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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late September


December already – at least for the digests. Time to start thinking about the Year’s Best lists. Alas, no Christmas stories.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, December 2012

Featuring a rocking novella by Steven Popkes.

“Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected” by Steven Popkes

Twelve years after their breakup, Jake is shaken when Rosie suddenly reappears in his life. Turns out, it’s a professional call, Rosie offering him a gig as a song doctor. Jake needs the money to keep the taxman at bay. Turns out, Rosie is a software engineer, and her client is Dot, a divaloid who wants to grow as an artist. Jake doesn’t like divaloids.

“That makes you a tool. A mechanism to find the absolute bottom, the broadest possible appeal. A vehicle to separate people from their money. You’re merchandise, easily purchased. Easily used. You’re easy listening. Music is supposed to make you feel. It’s supposed to cost you something—”

But the money is very tempting. And Jake finds himself in the unlikely position of respecting Dot as a musician.

Popkes is good. The story is anchored by some heavy music neep, the inside guts of composition and performance. Dot, surprisingly, turns out to be a strong character. While Jake is the point of view, the divaloid may be the actual protagonist of a story full of strongly-developed characters. Dot has real power, yet ultimately she is the property of Hitachi; her owners can alter her, even erase her as if she never existed. This ominous possibility runs faintly in the story’s background, something we can’t quite forget even as we see Dot in confident control of the situation. At the same time, we have Rosie attempting to capture the algorithms and computational matrices that make Dot work, while Dot conceals the totality of her functioning from her, protecting what must be called her self. And both Rosie and Dot working to manipulate Jake, each for her own purposes, while Jake resists what he really wants for himself. A complex tangle of characters who come together to make some good fictional music.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Waves” by Ken Liu

A reminiscence on the nature of humanity. Humans first become immortal, then cyborgs, then a Singularity.

Patterns of energy now, Maggie and the others learned to coalesce, stretch, shimmer, and radiate. She learned how to suspend herself between stars, her consciousness a ribbon across both time and space.

Interleaved with this very old account are even older ones, the creation myths of various cultures. Liu brings nothing new to this scenario but a tone of optimism that reaches, as his fiction often tends, into the sentimental.

“The Caramel Forest” by Chris Beckett

It helps to know in advance that Beckett has done good stuff, helps to get through the frontload of clichés: an alien world, crude genocidal settlers who nail up dead indigenes on their gates, bureaucrats from an officious Earth Agency preaching canned tolerance, a wretched marriage with a shrewish wife and mother whose constant complaints keep Cassie awake at nights. The indigenes, whom the settlers call goblins, hang around the humans, infiltrating their thoughts. Cassie likes this, likes the truths the goblins tell her, likes it better than living with her quarreling parents.

Outside, just beyond the fence, were two thin grey creatures, picked out by the lights. They were about Cassie’s height, one squatting, one standing, neither one of them looking at the house. Both seemed engrossed in some object that the squatting one was holding up for the other’s inspection: a shell, perhaps, or a piece of stone.

The author is deliberately evoking the world of fairytales — little grey men, candy castles, edible forests, a lost sister and brother. And as we know, the world of fairytales is one of illusion, deception and hidden horrors.

“The Wizard of West 34th Street” by Mike Resnick

Jake’s buddy Milt is pressed for cash, so he goes to the Wiz. Jake comes along for the walk.

We make a beeline for a table where this middle-aged guy is sitting. His clothes clearly came off the bargain rack to begin with, and have all seen better days and better years, and the shoes have probably seen better decades. He’s got a bowtie beneath his unbuttoned collar, but it’s just hanging down, and I get the feeling that the next time he ties it into a bow will be the first time. There’s a patch on his jacket’s elbow, and he could use a haircut or, failing that, at least a comb.

The Wiz, it turns out, is a kind of prognosticator, although he scoffs at weather forecasters, stockbrokers and fortune tellers. He knows things. Jake is a skeptic. He’s pretty rude about it. But the Wiz likes it that he doesn’t want anything from him. Seems that he could use a friend.

As often is the case with Resnick, it’s the narrative voice making the story, in some ways like the private detective voice, although Jake is much less of a wiseass. It’s a moral story about what’s really important in life. Jake is, however, no prognosticator, because he doesn’t see what’s coming, as the reader certainly does.

“The Black Feminist’s Guide to Science Fiction Film Editing” by Sandra McDonald

Minervadiane does film reconstruction. “Correcting the cinematic injustices of the past with modern, thoughtful, gender-balanced versions.”

If it weren’t for reconstruction, people would think Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star of Total Recall and not Sharon Stone. They’d believe that Sylvester Stallone defeated Wesley Snipes in Demolition Person instead of giving credit to supercop Sandra Bullock. And of course there’s Back to the Future, with Lea Thompson’s heroic efforts to save her youngest son Marty from a mad scientist’s time-traveling clutches.

Now the only known copy of the classic The Ginger Star has shown up, found in the attic of a deceased film editor. Minervadiane is sent to retrieve it for her studio. Unfortunately, she has competition. Of the worst kind.

The humor shifts from broad satire to something more human, with even some genuine insights into the nature of good movies.

“The Pipes of Pan” by Robert Reed

Biologist Lawrence Goldman becomes leader of the movement to declare the genus Homo extinct, renaming the species Pan foetus, the youthful ape. His insight, while obviously true, is not necessarily a Good Thing. This is more a bite of food for thought than a conventional story.



Analog, December 2012

Just after the previous issue came out, we learned that longtime editor Schmidt will be leaving the zine. Of course the next few will probably still manifest his editorial hand to some extent as the new manager takes over.

A union-organizing novella starts off this one on a pretty strong note, but most of the really short fiction is non-memorable. Also a series that’s grown too much into a serial for review.

