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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July


Some new publications showing up at midsummer and a 100-issue anniversary.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #99,100, July 2012

The fantasy adventure ezine is celebrating its 100th issue with a double number of stories, a total of six for the month. The 200th story, in issue #99, is by the author, Chris Willrich, who wrote the first to be published in BCS.

“How the Wicker Knight Would Not Move” by Chris Willrich

The Wicker Knight was older than forest and marsh, and the gorge still was mazing a river when his sinews were woven, when his bark sword was bound to his fist, and when earth blessed by seven quarreling holy men was shoved into his gut. In some unknown fashion, that blessing had preserved the stuff of the Wicker Knight, throughout ages of woe and wonder.

The Knight’s shadow passes through the Arch of Endings, even older than the Knight, and beyond the Arch is the Perfection, which is not a Good Thing, threatening to overwhelm Earth, “like ashes and bone left clean in the blackened grass.” An inscription declares that if those who read it are worthy heroes, the Knight will move and presumably block the Perfection. A complicated situation. A small band of would-be heroes, come to save the world, face the challenge of proving their heroism.

A nicely-done fable. I like the conclusion [as opposed to the epilogue] quite a lot. I wish the characters had been better defined.

“Fox Bones. Many Uses.” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Za is a member of the Hma tribe, whose territory is being overrun by Imperial Hu soldiers lusting after their silver mines. She resists them using magic employing ground fox bones, each sort of bone having its own particular virtue. She also uses the magic to strengthen her half-breed son, hoping to make him entirely Hma, but the village hates him for his Hu blood.

A depressing tale of courage against heavy odds, as it’s clear that the tribe may stall the Imperial invaders for a time but not ultimately defeat them. The use of fox bone magic is for the most part well done, but I’m not buying it when the character grinds fresh, moist bones to powder without first drying them.

This author has another story using the bone magic device differently in this month’s Strange Horizons; it makes less sense than this one.

“In the Palace of the Jade Lion” by Richard Parks

Young scholar Xu Jian is on a journey to take up his new government post when he strays from the road and finds himself on a path surrounded by abandoned tombs. After nightfall, the unquiet spirits appear to him and escort him underground, where he is certain he will meet his end. But the moment he sees the Lady Green Willow, he is moved by her sadness to accept the inevitable.

“The nature of a ghost is to be a creature of little substance save yin energy, incomplete, envious of the living. When you’ve drained my life away, you will be, at least in a small regard and for a short time, alive again.”

Another fine ghost story from Parks. Xu Jian exhibits an admirably philosophical demeanor along with the passion of a lover. This one comes to a particularly satisfying conclusion.

–RECOMMENDED

“Ratcatcher” by Garth Upshaw

In a dystopian world, Sam catches rats to subsist on, emerging at night from his hole to check his snares, hiding from the clankers that have taken over the Earth and captured his wife.

My beautiful daughter steps lightly and surely after me and holds the lines and does not shirk from the killing and skinning, and I save their internal parts what is foul eating for people but quite usable for bait. My traps are clever constructions with no clockwork, of course, but they take a large slice of time with pliers and wire and a good candle for the close-in work and my eyes may not be what they used to be, but I am accomplished.

The clankers in turn set accomplished traps for the remaining humans, but they are identical, easy to spring.

A really grim setting with an ending that offers no real hope, only the satisfaction of sometimes being able to strike back, even if the cost is high. The narrator’s eccentric, overwrought voice grabs reader attention.

“The Three Feats of Agani” by Christie Yant

A girl who wants forbidden revenge for her father’s murder is told the fables of her people’s outcast god of vengeance. The story raises the interesting moral question of whether the god Agani is rightly or unjustly despised. But the didacticism of the fables themselves makes it all rather dull.

“Virtue’s Ghosts” by Amanda M Olson

An unusual premise: a society in which every child, on coming of age, is given a particular virtue. Or so they claim, but the story reveals that the virtues are actually curses. Lily’s truthfulness might better be called tactlessness; Justine’s kindness makes her gullible; the grandmother with sympathy was always depressed. But the curse of silence inflicted on Victoria, who had wanted to be a singer, is particularly cruel. And Victoria makes everyone pay for it, making for a very apt conclusion. It’s not a very credible premise, however, and when we learn that failure to be given a virtue can be a criminal offense, readers may start to wonder just how and why such an unlikely custom came about. This is the sort of question that authors would rather not have readers be asking, when they ought to be following the story.



