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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: early November 2015


This time I feature a science fiction anthology and recommend the John Barnes story as one of the year’s best. Also a couple of first-of-the-month publications.

Publications Reviewed


Meeting Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

The fourth in the editor’s fine “Infinity” series of anthologies. The introduction states that the stories deal with change and the shock it will cause to humanity when it comes, as it must, although we can only speculate as to its form. There are sixteen original stories here, set in differently altered futures, most of them worse overall than improved, and even the improvements tend to cause trouble.

I have to say that the contents are pretty poorly matched to the Infinity in the volume’s title. The notion of the infinite suggests physics or math, the far reaches of the universe, or eternity. But the pieces here are almost uniformly social SF, quite finite stuff except for a few cases of immortality that generally don’t reach the infinite point in the course of the narrative. Several different tropes get reused, most notably body-shifting.

“Rates of Change” by James S A Corey

A future in which people trade in old bodies for new. This isn’t novel in the setting, when people have always gotten new bodies when their old ones wore out or were diseased. But now people are getting elective, cosmetic, designer body replacements. Diana doesn’t approve, but she’s been suffering from apparent depression secondary to body dysphoria ever since she had to replace her original body because of cancer. “All around her, everyone is wrapped in a mask of flesh.” And now her own son.

Stefan wants to leave his body – the body she’d given him, the one that had grown within her – in order to. . . what? Have an adventure with his friends?

What Stefan wanted was the body of a ray, but while swimming with his school, he was attacked and left for dead.

Readers may wonder what the real problem is here, the culture of body replacement or Diana’s reaction to it, but it seems clear to me that Diana’s condition is idiosyncratic. And unfortunately seems to be incurable. The focus of the story isn’t on the change itself but a single individual’s inability to cope with it, which makes it a good introductory piece for the anthology. But I have to wonder why this apparently so advanced medical establishment is so incapable of helping Diana with her mental state. Or healing her cancer. Have they become so over reliant on body replacement as a panacea that they’ve forgotten other modes of treatment? And who, I also wonder, pays for all these obviously-costly body switches?

“Desert Lexicon” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A punishment squad. The setting is a desert where wars have been waged and the war machines still roam the dunes, “hunting and absorbing other relics for components.” To hunt them down, the authorities use prisoners, only nominally volunteers, surgically equipped with implants to enable them to survive the extreme environment and overcome their targets. But the implants also tag them as enemies to attract the machines, still programmed to attack. And many of the prosthetics are also programmed to fail or disintegrate in different ways, effectively using the prisoners as guinea pigs in various experiments for developing new weapons. The originally nine-person squad has been reduced to four by the time the story opens, and Isyavan is their unofficial leader; Isyavan has experience with the machines that she doesn’t reveal to the others.

They like to think they are tougher than the previous teams. They like to believe they will be the last, and that no more expeditions will be necessary after. These beliefs vary in strength and conviction, though they persist. The human capability for delusion has no limits.

This is military SF in a world that we know would be dystopian if we saw more of it, but the author’s lens is set narrowly to display only the desert, with only a few backwards glimpses at the prison from which the characters came. The prisoners are exploited cynically and sadistically, as the authorities hold out the promise of survival and amnesty while making it unlikely that any will survive to take advantage of it. We wouldn’t be surprised if it were a game for them, if they’re making bets on prisoner survival. The piece is effectively done, but I’d say that the changes we see here are primarily technological. The military and prisons have always exploited the persons in their charge in such ways, and that apparently isn’t likely to change.

“Drones” by Simon Ings

The changes here are social, brought about by the environmental. Northern Europe, including Great Britain, have become food-insecure, due in some part to the extinction of honeybees. A disease spread by bees also extirpated the majority of the human female population, and in reaction, the male population has adopted new structures. Having discovered that a single man can impregnate a hundred women, they’ve adopted an extreme combination of polygyny and female infanticide, with large families of working half-brothers headed by a breeding patriarch and minimal female mouths to feed.

