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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July 2015


An overwhelming influx of fantasy this time, making me long in vain for the cold reaches of space.

Publications Reviewed


Uncanny, July/August 2015

As has become the norm in this zine, all five full-sized pieces of original fiction are fantasy stories by women, almost all about women confronting problems in their lives. I would say this doesn’t matter if the stories are good, and over half of them are. And it’s good that the zine has established a distinct identity. But readers sometimes like a little variety on their plates, not six courses of hamburger, one with ketchup, one with fried onions . . . The Monette piece looks like it might have been something different, but alas, it’s only a fragment.

“Midnight Hour” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Subversive fairy tale mashup. The situation is classic: a kingdom was suffering from plague, so the king made a great sacrifice to save it, willingly taking on a curse in exchange. For seven years, he will be mad, except for one hour a day between twelve and one o’clock. His queen, likewise, has been cursed to lose her name and never set foot outside her castle. The kingdom has now recovered and King Lennart manages to rule effectively during his one lucid hour, but the cost of keeping his secret has placed a great strain on everyone who knows it; his children barely recognize him. Now a new complication has arisen in the form of a neighboring prince, come as an ambassador. He is being quite importunate about demanding to meet with the king, and protocol means he can’t be put off forever.

The theme of the king sacrificing himself for the kingdom is a very old one. There’s no indication here that the plague was the consequence of some sin committed by the king, but the sacrifice is on him, nonetheless. I note that Lennart is the noble sort of king—indeed, the flawless sort. Can we suppose that he may have been too perfect and been punished for it?

The curse that saved the kingdom was laid by a witch, extremely common in fairy tales. Often their curses come as the penalty for offending the witch, sometimes they curse out of malevolence or jealousy. Here, however, the king and queen deliberately sought out the witch, and their curses are payment for services rendered. Yet it’s not clear how the witch could benefit from seeing these rulers suffer, nor does it seem that the curse supplied necessary energy to power the beneficial spell; indeed, I suppose that it probably took an additional effort. It seems that the curse was a kind of game for the witch, to see if the king and queen could sustain the effort to uphold the onerous conditions of the deal for all of seven years.

Then there is the prince. Princes pay a very different role in fairy tales than kings usually do. They usually lead a hazardous life, and a kind of Darwinian selection is often involved, with the fittest winning a kingdom; the unfit may end up devoured by dragons, strangled by roses, or transformed by a witch’s curse; witches and princes often tangle in these tales. They can also serve as wandering heroes, bringing salvation in the course of some quest, as for example, breaking curses set by witches. But what happens when the object of a curse doesn’t want it to be broken? Here, the story is ambiguous. Are we to assume that Prince Volis is clueless and knows not what he does? Or are his actions malicious? By the end, readers may draw their own conclusion.

“Woman at Exhibition” by E Lily Yu

A ghost story. Also a near-nonfictional piece about the life of an artist. Estelle is a musician about to marry a fellow-musician who is revealed in a few auctorial brushstrokes to be a paragon of selfishness. Readers will be saying: You have to dump this guy. And others seem to have this opinion as well. In a near-coincidence that seems a bit too set-up, Estelle wanders into the Whitney, where they are having an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s work; Estelle appreciates it knowledgeably until she comes to a certain painting, when she is suddenly possessed by a very strange compulsion. We later learn that she was possessed by the ghost of the painter’s wife, who had a message for her.

In very large part, the story is based on the life of Jo Hopper, most of whose own paintings were discarded by the Whitney Museum while it showcased her husband’s. There is a clear and overt cautionary message here for artists like Estelle, not to step into the same trap–indeed to the point of being didactic. The strength of the work is the vivid way in which the author shows us the art through Estelle’s eyes.

Everywhere were harsh blondes and redheads who seemed somehow a single woman, and everywhere, too, were gaunt, beaky men who seemed in all their disguises the same man. The two figures migrated from canvas to canvas, occupying dozens of incongruous lives, always enigmatic, always monumental, always cold.

