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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early March


Here we have the Dell digests, about which I have only limited enthusiasm, also the first of the month ezines.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, April/May 2014

I was happy to see in the ToC that this double issue was featuring two novellas, but less happy after I had read them. The Reed was especially disappointing, because I always have the highest expectations from this author. I prefer some of the shorter stories.

“Each in his Prison, Thinking of the Key” by William Preston

Another installment in the author’s series about the legendary and apparently immortal hero* known here as the Old Man. In the ultrasecure prison where he is held, they call him Methuselah; elsewhere in the text, he is compared to Odysseus. His presence and activities have disconcerted the security state, which considers his existence too dangerous, because uncomprehended, to be allowed to go free.

Jimmy is a military interrogator, specialist in a form of mind control supposedly based on quantum entanglement, that creates a conduit between his mind and that of the subject. It had met with mixed results in Iraq, but the authorities, out of alternatives, hope he can crack this prisoner’s iron self-control.

The passageway faintly echoed. The mind of the other man whispered back. This was good. Jimmy only listened, hoping to catch a tone of assent on the other side, notes of acceptance, openness—an agreement that Methuselah would never consciously know had been struck.

But the subject is too strong for him.

The narrative shifts in time, mostly between the interrogation and its aftermath, as an obviously traumatized Jimmy attempts to regain normality. Then a series of inexplicable incidents makes him realize that the connection isn’t at all over. Readers aren’t going to be surprised by the outcome of the interrogation. But what the story is really about is free will. Jimmy hopes to influence the prisoner’s will to make him reveal his secrets. His main revelation is that his subject is too good, which the authorities take to mean that he was too good, too powerful, for Jimmy to overcome. But Jimmy comes to understand otherwise, and finally makes a choice, freely.

At its heart, this is a moral story.

You couldn’t locate or understand the self by looking inward. You could only make sense of a self by observing its actions in the world. A good human was not a steady noun but a sequence of unexpected verbs. No matter if one sat in contemplation or acted for all the world to see: one became a full self by doing.

Perhaps the legendary figure is too good to be true, or his legion of helpers can’t all be as good as the story suggests. There’s a strong hint here, appropriate given the story’s origin, of superhero vs supervillain, with the moral blacks and whites too starkly painted for reality – or perhaps in the primary colors of the comics. Reality is the security state and the secret military base, which so often does wrong by intending to do right in its own lights, and whose personnel come in natural shades of gray. In this episode of the series, the security state isn’t the villain; they just aren’t capable of seeing the true picture and distinguishing the good.

(*) The hero is Doc Savage. The author doesn’t use the name but discloses his identity through hints clear to the knowledgeable.

“The Principles” by Robert Reed

Outtake from the author’s in-progress alternate history novel, dealing with the youth of his protagonist, Quentin Maurus. He lives in a world like but not like our own, and much of the interest here consists in discovering the scope of those differences, which turns out to be profound. Yet Quentin finds plenty of familiar-seeming science fiction books to read, as well as a famous work titled The Principles, in which the author proclaims an infinite worlds hypothesis. Which may be a novelty there, but a commonplace theory to readers here.

“Suppose you were a god,” she said. “Suppose gods could stand back and see the universe as infinite examples of what might be. Every moment leads on to a trillion, trillion possibilities, and there is no end to what will arise, and everything possible is inevitable.”

This is a dystopian world that has been at war for over a thousand years, between the Mongols and the western powers following a gynocentric religion like but not like Christianity. Women here are the priests, the rulers, the landowners, while men become warriors or soldiers. Quentin has a rare exemption from the universal conscription, but he makes little of his life after attending college, other than avidly reading. He begins a love affair with a former history professor and is drawn into a circle of dissent, less out of conviction than attachment.

