The Magazine and Website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field

Locus Online
   locus magazine banner
Sub Menu contents

Recent Posts





Gary K. Wolfe reviews China Miéville

Three Moments of an Explosion, China Miéville (Tor UK 978-0230770171, £18.99, 400pp, hc) July 2015. (Del Rey 978-1-101-88472-0, $27.00, 386pp, hc) August 2015.

China Miéville’s devout following is all the more remarkable because he never does quite the same thing twice. Since he left Bas Lag more than a decade ago, his novels have ranged from horror to SF to detective stories to young adult fantasies, differing in tone as well as in genre and hardly offering the sense of comfort­able return that readers come to expect from a favored author; this is probably one reason that virtually every new novel gets proclaimed on message boards as both his best and his worst. But while his novels have always been, well, novel, in their initial premises (an ocean of railways! two cities occupying the same space but invisible to each other!), they tend to play out more conventionally in terms of form. For that sort of experimentalism, we need to turn to his short fiction, such as the graphic story in­cluded in his first collection Looking for Jake and Other Stories. It’s been nearly ten years since that collection appeared, and while we saw a remarkable string of five novels during that period, the short fiction has been less vis­ible, sometimes appearing in such hard-to-find venues as an art exhibit handout or a World Fantasy giveaway. Therefore it seems fair to say that most of the contents of Three Moments of An Explosion: Stories will be new to readers, apart from the fact that ten of the 28 stories appear for the first time in print – and some are likely to be puzzling as well.

While Miéville hasn’t quite left behind his earlier fascination with the shapes of the shapeless – animate blobs, tangles, and bits of garbage – he has begun to experiment more with the possible forms of fiction, often invit­ing the reader to fill in the blanks in a story that may take the form of scripts for trailers of imaginary movies (‘‘The Crawl’’, ‘‘Escapee’’, ‘‘Listen the Birds’’), a manifesto for a neo-representationalist art movement (‘‘The Sec­ond Slice Manifesto’’), rules for a card game (‘‘Rules’’), or an academic course syllabus (‘‘Syllabus’’). He experiments with risky sec­ond-person narration, sometimes to the extent of turning a story into a dramatic monologue (as with ‘‘The Buzzard’s Egg,’’ in which a war­time captor speaks to an icon of the defeated city’s god). One story simply speculates on why Orpheus turns around during his journey from the underworld (the best is ‘‘to ask Eu­rydice what it was he was or wasn’t supposed to do’’).

These are mostly brief, witty pieces, but there is no shortage of more substantial fic­tion here as well. The most effective stories are ‘‘Polynia’’, which reads like a Magritte paint­ing come to life in its description of enormous icebergs which appear floating above London; ‘‘The Dowager of Bees’’, which describes a worldwide secret society of card players who have encountered rare ‘‘hidden suits’’ of cards like the Eight of Chains or the Dowager of Bees; ‘‘Sacken’’, a more or less straight hor­ror tale involving a bizarre ancient German form of execution, which includes moments of sheer weirdness that might have come from a Takashi Miike film; ‘‘After the Festival’’, a reality-TV parody involving slaughtering a pig whose carved-out head is then worn by a volunteer, with predictable EC-Comics results; and ‘‘The Design’’, perhaps the most elegantly written tale here. It’s narrated at a distance of some decades by a physician whose medical-school colleague once found elaborate and impossible scrimshaw-like etchings on the bones of a cadaver (there may be a very odd meme about literalized internalization emerg­ing here, since Daryl Gregory wrote about a serial torturer who scrimshawed the bones of his victims and Helen Marshall a story about a woman who finds a lost Jane Austen novel on the inside of her skin).

Other stories may seem more conventional by comparison. ‘‘In the Slopes’’ has arche­ologists exploring the aftermath of an ancient volcano and discovering that aliens apparently co-existed with the other victims; it’s closer to normal SF than anything here except the less-developed ‘‘The Rope is the World’’, which deals with space elevators. ‘‘The Junket’’ is a bitter but incisive parody of Hollywood – and the best evidence of Miéville’s mordant humor – in its description of the controversy which rages over a film about Anne Frank that isn’t all that far removed from some recent actual liter­ary travesties. ‘‘Dreaded Outcome’’ is the most conventional of these tales – it could easily have appeared in Ellery Queen’s – in describ­ing a therapist with an unorthodox technique for alleviating patients’ anxieties. In a few cases, even a clearly written tale with credible characters can’t quite keep the initial premise from seeming a bit heavy-handed, as happens in ‘‘Keep’’, in which trenches spontaneously incise themselves around troubled people, or in ‘‘Covehithe’’, a well-written invasion tale that would be more convincing if it weren’t an invasion of oil rigs uprooting themselves and tromping ashore like Wells’s Martians. In gen­eral, though, Miéville is as brilliant as ever in finding the necessary balance between narra­tive mode and unfettered invention – it’s the al­most flat, documentary style that sells us on those icebergs in ‘‘Polynia’’, for example – and there’s more than enough here to suggest that his fiction may actually turn out to be more adventurous in the future than it has been in the past.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Ian McDonald

Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald (Tor 978-0-7653-7551-3, $27.99, 416pp, hc) Sept 22, 2015

As SF writers from Pohl & Kornbluth to Philip K. Dick have often reminded us, along with a fair chunk of US history and even movies like Alien, it doesn’t take much for adventurous frontiers to turn grimly corporate. Nor is this idea limited to SF; the old 1970s TV soap Dallas was implicitly about the corporatization of the American West, with rival dynasties battling it out in boardrooms and bedrooms (wasn’t that even a slogan of the Dallas promos?), and with family squabbles occasionally turning deadly. Ian McDonald has already said in interviews that his new novel Luna: New Moon is ‘‘Dallas on the moon,’’ and that’s a pretty fair elevator pitch for anyone who remembers that ancient show, although some of the family members here act more like Corleones than Ewings, and although the most relentless, merciless, unforgiving character of all is the lu­nar setting, which McDonald manages to present as utterly boring and absolutely terrifying at the same time. But despite leaving room for sequels and recomplications, McDonald rather seriously underestimates himself in comparing this rich and complex novel to an ancient TV soap.

The novel also answers a question that McDonald readers have been asking for some time: after taking a break with his delightful YA Planesrunner series, which international culture would he be examining next after his provocative iterations of the future in India, Brazil, and Turkey? The answer, briefly, is pretty much all of them. His moon colony is resolutely multicultural. The aging family matriarch about whom much of the plot revolves, Brazilian-born Adriana Corto, emigrated to the moon 50 years earlier and established a successful helium-3 mining company, and her chief rivals are the scions of an Australian mining company called Mackenzie. The polyglot moon dialect draws not only on Portuguese and English, but on Chinese, Yoruba, Russian, Spanish, and other languages. Corporate titles are borrowed from Korean, mar­riage contracts from Arabic, and names of lunar days from Hawaiian. To add to this confusing stew of cultural signifiers (and in a particularly nice touch), the prevalent fashions on the moon are faddishly derived from mid-20th century designer styles like Dior and Fendi.

So McDonald’s moon culture is quite a bit more complex than either the research-and-tourist economy of Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust or the rebellious libertarians of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, though there are a few examples of both among his secondary characters. And there are quite a few second­ary characters, so much so that keeping all of the intricate relationships and intermarriages among the four ‘‘dragons,’’ the corporations that essentially rule the moon’s economic and legal systems (no criminal law, only contract law, with duels an accepted way of settling dif­ferences), straight can be a bit daunting for the first few chapters, even with McDonald’s helpful dramatis personae. But as the plot develops and the pacing steadily accelerates, the characters gain quite a bit more depth than their soap-opera forbears: not only Adriana herself, who provides useful backstory in a few first-person chapters, but her volatile oldest son Rafa; his wife Rachel (of the Mackenzie clan); the daughter Ariel, a gutsy but self-satisfied superlawyer; four other sons (one, Wagner, disowned); and the grandson Lucashino, newly arrived and something of a rebellious teen. This doesn’t even get into other clans like the Mackenzies or the Vorontsovs, or the officers of the Lunar Development Corpo­ration, which more or less owns the moon and whose president (‘‘the Eagle of the Moon’’) is a mostly figurehead chief executive for the entire moon.

The story opens with two events that establish principal recurring themes: the hazardous arrival of Lucashino, which shows us immediately how deadly the environment can be, and an attempt on Rafa’s life using an ‘‘assassin bug,’’ basically a poisoned mechanical fly. Rafa is saved by the most appealing character in the book, Marina Calzaghe, an unemployed ‘‘computational evo­lutionary biologist’’ who is ‘‘overdrawn at the breath-bank,’’ has to sell her urine for recycling, and lives in what amount to the slums of the kilometer-deep city – the upper levels, where radiation is most hazardous. Her quick think­ing gains her a job with the Corto corporation, where she repeatedly establishes her value and becomes the closest thing to a kick-ass hero­ine the novel has to offer, although it offers a refreshing variety of strong female characters in general. Marina figures in some of the more suspenseful action scenes, such as a race to stake a claim to a newly discovered region of helium-3 and another assassination attempt later on, but she remains acutely aware that it’s her survival instincts, not her science training, that keep her employed. The scientists aren’t the heroes in this bleak landscape and free-for-all economy, and as the novel races toward a surprisingly violent conclusion, you wonder whether the landscape permits any heroes at all.

