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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-July


Scheduling changes make this column an especially long one. It would have been considerably longer if I’d reviewed the all-too-numerous serializations, which is not my practice here. At least I managed to get caught up.

For the good stories, look at Interzone and the little zine Shimmer.

Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2014

Not an outstanding issue this time. The major work here is unfortunately an installment in an ongoing serialization, and while I liked a couple of the shorter pieces, they’re not enough to carry the issue. I discern a theme of dysfunctional organizations.

“Place of Worship” by Tochi Onyebuchi

This is a work of remarkable unclarity. I’ve frequently expressed my impatience with a lot of first-person stories that don’t bother to give their narrator/protagonists a name. A name helps make a character a person; without it, we have only a blank somebody, that the author may or may not succeed in filling with personality—usually not, as in this case, where our somebody is filled instead with alcohol for reasons that are never made clear. He finds something to assuage this emotional angst in a bar, a place that gives him the sense of the fellowship of religion and the solace of prayer, while/after going back and forth to somewhere he calls “space”, otherwise unclear.

Space, in fiction, is a useful metaphor for all kinds of different things—nothingness, the stars, God. But in science fiction we expect the term to do more than just signify casting our eyes upwards beyond the sky. Somebody here goes “to space” as a laborer, and there is a reference to “colonies”, to a bit of work in Zero-G, but the milieu is as undeveloped as his character. There’s a strong dissonance between the descriptions of Somebody’s childhood, that seems to take place in the mid-20th century, complete with SUVs, and his heading off as a young man to an inhabited offworld colony complete with bars. This space doesn’t seem to exist in our future but our past. In fact, the story could just as well have had Somebody moving to work in New York or Bahrain.

Somebody talks a lot—about his childhood, about his childhood religion, about his parents—yet through it all he remains opaque, a blank, a cipher. [At one point, I actually thought there might be two or more different narrators going on, given the fragmented timeline.] He cycles back and forth between alcohol and sobriety for reasons are never revealed. In consequence, I can’t care if he finally sees God when he looks up and out through the porthole in his home bar. I wouldn’t even know what that might mean here.

“A Lullaby in Glass” by Amanda Forrest

A future world drowning as the sea rises, with Vietnamese coastal villages now built on rafts. Bees and other natural pollinator seem also to be extinct. People are starving and refugees from the south are filling the northern region. The nation has fallen into totalitarian collectivism, with the consequence that everyone fears punishment for failure to make production quotas. Tuan’s village work group is tasked with the production of specialized diatoms.

Only the nano-glassware built by the diatoms yielded components small enough that the Indigestible parts of the pollination drones could pass through the stomachs of the country’s bird species. Without the output of the corrals, there was no fruit or nut crop.

But the diatom pools are contaminated, not producing, and everyone is afraid to tell the government representative when he arrives. Tuan, the representative’s son, knows that if he tells his father about the shortfall, someone will be punished; if he doesn’t, his father will bear the punishment for promising increased production, based on false reports from the village. In a subplot Tuan has also become infatuated with a refugee girl who seems intriguingly different.

The interest in this piece is the behavior of a totalitarian regime in the face of disaster. The government’s first instinct is secrecy and control; it wastes resources sealing its borders and making sure no one gets out to reveal the extent of the ongoing calamity, even if this means an increased death toll. The story of Ahn, the refugee, could have made these points more effectively if it had been more probable.

The story also tells us that the village foreman beats the single girls who work for him, because they don’t have husbands to protect them. But Tuan is concerned that the man will beat his mother [in revenge?] if he reveals the truth about the diatom production to his father, the foreman’s superior. This strikes me as unrealistic.

“Patterns” by James Gunn

Jeremy is a data analyst for the NSA; his specialty is patterns. Lately, he has discovered a pattern that disturbs him; he’s certain that the agency’s metadata has been hacked. Someone is watching the watchers.

What he saw, looking past the numbers into the storage units that were linked by miles of cable through which flowed rivers of information, was the great pattern of a nation’s communication: phone calls, textings, e-mails, all the ways in which an electronic generation connected itself like some vast hive mind. Pointless, irrelevant, purposeless—and yet vital, striving, struggling toward meaning. ” ‘Some rough beast,’ ” he thought.

