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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August 2015


Here are three monthly and one quarterly e-publication, in which I find more dark fantasy than usual, as well as more science fiction. Critics sometimes say that such ezines are indistinguishable, but here readers can see some distinctive editorial voices developing.

Publications Reviewed


Lightspeed, August 2015

As often happens, while the ToC of this issue lists two of the new original stories as science fiction, I’m calling them all fantasy. Clearly, the editor and I have different notions as to the genre definitions. Aside from which, the fiction here is generally strong and satisfactorily varied, with my favorite the Chen Qiufan.

“The Smog Society” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu

Lao Sun can remember days of blue sky and golden sun when he and his wife were young. Now, things have changed.

It was as if someone was standing above the city pouring dust down endlessly. The sky was darker than the ground, dirty and sticky. Even with the filter mask, you felt as if the smog could worm its way through everything, through dozens of layers of polymer nanomaterial filter membrane and into your nostrils, your pores, your alveoli, your blood vessels, and swim all over your body from there; stuff your chest full until you couldn’t breathe; and turn your brain into a drum of concrete too thick to stir or spin.

Afflicted with depression in his retirement, deserted by his wife, childless, Lao Sun now works a volunteer job measuring air quality for the Municipal Smog Research and Prevention Society. The popular wisdom is that the smog causes depression, but the Smog Society’s research points in the other direction, a direction the government doesn’t want to look.

Despite what appears to be a dire environmental catastrophe, the city’s people don’t quite seem to regard it as such, carrying on their daily routines, Lao Sun’s thoughts here are mostly personal, full of regret. But the conclusion turns out surprisingly optimistic, as he finds his own way to combat depression and, possibly, the smog.

–RECOMMENDED

“And We Were Left Darkling” by Sarah Pinsker

Jo is one of several hundred people who suddenly begin to have realistic dreams of having a baby. The baby is nameless and mutable, changing age and appearance with every dream, although it seems to be consistently a girl. The dreams are so realistic that when the dream baby is nursing, Jo’s waking breasts fill with milk. No one understands them but the others, who have the same dreams. Jo and her wife once planned for one of them to have a child of their own, but it never worked out; it’s not clear if this fact is related to the appearance of the dream baby, or if the others have had a similar experience. We don’t know if any of the dream parents have other children.

One day, the children all leave them. While Jo had never wanted to share experiences with the other dream parents, now it becomes clear that what they have in common overpowers all other relationships. When the babies all reappear off the California coast, in reality not dream, the dream parents congregate there, giving up their jobs and other ties for the sake of their children. Jo’s wife comes to California to urge her return home. “I don’t tell her I’ve already been fired. I know I should put an arm around her, but I don’t. I’m glad she’s here, but I wish she wasn’t.” Ouch!

The author provides no explanation for this phenomenon, which is deliberately left mysterious. Perhaps it’s a psychological experiment, or maybe aliens are messing with human minds. The obvious conclusion is that it illustrates the overpowering strength of mother love [although some of the dream parents appear to be men]. But I keep thinking of “The Glad Host” from the most recent Lackington’s, in which a woman is infected by an alien parasite that stimulates her hormones so that she loves and protects the alien spawn inside her. It’s as likely an explanation as any other.

“Given the Advantage of the Blade” by Genevieve Valentine

A meta-fairy tale. The 2nd person narrator is conducting an experiment, undoubtedly a virtual one, or maybe a game, using figures out of the tales, characters from stories, to test which are most likely to survive. Each is given a knife. There seem to be two teams: maidens on one side and witches/queens/mothers on the other, although in the end, it’s each for herself.

You’ve run this out a dozen times. Four dozen. A hundred.

What will never happen in the white room where you’ve locked them all in:

They line up and make chisels of their knives, and carve the wall away to nothing, and the birds and deer and swans flood the empty space they leave behind.

