transformation, and more importantly of compulsion and its moral hazards. When Emma is changed into a young man, it doesn’t seem that this choice is her own, even though she claims at the end to prefer the alteration. Interestingly, not only does Emma change, but her memories do, as well as the memories of everyone associated with her. As far as anyone recalls, she has always been Emmanuel. The case of Theo is more troubling. It’s impossible not to think that creatures with such power and no conscience could do a great deal of harm, and that both these young people were lucky in their encounter. The writing has immediacy; the sexual details, such as the erotic charge of chest hair, have a palpable realism, although this contributes to the sense of unease readers might have when considering the youth and inexperience of the characters in their original existence. If Emma/Emmanuel is a nineteen-year-old hairy-chested hunk with [false] memories of experience in these matters, it’s still impossible not to recall [as the author continues to use the female pronoun] she is really/was recently a fourteen-year-old girl who never actually considered herself a boy, let alone a gay one. The author seems to be suggesting that since no one was permanently harmed and everyone had a good fuck, it’s all OK in the end. But it might well have turned out not OK indeed, as the fictional events of past centuries warn us.


Redstone SF, March 2012

Two stories of love in space, both unoriginal.

“I Will Love You Forever” by Michaele Jordan

Stranded on an uninhabited colony world with his robotic companion, David is contentedly in love, and Kati claims to love him, in her own way.

“You are the center of my world, my reason for continuing to function. Every minute of the day, I’m always listening for you, no matter what else I’m doing. My reward for working is seeing you pleased. I think that means I love you.”

But when David gets the chance to evacuate the post, without her, their understanding of love proves to be different.

A strong portrayal of the power of love on David’s side raises this a bit above the many others on the same theme.

“Steady State” by Lynette Mejia

Devastated by the loss of his wife and son, Adam decides to travel to a black hole to fulfill his notion that

although time was linear, it didn’t have to move at a constant speed. Hell, it didn’t have to move at all. At the singularity, the fourth dimension took on the characteristics of the third; became a road that could be traversed, forward or backward. It was only a kernel then, however; not yet born, not yet connected to his life.

The text alternates flashbacks from Adam’s life with the progress of his survey of the black hole as he draws closer to point of no return. Sort of thing that’s been done a lot.


Apex, March 2012

The editorial says this issue deals with opposites and contrasts, and it does.

“A Member of the Wedding of Heaven and Hell” by Richard Bowes

“The Fool of God, on a mission from Heaven.” I like that. The venue is a wedding in a version of 1960, not too long before humanity in this timestream disappears in the Apocalypse. That happens in a lot of worlds. The groom is from the dark side, the bride from the other place; together, they’ve made a truce. Powers gather, on both sides of the aisle. The Fool has been sent to sort things out, because this mésalliance has perturbed those On High.

The tone here is light and humorous, the issues profound, involving free will, predestination, good and evil, and the Meaning Of It All. But essentially it’s about humanity. The Powers here are not Those Who Sit At The Hand but humans raised to a state of demi-angelicality, both light and dark. They are there to play a role, but they are not omniscient. This is a novel and interesting way of looking at the large questions, although it inevitably involves a lot of moralizing. Still, the entertainment value overcomes this.

“Copper, Iron, Blood and Love” by Mari Ness

Fairytale.

In the village of Sandel they tell a tale of how a raven once flew into the village to give a woman seven fine children. Of how these children grew tall and strong if perhaps a bit unwise and untrustworthy, and of how the woman brought a knife to their throats in the hopes of bringing the raven back.

Now this is a neat opening, but not entirely clear that the raven is the father of the children, the woman’s spouse. The youngest child, who survives, is known as the raven’s daughter, and she can’t speak, only croak, trapped between the dual sides of her inheritance. A stranger/prince/wizard comes to give her a spell that will heal her.

What we have here is a meta fairytale, with alternate morals, alternate tellings. Many of the morals suggest the theme is the relationship between child and parent, but I see little of this. In fact, we learn almost nothing of the parents involved; they are all absent in one way or another, and the children grow up with only themselves for companions. Love, as they find it, is an immature love of children for each other. It’s a tale of transformation and the discovery of self. The contrast, the conflict, is between the human and the animal side of nature. I find the meta aspect a bit overdone, as if the stones have inscriptions promising some profound secret, but when raised, nothing is there. We still, at the end, have no real idea why the mother killed her children, what spell she was trying to perform. It’s impossible not to think of the fairytale about raven/swan brothers, but that doesn’t seem to be it.


On Spec, Winter 2011/2012

Five stories in this issue of the little Canadian zine, plus a couple of vignettes. The theme is vampires and other monsters, although the tone is more often light than horrific. I like the horrific ones best.

“At the End of the World” by David K Yeh

Kevin Fobister was born to a long line of powerful shamans, although his father was weak and killed by a polar bear. According to his grandfather, this was in order to make Kevin a stronger shaman.

Kevin’s mother and his father’s mother had both died during childbirth, having given their lives bringing forth men of power into the world. This was the hateful story Kevin had been told ever since he could remember.

As soon as he could, Kevin left his grandfather’s village and went away to college, then with his wife and child to New Orleans. But there, a witch came out of the swamp and carried his daughter away. Now he has returned to the village to enlist the aid of a devil in his revenge.

A powerful use of magic, with the devil particularly well-done. A good plot twist. I’m not clear on whether the magical system is based on some actual one or the creation of the author, but it seems credible from here.

–RECOMMENDED

“Suckers” by Kirsty Logan

Steve is a vampire who owns a comic shop. His assistant is an annoying geek who calls himself Count, wears a cape, and fantasizes about becoming a vampire. Steve can’t stand him, except that he’s an expert on Golden Age comics. Obviously, humor. Steve’s frustration with the Count is well realized, but overall this is a slight piece.

“Drinking Problem” by Hilary C Smith

Another vampire. Dierdre goes to an AA meeting to get help with her [blood] drinking problem. Pretty lame.

“John-A-Dreams” by Steve McGarrity

No monsters. Roger is an actor working for a revival company that uses a drug treatment that makes him believe onstage that he is really Hamlet. Reviews are great. But Roger increasingly can’t tell whether he is Hamlet or the actor playing him. I like the portrayal of his confusion here.

“Touch the Dead” by Brent Knowles

The other genuinely horrific story of the issue. There are a lot of parallels between this one and the Yeh story above – perhaps too many for both pieces to be appearing in the same issue. Brian, too, comes from a line of tribal shamans, although in his case it is his mother’s family. Both she and her father are now dead, but they have passed their curse – as he sees it – onto Brian. While riding with his girlfriend, driving too fast, a ghostly encounter runs him off the road, and Angie is killed; now Brian is haunted everywhere by hostile ghosts.

He was certain that the spirit watching him after Angie had died was his grandfather. The old man had caused the accident, had forced Brian to become . . . to become what the fates, in all their cruelty, had decided he must become.

There’s something definitely spooky about Brian’s encounters with the ghosts, his family curse/mission. There’s also tragedy in his discovery of the lies that had shaped his life.

Others

“Henry” by Erin O’Neill is a nicely done short-short about a young boy who has the unusual ability to see inside people. “Block Party” by Andrew S Fuller is a vignette about dancing houses, with a neat coda.

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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