posted Sunday 7 October 2012 @ 2:15 pm PST
Debuting a couple of new online magazines, a good hard SF anthology, and the usual first-of-the-month zines. Best magazine this time is Clarkesworld, with the Good Story award to Yoon Ha Lee. Also to Elizabeth Bear and Gwyneth Jones from the Infinity anthology.
Nightmare Magazine, October 2012
From the publisher of Lightspeed comes this new offering featuring horror and dark fantasy, very suitably in October. The plan is to follow the format set by the established zine, weekly alternating original and reprint stories for a total of four every month. For the opening, however, all four stories are original ones. The settings are contemporary, the darkness variable, from ambiguous to outright guignol.
Now, here’s the thing. I have to draw the line somewhere, even if it’s a very fuzzy line over very irregular territory. So I don’t generally review horror publications; I do review dark fantasy. So where does Nightmare fall? I’m not sure yet, although whatever line I draw, I want stuff like the Barron story on my side of it.
“Good Fences” by Genevieve Valentine
Alan’s neighborhood is going to hell. Teenagers have broken the streetlight out front and hang out there every night. The police never come. Now a car has burned and sits abandoned out there. Alan can’t get any sleep with it going on all night.
This short piece is psychological horror, the unraveling of a vulnerable person under pressure. The situation is ambiguous – is the hell of his environment creating Alan’s own mental hell, or is it largely a product of his crumbling sanity? The affect is subdued, understated.
“Property Condemned: A Story of Pine Deep” by Jonathan Maberry
Pine Deep is full of ghosts; it’s that kind of town.
Ghosts mattered to Malcolm Crow because whatever they were, they clearly outlasted whatever had killed them. Disease, murder, suicide, war, brutality . . . abuse. The causes of their deaths were over, but they had survived. That’s why Crow wasn’t scared of ghosts. What frightened him—deep down on a level where feelings had no specific structure—was the possibility that they might not exist.
Crow has never seen a ghost, but he and three other kids are now going to the Croft place, where they are certain of encountering one. Or something.
For YA, this is pretty dark stuff. While there is a supernatural element at the core, what it does is reveal the darkness inside the characters’ souls – in essence, a story of damnation, at least in the case of three of them. There’s an interesting element: although the characters assume their damnation is predestined, inevitable, there is soon incontrovertible evidence that this is not the case. Yet Crow, at least, doesn’t seem to question if he can challenge his fate. For an introspective kid, this seems uncharacteristic.
“Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron
Now this is the right stuff! In 1992, the nameless narrator [sound of reviewer teeth grinding] had a close encounter with the Wild Hunt as it took out a man named Graham.
The Huntsman had most of the guy’s hide off and was tacking it alongside the carcass as one stretches the skin of a beaver or a bear. Clad in a deerstalker hat surmounted by antlers, a blood-drenched mackinaw coat, canvas breeches, and sealskin boots, the Huntsman stood taller than most men even as he hunched to slice Graham with a large knife of flint or obsidian—I wasn’t quite close enough to discern which.
For some time, he suppressed the conscious memory of the incident, but recently it’s returned as his life disintegrates in what he recognizes as enemy action, not coincidence. Then Graham shows up again, now the Huntsman, and tells Nameless that he’s the next quarry. His only hope is to get across the country to the East Coast where a friend claims he might be able to help.
No ambiguity in the horror here. The author makes it clear that the appearances of the Huntsman are not hallucination or metaphor but meant to be quite real. Blood and entrails are abundant. The narrative voice is strongly hardboiled and cynical, vividly describing both setting and horrors. And despite the first-person narration, the tension level is wound high – the story is unusual in that it resolves this common problem satisfactorily.
I do have quibbles. After stranding readers in the middle of a high plains blizzard, the author abruptly shifts us to balmy Indiana. He makes a big deal of the presence of certain ancient megaliths [fairy stones] on the ground where Narrator takes his final stand, but we never clearly see how they figure into the events. And at one point the copyeditor failed to spot the mutation of a shotgun into a rifle, which fortunately shifted back in the next paragraph, as it’s a much better weapon in close combat. Overall, however, this is a fine cracking dark adventure tale.
