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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late April


As I began writing this column, the nominations for the Hugo Awards were announced. I was pleased to see some of my recommendations in the short story category. But I also noted that several of the works nominated for the longer awards were stories I hadn’t seen. It’s a reminder that the genre world keeps expanding, and there are stories to be found outside and beyond the usual sources. I hope to keep discovering new venues as they arise, and welcome as always new work being sent to me, even if I can’t review all of it.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, 47 April 2014

I’m generally weary of list stories these days, but I found the two in this issue enjoyable.

“The Legend of RoboNinja” by RoboNinja, translated by Brooke Bolander

This is apparently supposed to be an April Fool story and a parody of Cormac McCarthy, of which it is neither, but a light, short bit of silliness.

“Francisca Montoya’s Almanac of Things That Can Kill You” by Shaenon K Garrity

A list story, in alphabetical order, serving as a catalog of the narrator’s travels as a healer through a postapocalypse world.

Mountain Lions

They’ll eat you if they’re hungry, but they’re usually not hungry enough, except in the most badly infected of the dead places. Not as bad as wolves, or even as bad as bears. Just avoid them, and if you see one, don’t bother it. Why would you even want to bother a mountain lion? I’ve seen people do it. Stupid people.

Now this one does evoke McCarthy’s world, even without the ubiquitous cannibalism. I like the narrator’s commonsense attitude, her advice for avoiding many of the things that can kill you. Although not all.

“Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado

In the form of another list story, the account of the narrator getting hit on in an unusual manner, starting with mundane observations and moving on to the weird.

Have you ever opened an egg and seen the inside of another egg? No? Are you sure? Here is how you can tell: Crack open an egg. Look inside. Sometimes, in another place entirely, another person has also cracked open an egg and is also looking inside, and you are both, in fact, looking at the innards of the exact same egg.

Eggs as cosmic metaphor and pickup line – unusual and original premise.

–RECOMMENDED

“Codename Delphi” by Linda Nagata

Remote-control war.

Karin’s worksite was an elevated chair within a little room inside a secure building. She faced a curved monitor a meter-and-a-half high, set an easy reach away. Windows checkered its screen, grouped by color-codes representing different clients. The windows could slide, change sequence, and overlap, but they could never completely hide one another; the system wouldn’t allow it. This was Karin’s interface to the war.

On the ground, Valdez is responding to an urgent request for backup, in a hurry and not wanting to wait for Delphi’s drones to declare the route clear. Deng is calling for a medivac helicopter, and Holder is setting an ambush. Then one of the other handlers cracks up, and Karin is suddenly handed another hot situation.

This is military SF strongly informed by current trends of drones, satellite imaging, and computer-assisted weaponry. The story is the tension and stress experienced by the remote handlers, a situation that can also been seen in current operations: It’s not a video game, it’s real.

At the same time, it’s depressing to project a number of current trends, like armed insurgency, that are also likely to continue, with no end in sight. Karin/Delphi is a corporate contractor, outside the chain of command, who nevertheless is making command decisions, even if advisory, not direct orders. Handlers can apparently just walk off the job in situations that, for the troops on the ground, might leave them subject to the death penalty. Leaders in the field can also request certain handlers and, supposedly, ask for reassignment from others – unlike their relationship with superior officers. Karin is portrayed as a competent and conscientious handler, which increases her stress on this job, but it would be unrealistic to suppose all employees in her position would be equally so; after all, she joined up for the money.

“The Day the World Turn Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

An original sort of catastrophe is promised here.

Scientists lucky enough to survive the event said that it wasn’t so much that gravity had disappeared, but that it had flipped over, as if our planet had suddenly lost all of its mass and was surrounded by some colossal object.