Some years ago, there was great excitement about the possibilities of hyperfiction, most of which have largely failed to materialize in popular fiction. I can’t help thinking how perfect this piece would have been as a hyperfiction, with the works of art coming into view on the screen as readers encounter them in the written text. But Uncanny is, after all, an electronic publication that most readers will likely be reading on some device than can display images from the internet. It would be a shame not to take advantage of this capacity in the case of this story.

“The Rainbow Flame” by Sveta Thakrar

The story opens with Rupali standing over a boiling cauldron like a witch out of MacBeth, but in fact she comes from a fantasy India, and what she’s boiling in the cauldron is wax for spell candles for the Singers, who “heal the holes in the star field, the rents in the fabric of our traditions and stories. If even a single thread were to unravel …” This ritual has been passed down from her ancestors, but she resents that the process erodes her own imagination and dreams. “Rupali didn’t see why the siphoned imagination should allow someone else to dream, to travel, to hold the moon in her palm for as long as the wick burned with rainbow flame.” Then she meets a young girl who comes from a family of Singers and knows the secret they are trying to conceal.

I’m not taken by the notion of a story star field in this YA, nor the lesson it preaches.

“Ghost Champagne” by Charlie Jane Anders

For quite some time, Gloria has been haunted by her own ghost. At first it was mostly just an annoyance, and with help from her shrink, she could cope with the apparition. But lately it’s been seriously interfering—both with her stand-up comedy act and her day job in product development. Eventually, she discovers that she has to dig down to the root of the problem that brought the ghost on.

Gloria being a comedian, her description of the ghost is witty and amusing.

Over by the window, my ghost is staring out at the Shake Shack across the street, as if she could really go for an extra–large chocolate shake and fries right now. She’s wearing sweatpants in a professional office setting. Her expression plainly says that being a ghost has certain perks and giving zero fucks about stupid product meetings is one of them.

Even in extremis, she’s making ghost wedding jokes.

“Catcall” by Delilah S Dawson

A rant with revenge fantasy. Ever since puberty, every male that Maria encounters has tried to grope or molest her, including her own father. Abra-ca-wishfulthinkia, she gets the power to strike back.

It’s old men at the hotel bar, and the nice dads you babysit for, and college guys with guitars, too. It doesn’t matter what age they are, what race they are, how much money they have. It’s a free country when it comes to saying things about a girl’s body, looking at it with proprietary eyes, or sometimes taking what they can from us, with or without our consent and consciousness.

No subtlety here, nor originality.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #177-178, July 2015

This magazine has had a longstanding practice of pairing the two stories in its issues on the basis of theme. This time in #177, both stories show the efforts of women to end prolonged and destructive wars; I prefer the Marshall. In #178 we find different tones of cruelty.

#177

“Seasons Set in Skin” by Caroline M Yoachim

A contrived premise based on an idea interesting in itself: that a race of winged kami have been waging a longstanding war against the human population of this fantasy Japan, to which they have returned after a long retreat. The humans now have no recollection of their origin, so they are regarded as an invasion of gaijin faeries from the West. The Yosei [which seems to be their name for themselves, although the text doesn’t use it as such] fight by taking possession of human bodies. In an attempt to prevent this, the humans completely cover their skin with tattoos in ink made from the blood of the faeries’ red wings. But now the faeries have manipulated time to breed a race with gold wings, immune to the effects of the red-wing-ink tattoos. So despite the human efforts, most of the human male population has either been killed or driven mad, leaving the women to take up the sword against the enemy.

So . . . we have an aging tattoo artist obsessed with guilt because her ink didn’t keep her favorite daughter from dying in battle. Her younger daughter insists on getting inked to take her sister’s place. And while this prolonged process goes on, a gold-wing fae possesses the corpse of the older sister in an attempt to communicate with the humans and make peace.

The body that had once held her sister was clearly a puppet, standing several yards away with an odd posture, as though she might fall over at any moment. Movements that should have been smooth—the bowing of her head, a glance at Suki’s face—were done in uncoordinated jerks and fits.

