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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early October 2015


The first December issue signals the end of this year’s reading. I find some good stories this month, but my favorite is the Sulway, from Lightspeed.

Publications Reviewed


F&SF, November/December 2015

A good issue featuring a science fiction novella by Carter Scholz and several worthwhile shorter works, particularly the Ford and the Reed.

“Gypsy” by Carter Scholz

Driven by the rapacious global military-industrial complex, Earth has gone to hell.

He’d seen parents eating their dead children. Pariah dogs fat as sheep roamed the streets. Cadavers, bones, skulls, were piled in front of nearly every house. The cloying carrion smell never lifted. Hollowed-out buildings housed squatters and corpses equally, darkened plains of them below fortified bunkers lit like Las Vegas, where the driving bass of party music echoed the percussion of automatic weapons and rocket grenades.

A young scientific genius named Roger Fry has solved the problem of fusion energy, which he hopes will supply unlimited clean power to the world’s population, but the complex uses his ideas instead for bombs. Eventually, Roger gives up on Earth and, almost, humanity. He begins to assemble a covert think tank of young geniuses to design a spacecraft that will carry a small group to colonize another world. The complex has already established bases elsewhere in the solar system; to be safe, they have to go farther, out of reach, to another star.

The narrative is split. On board Gypsy, we observe successive members of the crew in action as the system wakes them from coldsleep to deal with various problems that beset the ship on its voyage to Alpha Centauri. We also look back at their pasts to witness the circumstances that brought them to join this desperate gamble. The author doesn’t pull punches in condemning the forces that have brought the world to such a pass; we recognize them: rapacious plutocrats, power-hungry militaries, oppressive governments—indeed, a kitchen sink may be in there along with. But there’s an astute analysis of the use of power here as well.

The authorities would vanish Roger Fry and everyone associated with him on the day they learned what he was planning. Not because of the what: a starship posed no threat. But because of the how and the why: Only serious and capable dissidents could plan so immense a thing; the seriousness and the capability were the threat.

Besides the political aspect, there is the technological, with a host of problems to be solved. The spaceship has to be constructed in secret, with restrictions on acquisition and a limited budget. Ingenuity accounted for most of the project’s success, but Roger isn’t above theft—audaciously. Still, there’s no margin for error in the project, no backups, no Plan B. These are the sort of difficulties that the crewmembers find themselves struggling with as the voyage goes on and on, as the consequences of errors and accidents accumulate, as the ship becomes increasingly off-course and off-schedule. In these scenes, the story is science fiction of the purest sort.

But at its heart, it’s a moral one. The scenes set on Earth make an excellent case for misanthropy, condemning the human species wholesale for what it’s done to Earth. Roger Fry can’t bring himself to go quite that far. But the scenario raises the question: given the innate depravity of a humanity that has rendered its own homeworld uninhabitable, why should it go forth to ruin another, to plant the same flawed seeds in unspoiled ground? If Gypsy does burn itself up in one of the Centauri suns, might this not be for the overall best? The characters generally reject this conclusion, but they have other hard questions to face, especially as failure becomes more and more likely. Was it all worth it?

What are they doing here? Have they thrown their lives away for nothing? Was it a great evil to have done this? Abandoned Earth?

But what were they to do? Like all of them, Roger was a problem solver, and the great problem on Earth, the problem of humanity, was unsolvable; it was out of control and beyond the reach of engineering. The problems of Gypsy were large but definable.

As the voyage comes to its end, this moment of reflection is one of the fine and fitting places the story could have joined it. What the author does instead is difficult for me to forgive. It’s wrong and false; it’s a lie that gives the lie to all that has gone before and contradicts the premise. I’m pretending it’s not there, virtually ripping out that page.

“Hob’s Choice” by Tim Sullivan

A sequel that lacks any real story on its own. Hob, having been converted to the cause of the Cetians, whose swampy homeworld is being taken over by oppressive human colonists, travels from Earth to deliver a message to them. He slogs around in the mud while no one tells him anything. Then a character from the previous story tells him everything that happened while he was slogging in the mud. There’s nothing of import in his storyline until the conclusion, when the gods from the plot machine show up.

