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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July


This wasn’t the column I’d intended to write, but material for review doesn’t always come in according to my plans. So here are a couple of the regular periodical, a less-regular one, and a couple of new [at least to me] publications. My favorite is Unlikely Story.

Here is also a theme, inspired or perhaps incited by the recent issues of Clarkesworld analyzing in great detail the publication statistics of genre short fiction by the sex of the author. I’m not claiming any particular significance for the numbers I discover, nor do I plan to make a habit of it.

Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld, July 2014

After taking note of the statistical articles, I observed that all three original stories here are by female authors, with female protagonists, which probably has nothing to do with the fact that this is a weak issue.

“The Contemporary Foxwife” by Yoon Ha Lee

This one is, for Lee, a simple and straightforward work, based on folklore that doesn’t seem to belong to any specific culture, but has a similar flavor to several that readers might recognize. Kanseun Ong is a music student who one day finds a foxwife at her door – a boy foxwife, as he calls himself, announcing that he is her foxwife. He is, in the manner of fox spirits, a shapechanger, and his role seems to be that of a housekeeper, not “wife” in the sense of a spouse. Kanseun can’t bear to turn him away. Eventually, as these stories usually go, her benevolence earns her the reward of help with a personal problem of her own. A piece with charm but conventional in form.

“Stone Hunger” by N K Jemisin

“Once there was a girl . . .” She has a name, but we never learn it. The girl lives in a world wracked by seismic disturbances, which may in part be natural but may also be the doing of entities with the ability to channel the power of the living stone into destruction. The girl is one such person. She breaks city walls so she can get inside to feed off the population. Her own city was once broken and killed by another such, whom she recognizes by his distinctive vinegar taste. Now she has come to a city that’s different in many ways.

There’s a lot in this premise that isn’t clear and even seems contradictory. We are told by the narrator that people like the girl can’t be permanent residents of cities, yet the girl with her family appears to have been permanently resident in her own city, “until the world broke.” It isn’t clear whether she had her powers from birth there, or if she acquired/learned them from necessity while out on her own roaming the broken world. “Once, she ate breakfast in the mornings”, but now she subsists in whole or part on the power in the stone – although this feeding leaves her still hungry and apparently in need of normal human food. Hunger is a constant with her; she eats normal food when she can get it, yet it isn’t clear how she feeds off the population, whether she just steals or goes further; some things in the text suggest she might be a sort of vampire. In the city [which probably also has a name, but again we never learn it] she finds that there are others of her kind, but also a very different, even more dangerous, kind. Their nature, their power, their hunger all remains unclear; all we know is that the girl’s kind fears them, yet one of them, at least, befriends the girl for reasons of its own, that we never learn.

There’s some striking imagery here, which is the best element of the piece.

—and it is easy—delicious!—to reach further down. To visualize herself opening her mouth and lapping at that sweet flow of natural force. She sighs and relaxes into the rarity of pleasure, unafraid for once, letting her guard down shamelessly and guiding the energy with only the merest brush of her will. A tickle, not a push. A lick.

The ending, after a nice vengeful scene, turns soft and conventional, which is dissatisfying. The girl, because of what she is, is an interesting character but not a sympathetic one. Although she regards herself more as a parasite [on cities] than a predator, parasites can kill; she habitually harms and kills others to assuage her own hunger. The text accurately calls her and her kind “monsters”, and for most of the story, it treats her with a cold and edged regard. When she takes her revenge, one of the others remarks that one day some new stranger is going to show up to take the same vengeance on her, and just as deservedly so. Then, suddenly, the edge softens and we are supposed to buy into a “awww, the poor widdle ting” conclusion, apparently for no other reason than this character being the protagonist chosen by the author. For such a conclusion to work, readers have to care about the character, and the story gives us no reason to.

I’m also dubious about the unnamed city’s sliding roof. Such an installation, as described, would seem to require close tolerances, which wouldn’t be possible when constant seismic disturbances are warping and collapsing its walls and foundations.

