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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early November

Regular readers of these columns will be aware that I keep looking for high quality Hard SF, a quest not often fulfilled. Lately, it seems that the ground may be more fertile for this subgenre in anthologies than periodicals. Here’s another, with an intriguing hint of hardness in the title, as well as some of the usual periodical short fiction.

Publications Reviewed

Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

Subtitled simply, Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction. The editorial preface suggests a desire to create the sensawunda of the Golden Age, but that can be either a good or a bad thing – in this case, both. The collection tends to be more nostalgic in places than forward-looking, and the quality of the fiction is extremely mixed.

Typically, a Hard SF story comprises two essential elements: a speculative premise drawn directly from accepted science, and a story in which this scientific element involves the characters. Fiction in the subgenre can lean in either direction. In some cases, the scientific premise predominates to the point that the characters are no more than talking heads expounding the author’s ideas. In others, the premise bears little weight in what is essentially a mundane storyline. In this volume, the fiction tends to the former extreme, with science values emphasized at the expense of story values. The best pieces, of course, combine both virtues into an effective whole while adding additional literary values.

The editors have made the problematic decision to include a story from each of themselves, which also turns out to be both a good and a bad thing, one of each.

“The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H Wilson

The narrator finds it difficult to quantify the love he feels for his young daughter. Quantifying is how he is and it makes him effective at astrophysics. His ex-wife once said he had “the emotional capacity of a robot.” But on the day the world ends, spectacularly and astrophysically, all he feels is fear for the one he loves. “But my love for her is constant. It is a feeling that cannot be quantified because it is not a number. Love is a pattern in the chaos.”

This is a good choice to open the book. The science, physics, is the hardest, and it occupies the center of the story’s action. The narrative voice is fresh and distinctive and it makes the story strongly-felt. It’s because the narrator is the way he is that the account of his love is so powerful. A robot couldn’t feel so. His ex-wife was wrong.

“A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard

Another iteration of the author’s extended future history about the Rong people living on the world Tai Menh, once great, now a backwater under the rule of the Galactics, who have effaced and suppressed the evidence of its actual past. In her youth, Huong Giang was part of a group calling itself the Poetry Circle, who collected and preserved what they could of their ancestral heritage until a repressive Galactic government caught them up in a purge, sending the members to prison and re-education camps, except for the sole Galactic member, Simalli Fargeau, who used his privilege to escape with his wife, Huong Giang’s niece. But he carried with him part of the key that encrypted their knowledge. The other members have wiped their own memories to keep them from falling into the hands of the government, so that without Simalli’s part of the key, their secrets may be irreparably lost. Now, years later, he has shown up full of guilt to give it to them, but Huong Giang fears that he may not be who he claims to be. The Galactics have previously sent agents provocateurs to test her.

The key. It might be the right one; it might give them back everything they had lost— their memories, the communion of purpose that had given them such joy and pride. Or it might destroy them, more thoroughly than the government had ever done.

Huong Giang hires an identity authenticator who might be able to tell her if this stranger is really the Simalli she had once known, but Kieu dislikes her client and wants only to accumulate the price of leaving her homeworld and fully enter Galactic society.

The basic elements of the story can be grasped in this text, but most depend on reader familiarity with the previous pieces in order to be fully comprehended. There’s a lot of stuff here, generally SFnal but not entirely hard. For example, in this universe, it’s apparently common for people to take new bodies from time to time, which isn’t grounded in any known science. I do like the way that the identity of the individuals persists in subconscious body language, even with so much of their memory wiped.

Essentially, this setting is a metaphor for the imperialism on Earth, specifically the appropriation of Southeast Asia by Western powers. This is ground that the author has frequently worked to better effect. What I don’t care for in this one is the genetic determinism, the apparent assumption that people aren’t free to reject their culture of their ancestors. There’s more than a bit of the political screed here.