Despite the title, Hob doesn’t actually exercise a choice here; his choice was made offstage, between the previous story and this one. Also despite the title, his choice was not a Hobson’s.

“Tomorrow is a Lovely Day” by Lisa Mason

Time paradoxes. Benjamin is reliving the worst day of his life over and over, except that, somehow, the repetition sets in and makes it worse, every time.

He slams the door when he leaves. He’s hungry and dying for a cup of coffee. When will Molly love him again?

He dashes out into the rain. Always rain, acid rain filled with poison.

The train is late, and so is he.

If only tomorrow comes, everything will be better. He’ll get his master’s degree, get a good job teaching, start a family with his wife Molly. Instead, he’s stuck in a low-level job guarding Dr Schroeder’s time machine, reset every time.

A nightmarish scenario. Nicely done pseudoscientific handwavium, with an increasingly-mad scientist at the core. In a reduced way, it strikes the same note as the Scholz story above, Dr Schroeder partying with all the world leaders, adjusting time to benefit the privileged class, while the rest of the world, including Benjamin, suffers the consequences.

“The Winter Wraith” by Jeffrey Ford

A man exhibits helplessness in the absence of his wife. Mero told Henry before she left for Shanghai to leave the Christmas tree alone so she could put away the ornaments properly when she got back. But it’s been too long. Now he

sensed resignation in the posture of the Christmas tree. It slouched toward the living-room window as if peering out. There was no way he could plug its lights in, cheer it up. The thing was dryer than the Sandman’s mustache, its spine a stick of kindling. The least vibration brought a shower of needles. Ornaments fell of their own accord. Some broke, which he had to sweep and vacuum, initiating the descent of more needles, more ornaments. The cat took some as toys and batted them around the kitchen floor. Glittering evidence in the field indicated Bothwell, the dog, had acquired a taste for tinsel.

Thus proving that some authors just have the talent with prose to do these things, set these scenes. The story is light, ambiguous horror, and we note that at the most crucial moments Henry’s senses have been fuddled with wine, making him a less-than-reliable witness.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Thirteen Mercies” by Maria Dahvana Headley

War crimes and atrocities. They were only following orders. The problem is, they were caught by the camera at the wrong time and place. Another time, the public would have agreed that they were the heroes they still claim to be.

Instead our country sent us here to die condemned, not as saviors but as villains, as though our enemies were not the ones who’d forced us into this. Without provocation, we’d never have brought the Mercies into the war. It was the fault of the dead.

“They made us do it.”

A strong condemnation of the excuses that war invents to justify itself. The story is fantasy, the Reversed Mercies being spells, although originally derived from prayers. The punishment is likewise supernatural. I do wonder how to take the narrator’s claim that they were born as soldiers. Does this mean they were bred for it in vats, or taken at birth? Other elements of the text suggest not, but perhaps the claim isn’t meant to be taken literally.

One of two stories by this author reviewed here.

“Her Echo” by K J Kazba

“When the Old Wise Woman of the Tall Bright Hills finally passed through the veil, she left three things behind: her Reflection, her Shadow, and her Echo.” The Old Wise Woman had apparently been too wise to bother with a lover, but shortly after her death, a handsome youth entered the hills, and Reflection and Shadow yearned for him.

Extremely short [one page] stories are generally a hard sell for me, but this fable works perfectly.

“The Fabulous Follicle” by Harvey Jacobs

It wouldn’t be an issue of F&SF without at least one silly story. This one has a barber whose lifelong dream has been his own shop. To survive against the competition, Morris knows he needs to carve out a special niche. To this end, a clairvoyant named Mrs Trankxyona gives him a tip that a recently-departed barber in town used to have a special clientele: werewolves, who apparently have a lot of disposable income. The niche is now open.

The silliness here is largely in the names.

“DreamPet” by Bruce McAllister

The narrator makes designer pets for customers to love, pets programmed to love their owners, but he doesn’t understand about love, which is missing in his own family. The story is sadness.

