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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May


Playing catch-up here, trying to cover as many publications as I can get in before the end of the month. The prize this time goes to Tor.com, offering a fine set of original stories.

Publications Reviewed


Interzone 252, May/June 2014

An issue featuring Neil Williamson. Some apocalypse stories and a bunch of relationship stories, not exactly what I usually expect to find in IZ.

“The Posset Pot” by Neil Williamson

Post apocalypse. It seems that bubbles of some other universe keep showing up on Earth, exchanging their contents. Where this occurs, as in Jim’s home Glasgow, the topography resembles a Swiss cheese.

The building’s lovely, overworked symmetry has been sliced through so often now, sphere after sphere intersecting with the remains of the masonry, that those once ornate neo-gothic spires have been turned into a forest of precarious, delicate peaks; imagine African termite mounds modelled by rudimentary algorithm, but too slender, too sharp.

For Jim, surviving depends on scrounging, from the local ruins and, with occasional luck, from what the bubbles bring. Like the posset pot. His aged housemate Ettrick, who never goes out but relies on what Jim brings back, recognizes what it is and decides that what Jim really needs is a nice comforting posset.

A strong story of loss. References to the narrator’s lost girlfriend/wife seem gratuitous, but I like the images of the ruined cityscape.

“The Mortuaries” by Katharine E K Duckett

On a crowded, built-over Earth, young Tem loves to visit Brixton’s mortuary, enjoying “the sleek vaults, inviting and bright”, the tableaux of the deceased and the recorded narrative of their lives.

Tem pulled his chaperone by the hand to see his favorite vaults: often the ones that contained children his own age, who he liked to imagine would be his friends, if he were in the mortuary, too.

He loves the spaciousness of the vaults, the clean and quiet there, in contrast with the squalid, teeming world of the too-many living in a world where the population has reached critical mass. But there is another mortuary, the evil twin of Brixton’s, and this is where Tem’s father goes when he gives up on living.

A particularly grim and gruesome apocalypse as Earth’s human population collapses under its own weight. It’s not a story of loss, as people here have long had nothing to lose but their lives, which are seen by many of them as a burden. Tem is a striking character, an innocent, a person not made for the world in which he lives, who attempts to retain, if not hope, at least respect for life. And the image of the mortuaries is a powerful one. I’m dubious, though, that such a world would afford the relative luxury of a mortuary at all, or expend the resources, or retain the space for the dead, or that there would be room for recognizing individuals out of all the masses that fill the living space and die in crushing heaps in this world without hope.

“Diving into the Wreck” by Val Norton

The wreck being Apollo 11, the mission’s ascent module, jettisoned and lost until this near future moment when it is discovered on the moon. The mystique of Apollo has had many people searching for that module, none more fervently than Arthur.

If Eagle was out there then he meant to find it, retrieve and restore it so it might inspire once again. For Arthur, you see, the study of Apollo was not just facts and figures. No, it was something more, an act of resurrection, an effort to recreate the pure optimism of that first real human embarkation to the stars.

The nameless narrator, his wife Lena, and Art were was a threesome, wedded to the past dream of space, but it died for the narrator when Lena did. Now Art wants to call him back, to revive the old dream, but Lena’s dream was always the unobtainable mystique. She would have preferred the module remain lost.

A truncated piece that feels like someone had cut the center out of it and jumped right to the conclusion. Here’s an idea, a theme, but a real story didn’t grow from it. I note that the narrator addresses Arthur, either by his full name or Art, numerous times, but no one ever addresses the narrator so that his name is annoyingly kept from the reader. The text is mostly backstory about the narrator’s relationships with his late wife, rather than his present-story relationship with Art concerning the plan to retrieve the lost module. I wish it had made better use of its title, using these lines of the Adrienne Rich poem:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Oliver Buckram

A sort of list story, “a fun getting-to-know-you game” in which the narrator makes three statements and “you” are supposed to guess which is the lie. Also to assemble the story from the parts, which include suggestions from the narrator that “you”, the man who may or may not have washed up on her beach, are (1) an alien (2) a metaphor for Aeneas, who seduced Dido, then sailed away. We can be fairly certain that this is about a failed love affair, but all the rest might be a lie.