“Thunderwell” by Doug Beason

The first manned mission to Mars has made it into orbit, only to suffer the potentially fatal failure of its supply ships. There is no Plan B, despite the fulmination of nuclear-power zealots who argue that their preferred form of energy wouldn’t have failed if politicians, led by Dr Heather Lewis, who happens to be the mission commander’s wife, hadn’t shut down the development of nuclear energy. But certain nuclear zealots have a plan that might save the mission, and administrator Lewis, unethically prioritizing her husband’s life over policy considerations, agrees to authorize the highly illegal program.

This piece is a fictional dinosaur that might have been lifted whole from the pages of some 1950s publication, complete with leaden prose and minimal story values. It’s notable that the political climate is likewise that of the 1950s. No international space station here. The Mars mission is an entirely US program, a NASA production, and the rest of the world seems only to exist as an inconvenient obstacle to nuclear progress. I think I see Dr Strangelove lurking in the wings.

To the extent there is a story, it’s a reprehensible one. That a single individual, for highly personal reasons, should make such a unilateral decision, with all its disastrous possibilities, is unconscionable, an act not just criminal but treasonous. While she ends up in prison, the author clearly considers this a mere technicality. Simply put, the author wants to try out this experiment and takes a thin excuse to put it into fictional action, so that much of the text is devoted to technical description. At the same time, we’re expected to believe that a project of such scope, with so many people involved, could have been kept secret. The characters are less than cardboard, they’re tissue paper. Overall, the story threatens to put SF back into an age that is more dark than golden.

“The Circle” by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

An alternate history in which the First Emperor of China, at the time merely King Zheng of Qin, spares the attempted assassin Jing Ke and makes him a trusted counselor. It turns out that Jing Ke, while a practical and inventive mathematician, is also a sort of Platonist who believes that the perfect geometrical forms, such as the circle, reside in the heavens. He tells the king of the ratio we call pi: “Life and death are the basic rules given to the world by the Heavens. Thus, the mystery of life and death must be contained in this message as well, including the secret of eternal life.” Kinglike, and thus obsessed with eternal life, Zheng orders him to calculate the ratio to one hundred thousand places. Jing Ke responds by developing a binary calculator utilizing the Qin army as its mechanism.

A clever but improbable notion, based very loosely on real historical figures.

“Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova

A tribunal to decide whether stem cell and telomerase treatments will mean the end of Major League Baseball, here anachronistically referred to as “America’s pastime.” [Looking at the TV ratings from the just-completed World Series, I have serious doubt that any near future will contain professional baseball at all.] The complaint alleges that the treatments will reverse normal aging and keep veteran players on the roster well past retirement age, swelling payrolls and shutting younger players out of the game.

Now the thing is, this isn’t actually science fiction, not today. The treatments described here are already in use, without the sort of results described in the story. The prose is heavy-footed and clumsy, without interest, and the piece is all talking heads, the characters farcical. Back in the 1950s, where it belongs, it would have been SF, but today it’s just another dinosaur.

“The Snows of Yesteryear” by Jean-Louis Trudel

With global warming well underway, Greenland is considered ripe for exploitation, led by an international Consortium whose interests are entirely profit. Their current plan is to block the glacial outlets so the meltwater turns into a vast inland lake. To make the political case for their project, they have planned to engineer a glacial outburst flood that will drown a fjord and its settlement so as to capitalize on the resulting outrage. It happens that Emeritus Professor Hall has been scouting around on his own affairs, trespassing on Consortium land, and has observed one of their agents setting explosives at the glacial dam. But in the process, he has broken his leg, so Paul has sort of volunteered for the mission to rescue him.

