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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-September


A whole lot of material showing up this time, and most of it science fiction, with both Dell digests appearing, one a double, and both with sequel novellas, which I generally consider a bad idea. Also the September stories from Strange Horizons and a long independent fantasy novella.

Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, October/November 2014

The longest work here is a novella in the author’s Legion of Tomorrow series, in which I can find no novelty or interest. Fortunately, there are plenty of other stories, several quite enjoyable, adding up to a pretty good issue overall.

“The Prodigal Son” by Allen M Steele

Matt is a slacker, sliding down the chute towards loser, but mostly he’s a drop-out, having left the True Faith of space colonization centered in his family’s foundation. We find him jobless and broke on the charter flight to the island where the elements of the foundation’s spacecraft are being sent one-by-one into orbit for assembly. On the flight, he meets a girl, which is to say a young PhD humorlessly dedicated to the project, who looks down on Matt, having instantly spotted him as a worthless git. At which point, readers will know that by the end of the story, Matt will have turned around and embraced the space project and thereby won the heart of the girl. Because these things are that predictable and that’s why the girl is there in the first place.

When I read these stories by Steele, I often think I’m reading the wrong publication, as they invariably center on advocacy for some space program and the description of its nuts and bolts. It seems that the nuts and bolts may be the author’s primary interest, as we spend a great deal of time with the propulsion system, the selection and transportation of germ plasm, and the logistics of getting the sections onto the launch pad. The visceral impact of a launch viewed at too-close range is the first step in Matt’s inevitable conversion.

The Kubera rose from its pad atop a torch so bright that it caused him to squint. The eerie quiet that accompanied the ignition sequence lasted only until the rocket cleared the tower. The silence ended when the sound waves finally crossed the miles separating him from the rocket, and then it was if he was being run over by an invisible truck: a crackling roar that grew louder, louder, louder as the rocket ascended into the blue Caribbean sky. Seagulls and egrets and parrots took wing from all the palmettos and coconut trees around them as Nathan 2 became a fiery spear lancing up into the heavens.

I have to say that the notion of bots raising a generation of humans from the egg and terraforming a world strikes me as the sort of excess optimism that wisely makes Matt skeptical. If the technology exists to transform entire worlds for human life, why is the launch date threatened by a mere terrestrial hurricane?

The story is not a polemic and the amount of nontechnical lecturing is rather minimal, although we do have the obligatory religious fanatics who can’t spell as token villains in the piece, because who else would oppose the dream of space? But for the most part, the story is not meant to persuade. It is addressing the choir and exhorting the faithful, readers who share the author’s views and have probably read this same story dozens of times. Matt, who grew up in the midst of this congregation, correctly sees the religiousness of the family dream, which he has long since turned his back on, wandering into far countries where he squanders his talents in loose living. Returning home to the family faith is his salvation, but it’s only possible through the love of a true-believing woman. Alas for Matt’s refreshing skepticism, it was doomed from the first page.

“Stars Fell on Alabama” by Gord Sellar

The stars were in fact the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, except that readers will realize the star that a young slave picked up is no meteor but some kind of artifact with miraculous powers. Baby Tremblay, as he now calls himself, has not noticeably aged in over a century, during which he has perhaps invented jazz, inspired by the ecstatic visions the star causes in his mind. In the minds of others, such as Maria Verdi, the visions are different, of art and even of the composition of the universe: the extent of time and space. Baby knows the future, but what matters to him is the music

That was what the fallen star did to all the music in your head: it reached in, and folded it against itself, so what you heard was something halfway turned inside out, something that was fascinating but made no sense, that didn’t seem quite natural, but filled you with the strangest, most powerful joy you ever felt. And it did it with colors, and sounds, and shapes you saw, and all kinds of things.