(1) While visiting the underworld, Aeneas (alive) encountered Dido (deceased).
(2) She refused to look at him.
(3) I’m sure this incident made her feel much better.

Lite and clever.

“A Brief Light” by Claire Humphrey

Ghosts are showing up all over the place, sometimes in the form of birds, sometimes as the humans they used to be. The ghost at Lauren and Richard’s place is a bird, and it leaves the windows open so it’s always cold. Lauren’s would-be lover Jo has a bird, too.

A great big pelican flapped across the room, right in front of me. I flinched and yelped and slopped latte over my hand. The pelican turned into a woman, a middle-aged black woman with a long elegant build and hollow cheeks. She stood in the doorway to Jo’s kitchenette and lifted her hands, beseeching, unbuttoned cuffs sliding down bony wrists.

And Richard’s mother has had to leave her house and move in with them, when his brother Martin comes back from his suicide in his own form, to sulk. In the midst of all this, Lauren and Richard have an epiphany about their marriage, which might well have happened without the ghosts, or the ghosts might well have happened without the epiphany. OK. But you carry this far enough, you get to the point where you don’t really need a story to read the message from, you could just as well get it out of the air. I do like the ghost-birds, though.

“Sleepers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Here, it’s apparitions showing up all over the place, this time called sleepers, in the form of night horses, more or less.

A white blur, the slight shape of thin, bellbottom legs – thick at the bottom near its hooves and covered in matted white fur – galloping through the otherwise empty street.

The narrator sees a sleeper while she’s waiting for her father die, which she wonders if it has Significance. She wonders if it is her father’s spirit, trying to escape. Or watching her.

The juxtaposition of this story and the previous is odd. They are too similar, narrators reading meaning into apparitions, reflecting their own concerns, sparking their own epiphanies.


Tor.com, May 2014

Including the last story from April, a superior assortment of fiction, substantial in length and subject matter, offering a lot of fine reading. The prevailing tone is dark, with Lovecraftian notes. I’m particularly happy with the Tambour and Valentine stories.

“The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert

The author previously known as M Rickert. A novella split up annoyingly into 8 successive screens. A mysterious stranger drives into the village, his vehicle a hearse, and he proceeds by means not natural to seduce and impregnate a large number of the female residents, although this fact wasn’t recognized at the time; oddly, none of them seem to be aware that their lover’s favors are being shared among so many of their neighbors. These women range from underage teenagers to wives, mothers, and widows. At least one is thought to be a lesbian, which seems to have been irrelevant to the seducer. But this is only part of the general oddness, whereby all these women, so very different, react to the situation in the same way as the rest. Uniformly, they regard the experience as a wondrous thing. “When he held me I felt like I was being held by an angel. I felt like I would always be safe. I felt holy.”

It’s the first thing that comes to mind, reading this, that the stranger, with his appealing blue eyes and attractive scent, must be an angel, as several of the mothers supposed. That, and the wings; the children of these matings, all boys, are born with wings, and we automatically think of angel wings. Not so, however. The wings are not feathered; in fact, they’re sharp – sharp to cut at a touch. That suggests a very different association. If the stranger had wings himself, however, we do not know; none of the mothers has reported seeing them.

Almost uniformly, the mothers regard their children’s wings as something wrong, even monstrous. Uniformly, they treat them as a matter to be concealed, by all means, even from the most sympathetic people. None of them take their babies to be seen by a doctor, and most keep them swaddled in one way or another, to keep them from flying where they can be seen. This reaction is not limited to the mothers. Pete Ratcher, husband of Theresa and father of Elli, takes one look at his winged grandson and disposes of it as he would a deformed animal on the farm. Which suggests strongly that the mothers are right and reasonable to keep the wings a secret, for the children’s sake, lest others bring out their shotguns and open fire on the demonic flying things. But what the mothers do later, once their secret has gotten out, seems increasingly unreasonable; it seems like mass insanity, or perhaps even demonic possession.

