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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July


Giving the Good Story award to Ford’s Emily Dickinson piece in the Tor.com fifth anniversary month.

Publications Reviewed



Tor.com, July 2013

The site is celebrating its fifth anniversary in July by posting five new stories on the 17th, as well as the usual others throughout the month, which adds up to quite a bit of reading. This seems to bode well for a renewed emphasis on original, independent short fiction here. I might wish, however, for more stories for adults like Jeffrey Ford’s fine story of Emily Dickinson.

“The Ministry of Changes” by Marissa K Lingen

The war is one of the endless sort, but the enemy seems to be advancing to the point of finalizing it. The city has always placed its hope in the prophetic dreams that many of its people have, and the Ministry of Changes was established in the hope of controlling and exploiting the revelations, but it’s now been reduced to sorting and cataloging them, which is Fantine’s job. An elderly neighbor, a long-range dreamer, urges Fantine to act, because no one else will.

[The empty room] was larger than the central trolley station, larger than the central train station, even, with pneumatic tubes lining the walls and ceiling all over. They were dim and scratched with age, and the brass labels for each section had gone golden brown, with little bits of green patina around the carven letters and numbers. They were at convenient heights for Fantine to read, so she was able to step along, looking just above her head, and find her way in the vastness, her boot heels echoing.

A story of the ossifying effect of bureaucracy and how a single person can make a profound difference, simply by acting. If the Ministry of War is run in anything like the same way, it’s no wonder the war is being lost. Although there’s a clear hint that employing some of the locked-away secrets might make things a lot worse. The setting is well-described with a retro sensibility, full of pneumatic tubes and bass. What the story doesn’t tell us, however, is how matters came to this pass in the first place.

I have a vaguely clear recollection of encountering the prophetic dream premise some time ago, but I haven’t yet managed to identify it.

“Homecoming” by Susan Palwick

YA adventure. With an uncomfortable home life, Peg wants escape. Her friend Gareth is going to sea, and he insists she can come with him.

He tried to kiss me, several times, but I’d not allow it. I dreamed of him, often and vividly, but not as often as I dreamt of the sea. “If I must stay behind,” I told him one evening in early autumn as we fed the horses, “that will only make it worse, and if I go with you—well, then, it wouldn’t do. I must act the part of a man. We must be comrades, Gareth, not sweethearts.”

Gareth’s mother, the village not-exactly-witch, reluctantly gives her a charm to conceal her sex at the urging of the village madwoman, who has hated the sea all her life since her lover was lured to his death by the sirens.

A lesson story, as Peg finds herself, finds love, and helps her shipmates do the same, all as readers will have expected. The characters are all essentially good, or at the worst sympathetically flawed, and the narrative is overly talky. A good example of why YA rarely does it for me.

“The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn

Jane, who seems to work at JPL, is part of a group that discovers evidence of intelligent life in the inner solar system.

Out of the thousands of asteroids we tracked and photographed, this one caught my eye, because it was symmetrical and had a higher than normal albedo. It flashed, even, like a mirror. Asteroids aren’t symmetrical and aren’t very reflective. But if it wasn’t an asteroid . . . .

Jane’s group releases the news, which results in a lot of inaction. No one is as interested in her discovery as she thinks they should be. Her frustration level rises. Her colleagues begin to think she’s obsessive.

This is the other side of science fiction, the wonder-killing side, where visions go to be starved to death by red tape, bureaucracy, and mundanity. An effective reminder that not everyone shares the dream. Depressing, but probably more true than we like to imagine. Imagining is easy; funding is hard.

“One” by Nancy Kress

It isn’t that things were going all that great for Zack, before. With his sister, with his girlfriend. With his boxing career, which isn’t exactly good for brain health, as if he ever had much in the way of brains. People talk down to him, talk over him. His reaction has always been anger. Essentially, Zack is a loser. Now he’s had a concussion, a tumor, and surgery, and something is weirdly different inside his head. He knows it, even though they don’t want to tell him. He knows what they’re thinking. Zack is still the same loser on the inside, but now he can read people. The people he wants to read are his opponents in the ring.

The crowd was screaming but Zack barely heard it. Rather, he did hear it, but only distantly, like waves crashing on rocks. The ref was there, circling and hovering, but he barely registered on Zack. Only Cawkins filled his senses.