“Afterlife” by Sarah Langan
Mary is trapped in her mother’s house, with eviction imminent.
Corinne was a hoarder. The kind that pressed aluminum foil flat and remembered that the bit with the red mark once contained red velvet cupcakes while the bit with the black mark on the shiny side came from a bottle of Manischewitz. Over the years, she’d jammed their house with so much crap that they each wore their toilet paper on their arms; otherwise they’d never find it when they needed it.
Having been badly homeschooled and thus now unemployable, Mary spends her days teaching the ghost children who show up in the attic, attempting to convince them that they need to move on to the next plane. The children tend to be recalcitrant.
A depressing story about lost and wasted lives, rather than a horrific one. Corinne is a thoroughly wretched character, Mary a hopeless one. The conclusion, however, is clearly inevitable from the beginning.
Eclipse Online, October 2012
It seems that Night Shade Books is reviving the former Eclipse anthology series as an online magazine. Editor Jonathan Strahan announces that he will publish two pieces of original fiction each month, posted on the 2nd and 4th Mondays. The subject matter is meant to be inclusive, from hard SF to fantasy and off to the sides.
The current month features a fantasy piece by the excellent K J Parker.
“The Contrary Gardener” by Christopher Rowe
Kay Lynne is planning her annual Victory Garden. This year, she’s decided on root crops, in large part because this will be sure to annoy her overbearing father, the bean man, the beans being genegineered as ammunition. He, like everyone including Kay Lynne, sells by contract to the war department. But now he’s trying to involve her in a political conspiracy, taking advantage of her unconventional and superior horticultural skill.
A rather subtle and unconventional dystopia, of which we are seeing only a small corner. Nothing, for example, about the ongoing war, which seems to serve as a generalized excuse for the regime. Thus the overall tone here is slight and mildly amusing, the story of a young woman seizing her independence from an oppressive parent. I must point out, however, that even given genegineered crops, corn is not something that any gardener can successfully grow, and Derby Day is far too late to be starting crops like carrots and potatoes in Kentucky.
“One Little Room An Everywhere” by K J Parker
Another in the author’s series about a school of wizardry. Epistemius has flunked out and taken ingenious steps to make an illicit living by misusing his limited talent.
Talis artifex is proscribed, which means it’s illegal to use: also to copy out, quote from, refer to in passing, even in an approved scholarly commentary, or even to know by heart. But – well, you can’t really expect scientists to destroy data once it’s been discovered, or scholars to burn authentic source material. Worse than murder, to the academic mindset.
In the case of Epistemius, he uses the proscribed Form to produce icons, which he sells for a good price. An obscenely good price. He finds that he can’t bring himself to turn down the commissions, even when he begins to realize what the other consequences of Talis artifex must be.
Dreadfully clever and witty. The narrative voice is sharply ironic and self-deprecating. I like the magic system and especially its faux-Latin terminology. First-rate stuff from a first-rate author, although quite similar to the previous story in the series.
Edge of Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan
Strahan has been busy! A hard SF anthology set in our Solar System, “the next giant leap for mankind.” The editor claims it as a companion to his 2010 Engineering Infinity. In about 350 pages, there are fourteen titles from authors well-known in the field, veterans and relative newcomers, a large proportion of British authors, which is promising; several are back from the Engineering volume.
A superior anthology. The prose is uniformly at a high level. The stories are almost all closely related to the anthology’s theme; I can believe they were written particularly for this book. It’s noteworthy that the most common setting is the orbit of Jupiter.
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” by Pat Cadigan
Working out in Jupiter orbit, getting ready for the comet to hit. Fry was out checking the camera eyes when she broke her leg. She only had two. Most of the workers out there in JovOps are octopods, who like to call themselves sushi, but Fry is a two-stepper, a featherless biped. Until the broken leg. But Fry isn’t an ordinary biped, she’s a celebrity on Earth, she’s got contracts, and the clout wants her back on the Dirt, the two-legged version of her. It’s lawyer time. Politics are invoked. Then it gets complicated.
There were two-steppers hollering that it was all a plot by monsters and abominations – i.e. us – to get our unholy limbs on fresh meat for our unholy appetites. If Big J got inner planet status, they said, people would be rounded up in the streets and shipped out to be changed into unnatural, subhuman creatures with no will of their own. Except for the most beautiful women, who would be kept as is and chained in brothels where – well, you get the idea.
