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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November


Featuring an entertaining anthology in addition to the usual ezines.

Publications Reviewed



Old Mars, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

Old Mars, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

An anthology harking back to the Mars of skiffy yore – the one with the canals. Here are fifteen original stories, most of a good substantial length, largely featuring entertaining action/adventure. Overall, I call it a fun read.

The specifications of the anthology premise seem to be simple: the presence of native Martian life and, perhaps, canals. This allows for a wide range in the stories, and mostly we see it here, from realistic science fiction to wild pulpish adventure fantasy. But the story selection has one problem that’s editorial in nature; several of the pieces follow a too-similar pattern: human settlers bulldozing Martian ruins only to uncover psychic artifacts. The repetition diminishes reader enjoyment. Surely the editors could have assembled a selection with greater variety.

“Martian Blood” by Allen M Steele

Jim Ramsey has been hired as guide for Dr Omar al-Baz, who has come to Mars to study the aborigines in hopes of proving a genetic link between them and humanity, for which purpose he wants to obtain a blood sample. Ramsey knows that this will be difficult, as the shatan avoid any contact with human colonists, for which he doesn’t blame them. Worse, he fears the consequences if al-Baz should turn out to be right.

First would come more biologists like Dr. al-Baz, more anthropologists like Dr. Horner. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad … but right behind them would be everyone else. Historians and journalists, tour buses and camera safaris, entrepreneurs looking to make a buck, missionaries determined to convert godless souls, real estate tycoons seeking prime land on which to build condos with a nice view of those quaint aborigine villages…

In terms of the general social and technological level, this one is contemporary, only with indigenous Martians and their canals; an alternate history. The ethos is likewise contemporary, deploring the effects of human colonization on the native species. What I find odd is the notion that humans would colonize another planet primarily for the purpose of establishing casinos – which are quite the same inside wherever their location. And it seems that all the things Ramsey fears – the tour buses and missionaries – would be just as likely to descend on the aboriginals whether they are related to humanity or not.

“The Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes

The surviving native Martians have succumbed to Earthly diseases, leaving only ruins to be mined by human settlers. Concealing his identity as an archaeologist, Mather has taken a survey job for the mining corporation as his only way to access the doomed cities. But when he reaches the site, he finds it literally exerting a pull on him.

Some of the lines were curved, some straight. They met at odd angles and somehow contrived to draw Mather’s gaze into what seemed to be three-dimensional shapes. It seemed to him that the silence in the dead town had somehow managed to deepen. Then, as he continued to stare, trying to make sense of the forms emerging from the matrix, the lines moved of their own accord. He experienced a growing vertigo. One moment, he was looking into an infinite distance; the next, he was about to fall into it.

The descriptions of the Martian ruins and the recordings of Martian life they hold are truly wondrous neat. I think readers will wonder how any corporation could think of getting away with the wholesale destruction of an extinct culture. The author provides the answer without overexplanation – an epidemic of religious fanaticism; the Martians are widely suspected of being devils. But the mining foreman, determined to earn his bonus, is not a stereotypical villain without moral considerations; the author is more subtle than that.

“The Wreck of the Mars Adventure” by David D Levine

Captain Kidd is about to be hanged when he receives a highly unexpected offer that he can’t refuse.

He paused and gave due consideration to the words of a king, a king not known for levity or insanity. This was a new century, a time of exploration and discovery and wonders. With the New World now nearly as well mapped as the Old, men were setting out in search of even newer worlds. Balloons were rising from all the capitals of Europe, and after Dampier’s successful circumnavigation of the Moon, a journey to Mars, though outlandish, was not entirely inconceivable.

The key to this voyage is the interplanetary atmosphere through which Kidd’s ship sails, although a number of ad hoc alterations in the rigging are necessary in order to adapt the craft to interplanetary conditions, which include violent gales as the terrestrial and solar atmospheres clash. This is indeed high adventure, a cracking good sailing yarn with skiffy values. I love the imaginative audacity of the premise. The author’s version of Mars is also remarkable. Highly entertaining.