But there’s something else inside his head, a presence. And it keeps trying harder to get his attention.

This is a well-done character study. We don’t know if the presence chose Zack because of who he is, or randomly; what we see is that his flaws make him incapable of handling the situation – his anger, his fear of dependence on others. He’s fortunate in having some others who do care about him, despite the way he treats them. Yet Zack is also a person with a conscience who’s sorry for the way he treats his sister and can’t bring himself to abandon a mutt in the alley. There’s an almost-perverse relationship with his sister’s wife, a woman who cares nothing for Zack himself, but everything for the sister who loves him. Also interesting is how hard it is for him to adjust to life without the gift as it originally was to live with it.

“Dragonkin” by Lavie Tidhar

When the Mythago bomb went off, the Otherkin were released into their true identities, freed from their human forms. Tarasque is Dragonkin, which she always was, inside. But the –kin begin to war against each other, fighting for supremacy.

A neat idea, combining homage to Holdstock with urban fantasy. It fittingly begins and ends in nursery-rhyme epigraphs, ominously altered. But the lesson at the end is overt and explicit, and myth laid bare is always robbed of its power, which lies in the metaphorical, the symbolic.

“Contains Multitudes” by Ben Burgis

The editorial blurb promises that this one “places everyday teen angst on a landscape of intergalactic and interspecies conflict”, a discouraging prospect. Even moreso, the setting is the dismal confines of an American high school, which seems to have changed not a bit despite the conquest of the world by aliens, who now reside inside the young of high school age, this being the deal made by the adults of the losing, human side. Problem is, sometimes the aliens pop out prematurely, making a big gut/tentacle mess.

Now what we really have here is a story of parasitism/symbiontism, to which the stuff about intergalactic conflict and parental angst are mostly irrelevant. The story is centered on the relationship between the humans, whose teenaged state is also largely unimportant, aside from targeting a specific readership, and their Others. What the narrator tells, but does not really show us much, is that despite their differing tastes in such matters as coffee vs chocolate, what both host and symbiont fear above all is separation from each other. So it goes until the very end, which upends reader assumptions and forces a reread. I can’t help thinking I’d have liked the story more if the author had ditched all the conventional YA trappings and concentrated more directly on the guts of the situation.

“Old Dead Futures” by Tina Connolly

The narrator is a child monster with a very special, crippling ability to see and alter the future. But the ability is tied to a rage he calls “the red”. Agents from, presumably, the government come to his house to induce this state.

The current future line stretches before us like a long lit bridge, and the other possible futures fall away, dimmer and dimmer on either side. And sometimes, both Mr. Henry and I can make ourselves dive into that blackening abyss, fish out a certain future, yank it into place on the long lit bridge.

But if he fails, the agents torture his mother until he retrieves a future in which it never happens. A disturbing story about painful choices and the trap of love held hostage.

“Rocket Ship to Hell” by Jeffrey Ford

According to the editorial blurb, the site’s second annual rocket story, which I assume to be in honor of its mascot, Stubby the Rocket.

Two science fiction writers come into a bar during a worldcon. We suspect that one of them is the author. The other confesses to authoring the eponymous title, although he claims that no one has ever read it.

“I could tell you folks about it, but it’d take me a little while. It’s a remarkable story, though, no lie. I never really told it to anyone before, but with my health the way it is now there’s not much they could do to me.”

What follows is, of course, a Tall Tale. Hell, in this case, is not the destination but the journey.

An amusing and rather sad fannish tale about the Age of Wonder. “The future they drew was always more futuristic than what the future ever became.”

“A Terror” by Jeffrey Ford

It seems to be Emily Dickinson time lately. Here, in 1861, as the author’s end note informs us, Emily wakes at night to an ominously empty house. She leaves to seek help, and a gentleman stops his carriage for her on the street.

He took the glove off his left hand and held it in his right. She was incredulous at the effrontery when he reached down and lightly clasped her fingers. At his touch a blast of cold, like a January wind, ran through her body, lodging in her mind and causing a sudden confusion. He had no right to touch her. She meant to protest, to pull her hand away, but every time forgot what she’d intended and then remembered and forgot again.