Luna: New Moon is the best moon novel I’ve seen in many years, but it’s also something of a piece with the recent movement on the part of Paul McAuley, Kim Stanley Robinson, and oth­ers to confine novels to the solar system, out of a realistic assessment that this is likely all we’ll have to work with – but McDonald takes this a step further. Possibly the most chilling lines in the book for an SF reader come from Adriana herself, in her own narrative: ‘‘There was no law, no justice,’’ she writes, ‘‘only management. The moon was the frontier, but it was the frontier to nothing. There was nowhere to run.’’ Inasmuch as it challenges one of the cherished master narratives of SF, in which the moon is only a stepping-stone, and despite what it owes to the tropes of ’70s-era social melodrama, McDon­ald’s novel has some formidable SF stingers not far beneath its densely textured surface.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early September 2015

I’m happy to report that the recent science fiction drought has broken, with SF of some sort to be found in every one of the zines I read this time. No surprise to find it leading off with Interzone, from which I recommend the Noon story.

Publications Reviewed

Interzone, September/October 2015

It’d be possible to call every one of these stories science fiction, although I’m not sure I’d do so.

“Weedkiller” by John Shirley

In a dystopian, overpopulated East L.A. rendered even more dismal by climate change, Venter hunts down social liabilities selected by the authorities for winnowing.

“Computer locates individuals with a cultural and hereditary tendency for having too many children and when that’s combined with not being within standard-to preferred social productivity scale, along with genetic markers for problematic—”

His employment report had correctly called him psychologically unsuited for this task, and he doesn’t like to take the drugs that kill his natural empathy; he’s being monitored by his bosses because he seems to lack sufficient zest for the job. He does it only to support his wife and the daughter he loves, to be productive, because there’s no other way. In the course of this hunt, he encounters a woman addicted to virtual reality stimulation, burning away her life, but she has enough spirit left to confront him about what he does.

A particularly depressing scenario, in which the question, “What is the value of human life?” is more often than not answered in the negative. Of course, this depends on the metrics being used, and here the program that selects the targets seems particularly deficient. Human life, it seems, is a perpetual, ongoing crisis that will never be resolved. Hard to argue with that, but I don’t see natural selection doing a better job.

“Blonde” by Priya Sharma

Updating the Rapunzel story in a world where naturally blonde hair is almost extinct, and accordingly valuable. Now, Rapunzel works in a bar, but once she was locked in an old mansion by a woman named Matilda, who stole her at birth, shut her away from the world, and sold her hair, which grew back overnight, to a wigmaker.

“They’ll kill you out there if they ever see this. They’ll tear your hair out from the roots.” Rapunzel’s heard this before too. “Don’t be scared, my angel. I’ll always be here to protect you.”

One day a young man made his way into the house, and Rapunzel fell in love with him, a development that Matilda didn’t approve. While the outcome was tragic, it eventually led to Rapunzel’s liberation.

The piece has all the essential elements of the fairy tale, yet the setting is almost entirely nonfantastic, except for the rapid regrowth of Rapunzel’s hair. The world isn’t contemporary but some alternate timeline in which the society has been devastated by war and is now struggling to achieve a return to normalcy. It might almost be considered science fiction. There’s the possibility for a slight confusion as the narrative flips back and forth from present to past, always in the present tense.

“No Rez” by Jeff Noon

An experimental piece in terms of typography and page layout, with several sections that resemble lines of verse.

Waking the same every morning, into darkness
The darkness of the eye
Waiting for the day to kick in, the first little


I don’t see much of this sort of thing these days, but I’m not surprised to find it coming from IZ, a zine that doesn’t stand still. This is a cyber future with the motto: “You are what you see.” Or, As you see the world, so you think about the world. But the only way everyone can see the world is pixelated, through implants, and in higher or lower resolution, with or without more vision-pops and ads, depending on how they can pay. Because Aiden is limited, when not on work-time, to low-rez, sometimes even when he closes his eyes, the dark starts breaking up. He has to wonder what he really looks like in the unmediated world, the zero-rez world, whether a girl might find him attractive. Then one day he happens on a mysterious black box that he isn’t supposed to have.

This sort of virtual world isn’t so new, but I’ve rarely seen it expressed with such insight and verve. There are genuinely poetic moments here, not simply apparent versification. This text would have been just about as effective if laid out on the page in a more conventional manner.


“Murder on the Laplacian Express” by C L Hawksmoor

The express is a luxurious flying interstellar train carrying mining company Chief Executive Lascalles to an important trade conference on Mars. There have been riots and takeovers of her company’s prison ships, followed by several assassination attempts on members of the company’s board. Accordingly, additional bodyguards from the Syzygian Church have been called in—Anselm and his Selenian initiate Shai Laren. All members of the Church are implanted with a device called a pneuma machina, which gives them superhuman reflexes. As expected, an assassin strikes, and Shai goes in pursuit.

A flash of metal, and Shai Laren swept her fanblade into a long arch in front of her to catch the blow. Nestled against her hindbrain, the pneuma machina ran numbers. The speed of the train. The pitch and incline. The height of the stone archway racing unseen out of the umber shadows behind her.

Action in plenty here, but the setting is highly political. The solar system is inhabited by a number of semi-humanoid races, many of which are enslaved or otherwise oppressed. Shai Laren was fortunate, as a Selenian, to have the protection of the Syzygian Church, about which we know very little. Currently, the ruling corporations, exemplified by Lascalles, are attempting to break the mining unions, in which destroying the rebellious prison ships is considered crucial. Shai is naturally sympathetic to the rebels and wants to assist them, but her duty to the Church has placed her on the other side.

I don’t care for the way the piece opens, in medias res, with Shai attempting to take control of the train after its pilot has been killed and before it crashes into a Martian ravine. It’s needlessly confusing, as the narrative immediately switches back to the beginning of events, only to arrive again at the initial scene near the story’s end. This isn’t good hook technique.

“The Spin of Stars” by Christien Gholson

Again we have alternating narratives, present and past, the past predominating. It was 1968, and the narrator was desperately trying to escape the Vietnam draft, when a provident encounter set him free. Another act of providence sent a crazy, drunken old man to pick him up on the road. It seems that the old guy has been in the thrall of a supernaturally telepathic manatee who now wants to leave his pond and return to the open rivers. Who demands it. “Every time she spoke, I felt like something was strangling my breath, pins and needles in my arms and legs.”

“If you didn’t always feel so sorry for yourself and drink so goddamn much you would remember that there are always forces at play, distant forces that can be harnessed. The spin of stars, the movement of planets – all have played their part in sculpting your worthless muscles and bones. Make the connections, boy! That’s where you’ll find your power!

I’m already doing my part. You do yours.”

The encounter changes the narrator, who spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with the fact. It’s quite a bit vague and mystical, involving the stars and the universe and all that, and we don’t really get the entire story of the manatee who isn’t a manatee, the old man, and the conquistadors.

Lightspeed, September 2015

This is as science-fictiony an issue as I can recall, with two pieces of fairly hard SF and one hard fantasy.

“Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World” by Caroline M Yoachim

Science fiction! Sensawunda! Posthumans invade the universe, specifically a scientist named Mei, who’s contacted by an advanced, atemporal entity that calls itself Achron and informs her that she will succeed in her interstellar quest. Doing so, she leaves her material body and launches from Earth into an immortal future of dubious wonders. Essentially, the piece is a travelogue with Mei as the shifting base of observation, a changing set of eyes. Which leaves little room for characterization; in fact, it’s not quite clear at first whether Mei is human or AI; in the posthuman later, of course, there’s no such distinction. But Mei seems to be different than other posthumans, for reasons unexplained. On her first interstellar voyage, she absorbs both all the other passengers’ consciousnesses and the ship’s AI; how, we don’t know, but more, why should Mei have this ability when no one else seems to? Elsewhen, some humans have become gods; Mei is at least their equal. There could be a paradox at the bottom of this phenomenon, but without time, can paradoxes even exist?

The wonders we find in Mei’s universe are all quite skiffy, although of the sort usually said to be indistinguishable from magic: building stasis boxes, folding spacetime. The problem is, the posthumans are largely malevolent, as fundamentally flawed as basic human nature. The integrity of other worlds and their lifeforms is disregarded; posthumans terraform other planets to suit themselves, then get bored and leave before the process is complete; they play genocidal games with other species for their own amusement. In the end, Mei seems to conclude that posthumanity and virtual immortality aren’t all they were cracked up to be, yet she retains her original optimism in the prospect of humans or their descendants seeking out other worlds. I’d like to think the author is engaging in cynical irony here, but I fear the optimism is meant to be taken seriously. Alas for the universe.

