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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June 2015


Looking at a miscellaneous bunch of ezines, not finding any real stars in them. Hoping to have the digests in for July.

Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #175-176, June 2015

#175 has women going forth on adventures; #176 has women with a destiny.

#175

“On Freedom of Agency and the Finding of Lost Hearts” by Ken Scholes

Fantasy adventure in the old-fashioned mode, with thieves, demons, wizards, gods, and a quest for a powerful talisman. Shayna is a thief—there may be a Guild involved—who indentured herself to serve a demon. Her master has now dispatched her to steal an object unspecified from a cabin deep in the woods. This turns out to be the Heart of Elyon, a god of love, which is borne by the man who once ruled the world through its power.

Ansylus of Erok, Ansylus the Conqueror, Ansylus the Enslaver. It had taken half the League of Wizards to bring him down two thousand years ago. It had brought about the treaty with the demons and restored the Art to them.

But Shayna, it now transpires, is immune to its power. After which, things go strangely but ultimately well.

Reading it, I realize how seldom I see this sort of story these days, with all these elements gathered unironically. Only the title suggests otherwise.

“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” by Rose Lemberg

Aviya-nai-Bashri, our narrator, was born into the Khana people, whose lives are bound with copious restrictions and requirements, many involving sex roles. Segregation is the rule, so that men live as scholars in their own separate compounds while women in adulthood form partnerships to go outside and trade, leaving behind their children and grandmothers to raise them. Aviya’s mothers have decamped, which is apparently not common, but the main problem lies with her younger brother Kimi, who appears to have some form of autism and doesn’t speak; the men will not accept him into their scholarly company, so that his auspicious male name is taken from him and he is given a girl’s.

Now this is an intricate social setting, but by this point in the text readers will have realized that its function is to allow the author to mess with the effects that a society’s sex roles can have on individual identity. In short, this is identity fiction, and the setting is there to serve the author’s message, as are the characters, each inhabiting a particular role as if wearing a mask. So that grandmother-nai-Tommah wants to be a man, while Kimi is a symbol of ambiguity, a prop for an argument against binary identity that comes right out of today’s twitter posts.

“I don’t think your grandchild knows—cares—what tai is.” Naïr used a pronoun common to many desert languages—tai, taim, tair in Surun’—that indicated ‘neither he nor she’. The Khana language lacked such a word, both in the speech the scholars used and in women’s talk. In Khana, a person was either she or he. In Khana, all the words were either she or he—carpets, carts, grains of sand, stars in the sky each had their chosen form, female or male. There was no escaping this, but the desert tongues lacked such a distinction. One could be anything. In Surun’.

This society, while well detailed, seems to be created primarily for thematic purposes and not to be realistic, which is where the story is weakest, when all men and women are constrained to follow a single line of work; this isn’t a practical way of running an economy nor a society. The notion of men as scholars evokes a kind of yeshiva world, but in fact the men are useful–tinkerers who create the goods that the women traders go forth to sell. But I can’t see why a boy needs to be verbal to be able to do this kind of work. I also wonder where Aviya’s family gets the money to survive, since the mother/traders appear to have deserted them. In our world, journeys such as they undertake have always been hazardous business, with the trade routes infested with bandits. Yet two or three women, unarmed, blithely venture forth to cross a bone-strewn desert in full confidence of being able to return safely with riches. Magic can’t be counted on to protect them, as magic is ubiquitous in this world, as likely to be wielded by evildoers as the innocent. This system just hasn’t been thought through. Nor has the notion of trading associations staffed by lovers. As Aviya and her partner discover, compatibility in love doesn’t necessarily mean compatibility in business.

Happily, the story isn’t intolerably didactic, and there are sufficient elements interesting in their own right and not simply message vehicles. And the narrator has a name—indeed, names are a matter of profound importance in these societies, both family names and deepnames, which designate an individual’s command of magic. Aviya’s magic is near-nonexistent and she takes no deepnames, but grandmother-nai-Tommah is a “three-name strong”, capable of safely crossing the desert alone. Kimi, too, has potent magic, which the rigid rules governing Khana society would have left undeveloped. As The Animals would say, they gotta get outa that place in order to realize their individual potential. The author doesn’t mention this, but the system also inhibits the freedom of men and women who might want to live together and even become lovers.