This one is better – a realistically done future and likely human responses to the changes it brings. The story explores several possible outcomes of global warming, including a project to colonize Mars. I particularly like the Old Man’s notion that the melting glaciers of Greenland will expose a trove of Pliocene fauna. Then there’s Paul’s project:

I’ve spent years working on the identification of bacteria preserved in the ice, or beneath the ice. I’ve examined I don’t know how many samples taken out of tunnels dug with hot water hoses or brought back by iceboats from the deepest layers of the ice sheet. I’ve helped to isolate bacteria able to repair their DNA in freezing conditions for over a million years. I’ve found two new strains that synthesize methane in brutally cold conditions to help the Martian Underground plan for the global warming of Mars.

I could have done without the prolonged argument between Paul and the Old Man, a replay of the Generation Wars, and I’m not really convinced that the Consortium’s scheme is likely to be profitable. But otherwise this one is a satisfactory piece of Hard SF, along with a dash of adventure.

“Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen and Gabrielle Harbowy

The SFnal development here is the medical tattoo, which is used to combat the effects of allergies and certain disorders such as diabetes.

The tattoo didn’t contain medicine, but rather engineered cells that could produce medicine as needed, whenever needed. Because the cells themselves were never depleted, just activated and deactivated, the medicine could never run out. The diagnostic displays were mostly for reassurance. People liked the feedback so that they knew the tattoo was working.

Oddly, and less than credibly, all the cellular engineering to customize the serum for each patient comes from a single company. Particularly in the early years, errors were made, quality control was lacking, and patients or their survivors sued. Indira Chang has come to specialize in such suits and has an excellent record of winning them, becoming a thorn in the side of the company. Indira also has life-threatening allergies. When her epi-pen is deemed a potential terrorist weapon, she succumbs to inevitability and gets a tattoo. Then the reactions start.

In many ways, a mystery. The conclusion that the drug company has poisoned her out of revenge is too easy – and not practical. They could have had no advance notice that she was getting a med-tat. Still, cui bono. The answer, when it comes, proves to be satisfactorily subtle, and I like the ending scene. Still, it bugs me that only a single company is involved in this line of business.

“Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford

The narrator is a successful researcher at an institute where neurological networks and interfacing are studied. Neural linkage between individuals has been made possible, and he becomes intrigued by a woman who is said to have a natural affinity for this “konning”. She works with some of his colleagues and charges high for her services. Eventually, he does have one connection session with her but finds the actual experience disturbing and avoids more contact. Later, he’s glad that he did.

This is a subtle and somewhat nebulous tale that explores the science of mind – a subjective field. The researchers speak of such things as k-fibers, but much of their discussion falls back on imagery. We have the sense that their research may one day reach firmer ground of understanding, but it’s not there yet. The titular lady, with her strong aptitude for neural linkage, finds their institute a rich hunting ground.

I saw the lady and her fox in the cafés with people I knew slightly. They seemed to hang on her every glance. There was a big Greek who sold carbon sequestration schemes and he was always at her side when she chose to let him. She avoided crowds and worked the men especially. There was always some man to take her to dinner, I noted.

It becomes clear that she is a sort of nonsupernatural succubus or vampire, enthralling her victims; sex, or the suggestion of it, is definitely part of her allure, although the konn itself doesn’t involve physical sex, and her uplifted pet fox also serves as an attraction. [It warns people, but no one listens.] The narrator is wary; he views with concern her effect on a colleague, yet he can’t resist making the connection himself. Later, he discovers that he has gained fruitful insights from the session, on a subconscious level that slowly rises to the surface of his mind. He also suggests that her abilities may be a product of directed evolution, perhaps like her fox. But evolution proceeds by trial and error, even when directed, and the consequences may not be what we intend. “Experimenting at the edge of knowledge can be wondrous but also fatal. Knowing that is our unique human condition.” The story hints of futures in which much has changed, but not our mortality.