“The Moon Belongs to Everyone” by Michael Alexander & K C Ball

Alternate space history in the Cold War, with the appalling scenario of Richard Nixon as President backing lunar bases to beat the godless commies. Laura Kerrigan was a cop until she was railroaded out of her badge, left with no better alternative but to sign up as a lunar ice miner. But conditions are harsh, the miners are resentful, and sabotage has led to murder; Laura is the only investigator [still alive] on the spot, and the corporation is too cheap to import an official one.

This one is a work of labor politics, and the real villain, give or take a murderer or two, is the corporation that grinds its workers down to the desperation point. There’s singing of “Sixteen Tons” and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “Union Maid.” It’s a different point of view that might seem a tad bit dated, even for 1979, but then we have Nixon in the White House. The prevalence of female miners is another reminder that this isn’t the 1979 we remember. Otherwise, the main interest for many readers may be the cheap but ingenious ice fabrication methods.

“Since we have to lift the water to orbit anyway, why not save on raw materials and make the water the fuel tanks? It’s fifty degrees absolute down here in the shadow. That ice is rock hard. We shoot it up to Odyssey where they melt it into the reaction tanks. Then they bring the engine assembly back down for another run.”

–RECOMMENDED

“From an Antique Land” by Shane Tourtellotte

In a post-crash world, Tom Brown is the mayor of Browntown, wary of strangers coming in, who might be up to no good. Like the ones who call themselves “scientists.” A likely story. This batch is visiting deserted observatories, looking for evidence that humans had once reached the moon.

In the conflict between idealism and depression, depression wins. Alas, idealism isn’t always realistic. This vision of a collapsed America is a lot more realistic than many.

“Hearing Impairment” by Stephen L Burns

The alien peace corps has come to Earth to offer help, but political stupidity interferes. Just as stupid clichés interfere with this story:

“I have it on good authority,” he drawled accusingly, subjecting us to a faux Wayne squint, “that these so-called space aliens aren’t nothing but sneaky tricks being played on the American public by rich commie Hollywood traitors to Traditional Values.

“The Perfect Book” by Ken Liu

A short-short love story in a world where books are mixed to order:

“I see there’s a bit of Woolf, a bit of Joyce, and a lot of this new author from Taipei, Annie W. She’s popular. Very malleable prose, I understand, adaptable to lots of books.”

The love story is awww! The book part unfortunately too close for comfort.

“Garden Spot” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Planetary explorers wish for First Contact. A sort of non-punning shaggy dog story.

“Cats Know” by Richard A Lovett

Poor Ed is so soft-hearted he can’t even turn away the holoverts at the mall. His late wife used to say it was something that cats know. But Ed is also lonely enough that the company of a holovert is better than no one. This is sad.

“Scary Monsters” by Liz J Andersen

The alien vet is called to treat a dragon.

I hate house calls! The animals are in their own territory, so they think they can get away with anything. If this torch-mouthed beast could fly, these folks wouldn’t even be able to corral it like a horse for me (which still takes a lot of work, if the animal doesn’t want to be caught in that corral).

After a pretty farcial beginning, this one turns into a decent vet story.



Tor.com, August – September 2012

I was pleased the last couple of months to see this site regularly posting more original fiction. With September, however, comes a lapse. The first of these stories is from the end of August, the second is an installment of the ongoing Swanwick serial, with which I am underwhelmed.

“Men Who Wish to Drown” by Elizabeth Fama

This mermaid story is set apart from the many others by its epistolary framing, part of the last testament of an old, old man addressed to his great-grandson, and its grounding in real geography and realistic documentation.

Supposedly corroborating the mermaid story, a ship’s log (in the collection of the Provincetown Historical Museum) of the schooner Hannah, which plucked Mr. Stanton from South Weepecket in 1788, indicates that the crew saw two figures on the island prior to the rescue, but failed to locate a second victim. However, regarding accuracy and reliability, this is the same crew under Captain John Merriweather that reported sightings of a ghost ship and not one, but two sea monsters.

There are two basic variations on the trope: mermaids who drown the sailors and mermaids who save them from drowning. This one is the latter. The theme is love and happiness, or rather unhappiness in the absence of love. Well-done but not very original. Despite its setting in the history of the author’s novel, it stands alone quite well.

“Day of the Kraken” by Michael Swanwick

Sir Toby, Ritter and Freki continue to foil the agents of the Mongolian Wizard as they terrorize London, planting kraken eggs in the river and abducting children for demonic sacrifice. Despite the title, the kraken is only a teaser; the real plot concerns the stolen children. From the conclusion, I gather that this is supposed to be developing into a jovial buddy series, but it’s not working; the characters are too shallow.



Jabberwocky, August 2012

The offerings in this little ezine are always quite short, and the end-of-August issue has only one piece of prose fiction, the others being verse.

“The Seed Keeper” by Yukimi Ogawa

A mythic fable about the end of the world. When all else is gone, no one remains but the seed keeper and her cache holding seeds of all the world’s species. Her task is to wait – but for what? The seed keeper is restless.

She sprung to her feet, suddenly aware of what she had done. There would be no amaryllis forever. She had never seen amaryllis, and now, she would never, ever do.

Because this is fantasy and myth, not science fiction, it’s not appropriate to think of the end of the world in terms of the planet disappearing as the sun goes out with the rest of the stars, in which case there would be no world on which to plant the seeds, no world on which they could live. No, this is the myth of renewal, a myth of cycles. Thus it seems that the seed keeper’s behavior, which she knows to be so wrong, is in fact preordained and right. Or perhaps it was indeed wrong, but there was a failsafe option in place. What if she had patiently waited – forever – for a time that would never come. I do wonder why the author cast the seed keeper as a local divinity, when it’s clear that her role is global.

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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