“And so, being kin, we have no need to breed stock of our own, being that our genes are shared among our brothers. We’ll look instead after our kin, feed and protect our mayor, give him our girls, receive his blessing.”

This blessing typically takes the form of bodily fluids, spit or urine, which I suspect symbolizes fertility. But the non-breeding males aren’t physically drones and often lust for the forbidden, for women, who are kept from casual sight; the narrator, while he claims to be content with remaining an uncle, yearns for the wife and sons denied him.

These social changes may be interesting but I doubt they’d work in practice. While other species have similar breeding strategies, they’re based on biology, and human male biology hasn’t [yet] adapted to what the society requires of it.

“Body Politic” by Kameron Hurley

Narsis is an interrogator, which is to say a torturer. She’s currently interrogating her own side’s agents, who are suspected of being turned by the saboteur called Keli, working for the Opposition. Her side uses organic, genetic tech; the Opposition opposes it.

I have more metal promotion loops in my ears than any of the other Suits. I’ve been on oral meds and injections for years. Helps with the job, Defense tells me. They bred me to do what I do, they say, and the meds are perfecting me for it, they say, but I don’t feel perfected to it. I feel obligated to it. There’s a difference.

Narsis is being groomed for higher office. Other operatives are expendable. She vomits a lot, after every interrogation. Now she’s ordered to investigate an enemy agent recently liberated from a solitary confinement cell. Jan claims to know who Keli is; he makes other cryptic pronouncements. Everyone thinks he’s insane, but he holds a dangerous secret.

I’m somewhat reminded of the novel 1984, except that this milieu is considerably more evil. I can’t say that it’s about the consequences of change but rather a system that changes people, dehumanizing them.

“Cocoons” by Nancy Kress

The planet Windsong’s civilian population is small; the Corps effectively runs the place and takes alarm when near-microscopic entities begin to transform some humans, spinning webs around and inside them in preparation for a metamorphosis.

You see the ‘spiders’ but you don’t see the biofilms that have invaded her nostrils, mouth, anus, vagina, ears. Those early autopsies revealed them. She’s being colonized by sheets of microorganisms, changed from the inside out.

Nora is the medical contractor who cares for the health of the civilians and thus understands the cocoon phenomenon better than anyone else. Now the Corps has sent an investigator, but Nora can tell his mind is already made up, the product of instinctive revulsion to the mutated persons who used to be human. He’s willing to authorize the most drastic measures to extirpate what is to him a deadly contagion that threatens the Corps.

This one is literally about people who undergo a change, but more directly about the reaction of others to them. It’s a pretty simplistic moral dichotomy, dividing everyone into the tolerant and the intolerant, leaving no doubt which side is the right and the wrong.

“Emergence” by Gwyneth Jones

Romy was an early adopter of life-extension technology; now, three hundred years later, she’s a magistrate at Jupiter Moons and never intends to return to Earth, in large part because of the laws enslaving artificial intelligences, which she disapproves of. Until she suffers a lethal exposure to the elements during a magnetic storm, which gives her the option of either returning for treatment or dying. It’s a treatment only open to those touched by death, but it takes Romy a while to grasp just what this means.

But I was seeing the world through a veil. The strange abstractions grew on me. The hallucinations had become more pointed, more personal. . . I was no longer sure I was dying, but
something was happening. How long before the message was made plain?

On Earth, she tries to contact an old friend, but Lei remains almost totally out of sight and contact, until eventually Romy understands where she’s gone.

A very profound and positive view of change, altering the most basic facts about the human condition, or rather the sentient condition. At one point, she’s explaining the emergence of machine intelligence to an Earther in terms of human evolution: “Among them individuals are born who cross a line: by mathematical chance; at the far end of a Bell Curve. They are aware of being aware –” What she has yet to realize is how this process might apply to her, how another line is ahead of her to be crossed. And in regard to which, this is one of the few stories here to which the concept of infinity might actually apply.