The real interest here, as in the Forrest piece, is in the behavior of the institution, the inability to see recognize unfamiliar patterns, the CYA mentality of the bureaucrats—an all-too-familiar pattern.

“Everyone Will Want One” by Kelly Sandoval

On her thirteenth birthday, Nancy’s father gives her a present, a new model of synth-pet that his company is going to introduce.

She remembers him telling her about them, months ago. Reimagers were synth-pets for losers; they could analyze social networks and facial expressions, then tell their owners how to react. Nancy doesn’t wonder how her dad got the idea.

Because Nancy, despite her powerful father, is indeed a loser.

A sort of technological Mean Girls update, set in the snakepit of a junior high school, a milieu that never seems to change except perhaps to get more vicious. Essentially, and typical of YA, it’s a lesson story.

“Scouting Report” by Rick Wilber

Unsurprisingly, another of the author’s entertaining baseball stories. Here, Robert Johnson is enjoying a successful scouting trip to Puerto Rico.

And now Robert Johnson, failed pitcher and failed coach who’d finally found his place in the game as a scout, was convinced that he’d found the next Clemente, the next Big Thing, the next phenom from Puerto Rico; Aloysius Stevens-Arce, he of the great swing and the golden glove and the amazing arm. Nineteen years old but ready now, ready right now, is what Robert had said in that wrap-up he’d sent to Teddy Driscoll. Aloysius didn’t need any more Double-A ball playing for the San Juan Islanders or even the Pel’s Triple-A club in Buffalo. Aloysius was ready for the show right now.

Except that a woman comes up to him in the bar with some video that suggests Robert’s judgment may have been impaired by too many mojitos, or maybe he just isn’t quite as sharp as he thinks he is. But he’s already sent his report to the team manager, and they’re bringing the kid up to the majors for a tryout the next day. Or it could be the aliens, which the author has slipped into the mix. Readers will probably figure this out long before Robert, unless they, too, have had too many mojitos. Neatly done, baseball-rich. Some readers may spot a Tuckerization.

“Windows” by Susan Palwick

Vangie doesn’t get a lot of luck. The way her life goes, a piece of good luck always has to be paid for in an equal measure of misfortune. So when her daughter won the lottery for a berth on the generation ship to the stars, luck made it that her son got picked up for dealing cocaine. Now, on Graham’s birthday, she hopes for enough good luck that she can see him in prison, that she can bring him the video his sister sent from out there in space.

More than once, she’s spent the time and money to get down there—the time’s no problem, but the money’s not so easy, not with her monthly check as small as it is—to find the prison on lockdown, nobody in or out and god only knows what’s going on inside. All you get are reports you can’t trust, and you sit in the shabby town library Googling the news every two seconds until it’s time to catch the bus back home, because you can’t afford another night in a motel.

Depressing and moving, in equal measure. It’d be easy to believe that the balance of luck in Vangie’s life has cosmic force.


Analog, October 2014

I’m seeing a pattern here. The current issue of this zine also has a sequel novella that at least shows signs of closure rather than infinite serialization. But there are even fewer compensating good stories, and a couple are actively offensive. There also seems to be a theme of aliens.

“The Jenregar and the Light” by Dave Creek

Sequel to the author’s previous story about the invasion of Earth by hives of termite-like aliens that build their mounds in the middle of human cities, such as Nairobi, where Kamau Kimathi is governor, but also a bioscientist studying the aliens. Since it’s clear that military force isn’t enough to repel the invaders, he turns to genetics in the hope of establishing communication with a captive. In the meantime, Our Hero from the first story, Mike Christopher, is doing nothing in particular but dwelling with the angst of his early life and getting special treatment from the authorities because he’s such a special guy that the author felt the need to devote half the story space to him to do nothing in.

One of the pitfalls of authorship is falling in love with your character. Here is an extreme case, as the author has clearly elevated the Mike character to demigod status. We know he’s a Hero because the author keeps telling us, using the other characters for the purpose, as they all take one look at him and immediately begin to hero-worship, although he actually does nothing to defeat the enemy. But the author makes the false assumption that his backstory must be as interesting to readers as it apparently is to him. So important is this character that the Earth Unity, which has no time to spare defending one of the planet’s largest cities, makes special arrangements to provide an escape route for him when he’s stuck on a stalled train—thus opening the way for another Jenrager invasion. In the meantime, Kamau is actually figuring out how to defeat the aliens, a story that is very much slighted while the author is dragging us along with his favorite guy.