Definitely the best aspect of this piece is related to the cloth woven of winds, symbol of the family’s tragic past that Aviya slowly uncovers. Venturing forth into other lands with other customs, the women encounter exotic wonders, peoples who can weave the air and songs, peoples with different gods. Here is where the magic comes alive.

#176

“The Girl with Golden Hair” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A variation on familiar fairytale tropes which the author has turned to dross for story purposes. A girl is born with golden hair, but it’s hard and heavy and apparently can’t be sold or spent. Her poor parents believe good things will come of this, but it doesn’t seem likely, especially as they name her Oovis. In fact, her golden hair provokes the jealousy of the Evil Stepqueen.

Readers will flash on one recognizable image after another, but not much seems to come of it, other than a lesson against the destiny of birth so common in the familiar tales.

“Court Bindings” by Karalynn Lee

This daughter is a princess who has a powerful magical gift of binding animals to do her will. “You do not mean to be cruel to all the animals you practice upon, but you are.” The narrator who says this is her bodyguard, who doesn’t like the idea of the unwanted attention this skill might draw in the court, where assassination plots are rife and the queen is unpopular. The princess soon learns how to use her gift on people, until the time comes when she must confront her destiny.

A nicely mannered courtly piece with a fitting twist at the end. The story might involve destiny, but its real theme is power.


Tor.com, June 2015

Not much original independent fiction posted here this month.

“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson

One of the main archetypes of the fairy tale is the discharged soldier seeking his fortune. Our soldier, Sylvain de Guilherand, is an officer, not a commoner, in fact, a distant relation of minor nobility, which is sufficient to gain him entrée into the halls of Louis XV’s Versailles. There he’s made a mark for himself by improving the plumbing, restoring the fountains and introducing the luxury of the flush toilet. While Sylvain has done a lot of actual engineering work, constructing cisterns and a network of pipes, the heart of the project is the secret presence of a nixie he’s captured and introduced into the waterworks of the palace. But the nixie is temperamental, jealous, and makes constant demands for attention.

A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.

While this piece doesn’t have the form of a fairy tale, it engages the same themes and, as contemporary of the tales often do, subverts them. So Sylvain discovers that making his fortune at court and seducing ladies-in-waiting isn’t the path to true happiness. What I find missing here is the story of his earlier life, his decision to take this step, and how he figured out about the nixie. Without this, the story isn’t quite complete.

“The Deepest Rift” by Ruthanna Emrys

An interstellar setting called the inhabited worlds, which apparently means inhabited by both humans and nonhumans. Titan’s Rift is the deepest canyon in all these worlds, and in it live flying creatures called mantas. The narrator and her team of sapiologists [love that word] are attempting to prove there is significance in the patterns they form, weaving sculptures of thin wire filaments like spider silk that the observers believe are evidence of sapience. Unfortunately, the evidence they’ve gathered so far isn’t conclusive. Now an AI proctor has come to assess their progress.

A disappointingly predictable piece that slights a promising SFnal premise, being more concerned with the narrator’s personal matters than the science. The members of the research team are all lovers, and it’s clear that remaining together is at least as important to them as their research. And the narrator is deaf, seeing bias against her in the attitudes of others.

I want to point out that for all her advantages, she works without touch, kinesthesia, all the subtle senses that aid human reason. And yet she judges me deficient. But it’s the wrong argument, and I hold my fingers and tongue still.

From the first page, it’s already clear what will happen: the team will discover the evidence it needs; the discovery will be made possible through the narrator’s enhanced non-hearing senses; the team won’t have to break up; no one will have to make any hard choices; things will work out just fine.


GigaNotoSaurus, June 2015

It’s been some time since I looked at this ezine, established to provide a home for longer fiction, though I hadn’t noticed a lot of particularly long fiction here.

“The Business of Buying and Selling” by Patricia Russo

Ria lives in a world where anything whatsoever can be sold in the underground market, including a toothache [good for curses]. But the lease on her toothache has expired, so she has it back again, and the young couple down the hall has a baby that just won’t stop screaming.

