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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lois Tilton review Short Fiction, early April 2010


Zines Reviewed



With the digests coming in for review, I found myself reading a greater proportion of science fiction than fantasy, which made for a change.

Asimov's, June 2010


The theme for this issue seems to be exploration.


"Earth III" by Stephen Baxter


Humans fleeing a drowned Earth have settled on a planet tidally locked to its dim red star. The culture has devolved to a preindustrial level, and a really ridiculous religion maintains a shaky hegemony over various resentful states and settlements. Trouble begins when the manipulative daughter of the religion's Speaker convinces a stranger to take her away from her boring life as a vestal virgin. The Speaker and his bullying son get up an army and follow in pursuit, all the way to the dark side of the world, where they find a real Wonder.

While the story may be an Iliad, there are no heroes; indeed, no particularly appealing characters. Selfish Vala should have been thrown off the boat first thing, and Khilli is a villain straight from the cliché closet. The most interesting thing here is the world and its evolutionary history. This one, like the author's previous "Earth II," is a sequel to his Flood novels, leading to the usual problem: backstory, which in this case is excessive. Perhaps readers of Baxter's Ark will be fascinated to hear what became of Helen Gray, but I suspect that others will not know or care why everyone keeps talking about her.

"Emperor of Mars" by Allen M Steele


Jeff Halbert was what we called a "Mars monkey." We had a lot of people like him at Arsia Station, and they took care of the dirty jobs that the scientists, engineers, and other specialists could not or would not handle themselves. One day they might be operating a bulldozer or a crane at a habitat construction site. The next day, they'd be unloading freight from a cargo lander that had just touched down.
But Jeff's family is killed while he is away on Mars and he falls into depression. To divert himself, he starts reading old Martian science fictions and soon becomes obsessed with the outdated fantasies of the Red Planet.

A nice, low-key piece of Real [nonfantastic] science fiction.

"Petopia" by Benjamin Crowell


Mina's family scrapes by on the streets, which is to say that Mina and her mother do the scraping. Her father is hopeless, but Mina wishes her brother would grow up and start contributing.
Nga was worried, of course — perhaps in the same way one would worry about a goat that had jumped a fence, and might damage someone else's garden — but what could she do? She had to clean the rooms at the Novotel in the day, and then go and sell the toilet paper at the bus station in the evening.
One day while salvaging discarded computer parts, Mina finds a fuzzy purple cybertoy, and Jelly proves to be useful in many ways.

Not really an original premise but nicely told, in a lively and realistic near-future milieu.

"Monkey Do" by Kit Reed


A writer story, a variation on the monkeys and typewriters. The narrator originally bought Spud while researching his Monkey Planet book, which tanked. After which, it was impossible to get rid of the creature.
Spud got bored or jealous or some damn thing whenever I sat down to write. Worse, every time I walked away to get coffee or look out the window for inspiration, which was often, he hopped up on the table and started bopping away at my keyboard with his little fists, bonka-bonka-bonka, and one day when I came back from gazing into the bathroom mirror, I found words.

I must say that writer stories in general are not my favorite thing, but this one is funny stuff.

"The Peacock Cloak" by Chris Beckett


Virtual reality. Fabbro created an idyllic world and copies of himself to live in it, but the copies eventually began to get ideas of their own, and ambitions. Finally, after rebellions and wars, Fabbro has entered the world he made and Tawus has come to confront him, to justify himself.
"I used to think about you looking in from outside," he said. "When we had wars, when we were industrializing and getting people off the land, all of those difficult times. I used to imagine you judging me, clucking your tongue, shaking your head. But you try and bring progress to a world without any adverse consequences for anyone. You just try it."

There is more here than virtual reality. Tawus embodies the contradictions between determinism and free will, between progress and stagnation. This is the retelling of a much older story of creation and rebellion.

RECOMMENDED

"Voyage to the Moon" by Peter Friend


The astronomer Thithiwith has cultivated a large house pod until it is capable of flight. He means to explore the heavens, although he has had to tell the Queen that the purpose of his journey is to bring her a petal of the moon flower. Highly fantastic adventures ensue.
Before we could celebrate our freedom, the star lashed out with long tendrils, and we were surrounded by blindly fleeing cloud worms. The Glory lurched and I saw it too had been struck by a tendril. We were slowly dragged towards the flowerlike mouth along with thousands of worms.
This is definitely not our world. I thought at first that it was excessively silly, but like the quarrelling astronomers, this tale is more clever than it first appeared and full of imaginative stuff.

"Dreadnought Neptune" by Anna Tambour


If a spaceship suddenly appeared on the street, who would rush to crowd onboard? Jules Thomas would, and he bring his young son Eugene along to share the adventure, to prove to himself that Eugene is another incarnation of his father and not his stolid wife Agnes.

It is hard at first to figure just what is going on, except for a throng of people crushed together in an enclosed space, farting. The eventual explanation is hard to credit, and harder to credit is Agnes not seeming to have heard a word of it, given the drastic outcome of the event.

Analog, June 2010


In addition to the usual, there are several authors here whose names are unfamiliar to me. It's good to see new writers.


"The Anunnaki Legacy" by Bond Elam


Yet Another tale of dedicated scientists vs the greedy mining consortium. Anunnaki is the human name for the alien race that supposedly once visited Earth and raised its creatures to sentience. Humans have launched a fleet to track them down but until now met with scant success; the relict ship discovered on iron-rich Slag may be the best lead yet discovered. The indigenous lifeforms there appear to have been genetically modified. The fix, however, is in, and despite all their protests, the science officers are given only 96 hours until the mining ships arrive to suck out Slag's core.

Once past the dreadfully clichéd opening with its snarling villain, I found sufficient stuff to like here, particularly the evolutionary science. The plot develops real tension; the situation of the scientists goes from dire to direr, and they strongly suspect the Evile mining boss is trying to kill them. Unfortunately, he also did his best to kill the story, which has potential for interest despite the unoriginal scenario.

"Space Aliens Taught My Dog To Knit!" by Jerry Oltion & Elton Elliott


Delmer is a conspiracy nut who is currently obsessed by his conviction that there is an alien base on the dark side of the moon, which is being covered up by NASA and other government agencies. The problem is, no one believes him. But in his quest for convincing evidence, he gets too close to the truth.
The ramp slid back into the saucer, the lights brightened, and the UFO rose up into the air again. Delmer expected it to shoot straight up, but instead it slid silently up the road — straight at their car.

Fun stuff inspired by the tabloids. There is not, however, a dog.

"Connections" by Kyle Kirkland


Ellam K Troy is a detective and also a member of the Opposition to the ruling nanny state, doing his best to subvert it, as most of the population does, while evading rehab for such crimes as eating sugary food.
Sandra was about to say something when the alarm bell rang. An instant later a bot rolled up to our table and tilted it, collecting every scrap into the incinerator in its belly. Another bot wiped our faces and squirted masque in our mouths. We rinsed and spit into the bot's cuspidor.

Ellam's former mentor's AI has contacted him to ask for help resolving the cause of his death, which the government claimed as an accident. It turns out that Arden Kirst had a lot of secrets, some of which might lead to the downfall of the hated government.

While the scenario here involves a conflict between freedom and stifling security, the narrative is happily free from ponderous lectures on this subject; the overall tone is light, oriented more towards entertainment than ideology. Accordingly, I'm not too much bothered by how easily Ellam and his illegal car escape capture by to too-incompetent government cops.

"Heist" by Tracy Canfield


A couple of sentient AIs run a con on an innocent mark recruited in an online game.
HELLO, S-BANK CUSTOMER: CURRENT BALANCE: $411,537.00

Bill nearly closed the window in reflexive shock, as if it had started blasting an advertising jingle or looping an animation of a dead kitten. With a caution that would have done credit to a hand surgeon, he brought up the account history.

A neat variation on an SF classic. The character makes the game work.

"At Last the Sun" by Richard Foss


Out on a shrimp boat in the Gulf, a group of scientists are studying the expanding dead zone caused by chemicals washed down the Mississippi when they spot something on the fish finder that certainly shouldn't be down there on the lifeless seafloor.
The two sets of tentacles on each side pulsed in rhythm, while the fins worked independently to both steer and add momentum. Something gaped and closed next to each to the three compound eyes, and there was movement in the huge triangular mouth each time it opened. A dark band encircled its body just behind the tentacles, irregular bulges dangling from it.

An environmental story, yet there are no heavy-handed lectures on the subject from the nicely-done cast of characters, who appreciate the complexity of the current situation. Neat idea.

RECOMMENDED

"A Time for Heroes" by Edward M Lerner


Travis is a pro gamer, hired by the developers to test virts before release to the public. The virt he is testing now is a war game, but after a number of sessions, something seems wrong about the enemy bots; they don't act quite like bots. Are they other players, like himself? He gradually realizes that something is very wrong.

The character development of Travis within the game is effective, but a lot depends on the character of real-life before-the-game Travis, whom we don't really know.

"Cargo" by Michael F Flynn


Post-apocalypse. After the Fall, it became a deadly sin to remember such things as cities and supermarkets and books, even though the ruins lie all around, not yet entirely covered by wilderness. Nob's gramper was a small boy when it happened and he was stoned for remembering, as Nob's mother was, as well, for passing on the stories. Now Nob is old and drinks to forget, but young Will, who might be his son, is trying to bring the stories to life, and Nob can't stand to witness another stoning.
"It's an ancient prophecy. 'If you build it, they will come.' He figures if he builds a supermarket, someone will come stock it."

It's not inconceivable that some isolated communities might have reverted to a primitive religion after the fall of civilization, because there is no idea so demented that some group of humans won't adopt it. But the real point of this one is the way people can live within a technologically complex civilization without understanding how it works, just as if it were magic.