I like the very pessimistic ending, and the descriptions of the tattoo designs are nice enough, although contributing less to the story than they should. But the characters are one-dimensional: the mother all “I failed my daughter”, the sister all stubborn, the older daughter all dead. And Yosei the gold-wing essentially a vehicle for infodump. Then there are logistics. These are full-body tattoos, and they take months to complete, the artist working for hours in a day on a single subject. How many artists working how many hours would it take to produce an entire army, apparently comprised of the entire male population of this era’s Japan? And how much faery blood would it take to make that much ink? And if they’ve managed to kill enough faeries to make that much ink, why are the humans losing, especially as it seems that the faeries can only possess one human body at a time. And if the humans are losing, why are the faeries so desperate? It all strikes me as highly improbable.

The ending hints at what this story could have been, the despair on both sides over a never-ending war of attrition that threatens to destroy two populations incapable of understanding each other, each regarding the other as an invader in its own homeland. But to create this despair, we need characters who can feel it; instead, we get to admire tattoo designs.

“Stone Prayers” by Kate Marshall

A conquering emperor won’t stop until he’s subjugated the entire world. It turns out that this is the inadvertent fault of his mother, a practitioner of linguistic magic.

When she was young, and newly with child, she knelt in this place. She carved a prayer, as was her right as first wife to the king, at the feet of Imrin-ka. Make my son strong, she wrote, in the tongue of her mother, the Kilin-kasa, a language she spoke but did not truly understand. She did not know there were as many words for strength as bones in the hand, and the word she chose was drenched in blood.

Mattar has finally come to the decision that her son must be stopped, but the problem is finding the right prayer, the right words for it, to overcome the effects of her own original prayer.

“Peace,” Mattar says. Ithanay to the Hasha, le-sha here, words she has carved again and again into her temple’s walls, and watched them vanish. Peace is imprecise, and the poetry of divinity demands precision. The prayers of the faithful rise unheard, discarded for their formlessness; the gods refuse to intercede, because they do not understand.

I like this secondary world where there are myriads of languages, all with multiple words designating subtle distinctions that speakers ignore at their peril when they address the gods. And there are as many gods as languages, some so minor that humans hunt them down to use their body parts for magics. Here, as in the work above, there is a richness of detail, but instead of standing in isolation from the story, these details work to enrich the world and the character, who comes alive in all her individual complexity.

–RECOMMENDED

#178

“The Scale-Tree” by Raphael Ordoñez

The traditional fairy tale has a flat narrative and characters who tend to be types rather than fully-realized individuals: there is the King, the Witch, the Stepmother. One advantage of retelling these tales is the opportunity to add dimension. So that instead of a generic city, we find ourselves in “Enoch, the world-city that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega”—not only a neat image but an example of the way the text mixes words from the Hellenic and Hebrew. Here live Zeuxis, an artist who takes aerial photographs from a sort of ultralight flier, and his wife Helen, who, like many aging couples in the tales, want to fulfill their lives with children. They perform a rite that brings them a son and a daughter. All is more or less well with them until a brute happens to see a picture of the daughter, Philomena, and immediately covets her. Before long, Zeuxis is dead, the brute has become Mena’s stepfather, and we know his intentions.

I like the twist of giving the usual stepmother a male guise. The story mingles several classic fairytale tropes, including some that go very far back indeed, but I have to say that the conclusion, which follows one well-known story almost word for word, is rather a disappointment after the creativity of the earlier elements. What I like best here, though, is the well-imagined cosmology behind this world, and the views of Zeuxis on the artist’s life:

“We’re conduits. When we stop the outflow, no more can flow in, and we stagnate. We die daily to live. It’s the flow that matters, not the possession of what’s not really ours anyway.”

“The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

I usually prefer to read the text of a story in isolation, as a thing-in-itself, but too often external matters compel my attention, when stories refer in one way or another to the author’s previous work. This is the case here. While the events may be independent, this one can be said to represent the perfection of themes and tones present in other pieces from its author, distilled down to their essence: two women in a coercive relationship that must be called a bondage fantasy. The façade of political intrigue here is thin to nakedness.

