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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August


Mining the monthly zines for the good stories. The digests, including an Asimov’s double issue, and some ezines. A good month at Tor.com this time.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, October/November 2012

The fall double issue features two substantial novellas, which is what the doubles are particularly good for. Some nice shorter stories as well. Some of them.

“The Mongolian Book of the Dead” by Alan Smale

Tanner, wandering the world with nothing much to do, ends up in Ulaanbaatar just as the Chinese invade. For reasons unclear at the time, he is abducted by a small band of the Mongol resistance, thus ensuring that Tanner would be considered a spy if discovered. They take him on a lengthy journey through the Gobi to meet the shaman who is behind it all. After long delays, the shaman informs him that a near-death experience in childhood has made him a conduit to the spirit worlds. Even as the potential risk to his life and sanity become increasingly clear, Tanner buys into his new role.

The Udgan was reciting an incantation, and suddenly it was as if the horses’ hooves clattered along the bark of branches, blue sky beneath them, now running over water, the eternal course of a dark river, now leaping through the air, and never coming to ground. Illusions all, but echoes of connections made, powerful links forged.

This is a journey from the future into the past, from mundane geopolitics into epic fantasy. The split is manifested in the persons of the twin sisters, one with her heart in the modern world, the other, the shaman, barely of the world at all. The setting is strongly done; the author writes of past and present Mongolia with a great deal of authority, lightened with a bit of dark humor:

“How did she communicate this to you?” he said.” Telepathy, through your ami-soul?”

“No. She call me on cellphone.”

There’s more than a bit of wishful thinking, though. The Chinese occupation of Mongolia is too close to that of Tibet, a nation not lacking in spiritual resources, yet somehow they were never successfully mobilized in itself defense. This is probably why we can’t help wanting to believe in the fantasy, against our better judgment.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake

Creationism vs science. 6000 years ago, humans were planted on a world they call Earth, where they promptly developed a creation myth and religious institutions supporting it. The society now appears to be at the technological level of the turn of the 20th century and the intellectual level of the Inquisition. Morgan Abutti is this world’s Galileo, bringing unwelcome evidence of the truth of humanity’s offworld origin, known to the Lateran Palace as the Externalist heresy, which it is the official duty of the Revered Bilious [appalling choice of name, what was the author thinking?] Quinx to suppress.

The truth that Morgan has seen in the skies is this world’s eppure si muove. For a doctor of science, he is excessively naive.

“I dreamt that my reputation would have been made,” Morgan said sadly. “The spirit of scientific inquiry is one of the most powerful forces known to man. With a bit of luck, I could have launched a generation of research.”

What he inexplicably fails to understand is that established institutions won’t let mere truth stand in the way of maintaining their political power. What matters in this scenario is the inexorable force of progress; when every scientist has access to a telescope, suppression becomes impossible. Progress is also a threat to the established class order, including a reverse-racism with barbarian whites at the bottom. The author dwells repeatedly on this last point, in a manner that begins to seem gratuitous.

Although the Galileo parallel drives the story, we don’t end up in the Lateran courtroom listening to learned but dull theological arguments. It becomes an adventure tale, with pirate airships racing for an intellectual prize. This makes it an entertaining read, not a didactic one.

“The Second Engineer” by Gray Rinehart

Annalise is the new Second Engineer on the Indomitable and having an unexpected problem.

But in the Engine Room, the ship sang to Annalise. It sang a melancholy song, a tuneless anthem, a wordless poem. It sang of cloudless days on planets with no suns. It sang of blissful despair, ecstatic depression.

Turns out that the ship is afraid of something it’s seen in the spacetime continuum, trying to get the attention of anyone who might listen. But the contact is driving Anna crazy and getting her into trouble with her superiors.

The story turns into military SF action. There’s an interesting subthread about Anna’s marriage to an Army officer, deployed far away, and their child; space service makes for hard marriages. And this is the sort of military in which, if you lose a limb, they just regenerate it and put you back to work. Tough service .

