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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August 2015


After a surfeit of fantasy last time, I had hopes of finding some actual science fiction in the digests, from which the most sciencey is the Nevala-Lee in Analog. In fantasy, I preferred a lot of the weird stuff in Lackington’s.

Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2015

Mostly softer SF, set in various futures, near and far, without a lot of science emphasis.

“The Molenstraat Music Festival” by Sean Monaghan

Clancy is settling in relative contentment into old age after arthritis forced his retirement from music; he’s so far refused implants, which his doctor has suggested. One day a couple of rude women show up at his house, barge inside, and one of them, uninvited, takes up his long-untouched cello. Eleanor is so talented he can’t bring himself to object, but he’s sure he has nothing to teach her; her problem is medical, brain damage after a fall that impairs her concentration, and she also refuses implants. He reluctantly agrees to coach her for the upcoming festival and comes to sympathize with her position; the risk of implants altering her genius is too great.

Clancy felt furious. Who was this country doctor to go meddling with what Eleanor wanted and needed? Clancy had thought of Symond as a friend. Over the years they’d spent enough time together socially, as well as professionally. At Clancy’s age it paid to have a good doctor, but Clancy was beginning to revise his opinion.

In fact, this has lots of elements of a love story. I can’t work up the great fondness for Eleanor and definitely not for her pushy stage mother, both of them suffering from an excess of entitlement. “Of course she’d been special and revered when she was younger, of course she would have some prima donna in her.” Otherwise, everything else here is pleasing on a low key—fine descriptions of an idyllic far future setting on an unspoiled world, a well-realized character in Clancy, and Clancy’s very hospitable house on a lake that’s home to swans and seals. I do find it rather interesting that at age eighty-seven, Clancy is subject to the infirmities that we expect today of old age; in such an advanced future, we might have expected more out of life, even without implants.

“Biology at the End of the World” by Brenda Cooper

Paulette is a novice inspector for the Bureau of Diversity Protection, an organization with a lofty motto: We resisted the temptation to change the world via genetic engineering, we remembered the mistakes humans made in the past, we respected life in its natural form. We were the barrier between greed and life, between hunger for profit and love of nature, between destruction and salvation. Their rules mandate the destruction of any ecosystem containing any artificial lifeforms, recalling natural disasters that biohackers have caused in the past. Paulette’s superior Sumot is ruthless in her righteousness, but Paulette still feels a reluctance to destroy some particularly attractive creatures.

The parrots. I had become fixated on the parrots and on wanting to save them, even though I hadn’t opened my mouth about it and told her. She would merely laugh at me and tell me to toughen up.

“We know there is bioengineering here. We don’t need more time.” She looked totally resolved, totally sure of herself.

At which, readers will begin to expect Sumot’s certainty to be brought low. And it comes to pass that most of the text is taken up with arguments on both sides, between Sumot’s position and that of the biohackers who want just as fervently to save the world by their own means. Pretty talky stuff, and while there’s talk about bioscience, it’s mainly as fodder for the political.

“The God Year” by Jim Grimsley

Oh-oh—a quaint rustic village named “Muglet-on-Stumpings”. To which my immediate reaction is that no good can come of such, and indeed it doesn’t. The village discovers that it will have the honor of hosting a god-in-residence for a year. With which our narrator Rufous agrees, that “a god year is more of a curse than a blessing.” While we wait for the god, the villagers pass the time in rustic revoltingness, making it clear than any curse will fall on a likely set of objects. I’m not amused.

“Searching for Commander Parsec” by Peter Wood

Not humor. Laura’s husband has run off with a younger woman and left her with their young son, who is obsessed with an old radio show broadcast on a station that hasn’t existed in decades. These two factors become connected. Heartwarming pulpy sci-fi stuff ensues. A very old trope.

“Calved” by Sam J Miller

Father and son story in a near future when the Arctic melting and the rise of the oceans has led to a flood of refugees; North Americans are generally unwelcome, and Dom is relatively fortunate to have found a place on a floating city and grunt work on iceboats. The only good thing in his life has been the son whom he can only see when he gets back from three-month work shifts on the boats, but now, looking at Thede, he sees a stranger who seems to hate him. Desperate to win him back, Dom gives Thede his only cherished possession. But I love you more.