But its touch is addictive, a condition that Baby calls star-drunk, and Maria is so hooked on it that she wants the star for herself. Complications ensue and accumulate, as Maria belongs to a Kansas City mobster, or at least she did, as Baby strongly suspects he has killed the man, which is why he’s now on the train to Chicago posing as a porter. Unfortunately so is Maria and so is a hitman from the mob. Baby is in big, big trouble, but his overriding need is for the star.

A lot of neat stuff here, so much, in fact, that it would easily fill a much longer work, or perhaps a sequel. There’s a lot of 1929 packed in, including a cameo appearance of a significant figure from science. But the incident with the old woman on the train is nothing but wrongness, as is the situation in which Baby leaves Walter, the senior porter, with no apparent twinges of conscience. I can’t have sympathy for him after that, which is too bad, after the story started out so promisingly.

“Troop 9” by Dale Bailey

More feral girl scouts. This troop disappears into the woods on a camping trip, leaving everything behind in their tents – uniforms and shoes included. Of course a search party goes after them.

The men lurched into the trees, and the Girl Scouts, naked and streaked with mud, watched them blunder by. Their eyes sparkled with the fun of it. From a thicket of lilac, Susan Hardesty squatted on her hunkers and peered out at her father, hardly recognizing him as he searched for a sign. She laughed, knowing they had left none. It was the best prank ever, she thought in a remote corner of her mind. They would go home tomorrow.

Or so they told themselves, yet “they had all sensed in an inarticulate way what they were becoming, and what it might cost them.”

A puzzling work. There’s irony here, particularly notable in the section headings taken from the Girl Scout Handbook, of which Troop 9 has become the antithesis; it’s possible that this one is a response or rebuttal to the Reed story referenced above. But there is no observable fantastic or supernatural element here, no maenad spirit to have taken hold of these girls. So readers have to wonder: what led them to take this step away from civilization, to become killers? And there is no clear answer given.

But I do note that the story is set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when many of the men and fathers of the town had been away at war, becoming creatures of killing as much or more than their feral daughters. At the time, more than one woman was known to resist the return to what the world considered normalcy, the domestic life of hearth and home and submission to male authority. This seems to be one element in what is going on here. And readers familiar with Golding’s Lord of the Flies may recall that it, too, had a WWII setting, in which boys, this time, stranded alone on an island, revert to the feral in a way similar in some respects to Troop 9, only to be rescued by white-uniformed sailors who have been carrying on their own campaign of bloodshed. Civilization may be more of a mere veneer than some of its advocates would like to believe, and what lies beneath is something upon which we don’t want to look too hard.

“Diary of a Pod Person” by Emily C Skaftun

When Reva tales a job at ExtraLives, it’s primarily to support her daughter Lucy, the emotional center of her life, so that she doesn’t pay enough attention to the fine print in her contract. The lab is developing a process to print [not clone] living organisms, with the ultimate goal of supplying replacement bodies for humans.

ExtraLives already had hundreds of clients who had signed up for immortal life. I could understand the appeal. To have a backup, to know that I’d always be around to love my Lucy; that was a powerful pull.

The question is whether the copies are identical, or as close to it for marketing purposes. They are now experimenting with chimpanzees, and Reva’s job is to determine whether the copies are the same as the original animals. Her conclusion is that, behaviorally, they are not. The copy of the lab’s experimental chimp lacks the emotional attachments of the original, as Reva discovers when she wakes in a new body, identical but not identical to the one that had been her own.

A lot of thought provoking in this one, particularly with questions of self and identity. Reva realizes that she has the downloaded memories of loving her Lucy, but not the feelings themselves, just as her chimpanzee subject had its original’s memories of a pet cat but not the obsessive tie to the other animal. What it does have, however, is the tendency to embrace such a tie. This would seem to bode well for Reva’s relationship with her daughter, which will never be the same but might be slowly built up anew, and perhaps for the better.