There’s interest here, of an abstract sort, keeping in mind that none of these characters are or ever were real; the issue seems to be, what do stories want from characters that fill a certain role? The maidens seem to be divided between those who wait for someone else to save them and those who know they must save themselves; the old women, on the other hand, seem all to be of the second set. I also note how very often in the stories the adversary of the maiden is the older woman; yet some of the characters here, such as Scheherazade and Clever Manka, were matched against a man in their original tale.

Still, it’s impossible not to reach the conclusion that the outcome here depends not on the personalities of real individuals but by their formulation by the experimenter, which gives only a self-fulfilling outcome. Another programmer, different results. What don’t know is what kind of results were intended, or why the experiment was conducted in the first place. An odd piece.

“The Ghosts of Home” by Sam J Miller

Set in the mortgage collapse of 2008, when Agnes is working for JP Morgan Chase, hired to appease the abandoned household spirits in the empty foreclosed houses. She gives them offerings of oranges. It’s a shit job that still leaves Agnes homeless and living out of her car, but it includes a gas card for the expense of driving to all the houses. There isn’t a card for the oranges. Agnes seems to be particularly sensitive to the presence of spirits, though it’s hard to tell in a world where they manifest regularly. Once, she wonders if the bank building has a spirit.

And something answered. Something impossibly big and distant, like a whale passing far beneath a lone swimmer. Something dark and sharp and cruel and cold.

But the spirit of 5775 Route 9 has the form of a friendly young man. His name is Micah. He wants Agnes to stay there with him. The spirits of houses need people to live in them, but now the foreclosed spirits are threatened with demolition, which is more cost-effective to the banks than trying to maintain the properties.

Agnes is an interesting but puzzling character whose life had taken a downward trajectory after a series of poor decisions. In the story, there seems to be nothing wrong with her reasoning abilities, yet she tells us that people always treat her as if she’s stupid. She turned in her own mother to the bank when she was still living in their foreclosed house. I’m not clear why she came to believe this was the right thing to do, but this job with the bank seems to have set her on the right track; clearly she has an aptitude for spirit management.

Recently, I’ve seen this author’s fiction take an interest in the personal costs of widespread economic disasters. This one is strongly anti-bank [perhaps a shark might have been a better choice for the bank spirit], but I think the author has mistaken the scale of such vast and sclerotic financial operations. I doubt that a local manager like Trask [badguy name] would have such independent authority to buy and sell properties.


Clarkesworld, August 2015

Here’s the science fiction, all four original stories, most of them involving virtual existence in some way.

“Today I am Paul” by Martin L Shoemaker

The narrator is a high-end android medical attendant serving an Alzheimer’s patient named Mildred. It has the capacity to emulate both the appearance and behavior of her family members, which sometimes creates conflicts. In this, it is quite humanly flawed.

I am torn between competing directives. My empathy subnet warns me not to agitate Mildred, but my emulation net is locked into Paul mode. Paul is argumentative. If he knows he is right, he will not let a matter drop. He forgets what that does to Mildred.

This premise, the android caretaker for a patient with dementia, has become quite common, but this one is particularly well done and effective at showing the human complications of coping with this dread disease, against which we can’t ever win. The conclusion is a melancholy one.

“It was Educational” by J B Park

The narrator is called a reporter but seems in fact to be a reviewer, assessing a simulation of the 1980 Gwangju massacre in Korea. This seems to be a creation of a tourist board, a new version intended to “retool the attraction into an excitement-friendly version of events, where everything was supposedly more fun. This was what I was here to inspect.” At the same time, it seems to be meant in part at least for educational purposes, thus the narrator’s review suggests it shouldn’t be rated as suitable for viewers under eight. In any event, the narrator thinks it poorly done. A virtual student “has the kind of face composed by men who have no idea what normal human beings look like.” The narrator, also, is a virtual presence in the scenario, capable of speeding up the action through the tedious parts.

A very cynical look at the dissemination and corruption of history, whether it be for profit or propaganda, distorting the truth and capitalizing on the bleeding and suffering of real individuals by rendering them into virtual cartoons, like Disney, but with a lot more fake blood.