“The Cold Equalities” by Yoon Ha Lee

I wonder if this is the one classic of SF that most authors have attempted to revisit and engage. In this case, the stowaway is on a ship en route to seed a new human colony, piloted by an AI, Anzhmir. The cargo consists of compressed human minds, all the knowledge and abilities necessary for a successful colony-seed, in addition to compressed scans of the future colonists’ chosen belongings. “The compression algorithm depended on the strict sequencing of the data, and the stowaway, by interfering with the sequencing, threatened the cargo entire.” It was by attempting to access a favorite scanned book among the cargo that Anzhmir discovered the anomaly, the sabotage.

Lee has a rarely-seen ability to mix evocative imagery with passages drawn from such quantitative disciplines as set theory and logic. As Anzhmir calculates:

In general, we can prioritize in this manner if the following four rules are always true:
(1) a a for all items a in the set. At any given moment, anyway, that item has the same priority as itself.
(2) For items a and b, if a b and b a, then in fact a is b.
(3) If a b and b c, then a c.
(4) For any pair of items a and b in the set, either a b or b a.

Despite which, the solution to the conundrum facing Anzhmir is pretty clear from early on. I can’t say that the change theme comes through very strongly, but I like the use of equations.

“Pictures from the Resurrection” by Bruce Sterling

The world has descended into another Dark Age, though the darkness, as the narrator tells us, isn’t evenly distributed. There’s a lot of it in Texas, but that’s not such a change from today. After the fall, Fort Lucky was taken over by a Russian billionaire druglord, but a Mexican billionaire druglord is trying to take it over from him, using an army of ninja zombies.

The ninja zombie had a taut, drug-distorted expression and the cold, focused eyes of a Texas diamondback rattlesnake. He was a spectral and terrifying creature, but Calderon liked to draw rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes were sinuous, fast, graceful. Lately, as mankind dwindled in Texas, the rattlesnakes had been multiplying.

A light dark apocalypse, nihilistic and absurd. The theme of change gets a really good workout here, and the narrative entertains.

–RECOMMENDED

“Aspects” by Gregory Benford

The editorial note explains that this piece is set in the author’s Galactic Centre series, where feral humans struggle to survive in a universe dominated by mechs aiming to exterminate them. But the human Families make extensive use of mechanical aids and technologies, despite the fact that their mech enemies target circuitry, not naked flesh. Most critical are the downloads from the brains of their ancestors, known as Aspects. The recent loss of the Bishop Family’s Cap’n has deprived them of both leadership and knowledge; with the loss of Aspects, the human tribe no longer knows how to repair their salvaged technology.

The Family had little left of theory, still less of understanding how techs worked. In place they had a once-rich heritage of knowledge now hammered flat into rigid rules of thumb. Their suits were host to entities known by names: Amps, Volts, Ohms. Such spirits lived somehow in their gear. Currents flowed, the tiny electron beasts made larger stuff move and sing. No one knew or much cared just how.

Not a whole lot of plot here, just the human tribe trudging across the landscape, fighting and pillaging and making a fortunate find of hoarded tech. But the piece does provide a good image of change.

“Memento Mori” by Madeline Ashby

Body-switching again, evading old age, effectively achieving immortality. Anika is an expert at this by now, buying consignment bodies previous worn by the rich, avoiding the legal complications of a new one.

This body, this blonde birdlike thing with the big violet eyes and slender, tapered fingers – this was a classic. Suitable for any occasion. The little black dress of bodies. Perfect for a city councilor’s wife. And the previous wearer had kept her in excellent condition.

But unlike most people, Anika goes for a mindwipe with each reversion, starting over again with a mental blank slate. She has a good life, she believes, as a trophy wife to her rich husband and his boyfriend, whom Anika actually prefers. Until a strange man starts following her. Stalking her.

