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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-June 2015


This time I feature the latest “Destroy” special issue from Lightspeed, from which I give the increasingly rare Good Story award to Chaz Brenchley. Also the June stories from Strange Horizons, from which I like the Evanby.

Publications Reviewed


Lightspeed, June 2015

Special “Queers Destroy Science Fiction!” issue, the latest but not last of the “Destroy” series, this one with Seanan McGuire heading up the large editorial cast. I’ve not been exceedingly excited by the previous entries in this list, and I was a bit disappointed here to miss the names of some of my favorite authors on the ToC, although I wasn’t really expecting to find them. I did expect to see rather more identifiable men, authoring only four out of the eleven full-length stories. Given that women, including queer women, had the starring role in all the previous issues of the series, readers might have had good reason to expect, finally, more male contributors. [I know they’re out there.]

But my main concern with this issue is a different matter. When the submission guidelines first appeared, they made it clear that contributors would be selected on the basis of the queer identity of the author, not the subject matter of the story. Readers might have assumed that the quality of the story would have entered into this equation. Several of the stories here are good ones, obviously by competent professional authors. Some are quite good, and I single out the Brenchley. But there is a sharp, obvious contrast between these and the rest, which don’t rise anywhere close to the same standards. I can’t imagine what the fiction editor was thinking, except perhaps that any story by a queer author would be good enough for this issue.

And this points to a fundamental flaw in projects like this series: they are author-driven. The assumption seems to be: let’s have a publication where we can all place our stories. This can shortchange the reader who doesn’t care so much about who the authors are but wants to find some good reading. Too many of the stories here suggest that the editor prioritized the interests of the authors over the readers, and I don’t think that’s what publication is supposed to be about.

“勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)” by John Chu

Military, or rather postwar SF. In the course of the late war, the military created cyborg supersoldiers, who aren’t considered human, even if they once were. Now the peace treaty mandates that they be decommissioned, which means eliminated. The cyborgs have other plans, but to succeed, they have to be able to fit into human society without arousing suspicion. To test himself, Jake sits down at a cafeteria table with a human soldier and engages him in conversation.

Jake discarded the sarcastic remark that headed his list of conversational alternatives. Snarking with every response was a decades-old gambit that anyone on base would recognize. Cyborgs soared through the Turing Test–they still had some human brain function, after all—but composing words was just a sliver of what he needed to do. He couldn’t merely pass for human; no one could be allowed to suspect he wasn’t.

His target turns out to be named Tyler, and he turns out to have a lot in common with Jake—they are both expert at the game of Go, they both originated in a part of China, and there is a hint of mutual attraction. But Tyler is something else, which forces a drastic change in the cyborgs’ escape plans.

The basic premise is one we’ve seen before, but Chu works it up well, giving us a good idea of what the cyborgs are without showing them in military action or suggesting that they’ve been permanently harmed by it; they apparently have advanced healing abilities, and perhaps that extends to the psyche, as well. A strong and promising opening to the issue.

“Emergency Repair” by Kate Galey

Following the instructions:

2. Drain and flush the ferrofluid circulation system.

Along the clavicular ridge, I find the port to the circulation. Every system in my original design corresponds to human anatomy, a complex advertisement of the medical applications the technology could have. It’s designed to be drained, and even with my improvised IV drip system the silver ferrofluid rushes out when the pressure is released.

It was the narrator who invented the androids and wrote the instructions for repairing them. The narrator is one half of a couple: the mad scientist, not the hero surgeon who now lies dying while the scientist works desperately to save the human life by transplanting the android core into the surgeon’s heart, using the techniques of both professions. It’s a neat military SF idea, but unfortunately overloaded with backstory, too much of which focuses mawkishly on the romantic relationship between the couple, who, after all, we haven’t really met.

“Trickier with Each Translation” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Rosalinda warns us:

It is difficult to tell a story out of time just as it is difficult to live out of time. I try to keep hold of the present, but it’s trickier with each translation to know the present, to remember if a scene is new or old. And in a way each moment is new because I look on it with new eyes.

This is a world with superheroes. One of these, a man named Archer, has the ability to control time, and also apparently to read minds. Archer falls in love with Rosa, who is in love and married to Logan. To keep her from Logan, he keeps yanking her back and forth in time, often to the years when she was in love with a woman named Webber. But there is no time that she loves Archer.

Basically a relationship story, not a lot going on with the time travel aspect. In fact, I would call the piece fantasy. None of the characters ever develop real personalities.

“The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal” by Chaz Brenchley

Martian steampunk. Let’s assume that the British Empire, before it was quite an empire, colonized Mars and subsequently employed it as a penal colony, rather on the lines of Australia in our own timeline, although apparently less brutal. Our narrator and his companions have been exiled there for the crime of sexual deviancy, or, as he says, “so many names for our kind–leering, contemptuous, descriptive, dismissive . . .” There is a newcomer among them, a famous individual that readers will certainly recognize, despite a bit of coyness on the part of the author concerning his name. But their gathering is interrupted by an officious official who wants to draft them into an experiment, communicating with a telepathic alien species also residing on Mars. His rationale:

“Our wise men speak of the, ah, inversion of the generative principle, as a bonding-agent stronger than blood or shared danger or duty or sworn word–but again, there is more than that. You gentlemen may be a brotherhood, drawn from within and pressed close from without; we can make you something greater, a single purpose formed from all your parts.”