I didn’t like the first of these pieces, and I note that in this one we find out that the apparent success of that one has turned out to be a failure, in fact augmenting the power of the aliens. If other characters have managed here to put the Jenrager out for good so there isn’t another sequel and especially no more Mike Christopher, I applaud them.

“Threshold” by Tony Ballantyne

Aliens again. Eduardo is a tour guide taking a trio of supposed xenobiologists on a field trip to see the floating hives of Lucky Planet.

She was taller than me. All three of them were. Tall and very well built with shaven heads; they wore simple white tunics and trousers that contrasted with their ebony skin. Their consoles were set in the form of identical silver bracelets on their right wrists. The thing that really marked them, however, was their look of competence. I had taken other tourists into the jungle in the past, and had needed to watch over them nearly every step of the way. I doubted I would have that trouble with these three.

He’s wrong. The three turn out to be human supremacist fanatics intent on capturing a member of the S, the advanced race that owns Lucky Planet and leases part of it to humanity. Eduardo knows this is a bad idea, but they’ve threatened his family.

This is more like it. The author doesn’t heroize Eduardo, he simply presents a man who realizes he has hard choices to make in a hard situation, with a great deal at stake. The story begins at the ending, which I’m not sure is the best narrative strategy here, but it tells readers at the outset that the situation is going to become dire. The setting is well-conceived. Lucky Planet may have its paradisiacal aspects, but nature can be very cruel there. Eduardo’s three clients may believe they’re tough, but they don’t realize just what they’ve let themselves in for. Eduardo, who does, exhibits strong determination and resourcefulness, but also a capacity to wonder whether humanity has taken the most survival-positive path, after all.

“Opportunity Knocks” by Joyce & Stanley Schmidt

Another sequel, this one to a novel in which the alien fugitive Xiphar goes to ground on Earth to escape his pursuers, engaged in what they call the Great Hunt for him. Even though Xiphar has been blasted into obliteration, the Hunt goes on, although some of its agents, like Mixipoxi, have begun to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. By coincidence, because it’s that kind of story, he runs into Maybelle Terwilliger from the novel.

A silly piece, depending entirely on events from a previous silly book.

“Each Night I Dream of Liberty” by Andrew Barton

Libertalia might once have been a pirate haven, back in the century, and is apparently now a game setting. Here, it’s a free-enterprise dystopia comprised of several ships moored somewhere near a Pacific gyre where floating trash symbolically collects.

Libertalia was an upturned umbrella alone in the sea, and it caught the hopeful like raindrops. Most ended up dripping down into one of the four cargo ships tied to the city’s central column, the rusting undercities that the captains of industry in their aerogel palaces never had to see.

While under the jurisdiction of no national government, the UN apparently claims it, so its agent Taryn Liang has come there ostensibly in search of a rumor that someone has been engaging in restricted cognotechnology research—not that Libertalia would acknowledge any such restrictions—but in fact to take down its corrupt boss. Limited action ensues, as Liang single-handedly and improbably defeats the forces of evil.

The story is standard stuff, if you think a single agent armed only with a stunner can take on a whole criminal organization in a place like this. The text calls Liang an “elf”, a term undefined, which suggests to me that the character may have been part of other works I’ve not seen. What I find a bit interesting is the setting, given this zine’s tradition of libertarian advocacy. Libertalia doesn’t make the notion of a free-enterprise utopia look promising at all. But the author waffles here, suggesting that the real problem was corruption of the system, and now that the source of infection has been removed, sunshine will affect a cure and true liberty will now prevail. Rather than, as is far more likely, another boss moving into the power vacuum. Naomi Kritzer has been doing this setting much more effectively and entertainingly.

“Unfolding the Multi-Cloud” by Ron Collins

The narrator’s master has taken a very well-paid job in the multi-cloud, where he spends days at a time, returning home for 3-day leaves. She now lives in luxury, but there is a problem.

I have learned the multi-cloud steals a person a few bits at a time—slowly, yet certainly. It’s even acknowledged in the contract, though folders are not generally the types who read fine print. I have learned of the esprit de corps of the few who give their lives to this, I have learned of the addiction that folders have to the sense of wrapping themselves about the universe, spreading themselves across oceans of context, across galaxies of data.