James Gunn’s Ad Astra #1 2012

Arising out of the Kansas workshop, a new webzine that features stories set around particular themes, in this case: communication and information. In many cases, the stories in theme publications only touch indirectly on the subject matter, but most of these tackle it directly and score. The faint gray print on the website gave me a headache, and I hope the administrators alter this before the 2013 issue is posted.

“Children of the Thousand Days” by Peter Charron

An alien Object has shown up in Earth orbit, remained there a thousand days without communication, then departed.

There was only the Blue Cloud, named for its spectral signature, flowing from the Object into the atmosphere, where it seemed to dissipate. Atmospheric samples taken immediately by low orbiting aircraft failed to identify anything harmful. The official release theorized the cloud to be some form of exhaust related to the Object’s advanced propulsion.

Until the children born after the Object’s arrival began to speak in an alien language. Vigilantes have begun to massacre young children, now perceived as aliens. Helena, a State Department negotiator retired after her husband is killed in a terrorist bombing meant for her, is dragged out of retirement when they attack her niece.

The congenital language is an interesting premise, and highly appropriate for the issue’s theme. The notion that Helena can somehow negotiate safety for the children, however, is weak. You can’t bargain with irrational phobia spread throughout a worldwide population.

“Native” by Eric Cline

Mark North is a grandee, which is to say vulgarly a halfbreed bigfoot, or officially and euphemistically a native hominid, or scientifically homo sapiens americansis [sic]. He’s also a veterinarian with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who’s been called in an emergency in a California park, where a wild hominid has been trapped in the toilet facilities. He also finds another grandee in the crew, and together they calm the wild one.

He hummed the slow, rhythmic hum that started HIGH And Moved Gently low, and it started HIGH And Moved Gently low, and I joined in HIGH And Proceeded to low. And our Cousin joined in HIGH And The Hum Ended low.

This is a premise I really like. I wish there’d been more story with it. Instead, North spends the entire story seething about speciesist attitudes from the purebreed humans he encounters and arguing integration with the halfbreed more forest than he is.

“Colorless Green Ideas” by Shaenon K Garrity

Ever since Chomsky used the phrase as an illustration of meaninglessness, people have been trying to construct plausibly meaningful explanations of it. Sophie is fond of nonsense games but frustrated trying to teach English to Tony the alien, whose language lacks verbs, among other oddities.

All the alien students who came in for tutoring used the same odd syntax: no comprehension of verbs, no pronouns, strange ways of expressing time, conjunctions sprinkled in generously and apparently at random, phrases like “new hands” and “under the yellow.” Good God, they all used “under the yellow” and she still had no idea what it meant.

The communications problem becomes more urgent when Tony commits suicide and no one knows why. But the people who come closest are the other students who have lived with the alien students, not the experts and teachers.

A successful piece, both at confronting the communication theme and at being a story. Nicely-done alien English syntax.

“The Agreement” by Adria Laycraft

The narrator is a nameless clone, used by the Julie the Original to care for her children while Julie works in her office. The Clone Agreement specifies that they can’t both occupy the same placetime; they communicate through a computer screen and download the clone’s memories to the Original. Then one day the memory transfer malfunctions; instead of Julie receiving the memories of the clone’s day with the children, the clone receives her Original’s memories and begins to learn things she’s not supposed to.

Cloning is hardly an original notion, and this piece brings nothing to it but sentimentality. There’s also less direct engagement with the communication theme.

“Branches on My Back, Sparrows in My Ear” by Nikki J North

Tattoos now constitute a communications system and spoken language is almost obsolete. Izumi, a high-end artist, has the misfortune to be violently allergic to the ink she applies to her clients. She has always wanted it for herself, to be part of the world she is excluded from. She has always worked to develop an ink she can use.

If This Goes On, this being the reliance on electronic communications. The tattoos are a good variation, but it’s the excellence of the prose that makes this one special.