Yin Sanhi is an insurrectionist who has spent her career bringing down regimes. At the story’s opening, she is captured by the Empress Narasorn, whose power includes control over time. Her intention is not to punish or eliminate Sanhi, but to use her skills for her own purpose. Thus begins an imprisonment that is clearly a slow seduction as much as a subduing but must also be seen as a courtship; Sanhi deliberately seduces her captor with displays of weakness; this dance of cruelty is a pas de deux. The tone is quite clearly erotic, but this effect comes not from the cursory mention of sexual contact but the sensualized application of pain and control.

They put chains on her throat and ears, and thread on her lips. A special needle was used, of a pearlescent alloy hammered to the thinness of a hair. It entered the fat of her lips and exited through the skin around her mouth. When her eyes showed only whites they pricked until she woke again, so she would be conscious through the sealing of her mouth.

This is the artistry of sadism, done in mannered, lightly ornamented prose. In the first sentence, we see Sanhi taken during the Feast of Twelve Luminous Cranes–graceful terminology. Unlike previous works on such themes from this author, here the prose is under control, contributing effectively to the story rather than crushing it under its weight like verbal kudzu overgrowing a shed. But it’s the artistry itself that raises the moral issue of romanticizing torture, cleaning it up and garlanding it with pretty words to enhance the erotic effect of what many will regard as porn.

For some, this stuff is a lifestyle choice. For others, in our easily-triggered age, it can be profoundly disturbing. For me, this one crosses the line when the empress assumes the form and face of Sanhi’s own dead lover, who was slowly executed in consequence of the empress’s plot. What I can’t see is how the author can return to this theme and these tropes without immediately evoking the current work and readers saying: But she’s already done that. and Do I want to see that again?


Strange Horizons, July 2015

Not really much fond of any of these stories, but all three are unmistakably science fiction.

“The Lone Star Sin Eaters” by Evan Berkow

Here’s a dumb politicized premise, so dumb it’s farce where it wants to be satire, the sort that comes of trying to turn today’s headlines into stories of a poorly-imagined future. In this case, it’s a future Texas [of course] where the state Leg has come up with a bill that allows some convicted criminals, if they’re rich enough and white enough, to hire a surrogate to do their time for them, it being not just a matter of time; the “clients” are required to show up and watch their subs get beaten up by the guards. The subs, also of course, are the kind who need the money for their families and can’t get jobs in the Texas political/economic climate. I suspect the author wrote this when he read the story about the rich white kid getting off because of “affluenza”, since he used that term in the text.

I contrast this false situation with that in today’s corrupt China, where the rich and spoiled actually have hired poor surrogates to serve their prison terms. The difference being that this is nominally against the law and everyone pretends they’re taken in by the identity switch, having been paid off. But it’s a normal prison term, not some artificial soap opera behind bars. “Whipping boy” would probably have been a more apt title.

“It Brought Us All Together” by Marissa Lingen

This must be considered YA, as it takes place in the obligatory setting of an American high school. The narrator, Andrea, is pretty level-headed, albeit with a slight case of denial, insisting to herself that she really is quite all right and not devastated by the deaths of her parents from one of the many mycological plagues. This is mainly to avoid the obsessive and stifling over concern that plagues the high school. She is aware that she will actually become quite all right once she escapes that place, but in the meantime she’s adopted a set of emotional survival protocols:

Minimize contact. Keep everything friendly, but arm’s length. Never do a group project with the same person twice unless the teacher assigns it. Always accept social media connections at the shallowest level, but never let it go deeper. At lunch, sit with the same people each week but different people each day, so you’re not the weird loner, but you’re still not someone who gets asked personal questions.

Not bad advice. Of course she learns the lesson that she can help others, which usually happens in a YA. But essentially she remains the same person.

“The Visitor” by Karen Myers

First contact. A large sentient rooted to the sea floor perceives the arrival of something new, which turns out to be an exploratory ship from human territory. They establish communication with the aid of something rather like a smartphone, that can display images. A plausibly science-fictional scenario, albeit perhaps too facile.


