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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August


A lot of stories here, beginning with the long-awaited September F&SF, and including another of the “world SF” anthologies I’ve recently received.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, Sept/Oct 2013

I’d been looking forward to this issue, as there seems to be an F&SF tradition of bringing out the best stuff in September. Alas for tradition, too many of the stories here are lacklustre and shopworn, although some of the shorter pieces have freshness, particularly the Mirabelli, Ryman, and Chilson. Still, overall, this isn’t the superior issue for which I had hoped.

“Queen of Eyes” by Rachel Pollack

A Jack Shade story. As an unseasonable storm bears down on New York, a client comes to Jack bearing his card, so that he cannot refuse her. Sarah Strand is concerned that her mother is missing: Margaret Strand, aka Margarita Hand, the Queen of Eyes. They have met once before.

Around the world, so-called psychics were looking, searching — cards laid on silk cloths, hungry faces staring into crystal balls, nervous hands casting cowry shells or bamboo sticks, fingertips on photos or trinkets of the dead — they were all trying to see. And most had no idea that it all passed through her. The open channel, the transformer. Mariq Nliana. The Queen of Eyes.

Sarah knows that her mother is still alive because she will become the next Queen and suddenly see everything.

This novella is a tangled and cluttered affair. As it opens, the author brings in a truck and opens the tailgate to dump a huge load of backstory – Jack’s own personal tragedy, his current housing situation, various gigs he’s had in the past, various magical, paranormal, mythical and mystical individuals and societies with which he has at various times had dealings, including the missing queen. Because he has no idea how to proceed, he becomes involved in the kind of quest that sends the searcher from one supernatural personage to another to another, a wild goose chase that eventually brings him where he needs to be, because this is how it was all set up from the beginning. Jack is a kind of stooge, and apparently a predictable one. At this point, perhaps two-thirds of the way through the text, readers will finally begin to find the rudiments of a story taking form and to able to identify which elements of the load of backstory may prove to have relevance and significance in the current situation – assuming that they can recall them after the cursory mention they receive, among so many other cursory mentions.

At several points in the story, Jack wonders, Why me? Why have I become involved in all this? He’s clearly quite over his head. After all, we have more than one character who sees everything, even the future, who knows everything, a great deal more than Jack. The answer seems to be that the author, that omnipotent figure, wanted to write another Jack Shade story and so contrived this setup to drag him in. In the course of which, we learn really very little more about Jack, because most of the backstory dumped on us is inert, not live; we don’t see it happening.

“Hhasalin” by Susan Palwick

Humans have taken over the shapers’ world and killed or disabled most of the population when they resisted. All that remains are ruins and a dwindling number of children in an orphanage whose skill in shaping is almost lost because of the human viral weapons. Humans regard themselves as benevolent conquerors, and Lhosi was adopted by a human family, but she has become more of a pet than a child to them, a pet increasingly neglected and kept from the knowledge of what really happened to her people. She grows up feeling useless and inferior.

Shapestone was beautiful, perfectly smooth and lustrous. It couldn’t be broken or drilled or reshaped once a shaper had pulled it from the air. This skill had served the shapers well, when they made the old cities, shaped stone by stone over eons, but it had cost them, too, sapped their strength: and there was no need for shapestone now that the humans had come, with their metal and plastic and glass, all of their wonderful machines.

Overly sentimental piece has no originality and little imagination, contrary to the claims of the editorial blurb.

“The Collectors” by Albert E Cowdrey

Classic Cowdrey here, set in the swamps of Cajunland and featuring a cast of crooks and confidence men, as well as an honest witch. It seems that Hermann Goering once laid his hands on a solid-gold monstrance from an altar in Rome. It passed into the hands of a GI, thence to Charlie’s slimy father Alex, who locked it up in a vault that Charlie couldn’t open after Alex met his demise. Charlie’s mother Bella has the telekinetic power to open the vault, but only on condition that he give back the relic, saturated as it is in power and bad luck. Charlie takes Mama’s point about the bad luck, but he’s enough of his father’s son that he’d rather make a profit in the course of getting rid of the object. This plan turns out to have unintended consequences.

An appalling scream cut her off — a scream such as a puma might utter after impulsively swallowing a porcupine, only to discover too late why that was a bad idea. Echoes raced across the marshlands, clouds of white egrets rose clamoring into the air, and dogs began barking madly as far away as the Texas border. Heavy footsteps pounded down Bonheur’s center hall, repro antiques toppled with a series of crashes, imitation Ming vases shattered, and the back door slammed.

Typical Cowdrey humor, not at the top of his form, but still a fun read. It’s not clear how Fat Hermann managed to survive proximity to the relic, given its potency as revealed in Louisiana, but this isn’t the sort of tale that invites such close examination of the story logic.

