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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May


The debut of a new publication, some occasional ezines, and a couple of the regular monthlies. I particularly enjoyed Electric Velocipede this time around.

Publications Reviewed



Electric Velocipede #26, Spring 2013

Of all the genre’s small press zines, EV is in the top rank for quality. Here’s one of its best issues, a particularly quiet and thoughtful one, with well-realized settings and compelling premises.

“Grandmother of Ghosts” by E Catherine Tobler

A novel look at the passage of souls. The narrator is in the place of the ferryman, the conductor, the psychopomp, but the setting is different: there is both a shore and a train. But something has recently been going wrong. The boats stopped coming some time ago, and now the train is late. There are almost no more passengers.

I pluck the sticks that lay strewn in the field where they have lain since dropped. Nineteen in all. There used to be so many more. I tie them into a bundle and hoist it onto my back. So light, when once the burden was so great. Tonight, I will burn the sticks into nothingness and release the people who brought them.

Except that the narrator begins to think: what if these are the last?

The main thing here is in the setting, the variation on the classic trope. A lot of symbolism adds to the interest, even if readers may not be quite clear on the significance in every case, but the images are very strong, such as the overturned and abandoned rowboats littering the beach, like the carcasses of dead whale calves washed ashore.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Entomologist’s Three Ballgowns” by Brooke Wonders

Phil, cripplingly shy, finally works up the nerve to ask his lab partner Kendra out on a date. They go dancing – her idea – and he realizes there is something peculiar about her dress. It’s made of grasshoppers. The next time, it’s scorpions.

The dress, when he slides it off her shoulders and to the floor, scatters, sending dark bodies skittering toward darkened corners and beneath furniture. All over his body stinging points of pain bloom where she’s touched him.

Some delightful similes in this short piece about mating.

“The Tempting: A Love Story” by James Alan Gardner

The 2nd person narrator, another “I”, lives in a magic Palace where time is plastic; every season has its room. It’s the sort of decadent place where inhabitants become bored and seek novelty and Drama. Our narrator has decided to get a new Slave, the old one being worn out. The Slaves are from Earth, with no resistance to magic and thus infinitely manipulable. But the enslaving itself must be done with temptation, not force.

You show the new Slave the wonders. A hundred variations on waterfalls: falling down, falling up, in silence, in song, falls flowing with honey instead of water, or lemonade, or the Souls of the Damned™, or champagne (and the bubbles pop crinkling in your nose). Oh and the castles, the caves, the jungle isles, the desert ruins, the minaret cities, the Valleys That Time Forgot, the Mines That Were Dug Too Deep, the Rivers Of Initiation, the Temples Of One-Note Gods.

But in all this fantasticality, there is a growing sense that all is not right, that the narrator is not quite as omnipotent as he claims to be.

A what’s-going-on story, in which the mystery rests in the identity of the narrator. The author isn’t coy about this; the revelation is made in due course, in terms that readers will certainly grasp. And, in a gravitational pull of significance, the revelation alters our understanding of all the rest.

“The Still Room” by Jamie Kellen

Not a distilling room, but a room of almost absolute stillness. Almost. The two men trapped inside the room are moving at an imperceptible rate, caught in the middle of a duel. The boy’s mother tells him their family are the room’s guardians, charged with keeping it closed. But the war has come, and the air raids. Instead of going to the shelter, the boy and his mother go down to the cellar, where they will be safe from the bombs.

“It’s not just the room either, it’s the house; this house has survived everything. The Great Fire, Cromwell, every other horrible thing that’s happened in the last six hundred years, all of it.”

A neat premise, an intriguing one. The boy’s mother has a theory about the room, why it exists and how the situation there might eventually end, but it’s impossible to know if she’s right. There are hints, however, ominous ones. Readers will have their own speculations.

“Paradigm Shift” by Julie Day

Short-short. The narrator is dragged by her mother to pageants; at sixteen she gets back by going cyborg. There are hints about possible immune issues and about identity, but overall this is an extreme case of teen rebellion, a couple of steps beyond piercing and tattoos.

“The Irish Astronaut” by Val Nolan

After the Aquarius mission is lost and the program shut down, Dale goes to the Irish coast to bring home the ashes of his crewmate and friend. The visit is cathartic.

They were on the true Burren now, a vast, wrinkled plain of undulating stone weathered into near oblivion. A kaleidoscope of grey, it spread on and on, beyond history, beyond the night, out of sight beyond Dale’s unrelenting dreams. Behind them, the few stray streetlights of the village sparkled in the distance, and, above, the wash of moonlight made it seem another world entirely.