But there was apparently no colossal object, no rational scientific explanation; gravity just reversed itself, and anything and anyone not tied down went flying off into space. Just when I’m thinking that here’s a neat new SFnal premise to explore, it turns, alas, metaphorical as our narrator Toby whines that this is the 2nd time the world has ended for him, the first being when his girlfriend [to whom the narrative is addressed] dumped him. Feh. Turns out it’s a relationship story, taking Toby on a journey of self-realization instead of a journey of exploration through a world of physics turned upside down. But that’s a good thing, since the physics is poorly thought through. We see people floating off into the atmosphere, but the atmosphere itself seems to be staying put so the characters can keep breathing and emoting. That’s what happens when events are really metaphors and not to be taken seriously.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #144-145, April 2014

Issue #144 has exiles, islands and transformation; #145 has wars.

#144

“Golden Daughter, Stone Wife” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Long ago, Erhensa the sorceress left her island home for exile with her golem-daughter Areemu, beloved both for her own sake and for the sake of the wife who gifted her, the wife she has never seen again. Now Areemu has died, her animating magic faded, and while Erhensa is overwhelmed with grief, new trouble arrives from the ruling Institute of Ormodon, claiming the golem’s remains. Ysoreen, the Institute’s young envoy, is arrogant with her station, unused to defiance; no one defies the Institute, yet she finds she cannot master Erhensa. The sorceress does not mean to relinquish her daughter. “I know then that I will have Areemu back. I will have my daughter back and the chambers of my house will echo no more; the chambers of my heart will brighten again.”

A tale elegant and enigmatic, a duel of two strong wills, an unlikely love story. Ysoreen is stone-hard with self-sufficiency; Erhensa is her mother’s age and was never beautiful. Yet as Ysoreen tells her,

“The heart doesn’t think.” Ysoreen sets her fists against the hard metal at her back, glad for the cuirass. It fortifies her composure; keeps her formal. Her words are in the rhetorical mode of the Institute. “It told me it found beauty in you. It told me that it wants. I obey, for if it is fulfilled then my intellect and humors will both come to benefit. If it goes unfulfilled, as it now does, then I will have lanced it and bled it of any authority over me.”

An intriguing outlook on love, that. Here we have two figures driven by strong desire, yet both are closed, self-possessed and self-contained. A most unlikely match, but the heart has its reasons. The story, likewise, holds its secrets close and yields them slowly, almost reluctantly.

“At the Edge of the Sea” by Raphael Ordoñez

The narrator has been exiled [marooned] to an uninhabited island at the complaint of his wife for unspecified “crimes against nature”. Slowly, he becomes attuned to the island.

There is, woven through this world, an occult skein of luminous threads, a web of relations, with signs that signify themselves. I knew it then but darkly, through the silence of wind and surf. But there is in truth little to tell. They aren’t the kind of thing one talks about.

A tale of transformation. Solitude can do strange things to a mind, but what’s going on here is more than mental. There’s a sense of primal power, of an unlikely sort.

#145

“Our Fire, Given Freely” by Seth Dickinson

A story of war and social revolution. The two often come together, as war creates pressure for change and the interest of privileged classes resist it. The setting has a neolithic tone, with a King of Emmer Wheat leading a nation of harvesters. In this world, individuals transfer their life force, their “fire, freely given”, to stronger individuals. It’s a quasi-feudal system, top-heavy, as the masses support a small elite with a monarch at their head, sustained by the power of the şövalye, who hold the place of knights or samurai and do all the fighting in the wars, that seem to be organized as single combats yet dependent on the strength of the retainers. In consequence, the masses are weakened, particularly on the losing side. The Nidani are losing.

“My people starve, Rider Bray. I take their fire and spend it on a war I cannot win, and without that fire, without the strength to heal pox and hoe the earth, they sicken and starve. They say that among the Horse People there are mothers who have given so much they cannot quicken.”

On the steppe where they live, the Horse People were once strong, as horse people usually are, until the Walkers of the Nidani used their tribute fire to kill the herds and subjugate the people. Bray is the first of them to be named şövalye and given that power, although there is still prejudice against her origin. Now the Nidani queen has heard of a prophet who claims he can raise armies of the common people to defeat the enemy’s şövalye force. She tasks Bray with investigating this claim.

