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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July


This time, scheduling issues led to a shorter column than usual. I guess it averages out.

Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #151-152, July 2014

The first issue has people afflicted by their pasts, the second by hostile forces. The one I like is the Marshall.

#151

“Rappaccini’s Crow” by Cat Rambo

Referencing the Hawthorne classic, but not following it. The setting is an alternate history at a time resembling the beginning of our 20th century, in which a world war is being waged, even longer and harder than the one we know. The object of contention is not territory but a strategic substance: phlogiston. As one wounded soldier puts it:

“That’s the contradiction at the heart of the war, see! Fighting over a precious resource, and using all of that resource in the fight. They keep saying that once the war is over, humanity will advance, once it’s got all that phlogiston to devote to its own noble needs. But that will never happen. They’re too evenly matched. And too many people are making money from supplying the machines to fight the wars. It won’t stop.” He paused and lowered his voice, forcing himself calm. “It won’t stop till all of us are dead.”

These casualties are inmates of an asylum run by the eponymous doctor, who has obtained the contract for their care by promising to cut costs. Thus he stores their brass prosthetics, on the grounds of keeping them for subsequent patients. Less-disabled wounded are fitted up as cyborgs and sent back to the front, an image that will doubtless suggest to readers a steampunk-noir milieu.

Rappaccini has a pet crow, Jonah, of great intelligence and malevolence, hated by both patients and staff, such as the orderly Vivian, our narrator, another less-disabled soldier. Vivian knows that Jonah is a poisoner and has attempted to kill the bird, but fears Rappaccini. This is where readers will expect the heart of the story to be, given the title, but the author has decided to cram a lot more into the text. So we learn that Vivian was a Navajo child sent to a boarding school to be purged of tribal heritage and given to Jesus, whom he embraced there. Also that Vivian is transsexual and ran away to join the army as a boy—the desperation for cannon fodder making it easy for both the underaged and thinly-disguised women to sign up, although Native Americans are relegated to support jobs in this history. The irregularity of his enlistment also gives the authorities an excuse to deny him the honors and benefits he earned, now that he’s no longer of use to them.

What we have here is a jumble, as if the author were a tourist packing to go home with all the souvenirs of her journey and crushing them to fit them into her suitcase. In consequence, the story lacks focus and a clear center, with instead an overload of backstory. I keep thinking I’m going to hear a TV pitchman: But wait! There’s more! The amount of back-grounding would be appropriate for a novel-length work, not a story of this length. As it is, I have a great deal of information about Vivian, but I can’t say I really know him.

A title like this one generally declares a theme, as well as a claim of association to the work being referenced. Thus we must be aware that in the Hawthorne story, the title character was the mad scientist’s daughter, who was pure of character but toxic of flesh, due to her work tending her father’s poisonous plants. This Rappaccini is not a mad scientist but a war profiteer, his garden contains no more poisonous plants than is usual for a medical man, and his poisonous pet crow is highly toxic of character. Clearly, this represents an inversion of the original work. But otherwise, I see no real thematic connection here. Vivian, certainly, is not Rappaccini’s daughter. I can imagine a Hawthorne-like spiritual tale with Vivian caught between the love of Jesus and the hatred of the demonic figure of the crow, but I suspect that’s entirely in my mind and not the text.

“Crossroads and Gateways” by Helen Marshall

Dajan the hunter has been wandering Zamani, desert of death, trapped in his own past and unable to move on, until Esu the trickster god confronts him there to place him at a crossroad. In their encounter, we hear the story of Dajan’s life and his love for Duma, the cheetah woman who killed him.

Neat mythic stuff. I really like Esu, whose godhood is evident, particularly in his psychopomp role. The sense of time/eternity here is also well done.

When had he last tasted the gifts of the living? When had he last drunk in their memory of him? How long had he wandered the desert while his brother’s line fell to the sands?

–RECOMMENDED

#152

“The Topaz Marquise” by Fran Wilde

Marcus is a jeweler who finds a ragged man at the door of his shop one morning, desperate to sell him a gem that he claims to come from the Jeweled Valley. Marcus cheats him on the price of the topaz and plans to make a large profit by cutting it into smaller, more fashionable stones. The topaz, however, proves to be cursed—as readers will be expecting after seeing the jeweler’s dishonesty.

That’s about what there is to it. No surprises. Marcus continues to reveal his bad character, taking advantage of his apprentice, while she begins to have ominous, foreboding dreams. Nothing could be more thick-headed than Marcus as he fails, time after time, to recognize what he’s dealing with, while it’s evident from the outset to the rest of us.

“What Needs to Burn” by Sylvia Anna Hiven

Interesting setting here, in a world being consumed by what its denizens call “the dry”. This is a supernatural phenomenon, involving carnivorous horses and other ills infesting the desert that encroaches on the inhabited places. Utah Sullivan has been on the run ahead of it, along with Shadow, member of some sort of supernatural race known to normative humans as savages or barefoot. Shadow claims he was sent from God to save Utah Sullivan, for reasons we are not given to understand. [I can’t help considering this a case of the Magic Negro phenomenon, even though it’s not an exact match.] They are both near death when they encounter Ephraim Wood, owner of a nearby town. Wood threatens to kill Sullivan unless Shadow can go out into the desert and bring back a Fishgirl, another sort of supernatural creature that exudes water.