Tangled webs of identity shift and converge, a restless, tectonic dance of memory projecting branches and trees of data, nodes of relationships pointing toward sister, mother, father, lovers, boss, favorite authors, ice cream last eaten, a night at the pub. Each strand is a path I want to follow. Woven through it all are bells: shop bells and gongs, bells for summoning hotel clerks and bells for dismissing churches, chimes played by the wind, and secret bells made to be rung by only one person. They call out to the whole world. The system is up.

–RECOMMENDED

“Racing the Moon and the Hill that Burned the Word” by Adrian Simmons

Gamma is a member of the Thinker caste of Deep-Root-Spreading-Architecture, responsible for directing the non-routine activities of the workers and soldiers. It is troubled times. There has been war, there has been fire, there is little food remaining. And there is something new.

The hill is not large, but it gleams in the sunlight, far away, where your vision turns from blurry to blocky. This is something beyond your experience, beyond second, third, or even n-mind experience. Hills do not grow; they are, or they are not. Trees and plants grow, and the Population makes an Architecture grow.

I like the way the Thinkers think, by mind-melding, and learn things at first-mind, etc. But the author uses a lot of terms for creatures such as hoolda birds, kolx and uunnas that make it hard to take the scenario quite seriously.



Specutopia, July/August 2012

Debut issue of a new bimonthly electronic zine, subtitled simply: Magazine of Speculative Fiction. The editors claim their priority to be good writing, unrestricted by guidelines. “We are dedicated to exhibiting writing that clearly fits into the description of speculative fiction, while at the same time displaying beautiful and powerful prose . . .” Worthy goals.

But claims like this always leave me skeptical that they represent, not the wishes of readers but of the unpublished authors. New zines are often based on the assumption that there are great numbers of superior stories going unseen, due to the arbitrary whims of editors. When the chosen stories appear, however, their superiority is not always so evident. The seven short pieces here are of publishable quality, readable quality, but they don’t rise above this level to anywhere near the excellence claimed.

“Hollow Spaces” by Greg Mellor

The narrator’s young son was struck by a car and killed, remaining sustained on lifesupport for the sake of his mother, who can’t let him go. Technology can supply a direct interface between their brains, but the David that the mother talks to is only a mental simulacrum, a creation of her own memories. He’s not in there. There’s not much left there in the mother, either.

This is the story chosen by the editors to showcase on their website. I’m not sure this bodes well for the zine’s prospect of living up to its stated goals. The concept isn’t especially original, and the prose is mostly serviceable, with a slight tendency towards infodumpfery and a somewhat overwritten opening section that adds nothing to the story.

“The Death of the World’s Greatest Detective” by James Beamon

The narrator is shadowing the veteran private detective Mike Manley when his greatest, and probably last case begins.

They locked eyes, Mike and the dead blonde. Hers frozen in time, his intense with study. This was the start of their contract. She would tell him things only he could hear. He would avenge her, his gift for those secrets.

Until the detective starts to ask the wrong questions. Like why it’s “always murder. Always a beautiful dame.”

A clever metafiction. Readers will surely suspect what’s up when they spot the character’s name. The classic detective story is characterized by a particular sort of prose, and the author does a pretty good job with it, well enough to make for an entertaining read.

“Hoodoo” by D Thomas Minton

SF. Sam Gondo, a veteran of the Bindi wars afflicted with PSTD, has a healthy respect for alien weapons. None of the other members of the survey team are veterans, and they regard the newly-discovered artifact as an archeological specimen, to be preserved and studied, not blown up as Gondo prescribes. But when he is compelled to touch the object, against his own advice, it has strange mental effects.

He squinted at the spot he had touched. In the furrows, his own reflection stared back at him, but as he watched it twisted and became alien looking.

The premise is a potentially neat scientific mystery, with a resolution that is too pat.

“Water Child” by Jennifer Mason-Black

Teresa has taken her son Liam to a camp for other families who have aquatic children, born with gills and fins, to release them into the ocean. For Teresa, the occasion is also a support group.

The story is about the emotional cost of letting children go, but the premise makes me dubious. Captive-raised dolphins are slowly and carefully introduced to the wild, not just dumped into the ocean with the expectation that they’ll thrive in freedom.