–RECOMMENDED

“Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan” by S M Stirling

Humans have established a diplomatic outpost on Mars in an ancient city full of alien marvels, where people carry swords and expect to use them. Sally Yamashita has just introduced a recent arrival to her residence when hired assassins strike, abducting him. Sally is pissed off and determined to retrieve her guest, so hires a warrior acquaintance of her own. On Mars, just about everything is for sale, so she buys the name of the assassins’ employer for an immodest sum. Derring-do and mayhem ensue.

Sally checked her equipment; her sword was across her back, in that cool-looking position that meant you had to be careful to not slice off your ear when you drew. She wore a native dart-pistol, after a bit of an argument from Teyud. Her own Colt had a much higher rate of fire – it didn’t depend on a chamber generating methane. On the other hand, shooting someone with a bullet didn’t drop them instantly, and it was much louder.

Fast paced action/adventure in an intriguingly alien, ancient culture gone quite a ways into decadence – or so it seems to a human perspective.

“Shoals” by Mary Rosenblum

Human settlers on Mars and miners again, blasting the deserted spires of their cities. When very young, Maartin was trapped in a landslide caused by miners blasting for “pearls” and everyone supposed he suffered brain damage. In fact, the pearls are repositories of Martian souls, who exist on another plane that Maartin can now discern while the rest of the humans only see occasional bothersome dust-devils.

Suddenly, the air was full of hissing as dust-devils circled, zig-zagged. The skinny man yelled as a rock bounced off his forehead and Maartin caught a glimpse of bright blood. The other man, Jorge, ducked as a rock screamed past his head. Maartin tore free and ran, pushing off the smooth floor of the canal, stretching out and really traveling now, the walls flashing past, the man, Ter’s, shout torn away by distance. The dust-devils danced around him, to the side, behind, so that he ran curtained by red dust, the canal an open path ahead.

This is very very much [too much, in fact] like the Hughes story above, but with a YA sensibility. Maartin is bullied by the other settlement kids for being a “retard” and misunderstood by his overprotective father. While the miners are more greedy than absolutely villainous – plundering the shoals of pearls is the only way they can earn their way home – the Martians are presented as entirely wise and good. Maartin the Martian is an unfortunate choice of name.

“In the Tombs of the Martian Kings” by Mike Resnick

A meeting in Razzo the Slug’s bar.

Right at the moment, Razzo’s was playing host to fifteen Martians, a dozen Venusians, a pair of miners from Titan, two more from Ganymede, and a scattering of Earthmen. The only one who drew any notice was the Scorpion, and that was mostly because of his companion.

Scorpio is a human mercenary, the Venusian companion is a telepathic sort of lion dog. A Martian approaches Scorpio with a proposition: he has discovered the eponymous tombs. Scorpio is skeptical. “On my world, it’s King Solomon’s Mines. On Venus, it’s the Temple of the Forgotten Angel. On Mercury, it’s the Darkside Palace. And on Mars, it’s the Tomb of the Martian Kings.” Sufficient money, however, proves persuasive, and he takes the job. Adventure and mayhem ensue.

This one comes closer to the pulp action fiction of the classic Mars era, although it’s closer to Star Wars crossed with Indiana Jones. Humor comes from the banter among the three principle characters, and the ending has mercenary fulfillment.

“Out of Scarlight” by Liz Williams

Zuneida Peace is an adventuress in disguise, heading alone into the Cold Desert in search of Hafyre, a dancer from the Tribes who may have been abducted by a sorcerer. Her Tribe wants her back and so allows Zuneida into their territory, which they would not if they knew her true intention of returning her to the city. Besides which, Zuneida is in love with the dancer.

The ceremony to which I had been invited was held up in the rocks, on a low plateau looking out across the darkening plain and the red sun falling. The air grew colder swiftly, and smelled of snow. Huge harps of sinew were threaded between tall poles, and, as the dusk breeze grew, they began to whine and sing. The priestess moved among them, whispering, in a dance that grew steadily wilder as the evening wore on.

Her path keeps crossing that of a bounty hunter named Nightwall Dair, on a similar though rival mission, and they throw in together.