The story here, such as it is, revolves mostly around this love affair. It’s not an erotic tale. The characters piss a lot, which is to say that the text refers to this act a lot, a way of describing their intimacy. During their meetings, Sarah tells him stories from her research into a famous woman ruler of this world’s Byzantine empire, wherein we can discern a number of the story’s themes, such as relationships between older powerful women and younger men. It’s not that nothing much happens, which it doesn’t, but nothing is really revealed by what does happen, by all that we learn of this world’s history and religion. Quentin, at the end, finds himself clueless, as if all these events had never happened at all, except for the lingering pain of a doomed attachment. And readers are left just as clueless, with him. I have to conclude that the piece fails as a story, and that this is because it’s too closely tied to the novel in which these events might at some point come to make some sense. But that point is nowhere here.

“Of Finest Scarlet Is Her Gown” by Michael Swanwick

One night, the Devil comes to her house and takes Su-Yin’s father away to Hell.

Flickering match-light played over the harsh planes of a cruel but beautiful face. In an instant of sick revulsion, Su-yin experienced a triple revelation: first that this woman was not human; then that whatever she might be was far worse than any mere demon; and finally that, given the extreme terror her presence inspired, she could only be the Devil herself.

Su-Yin follows the Devil’s car, determined to save her father. After she makes a nuisance of herself and refuses to leave Hell, the Devil offers her a deal, so we know what kind of story this is going to be.

The differences are in the details, first in making the Devil a female, which doesn’t do much to change her basic character. More important, unlike the classic story in which the Devil’s opponent proves more clever, here it’s a question of who can resist temptation – as tempter is perhaps the Devil’s most ancient profession. Cleverly entertaining, and a moral tale without being moralistic.

“Rules of Engagement” by Matthew Johnson

A fairly near future in which members of the military are fitted with neural feedback implants – a mixed benefit. Otherwise, little seems to have changed, including their missions. The story follows Butler and his buddies Hollis and Cervantes, two of them now facing discharge after their latest tour in Yemen.

Bishop has described that moment, when the rules of engagement allow them to defend themselves, as a feeling of release: “You can breathe again, like you just took off a belt that’s too small for you,” he told me. “The locals can see it, too, ’cause now you fucking feel like you’re Superman. That’s when you know if they really are Shabaab or not, ’cause if they are, this is when they shit themselves.”

Even after leaving Yemen, Bishop keeps up his use of ghat, which lowers the effective control of his implant over his behavior; he thinks this will help when he gets the notion to rob a popular bar – an operation that we know will not go well. Then it goes worse.

The text of the story focuses on the implants, how they interact with the brain in unpredictable ways, producing reward and punishment loops. The military, of course, takes the stance of denying that there is anything wrong with the implants and they aren’t responsible for whatever these soldiers might have done. In fact, however, the heart of the story can be found in the title, which identifies the real problem as the rules of engagement that that treat friendly force protection as the ultimate priority, and the lives of residents in countries under military occupation as totally expendable. A strong indictment of the sort of mongered war that sends troops into such situations, governed by such rules.

–RECOMMENDED

“Scout” by Will McIntosh

Alien invasion. Kai is now an orphaned refugee learning the ways of desperation. About the time he’s about to freeze to death, he hears a voice in his head – one of the telepathic aliens, offering help, telling him about a nearby corpse he can rob. It seems that the alien scout is also in need of help.

With a child protagonist, it seems axiomatic that everything will become simplified, the moral choices set out in an oversized, bold font, as if for a child reader.

“Like a Wasp to the Tongue” by Fran Wilde

In a universe where corporate interests are exploiting planets, military personnel convicted by courts-martial are sent as forced labor to work on such worlds. This is a labor force full of hard-asses, which often engages is stupid and potentially deadly acts out of little more than boredom. For example, “Someone had removed a batch of the garrison’s wasps from the vespidary. Someone had dulled them with smudges, then handed them out to waiting briggers.” The person charged with keeping all the personnel alive under these circumstances is the med tech Rios, a brigger herself, although she doesn’t like to admit it. But when a real emergency strikes their base, it takes cooperation to keep everyone alive.