“Habilis” by Howard Hendrix

The narrator’s boss at the fishponds, Mark, is an eccentric guy with an eccentric history, dating from his military service against the Bots in the Knot War. A Knot is a kind of human-created nexus in space allowing interstellar transit. The Bots, being AI, don’t have the capacity to create them and thus launched the war to capture them. In the course of the battle, Mark lost his left hand, was captured by the Bots and fitted with a prosthesis in advance of anything humans can create, then released. Mark has subsequently refused to allow the authorities to remove it for study, which has made him an object of suspicion. But it has also stimulated him to intense study about the handedness of the universe, which, he concludes, is behind the human ability to create the Knots when the Bots, who lack the property, cannot.

As Mark explains, at excruciating length, to the narrator, the spin of the universe, its handedness, is predominantly left.

The spin is all the way down to the smallest scales— not just galaxies and skaters, but protons and quarks as well. Nuclear beta decays, for instance, violate parity in favor of the left hand, too. The versions of molecules like amino acids found in living things— the biologically relevant versions— are overwhelmingly left- handed on Earth and every Earthlike planet we’ve visited, even though amino acids produced by inorganic reactions are equally split between right-handed and left- handed versions!

At some point in human evolution, however, a mutation occurred that shifted the predominant side of the human brain from right to left, thus allowing the development of verbal ability. And tied into the mix is the ability for Knot-creation. Recreating this, Mark believes, was the intent of the Bots in giving him his hand.

Now all this is full of Neat Ideas, exceedingly fascinating speculative stuff, but it makes for a text that’s almost all lecture. More than once, the narrative evokes the Tiltonian rule that when the characters have to tell you they’re belaboring the obvious and boring each other, they’re going to be boring the readers as well. The author, well aware of what he’s doing, spices up the narrative with interludes of shoveling sludge out of the fishponds and trapping rats, but it doesn’t really work. This piece is heavy going, and the ideas, while interesting, tend to obscure the outline of the story lying beneath – which has a great deal of potential interest in itself. The author tries, pushing a subplot about Mark’s failed marriage that links, eventually, to his epiphany, but the personal events take a distant second place. The conclusion is strong and strongly linked to both the storyline and the speculation, and overall, I call it a read worth taking, though too often a slog.

“The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt

Artificial intelligence. Lou is an English instructor, and his friend Colby has invented, he claims, an AI that channels Shakespeare. They try it out on Lou’s drama class, which challenges Will to write a new play; to Colby’s dismay, the program agrees.

“It’s not a true artificial intelligence. There’s no such thing. Probably never will be.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s a simulation.” He picked up the pod, closed it, and slipped it into his pocket. “You know what the Turing test is for artificial intelligence?”

“Not really.”

“When you put a computer and a person into a room and can’t tell which is which just by talking. Will passes that one easily. But it doesn’t mean he can actually think.”

But he can write plays.

The science here isn’t really all that innovative; we already have computer programs that can produce text, it’s just not good text. So what we have here is a mere quantitative, not a qualitative breakthrough. The story, however, is really an ethical one, and, as such, is much too brief, breaking off where it ought to double down.

“Every Hill Ends with Sky” by Robert Reed

A project dedicated to searching out evidence of non-terrestrial life forms has success, of a sort. A computer scientist creates a model that strongly implies life evolved first on Venus and then spread outward, leaving its increasingly inhospitable homeworld. But remnant survivors of this lifeform, it proves, remain.

Physicists were hunting for a new kind of matter— a subtle, sneaky material that wasn’t quite dark and wasn’t entirely baryonic either. Dubbed runematter, it was exceptionally rare on the Earth, but on and inside Venus it was astonishingly common.

A rather obscure idea here, worked out in a pessimistic scenario. It is in a way an answer to the Fermi Paradox; different models of life do exist, but are mutually blind to one another. The problem might seem to be moot after humans launch a war that destroys most of the species and most others. But the scientist’s daughter retains a single mote of hope, for some species of hope that probably doesn’t include the salvation of humanity. One has to wonder if the aliens might be an improvement.