A lot of fun. Fresh, lively writing, a strong narrative voice with attitude.
“The Deeps of the Sky” by Elizabeth Bear
First contact. Stormchases is an ambitious young sky-miner, working the Deep Storm for a chance to be accepted as a Mate by the greatest Drift-World.
Stormchases could smell the Deep Storm now, the dank corrosive tang of water vapour stinging his gills. The richly coloured billows of the Deep Storm proved it had something to give. The storm’s dark-red wall churned, marking the boundary of a nearly-closed atmospheric cell rich with rare elements and compounds pumped up from the deeps.
Suddenly something appears on the edge of the storm, something that can only be alien. Stormchases can hardly believe the seeming recklessness of the alien craft with the storm. But something goes wrong. The alien is falling, out of control.
Here’s real sensawunda! Bear remains entirely within Stormchases’ point of view, his perceptions and values, his courage and ingenuity. He’s fascinated and appalled to encounter creatures that exhale corrosive water and oxygen, so that it leaves a scar on the Mothergraves. The action is cracking-good. Best of all is the prose, the descriptions of the atmosphere and the storms. It doesn’t get better than this.
“Drive” by James S A Corey
Solomon Epstein is an engine engineer [yes, he knows it sounds funny] on a Mars having intermittent disputes with Earth. Earth wants to control the Martian shipyards. Solomon has bought his own yacht so he can test his improvements in his drive. As the story opens, he starts a test flight. Acceleration is greater than he’d expected. A lot greater. So much greater he can’t move. If he can’t get the thing to stop, he’s dead.
There is also a manual cut-off on the control panel. The icon is a big red button. A panic button. If he could touch it, he’d be fine. But he can’t. All the joy is gone now. Instead of elation, there’s only panic and the growing, grinding pain. If he can just reach the controls. Or if something, anything, could just go wrong.
The story opens with Solomon taking off, and for a long time readers have no idea what he’s doing out there alone on his runaway ship. Eventually, the timeline catches up as we learn about Martian politics and Solomon’s love for his wife Caitlin and the slow progress of their lives – cutting back from time to time to Solomon alone in the accelerating ship, making yet another effort to control the situation and save himself while at the same time contemplating how his innovation is going to alter space travel and the relationship between Mars and Earth. It ought to be a situation fraught with tension and panic, but instead it’s surprisingly placid as it becomes clear that what matters most to Solomon isn’t the situation he’s placed himself in but the course of his marriage. Makes for an unusual narrative.
“The Road to NPS” by Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey
Rahiti Ochoa [that crazy Samoan] and his work partner Will have won a contract to drive a cargo snowcat across Europa, making five years pay in one eight-four hour Europan day. With the money, he can go back to his wife. Failure will put him in debt for the rest of his life. But someone has tried to sabotage them, and now Will is in the hospital. Rahiti is determined that he can make the trip on his own, but a young medtech whose boyfriend is out on NPS is determined to stow away. Things do not go well.
Rahiti wiped blood away from his face. His nose was a bright flare of pain. Warm liquid and debris were floating in his mouth. Blood. Broken teeth. He spat out as much as he could. He was dizzy and breathless and maybe even dying.
The story is a conflict between an indomitable individual and the crushing forces of bureaucracy. The trip is quite an adventure. But I’m continually reminded of “The Cold Equations,” with the persistent desire to toss Anu out the airlock.
“Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh” by John Barnes
The narrator is an AI whose function is a therapist for humans. It is constantly aware of the vast difference in processing speed between itself and the subjects of its work.
So I learned to dream things to myself in the long milliseconds between the time when my cameras perceived an interview subject’s lips reshaping and the instant her voice reached my microphones. I explored whole ages of dreams while they tried to parse the pauses in my own outgoing signal. (The pauses were absolutely necessary because to communicate well with them I had to pause like them, and the time required for people to interpret a pause is many years, at their pace, to me.)
It is currently counseling a couple who are considering a relationship that may lead to children. There are not that many humans left, and fewer of breeding age, and the AIs over-think the problems of their patients. There are Consequences.