And that is the question this story asks, without answering. Do the mothers of Voorhisville represent a case of mass possession? Is the similarity of their reactions the result of their similar circumstances, or is it something they are made to do, by the same force directing their actions, as an ant parasitized by a liver fluke will climb a blade of grass so it can be eaten by a sheep and pass on the infection. But we understand the liver fluke; it means to reproduce. If this is the means that the mysterious demonic stranger has adopted for reproducing his own kind, it’s a singularly disastrous method. If there’s some other reason for what he’s done, it’s hard to imagine what it might be, and this, more than anything else, is what makes the scenario horror.

The lengthy text is narrated in a number of distinct voices, for the most part the individual mothers, but occasionally the collective voice of “The Mothers”. If we assume that this is a case of mass possession, it would seem that this last is the voice of the possessor. But in the individual voices, we see the personalities of the narrators, the differences among them. We have the two teenagers: Maddy, who cherishes and accepts her son, and Elli, who secretly wishes hers would die. Several of the narrators dissent at times from the collective decisions. But in vain, and that, too, makes this tale horror.

Normally I like ambiguity in a story; it offers possibilities rather than restricting the storyline to one direction. Here, however, we have less ambiguity than confusion, and rather than opening possibilities, it leaves us in frustration with the inexplicable.
Still, this is a powerful, moving piece about motherhood, the special bond between mother and child, even when the child might be a monster. Although the children here show no clear signs yet of emerging monstrosity, it’s a reminder that there are indeed monsters born into our world, and many of them have mothers who love them, who want to protect them, at any cost.

“Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes

A feminist retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, “The Jew in the Thornbush”. In 17th century Germany, when the blood libel against the Jews is prevalent, Itte’s father Yakov was a peddler who fell victim to a man who had been the recipient of the usual three magic gifts from a fairy, one of which was an enchanted fiddle that forced everyone to dance as long as it played.

The residents of Dornburg were proud of their story, how they had destroyed the nasty Jewish peddler. How a passing fiddler had tricked the Jew into a thornbush and then played a magic fiddle that made him dance among the thorns, until his skin was ripped and bloody, and how the fiddler would not leave off until the Jew had given over all his money.

Itte, his only daughter, vows revenge against the fiddler and the town, both for her father’s sake and her mother’s, who never recovered from his loss. Her resolve is tested in a dream, and when she persists in it, the dream figure makes herself known as the Matronit, Kabbalist version of an ancient Semitic goddess. With the aid of the Matronit’s power, Itte is a match for the fiddler’s magic.

This piece is strongly rooted in Jewish history and folklore, with an emphasis on the feminine aspect. It is Yakov’s wife and daughter who seem to feel his death most acutely, who can’t carry on with the normal course of their lives. It is only his daughter who feels the impulse of vengeance. And while Yakov had been a pious man, Itte feels that his god had betrayed him by failing to protect him, which causes her to doubt her faith. The Matronit is more the kind of deity she wants; the Matronit does something about the crimes against the Jews. And the Matronit’s power is particularly female, causing Itte, a virgin, to lactate when she needs to take a position as a wet-nurse in the course of her plan.

Fairy tales were traditionally bloody-minded. Revenge was a common theme, and it often took a gruesome form. Thus it’s disappointing that when we reach the end of this one, we find the author pulling her punch. Faced with the Matronit’s fitting gruesome plans for Dornburg, Itte turns merciful and the story turns mawkish.