“Security Check” by Han Song, translated by Ken Liu

This one starts in a familiar dystopian future New York when freedoms have been sacrificed for the illusion of safety. In order to eliminate all possible threats, all people are forced to pass through daily security checks in which their possessions are supposedly scanned—but in fact, replaced with fabricated copies. Yearning to live in freedom with the wife he loves, our narrator Louis is turned in to the authorities by her. After his release from prison, he emigrates to China [people are free to leave America, just not to enter], where he gains a different perspective from which reality starts to look very weird indeed.

Gazing back from the other shore of the Pacific, I see a truly wondrous sight. The self-substituting America churns in constant transformation: one moment it’s like a wild flower—blossoming with a pop, collapsing, wilting, changing color from red to black, from yellow to white—and the next moment it’s like a dying star. Caught up in the changes are my compatriots. They are replaced and remade daily: from blood to muscle, from life to thought, becoming new people without knowing it themselves. From inside America, nothing is seen to change—every day people ride the subway to work like rats. But from China, the changes cannot be more obvious. I suppose this is a difference in frames of reference.

The weird, however, has only just begun.

This one is largely about difference in frames of reference. Readers will note that the story was originally written in China. In China, Louis learns that the Chinese have in large part been behind the transformation of America as an experiment and are now observing its mutation with great interest. We had two nations, each regarding itself as the center of the cosmos, but now America has disappeared itself into a black hole of solipsism. From a fairly mundane-seeming dystopia, the story has entered the universe of the surreal, to what end, Louis will never know.

The storyline is imaginative and creative, but the narrative is excessively talky; it’s a “tell” story, with none of the characters coming truly to life. Louis’s betrayal by his wife should be heartbreaking; he tells us his heart is broken, yet we can’t feel it.

“The Servant” by Emily Devenport

My name is Oichi Angelis, and I am a worm. I exist in the outer skin of the Generation Ship Olympia, and I spend most of my time squeezing through its utility tunnels, doing work for the Executives. I am partially deaf, dumb, and blind. That I am not entirely so is my greatest secret.

Now there’s an opening. Oichi is in fact a human servant whose senses are controlled by her masters through implants. Her secret is another set of implants installed by her father when he realized the ruling clans would never allow his child a chance for advancement. “Everyone else worked for just enough food to survive, just enough heat not to freeze.” This was before the rulers of the Olympia stripped all the resources from their sister ship Titania, then blew it up with the entire population. But Oichi was already on the other ship and is now in possession of secrets that could overthrow the oppressive power structure.

This is by far the longest and most skiffy story in the issue, and there’s plenty of action—plots, assassinations, and a regular use of the airlocks for venting the inconvenient among the population. Unfortunately, there’s excessive moral dichotomy among the characters, who are either Evil or saintly, either murderous conspirators or long-range planners for good. Can’t really take it seriously on that account.


The Dark, August 2015

Light dark fantasy, sometimes edging outside the fantasy boundaries altogether.

“Hani’s: Purveyor of Rusks, Biscuits, and Sweet Tea” by Sara Saab

In a village somewhere it’s hot, Hafeez has run a bakery and confectionary shop for a very long time; generations of children have enjoyed his bonbons, and some special children have had even more.

These he took by the hand during siesta hours and led into the kitchen in the back. The others knew by instinct not to wait about for their return, nor to give away their whereabouts when parents or tutors pressed. Anyway, the favoured children always returned the next day, smiles beatific and broad, teeth coated with toffee.

Now today, we would immediately think One Thing about this ominous practice, and the child welfare services would be paying Hafeez a visit. But no one in the village remarked about it until after Hafeez finally died and a grandson took over the shop without continuing the bonbon line. As it was during the school holidays, the children took up spying on Hani, and eventually they learned his secret.

A charmingly gruesome little tale, with an original and imaginative twist. Nicely told.