A contemplative story about the human spirit, friendship, and landscape. A strong sense of place here, well evoked.

–RECOMMENDED



Lightspeed, May 2013

Stories of romantic encounters.

“Water Finds Its Level” by M Bennardo

Jennifer meets Roger in the Collision, when parallel universes merge and they discover they are occupying the same apartment. There is no Jennifer in Roger’s universe, but there’s another Roger in Jennifer’s. She doesn’t want to think about that other man. Roger can’t leave it alone.

My Roger was the one who had talked to me all those nights. This person, no matter how good the copy, hadn’t done any of that. That shared history had shaped some small part of my Roger—we had laughed together, cried together, discovered things together. None of that could be replaced, not even by this identical twin.

This one is a situation, but its development into a story is minimal. Readers are left to conjecture what might happen next, how it might turn out. The author isn’t a lot of help.

“The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley

One of those 2nd-person narrations where “you” reads as “I”. The narrator is pointedly untraditional. She was engaged in her usual occupation of preying on young men when the world, apparently, ripped open and the worms came out. They eat people. It’s no use wondering if she and her lover might have gotten together under more normal circumstances. They’re together now. But altered circumstances require adjustment.

This is a new kind of love for both of you, but not a new kind of love for the world. In the pre-catastrophe world, things that loved one another sometimes ate their mates. You both consider this. The thought of lapping at blood and chewing flesh becomes tempting. You’re both getting mad scared of the dark.

Here’s extreme, audacious stuff, grotesque variations on the traditional anniversary gifts: paper, cotton, leather, etc. Here, instead, we get mutilation, cannibalism, madness, and the end of the world, all edging into the surreal. The prose is sharp and intense, defying the limits. And it’s a love story.

–RECOMMENDED

“Always, They Whisper” by Damien Walters Grintalis

Medusa, a revisionist version. Medi is living in a place that might be Los Angeles, dwelling on her past and disguising herself as an ugly old woman whom no one would notice. Until one day the disguise fails, and she’s left with the face that has always been fatally attractive to men.

This one is too blatantly a metaphor and a polemic about the abuse of women and the men who blame her for what they do. Medi rejects their blame, the whispering voices that say it’s all her fault, rejects the myth. That’s about it.

“Leaving the Dead” by Dennis Danvers

Darwin notices that everyone in the Target is dead, except for one cashier, who’s starting to nod off like the rest. He wakes her up.

He gestured at all the dead. Some had fallen facedown into their carts. Others were still reaching out for the bottom shelf. Most had dropped where they stood. Dropped phones were dropping calls everywhere. They were dead too. Personal devices without a person.

As they figure they’re the only people left alive, life starts to look pretty good. Better than it had been. The only one of them with much sense is Elvis the dog, whose blind man is dead. Elvis can hear the coyotes out there.

So what to make of this? It’s clearly not meant to be taken literally as a postapocalypse scenario, all grim survivalism, despite the misgivings of the dog. My first notion is to take it as a metaphor for the mind-killing life of working in places like Target, people shuffling through their workday, dead inside. But no, the story makes it clear that everyone is actually fall-down-and-rotting dead. The question then becomes not why they died, which we never do learn, but why Darwin alone did not [for Gabrielle was clearly about to die before Darwin, Christ-like, {Death-like?}touched her]. But we never learn that answer either, only that he and especially Gabrielle led unhappy, unfulfilling lives until the deaths of everyone else liberated them, largely from the expectations of family and society. Now they’re free to fall in love and gambol in the meadows. Even the responsible dog is at last seduced by a Frisbee. So I’m tempted to conclude that Darwin and Gabrielle may not have left the dead at all, but joined them in Elysium. Does the text support this notion? Not strongly, but then it doesn’t strongly support any alternative interpretation.



Strange Horizons, May 2013

SH is really slighting readers with the fiction this month: only two stories, one of which is far too short to occupy two slots.

“Hear the Enemy, My Daughter” by Kenneth Schneyer

Military SF. Humans are at war with the Sheshash, a war fought anachronistically hand-to-hand, at which the Sheshash’s paired warriors excel. Halima was working to crack the alien language when her husband was killed in combat. Ever since, their young daughter has been exhibiting symptoms of disturbance. Now Halima is suddenly called to interrogate the first paired Sheshash POWs, and she begins to conclude they are mother and daughter.