“Bemused” by Marc Laidlaw

Another installment in the author’s series featuring Gorlen the bard and the gargoyle Spar, who suffer under a mutual curse. This time, they fall into the company of musicians and journey to the hall of the eccentric, wealthy young lord Wollox, where Spar hopes to find information about their curse in the extensive library. But Gorlen is entranced by a unique sort of organ possessed by their host, in which the figures of eight women, the muses, serve as pipes.

The hair on Gorlen’s neck prickled, his heart climbed into his throat, tears started from his eyes as an eerie, breathy note began to swell from deep within the chamber, like the inward essence of nature given voice; and it rose louder, higher, all while the young player simply sat poised as if entranced. Wollox waited until the single harmony of eight voices reached an unbearable peak, pouring from the mouths of the muses, vibrating the whole chamber, blowing at the conical dome overhead with such vigor that its transparent panels, proving cleverly hinged, opened to give the blast somewhere to go. And only then, quite suddenly, did young Wollox throw his hands down on the keys and let the muses sing.

But beneath the hall, Spar discovers a more ominous curse, of which the organ is only the outward manifestation.

It doesn’t seem likely that the author will allow the two protagonists to solve their mutual problem any time soon, as this would be the end of their adventures. Spar has become the more interesting character, the more serious, and the one whose suffering is more profound. The Wonder that he finds belowground here is imaginatively described.

“myPhone20″ by Robert Grossbach

The narrator is a cranky old man who, even in 2026, doesn’t own a cell phone [although I'm sure no one would call them that by then]. He’s irritated by the rest of the world, his children and grandchildren, who can’t seem to pull their attention away from the devices to concentrate on people actually in the same room.

I saw the familiar blank expression begin to cross his face, the look that signaled incipient communication with the unseen multitudes. “You know,” I added quickly, “just because everyone else does something, or has something, doesn’t mean you need to. Great things have been accomplished in the world by solitary thinkers, people who didn’t mind being different, maybe even liked it, people who gave birth to their own ideas and let them grow without influence by anyone else.”

Then comes the myPhone20, that operates through direct neural induction, and it’s adopted almost universally, except of course by the narrator, whose son begins to plot to have it installed involuntarily. Until . . .

An “If This Goes On” scenario. Readers will be expecting things to go pear-shaped, the only question being the exact color and taste of the pear.

“Un Opera nello Spazio” by Oliver Buckram

I.e., a space opera. An Italian space opera, in three very short acts filled with skiffy puns and allusions, in Italian of course. eg:

Come sai, Roberto.

Per servire l’uomo.

A clever fellow, this Buckram. Rarely am I so amused by something so silly.

“The Shore at the End of the World” by Eugene Mirabelli

The messenger of the gods, who isn’t an angel despite his name Gabriel, has arrived at the fishing village at the end of the world, where he is met by Lucia, a woman with whom he had a series of affairs in her youth.

She laughed a brief laugh. “And you don’t look a day older,” she told him. She turned to the young woman who had rejoined them and said, “See how handsome he is? See that glitter of stubble on his jaw — so exciting, you think, to hold against your breast — and that broad, deep chest? See the soft shadow of his ribs and the tight dimple of his bellybutton? If you see a man like that, don’t trust him.”

Lucia is now a widow, the husband she loved having been lost at sea, and the younger woman is her daughter. She invites the messenger home for dinner with her father-in-law Max, who may be a sort of mythical character himself – Gabriel thinks so, at least, and identifies him with Dedaelus. But Lucia has her own plans to use the messenger of the gods.

There’s a sense of living myth here, the sort of setting where the gods are actively interfering in human lives and humans attempt to make bargains with the gods. We seem to have stepped outside time and place; we have gods, wooden barrels, and t-shirts. As for the characters, Gabriel isn’t likely to advance past the job of messenger boy, but Lucia is a strong candidate to join the gods, if she would be willing to give up what she values most.

–RECOMMENDED

“Affirmative Auction” by James Morrow

The Pangalactic Virtue Patrol conducts an ethical intervention but makes a category mistake. Heavy-handed irony and silliness combined. Particularly ridiculous is the notion that the galaxy’s ethical precepts are all derived from revelations given to human beings, although none of the patrol are of this species.

“After the Funeral” by Daniel Marcus

Future academia. Robert was a scholarly star, important, pretentious. Alice had spent her life being his wife before he died. Now she is trying to adjust to being alone when an unwelcome visitor arrives, a colleague of Robert’s, an accelerated Canid who resents his mentor and tries to hit on Alice.

A plus ça change story. Some things don’t change, even if it’s now a tenured dog. A rather odd, uncomfortable story, with a rotting scent of bigotry and exploitation.

“The Game Room” by K J Kabza

House always had sort of a mind of its own, but when Levi’s parents died and he and his sibs vow to remain together in House, things get downright scary.