“A House of Anxious Spiders” by J Y Yang

Spider fights! I do love this premise, where people carry spiders in their mouths, channeling their oral aggression. When quarrels break out, so do the spiders; these fights tend to be to the death, and when a person’s spider is killed, it disables the tongue. In consequence, most people learn to control their tempers, or at least to pick their fights wisely. Sook Yee has avoided conflict with her older sister-in-law, Kathy, who had raised her husband John. This isn’t easy, since they’ve all been living together in the same cluttered house. But now the old woman, her mother-in-law, is dead, and the siblings are plotting contention over possession of the house. John wants Sook Yee to challenge his sister for it.

Someone, probably not Ben Franklin, once said, “Say not you know another entirely, till you have divided an inheritance with him.” At its heart, this is a story of family dynamics. While it opens with a spider fight between little boys, the real viciousness is in the women. John is a coward, and poor old Pa a peaceful, loving soul. Kathy, readers will probably say, deserves whatever she gets, but the story goes a lot further than that, into the pain of people’s lives.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Old Man in the Kitchen” by Patricia Russo

As children, the narrator and her sister were afraid of the old man in Grannie Luvan’s kitchen, and they hated to be taken there on visits.

The old man would sit in a spot near the stove, and though he had no use of his legs at all, he kept a stick with him always, and sometimes he’d be twisting the stick in his hands with a look on his face like that of somebody struggling through a storm. And often he’d be muttering to himself, or shouting, and more than once we saw him bite his own lip hard enough to make the blood spurt.

When the girls are grown and refuse to go, their mother rebukes them, as she says the old man has done much good for the people and suffered for his efforts. Then their mother grows ill and near death, until only one person might possibly be able to help her.

There’s little overt darkness in this tale, but shadowy hints from behind the scenes. We’ve read many times that attempting to bring a person back from death, or from its doorstep, are only made at great cost, with regret the likely outcome. But here, the outcome has not yet come to pass. It’s noteworthy that while the mother tells the girls the old man has done much good, she either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell the details. We can suspect how much it’s cost him, but only from the outside. For most of the story, he never really speaks, and his own point of view isn’t revealed.

“Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan

Meta fairy tale. As a girl, the narrator listened to the stories the villagers told, stories of the witch, appropriately horrific. The witch ate people.

She’ll boil up your eyes for sausages. She’ll feed your fingers to her chickens. She’s the only one who never starves. She can eat every single part of you because she’s got iron teeth that can crunch-munch up your bones . . .

The witch stories were for the good times, when there was food. But sometimes, famine came, and people starved. Then there was another story that the other women told to a woman who was having a new child, the tale of a woman who loved her child but couldn’t feed it. This tale was a lie they told themselves, an act of bad faith. When the narrator had become a mother herself, she knew there was no magic Mother of Giants who took the babies laid in the snow.

I find this overly self-righteous of the narrator, but I give her credit for being realistic and rejecting comforting myths. People do starve, and that’s not a fairy tale. Nor is this, nor fantasy.


Apex Magazine, August 2015

With this issue, the zine seems to be shifting more towards its horror roots, at least as far as dark fantasy. The predominant tone is the psychological. One of the year’s better issues.

“Brisé” by Mehitobel Wilson

The title refers both to a ballet step and something shattered, as a mirror in a ballet studio, reduced to shards. The story seems at first to be a fairly stereotypical account of a woman, Erin, confined by a controlling husband who has built a [too small] studio in their home where she can dance, observed by him alone. It’s a quite creepy image, with such touches as a lock on the door that only works from the outside [his side]. Yet as the story continues, we learn that Erin hasn’t been honest with herself about a lot of things, like her failure, like her crippling injury, until we start to wonder if anything she’s told us has been the truth.

This primary text is broken by sections addressing Erin in the second person.

Your face twisted with bitterness. Your movements grew ungraceful, then uncontrolled. You snapped your head this way and that, gaze jerking from mirrored wall to mirrored wall. You looked as if you might come utterly apart, fall into pieces of fog and flesh scattered across the floor. And then you became still, and you watched the glass.