The characters here are a rogue’s gallery, the corporate officers a typical lot of villains, but the most interest is in the wasps, that prove to be excellent at detecting not only valuable minerals but potential toxins. A pretty good adventurey read.

“Slowly Upward, the Coelacanth” by M Bennardo

A very short post apocalypse story, not an evolution story – not exactly. It seems that there aren’t enough resources for everyone human to survive, so some minds are downloaded and placed in animals.

Someone had said the coelacanth had survived this before. If anything could survive again, it would be those sturdy fish. But they would come again later. The humans would return after winter had passed—the very lucky ones would come out of their caves or descend from the sky. They would trawl the oceans and they would pull up their lost cousins, the still-lucky but also not-so-lucky ones who had been given this last bare chance to survive in the depths.

The coelacanth lives pretty contentedly for a hundred and fifty years, which is apparently long enough. But what about the fish who don’t survive, who are eaten, who rot on the seafloor, whom the nets miss? In short, I can’t think this is an idea that would be adopted, given all the resources that would have had to go into it.

“The Talking Cure” by K J Zimring

The narrator as an old man is hired by Sotheby’s to provide memory documentation of a Hitler painting alleged to have been owned by Freud, whom he visited when he was an autistic child in Vienna. But the process reveals a great deal more than that, it reveals the lies on which he based his life.

Strong psychological piece about true and false memory. The setting, when the Nazis were exterminating “mental defectives”, gives a forceful urgency to the events.

On the way out, my hand back in my mother’s, we passed a line of buses with their windows blacked out. I knew what those were for and even now it gave me a sick little jolt to see them.

But I didn’t have to get on them. I could go home and have a life. I talked because I had to.

I do wonder if the payment the narrator receives could possibly be as large as he supposes. I also have a strong urge to slap his wife and tell her to shut up so I can hear the story.

“Dolores, Big and Strong” by Joe M McDermott

When June is very young, her mother moves in with her own stepmother Dolores. Dolores isn’t big and strong anymore; she suffers from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and has the same rare blood type as June, who is given a shunt so her blood can be transfused into the old woman. June frequently remarks that nobody ever asked if this was OK with her. She grows up sullen and resentful, wishing for escape to somewhere less smelly.

Here I was, my arm really naked, bones and arteries showing, shunted open, blood pouring in and out between me and Big Dolores, and that cat stink all over her, and goat shit stink, and weed and farm stink. God, she stank. I stank just being here, around this place.

A dismal story about the sort of people who’ll never get a real chance in life, whose chances of ending up in jail are “when” not “if”. As June says, “we have a family history of very bad, very violent, or very stupid men.” These women can be violent, too, but their loyalty, such as it is, is reserved for each other. The SFnal element here is very slight, consisting of the transfusion technique and the family’s rare blood type. Otherwise, the setting is all too realistic.

“Someday” by James Patrick Kelly

Daya lives in a village on a colony world, where it’s the custom for women to take the multiple fathers for their children from outside. Despite everyone thinking that she should leave, Daya selects three local men, one of them her brother. What no one knows is that she is going further outside than anyone.

She had been so busy pretending that this wasn’t going to happen that she was surprised to find herself gliding across the river. She could never have had sex with the fathers if she had acknowledged to herself that she was going to go through with it. Certainly not with Ganth. And Latif would have guessed that something was wrong. She had the odd feeling that there were two of her in the skiff, each facing in opposite directions. The one looking back at the village was screaming at the one watching the starship grow ever larger.

The ending comes as quite a surprise, because so little has prepared us for it. We hear Daya discuss with her baby fathers the possibility that she might leave, someday. But for the most part, this is an anthropological exhibit of some rather different mating rites. We don’t really learn how these customs evolved or how they differ from the rest of humanity on different worlds; if we do consider the question, we’re likely to assume that the colony is the place where things have changed. With the ending, the ground shifts under all our assumptions, yet we aren’t given answers. This makes it unsatisfying.