This is a story that makes love look bad, at least love as the narrator obsessively conceives it, solely in terms of sex, lying in bed perfumed and curled, waiting for him. There’s no suggestion that the narrator has any life or thought outside her bed, or that she’d allow her lover any other sort of thought not focused fully on her. Her concern isn’t so much that his self is being stolen away piece by piece, but that it’s being stolen from her. Very icky. I don’t know if the author intended this piece as horror, but it sure reads that way.

“The Hand-Havers” by Mary E Lowd

These characters are nonhumans, which would mean they are aliens to us but of course not to themselves. This is a species that gives birth either to children, unique but immature individuals, or to hands, which are secondary bodies controlled by the original. Those with more hands are the most productive members of the community [and designated here as male], and six-handed Ebbence is a paragon. As a no-handed child, Delundia admired Ebbence and wanted to emulate him as a six-handed inventor. But her admiration ripened into love, while she was unaware that love leads to the production of children instead of additional hands.

There’s potential interest in this species, but emotionally they are all too human, which leads to problems. It rubs me the wrong way when the productive, many-handed individuals are given the male gender and the single-handed, relatively useless adults are considered females and relegated to the roll of child-rearing. The story centers on Delundia giving up her own dream and having to live vicariously through her children, which is bad enough. But we also have an incident of what can only be considered spousal rape, which apparently didn’t bother anyone in the story. These characters are too human in their relationships for that to be acceptable. On a more practical level, I find it unlikely that a young adult like Delundia would be ignorant of the most basic fact of life in her species, which gives this piece a sort of idiot plot.

“Chrysalis” by David Brin

Beverly and her colleague George join up at the cutting edge of research in growing replacement organs, during which they spend most of the text lecturing each other about matters they both should be thoroughly familiar with, even when moving on into tampering with evolution. In short, this one is all idea, with a couple of talking heads expounding it, not story. Although if it were a story, it would probably be sci-fi horror.

Still, it’s pretty discouraging to realize that this is as close as the issue comes to anything like actual Hard SF, which is supposedly the zine’s core mission.


Interzone, July/August 2014

Some interesting examples here of blurred genre boundaries, in an issue where most of the settings are close to being in our own world.

“My Father and the Martian Moon Maids” by James Van Pelt

A loving reminiscence of the narrator’s father, who had been a model to him as a boy, who watched the skies with a telescope, built a UFO detector in his closet, and saw the wondrous in the mundane.

Girls, hired by the mall, in matching costumes of red blouses and short, silver skirts, reflective as mirrors, mixed with the crowd, handing out promotional flyers from some of the businesses. They’d all dyed their hair an unlikely blue. Background music filled the air.

“They’re moon maids,” Dad said.

The contrast with the old man afflicted with dementia is moving and depressing. Essentially, this is a mainstream piece, except for the ambiguously sciencefictional conclusion, which hits just the right skiffy note.

“Flytrap” by Andrew Hook

Three characters contemplate an alien life, mediated by classic sci-fi horror movies.

What if humans were in fact empty shells and Venusians came to Earth and entered their bodies and everything which was championed as human intelligence was in fact alien. What if how we defined ourselves wasn’t us at all. Or in fact, was us; but we had forgotten where we came from?

This is the eternal daydream of geekish youth, which most readers will probably recognize – the sense of belonging elsewhere, of being alien to humanity. A wish-fulfillment fantasy, though nothing really comes of it.

“The Golden Nose” by Neil Williamson

Felix is a nose, an olfactory specialist whose craft is in decline, being replaced by molecular technology. In hopes of a reversal of fortune, he obtains the legendary Golden Nose of the Habsburgs, reputed to confer superior olfactory abilities on the wearer. Unfortunately, it also comes with a curse.

He died in a sanatorium in 1931 suffering from something called psychosomatic putrescence. According to the biography, the physicians had detected nothing physically wrong with the man. He had just wasted away, and near the end he had smelled so rotten the sanatorium staff had to be paid extra even to enter his room. A tragic and ironic fate for such a gifted individual.