Jim Baen's Universe, April 2010


I'd been waiting with some interest for the final issue of this ezine, wondering if it would go out with a great spectacular bang like a fireworks show that saves the biggest display for last. Not so, however, in the case of JBU; the finale contains only five complete original stories. Still, the majority of these final tales are not of diminished quality.


"Afterimage" by J Kathleen Cheney


Murder mystery. Detective William Greene views the corpse, felled by an EM blast that took out his heart regulator.
His body looked too fit to be natural, the kind of fitness only the wealthy could afford — metabolism regulator chips, continual isometric toning programs, possibly even a few DNA alterations. A man like that didn't have gray in his hair unless he wanted to.
Suspicion falls first on a cult opposed to all cyberenhancements, which worries Greene, who relies heavily on his own vision implants. But a detective can still function without sight.

Well-done detective story with a nice cast of cops and possible suspects.

RECOMMENDED

"Trappers" by Stoney Compton


Alien contact. While Caleb is trapping beaver, Ta'ffil is planning to trap the trapper instead of the gold she is supposed to be obtaining on this planet as fuel for the ship. But Ta'ffil is fatally reckless, and now her partner is left with the task. Except that Caleb has gotten to the gold first. In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny: "This means war."

An engaging and deadly duel between two species, pretty evenly matched in ingenuity despite the alien's technological superiority.

"Storming Venus" by John Lambshead


A sequel. As usual with these, there is a backstory problem, but this time the problem is an insufficiency of backgrounding, rather than the usual excess. Readers unfamiliar with this milieu may not readily grasp that Sarah Brown, as a pilot in Her Majesty's Royal Navy, is a female spiritualist who brings ships through the interplanetary aether. This time, Captain Fitzwilliam has commandeered her to guide him on a mission of espionage to Venus, where the Nazis Prussians have established a secret base at which they may be working black magic. Adventures ensue.

The inadequate backstory is not the only problem here. The author drops the reader straight into a gratuitous dungeon as Sarah is interrogated by a spittle-spraying inquisitor in consequence of events in the previous installment. This was the weakest point of an otherwise interesting premise in the original story, and just in case readers might take seriously the threat of Sarah being burned to death as a witch, she refers to her situation "a beastly, silly, pottage of a pickle." Once Captain Fitzwilliam rescues her, the witch matter is dropped entirely out of the plot. Throughout the ensuing adventures, we must endure endless tedious banter of the "don't bother your pretty, empty head" variety from both Fitzwilliam and Sarah's spirit guide Captain Hind; this one-note song soon loses its charm. On the other hand, the author displays a nice touch with horror:
She touched the wood and her mind dropped into a dark pit of despair. Newts armed with stabbing spears ran in a circle along a fixed track from which they could not deviate. Each newt cut at the back of the newt in front to make it go faster so that the striker could try to escape the cuts from the newt behind. Each cut inflicted savage pain that spurred the victim forward. The newts were locked in an eternal cycle of misery.


"Hollywood Ending" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Hollywood magic. In 1946, aspiring writer Elizabeth is working at the studio lot for a famous screenwriter when four little men show up.
They looked like they'd walked out of a fairy tale. They were astonishing little and unbelievably old, the kind of old you rarely see any more, the wizened wrinkled shrunken old that made them all look like peeled apples left too long in the sun.
Whatever they tell him is devastating to her mentor, but it is just as disconcerting to Elizabeth when the little men tell her she is expected to take his place. But how? And doing what?

This is a story about time and people who can control it, stop it, slow it down; who can change history. We know from the beginning that this is not our own timeline, but it takes a long time to learn what Jackson Holden Carter had to do with the change, and it is never really clear what Elizabeth's role is supposed to be, except to remember. The Hollywood setting is quite vividly realized and the narrative voice rings true. However, Jackson's secrets are not discovered by Elizabeth in the course of the plot but instead delivered by the narrator as a Revelation; and they have the sense of something contrived.

"Little Things" by J F Keeping


Mick is the lonely AI in charge of an army of bots sent to a prospective colony world to prepare it for human colonization. There seem to be no indigenous lifeforms higher than bacterioids, but Mick discovers that something is causing his bots to malfunction and the effect is spreading rapidly.

Essentially, this is a scientific mystery, but not a very deep one; the solution is pretty obvious from the setup. The narrative is excessively heavy with infodump, and it is hard to credit an AI as angst-ridden and emotionally needy as Mick.

Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2010


Tales from two of fantasy's rising stars, although the first is actually science fiction.


"Between Two Dragons" by Yoon Ha Lee


Even when empires have spread across space, some things remain the same. Cho lies between the greater powers of Feng-Huang and Yamat, whose ambitious ruler has invaded Cho's space. Admiral Yen Shenar is Cho's most capable military leader, but his success has created a jealous enemy of higher rank. To save himself, he has to lose part of himself. His story is told to him in absentia by the programmer from the Ministry of Virtuous Thought who wiped his mind at his own request and now awaits news of his ultimate battle, that will determine the fate of all Cho.

The poetry of war:
We wither under a surfeit of light as readily as we wither beneath drowned hopes. When photons march soldier-fashion at an admiral's bidding, people die.
But this is a tale less of combat than of the honor of individuals on the field of political intrigue. The metaphor of the title evokes an old tale of Korea, a tiger between the powerful dragons of larger empires.

RECOMMENDED

"January" by Becca De La Rosa"


January has suddenly disappeared, and now Fionn can't even remember her clearly.
"Some people just aren't real," Mara said, as if she had sensed a faux pas and wanted to remedy it. "You can tell by the sound of their names. She is not a real person, or not the kind of person it's easy to find in reality, at any rate."
But Mara, Fionn's wife, is not entirely real herself, being a ghost who inhabits his oven. Swan is also concerned about January, claiming to be her sister, but then Swan nibbles on glass, making her reality a bit suspect, as well.

According to January, there are more states of being than alive and dead, although she does not define them. This leaves a number of possibilities: it seems quite probable that everyone in this story is dead, or at least not alive; it is quite probable that Fionn, who seems the most likely to be alive, is dreaming this entire thing. It's that sort of fiction. One thing seems clear, that ties among people persist beyond life. Besides that, however, I must admit that I haven't a clue to make sense of this.

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


This novella was serialized throughout March.


"Her Deepness" by Livia Llewellyn


Dark fantasy. Gillian was an orphan, a child of the mines with a strong affinity for the seams of anthracite. She escaped to become a stone worker, unusually capable of bringing out the form that lies hidden in the stone. But she has now fallen into the hands of a cult that believes it has discovered a stone containing a god; they want her to bring it to life. Except that most of Gillian's story is not true, and her true journey is inward, into the geologic deepness where she was born, into the truth about herself.

Everything here is highly fantastic. There are ancient cosmic and chthonic gods, there are a billion years of living stone, there are half-inhuman sibyls that can see into the deepness of a soul to what is hidden. This aspect of the story is more vaguely sensed than seen, at the place where dream and metaphor flow into each other. On the other hand, the continent-vast city of Obsidia, with its mines and factories and railways, with its poisoned air, is quite vividly seen, a creation more monstrous in its own way than the elder gods which, seen up close, inevitably disappoint with their mundanity, for some things are better imagined than seen, while others appear in vivid images.
From her feet to the horizon, Obsidia stretches out and up: deep valleys of smoking furnaces and factories to snow-capped peaks of the Tenebroso crowned with stacks a hundred stories high, jetting green fire against the red disk of the rising sun. Countless train tracks catch the morning rays as they shoot from the bowels of the city, filled with the riches of the earth–copper, coal, silver, potassium nitrate and iron ore–and disperse up the hemisphere to all corners of the world. And in between the dark edges of industry, hazy spherical glimpses of another city rise from Obsidia's midst, the strange geometries of their god's city made real as it's pulled from dark ocean waters thousands of miles away, and reassembled in their midst.



Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Materials for review such as magazines and original anthologies can be sent to the following
address:

Lois Tilton
POBox #4617
Wheaton, IL 60189

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton's, see Index to Magazine Reviews.


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Monday, March 29, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction - late March 2010


Zines Reviewed


Interzone #227, March-April 2010


The stories this month seem to come in contrasting pairs. There is less cyberpunkish and dystopian fiction than this zine typically offers, more conventionally-future SF.


"The History of Poly-V" by Jon Ingold


A small group of scientists develop a drug product by testing it on themselves, the process documented by the narrator. The drug alters and improves the experience of memory.
The experience is not new. We have not invented it, only switched it on. It is as though, through some fluke of evolution, humans have lost the true use of our memory along with our tails and appendix. Poly-V restores to us something we had forgotten that we had.
The product is commercially successful, but after a while the narrator begins to have strange experiences.

This is a story about the unreliability of memory and, by extension, of all science and knowledge. The point is not the phenomenon, but how the scientist copes with it. While I enjoyed the prose, I have several problems with the story: first, it is hard to imagine exactly what the drug does and how it would be commercially successful. Second, the tone is quite sciencefictional, creating a milieu in which there seems no room for the fantastic. Yet the effects can only be understood as fantastic, as inexplicable not in the way of science but of non-science.

"Dance of the Kawkawroons" by Mercurio D. Rivera


The second drug story involves the exploitation of aliens in order to obtain a substance called Inspiration, found in the eggs of the Kawkawroons, who may be the descendants of a lost, advanced civilization. It is by using Inspiration that the humans develop the means of acquiring the eggs; the substance vastly increases intellectual abilities in those who take it. But there are other consequences.

The Kawkawroons are a colorful and exotic alien creation. But this story is grounded more firmly in scientific principles than it first appears to be, although they are never openly discussed — more so, in fact, that the previous story which is ostensibly about the scientific process.