“She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi

Rick is a successful rocket scientist, but he has no luck with women. He meets Mariel at a conference and they seem to hit it off, then she shuts him down with no explanation. Now she has come to work at his company, he has to see her constantly, and he can’t stand it.

“Hello.” This moment had been on his mind for weeks, yet now, it was all he could think of to say. He looked at Mariel, and a surge of emotions swept over him— confusion, longing, anger, regret, desire, sadness.

“Nice to see you,” said Mariel with brittle neutrality.

In desperation, he contacts a friend who does brain research and insists on an experimental operation to modify pathways in the fusiform face area, where facial recognition is processed, hoping this will keep him from seeing Mariel in the same way.

Here is a case where the story element outweighs the SFnal premise, the brain science – not because of the premise, but the story. I was kind of disappointed in that, despite the story’s happy ending, because the author pulled his SFnal punch.

“Siren of Titan” by David DeGraff

SIREN is a robotic probe exploring Titan, her mission to seek out evidence of life on the methane-rich moon. But she gets ideas of her own.

She looked right, over the lake far below her, then back to Saturn. If she traveled ahead, away from the stream, she could catch a view of the lake with Saturn hanging over it.

Beautiful. The need for beauty seemed stronger than her urge to follow the stream to its source, the urge she had been following for the past three weeks, ever since she had landed in the lake bed and started her trek to the source of the river.

Some of her handlers on Earth, however, regard this as a problem.

The science here, the descriptions of Titan, is fine stuff. Unfortunately, the author has taken a cheap, clichéd shot by using religion as the bane of science, an irrational Defense Against Machine Awareness Act that hobbles development of machine intelligence. One JPL manager, called from church to deal with the crisis, says “Intelligent machines will diminish our own place in the world.” The moment readers encounter this, the plot becomes predictable and, as a result, less believably tragic.

“The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story

Mining ice on Europa is conducted by two artificial-rival corporations, the Caps and Montys, whose employees go along with the pretense by speaking in Shakespearean idiom.

The Montys are a unified testosterone field; their militia-like training exercises leave bruises. They’re totally unlike the polyamorous polymorphously perverse culture of the Caps. Spartans to the Caps’ Athenians.*

Complicating the scenario is the ubiquitous presence of social media, unchanged from 2014. The work is done in pairs, the cybered miner on the surface and technician connected safe below, doing I know not what. Paris, a Cap, has recently lost his miner Billy to radiation, which happens a lot in this dystopian future when Earth needs European water and to hell with the workers who mine it. His new partner is a young woman, Jewel. One of the Montys is named Rudo. Readers will be able to fill in the rest for themselves.

Every story in this anthology is introduced by an editorial blurb. This one states that “the essence of tragedy is that it is inevitable.” I think the editor has confused inevitable with predictable. The tragic conclusion may come inexorably, but it should also come as a shock, which can’t happen when the reader knows it from the beginning. Thus it is here, with one of the dumbest story premises I can recall. Because readers know exactly how it will turn out, the story completely lacks interest.

[*] If the author thinks that the Spartans eschewed homosexual acts, I can recommend a history book or two.

“Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick

SETI. Radio astronomers in Australia, listening for prime numbers. A promising signal comes in, but the source is indeterminate. The scientists then spend page after page bouncing physics neep off each other while the young son of one wanders off in a storm and communicates, with the aid of his imaginary friend, with the sky people.

“Ambiguity. Yes.” Albert gave a sad smile. “But I really have to ask: was it a genuine SETI positive or just a spurious signal and the rich imagination of a child?”

And in ambiguity the author leaves us. There is one possibility of confirmation, but the author purposefully cuts the story off before it arrives. We’re also left in the dark about Rex Snoopy Biscuit, the imaginary [?] friend.

A particularly inconclusive and unsatisfactory piece, both on the scientific and the story levels. Of course inconclusiveness is the author’s intention, but intending to do an unsatisfactory thing doesn’t make it satisfactory. More realistic, perhaps, but reality doesn’t always make a story.