Williams displays a fine mastery of adventure fiction here, a hard and unromantic narrative, despite her protagonist’s infatuation. The setting isn’t the familiar vision of Mars; in fact, it isn’t clear which characters are Martian and which, if any, are not. I doubt if readers will care. The story is too good for quibbling over such details.

“The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls (A Recreation of Oud’s Journey by Slimshang from Tharsis to Solis Lacus, by George Weeton, Fourth Mars Settlement Wave, 1981)” by Howard Waldrop

Historical reenactment of the famous journey in a not-really authentic replica vehicle.

One thing it’s missing is the series of gears, cogs, plates, and knobs with which a sort of music was made as it rolled. Martians spoke of “coming at full melody”—since the reproduction was mechanical, like a music box, the faster the slimshang went, the louder and more rackety the tune.

Weeton substitutes a tape deck. The account is in diary form, duplicating the original trek as closely as possible, with notations from the contemporary human point of view, awed by the vast distance of time as Oud’s observations reveal the alterations that were taking place on his world “that was losing its oxygen, its water, and its heat.”

So on went Oud on his winter journey, unconcerned by small things like the sky falling and mountains building on the horizon line. [the "new hill" that would end up as Olympia Mons]

As always, no one does it like Waldrop. It’s notable that we don’t know how Oud’s journal, much older than any surviving human document, was preserved or translated. What we have is a strong sense of connection across a gulf of time, between persons who can share a sense of wonder despite being of different species. Poignant and uplifting at once.

–RECOMMENDED

“A Man without Honor” by James S A Corey

Unlike most of the stories here, this one has a true pulp sensibility. It also involves, in a way, a Martian invasion of Earth. The narrative is in the form of a letter to the king from Captain Alexander Lawton, Scourge of the Caribbean Sea, is a man who continually laments the loss of his honor, by which he seems to mean his respectability as a gentleman in the eyes of the world, in consequences of the machinations of Governor Smith, “a sad, small-hearted pig of a man.” He happens upon a derelict vessel with a hold full of gold, guarded by a queenly woman from Mars. They become allies when her Martian enemies in the company of Governor Smith attack, and the battle continues in space and on Mars.

As I walked the iridescent halls of the Serkeriah, I felt the power of the great ship. With one such as her — only one, Majesty — I should have made myself the Emperor of all Europe. No navy could have stood against me. No army could bring me to earth. No city, however mighty, would not quail in my shadow. Imagine then the power of the enemy which had brought her makers low, and thank merciful God that Ikkean ambition has not yet extended to England.

It has to be considered, in a way, historical fantasy, so that I assume the king being addressed is George I and the governor Thomas Smith of South Carolina, who prosecuted several pirates. Lawton himself I can’t identify, but the story suggests a previous encounter between him and Smith, to which this might be a sequel. In keeping with the spirit of the pulp era, we have a noble humanoid race of Martians at war with a vile, crablike species that plans to invade Earth after completing its takeover of Mars. One of several stories that suggest Martians destroyed their planet through warfare. A lot of action and adventure.

“Written in Dust” by Melinda M Snodgrass

Again, we have human settlers bulldozing the remains of dead Martian cities, this time to silence the voices of what is called Mars Reverie Syndrome. The young new wife of the McKenzie patriarch has succumbed to the syndrome, removing her helmet inside the city and dying of asphyxiation. Stephen McKenzie has summoned his family from Earth in response, but “now the Martians were singing in Tilda’s head and she was walking in the head of a dead woman.” Her father Noel is also hearing the phantom Martian music; the tension in the household is threatening Noel’s marriage, and Tilda can’t wait to leave for college on Earth, which doesn’t conform to her grandfather’s plans.

The weakest of the stories using this scenario, with an unrealistically feelgood conclusion.

“The Lost Canal” by Michael Moorcock

Retro adventure scenario with futuristic weaponry. After treasure-hunting and enslavement, Mac Stone is on the run on his native Mars, with wombot drones on his trail, though he’s not exactly sure why. He has too many enemies. Just as the drone closes in, he’s captured by an unexpected one.