“Soul’s Bargain” by Juliette Wade

We begin with a reading from myth, its mythic language quite overdone, in which a goddess throws the souls of human heroes into the sky as a reward. Readers will assume that this will have Significance later on. The protagonist is Pelisma, now an old, blind woman but once acclaimed as a hero. What concerns her now are the floating sparks, wysps, that seem to be following her everywhere, ever since she began to lose her sight. Her people live underground for fear of these sparks and the fires they start on the surface, but they can appear even in the caves and tunnels where the people are building their cities. The author is coy; she doesn’t explicitly tell us in the beginning that Pelisma’s people are human colonists on an alien world, because, as soon as readers notice this, of course we know what the wysps must be. But making this clear upfront would render Pelisma’s entire quest moot, and there would be no story. Which would probably be for the best. I would particularly not regret the epiphanic conclusion, complete with violins and hosannahs of enlightenment.


Apex Magazine, July 2014

Tales of oppression and the efforts of the oppressed to resist.

Because I seem to be counting this time, there are two female authors and three female protagonists.

“The Food in the Basement” by Laura Davy

A familiar scenario: a vampire keeps a human locked up in the basement for the convenience of feeding. The fact that the vampire is male and the food female is likewise familiar; the thoughts this evokes cannot be ignored, and indeed, for many readers the associations with sexual predators may be primary. As we can recall from the news, such kidnap victims have often bided their time until they found an opportunity to escape.

The flat narrative voice is the most notable aspect of this one. The narrator keeps Sondra’s plans to herself and doesn’t let readers deeply into her thoughts. We have to wait to see what action she takes. Nothing surprising or novel here, but effectively done.

“Blessed are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando R Ocampo

An extreme religious dystopia set on a generation ship perhaps halfway to its destination. The colonists are crammed into tight quarters, forbidden birth control, and kept on starvation rations.

The only certain number was that each family had to maintain at least eight souls. This was the minimum at all times. I had always wondered how many people were already onboard our one–way trip to Gliese. The decks were forbidden to mix, although father said that hadn’t always been so. For all we knew, there were millions of people on the higher levels, multiplying like roaches behind our nano–plastic walls. That was probably why our rations got smaller every year–cycle, even when the mushroom harvests were good.

Birth defects have also risen among the population, and a few people can hear voices – a fact that they keep a strict secret, as heresies and deviancies of any sort are punished by expulsion through the airlock by the Domini Canes, the Bishop’s mechanical enforcers. The airlock gets a lot of use. At last the desperate denizens of Elsa’s deck decide to protest, whereupon she makes a fortuitous discovery.

There are two sides to this discovery. In the first, we learn the reasons behind the conditions on the ship, which make sense of the situation and explain how matters have reached such a low point. In the second, unfortunately, we discover the presence of a deus ex machina unexpected by Elsa or anyone else on her deck. Elsa is a character of strength and determination, but it isn’t these traits that allow her to prevail, it’s a factor from outside, supplied by the author. This makes the resolution less satisfactory.

“Insurrection in Silk” by Gillian Conahan

Following conquest, the silk merchants offer tribute to the Empress in exchange for their lives, and a merchant’s pampered daughter becomes the Imperial dressmaker, a life of stitching silk. By the time it is finished, hundreds of hours will be bound into the gown’s seams. “The stitches are a chronicle of her captivity, ticks of the clock like hatches on a cell wall.”

The strength of this piece is in the tension, the miasma of terror that pervades the Empress’s court. Readers can feel strongly how no one there is safe, even the dressmaker whose skill in creating the ruler’s silk gowns is without peer. Even better, we have no way to know if any single act of defiance will meet with success or punitive bloodshed. A well-done debut story.


Unlikely Story, June 2014

aka The Journal of Unlikely Cartography. This quirky little zine always manages to pull me in with its concepts, and this one delivers a couple of strong stories.

In the author sex count, we have five females and one lone male, with a lone male protagonist.

“How a Map Works” by Sarah Pinsker

Derona was a mapmaker before soldiers came, killed many of her people, and drove the rest far away to be imprisoned in caves. Her daughter Nomi was born there in the dark, has never seen the light. She asks questions, and Derona tries to answer, to teach her.

