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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-January


If this year goes on as it has begun, my 2014 Year’s Best list is going to be awfully short. Fortunately, we have Interzone, with a good issue. Also a nice independent novella by Octavia Cade, from the Masque imprint.

Publications Reviewed


Interzone, Jan-Feb 2014

Seven stories in this issue, which means some are quite short. I particularly like the Kurzawa and Campbell pieces, but even the near-misses have a fresh edge to them, the fictional equivalent of a hit of oxygen.

“The Damaged” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Robin works in a factory making PlayMatez, cyborg companions almost indistinguishable from real humans [a term the company doesn’t like]. “Except for the damaged ones.”

They wear this far off expression whenever they’re addressed, as if they’re calculating the benefits of an answer. When the damaged speak, they speak in near riddles, to which I have always suspected there are no solutions.

Robin develops an obsession with the damaged, who often end up discarded in alleys and dark corners. She brings them home, gives them a bath and feeds them, then dissects them. What readers learn is that Robin is the damaged one, scarred from a failed love affair for which the damaged are a less-demanding substitute.

Depressing tale of damaged lives. The creation of the damaged PlayMatez fails to convince me – a product ostensibly so sophisticated [sticker priced accordingly] but so crudely sabotaged. Nor am I convinced that irate purchasers would not have already gotten to the bottom of what is clearly consumer fraud.

“Bad Times to Be in the Wrong Place” by David Tallerman

After a fight with his wife [?] the narrator walks down the road to the diner, where he has a strange encounter with people who claim that the world he lives in is just a backup copy, soon to be deleted and replaced with a newer version.

The worst part was, as soon as she said it I had this sense, like the things around me had grown suddenly thinner, like if I pushed too hard on the car door or the rusting phone booth or the sign by the slip road my fingers might just pass on through. Any other day I’d probably have just shrugged it off, but on this one, her words dug in like fishhooks.

The opening of this vignette really grabbed me, but it let go way too soon, leaving me disappointed, wanting more.

“The Labyrinth of Thorns” by C Allegra Hawksmoor

The 2nd-person protagonist is an undercover cop attempting to penetrate the Collective, whatever that is [it turns out not to matter]. To gain their confidence, “you” have allowed an implanted memory that generates hallucinatory images of a frozen forest, rendered in rather overworked prose:

The shadows lean away from the host-bodies of their trees like a ladder, and the world seems to tip at the thought of it – leaving you clinging to the edges of the dark.

“You” seem to be going round the bend, a common consequence of deteriorating implants, the cityscape becoming as hallucinatory as the forest dream-images. Now you are receiving a persistently repeated mental message, asking for access by a network, yet somehow you don’t realize that this may be the contact you have been sent by your superiors to make. Soon, you have forgotten them altogether.

The noir and edgy dystopian setting feels like the Interzone of old, but the overall tone of it is more fantastic than skiffy, and psychological more than either. The hallucinations might, in another story, be the consequence of drugs rather than virtual degeneration. As a practical matter for the character, there is little difference; his brain is toast; he is lost. For the reader, as well, since the hallucination is almost all there is here. The prose contributes to this effect, yet also suggests that the author is trying too hard for it, particularly in combination with the 2nd-person narrative.

“Beneath the Willow Branches, Beyond the Reach of Time” by Caroline M Yoachim

A love story. Takashi’s wife Laura is stuck in time, trapped in a loop created when she activated her invented cognitive time machine. Takashi is desperate to retrieve her, first operating on her brain to remove the memory unit connected in some unclear way to the malfunctioning time device. When this doesn’t work, he goes back in time himself to stop her from using the machine in the first place.

With the memory unit to guide him, Takeshi pulled his body out of the timeline. It was like sucking the consciousness out of his body with a straw, except that his consciousness stuck to his body, and his body stuck to the energy cells, and the energy cells stuck to the wires that connected them to the time machine.