On the other hand, we might consider just how Dornburg deserves this punishment. There is one undeniable villain in the story, the fiddler. He has acted solely out of malice and greed, and is certainly the proper object for Itte’s revenge. But what of the town officials who carried out the hanging? They only acted after Yakov’s forced confession, when they themselves had been subjected to the same torture-by-dance; if he could not be blamed, how can they? And when Yakov came at first to make his complaint against the thieving fiddler, these officials immediately arrested the man and were about to hang him before his magic intervened. So are they innocent? Is the town? The reason they are not is that Dornburg has subsequently owned the act. They tell the story of tricking “the wicked Jew” proudly. The town tavern is named The Dancing Jew; their children play a game, Dance-the-Jew. This is enough for the Matronit to establish their collective guilt.

I do like the way this tale is tied to the better-known stories in which thorns are used as a snare, particularly the variants of Sleeping Beauty where the princes errant perish in the thorns as they attempt to reach the enchanted castle. The German “Dornburg” refers to the word for a thornbush. Wicked, deadly things, those thorns.

“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys

A tale that will best be appreciated by readers familiar with the Lovecraftian mythos. When the US government raided Innsmouth and destroyed its cult center, Aphra Marsh was taken with her family to a desert internment camp, as far as possible from their ancestral home in the sea.

The state stole nearly two decades of my life. The state killed my father, and locked the rest of my family away from anything they thought might give us strength. Salt water. Books. Knowledge. One by one, they destroyed us. My mother began her metamorphosis. Allowed the ocean, she might have lived until the sun burned to ashes. They took her away. We know they studied us at such times, to better know the process. To better know how to hurt us. You must imagine the details, as I have. They never returned the bodies. Nothing has been given back to us.

At last, after WWII, the authorities have begun to realize their error, and the children of Innsmouth, at least, were released. Aphra has settled in foggy San Francisco, where she works in a bookstore owned by a collector of works of her people’s history and religion – kept from her up to now. She is terrified when a government agent approaches her, trying to recruit her to inform on cultists who might constitute a danger to humanity.

This is anything but a typical Lovecraft pastiche; indeed, it updates and inverts the original material in a number of ways. The prose, and Aphra’s narrative voice, are controlled, without histrionics. No one goes insane, gibbers, or dances around sacrificial altars. Aphra makes her ancestral religion and history a rational system built around mind, although blood certainly plays its important role. All she wants now is to recover what is possible of her heritage, so the knowledge won’t be lost.

Most importantly, it’s a story less about the Lovecraftian religion than our society’s reaction to the presence of beliefs it can’t accept or understand. It reflects modern sensibilities and values, rejecting the original material’s deep strain of racism. The author makes an explicit comparison with the Marshes’ fate and that of the Japanese-Americans interned during the war; Aphra is now lodging with one such family, who respects her differences. We can also see echoes of the Red-scare witchhunts of the 1950s, when the story is set, and the antiterrorist witchhunts of today – some things don’t change so much, and intolerance is one of them, as well as the bureaucratic suspicion of ideas it considers subversive of the established order.

“The Walking-Stick Forest” by Anna Tambour

Returned from the war to the wilds of Scotland, Athol Farquar creates walking sticks from living blackthorn trees, twisting and contorting the young shoots into unique shapes.

It was almost as if he enchanted the blackthorn. Thorns were his caressers. Branches bent to his will. And he loved bringing up his creations so much that many a moonlit night he spent bending, moulding, tending, admiring and listening, hearing and smelling the night breath of the forest.

His sticks are collectors’ items, very valuable, but some commissions he refuses, and he considered the proposal of Richard Galveny to be so obscene, he caned the man by way of emphasizing his refusal. Now Galveny is returning to kill him for the offense, which Farquar learns from the man’s daughter and victim. He isn’t impressed by the threat.

A tale dark in mood, dark in setting, a forest where light barely penetrates. Superior prose that lifts a fairly commonplace plot to a new level. This is how to work with thorns!