"Chimbwi" by Jim Hawkins


Global climate change has worked to the disadvantage of Europe and the benefit of Africa. Zambia, in particular, has exploited new breakthroughs in physics, which they guard assiduously from the rest of the world. Physicist Jason Johns is a refugee from England who has found work with the Zambians, but it has been difficult to obtain their trust. He offers to prove himself by undergoing a traditional ordeal, the warrior's climb.
The hyenas were spaced out amongst the trees, in perfect tactical formation. He had nothing. His spear was in the river, along with his axe-head. He'd come so far, he'd climbed up Kalambo, and it seemed unjust that he'd finally be taken down by these evil snouts and bodies with mismatched front and back legs. He pulled himself up into the nearest tree, six feet, eight feet high. The hyenas watched and waited expectantly. Saliva dripped from their muzzles.
Although the ordeal makes a fascinating and well-told adventure tale, the story here is one of trust, of outsiders integrating into a closed society. It is an overly-idealized society, in which all the villains seem to be outside, kept at bay. The ethics of this policy are not directly examined in the story.

"Flying in the Face of God" by Nina Allan


Another tale about the relationship between individual and society, leaving rather than entering. When she was very young, Anita's mother was part of the space program and died when a rocket was sabotaged. Now [her lover?] Rachel has volunteered for a more advanced program which involves subjecting herself to a drastic process of alteration in order to survive the long transit.
"The drain triggers a permanent change in the way cells grow," Anderson had told her. "Crudely put it's a form of cancer."
Anita struggles to let her go, and with her own need to know a mother she can't remember, the old loss revived by the new one.

This is a story of love in its different manifestations, and coping with loss. Anita and her grandmother, who raised her after her mother's death, are particularly well-realized characters.

RECOMMENDED

"Johnny's New Job" by Christ Beckett


When a child is killed, it officially becomes a case of Welfare Knew And Did Nothing (within the meaning of the Summary Judgment Act), so the Public Accuser gets to work stirring up the retributory mob, much in the manner of Orwell's Two Minute Hate. This one comes directly from the headlines and expresses the author's fresh outrage, serving as an example of why this may not be the best way to produce effective fiction. The delivery of the message is unsubtle and the character a stock placeholder.

"the glare and the GLOW" by steve rasnic tem


The narrator and his wife seem to have led a dull ["peaceful"] existence for quite some time, the narrator being particular about the quality of light from artificial fixtures. One day they acquire a box of "bad bulbs" which are clearly abnormal. The narrator compares them to eggs, and indeed, they seem to contain some sort of embryo. But the quality of the illumination they provide is extraordinary.
You could see that light creep across the details of the room, at varying rates no doubt due to the varying densities of detail encountered. So, gradually, shadows were eaten, and things were revealed, so that old scars in the woodwork suddenly became remembered, the residue of stains recalled, unevenness of tile, and dirt in areas I'd thought completely clean.
Tem is a master of subtle dark fantasy, and here is an excellent example: a very short work in which a man finds that it is possible to see too clearly.

RECOMMENDED

Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


This one posted in March.


"The Nonesuch" by Brian Lumley


The narrator, who may be named George, has a history of encounters with weird malevolent entities. He also has a history of alcohol abuse, which makes his accounts less than totally reliable. This time, while taking a holiday, he comes upon a small hotel with a cheerful view of the sea. But the innkeeper is nervous at the idea of renting out the only vacant room. [Cue ominous music.] Instead of looking out at the sea, the narrator spends his time staring at another, derelict hotel nearby and pumping the staff for information about the recent deaths in the place. No one, not even the narrator, is really surprised at what occurs next.
Can it be coincidence, pure and simple? Or is it that I am in fact a lodestone, a lightning-rod for the weird and the wonderful? Because if the latter is true, then it seems I’m actually destined to be drawn to such things: to these thin people, these clowns-on-stilts, these nuns and nonesuches. In which case so be it.
Lumley is one of the masters of classic horror, and this one is in his Cthulhic mode, with a [too] prolonged first-person narration slowly building up an ominous mood. But the mode is subdued and the ominous mood casts only a faint shadow. We know from the beginning that the hotel room is connected to some sinister event, we know that the narrator knows it, we know he will encounter and survive it. But if he had driven away, like a sensible person, there would be no story.

Fantasy Magazine, March 2010


A superior month for fiction from this zine.


"Bearing Fruit" by Nikki Alfar


Seduced by a mango while bathing in the river.
By the next morning, the mango has precipitously gone to seed; and the equally precipitous bulge of your previously flat belly makes it difficult to imagine that you are anything other than abruptly pregnant.
So you decide to go up the river and seek out the mango tree responsible.

The sort of charmingly surreal tale frequently found in this zine. The second-person narrative voice works well in the telling, and the structure hints of the fairy tale before subverting it.

RECOMMENDED

"The City of Lobster, or, The Dancers on Anchorage Street" by Alex Dally MacFarlane


The narrator is a travel writer who visits a city that lives on tourism based on its lobster fishery. Lobsters, lobsters, everywhere, as long as the tourist season lasts. There is also the legend of a lobster woman, but this probably has no basis in fact, which means this piece has no real fantastic content, no more than a hint of slipstream.

"In the Emperor's Garden" by Jay Lake and Shannon Page


Magical combat in San Francisco's hidden places. The protagonists are Him, a human whose magic is learned, and Her, a member of the Fae whose magic is natural and strong. Both are surprised at being seen by the other, but only Him can see that she is being stalked by yet another, a being possible stronger than either.
Every power, every effect, every phenomenon, has its correspondent. Not necessarily an opposite, though often shit works out that way. I can be invisible, therefore to some people I am irreducibly visible. Almost everyone can't notice me, so there must be a few people out there who can’t help but noting me.
This is primarily a story of setting, in which much is left unsaid about the intriguing magical milieu. It's always interesting, in the case of a collaboration, to speculate about which character may have been written by which co-author — if, indeed, this was their method. In this case, I find that Him's narrative voice is stronger and more personable, particularly his remarks on the nature and uses of magic.

"Saving the Gleeful Horse" by KJ Bishop


The troll[?] Molimus hates children for their cruelty in breaking open the fragile painted animals to get at the treasure inside. One day he finds a treasure horse that still has a hint of life. The sorceress known as the White Ma'at explains to him that the children can't see that the treasure animals are living things, but she provides Molimus with the help he needs to save the Gleeful Horse.

Here is an original, imaginative vision, full of the fantastic.
As you must, I walked around the cloister with the sun a certain number of times, then against the sun another number, then with the sun again, so that the brambles withdrew underground, all the thorny bundles coming apart and slithering below in one rush as if a giant in the earth had them on a rope (the effect on the eye is striking). After this, where all was a wild saw-toothed muddle just a moment or two ago, in another moment the lawn of trefoil and clover grew, which grows no matter the season—as dainty a green spread as you could wish for a picnic or a wedding.
But it is a dark fantasy, offering insights into the origins of the tales children tell of monsters in the night.

RECOMMENDED

Strange Horizons, March 2010


The stories this month are all fantasy, and most are placed in secondary worlds instead of the contemporary settings more common in this zine.


"Small Burdens" by Paul M. Berger


A girl stops Clock on the street and hands him a bag with a baby inside. He takes it home to Moth, but things aren't working out with it.
The baby cried constantly. It apparently sensed that she was ambivalent towards it at the best of times, and it shrieked with extra intensity when she picked it up or tried to hold it. The one good thing about it getting steadily weaker was that it wasn't so loud any more.
A very different take on changelings.

RECOMMENDED

"Who in Mortal Chains" by Claire Humphrey


The narrator, a sort of berserker called Gus, once lived in the sort of idealistic community popular around 1965, with artisans and craftworkers making ale and mead and handwoven stuff. While she would have liked to become one of them, she knew that the violence of her nature would at some point make it necessary for her to leave — as it always does.
It wasn't my fault, either. It was the fault of two guys who were drunk and impolite. They offered violence. It's an offer I can't help but accept.
This is a story of loneliness. Gus suffers from a double curse, when immortality is curse enough. But she understands her nature, she knows how to deal with it, and she has learned how to live with the consequences and protect herself from the worst of the pain.

"The Kiss" by Lauren LeBano


It is well-known from fairy tales that goblins take children. What they do with them is not so well known. Annie's mother was visited by a goblin long ago, and she gave him a child, in exchange, the reader presumes, for Annie. But the goblin has returned, wanting Annie, claiming he wants to marry her. Annie's mother warns her that a goblin's kiss will make her invisible, and Annie resents his attempt to steal her away from her life.
I pulled over and sat on a rock beneath a pine tree. I sat there until the sun rose behind tree trunks and threw shadows on the ground. My shadow barely flickered at first, but it grew stronger as time passed. A rabbit hopped by, and I reached down to pet it. It hopped away, scared of my presence. I had a presence again.
There is a lot that is problematic about this story. We have to wonder about the fate of the child that Annie's mother gave to the goblin. We have to wonder if it was the influence of the goblin that made Annie a sort of weird, unpopular kid in school. But mostly we have to wonder about the goblin's kiss, which certainly would make Annie invisible to everyone but the goblin. Annie gave up the goblin to have a presence in the world, but her life appears to be a complete absence, someone whom the world would never miss.

"Merrythoughts" by Bill Kte'pi


Angels and superheroes. The angels are the fallen kind, and the superheroes are relatives — or at least one of them seems to be. The day they cut off Jaima's brother's wings, the Typhoon comes to visit after an injury in the fighting among the superheroes, but Jaima's elders suspect his motives.

One of those stories where the author slowly plays out hints and the reader is supposed to guess what's really going on, which involves wars in heaven and enemies on Earth. There are too many hints about stuff going on far from the story, which is about family reconciliation. I am more interested in the question of how a boy can live with wings in this world until the age of thirteen with no one noticing.

Tor.com, March 2010


Prose fiction posted this month.


"The Final Now" by Gregory Benford


Cosmology. As the universe winds down, Deity attempts to explain to mortal creation that all things must end, and that it has been so from the Beginning.
"You made this all for eternity—that we believed! You said so."