Fine writing, excellent use of character in this imaginative story—the sort that can make an entire issue worthwhile on its own. The pompous-ass officer, the casual class snobbery, with the assumption that the enlisted men are drawn from a different order of humanity—all ring with an authentic tone. The milieu, the time and culture of the setting calls for a different sort of prose, but not every writer can recreate it well. Readers with contemporary sensibilities may feel uneasy at the narrator’s description of the tavern potboy as collective bedwarmer to the group [What do you mean “boy”? Pedophilia!] but Brenchley knows that no one of the age would blink at the connection. Even more, there is the clear assumption among the group that the poet will speak for them all—and the poet certainly does so. Oh, and the powerful concluding image. A whole lot to like here, and I plan to look forward to more from this author.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Tip of the Tongue” by Felicia Davin

Here’s a really hoary dystopian premise right out of 1950s fanzines, when They come and take away all the books and printed matter, expunging the ability to read from the people’s brains, for good measure.

It was for the greater glory of the city and the people, they said. Text couldn’t be trusted. This way, we have all been purified, they said. We have all returned to our natural state. Now we can truly build the society we have always dreamed of, they said. Good will reign, they said.

The reader wonders: Satire? Alas, no such luck. The author is unfortunately serious with this effort. Alice tries to remember how to read and ends up kissing the pretty librarian. There is nothing, of course, to suggest how a society could actually function under these conditions, and the excuse for it makes no sense whatsoever. But worse, I can’t help being reminded of the fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot, when literacy was forbidden and the urban population was displaced to forced labor on the farms. I don’t know if the author actually meant this comparison, and there are no actual scenes of torture and genocide, but the association is enough to make me quite uncomfortable. Some things should be beyond trivialization.

“How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War” by Rose Lemberg

More postwar SF. The narrator is a damaged ex-soldier who seems to have once been minimally cyborged, but the military implants have been removed and the human remnant cast ashore. The narrator has flashbacks and breaks things, and manages to keep it all under control in the times and places where this matters.

I wish they’d done a clean job, taken all my memories away so I could start fresh. I wish they’d taken nothing, left my head to rot. I wish they’d shot me. Wish I’d shoot myself and have no idea why I don’t, what compels me to continue in the conference rooms and in the overly pleasant office and in my now fashionably gray house. Joy or pleasure are words I cannot visualize. But I do want — something. Something.

Or someone. Someone who shares what the narrator can’t remember to forget.

This one makes an interesting contrast with the Chu story above, so that readers might well wonder which is more humane—to euthanize the no longer wanted military cyborgs or discard them to live with their pain. Here, the narrator and other damaged war veterans are fully human, which is what makes them so different from those around them, who haven’t been where they have been, or seen and done what they have seen and done. We can recognize them in this effective work.

“Plant Children” by Jessica Yang

So Qiyan is a sort of slacker who’s put off her senior thesis in plant engineering until almost too late, so she decides to create sentient plants, and does, just like that! Although the story doesn’t say how or give the slightest indication how this might be possible. In the end, of course, she learns a lesson about love. This certainly isn’t science fiction, and I can find no sense, originality, or merit in it.

[For readers who wonder, as I did at first, this author is not J Y Yang, who also appears in this issue, in the flash fiction section.]

“Nothing is Pixels Here” by K M Szpara

Ash and Zane, lovers, have lived most of their lives, decades, in the SimGrid, while their physical bodies lie on medical beds somewhere. But Ash starts to want more, to know Zane in physical reality, to live actual lives together. At the same time, he’s nervous because he only knows Zane’s avatar, based on Zane’s mental image of himself; what if the physical reality is less attractive?

This is another completely ridiculous premise, beginning with the idea that abused five-year-olds would be allowed to sign such a contract, signing away their entire lives into virtual slavery. Or so it seems to be. The simulations are called contractors, and we’re supposed to believe that in some undisclosed manner the company makes a profit from the games they play in simulation, all the while keeping the physical bodies in working order for decades—an expensive proposition. This makes no sense whatsoever, no more than the idea that a body lying on a bed for decades could just stand up and walk around. I’m buying none of this.

The story has more explicit sex than the others I see here, which makes me wonder if the simulated avatars are growing older at the normal rate for a physical human, aging at the rate their bodies are, getting wrinkled and flabby and eventually impotent. Ash and Zane, those Peter Pan lovers, never seem to consider such eventualities. They blithely assume that they can step into the real world and make places for themselves there, with no experience at actually living. The author clearly hasn’t thought through these matters any more than his characters have.

