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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June


A mixed bag this time, with a novella, a little printzine and some regular and irregular e-publications.

Publications Reviewed



Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake

Here’s a thing I wish I saw more of: an independent novella.

If God had not meant us to cut, why would He have given us blood that clots and skin that closes over?

The erotic is subjective. What is icky-squicky to most can be thrillingly orgasmic to some others. Porn exists to stimulate such desires in its readers. Lake’s novella is not itself porn, but it follows the descent of a doomed soul through a path of pornographic self-destruction, seeking love.

The narrative is not linear. The opening section seems to suggest that Markus has been uploaded faultily into a robotic body, and it’s followed by several other sections apparently meant to confuse readers and make them wonder what is actually going on – an approach I find more likely to turn readers off. This is too bad.

A linear narrative would begin with young Markus in the hands of his crazy abusive mother, being introduced to sex, drugs, and the infliction of pain. Markus is doomed from the outset to be stigmatized as white trash. After he reaches California, he meets a girl named Danni and falls in love; it’s never clear why, except that Markus would have been ready to love anyone who might seem to reciprocate. But Danni’s love turns out to be false, even while she is initiating him into the world of extreme bodily mutilation for her own sake.

When Markus says that love is a fountain, the image readers see is a fountain of blood. A fountain flows freely, giving. Markus always gives, but the world only takes, and that is his tragedy.

But what’s likely to strike many readers more strongly are the descriptions of mutilation and infliction of pain, at a level that, if this were a film, would be rated X and place the story into the slot of horror. Lake isn’t known as a horror author, but here he seems to be pushing the limits to see how far he can go. The scenes of torture, amputation, and vivisection go well beyond disturbing, and the final scene evokes real dread. There is evil here: humans about as evil as they can be. I find this story more disturbing than a lot of stuff explicitly labeled horror. An audacious and memorable work.

But I fear that some more sensitive readers will find themselves wishing they could unremember it.

–RECOMMENDED



On Spec, Spring 2013

A bit late getting to this little Canadian zine. Eight short stories, a mix of genres. Also a new comic strip feature that’s hard to read.

“Bells of Aberdovy” by Kate Riedel

Price is returning in middle age to his childhood home, the farm where he lived and the church where he found understanding. Something happened to him as a child, he lost a year, which is usually explained as a hospitalization for some unspecified condition. But during the interval, he learned to speak fluent Welsh, his family’s ancestral language.

A warm-hearted tale of love and understanding, as well as loss, the recognition that you can’t be in two places at once. I’m always left wondering in such tales how and why such displacements as Y Tylwyth Teg to the New World manage to happen.

“Fur is Dead” by Lynn Stansbury

A selkie story. Mag comes home one day to find that her officious, anti-fur daughter-in-law has stolen her fur coat so it won’t influence the granddaughter. Instead of calling the cops, as I would, she tries to steal it back, like a guilty person. An unusual selkie story, in that the seal-wife’s husband remained true to her until his death.

“Pardon Me” by William Vitka

The evil, polluting drilling platform disturbs something it shouldn’t have. An unsubtle piece.

“They Shall Not Pass” by Eric Lis

Heroism — a variation on the Eternal Warrior tale. Martin first encounters him as a teenage soldier in the trenches at Verdun, where the gigantic man rallies the defenders against a German assault with the war cry of the title. He meets him again in an anti-fascist rally in 1930s London and most recently in an anti-immigrant riot, always with a different, yet recognizable identity.

This is puzzling in the moral dimension, as in all the subsequent encounters it’s clear that Haim/Hamish/Hamid is an opponent of human evil, yet in the trenches of WWI, there was no such distinction between the sides; if the French needed to repel a German assault, the Germans would have been equally in need of such aid to defend against the French or English. It was the war itself that should not have been allowed to come to pass.

“Operation Hercules” by Ron Collins

An alternate WWII, in which the Axis powers have employed triceratops against the weakened Allies. Newman has no weapons that can stop them, and no reinforcements on the way. Instead, HQ comes up with the idea that he should capture one alive.

Irony here, and the eternal idiocy of war. One has to feel sorry for the triceratops, which never wanted to get shot at in human wars.

“Vacation” by Gary W Renshaw

Harlan Smith, SF author, is shipwrecked on a planet hostile to his form of life. Supposed to be funny.

“A Season Begins” by Liz McKeen

On another world, two species regard each other with hate, fear and total misunderstanding. I like the depiction of the species and their different ways of life, but I can’t really credit that, living in such close proximity for [how long?] they wouldn’t have come by now to some greater understanding of the other.