Emily protests that she is too young to die, and the gentleman, who symbolically calls himself Quill, offers her a deal: he needs the help of a poet.

Ford has chosen to deal with one of the most essential themes in Dickinson’s work. The poet could be said to be obsessed with death, yet she doesn’t show it with a consistent face. The face that Ford shows us is the merciful one, death as welcome release, as the deceased’s’ homecoming. The Terror of the story is the condition of those who would mercilessly deny it to them.

This is a fine work, deeply steeped in Dickinsoniana, every detail clear-edged. The note informs us that it stems from a reported incident in the poet’s life, an apparent nightmare, but readers are likely to recognize the poetic inspiration: “Because I Could Not Stop For Death . . . .” It is also a New England horror story, in which we see the gruesome side of death, the process of fleshly decay, alongside the image of the civil gentleman. More chilling, literally, is the vision of the writer trapped eternally in a wintry tomb, struggling for the right words.

–RECOMMENDED



Interzone, July/August 2013

I have to say that I miss the edgy, noir futures this zine used to feature. In the current issue, only the Suggars story can properly be called science fiction, and there’s a certain squishiness to the fantasy.

“The Pursuit of the Whole is Called Love” by L S Johnson

Jess and Cam are exploring on Earth, where they separate to go out into the world, always returning to their nest where they become one, become I.

Cam opens to me and I open to Cam and we push and slide into each other, our eyes wet and red and touching, mouths breathing in each other’s air, the sweet cloacae of our bodies sliding and clinging and becoming one, we are one, and the world dissolves in an exquisite shudder and we float and float one body one self one deep breath.

They also need to feed, and the selection of the proper object becomes a source of division between them. But they encounter a fatal misunderstanding with Earth people.

Seems to be based on Plato’s myth of love, although it’s not really clear what’s gone wrong with Jess/Cam, why they needed to separate in the first place. Unlike Plato’s dyads, they search for completion while they are still together.

“Automatic Diamanté” by Philip Suggars

Alex seems to be a military AI who is broken after learning of the collateral damage he’s caused. He’s seeing a therapist named Derrida. Alex suffers from the delusion that he’s an Aztec death god; Derrida has his own problems, as his partner Maureen is hospitalized in a persistent vegetative state. Derrida thinks Alex needs to be recompiled, a notion that Alex resists. But he wants to make up to the therapist for cursing him:

“I am Tlaloc, the bringer of rain and watery death, fucker, and when I get out of this cell, I am going to tear your fleshy limbs off one by one. I am going to skull fuck you until your eye sockets are just poke-holes filled with blood – ”

The name of the therapist is likely to send readers into an interpretive frenzy, but I think it would be a mistake to go overthinking this. The story is about the harm that war does to feeling minds and the ways they attempt to escape the pain.

“Just As Good” by Jacob A Boyd

After Tara’s parents divorce, the Exchange comes to the door. First, it switches the furniture for someone else’s. Then it switches Mom for another woman from Australia. The Exchange is operating worldwide; disruption is universal. Tara ferociously resists and tries to hold on to what had been hers, but with every visit from the Exchange, she loses more of what used to be hers.

I wanted to hit her and break her smart little nose. I wanted to smash the mp3 player and scream loud enough to make the world cower. I wanted these things to happen for me because the universe knew I’d like it and was conspiring for my happiness.

There’s a weird, surreal aspect to this scenario. The Exchange comes in the form of furry, clawed, bearlike monsters too large to fit through the front door. They clearly don’t really know what they’re doing, despite which, most people accept them. Tara’s mother seems almost grateful to them. But there is a cruel side to this incompetence, at odds with the relative lightness of the scenario. The Exchange has abducted people to speak for them, humans with their personalities washed out; no one seems to care about their happiness or even their lives. Or the lives of the animals exchanged to environments where they can’t survive. This makes the story less coherent than it should be. I can’t like it for that.

“The Cloud Cartographer” by V H Leslie

Cloudwalking on an altered Earth.

They hung low and heavy, enormous masses clinging to the world like parasites, brushing the tips of mountain ranges, obscuring the sun. They lingered like floating tectonic plates constantly settling into new positions, the atmosphere shifting just like the ground below it. For Ahren they were platforms above the earth, a delicate bridge over the world below.