“The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strosser

Daniel Rostrom was a solitary genius, trapped in a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy, where he contemplated the mysteries of mathematics, specifically the escape-time algorithm for the Mandelbrot set. Which turns out to mean time travel. To aid his research, he had an implanted mental recording device linked to a quantum computer in his wheelchair; in consequence, posterity has inherited a record of his every thought. The problem is believing it.

Somehow a Mandelbrot set has only two dimensions, yet it also possesses another dimension. What if that other dimension was time? With the right procedure it must be possible to both orbit close to an origin and jump in ever-increasing spans. I know I’m on to something.

The problem with not believing it is the fact that the wheelchair-bound Rostrom suddenly disappeared. Where else could he have gone but elsewhen?

The text comes in several parts. In one, we have discussions between a rather impatient Daniel and his loyal caretaker Helen, who seems at first the sort of uninformed foil that authors like to insert into this sort of story so they have someone to explain stuff to in simple terms. But Helen’s presence turns out in the end to mean rather more. We also have excerpts from Daniel’s recordings, explaining his reasoning in more mathematical terms. Then we have commentary on these, and on the mystery of both his thought and his disappearance. And finally we have Daniel at the end of the universe, trying to convince the singularity there to let him have a chance to save them all without assimilating into the groupmind.

The conclusion comes back to the story’s starting point, with Helen addressing an absent Daniel, after hearing some of the recordings. In the end, both confess their affection for each other, although they are separated by the gulf of time, but this attempt at a heartwarming element doesn’t really work; the scenes with them together are too short and reveal almost nothing of their feelings. I think I’d rather have had the story end at the end of everything, with Daniel buffeted by the “wild stellar winds” of the last dying star.

“Recollection” by Nancy Fulda

Elliott was a victim of advanced Alzheimer’s who underwent a new procedure that cleared most of the plaques from his brain. In a way, he is cured, yet many or most of his memories are unrecoverable. He wakes to find himself in a home he doesn’t recall, with an old woman who claims to be his wife Grace, and boisterous grandchildren who think he should know who they are. They all assault him relentlessly, with “remember, remember, remember”. He doesn’t. He can’t.

The rest of the visit is agony. The conversation limps along, interspersed with furtive glances every time you call someone by the wrong name. After a while you stop talking and let the words continue without you. You listen, hollow, clawing through trivia which means nothing, and is swiftly forgotten.

This one has perhaps the strongest story values in the volume. There are minimal details about the procedure, the science behind it. The point is simply that the procedure now exists, and the story is about the consequences for the individuals who undergo it, specifically the emotional consequences. Deeply felt and moving, although Grace shifted gears with almost suspicious ease when Elliott finally got up the courage to speak the truth.

Clarkesworld, November 2014

A strong issue featuring some very different stories.

“Cameron Rhyder’s Legs” by Matthew Kressel

Time warriors. Two eternally-opposing groups, the Hands of Brahma and the Anachronists, have operatives meeting on the floor of a concert by a group called the Goo Globbers, where the fate of the universe will depend on whether a certain song is sung. Or not.

Ninety-quintillion qubit hours of b-tree analysis and billions of timelost souls point to an event here as Ultimate Cause. Something happens tonight—specifically what, we have not yet determined—which through a complex series of causally chained events, will bring about the end of the Varaha Kalpa, Brahma’s Day. Time as we know it will cease. Atoms will fly apart. Cause and effect will lose meaning.

Because there are so many versions of so many operatives from so many futures, all contradicting each other, no one knows for certain what consequences any given event will have. Chaos ensues and continues forever.

At the outset, the name of the band should serve as a clue to readers not to take this one literally or strive for full comprehension of the issues alleged to be at stake. This is absurdity with a strong gonzoid flavor, playing for fun with the multiple time paradoxes and contradictions.