He wasn’t having a good time. When he was twelve he had begged me to bring him. I had pretended to like it, back then, for his sake. Now he pretended for mine. We were both acting out what we thought the other wanted, and that thought should have troubled me. But that’s how it had been with my dad. That’s what I thought being a man meant.

Dom has never fit into this society, and Thede won’t confide in him, leading to a heartbreaking tragedy.

This scenario is the most science-fictional in the issue, realistically depicting likely consequences of global climate change. The story is Dom’s, a story of a failed life. Fatherhood is the one positive thing in his life, yet he failed even at this when he left Thede’s mother to raise him on her own. Yet Thede also has to bear some responsibility for what happens here. His visible contempt for Dom and his failure to confide in him led to an outcome that never should have happened and harmed everyone involved. Thede has it a lot better than Dom did at the same age, and seems to take his privilege for granted. But one thing that these futures show us is that good fortune can be washed away in an instant, as happened to Dom.

“Duller’s Peace” by Jason Sanford

A totalitarian regime has taken over an unnamed nation by creating nano motes that infiltrate everywhere, including people’s bodies. This enables the nation to detect subversive thoughts and eliminate dissenters.

In fact, the motes are likely surrounding Serija even now. The air she breathes is filled with their technology. Her blood is flowing to their systems as they monitor her every thought. If she isn’t careful, she’ll think a wrong thought, and the motes will kill her grandfather for doing nothing more than sitting beside her.

Serija believes that her own bad thoughts have caused the deaths of her family, but this was due to their own resistance activity; her grandfather too was once a leader of the resistance. But Serija now spends every waking hour repeating in her mind, I love the nation. It seems to be working.

Here is the surveillance state perfected, and doesn’t seem a lot different further along than today. Resistance is futile.


F&SF, September/October 2015

Featuring a fantasy novella from the abiding Cowdrey and a lot of stuff that I’d call future fantasy, of which Dennis Etchison gives us the best and darkest.

“The Lord of Ragnarök” by Albert E Cowdrey

Historical fantasy, not historical fiction for two reasons: first, the unambiguous fantastic element that pays a small but important role in the story’s events; secondly, because this isn’t quite the same history we know. The setting appears to be Mount St Michel, but it isn’t given that French name and, more significantly, there is no monastery or other religious institution on the island, only a single chaplain to the ruling count. In fact, despite there having recently been a crusade, the church appears to be all but absent from this landscape, with witchcraft and paganism practiced openly. The time would seem to be in the feudal period of the early 12th century, following the First Crusade; indications that it might be a couple of centuries later may be anachronisms or markers of an alternate history. Likewise, while the region seems to be under the rule of the Dukes of Normandy, there is a stronger connection to the Norselands of their origin, as the title suggests.

The story centers on Richard, a muddy peasant boy who rises to the rank of knight by means of muscular determination, common sense, and a lot of luck, beginning when he guides a returning crusader knight to the island with a message from its dead count to his widow. This knight, Sir Drangø of the Hidden Isles, claims to be the son of the Master of the Tides, and his appearance is as suggestive as his name: “The green eyes gazing from the man’s leathery face looked somehow odd, and his black beard bristled like spines. The backs of his hands were rough and scaly like the skin of a garfish, and the boy thought, Bon Dieu, in the East he caught leprosy, just like in the Bible!” The knight marries the widowed countess, and Richard rises with him, from man-at-arms to knight, the right-hand man of the lord. Eventually, the secret of the Hidden Isles, also called Ragnarök, is revealed.

The story is best read as a generic medieval fantasy adventure, without linking it to known specifics of history or myth. In particular, I can find no trace of the elements in the Norse myths to which the title alludes. The Old Man of the Sea/Master of the Tides figure seems to derive more from the Leviathan of the Bible, which is also an allusion here, and the island called Ragnarök just seems out of place. The same is true of most possible anachronisms in the history; they could either be errors or AH markers. But I’m not buying the functionally illiterate Richard coming up with the anagram on the name Drangø. And such terms such as “bull session” are clearly out of place.