A complicated premise with a dense backstory, and not made more clear when the author opens with sentences like this one: “Rider Bray runs the steppe one stride ahead of her name, racing the wind cross waves of grass glazed in the light of a high cold sun.” The point of the story, though, is the potential social disruption when a technological advance, such as firearms, shifts the distribution of force from a small elite to the masses. The question is whether the Nidani queen will adopt the change to keep from losing the war. It’s complicated, however, by the factor of racism and hostility between the two populations of Walkers and [former] Riders – more complicated and less clear.

I’m also not sure that the innovation of collective fire shared among the masses is actually an advantage. If the sum of fire available is the same, the distribution of it doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference on the battlefield, except that a large proportion of the collective army is killed – which would seem to diminish it. Nor am I convinced that these untrained commoners would actually want to form armies and march off to get themselves slaughtered in the queen’s war. What do they have to gain, and is it worth the cost? I’m dubious.

“Women in Sandstone” by Alex Dally MacFarlane

The general and the winds. The winds know a lot, they know the past and the future.

“I know yours, General Berenike—who led the left flank at the battle of Norete, who carried a shield embossed with a map of the world’s mountains, who vies for control of the land left leaderless when your conquering ruler died. I know, also, that your horse starved two weeks ago in the hills to the south of this temple, and that you survived this far by eating it.”

Berenike is traveling the desert to the temples of the winds, stopping to make offerings. The winds are fond of bells. Her destination is the temple where the winds are born.

This is fine work, mythic in scope. Without people, we are told, there could be no winds, not as they are now. The winds are all distinctive characters, some soft and some harsh. “Your mouth is hanging open like a bell,” the South-East Wind said. “I wonder, if the wind blows between your teeth, will you clang or chime?” That’s strong imagery. The best piece yet I’ve seen from this author.

–RECOMMENDED



Strange Horizons, April 2014

A definite theme in this month’s original fiction: victims/survivors of violent trauma.

“Snakebit” by Amanda Downum

Lanie’s father once told her that she was “snakebit”, as the rest of her family had been – a sort of hereditary curse that leads them to unhappiness, drunkenness, and running off. Her brother Cody had run off, after attacking Lanie and burning down the horse barn. Now she is married with two daughters and only a lingering discontent, until a spooky stranger comes to town to tell her Cody is finally dead, and Lanie recognizes something in this man called Jonas Crow.

She should be terrified. She should be angry. But she recognized the electric shiver that rose in her as anticipation. How long had it been since she’d felt that?

An ambiguous fantasy. There’s no real evidence of anything supernatural in Lanie or her family; the reference to snakebite would seem to be something like a psychological disorder, or perhaps only metaphorical. Except that Lanie immediately sees that Jonas Crow is a killer, and possibly more. The author hints. Is the man older than he ought to be? What does he feed on? But nothing beyond hints. Readers may wonder; we’re meant to wonder, but not to know. What we don’t see is the conflict inside Lanie. We see her past traumas, her past wildness. We see her present discontent – but not to understand it. This only give credence to the supposition that her curse is something tangible and real, that her problems are more than human ones.

“The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin

A sort of unnumbered list story, very short, on the phenomenon of serial killer survivors – the particular sort of serial killer who preys on young women. There are suggestions here that this might be the cinematic sort of killer, but the pain described is real. In any case there seem to be enough of these that their survivors – their last survivors – can form support groups. There are no names here, and “the final girl” seems to refer both to all such survivors and one in particular who never stands out as a person, who doesn’t have an actual story here but only stands for the phenomenon, a pain that never ends.

“Pavlov’s House” by Malcolm Cross

It seems that a corporate lab in the US has figured out how to clone dogs that seem in almost all respects to be human, to serve as supersoldiers, “genetically engineered to kill human beings more quickly and efficiently than even the biowarfare agents could”. They are born in litters, they grow more at the rate of dogs than humans, and they’re sent out as packs, the members intended to be interchangeable. But they are not, they are individuals, and they begin to give themselves names. Sokolai and his brothers have found themselves in Tajikistan, fighting a band of revolutionaries. They are trapped inside a house with a dead family of residents, and hundreds of revolutionaries surrounding them, whom they kill. After the war, after the dog/soldiers are freed and adopted into human families [where Sokolai is called "Socks"] he continues to suffer from PTSD.