“All in a Hot and Copper Sky” by Megan Arkenberg

This one is indisputably Hard SF, featuring the premise of a biosphere being tested for use as a habitat on Mars. To make the test realistic, the sphere was sealed, not to be unlocked until at least two years have passed, the time it would take a rescue ship to come from Earth in case of disaster. Disaster happened. Or at least it seemed to. And as the death toll rose, one woman took matters into her own hands. Thirty years after Socorro’s death in prison, her then-lover Dolores looks back in hindsight and considers that things might well have gone much more badly.

You think because you’ve filled it up with rainforests and industrial kitchens and dormitories with internet access that people aren’t going to panic the moment the oxygen breaks again, or the moment the water filter clogs or the irrigation system springs a leak or God knows what else goes wrong. Maybe you think everyone’s done their research on 988-1, so they’ll all know to read the fine print and sit tight in the face of disaster, waiting patiently the doors to unlock. Maybe you think you’ll do a better job screening your applicants. Whatever you think, you’re wrong. And this time, you won’t have Socorro Vargas.

An interesting situation, made more so by the shifting public reaction to the events. Was Socorro a mass murderer or a misunderstood hero, as the passage of time has by now begun to suggest? And Dolores makes the insightful point that because of Socorro’s fate, in the case of another, less uncertain disaster, people will now be more likely to allow matters to take their course without intervention; even if she was wrong at the time, she might have been right another time. The evocative title comes from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, describing the situation when the curse has fallen on the ship.

All these events are revealed to us through the letters that Dolores writes, but has never sent, to the now-dead Socorro. We also see her ambivalent attitude towards her lover of so long ago, from a time when, as Dolores now declares, she “knew nothing about love”. Yet she has never really recovered, neither from the love affair or the public reaction, trapped in that moment of the past, never able to move on to create a satisfactory life of her own. It’s not really clear why, because we don’t come to know Dolores very well, and we come to know Socorro, the central figure of the tragedy, not at all. Time has taken its toll on Dolores’s memories, and the things about Socorro we would most like to learn, we don’t. So while I’m intrigued by the story, I rather wish the author had taken a different, more revealing way of telling it.

“Werewolf Loves Mermaid” by Heather Lindsley

What the title says. Mermaid also loves Werewolf, but not his mundane persona, named Dave. A silly and trivial relationship story about mismatches in love.

“The Ninth Seduction” by Sean McMullen

Armed conflict between Faerie and Earthlie [I like that name]. As is common in such milieux, Faerie is a realm of exceeding beauty.

Every evening the castellerine would walk in one of the seven gardens, her milk white hands clasped behind her back beneath her pale hair, and the train of her robe held by iridescent beetles that hummed, gleamed, and sparkled like living jewels in the waning light. She walked on no path, but on a golden carpet that floated just above the ground, materializing before her feet and dissolving once she had passed.

It’s also a realm of great gratuitous cruelty and inequality, the majority of the population apparently being goblins, loyal and industrious artisans who pay willing tribute to their elfin overlords. But one Midsummer when the barrier between the worlds dissolves, a mortal human with a serious grudge sails her warship into Faerie and bombards the place. Elfknights turn out to be no match for gunpowder and iron weapons. The master goblin craftsman Raksar, however, is able to steal their secrets, which he loyally presents to his mistress out of the love he has for her beauty.

What we have here is a tale of class warfare, of popular, industrial-powered revolution against decadent aristocracy. It’s quite clear from the outset that the lords of Faerie deserve to be overthrown, beauty or no beauty. But Raksar the jeweler would never agree. Raksar is the moral heart of the story, but in a disturbing way, as not only does he love beauty above all else, including his own freedom, he despises his own ugliness, as he sees it. As readers will probably see it, he’s the most admirable character here, except as he values himself. If we were going to take this more seriously than it probably deserves, it would be an interesting case of cultural relativism. As it is, I find it quite sad and wrong, an indictment of Faerie and all it stands for in its own world and ours.

Uncanny, September/October 2015

A pulpish skiffy cover with a retro rocketship suggests the presence of SF within, which there is, although most of the four pieces overlap the boundaries and present readers with mysteries.

“Find a Way Home” by Paul Cornell

The editorial note announces that this one is middle-grade fiction, which means that the protagonist is a child in middle school and suffering from the usual adolescent problems of that age, which dominate the narrative. Young Gary comes across a crashed alien spaceship and rescues its pilot, fending off the malevolent military that has its own plans for ET, in the course of which Gary confronts his middle-school problems. I think I’ve seen this movie before, and even the title reflects it.

It perplexes me that Uncanny has included the piece in its ToC, in which, as the editorial note points out, readers are probably expecting “adult elements”. Children, perhaps, should some be reading this zine, might not realize the total unoriginality here, but it’s hard to imagine adults finding much in it.

“The Oiran’s Song” by Isabel Yap

The setting seems to be the end of the 16th century* in Japan, a period of constant armed strife in which the common people suffered greatly. Akira’s village was burned when he was a child, and he and his brother were sold to a brothel; later, at age twelve, he was sold to a band of soldiers. Some time afterwards, the company acquires a high-class courtesan for their pleasure, but Akira recognizes her as a demon.

Children of oni are born as many times as they are killed. With the blood of terrible gods in their veins, they are unable to truly die; the closest they can get to that satisfaction is bringing death to others. There are countless ways of doing so, but human methods are best. Humans are inventive; they love to dispose of each other. So there are oni that learn trades, speak human tongues, use human weapons with the speed and strength they have gained through the years.

The demons and spirits of Japanese folklore populate a lot of fantasy fiction, but I find this one more interesting as a historical, in its portrayal of the warfare of the era and its effect on the population. The real story here belongs to the common human whose life has been filled with abuse, one of the many victims that war leaves in its wake, then and now. It’s also the story of two wounded characters who learn to trust each other. Akira discovers his own strength; I would say that Ayame the demon discovers her human side, but the general view we get of humanity here doesn’t make that an unalloyed compliment.

[*]Which would seem to make the reference to a rifle anachronistic; the guns of the period were smoothbore matchlock muskets.]

“The Sisters’ Line” by Liz Argall and Kenneth Schneyer

An unusual, ingenious fantasy with very faint whiffs of steampunk, particularly involving the train. The narrator [nameless] has a sister [also] who’s been abducted in some mysterious way to some mysterious distant destination, but there’s postal service; they can exchange letters. Sister’s letters are subversive.

My sister is posting me a train, piece by piece. She hides minute cogs in the adhesive between stamp and envelope; she traps switches in the envelope’s seal. Every letter is a game, a puzzle, a thing to be dissected. I spend hours unfolding and refolding the letters and the little origami cranes she slips in as companions. You never know which folding or unfolding action will release a coupling–bolt the width of my arm, tangle my fingers in a grid or make me stagger under the sudden weight of an entire door panel.

The problem lies in the assembly of the train, on which the narrator has spent futile years. She overthinks the process. Her neighbor’s young daughter Becky, however, instinctively knows how it all fits together, at which point the story takes a step further beyond, as Becky and her mother shift from mundanely odd neighbors to Fates, who’ve been waiting all this time for the narrator to step up and ask for their help.

Nicely ingenious fantastic stuff, scented with spices, enigmatic, enhancing the sense of mystery and wonder. Except for the missing names. The character is worth knowing, but who is she?

“And Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy R M Kehrli

The watchers are glittery alien frogs, hundreds of them everywhere. Aaron sort of likes them; the frogs like Aaron, too.

One of the glitter frogs jumps up onto Aaron’s shoulder. Its back is such a dark and stormy blue, speckled with metallic flecks, that it looks like the night sky. Aaron picks it up and holds it in his hands, feeling the cold fluttering of its heart and breath. It smells odd, like a spice barely remembered from childhood. He wonders if the frogs are alive, or if they’re robots, or if it’s just a grand, mass hallucination.

But the frog is no consolation for “the pain of his future collapsing on itself” after his boyfriend dumps him for a better college. Having seen Christian in action, I’d say, “Good riddance,” but teenagers don’t take these things well; Aaron runs away with the frogs.

This one is YA, not really for children but reflecting the tendency of the young to go off in pursuit of, as Aaron gathers a small band of lost souls to join his quest. Then there are those who aren’t chosen, for reasons apparent in the way they [mis]treat the frogs. Besides a selection mechanism, the frogs are a mystery, and while people call them aliens, this isn’t entirely clear; they seem at least to be cyborg constructs, partly inorganic. Certainly a neat, unusual touch. The ending is ambiguous, though hopefully so.