As a love story, the tale effectively shows Takashi’s determination to save Laura, despite the risk of losing himself. There is a timeless quality to the story, created by the folk tale that anchors it. The sciencefictional aspect, however, is less than clear. Exactly what the time machine consists of is unclear. As always with inexplicable technology, an author has to resort to metaphor; here, the metaphors provide insufficient clues to the reader. In the end, at the story’s heart, we realize that the missing details really wouldn’t have mattered, so that I have to think there might better have been less than ineffective explanation.

“Predvestniki” by Greg Kurzawa

Ben has come with his wife Myra on her business trip to Moscow; while he is an enthusiastic tourist, she isn’t happy to have him there. The first scene, from Ben’s point of view, suggests that their marriage is doomed; readers are likely to blame Myra. But Ben himself is more interested in the mysterious towers that emerge in the landscape where they hadn’t been before. When he goes out to search for them, the people he encounters have teeth filed to sharp points.

This is highly unsettling, mysterious stuff that isn’t really cleared up by the title, which means “harbingers” – but of what? Ben never learns, and thus readers never do, what the towers are about, or why, only that they have given birth to monsters and chaos and panic. The real mystery, however, is Myra – what connection, if any, she has to the phenomenon. As she refuses, more and more inexplicably, to acknowledge what is happening in the streets outside their hotel room, we wonder along with Ben: Is she just a bitch? Is she having an affair? Exactly what is the business that brought her to Moscow? Is she part of the phenomenon? Are her teeth now filed to points? The difference between Ben and the rest of us is that he cares, which adds a poignancy and human depth to this portentous dark fantasy.

–RECOMMENDED

“Lilacs and Daffodils” by Rebecca Campbell

“The neuropathology of nostalgia.” The narrator is a computer consciousness that may contain a downloaded human consciousness – this is an enigmatic point, but it seems to be the mind of a woman who was a young girl in 1975. It is obsessively focused on certain memories from her childhood, moments spent with her father, particularly the last day before his disappearance/death. “He is unrecoverable”, it tells us; the closest it comes is a photograph where his shadow falls across the scene showing her childhood home.

A very short piece full of sharp-edged descriptions of retrieved or reconstructed moments.

We eat the cucumber and the curried egg outside, because it’s almost warm enough with sweaters, and we have a low, fat brown teapot between us that I must lift with both hands because I’m still little, and the long light shakes the grasses by the tips of each blade, and misses the deep shadows near the ground, so you want to run your hand across the blades, as though it is the fur of a very large, green cat.

Nice stuff. Readers should take note of the shifts in the narrative pronouns. The computer consciousness is “I” and sometimes “you”, but the little girl is sometimes referred to as “she” or “I”, and even also “you”, although the computer maintains a claim of non-identity. Who is telling this story? That is the enigma.

–RECOMMENDED

“Wake Up, Phil” by Georgina Bruce

A surreal and hallucinatory piece of dystopia inspired by 1950s SF, most notably Dick [the Phil of the title], but we can also see Pohl and Kornbluth, even Orwell. We’re in a world where everything belongs to one of two warring corporations. As we begin, Laura is working for Serberus [which readers should recognize under a different spelling as a reference to hell] when she is selected as a test subject for a new pharmaceutical developed for mental warfare but described to her as a weight-loss drug. Under its influence, she begins to have hallucinations, one of which has her as the neighbor of Phil, who is lying on his bed in a catatonic state, while another Phil attempts to wake him. At other times, Laura is a top executive for Serberus’s rival firm.

The real fun here is picking up on the references and allusions, as well as noting how the author has updated the material for today’s SF environment.


Analog, April 2014

Concluding the Schroeder serial, leaving room for one novelette and a handful of shorts, most highly underwhelming.

“A Fierce, Calming Presence” by Jordan Jeffers

Miners vs ecologists again. The Federation has sent ecologist Hugh to investigate problems with the mining on Ceres, reports of indigenous avians attacking the humans. As always in these stories, his presence is generally unwelcome. As usual, the mining bosses are plotting to exterminate the indigenous species and don’t want outside interference.

I hereby make a general call to place this scenario on the list with Adam and Eve, as overused to the point of no return. The current example isn’t a bad one; the protagonist is well-enough done, the details of the avian ecosystem have some interest. But the miners are the usual muscle-bound thugs, intent on genocide just because they’re thugs. There’s not enough merit here to justify having to endure this shopworn premise Yet Again.