“I’m having trouble focusing right now,” Sokolai managed to say. It took an effort because making noise meant you could be overheard, and that meant someone could triangulate your position off the sound of your voice and shoot you, and Sokolai didn’t want to be shot, he didn’t want to die.

Strong and effective tale about the human costs of survival in combat, even if the survivors aren’t entirely human. Sokolai’s confusion, his occasional regression into a fugue state, is quite convincing, both as human and dog. But only the human in him could come to believe he was created to be a monster, and want to be otherwise. It’s notable that Sokolai’s stress is greatest under conditions that normal people would call normal, but he can only find sanity by fleeing back to the battlefield.

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, April 2014

Reading the Wednesday stories, all but the last one. I’m fascinated yet perplexed by the Wilson piece.

“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson

Primarily, a story set shortly after the American Civil War about a family with hereditary “old Africa magic”. It seems that back then there was a prince of dogs who was a sorcerer and mated with a human woman. Members of the family can now take the form of dogs but can’t return to human form, because in the generations since, brought to America by slavery, most of the magic has been lost, so that Easter was born with the power but not the full knowledge of using it. Still, they grow prime tobacco in a part of the country where the climate shouldn’t allow it, and they have a trove of Confederate gold obtained, apparently, by magical means. And Easter is surrounded by invisible “angels” who obey her small requests and hint that they might do greater things for her, for a price that she has learned not to pay. But the angels aren’t actually angels, and readers know that people called sorcerers are likely to practice a malign brand of magic.

When Easter was six years old, too young to know better and certainly too young to make a contract, she made a mistake and then a deal with the devil, a deal that came with at a very high price, to be paid when she became twelve. The narrator quotes a fictitious scholar:

‘The Devil’ in Africa had been capricious, a trickster, and if cruel, only insomuch as bored young children, amoral and at loose ends, may be cruel: seeking merely to provoke an interesting event at any cost, to cause some disruption of the tedious status quo. For the Devil in America, however, malice itself was the end, and temptation a means only to destroy. Here, the Devil would pursue the righteous and the wicked, alike and implacably, to their everlasting doom…

The Devil in America, however, also seems in this story to be the white man, who appears here only in malevolent form. And the devil Easter meets in her father’s tobacco field is definitely an American, not an African version, a mostly-white man wearing part of a Confederate uniform, clearly signifying that he is no one for Easter to trust, had she known better. Can we suppose that the devil is always the same, everywhere, only under a different guise? Or is this a specifically white-American devil, taking advantage of a vulnerable child for an excuse to destroy a colored community that may be under the protection of transplanted African magic?

The question is central to understanding the story. The narrative strongly suggests that the calamity befalling the town of Rosetree is the direct consequence of Easter’s bargain with the devil, the price she agreed to after she called for help. And that therefore what happens is Easter’s fault, because of a mistake she made at an age of innocence. Is this how we must understand the events? Did the devil, at the appointed time, come amongst the local whites and send them into Roseville to do his murderous work? That nothing would have happened without the demonic will? Or are we to understand the figure as the collective will of the white population’s racist hate, taken visible form?

In the primary story, Easter’s story, it’s clear that the devil, the magic, the evil must be taken seriously, that they are all quite literally real, not to be reduced to figures of rhetoric. We see Easter’s “angels”, we hear the malice in their voices, we see the destructive consequences of their acts. We see Easter’s brother in the form of a dog, and we know that the magic has not only taken all her siblings, leaving her the only surviving child, but her mother’s family as well. All of this is the old Africa magic, before Easter made her bargain, most of it before she was born.

But is there one devil in this story, or two? The devil that Easter’s mother warned her about was a woman in a red silk dress, not an ex-Confederate man. Yet the devil in the tobacco field could easily master the African sorcery, either because he was stronger or because it was all one and the same. Easter never called out to her angels when the killing began, but we already know it would have done her no good, that they would or could not have helped her. They told her that the picnic wouldn’t be spoiled by rain, but they were silent about the worse that was about to happen. Out of malice, impotence, or complicity? One aspect of Easter’s Africa-magic heritage does still work, does allow her escape. But perhaps that wasn’t part of the devil’s bargain.