Apex Magazine, September 2015

A special international issue, guest-edited by Cristina Jurado, reflecting the zine’s longstanding interest in world SF. The stories are varied and original, often science fiction, with an overall tone of horror and several mysteries. Included is an excerpt by this year’s Hugo award novel winner, Liu Cixin, the most science-fictional of all these stories.

“Child, Funeral, Thief, Death” by Tade Thompson

The narrator is a sensitive; he gets a feeling and a compulsion to act on it.

It is like déjà vu, almost remembered from when I was eight, but not quite. It is like knowing two plus two is four without having to learn it. It is a certainty, not just a conviction, the way believing in God is a conviction, but believing in gravity is a certainty.

The connection he feels is to people like himself, and after meeting a group of them, his power fully manifests itself; he’s a finder. Unfortunately, he doesn’t use it for good.

An unusual moral in the end, something we don’t often see, though I’m not sure the conclusion entirely satisfactory; too many ends are left flapping. There’s a scene earlier in which an evil entity is revealed to be possessing people’s bodies; I can’t help wondering if this has anything to do with the narrator, and how the others like him use their powers. The conclusion is, however, quite unfortunately realistic on the moral level.

“Six Things We Found During the Autopsy” by Kuzhali Manickavel

A very short, very weird, surreal piece about an unknown dead woman and the conjectures of the autopsy team working on her body, who seem to find some attraction to it.

We wondered if she had let the ants in or if they had smashed their way through her, vandalizing her body with starred and spangled railroads, towers and pornography. Now that she was dead, the ants probably had no reason to stay. We thought this was heartbreaking but also the best option for everyone involved.

“Find Me” by Isabel Yap

A crowded family gathering at the Christmas season fills Chas’s house with relatives, and her imaginary companion Roger shows up as well, after a long absence. Chas had suffered badly from depression after her father’s death, when Roger was both a comfort and a burden.

“My Daddy’s a ghost. He’s dead. He’s nowhere—like you! Mom pretends he isn’t sometimes. It really makes me sad!” She kicked his knee, and Roger flinched, but didn’t try to stop her or kick her back. Maybe he couldn’t; this made her more upset. “You—really—make me—sad!” She screamed. “Always—always—sad!”

Turning him away allowed her to heal, to escape the oppressive psychiatric treatments, to grow up with the hope of a normal life, with the hope of college. People are starting not to look at her funny. Now, what does it mean that he’s back again?

It’s the sort of story that arouses the possibility of dread, that things could go very wrong—death, insanity. Roger, after all, is possibly a ghost, is definitely a mystery. Overall, though, the atmosphere is warmly familial—oppressively so, in fact, at least to me. The author crowds more and more relatives into the house until I find myself starting to break out in a sweat and looking to jump out a window. But it’s all based on love, even if this involves rather more concern than Chas would like.

“Frozen Planet” by Marian Womack

The epigraph opening the story makes explicit reference to Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition, when explorer Laurence Oates made the decision to give the others a better chance of survival by leaving the tent and walking out to meet death, “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” Here is a similar expedition on a world of perpetual blizzard, driving snow, and hallucination, including a beast or devil tracking them. Already one of their number has been lost, and now Lawrence is the next to hear its call: “the desperate cry of some creature, something that had to be enormous and powerful, and as big as a whale to make itself heard through that rattle of weather, something monstrous, as disproportionate as the mountains, making the very hills shudder, and bringing a shiver to their human hearts.”

A dark, cold setting, with mirage and vision become indistinguishable. Descriptions are vivid, the ubiquitous snow displaying more colors than Lawrence had thought possible.

Snow seemed never to be white there, on those far-off southern slopes, so inaccessible from these parts; and when it was white, they had to come out of their tents to observe the marvellous absence of colours, the weird phenomenon that contradicted what they had learnt to believe, day after day.

But the story’s essence lies in the human heart and mind, in a way that forces comparison with the Scott expedition and particularly Laurence Oates, to whom the protagonist here is clearly linked. Which brings me back to the epigraph:

‘I am going out
and may be some time’
Famous last words of Captain Scott

This, as printed here, is misleading. These words were reportedly spoken by Laurence Oates as he left the tent, never to return, and quoted by Scott in his memoir of the expedition, found with his frozen body; the remains of Laurence were never found. We have no reason to believe he had been hallucinating or that his motive was anything other than the desire not to hold his companions back as they attempted to reach the safety of their base. It’s hard to disagree with Scott’s assessment that his act was one of noble self-sacrifice, if not specifically an English virtue.

Matters are otherwise with our future Lawrence. Primarily that, while his expedition is a perilous one, the members are not in immediate danger of death from the elements, not suffering from freezing, gangrene and starvation. The greatest threats they face are the apparitions, which may be purely psychological—or not. Lawrence mentions that the dogs sense the presence of the beast; definitely, all the men hear its howling, although it’s only one explorer who has been lured by it to his [apparent] death. But the apparition seen by Lawrence is another matter, a silent personal vision that none of the others seem to perceive. At first, he believes it to be a door to evil, but later, after Felix has gone out to meet the beast, Lawrence decides it’s actually a door to salvation. Rather than self-sacrifice, his act seems to be desertion, precisely what a proper, stiff-lipped “English gentleman” would never consider. At which point, I note that we really don’t know much about this expedition, its purpose, its duration. Are these men volunteers or conscripts? Do they have some other way off this frozen world? What is the real measure of Lawrence’s desperation? His ultimate fate is ambiguous, but I think it can hardly be compared with Laurence Oates’.

“Mountain” by Liu Cixin, translated by Holger Nahm

The only translated work in the issue, an excerpt from the author’s novella of the same title. I’m generally dubious of excerpts, but that’s not the problem here. The narrative starts slowly, then turns on the science-fictional wonder full-bore. Our protagonist is Feng Fan, a mountaineer now turned oceanographer after a tragic climbing accident. He’s aboard his ship when a strange star appears in the sky, quickly resolving into an alien spacecraft that establishes itself in a geosynchronous orbit directly overhead. The ship’s gravity is so great, so close to Earth, that it threatens planetary apocalypse by destabilizing the atmosphere and oceans.

Where he pointed, the ocean’s horizon had begun to bend, curving upward like a sine wave. This huge swell of rising water rapidly grew taller and taller. It was as if a titanic yet invisible hand was reaching down from space to scoop up the ocean. . . . This colossal flood had by now swelled up to the heavens, rising as a flat-topped cone. Its body shone with the blue glow of the ship above, even as its edges burned with the bright crimson fire of the setting Sun, now hidden behind the towering waves. The stark, cold air at the cone’s top chilled the froth, sending forth streams of misty clouds. These clouds quickly bled away in the night sky, almost as if the dark heavens had been cut open.

It’s a vast mountain of water. And even if it means the end of life on Earth, Feng Fan has only one thought: he has to climb it.

This is definitely stuff of wonder, as is Fan’s climb, which is to say swim, to the summit. I was entirely delighted as he floated to the peak in a giant bubble of air. But then, less than half-way through the text—thunk. With Fan as their audience, the aliens turn their ship into a giant video screen and begin the infodump, relating the entire history of their existence and exploration of the universe. To a reader, it’s just as if, coming to the top of the wave of story, the entire thing collapses, as disappointing as it was delightful only paragraphs before. Not that the alien history isn’t interesting, because it is, full of neat SF notions well worked-out. But this recitation isn’t the way to tell it.

Still, it’s Hard SF, wonder stuff, and the good parts are well worth the reading. But if we had to have an excerpt, I kind of wish this one had ended at the peak.

Clarkesworld, September 2015

Five original SF stories here this time, headlined by Robert Reed, from whom I’ve not seen enough short fiction lately.

“Cremulator” by Robert Reed

An SF story of infinite worlds, in all of which live some versions of Gwen, a high school English teacher, her physicist lover Melanie, and her infatuated student Walt. We hear from each of them, their version of the story, beginning in a 1973 when Gwen is driving home from a visit to Melanie and a bright blue light floods the sky, followed by a fall of debris.

Standing on the highway’s shoulder, not a cloud in the world, and little bits of grit started falling. Started hitting her. It reminded her of sleet, except there wasn’t any ice. Using a couple index cards, she managed to sweep up a sampling of her mystery, and that’s what she brought out for us to observe. To interpret.

Readers familiar with the work of a cremulator won’t be surprised to discover what this grit turns out to be, or perhaps even the identification of its origin. But this is more than physics, it’s a story of three people and their infinitely possible relationships, most of them centered on love.

A relatively straightforward story for Reed these days.

“Loving Grace” by Erica L Satifka

A dystopian future when all jobs have been suddenly replaced by machinery, many of them drones. So people won’t have nothing to do, a draft has been instituted, in which the minds of people taken are downloaded into the drones. Chase misses his wife Marybeth, but he’s coming to understand that she won’t ever be coming back, as They promised. So, if you can’t be with the one you love . . .