Then the dwarf Sheshash’s eyes opened fully and it shot out of the pouch, throwing itself at the barrier to get at me. I didn’t back away this time, but felt my heart pound in my chest. The dwarf bounced off the barrier but tried again, bounced again and kept trying. Its mouth was open and it was uttering the shriek we had heard on every battlefield: Kri’ikshi! Kri’ikshi!

This one follows the formula whereby the protagonist has a SFnal problem and a parallel personal problem; engaging in one produces an epiphany that throws insight on the other. In this case, not a whole lot of insight. The child’s identification with the aliens who killed her father is an interesting psychological problem left mostly unresolved. I’m not buying the military aspect. Even now, such battlefield actions are becoming rare outside of civil warfare.

“Hiding on the Red Sands of Mars” by Anaea Lay

When a stranger shows up at her mother’s isolated cabin, Pence comes of age with the need to discover who she is. Her mother was once one of the leaders of the revolution; afterward, she hid them away from the eyes of the ubiquitous drones, telling Pence a story about going to the safety of Mars. Now her old partner wants her to return to the struggle, but Harriet refuses.

“It sounds great, when you listen to him. It’s all adventure and glory and fighting the good fight. He forgets about the people who chase you off because they’re afraid you’re going to make things worse, or the people who are too stupid to understand that just because you have enough this year doesn’t mean the water tables aren’t going to drop another two inches next year.”

An If This Goes On scenario, with repressive states using deadly force to control increasingly scarce water resources. The drones, the anti-terrorist edicts, the climatic degradation are all out of today’s headlines. Also familiar is the passivity of the US Midwestern population.

I very much wish SH hadn’t split this one into installments. The first half is the weaker, a fairly unremarkable postapocalyptic YA scenario, with Pence knowing very little of her situation. Readers who lose interest will miss the stronger second part when Pence confronts her mother’s past and her own future.



Adventure Rocketship! #1, edited by Jonathan Wright

A new British publication, a sort of hybrid that I’d call “a magazine in book form” more than an anthology, with this first issue/volume being subtitled: Let’s All Go to the Science Fiction Disco. The theme being the intersection of music, the future, and the counterculture. More than half the material here is nonfiction, and altogether it forms a history of the relationship of SF and music from the 60s onward; the nonfiction is presented chronologically by decade, and the fiction follows in its own section.

There are 6 stories, most fairly slight — glimpses into the place of music in several different genre settings, although I find the predominant direction of the authors’ glance is pastwards, not into the future. A few moments of counterculture, too, most notably Ziggy Stardust.

“Starmen” by Liz Williams

The narrator, as a boy in South London, has his grey-toned life blown open by a chance viewing of David Bowie’s Starman.

But in bed that night, I closed my eyes and the purple door opened and I saw that sidelong smile, and that long finger pointing right at me and the starman came. I was standing on the edge of somewhere, a world I’d never seen before, with coloured striated
light like fallen rainbows, drifting over the bright ground, and a sky that hazed from azure to green to purple. The sun was a huge crimson ball and someone was walking towards me, holding out a hand.

Certainly it’s hard to think of a figure in the rock music world more intimately connected with space. In an odd coincidence, an astronaut on the ISS has recently recorded what is probably the first music video in space, appropriately covering Bowie. Williams reminds us that he was once Mrs Jones’ lad Davy.

“Between the Notes” by Lavie Tidhar

The narrator is different from the other time-travelling serial killers. He does it out of love.

Musicians, like writers, fade out young. They are spent quickly, like bullets. To die young is to live forever. To die old is to be a legend diminished, a shadow-self.

But this is love for the music. The narrator discovers that love for the musician is quite a different thing.

Like the Williams story above, this one comes out of the author’s personal background, featuring an artist less widely known than Buddy Holly or Mozart. I’m reminded of Lewis Shiner’s seminal Glimpses, but even moreso the ancient Greeks whose motto: “Those whom the gods love die young.” Yet even Zeus cannot save his beloved Sarpedon.

“Blues for Ahab” by Nir Yaniv

Future music. G’s band is fading in popularity, and the only solution, according to their producer, is the Leviathan, a human musical processor. The band reluctantly agrees after initial protest.

No way. He never created his own music, always rode like a leech on the body of creation of other bands. That was how he became popular, and that’s why we despised him.

What this one is saying is that musicians and musicianship will remain much the same, despite possible future enhancements. The ending is mean; I like that.

“Musicians” by Martin Millar

Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin playing cards in the afterlife.

“Mind if I join you?” said Howlin’ Wolf.