–RECOMMENDED

“Playing with Reality” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

An odd scenario in an indeterminate setting that seems on one hand to be contemporary, on the other hand quite retro. Charles Myloft Martin III has been a member of a stuffy golf club since birth, enrolled by her father, and somehow regarded as playing all that time as his guest instead of as a member in her own right. Until she signs up to play in the pro-am tournament. Which is the retro part, because I just can’t buy into the idea that a member of a club could be excluded from such an event, despite the many pages of repetitive argument on that account. Charlie, our narrator, is quite aware that exclusion from these fields of play presents a handicap to doing business.

I wanted to start my own business. Or, rather, revive one of our flagging businesses. I wanted to merge our intellectual properties division with our management division. I wanted to discuss trademarks. I wanted to expand our thinking when it came to managing our PR corporation, and begin handling the fictional characters themselves.

Which brings up the other odd thing about this setting: the guests at the pro-am are in large part characters out of fiction, figures of fantasy, and Charlie has something in mind that involves liberating them from their exploiters [to become an exploiter herself?]. Instead, she learns something from them, or rather from one of them.

I have to say that the point of this work is pretty obscure, and its appeal probably pretty limited.

“Pinono Deep” by Kate Bachus

Whale hunting on the ice-bound world Van Diemen, where some of the crew have been transported for various crimes. Nominally, they hunt the pinono, aka jinn for no reason given, but essentially this is whaling, and the crew is driven in their hazardous occupation by the hope of profit. Problem is, their ship is frozen solid in ice two meters thick with the quarry below it, inaccessible. But greed will find a way.

Martin watched Wolf ’s progress across the ice, far enough from the Chieftain to keep the breaching bull from capsizing her. Close enough to where Karian and the others could get a decent shot in. Even in heavy deck boots, Wolf ’s feet skidded and slid on the ice’s surface until finally he came to a halt, half upright, half on his knees.

He made a small and lonely shape, as the torch flickered and flared to blue and yellow life, and steam billowed up from the surface, enveloping him.

This one is all adventure and allusion, most obviously to Moby-Dick, with the neo Martin playing the role of Ishmael. To most members of our sedentary and automated generation, the exploits of pre-industrial whalers must seem near-incomprehensible. Who would row a tiny boat of wood or skin out onto an icy sea to throw harpoons at the huge denizens of the deep, with death in many guises at hand, including the fate of Jonah. This science-fictional version of the hunt partakes of the same spirit; there is even a specialized tattooed crew of swimmers who play a crucial but unexplained role [Queequeg analogs?] But I think enjoyment of the piece will depend in large part on reader attitude towards whaling. I can’t imagine an anti-whaling activist appreciating the adventure.

“Minutes to the End of the World” by Brendan DuBois

As in, the minutes of a meeting. With the world’s human population dying from a new plague, the townspeople of Trenton, NH, have survived by enforcing a draconian quarantine regime. As civilization collapses around them, they persist in obsessing on trivial, petty minutia in an attempt to preserve the illusion of normalcy.

The Minutes of the previous meeting were reviewed. SELECTMEN Chair Grissom noted that the delegate from the town of Montcalm’s name was misspelled. It should be O’Neil with one “l,” not two. SELECTMAN Sampson spoke in objection, indicating that since the delegate from Montcalm had been arrested and executed after the conclusion of the last meeting, the point was moot. SELECTMEN CHAIR Grissom said that while she appreciated SELECTMAN Sampson’s input, that even in these times, accurate records should be kept. SELECTMAN Sampson dropped his objection.

Effective dark sarcasm, except that the constant repetition of SELECTMAN in ALL CAPS is like to drive some readers off the edge.

“The Witch of Truckee” by Joel Richards

The unnamed narrator, who has a good reason for this, tells us his account is a work of fiction. Which doesn’t make it a story. More, I would say, an anecdote. So the narrator meets a woman immune to fire. She doesn’t want to talk about it and definitely doesn’t want to put herself under the scientific microscope. Because he owes her, he complies with this request, only speaking out now, anonymously, that she is deceased. If it were a true anecdote, it would be more interesting.