Essentially this is a dark fantasy, in which the subject’s flawed character makes him particularly susceptible to the curse, which might even be considered fitting. The subject matter, however, is quite SFnal, involving the molecular nature of scent and the possibility of synthesizing it. The digital Teleroma device is pure science fiction.

The only actual golden nose I know of was Tycho Brahe’s, another figure whose historical importance to SF is profound.

“Beside the Dammed River” by D J Cockburn

The year’s James White award winner for non-professional writers.

After China dammed the sources of the Mekong, Narong’s region of Thailand has been reduced into an impoverished desert. Once a professor of engineering, he is now found pushing a water cart along the dusty road, yet when the truck carrying a valuable asteroid breaks down on the unmaintained surface, he not only knows how to fix the vehicle, he recognizes the nature of its load. He also knows that, having fallen on Thai territory, the asteroid belongs to his government and that the drivers are transporting it illegally across the border. “Still, if the government cared whether people in Ubon Ratchathani followed its rules, it wouldn’t have left them to desiccate.”

Nicely done. The author spins out his revelations at just the right pace, letting us know who Narong is, the source of his current situation, and what he is doing about it. This is a strongly-drawn character who has mostly come to terms with his reduced circumstances but is still subject to an occasional twinge of regret and envy.

He opened the toolbox. The shine of stainless steel assailed him. For the first time since he’d seen the truck, he wanted something. Rows of screwdrivers and spanners cried out to him, pleading their supremacy over his own rusty toolkit that he kept wrapped in an old shirt.

The story is also real science fiction set in a recognizably near future when water rights dominate global politics – a stroke of irony that the fresh water of the river has been diverted away, yet the coastline is being drowned by rising sea water. Under these circumstances, we find that Narong is the classical competent SF engineer, having developed a device to extract water from the atmosphere.

He’s also a man who’s retained his pride and resents being treated with disrespect by the arrogant punk of a driver from Bangkok who doesn’t even know how to maintain his own truck. The forms of respect that he wouldn’t expect from the foreign woman in the driver’s seat are a deliberate insult when omitted by the young man from the city who thinks too highly of himself. By the end of the story, readers won’t be surprised to learn that it’s Narong who come out the better from the encounter.

–RECOMMENDED

“Chasmata” by E Catherine Tobler

Mars – “this sepia waste of a place.” The narrator and her spouse were chosen as colonists to settle alone near Valles Marineris, for reasons not made clear. Such is the overall tone of this piece, enigmatic, as the narrator addresses her husband, who seems to have some sort of memory problem, perhaps of old age, or perhaps radiation, but again, not clear. It’s the poetic truth that counts here, not the literal, and to question why any sensible agency would sponsor such a project is to miss that point. Indeed, readers might suppose this entire piece is a kind of dream.

You suppose they should have known – in the end you know they did, and they wanted this specific pair (us, oh us) for this specific reason. They knew how it would go, what we would bring to this place, the child (children) we would create on this new world. How many years before others came? Before they joined our family unit? Too many. Not enough. There were others already, but flung so distant across this planet that they didn’t matter. Not here and now.

At its heart, this is an homage to Ray Bradbury, whose name is frequently evoked here, and the Mars of his imagination, to the beings he populated it with and the stories he set there, ignoring any concern with a boundary between their fantastic and sciencefictional aspects. A familiarity with these classic tales is necessary to pick up all the allusions here. So we look for the rains when they come, but they are not soft.

“The Bars of Orion” by Caren Gussoff

The man who used to be Seth Ferguson was blown out of his own universe and now finds himself, under the name Blankenship, in this one, where he is undergoing therapy for the trauma. He can’t find his place in this world. “Because, in this universe, he was a ghost. It was best if he didn’t take up much space and left only the most fleeting of impressions.” But his therapist quickly goes to the heart of his situation. His place is caring for his daughter, who was blown into this universe with him.

Reading a story like this one, we have to consider whether to take the premise literally or metaphorically. Blankenship’s therapist clearly takes his situation metaphorically, believing that some trauma has caused dissociation in his mind. But it’s clear from a number of small details [his daughter Tibbi calls him “Baba”] that what Blankenship claims is indeed what happened. That’s not quite the same thing as finding it credible. I’m not quite believing that Blankenship, short on funds and living in the temporary quarters of a motel, would be able to afford the therapy; also that his daughter, having gone through the same trauma, wouldn’t also be in need of it. It’s also odd that, while he knows his wife is alive in this universe and married to another man, he apparently feels no overwhelming compulsion to seek her out. I think the ending would have been stronger if this element had previously been given more attention.