Below Mac, the ground powdered. The tentacle tugged harder and the area beneath him broke open, dragging him down a fissure, scraping every inch of his day suit. The suit’s circuits wouldn’t survive another attack. Suddenly, it was inky-dark. He heard the odd rattle and boom of the thing’s heart-lung. He forgot the native name someone had guessed at, but it was without doubt an ock-croc.

This is only the beginning of the wild adventures, featuring monsters, time travel, planet-busting bombs, treasure, and a femme fatale.

Imaginative layers are packed thickly into this plot, action from beginning to end. Credibility isn’t the point. There’s a strongly noir tone to the narrative, fitting the retro scenario. But there’s also flatness, as the author narrates Stone’s extensive backstory.

“The Sunstone” by Phyllis Eisenstein

A scenario where Martians and human settlers coexist. Dave Miller comes back from getting his archeology degree on Earth to discover that his father has gone missing on an expedition. His father’s Martian partner reveals that he died in the outback and gives him his father’s sunstone, worn by the head of a Martian family. He wants to go see his father’s grave, so he and Rekari set out on the canal and before long come upon the site where he had begun to uncover an ancient city. But it is not abandoned; there are caretakers present, and they demand the return of the sunstone.

Dave stared at the stones. There were so many of them. So very many families gone. He could almost feel them calling to him from the dust of ages, and without thinking, he eased past the caretaker and slid two steps into the gap. He reached out with both hands and spread his fingers, so much shorter than Martian fingers, across as many stones as he could.

After so many other stories using this trope, readers won’t be surprised when he finds that the stones hold the memories of the Martians who once wore them. The place turns out to be a test for Dave, and readers won’t be surprised at the outcome. It’s a positive, mostly hopeful story within believable parameters.

“King of the Cheap Romance” by Joe R Lansdale

Angela King had gone with her father to make a delivery of vaccine against Martian fever when their plane crashed and left them on the polar icecap, her father killed in the collision. Angela has been taught that Kings aren’t quitters, so she loads his body [against his instructions] and the medicine on a sled and heads off across the ice. Cold and distance aren’t her only problems. This version of Mars is full of monsters, like the giant bat that brought down the aircraft and the ice shark.

Big as killer whales on earth, but sleeker, with a black fin and tentacles that exploded from its head like confetti strands, but were considerably more dangerous. It could travel on the surface or underneath, and could even crawl on land for a long time. Its fin was harder than any known metal and could crack the ice without effort. The ice shark had a tremendous sense of smell, a bit of radar, not as highly developed as the bat, but effective enough. It could squeeze into tight places, like oatmeal sliding through a colander. It had most likely smelled my urine and had come for lunch.

Dad told Angela that her journey would be like an old-fashioned romance, but it turns out to be quite an adventure – not of the retro-pulp variety, but battle against overwhelming forces of nature. The details of Martian polar ecology include realistically formidable monsters and other creatures, and Angela makes a satisfactorily doughty heroine. Fine adventure.

“Mariner” by Chris Roberson

In this version, Jon was sailing his cutter in the Caribbean when he was sucked into a vortex and transported to Mars, where he eventually partnered with Martian Tyr on a pirate sandship. As outlaws in Freehaven, they are free from the various repressive Martian governments on whose shipping they prey. Complications arise when they capture a Vendish galleon carrying refugees, whom the pirates want to take as plunder. “Life on the red planet was hard, and had produced cultures that tended to make hard decisions. But life on the sand-seas was harder still.”

“We were a better people once,” Tyr said to Jason in a low voice, glancing sidelong at the disaffected crewmen. “A great people. But the drought which dried our world, I fear, dried out the wellsprings of compassion in too many of us.”

A lot of action, piratical and revolutionary. The pirate community of Freehaven seems to be patterned on the Caribbean. I like the sly allusion of the title, although “Mars” and “mariner” come from different Latin roots.

“The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald

Martians attacked Earth; now Earth has returned the favor. Insolvent and egotistic tenor Count Jack Fitzgerald, not greatly in demand either on Mars or Earth, has been reduced to doing a tour for the troops on the Martian front with Faisal, his minder, accompanist, and long-suffering dogsbody. But what they find at the front is the war, in all its deadly, blazing, concussive force.