She corrected, "We did not. Yourselves, all you mortals, you said so. Not us."

One insisted, "The assembled Host, we who worshipped you—we thought that time would spool on for eternity."
SF used to have more stories like this. Benford saves this one from talking-headdom with colorful descriptions of the dying universe and with the evident love of the deity for all creation. And a pretty neat last line.

"The Next Invasion" by Robert Reed


The director of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with his driver and assistant, gives a ride one night to what seems to be a teenaged girl. But there is something strange about her. As the director and his staff become increasingly unsettled, the girl displays firm opinions about alien invasions and how they might really take place.
Nothing about the girl shows tension. Not her posture or voice. She shrugs and says, "If there were body snatchers." Another pause. "If they were real, then they would be nothing like they are in the movies. Nature does not and never will work that way."
This one is not really ambiguous; from the beginning, we know what the girl is. What the author leaves to the reader's imagination is the kind of change she and her kind will bring to this world. Thought-provoking.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2010


Demon month, featuring another Lord Yamada story from Richard Parks, unfortunately broken in half to accommodate its length. Good stories.


"Sanji's Demon" by Richard Parks


The Sago Clan has been demon-killers for generations, preserving their trophies in a family shrine.
The building was long and relatively narrow, ending against the rock face at the north end of the compound. The walls were lined with the skulls of demons: some very old by the look of them, others gleaming white as if they had just returned from the rendering vat. There were greater and lesser demons, monsters, and a few creatures I could not identify and frankly had no wish to.
Now the most important trophy, the body of the first demon killed by the founder of the clan, has been stolen under mysterious circumstances. Demon-hunting detective Lord Yamada must unravel the web of deceit.

The stories in this series about medieval Japan tend to have intricate plots. Yamada is a logical detective in the Holmes mode, solving mysteries both with reasoning power and his familiarity with the ways of demons, about which the author is obviously quite knowledgeable.

"In Memoriam" by Alys Sterling


More demons. The narrator, having possessed the body of the man who summoned him with a defective spell of protection, is bored in his new human body.
A catalogue of all the women who had made me swear off their sex would have taken the rest of the afternoon. But when you don’t need to eat or drink, can’t be killed in a duel or even lose at cards without trying, what else is there to do?
Thus he accepts the challenge of spending the night in a haunted chateau. What he finds is more dangerously unexpected than mere human ghosts.

Here is wonderfully imaginative stuff, with several different dimensions of peril to which even a demon is not immune. I would recommend it unreservedly, except for one thing: it is told in the first person by a narrator who can not possibly know what he is telling. This would not have been a problem with a nice third-person narrator, not often enough seen in this zine.

"The Leafsmith in Love" by KJ Kabza


When he sees the Lady Zuhanna pirouetting in innocent joy, Jesper, the Master Leafsmith of Holdt Castle, falls in love.
Around them, the Arboretum sang and rustled and clicked. Jesper’s heart rose up, past the gleaming webs, the thousands of clockwork creatures on uncountable hybrid branches, the interlocking cogs nestled in the forest’s crown. A flock of real birds rushed overhead, and a score of ticking dragonflies took flight; they settled around her blooming petticoats in a ring, baffled by the spinning laughter in their midst.
Alas, the vile Princess Kanna observes them together and is jealous. Love has many obstacles to overcome.

Delightful fantasy love story with more hints of a fairy tale than cyberpunk, being quite devoid of punk, with magic in its place.

Flurb! #9, Spring/Summer 2010


Rudy Rucker presents another batch of weird, surreal, and generally entertaining stuff. I could wish that fewer tyops had made it through the editorial process.


"The Palmetto Man" by Danny Rubin


An episode of sloppiness in the lab has Consequences. Maurice, conceived there in the normal way of in vitro conceptions, grows up and marries Sherry, who discovers, flipping on the kitchen light switch one night, that Maurice has a half-brother. This discovery leads to doubts and mixed loyalties.
With one identical brother on each side of her, Sherry sat, proud, confused, bookended. She alone knew the torment facing the man on her right, the man who so suavely sported a dinner jacket, yet would forever feel naked without an exoskeleton. And on her left, another tormented man, a decent man who would never know the joys of molting.
A nice bit of absurdity.

"Search" by Kek


It seems that the quantum signatures of dead people hang around in space for a while, and now some of them have been installed in artificial bodies, not very human-like. Deadguys make up their own communities, but Arthur has been contacted by his dead uncle Jack, who wants to share memories of his sister, Arthur's mother. They have a lot of emotional baggage to work through, first.

I like the core of this story, the situation of the Deadguys and Arthur's relationship with Jack, but the author has unfortunately given Arthur an implanted GoogleLobe, which allows him to fill the text with unwanted infodumps.

"The Goddess of Discord Lives on Mulberry Street" by Adam Calloway



The Goddess, who seems to represent Chaos more than Discord, vs Ian Michael Carmichael, an accountant who seems to have more than a touch of OCD. The Goddess is taking over Mulberry Street, one house at a time, and with each expansion, the Goddess increases her power. Her manifestations become more real, with permanent consequences.
The front bumper melted into a swirling pool of blue sherbet. The car inched further. Engine parts, belts and such, mixed with assorted fruit threatened to loosen his footing. Further. The glass buckled inward and the car filled with a swarm of crystalline bees, criss-crossing, figure-eighting, and shredding the Neon's interior.
Now only Ian's house remains.

The manifestations of the Goddess are entertaining when they are only semi-hallucinations, but when they apparently begin to involve the deaths of real people, it becomes harder to regard this piece as merely fun.

"Val and Me" by Rudy Rucker


Jim is a pothead who got fired from his job in bioengineering but keeps it up as a hobby, using stolen equipment acquired from a creepy guy called Skeeve, who claims to have smoked Amenhotep's mummy. Jim marries Val, cleans up, and they are happy together, meaning to start a family, when tragedy strikes.
To top things off, just as we came, lightning struck a power pole across the street. The lights went out, and the scanning-tunneling microscope on the porch made a popping noise that was lost in the astonishing clap of thunder.
This has been excerpted from a longer work, and as such doesn't come to any conclusion, but as a sample, it's full of neat, imaginative stuff. I'm not sure at this point how seriously to take it, but most of the evidence seems to suggest serious isn't the point.

"Ticks" by Robert Guffey


If you have a giant ape, it stands to reason that it might have giant parasites and that the parasites might spread epidemic disease on a giant scale. Which is bad enough without getting the military involved. Alternate take on the Kong story, sort of an "If this had gone on."

"Insect Girl Climbs to Paradise" by Philip Harris


A dystopian landscape dominated by a vast, uncrossable wall. Mary, like much of the population, is sure things must be better on the other side.
There were animals there, and trees. And people, she was sure of it. Somehow people had gotten over The Wall. Or perhaps they had always been there.
But Mary is clever and determined; she constructs a climbing apparatus out of electromagnets.

The best parts here are the descriptions of Mary inventing her climbing device and a harrowing scene of her trapped in a lightning storm next to the metal wall.

"Cairo, Goodbye" by Richard A Lupoff


Arlen and his wife have won an all-expenses vacation to Miami Beach, but he is overcome with nostalgia when he reads that the Cairo Cinema, where he worked as an usher when he was young, is going to be demolished. He sneaks into the old building and loses himself in dreams of the past. Slipstreamy rather than fantastic.

"Technical Difficulties" by Alex Roston


The narrator, being interviewed for a news broadcast, is a professional suicide bomber, who works for pay.
Every "People’s Front for the Liberation of Stupidistan" has suicide bombers; that’s a longstanding tradition, but in a world where anyone can make a personality backup and have it poured into a new body, killing yourself is not a real sign of commitment.

I like the twist better than the narrator's canned spiel.

"Alphabet Island" by Jessy Randall


Experiment #589 has failed, and the narrator has written an exculpatory report on the matter.
If you have received conflicting reports on this matter from my colleagues, I could meet with you in person to explain reality and smooth out any wrinkles or discrepancies. I am quite sure that I, more than any other linguo-scientist involved, am capable of being objective and not allowing emotion to cloud my judgment.
Mockery of ridiculous experiments and self-serving "scientists."

"IntheBeginning™" by Christopher B Shay


Virtual reality. Winifred is doing quality control for a new game when he keeps encountering dangerous nodes, pockets of alternate reality in which players might become trapped. When he is searching for the invisible dachshund that seems to be the locus of all the glitches, a co-worker shoots him in the physical head. Now he has to find the dog and eliminate his murderer, who is also somewhere in the game.
"You have a right to a body," [the Boss] said, cheerfully. "If you do not have a body, a qubit simulation of your body in a court-approved standard afterlife environment will be provided for you."
A pretty typical "lost in VR" scenario. These can be a lot of fun, but the author unfortunately puts the fun on PAUSE to deliver a huge load of infodump about quantum foam and other neepery that doesn't really help a reader to follow the course of Winifred's adventures, which have a sort of Wonderland feel to them.

"DarliJ's House of Tea" by Mari Mitchell


A charming but faintly sinister twist on a classic tale. Nicely done short.

"Clod, Pebble" by Kathe Koja and Carter Scholz


Trying too hard. A divorced father stands in line for the perfect gift for his daughter's birthday. This non-fantastic piece is aptly titled from a William Blake poem.

Cabinet des Fées, January 2010


A small press zine devoted to fairy tale literature, now shifted from print to electronic format. Much of the content is nonfiction, but a three-times-a-year section offers poetry and a few short prose tales.


"Her Heart Would Surely Break in Two" by Michelle Labbé


A lesbian variation of "The Goose Girl" without a talking horse. Not much else left to it.