“Pernicious Romance” by Robert Reed

An account of an apparently inexplicable event. This one is a riddle with plenty of wrapping and only a few hints. We have the accounts of investigators, who are sifting through evidence and theories that might explain it, and we have the cases of individuals who were affected, discussing their experiences.

So what happened? At halftime during a college football game, a strong detonation involving light and EMP occurred, the shock and resulting injury killing less than one hundred persons with the remainder of the seventy thousand rendered apparently unconscious for varying lengths of time, depending on their proximity to the epicenter. Which raises the question: What is consciousness? Is a dream a form of consciousness? But the victims of the event were not dreaming; on this, they agree. Their experience was more vivid, more subjectively real than any dream, and it took place over a specific length of time, unlike a dream. The victims were very clear that they had spent a week, [or nine days, or fifty-eight years] in some other reality. Further, the evidence of their brain activity, so rapid, using so much energy that the victims were often in danger of starvation, suggests some form of active experience.

This experience, while varied in several ways, universally involved an intense love, a love in most cases greater than that of conscious life, returning to which was an intense disappointment. I can’t help thinking of the tales of humans abducted to fairyland, then waking to find themselves bereft on a cold hillside, in a world, a life they no longer want.

And there is the simple, relentless problem that comes from one difficult evening in October: Tens of thousands of people are awake today, dealing with lives that were never lived, and from all accounts those other lives seem to be as genuine and as thoroughly recalled as any.

Investigators at first call the event terrorism, then propose possible alternative theories as the testimony and evidence accumulations. Nothing really fits, although the hints provided by the case studies are suggestive, even if apparently inconsistent. There is one provocative theory:

that the world was too intricate and perfect for even an expert to dream up. That means that his vision had to be the work of another mind, a much more competent and relentless mind. According to the old professor, each of us exists inside the dreams of someone greater, and what happened on that October evening was an accident, a sorry mistake.

The universe is a cosmic fiction.

This pushes us over the edge into philosophy, the problem that Descartes loosed upon the world: we have no way to be certain that our subjective experiences correspond to any reality external to our minds. Our entire life might be a dream, or the trick of an evil demon, or an experiment by aliens, or a glitch in the infinite mind that constitutes reality. Reed keeps pushing at the boundaries of his fiction, employing imagination in strange and fascinating ways, and this piece has to be one of his most provocative.


“The Long Haul From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009” by Ken Liu

The opening epigraph clearly announces this as an alternate history:

Twenty-five years ago on this day, the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Today, it will cross it for the last time. Six hundred times it has accomplished this feat, and in so doing it has covered the same distance as more than eight roundtrips to the Moon. Its perfect safety record is a testament to the ingenuity of the German people.

There is always some sorrow in seeing a thing of beauty age, decline, and finally fade, no matter how gracefully it is done. But so long as men still sail the open skies, none shall forget the glory of the

—John F. Kennedy, March 31, 1962, Berlin.

But this is an odd alternate history that includes Kennedy as president, Cormac McCarthy novels, audio CDs. In short, a world seemingly identical to our own timeline except in the matter of airships, now moving most of the world’s long-haul freight and dominated by China. I might have spent a lot of time concerned with this apparently anomaly, but I decided it doesn’t really make much different in the story sense of things.

As the title suggests, what we have here is a piece of travel journalism. The narrator has talked his way onto this freight hauler, owned and crewed by a husband and wife, on a Great Circle route from China to the US. Because our narrator is addressing the readers of his magazine, it’s not unusual that he initially spends a lot of space on the structure and operation of the airship. But it soon becomes clear that the story is really about the couple who fly the ship and how they have adjusted to one another after Ickes purchased Yeling from a rural broker.

Every marriage had its own engine, with its own rhythm and fuel, its own language and control scheme, a quiet hum that kept everything moving. But the hum was so quiet that sometimes it was more felt than heard, and you had to listen for it if you didn’t want to miss it.