It was just the two of us now. So few people for such a big house. Forget two kitchens and one innocent pair of toilets — we had multiple dens, libraries, offices, drawing rooms, pantries, receiving rooms, alcoves, nooks, crannies, and chinks. We had three or six or five floors. We had multiple attics. We had basements and sub-basements that spiraled down, way down into the moldering earth, whole catacombs of spider skeletons and terrible secrets.

A lesson story. House is trying to tell them something. Like, grow up. It takes a lot of telling.

“Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman

Ryman takes a fanciful look at history, tracing the degrees of separation in the Elizabethan scientific community. An illustrious company meets at the house of astronomer Thomas Digges, the nephews of the notable Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Frederik Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne, accompanied by a pseudonymous and contemptuous Papal spy. To meet them are Digges’ mentor John Dee, and a sort of household hanger-on named Guillermus Shakespere, called Guy, a poet and thus the odd man out in this mathematically-inclined gathering. There is also Digges’ servant Bessie, a simple yet poetic soul, albeit a bad cook. Much of the dialogue involves mutual incomprehension, as only Dee speaks both English and Danish, a fact he keeps secret. Yet the subject of their discussions is most serious, as these are the times when the heliocentric model of the solar system was taking shape, a matter perilous to human lives and souls.

Guy nodded slightly to himself. “And you good men believe that the Earth goes around the sun.” His smile was a grimace of incredulity and embarrassment.

Dr. Dee tapped the table. “No. Your friend Squire Digges believes the Earth goes around the sun. Our guests believe that the sun goes around the Earth, but that all the other planets revolve around those two central objects. They believe this on the evidence of measurements and numbers. This evening is a conference on numbers and their application to the ancient study of stars. Astronomy. But the term is muddled.”

A whole lot goes on in this piece, but at its heart is the dissonance between the empirical/mathematical understanding of the stars and the viewpoint of a poet. Guy Shakespere, looking through Digges’ telescope, discovers that the moon is a globe of dead rock, “no angels, nymphs, orisons, bowers, streams, butterflies, lutes.” Shakespere decides in the end that he has more in common with simple Bessie than either group of scientists. The conclusion will amuse SF readers by its suggestion of a novel path to reconcile this contradiction. The linguistic dissonance, however, seems overdone, as both Danes and English savants would have had Latin as their common tongue, the language in which they all wrote.

“Half as Old as Time” by Rob Chilson

Part of the author’s “Prime Mondeign” series, set in a far future. Wrann, a primitive human living at about an 18th century level, undertakes a journey of repentance to see Crecelius, the Last Man, in the Last City, Babdalorn. The city is entirely the product of Crecelius’s mind, rising in its towers from an empty moor.

He kicked a pale kerb; but what seemed solid to the eye might seem solid to the foot. Surely this was illusion, surely he stumbled blind across Urish Moor. But no, the emptiness of the moor might have been the illusion, this the reality. Or by some mighty working, reality itself might have changed.

Crecelius is so old that he has forgotten his original personal name, yet he lives in fear of the enemy who will eventually track him there. In this, he is like Wrann, who is followed by his own ghostly guilt.

The author says this one was inspired by Vance, his vision of remote futures, although I find less of the exotic atmosphere I usually associate with the master, only an eccentric habit of speech. The setting is well-served by the author’s prose. The question the story raises for me is why Crecelius is called the Last Man, when he seems to be a post-man, advanced beyond the basic condition that Wrann and his people inhabit. Rather than a being apart, it seems that they have more in common than their differences.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #127,128, August 2013

Issue #127 presents close encounters with evil. #128 involves adepts in fantastic crafts.

#127

“The Study of Monstrosities” by Greg Kurzawa

Ethan Grimur, professor of mythology, is determined to prove the existence of a mythical people of nightmare, known as the Raah, part of the mythos of multiple cultures throughout recorded human history. To this end, he confronts the elderly Dr Alabaster on the subject of a failed, fatal experiment undertaken by him many years before. The results were suppressed at the time, but Ethan has uncovered forgotten evidence.

“Your subject was Raah,” Ethan declared. “You would not have known him to be one before you brought him to your laboratory. He might not have known himself. But the evidence speaks clearly—” he pointed at the photographs between them. “Whatever your intent, you stripped it of its mask. You laid it bare.”

Dark dark fantasy in a tone of a previous century, like Ethan’s bowler hat. The question is the origin of evil, the evil in humanity. Whether it is inherent in us, as Alabaster argues, or the product of a separate and alien race parasitizing the human. The answer proves to be one of those revelations of which we would be better off ignorant. It’s interesting that Ethan himself seems to exist without many of the normal traits of humanity, raising the question, who are they? How could we know them?

“The Crooked Mile” by Dan Rabarts

Western horror. The Crooked Mile is a haunted canyon; Rosco’s Pappy once rode in there with Sheriff Dylan and a posse, but only bits of him ever came out. Rosco’s qualifications as a deputy sheriff don’t lie in his intellect, but he at least knows the laws and the rules and the sheriff’s orders. And he has Pappy’s gun. When a bounty hunter rides into Gutshank with the bodies of two wizards, Rosco knows he’s out of his depth and sends the stranger off to the Mile to find Sheriff Dylan. But when the sheriff’s horse comes back without him and covered in blood, Rosco figures he has no other choice.