Yet the matter is more complicated and ambiguous. There is a metafictional aspect to this work. After opening with a dedication to the author/narrator’s [?] father, the text begins with “Dad” listing a number of notorious white-on-black killings. This makes it a self-spoiling story; from the first line, readers know what’s going to happen, which undercuts the possibility of tension in the plot. Yet it also emphasizes the historicity of the story’s account. The massacre in Rosetree may be fictional, but it’s also true, just as it’s true that similar events have been taking place throughout US history. Contrary to the primary story, however, the comments from Dad suggest that the evil is human, not supernatural; that the curse is the flaw of a nation, not the result of a child’s bargain. The fictional scholar is quoted again to suggest that the devil is a metaphorical one:

And much worse for the blacks of that era, one bad element or many bad influences—‘the Devil,’ as it were—might attract to an individual, a family, or even an entire town, the landfall of a veritable hurricane.

Yet to old Mrs Crombie of the story, there is no as it were. She can smell the devil’s actual presence. Who will deny this testimony?

“Ain’t nothing but a witch over here! I ain’t smelt devilry this bad since slavery days, at that root-working Bob Allow’s dirty cabin. Them old Africa demons just nasty in the air. Who is it?” Old Mrs. Crombie peered around with cloudy blue eyes as if a witch’s wickedness could be seen even by the sightless. “Somebody right here been chatting with Ole Crook Foot, and I know it like I know my own name.”

The conflicting views go beyond the ambiguous to the contradictory.

There’s even more, explicitly metafictional. Towards the end, Dad’s comments turn editorial and begin to comment on the text itself. From him, we learn that an element extremely crucial to the plot of the primary story has been omitted or excised, perhaps at his suggestion. I must say that the story makes a lot more sense now that we know this, but the narrative strategy here is unclear; I suppose it might be the author’s way of presenting alternative versions of the same tale. It seems even moreso, later, as Dad questions the story’s epilogue. Now, this is a long story, that the website presents on a single page. Yet this short epilogue is set off by itself on a second page, as if the site’s editors are following Dad’s suggestion. That’s downright odd. I don’t see, myself, that the section adds much to the primary story and think it could just as well have been omitted; the characters’ final fate is, as he remarks, inevitable yet also unremarkable. What it does, of note, is to introduce a single sympathetic ex-Confederate character, when all the whites up to this point have been faceless and almost nameless agents of the diabolic. But the overall effect of this intertextual commentary is to undermine the primary story, reducing it to a fictional artifact of an author [who is, after all, "Dad" as well] to make it feel less real to readers. Almost as if to say: well, we all know there really isn’t a devil, after all, no matter what the story says, no matter what the characters believe and see, questioning or denying their testimony. It’s all something made-up as a way of talking about race violence.

This, when the primary story is so extremely, vividly real to us. There’s so much here to appreciate and admire, fine storytelling with a clearly-realized setting and characters. It’s a women’s story, and the really powerful characters are the mothers: strong mothers, weaker men, and downright meek daughters. Easter’s mother is in many ways the story’s central figure; she commands attention even when not holding an axe. There are also the sharp-edged details of everyday women’s life: pulling the smoking hot cornbread out of the oven, churning the cream and working the butter, waiting with anxiety for the man who’s gone to do business with the whites. The language, also, the dialogue is vividly done, including the Francophone characters ["Je me comporte toujours bien, Maman."] We react to all this as real and true, and because of it, we’re inclined to believe in the reality of the magic, of the devil when he appears. To suppose it was all a rhetorical vehicle is a disappointment; I think a lot of readers who love the fantastic are going to prefer the vehicle.

On the other hand, deliteralizing the story, rejecting the reality of the magic and the devil both, perforce rejects Easter’s guilt for the massacre, which readers should have found unacceptable, and places it on the members of the mob, where we should think it properly belongs. This story presents more hands than the death goddess Kali, but this means it provokes a lot of thought.