“Pollution” by Don Webb

Billy Parsons is a loser and a manga fan – these being not unrelated here – who has moved to the land of his dreams to work as an underpaid English teacher and live the life of an untouchable.

No one had saved him, no human had reached out to him, so he chose reading over life, the fantasy of Japan over the reality of Paterson. . . . Cherry trees blossomed. Billy wandered slowly through his life in love with all he saw, a cousin of Tantalus. He saw
the world he wanted but could not touch it.

In his school is a kyonshi janitor, a cyber-controlled almost-corpse; Billy is fascinated with it, as quintessentially Japanese.

The tone here is well-balanced: lightly poignant, darkly humorous. We can feel sorry for Billy, yet at the same time we recognize him as a loser, a victim as much of his own self-delusion as the intolerance of society, both in his native land and his self-adopted one.

“The Oracle of Boca Raton” by Eric Baylis

Very short what’s-going-on-here piece. The author opens with a dense cloud of obfuscation, an old hand talking a new hire through the breaking-in phase of the job. Eventually, the secret is revealed to be a fannish in-joke, but the prose is too dense to be funny.

Flores was one of the first wave of new companions, after the government gave up on Delphi and sold the whole works under a broadside of public ridicule. Post-Stochastic Inc. recruiters pitched the job as a chance for skilled recruits to use “their unique quality—plus interpersonal communications abilities,” which in the cant of the recruitment ranks meant “sales.”

I wonder if the author was making a play on the old Delphi net. [glyph of nostalgia]

“Wind Reaper” by Jon Hakes

In a desperately energy-starved world, crazy daredevils fly up to harvest it from hurricanes.

You have to have a highly-efficient, integrated system that collects the maximum amount of energy possible from the surrounding environment, from the general static charge building up on the skin of the craft as it flies, to the lightning seeking to pass through the
craft and head earthward. It helps if the aircraft runs off of the power it collects, without need of expensive (and rare) hydrocarbon fuels.

Neat idea. A story of desperation and the lengths it will drive people to. The only one of the short-shorts here I wish had been longer, specifically wondering what the original plan had been before it wrecked.

“It’s not ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ It’s ‘Which Tiger?'” by Ian Randal Strock

The narrator, a failed entrepreneur, goes to a bar to talk away his troubles. Why does he keep going, startup after startup?

“I risked just about everything. I’ve been sleeping on friends’ couches when I wasn’t living with my parents, working twenty-six hour days, as long as possible, to drive each company’s success.”

While there, he’s made an offer he can or cannot refuse.

Very short, very talky, even with a bit of snap in the bartender’s dialogue.

“Whaliens” by Lavie Tidhar

Broad, very silly sci-fi satire. Space whales come to Earth in search of religion. In the absence of the Angel Maroni and Scientology being deleted by editorial fiat, they decide on Judaism. In the meantime, the Secret Service gathers a bunch of science fiction writers, on general principles. While I suspect that readers may be amused by the irreverence and even the silly, this is the sort of thing that has oft and oft been done.


Asimov’s, March 2014

A dull and inferior issue, with none of the stories standing out. A theme of virtual life gives a monotonous tone, and several of the stories suffer from YA shallowness.

“Walking Gear” by Sean Monaghan

Familial dysfunction. Den is working for a company developing biological replacement limbs when a computer search brings up his long-estranged half sister Jenni, a junkie and hooker. He pulls strings to get her on the trial list, even when she at first resists the notion and then goes to shoot up before the procedure.

This is all about guilt, denial, and other psychological problems.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he’d known that he would regret doing this. Perhaps on some level she was right; perhaps he was doing it to try to assuage some kind of guilt from the past. As the thought passed through his head, he realized that she hadn’t even said that. It had been implied, but not explicit. Perhaps it hadn’t even been implied. She might have scratched into something he’d been trying to avoid.

The point is supposed to be cathartic, Den working through his personal problems connecting to people. Problem is, although both Jenni and Den’s not-girlfriend tell us many times that there’s something wrong with him, readers never really see it. We don’t know what caused him to reach out to this sister, to risk his job to impose unwanted help on her. The guy is a blank wall. The author acts like catharsis is happening, but I’m not feeling it.