Strange Horizons, July 2014

I have mixed reactions to this month’s offerings.

“Chopin’s Eyes” by Lara Elena Donnelly

There’s a factual armature at the core of this piece: Chopin did in fact have an affair with the author George Sand [as she is known here] while he was afflicted with the probable tuberculosis that eventually killed him, some years later. They did travel together to Majorca, where his health was injured by the climate. The rest, however, has been laid on by the author in a manner not only a product of the fantastic imagination but contrary to the truth of her subjects’ real lives. Does this bother me? It does, quite a lot.

At the core of the story, George, attracted by the brilliance of Chopin’s music, discerns in his eyes the presence of a demonic persona, a parasitic entity that is not only the genius of his music but the cause of the drain on his life force. It is this persona with which George has her affair, at the expense of its human host, for the more she urges him to compose and play, the weaker he becomes.

“I know…” he says, and at first she thinks he must have read her mind. The long groove of her spine fills with freezing water, a trickle of fear. But he goes on. “I know that my playing… inflames you. As it does me, I must admit, but I must think of my health. And I fear sometimes that you… do not think of it. Because you love the music, but not the sickly man who plays it.”

In short, the George Sand of this story is a monster, a succubus-by-proxy who drains her lover’s life. Now if this had been a fantasy using imaginary characters, the scenario might have been effective, might even have been moving. But these characters were real people; their history is known to us. So it seems that one of two things must be going on here. Either the author is trying to make the case that Sand really was a monster, that her obsessive affair with Chopin was the cause of his ruin and death, using demonic possession as a metaphor. If so, however, it doesn’t work, for the possession was not George’s doing. It also dismisses the historical Chopin’s real genius. The other alternative is that the author is the parasite here, exploiting the names and reputations of persons now unable to defend themselves from her defamation.

“The World Resolute” by E Catherine Tobler

Short–short, a sort of prose poem with the refrain, “The trees are growing hollow here.” The labyrinth of the dead trees is the land of the dead, the hag sitting beneath them is death, and so is the narrator. And these things come in threes.

Mythic stuff, less a story than an image evoking a sense of inevitability, with time collapsing to a single point and infinite circularity.

“Witch, Beast, Saint: An Erotic Fairy Tale” by C S E Cooney

The witch is the narrator, who finds the beast down and out in the forest, cleans him up, and takes him as her lover, without transforming him back into the man he once was, because she likes him better as he is. Life in the forest is lusty and good, until the saint shows up. His mission is transforming beasts back into men, and the witch’s beast can’t resist his attraction. But eventually he comes back to her, wanting to be her beast again. And the saint follows him.

“I wanted,” he said again, “to see you in chains before me, blindfolded, senseless and speechless with pleasure from all I did to you. I wanted you naked on your kitchen table with a bowl of strawberries, that I might draw arcane figures on your flesh and take those runes back onto my tongue while you cried out beneath me. I wanted to touch you with these fingers,” his fiery fingers moved under my skirt, “until you screamed for mercy as he said he screamed for you. I wanted to gag your groans and gurgles with silk that would grow wet in your drooling mouth. To torment you with inventions I have not yet dared to dream. And after days and weeks and seasons of this, I wanted you to turn—and do the same to me.”

Definitely an erotic tale, employing the traditional fairytale material for subversive purpose. Readers will suspect that the threesome will live happily ever after.


Lightspeed, July 2014

The zine returns to normal after last month’s extravaganza issue, but two out of the four original stories are serial installments – the Vaughn and the Hughes. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of new reading.

“The New Provisions” by Adam-Troy Castro

Reductioed absurdity, in the mode of If This Goes On. Our designated victim is Phil, a blank punching bag for the system, with no real personal characteristics. The system here has sold out entirely to the corporations, giving them unlimited power over individuals. Thus Phil discovers his car has been towed, which is only the beginning of his woes.

Phil no longer had an active contract with that company and had not thought of them since severing ties, but the company had gone back over its list of old customers and retroactively inserted a clause allowing them to seize the assets of any customer who publically defamed their services in any manner.