“Entangled” by Rachael Acks

On a school trip to the cathedral, May sees a strange man staring at her, until he suddenly disappears.

He was tall, and broad-shouldered, and wore a bright blue jumpsuit that was singed along the left side, from dusty gray to black. His eyes were fixed on her; one was bright green, the other looked like a ball bearing.

As she grows up, she sees the image again; the man seems to be trying to tell her something. The mystery motivates her to go into science.

A sort of love story, but unlike a genre romance in its resolution, if you could call it resolved. But the heart of it is in the direction the character’s life takes, not her destination.

“Never Idle” be David Steffen

Jeremiah talks to cars, and they answer him. Sometimes they tell him what to do, as when he meets a nice woman and is too shy to ask to see her again. A warmhearted little story.

“Solitude, Quietude, Vastitude” by Jetse de Vries

The 2nd-person protagonist tries to escape her troubles at the festival. The performances are highly unusual, and the programme is less helpful than a mystery in itself.

You grab the programme and . . . but wasn’t it red instead of white? And surely it wasn’t called Nemonymous: a megazanthus?

This one is intriguing different, original, near-incomprehensible. The best and definitely most original of the lot, with the most interesting prose.



Lightspeed, July 2012

Interesting scenarios and stylistic experiments this month – some more successful than others.

“Requiem in the Key of Prose” by Jake Kerr

The world has run out of oxygen. Domes are rapidly erected over cities, with oxygen-generating plants, built with more concern for immediate results than failsafed design. Adam is the guy who knows more about the jury-rigged system than anyone; Adam is the one who can fix a breakdown. His wife Violet doesn’t want him to go.

All of which seems almost peripheral to the intent of the story as announced in the title. It’s the sort of title that raises immediate misgivings in a reader, suggesting the strong possibility of literary pretentiousness. But I found myself won over and charmed. The story is told in short sections, each illustrating a grammatical or rhetorical principle, thus shifting about in person and tense. This device adds a great deal of interest to the story, indeed perhaps its primary aspect. I would have liked to see more actual passive statements in the section aptly headed Passive Voice. While there are many statements using auxiliary verbs, not all of these are passive construction.

“The Sweet Spot” by A M Dellamonica

A series story with a complex background that may leave readers stumbling. There’s a civil war on Earth, and one side has acquired alien allies, known as squid for good reason. This side is now losing and the squid, taking heavy casualties, are considered likely to withdraw. Ruth’ father was the lover of a squid who raised them as a stepparent, and they grew up to be popular performers of squid songs. Now their father is dead and they’re trying to get by hustling in the graveyard, but the enemy is pressuring them to turn coat and collaborate. Eventually, the story crawls out from under the tangle of background, a tale of betrayal and loyalty across species lines. But the goodguy/badguy setup doesn’t really leave Ruth’s choice as a surprise.

“Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beginning with a disquisition on monsters to make the narrative seem metafictional and more important:

Monsters remember everything. So, in the middle of the maze, there is a monster living on memory. Know that, if you know nothing else. Know that going in.

So, paring away the meta, two people, each married to others, fall in love, want to be together forever. Their spouses, both adepts in magic, resent this desertion and plot revenge.

Here again, the meta is the point. But this time I’m not charmed and do find it pretentious.

“Ghost River Red” by Aidan Doyle

Akamiko is a swordwriter, former student of the Lady of All Colors, now come to the Lady’s ancestral village to place her ashes in the cemetery. But the cemetery is haunted by the hostile black ghost of the village’s former ghost hunter. To kill it, Akamiko needs a black sword, but the new ghost hunter will not lend hers, as the ghost’s death will kill her son, whose father is the ghost.

He looked normal enough on the surface, but a ghost heart beat beneath his chest. Kitamura had lain with the ghost hunter after he became a ghost. The boy would die if the ghost was destroyed.

The swordwriter setting is a complex and interesting one, although the author doesn’t weigh down the story with background. The flat narrative style is distinctive. Overall, this is a depressing tale, and it’s not entirely clear that Akamiko has done the right thing.



Strange Horizons, July 2012

Another month with only two stories. Not really happy with either.