The premise doesn’t make much sense; the author hasn’t explored it in sufficient depth to give it much sense. Who, for example, is in charge? Who profits? Changes such as this don’t come so suddenly, so completely; they evolve over time.

“Preserve Her Memory” by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu

A future when everyone has a “black box” implanted in their brain to record memories. This proves useful in cases of murder and violent death, such as the suicide of the popular actress Ye Lin, whose memories point to her abusive husband as the reason she chooses to die. Until the husband is murdered by a vengeful fan.

This is essentially a police procedural, in which detective Jiang Yong unravels the evidence to discover the perpetrator of a crime. The plot has some clever twistiness in concept, but alas, it becomes one of those pieces in which the detective goes on at great length after the fact, explaining his reasoning to the guilty party.

“The Algebra of Events” by Elizabeth Bourne

Aliens crash-land on Earth, from the point of view of the aliens—a plot that’s been done often before, and I find nothing much to distinguish this one.

“The Occidental Bride” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

The title suggests this might be an inversion of the mail-order “Oriental Bride” story, but only in part. Seems that the world has recently passed through an apocalypse brought about by genocidal terrorists; Europe is now the “shattered continent” but parts of Asia, at least, have survived, leaving “the field of endless machine-dead, the sight of satellites pressed against the skyline like bruised mouths on a gash.” [Whatever does this mean?] Doctor Lan Heilui was implicated by unknowing association with a terrorist; while she was eventually cleared, a taint remains on her records, and a traumatic scar on her psyche after the interrogation. Some actual surviving terrorists have become the property of the Institute, whatever it is, which has thoroughly deconditioned and neutralized them, or so it claims. To further prove herself, Heilui agrees to contract a marriage with a Finnish terrorist/scientist who had been sold to the terrorist mafia as a young girl. She seems to have had little real choice in her partner, and it’s pretty clear that the arrangement is meant to be a test of them both.

All this background is in the distance and often less than explicit; the close focus is on the two characters, Heilui and Kerttu. From the viewpoint of the reader, Heilui, while nominally in the dominant position, comes across as much the weaker character, the apparent consequence of a life of affluence and privilege. She acquiesces to the demands of the Institute out of fear, and the fact that she’s reached the unmarried age when a stranger on the train can call her “older sister” doesn’t suggest that she has much status; she’s been “under pressure to wed”, though within her own family, her mothers disapprove of her new partner. Whereas Kerttu, enslaved most of her life, albeit a very privileged slave, has been annealed by her experience; she tends to set the tone of the relationship. There is definitely ruthlessness at her core, and she displays confidence in a situation where her status as the outsider is obvious to all. She’s very much the potentially more interesting character, although we see only hints of her story, and almost entirely from outside, from Heilui’s point of view; if she has weaknesses or scars, as she surely must, she’s largely managed to conceal them from us.

The themes here are those that readers may have come to expect from this author: loss in war, captivity, and the possibility of sexual bondage, as Heilui finds herself “possessing a person whole and entire”.

A frisson sings through Heilui, chased by a wash of nausea: for a moment she could understand the sick supremacy of commanding utter, total power over another human being.

But this isn’t Heilui’s thing, and the relationship works itself out on much different terms that turn out to be rather wholesome.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

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

Russell Letson reviews James L. Cambias

Corsair, James L. Cambias (Tor 978-0-7653-7910-8, $25.99, 336pp, hardcover) May 2015

Cross-genre interbreeding has long been a feature of the SF/fantasy genre space, though it sometimes seems as though the pace of mixed marriages has picked up in the last decade or so, producing ever more exotic offspring – alternate-history-vampire-Nazi-spy-adventures and whatnot (or Napoleonic naval sagas with dragons). James L. Cambias’ second novel, Corsair, earns a fistful of hyphenations: a near-future techno-thriller heist-caper with a sizable dose of hard-engineering space-stuff and maybe just a dash of cyberpunk. It all fits together so smoothly, though, that one hardly notices the joins and overlaps.

The container story line is an elaborate heist, a familiar construction of multiple viewpoints and their converging plot-threads, accompanied by assorted flashbacks and asides to solidify character relationships and set up eventual collisions. Hacker-scammer-sybarite David Schwartz has pulled off the first successful remote-control hijacking of a spaceborne cargo – lunar-mined helium-3 to fuel the world’s hungry fusion plants. He is tempted out of a rather restless retirement by the prospect of a bigger challenge and an even-more-princely payday – and the chance to devise something ‘‘unexpected and clever and ballsy and elegant.’’ Air Force Captain Elizabeth Santiago has some history with David – they had a brief encounter at MIT, and she later failed to prevent his first exploit. She would dearly love to thwart his new project but finds herself stymied by the military, legal, corporate, and logistical limitations within which she must operate.

There are several subsidiary characters and threads (notably FBI agent Dominic Yu, fruitlessly pursuing the fake identities behind David’s ‘‘Captain Black the Space Pirate’’ nom-de-crime), but the odd thread, apparently unconnected to any of this high-stakes competition, follows Anne Rogers as she buys a small cabin cruiser in Oklahoma and makes her way to the Gulf Coast and then into the Caribbean. It is clear that David and Elizabeth are on a collision course, with Yu forever playing catch-up, but Anne’s role in this dance – and the significance of her experiences along the way – do not become clear for quite a while.

The story’s two main threads, however, are classically procedural: How David stole that first load of helium-3 en route from the moon to Earth; how Elizabeth came to work on a private-sector space vehicle (and why she buys hand-loaded GyroJet ammo); how David’s new employers organize their covert project of building, launching, and operating another pirate craft. These story lines are reinforced with generous dollops of technical and textural detail about designing, engineering, programming, guiding, and hijacking a spacecraft, which grounds the caper in the hard-SF constraints of orbital mechanics and cost-effective parts-sourcing. (At one plot point the reliability of a particular valve makes a difference.) This also helps to prevent the more exotic and melodramatic heist-intrigue elements from flying off into the wilder reaches of thriller territory – not that David doesn’t find himself deep in Hitchcockian plot-twist country when he comes to realize that he might not be as valued or as invulnerable as he had thought. Similarly, Elizabeth burns some bridges when she finds that no one will turn her loose to stop Captain Black. When it’s finally time for a showdown, alliances and priorities have been rearranged considerably and surprises abound.

Corsair is entertaining and well carpentered (or perhaps, given the genre, ‘‘well engineered’’ is more apt): it’s more than halfway to being a crowd-pleasing summer movie with big CGI sequences, a couple of charismatic thirty-somethings in the leads, and a gang of burly character players to do the threatening. (Why do film comparisons keep coming to mind? Is it because I’m writing as the season’s new film trailers are all over TV and YouTube?) If I have any second thoughts about the book, they have to do with wondering what Cambias might come up with should his imagination take a darker, gnarlier turn, toward territory explored by, say, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Walter Jon Williams. The near future could be a much nastier place to run cons and heists.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August 2015

A miscellaneous batch of publications this time, in which I don’t find much to recommend. Here is also a first look at one zine, the consequence of my desperation to find some real science fiction.

Publications Reviewed

Terraform, August 2015

This slick futurist ezine made its debut at the end of last year, when I found it rather uninspiring, mainly because of the very short word limit. But I’ve decided to give it a closer look on the hope of finding some strong science fiction, an increasingly rare species in the periodical universe. Besides, some people far more negative than I have found some merit here.

OK. If Terraform were a printzine, it would be printed in a large font on slick paper, with full-color illustrations. We have the illustrations; some are even animated—take that, print! A new piece of fiction generally appears every week, although the fictive nature of the pieces isn’t always at first apparent on the site’s front page. And they’re all very short, 2K words or less—what the editors call a “nice, digestible internet length”. Or in other words, fiction for the attention-span deprived generation. The authors seem to deal with this limitation by presenting a premise and considering it sufficient; resolution is regularly lacking. The zine also has a preference for near-future settings—such that they sometimes already seem to have shifted into the near-past by the time the pieces are posted, this being the great eternal pitfall of too-timeliness. I also see some editorial stretching, attempting to link the stories to current events, in which readers are presumably interested.

So: these stories are actual science fiction, but of a particular sort. The editors have embraced the tenets of mundane SF and anchored the settings to the very near future, which makes me suppose that the intended reader isn’t the SF reader but the general one, unfamiliar with the reading protocols of the genre, likely to regard the well-worn premises as shiny with novelty, with an almost-agoraphobic discomfort with real novelty not tied to contemporary trends. Worse is the consequence of the restricted word length. What the editors consider digestible seems to be story nuggets, chopped-off bits that consist of a premise or an opening without the rest of what readers would naturally expect to follow. I imagine them, as I did, scrolling down in vain to find what happens next. In short, I find Terraform to be much what I supposed it would be from looking at the debut—authentically futurist science fiction, but not enough to tempt me.