Analog, May 2014

With no serial this month, we have a novelette and more shorter stories, seven in all. Again, it’s the shorter ones that I prefer.

“All Human Things” by Dave Creek

Military SF. It seems that an alien hive species is attacking Earth, and our hero, the artificial Human [sic] Mike Christopher, retrieves a human captive from a holed Jenregar spacecraft. Being a religious fanatic, the rescued captive isn’t grateful, despite being saved from vivisection without benefit of anesthetic. Quarreling ensues between them. Unfortunately, they seem to be stuck with each other, for the sake of their knowledge of the enemy.

This piece is pretty much a mess. Buried deep in the text is an idea that offers promise: how to defeat aliens whose senses are so completely different from the human. Unfortunately, the author has shoveled so much mulch onto it that readers are likely to forget for pages at a time what’s going on – and suspect that the author has done likewise. We’re supposed to care instead about these characters, one of whom is steeped in contrived angst and the other in contrived despicability. So in the supposed urgency of getting Mike to Brussels to work on countermeasures to the alien threat, everything pauses for several pages for a tour of the experimental facility where he was illicitly created, to be later bullied in school.

In a lot of other places, the plot makes no sense. Why, if Mike is so valuable for his specialist knowledge, is he risked by sending him into an enemy ship to retrieve an unidentified captive? How, after they are trapped in limbo when the alien craft engages its spacedrive, do they suddenly get retrieved by Mike’s ship? [Why is apparently to give Mike another opportunity to get angsty over his childhood.] And how, if Earth has defensive forces in its space, did the enemy get past them to start digging termite mounds in human cities, apparently without a real fight, even though we’ve seen human ships blasting holes in their spacecraft? And when did they do it, given that the characters weren’t even certain at the beginning of the story that Earth was the alien target? If the author had spent more effort on such matters and a lot less on school bullying, this might have been a more readable story.

“Cryptids” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Biological SF. Karen is a field biologist nearing the end of a declining career, currently doing a survey of the bird population in an area of New Guinea. She is approached by Amanda, a former student now working successfully for a drug company and nagged by the sense that she sold out, unlike the scrupulous Karen. Amanda is interested in the ultimate source of a toxin found in the feathers of the hooded pitohui, which gets it from consuming melyrid beetles, which get it from, she assumes, an unknown plant. She wants Karen to help her fit transmitters to the birds so they can trace the source, and offers financial incentives that would allow her to finish her season’s research.

All this is based on known fact. Unfortunately, the author chooses to inform us via the old “As You Know Bob” routine, when both these characters would know very well indeed what these facts are. Fortunately, once our expedition gets to following the birds into the forest, things get interesting. Unfortunately, the plot suffers from Redshirt Syndrome.

The scientific speculation is the best part of the story. New Guinea is an excellent location for it, as new species are even now being found there in large numbers. The ropen is known through folklore, and expeditions have been mounted to find it, so far unsuccessfully. The various species of melyrid beetles, however, are well-known, and since Amanda’s expedition has a local guide on hand, I would think they could have more simply cut the birds out of the location and simply searched out the beetles – if Amanda didn’t have an ulterior motive involving Karen.

“In Perpetuity” by Ellis Morning

One of the projects at the lunar research colony is the Alexandra Library, established to hold as much information as possible in the stable environment of the moon. But as is their wont, the bureaucrats on Earth have cut funding and are planning to send the library staff home. The librarian holes up in the vault to save as much as he can, while he can.

“Earth is too volatile, nothing lasts there. Your discipline grants you an acute appreciation of this fact. On the Moon, time stands still. Hiatus.”

That’s about it. The story begins with the discovery of interesting rocks, leading readers to expect something Hard SFnal to come of them, but it takes a wide turn to become, essentially, a lecture on information preservation.

“Bodies in Water” by Sarah Frost

Kay lives and fishes on the shore of drowned Florida in a small subsistence village. She has a number of impairments that seem to be congenital; she knows this makes her a disappointment to her parents. One day she brings up a mechanical fish that her father tells her was made as a surveillance device, but it’s missing its tail, and Kay decides to make it a new one.