“We’re Very Sorry for Your Recent Tragic Loss” by Nick Wolven

In a near future with universal electronic connection, Meg wakes one morning expecting the weather report and receives a message of condolence for some tragic loss that the system can’t specify. The message goes, appropriately, viral, inescapable.

On the walk to the bus, store displays and ads and hawkers and vendors all fall somber as Meg goes by. The mannequins in department store windows drop their sexy poses and hang their heads. The sidewalk tiles flash ads for insta-therapy, funeral services, chocolate laced with methaqualone “for when you just need to forget.” A promotional drone shaped like a Basset hound comes waddling out of an alley with a box of sample facial tissues hanging around its neck, slobbering, “Need a good cry, Megan DeWal? When I get dow-wow-wown, I do my boo-hoo-hooing with a Wintex tissue!”

The more artificial sympathy she receives, the less actual connection with real human beings she’s able to make, while her life slowly disintegrates around her.

Absurd humor that it’s not possible to take very seriously, when Meg isn’t able to locate the exact nature of the loss she’s supposed to have suffered. Mostly, it’s satirizing some of the absurdities of online life today, and there, quite a few of the hits on target.

“Monsieur” by David Gerrold

Vampire metafiction. Gerrold’s fiction is often self-referential, and here we find a frame in which the first-person narrator is a writer bringing his vampire manuscript to a critique group [about which, he makes some pointed comments]. One member of the group engages him later in discussion: “What do you know about vampires?”

“You know nothing. Because until a vampire sits down and writes a memoir — a real vampire, a real memoir, not a work of fiction — you know nothing. No one knows anything. It’s all make-believe.”

Of course by that time, everyone knows quite well what Jacob is, and he soon takes over the narrative with his memoir of encountering the vampire who became his mentor.

My own history has made me highly dubious of the sort of vampire fiction that prevails in these benighted times, and it seems that Gerrold may share this view, as he appears to be returning to the rationalist approach in which authors attempted to make some sense, even scientific sense, out of the accretion of legends that make up the vampiric figure as now received—which, examined with even the slightest rigorous glance, makes no sense. I must say that the theories he advances here are less than original, but we can’t know exactly where they are going as, the editorial blurb informing us, this piece is the opening of a longer one. That it works as an independent story is owing to the frame device, which provides satisfactory closure.

[It’s a bit disconnecting to be reading this advance copy at the end of July and learning that the author was GOH at Sasquan, three weeks in the future. Good thing I’m used to time travel as well as vampires.]

“Rascal Saturday” by Richard Bowes

The editorial blurb informs us that this piece is set in the same future as the author’s fine “Sleep Walking, Now and Then”, although I doubt if I would have known it from the text alone. Here we have the Dineen family, possessed of certain occult powers that the narrative associates with “predictive art, New England cults, and migration”, but actually seems to be derived primarily from dance. By these means, they have opened a gate to an alternate world and a city called Naxos, inhabited by a humanoid species with green-tinged skin. The first generation of Dineens has taken over this place by means of technology and magic, and has since ruled in megalomaniac splendor. But Janina has other plans for the place, in collaboration with her friend Sandy, the founder of an organization for helping persons displaced by rising sea levels and retreating government.

A lot of the story is set in Janina’s childhood, when her half-sister Aurora was kept in a glass room to maximize her powers—just one example of the deranged ways of the Dineens. Janina’s father, who has taken over the role of godking in Naxos after burning his own father out, has plans to breed from his own daughters and orders his cops to shoot Janina when she declines this honor. There’s also a lot of stuff about the predictive paintings, that I find a digression, and somewhat more interesting stuff about putting brains into a box.

But the main issue here is conquest and imperialism. The text leaves little doubt that the Dineens are unworthy usurpers, crazed with power, but it scants the more fundamental problem that they have no business in the place at all, let alone ruling it. Janina’s grandmother, pretending benevolence, pretends that the rule of Dineens has been for the good of the natives while at the same time declaring how they’ve plundered the place for their own benefit. And I see no great difference between them and Janina and Sandy, marching in with their own militia to wrest control from the older generation of usurpers and taking over so they can settle their own displaced population in someone else’s world. To hell with all of them.

“Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water” by Marissa Lingen

People driven mad under quarantine for an endless plague. We have the narrator and her sister, a novice sorcerer, confined to their home while the senior sorcerers try and fail to stop the contagion. They’ve even beheaded the queen, who ended up on a stamp.

“Of course they’ll try again. What are queens for? And then,” she said thoughtfully, “they’ll have another new stamp. That’ll be nice.”

The mail brings letters from all over the world, often from friends and relatives who are now dead, and the narrator’s sister has obsessively begun to save the stamps, while lamenting her inability to do anything to help, largely because she’s running out of magical ingredients. Frustration takes its toll.

The absurd here overwhelms the tragic but lets it come through as a minor note.

“A Hot Day’s Night” by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Master of the Apocalypse takes on the drought, and we follow Lucy as she compromises her journalistic ethics, going out with a scavenger to liberate solar panels from the deserted subdivisions of Phoenix.

A dire future so near it looks like the headlines from this morning.

“A House of Her Own” by Bo Balder

A human colony on a distant world has entered into a symbiotic relationship with a native species of trees that spawn motile forms which eventually grow into hice [plural of house, neat term] for the women they bond with. A girl becomes an adult when her house is large enough to hold her. Aoife caught her own house at age eleven. “It was no bigger than a strawberry, all soft and furry and yellow. Even in the gloom of the giant, bad-tempered trees, it shone like a candle flame.” It’s grown too large for her to carry around when something crashes to the ground and strange women emerge—including women with beards—who declare their intention to establish a government, levy taxes, build roads, and get rid of the alien parasites. Naturally, the women and hice fight back.

The narrative shifts rapidly from a fairytale tone to the science-fictional, reminding me a bit of Joanna Russ territory, which would be misleading. The human colony might be considered a gynocracy, but in reality, the hice are the primary partners in the arrangement. They also retain a breeding population of human males. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the females from Earth are any less determined than their males to impose their rule on these colonists. This is cultural imperialism more than sexual politics.

“Don’t Move” by Dennis Etchison

Dark, nightmarish fantasy in a Kafkaesque setting. A young man gets off the bus at a derelict stop, from which he walks to a city. He claims he has to do this, but we see that he doesn’t know why, except that he’s a kind of fugitive. A strange young woman gets off the bus with him; she describes herself as “nothing. Nothing at all.” She insists that he’s following her, while he believes it’s the other way around. Things get stranger and more ominous, until we eventually get an explanation, but this only raises more questions. An effectively disturbing vision.

–RECOMMENDED

“Bone War” by Elizabeth Bear

Set in the author’s fantasy series featuring Bijou the Artificer, who is presented with the job of animating the fossilized bones of a dinosaur, a creature not generally known in her world. Readers familiar with such works as Jurassic Park may now be forgiven for thinking, Run Away! But the danger facing Bijou here is of a very different sort, as she is insufficiently aware of the ways of embattled natural philosophers.

For a moment, she thought of asking the Trustees, or the natural philosophers, what she should name the thing. Then she considered doing something much more sensible, such as putting her head in a vise.

I am amused. I also note that while the story and series setting are fantasy, this one partakes in great part of the nature of science fiction in its portrayal of academic disputes. It’s interesting to see a society just discovering paleontology in such a different context.


Analog, October 2015

Still continuing the serial, leaving room for one longer story and a handful of shorts, which occupy various human futures. No silly aliens.

“Stonebrood” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Marius is a firefighter with a slow-moving disaster on his hands—an underground coal fire that has been burning for at least fifty years, until officials were galvanized into action by a sinkhole that collapsed a highway and killed eight people. The problem: no way to tell how large the fire is and how many miles it has spread. The solution: tiny drones, resembling bees, that can be lowered down boreholes into the mine to map the fire. From there, attempts to extinguish it can begin.