“A Terrible Loyalty” by Brent Knowles

Federal agents knock on Gary’s door and take him away for questioning about his own school friend Evan the astronaut, who’s stolen a spaceship and left a note suggesting that Gary can explain. Gary comes to wish he hadn’t done that. At first he claims to know nothing about it [lying to a Federal agent, you're dead, boy], but intimidation brings out the whole story. Gary really does know why Evan stole the ship and where he’s going.

As the title suggests, a story of friendship and loyalty in hostile circumstances, the circumstances being the world we live in and the government we live under. But largely, it’s more about the circumstances, particularly the hostile government agent who browbeats Gary with threats and accusations that sound all too familiar to anyone who follows the current news. Who wouldn’t want to escape from such a world? I’m not sure if this was the author’s intention, but it was definitely my reaction.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #123-124, June 2013

Not all the stories presented in this ezine can be considered adventure fiction, but issue #123 offers two, with heroes battling over portals to supernatural worlds. #124, which I rather prefer, presents a couple of unexpected encounters, unconnected.

#123

“Cold, Cold War” by Ian McHugh

“There was a tower at Petrovsk. A monstrous, broken-topped spike like the one the Allied forces had found at Astrakhan.” This being 1921 Russia, during the civil war between Reds and Whites. But now there is a third force, the Allies, designated by blue, fighting the changeling monsters that they call the Red Plague, while the Bolsheviks call them Rasputin’s Curse. They come out of the sky along with the towers, out of a vortex. Masaru is flying dispatches, along with his wingman Edie, the Australian he resents for being gaijin and female, but they find the Allied airbases is deserted, except by changelings. And at Baku, they discover a new tower growing out of a vortex.

Gigantic stones swirled down out of the clouds, riding on a tornado wind at the center of the city. Each came to rest with mad precision on the tower’s ziggurat base, building the tower ever higher. Tinier objects tumbled among the gently falling stones. Changelings, in their thousands, falling slowly from the clouds.

Confronting the changelings at Petrovsk, Masaru is bitten, and despite all the evidence that the condition isn’t contagious, he fears transformation and thus conceives a desperate plan.

A striking premise, although it’s interesting that the character takes the towers to be a supernatural phenomenon, not alien. Also the time and place of the setting, which offers a lot of alternate history possibilities. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this material related to some longer work; it could certainly support more stories. Masaru’s own story, however, is more ordinary.

“A Sixpenny Crossing” by Don Allmon

Easric Dane is a lawman whose fame has been enhanced by a series of penny dreadfuls featuring his fabricated adventures. While escorting a dangerous captive to his hanging, Easric receives a cryptic message in the form of one of the books, immediately compelling him, for unclear reasons, to change course and head into a hostile state, prisoner in tow. Naturally, the prisoner takes this opportunity to attempt escape, not being a wanted man in Imperial territory. At which point, readers are likely to be thinking: Hey, I’ve already seen this story a thousand times on the Wild West Network. But not quite. This is a world with Crossings to a spirit world at many mounds or standing stones, although increasingly they are dead and inactive.

Easric was used to strange things. He knew a hundred Crossings, all in their lives’ winter, different than the physical world by nothing more than the angle of a shadow, or the scent of a flower that wasn’t there, or the North Star found in the West.

One large mound in Imperial lands, long known to be dead, is the subject of the book, in which the protagonist discovers a large gold deposit. The Imperials may not respect the Crossings, but they have an active respect for gold.

Entertaining adventure tale, despite the many similarities to the overused Western plot, with particularly interesting characters. I still have trouble with the plot point that has Easric bringing along his prisoner, already established as dangerous, when he goes haring off on this quest. Not seeing the urgency, why it can’t wait until after the hanging.

#124

“Gods of the Lower Case: A New Tale of the Antique Lands” by Noreen Doyle

This installment of the author’s series repeats protagonist Jon Fox, in a setting quite a bit more steampunkish than the last to appear in this zine. A group of undergraduates at Harbridge U have discovered a theuristic device apparently left behind in their dorm by a notorious former resident — an apparatus that “appeared altogether the very sort of thing apt to spawn, or to attract, a sysdaimon.”

The rosewood base plate of Carnifex’s apparatus was about the size of a sole of a man’s shoe, inlaid with other materials on its edges—minerals and metals that Benny cataloged aloud—and atop it were, firstly, a small telegraph key of curious proportions, its knob blushed with a golden hue because most of the zinc plating had rubbed off; secondly, an armature and electro-magnet of a sounder, its clacking parts similarly worn; and, thirdly, an ivory switch marked with on-and-off sigils.

The more reckless amongst them, over Jon Fox’s objections, decide to test it out by tapping the telegraph wires to the antiquarian Research Club. Complicated consequences ensue as the students interfere in matters beyond their understanding.