“Uncanny” by James Patrick Kelly

Sex robots. This one sent to the narrator by her interfering mother, which can never be a Good Thing. Nothing here much more than all the other sex robot stories.

“Decaying Orbit” by Robert R Chase

Military SF. Humanity has taken different paths that have led to conflict, with the expansionist Eternals and Transhumans at odds with each other and the relatively unmodified Dominion not counting on the other factions’ mutual destruction. On Wu’s final voyage as a Dominion combat engineer, their ship encounters a large, recently destroyed installation that triggers high interest from authority; he and another officer are sent to investigate more closely. Complicating the situation is that Wu and the other officer are engaged to be married, thus leading to a potential conflict of loyalties.

The derelict proves to be a clever trap, but the story proves to be much too sketchy for satisfaction. The complex backstory requires explanation, the derelict requires explanation, and in consequence plot and characters are given short shrift. The text is just short of novelette length, but it probably should have been a novella.

“The Cloisters” by Jeff Grimshaw

The narrator, disappointed in love, goes to The Cloisters where he meets one of the guards, who introduces him to a lot of secrets that everyone else seems to know about, like all the alternate doors and passages.

The passageway beginning at the alcove in the west wall of the Boppard Room (016 on the floor plan, page 3), for instance, terminates at the rear of the utility closet in the Orange Julius stand on West 8th Street, just a few doors east of the historic Electric Lady recording studio. This is more than seven miles from the Cloisters, but via the passageway the trip takes exactly one hundred steps. In fact all of the passages are one hundred steps long, regardless of the overland distance.

A piece of lite absurdity. But who keeps their cereal boxes in the undersink cabinet where the mice and cockroaches roam? That makes no sense!

“What Is Sand but Earth Purified?” by Jason Sanford

A couple of generations ago, rogue eco-warriors released in the Pacific a nanoswarm meant to destroy all impurities. Their definition of “impurity” was insufficiently specific, however, and the swarm attacked all organic materials, including the human residents of Nukuoro Atoll, and turned them to sand. Now there is nothing but a bubble of sand extending a thousand kilometers from its center on the atoll. Occasionally now, it allows humans to enter, but only without any technology or non-living equipment. Mostly, these humans are the descendants of the atoll’s original inhabitants, like Anchor Slim and his wife Kayla, who had been in the business of guides when Kayla and her last expedition were turned to sand a year ago, for reasons known only to the swarm. Now an obnoxious rich media-whore has come to engage him to take her there, and Anchor takes the opportunity to try to find out what happened to Kayla, even knowing that Desar means to exploit him and his story.

This one is full of imaginative stuff, well-described.

The sand could blow, and the sand did blow, without a wind to caress the sky. The sand blew across the beaches of Nukuoro Atoll—the only island left in the Bubble of Sand—and whipped devil swirls and grinding mists around the island’s massive sandstone karst. The sand blew without sound, blew without care, and as Anchor Slim watched, it blew into an image of the last expedition. For a split-second, massive rough-grained simulacrums of his wife and her three fellow expedition members waved at him before collapsing back into the nothing blur of even more sand.

Among the neat inventions are the living kayaks, gene-engineered from manatees and other sea creatures as a mode of transportation into the bubble that won’t automatically be turned to sand; the kayaks are sentient and friendly, with a strong sense of humor, but even they can’t live for long inside the bubble, where there is no natural form of life to sustain them. I only wish Desar the villain weren’t quite so obviously headed for a deserved bad end; the character lacks nuance and flaws the story. It’s always discouraging when that happens to an otherwise good ‘un, perhaps the best in the issue.

“New Trick” by Tim McDaniel

Humor. An aging werewolf wants to give up the fast life.