Gutshank seemed to fade from around him as he realized what he was doing. He was leaving his post. He was disobeying the sheriff. He was riding into the Crooked Mile, where dead wizards would be the least of a man’s troubles. He was going to find the sheriff, because the sheriff might be shot up, or cut up, or worse, and Rosco was the only one who knew. He was heading into the Crooked Mile, where Pappy’s ghost was waiting for him.

Good old-fashioned dark fantasy setting in the Mile, where a lot of the evil is human, but not all of it. As for the character, though a simple fellow, Rosco makes some pretty wise judgments in a tough situation.

“Ill-met at Midnight” by David Tallerman

Otranto is a freelance assassin whose current assignment, although lucrative, didn’t seem quite right from the beginning. He suspects shady dealing.

Go to the fountain at the center of the pleasure gardens, and slay the one you find there at precisely the hour of midnight. Beware of any who cross your path, and take care to defend yourself.

So it proves.

A surprisingly interesting look at the workings of assassins’ guilds and their masters.

“The Clay Farima” by Henry Szabranski

A world in which an artifact called the Source [which is alleged to have fallen from the skies, appears to emit Cherenkov radiation and works kind of like a black hole] powers all the magic. The Royal Wizard and his witchy wife are at odds over the ideology of magic, and she has an obsessive attraction to the Source, so one day she takes their daughter Farima and crosses the protective wall separating it from humanity. First, though, she makes a sort of golem in the form of Farima, bespelling it to protect the real Farima and obey Father. But clay Farima has a mind of her own and a compulsion of her own, to find the people she considers her mother and sister. When Father discovers a spell that nullifies the effects of the Source, she finally takes her chance.

Surprisingly, this ends up being a story of love. Farima as a narrator is too overwrought particularly in the beginning, ["My brain is a sandstone rock, my heart a cold quartz stone. I am made of my dead mother’s love, I am made of my dead mother’s hate—all mixed up with blood and magic, dirt and clay."] and her many references to Angry Father make it appear that this will be a story of abuse, a wife fleeing a tyrannical husband and saving her real child. These appearances prove deceiving. As the author is a theoretical physicist , the Source seems to be casting the working of magic in those terms, which more SFnally oriented readers may appreciate.



Strange Horizons, August 2013

A couple of stories here that are nominally science fiction but rest on the classic tropes of fairytales.

“Complicated and Stupid” by Charlie Jane Anders

A researcher accidentally develops a pill that will make subjects fall obsessively in love with the object they are regarding at the moment, in the manner of fairytales. A porn star falls in love with a gerbil. A doctor loves the porn star and wishes they could take the pill together, but the gerbil takes precedence. The doctor prescribes the pill for a man who wants to fall in love again with his wife, whom he still loves in a manner less passionate.

A slipstreamish, pomo sort of tale about love and personal fulfillment and facile shortcuts. The scenario and narrative are too absurd to take seriously on the literal level, but readers should grasp that there’s something here to take a bit seriously, regardless.

“Din Ba Din” by Kate MacLeod

The title, I believe, means something like “day by day” and refers to a computer-generated electronic book that lays out the days of an individual’s life. The narrator, as a young woman, found herself one bad day with four sick babies, two sets of twins, a husband mostly away from home on his job in space, and an unsympathetic mother-in-law. She wishes for change, and she gets it; from then on, she lives all her days out of order, the good and the bad, and her life becomes haunted by the foreknowledge of one great tragedy to come. She begins to burn the book every morning instead of reading it, hoping that this will break the curse.

This is a story of family and its ties, and of the days that make up a life. The narrator says, “Life is a collection of days greater than the sum of its parts”. Each day, taken by itself, is leached of its meaning. In large part, this is a “be careful what you wish for” story, but it rises above that simplified lesson. The issue is free will versus predestination; the curse of her wish lies in losing her ability to choose what her life will be, and this is the freedom she wants to regain. When we finally do see her make a conscious choice, she does so while remembering that worst day on which she made the wish, and it leads to salvaging happiness out of grief.

–RECOMMENDED

“A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)” by Seth Dickinson

Naveen discovers that his boyfriend Haydon is a god. This alters their relationship. Naveen conducts experiments and takes notes and overthinks the whole thing, tangled up in cause and effect, freewill and predeterminism.

One of those stories told in brief, numbered sections, a commonly-used template in SH, as are stories about relationships. Another reader mentioned to me recently that these things always contain a list: here there are two, sections 9 and 12.