The humor in this piece comes from the narrative voice, which should remind readers of Kipling’s school stories, particularly with character names like Carnifex, Drumstick, and Who-else, who remind us that they are being educated to rule the Empire. The genre mixes Victorianistic tech with the fantastic, as the animating principles are theuristic [I like the term "sysdaimon"]. The plot involves the sort of concluding twist that should send readers back to read certain messages in light of the revelation, which quite alters their meaning. Cleverly done.

Disclaimer: I previously read an earlier version of this story.

“The Girl Who Welcomed Death to Svalgearyen” by Barbara A Barnett

Grandma Merit, knowing that you can’t very well die at home, leaves the house to meet Death, it being her time. “You can argue with trolls and thumb your nose at the North Wind, but there’s not a one alive who can argue with Death.” Granddaughter Adda, unacquainted with the ways of Svalgearyen, doesn’t very well know this, so she follows after, saying, “We’ll see about that.”

A charming fable with a Norwegian setting and some stubborn, strong-willed characters. A lighthearted view of Death. I particularly liked the personified cold draft trying to get into the house and the playful flickers of firewood that light Adda’s way.



James Gunn’s Ad Astra #2

This sort-of annual ezine makes its second appearance with three original works of short fiction, along with poetry and a large number of articles, some of which are classified as scholarly, as befits its university origin. The theme is announced to be the perspective of the outsider, and two of the pieces do clearly manifest it. However, I have to say I’m quite astonished that, after an entire year since the first issue appeared, no better stories could have been found.

“In Situ” by K C Ball

In this case, the outsider is the odd man out in a sexual triangle. Mitch foolishly agreed to go dune-boarding in the Atacama desert with his old friend [?] Jules and his ex Amy, now attached to Jules. The author spares no pains to assure us that Jules is a real prick, just in case some unspeakable fate befalls him. Amy doesn’t come across as a great prize, either. In the course of their activity they discover a stone passage dug into the dune, in which have been buried inhuman remains.

More about the triangular relationship than the discovery, which offers no real SFnal insights. The human characters are college students, immature ones of little interest. There are, we note, three of the skeletons, and the humans speculate that perhaps the aliens, too, had come to sand-board the dunes.

“It All Started the Day Big Corn Met” by Sarah Worrel

Apocalypse. It seems that the price of food has soared out of reach, which people are blaming on Big Corn. Despite wanting to stay home with her family, Rickie knows they need her paycheck, so she goes to the office, where riots are underway. No one can come and go for days, and Rickie survives by rifling through [looting] her absent co-workers’ desks.

Less a political work than a personal one, as people’s behavior reveal their values – what they cherish, what they really need. It’s a test of character, that Rickie doesn’t entirely pass. Not sure where the outsider element is here, except that Rickie keeps herself apart from the mob.

“To Err is Human, to Forgive Divine” by K Eisert

First contact with the Isinians didn’t go well – they slaughtered almost all the humans, an act they regretted when they came to understand that the humans wanted to help the population survive the deadly changes in their superfrozen world. Now there is only one chance remaining. In a desperate experiment, Isinian children are being inoculated with human DNA in hopes of transforming them to chimerae who can survive under more Earthlike conditions. The apparently sole surviving human, Leta Reegan, is directing the project remotely, because to the propaganda-fed Isianians, humans are monsters.

The main narrative is intercut with sections from the point of view of the first child to survive the experiment.

I see through a single lens, my vision crisp like a cold winter’s morning. I have horse teeth and tiny ears that make listening difficult. I am forgetting what I was but not who I am. Was I really ever different? Was it only child’s make-believe? My mind explodes in thoughts like snow from an ice geyser. Teacher tells me I write poetry but I do not know how. I am the first of my kind to do it. I am, in fact, the first of my kind.
—Patient Zero

The children are outsiders from their own kind, but the real outsider is Leta, who eventually becomes the Teacher figure, bonding with her charges. The Isinian in charge of the project says at one point that they used Leta’s DNA in hopes she would more easily develop such a bond, but Leta doesn’t consider this a major factor and probably readers will agree. A more pertinent question might be whether Leta’s bond is simply a fact of pure loneliness.

This, more than the other stories here, best illustrates the issue’s theme, but Leta is still a somewhat remote character; other than her involvement with the experiment, we see very little of her inner emotional life. I’m not at all sure, also, about the validity of the science here.



Three-lobed Burning Eye, May 2013

Each issue of this semiannual ezine of “horror, wonder and the weird” presents six stories with no other editorial content. I like half of them quite well.

“The Murmurous Paleoscope” by Dixon Chance

Competitive steampunk paleontology in the Old West. Hazel Cardanell, equipped with Paleoscope and Lithotome, has raced to Utah to uncover the fossils of the Pratt Shale before her rival Eccleston can get to them, equipped with his steam-powered Armature, “‘a man-shaped suit of bronze and iron’ that seemed ‘studded with gears along the back.’” Her own equipment is more subtle and has yielded promising results.