A thought-provoking work contrasting natural and artificial intelligence, where AIs have processing speed and infallible memory, but these do not convey wisdom or infallibility in judgment, particularly when the subjects of the judgment are emotion-ridden and highly fallible humans. It’s just that the AIs have a lot longer to think about the consequences of their mistakes: And I fall through darkness almost as fast as light, and dream.
One particularly interesting twist is the segment in which Tyward interacts with a robotic mining device that turns out to have a rudimentary artificial intelligence of its own, reminding readers that the AIs are ultimately a human creation, even as a robotic “ant” is. The humans and ants have their motives; what are the motives of the AIs? This is a superior story, but I have to point out that it takes quite a stretch to suppose it set anywhere but Earth. If there is infinity here, it’s a matter more of time than space.
NB: Occasionally I criticize the decision of some authors to omit the names of narrator characters. Here is one case where the omission of the narrator’s name makes perfect sense.
“Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” by Paul McAuley
Mai Kumal makes the journey to the Saturn moon Dione after the death there of the father she hasn’t seen in fourteen years, since he left Earth. She’s glad that she did, that she got to know him again and posthumously share his work. It seems that on Dione he became a renowned potter and sculptor, a common practice there.
There was no wind here. No rain. Just a constant faint infalling of meteoritic dust and microscopic ice particles from the geysers of Enceladus. Everything unchanging under the weak glare of the sun and the black sky, like a stage in an abandoned theatre. Mai began to understand the strangeness of this little world. A frozen ocean wrapped around a rocky core, shaped by catastrophes that predated life on Earth. A stark geology empty of any human meaning. Hence the sculptures, she supposed. An attempt to humanise the inhuman.
This one is essentially a travelogue, a tour of a fascinating place and the way humans have adapted it and adapted to it. The title alludes to several of the local tales and legends that she hears there. There’s an important lesson as well – to let old grudges fade away.
“Safety Tests” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Devlin works for Licensing and Regulation, i.e., the Department of Space Vehicles, a job more stressful than it might seem because an incompetent space pilot can pose a hazard to the entire station as well as the tester in the cockpit. It could be said that Devlin is burned out.
Which, considering the stupidity that walks through our door, stupidity that has had one year of classwork, five written tests (minimum score: 80%), 500 hours simulation, 300 hours hands-on training with an instructor, and one solo journey that consists mostly of leaving the space station’s test bay, circling the instruction area, returning to the bay, and landing correctly at the same dock the ship had vacated probably ten minutes before.
But there’s stupidity, and there’s crazy.
A lot of neat details here, as Devlin runs a bunch of different candidates through their paces, trying to discourage the unqualified, suspecting the too-apparently-qualified who are probably cheating. Devlin’s narrative is deeply toned with entertaining cynicism. Rusch pulls off a tough one, making the license tester [we’ve all met this guy] sympathetic, the regulations [stoopid rules] make sense, and the story enjoyable.
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” by Gwyneth Jones
The Medici Mission operates robotics by remote on Jupiter’s moons, when solar storm flares. On Earth, the operators lose contact. But their remote copies remain function – more or less. Sophie wants to restore the mission by establishing contact with the orbiter. Her colleagues, on the other hand, have developed independent ambitions. Josh wants to destroy the orbiter. Cha believes he is an alien explorer. Laxmi seems to be dead. And Sophie believes there is something else out there with them.
“I’m not sure how to put this. There’s a blue dot. One could see it with the naked eye, I think, unless I’m completely misreading the data, but when I say blue, I mean of course a specific wavelength… It seems to be close at hand, another planetary satellite in this system. It even moves as if it’s as close as that. But my instruments tell me it fulfils all the conditions on which you base your search for life. Far better than, well, better than one would think possible. Unless it’s where the definition was formed.”
An interesting examination of virtual consciousness, self-aware software entities coping with crisis in different ways. There is no strictly logical connection between the human individuals and the remote presences modeled on each of them, no real way to explain how the differences manifest themselves. But they do. They are individuals. Jones’ lucid prose is always a pleasure to read.
“Tyche and the Ants” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Tyche lives alone on the Moon where her parents have hidden her from their enemies, where Brain takes care of her and gives her Treatments that she doesn’t like and sends grags to follow her whenever she goes out of the Base. But Tyche also lives part of her life on the Other Moon, behind the Secret Door.