These voices come from the reflections of Erin in the studio mirrors and in any other reflective surface, where she now looks for other selves that she might have become, in timelines spawned from different choices. This is a science-fictional notion, but here it’s metaphorical, the reflection of Erin’s failing hold on reality. Essentially, it’s a psychological study of an individual in fatal denial.

I note that the author has taken clever advantage of reader assumptions by opening the piece with Erin’s feelings of being under the control of an abuser, employing such details that strongly suggest the husband is the real problem. The hints that matters might actually be otherwise come later, and most of them in Erin’s own increasingly-unreliable voice, requiring some attentiveness from readers, and reassessment of original assumptions. Neatly done.

“Coming Undone” by Alexis A Hunter

Natasya was born incomplete, with one leg and arm not fully developed, yet she seems to have always thought, “it’s the full-length, ‘healthy’ limbs that make me wrong.” Her solution is robotics, becoming a cyborg.

While the science fiction element here must be taken literally, the heart of this very short story is psychological—in an empty way. Nothing lets us understand Natasya, why she chose the life that she did. The character’s pain is visible from the outside, but not felt from the inside.

“It is Healing, It is Never Whole” by Sunny Moraine

I often get irritated by stories in which the authors fail to give important characters a name, through which readers can know them. But sometimes namelessness is the only right thing, as it is here. The narrator doesn’t know who or what it is or was, can’t remember. It seems that it once was alive, with all these things pertaining to a life, but now works in the land of the dead, catching the souls of suicides and preparing them for their final [maybe] journey.

The soul of a suicide is not cold but gently warm, like the space in a chest where a heart used to nestle. It makes you want to cradle them, gather them close, and sing them songs to which you only know half the words. But we don’t hold the suicides like that, because it would show an inappropriate amount of favoritism. We catch them in our huge cloth nets and pull them into the separating trays, where we scoop them up in our hands and wash them in the cloudy water that jets out from the spigots before the trays, and we slide them, softly pulsing, into the collection jars.

Then one day, the narrator finds a soul with eyes, and “there was all the feeling in the world in those eyes, though there were no tears.”

I really like this premise, with a well-balanced mix of the unusual and familiar, such as the [hell-bound?] train into which the souls are loaded. The conclusion is both revealing and provocative, answering readers’ questions and posing more. Is this how it was meant to be? And what happens with the other soul-catchers, and the other souls? And where is the train headed?

–RECOMMENDED

“Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: The Elephant’s Tale” by Damien Angelica Walters

The elephant tells us, “We are all captives in one way or another.” In this case, the remaining members of the derelict circus are captives of failure. Only a few of them remain in the decrepit former Big Top, held there by inertia more than anything else, the fear of change, although in the case of the elephant it might well be the gilded cage strapped to its back, and the undefined shadows inside it. The Ringmaster with his whip is as much a captive as the others whom he abuses. The elephant watches and observes them all, the ones who can’t summon the will to leave, yet can’t itself abandon them.

A surreal tone here, beginning with the story’s title, which derives from a saying that means, in essence, “It’s a mess, but it’s not my problem.” [You can find it on T-shirts.] The author has brought it to life and literalized it in this tale, yet for the elephant, the problems of all the circus denizens are its own problems as well. Except for the monkeys. Nobody cares about the monkeys.

Yet the story also reminds us that a circus, so often a symbol of fun and enjoyment, can be a dismal place behind the scenes, and based on abuse, as the elephant bears witness to:

the sharp pain of a cattle prod, the shouts, the forcing of my cumbersome body into positions it wasn’t meant to hold. And for what? The momentary pleasure of others, the applause, the indignity? All small cruelties of a life lived in captivity.

The Ringmaster’s whip is the relic of his prior career as a lion tamer, and he now uses it on the remaining denizens of the Big Top, although not, I note, the tiger. The elephant claims that the tiger doesn’t remember, but I suspect it remembers the whip quite well.

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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