I know her face, though I have never seen it. I’ve learned to dress her cuts and bruises, to wash her, to treat coughs and fevers, all in the dark. Her hair would be thick and curly if it had proper care, like mine once was. I pick through its tangles strand by strand. I don’t know the color of her eyes.

There’s a very tight focus to this short piece. There’s no Why and little How to the current circumstances. A few people live in the dark. They sort rocks – whatever that means. There is a guard at the door [which implies a whole lot of guards if each one guards so few prisoners] who lets in food and sometimes takes away a prisoner, which seems to be a punitive act. But almost everything is Derona and Nomi, stacking rocks in the dark to make maps. Will this be always? Derona doesn’t want to answer, she doesn’t want to lie, unknowing. And readers know they don’t know, either.

The pieces in this zine tend to be on the light and absurd side. This one is not.

“How to Recover a Relative Lost During Transmatter Shipping, in Five Easy Steps” by Carrie Cuinn

An interview with Amrita Chakrabarty, whose smartass younger brother was screwing around with the transmatter shipping array, not intended for human use, and got himself lost in the system. Turns out, according to the other shipping clerks, he’d been doing this a lot, “not mentioning that he’d figured out a way to break himself into tiny pieces, a process that no one else has ever survived, and was shooting himself and you to parts unknown every time you three got bored on a Saturday night.” Only this time he didn’t come out on the other end.

Light and absurd. If readers were expected to take this scenario seriously, I doubt if anyone would credit that physicists could develop such a transmatter process without realizing it operated through wormholes, and that a bunch of bored shipping clerks would recognize the fact and not realize how it could be exploited for financial gain. The ending is odd, suggesting that the events continued after point where the narrative was broken off. Possibly the hint of a sequel?

“The Occluded” by Rhonda Eikamp

The other doctors, and definitely the cops, think Garland is a nutcase.

“Garland sees these patterns on the angiogram,” Baxton snorted. “In the lines of the arteries. They’re maps of cities, he says, or the patient’s house, and it shows him where things are lost or hidden. He helps people find things.”

When he assaults a patient under catheterization because he claims the heart map shows where he murdered Garland’s daughter, he goes way too far for the hospital administration. But Sonya Burmeister knows what it means to lose a young daughter, how it can mess up your life, your mind.

Definitely not light, involving the death of children, including serial murder. With regard to the mystery, I can’t help wishing the author had left the scene a bit more ambiguous, instead of pointing the finger of guilt. But that decision is the author’s privilege. The heart of the story, however, isn’t about guilt or innocence but loss and the damage it causes, the emotional myocardial infarction.

“All of Our Past Places” by Kat Howard

Miren’s friend Aoife has long been fascinated by St Patrick’s Purgatory, collecting maps of the place [which actually exists as an island near Ireland]. Now, having not heard from her, Miren discovers Aoife’s apartment deserted and the island’s location on the maps precisely burnt out.

The thing, of course, that’s supposed to happen in a situation like this is that you follow the other person to the Underworld. You bring them back. I mean, I’d been around Aoife long enough to be familiar with the stories. I knew the rules. Someone went to the Underworld, someone else came to get them, and then things didn’t work out. The end.

Still, someone has to try something.

A story of friendship and deep understanding of another person. Miren has known since childhood that Aoife’s maps were her ways of escaping her abusive home, and now her life’s pain. So while the first thing someone might think in this situation is suicide, Miren rejects it. Either way, however, there’s a great risk. Bringing a person back unwilling can be worse than leaving them there. Miren takes the chance in the belief that she knows Aoife well enough. Which is why this is Miren’s story, not Aoife’s, whom Miren knows but we do not.