I see that Claire has set the kitten down. It’s mewling, trying to get her to pick it up again — she’s the one it loves — but my daughter has walked over to the other presents, has grabbed an iDancer, and three of her friends are talking to her all at once. The kitten squeals. A kid has stepped on its paw.

The editorial blurb calls it “virtuously succinct”, but I think it would have been more so without the final scene. Without, it’s purely heartbreaking.

“Cleanout” by Naomi Kritzer

Estranged sisters meeting at their mother’s house to clear out the accumulation after she’s had a stroke. But this isn’t primarily a story about estranged sisters or hoarding, it’s a mystery about the parents’ origin, a place they called Bon that may have been part of the Soviet Union, a part no one can identify. The parents rarely spoke of it, having become patriotic Americans. But it potentially holds the answer to a number of unanswered questions.

We all came together in the hospital room and Mom placed a velvet bag in Dad’s hands; she said it was something from Bon, something that would help him find his way back, and I guess it worked because he died. None of this endless unconscious brush-with-death-and-then-rally stuff that Mom had going on: We gathered, we said good-bye, he went, like someone catching a plane for a one-way trip.

Which makes it odd that she never made provision for the velvet bag in case of her own impending end. This, and a number of other questions, still remain unanswered, despite the conclusion. Life’s like that sometimes. People fail to anticipate, ends remain untied and mysteries less than entirely resolved.

“It’s All Relative at the Spacetime Café” by Norman Birnbach

The editorial blurb claims this piece as celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s “General Theory of Relativity”. Which is to say, in physics puns.

“The City of Your Soul” by Robert Reed

Another uniquely strange vision from Reed. The narrator is preparing to board a flight to Seattle when some of the passengers catch an item on the news about a city in Brazil disappearing. At first, no one is quite sure if they heard correctly. But further reports of the incident come in, including video of “green farm fields end with a barren disk, red with iron and as smooth as any floor.” Then the plane takes off and the passengers are cut off from information, left only with each other and their speculations and anxieties.

Twenty cities must have vanished. Cities you know and millions of people are lost. That’s what everybody fears. Twenty cities, or a thousand. Unknown, invincible forces have delivered an enormous attack. The last normal day on Earth was yesterday, and you can’t remember more than two minutes from those final precious hours.

But they land to total normality, in which the events they had been obsessing over throughout the flight have apparently never occurred at all. Only the others on the flight have shared the experience; the rest of the world considers it a mass hallucination or hoax, nothing to be concerned about. Passengers and crew are more or less firmly pressured to drop it. But they can’t.

Quite interesting here is the contrast between the primary trauma and the secondary. The disappearance of an entire city, eighty thousand people, is shocking and frightening, the more so because the cause is unknown [and therefore might also happen to us]. But the secondary trauma, in which the events, which we know to have happened, are expunged from the record and memory of the world, create a lasting obsession in many of the members of the crazy flight group, and a bond among them. No one else was there, no one else can understand; it happened to them, even if the original, primary event somehow never did.

Passengers, reporters, media commenters all speculate about the causes of both events; me, I like aliens in both cases, snatching cities and wiping minds. But this isn’t the real focus of the story, not a Reed story. It’s the effect of the inexplicable peril on individuals impacted, the force of the mysterious, which for the narrator is encapsulated in an image:

Jaguars, for instance. How many people are destined to be eaten by a giant cat? Yet jaguars provide mystery, pure and immeasurable. Just the idea of dark jungle and one great predator drives the human mind insane.

Insane may be overstating the case, but I’ve met the eyes of a jaguar and, crazy cat lady that I am, felt only fear and awe, never the impulse to go bury my face in the nice kitty’s fur. A well-chosen image.

–RECOMMENDED


Clarkesworld, October 2015

The stories in this issue tend towards what I have to call the mystical, with the science-fictional hardness subliming into a nebulous vapor. This doesn’t seem like a promising sign.