In section 7, Haydon reveals that he was originally Enshagag, a grandson of the Sumerian god Enki via incest with his own [grand]daughter. This is actually quite interesting, to me if not to Naveen, and explains the story’s title. Enki is one of the oldest gods we know. According to some versions of the myth, a plant[s] grew from Enki’s seed and he consumed it, whereby the seeds sprouted like tumors inside his body and caused him pain until his daughter took up the seeds and gave birth to them. Is this somehow the author’s way of saying that the relationship between Haydon and Naveen will never be fruitful? Out of all the minor and insignificant godlings in all mythology, why pick Enshagag? I kind of wish the author had spent more time with such issues.



We See a Different Frontier, edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

Subtitled: A Post-Colonial Speculative Fiction Anthology. This is an overtly political work. From the publisher’s website:

Sixteen authors share their experiences of being the silent voices in history and on the wrong side of the final frontier; their fantasies of a reality in which straight, cis, able-bodied, rich, anglophone, white males don’t get to tell us how they won every war; their revenge against the alien oppressor settling their “new world”.

Despite this theme, the anthology does not simply present a series of dreary, bitter polemics. There’s variety here, and quite a few of the stories are entertaining, a lot of fun – particularly for readers who enjoy revenge tales. There is also anger and tragedy, and looks back into history that may open the eyes of some Western readers. In genre terms, the authors have cast their stories in a variety of modes. I found less straight historical fiction than alternates, as well as science fiction and fantasy and a few pieces that don’t slot so easily.

Quite a few stories feature a reversal of roles, often in futures where the formerly colonized peoples are now in the ascendant over the former colonizers, fallen into decay. In the majority of the pieces, the colonizing power is Anglophone, either British or US, as witness to these nations’ imperial activities in the last few centuries. There is a sad irony in the fact that these stories have been written in English, arguably the most dominant imperialist tongue since Latin, which still exercises its influence from the grave of history.

“The Arrangement of their Parts” by Shweta Narayan

An alternate, steampunked 17th century India. Devi is an Artificer who has traced her abducted and murdered fellows to the Englishman’s workshop where they have undergone dismemberment.

Dead husks shaped the shadows: a soldier’s head pried open; pieces of a half-golden mongoose; the ungeared skeleton of a large cat, frozen before it could pounce.

She makes an offer to the Englishman – the return of the parts in exchange for a fable of India, from which he might learn something. Of course, being an Englishman, he doesn’t.

A short, neatly done tale of revenge. The Englishman, typical [stereotypical?] of his kind, is supercilious and sneering to the native, refusing foolishly to take her seriously as a threat and discarding the message of the fable.

“Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus” by Ernest Hogan

More AH. Pancho Villa deploys Tesla’s death ray, but that’s only the springboard into an ahistorically fantastic adventure. Our narrator, Alejandro Sahagún, after a mutually fatal dispute between Villa and Tesla, commandeers Villa’s airship and invades Hollywood to take back his girlfriend Xiomara, seduced thence by the spell of motion pictures. Or perhaps it was Xiomara who seduced Hollywood.

A wild and crazy scenario, as Hollywood prepares to conquer the world and Xiomara, turning the tables, conquers Hollywood. Fun stuff, but beneath it all the reminder of the conquering force of cultural imperialism that Hollywood has been.

“Them Ships” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The aliens have conquered Earth, or at least Mexico City, but the narrator figures she has it better under them than she did before, picking garbage. She’s all about survival. Leonardo, former scion of privilege, is all for uprising and rebellion, calls her a Malinche. The narrator says, “Fuck you.”

How does he get off on saying that? And how does he know what it was like for La Malinche? They sold her off to the Spaniards and she worked for them. What was she supposed to do? Spit in their face? You get into a crappy situation and you cope. So she coped. I don’t see why we’ve got to be all insulted when a woman tries to survive.

A bit predictable and didactic.

“Old Domes” by J Y Yang

In a future Singapore, Jing-Li is a cullmaster of buildings, specifically the buildings of the colonial past.

Once it lorded over cricket players and rickshaw-pulling men with its massive dome and Ionian columns. It witnessed the Japanese troops marching in, and posed a dramatic backdrop to the first National Day Parade after Singapore’s Independence. These days it sits empty, dwarfed by the skyline fleshed by glass and with bones of steel.

But what Jing-Li does isn’t demolition, it’s eviction, displacing the buildings’ guardian spirits; the guardian of the Supreme Court building, however, doesn’t plan to go quietly. Or at all.

Things here aren’t at all what they seem, or what we are told. Jing-Li may nominally be a cullmaster, but in fact she’s a novice on her first assignment, woefully ignorant despite her studies. She thinks of herself, at least at first, as an executioner, and her first subject obligingly bleeds, red as human blood. But it’s only illusion. In fact, the spirits of former times linger, immortal but fallible; they forget what they were, they forget the history of those who made them.