–RECOMMENDED

“The Insects of Love” by Genevieve Valentine

A story of sisters and the bond between them. As a child, Soraya didn’t understand how much Fairuz cared for her. She tried to scare her once with a large mantis, or so Soraya thought at the time, but the incident inspired a attraction to insects, and she become an ecological entomologist, which may have been the real point. Fairuz, after several false career starts, joined a secretive government organization where her letters home were censored, but Soraya gets the sense that she’s trying to tell her something, writing from her last posting in the desert and repeating the statement, “I’m out of time.” The authorities tell Soraya that her sister has gone alone into the desert and must be presumed dead, but she doesn’t believe it, or at least doesn’t believe it was an accident.

I wish, unfairly, that she’d let me grieve for a little while. If she’s only dead, if I go to the desert and there’s nothing, I can’t still be holding these letters. I can’t keep going like this, if she’s really gone.

The narrative is punctuated by fascinating imaginary insects such as Cetonia aphrodite, the Venus beetle, that produce erotic or euphoric sensations in human beings, which has often led to a trade in the creatures that threatens their extinction. Saving such species has become Soraya’s life work, and now it seems that Fairuz is involved, as well.

An intricately plotted and enigmatic account, in which memories turn out to be untrustworthy and events fall out of order. Incidents that at first seem to be random are revealed as anything but, such as the time that Fairuz took Soraya along while she got a large, complex star map tattooed on her back. It is all part of a message she’s leaving her sister, encoded so that only she will understand. I suspect that if the editors of The Journal of Unlikely Entomology read this piece, they’ll be awfully jealous.

–RECOMMENDED


Lightspeed, May 2014

Including another installment in the ongoing Matthew Hughes serial, which, again, is the most enjoyable original piece here.

“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson

We seem to have an alternate history here, where the Soviet Union fought a land war in Europe against the Americans. In this timeline, Valentina Tereshkova and Zhanna Yorkina were not cosmonauts but military truck drivers.

In the war, [Tereshkova] never showed any fear, not at Fulda, not even in the snows of Vogelsberg when the Americans dropped the first bomb. When Clinton and Yeltsin shook hands at Yalta, when the word came down to the 8th Guards Army to yield Frankfurt and withdraw to Soviet soil, Tereshkova spat into the dirt and said: “Too bad. We were turning things around.”

After the war, however, she develops a fear of the sound of diesel engines. Yorkina, her former co-driver, is even more traumatized. When she is offered a new form of psychosurgery, Tereshkova agrees, largely to help Yorkina.

The story opens: “The surgery makes Tereshkova into a tank.” Now, this is science fiction, where we have often seen humans transformed in some way into cyborged vehicles, so readers may think at first that the character has literally been melded into an armored tank. It turns out, however, that this transformation is metaphorical; Tereshkova’s fear has been short-circuited in her brain. What the story addresses is the trauma of war, and the all-too-common compulsion of soldiers to deny their fear. I’m not sure why the author chose to use the identities of these cosmonauts in his story; it’s a thing that tends to make me uneasy, using the identities of actual persons in such a way.

“Selfie” by Sandra McDonald

A future where time travel is a mainstay and people reside on the moon. Which is to say that Susan’s father is a tourist guide to the uncomfortable, flammable past, while her mother is on the moon. Now, to avoid another itchy sojourn in 1899, Susan plots to spend the time instead with her mother, instead, while sending a robotic double [the selfie] along with her father as a companion. Her plot suffers a glitch when a micro-asteroid collides with her spacecraft, leaving only the selfie surviving.

A story of individual identity and memory. Susan-the-selfie knows what she is yet thinks of herself as the genuine Susan. The original, however, had left certain facts out of her memory, such as Carlos. This is also a story of love, as we see Susan’s father sacrificing everything for the daughter he no longer has. Cleverly done, poignant yet told in a lightly humorous voice, but I don’t like the term “selfie” here; the anachronism makes it hard to take the situation as seriously as we ought.

“Willful Weapon” be Fred Van Lente

A fantasy alternate world after “the Awakening blew the tops off the Hollow Hills, expelling the Tuatha de Danaan from the gleaming paragon cities of the Otherworld into damp, drab Eiru.” Now Cellach, a young Sidhe with a murder charge on his head, has passed through Ellis Island and ended up in Five Points as a thug in the street gang that owns his debt. His adventures in the new world are just beginning when the text ends, leaving readers hanging.


