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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May


A bunch of shorter publications in which I find little to be very enthusiastic about.

Publications Reviewed


Lightspeed, May 2015

Finally ending [or so it seems] Hughes’ “Erm Kaslo” serial, with the rest of the original fiction on the short and weak side.

“Time Bomb Time” by C C Finlay

Hannah’s boyfriend is messing around with his time bomb in her dorm room. Boring relationship argument ensues. The boring argument contains numerous references that would clue in the reader to the nature of the plot twist, if any readers can push through the tedium to pay attention.

“Mouth” by Helena Bell

When Ann was five years old, she slapped her baby brother and his mouth flew off his face. She didn’t know how to put it back and it went bad, so she finally threw it out. When she grew older, she learned how to put stuff back, but she didn’t always do it. There’s a suggestion that some of this is the product of her imagination, but her brother really doesn’t have a natural mouth, so we really do have to take the premise literally. The point of all this absurdity seems to be that people don’t listen to what other people tell them, but it might be something else.

“The Myth of Rain” by Seanan McGuire

Drought has moved north from California as the rich move ahead of it, taking over.

Protection for endangered species and habitats wasn’t as important as space for homes and cities and jobs. Commerce and trade were coming to the Pacific Northwest, whether we wanted them or not, despite our protests that they had been here all along. State legislators looked at a sky that was black with crows and said, “The wildlife is doing fine without our help.”

Julie is part of a team of environmentalists gathering up as many specimens of endangered species as they can before the construction crews move in. She knows her quest is doomed to failure, but she has to try.

An angry, overtly political work in the mode If This Goes On.


Strange Horizons, May 2015

The fiction here is psychological, with some of the insights casting light but not much excitement.

“The Pieces” by Teresa Milbrodt

A relationship story, here mainly the relationship between father and daughter. A short, surreal fantasy in which the narrator’s father has literally fallen apart, his various segments lying around the living room. This doesn’t stop him from being difficult and critical, as usual. His wife says he’s having a mid-life crisis. The narrator takes him, head and torso at least, out for coffee.

Dad has never been good at expressing that concern in a way that makes me want to do anything but push back. And now he’s a head and two blocks of torso stacked on top of each other. For once I am in control.

Minor catharsis ensues in this altogether minor story, in which the realization of the metaphor is about the whole of it.

“Cloth Mother” by Sarah Pauling

Earth died. As resources ran out, authorities rapidly mobilized to send habitats stocked with embryos into orbit where they would be safe until the planet was ready for recolonization. As this time approached, the AIs running the habitats attempt to hatch and raise a child who could raise the others. These efforts didn’t always succeed, but Mazie was more acceptable than most. Now the Revitalization, with the aid of a subroutine filling the function of mother, must raise and educate the child to be as good and empathetic human as possible, consistent with a limited energy budget. As she approaches maturity, Mazie takes a more active role in her own preparation, having studied enough psychology to manipulate her caretakers.

“They did experiments on monkeys,” she said. “Do you know what happens to monkeys when they grow up alone in a pit without other monkeys, Vita?”

An interesting piece about child development. The title, which the author tells us in case we don’t get it on our own, recalls the classic Harlow experiment with baby monkeys; the AI Vita is the wire money who provides sustenance, but the mother simulation is the cloth monkey who approximates love. The conclusion is optimistic; readers can assume the programming succeeded, as Mazie claims.

“By Degrees and Dilatory Time” by S L Huang

Marcus has had bad luck and good luck in his life. Bad luck ended his career as a competitive skater because artificial implants aren’t allowed in sport, and now it’s taken his eyes with cancer. The good luck is the technology that can replace damaged joints and eyes. He undergoes the surgery. He recovers, physically. He recovers mentally, too, but that takes more time. In the end, “It’s just . . . life. Like everything else.”

The plot here is minimal. It’s a contemplative work, following Marcus through the stages of disease and recovery; it’s an insightful work. I’m not sure we learn a whole lot about Marcus, who he was and is, but the insights have value.


Apex Magazine, May 2015

A rather more promising issue, although in all of the stories I keep tripping over facty flaws that prevent them from being what they might have been.

“Remembery Day” by Sarah Pinsker

In the aftermath of a particularly painful war, veterans everywhere have agreed to the imposition of the Veil, a collective mental block that prevents them from remembering. Once a year, however, in fullness of recollection, they gather in parade to revote the issue. The story is told from the point of view of Clara, whose mother is a disabled veteran. We see how carefully and lovingly they prepare her uniform for the event, how proudly they applaud her service, and how eagerly Clara waits for the opportunity to question her about those lost years. “Maybe I’d get to know the other Mama, too: the one who remembered my father, who had died before I was born. The one who could someday tell me whether it had been worth everything she had lost.”