The setting isn’t the story here, it’s the character; this is a story of family. Kay wants to make her parents proud of her. I do wonder, however, how far in the future this is supposed to be. The fact that any part of Florida remains, and the existence of salvaged tools from the pre-flood times, suggest that this may be no more than a century in the future. So I don’t understand the references to derelict “starships” wrecked offshore. Is Kay misspeaking, or the author? Could these be the rocket boosters of today’s NASA, on Cape Canaveral, or did something really interesting happen before the fall?

“Snapshots” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A family history beginning in 1955 at the viewing of Emmett Till, where young Cleavon sees the bullet holes in the face of a boy he had known. Cleavon grows up to hate and fear guns, the police, and city of Chicago. He refuses to go back there, even for the celebration of Obama’s presidential victory in Grant Park – to the scorn of his daughter. But his grandson Ty has known the gunfire, understands. And decides to do something about it.

This one comes close to where I live, which is not quite in Chicago but near enough that most of the events here were local news. I don’t know if they will appear to other readers with such immediacy. At its heart, it’s a generational story of a family [oddly, only Cleavon seems to have two parents on hand].

“Mama said you would be negative,” Ty said. “She said I shouldn’t tell you anything I’ve done well because you always take the pride out of it.”

Of the issues that Cleavon confronts, however, the central one is guns. This is an anti-gun piece, and strongly so. Also an optimistic one. I’m not at all convinced that Ty’s innovation will succeed, but the story is in the changes that make it possible.

“Repo” by Aaron Gallagher

Elise is a repo agent, specializing in spacecraft. She has no trouble getting onto the target freighter and immobilizing its owner. The problem is when a rival shows up and tries to steal her score out from under her. Elise isn’t having any of that, but the other guy is a pro.

She watched him nerve himself for the shot. Her attention focused on his trigger finger. One twitch, and she would put a bullet in his head, followed by two more.

“Don’t try me,” she warned.

Space opera, an action piece, good read.

“Another Man’s Treasure” by Tom Greene

In a scavenger economy, Maggie is a strict caretaker of her family’s claim on the landfill, knowing where the potential valuables are and where the hazards.

Toxic residues, heavy metals, infections, tetanus, diseased and toxic animals, and things even more mysterious, outgassing, genemodded microorganisms, biomedical waste, even radiation. Only by constant vigilance, drilling them on safety, hygiene, and thoughtfulness, had Maggie and Jake been lucky enough to get them this far.

It’s a hard life, and Maggie’s greatest concern is to make a better one for her kids. But it seems like everywhere she turns, someone is always out to grind her down. The story of a determined survivor under hard circumstances.



Clarkesworld, March 2014

A mixed issue. The Dickinson story proved thought-provoking, but I’m not so happy with the zine’s turn towards the YA.

“Morrigan in the Sunglare” by Seth Dickinson

After an alien invasion successfully repulsed, the worlds of Sol turned inward and adopted a pacifistic lifestyle, leaving their interstellar colonies on their own. When the interstellar Alliance came to Earth for assistance in preparing for another alien assault, the homeworlders turned them down. The consequence is now war between the two human powers, with Federation pilots having to struggle to cast off their humane values in order to fight effectively. Those who “talk about why the war started, how it would end, who was right, who was wrong” are the ones who break. But Laporte, callsign Morrigan, loves it out there, the killing.

How could you think like that and then pull the trigger, ride the burst, guns guns guns and boom, scratch bandit, good kill? So Laporte gave up on empathy and let herself ride the murder-kick. She hated herself for it. But at least she didn’t break.

Laporte loves her commander, Simms, who has had to embrace hate in order to pull the trigger. After their ship is disabled and falling into the sun, they have time while dying of radiation poisoning for a long discussion of such questions.