Strange Horizons, May 2014

Only two stories, depressing situations that resolve in epiphanies.

“Saltwater Economics” by Jack Mierzwa

Anna is doing a survey of dead things on the shore of California’s dying accidental Salton Sea, where a monster is reputed to lurk. Anna doesn’t fear the monster as much as a recurrence of her breast cancer.

Most field biologists only last a season or two at the Salton Sea. It takes its toll, working in a habitat that cycles annually between slow deterioration and sudden, catastrophic extinction.

Anna stays because she needs the health coverage, but she becomes intrigued by the monster, who ransacks her backpack, eats her granola bars and looks at the photos in the magazines, the comics and picture books, being particularly fond of porn. He speaks Spanish and tells her his name is Félix. Anna is concerned about a growth on his neck, much like those on the dead and diseased fish from the sea’s toxic water.

A strongly-realized dismal setting, an extremely depressing piece, piling on the external decay of pollution, the internal rot of metastatic cancers, and the psychic corrosion of loneliness. Anna’s concluding epiphany may solve the last of these problems, but the larger disintegrations, of environment and society, don’t seem likely to find a solution.

“Sarah’s Child” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Problems here are all personal. Sarah begins to dream of being a mother, having a son named Sheldon. She tells herself she’s lucky in her life with her lover Janet, but that’s a lie. “I touched the space on my body where my womb would have been, if I’d been born with one, and ached.” Then she meets the actual Sheldon and discovers that he’s the child she would have had in the alternate universe where she was born a girl named June. It all turns out peachy and Sarah realizes she’s lucky, after all.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #146-148, May 2014

A three-issue month. Issue #146 has nonfantastic stories of quasi-siblings; #147 is monsters; #148 explores varieties of fanaticism.

#146

“The Lighthouse Keepers” by Nicole M Taylor

A story of sisters. Who, as is commonly the case, have a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship. After the lighthouse keeper dies, his daughters take over his official function, which is to say that Mona does, the responsible one, the capable one, the officious and sanctimonious, who looks down on Beatrice, the flighty, irresponsible, man-obsessed. Beatrice sees no reason to keep up the lighthouse; Mona insists there will always be a need for it – the truth of which depends on whether this setting is some version of our own, not so clear in the text. When Beatrice becomes pregnant after an affair with a soldier who deserted her, Mona insists that she herself is the only one responsible enough to be its mother. In the meantime, Beatrice seduces Mona’s husband, and the hostility and resentment among them continues to build.

This is a story in fragments, cut into sections and assembled out of order, beginning with the last. It seemed to me at one point that there must be two alternate endings going on, but I figured there’s a way to make it work as one vengeful tale. As we begin with “Mona’s children,” at the conclusion we have to wonder: what kind of relationship will this generation have as they grow up? It’s noteworthy that they aren’t sisters, and perhaps not even biological siblings. The possibilities tantalize. Other than the setting, there’s nothing fantastic here, and no adventure.

“The Dreams of Wan Li” by Andrea Stewart

Ling and Wan Li are children indentured in what seems to be an opium den, their task to creep below the haze of smoke and pilfer coins from the dreaming patrons. Breathing the smoke is dangerous, but Ling has a cherished dream of his own, involving Wan Li and a life of freedom. Wan Li, however, has always been the stronger one.

She wrapped her lips around the pipe, took in a deep draw of smoke, and then exhaled. The smoke formed. Two figures walked together, hand in hand. Wan Li and I. The smoke traveled further, forming a house, and then a field with sprouting greens. The shapes dissipated, swallowed by the air.

But the den is a place where dreams die.

Depression and hope vie with one another here, the cynical, hard-minded Wan Li and the dreamer Ling. Both, in their own ways, achieve their own dream, but it’s a question whether either has achieved happiness. Which makes me feel that depression definitely wins out. Again, except for possibly the setting, nothing here is fantasy.