It was made of two large pyramid-shaped rocks, leaning against each other at a funny angle, with a small triangular gap between them: the Big Old One, and the Troll. The Old One had two eyes made from shadows, and when Tyche squinted from the right angle, a rough outcrop and a groove in the base became a nose and a mouth. The Troll looked grumpy, half-squashed against the bigger rock’s bulk.
On the Other Moon live the Moon People, the Jade Rabbit and Chang’e and the Magician. These are Tyche’s friends. But now robotic ants have come from Earth, that Tyche knows as the Great Wrong Place, and they are looking for her to take her back. She has to sort out the truth from the lies she hears from Earth and the lies she hears from her AI guardian.
A coming of age story. Tyche’s coming of age has been artificially delayed for a long time. It’s not entirely clear at first how much is Tyche’s imagination or some virtual construct, and how much is real. But whatever it is, the Other Moon is a neat place, an imaginary world that any kid would love to have, where Tyche has learned how to be a hero.
“Obelisk” by Stephen Baxter
After a devastating accident cripples his ship and kills many passengers, Wei Binglin brings the survivors to Mars, where he plans to remain, resigning his commission out of shame. He ends up in a town with a famous memorial to a Martian hero, and he becomes a civil administrator. Kendrick, an exiled conman, has devised a way to make bricks out of the Martian dust and convinced Wei to build a towering brick spire as a monument to Cao. His next notion is a steel tower modeled on the Eiffel, which becomes known as the Obelisk. Wei finds himself reluctantly associated with Kendrick and his schemes, which have become essential to the local economy.
The tower itself reached an astounding ten kilometres into the sky, three times as tall as any conceivable building of the same materials on Earth – and over five times as tall as any building ever actually constructed there. Wei had seen simulations of the sight of it from orbit – he himself had never left the planet since stepping off the shuttle from the Sunflower. From space it was an astonishing image, slim, perfect, an arm rising out of the chaotic landscape to claw at the sky.
A story of flawed character. Wei means well. He wants to atone for his original error. He adopts a young girl left orphaned by the ship accident. Then how does it go wrong? Unfortunately, we have no idea. He adopts his daughter out of duty and dutifully tries to keep her from harm. Then why does he sacrifice her happiness? It’s inexplicable.
“Vainglory” by Alastair Reynolds
A couple of decades earlier, an impact shattered the small Neptunian moon Naiad, producing a ring around the planet. Now rock sculptor Loti Hung is on Titan when she’s accosted by Ingvar, a private investigator looking into her connection to the event. It seems that fifty-two years ago, Loti received a commission. The fad was to carve asteroids into faces, often the faces of the sponsor, an ultimate vanity. Skand wanted Michelangelo’s David. He paid well.
Gradually the scalp and face came free. David’s chin and jaw were as yet still entombed in rock; the effect was to give the youth an old man’s beard. That wouldn’t last. I was chipping the beard away in house-sized chunks, a curl at a time. Another month, I reckoned, and then we’d be done with this crude shaping. Three months, perhaps, to bring David to completion.
But it was the David that hit Naiad, and the place was inhabited.
There’s a neat idea here, making works of art out of worlds. But the author makes it a matter of fame, eternal renown, and vanity. And I don’t really see it. Skand’s act was highly anonymous, and he left the system before he could take credit or blame. If Loti’s creation still existed for the universe to admire, maybe. But it doesn’t. Its magnificence can only be a matter of hearsay. And then there is the matter of culpability – which is not treated here as a moral issue. I don’t see it for Loti, even given an alternative legal system. Is the mechanic culpable if the car is used in a hit-and-run? And if Ingvar acquires fame as a whistleblower, it only exposes her own real culpability in the cover-up. On such points, the story leaves me stuck.
“Water Rights” by An Owomoyela
Important stuff, water. Not only essential to human life, its breakdown elements serve as the fuel for the most common kind of spacecraft. So it’s a major problem when sabotage blows the space elevator and spills its water cargo, “in a spray of diamonds.” It’s a particular problem for Jordan Owole, who was importing a lot of that water from Earth to her large hydroponics station in the L1 cluster.