This is technically a story, as we have a nominal character to whom things happen, but essentially it’s a rant, meant to whip up outrage in readers. Which it might have done more effectively if we could discern any feelings in Phil, or if his situation had been remotely believable.

“Cimmeria: from the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss

A group of anthropologists creates a country of their imagination, related to Iran and located on the Black Sea near Scythia and Sarmatia, countries imagined by another group; they bring it to life. While touring the country, they have an audience with the Khan, and Nolan has the opportunity to meet his daughters, who are ambitious to study in the West. He eventually marries the oldest, Shaila, who moves with him back to American and starts pre-med studies. But Shaila was born with a twin, and Cimmerian custom doesn’t acknowledge twin births. They insist that the Khan only has three daughters, not four, and Shaila’s sister is a shadow with no name of her own. As such, she comes with them to America, where everything changes. While Nolan can only wonder which of his colleagues created this situation and its unintended consequences.

The narrator acknowledges that this tale must seem to be a fantasy, not credible. People can’t go to imagined countries and marry their people. Yet,

Do we not create them, by drawing maps with lines on them and naming rivers, mountain ranges? And then deciding that the men of our tribe can only marry women outside their matrilineage? That they must bury corpses rather than burning them, eat chicken and goats but not pigs, worship this bull-headed god instead of the crocodile god of that other tribe, which is an abomination? Fast during the dark of the moon, feast when the moon is full?

And the narrator’s feelings for his wife, his pain at the loss of the life they might have led, is quite real.

–RECOMMENDED


Shimmer, May 2014

The editorial for this nineteenth issue announces a change to digital format. I don’t know if this is the reason, but the quality of the stories is high, and I particularly like the Ferebee.

“The Earth and Everything Under” by K M Ferebee

A world not unlike our own except for the existence and illegality of witchcraft. Elyse and her husband Peter were both witches but he, in some way not explained, went too far and was put underground – an enigmatic state of affairs, since it isn’t clear whether he was simply executed and buried or if he was subjected to some rite of immurement, such as burial alive. At any rate, he is still active down there in some version of an underworld that seems, from his description, to be largely ocean. Nor is he content simply to remain there quietly. He sends messages, through birds.

Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

Inside the birds, when cut open, are the notes, in which Peter describes his surroundings and expresses his longing for Elyse. In the meantime, the sheriff has been stopping by, suggesting that she do something about the birds.

An original take both on magic and the underworld; Peter’s descriptions of the place are fascinating, but his messages also begin to show that he is gradually fading there. This is beautifully done.

It stretches so far, this scentless water. Every day I forget and forget. I wave to the flowers that drift in the distance. What is their name again? There was something I promised not to lose. I locked it in the cage of my chest. I can feel it there, like a bright-winged bird.

We don’t know if Elyse could have saved him in some way, or how, or if he only wrote to her out of loneliness. Elyse’s situation is also interesting. She is clearly concerned not to trespass against the law and end up in Peter’s situation; she repeatedly insists to the sheriff that the manifestations of birds are none of her doing. Throughout the story, our curiosity about what specific transgression Peter committed only grows. It’s hard to imagine the sheriff, the neighbors that we meet, engaging in some kind of mob action, a lynching. Yet Elyse’s caution, her wariness, is certainly real. We also have to wonder exactly what her relationship with Peter was like while he was alive; she is certainly not one of those spouses who goes charging down to the underworld to rescue her beloved. It makes me wonder what Peter would have done, if their roles were reversed. Yet the piece is indeed a love story, only not what readers will probably have expected.

–RECOMMENDED

“Methods of Divination” by Tara Isabella Burton

The ancient Romans were a superstitious lot, who never liked to make a move without consulting the auspices; one of their most common means of divination was through the flight of birds. Here we find this tradition evoked by a contemporary fortune teller whose methods include the sighting of birds and the text of Virgil’s Aeniad, a work in which the hero famously deserts the woman who loves him. The narrator’s client claims he had visions of his beloved before he even met her; he knows they are destined for each other. But she won’t take his calls.

I did not tell him that turtle-doves came in pairs, always, and that they came to feed. I did not tell him that two times two turtle-doves, pecking at the flowers on your window-sill one rose-lit morning when the world made sense to you meant nothing, or else meant that you had forgotten to put away the bread.