“You’re welcome,” replied Jimi Hendrix. “Provided you have something to stake.”

Howlin’ Wolf laid a harmonica on the table. “I learned how to play that from Sonny Boy
Williamson,” he said.

“Which Sonny Boy Williamson?”

“I forget. But they were both good, so I figure it will do.”

Essentially a ghost story celebrating the highs and lows of musicians’ lives. A reminiscence, in which the prose is the feature. No connection to science fiction or the future.

“Flight Path Estate” by Tim Maughan

The nameless narrator [aren't they all?] is an aspiring journalist who makes contact with a charismatic young soon-to-be-rising star at a protest against the demolition of some old housing towers, unique because they are still free of the ubiquitous surveillance, cameras and drones always watching. Melody12 has the indefinable star quality but also an authenticity that the narrator values. She has a plan. It works out, almost as she’d mapped it out.

For moments – minutes I guess, maybe four or five, the length of one of Melody’s stark rhythms – everything came together in unrepeatable harmony. I was transfixed, everyone was; even the avatars – who I kind of pitied for not being able to experience this outrage first hand, for not being able to feel the bass – but I knew it couldn’t last.

This story about getting what you wish for, the longest in the issue, is essentially about today, or an extrapolation from it: the security state, the surveillance state, the terrorism obsession, the anarchist souls who fight back on behalf of the individual’s liberty. And the yearning for stardom, for recognition, the need to matter. And the parasites who fatten on it, drain it, consume it. We recognize it all. The music here is fairly peripheral to the heart of the story, a means to the end.

Melody12 embodies a fundamental contradiction. She and her buddies want to evade surveillance, they want a place where they won’t be watched, they want privacy and anonymity. But while she makes an alliance with Anonymous, her craving for stardom, for the notice of the public, makes privacy impossible. She becomes more watched than anyone. Only thus, the story seems to be claiming, can the surveillance establishment be toppled. Or maybe Melody12 just didn’t know what she was doing, and the consequences.

“One Door Closes and then Another Door Closes” by Stanley Donwood

In a dystopian future, a man who has forgotten his name

looks from the window. It is winter, the trees are bare or dead, the sky is a dirty yellowish colour and the clouds are a chill grey where they tear against the horizon. There is some kind of conflagration in the distance, far away. The wind stirs the ragged treetops. Bruises of pale half-sunshine bloom fleetingly across the rooftops of the houses. He cannot see a single human being, nor hear any evidence that human beings exist.

Music here only seems to exist in its absence. Not sure why this particular story is included.



Bourbon Penn #7, May 2013

Seven stories that the issue’s title classifies as cross-genre. Not sure I’d call it that, but there is a definite literary sensibility to them, crossed with the sort of subject matter characteristic of the speculative genre. The quality of the prose is generally high, with a good deal of originality and unpredictability. Refreshingly different.

“The Ant Singer” by Benjamin Parzybok

Alex Volchovok solves ant problems. He’s been in business for a long time.

Settled into an office for decades, waiting for a call upon his unique services, listening to music from another era and drifting in and out of slumber in a chair that, through long exposure to his body, fit his shape absolutely.

But Alex’s own problems are personal, involving a couple of old friends and late-blooming jealousy.

Nicely done with a light fantastic element, but mainly a character piece. I like the way Alex’s emotions manifest in ants, as Bernard’s do in locks, letting Alex in and out of his own office depending on Bernard’s moods.

“Electric Prayer Wheel” by James Freetly

A dark comedy about death and letting go. The narrator is a kind of loser whose wife died of brain cancer, leaving him alone in a trailer park with their young daughter. When she was first diagnosed, Kelly placed a prayer in their neighbor’s dashboard prayer wheel – it apparently didn’t work, although the narrator doesn’t know what it said. Now the neighbor drives his truck into the retention pond in the first of many futile suicide attempts. Attempting half-heartedly to save him, the narrator takes the prayer wheel from the dashboard, an act with Consequences.

Now the only sounds were Chopra crying outside and the squeak of the prayer wheel. I reached out to stop it spinning, but immediately popped my fingers into my mouth. The thing was moving like a buzz saw. I searched the pedestal for a switch, found it and received a shock when I touched it. It didn’t stop. The squeaking grew more frantic.

This shouldn’t be as funny as it is. The characters are all depressing, a trailer park is always depressing, and so is cancer. But it’s hard not to think that Chopra, despite his inability to die, is still on Earth just to finish up some business with the narrator, or maybe for Kelly, or maybe he was an avatar all along. At any rate, I can’t help thinking Chopra has taken a great step towards Enlightenment and the narrator and his family may be facing better times. Maybe.