The story focuses on the drawbacks of pursuing eternal youth, but Anika would seem to be atypical in several respects, one of them privilege. Not everyone can afford the best new bodies, the cost of constant reversion, but we see fairly little of the poor and underprivileged, coming closest when Anika is forced into a temporary loaner body. Our view of this society is incomplete, and Anika isn’t sufficiently interesting in her own right. Her problem is that, despite all her different bodies, she doesn’t change.

“All the Wrong Places” by Sean Williams

In a universe stretching farther out by means of matter transmission, the narrator chases after an elusive beloved who left him, always just one jump behind. The travelers copy themselves, the narrator does the same. The copies make copies.

Without knowing, I was battling an enemy I couldn’t fight or even see, one who might never let me succeed. That enemy wasn’t Cate. It wasn’t the me who found her and won her back; nor was it the other versions of me who came close but failed. It was not even the people she dated instead of me.

My enemy was statistics.

At one point, the copies of the narrator set up a dedicated message board to communicate with each other on the success of their quest.

This one succeeds in combining the themes of change and infinity—a goal that most of the other stories here don’t even attempt. The problem is that the narrator is only the quest, not a real individual at all, which makes it rather less compelling. Primarily humor.

“In Blue Lily’s Wake” by Aliette de Bodard

Set in the author’s usual universe, the one with the mindships. Eleven years ago, the Empire was being laid waste by a plague, a new disease named for the bruises it formed on the flesh of its victims, who also suffered from seizures and hallucinations, “the warping of realities that stretched over entire rooms, dragging everyone into places where human thoughts couldn’t remain coherent for long.” The Crane and Cedar Order was founded to fight the disease, to discover its origin, to find a cure or a vaccine. Yen Oanh was a member of the order when news came that a mindship had contracted the disease and, inconceivably, died; the possibility of human/mindship contagion brought a new level of panic to the situation. The likely vector was a young girl, still onboard the deceased The Stone and Bronze Shadow. Yen Oanh originally held the child responsible for the ship’s death; she knew she was contagious when she boarded. Now, after much time for reflection, Yen Oanh has reassessed her previous position.

This is a story of guilt and atonement, a profound change in individuals who reflect on their past deeds. But like the plague, the narrative warps time and reality, dragging readers back and forth through time in a dizzying manner, past a large cast of characters for a story of this size, whose place in it we can’t always be certain. The conclusion is positive and benevolent, everyone’s good side rotated to face out.

“Exile from Extinction” by Ramez Naam

The war between humans and AIs again. The 2nd person narrator is fleeing into the hope of safety in space, carrying his children in stasis. Pursuit closing in, with some vivid action.

You act instinctively, triggering the explosive bolts on all of the booster rockets. Outside your hull, tiny bits of matter are vaporized. Struts holding the rockets suddenly come free, pushed outwards by the small force of the bolts exploding. Vibration thrums through your hull, then ceases. The chemical rockets separate, flying up and out. Thrust grazes you. More panels turn red. Another camera dies.

Once escape is achieved, there’s no more action, so the narrator wakes up his children to lecture them on the history that led to the current state of affairs—putting readers to sleep.

The author is also being coy with the 2nd-person thing, which only serves to alert readers, who’ll pretty quickly figure out what he’s trying not to say.

“My Last Bringback” by John Barnes

Life extension again, in a specific context. Layla Palemba is one of the last natches left, most of humanity having passed on to an altered, improved form—the nubrids. But Layla’s parents were natural nuts and made their living from it, from their foundation Natural Children Forever, so they had a child as a demonstration case. All her life, Layla had to watch while she was passed by superior nubrids, whose advantages she’d been denied. Layla resented this bitterly.

Privacy was too important, human rights were too important, the fucking right of fucking jackass parents to raise children no better than themselves was paramount. And because all those rights of all those now-dead people were so well protected, we natches would have to live as permanently immature stuck-in-our-ways idiots, and then die, old, sick, ugly, and soon. But thank god society had respected our parents’ crazy fears, smug superiority, and deep attachment to that advertising sell-word ‘natural.’