“Did you see that?” Count Jack said to me. He gripped my shoulders. His face was pale with shock, but there was a mad strength in his fingers. “Did you? How horrible, how horrible horrible. And yet, how wonderful! Oh, the mystery, Faisal, the mystery!” Tears ran down his ash-smudged face.”

Essentially but not entirely, this is farce. Count Jack is a buffoon, a loser, a showman, yet in extremis glimpses of the true artist can briefly emerge. In war, there is more extremis than either of them had ever imagined. There are harrowing scenes, but in the end it is the buffoon we see. By this point, the scene is no longer quite humor but a sort of tragi-farce born of desperation. Readers may think of Pagliaccio, but Jack is always onstage; we don’t see this clown out of his costume.



Lightspeed, November 2013

The fantasy stories here this time have a science fictional tone.

“Death and the Hobbyist” by Sean Williams

The narrator’s mother refuses to accept the modern world of the future, including instantaneous transportation; in her mind, it’s robbing people of time.

In her heart, and now in her mind, too, she still occupied the world before the Water Wars, back when people still drove cars, sailed the oceans in vast liners, and bought tickets in planes that flew above the clouds. D-mat had rendered all that obsolete. Why take time getting somewhere when you could be there in a moment? There were no airlines anymore, no freeways. She was a crazy old woman who wouldn’t look in mirrors and didn’t recognise old friends.

The story is about accepting people along with their delusions, which are a part of them. But I have a hard time getting past Juliet’s condition, repeatedly described by the narrator as “crazy”. The automatic assumption in such cases is dementia, but this doesn’t seem to describe Juliet. She doesn’t seem to have lost memory or the capacity to reason and function in the world. The narrator insists that she has a disease, an illness, but there are no specifics of this illness, no name for it, and apparently no treatment in the story’s new world. Doesn’t seem like a lot of progress.

“The Turing Test” by Beth Revis

Elektra is participating in a test of artificial intelligence to see if she can determine which of two subjects is human. Readers will be pretty sure there’s a catch involved, even before she gives the game away by saying, “It makes me uncomfortable, as if I were the one being tested, not Red and Blue.”

It’s a pretty talky story, evading the obvious conclusion with a lot of philosophical stuff about souls, theory of knowledge, and the other-minds problem. I find subject Blue’s reaction to Elektra odd.

“Sleeper” by Matthew Hughes

A story in the author’s Archonate far-future universe. The liner Armitou pauses to pick up a sort of space hitchhiker in a suspended-animation capsule. Confidential operative Erm Kaslo, a bored passenger, takes an interest, which leads him to involvement in a complex plot using the hitchhiker.

Hughes’ eccentric universe is instantly recognizable, but it’s a setting of multiple layers that keep it from being too predictable. In this case, we’re at the point where the operating principle of the universe is about to flip over from the rational to the magical [on the order of the Earth's magnetic field flipping]. Erm Kaslo is an atypically competent character in this universe, one who has previously had encounters with individuals from the magical side of things, who are generally up to no good. He sees no reason to suppose matters are different now.

The op heard a false note in the explanation. He remembered that the client who had opened a portal to the sixth plane had rivals who were making similar experiments. Apparently they were part of a subculture that, like the criminal halfworld, considered themselves unbound by legal or moral stricture.

The combination of character, setting, narrative voice and twisty plot make for the sort of entertaining tale that readers familiar with the author will expect, although one on the short side.

“The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story” by Kelly Barnhill

The Insect, specifically a sentient giant stink bug of professorial rank, is suffering from existential angst.

[He] was one of only nine of his kind when he was born. Now, he is the only one. At one time the Pycanum bellus gigantis were numerous in this part of the world—and widely known for their devotion to the Arts and Sciences, as well as the noble pursuits of Athleticism, Skepticism, Gnosticism, and Algorithmic Recalculations. Not anymore. They are gone now. All, all gone. And he is alone.