I was able to use the cosmogenic energies from the Anomaly Boiler to peer through the Lens, layer by layer, as far as two and a half feet into the rock. You were right; even outside the laboratory, shale is an exceptionally sympathetic mineral for these new energies!

Her initial concern is for the new find to carry her name, an honor her academic employer has so far denied her, but before long she finds herself with greater worries.

The premise has grounding in history, as early fossil-hunters did indeed compete jealously for prize specimens. And Cardanell’s character, her epistolary voice, are likewise true to the period, as are the super-science elements of both scientists’ equipment. Even the title, with its hints of Lewis Carroll, has 19th-century charm. Alas, about half-way through, the plot takes an unhappy turn into clichéd horror territory, a path too-often traveled with no originality on view. I wish the author had stuck with the past-science story of rival bone-hunters instead of cramming so much more stuff into the text.

“One in the Morning, and One at Night” by Gemma Files

Alena, taking out the garbage, is seized with a sudden dread:

something dimly globular will immediately eddy ’round the corner like a plastic bag caught in an updraft and unfurl itself into a flatly whitish figure which will then move down the hall toward her, zig-zag style: back and forth in a scuttling, insectile motion, partly crawling and partly slithering, partly gathering itself as though to pounce.

At the same time, a voice in her begins to whisper the message of the title.

This very short piece is pure psychological horror, a rapid plunge into madness. Intense stuff.

“Scolyard’s ‘The Constructs Foresee Their Doom’” by Daniel Ausema

A neat weird setting with an aura of constant decay, where people of several species live in and on huge trees that seem to be greatly susceptible to rot, within a society that likewise seems strictured and corroded. As a child, the narrator was taken to an art museum where the eponymous painting was displayed.

Four figures stood on a narrow branch, three conversing with each other and the fourth, with its back to the viewer, seeming to look off into the distance. But these figures were not people — not humans, not selichi, not even ratites — though they had human heads. Their bodies were nothing more than frames made of metal. Oil glistened at their shoulders and pelvic joints, a drip from one forming a black pool in the wood at their feet, and rust tarnished their limbs.

Seeing it, she saw her own doom: falling into a mechanical, lifeless pattern of existence. Her solution, however, to become a thief and finally an art dealer, proved ill-advised. Several more times she saw the painting in different places, and each time it was different; it had changed, and the impending doom it revealed to her was more ominous.

A high degree of imagination here, not only the setting but the mutable painting and its varying messages. A literate, provocative work.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Hecate Centuria” by Claude Lalumière

A bit difficult to place this very short piece. We have a pseudo-Roman world in which the gods are manifest and active. Hecate the wolf-bitch is for some reason attacking the city of Venera [apparently from the root for Venus, not venerate], which produces an hallucinogenic drug. There’s a fairly strong pseudo-Roman tone, but such jarring terms as “recreational drug”, stash and snort continually intrude. Given the author, I have to assume these uses are deliberate, but it cheapens the piece for no purpose I can discern; nothing here but a commonplace dark fantasy.

“Big in Japan” by Lawrence Conquest

Emiko Xiang has traveled a long way to find her father Haruo, once a handsome movie star, now a decrepit old exile in America. But the role he played involved a rubber suit, stomping on Tokyo. Emiko finally persuades him to return home, but on the way, he undergoes a metamorphosis.

Chitinous growths extended along the length of my father’s spine, whilst his skin was charcoal black, like something that had been left too long in a fire. I asked if he was in pain, but he could make no sensible reply.

This one rather disturbs me, although I like the opening scene where the character is lifted overboard. Ostensibly, it’s a story about what it means to call someone a monster, as Emiko’s mother says that radiation treatment as made her look like a monster. But there are undeveloped suggestions that Haruo has led a morally monstrous life. While the author never names the movie, we have a pretty good idea what movie it’s supposed to be. What we don’t know is where the character is supposed to stand in Gojira filmography, in which the monstrousness of the monster evolves. What we do know is that the monster in many of the earliest, iconic films was played by an actor named Haruo Nakajima. I can’t approve of using existing persons in this way, even with the serial numbers munged.

“I Will Trade With You” by J M McDermott

Set in a rather surreal world where people commonly exchange body parts. Lanval was a young man when he let an old fisherman from the north talk him into trading his right hand for one that always points north. Later, he meets a group of travelers headed north and becomes convinced that he belongs there. He sets out with them but wakes up alone on the desert to find that the only part of his body remaining is that right hand.

My eyes falter. Maybe they are not my own. They feel too old to be mine. My tears are not my own. They come from these old eyes.

I like the almost dreamlike strangeness of this one, the surreal atmosphere, and the strong narrative voice. A lot of neat weird lines here.

–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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