“Comes the Huntsman” by Rachael Acks

Playing on the Snow White tale in metaphor, a short piece in several short sections. The narrator as a girl falls in love with a boy whom she doesn’t know is gay and who later kills himself. Much angst ensues, many images of excised hearts.

“Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

Two-parter. A strange and violent story of revenge. There’s a whole lot that readers are asked to believe. We have a tribe of human women and vixens who are apparently born from the conjunction of the world’s two suns. It seems that only recently, like within living memory, they lived in wealth and opulence as city-dwellers, but they have since been driven into the desert where their numbers are decreasing to the point of near extinction.

Fifty years ago we still hung so much silver from our ears that the flesh stretched, hanging around our shoulders, and we still dusted our faces with the powder of sapphires. Going into battle, we used to gild our nails and claws, and fit ourselves with mail that shone like small suns, like our mothers.

Now a pair of them has set off on a quest to one of their ruined cities to retrieve the bones of their Saints [heroes].

Disbelief isn’t willingly suspended here. For one thing, the tribal legends have the tone of hyperbole. Tales of the glorious past are always prone to exaggeration. And there is clearly another side to this story, one that we are not being told. So it is actually harder to believe when the pair of heroes arrives at the city to discover that the legend of the wondrous green sarcophagus to be perfectly true.

Then there is the Ultimate Weapon. There’s some logic to it, if we accept that the members of the tribe are actually the offspring of the suns. Despite the fact that the humans of the pairs seem to be biologically human. It still strains at the capacity for belief, regardless. It also raises the question why, if they possessed such a capacity for destruction, they didn’t deploy it when their cities were under attack. I’m just not convinced. By any of it.



Tor.com, July 2012

All stand-alone fiction on the site this month, including the first in a new series by Michael Swanwick.

“The Mongolian Wizard” by Michael Swanwick

In a fantasy world resembling our 19th century, in which aristocratic power is based on hereditary magical ability, a conclave of European wizards assembles. Kapitänleutnant Franz-Karl Ritter of the Werewolf Corps is fascinated by Sir Toby’s demonstration of miniature soldiers; he also suspects the Englishman is a spy. But what he discovers is far more perilous.

The setting offers promise of entertaining stories. I would not, however, characterize this piece as standing alone but rather the introduction to a series of connected adventures.

“Brother. Prince. Snake.” by Cecil Castelluci

Based on the Prince Lindwurm fairytale. Wen, youngest of triplet boys, was born a scaled monster, the result of a spell given by a witch to the childless queen.

I was moody, dark, and frightening. My nursemaids quit one after the other as I grew. My scaly skin, my tiny wings, my yellow eyes, and my long talon were unsettling. I was cold to touch, like a snake. My jaw could now open to fit around the head of a person. No one liked to be near me.

Accused of heinous crimes, he is locked into a castle tower by the wicked brother who has ascended the throne. But of course, this being a fairy tale, he doesn’t remain there.

This version of the tale sentimentalizes it, blunting the edge of the original instead of sharpening it.

“A Tall Tail” by Charles Stross

The author claims that the Pentagon threw a conference on building starships and invited a bunch of SF authors to participate. But the good stories were not on the official panels but around the bar, where mad rocket scientists recounted tales of legendary toxic fuels.

“We leaked the design for the FOOF/dimethylmercury test motor to the Soviets, claiming it had an insanely high specific impulse—” the measure of a rocket’s efficiency “—and was ideal for anti-shipping missiles because the fuel’s extremely dense, so your missile can have a smaller frontal cross-section, which is good when you’re pushing through dense air at sea level. And we made sure to salt the documents with references to a special additive that made it all stable and safe to handle. And then we sat back to wait for the exploding chemical plants to show up from orbit, and the reports of dissolving scientists and platoons of technicians dying in neurology units.”

Tall tales and conspiracy theories with sufficient surface credibility to gull the unwary. Fun nasty stuff.

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.

Comments

Comment from Douglas McKinney
Time July 30, 2012 at 5:18 am

Lois, thanks for reviewing the first stories from James Gunn’s Ad Astra. We did change the font size and darkness, but visitors who have been to the site prior to the change may need to use the “refresh” (or similar) command for their browser to show the updated font.

Pingback from Liam Manley : The Latest Fuzz
Time July 31, 2012 at 9:21 am

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