There’s a strong sense of place here, and of history. Jing-li first sees her guardians dressed in the Victorian garb of their builders: Hair combed back, starched pressed shirt, glasses precisely set. That’s a neat touch. But this is a setting where bitterness and resentment of the colonial past is replaced by a hopeful spirit of renewal. Singapore, the story tells us, is a transient place. Peoples and their monuments constantly come and stay; a global melting pot. What Jing-Li’s employers are building now will soon pass away, as well, by the hands of the city’s future.

–RECOMMENDED

“How to Make a Time Machine Do Things That Are Not in the Manual; or, the Gambiarra Method” by Fabio Fernandes

Economies rise and economies fall, but not like elevators; fallen empires don’t just turn around and rise up again. So Patel leaves fallen England and goes to work in rising Ghana, where he accidentally discovers time travel happening in the elevator system he’s designing. He doesn’t know how or why but is planning to find out for himself until bureaucracy happens, sending in the guy from Brazil to take charge. The guy from Brazil rubs Patel the wrong way with his attitude of superiority. Nonetheless, they form a team, along with young Jonathan from [it seems] Ghana, and start to conduct experiments to narrow down the possibilities.

Whole lot of infodump here. Raitek, the supercilious guy from Brazil, is a kind of intuitive information-processing specialist whose mind is good at making connections. The Gambiarra thing isn’t made clear at all here, but it seems to be a vague Brazilian reference to making do with whatever junk you have at hand – although as far as I can see, their experiments would probably have discovered the same results sooner or later. Infodump aside, what the story is about is people from different places and cultures and mindsets learning to get along with each other and work towards a common goal. It’s a global story, and the post-colonial aspect lies in our noticing that the protagonists are all from previously colonized peoples, now risen while the colonizers have fallen. There’s also a libertarian strain to the conclusion, suggesting that innovative work can best be accomplished in a free-enterprise environment, such as exists at that time in Brazil, an economy risen to the top. Nonetheless, I agree with Patel that Raitek is a real pain.

“A Bridge of Words” by Dinesh Rao

We seem to have a world colonized by India, where the island ThuLadvipa was conquered by another nation, Krashigar, but has now regained independence. A Spaceship has now materialized, looking for the descendants of certain original ThuLa settlers of the Vaarta sect, and this event has excited much interest everywhere. Riya is descended from the Vaarta, but she has grown up in Krashigar, where her mother works. Now she is on ThuLadvipa for the first time, taking part in an anthropology research study; it disturbs her that everyone seems to recognize her foreignness.

A story of discovering one’s own roots. It seems that under Krashigari domination, some of the repressed ThuLa sects hid their secret language in a system of coded tattoos, of which they no longer remember the exact significance. Priya’s self-discovery relies unfortunately on a whole lot of coincidence and contrivance.

“Droplet” by Rahul Kanakia

His parents have brought Subhir against his will from thriving Bangalore to the “rotting heart of California” to study at Stanford, but their actual plan is to reclaim the land lost by their family decades ago during a wave of xenophobia, or so they have told him. What they haven’t counted on is the hostility felt by the families who remained to face the discrimination. In California, Subhir learns the other side of the story, that doesn’t paint his parents in a favorable light at all.

At first, we seem to be seeing a repeat of the dispossession of the Japanese during WWII, but gradually we find ourselves in the midst of dueling narratives. What’s clear is that we’re seeing a US in decline, lashing out in xenophobia from which some expatriates and immigrants become victims and others take advantage of the rising wealth of nations like India. The dual viewpoints within Subhir’s family keep this from being a simplistic reversal of fortunes tale.

“Lotus” by Joyce Chng

Global warming has left much of the Earth’s population plying the oceanic Waterways on makeshift boats, where they avoid contact with the more vicious and territorial of the landers and trade with the others. Cecily, once of Singapore, is of the boat Flotsam, and her companion Si is from drowned New York. Supplies of food and potable water are short, but they get by. On one trading trip to New York Cecily decides to explore an untenanted hotel and discovers wealth: a pool of sweet fresh water full of lotus plants and koi.

She started to nurse thoughts of remaining in the old city, right beside her hotel and its wealth. Not as a tenant per se, but living in their boat and using the wealth. Protecting it from harm’s way. She started having fantasies of having children and having them grow up with the lotuses and fish.

But possessiveness grows in them, particularly in Si. They are becoming territorial, like landers.

The paradisical pool is a nice symbol of all the unspoiled lands that human colonists, throughout our history, have seized as their own, resources that exist freely, that they have never built or cultivated, from which they have dispossessed and excluded all others by force. American male Si is the more possessive of the two characters here, while Cecily, with dream connections to her female ancestors, cherishes the communal ways of the boaters. But this society is unrealistically idyllic; history doesn’t suggest that sudden scarcity tends to encourage benevolence in humanity, no more than unearned abundance. I’m also skeptical that in a world where habitable land is so scarce, the hotel would have remained empty and unexplored all this time, and that the Flotsam moored alongside it would not have acquired much unwelcome attention.