“This Gray Rock, Standing Tall” by James Van Pelt

A story of fatherhood. In Robert’s childhood, his father Joel had been a man with an obsession, building a stone tower deep in the Olympic rainforest about a mile from his home. While young Robert was allowed to help him load the stone onto the ATV, he never saw the building; it was his father’s alone. After his death, Robert never saw the place again until now, when he returns with his son Pearce, who is just about the age he was when his own father died. He has found the map leading to the tower and wants to see it, wants his son to see it, wants to make a connection that hasn’t existed, since he and his ex had been divorced most of Pearce’s life, and the two of them are almost strangers. The trek is harder than he had expected, the trail harder to follow. But that is his own failure and the work of time, not the map maker or the builder.

My gaze had been resting on a fallen tree fifty feet away for several minutes before I realized that the middle had been cut from it, leaving a gap just big enough for an ATV. When we reached it, the trail was visible again, traversing the hillside, matching the left hand curve on the map. A few minutes later, and a hundred feet higher up the slope, a low wall reinforced the trail’s side, rising from the ground to three feet at the highest before sinking into the loam thirty feet later.

The forest setting is strongly evoked, but it’s a scene entirely of this world. The fantastic element is almost missing, and I wish it had been entirely, as it feels gratuitous and just a bit distasteful. As a mainstream work, it’s rich in mainstream values, the relationship between fathers and sons and the meaning of inheritance. Robert comes across as a man entirely estranged from life, from family, from purpose. Now he’s striving at last for connection, to discover his father and introduce his own son to him.

The story raises the issue of inheritance, which means more here than legal title to a piece of property. Joel was clearly a remarkable man, a man with an overriding vision, but for the most part, he shut his son out of it. Joel’s wife once called him a king, but Robert had no share in his kingdom. Joel didn’t seem to want him to. The kingdom was his because he created it, through his own work, not because he had inherited it. This makes me wonder what claim Robert has to it now, what claim he has to the allegiance of the kingdom’s subjects. What makes him a prince, if the king never did and he did nothing to earn the title but follow a map? This question bothers me perhaps more than it should, but it wouldn’t have been raised except by the story’s last lines.

“The Cartographer’s Requiem” by Shira Lipkin

A young singer, the lover of a famous cartographer now dead, has the honor of singing her long life. “This task — the singing — required someone who had known her mind.” Yet, once the song is over, we don’t, except for learning that she drew her maps in red.


Luna Station Quarterly, June 2014

It wasn’t exactly the best time for me to get Yet Another All-Female publication, in which we are told that women are angry because, presumably, they are being prevented from publishing. The evidence of the current batch of stories would argue otherwise, yet these sorts of zines keep springing up, causing cognitive dissonance.

So here we have eight short pieces of fiction [plus two reprints, although it’s not clear that the editors know about one of these] by eight women, mostly with main female characters. Not so many are outstanding, but I did find one gem.

“The Sacrifice” by Robin L Martinez

A too-familiar scenario. Humans originally from Earth have left their own planet and decide to take someone else’s, exercising a lot of brutality in the process. T J, daughter of a prominent general, has deserted to join the opposition but is now a prisoner who has just been brutally interrogated. It seems she has turned herself in for a chance to meet with her father, for a particular reason.

An unoriginal scenario with stiffness in the dialogue.

“The Matron” by Sandra Wickham

The narrator and her little sister Callie’s are the products of a mad scientist father, recently taken away and killed by government forces. They’ve been living inside the secret passages in the house where he had his lab, but now strangers have come, apparently intending to buy the house. This could be a problem, but the girls have Powers.

The title is odd. The story has little to do with the Matron, a thing in a tank from which the mad scientist has bred his daughters. The Powers they have are the usual sort, but it’s Callie’s weakness that makes her human and gives the story some heart.

“Tunbi” by Chikodili Emelumadu

When Tunbi asks, “What do you want to happen?”, it happens. The narrator says Tunbi’s mother was a fixer, and it seems she must be a fixer, too. Thus she is highly respected, even by people who originally scorned her as an obese, ignorant village girl. She’s always willing to help, and people always tell her their troubles.

Tunbi brought out a bottle and collected the woman’s tears and some snot from her nose and went away. It only took a week. A week before the Arab who had thrown Mrs Adegoke’s son from the top of a skyscraper was a splotch on the curb, in the exact same spot her son had landed.