Tor.com, July 2015

A mixed lot of fiction, as usual on this site, but David Herter’s remake of a Gene Wolfe classic makes up for a lot of sins.

“At the End of Babel” by Michael Livingston

Here’s another attempt to make a polemical point about a political issue by creating a highly improbable near-future scenario. In this case, we have the ancient Pueblo of Acoma, where the population is minding its own business and carrying on its traditional ways, when the evil agents of a totalitarian government descend, flechettes blazing, to enforce linguistic conformity by wiping out the tribe. Only Tabitha Hoarse Raven managed to survive, and is now the “last of her tongue” to speak her own language. She is returning to Acoma to complete the interrupted cycle and perform the old rites. I’m unconvinced of the likelihood of these events.

At one point, Tabitha berates a fellow Native American for not using English terms instead of the correct words in her language, which makes me wonder why she calls herself “Tabitha”, in a language that isn’t her own. Was she not given a true name in her native tongue? And I have no use at all for gods who are clearly shown to be capable of deploying their power to save their worshippers, but decline to do so on some technicality. Nor for the wishfulthinkium of the conclusion.

“Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978” by David Herter

A fine homage to Gene Wolfe’s Island stories, a retelling of “The Island of Doctor Death . . .” in altered terms. Here the young protagonist is named Ballou, living alone with his increasingly dysfunctional mother in a ramshackle house on the beach, where he roams for solitary miles, collecting shells and sand dollars and other neat stuff that a boy can keep in a jar. With his unmatched toy soldiers, with the heroes of his comic books, he slips in and out of his own worlds of dream and imagination.

When you first saw the island outside of a comic book it was faint with fog that dampened the air and made the hard, glassy waves look like horses charging toward shore. In comic books the island is always jagged, and the Doctor’s laboratory rises from its center like a lighthouse made of steel. But this island is pale like the fog and the laboratory thin as glass. In the fog it comes and goes.

The house has secret places that only Ballou can enter, and its yard is haunted by a ghost that was supposed to be exorcized after Ballou kept getting nose bleeds in its presence; this proves to be a useful indicator when a suspicious character named Wilson shows up one day and rouses the ghost again. Ballou’s mother Lila vaguely recalls Wilson as an old acquaintance who was supposed to be killed at Dien Bien Phu* and may well have been. He drugs Lila, not unwillingly, and starts ransacking the house, searching for something. Ballou fears for his worlds of secrets, if Wilson discovers them. His usual imaginary allies are powerless to evict this intruder.

Given that this is, after all, a derivative work, it works surprisingly well independently. But readers would be shortchanging themselves not to read it in company with Wolfe’s story, which will expose a richness of allusions, beginning with the title of Herter’s.

[*]This is misspelled throughout the first two-thirds of the text as “Dem Bien Phu”, which I thought at first to be a matter of Ballou’s naiveté, failing to recognize the name of the place, but now believe to be a plain error that a copyeditor should have caught.

–RECOMMENDED

“In the Cave of the Delicate Singers” by Lucy Taylor

An Evil haunts the cave, voices driving explorers to madness. Rumors to this effect have for some time been dismissed, but now one caver has gone missing after battering his brother with a rock and going off in search of mysterious music. In response, a team of four experienced rescue cavers went in after the missing man, but now they, also, have failed to return after a final transmission of “choking and wails”. Enter the idiot narrator Karyn, determined to go alone into the cave, motivated in part by unrequited lust for one of the missing cavers and imagining that her unique form of synesthesia can protect her against demonic noises. Even if it could, she’s still vulnerable to being trapped in a narrow crawlway by the wedged-in corpse of one of the men she’s come to find.

. . . half a mile under the earth, worming my way through a twist in the moist, black, and aptly named Intestinal Bypass, a wretched, rib-crushing, claustrophobia-inducing belly crawl. Nearing the end, just a minute ago, I came to a plug in the tunnel about ten feet ahead. I can see the bottoms of dirt-packed, lug-soled boots, a damp, filthy oversuit, and, if I crane my neck almost out of joint, I can make out the white dome of a mud-splattered helmet.