The SFnal mcguffin, the prosthetic limbs, are a given in the story and don’t play a role that couldn’t be filled by any other future medical miracle. I’m not convinced by the too-quick healing time.

“All the Pretty Little Mermaids” by Cat Rambo

Petra’s newly-ex, Leonid, always chasing the next hot product, has hit on artificial lifeforms in the shape of mermaids. Petra lacks enthusiasm for the notion and doesn’t think their 13-year-old daughter will go for a Disney-like toy/pet designed for little girls. But the mermaids captivate Petra.

This one is about women and their lives, feminism, and of course the eternal minefield of the mother/daughter relationship. The mermaids, freighted with symbolism, take women’s form in a Barbie-like, idealized way that both attracts and repels Petra.

She’d minored in women’s studies at a particularly oppressively religious Midwestern university. It had been the classes that got her through the years there. That and the other women. Not just the teachers, but the other students.

But what she learns is that other women aren’t to be trusted. Surprised she managed to live so long without figuring that part out.

“Declaration” by James Patrick Kelly

The author introduces the story with the following provocative remark:

Human experience is human experience, and to privilege the real over the virtual runs against trends in our evolving digital culture. Are we reality snobs?

Here the terms are softtime and hardtime. We have a small group of high school students engaged in a group project meant to demonstrate they have “the social skills to succeed in softtime by coming together anonymously to plan and execute a project that had hardtime outcomes.” Their project is revolutionary, in the political sense, and demonstrates that in this particular future history is not taught, which makes their efforts to rewrite the Declaration of Independence, demanding equal rights for virtual persons, sadly amusing.

By making this story YA, framing the issue in terms of teenagers, the author robs it of significance. Cutting through all the slogans, what these people want is the right to stash their bodies and live an entirely virtual existence without mandatory physical activity. Yet the story suggests that these requirements apply primarily[?] to minors, whose capacity for good judgment has not yet been fully developed. Adults have greater freedom of choice, and we don’t really know how such rules apply to the adults who are behind this rebellion. It’s also kind of fishy that the educational authorities haven’t caught on to this pervasive campaign of subversion in their institutions. The interesting philosophical issues that the author promises in the introduction don’t really materialize in the story, with an argument that rests largely on special cases of the profoundly disabled.

“The Plantimal” by Ken Liu & Mike Resnick

A centenarian couple has moved to a space station because the low gravity is easier on their joints. Sixty years ago, their lives were altered forever when their son was born anencephalic; ever since, all they have had are each other and boxes of mementoes filling up their space.

Cheryl wants a pet, something that she can fuss over and that will respond to her love. I haven’t wanted anything like that for more than half a century. So plants are our compromise.

Some of the plants available in the plantimal shop will snap your face off, but Cheryl picks the chameleon plant that grows more and more to resemble a human infant.

Only for those with the highest tolerance of the sentimental and the obvious. In the plant, the premise has a resemblance to that of the Rambo piece above.

“Drink in a Small Town” by Peter Wood

Near the end of a disappointing road trip trying to find funding for his interstellar drive, Wallace drops in at Scooter’s Tavern for a burger and a beer, just when the first Mars landing is being televised. He’s in for a surprise. Hardly an original tale, but a pleasant piece of optimism. Best thing in this issue.

“Soloman’s Little Sister” by Jay O’Connell

Another version of virtual life. The premise here is kind of muddled. Seems there was a “nanocalypse”, during which many/most people were archived but a few embodied to populate the new world. One of these is the nameless narrator, also his sister, her husband, and unfortunately her husband’s lover. It seems that the husband, Peter, has double-embodied himself to two-time his wife. Jean is pissed off, takes refuge in her brother’s house, and continues to kill Peter when he tries to make up. Soon, replicated bodies are littering the landscape, until the narrator forces a resolution.

The theme seems to be that virtual life can be without purpose. I’d like more clarity here about the way things are supposed to work. The setting is murky and the characters shallow. It reads rather like a less-well-written version of the Monaghan piece above.