Another story where sentiment predominates, evoking sympathy for veterans and the trauma they’ve suffered in war. The story suggests that this last war’s trauma has finally been the cause of ending all wars; the flags of all nations are flown, and all the old uniforms have been abandoned for common use, reserved for this day alone. But I find myself with more questions than are answered here. The premise seems to be a degree of trauma so universally great that survivors would choose to forget—not only the trauma itself but all that part of their lives. And the text makes clear that this isn’t voluntary, that the Veil isn’t limited to those veterans who choose this drastic amputation of memory. Some, as we see, vote every year to lift the Veil, but they are overruled by the majority. In short, it seems that this treatment must be involuntary, compulsory, universal.

I note that the presence of pressed uniforms and polished boots suggests a 20th-century, 3rd-generation model of warfare, with armies formally-organized and controlled by states. It doesn’t seem likely that any near-future war on that model would have altered the proportion of rear-echelon troops to those relatively few on the front lines, who suffer the brunt of the trauma. And of these, the survivors are relatively few. Yet it would seem that the scenario here condemns even the minimally-traumatized and untraumatized veterans to this compulsory mental amputation, which would be extreme.

Furthermore, in more recent wars, both 3rd and 4th generation, trauma has been widely extended to include civilian populations, who are the primary victims of terrorism. Rape, for example, is now acknowledged as a weapon of war. Bombing is randomized and its damage collateralized. Yet we see no sign in this story that these victims are accorded the benefits, such as they might be, of a veiled memory. In short, the entire premise doesn’t seem particularly thought-through.

I also have to consider the well-known axiom: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This suggests that the unremembered war of the story is unlikely to be the last.

“Wildcat (From the Secret Diary of Donna Hooks)” by David Bowles

At the beginning of the 20th century in the American Southwest, the eponymous narrator is a woman outside the prevailing norms, being feminist, divorced, and a practitioner of witchcraft [a gringa santera]. When her farmhands shoot a wild jaguarundi shapeshifter, concern is raised over her kits, who will grow up fully neither human nor cat without intervention.

“Problem is they don’t know they are human. Right now their tonal, their animal soul, it’s in charge. How you’re going to get them to understand, gringa witch? How you’re going to awaken the human soul and get it to take charge? The older they get, the harder it’s going to be to put them down. Can’t release them: their personhood would twist inside them, make them mankillers. So what’s the solution, Miss Donna?”

She succeeds in transforming the two female kits, but the sole male is a harder case.

Overall, this is a successful piece, and for the most part my objections could be characterized as nitpicking. It’s remotely conceivable, for one, that Donna Holt in 1918 could have taken the title of “Ms”, first known to be proposed in 1901, although less conceivable that her farmhands would have used it. And it’s also conceivable that her teacher, an adept in Obeah, might have used the Chinese term chi for the “divine spark”, but I’m dubious. The jaguarundi, on the other hand, is a small cat, in the general size range of the housecat. A chicken-coop raiding cat, certainly, but slaughtering three full-sized horses? Even for a creature of sorcery, I’m not buying it. The cumulative effect of these unlikelihoods diminishes the author’s authority and my acceptance of the story.

“A Sister’s Weight in Stone” by J Y Yang

The setting is a fantasy alternative China in a fantasy late 19th-century, where the livelihood of a silk-farming village is being destroyed by an oceanic infestation of dragon-worms.

. . . the seas across the warmer parts of the world seemed to churn with their gelatinous bodies, serrated teeth destroying everything in their path. Fishermen’s boats went out in the morning and came back empty driftwood torn with holes. Stilt houses fell whole into the sea with their occupants, foundations razored away to nothing. Coastal cities closed their ports to all but airships and erected walls to keep hungry mouths away from the soft flesh of populace.

The old women claim that the dragon-worms are the servants of the great dragon princes of the sea, and indeed we get no other explanation for them. But with the silk trade failing, the young people have been forced to leave the village to seek work elsewhere. Little Phoenix and her sister Jade are on their way to Singapore in an airship when Jade falls overboard and passengers see her taken below the waves by a dragon prince. Once in Singapore and working on a construction crew, Little Phoenix attempts to scry out her sister and discover a way to earn her release.

OK, I’m finding facty problems again. Silkworking is a delicate, skilled occupation. It takes meticulous care to unwind the threads from the cocoons and weave them into fabric, thus an occupation requiring delicate dexterity, not calloused, scraggy hands that would snag the threads, as rough labor produces. The women of the village have devoted their lives to this weaving, to the point of lifelong celibacy. Sitting in front of a loom handling fine, gossamer strands is the very opposite of the heavy labor that the authors suggests they are engaged in, carrying bales of silk, and I really doubt it prepares the women for the heavy labor of hauling bricks and quarried stone.