“The Barrel” by Holly Day

The little boy wonders about the barrel that his father feeds in the back yard, where he is forbidden to enter.

He could see it from the window of his bedroom, could just see what he thought must be its black gaping hole of a mouth. Did a long, pink, sticky tongue come out and delicately lap food off the plate? Did some sort of hose protrude at mealtimes to suck the food off the porcelain surface of the plate, like a vacuum cleaner extension, or the way mouths of the tiny tank snails worked in the fish tank at the doctor’s office?

Well, we know nothing good is going to come of this, but at the end we still aren’t quite sure what’s happening, only that it’s some sort of horror.

“Your Fairy Is Serenity Elfsong” by Samantha Henderson

Not quite what you had in mind.

She’s got black leggings and ankle-high combat boots. Her wings, aphid-color, droop from under the jacket, tattered and useless in the damp. Her face is pretty in a sharp, hateful way and her fingers are long and stained nicotine-yellow.

The narrator could always see the fairies, but once she was out on the streets, they were occasionally helpful. So it’s not really quite clear why she hates them so very much. It’s not like they owe her anything, not like she ever did anything to them. So good for the narrator for dragging herself up mostly by herself and turning them down, whatever they want from her. But it doesn’t seem like they put her on the streets to begin with, and I think it’s not really the fairies she wants to hit.

“Consumer Testing” by John Greenwood

Strange, strange, weird, creepy people. The narrator was raised in isolation and ignorance by deficient parents whose maxims were, “Keep yourself to yourself” and “No good will come of it.” Which it didn’t. Unseen neighbors used to throw trash and worse over the wall into the garden, but the timorous parents made no objection. After they were dead and buried in the potato patch, someone threw a television set, not a normal one [for one thing, the narrator's house has no electricity, but the TV works anyway]. A figure on the screen invites the narrator to participate in the Mystery Shopping Consortium, by writing reviews of items that would be delivered to him.

I had no reason to be surprised. Do not think that I question those things that it is not my business to question (by which I mean everything). Of all those languishing in ignorance of the workings of the television set, I may be the most pitiably green. Any surprise I expressed, one may put down to feebleness of imagination.

There’s a definite surrealism here, as well as a generally distasteful atmosphere. But what strikes me most strongly is the perversion of a child’s life by ignorant parents – the view held by so many that parenthood bestows such a right over a child. It’s sad to read of the moment when the boy managed to escape into the real world, to see a television and play with green plastic army figures, to almost make a friend before his keepers dragged him back into the house full of trash.

“Caretaker” by Will Kaufman

Emeline lives on the cemetery’s vast grounds, a janitor of the gravestones. There’s a whole company of the caretakers, and the manager reminds them constantly how lucky they are to have work.

A compatible husband, picked by the company. Her children, raised in the cemetery until they were old enough to sign or leave. A burial in the worker’s section, with a three-minute video tribute, recorded and edited by a representative of the Cemetery Corporation.

But Emeline loves Mary, and they dream of escape together beyond the too-distant wall.

A depressing work. Emeline is trapped, and although she pretends to have hope, it’s pretty clear that there are no good alternatives for her. There may not even be a wall, only graves forever, voices of the dead speaking to no one, no one to hear them.

“Jawbreaker” by Sean Doolittle

Warren is in the gumball machine line.

But in the end, when it came right down to it, he was a gumball man. Plain and simple. Dependable. One shape: you knew what you were in for. But what color? Just the right dash of suspense. Lord knew it wasn’t a glamorous line, but he’d built a life with it, with his hands and shoe leather and his father’s hardware nails. And it had always been enough of a life for Warren Ballard.

But the gumball business is dying, and there’s a punk who wants to buy him out, wants his locations so he can put in his own machines. And the main reason Warren doesn’t take his offer is that he doesn’t like the punk.

A story of revenge and prejudice. Revenge, in fictional contexts, is generally supposed to be sweet, but here it leaves a bad taste. Not that Horn didn’t deserve it, in terms of an eye for an eye. But Warren had other alternatives and chose not to exercise them, chose instead to involve innocent others and exploit their own ethnic bigotry. His action made the world a worse place.

I have to wonder when the story was set, which seems to be a decade or so in the past. How long since we’ve seen a gumball machine? How long since it was a novelty that vending machines too credit cards? There is no fantastic content here; it’s a strictly mundane account.

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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