“The Ghost Factory” by Will Ludwigsen

The narrator was a failed case worker at Worthington Wood mental hospital, who didn’t really care about his patients or much of anything, except that he had a low-key affair with a girl named Valerie. Valerie had a theory.

“I think the people everyone else calls ‘crazy’ are drifting from this world to another one. Slipping between the cracks, sort of. And not all of their brain goes into the other world at once and it can talk to the other part that doesn’t and it says things neither side can understand.”

Now the place is shut down, empty except for the narrator. And the patients, including Valerie, drifting through the woods like ghosts.

A nice depressing story, with a thread of truth among the craziness. If a mental hospital is a ghost factory, so is the world. The narrator tries to end on a note of hope, but it’s more likely that he’ll only fade along with the rest.

“Antarctica Starts Here” by Paul McAuley

In a warmer future world, Krish and his partner Dan are running tours in Antarctica. Dan is a romantic who is sorry he missed the old days of exploration on the ice. He especially hates the remote robotic avatars that let people experience the place from their living rooms at home.

“Standing all alone after ten days’ hard hiking to somewhere no one has ever been before, hearing nothing but the wind and your heartbeat, it’s the most profound thing you can do. It shows you what’s really real. The muppets riding those things, they’ll never know that. They think they’re out on a day trip to fucking Disneyland.”

Eventually Dan decides to do something about it.

Another depressing piece about people who resist the inevitable. The doomed penguins, now used as mascots for tourist hotels, symbolize the situation effectively.

“Results Guaranteed” by Kit Reed

A silly story. Billy Mangold’s rich and overbearing father is somehow convinced that his son has to manifest some sort of superpower or weirdness in order to succeed, even though Billy is a normal kid. It’s not only silly and ridiculous but tedious, as Dad repeats far too often

“If my boy can’t make it at Occam the gateway schools won’t even look at him, let alone let him in, so his chance at the Ivy League is shot to hell before he comes out of the gate. Take it from me, if the last Mangold doesn’t make it to Harvard I’ll ruin you.”

Just dreadful.

“Lion Dance” by Vylar Kaftan

San Francisco is locked down because of the flu epidemic, but Bo and his friends are bored, so they get the idea of going out in lion dance costume on Halloween. Bo is worried about his younger brother Jian getting exposed to something, as Jian is HIV+, but the idea is irresistible to a bunch of young guys who’ve had nothing to do but drink. This being Chinatown, it goes over quite well. At first.

I was laughing so hard I could barely walk. Everyone was fucking sick of quarantine, sick of being understaffed and overworked, sick of never relaxing. I was finally doing something good for the world, even in all this awfulness. I was making people smile. It was the goddamn awesomest feeling.

This one is fun until it gets moralistic.

“This Hologram World” by Eugene Mirabelli

Physicist Henri Orban falls apart after the sudden death of his wife. The world no longer makes sense to him.

“All this,” he said, gesturing at the trees bordering the sidewalk, the lawns and shrubs and ordinary houses, the ragged clouds streaming across the cobalt sky. “It’s all fake. It’s a scam. It’s bogus.”

After a time he begins to view the problem in physics terms.

A quiet, sad story, ultimately about resignation. I’ve seen other stories based on the same general hypothesis about the nature of reality, but this one takes a different turn that I find more satisfying, philosophically.

“A Handsome Fellow” by Ekaterina Sedia

While out scrounging for food during the siege of Leningrad, Svetlana finds herself followed by a strangely well-fed, handsome man. He smells of earth.

His face was just as out of place as his smell—full and red-cheeked, bright-eyed, healthy. So handsome, so untouched— like a wax sculpture under museum glass. Lips so red.

Svetlana considers him to be her protector against the cannibals said to be roaming the city. She invites him in – a mistake, as old Olga Petrovna could have told her. As any reader could have told her.