“And If the Body Were Not the Soul” by A C Wise

There are aliens on Earth, we don’t know why, but they apparently haven’t come as conquerors or refugees from a ruined world. Tourists, perhaps, but if so, they haven’t been welcomed by the hostile indigenes and seem to be confined to a rundown ghetto. The story isn’t really very interested in the aliens for their own sake, so gives us little information. Its center belongs to Ro, a young human with extreme body issues stemming from some past trauma, loathing “the discomfort of even having a body”, let alone bodily contact; readers will note that the author employs no gendered pronouns in reference to Ro, suggesting the possible nature of this trauma. Ro is a bicycle messenger who often makes deliveries to the Zone, in particular to an alien named Xal. Xal has been injured during an altercation with hostile humans, and in concern for this injury Ro inadvertently moves into touching distance of the alien.

It brushes Ro’s hand, braced against the countertop. A new sound, a new quality of pain, laced with surprise. Xal draws back, but not before the touch sparks—a snap like an electric shock and a taste like lemons.

This taste of lemons, the not-painful touch, is an epiphany for Ro, who seeks out more. It seems that the aliens’ touch opens a telepathic contact, transformative to Ro.

The title is important here, taken from Whitman, celebrating the human body and bodily contact: “They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them”. The contact between Ro and Xal, the tentative overture and hesitant acceptance, is a great deal like a first sexual encounter, kindly veiled by the dark. Yet this isn’t a love story; the bodily contact is only the gateway to the far more intimate contact of souls. However, too much goes undescribed, beginning with the aliens. There they are on Earth, with some sort of official representation, yet no one seems aware of the touch telepathy, which would seem to be a major aspect of alien communications. In fact, they only seem to be in the story as magic aliens, present only for Ro’s sake, to take and give touch for him. But Ro, likewise, is a cipher, a ball of angst and little else. Because we don’t know Ro, we can’t really parse the contact with Xal or judge the change it makes; we never get a lot more from it than lemons and sparks. All we really see is the alteration in Ro, but without a full understanding of Ro’s original condition, it’s hard to judge it.

“Ice” by Rich Larson

I take this at first to be YA because Sedgewick’s parents have brought him to frozen New Greenland “where he was the only unmodded sixteen-year-old for about a million light years”. His younger brother Fletcher is modded, which makes him superior in every way that counts to males of their age—faster, stronger, better looking. And now Fletcher insists in following him out at night to meet the local guys on the ice where the frostwhales are breaching.

Sedgewick could feel the tips of his ears heating up as Anton swung his stare from one brother to the other, nonverbalizing the big question, the always-there question, which was why are you freestyle if he’s modded.

This is effective characterization. Readers are going to feel strongly that these brothers will never be able to close the gap between them, always be estranged to some degree. We really have to wonder what their parents were thinking, but that lies outside the scope of the narrative. In a typical YA, we feel at the end that everything is going to be all right, but not here. The story is Sedgewick’s, always the new kid, always having to find his place in the pack, the experience made worse on this world where everyone else has the advantage he’s missing. We don’t see a whole lot of the locals, but I like their jargon—”extros”—as well as the physical setting, the biting cold dark, the frostwhales. Of all the pieces in this issue, this is the only one that seems truly science fiction, grounded in plausible reality, hard like the ice.

“The Father” by Kola Heyward-Rotimi

Madhav Tamboli is a champion turncoat, abandoning allegiances and convictions right and left. This is a far future following the collapse of an empire ruled [?] by a Goddess. A group of Goddess-worshippers have built a spaceship, the Reborn Cathedral, to house a newborn/reborn Goddess, having enlisted a group of engineers to recreate her, by which we understand vaguely that the Goddess is actually a machine of some sort. The project completed, the next step is for all the engineers to mass-suicide James-Jones style, which I conjecture to be a plan along the same lines of killing the workers who build the emperor’s tomb, lest it be discovered, looted, or subjected to indignities. But Madhav has fallen for the arguments of another group called the Children of Confucius, who want to steal the embryonic deity to prevent another era of Goddess-rule.