A provocative work, the sort that makes readers wonder: just what is the author doing here? Because we are immersed in Laporte’s point of view as protagonist, witness to her embrace of the murder-kick, it seems natural to empathize, to congratulate her success, and I suspect a number of readers will do exactly that. “Monsters win”, so Laporte’s transition to a monster is a good thing, a necessary thing for victory. Cheer. Wave flags.

But I think the author is quite a bit more subtle here, or at least so I read it, as a deconstruction of the Laporte position. This is a horror story, a monster story, an anti-war story. This is largely because we can see, as the antagonists apparently do not dare, that it’s an unnecessary war – a war of choice, not survival. At first, people could engage with that proposition. They can think: maybe we should make common cause with each other for the sake of our common humanity. There is one scene where we see the combatants make a temporary, wary truce, only to have it accidentally blown away, to everyone’s secret relief. Peace is hard, war is the easier alternative; you don’t have to think. This sort of thing becomes its own end, self-perpetuating. We can see from this point into a future in which, like Bear’s Hardfought, humanity has remade itself to service the needs of a forever war with no discernible beginning or end – monsters.

And readers will have to wonder: what happens when the aliens return, as the Alliance is convinced that they will. Will the two factions of humanity be able to unite to face a common enemy in a true war of survival? Will this fratricidal combat prove to have strengthened them, transforming them into the kind of monsters that will be able to save the species? Or will it prove to have weakened them so that, the next time, they fall? Some readers may think it might be a good thing if the aliens did suddenly show up again, to save humanity from itself, from its own monsters.

–RECOMMENDED

“Human Strandings and the Role of the Xenobiologist” by Thoraiya Dyer

It seems that Kelly’s family is trying to migrate illicitly to Centauri station, so that little Kelly is smuggled into a cargo module that goes astray and crashes on a world inhabited by beings far in advance of humans. Such crashes are not uncommon, so that they have written a handbook for dealing with any survivors. They would prefer, however, that the migrators get their act together and learn to navigate properly, to eliminate the nuisance…

It has no artificial intelligence in it at all. The shuttle is just a metal body. Its brain is somewhere else; somewhere in space. No wonder they keep crashing here. It’s as if the entity that controlled this shuttle, that fired this human into space, didn’t care enough about where it landed to waste time growing an independent mind for the module.

In the meantime, humans have increasingly given over their affairs and lives to the incompetent AI that let Kelly crash.

A dark outlook for the future, with ironic touches of humor, yet depressing at the same time. Humans here seem to deserve the negative opinion that the aliens form of them, and their AI doesn’t seem to deserve the I-word.

“Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)” by Juliette Wade

Like all good Japanese schoolgirls, Naoko is driving herself crazy studying for the college entrance exams on which everything depends, as her grandmother keeps reminding her. The guilt is overwhelming.

Obaa-chan and I aren’t speaking. I haven’t eaten breakfast or dinner for two days because that would mean going into the kitchen. It would mean her serving me, reminding me as always of the filial debt that I can never repay.

Naoko has been hearing voices, which turn out to belong to spirits that have the form of old household junk, arguing over her fate very much like angel/devil figures quarreling over a person’s soul. One of the yokai urges her to obey her grandmother and study, the other tempts her to go out at night in her goth-girl costume and throw it all away.

Perhaps because the piece is YA, it doesn’t quite trust the reader to understand the Japanese references, using phrases like “zori sandals” instead of simply “zori”. Aside from the yokai, the story of family is entirely conventional, oft-told before.



Apex Magazine, March 2014

The editor says this issue has a theme of flight, and I certainly saw this in three out of the four original stories. She also says this is a month of “fresh starts and do-overs”, which I hope bodes well for the zine.

“Waking” by Cat Hellisen

A couple of generations ago, entities manifested on Earth and were given the name angels.

Eventually we stopped caring. An angel would arrive, alone, would stand uselessly still, and finally crumple to its knees with a sad dusty crash.