“Between us and the refuelling stations Galot and Bardroy run, that’s sixty per cent of the water in the near-Earth colonies,” he said. “The next reserve is on Mars, and the next after that is Europa. They’re no help.”
Now everyone wants her water.
Here’s a great setup for a story, promising political intrigue, riots, a threat of war. Reader shift to the edges of their seats, wondering what will happen. Then Jordan gets on the phone and things are peacefully settled, while people talk about their reasons for colonizing space. Very civilized. Very anticlimactic.
“The Peak of Eternal Light” by Bruce Sterling
Married life on Mercury, where men and women lead entirely separate lives, united only under formal strictures in arranged marriages of persons largely alien to each other. The marriage of Pitar and Lucy is unusually successful, although readers will not at first suppose so. Pitar is rather socially conservative with a strong sense of honor, although quite innovative in technology. Lucy is the radical of the pair.
Silence, thought Pitar, was the bedrock of their marriage. As young people, it was their sworn duty to fulfill a marital role. Every husband had to invent some personal mode of surviving the fifty-year marriage contract. Marriage on Mercury was an extended adolescence, one long and dangerous discomfort. Marriage was like sun-blasted lava.
A rather odd work. The rigid, highly mannered society will seem absurd to readers, and as a comedy of marital manners, it has definite entertainment value. But at first the connection between its conventions and the planet Mercury are not clear. Gradually, however, the author offers plausible suggestions for the way the exigencies of settling such a difficult world led in the direction that it did – a world where the surface radiation is deadly and mutagenic, the gravity so low as to alter the human form, all apparently making normal procreation impractical. Certainly the society need not have developed in exactly this way, but we can find cultural conventions just as absurd in Earth’s history. The real matter here is how individuals adapt to circumstances that are normal to them, even if they can also wish for change.
Intergalactic Medicine Show, September 2012
Shifting back towards on-schedule publication.
“Sojourn for Ephah” by Marina J Lostetter
Religion in space. Father Thomas finds what seems to be an alien entity outside the cathedral. In his kindness, he attempts to help it/her, but as always happens in these stories, the church authorities are intolerant, stupid and cruel.
“I have never heard of such devilry! Claiming to be its own creator. What is its aim?”
As always in these stories, there is at the center a theological point of some potential significance, about which there is some amount of disputation. The heart of this one is the compassion of Thomas. But the basic line is so, so unoriginal, and the author has essentially followed the well-worn tracks. This is also one of those first-person narratives in which readers have to wonder how Thomas is telling this tale, and to whom.
“Dragonslayer” by Nathaniel Lee
Quite a twist: the questing knight Sir Timor is actually a dragon, while his squire calls himself Draco. As Draco is new to being a squire, Timor is new to the knight business.
His harness of shields rattled along his flanks; his sword dangled like gimcrack jewelry from the upper half of his left forelimb; the breastplate he’d hammered into a crude helm bobbled ridiculously atop his horns and feathery mane.
What’s going on, we finally discover, is transformative magic; knight and dragon have exchanged places. Except that it seems more like perceptual magic. Except to Draco and a few others with the power to perceive the truth, Timor appears to be a man and knight, while his essence remains draconian. Yet physically, Timor seems to remain a dragon; when he spends the night in a stable, the walls don’t survive. On the other hand, his vulnerabilities seem to be those of a man, while the man who is now a dragon has those of a dragon. It seems that those who perceive the illusion are those who actually see true. In short, this is a Neat Idea but the situation seems fraught with inconsistencies. The text also contains anachronisms, such as “teenager”.
“Write What You Want” by James Eric Stone
The narrator runs a conventional magic shop and also offers an unconventional service, helping people be happy – people who “want something so much it hurts.” But the narrator is a fraud who doesn’t even believe in his own magic.
A very short piece that offers some insight into the psychological function of a placebo, and its limitations.
“Constance’s Mask” by Nick T Chan
Set in a disagreeable sort of society where women are essentially slaves. When Edward buys the assets of Constance’s deceased father, he decides to marry her, apparently because she suffers from a facial deformity. Edward creates golems and personas, which seem to be a kind of written spell that lets one individual take on the personality of another; these are commonly used by actors. He has also created a golem to protect Constance from lustful men. Now Constance has discovered that Edward, under the influence of a villainous persona, has betrayed her with the golem.