The story presents all this backstory in a vague, haphazard manner, leaving much for readers to figure out on their own, like what is the Goddess [an AI?], and how was it created. It opens with Madhav injecting an antidote for the Sarin that will soon kill his fellow engineers, then continues with a lot of urgent nagging from the Confucius group, whose purposes are pretty unclear. It closes with a sort of mystical communion between Mahav and Goddess, which suggests that she isn’t simply a machine, after all. But the more divine she appears, the less likely she could have been created by a bunch of geeks; the more likely that they created her, the less she would seem to be an actual divinity. In short, there’s not much sense to the premise or resolution.

“Egg Island” by Karen Heuler

Ostensibly science fiction about the oceanic gyres where vast fields of trash, mostly plastics, have accumulated, it involve crews who sew the debris together to create floating islands, which have become habitats. So far, so good. But then we learn that the only people allowed are plastic people, individuals with plastic prostheses—for which I can see no good reason, other than the hint that this may create some kind of mystic bond. Things move even further over the line into fantasy when the narrative describes the way ingested microplastics—a real hazard to sea life—have been assimilated in a symbiotic way.

One by one [the turtles] inched their way forward, their backs stippled with plastics that had latched onto their animal bodies, seamless and as irreproachable as Audra’s arm, as Wen’s heart. It was a selective turn in the usefulness of flesh, in the utility of plastic. Omnipresent now, polluting what had formerly been pristine, pierced by the shoot, the claw, the plow, plastics had threaded their ways back into life.

I find this cloying optimism false, not only as minimizing and denying the harm that this plastic pollution has and will continue to inflict on sea life, but promoting an utterly implausible vision of the problem miraculously solving itself. No harm done. Smile!

“Summer at Grandma’s House” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan

Zhanzhan is a failed student who’s been unable to stick with any course of study, now come to spend the summer with his [?] grandmother, an eccentric scientist who works out of her household lab and creates eccentric results, often by chance or accident, which doesn’t really seem to be an accident.

It’s a sort of Darwinism, I suppose: first mutation, then selection. First the protein, then the chemical reaction in which to participate. First the ability to encode an enzyme, then the sensory organ that uses the enzyme.

Existence precedes essence, I think the saying goes?

Students of philosophy should recognize that existentialist motto, especially after being primed by the epigraphic reference to Camus’ Sisyphus [I’ve never liked that line]. I’m not sure how Sartre would take to Grandma’s philosophy, which merges apparent fatalism with choice. This isn’t quite the usual conflict between free will and determinism, but it’s also hard not to get the impression Grandma engineered the whole course of events that Zhanzhan experiences over the summer. It’s also hard not to think of Grandma as possessing supernatural powers that allow her to do so. With all her miraculous inventions that spring from spilled porridge in the corners of the kitchen, my disbelief resists suspension. The story talks the language of science, it uses the tools of science, but the results seem to have something else behind them.


Lightspeed, October 2015

Two for four in this issue with its theme of the end of life on Earth, as I like both the Headley and the Sulway.

“Children of Dagon” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Global sea rising. A prescient mad scientist had engineered crosses between humans and sea mammals such as otters, who have now claimed the low-lying regions of Earth, including London. One of these is our narrator, who rants while planning an assault on the human remnant.

Lot of problems here. The sea creatures are armed with crossbows and spears and sharp teeth, but we have no reason to suppose that humans have somehow lost all their firearms, chemical weapons, and the rest of the arsenal. If some humans are ragged and starving, forced to steal food from the sea creatures, this is undoubtedly due to the hostility of other humans, historically inhospitable to refugees.

The prose is overwrought:

But you called us abominations. Some of you invoked divine writ and some of you invoked medical ethics, but none of you could countenance the idea that you were no longer unique. You scorned Doctor Deacon for playing god.

Even more problematic: whom is the first-person narrator addressing here? The humans they’re about to attack? They don’t hear and wouldn’t listen. Moreover, they already know this history, from their own point of view. We could say that the narrator is addressing himself, justifying his actions while pretending to address the imminent victims of it. But in fact, as readers can readily see, this rant is actually addressed to us. In other words, it’s all fake, and the narrator is just a mask for the author. Which is the one thing, above all, authors should never remind us.

The setting is London, and I think the author misses a real opportunity here by slighting the buried tributaries of the Thames, which the conditions of the story would surely have allowed to break free from their imprisoning culverts and embankments. But there’s no hint that Tyburn, for example, was once a creek—which is what the name means.