Half of the boreholes had been equipped with huge fracturing tanks, cumbersome but effective, with a capacity of twenty thousand gallons. The remaining boreholes had a system that Marius had developed, with a mixing chamber installed right at the injection point.

As soon as I started to read this, I thought my wishes had been fulfilled at last: actual science fiction. But shortly afterwards, an unwelcome note of fantasy seemed to be creeping in, as Marius flashes back to troubles in his youth and his bee-keeping grandmother. It appears that the “bees” are sending psychic messages from inside the cave, perhaps from the dead. Happily, a more rational explanation is discovered. Science fiction after all.

“The Daughters of John Demetrius” by Joe Pitkin

A thinly-developed far-future setting where we have posthumans and “naturals” who, at least in Mexico, subsist at a very low standard of development. Mendel comes to a village where most of the population suffers from pellagra, but one young girl has the healthy green skin of a “god”. Mendel wants to take her to a school where she can learn to develop her talents, but his task is complicated by several factors, including the god/man he has just killed for reasons unrevealed in the text. The setting is the key here, and from what little we see of it there is potential interest, but it’s mostly unfulfilled. If it’s appeared in some previous work from the author, I don’t recall seeing it.

“Butterflies on Barbed Wire” by Marie Vibbert

An unsettling image, that. Damien’s lover Aubery put the butterfly tattoo on his arm. She added the barbed wire at the insistence of Damien’s thug of a father, who hates his son’s feminine side. Now Aubery is dead, and it doesn’t take much of a push for Damien to realize there’s no real tie to his family of brutish men. Faintly science-fictional on account of a new tattoo technology.

“The Philistine” by Ted White

Because actual art doesn’t pay, Harry has taken a job making 3-D duplications of old masterpieces, an occupation that doesn’t make him popular with the art-loving public because the original is destroyed in the process. Harry isn’t that happy with it, either. He’s a pretty reprehensible character nonetheless, and the shrewish wife is a caricature.

“My Father’s Crab” by Bruce McAllister

A short version of the author’s semi-autobiographical series about his boyhood with a father whom the navy sent around the world to do secret stuff during the Cold War. This time, they encountered a beach full of crabs, and his father picked one up to look at it more closely.

The crab was still flailing, trying to pinch, but all I could do was stare at its shell. The surface was bumpy in a too-perfect way, and that made it look like a toy, too. And the color patterns, green on gray, weren’t very natural-looking either. They looked like a commando’s camouflage.

And then the crab got in a good pinch that pierced his father’s skin, and it turns out it wasn’t a natural crab, after all.

Kind of sketchy, without the well-realized settings and characters that these stories have generally had in the past.


Lackington’s, Summer 2015

This issue’s theme is Skins, which the authors here have used in interestingly fantastic ways, sometimes involving shapechanging or other forms of transformation. There’s a wide variety of setting and story, and the quality of the prose is generally high. An enjoyable issue.

“The Skinner of the Sky” by M Bennardo

Lessig, ruler of a coastal realm, has decided to draw ships and trade to his shores by constructing a towering lighthouse, and to this end he has engaged supernatural aid. But the price is now more than he can stand to pay.

There, along the side of the tower—those long dark limbs! Those pencil-thin shadows, like the legs of a harvestman, draping the side of the lighthouse, stretching storey after storey, hundreds of feet long if they were a yard.

And, at the top, one arm lightly looped around the skeleton of the spire—the other arm lost in the blackness of the night, but raised—certainly raised, Lessig knew!—up overhead, with the sickle-shaped skinning knife clutched in the hand, rasping across the vault of the sky with that horrible sound—

Scrape— Scrape—

A weird tale, dark supernatural fantasy, an imaginative variation on the deal with the devil. All chilling sensation.

“Kin, Painted” by Penny Stirling

The narrator is the youngest member of an indulgent family in the service of a highly indulgent duchess, their duties consisting mostly in exhibiting their painted bodies at her court. Each member of the family has chosen a unique way of expression—some in magic paint, some allergic to it, some who actually work for a living. Now the narrator is feeling pressure—not that her family would pressure her, not that—to find her own mode of expression.