Here’s a really memorable character! The narrative rests on a lot of vivid descriptions, often of high physicality. Tunbi’s method tends to use bodily secretions, tears and snot being far from the most gross. There’s also a strong erotic component; aside from revenge, Tunbi would seem to practice a lot of sex magic. It’s noteworthy that most of her activity seems to be on behalf of women, and practiced on men. There’s a strong women’s society here, in which the opinion of other women is critical.

They came to her with their ailments. Their husbands behaved. Their children thrived in school. She brushed off all the attention, much in the same way she had brushed off their outrage over her arrival.

Tunbi rules, but she rules well, where a woman less wise might turn tyrannical.

[I notice in reading so many of these works that female characters sometimes seem only nominally women; change the gender of pronouns from “she” to “he” and there would be little real difference. Not so with Tunbi. Her womanness would be evident without any pronouns to signify it; she could not be mistaken for anything but a woman.]

–RECOMMENDED

“Tourist Attraction” by Nina Shepardson

Based on a real attraction, the metal, fire-breathing Kahokia dragon. It mostly serves here as a symbol of liberation, as the protagonist frees herself from the clinging apron strings after her son leaves for college.

“Revision” by Penelope Schenk

Academic entanglements. John gets a plum anthropology assignment from his influential advisor, to study consequences of the recently-concluded war on Delfinio as it affected a small dissident group called the Editors. He has been given a partner, a woman named Julie who once had an affair, which ended badly, with his advisor. The research goes well.

The text also includes snippets from a manual of the Editors, which prove to be very interesting indeed; they are claiming to be able to edit reality and history.

STET
This exercise is useful when you’ve made a big decision and then realise that you’ve made the wrong choice. It requires nothing more than intense concentration on the moment just before the action you now regret. Some insist that the use of STET to remove controversial amendments to the Delfinio constitution sparked the recent Civil War, but his has been consistently denied by the Editors.

I very much like the notion of the Editors, the formulation of their techniques, and the story’s conclusion. I wish the background of Julie’s relationship with India had been better-integrated. [We have here a male narrator, but John is a nominal male; I see no difference that would have been made by switching gender of the pronouns. All the other characters we see are female.]

“Place of Plentiful Water” by Molly N Moss and Shereen Marie Jensen

Which is heaven, according to the Holy Qur’an. Shaista, having been stoned to death by the Taliban for being raped, knows that she isn’t there.

Instead she sees only Najeed Rawdah, the village where she lived and died. Patches of mud, made of her own blood mixed with the parched soil, stain the village courtyard. A village well stands in front of the stone-walled mosque, an oasis in a desert of ash-white dust.

Unfortunately, there’s not much more to this very brief piece. I can’t quite see how it took two people to write it.

“Forget about Me, I Am No One” by Megan Neumann

Channeling Odysseus, the collective calling itself NO ONE establishes control over society, with the rumored ability to read everyone’s mind. It selects the brilliant deviants for inclusion, and Dana’s friend Calvin receives the invitation no one can refuse. He claims to be proud, but they are both frightened.

That would be the last time I’d touch his fingers. Or any part of him. No one knew what happened to the body after joining the collective. The general consensus was the body was destroyed. To the collective, only the mind mattered.

A discouraging dystopia, not particularly original.

“Gretel” by Nancy O’Toole

A contemporary setting for the fairy tale. Not too contemporary, though; there are video games but no cell phones.


James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Issue 3, 2014

With this annual issue, the trend shifts, as two of the three original stories are by male authors, although one of these has a female protagonist. The issue doesn’t make a good case for male superiority.

“Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands” by David Bowles

Colonizing Mars has resulted in hard times for the refugees who fled to its growing slums, ruled by crime gangs. Rodrigo’s father is a feckless scavenger who one day finds an alien device useful as both weapon and tool. But one day the old man makes the unfortunate decision to sell it to a yakuza boss, despite Rodrigo’s warning. The parallel thread reveals Rodrigo’s gradual disillusion with religion; the God of his fathers having been no help, he resolves to help himself. A very basic, amateurish piece, with the religious thread clumsily integrated.