“Solder & Seam” by Maria Dahvana Headley

A neat twist on some old stories in this far-future fantasy when humanity’s homeworld has been wrung out and mostly abandoned. An old revolutionary has come down to Earth, anonymous and disguised, where he temporarily becomes a farmer and scavenger. It’s by scavenging that he builds his wooden whale.

He hadn’t had any kind of dream of angels. No one had told him about a flood. He’d come out his front door one morning and thought it was time to do something. It wasn’t a summons, not the kind he’d been waiting for, but he felt like he’d been called.

A lot of fascinating backstory to this, tales of occupation and revolution, from which we see, at last, what the old man really is. Deeply hidden passion, secrets and revelations.

“The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” by Nike Sulway

A delightful piece of slipstreaming, rich with allusions, most notably to Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler herself [but not Austen] has an indirect cameo here. There’s a familiar-seeming assortment of female club members, with daughters, exes, and spouses, but the central character is Clara, a reader and also, at times, an aspiring SF author. She’s written a “Cold Equations” story, with the ship carrying pairs of animals, endangered species, to colonize another world; the stowaway threatened with being jettisoned is a child, a hatchling bird for whom there’s no room. The significance, we discover in due time, is that Clara is herself a member of a species facing imminent extinction: a rhinoceros. Their problem isn’t habitat loss—they have a lovely habitat full of mud wallows—but infertility. The males have poor sperm motility, and the daughters refuse for one reason or another to consider bearing children, despite the urging of their mothers. The older females, the ones who once expected to be grandmothers, feel alienated from this generation.

How many females, she wondered, had felt this looseness, this glorious severance from the future? Had she been moving towards this feeling her whole life? Since her husband had left her? Since her daughter had stopped speaking to her? Since the scientists had said, finally, and with a sense more of exhaustion than of sadness, that there was no hope for their species?

The text most truly at the heart of this story is the Rhinoceros Sutra, an ancient Buddhist work that advocates detachment from social and familial connections, each verse concluding with the refrain, “Wander alone, like a rhinoceros.” As a member of a species already “functionally extinct”, Clara feels that she’s the one who’s been jettisoned and betrayed, largely by her daughter. She finally comes to a point when she doesn’t recognize her former self, the person attached to others, to a future. Her friend Belle offers an alternative, a life together as lovers, jettisoning mates, children, and the future of their species, going on together. This is the choice Clara faces, but there’s no cold equation forcing it; every character here finds a different, personal path.

The sutra’s refrain is of particular interest for informing the story by considering the ethology of the Asian rhinoceros in its native habitat. The creatures are indeed largely solitary, except for the bonding of mothers and young; unlike elephants, they don’t congregate in female-dominated herds, and there are certainly no herd bulls or pair bonds between the sexes. This may be an evolutionary strategy to maximize genetic diversity. But the story suggests a relationship between male infertility and the pair bond; we have to wonder—did the males become infertile by turning into husbands, or did they establish pair bonds because there was no more use in mating? Certainly several of the females in the story don’t see much use for the overbearing bulls hanging around, and in this we can see strong echoes of Fowler’s story, with its various difficult and failed marriages. These are the problems facing humans, which is how readers will see them.

There’s no doubt that, considered in its self, the notion of literary rhinoceroi is absurd. But the author only slips this information into the text once we’ve already become interested in Clara and her situation. It’s a sign of a strong, superior story that it casts other texts in a new light and provokes new understandings of them. This is certainly true of Fowler’s novel, Godwin’s story, and even the sutra; I doubt if I’ll read any of these in quite the same way again.

–RECOMMENDED

“Tragic Business” by Emil Ostrovsky

A very silly fantasy, beginning when a moldy apple falls in love [unrequitedly] with a hummingbird who’s killed by an eagle before he can get to first base [whatever that is] with her. He appeals for reincarnation to get another chance, ignoring the fact that reincarnation is meant to decrease attachment to existence and such matters as bases. So ridiculous it might actually be amusing.

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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