–RECOMMENDED

“Something Going Around” by Harry Turtledove

The narrator goes into a bar and meets a nice lady. They get to talking. She’s a parasitologist, so they talk about parasites, including Toxoplasma, in which I take an interest because I, too, have cats; it can make cat people nervous.

“Rats and mice carry Toxoplasma, the same way we do,” Indira said. “It doesn’t make them sick, either. But if normal mice or rats smell cat urine, they show fear. They run. They hide. They know that smell means danger. Rats and mice with Toxoplasma aren’t afraid of cat piss. Which rats and mice do you think the cats eat more often? Where does the Toxoplasma need to go?”

It’s an idea story, a talky story, but that’s OK because the author makes the dialogue sufficiently sprightly and at the same time both arcane and gruesome, to engage reader interest. The idea part is pretty obvious from the opening, but it’s kept up with current research. I, however, found the Gothic neep more interesting.

“Cold Wind” by Nicola Griffith

The narrator goes into a bar on the winter solstice – a portentous time. She’s waiting for someone. Someone arrives.

My aorta opened wide and blood gushed through every artery, all my senses gearing up. But I pretended not to see her. I gazed out of the window, at the sleet turning to snow, the air clotting with cold, and the pavement softening from black to gray. Reflected in the glass the women around me were coming alert, spines straightening, cheeks blooming, capillaries opening.

We might think at first that the attraction is simply sex, but it’s more, a drive almost as old, and mythic, fitting the season.

Rich description here. One thing about a writer like Griffith, I can read an opening like this with complete confidence there won’t be a glittery vampire in the bathroom. Although I can’t help wondering why she chose Onca as her character’s name – long ago and far away, to be sure, but out of all the possible species, probably the least suited for the long chase.

“The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey

Crossing the apocalypse story with mundane literary nihilism, we have here a dismal future in which ruin is engulfing the world. Married couple Ben and Lois attend a prolonged artsy house party in an enclave of the rich and celebrated where they meet the mutilation artist Veronica Glass. Everyone succumbs to existential freedom because what does it matter what they do now that ruin is at hand? The scene causes Ben to question his life, his art [mediocre poetry], his marriage; he struggles with a perverse attraction/ revulsion for the mutilation artist. But he is also concerned for the innocent young child of his hosts, exposed daily to adult self-destruction.

It would take a thick volume to list all the works that this one evokes; there’s an entire genre of life-is-meaningless fiction, with its pointless lives drowning in quotidian adulteries and alcoholisms, drugs and self-destructive thrillseeking. Ben, a veteran of the MFA circuit with his uncelebrated collections of poetry, is precisely the sort of figure who seems to belong there. I originally thought of the story at hand as a parody of that genre, but parody is a form of humor, and this is too depressing, too tragic for the name. It is more properly, I believe, a rebuttal. Ben, after flirting with nihilism, discovers life-affirmation.

As an apocalypse story, this isn’t very sciencefictional, even less so than the film Melancholia, of which it reminds me. Whatever is happening is given no reason, no cause, no name, other than “ruin”. It is given realistic description:

And it was to ruin that they came at last. They stopped at its edge, a ragged frontier where the beach turned as black and barren as burned-over soil, baked into a thousand jagged cracks, and the surf grew still, swallowed up by the same ashen surface. Digging their toes in the sand, they stood in the shadow of Bruno Vinnizi’s ruined beach stair and gazed out across the devastation. Vinnizi’s shattered corpse lay among the rocks, arms outflung, one charred hand lifted in mute supplication to the sky. As they stood there, the wind picked up and his outstretched fingers crumbled into dust and blew away, and the sea, where it still washed the shore, retreated down the naked shingles of the world.

But the human landscape seems almost untouched by ruin’s impending. The residents of the enclave keep up their lives and their parties almost as if nothing is happening around them. They have an abundance of food and liquor, the power functions without interruption, cannibalistic mobs of the dispossessed are notable by their absence. The ruin is not here for us, the readers, to believe in, but for Ben and his fellow enders to believe in, to react to, in the bubble that the author has made for their lives.

–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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