There are some circumstances in which the usual horrors seem comforting. A very different take on a very familiar story. The setting is well-done. The only problem I have is with the narrative voice, that doesn’t seem to fit the narrator, particularly in the opening paragraphs.

“Chromatophores” by John Alfred Taylor

Janice and her friends consider themselves the popular girls.

We decided who was popular and who was nobody, who was in and who was out. Lots of the boys didn’t notice, but the girls did, and some of them hated us. Not that that mattered as long as we stayed on top.

These days they’re into chromatophores these days, altering the color and pattern of their skin. But they learn the hard way that chromatophores are susceptible to UV radiation when Anne develops melanoma.

This is a Lesson story, but one with interest to be found in the chromatophores. Janice and her friends are no worse than a lot of teenagers in their shallow self-centeredness.

“Shattering” by Steven Utley

Of course the character has no name. Characters never do, these days. Authors can’t be bothered. And I can’t quite call him the narrator, because sometimes there is a narrator who isn’t the character, though most of the time the narrator is narrating in the character’s voice. This suggests the fragmentation of reality, or rather the character’s perception of reality aboard a spaceship. The character aboard the spaceship frequently dreams and increasingly can’t tell the difference; he seems to be dreaming that he’s dreaming. What’s shattering is his mind. Which seems to be the consequence of space travel. Maybe.

Nothing is out there. Literally nothing. Zero to the infinite power. There’s nothing out there that can chew up people’s minds. There isn’t even an out there out there. If our mission fails, we have only ourselves to blame.

A rather ordinary and fairly dull going-crazy in space story.



Analog, November 2012

This seems to be the engineering issue.

“SEAGULLS, Jack-O-Lanterns, and Interstitial Spaces” by Gray Rinehart

OK, SEAGULL is an acronym for a utility robot on the space station under construction, and the pumpkin substitutes are small air tanks wrapped in orange tape by Owen, to impress Susan at the Halloween party, which they don’t.

Whenever a pretty girl glanced his way, he was off and running on whatever he thought would attract her attention. Even being here on the station had started out as a way to get a girl’s attention. And where was Wendy Robinson now?

The spaces are between the inflatable habitat modules that the crew is fitting together, too small for a crewmember in a spacesuit to work easily inside. Improvisation is necessary.

A light, entertaining engineering story, with lots of the sort of technical details this zine’s readers should appreciate.

“Strobe Effect” by Alastair Mayor & Brad R Torgersen

Peter’s project is creating ultrafast circuits using superconductors, and failure looms. He’s frazzled and taking it out on his staff, including Kathy, the software engineer sent in by management to troubleshoot. But things only get worse.

Kathy executed the interrupt, and hammered at the ENTER key again and again, but knew it was too late. The curve on the screen jumped off the top, and there was a loud pop behind her, followed by a fizzle, and the lab’s air filled with the acrid smell of burnt insulation.

Then comes the epiphany during a microwaved dinner in front of an old movie on TV.

This one is exceedingly neep-heavy, and I’ll leave it to the physics wonks to determine if the handwavium here holds up in plausibility. In general, it’s the standard plot scenario, in which the ups and downs of the research are mirrored by the romantic relationship between the characters. Better done than a lot of these.

“The Information in a Dream” by Sarah K Castle

The demands of Renée’s job at the quantum computing lab conflict with her need to care for her disabled father. But now the computer has said that it wants to entangle her brain, in order for the lab

to conduct invasive surgery on her brain and cloister her in a cold room so they could slave her to an unpredictable machine.

Although her boss claims he can’t coerce her, she’ll be fired immediately if she refuses.

The author does a good job of using Renée’s Navaho heritage to comprehend the multiple worlds hypothesis. But I can’t credit that any employer would be able to make such a coercive demand under short conditions. Not buying that part of the premise.

“Siege Perilous” by Daniel Hatch

War comes to Castle Anthrax, an asteroid community ostensibly agricultural, but its real business is AIs.