#147

“We, As One, Trailing Embers” by E Catherine Tobler

Idalmis is two in one, two winged torsos rising from a single foundation, yet not identical twins; there is male and female, there is Beauty and there is Beast, and Beast has a terrible hunger. We might also think they are angel and devil, although the story doesn’t explicitly make this connection. Still, “Beauty wants so much to be good. Beast wants so much to be bad.” says enough. They are the star attraction in a freak show where most of the exhibits are manufactured fakes, flesh cut and sewn together. But Beast’s demonic hunger is overwhelming, despite Beauty’s protests, and it finally goes beyond their control.

Weird and disturbing erotic dark fantasy, full of the heat of twisted lusts. Idalmis lusts for theirself, but also uses their sexuality as a lure for their victims.

Always give them what they pay for, Jackson has told us. They pay for our time, our attention, for the feel of four hands upon flesh. She has touched us, so now we touch her, fingers withered and not plucking at her cotton dress the way she plucks at the silk which hides our secrets away. And then, this silk comes away, and she sees how we are made, and she slides from that civilized velvet chair and takes our soft flesh into her pink mouth, and the world washes away.

These are compelling/repellent images, sensuous yet strongly reflecting the pornographic allure of the freak show. The conclusion warps from a Halloween house of horror into the surreal, an aptly-named scene of hell, with a strong concluding image that melds it with a vision of heaven, the flight of angels.

Pronouns are important here. Idalmis is two individuals with one name, the story’s narrative voice that strongly prefers the “we”, but yearns for an “I”, for the two of them to be a “singular self”. Yet it becomes clear that this voice belongs to Beast, who, in speaking of Beast always uses that name and never “I” – “I” is reserved for the unified dream-self. Yet Beauty is, occasionally, “she”, object not subject. It is Beauty who is drawn by the possibility of separation, the freedom of flight. And perhaps repelled by Beast’s bloodlust, which she wants to stop and can’t. Perhaps. We don’t know, because we aren’t given access to Beauty’s own thoughts, don’t know if she might think sometimes of her individual self as “I”. Would she, in the final moments, have pulled away if she could? Or embraced the fate of “we”, as one?

One thing that bothers me: the character of Hoyt, the monster-fabricator, is perplexing. Idalmis surpasses all his artificial creations in appeal, yet Hoyt proposes to dismantle the wonder by severing them; I’m sure Mr Jackson, the show’s proprietor, would not approve.

–RECOMMENDED

“Here Be Monsters” by Carrie Patel

The narrator, who refuses to give his name, was shipwrecked on an island during a war that seems to be taking place in the equivalent of our late 19th century. He is concerned about a possible attack by an abyssus, a creature that presents a threat to ocean travel in this world.

You can recognize an abyssus by the shape of the water, but by then it’s too late. There’s a depression on the surface of the sea, as if something is sucking it down. Then the waters part, and whatever was unfortunate enough to get caught in the middle disappears beneath churning waves.

An abyssus will also sometimes come onto land, seeking light. The narrator’s more immediate threat, however, comes in the form of another apparent shipwreck victim, who takes away his lighter and flare gun, as well as pilfering his dwindling rations. It soon becomes clear that this man’s presence on the island is not by accident.

Not much mystery here, and fairly standard monsters.

#148

“The Use and the Need” by M Bennardo

Tom Brown is a beleaguered saloonkeeper, under constant assault by the cacophonous forces of the WCTU. Today, however, the enemy has deployed reinforcement in the form of a steam-driven robotic hatchetation engine.

Besides the hat, however, the thing wore no real clothes, so the circular stamp reading VULCAN IRON WORKS—WILKESBARRE, PENNA. was perfectly visible on its boiler-like torso next to a W.C.T.U. badge. Below, a chain-link skirt preserved some amount of modesty, swaying and rattling awkwardly around its legs with every awkward step. Its thick metal arms were jointed and riveted, and it gripped a formidable hatchet in its clenched and rigid hands.