He places his only hope in the Astronomer. The Astronomer, being not human nor insect nor alive, is held in suspicious by his neighbors. But when the Insect dreams of the Astronomer, it is reciprocal.

That same night, in a far-away country, the Astronomer dreams of the Insect. He wakes with a shiver and a cry, and, as usual, consults the stars. He does not breathe (he never does); he does not blink (how can he? He has no tears). The stars, as usual, are silent. The Astronomer watches without moving.

Why this is, why any of this is, does not become particularly clear. There is some charm in the narrative, studded as it is with Latin tags [in which I tend to find charm] and descriptions of the surreality. The narrator suggests it all turns out happily, and I suppose we have to take her word for it. At least the Insect didn’t end up impaled on a pin.



Strange Horizons, November 2013

A good issue, featuring stories of women bound by traditions, or otherwise bound.

“Yuca and Dominoes” by José Iriarte

Ana Teresa doesn’t plan to be stuck for the rest of her life in Casa Varadero, in Little Miami, despite the adage that “no one ever leaves.” As her grandfather tells her,

“When we pooled our money to buy Casa Varadero, we had that stone en el patio made using sand from the beach at Varadero. When we dedicated it, we prayed to la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre that she would keep our home connected to Cuba. We promised in exchange never to forget who we are, and never to let our children forget.”

To Ana Teresa, this is a curse, particularly painful because she was brought back to the place after her parents, who had escaped to Chicago, were killed in an auto accident.

Aside from this single ambiguous bit, there is nothing fantastic here, only a coming-of-age story told in a series of vignettes. I’m not so impressed by a young woman whose life happiness seems so entirely based on having the right guy.

“The Mythology of Salt” by O J Cade

One world where salt is plentiful, one world where it is rare and valuable; ships ply the space between them. On Edith’s world, in the desert, stands an ancient pillar of salt, long believed by the men of the tribe to be accursed. When a son is born to the tribe, he is touched with oil, but a daughter is given the bitterness of salt. Years ago, Edith’s then-young aunt Miriama fell in love with an offworld salt trader; her people immediately expelled her. The trader’s attachment didn’t last; he already had a wife on another world. There, his son inherited the ship and after him his widow Makareta, who keeps up the trade to support her orphaned daughters, even though this means leaving them behind when she is gone. In remembrance and penance, she undergoes the painful process of moko, the traditional incised tattoo of her ancestors. The first and most traditional method was the chisel: whalebone, the blade straight or serrated and malleted into the flesh to leave deep grooves for the dye.

A complex tale of mothers and daughters and the traditions that bind them. We see very little of men here, but it begins with the selfish action of one man that spawned two families, divided and connected by tradition and resentment on both sides. The narrative moves from one point of view to the next, each opening a new perspective on the relationship.

Her dreams were not of birth and recollection and duty, but of breaking and grinding to dust, of rolling in salt and sand until it was ground into her skin in silver lines, until she was tattooed with it and shining.

Well done look at the relationships of generations, with a strong suggestion of bonds formed in suffering, from mother to daughter – the symbolism most noteworthy in the story of Makareta.

“A Secret Map of Shanghai” by Victor Fernando R Ocampo

A symbolic history of the imperialist making of the city and its remaking as a dominant power. The god of Shanghai, having once been formed by his Western dominatrix goddess, is now in the ascendancy.

Although the text alludes to Western domination by several powers, the name Mrs Plimm strongly suggests the British, as do the references to Kipling. The piece is quite short, poetic in an erotic key; where it might have been conceived as a rape, it takes the form of a seduction, a love story.

“Shanghai is a woman, a beautiful Vitruvian woman,” GG whispered softly, as he traced the city’s contours on her smooth body. “Her head is at Qîngpu, pointing to Sûzhôu, the land of old dreams. Her left hand is at Baoshân Qû, holding the hand of Mâzu, the goddess of the sea. Her right hand is at Jînshân Qû, crushing mountains of gold. Then there is Pudông. Pudông starts where her jade wheel crushes dew and ends with her toes touching the endless, restless water.”

–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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