Simpler personas like my assistant Mike were distributed throughout the cog oil network, accessible at any node. But the big tanks here in The Brewery were dedicated containment for high-functioning AIs. The shorter distance for internal communication was necessary for them to run at high speeds. In the depths of the tanks, the cogs created dynamic structures that shifted as processing needs changed. They threw up massive multiple processors to crunch huge problems, running endless trial-and-error simulations in search of the right answers.

The war is being fought over cog technology and by it, with malware bombs more dangerous in an asteroid environment than explosives. When the enemy attacks, it takes all the asteroid’s cog and human brainpower to counter it. As well as fortuitous enemy stupidity.

The setting is the star here, the ingenious construction and agronomic technology. There is also a strong moral component, which values information, intelligence and good will. The author is pushing the claim that possessors of the last two have an inherent advantage, which is probably wishful thinking. The story isn’t didactic about it, even though readers will have no doubt, given the narrative voice, that the good guys will eventually prevail. Me, I’m not so optimistic.

–RECOMMENDED

“Pictures at an Exhibition” by Robert R Chase

Photos of an expedition. The expedition was ostensibly to explore and document the consequences of climate change in the northern Canadian wilderness.

Wildlife exploded, not just in quantity but in diversity. A score of endangered species were found to be thriving and others, long thought to be extinct or even imaginary, such as the coleman frog, the pitt lake lizard, the beaver eater and the igopogo, conclusively proved their existence to zoologists. It was as if a new continent had revealed itself for exploration.

Actually, though, the head of the expedition is on the hunt for Bigfoot.

The story, however, lies in the narrative, which the author establishes in the opening scene so that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the attentive reader. But it entails problems. For one, the point of view during the expedition appears to be that of the photographer, Jack Morgan; the narrative expresses his sensations, his thoughts – to which the actual narrator would not seem to have access. The narrator’s own voice and viewpoint, after the initial scene, disappear entirely until the end. Then there is the camera, which the narrator, never having seen such a device, was immediately and intuitively able to use, to view the images it had recorded. Not buying that. This is too bad, because I otherwise like the premise and can’t help thinking it might have worked more effectively if these issues had been addressed, which could have easily been done.

“Tech Support” by Richard A Lovell

Humor. Alec is trying to decide on the right name for his new invention.

[A name] that carried the right sense of the future. Acoustograph, one of his backers had suggested. But that sounded too much like something from one of the fantasies of that French writer, Verne. He needed a simpler name, one that would seem so natural nobody would ever believe it could possibly have been anything else.

Then the device buzzes, with the answer. From the future. I was amused.

“Survival in Shades of Orange” by Patty Jensen

Just before Mauro and his bride Gabriela touch down on Vittorio, he learns that the last crew there has died under circumstances that implicate the base AI. Caution is advised – so naturally, Mauro says nothing about the situation to his partner, ensuring that she will run obliviously around the place. In the meantime, Mauro seems mainly concerned that the AI is watching them make love and wondering how he can keep Gabriela from knowing how he’s lying to her.

The definition of an idiot plot is a situation that couldn’t happen unless someone is an idiot. Mauro qualifies in spades. He keeps essential information from his partner, then keeps from her the fact that he is deceiving her. And at the conclusion, he does it again, endangering their successors at the base. What concerns me is the possibility that the author doesn’t seem to know that Mauro is an idiot and thinks he’s a hero for figuring out the mystery at last.



Strange Horizons, August 2012

Liking only one of this month’s three original stories.

“Zero Bar” by Tom Greene

Race. The nameless narrator was born to a Latino family in a future when it’s possible to suppress certain genes controlling physical appearance. Her father wants to give her every advantage, so she grows up “white”, although once compared by schoolmates to the eponymous candy bar: white on the outside, brown on the inside. Now she finds herself pregnant and is faced with the decision whether to make the baby resemble its white father or her own brown family.