In the end, Layla had her revenge and more, becoming a world-recognized expert in treating Alzheimer’s, a natch-only disorder, of course. She’s previously brought nine sufferers back to full mental functioning through intensive therapy. Now, she’s working on her tenth, her last: herself.

I’m quite happy to see a new work from John Barnes, one of the few authors who can drop heavy infodump and make me like it. This is a very science-fictional piece, full of medical neep, but it also features a strong and intense character in Layla, who just happens to be a monster as well as a benefactor of obsolete natural humanity.

–RECOMMENDED

“Outsider” by An Owomoyela

A far future when humans live in apparent contentment in and around the planet Se [we know little of other worlds]. During the generations of transit to this world, they altered themselves and developed a neural net that now links everyone, allowing for direct mental communication and consensus. But it’s also a hierarchical society, in which dominant individuals can exercise influence on others, particularly in times of crisis. The dominant named Io makes Mota uncomfortable.

This close, the network bumped Io’s presence up in its priority for Mota; she could feel Io’s emotions like a second mental skin. Confidence and focus, curiosity and wariness directed at
something off the ship, and that quiet, subtle tinge of chagrin. She could feel as well as Mota could that Mota would rather not be there.

But Mota is needed now; a ship from the homeworld is approaching Se, and Mota is the colony’s expert on Earth history, a specialty previous considered of little use. The new ship carries a single woman in stasis who claims to be fleeing persecution; Eva’s people reject genetic alteration and want to keep the species natural. She’s revolted by the presence of the neural net.

The changes in humanity here are obvious, but this is essentially a story about tolerance. While at first its premise seems to be similar to the Barnes story above, the themes are quite different. In contrast to Layla, Mota is an apparently weak character who turns out to have a strong core.

“The Falls: A Luna Story” by Ian McDonald

Evolutionary change on the moon, environmentally driven, not by natural selection. Nuur has lived on the moon since she was a young settler; it’s home to her, she never wants to go back to Earth. Yet compared to her daughter and her daughter’s moon-born generation, she feels clumsy, awkward, alienated. At the same time, as a psychologist, she’s busy counseling the AIs who will go even farther out and settle other worlds. Her AI patient has reached the stage of self-awareness when it’s necessary to face mortality, very much as humans must. Nuur is frustrated with her daughter, who can’t seem to settle down to a career, bouncing from one extreme hobby to the next. Nuur wonders, as do I, how Shahina will manage to pay for the Four Elementals: air, water, carbon, data, none of which comes free on the moon.

At its heart, this is a story of the mother-daughter relationship, an unchanging universal set on a world of constant change across the generations. Not a great deal happens here; it’s all how the characters feel about it.


The Dark, November 2015

Four female protagonists, two of them the victim of rape/incest/seduction, although none of these characters accept the passive victim role. My favorite is the Arkenberg.

“The Devil under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt

Gillian has been impregnated by her father, who treats her rather like a young new bride while she sits and stares at Mr Elling’s house, now vacant since the old man died. Mr Elling is an amiable ghost who’s aware of Gillian’s problem and offers advice based on his own life as a jazz man.

“And right then I felt I’d given up my soul. I could feel that empty space in me, all hollowed out. Even so, I didn’t go seeking fortune and fame, no, not then. I didn’t even touch lips to Betty quite yet. I never would go white fella hunting, neither. I put myself on a bus back to South Carolina, and I went to see my own daddy.”

His stories are interesting but not directly connected to Gillian’s situation, and indeed she rejects his specific recommendation. This is a case of “Do as I do, not as I say.” I like the imagery, but I wonder, with all those new houses, how many people might have seen Gillian and her daddy up on the roof.

“The Canary” by Lisa L Hannett

Here’s a really weird scenario, a very unlikely version of coal mining in which skinny young girls go down into the narrowest seams, then are snatched to safety by winged crow men.