“The years go by, and sure, when I was a pup, all that—it meant a lot to me. I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I lived for that time of the month. But, now, well, I’m older. Running around the forest all night, sniffing rabbits and wrestling in the grass, it just doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. That night dew, it’s cold when you turn back, and everything aches.”

I can totally see his point.


Analog, November 2014

Featuring a novella from Arlan Andrews, Sr that unfortunately looks like it’s going to be a serialization. The short pieces have a theme of intelligence but also tend to share a common flaw; too often, the story element seems to be minimal, no more than a vehicle for the author’s idea, with characters who tend to be little more than talking heads. This may make for thought-provoking reading, but not so much entertainment.

“Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

A sequel to a previous story in this universe. It seems to be a far-future Earth where humans have devolved to the point of becoming greatly reduced in stature, generally a sign of food shortage, as well as losing knowledge; the author is being coy about the specifics so that readers will have to puzzle it all out. In the first story, we had Thess and his twin sons from one of the few literate families in their community; the focus was on Rusk, a mathematical genius, and it seemed that Rist, a hunter and warrior, wasn’t likely to amount to much in a world where knowledge was becoming more in demand. Here, however, Rist comes into his own, as he decides to follow his sense of adventure by traveling downriver on the iceberg his family is selling to the Warm Lands, where he finds much to wonder about and perils, including theology.

As an adventure travelogue, there’s some neat stuff here, but I have to say the story is by no means self-contained. Much of the narrative consists in recapitulating the events of the previous story, and much more in Rist’s helpful guide giving him lessons in the ways of the Warm Lands as well as a lot of history. While we hear frequent warnings that the local priests enforce their laws ruthlessly and thus expect Rist to run afoul of them with his curiosity, for most of the text he isn’t doing more than sightseeing and taking notes, while readers are tantalized with hints with which they can try to figure just what’s being going on and how this present relates to the distant past. As in the previous story, none of the characters know the secrets of the past; the hints are meant for readers. And the conclusion is very literally a cliff-hanger, as we realize that Rist’s adventures in strange lands are only beginning. The story is just not complete, and while readers may want to follow Rist’s continuing adventures, they’ll have to worry that most of the next episode will be taken up by the recapitulation of this one.

“Persephone Descending” by Derek Künsken

Colonists from Québec settling the atmosphere of Venus. Of which, we have to wonder: why? Why Québec and why unwelcoming Venus?

Venus isolated them from everything except the violence with which she touched them, bathing them in hotly cancerous solar radiation, suffocating them with thin, anoxic air, reaching up for
them with tongues of sulfuric acid, delighting in marking them with acid scars where she gnawed through environmental suits and protective films.

The first is a political plot device to kick off the story by kicking Marie-Claude off a floating factory into the planet’s toxic atmosphere; readers will do well not to think any more of this. As for Venus, it provides a full host of Wonders for Marie-Claude to encounter on her lengthy fall through Venusian skies, pursued by a homicidal drone. This is a pure survival/adventure tale, full of imagination and ingenuity. While we’re quite aware that the situation is set up for her to succeed and survive, the author’s choice of a third-person narrative allows for tension, as her outcome remains in some doubt; the lengthy official hearing might be literally a post-mortem. Very skiffy stuff, the sort of piece I’d like to see more of here, minus the politics and lame concluding moral.

“Superior Sapience” by Robert R Chase

Here we have a corporation founded to utilize the talents of people with alternate dimensions of intelligence, largely autistics, as its founder developed drugs that allow their intense concentration to be focused in profitable directions. The company is a success, although currently facing competition from a Chinese genius-breeding program. Thus there is great interest in a new drug under development that promises to increase intelligence as well as producing other beneficial effects. The tests on monkeys have been promising and the drug is ready to proceed to human trials, but Bennett is consternated when he is ordered to have it administered to him, experimentally. It turns out that there are sinister reasons for this, and SS is not quite the ivory tower of benevolence that it advertises itself.