If that baby didn’t stop crying, she was going to lose her mind. Her tooth was throbbing anyway, but the high-pitched bawling made her clench her jaw, and the ouch! of that sent a bolt of bright blue pain straight through her head.

This, eventually, gives Ria an idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out as planned.

The key to this one is being able to accept the fantastic premise. The problem is that it’s both too long and too short. Too long, in that Ria’s situation is described at rather excessive length, making for tedium. Too short, in that the ending cuts off too abruptly, leaving readers wondering, “Then what?”


Perihelion, June 2015

Also taking another look at this monthly SF zine, looking for Hard Stuff. There are eight full-length stories, along with other features. Most of these pieces aren’t really ready for the professional level, which is perhaps to be expected. But I would have liked to see more attempts, at least, at real Hard SF. The ones that did make such attempts tend to be the better stories, too.

“Au Pair, or Else” by Lee Budar Danoff

Angela is in a bind. Her large brood of kids, including triplets, is notorious on the au pair network, and she can’t get back to her job at Sea World without childcare. But an alien from Tau Ceti? The State Department puts it to her in a way she can’t refuse. “You get help with your kids, we get our ambassador, she gets to swim with Earth’s sea creatures, and your program gets funding. It’s a quadruple win.” This, of course, is less than the truth. In fact, not only can Angela not leave Coral alone with the kids, she can’t leave her alone at all. Her babysitter needs a babysitter.

This is a silly premise. If aliens want to commune with Earth’s sea creatures, there’s no need to set them up in a human residence as a disguised nanny. And as SF, it’s quite soft.

“Frail World” by R A Conine

Karl is a middle-aged physicist who was foolish enough to marry a gold-digging harpy who isn’t above murdering an inconvenient husband or two. Fortunately, she rarely follows him down to the dark basement lab where he’s attempting to create a Planck universe, but desperation for divorce finally overcomes her distaste.

The reference to Planck theory is momentarily promising, but here it’s mostly handwavium. The portrayal of the wife goes way too far into the ridiculous, and the horror ending is just hokey.

“Electra Had a Daughter” by Juliana Rew

Post apocalypse. Most of humanity is dead, and most of the remainder is feral, outside the guarded enclaves.

The humans in New Telluride were liberal as hell, but out in the hinterland, the Dark Ages were back. Those who still believed in God had the idea that they had to die purely human before they could go to heaven when God called the worthy on doomsday.

The cyborgs are in a position to inherit the Earth, such as it is, but instead they are working to clone humans from a bank of stored germ plasm, albeit with improvements and enhancements.

The overall situation here is sketchy, with the usual clichéd post-apocalyptic demonic nutcases populating the landscape, while cyborgs are the new generation of angels. At least the cloning project seems scientifically plausible.

“This Long Vigil” by Rhett C Bruno

We’re on the Interstellar Ark Hermes, a generation ship run by an AI, in this case named Dan. Orion is the only human currently awake as a monitor to assist the AI. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine inhabitants are hibernating in stasis chambers. Their number never fluctuates; when one is recycled at age seventy, a replacement is birthed. Orion, approaching his fiftieth birthday, will soon return to his chamber after selecting his replacement. But Orion is discontented.

I wanted to grasp her smooth hands and welcome her to the realm of the living; to feel the pulse of her veins beneath her skin—real human contact. Sometimes I’d watch as her chest gently heaved from the air she unconsciously breathed in through her respirator, and that was often enough to get my heart racing.

Orion finds himself wanting many things, but not to return to hibernation and await his death.

Here at least is a Hard SF concept and a somewhat different take on the generation ship—unfortunately, not entirely in a good way. The core problem is the assumption that the passengers should represent a normal distribution of ages, which is why frozen embryos weren’t packed to be thawed at the end of the trip. But this is false reasoning. If the capability exists, embryos could have been thawed in stages when the destination was reached. And if the ability to do this exists, there would be no need to impregnate an unconscious woman, which is really appalling. So I feel strongly for Orion in his position and deplore the waste of lives, but it’s a position he should never have been in, a position artificially contrived by the author.