This is a didactic story about confronting racist stereotypes: whites who, not knowing the narrator’s ancestry, make racist comments denigrating stereotyped Latinos. The story is also itself a stereotype, in which all whites present are portrayed as stereotyped racists. “Pale khakis, pastel polo shirts, summer dresses” is equally a cliché as hardworking illegals. The narrator and her family are real and distinct individuals; the others are flat bleached cardboard. I also find it hard to credit that the manager would not be aware of the name of the company working on his building’s HVAC system.

“Over the Waves” by Louise Hughes

We don’t know why Sima was left behind when part of her family left for the moon. Now, ten years later, she runs a river taxi to the city, paid in the sort of electronic scrap that suggests a devolved society. But Sima seems content, an expert in her own place.

She eased out the oars, anticipating the fast run of the current downriver. They would shoot past the villages clinging to its banks. She knew how to navigate past the remnants of buildings and swept-away telegraph poles still lodged in the channel. It was an obstacle course only the best sailors survived. Campbell, with his engine, spewing out the sickly sweet fumes of burning petrol, couldn’t do it.

A short piece, notable for the missing background of Sima’s life, but her character stands out clear and strong.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Bear with the Quantum Heart” by Renee Carter Hall

Bear has been Kayla’s companion since she was three, growing up with her, but as she reaches her teenage years, she begins to leave him switched off most of the time.

It happened so gradually, the drifting away. I spent longer and longer in hibernation. Whenever she told me to go to sleep, I didn’t know if I was going to wake up the next day or the next week or the next month. I began to fear that I would wake up and think I was seeing Mom, except it would be Kayla, grown up without me.

Then Kayla discovers an interest in boys, and sex.

This is a love story for grownup little girls, pretty mawkish stuff.



Lightspeed, August 2012

A wide variety in the stories this month, most pretty good in their own ways.

“A Moment Before It Struck” by Linda Nagata

Fantasy:

Long ago, the people of the Puzzle Lands had prayed to the Dread Hammer for aid against the cruelties of the Lutawan king. A forest spirit named Koráy heard their prayers and felt bidden to answer them. She devised many spells in defense of the Puzzle Lands, not least that her partly human descendants, who were called the Bidden, would always be bound to serve the Koráyos people.

Smoke is one of these Bidden, also known as a demon, whose spirit nature is stronger than many of his kind. He can hear the voices of the enslaved and abused Lutawan women, calling out to be avenged. He doesn’t like the orders that compel him to kill them alongside their men, and he begins to wonder if he has an actual choice in the matter.

A compelling character and interesting scenario, obviously part of a series, to which this tale stands as a prequel. It’s notable that neither hostile nation seems worthy of fighting for.

“Breaking the Frame” by Kat Howard

Francesca is the model for a photographer whose works are based on mythological themes, often involving transformation.

The thing about changing into someone else, inhabiting their life, even if only briefly, is that each time it takes a heartbeat longer to remember who you were. One more breath before your soul returns to yourself. You are never quite the person you were before.

The photos change Francesca, and her presence changes the photos. The act of recreating the stories transforms them, as well – in this case, in the direction of self-actualization and agency.

This one is more meta than fiction. The commentary on the stories, on the photos, on the act of transformation, seem to be the feminist voice of the author. The insights are thought-provoking, but what I really like are the images described.

“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu

This sort of title is currently popular. I usually enjoy them as clever. In this case, “bookmaking” refers to recording information, not gambling.

Yet every species has its unique way of passing on its wisdom through the ages, its way of making thoughts visible, tangible, frozen for a moment like a bulwark against the irresistible tide of time.

What follows is a linked compendium of several kinds of imaginary beings that employ different methods of achieving this goal. The piece offers generally positive and uplifting insights into the problem of resisting informational entropy. I think I would have liked it better without the made-up alien names.