Ahren is not only exploring the cloud terrain, he’s mapping it for a company that has development plans, despite the fact that the unspoiled cloudscape and the solitude are what brought him there. Which is why he’s disconcerted by signs that he might not be alone in the upper regions.

Good description here. The author uses Ahren’s childhood and his now-apparently-dead sister as symbols of innocence and the lost, natural world that he’s trying to recapture in the clouds.

“Futile the Winds” by Rebecca Schwarz

Colonizing Mars isn’t working out. Everyone, everything dies. Leigh and Jack are dying. All that’s left of their supplies are four beans, the only seeds of a promising experimental plant. Leigh swallows them.

This is fantasy in a sciencefictional setting that isn’t at all credible as science fiction. No one would send isolated couples to attempt to settle another world with no known way to survive. And the beanstalk, likewise, can only be explained by magic. No giants are present.

“The Frog King’s Daughter” by Russ Colson

Three years ago, Arnie Ashton made a bet with a colleague/rival, head of computer Operations in his corporation: “Smart people always rise to the top, Joel. I could be a frog and still become CEO.” Arnie took the bet. He now lives in a pond in the yard of his former home, where his ruthless daughter is campaigning to become CEO. He’s proud of her and wants to help, although his ability is limited since Joel was killed and the terms of the bet are now controlled by his software.

Getting his body back, like telling people he was a frog, counted as a high level ‘cheat’ by the rules of the bet. He was supposed to accomplish something as a frog, not as Arnie Ashton.

The plot turns into a corporate crime mystery, as Arnie works through his remote link to find out who’s threatening his daughter and help her gain control of the company.

I was expecting neat twists and complications, but the story disappointed by having Arnie much too easily discover the enemy. Things work out too easily and too well, in a moral way. It’s more science fiction than fantasy, although the frog transfer part isn’t possible to take seriously.



Strange Horizons, July 2013

Another two-parter this month. Not very long ago, SH used to publish four stories in a typical month. Now it often seems to be down to two. Good thing the two-parter is well-done.

“In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” by Sarah Pinsker

George and Millie have had a long and happy marriage, but with a shadow at its heart. George was a young architect when they met, full of visions of wonderful futures. The army had him making speculative designs.

“Barracks for soldiers who are ten feet tall, prisons built into the side of mountains, guard houses underwater. I know it’s all ridiculous stuff, kid stuff, but it’s fun to imagine. The engineers tell me what is and isn’t possible. I draw, and then they take my sketches away or tell me things to change. Mill, I thought my skyscrapers would be the future, but they’re showing me all kinds of futures I hardly know how to think about.”

In 1951, it all changed when George learned that his designs hadn’t been speculative at all. From that time, he only went through the motions of his profession, with his creativity reserved for the kids’ treehouse in the backyard, into which he poured everything he withheld from his career. Now he has had a stroke and wants something from Millie that he can’t express. She is determined to find it.

Essentially a warmhearted story about family and love. The heart is in the characters, who come to us as quite alive. George’s secret is the only SFnal aspect, and its SFnality isn’t what’s important about it; it might have been a mundane secret and would have had the same effect if it had so perverted his creative vision. In this respect, the story is a tragedy, even amid the joy.

It also exposes one of the many ways in which we allow war to destroy lives, wars and not-wars, obsessions with security and secrecy. George stands for all the young men and women who have become traumatized by the evil they find themselves doing, the harm they unwillingly or unknowingly inflict. If Millie is angry at the blighting of his life, she isn’t showing it; she’s taken a different way. Readers would probably not blame her if she were.

–RECOMMENDED

“Ten Cigars” by C S E Cooney

A short piece that perhaps should be called a graphic story, as the illustrations seem an essential element. It comes, of course, in ten individual sections. The first cigar we see is one associated with the birth of a child, in this case Alberto Gomez, the first son following six older sisters. But the cigars are not what they might seem. When his sisters surreptitiously smoke one of the cigars, Rosa coughs up ten butterflies.

Nice meld of SF and fantasy elements. The copyeditors of SH should be advised that the species element of the binomial name is not capitalized.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #125-126, July 2013

Transformations in #125, the better pair of stories. #126 involves different ways of exploitation.