Here’s is a good example of the reason authors are so often exhorted to show, not tell the readers what’s going on. This one is all tell, rather than allowing the complicated scenario to unfold during the course of the story, so that it makes little sense. There is little room for the characters – the most sympathetic being Oscar, the golem, who spends much of the story as a severed head.
“The Last God-Killer” by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines
Andern’s mission is to kill the goddess Delight, and the Recorder is with him to record the events. She is the last god. The Recorder, not being human, doesn’t comprehend just why humans feel the need to kill the gods. Or what they believe will happen once they are all gone. Now Andern and the Recorder learn what remains.
“I am everywhere, I am the Universal Mind in action: on my left shoulder is Entropy and on my right Decay. You have killed the myths and images that kept you from seeing me. I am the universe as it is. There is no longer anything between you and me.”
The gods here are personifications, attributes given reality. Thus we have Delight, and War and Death, all of whom Andern has defeated. It’s an archaic view of divinity, a heroic view, suited to the heroic verse that all the characters recite, beginning, of course, with Homer. Essentially, this is a story of the end of the heroic, and why we cling to it, as well as to the gods. I like this the best of this month’s offerings.
“Shaken to the Bone” by David Lubar
One of the zine’s “Tales for the Young and Unfraid.” In this one, Devon is young but definitely not unafraid on his visit to the doctor. With reason. Nasty, but prosaically so.
Clarkesworld, October 2012
A first-rate issue, one of the best this year.
“A Bead of Jasper, Four Small Stones” by Genevieve Valentine
Terraforming and colonizing Europa. There’s no going back. Henry was brought to Europa as a child, only vaguely remembers Earth, but can’t think of Europa as home. He’s a disconnected person who’s most content when he can be alone. Now a new colony ship is inbound, and Henry makes a sort of friend of the comm officer in ground control, on Earth. They exchange messages; she tells him what Jupiter and its moons look like from [her] home – the story’s title.
He goes out and takes a photo of the screen on the monitor they have over one of the open patches on the ice, where they can keep an eye on the limpets, clinging to rocks in water almost as sharp turquoise as the kingfisher, once the light gets in.
He takes a photo of the bright yellow algae in the empty comm room.
He sends them to her, titled A Trip to the Zoo.
The story meanders slowly, looking up at the hopeful cloud, out at the drowning homeworld, backwards to Galileo. It ruminates with Henry on the nature of names. And very slowly, like ice melting at sunrise, it shows Henry coming home. The discursive ruminations are interesting; I like the bit about Galileo’s proposed names for Jupiter’s moons.
“England Under the White Witch” by Theodora Goss
After the War, when the White Witch appeared in the north, Ann’s mother was one of the first to join her forces and rose to the rank of general. Ann in her turn has served the Empress. It is an empire of girl soldiers, ice magic and wolves, and daffodils have become the material of subversive fairy tales.
Our empire spread, as indeed it must. A winter country must import its food, and as winter spreads, the empire must expand to supply the lands under snow, their waters locked in ice. That is the terrible, inescapable logic of empire.
And, perhaps, a self-defeating one.
A lot in this one will remind readers of Narnia under the reign of that white witch, particularly given the post WWII setting. But it also holds echoes of totalitarian regimes like Stalinism in which loyalty is always suspected, any remark might be reported, and questioning becomes a crime – also themes prevalent in the circum-WWII period.
“The Battle of Candle Arc” by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee does mannerist military SF, as stylized as a chess match. I’m reminded of the legendary duels between swordmasters who stare their opponents into defeat before a single blow is struck. Except that Lee doesn’t forget that fatal blows in the end are struck and real people die.
The setting is a totalitarian space empire governed by a religion centered around what seems like an advanced astrology.
The heptarchate’s exotic technologies depended on the high calendar’s configurations: the numerical concordances, the feasts and remembrances, the associated system of belief. The mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems was an exotic technology. Few people advocated a switch in calendars. Too much would have to be given up, and invariant technologies, which worked under any calendar, never seemed to keep up. Besides, any new calendar would be subject to the same problem of lock-in; any new calendar would be regulated by the Rahal, or by people like the Rahal, as rigorously as the current one.