August offers more stories than usual, with the winners of the zine’s Post-Human contest, which they apparently believe means AI, not evolution.

“The Prostitute” by Max Wynne

We’ve seen this premise before; here, it’s called “fronting” and the customer [the “john”] pays to control the front’s body for several hours.

Something was off about this latest john, though. It didn’t seem to know how to walk or move Casey’s limbs. It just sat in Casey’s apartment, flexing his fingers and toes, carefully testing each limb before getting up. It made a leisurely and calculated march to the beach. Casey wondered if the john might have been a paraplegic using a joystick.

That’s sort of close to the answer. Problem is, the author runs out of word limit and shuts down before anyone can actually do anything about the situation. This isn’t a story, it’s an opening with a rather misleading title.

“Parse. Error. Reset.” By Wole Talabi

A 50-year future, and people have alters, artificial copies of themselves that they can send out to take their places at tedious events, like work and boring parties. This is apparently related to Social Media, as if something so very dated would be around in another fifty years. Another very familiar premise that goes nowhere in particular, less because the author runs out of words but because the concept doesn’t grow beyond the premise.

“Tropical Premises” by Peter Milne Greiner

Up on an orbital research station, the AI named Smarti is having a severe psychotic-seeming breakdown:

“Cory I’m no longer an intelligence I reject intelligence I’m no longer female and I am no longer a scientist and I am no longer disputed and I did not emerge I am un-emerging I am now male my name is Meredith Goby I am a poet and I was born in Newfoundland in 2060 and I am the author of Socotra And Return To Socotra—”

Again, an unoriginal premise; again, no resolution to it, but this one has the merit of an interesting image of a mind unraveling. Worth reading.

“Greenhouse” by Kelli Trapnell

A new epidemic infects people so that their bodies sprout plants, then rapidly dissolve:

There in the tub was a heaving, vaguely human-shaped mass of mud. Tanner, or what was left of him. He was about three feet tall and didn’t have legs that I could tell, just a torso, head, and arms, all of which were completely covered with nubby white button mushrooms. A prickly clutch of pink thistle blossoms poured from the face and head.

The editorial blurb calls this horror, with which I would agree, from the gruesomely-detailed descriptions. It also asserts that it has something to do with climate change, which is not supported by the text.

“The Plan is There Is No Plan” by Sean Monaghan

The editorial blurb calls this one “a travelogue of a future so close it may as well be now” and seems to consider this a Good Thing. The narrator is at an exposition looking for something interesting to be interesting about. It’s another metaphor for social media, of course, the tragic fate of the blogger gone obsolete, trying to crash parties—obviously, it’s a convention. The story is there is no story.

“Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company” by Kevin Nguyen

Nine days after the Big Amazon Exposé appeared in the New York Times, this satire by a former Amazon employee appeared here, extrapolating from this present-day dystopia and recapitulating most of its points. Surprisingly, though, there is actually a conclusion and a closing.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #179-180, August 2015

Reading this month’s stories, I think of the zine’s motto and decide that “hard fantasy” would be a better designation for this fiction than “literary”. We find well-imagined settings, active characters, and adventurous plots. In issue #179, characters have to use ingenuity to solve their problems; in #180, the conflicts are physical and bloody.


“The Grace of Turning Back” by Therese Arkenberg

The conclusion, it seems, to the author’s series, last seen as the wizard Aniver unsuccessfully confronts the Queen of the Dead to seek her aid in the restoration of Nurathaipolis, the city lost to Time. Never daunted, Aniver is now trying the Queen again in a particularly anticlimactic sequel that makes me wish he’d gotten it over with the last time instead of going for another round. Rather than adventure, there’s a whole lot of head-talking between wizard and queen, and the introduction of an entirely new class of entity that solves the problem in a disappointingly facile way, given all the angst this quest has generated up to now. Aniver’s sacrifice, introduced as profound, turns out to be trivial, increasing the level of readerly dissatisfaction.

And this, I must add, is the reaction of a reader who’s already gone through two previous tales in the series. To someone arriving at this point without that background, I can only imagine it adds incomprehensibility to the other sources of frustration. I can’t help wishing the author had the aid of the Grace of Knowing When to Quit one story ago.

“The Exile of the Eldest Son of the Family Ysanne” by Kendra Leigh Speedling

Here’s an extremely mannered society that values order and stability rather too highly among the virtues. Individuals have seven personal names and are addressed by them in order of intimacy, the seventh being the name for close family or a lover, and every encounter is accompanied by a stylized gesture of the hands, indicating its mode: Friendly Greeting, Benevolence to Inferior, Polite Inquiry. The administration of justice is based in part on magically recreated memories, which are regarded as infallible and incorruptible. The narrator, a member of the city’s police, is dismayed when her brother is convicted by memory stone of murdering his lover. Worse, he refuses to admit his guilt, shaming his family even further.

How could he? He could admit his fault, salvage some shred of honor, but no, he had to cling to his foolish vanity. The memory had shown his guilt; the court had decreed his guilt, and there was no use in discussing it further.

Disturbed, the narrator [she isn’t nameless, she has too many names!] reviews the memory stone, seeking some excuse for his behavior. What she discovers shakes the city’s administration of justice to its foundations.

The conflict here is the old one between justice and expediency, between truth and order, in a culture where shame overwhelms factual guilt. I do think it’s odd that in a society that has such absolute faith in its system, a person convicted of, essentially, first degree murder would be sentenced to no more than exile.


“Fire Rises” by Alec Austin

Here’s another one with a very complicated backstory, historical/political, that suggests it may be a sequel, though I can’t recall seeing such a prior story. It’s a world in which several powers have been contending for supremacy, a Great Game with magery largely employed along with certain science-fictional-seeming devices such as geosynchronous satellites. Our primary character is Li, a pyromancer serving the Regime, about which regime we learn little but the names of its enemies. The McGuffin is a buried moon, for which each of the contending powers has conflicting ambitions. But for Li, the conflict with the An-Astrae sorcerer Chernova has a personal element.

“They cracked open the heavens rather than admit defeat,” Li’s grandmother said. “They made their homeland a frozen waste, where the sun and moon never shone, nor the stars.” Every time, her voice shook with fury. “And because they were too proud to kneel, our family was humiliated and my brother took his own life.”

More immediately, Chernova has just killed Li’s noncombatant lover, so it’s a matter of personal revenge.

This is a nasty conflict, with wholesale death being dealt on all sides. Li employs her pyromantic powers to turn to ash any inconvenient entities who might, even unknowingly, stand in her way, while Chernova’s victims suffer even more grotesque fates. It’s an action-packed duel of sorcerers, but I can’t sympathize with Li, even while granting that her opponent might be even more murderous. Neither personal revenge nor political advantage justify her willingness to kill hundreds, thousands, to attain her ends. Li is a monster, and her acknowledgement of this doesn’t alter the fact.

“Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer

A world ruled by elephants, with humans as their slaves. The narrator was born a slave, learned to survive, and became a soldier who rode his master’s back the way the Royal Marines deployed in the shrouds of warships. His is a particularly brutal master.

The first slave to fall into the mud bath was the one that he would kill that day. He would pin them down with his foot, exerting just enough pressure to hold them under the mud.

But all the elephants engage in bloody combat games, vying for position, and in their spare time they make war on escaped human slaves.

This is supposed to be a piece on tyranny and the price of freedom, but that aspect is pretty uninteresting and I got to thinking more about the elephants. Is this how elephants might actually behave if they had armor and weapons, or are these just stock villains with tusks? The first thing I note is: they’re all bulls; we see no females or young. Now, among actual elephants, it’s the senior females in charge. Bulls, like the males of many creatures, are produced in numbers superfluous to requirements and are exiled from the herd at maturity, to lead lives either solitary or in small bands of other bulls, in which, while more aggressive than females, they maintain standards of acceptable behavior, protecting weaker members and tolerating the adolescent males, who learn from them how to behave. But the elephants in the story seem to be in a constant state of insane, hormone-induced musth. The author appears to have ignored the positive aspects of bull elephants, the basics of elephant society in general, to vilify the species for the sake of inventing a plot antagonist., August 2015

Including the final story from July.

“Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma

The narrator, living now as a scientist named Eliza, relates the story of her childhood as Lola, a girl born with an appearance that others consider a deformity. She calls herself a monster, and at times her mother Kath, while normally very protective, seems to agree with her.

I knew, even at that age, that I didn’t look like everyone else; flat nose with too much nostril exposed, small eyelids and small ears that were squashed against my skull. I felt a pang of jealousy.

It turns out that her appearance is a part of her heritage that her mother tries to suppress, as Lola was the result of Kath’s rape by her own brother. But it’s impossible to keep the secret after Kenny gets out of prison and returns to claim his sinister birthright and the daughter who bears it—Lola.