It soon becomes clear that the narrator is letting her own feelings influence her work, and failing to follow her own advice.

This one and the Ferebee, one following the other, make for a too-close comparison, the messages found in the presence of birds being so central to both, and both being love stories of sorts. This one is more personal, more closely emotional, and more than a bit obsessed.

“Jane” by Margaret Dunlap

The eponymous narrator had an unusual beginning, born to a mother effectively dead but kept on life support for the sake of the fetus, then raised in a series of foster homes where she never developed feelings of attachment and came to believe she didn’t need them, despite her most recent foster mother’s attempts to keep her connected with the family. She is now an EMT whose life is apparently on track until the moment a seemingly-dead patient sits up in the ambulance and takes a bite out of her. Zombieish complications ensue, as Jane manifests an unusual ability related to her mode of gestation. Also ensuing are personal crisis and epiphany. The premise seems to be an original notion.

“List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent” by Rachel Acks

Obviously, a list story. The best of these employ a slow reveal, setting the pieces in front of readers to invite and tantalize us into the game. Here, it’s like the author has dumped the whole box of puzzle pieces on the table and walked away.


Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, May 2014

Taking another look at this adventurezine. I still can’t be too enthusiastic.

“Mouth of the Jaguar” by Evan Dicken

A fantasy Aztec empire, felled in this case not by Spanish conquistadors but nasty toothed monsters from the sea. The Aztecs’ neighbors have moved into the power vacuum and are now cutting out the hearts of Tenochlitlan’s warriors on their own altars. Hummingbird, a member of the elite Cuachicqueh warrior society [apparently an all-female group in this reality], has other plans and single-bare-handedly attacks the guards and takes hostage the high priest’s namby son. They make a deal, a temporary alliance against the slimy monsters to obtain from the usual perilous location an arcane weapon with the power to destroy the nasties.

The pseudo-historical setting may be intended to interest readers to the point they overlook the fact that this is a very standardized S&S scenario, with a hero who swashes and buckles and slays her enemies wholesale while exhibiting not real personal characteristics. The unscarred wimp of a prettyboy doesn’t ring true for this society, in which ritual self-mutilation was mandatory in the leadership class.

“By Way of the Eastern Road” by Jesse Knifely

Here, we at least have an actual character in Ren, a slave of sorts in the Duke’s kitchen who tires of the abuse and entertains the notion that he is made for better things. After a feast that filled the scullery with pans to scour, he takes off in the night, setting the kitchen on fire in the process, which does a fairly good short-term job of covering his tracks. But his road is full of pitfalls.

The old man Elgin called from the front room for him to clear a table. Ren twirled his cleaning rag as he entered the dining room. The door opened and two riders entered. Their tunics bore the crest of the Duke, a hammer overlaying a gallows pole encircled with crimson and azure stitching. Their faces were stern as they regarded the room. With them was the local constable, a man of middle years with a fleeting relationship with his remaining hair. He had a round belly and looked like he’d spent more time napping in the shade than patrolling the village.

A fairly entertaining misadventures-of tale. Readers won’t expect Ren to have any better luck wherever his road takes him next. His fatal flaw is the belief that he’s a lot more clever than he is in fact, and he’s not showing any tendency to correct it.

“The Challenger’s Garland” by Schuyler Hernstrom

Inspired by the famous Frazetta painting, “Death’s Dealer”. Molok is the black-armored champion of the King of Death, and he knows nothing else.

“I sleep. I rise to lead my lord’s armies. I slaughter all who oppose his will, as you know, trickster. I have never been defeated. The weeping of widows is my lullaby. The crows fat with the flesh of the slain are my companions.”

He dreams of a white citadel and rides forth to meet its defender, who has likewise dreamt of his progress in his direction. Neither champion has been defeated, but this must come to an end.

There are some nice touches to this mythic piece, like the champion’s garland, that wilts as soon as Death’s champion touches it, and the protean figure of the trickster. But it’s not quite clear exactly what the King of Death is all about. There seems to be life in his domain. And it’s even less clear what the resistance stands for. The champion of the citadel claims that he was once immortal, but now knows he will someday die, either in battle or of old age. Would defeating Death’s champion change this? Death is, as its king declares, inevitable.

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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