"Nor Yet Feed the Swine" by Keyan Bowes


When nursery rhymes become literal. A fairy prince is attracted by the narrator's extravagant curly hair. When he calls her "Curlylocks" and asks "wilt thou be mine," she doesn't realize that this is a contract, or how much she would come to hate strawberries and needlework. The sinister aspect is related to the swine, and in case readers might wonder who the prince's mother is, there is no letter "C" in the Greek alphabet.

RECOMMENDED

"In the Forest of Thorn" by Anna Yardney


The Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the forest outside the castle, where the princes stay on their last night before they die on the thorns. The narrator was fathered by the first of the princes but brought up by her peasant mother to act as a sort of servant to them. The conclusion is pretty easy to see coming.

"The Wolf I Want" by Virginia M. Mohlere


An unusual variation on the "Red Riding Hood" tale in which both Red and her grandmother are swallowed whole by the wolf and transformed by long immersion in lupine stomach acid. Both emerge wolf-like, but in different ways.
The woodsman stood bare-chested, black-haired, brown-skinned, gleaming with sweat as he swung his axe. Grandmother stared, and her mouth drew back in a smile that made her teeth seem to grow.
Weird and erotic.

Popcorn Fiction


I don't know too much about this website, except what it says on its "about" page, that it is a place for screenwriters to post the kind of "pulpy" stories they have adapted for the screen. Most of the stories are not SF and tend to be unoriginal in concept. It doesn't seem to publish on a frequent schedule.


"Tipping Point" by Todd Stein


With global drastic overpopulation, people like the narrator are employed to do away with unauthorized children. The author seems more concerned with providing background bits than the story, which is something that most readers of this column will not find original.

"When We Get Home" by Jeff Lowell


The presence of a jerk leads to violence along national lines in the close confines of the space station. But they soon have larger problems to concern them. This one seems to be set in some alternate history when the Cold War is underway yet space stations have mixed-nationality crews and space tourists, which gives it a retro sensibility.

"Still Life" by Mark Bomback


The narrator is one of those guys who has more money than is good for him. When he unaltruistically saves a bum from being hit by a car, the bum insists, rather forcefully, in rewarding him in a manner "equal to what you just did for me," a phrase which should serve to alert readers that this reward may turn out to have a catch.

Although the "curse of immortality" story is not original, the author has given it some freshness, of sorts, by placing his fountain of youth in the city sewers eeeeuuw!).
It was neither hot nor cold, but perfectly lukewarm. Its texture resembled that of water, however I sensed a sort of film between it and my skin—not slime per say, but a barrier of some sort. It was gritty too, but a grit caused by particles that must have been finer than sand, because I couldn’t quite make out any floating as I raised my cupped hands.


"Eugene" by Jacob Sager Weinstein


The eponymous narrator is an enhanced dog or canine/human chimera serving in the police with a human partner, with whom his bond is essential. Nothing original added to this familiar scenario.


Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Materials for review such as magazines and original anthologies can be sent to the following
address:

Lois Tilton
POBox #4617
Wheaton, IL 60189

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton's, see Index to Magazine Reviews.


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Monday, March 8, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #3


Zines Reviewed


Asimov's, April/May 2010


An amazing total of three novellas in this double issue. Most of the stories are unambiguously science fiction.


"The Union of Soil and Sky" by Gregory Norman Bossert


Alien archeology. A familiar scenario: Humans have settled an alien world rich in minerals; archeologists race to document a site before mining operations begin, thwarted by the local human authorities, who deprecate the aliens and their culture and hate the Earth-based archeologists interfering in their business. When an important discovery is made, the bureaucrats shut down the dig, but the scientists are not so easily deterred.

What raises this one above the shopworn scenario are the detailed descriptions of the archeological process [although I'm doubtful than an archeologist would attempt to lift such a fragile cup from its matrix] and the uncovered artifacts:
In front of Winifred and Ant, the soil had miraculously parted. On the left, there was a perfect cross-section, layers of topsoil and clay, and then a long low arch of glass, thick and laced with fantastic, feathery buttresses of the same material. On the right, there was nothing; the ridge had collapsed in, a hole about three meters square, perfectly square, in fact, and sloping down into darkness.

The translations of the alien sign language are also well-done [the union of soil and sky means "glass"]. The characters of the archeologists are sympathetic, but the human settlers, seen only from the point of view of the diggers, are regrettably clichéd.

"Mindband" by Pamela Sargent


Chris Szekely was a TV reporter when she was caught up in a mob that collapsed a bridge with great loss of life; she was one of the few survivors. Ever since, she has suffered from flashbacks, the sense that she is hearing other people's voices inside her mind. Now she has determined that a company called MindData Associates was behind the tragedy, operating a transponder that can project one person's thoughts into another's mind. She wants them to pay for what they did, inciting the mob.
"You thought it was all over, that anybody who survived wouldn't know enough to come after you, would be too traumatized to want to do anything but forget. We'd think it was mass hysteria, picking up other people's thoughts like that. We'd blame ourselves for what happened, not you."

A story of characters, the people whose minds briefly touch each other's, working out release from the weight of their own depressions. From the moment we see the transponder aimed directly at the bed and breakfast across from the company headquarters, we know that Chris's suspicions are not groundless. The only question is whether she will succeed in confronting her demons.

"Jackie's-Boy" by Stephen Popkes


Post-apocalypse. This time it started with plagues and went downhill in a cascade of unintended consequences. "If I believed in God, I'd go out and kill a calf on a rock or something. We sure as hell pissed him off." Most people are dead and cannibalistic gangs rule the cities. Young Michael finds refuge in the zoo, then accompanies Jackie the talking elephant on her quest for other modified elephants like herself. Jackie isn't very fond of humans, but she and Michael need each other to survive.

This turns out to be a surprisingly positive adventure story, as Michael and Jackie encounter Komodo Dragons, crocodiles, and a helpful ferryboat captain. The dialogue is entertaining, the characters engaging.

"Alten Kameraden" by Barry B Longyear


In the closing weeks of WWI, sniper Kurt Wolff kills an enemy sniper before he could kill the runner from HQ.
Kurt turned from his position, bringing his rifle with him, as a baffling feeling of dread filled him. For a slice of existence it was as though all the world's dead mounted the edges of their graves at the same time and beckoned him. He couldn't catch his breath.

In the closing days of WWII, retired policeman and electrician Kurt Wolff is summoned to fix the ventilator fan in the bunker of the old comrade whose life he once saved, Adolph Hitler. But Hitler wants more from him now.

The harrowing settings here are meticulously detailed to the point where readers may almost feel themselves choking on the smoke and odors of decay. A story that seems to be alternate history turns into something else at the end. I only doubt that Hitler, at this point in his life, would have had such a sane and altruistic motive.

RECOMMENDED

"Unforeseen" by Molly Gloss


The narrator is an insurance investigator for a company offering remediation [revival] after sudden unexpected death. Their ad claims:
Don't make the mistake of thinking, as we did, that because your children are young, Remediable Death Insurance is unnecessary or an extravagance. We'd give anything to bring back our children. And if they'd been insured, they'd be with us right now.
But in fact, the company's policy is full of fine print excluding almost any possible cause of death, and the narrator's job is to find cause for denying claims. It's a job that inspires morbid thoughts.

A sharply bitter and cynical look at the business of profiting by raising false hopes. This is not a story about the future.

"Adrift" by Eugene Fischer


An interesting scenario: automated shipping containers make their own way across the oceans.
Millions of dots representing FloatNet nodes covered the Atlantic, bunched together in some areas and sparse in others, like a great flock of birds frozen in flight. Janet pointed out the rectilinear smudges representing Platform Beryl in the south and Platform Grouper in the north.
The world being what it is, smugglers have begun to use the net to transport illicit cargo such as drugs and refugees. When one young refugee family finds itself on Platform Beryl, the director is caught in a moral and legal quandary.

Neat SFnal premise, humane story.

"They Laughed at Me in Vienna and Again in Prague, and Then in Belfast, and Don't Forget Hanoi! But I'll Show them! I'll Show Them all, I Tell You!" by Tim McDaniel


A mad scientist don't get no respect. The fools!

"Malick Pan" by Sara Genge


A post-apocalyptic world in which the cities have sealed themselves off and feral clans scratch out an existence outside, hiding from the sun. Malick was a young child when he ran from the city, escaping a man we assume was a sexual predator. Ever since, the city has sent out clouds of nanobots, hoping to find him and bring him back. But Malick prefers the life outside where he has a friend, and has ordered the nanobots to keep his body small as a child's so he can fit into the hiding places where the big-hungries can't. Malick considers himself superior to the big-hungries, but he doesn't realize how much he relies on the nanners, what he would be without them.

Malick may think he's pretty smart, but he's not very wise.

"Pretty to Think So" by Robert Reed


A sudden emergency. The news reports that a comet is going to crash into the Earth. The presidential staff privately admits that this is only what they told the people to avert panic. Even the scientists aren't sure.
And really, nobody knows anything for certain. But people . . . you know how people are. We hear something that sounds a little familiar, and right away we jump to the easiest conclusion. I said, 'Life,' and he heard, 'Alien.' I talked about the runaway cascade, and he heard, 'Invasion.' "
As a psychological study of humanity under emergency conditions, this is interesting. More so than the explanation when it finally comes.

Analog, May 2010


A mix of science fiction stories, typical of this zine.


"Page Turner" by Rajnar Vajra


The narrator is trapped in the aftermath of an earthquake and losing hope of rescue.
I'm in trouble, real trouble, and can't do a blessed thing about it. And I'm hurting and tired and cold, and God knows I'm scared. So the game's name for me right now is SURVIVAL, which means I've got to invent distractions and more distractions to fight this urge I'm getting to—to just give up.

To divert herself, she begins to tell an imaginary listener the story of how things may have happened, centering on the appearance of a live flatfish at the doorstep of the bookstore where she works. She warns us at the outset that much of what she says will not be true and leaves us to guess which elements are false, from the insectoid leprechauns to the teleportation machine.