“Superior Sapience recognizes that there may be as many different types of intelligence as there are problems to be solved or jobs to be done. Autistics and hypnogogics are opening new doors every day. I invite you to come along to see what we will do tomorrow.”

A lot of ideas here, food for thought on the subject of intelligence and what it means. This makes the piece a bit talky, but there is also a real story, a mystery in fact, with a satisfactory resolution. I do not, however, believe that any firm recruiting autistic workers would have employed a supervisor like McCauley or taken so long to realize what he was up to, and the subplot is superfluous.

“An Exercise in Motivation” by Ian Creasley

Here, the intelligence is artificial. Dr Stroud has developed thinking software programs that he calls Entia, but he isn’t satisfied with them; the Entia can solve problems that he sets, but they aren’t self-directed. Thus he calls in Marla, a motivational expert.

Plenty of ideas in this one, but less story. It’s still an interesting read, and I particularly enjoyed the conversation of the Entia, who seem indeed to be motivated by status.

“It’s from the Latin. Entia is the plural of Ens, which means an entity. And it’s listed under Existence, the very first category in Roget’s Thesaurus. We’re the best—we’re number one!”

Another voice said, “Whereas you’re all the way down at 372, Mankind. More specifically, you’re number 374, Woman. That’s even lower than Trevor, who’s at 373, Man. Cower before us, puny mortals who are subject to 360, Death!”

The twist at the conclusion, however, shows us that the real focus is on Marla and her psychological assumptions, which influence not only her approach to the Entia but her own decisions. Thought-provoking look at thought.

“Habeas Corpus Callosum” by Jay Werkheiser

This idea is the potential effect of immortality drugs on the death sentence. At least, so the story claims, but in fact it’s only the lawyers who are interested in the issue. Jared, the murderer chosen to be the test case, has other concerns. As an old man now, he recognizes that he was once under the control of his violent impulses, that there was something wrong with him at the time of his crime that age has mostly eroded. He now feels guilt, haunted by the image of his victim’s mother, whose life he ruined when he killed her daughter, and his real interest in the immortality drug lies in the possibility of healing his flawed brain. Jared, in short, has rehabilitated himself, which is a fact quite apart from the immortality issue supposedly at the heart of the story. This one has gone rather off its tracks.

“Conquest” by Bud Sparhawk

Dax Vader encounters bureaucracy. The sort of farce where characters use terms like “insolent worm”.

“Elysia, Elysium” by V G Campen

A typical post-apocalypse, with global warming, high UV, famine, and general collapse of civilization. Eli is a forager who goes out into the swamps and brings back foodstuffs to hungry Atlanta. His mentor, dying of melanoma, asks him to make a special delivery, so that Eli discovers Dogtown [Athens] and its secret research.

Another idea-heavy piece in which the story is only the delivery vehicle. The science is real, the lectures are long.

“Mercy, Killer” by Auston Habershaw

A future world entirely dependent on AIs, which have the legal status of persons. Vergil is a [human] lawyer who specializes in defending AIs, so it isn’t surprising that the AI named Mercy asks him to represent it against charges that it has serially murdered over fifty other of its own kind. But it can’t directly tell Vergil why, mainly so he will have to undergo a journey of discovery and there will be some sort of minimal plot. The ideas here are interesting, but once again, at the expense of story.


Strange Horizons, September 2014

The three original stories for this month could all be considered YA.

“Four Steps to the Perfect Smokey Eye” by Claire Humphrey

The title suggests a list story, which is the fashionable thing, but in fact it isn’t. Rebecca is a teenaged girl in a town being stalked by a serial killer who targets teenaged girls. Her controlling and marginally abusive father takes this as an opportunity to assert his paternal authority by getting her a safekeeper bracelet. “But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.” The safekeeper proves to be an impediment to Rebecca’s social life, as it’s programmed to rat on her at every opportunity. The text contrasts her father with the parents of her friends, who range all the way from neglectful to absent-minded, so we get the impression there’s a happy medium somewhere along this range. And while there’s a happy ending for Rebecca, we have to feel sorry for her mother, still stuck under the thumb of Mr Authority.