There are other problems: The term “stasis” is misused. In a true stasis, all organic function including growing and aging would be suspended indefinitely. Here, the unconscious passengers seem to have a normally active metabolism, and that takes the resources of oxygen and nutrition that the project claims it doesn’t have to support a living population. Even in hibernation, however, I suspect that the aging process would be considerably slowed so that seventy years wouldn’t be the natural limit of life. The monitor alone would age, while the sleeping passengers would occupy the quasi-stasis of an artificially extended lifespan. So I don’t think the author has thought this situation quite all the way through.

“Old Clothes” by Eric Del Carlo

The title sort of says it all: humanity has cast off its terrestrial raiment and gone into space, leaving its discarded garments behind. They carry on as well as they can, picking up the lives of their Wearers [sic]. But matters can’t go on in that way forever. Our narrator, who uses the name Yamagata, muses, “Perhaps we simply were not meant to exist without our Wearers.” An overly obvious truth.

The concept is a kind of neat metaphorical twist on the classic Left Behind trope, but it makes insufficient sense as science fiction, as opposed to, say, sentient pets or household robots.

“Good Behavior” by Genevieve Williams

As in, imprisonment. Convicts in this scenario are dispersed among ordinary residential dwellings, with special security arrangements.

There’s always that moment of wondering whether I’ll get to go out today. They could tell you when you wake up. But no. They’ll let you wonder, and hope, and even expect. Then the buzzer will sound and the red light will come on, and you’ll find out there’s a security breach or some con made a run for it or you’ve committed some infraction they didn’t tell you about until just now. Lockdown.

Their sentence is menial labor, cleaning the Street, though not many people actually use the Street. Demetrios is doing pretty well earning good time until he’s accosted by a more effective criminal than he used to be, looking for information that only he can provide.

Here, finally, is a story that works, sufficiently original for interest. I can’t say that I totally buy the non-prison prison system, but it works well enough as conceived here, and it probably saves money. The system works because of advanced technology, the all-seeing ambient, which a much larger overall role in this society; crimjuice is only one aspect. And the piece is quite SF enough to satisfy. The best one here.

“Saving Time” by John Hegenberger

The downside of time travel. Sam got this idea for a time machine and built it to try out the theory.

This fourth dimension is the instant of time when the mind travels freely from one view to the other. Time, then, is an invisible “optical illusion.” The more complex the illusions, the more the mind is conditioned to travel uninhibited—almost in anticipation—directly forward.

But he was reckless, and the thing went wrong; he aged fifty years in a minute, leaving him with nothing but bitter regret and a wife who seems rather too good for him . We know this from the first paragraph, which is where the story starts, and from which it has nowhere in particular to go but over the backstory and over again. Also into the relationship between Sam and his wife. A decently SFnal treatment of this subject, but not the best fiction.

“World Away” by Alan Garth

Another generation ship, this one with teenagers running freely over the place, which makes the Bruno scenario almost seem preferable in comparison. But this time, it’s not Tenni’s fault, it’s the tech who sends her out to the hull with empty thrust packs on her eevee suit. Also her frenemy Freemon, supposed to be her partner on this EVA. A nice enough, though slight, space story that doesn’t quite reach the level of adventure. Tenni seems competent enough but she isn’t given the opportunity to save herself. I just don’t believe in that tech guy.


Aphelion, 196 June 2015

I couldn’t resist the idea of taking a look at this one after the similarly titled Perihelion. But despite the spacey title and space-themed cover image, the zine takes a broad approach to the genre, including fantasy and horror. I like that it’s open to longer works, I don’t like that they’re serialized; there is one serial in this issue. I read the five full-sized short stories, rather better written and more incompetently copyedited.

“Groundhog Days” by George T Philibin

A virus makes all the animals intelligent, which is one thing, but giving them a government subsidy is just silly. Feasters the groundhog decides to go see the world, and he doesn’t much like what he finds, which is that intelligence and government checks don’t make for happiness. The rat, at least, has a useful job, but all the groundhog does is scarf down free food, which means that intelligence hasn’t changed that species much. In the not-thinking-things-through department, we have carnivores eating steaks when all animals have the legal right to life. Nope, silly. Readers who think groundhogs are cute might find this appealing in a way, but I’m a gardener and I know better.