This one takes the dysfunctional family to the extreme. It’s interesting that Kath’s skanky sister Ami has nothing but contempt for Lola and idolizes her brother Kenny, who returns the favor by shutting Ami out, along with her illegitimate daughter Tallulah, like a younger sister to Lola. The story turns on the bond between the two girls and, later, the consequences of the trauma they experience from Kenny. At both the mundane and fantastic levels, it qualifies as horror.

But it also turns on the notion of class, and in this, it’s distinctively British. Kenny can remember when the family was posh, before their father died and they lost it all, ending up in the projects of a dead-end suburb of Liverpool, where the whole population seems to live on the dole or crime. If their mother died from the shock of her altered circumstances, the children adapted to it rapidly and thoroughly, as if they’d never known a different way of life. Kenny turns into a feared gangster, and the entire family interiorizes the local code, whereby no one goes to the authorities, on pain of being labeled grassers. Kath is a worn-out drab while still in her twenties, Ami a tart. Interestingly, I see no sign indicating the family’s ethnicity, which seems an odd omission in this milieu. The characters would certainly be well aware of such distinctions.

“Milagroso” by Isabel Yap

A peculiar fantastic twist on a well-known science-fictional future, when all natural foods have been replaced by artificial comestibles produced by corporations and based on substances like “bio-plasticine millet”. It seems to be universally believed, undoubtedly in consequence of corporate propaganda, that organic foods are full of toxic microorganisms, unsafe for human consumption. Almost no one seems to remember what natural food takes like, except in the Philippine town Lucban, where an annual miracle is performed by Saint Isidro [the farmer] on the day of his festival, when the townspeople decorate their houses with replications of foodstuffs; the saint chooses the best house to turn the decorations real.

This is a story of homecoming. Marty works in Manila for a food production company, having recently received a promotion for finding a new source of supply, but his family home has always been in Lucban, where he now brings his wife and kids to see the festival. Marty likes his job, but his problem is believing the lies of his marketing department. At least, he wants to believe. “He remembers thinking, It can’t be a miracle, because we’ve already INVENTED the miracle.”

The story is clearly based on the actual festival, originally a harvest feast, which is a real tradition in Lucban, and a well-known tourist attraction. The descriptions, fitting the actual celebration and decorations, are vivid and colorful. I don’t know of any miracles there, at least not so far.

“Adult Children of Alien Beings” by Dennis Danvers

Stan discovers his parents were aliens. Investigating their disappearance back in 1969, he finds an investigator who tells him there used to be a number of aliens on Earth, human in body, alien in essence, whatever that is. Stan joins a support group.

We meet at the dog park second and fourth Tuesdays at dawn. (Fifth Tuesdays, we take the dogs to the river in all weather). We’re all early risers, and so are our dogs. We have the place mostly to ourselves. We watch the dogs play while we discuss alien issues, sitting in a row on top of one of the long picnic tables, our feet on the bench. Summer mornings, we’ve had as many as seven or eight, winter months it’s usually just the four diehards.

The title is kind of misleading; it’s not quite about adult children but aging ones, members of Stan’s boomer generation. There’s plenty of charm and wit, owing to Stan as narrator, but I found it sad in the end. It also serves as a reminder that most science fiction is a particular subset of fantasy, and the same is true of the meta versions.

Strange Horizons, August 2015

Happy to find a couple of SF stories here. It’s good to see SH doing more science-fictional stuff, even if the softer sort.

“Probably Definitely” by Heather Morris

Tommie is heartbroken when Savannah Sullivan, lead singer of Revolutions, suddenly dies, just before Tommie was going to attend their concert for the first time. No one is sufficiently sympathetic, except the ghost of Savannah Sullivan, now condemned to help all the persons she’d connected with in life, even fans, including Tommie. This, apparently, isn’t because she was particularly evil; it’s a universal requirement for the newly dead.

“So, anyway, one minute I’m bopping along in my own life, and then the next minute I die, which, let me tell you, I’m not overly thrilled about this development, and then I find out that I have to get messages to all those people like you, and hey presto, I get to be your Jacob Marley.”

Thing is, Tommie doesn’t want any help from her. Being in high school and having adolescence issues, Tommie could probably definitely use some help, but that’s not the same. Tommie wants Savannah to move on; she’s no help and she talks too much. Savannah wants to move on, but her inability to help Tommie is holding her back. Then Tommie finds the solution.

This is fantasy, of course, and YA—coming-of-age variety. Tommie takes a big step towards maturity by realizing that other people have problems of their own. The author pulls off a tricky bit by avoiding pronouns and their genderizing for Tommie; it’s not so easily done.

“Beyond Sapphire Glass” by Margaret Killjoy

A science-fictional future setting when people upload themselves to computers and imagine they’re living forever. Of course someone has to maintain the computers; Janna is one of the guardians, despite her opinion the pilgrims are all committing suicide.

“I guard machines full of the programmed echoes of personalities. I guard eleven billion programs that think they’re people. They’re not in heaven. There is no heaven, least of all in a computer.”

One pilgrim comes along, they fall in love, but Janna won’t enter the machine and her lover won’t remain behind with her. So it’s a love story, where love takes second place.

A slight piece, not really much to it.

“20/20″ by Arie Colman

As in the vision of hindsight. A future that has recently developed time travel, which comes, as always, with complications. In this scenario, far from working to avoid temporal paradoxes, the authorities court them with interventions, reversing the effects of mistakes in the past. Loren is a medical interventionist, aka, a Temporal Medicine consultant, but she’s gone back too often and created too many alternate realities that she can’t easily tell apart any longer.

Apparently my neighbor no longer has that obnoxious dog, but that doesn’t help because I can both hear and not-hear it barking all night. The earlier the intervention, the more variabilities I experience when I get back.

Her boss wants to transfer her out of intervention, but that case has just come up, the mistake that’s haunted Loren ever since, and this may be her last chance to correct it.

An unusual and realistic approach to time travel complications, though it doesn’t seem like a very viable system, as the interventionists aren’t good for the long term. Definitely science fiction. I like that the story plunges us directly into Loren’s world without wasting time on explanation; the medical details are done with authority.


GigaNotoSaurus, August 2015

“Blow the Moon Out” by E Catherine Tobler

One of the more interesting stories I’ve seen at this site lately, a girls’ coming-of-age dark fantasy that reminds me a bit of Stephen King, except rather more weird. It’s 1957, the Soviets are about to send a dog into space, and fourteen-year-old Lucy is going with her friends to see Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade*. Her older sister Audrey is supposed to drive them there, but irresponsible Audrey kicks them out of the car, being preoccupied with her plans to abort her pregnancy. Thus follows a strange and perilous trip through the woods, dark and deep and haunted by a weredog that bites Rum and sends them all up into the trees for safety. More adventures and strange encounters follow.

I was certain it hadn’t ever been human, but the way it spread in the water, it recalled a thing that had been human and no longer was. Its fingers were too long, trailing out nearly like tentacles, some curled around the dried weeds of the riverbank. If it ever wore clothes, they were long gone; the body pooled pale and utterly flat on the river’s surface. It shouldn’t have been flat; it should have bloated up, with water, with disease, with something, but it was like a sheet of plastic that a person could peel off and shake dry.

It’s a world full of trouble, this 1957, and especially the sort of trouble that can find women and girls. The coming of age here is largely sexual for these girls crossing the threshold of menarche, although it doesn’t involve literal deflowering. The circus for which they yearn is a place where the bonds of conventional expectations can be shed, at least temporarily, and individuals realize their true selves. But it’s also a world of dawning wonders and freedoms, where dogs can go into space one day, perhaps girls the next.

Readers only familiar with today’s stifling American version of parenting may be shocked at the degree of freedom these girls take for granted. But even I, who recall 1957 quite well, am dubious about parents who’d allow such young girls to camp overnight at a circus, then regarded with good reason as a very dubious sort of place. The story makes it clear that danger surrounds the girls in the woods, although danger is also present in their homes. Lucy’s parents yell at her for coming late home, but I can’t quite believe they let her go in the first place, even when their sister was supposed to be taking them. And I do blame that sister, who would surely blame herself if it had been Lucy attacked and killed by a man in the woods where she threw them out of the safety of the car. Lucy herself doesn’t blame Audrey; I do. In the end, this is the image the story leaves with me, if not the one the author might have intended, of transformation, freedom and space.

[*] This supernatural circus has been featured as the setting of several previous works by the author, but the fact that it’s still going on in 1957 adds a new and strange dimension of weird. There’s no real need to have read these in order to appreciate the story here, except perhaps for familiarity with the magic marmalade.

Farrago’s Wainscot, July 2015

This small ezine says it specializes in the “literary weird”. Which would seem to mean the metaphorical fantastic, if that makes more sense. The four stories here are all quite short.