This is a clever premise, but for such a metafiction [metafiction in Analog?!] about the telling of effective stories, the author has followed up her hook with a long and tedious passage about the denizens of the bookstore that does a great deal to diminish reader interest. The narrator is owed a certain amount of slack considering her situation, but too much digression makes for less of a page turner.

"Hanging by a Thread" by Lee Goodloe


The ocean planet Teresa looks benignly Earthlike to Amy, but its acid ocean is deadly. The onworld floating station is connected to the space station by a space elevator, and when Matt the station commander tells Amy, twice, that the stalk had to be re-engineered for flexibility because of the waves, it is no surprise when it snaps as soon as a big storm comes along. Now the immediate task is to evacuate the injured back up to the space station.

Here is an urgent situation, an emergency calling for courage and skill. An ideal setting for a tense and exciting story, as suggested by the title. But by the time the emergency actually happens, the story is almost over. The author has wasted most of the text on bland and banal Amy, a character who generates no interest at all. When she asks, "Why is someone like that wasting time on someone like me, who doesn't even know why she's here?" I can only echo the question to the author.

"The Day the Music Died" by H.G. Stratmann


Terrorists have broadcast a piece of music that hijacks the brain of anyone who hears it. Millions have been incapacitated by "the most powerful earworm ever created." This one plays off the commercial use of music in manipulating the emotions.

"Farallon Woman" by Walter L. Kleine


The narrator is part of a secret group studying an alien spaceship discovered on the ocean floor. Then he meets Tara Farallon, an amnesiac woman who was reportedly rescued from a shipwreck. Astonishingly, it takes the narrator a long time to make the connection that is immediately obvious to any reader. Instead, he first falls in love with her. Jack spends a long time imagining her in the ship, imagining what she would say if he showed it to her, let her know that he knew.
I'd been through that conversation in my head a million times, fantasizing everything from, "I suppose it could be. I don't remember a thing," to, "You've got my ship? Let me help you make it fly again!" None of the fantasies, I was sure, would be real . . . but I kept hoping her response might be something in the direction of the latter.


This is a love story, an idyllic one, with the bond between these two people strongly evoked, yet not icky.

RECOMMENDED

"A Talent for Vanessa" by David W. Goldman


Marv Pennypacker is a Special Talent agent. Most of his clients are savants created through surgery; an operation that damages certain parts of the brain seems to release savant Talents. Sometimes. Occasionally rich young people want to have the operation, and surgeons hire Marv to try to talk them out of it. This is the case with ditzy Vanessa, who says she wants a Talent so people will invite her to more parties. But Marv smells something funny about her.

An improbable premise, too hard to take seriously.

"Fishing Hole" by Rick Cook


A paleontologist dining at a sushi restaurant in Seattle recognizes that the shellfish on his plate is an extinct trilobite. Shortly afterward, invertebrate specialist Tim Valdez is visited by an agent of the Fish and Wildlife Department, Sally Lund, who enlists his help tracking down whoever is illegally taking extinct shellfish and selling them to the restaurants.
The dumpster behind another restaurant on Sally's list contained a half-dozen ammonite shells and several clumps of cup-like shells Tim identified as belonging to an extinct oyster-like animal called a rudist. There were also the remains of a couple of very suspicious teleost fish (one served almondine, one in a tomato sauce).

An entertaining, cleverly-done scientific detective story with a particularly neat twist at the end.

RECOMMENDED

"Teaching the Pig to Sing" by David D. Levine


Edvard Roderick Zachary Sigmund von Regensberg, Defender of Humanity, Viceroy of Germany and Austria, and Royal Colonel of the European Army is part of a royal caste bred and brainwashed to rule the world. Revolutionaries have captured him and reversed his conditioning. Now, his mind free for the first time, he has to decide where his true loyalties are.

This one leaves the royal narrator on the sharp edges of a dilemma, where either option will exact a high price. Happily, the author doesn't go overboard with political lectures.

Clarkesworld #42 , March 2010


Both this month's stories are science fiction.


"Alone with Gandhari" by Gord Sellar
In a nearish future dominated by fattening fast food, Kenny is miserable in his obesity until he meets the Guru. Through VR therapy, he experiences union with the mother-cow goddess.
Heart swooning, he made his way to her rear, and as he did so, she steadied herself, bracing. Gently, and with the greatest of reverence, he stuck a hand into her, and then another. He pried her open, drew a deep breath, and slid headfirst into the peace of the divine mother-cow's womb.
When not thus engaged, he participates with other disciples in "Mac attack" raids on fast-food franchises, steadfastly ignoring the evidence that the Guru's motives may not be entirely pure.

Striking imagery. Apart from the VR sequences, this is a story about cults and their exploitation of the vulnerable. I'm not aware of any Hindu text in which Gandhari took the form of a cow, or in which the cow goddess had that name.

"The History Within Us" by Matthew Kressel


In a far future, humanity acquired great powers and used them to destroy most of the stars in the galaxy. Other species naturally resent this. They have built Eluder ships with which they hope to escape the dying universe on the collapsing wave of a dying star. Betsy has joined the aliens on an Eluder ship, thinking they don't know what she is. Betsy is one of a small group of humans set apart because they had a visual record of their ancestors coded into their DNA. Now Betsy carries the record on an ancient wrist computer and watches one or two scenes obsessively, trying to decide whether to carry this record of human depravity through into a new universe.

I can't find myself moved by this premise, which seems highly contrived. I don't care about Betsy's lost lover, I can't credit her obsession with a few old images, and definitely can't credit the aliens' interest in them.

Apex Magazine, March 2010


A special, all-Mary Robinette Kowal issue. It offers a novelette and an original short story from this author, and two reprints, both previously published by this zine.


"The Bride Replete"
The biology of the people in this story is patterned after honey ants, in whose nests there is a caste of repletes that keep their abdomens vast and full of nectar, with which they feed the rest of the nest. Pimi is an adolescent girl who is eager to have the full, round crop of a bride. Status in her country is displayed in the size of the belly.
[Mother] reclined on a couch accepting food from the hands of their deep-family. Pimi's cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings wore their Fest Day tunics. Red and orange scarves lay over their scalps and fluttered about their shoulders like fire, as they carried dishes to Mother. Her long, slender limbs lay in beautiful contrast to her speckled blue belly, which ballooned onto the floor.
But when her family moves overseas, they find that customs are different; only servants have distended crops, and the local aristocrats pride themselves on their narrow waists. Then Pimi and her mother are kidnapped by raiders who mean to force-feed them as replete slaves.

Kowal has created not only one fascinatingly alien society, but two, based on the same physiology. Pimi and her family don't quite seem human, but they are convincingly people, and not particularly ant-like.

RECOMMENDED

"Beyond the Garden Close"


Living on a generation ship, far from their destination, Lena and Phoebe are lovers. Phoebe yearns to have one of the few children allowed in each generation, but she carries a genetic flaw that can not be passed on. Lena, with no desire for a child of her own, is going through the tedious process of selection for her lover's sake.
The endless rituals of ship life touched every act. Sometimes she wondered if an OCD strain had gotten in, all unnoticed, and infected every line. But it was really just a way to pass the time until the next generation took over and then the generation after that, all biding time until they reached Planetfall.

Lena is more than a match for the testing scenario, but this very short story is supposed to be driven by her love for Phoebe, and we never see them together; we never see their love.

Electric Velocipede #19, Fall 2009


A belated review. This small press printzine comes out somewhat irregularly a few times a year. The prevailing mode of the fiction shades through weird to surreal; the current issue is in cyberpunk tones.


"The Lost Technique of Blackmail" by Mark Teppo


Max is the Security Theorist of InterCore Express [ICE], which sounds good but actually represents a kick up the corporate ladder to nowhere, his previous security function now deemed obsolete by progress. The tedium of his existence is broken when a package is delivered via an obsolete route, containing a term paper once plagiarized by the firm's CEO. Someone is blackmailing the boss; the route, however, means it is also a threat to Max.

A data-detective story, unusually long for this venue. The author has worked to create a strong sense of future strangeness by embedding the plotline in a thick matrix of jargon:
Depot 12-B4 was a half-shell unit—an electro-bonded extrusion of ceramic with a pneumatic receptor and a battered 4ts-mon. Archaic, by any standard. I had d/l'ed their Lifecycle Management Protocol during the drop to Emporium 31. They had been EOLed shortly after the SI & R, but some middle manager down-chain had modded the LMP to only remove them as they broke down, a decision which failed to consider the high QA standard for this early generation of pre-fab. They made them to last counterclockwise.
Some readers will find this impenetrable, to others [such as the usual readers of this zine], it will probably come as Added Value. The underlying plot is highly intricate and rewarding.

RECOMMENDED

"Frayed" by Jonathan Brandt


In a world where everyone can teleport with the aid of companion sheep, Henry is engaged to the President-elect, a woman with many political enemies. An assassin, missing her, has killed her daughter. Henry, as State Forensics Director, has reanimated the killer in order to prevent a repeat assassination attempt, but his plans are thwarted.

This plot summary might suggest a political thriller, but the tone and setting are absurd.
[Wade's] stately ewes, their jaws slackened, their eyes wild, collapsed. Claire bleated smugly at this, but she was interrupted by the urgent baying of the Booroola Merinos, who butted the high police officials as arrays of scanners and pagers strapped to their flanks squawked in unison.

The result is a piece that treats death and grief too lightly. Unsatisfying.