Shadow is a credible sort of supernatural person; the Fishgirl is something else again.

She oozed water from her eyes, the corners of her mouth. It beaded from her pores, too, and ran down her belly and made her green scales glisten. The water was crystal clear, and where a drop landed on the ground, a flower grew. A flower. My jaw dropped at that.

And even if that were credible, the idea that such a being could fill a well to sustain and entire town is even less so. Also, while the setting has interest, the plot unfortunately does not, being both moralistic and predictable.


Tor.com, July 2014

A good number of independent original works this month, at some substantial lengths.

“Sleep Walking Now and Then” by Richard Bowes

The title refers to an interactive play being both set and staged in the now-decrepit but once grand Angouleme Hotel, forever haunted by murders and mystery involving its owner, Edwin Lowery Nance. Nance is played in this production by Jacoby Cass, the playwright. A great point is made about the actors falling into their characters, which only enhances the readerly conviction that the sinister events of the past are about to be replayed.

Almost all tellings agreed that Nance, in the dim light thought Evangeline had gone to the elevator and stepped through the open door. He followed and found not Evangeline but a nine-story drop. How the elevator car happened not to be there was a matter of mystery and dispute.

The number of possible victims and suspects makes for interest, as we’re pretty sure that someone is going to die, but not quite who nor how. Yet the work is considerably more than a murder mystery. The strength is in the stagecraft, with compelling descriptions of the scenery that should surely make readers wish they could attend the production.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Angelus Guns” by Max Gladstone

Strong signs of allegory here. Our protagonist is Thea, her brother is Gabriel—”Gabe of the Seventh Chorus, Second Tenors, Antiphon”—of the heavenly chorus. Thea herself is retired from all that, gone from eternity into the timestream to observe creation in all its simplicity. But she remembers past wars when the chorus has destroyed creation when it got out of hand, taking its own way, its own ideas. Now there is rebellion in heaven, which is to say the Crystal City, and Gabe has joined it, celebrating life in its carnal physicality. Thea has gone to bring him back, to save him.

Thea’s old mother held out her hands, and the twin suns dimmed. Across her palms lay a sword. Fire gleamed from the four-foot blade. Fire was the blade: a nova’s fury, a fusion furnace confined by the magic of magnetic fields. The hilt alone did not burn. Jet, that, like her old mother’s flesh, and the grip wrapped in local lizard-skin. A personal weapon, honed and kept with care since long-gone days of active duty.

There’s no Lucifer here, but we get the point clearly without him. Totalitarian heaven, perfection, omnipotence is the enemy—of freedom, creation, individuality, for which Gabe is the spokesman. The moral dilemma belongs to Thea, to whom loyalty calls from both sides. It’s not exceedingly subtle. The story is primarily in the scenery, with its flashing blades.

“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Feminism, rockets, drugs and Disney. The story of Carol Elizabeth Hall, whose father was a rocket scientist after WWII and whose mother was a chemist-turned-reluctant-housewife. Wanting to emulate her father, despite his initial scorn that a girl would want to be a scientist, Carol takes up rocketry as a childhood occupation that leads, after setbacks and detours, into space. The most fulfilling aspect of the story is the evolving relationship between Carol and her mother and her belated understanding of her father’s failed career. The rest is highly nostalgic but takes a too-familiar path through the thickets of “girls can’t do that”. The author has made sure to hit every well-known landmark on that road, but for every former girl who will recognize some or all of them and say, “Yes, it was really like that”, others of us are here to say, “Well, no, not really.”

“Brisk Money” by Adam Christopher

An intriguing conceit: according to the editorial blurb, Raymond Chandler once wrote a series of stories featuring a robot detective; he attempted to burn them, but they were retrieved by his housekeeper and passed on to us. But there’s a problem with such a conceit, which is the questions it will raise in the mind of readers: Is this really Chandler’s voice? Are these anachronisms? To which I would probably say: No, and Yes. While these are minor issues, I would definitely have preferred this one unChandlered, as a generic noir robot detective story set in some past LA, to which readers could make whatever Chandler comparisons that seem fit to them. Because it’s a good enough story that I’d rather set the quibbles aside.

So our hero/narrator is the positronic robot Ray, paired with his mainframe Googol in the classic male detective/female secretary roles. Or so it seems. Because it’s 1962 and computer memory is based on large reels of magnetic tape, Ray’s capacity is limited; every night he has to return to his office and download the day’s memories, then start blank in the morning.

Those whirring tapes, they were me. My mind, my memories. Everything I’d seen, heard, done; everywhere I’d gone. Everything I’d thought and computed, calculated, figured. On those spinning reels I was copied, backed up—the last version of me, anyway. The last day’s work. At midnight I plugged myself into Googol and shut down my circuits to recharge the batteries. Then she began copying my internal memory bank onto an empty spool, a process which took four hours. Another two hours to erase my internal tape, then a restart and I was back in business.