“Never the Same” by Polenth Blake

Our narrator was born on a colony world in the process of terraforming, which process hasn’t been going well. The colonists have come here to escape the pernicious influence of aliens on the human species, to keep it pure in isolation. This creates an atmosphere of denial, when observations contradict official policy. The sludge in the lake, for example, is explained as a terraforming accident.

The narrator is one of three siblings, all unnamed, as no characters here are named. The narrator has officially been declared a psychopath as the result of unexplained scans* but it’s the brother who has actually committed most of the antisocial acts for which the narrator is blamed; no one believes the narrator’s denials; they only believe the scan results.

I jumped off a cliff once. He was all, “You’ll die if you jump.” I broke most of my bones, but I made it. It’s worth trying for the feel of it. Not the bones part, but the rush of something new. It should have been something, falling and surviving. But the gossips only cared about how much it upset my brother.

The narrator has no general sense of empathy and social connection, and thus she doesn’t share most of the colony’s common beliefs. Something there isn’t right, something isn’t right with the brother, and the narrator is determined to find the truth, not caring what it upsets.

The narrative comes from an interestingly different angle, which makes for a thought-provoking piece. Much, like the scans that reveal the narrator’s psychopathy, remains unexplained. What we see is a society that refuses to examine its assumptions and preconceptions. The narrator’s scan says “psychopath” so everything they say must be a lie. The brother presents outwardly as “nice”, so everything he says must be true, especially if he blames the narrator. But before the scan, the same people assumed the narrator was likewise “nice”. And despite the received wisdom of the therapists, the narrator does indeed have a sense of right and wrong, which is to say the recognition of the rules society expects its members to follow and which will be punished if transgressed. The narrator seems to have made the rational and self-benefitting decision to be a useful member of the society in which they live. The narrator is also capable of forming attachments – most notably to the sister, who has always been a friend. The conclusion would certainly be seen as an act of love, if it were anyone else.

Saying sorry to your sister when she’s hurt is the right thing to do. I follow my lists. Better than the gossips. Better than my brother. They’re worth less than a bird in a cage.

[*] There is significant evidence now that a brain scan can indeed reveal a psychopathic pattern, even if not all individuals exhibiting this pattern engage in criminal behavior.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Great Detective” by Sarah Brooks

Mayumi was orphaned at a young age and raised by her Grandma. While Mayumi has grown up to be a withdrawn personality, Obāchan is outgoing and calls herself the Great Detective, claiming to know the truth about where things belong. People come to her to find things. Grandma claims that her ability was the gift of an alien, which of course Mayumi doesn’t believe; she is rather embarrassed by her grandmother, particularly when she tries to set Mayumi up with a taiko drummer. Eventually, though, she comes to understand.

It shows her a hard night twenty years ago, a woman walking home through a storm, wishing her life were different. A fall about to happen. (Was it deliberate? thinks Mayumi. Did she want to fall? A lost husband, a lost child, an old railing, an accident waiting to happen.) But there was something there, something to reach out strange arms to catch her when she came unmoored. A secret, hidden thing that wanted to help, that understood the truth.

A positive work, in the heartwarming spectrum.


The Don’t Girls by Octavia Cade

Now here’s an idea: what do Bluebeard’s wife and Pandora have in common? They both opened a door that they were told not to; they both said “No” to “Don’t”. Cade takes this theme and runs far with it in this long novella. Pandora’s box, it seems, is magically potent; it enables its holders to travel in time and space as well as serving as a universal translator. But it only homes in on women who resist [male] abuse and authority. Sort of. Pandora appeared several times to Bluebeard in the course of his serial uxoricide, whereby he thought he was being haunted by a demon, but she could never fully materialize until his last wife refuses to react as he had wanted, defying him and ready to take the consequences. Pandora, too, in Cade’s version, was abused by her husband, and this forms a link – yet not, at first, to the victims but the perpetrator. From this beginning, Cade works up a social critique on the subjugated position of women throughout history.