Which about sums up this lite piece. I find it unfortunate that the law-abiding Mr Brown could not find protection against the regular vandalism of his business establishment. When we stop to think about this sort of vigilantism, it’s not really so funny.

“Celestial Venom” by Garnett Elliot

In a past India, Senjam Singh has come to Mount Muhundyana as an agent of a sinister organization known as the Grandfathers, his task to obtain the venom from the rare Gopti Serpent. As he expects, enemies of his organization attempt to prevent him, though he never expected one of them to be a blind woman. The most interesting character, however, is the old snake charmer, in whose presence things are not as they first appear.

The old charmer sat cross-legged in the clearing’s center, surrounded by at least a dozen prostrate Shudra workers. They wriggled against the dirt and each other as he played his pipe, emulating entwined serpents. Senjam’s vision blurred for a moment; when it cleared, the branches of the ashoka now dripped with sinuous, dark-banded snakes, so thick the trees appeared to be swaying.

Senjam achieves enlightenment, or as literary theory would call it, epiphany. The author attempts to make a point about caste segregation, but it never becomes really essential to the story.


Apex Magazine, May 2014

Three differently depressive stories, of which I enjoyed two.

“Paperclips and Memories and Things that Won’t Be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim

A very short, gently melancholy piece about the nature of ghosts, who collect things, depending on the nature of the ghost. A ghost in the narrator’s attic collected her infant son after he died at birth. She meant no harm, but the child was very much missed and his loss harmed the narrator. Even the baby collects “static from the radio and warm water from the bath and muffled voices that come up through the ceiling. Anything that reminds him of the womb.”

A sadly moving mood piece.

–RECOMMENDED

“Falling Leaves” by Liz Argall

An unlovely dystopia. It seems that large numbers of refugees “from the burning lands and the flooded coast” have washed ashore in Australia, where they have overwhelmed society to the point where the future for most is mere survival. Two outsider girls, one refugee and one “landed”, meet on the roof of their school and become grudging friends, the only friends either of them have because both are really disagreeable people. Everything here is ugly and hopeless, and there is at least one class of people even worse off than the licensed refugees. We don’t really know the extent to which these girls’ personalities are the product of their trying circumstances, which seem to be largely economic and Charlotte’s case and familial in Nessa’s. In fact, after reading this piece, I find myself quite depressed by it without really learning much at all about the characters. Its best use is as a Cautionary Tale for hard times to come, but some people manage to come through hard times as better people, and some don’t. Despite the insights these characters acquire in the course of these events, I don’t hold out much hope for them.

“Not Smart, Not Clever” by E Saxey

A different sort of dystopia, the dysfunctional world of the near-future university, churning out masses of useless and unemployable pseudoscholars. The institutions have become obsessed with rooting out plagiarism, as the students are increasingly incapable of producing worthwhile original work, to the point of requiring students to be face- and brain-scanned, and to sign lengthy [and plagiarized] non-plagiarism pledges. This unhinged our pseudonymous narrator’s ex-boyfriend to the point that he neglected his own research in attempting to create a plagiarism algorithm undetectable by current software. Lin herself was a successful student, a “swot”, one of the few actually capable original work, but when she found herself unemployable after getting her doctorate, she went into the “ghost-writing” business.

It’s fascinating to watch her hook and reel in her victims, a process much like pushing drugs.

The ones I don’t like, I do everything for them. I run all the searches and don’t show them how to use the databases. I steal their style and I tidy their grammar, but I don’t tell them what a comma splice is or how to use a semi–colon. They bob along. Sometimes they think what I do for them looks easy, and they try to write something of their own; their grades dip down, and they come back to me, begging.

The cleverness here keeps the tone from being too harshly bitter and makes it cynically entertaining, particularly for those of us who have been there and have the unmarketable degrees to prove it.

–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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