“The Chiseler’s Wife” by Hunter Liguore

Which is to say, a stonecutter, not a cheat, who carves headstones both for the local humans and for the faeries. One day a young man ordered a headstone for his deceased mother, but when he came to pick it up, he fell in love with the stonecutter’s wife, and they ran off together in such haste that their wagon strikes and kills a faery on the road [although they probably couldn’t see her]. The stonecutter makes her a fine headstone, and in exchange she offers him a spell to retrieve his wife in a manner that will prevent her running back to her lover. Complications, however, ensue.

Rather too many complications in this fairy tale, in fact. The defining premise is that the chiseler has a special gift for seeing across the veil to commune with the faery spirits.

. . . he listened and spoke with the faery ghosts that walked the barren hills in search of their stories. Afterward, he would get to work on the front-piece, always starting with an image of the faery, and then beneath it he inscribed an epitaph that read like poetry, to sum up the life the faery once lived.

It contradicts this premise when the chiseler would, for no reason, twists and distorts the life story of a randomly-deceased faery, just to give her a reason to want revenge on him. Too bad, it had been a promising tale.

“Mars Bomb Bound for Titan” by Sean Monaghan

Carmen is a zealot. Along with her accomplice Richard Walker, she conspired to send an illicit terraforming bomb to Mars. Walker got cold feet at the last minute, Mars got an alien ecosystem that can’t be eradicated, and Carmen got ten years, later reduced to eight and finally parole after three. But on her release, she finds associates of Walker waiting for her, wanting her expertise to bomb Titan.

She remembered the whole period when she’d wrecked Mars. Ecological terrorism, they’d called it. What responsible scientist would even consider running that kind of experiment without any kind of control? But there was no spare Mars to use as a control. It had been an idea that had been around for a few generations. Seed Mars with tolerant genetically modified organisms and see what they did.

There’s a fundamental divide in the SF community, between those like Carmen who feel “a responsibility to spread out through the system”, which is to say, having laid waste the homeworld, to ruin other innocent worlds – and those who, like me, would have attempted to stop her by any means. It’s noteworthy that while Carmen understands intellectually the hubris and enormity of her crime, she would do it again if she could. And the author apparently admires her for it. Even if this had been a good story, I would have strongly disapproved of it, so I figure it’s just as well that it isn’t. And if this is heresy to the pro-space legions, so be it.


“Wait Your Turn” and “The Stability of Large Systems” by Peter Grandbois

Last, the debut offering from a micropress: The Wordcraft Series of Fabulist Novellas – a promising concept, although strictly speaking this initial piece isn’t a novella. The title page calls it a Double Feature, referencing the subject matter, which is monster movies. The two parts, taken together, do add up to what is generally considered the novella length, and readers can certainly think of it as a whole – in fact, the same story twice-told. Both times, we have a movie monster, a man-monster. We have his wife and their flawed marital relationship. We have his son and their estrangement. We have a whole lot of angst.

The first features the star of an alternate Creature from the Black Lagoon. The story calls him Gill, because once he was an abandoned gill boy left by his father in a lake – although amphibians don’t have gills, our star does, along with green skin and webbed appendages, as well as awesome pecs that attract girls on the beach, where he’s spotted by a talent scout. He falls in love with his co-star, despite a certain amount of cross-species sexual incompatibility. They marry, they have a kid. Rather than making him happy, this produces angst, and he ends up in a sideshow to nurture it.

The second version follows The Fly, as our mad scientist narrator develops angst while overthinking the Observer Effect, since his wife has looked at him and thus he isn’t the same man. As in the first version, there’s a great deal of talking here, mostly the narrators talking at great length to themselves. The central question of both would seem to be whether a monster can find/deserve love, and since everyone is a monster in some way, they address a universal problem. But not all of us monsters are as self-destructive as these characters, and as neither has any universal appeal, as the original characters in the films did, all we’re left with is the absurdity.

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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