#125

“Two Captains” by Gemma Files

Solomon Rusk is a pirate captain who’s taken a prize and found in it a chained sorcerer, Jerusalem Parry, sick unto death. Unwisely, impelled in large part by lust, Rusk rescues the man and heals him, then forces himself on him, earning Parry’s resentment and hate. Parry, while mostly untrained in his power, becomes a powerful ship’s sorcerer, and soon enough he plans his revenge.

“Since you have had your way with me, sir—and on several different occasions, no less—now it is both turn-about and catch-who-can, as the old phrases go. And thus, while the play involved may not perhaps be entirely fair, by some standards, yet it is just enough, to my mind.”

A dark revenge fantasy with strong characters whose voices are vividly distinctive. It’s hard to see this in any other way but Rusk foolishly bringing his fate on himself, for any man who rapes a sorcerer ought to realize that vengeance will catch up to him. But Rusk suffers from a breathtaking state of self-delusion, certain that Parry really enjoys his attentions. Then there is Rusk’s witchy half-sister, whose spell of protection can’t entirely be trusted, as her motives are mixed. Indeed, she may be the only character here who isn’t doomed as a consequence of Rusk’s obsession.

–RECOMMENDED

“Else This, Nothing Ever Grows” by Sylvia Linsteadt

Fairytales transplanted to the California gold rush country, told in the voices of the characters. The troll, brought from Norway with the settlers, wants the young man who has just killed a bear, so her mother binds him in a curse to be bear by day and man by night, until released by the love of a girl for the bear. The girl does come to love the bear, but she makes the classic mistake of wanting to look at him by night. The bear is thus compelled to return to the troll’s cave to marry her.

The man emerged from the rotting bear like the naked stone of a plum. That’s when I could tell. It was in his eyes: if he’d had a choice, he would have chosen the bear instead of the man.

But the girl, who does love the bear, follows after him with the help of the Lady of Gold and the North Wind.

We recognize the story elements, but the characters are distinct, as are their narrative voices, each expressing their own points of view. And the story itself takes its own way, suitable for the new country, and not the way readers are likely to expect. This is no retread but an original vision built out of old elements. The only jarring element, not fairytale-related, the only evil element, are the men who hunt gold and murder for it, or for no reason at all. Compared to them, the bear looks like the better choice, the fairytale world like the better place. Also, I think, the story, without them.

#126

“Artificial Nocturne” by E Catherine Tobler

Maman Floss calls Gabrielle “chauve-souris”, a bat, which is what she is remaking her into. It would have been less painful if Gabrielle had been younger and more pliable. There are other curious children, some kept in jars to mold their forms. But they come and go – to where? Are they sold? One day, on a trip to the market, they see a circus train, which displays a wonder, a siren:

Oh, her face is a human woman’s, as if she has been made the way I have been made, a girl turned into a flying thing, but I can tell she has not been. There are no arms, no legs. From the neck down, she is bird and bird alone but for that face. In this light, no longer blocked by the market stalls, her feathers glisten, seeming black but being red under that, blood trapped under ink.

Gabrielle wants to run away, back to the circus, to the siren, Agnessa, but Maman and her father don’t want to let her leave.

There’s lush decadence to the prose, and the setting seems to be the 19th century, perhaps or perhaps not New Orleans. But the conclusion is disappointingly facile, and nothing is said about the fate of the less fortunate of the innocents, who can not all have been saved.

“Last Rites for Vagabond” by Justin Howe

There being a widespread infestation of ghosts, exorcists are in demand, the powerful ones in great demand and the leftovers for failing exorcists like old Beryl, who banishes them with his alder-wood sword.

Beryl died a bit every time, and then he came back and went on living, hating every minute of it I suspected. It’s what likely made him so good of an exorcist, but one day there’d be nothing left inside for him to kill, and then what?

But Beryl himself is haunted by his brother’s ghost, that he can’t banish. Ten and Zoze take care of the old man, make sure he has his supply of deadwort, find him a bed for the night, get him to the next gig. But unlike Ten, Zose still has a conscience and he is coming to hate himself for fueling Beryl’s addiction.

There’s promise in these characters, but the author doesn’t seem to have finished it. Too much is left unresolved.

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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