“The Redemption of Kip Banjeree” by Genevieve Williams

Kip is a teenaged urban freerunner, hoping to be accepted to a sponsorship with the Garage, “cool factor several trillion” and a chance to escape her parents. Action ensues as Kip makes a trial run to try to prove herself, followed by a determined pursuer.

Typical YA stuff, with glitzy surface and unoriginal plot.

“Through Portal” by Domica Phetterplace

Emmy, age eight, wanders off from her parents and through a time portal of the Ancients, where she is multiplied. Her parents are desperate to retrieve her, but the Emmy they eventually retrieve isn’t the little girl they lost, time portals being what they are.

The portals were intelligence. They were not devices, they served no one, they were beings in and of themselves. Their civilization continued. Emmy was a part of it, and now so was [her mother] Akhtar.

Awfully faux-mystical.


Lightspeed, January 2014

With the issue’s SF, benevolent aliens usher humanity into space in two too-similar stories.

“In the Dying Light We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Space whales [so-called] are beaching themselves on Earth, which is to say falling onto it. Contact with the remains of the dying entities provides a profound experience, as Thom discovers.

The contact experience had left him dizzy for hours. It shared the imagery of some far-off nebula in colors he wasn’t certain could be seen by the human eye. Before contact, he was a failed astronomy student turned business major. After, he was something new, something no word had been invented to describe yet, but later people like him came to be called “chasers,” or, derogatorily “touchers,” and then finally, “Conversationalists.”

Thom meets Lilian at a landing site, and they discuss the possible meaning of the phenomenon. Lilian discovers that the more people in contact with a whole, the more intense the experience. She is determined to take it to the ultimate limit, but Thom holds back out of fear.

A love story, also a highly optimistic first contact story. The conclusion evokes massed orchestral chords rising to a glorious crescendo as the heavens open. As a love story, it works, but I can’t buy into the optimism. I can’t accept that if the original space whales were a test for humanity, this species would have passed, unless the test was greatly subject to selection bias. Not when the story shows us human scavengers descending on the landing site to cut up the messengers for sale. Or when it shows us repressive governments persecuting the groups and individuals who try to make contact. I suspect the space whales might end up regretting their choice.

“Salamander Patterns” by Anaea Lay

Alien salamanders offered humanity the secret to the stars, with a price – to graft some of themselves onto selected humans for observation. Susan was an astronaut and thought that having a grafted salamander on the trip would be an asset to the crew, but her bosses rejected the notion, insisting that salamander hosts must be psychopaths. When the voyage was underway, an explosion occurred, killing all the crew and ungrafted salamanders onboard, except for Susan and the single salamander who grafted with her in the emergency. Now, home on leave, she is depressed by the ignorant prejudice she encounters, even among her own family, just because she has a salamander stuck on her neck.

The scenario here doesn’t make sense. It’s obvious in retrospect that Susan was right, that grafted contact between crew and salamanders would have ensured the success of the failed human space voyage, but it’s absurd that the astronaut program would have rejected the idea outright. I also find it hard to understand why Susan wouldn’t explain more about her relationship with the salamander to those who question it, like her parents.

At its heart, the story is about the dysfunctional relationship between Susan and her parents, in contrast with the salamander who understands her. But the situation is too contrived to take seriously, and I’m not moved to sympathy.

“His Elbow, Unkissed” by Matthew Hughes

More of the tale of Erm Kaslo, rational hardboiled operative of the far-future Archonate, now preparing for the coming shift in the basic principles of the universe from the rational to the magical. At which point I must acknowledge that, as much fun as this all is, as much as I enjoy it, what we have here is not a series but a serialization, dependent on an increasing load of backstory and ending most inconclusively.

“The Thing About Shapes to Come” by Adam-Troy Castro

An audaciously absurd premise: all over the world, women are giving birth to offspring in the shape of geometric solids. Monica’s daughter is a cube, and she names her Di. A cube is not an ideal shape for a child.