The lack of consequences wasn’t because Bluebeard was particularly brave, but because no one else particularly cared. Wives dying, in quick succession, with no childbed or disease to account for it and no bodies to be decently buried. The whole damn countryside knew what was going on in that castle, thought Pandora, and they sent him their daughters anyway, gifted up for gold and the sense of power they got from being the in-laws, however briefly, of nobility. The box hadn’t brought her to a man that said “no.” It had brought her to an entire community that said “yes.”

There are plenty of variations on the forbidden locked door story, so many that it counts as a folklore type [Aarne-Thompson # 312], but with the exception of Bluebeard’s wife and Psyche, whom we don’t actually meet, Pandora apparently doesn’t visit her fellow tale-heroines. Nor does she confine herself exclusively to the wives of murderous husbands or the victims of serial killers, on the model of Bluebeard. Instead, she and B-w range through history, or at least the last several centuries of British history*, visiting a variety of women in quite different circumstances.

This is all in the service of the story’s theme; as readers will readily notice, it’s a feminist work. Now, political stories can be problematic; too many authors fail to avoid diatribe, lecture, or other sources of boring. In this, Cade succeeds to some extent, when she incorporates her historical figures into the B-w story, as she does with Anne of Cleves, the only one of Henry VIII’s first five wives to profit from the alliance that victimized most of the others. When the former queen finds herself inconveniently pregnant with a dynastically-problematic child, our girlfriends arrange to have little Sibylle hidden away in a pocket of spacetime and hire a nanny to care for her – who ends up being the pivotal character in the story. Ada Wilson has often been considered an early victim of Jack the Ripper, but here she has renamed herself Whitechapel and adopted an eccentric agenda in which she enlists the assistance of B-w, in exchange for a promise [never fulfilled] to help her find her own name. Names are important in the story, as they signify an individual’s own identity, as opposed to being known only as some man’s wife, someone’s daughter. It’s Whitechapel who sends B-w on her quest, in which we encounter many of the historical characters, a lot of the story’s symbolism, and its concluding moral force.

Most of these characters from history, however, are only briefly visited; they tell their own stories, then recede into the background without having any permanent involvement in the story at hand. These scenes too often crosses the line into the Moral or Improving Tale, the sort of didactic narrative included to make a point and teach a lesson, and because of them, the central part of the text gets to dragging at times, likely to cause less ideologically-motivated readers to start noting the number of pages remaining and wondering if things will pick up pretty soon. It’s a long story, and it’s hard not to think it may be too long, trying to include too much. But things do pick up. There are plenty of entertaining moments here, particularly in the scenes between Pandy and B-w, who are more than just girlfriends; there’s even quite a bit of dark humor.

Had she been a lady, she would have screamed. But Bluebeard’s wife, sneaking into the dungeon and discovering the corpses of wives previous, had—amidst the grief and horror—another thought, one shared with her mother and grandmother and every other goodwife before them, boiling down through the ages into their descendants.

“Doesn’t he ever bloody well clean up after himself?” she said, poking one pretty, tissue-stuffed shoe at a puddle of dried gore.

A universal complaint of wives, minus, sometimes at least, the gore.

[*] While the general form of this tale is universal, the specific Bluebeard version is French. The author, however, has for her own reasons shifted the scene to England, where Bluebeard is a baron; this can’t fail to vex me just a little, as the story is now unanchored not only in space but in time. Thus we have Edith Cavell instead of Jeanne d’Arc, although the Maid is perhaps too well known for the author’s didactic purpose. And thus we have Jack the Ripper, who isn’t as present here as Bluebeard’s wife’s husband, but in his own way more in the thematic center of these affairs.

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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