“Madeleine” by Amal El-Mohtar

Memory and time, a theme the author introduces with both the title and an epigraph from Proust. Madeleine has been depressed since her mother was dying of Alzheimer’s.

when Madeleine couldn’t sleep without waking in a panic, convinced her mother had walked out of the house and into the street, or fallen down the stairs, or taken the wrong pills at the wrong time, only to recall she’d already died and there was nothing left for her to remember.

She has recently taken part in an experimental memory drug trial, which has left her suffering from episodes in which she flashes back to her past, often after an olfactory trigger. She is reluctantly seeing a therapist who always seems to address issues irrelevant to Madeleine’s real problem. But everything changes when her memories begin to include another girl named Zeinab, who had never been part of her past. Soon Madeleine is welcoming the episodes and spending time with Zeinab, even deliberately attempting to trigger them, which the therapist regards as a sign she is regressing. But it is Zeinab who finds the solution.

Emotionally strong story with a well-done portrayal of the effects of dementia on a caretaker. The time aspects are also well-handled, with vivid descriptions of the remembered past.

“Two by Two” by Tim Susman

The earth is dying and the rich and powerful are escaping by spacecraft to settle and ruin other worlds. Fortunately for Daniel and his husband Vijay, they are part of a rich and powerful family. Unfortunately for them, the spacecraft is under the control of the Texas-based Christian States of America [CSA, get it?] where not only is their marriage is disallowed, they would have to retreat to the closet. Decision making ensues.

I don’t have the digits to enumerate the number of times I’ve read this story. At least the premise doesn’t violate common sense. The best element is the feisty old lady. Everyone likes feisty old ladies.

“Die, Sophie, Die” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Cyberbullying. With stunning unoriginality, the author gives us Sophie, who wrote an article on sexism in gaming and became a target for trolls, which drove off her boyfriend, good riddance. But the messages from @diesophiediebot seem to be asking for help. A lesson story, of course: “Kindness is never wrong.” The triumph of the banal. My own lesson would be to stay off social media.


Strange Horizons, June 2015

This month features a two-parter historical fantasy that makes good use of the double story slots.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby

Strongly informed by the history of the Low Countries in the eighteenth century. The title originally meant “resident of Utrecht”, but it was used as a synonym for homosexuals after the persecution of the sodomites there, beginning at the time of the setting: 1729. For some time previously, the religious officials of the city had been convinced they were suffering from divine wrath after a series of calamities, including the collapse of the Domkerk cathedral’s nave. The ruins became a place where men would meet for illicit congress. One night Gysbert, a student, with his friend/lover Raphael, are attempting to evade the watch when he falls through the collapsed ceiling of a level below the foundations and finds himself in the remains of the Roman castellum on top of which a succession of churches were subsequently built. There he meets a Roman auxiliary soldier named Ilurtibas, with whom Gysbert can haltingly communicate in school Latin. The Roman has been in the ruins for centuries, stationed there as a guard, although he can’t quite say by what authority.

He tells of battles, campaigns, friendships, loss. Time becomes fluid when he speaks of centuries that might have been days, and nights that stretch on forever. Repeatedly he refers to himself as a praeteritorum custos, and gradually I realize he does not just think of himself as a soldier, but as a watchman: a guardian of things past.

So Gysbert is saved, but when he returns to the present level of the city, he discovers that Raphael has been arrested and faces execution.

There are two story threads woven together here, and while Gysbert is the narrator and point of view, I think the primary story belongs to Ilurtibas, the exile from time, the sentry left on perpetual rear guard. I definitely find him the more interesting character, coming as he does in three versions: youth, soldier and sage. But both phases of this history are interesting in their own right. There have recently been archeological excavations in the city, uncovering buried details of Utrecht’s history, and I imagine these might have been instrumental in inspiring this story.

–RECOMMENDED

“What We’re Having” by Nathaniel Lee

A relationship story with twisted-up time, which is generally more interesting than relationship stories. It seems to be the nameless narrator’s fault, because he was lazy and didn’t go to the store to buy the bacon. He knew his partner Frankie, whom he is addressing here in apology, was counting on the bacon for breakfast. He hadn’t bought it, but there it was anyway, sizzling in the skillet, because it was tomorrow’s bacon in the skillet today. And the next day, the next tomorrow’s grilled sandwiches. Now the thing is, Narrator works the night shift and Frankie the day, ships passing each other, and days might pass when they don’t ever really meet. Which is the relationship problem for which the time twisting is the metaphor. That’s how these things go.

Maybe you did, but you ate them at the right time, with the right version of me responding to your actual notes and e-­mails and not whatever you’d said the day before or what I thought you might say tomorrow. A lot of times I feel like I’m talking to you a day late anyway, even when we manage to get into the same room at the same time.

The narrative is kind of clever and the time twist is kind of interesting, and the nameless narrator is kind of irritating, but less so than they often are, since I see few natural occasions for someone to be addressing him.

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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