The heptarchate has no tolerance of lapses in observance and ceremonially tortures heretics. Now a heretic faction has declared war on the heptarchate and inflicted large losses on one of its war fleets. General Shuos Jedao, a master strategist and tactician, has been placed in command of the remainder of the force, although he is not a member of the official military faction, the Kel.* Given his disadvantage in numbers and firepower, his only chance is to outthink the enemy.
This is complex stuff, and while the details of the setting are fascinating, readers may find the opening scene a bit confusing. But be assured that Lee produces a satisfying payoff. There is action, but the essence of the piece is strategy. Sun Tzu would be proud of Jedao, and of Lee.
*Readers may recall that this is also the name of the warrior caste of Cherryh’s mri.
Apex Magazine, October 2012
Given the month, all the issue’s fiction ends on surprisingly positive notes. Although I don’t generally review reprints, I doubt if too many readers will have seen the Alfar story’s prior publication in the Philippines Free Press.
“Always the Same. Til it is Not” by Cecil Castellucci
Zombies. From the inside. Dav was a zombie until he ate someone that brought him back to life. He doesn’t know how this happened. It’s not likely it was Jesus. Then he meets a woman – we don’t know if she was once a zombie as well – and falls in love. But bands of zombies still roam and hunt. They are not safe.
While the point here is supposed to be the power of love, it’s too hard to get past the moment of huh? when the zombie retransforms with no suggestion how this might have come to pass. There is also the “how is the narrator narrating this?” problem.
“Weaving Dreams” by Mary Robinette Kowal
Doing academic research on the Fae is not without its hazards. There are rules that must be followed, but the Fae tend to bend them when they feel like it. Now Eva’s associate Giancarlo has been taken by a vengeful Fae. Going after him involves Eva in a tangle of Faerie complications.
The crown bound Cennetig to Eva until he returned her safely to the mortal world. No wonder the price he asked in return was so low and no wonder he wanted to claim the reward after she was back. He’d turned their contract into an insanely powerful protection for himself.
Some interesting stuff here – Eva’s witchcraft techniques, the hybrid Celtic/Cherokee Fae, the variations on the traditional rules governing Faerie. Novel and imaginative.
“Simon’s Replica” by Dean Francis Alfar
The realm of Lusan has achieved a pinnacle of prosperity.
Those were days of incontestable bounty and quiet peace, when the network of roads and island-spanning bridges were new and led to uttermost parts of the kingdoms, when fishermen did not have to go beyond a cigarette’s distance from the deep harbors to make a day’s wage, when being a policeman was a part-time job due to the indolence of the dwindling number of criminals, and when the theatrical recitative was at its creative zenith, inspiring narratives about knowledge and devotion, mostly in the vulgar tongue for the edification of the masses.
The ruler, Mon Jiera, approaching the end of her days, summons her architect to craft a faithful replica of her realm, “exact, faithful and true,” so that it will always be remembered. But Mon Jiera is hard to satisfy.
An uplifting sort of moral fable with a distinctive European tone. No real fantastic content.
GigaNotoSaurus, October 2012
“Like Jazzmen Improvising in a Smoky Club” by Ben Burgis
The [nameless] narrator is a drug dealer in a habitat under dictatorial rule. Business is good. Life is good. He’d like to get it on with the courier who delivers his stuff, but she despises him. “You’re a drug dealer. I’m a fundraiser for the revolution.” Then comes the actual revolution.
The bright-eyed revolutionaries who rule the roost now understand that the drug trade Objectively Serves the Interests of the Enemy by keeping the masses too doped up and distracted to rebel. Never mind that the resistance itself had been supplying some of us with our product for years. That was then, this is now, and they intend to shut down all us “exploitive parasites” for the good of the people.
Nameless doesn’t take this news well.
The story is about finding something to live for, but it has a very anachronistic tone. The setting is a future pretty far from our own, with self-contained space habitats, but the political climate and rhetoric seems to belong to the mid-20th century. The author can’t seem to find some political theory to fit his future and instead drags out old Reds from the attic of history.