Alissa’s family runs a roadside museum featuring rusting artefacts of the angels, which haven’t appeared in decades. Except that out in the trees past the hedge, there’s a new angel, seemingly as dead as all the rest, although Alissa hears its voice in her head, telling her it wants wings. And people, including Alissa’s sister Cam, keep bringing it offerings. Finally, Cam brings it their screaming little brother.

This one ends on an enigmatic note, although the story’s metaphors have promised flight, or at least a rising epiphany. Readers familiar with the pattern will be expecting the interaction with the angel to also solve the problem of the little brother’s screaming, but that doesn’t really happen, either, or not clearly so. And when Alissa expresses confusion, one of the worshippers tells her, “You should know. . . . You brought us here.” Which only adds to the mystery, as it was Cam who first found the manifestation and Alissa who at first denied it. If there is supposed to be an epiphany here, or a connection between the angel and Alissa’s consciousness, the author has been overly subtle about it.

Perhaps because the author’s English is South African, the text seems overly-hyphenated to me.

“Undone” by Mari Ness

Short-short, part of the author’s fairy tale series – in this case, the swan brothers and what became of the youngest brother, who was left with one swan wing when his shirt was left undone. He strikes me as a whiner, even if he’s quiet about it. I’d have liked this better if we saw events from his point of view, with positive reasons for his decision.

“To Increase His Wondrous Greatnesse More” by Sunny Moraine

The maiden and the dragon do a deal. Actually, the maiden is a witch and it’s her deal, and the dragon has reason to wonder if she’s going to get the short end of it. Readers have reason to wonder as well, since the author provides three alternative versions of the conclusion; the last, however, seems clearly to be the true one.

A subversive work, which subverts Edmund Spenser first of all, in the title. Not only is the maiden set on subverting the traditional order of things, the author is set on subverting reader expectations. Thus we find that the dragon is likewise a maiden – or at least a female, and just as alluring in her own way.

She was tall and slender and she bent like a tree when the maiden came near. When she parted her lips to speak, the inside of her throat glowed like coals. Her red eyes smoked gently. She was very beautiful when it suited her to be so, and very terrible always, and when she wished to be at her most terrible beauty was the means she chose.

The expectation that the maiden is human, however, is a bit more tricky. She has a human shape, at least, but perhaps the soul of something else, something evil. I think the dragon is foolish to trust her, but love makes fools even of dragons.

“The End of the World in Five Dates” by Claire Humphrey

This is the only story in the issue that doesn’t have clear flying imagery. The narrator calls herself Cassandra because she’s a negative person, and because she has always seen visions of doom – specifically, lately, the end of the world. Both these traits make her hard to be with, although her friends keep trying. Cass also has a persistent pain that may be cancer, but she refuses to see a doctor about it, since the world is going to end anyway and she wants to spend her last days seeing it, not on “medical bullshit”. “I pictured eight months of concerned glances, eight months of printouts about alternative cancer treatments, eight months of scones I didn’t want.”

Her friends call Cass an asshole, a jackass, and I’m not inclined to argue with them. The author suggests that love can change all that, but I suspect it may be too late, and I can’t really feel sorry for her if that’s the case. Her mistake is in choosing from deliberate ignorance, not trusting her visions. I also, strangely, have trouble identifying Cass as a woman; her friends seem to have the same problem. “Jackass”, I note, is a term that refers to the male of the species.

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.

Comments

Comment from moog
Time March 6, 2014 at 9:33 am

“Jackass” is not reserved for the “male of the species”. That’s ludicrous and makes me wonder how narrow your view of fender roles really is…

Comment from Gordon Van Gelder
Time March 6, 2014 at 11:43 am

In the ASIMOV’S review, you list the author of “Each in His Prison” as Robert Preston instead of William Preston. (The Music Man would probably find that error amusing.)

Comment from Lois Tilton
Time March 9, 2014 at 9:13 am

[sigh] Gordon – I’m sure I provide endless amusement to the gods of getting names wrong.

moog – the male of the ass/donkey is a jack; the female is a jenny.


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