What we have here is a metaphor for the acceptance of personal choices, with a profusion of different pronouns suggesting the sort of choices the author has in mind. I have to say that most of these people seem awfully useless, if perhaps ornamental, but I can’t help being reminded of Velázquez’s court paintings.

“Facing the Wind” by Matt Joiner

On Zephrence the winds rule, and the beings called the Skirl own them; humans are only permitted the land and sea. Shirrem loved the winds and came to this world with her kites for them; Talizander followed her and lost her to them. He sets up wind harps on the beach in hope of hearing her voice.

A love story, romantic stuff. I like this prose:

The wind comes from every compass point. The tent billows and creaks. He goes out, the fox in his arms sniffing at his meat-stained shirt, and looks down the beach. Braids whip across his dark face. Sand smokes off the dunes, eddies against a dim sky: twists.

“The Glad Hosts” by Rebecca Campbell

Have to call this one SF. Mai, having migrated to Shanti, has been infected with a parasite native to the world.

It happened on an afternoon she didn’t notice, walking barefoot near the river, maybe, or staring up into Shanti’s aurora. Some dormant wisp breached her body on an in-breath among billions of other in-breaths. Her hand rose to scratch the inside of her elbow and through the abraded skin slid the spore. Something kindled, something single-celled, a bubble suited only to drift, rudderless, with each heartbeat until it rose through the permutations of its lifecycle from spore to something larval, or like a nematode, and then some terminal, adult shape she could not imagine.

This one is only tenuously connected to the skin theme, but definitely a transformation. Mai, ante-parasite, was a selfish and inconsiderate daughter; now she has become awash in welcoming hormones and thus a better person, although her primary tie is to “the dear creatures of the air”. From a not-Mai point of view, her metamorphosis would probably be considered horror. What I’m not buying, though, is the way the human colony on Shanti let her run around loose instead of locked into quarantine.

“She Shines Like a Moon” by Pear Nuallak

2nd-person narrator is a krasue of Thai folklore, a vampiric flying head with trailing entrails, now resident in London, where she roams Hampstead Heath and falls in love with the witch who lives in the Hollow Oak. The End. A poor excuse for a story, no more than the author’s favorite stuff [the fox thing again] and bugbears thrown onto the page.

“Sometimes Heron” by Mari Ness

The narrator is a shapechanger because it’s boring being stuck in an invalid’s bed. She loves being various forms of animal, especially the aquatic sort, but not fish. [Also foxes]

When she is a girl, she does not actually like animals very much. They never do the things she wants them to do. She has a cat, who does not come when he is called and never does tricks the way Amy’s does, and three fish swimming in a 50 gallon aquarium, looking rather lonely. She is never the fish in that aquarium or the cat in the house.

Almost a children’s story, but too cynical for it.

“Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman” by Nin Harris

In the Malaysian rainforest is the realm of the bunian, ruled by their Empress. Long ago, a young woman encountered a man of the bunian who offered to marry her if she could transform him into a human. This she accomplished, in a manner that will remind some readers of the ballad Tam Lin. But the Empress was displeased and placed a curse on her and her line.

No mother wants to tell her daughter about a curse. No mother wants to dwell on the nature of a debt about to be collected. The first mother, that intrepid girl who laughed at a phantom courtier, and who defied the Empress, would never have told her children of the debt, had it not been for the were-tigers that pawed the trees surrounding their house at night, and roared the children to fretful sleep with their oddly soporific promises of retribution.

Her descendants, with their bunian blood, have become powerful medicine women, but the Empress hasn’t forgotten their debt to her. When Cempaka was a girl, the Empress appeared to her and gave her an enchanted mango; Cempaka ate it and planted the seed, which her mother deplored as unwise, but the damage was done. The night it first bloomed, twenty years later, she met Sang Rimau the were-tiger for the first time. The story had begun long ago, but it wasn’t finished yet, even though Cempaka knows it will end with her. Unless it doesn’t.

Neat mix of folklore, fairy tale, and magic, with side notes of history that ground the narrative in place and time. The storyline is a bit difficult to follow, jumping around in time.

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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