Aside from this, the author hasn’t laid a groundwork for the eventual conclusion, so that it comes as an unpleasant surprise; readers may feel misled, as viewers might have felt decades ago, seeing Bobby Ewing step out of his shower. And it also leaves us without an explanation for the dragon-worms.


Shimmer, May 2015

Four stories about women in various stages of life. The most interesting one is the Wallace. Readers, however, might prefer more diversity.

“The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace

Doing natural history in the far Southern Ocean. Aurelia has come to Asunder Island because her parents once did, as they circumnavigated the globe and explored strange regions while their daughter waited in London for their letters. During that visit, they observed the Summer Star at the observatory on the island, the only one situated sufficiently south for the purpose, and Aurelia is determined to defend their conclusions against fatuous skeptics.

The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

The setting is apparently some time in the 19th century, and although later than O’Brien’s Stephen Maturin, we can see much of the spirit of that era’s scientific exploration into unknown seas. I note that, as readers of O’Brien know well, sailors of the time, relying on celestial observation for navigation, were far from uneducated in this field. Aurelia, of course, is an early feminist, resolved to go her own way, albeit with the chaperonage of a convenient aunt. As for the Southern Star, from the description of its movements, readers will suspect it to be something like an orbiting spacecraft.

So the story would seem to be a piece of retro science fiction, and as such, I find certain aspects problematic. If the study of this anomalous star were so important, why didn’t the observatory’s builder conduct a proper survey of it, one that would withstand skeptical opposition, rather than leaving it to random travelers who, like Aurelia, come for a single night of observation and then sail away? This behavior on her part is quite inexplicable. She’s sailed thousands of miles to reach this destination, and she only plans to spend a single, very short, night making her measurements of the star’s motion? The text makes it clear it’s not the case that the star is visible for only a single night in a year. She should have come with scientific instruments and sufficient supplies to last the whole season instead of knocking on the door of a hovel and expecting accommodation from their destitute inhabitants. It makes no sense, and if this were all there was to the story, I wouldn’t think so much of it.

But it’s not all there is. There is a fantasy so powerful that Aurelia almost forgets entirely to look through her telescope. Besides the observatory, Asunder Island is the home of a population of Atrox*, fierce black birds of unknown origin [although the text hints they are connected to the star], who live in a volcanic chasm that evokes the subterranean worlds of Jules Verne.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

The scant human population is intimately connected to the birds, their huts all the mouths of tunnels leading down into the chasm. The only one who will speak to Aurelia is a girl who is clearly much older than her appearance would imply; one of her limbs is a wing. She tells Aurelia a strange tale that she claims was related to her by Aurelia’s mother when she came to the island, a tale of growing wings and flying away from a world that holds men, only returning for the sake of her daughter. At the end, it’s the truth of her mother that Aurelia discovers on the island, not stars or birds. Still, it’s an awfully long trip to realize she needs to come back again and do it right, as she should have done in the first place.

[*]The name means “fierce”, although it feels like only part of a proper binomial scientific designation, with the genus missing. But that would suggest these birds have a place in the terrestrial chain of life.

“The Mothgate” by J R Troughton

The gate stands between the worlds, opening when night comes, to let the monsters pass through. Mama Rattakin has been teaching Elsa all her life to stand guard and shoot them as they come through the gate to attack humans.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

It’s a cyclical story with fairy tale elements, although the characters hope one day to end the cycle by learning enough about their enemies to close the gate. Pretty standard stuff.

“Good Girls” by Isabel Yap

Sara’s new roommate at the Good Girls Reformation Retreat is a Filipina named Kaye, who isn’t there because she’s a manananggal, because the authorities don’t know this. Monsters of her sort fly around at night with the lower halves of their bodies left behind, looking to suck the fetus from a pregnant woman’s belly. Sara, in contrast, only fantasizes about killing babies but doesn’t actually do so. Still, the two of them get along pretty well. “Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.”

YA horror, more explicit than usual, with the fetus-sucking thing, but this is all from the folklore, not the author’s creation.

“In the Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw

A fantasy world in which people turn into buildings, a condition called “city-sickness” that confers immortality. Zhang Yong is becoming a bookstore. His wife, Li Jing, is immune to the condition, but they’ve promised each other they’ll remain together until the end. Unfortunately, their interfering grandchildren, full of filial dogoodery, are determined to put her into a care home for her own good.

She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.

A story of love and family, heartwarming to the extent readers can buy into the premise.

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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