“Flash Bang Remember” by Tina Connolly and Caroline M Yoachim

A sort of generation ship where everyone is vat grown and decanted at adulthood, because raising kids is too much bother. Originally, everyone was given the same implanted set of childhood memories, but those were a male’s memories, and Psych has decided that women needed memories of a girl’s childhood. Thus they have produced a girl – actually a series of girls – to record. This hasn’t worked out well, and they are now up to Girl23, who detests the whole process and hates being the only real individual on the ship, shut out of the others’ shared experiences.

This is the sort of story that comments on the disadvantages and negative consequences of a system that you can’t really believe anyone would ever actually adopt – for the reasons the story reveals. What’s worthwhile are the insights into the nature of individuality, and its absence. What’s not credible is the concept of putting the same person back into the vat and regrowing her from the beginning, while retaining the original’s memories.



Tor.com, August 2012

Two fine stories this month from Bear and Swirsky.

“The Cairn in Slater Woods” by Gina Rosati

YA. Dylan’s mother inherits the moldy old family house with its haunted woods.

. . . here I am stuck in New Hampshire with no cable, no air conditioning, dirty pink roses all over my bedroom wallpaper, and a slanted ceiling I’ve whacked my head on three times already.

The cousins who didn’t inherit are naturally resentful; Dylan discovers that old Auntie Z buried her valuables so they wouldn’t steal them, and a lot more about the unsavory side of the family history.

No surprises in this ghost story.

“Faster Gun” by Elizabeth Bear

There’s the wreck of a spaceship near Tombstone, which leaves Doc Holliday flummoxed, although his Jules Verne guess comes pretty close.

The hulk that loomed over, curving gently outward to a stalklike prow, could have been the rust-laceworked, rust-orange hulk of any derelict ironclad. Except it was a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, and a hundred times too big to be a ship. It was too big, in fact, to be an opera hall, and that was where Doc’s imagination failed him.

Doc has taken the job of guiding four outlandish – or outtimeish – women to the site, but they aren’t the only ones to take an interest.

Bear is an author you can count on to deliver the good read. This one shows a serious interest in the Doc Holliday character, about whom more has been written than known. I like Bear’s take on him, particularly the way he picks up on the time travel bit. This isn’t your usual pulp Doc.

“The Fire Gown” by Michael Swanwick

The next installment in what, despite the editorial disclaimer, is definitely a serialized longer work set in a fantasy sort of nineteenth century, where the Mongolian Wizard is threatening world conquest and other nastiness. Here we have Sir Toby, Ritter, and Ritter’s wolf, rushing to warn Buckingham Palace that war has broken out. But they discover on their arrival that the queen has just been murdered by sorcery in a plot to paralyze the government at the very moment of crisis. Lupine-assisted detective work ensues.

This isn’t the sort of work that one can take seriously, the more so with a British kingdom being ruled by a King Oberon and Queen Titania. It’s a lite dark fantasy, a quick read without depth or complexity.

“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia” by Rachel Swirsky

A fantasy-Renaissance setting in which the development of art has incorporated magic. Lisane is a master painter whose school has failed to produce a worthy successor. She has abused, then discarded a succession of apprentices. Renn has mastered the use of magic in painting but otherwise proved another disappointment. Lisane herself rarely uses magic, as her specialty is portraiture. The employment of magic causes the original to disintegrate as its essence is incorporated in the painting; thus its use in portraying persons is forbidden. Now Lisane is dying and summons Renn to paint her deathbed portrait.

Here is a setting of depth and authenticity. Lisane, the character at the center of the story, is portrayed primarily by the profound void her parting makes in her world; this is a negative portrait. The original use of magic here is fascinating.

Perfecting a mix of ginger and white, Orla brushed highlights across the painted carapace. The dragonfly on the vellum shuddered and disintegrated. The painted wings acquired a new, subtle shimmer, a sense of incipient flight.

The sinister implications are mostly hinted at, but what I find disturbing is the ease with which it seems to be done. Lisane tells Renn simply to “follow your instincts”, and just like that, the magic works, the object being pictured dissipates. This is too easy, a flaw in a story that is otherwise one of the best I’ve seen from this author.

–RECOMMENDED

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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