The strength of this one lies down in the cave, in the vivid descriptions that evoke the unyielding mass of rock overhead and the wonder of underground palaces. For some readers, the claustrophobic darkness will be the greater horror, but otherwise this is the classic scary stuff, an almost Lovecraftian ancient call that drives humans mad. I have no sympathy for Karyn, who brought her fate down on her own head by refusing to heed all the rules of common sense in such an environment, but the conclusion convinces me that, like so many other first-person narratives, it wasn’t the best choice.

“The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman: Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography” by Kelly McCullough

Title holds out promise of clever, fails to deliver. The premise mixes two elements that are unfavorites of mine: YA and superheroes. Unfortunately, the YA predominates. The Foxman of the title was a teenager named Rand before the Hero Bomb went off. He has a Freudian hate thing going on with his father. The narrative at hand is supposed to be a therapy exercise, but most of the first half is wasted on false starts. Otherwise dull, unless a reader’s spirits are stirred by rocket-powered skateboards.


Shimmer, July 2015

Grandmothers and granddaughters in these stories.

I must say that I find the author interviews here to be particularly useless, repeating the same lame questions and taking up space that might have gone instead to another story, most of which are pretty good this time around.

“The Star Maiden” by Roshani Chokshi

Tala’s grandmother always told her stories about being a star maiden who fell from the heavens and married a human man who bound her to him by taking her white dress. But the heavens seem to have a lot of the traditions of Filipino culture. Lola always promised her they would one day dance together among the stars, and Tala as a child embraced these stories. Lola cherished a drawing Tala once made in kindergarten.

In the drawing, Lola and I both had wings and the night sky was a scrawl of indigo. I had run out of colors and left her dress a blank and pristine paper-white, outlined only in thick black marker.

But then came adolescence and the self-centeredness of that age, and Tala began to see her grandmother as a ridiculous figure; near the end, she did a very hurtful thing.

A very familiar storyline, based on a motif that has been used universally, across many cultures. The forgiveness plot, as well, is one we’ve often seen.

“The Last Dinosaur” by Lavie Tidhar

Future London reverts to the wild as the human population abandons mechanization. Mina owns the last working car in the city, with the last partial tank of gas, enough to take her, on a particularly beautiful day, for a drive out to Thamesmead, where Gran used to take her as a child.

One could spot grey herons circling in the sky, and flocks of black piratical gulls, great colonies of coots and starlings, swallows and wagtails. She remembered the white of swans against the greenness of the wide Thames, and the beavers busy in their dams.

A charming science-fictional vignette. As such, I should admire Mina’s imaginative image of “stegosaurus herds gathering all around the Shard, baying plaintively at the rising moon” without adding pedantic notes about petroleum paleontology. But I do hope this future civilization has some method of removing derelict rusting cars from the restored landscape.

“Serein” by Cat Hellisen

The title refers to a misty rain falling from a cloudless sky, and Claire has dissolved into mist, into water. Ever since she was born, she had wanted to return.

I could lie under the warmth, listening to the boom and rattle of the pipes, the slow drip from the faulty tap and I could remember how to breathe water instead of air, and fill my lungs with a familiar warm salt. I could let go my bladder, and float in that familiar world of Amnio. It wasn’t running away. It was running back.

Her sister Alison knows where she is, discerns her in the water stains that have replaced her image in family photos, in the condensation on the bathroom mirror where she writes Claire’s name, in the stagnant water filling her mother’s flower vases. Claire, having left them in one sense, remains close to her family.

I like the prose, the imagery here, as well as the family dynamics that center on Alison’s ambiguous emotions, love and anger mixed in the sister left behind.

–RECOMMENDED

“States of Emergency” by Erica L Satifka

The travels of Paranoid Jack through states of weirdness—Montana, Delaware . . . He thinks it’s the alien invaders driving everyone crazy. He may be right.

So much of his life spent to chronicling the manifestations. So many of his warnings gone unheeded. Perhaps up there, people will understand. Out there. What was the name of that country again?

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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