“Mr Bramble and Mr Thornapple Redecorate” by Jill Hand

When her house disappears into a sinkhole, Donna buys the only replacement she can afford, which is kind of a dump but all hers, including a parcel of woods. While hunting one day for her escaped cat, Evil George, she encounters what readers will recognize as a couple of fairies in knee-breeches, who offer her a boon in exchange for their trespassing. This will probably remind readers of a certain fairy tale. Amusingly done.

“Finding the Ice Sculptor’s Castle” by Sean Mulroy

Told in late tsarist Russia by a narrator who had appreciated the works of the master ice sculptor in St Petersburg when a young man. But Mikhail Cherevin was never completely satisfied with his work, as even in Russia his palaces had melted under the summer sun. He disappeared after his last successful season, and wasn’t seen again in Russia for nineteen years, when the narrator recognized him, grown old, and learned his story.

An oddly-done piece, essentially historical fiction.

“Until We Part” by Rajeev Prasad

Mack is chief of security for a large bioengineerng corporation that engages in morally dubious projects attractive to criminals and vulnerable to corporate rivals. “Corporate expects me to get the job done, but whenever they come around, they make things difficult.” But now someone in corporate is trying to dispose of Mack’s lover Yuki, and he’s not going to let that happen, no matter what, even after he learns her secret.

SF action thriller, competently done, but a lot of stuff is left to be explained until late in the action.

“A Life of Simplicity” by Emerson Fortier

The narrator is a refugee from the war immolating his world, destroying his home and killing the rest of his family, a reminder that a disproportionate number of war casualties are civilians, children.

I’ve watched men lined up for holding to some ideal, watched other men come down the line with a laser rifle and watched the heads evaporate from the beam of energy before their bodies were kicked into the stream. Dozens of them killed by men who were filled with rhetoric. Arguments are simpler with a gun, less difficult to understand, less complicated to contend with.

SF for the advanced technology and extraterrestrial setting, but otherwise what we can see here on Earth today.


Fireside, June 2015

This one is subheaded “many genres . . . just good stories”, which is great if you can pull it off. There are only two full-length shorts, plus a serial and other content.

“If Wishes Were Obfuscation Codes” by Malon Edwards

The narrative here is pretty well obfuscated by language, cyberpunkish jargon mixed with the Haitian Creole that the author has employed in other settings, and a lot of brand names for the status factor. This must be considered a feature, not a bug, a tool for creating the cyber-exoticism of this future setting but it can make for a thorny reading experience.

My plan had been to go into Yumi Kobayashi’s nexus with guns blazing, true Doré style: Custom-made hot-pink AMT Hardballer Longslides. Glammed-up silver-dyed kink curls. Golden brown skin oiled to a light sheen. Sleek dark sunglasses. Black leather halter, black leather pants, black leather calf boots. Bad attitude.

So starting out, this sounds like a lot of fun. Our narrator is actually supposed to be on the side of the Law Guild, a forensic detective no less, not that you’d know it. She claims to be an infiltration programme, which seems to mean that she’s running one in the nexus, and is, like everyone else in this milieu, enhanced and cyborged, unless they are wholly artificial like holograms and murderous gynoids like Yumi Kobayashi, the target of her raid. She calls dj gruv grrl an obfuscation programme, and she’s a lot more than just a dj. Doré is supposed to be targeting Yumi Kobayashi on a murder charge, but she’s totally distracted by dj gruv grrl, which is either dereliction of duty or cyberattack, or undoubtedly both. And things then get even more complex.

All this glitz could be construed as just seksi cyber-thriller adventure, but it’s not, as we discover by the end. It’s bad shit, it’s betrayal, it’s cold-blooded murder, it’s outright evil—nothing to have fun about. Which gives the ending a very bad taste in the mouth.

“Fluffy Harbinger of Death” by Alex Hughes

Myss is a harpy, for some definition of harpy with no relation to the original creature of myth, and that’s something I don’t like. Harpies don’t sing; sirens sing. Harpies torment people and shit on their food, they don’t escort them to heaven. They don’t belong noway nohow in the Christianized heaven Upstairs, rather, if anything, the other place. So it makes me irritable, and the story with a feelgood moralistic ending brings nothing to alleviate this.

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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