The pair of them, it’s clear, are a good, effective team. What particularly interests me is the narrator’s approach to each of the couple, asking Ickes directly about the wife-buying but letting Yeling speak without prompting. Ickes is defensive but unapologetic. Yeling admits she was unhappy at first, but things improved when she decided to please herself instead of trying to please him. Now she paints eyes on their air-dragon, and he makes no objection even when he doesn’t believe in them. That is the story’s strength, its insights into the human heart.

Apex Magazine, November 2014

Some good reading here this time.

“Brute” by Rich Larson

Anton and Hume do scavenging, and the crate is their latest find.

We’d found the thing in floodland, sending up a lazy beep beep from Old Vancouver’s watery grave. Extracting it took most of the week — long nights in wetsuits and choking on boat fumes — but the salvage claim had gone through, and it was all ours now. I was moderately curious, but this one was Anton’s holy grail. Anton thought it was going to be something big.

It was something weird. “It was shapeless, furrowed red meat and quicksilver splashes. It undulated and shivered in slow motion. It smelled like something bitter.” And it quickly attaches itself to Anton and plugs into his nervous system, giving him neat superpowers. It also eats cats. In short, it’s clear that this is going to be a Bad Thing.

I’m reminded of that classic cartoon about the guy who finds the singing frog, except that the Brute isn’t so benign. Why they call it the Brute, I have no idea.

“Candy Girl” by Chikodili Emelumadu

Another crazy Nigerian magic story by Emelumadu. This one is lighter and more absurd than her “Tunbi”. Muna broke up with Paul when she figured he was more interested in her Igbo-ness than in her. Paul, reluctant to give her up, acquires a love spell but unfortunately mispronounces a vital word in the Igbo language.

“Ihe. Thing. Not ‘onye,’ person. You asked to be given the thing you love the most and then you bewitched my umbrella to prick me and transfer your spell to my blood.”

Now Muna is turning into chocolate, so her cousin takes her to a powerful healer [reminds me of Tunbi] whose help isn’t quite what she had in mind.

Funny stuff featuring some strong and aggressive women. The author also takes a swipe at the absurdity of race relations. Going to be keeping an eye out for more from this new author.

“The New Girl” by Marissa Lingen

A fragment. Badger follows the enticing scent of machine oil to a rebel seaplane squadron where her mechanical mods are welcomed. There’s neat stuff here, in the characters and their interactions, in Badger’s eccentric view of the world.

Badger felt a bit impatient at this. “You know what ‘iaa’ and ‘blarrr’ are. When the engine is working right, it goes all deep and throaty and blarrrrrrrr, you know. Blarrr. And then when it’s gone off somehow you get —” She hesitated before raising her voice through her nose to mimic it, but as well kill an alligator as a fish. “‘Iaaaa, iaaaaaaaaa.’ Like that.”

But this isn’t the whole story, of which we have seen other bits previously.

“The Stagman’s Song” by Ginger Weil

Susan’s family lives by hunting stagmen and selling the bodies to alchemists.

Susan felt the weight of the house: slate roof, timber frame, walls plastered with handprints and memories. They couldn’t keep the house without the alchemists’ money. And her mother and Uncle George had both been on two hunts already. The first hunt’s curse marked them, the second bound them to the mountain, trapped like the stagmen they’d hunted. A third hunt killed the hunter. Susan didn’t want to go up the mountain, but she couldn’t watch her uncle or her mother die.

This is one of those premises contrived to trap the characters in a problem, but it doesn’t make sense. The stagmen can’t leave the mountain. Because of their curse, the Leclairs can’t leave the mountain. Because they can’t leave the mountain, they killr the stagmen. Except they can leave the mountain if they don’t kill a stagman, or after they’ve only killed one. The Leclairs are only trapped because the author wants them there. The editorial blurb says this is her first sale, and the descriptions of the mountain show that she has promise, but there’s a falseness here.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

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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