One night, however, there is a power loss, and Ray finds himself with a retained memory, as well as a package of money and a gun. Being programmed as a detective, he tries to solve this mystery.

So, a pretty neat past-future detective story, of which the primary interest is in the programming and the memory; it is in fact a good entry in the smaller subset of Memory SF. The plentiful allusions are also of interest—the author pays appropriate homage to Asimov, for example, but I’m not sure about “Googol”.

“A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade” by John Chu

Civilization is perennially threatened by a deadly phenomenon called Turbulence, against which the Barricade has been erected. Ritter is a new engineer assigned to routine maintenance, but Turbulence has initiated a new mode of attack, and the Barricade has failed in his sector. An improvement to its design is urgently needed, and Ritter sets right to it, this being an entirely mental process not involving crude methods like physical tools and materials.

Creating a machine was like working out subtle mathematical analyses while hoisting unbalanced boulders into their proper places. Father could imagine vast, complicated designs outright. Everyone else imagined parts into reality and then hefted into place. Crenels deepened on gears Ritter imagined into tiny battlements. Cams smoothed into pleasing ovoids. He mated them to motors and actuators that he belted and wrestled into the design. Ritter’s body ached from the strain and sweat stung his eyes.

The fix works, but it isn’t good enough to satisfy Father, the chief engineer of the Barricade. It’s quite clear that nothing would have been good enough—Father being that kind of guy. Ritter is brilliant but handicapped as an engineer by his telepathy, which creates too much distraction to allow him to concentrate at full force. He would like to have it expunged from his mind, but of course it proves to be an advantage in the end.

A sufficiently advanced technology is not only indistinguishable from magic, it can be pretty dull stuff. The text employs the terminology of engineering and construction, but in fact it’s all mind-wavium; we might as well have mages holding off the forces of Chaos, from which this stuff is entirely indistinguishable. The characters and the storyline don’t help, being entirely cardboard. Not credible, not good.


Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A novella connected to the author’s previous stories on a subject in Chinese myth: the archer who shot down the rogue suns and married the goddess of the moon. In these variations, Houyi the archer is a woman. Here, however, the focus is on the moon goddess Chang’e’s orphaned several-times-grand-niece Julienne, now living in contemporary Hong Kong, where her aunts keep an eye on her. Julienne learns that having divine relatives can involve unusual complications. This is her [rather belated] coming of age story, in which she finally identifies her heart’s desire. It is closely tied to yet another mythical tale: that of the white serpent and her green sister, here called a viper. Thus as the story begins with Julienne on her way to work, she meets

. . . a woman bleeding under the clock tower. She wears a vivid shade of good emeralds from eyeshadow to stiletto heels, marred by that one slash of red. The woman bears this coldly, eyes straight ahead, only now and then caught by a spasm that tautens her lips over her teeth. Her gaze catches Julienne’s and holds fast.

The woman turns out to be the green viper of the myth, and thus a demon, which rouses the ire of Julienne’s more formidable aunt, who doesn’t like demons on principle, and especially if they mess with her niece. It seems, however, that the green viper is seeking the intercession of Chang’e because her white sister has been abducted and imprisoned by an enemy who happens to be Houyi’s enemy as well. Lots of complications and adventures ensue, along with some romance.

This material is clearly of great interest to the author, although I must say that the previous stories in the cycle haven’t been favorites of mine. This one, though, is different in a number of significant ways, most notably the contemporary setting, which gives it quite an altered tone. The figures of the archer and moon are no longer at the center of the story; they’re living in relative domestic bliss as respected members of the divine community, albeit with some loose ends still dangling. But essentially this story is an independent work. Julienne, the primary character, appears to be an independent creation of the author, a member of the mundane and mortal world, without, as far as I am aware, any direct counterpart in the original material. I would have to say that familiarity with the source material is the real prerequisite for following it, and this is particularly true when we find ourselves involved in the tale of the white and green serpents. I suspect that readers familiar with this material, in one or more of its variations, are going to light up with the pleasure of recognition and will be able to follow the complexities of the ensuing plot with greater ease than those who may have to look it up on The Wiki.

Still, there are a large number of neat bits here that any reader should find enjoyable. I especially like the discussions on the nature and place of gods and heavens, in dimensions not normally accessible to mortals, although immortals have made a place for themselves in the human city. As Xiaoqing tells Julienne:

“It’s not topographical, or don’t you think your astronauts and the like would’ve found Lady Seung Ngo, the woodsman, or the rabbit when they made lunar landings? The immortals’ realm is open to the pure, the divine.”

One thing that bothers me is the confusion of names. Julienne’s personal name, she tells us, comes from a current fashion in Hong Kong for trappings of colonialism, but if she has another, as I believe she must, the story doesn’t seem to reveal it. In these respects, she is unlike the other characters. Each of them has adopted alternate names more suitable, apparently, to their current surroundings. Thus Houyi the archer is known as Hau Ngai, and Xiaoqing the green serpent has the name Olivia Ching on her business cards—highly colonial. I suppose this is a convenience to the characters, not to announce themselves to the mundane world as divine figures, but the narrative flips back and forth between modes of address, which doesn’t make following the story much easier, especially for those readers not familiar with the language.

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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