"Darkest Amber" by Erin Hoffman


Kali is a badass independent auto mechanic working mean streets ruled by gang bosses. Her partner is her illegal petroleum-burning car, JH, her only legacy from a beloved father. But there is a new boss on the streets now, and a new enforcer who wants to prove he's more badass than anyone else and picks Kali as his example.
Kali—was all the warning she had before an override signal followed by a priority-authorized disable command shattered the whole visualization, not only dissolving her setup but shutting down her plant entirely. In a quick reflex she activated the plant's backup, then turned from the sedan, eyes regaining focus on meatspace, fury growling eight-cylinder thunder under her skin.
A dark, cyberpunkish setting and characters to match.

"Life at the Edge of Nowhere" by Kjell Williams


Post-apocalypse. Warring corporations have used deadly biological weapons to destroy much of civilization. Now Jim is working with a survey team trying to restore what remains. What he finds is impossible:
A small house stood among the skeletal remains of the surrounding neighborhood. It looked weathered, but sturdy, with faded, yellow paint. Staring at the house like it was a rosebush on a battlefield full of corpses, he smiled at the light blooming through its windows.
But the house turns out to be a portal to Nowhere, another world, inhabited by people who couldn't exist. And the corporation he works for is determined to find their secret, one way or another.

A confusing scenario, with too much backstory hiding behind the immediate world of Nowhere. We grasp that there were evils and horrors, but never really see any of them close or clearly.

"The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall" be Ken Scholes


The other kids called him Slinky and liked to throw him down the stairs.
He went down making only a slight whooshing noise, then lay still at the bottom. The first few times, of course, he'd sprung to his feet with a bit of a flourish. But after that, when he realized that it was going to be an ongoing fete, he just laid there and waited for Ninja Bob and an ever-changing gang to scoop him up and haul him back to the top.
His ability was sometimes a problem but sometimes an advantage.

A rather strange little fantasy about a person we never really get to know.

"A Mouse Ran Up the Clock" by A.C. Wise


Historical fantasy. In a world where Hitler or someone like him is the Emperor, clockmaker Simon Shulewitz experiments by making cyborged mice. This comes to the attention of the head of the Emperor's secret police, who sets him to work with another craftsman named Bielski.
Then the mouse on the table twitched. There was a click and a whir, and its eyes flew open. Simon gasped. The eyes were blood red, and it took Simon a moment to realize they were colored glass or some kind of translucent stone. Simon watched in amazement as the mouse scurried forward and leapt nimbly off the edge of the table.
Their creations are technically successful, but Simon is appalled when he realizes how they are used to repress the other Jews in the ghetto where the Emperor has confined them.

Cyborged animals have become a commonplace in today's SF, but it is not clear that Simon's clockwork mice have any real advantage over natural ones; the spy-mice he helps Bielski create are essentially robotic. But what Bielski devises is a creature of fantasy and not ultimately convincing or original. In our history, Bielski was the name of a Jewish partisan group who fought the Nazis.

"Nightlight" by Celia Marsh


Adrian is a Sensitive. As a child, he had visions and visitations in his dreams.
"I liked the ghosts," Adrian said, following Jessie's plumed tail along the path. "I stopped telling you about them after that since you'd made them go away."
Now as an adult he is an apprentice exorcist, although he still dislikes banishing the ghosts. He encounters one particularly determined ghost, a young girl whose body turns out to be on lifesupport in the hospital, her parents not convinced she is really dead. But she resists the usual rites of exorcism.

Interesting speculation about the relationship of body and soul, the nature of death.


In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.


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Monday, March 1, 2010

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, #2




Subterranean Online, Winter 2010


Stories posted on this site during February.


"The Heart of a Mouse" by K. J. Bishop


Post-apocalypse. This apocalypse being an unexplained event wherein everyone was transmogrified into something else. As the narrator calls it, "the big search and replace." The narrator is now a giant mouse and his son a sort of gopher thing he calls "the runt." As they wander the wilderness avoiding dangers, he is trying to bring up his son to be able to survive on his own, without much hope of success.
You think you have enough brains to sort bullshit from fact once you get them confused? What happens if you start believing bactyls are nice or that you can eat whatever you want? But I can see he isn’t taking it in. These ideas are too much for him.


It's impossible to read this without hearing overwhelming echoes of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a father and son trekking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is a slightly more humane, less desperate scenario, in that there actually is an economy of sorts and cannibalism is not the only food option, despite most of the creatures at large being predatory. There seems to be unexplained purpose at work. Still, while the author treats the narrator's mouseness seriously, the echoes of the more realistic work make this one less credible.

"Harboring Pearls: A Lucifer Jones Story" by Mike Resnick


An episode in an ongoing series featuring the title character, a wandering grifter whose intelligence is even lower than his morals. "If we ever see you on this continent again, we’ll tar and feather you, hang you from the highest tree, set fire to you, and chop up what’s left of you as fishbait.” Here, Jones washes up in Pearl Harbor, where he is soon recruited by a group of thieves whom he then tries to double-cross. I am not amused by the Charlie Chan parody detective.

"The Library of Babble" by Michael Bishop


A double tribute: to Borges' famous story and to the author's late son Jamie Bishop, on whose notes this piece is based. Fulgencio, an indulgent father, takes his son to the eponymous library, said to be the founder's response to the ubiquitous Silencio signs that plagued her childhood. The true and more fitting name of the institution is the Library of Inescapable Cacophony, for the building is filled with discordant noise, which severely pains Fulgencio.
This never-ending uproar occludes thought. It invades the aural cavities, flushing from them all reservoirs of coherency or peacefulness. One’s blood pressure soars. Migraines and a menacing sense of intellectual bankruptcy flood one’s being. The impulse to flee from such orchestrated cacophony–to press one’s skull between one’s palms and to scream like the anguished figure in the famous painting by Edvard Munch–assumes the weight of obligation and does not depart.

His son, on the other hand, is delighted with the place.

The charm of this tale is created primarily by the narrative voice and the setting in some fabulist otherwhere, but its greatest interest should be to readers familiar with Borges' classic.

Realms of Fantasy, April 2010


Bimonthly full-color printzine filled with reviews and articles as well as fiction.


"Just Another Word" by Carrie Vaughn


Suppose that Janis Joplin once had an encounter with the Queen of Elfland. How might that have gone?

"Hanuman's Bridge" by Euan Harvey


A near-future world in which tensions in Asia have gone nuclear and India has forcibly annexed Sri Lanka, building a bridge to connect the two land masses. Davis, who designed the bridge, is present for the official opening and falls into conversation with a local man who explains its connection to the epic Ramayana and the submerged natural causeway known as the Nala Sethu that once connected island and mainland.

This is a too-talky story, in which the narrator goes on at excessive length about Pakistan's nukes, and the mysterious Raban goes on even longer about the legends of the monkey god who built the ancient causeway. While it is possible that a bridge architect or engineer might not be familiar with ancient Sanskrit myths, it is inconceivable that he would be so unfamiliar with a 30-mile natural causeway paralleling the route of his bridge and affecting the currents in the vicinity.

"The Hag Queen's Curse" by M.K. Hobson


An alternate 1798, when the US Navy commissions warlocks to fight sorcerous piracy. But during Lt Rodgers' attempted arrest of one body-stealing pirate, he mistakenly spills the Sea Hag's ale, upon which she transports them both Elsewhere to 1986 Oregon, where the pirate takes over Jeff's body.
He's wearing a swirling black trenchcoat, a ruffled gold-lamé shirt unbuttoned to the navel, and a whole costume-jewelry box of glittering trinkets. Evil looks good on Jeff, Kat is surprised to realize.

Kat is determined to get her friend Jeff back. And because Kat loves him, although not in that way, she is inadvertently protecting the pirate in possession of Jeff's body from the force of Rodgers' spells.

This is fun, a lite adventure, but I fear that much of it may have been contrived to make use of a very dated cliché about girls who hang out with gay guys.

"A Close Personal Relationship" by Thomas Marcinko


The Second Coming may have pleased dominionist Christians, but Ted still retains his fondness for dinosaurs and other forbidden things. Thus he is nervous when it comes time for his own personal interview with Junior. The Message here is not particularly subtle.

"The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard Van Oost and Oludara" by Christopher Kastensmidt


Gerard van Oost has come to colonial Brazil with the hope of joining a company of adventurers but discovers his Protestant religion makes him unwelcome. He has the good fortune, however, to meet a remarkable African hero, now enslaved.
"I alone held off thirty rival warriors armed with harquebuses for three days so that my people could escape. They came raiding for slaves to sell to the Portuguese. That is how I know of the inaccuracy of the harquebuses."

If Gerard can find forty thousand réis, he will be able to buy Oludara's freedom and start his own company. But Gerard is so penniless he is in danger of being imprisoned as a vagrant.

An entertaining mix of adventure and folklore in a fantastic world where monsters roam the forests of Brazil and Africa. Oludara in particular is an engaging character, and there is a bit of wry humor in the narrative voice. It would seem that the author intends to send these two on a series of continuing adventures.

RECOMMENDED

Tor.com


This is a more of a website/community blog than a conventional magazine, with various features other than fiction, much of which is serialized.


"Vilcabamba" by Harry Turtledove


Alien invasion. Humans lost. Now the hereditary US President, Harris Moffatt III, presides from Grand Junction, Colorado, over the remnant of the country that the Krolp didn't bother conquering. Until the Krolp discover a rich lode of silver.

This time, the echoes come from Turtledove's own extended Worldwar series, in which small incompetent aliens attempt to conquer Earth and humans resist with some success. But Turtledove subverts expectations. Here the aliens are near-omnipotent and resistance is truly futile; what the Krolp really want, they will take. The title refers to the last outpost of the Inca Empire after the Spanish conquest, in case readers are too dense to get the point. Some may find the outcome to be pessimistic or depressing; others, realistic. It might have been tragic, but the lightness of the narrative tone is too much at odds with the inevitable course of the story's events, too close to humor [aliens with names like Grelch are not conducive to a tragic mood].