Most of the young parents Monica knew were lucky enough to have been blessed with spheres that could roll around and bounce into one another and even learn to descend household stairs, though rarely to ascend them. A sphere, Monica thought, would have been a fine alternative to a traditional baby. A sphere she could have taken to the park and played with.

Nonetheless, she is devoted mother and never abandons her cube to warehouse storage, as some other parents do when their shapes grow larger and more unwieldy.

This is pure absurdity; the point of such pieces is to explore the implications of the premise, not to explain it. Some questions, though, might have been addressed: the substance of the geometric children, for example. Flesh seems an unlikely material from which to form a perfect cube, and references to sandblasting suggest that they are formed of something more durable. Such quibbles don’t really affect the heart of the story, however, which is the unconditional love of a mother for her child. Certainly not all the parents of shapes prove as devoted as Monica, who admittedly loves Di despite, not because of her geometry. And we might suppose that it might have been different if she had a realistic hope for a more baby-shaped baby. But Monica gives us a good example of a person who takes the world as she finds it, not as she would prefer it to be.

–RECOMMENDED


Trading Rosemary, by Octavia Cade

The world has altered, and its currency is now in “coins” into which memories have been cast – some more rare and thus valuable than others, as the process of casting the memories erases them from the original minds. Over the generations, Rosemary’s family has accumulated a large and important library [odd term for it] of rare coins, and she is now making a new acquisition, even though affording it means selling off some old favorites, including her own memory of the last performance of her grandmother, a famous composer.

What she hadn’t counted on was her daughter, enraged at the sale of her grandmother’s memory and wanting it back. Rosemary dislikes her daughter, but she decides she owes it to her to retrieve the object. However, the buyback price demanded by the purchaser is very high.

A story about value, in many senses. The premise is interesting and fairly original, but in a way that exposes contradictions in the concept. There is a reason that collectible coins are almost always those not in current circulation, and the converse. The value of collectibles has a subjective element, as well as being determined by their rarity in the marketplace; each one is unique. Thus they fluctuate in value differently than common currencies do. I can’t really see shoppers putting a handful of memories in their wallets, as Rosemary does, to go to the grocery. Each transaction would involve an individual barter, and the price for the same pound of beans would differ according to the preferences of the seller for the memories offered for it. Not a workable system of exchange.

Fortunately, the story focuses instead on the collectible aspect of the memories, in a way that emphasizes the subjective nature of value. Rosemary’s values and those of her daughter Ruth are strongly at variance. To Ruth, most of the family library is intrinsically worthless, while Rosemary values the preserved memory of an object far more than the object itself. Thus she is willing to destroy valuable [in some eyes] objects in order to raise the rarity, uniqueness and thus the value [to collectors] of the coins that hold memories of them.

“Truly,” she said, “truly it is the rarest that is the most beautiful.” She did not regret having destroyed her grandmother’s work, stripping her own memories, any more than the creator of the sapflower coin regretted depriving others of its experience. It was the price of being a serious collector.

There is a sense of sad nostalgia here, as we see that this is a world where much is being lost through climate change. There is a high value in memories of the last penguins, the last Antarctic flower, and Rosemary’s personal favorite, the last iceberg.

The smell of the coin coiled through her—the salty tang of the sea cut with the hard dry overtone of a sheer expanse of ice, glittering green in enormous chunky sheets. She remembered the last great southern iceberg, and how it felt to jump from a lower slope into the numbing water; a crazy swim one sunset. The shock of cold sliced through her, brisk and merry.

But Rosemary makes the distinction between her own favorite memory and one that will appreciate more in value, adding to the total value of her library.

Deciding to buy back her grandmother’s requiem for Ruth launches Rosemary on a journey of self-discovery that takes up the greatest part of the text. In the course of it, we view Rosemary in great depth through her memories of the experiences that have made her what she now is. The descriptions of these are detailed and evocative, but perhaps too long to be compelling; I’m not quite sure that we care all that much about Rosemary’s past. More important is the way we see how the journey alters her; at the end, she is not the same person who made the original bargain.

My recommendation of this novella is mixed. I can’t help thinking that the penultimate section ended perfectly, that the final section is an addition both unnecessary and discordant. I would have liked the story better without it.

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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