Urging them deep, deeper. Pointing out fissures only slim gals could fit into—cracks too narrow for regular men, much less them with wings spanning twelve foot. Circling as lasses sank into the stink damp, their bright heads gleaming in the near-black. Diving at the first blow of their whistles—Clear! Clear!—then snatching them gals, flailing in their coveralls, and hauling them topside before the dyn-o-mite they laid blew its load.

Girls who want out of the mine need only eat and get fat, as Ell’s mother did and her sisters, but Ell is still skinny. Now she’s let her boyfriend’s crow brother into her pants—a mistake, she thinks as it’s too late, to come with him, to let him. It wasn’t what she wants.

The premise would make more sense if it were a diamond mine, where each nugget is a rare and valuable treasure. But coal?

“Self, Contained” by Kirstyn McDermott

Meredith decides to trap whatever cat is catching the birds in the neighborhood. This turns out to be a mistake, because the cat she catches is no ordinary cat. A light dark fantasy, fairly inconclusive, mainly about Meredith’s lonely existence with no one to help her.

“What Hands Like Ours Can Do” by Megan Arkenberg

The most traditional fantasy here. The author offers scant explanation of the situation, just gives us the narrator waiting in her house, a way-station along the road. Some time ago, she killed the murderer of her sister. Now she continues the practice with the travelers who come by on their passage from death to wherever they’re going next [probably Hell]. The man named Dan seems to regard this as some kind of release, but there are a lot of questions unanswered. Why do these men need a second death? Why is this the narrator’s role? [God seems to be involved in some way.] “And you’re going do what you’re going to do,” he replies, “because you don’t get to stop.” Is this her own punishment? Is she, herself, also dead, inhabiting her own hell?

The number of blank pages never seems to decrease, she’s realized, although she fills line after line with names. Through the wall at her back, the graves march neat and steady towards the horizon. In the kitchen, her breakfast dishes still wait in the sink. And although the shape on the road has vanished into the rain and distance, now, she doesn’t move from her chair by the window. She sits in the back room for a long time, listening for a change in the wind.

Enigmatically intriguing.


Clarkesworld, November 2015

A strong story here from Sara Saab, an evocative one from Xia Jia.

“So Much Cooking” by Naomi Kritzer

The narrator writes a food blog, which serves as her stress outlet when a flu epidemic hits much of the US and leaves everyone more-or-less quarantined. She and her husband end up taking in a small mob of stray kids, the children of relatives and their friends—it’s hard to say no. But although they tried to stock up in advance, even in the beginning the stores were out of stuff like milk and eggs.

Fortunately, the narrator knows how to improvise. That doesn’t mean she has to like it. You can substitute mayo for eggs, in cookies, and you can substitute oil for the butter. They’ll be better cookies if you happen to have some sesame oil to put in for part of the oil (or any other nut-related oil) and we did, in fact, have sesame oil. And as it happens, those four grocery stores were not out of chocolate chips.

While there’s a light tone to much of this, we know it’s largely to cover up despair and grief. People die, as happens in epidemics. And it’s easy to see how it could have been so very much worse.

“Your Right Arm” by Nin Harris

Long ago, an asteroid obliterated Earth, but a number of its residents managed to escape into space in time to save themselves. Some of these were humans, others the supernatural entities that had long existed largely unseen, like apsaras and garudas. But offplanet these saw their magic erode and gradually realized they would now have to learn engineering and other material sciences, notably cybernetics, at which they were particularly skilled. This helped when war broke out between their kind and the humans; the humans lost. One last human crashed into the aspara fleet, surviving badly wounded, and was taken in to be tended by Rasakhi, which became an epic tale that the younger asparas keep asking her to tell.

At its heart, it’s a love story, although this becomes an issue itself, as Rasakhi considers the nature of love and how it’s relevant to the current existence of the asparas, who were once, on Earth, considered by humans as sex objects. The name is sometimes misleadingly translated into English as “nymph”. But I think Rasakhi is in denial, and there are different manifestations of love.

Unfortunately, the text is cluttered and crowded, as Rasakhi spends too much time lecturing the younger aspara about matters she must surely be well familiar with, the nature and history of their own kind. [As you know, Teng . . .]