“Dark Continents” by Lavie Tidhar

Editing the history of the European invasions of Africa. The editors are clumsy at first, but they get better through practice, shifting from giant bugs that invade London to a different Tel Aviv on Lake Victoria, where

couples stroll arm in arm on the beach, boys play beach ping pong, girls lie in the sun or sip cool drinks at the waterside bars. Kwasa-kwasa music from the Congo mixes with South African reggae and Malawian pop. Children the colour of olives run and laugh in the surf. Our people have come here unwillingly, persuaded by the Zionist Congress and Herzl’s mad dream of a homeland, of statehood. A backwater British colony, it were but us and the local tribes.

Entertaining series of speculations. The author cleverly explains the existence of Fortean objects as accidentally-overlooked artifacts of previous editorial activity. This would be another improbably idyllic outcome, were it not the product of meticulous tampering. Which is undoubtedly what it would take for such peace and harmony to exist among the human species. Seems to me, though, that this one violates the anthology’s premise that the narratives will be from the colonized people’s point of view.

“A Heap of Broken Images” by Sunny Moraine

By opening with a reference to the Rwandan genocide, the author makes it clear that idyllic scenes aren’t on the agenda here. Shairoven is a tour guide on a world once colonized by humans, who takes visiting humans to view the scenes of a massacre where they slaughtered many of her people. She doesn’t understand them. She seethes with questions that her culture’s politeness won’t allow her to ask.

Why did you kill us? Why do you come here now? Why did you build the monument, why are you writing about it, why are you sitting here and smiling at me like that when my body-sire has lost her arm and my life is all of the ghosts I will never welcome, and instead I welcome you?

Powerful stuff here, an atrocity that scars both peoples, neither of whom understand it, although the humans obsess over it and Shairoven is expected to behave as if it never happened, though she lives constantly among the consequences, the scars of her parent. Most of the stories in this collection are set on Earth and deal with the relationships among different the races and nations of humans who have invaded, conquered, dominated each other. They deal with history, and sometimes alternate versions of it. Here, we have instead science fiction and perhaps its single most powerful trope, from which the book has taken its title: Space, the final frontier. The romance of setting new worlds. The arrogant assumption that other worlds, other lands are there for our taking and indigenous species had better get out of our way. Perhaps this will give SF fans some second thoughts about their favorite dream.

–RECOMMENDED

“Fleet” by Sandra McDonald

On a post-apocalypse island I believe to be Guam, nine-year-old Magahet Joseph Howard USN was examined by the governors and found suitable to become a Bridge and, as she desired, a girl named Isa. Knowledge of the past and the outside world was literally burned into her head, and she returned to her village to lead a near-normal life of subsistence, supplemented by mining the landfill. One of the many traditions of the villages is that the Fleet will one day return to the island bearing food, electronics and other exotic wonders of lost civilization. Only as a Bridge, Isa knows the Fleet to be a myth of the past.

Take a hump of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Build a fort on it. Build another. Keep building, decade after decade, ports and airfields and depots of concrete and steel. Swap ownership during wartime. Swap it back. Add secret research labs dedicated to memory research. The future looks unlimited. But then civilization collapses, all of it, swallowed up by solar megaflares, and that hump of land has to fend for itself.

This setting is not an idyll. People die there of untreated disease and injury, in childbirth. They have good reason to dream of a Fleet. And the governors have had to make hard choices to protect their island from the harsh realities of the post-apocalypse world outside their barrier reef.

“Remembering Turinam” by N A Ratnayake

The Rytari empire has conquered and colonized Turinam, and now it is forbidden for the young to know the Turian language. But Salai, a student of language and memory, does. He has now come to visit his dying grandfather, one of the generation who remembers Turinam as it was. He wants to hear that history in his own language, before it disappears.

“It is hard,” Grandfather finally said slowly. “I have not talked or thought about that day in decades, except in my nightmares. And I am ashamed to say that after all these years of being denied my own language, even in my own home, I find it easier to think in Rytari. Huh! Here is a dying man, Salai, who cannot think in his own native tongue.”

A story of the power of language and ideas. An illustration that oppression can often be in the smaller things, like a people who have to grow tea for export to their conquerors but are unable to drink it themselves. I find it interesting that some of the stories here dealing most directly with an ongoing colonization take place on an imaginary world.

“I Stole the D C’s Eyeglass” by Sofia Samatar

Pai-te was emulating her people’s folk hero Ture, who stole a thunderbolt.

It was lying on the table in his bedroom, a flat disc like a stone from the river. He’d forgotten to take it with him to the Site. I squinted through it, then dropped it into the pocket of my dress, chain and all. Afterwards, I told the head cook I’d broken it.

Her sister Minisare uses the eyeglass to start fire, which is much the same thing as Ture did. Minisare is a witch and a smith, which is forbidden, but she is obsessed by the need for resistance. Until the people see the thing that she has made, that defies the soldiers’ guns when they come for her, and now they tell stories of Minisare alongside those of Ture, and Pai-te is learning witchcraft in her turn.