"Tourists" by Sean Craven


Grandma converts the aliens to Christian Science, but something may have been lost in the translation. Something was definitely lost in the translation of Grandma when she went off with the aliens to spread the word – but maybe the narrator found something.

This one is unfortunately played mostly for laughs. Names like Mrs. Outerbridge-Horsie overwhelm the moments of poignancy that might otherwise be more strongly felt.

Strange Horizons, February 2010


A weekly ezine offering a new story every week, along with poetry, nonfiction and reviews. The fiction tends to be contemporary fantasy and light SF.


"Cory's Father" by Francesca Forrest


The narrator's mother is trapped on this mundane side of the fay/mundane border with far too many children from too many fathers, unable to return to the place where she was called Willow's Daughter.
She was watching the border between here and there rippling closer. The border comes rolling in like the shadow of a cloud moving across the land. It feels like the air before a thunderstorm, and it smells like sweet fern.

There is a story for each father, except for the narrator's and for Cory's, but the narrator knows the story of Cory's father; she was there at the time, a young child, watching.

A very short and rather depressing tale that leaves the reader both wanting to know more of the stories and thinking that someone ought to tell this woman about the Pill.

"After We Got Back the Lights" by Eric Del Carlo


SF. Post a minor apocalypse in which the town was cut off from the rest of the world for several years and the residents had to fend for themselves, which they did pretty well, considering. Corey took on the role of town lawman. Now the old normalities are being restored, but the shadows of things that happened still darken people's memories.
I knew where I was, of course. Knew the tall redwood that was the only tree here. This wasn't a restful place; but I felt a calming nonetheless, a sure reminder of my past purpose. I stared and stared at that tree.


A nice, humane story. The thoughts and feelings of the characters ring true.

"Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions" by Saladin Ahmed


Nobody loves to sit through office meetings, not even the members of the Society of Supercriminals. The boss is always a long-winded bore, and this includes Overlord. SH has a fondness for superhero angst stories, but it takes a lot these days to sell me on yet another one. This vignette doesn't go much beyond its premise.

"Sundowning" by Joanne Merriam


Vampires have taken over, and the "unblessed" are required to deliver a pint every week to the blood bank. This makes it harder for Rita to cope with her father, suffering from dementia. Essentially, this is a mundane story about coping with a parent with dementia, the vampire element grafted on.

Fantasy Magazine, February 2010


Another weekly ezine with short fiction and other features. The material is the fantastic, and the editor prefers prose on the literary side. This month's offerings are more SFnal than is usual for this venue.


"Stranger" by Patricia Russo


Roday is an old woman living with the Blue Heart band but not closely related to anyone. A distant cousin's family has always taken her into their shelter when the season of stinging rain comes, but this time, Roday gradually comes to realize that they do not intend to make the offer. She fears she will be left to die. It is different when a stranger comes.
A place would be found for the man. All of the circles would give a share from their stores to provide his food. The young folks tasked with hauling water from the covered wells would make a few extra trips.


This society, and the place of a solitary old woman within it, is well-portrayed. But I have trouble crediting the premise. If "Blue Heart people are true people," the sort of people who will take in a random stranger, I can't really believe they would leave a member of their band to certain death in the stinging rains.

"The Armature of Flight" by Sharon Mock


Leo is a scion of extreme wealth, living for the moment in a modest way until he inherits. William is a poseur, a hustler, looking for a rich hook-up. They become lovers, but Leo can not commit himself fully to the relationship and William wants what he won't or can't give.
William insisted he could find them somewhere nicer. But Leo couldn’t afford what William wanted, not on a junior manager’s salary. His inheritance was still in the future, predicated on the very things that would tear him away. A wife, an heir.


This is the story of a failed relationship in which money becomes an issue between the lovers when the real problem is commitment. The SFnal aspect is primarily metaphorical; William gets the wings, but they represent slavery, not freedom.

"Tenientes" by Nathaniel Williams


A revenge story. A woman returns from the death to avenge herself on a series of randomly-chosen men.
Since the night she died, she’s been called beautiful five thousand, two hundred and seven times by five thousand, two hundred and seven different tenientes. Each one has his own, peculiar stiffness as he clings to her, as his veneer of restraint chars and peels back like pages in a burning book.


The word teniente, or lieutenant, means one who takes the place of another, in this case, takes another man's punishment. The nameless ghost's victims may be innocent, but she, too, is trapped by the eternal cycle of revenge.

"A Stray" by Scott William Carter and Ray Vukcevich


Jim Delaney has more problems than possibly going blind.
[Claudia] was gone. His mother was gone. He’d be losing his job any day now. And he was spraying the windows black and feeding chicken noodle soup to a sometimes headless stray cat in the house where his father had killed himself. What else could go wrong?

For one thing, someone claiming to be the cat's owner is sending hostile notes attached to its collar. For another, that person may be Jim's dead father when he was a young man. For yet another, Jim may be hallucinating some of this, and his mother may be recruiting deprogrammers to save him from himself.

Intriguing story of a character on the blurring edge between insanity and the impossible.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2010


This ezine comes out every two weeks with two short stories and no additional content. The offerings are "literary adventure fantasy" set in secondary worlds.


"To Slay With a Thousand Kisses" by Rodello Santos


Tocho seems to be a sort of vampire, but he is actually the victim of a vengeful curse, bound to return every fifty years to the village of his dead mistress where he will take and kill another bride, conveniently staked out for him by the villagers. This time, however, instead of a maiden, he finds three young men bound to stakes awaiting death at the hands of an even more fearsome, more hungry monster, stronger than Tocho.
In amazement, I watched the ground catch her, then throw her back at me. I had barely gotten to my feet, and her new assault sent us tumbling, this time into the cornfield, crushing the dead stalks.


There are echoes here of an old fairy tale. But in fairy tales, the power to curse is mostly limited to the otherworldly. This seems to be a world in which seemingly-ordinary people can generate some seriously potent curses, all the way to immortality and quasi-divine powers, and other people seem to have uncanny knowledge of the way to break them. I find myself reluctant to credit all this. The curses are supposedly punishment or vengeance for some sin, but the real sufferers seem to be the innocents of the Blue Sparrow clan who are doomed to feed the hungers of the accursed.

"The Motor, the Mirror, the Mind" by T. F. Davenport


When brains are worlds. In this fantastic landscape, kingdoms occupy the heights and valleys of the cerebral world-god, corresponding to the regions of the human brain: the Motor Country, the Mirror Kingdom. And they fight wars. As this tale begins, the army of the Motor King is just about the conquer the Mirror Kingdom, while the selfish young Mirror Queen urges his own troops to fight to the death. Her court cerebromancer, Daniel, helps her to escape, but he soon begins his own journey of discovery.

A lot of fascinating stuff is packed into this narrative. As a cerebromancer, Daniel predicts the future by what he sees in the mirrors manufactured in the sector; the cerebromancers of the Motor region interpret the lines of electroencephalographs. For most of the story, these cerebral aspects of the setting fade into the background of a tale of war, rebellion and conspiracy. The Mirror Kingdom manufactures mirrors of glass and silver; the Motor Kingdom produces ball bearings and machinery in vast factories where "rank upon rank of men and women worked in synchronous motion, welding components, lowering presses, riveting, oiling, cutting, drilling." Yet from time to time, the true nature of the world breaks through, as when Daniel reaches the summit of the gyrus and sees for the first time the sky, complete with a sun and clouds.
Above them, most magnificent of all, turned another world. The roofs of its gyri, glass and metal, flared in the sunlight. The sulci, narrow dark canyons, wrinkled the globe like an ancient face. An alien god tumbled through the sky, about as large as my fist at arm’s length.

At the end, though, the cerebral elements emerge into the foreground, as we learn the importance of the mirror neurons' connection to the motor cortex and the function of the individual cells in the mental activities of the Great Being, the system on which the entire world is run, and against which Daniel now rebels.

This is a first-rate fantastic idea, a fully-extended metaphor that comes vividly to life as a fantasy world. It seems to be considerably longer than the typical piece appearing at this site, and I am happy to see that the editor has not split it into parts.

RECOMMENDED

"A Skirt of Many Colors" by Catherine Mintz


The narrator is a girl at the edge of womanhood, living near a volcanic mountain where the inhabitants are unaware of its dangerous past, although sometimes sensing the presence of ghosts. It is at first a quotidian tale in which the narrator goes about the routines of her life, saying farewell to her childhood and looking forward to putting on the skirt that will mark her as a woman; readers will not be so oblivious to the imminent danger, to the spectres of Pompeii being evoked by the author.

The setting suggests the Aegean [the name of the mountain is Leukothea, but this does not seem to be the sea goddess from the myths we know] but not the ancient world of our history. The author places a great symbolic weight on the color of the woman's skirt, but the story doesn't really deliver on it. Indeed, I find the whole skirt thing a distraction from the sulfurous ghosts.

"Pale" by Kathryn Allen


Old West Archetypes. The narrator was once a living man but is now trapped in the eternal role of a Deputy. Someone has summoned revenge, so the story has to be played out to the end. But this time it is the Deputy who encounters the woman, and the story changes; the narrator acquires a name and a new role.
"Scars.” She traces the lines with one finger. The slashes of knives, the dots and stars of bullet holes, the ragged seam of an amputation: pale silver marks that aren’t true scars but the ghosts of my wounds. Death upon death recorded on my skin. Her hand drifts up, to the circle of the hangman’s noose.


Readers will probably find something familiar in this scenario, perhaps the role of non-player characters in gaming or the mythagos of the late Robert Holdstock's fiction. I am particularly reminded of the denizens of the Commons in the stories of Matthew Hughes. Allen shows us the tragic side of the scenario at the same time that she holds out a faint hope for the possibility of escaping the eternal story loop. The shift of storylines is nicely done.


In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. Her short fiction reviews ran at The Internet Review of Science Fiction from December 2005 through February 2010.


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