Why do you ask me about an emotion that is redundant to our kind? The bunian ensured that none of us would ever need to mate again. Not the bunian, not the apsara, nor our sisters, the bird-clawed Khinnaree. All we require is companionship, and community.

“In the Queue for the Worldship Munawwer” by Sara Saab

These are notes made by a member of the crew, taken as the ship fills to its capacity of 900,000 Lebanese. Suraya, the ground attaché, is focused on the queue waiting to board, “a 130-mile phalanx snaking south from the Mediterranean coast then turning up winding mountain tracks towards the northern border”—most of whom will now certainly be left behind to face the approaching asteroid storm.

The coast of Beirut was a luminous thing, swaying, dancing with the emissions of the city. But more than that, I was entranced by the Munawwer’s queue, a thick cable of light threading up and into the Lebanese foothills.

I love these descriptions, but the story’s heart is with Suraya’s impending choice: whether to go with the ship when it lifts, the ship captained by the father she’s never met, or to use her ticket to save some other soul—a child, perhaps. The narrative is enriched by the fact that the characters here are all distinctly Lebanese, in all their fractious, sectarian variety. We can see the author’s strong attachment to her country in it.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Hexagonal Bolero of Honeybees” by Krista Hoeppner Leahy

An Earth in a downward spiral, land reduced to “this archipelago of greenhouses rock-skipped across the continents.” Natural bees no longer exist in numbers sufficient to pollinate the crops, so humans have found several competing methods of taking over the job. The Arborist of the Allmond orchard greenhouse is reviewing bids: from the hand pollinating children with their paintbrushes, and from the surgically-altered hiver who serves as an artificial queen for her hive, exuding a nectar on which they feed when not working an orchard. But the decision turns out to be moot.

Under the strain of increased seismic activity, the closed loop geothermal system was breaking apart, and no amount of repair or patching could keep the system in place when the real quake came. And in the meantime, toxic gases—hydrogen sulfide, methane, boron, radon, the list went on—were being vented into a greenhouse never equipped for such open-loop toxic gas venting.

There’s a curious mix here of despair and optimism, the latter seeming unwarranted by events and sustained only by a reservoir of human good-will that I have a hard time crediting, given the way the author has stacked the deck against this world so that survival seems unlikely. The text is studded with classical quotations about bees.

“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

Xia Jia audaciously takes on Calvino’s postmodern classic in a manner that will lead readers to wonder exactly why she’s chosen this title and just what are the connections to the original—not really obvious. This isn’t a pastiche or imitation; there is no 2nd-person narrative or passages from fictional works of fiction. But there is a commonality of theme: the relationship between reader and author, the pursuit of a mystery, the secrets to be found in libraries and in graves. There are also themes belonging particularly to this story: privacy, solitude, and the discovery of companionship in a common interest.

Li Yunsong is a librarian who has retreated to the stacks as a refuge from the world. She finds a poetry chapbook among a newly acquired collection and falls in love with it. Wanting to know more about the author, she searches for her, finding nothing. The poet had left no traces of herself.

I had no answers. All I could do was to read the poems over and over again, like a fish diving deeper. The poet and her poems turned into the dark abyss of my dreams, concealing all secrets.

Then a man comes to the library who also has an interest in the poems and in protecting the poet from the intrusive interest of the curious.

I note that, unlike Calvino, Xia Jia hasn’t given us an example of her poet’s verse. All we see is the reaction of the readers. The situation is a moving one, but I’m most strongly moved by the fate of the old man whose treasured collection of books is broken up for sale.

His children had piled his collection, gathered over a lifetime, in front of his apartment building. Those which were worth something had been picked out by used book dealers, leaving the rest to be sold by the kilogram to a paper mill, to be gifted, or to be donated to the library. This sort of thing happened every year.

So true, so sad. The circumstances are very much of our own time, and in fact I can’t discern any specific genre elements in the setting.

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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