A story of the spirit of rebellion. I’m not clear on the setting here, though it seems to be colonized Africa over a century ago, or a place much like it, where the indigenous people, effectively slaves, labor in the mines and oilfields under the guns of European soldiers. A trickster figure, so common in many cultural traditions, makes an effective symbol of Pai-te’s covert defiance, perhaps even more than Minisare’s overt rebellion.

“Vector” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A future recolonized Thailand, following a war between China and America that left wasteland in its wake. America seems to be the power here now, but it’s a strange America where everyone is blond and blue-eyed, and an ascendant Christianity attempts to press itself onto Thailand in the place of its own gods.

A cross is just two lines of unequal lengths intersecting: what is that next to Phra Puttachao, who has a human face, perpetually at peace? You touch your own neck and find there is a cross there too, where the loinclothed god-son-prophet bows his suffering head. Under your finger it seems to turn fleshy and your nail comes away tipped crimson.

These images are dreams, battles in a cyberwar in which the narrator is a weapon, her mind chipped and infected with a virus meant to eradicate the images of her own culture and replace it with the foreign ones. But viruses, like spies, can work in two directions.

This is a fantasy conflict, not a future to take literally as science fiction. It’s a war of cultural icons, a metaphor for the kind of cultural imperialism we can see everywhere in the world today, where the images of what is beautiful and good have been replaced by alien standards. But the Christianity, the ubiquitous crosses, seems just as alien, an icon of some other America than the one we can see today. Apparently in this future, America has been colonized by its own viruses.

“Forests of the Night” by Gabriel Murray

A century or so ago, Jack is the half-breed Malay son of Captain Lyons, an English natural aristocrat who takes him home without, of course, acknowledging the relationship.

I was sort of angry later, once I thought about it. It didn’t matter. I was too taken with him and his bearing, the way he spoke and the copper in his hair. He was so poised, so indifferent, that little glimpses of his approval were like flashes of gold. Already I wanted him to like me.

Jack acclimatizes well to England, outwardly at least, but things change when what seems to be a tiger begins to slaughter animals in the neighborhood. The Captain, a rational man, at first refuses to credit the stories, but after his own dogs are attacked in their kennel, there can be no doubt. On the other hand, a tiger is sport.

The twist here works well, exposing colonial attitudes of superiority in an unexpected way.

“What Really Happened in Ficandula” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

The author disguises the setting a bit, but in an afterward tells us the story was inspired by an atrocity that took place during the American occupation of the Philippines, events that rarely make it into US history books. It’s a strangely fantastic piece, in which the gods of the women of Ficandula have sent a spaceship to transport them to a new world where they can follow their own ways, free from interference from the colonial power. The very old remain behind, but Gemma’s grandmother has given Gemma her personal account of the massacre, in which US troops killed all the males in the village, even the babies. The women have been left to survive on their own, to grow strong, and to remember.

Even though we pleaded with them, they never brought back our boys. Perhaps they thought the absence of men would mean the death of all Ficandula. They forget the gods who love us, for how else do you think you and your sisters and your younger cousins came to be?

The most vengeful story in the book, which is suitable, because what are gods but the vehicles for the fulfillment of people’s wishes, including the wish for vengeance. I find it telling that the name of the new world is New Cordillera, a name taken from the previous nation of colonizers in that land, not the native language of the people.



The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013

One of the occasional SF pieces published in this mainstream publication.

“Meet the President” by Zadie Smith

In a near future when the wealth/power gap has grown more wide and deep, a teenage boy has accompanied his father on an inspection tour of the corporate drone operators stationed in degraded England.

Bill Peek raised his eyes to the encampment on the hill, pretending to follow with great interest those dozen circling, diving craft, as if he, uniquely, as the child of personnel, had nothing to fear from them.

The boy had gone to the shore to be alone to try out his new VR equipment, but an annoying pair of locals, an old woman and her granddaughter, refuse to leave him alone or shut up, yammering about the funeral they are going to attend. Because he possesses a core of decency despite his upbringing, he accepts the responsibility for the young girl when left alone with her, and takes her to the funeral, where he finds himself among the targets instead of the shooters.

Although genre fiction in this venue often has a literary or slipstream sensibility, this is straight SF, in the mode of If This Goes On. The VR setup holds no novelty, and the corporatized military is all too familiar today, as is the notion of killing-by-game. But the story delivers some jolts, by establishing the English [the only people left were the ones who couldn't leave] as a dehumanized target population, not third-world/Muslim/otherwise Others that currently occupy the targeting screens of the drones. And by identifying the subject of the funeral and the non-crime for which she was struck dead from above. The story ends on a nice note of ambiguity. We suspect that the grandmother has deliberately handed Bill custody of the child, who has mentioned that she is sure the drones are following her. Does she know what is about to happen next?

–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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