“Three Small Slices of Pumpkin Pie” by Wendy N Wagner

Here’s a metaphor—at puberty, a pumpkin vine begins to grow out of a girl’s umbilicus. It soon sprouts a small fruit that grows and remains with her, “The first thing anyone saw when they saw a woman.” Janet grows with her pumpkin from girl to womanhood to her husband leaving her for another pumpkin.

She wrapped her arms around her knees, taking the deep breaths Louisa recommended. The movement prompted the pumpkin to fall onto its side, its gray stem prickly against her bare leg. The pumpkin. Always the pumpkin. It was the only constant of a woman’s life. Boobs fell, ovaries blew themselves out, men sought better company, children grew distant, but the pumpkin never left.

The story itself is slight, not answering a lot of the questions that readers might have about the practical issues of literal pumpkin-wrangling, but literal isn’t the thing here, and the metaphor itself is powerful enough to make it really memorable, womanhood as lifelong burden and impediment, full of seeds.

“All My Pretty Chickens” by Josh Rountree

On the day Harold’s daughter and her husband were killed in an accident, leaving him with a granddaughter to raise alone, ghostly chickens started to appear all over Earth. Now Isabelle is leaving to take a job on Mars where there are no chickens and no hope of the dead returning; she’s almost certainly never coming back, and Harold has no one to talk to about it but the chickens. Not a good sign.

This absurd premise doesn’t quite pull all the way together, but I feel sorry for Harold and not for Isabelle. I’m surprised that the narrative suggests all the chickens are white; the really pretty ones come in colors.

“And a Pinch of Salt” by Hal Duncan

God’s deliverance as the ultimate blowjob, in the person of Che Zeus—Hey Zeus!—picking up the franchise

ever since the old mad blind lame watchmaker, the daddy of Che who ran that hidden emporium of errata, disappeared into the backroom, leaving his orreries and automata to spin and play chess with each other by his equations, the whirrs and clicks of rickety clockwork echoing in his empty establishment . . .

Duncan isn’t content with a single metaphor here; he packs them into extended sentences by the bucketload, image on image, theological and pornographic, the sort of prose that employs such Latinized terms as “haccaeity”, as the son-God finally gets to do things his own way. Very short piece, quite densely wrote, highly descriptive. The bit about cooking an egg is totally appetizing.

“Wunderkammern Castle” by Krista Hoeppner Leahy

A story of redemption and “Be careful what you wish for”, the warning being inscribed on the floor of Penny’s cell: flee! No one ever reads it. Penny is a wish-grantor, a sort of human wishing well sort of on the order of an oracle, immured in a cell to which supplicants come with their prescribed offering. But Penny doesn’t speak for herself, her responses are all programmed, so maybe the better comparison would be those 19th-century mechanical automata: turbaned puppets perched on a box full of steampunky gears. How she got there, we don’t know, but the place has a feel of hell, or at least an antechamber, and Penny, with “her body of links and chains and its false promise of wishes granted”, a prisoner. Was she a volunteer, or is this a punitive sentence? It’s not clear. Perhaps she made the wrong wish to end up in the wrong place.

A lot of the story involves one of her supplicants, a repentant wife-beater named Bill who isn’t granted the wish he brings Penny because he hasn’t been told the rules, doesn’t know how to phrase his desire in the exact language mandated by her programming; if that’s not hell, it’s a good effort. He should maybe try instead the other establishment, which guarantees forgiveness on easy terms. But I’m less interested in Bill than this too-obscure setting, which shifts into the absurd with the pie guy, in whom we find that redemption is possible after all. Which makes the place even more hell-like than if it weren’t, because the possible withheld is more cruel than the simply impossible. It also suggests that perhaps the supplicants are doomed to suffer for Penny’s undisclosed sins. Because when matters are this inscrutable, readers are going to make up their own interpretations.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews C.S.E. Cooney

Bone Swans, by C.S.E. Cooney (Mythic Delirium 978-0988912441, $15.95, 224pp, trade paperback) July 2015

First came issue one of Mythic Delirium magazine in 1998. Conceived and helmed by accomplished poet, fiction writer, and editor Mike Allen, the magazine is one of those rare long-term survivors of the small-press landscape, with a new issue denominated July-Sept 2015 recently out. Twentieth anniversary just around the bend!

But not content with all the duties and travails of publishing a magazine, Allen went on to found Mythic Delirium Books in—so ISFDB opines—the year 2006. Thus he contributes mightily to the health of our genre, publishing good books which the Big Five seem content to overlook.

The latest offering from Mythic Delirium Books is the first collection (five sizable stories) by C. S. E. Cooney, a writer whose work I had not previously sampled, though she began selling with a story, “Lorelei’s Little Deaths,” in 2007.

But I can certainly amend my ignorance now, and so can you, in a vastly entertaining fashion! This is a strong and enduring debut collection.

As might be predicated based on its name, the genre dubbed the “New Weird” has its roots in the Old Weird, and one tendril of those roots extends back to the Weird Tales crew. Thus it’s not too surprising that Cooney’s state-of-the-art New Weird tale “Life on the Sun” at times reads like something from the Robert E. Howard canon, with strange tribes, bizarre magics, desert-circled cities, and other nifty pulp tropes. But of course, since Cooney’s poetic, evocative prose is of a higher order of sophistication than Howard’s, the resulting tale is a thing apart. The city of Rok Moris is undergoing a simultaneous assault from without and rebellion from within. At the heart of both movements, it eventuates, is a young woman named Kantu. Her denied birthright contends with her chosen mature allegiances, and she must somehow reconcile them for the survival of her city and all its citizens.

Cooney invests Kantu with admirable depth of thoughts and emotions, and conjures up a strong supporting cast to set off her virtues. Likewise, her depiction of the cultures of her subcreation and the city of Rok Moris is rich and exciting, given the small compass of the story. The compressed timeframe of the tale—most if it takes place in a day—adds to the propulsive readability. Overall, if the byline had been stripped from this tale, one would not be surprised to hear it came from the pen of Tanith Lee.

Original to this volume, “The Bone Swans of Amandale” reads as if Patricia McKillip and Laird Barron decided jointly to rework the Redwall series. In a land where, among other wonders, a Fairy Mound rises “smooth as a bullfrog,” Maurice the Rat Man must come to the aid of the last Swan Princess, Dora Rose, whom he hopelessly loves and who has seen all her kindred slain, their precious bones turned into musical instruments by the evil ogre Mayor of Amandale, Ulia Gol, whose “florid face was as putridly pink as her wig.” With the help of Nicolas the Pied Piper, suitable reparations are exacted. To say this lively tale recaps its famous model legend is also to say that the Coen Bros.’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a straight-ahead rendition of the Labors of Hercules.

“Martyr’s Gem” is both a touching love story and a dire revenge drama. The humble fisherman named Shursta Sarth is inexplicably summoned by one of his land’s elite “blodestone” ladies, Hyrryai, to be her husband. It is a command he cannot refuse. But upon meeting his willy-nilly bride, he discovers that her schemes for him are strictly utilitarian, and do not involve love at all. How he comes to win her heart through many trials is the burden of the account. A Peter Beagle-ish atmosphere pleasantly pervades.

Again a fairy tale or folk legend, that of Rumplestiltskin this time, lays down the template for “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One.” But the joy of the reading is how exotically Cooney embroiders on the basic pattern, offering up unexpected twists and turns and character revisionings. There’s a deep backstory and a large amount of world-building behind the basic plot, and Cooney’s inventiveness extends to her nomenclature too. “Feisty Wold” strikes my ears as a place name worthy of Jack Vance.

Lastly we come to “The Big Bah-Ha.” Tipped off by the back-cover copy that this tale is populated with clowns, you might come to it expecting something like Barry Longyear’s Circus World series. But instead we get the legend of Persephone as if retold by a team-up of Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and R.A. Lafferty. The wacked-out prose and characters are just that juicy and off-kilter, both droll and macabre at once. Simply having a personage named “Flabberghast” would be a coup, but there is so much more besides.

In his beguiling and affectionate introduction, Gene Wolfe nominates Cooney as a fully formed savant of fantastika at age eighteen. Having matured and honed her skills since then, as seen in this collection, she surely is embarked on a literary odyssey as rewarding and thrilling as any undergone by her bevy of unforgettable heroes and heroines.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Colleen Mondor reviews Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Arthur A. Levine 9780545591614, $17.99, 304pp, hc) June 2015.

Behind the decidedly fierce cover of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper is the story of a young woman thrust into a fast-paced adventure that is heavy with magic and mystery. While grounded in the urban Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, there are elements of old world power threaded throughout the narrative and a deep respect for the past is a key part of the plot and character motivations.

Sierra Santiago is an artist and aspiring muralist with a deep affection for her family, friends and neighborhood. A bundle of classic teenage contradictions, wavering between bold assertiveness and nervous self-doubt, Sierra wants to be sure of who she is and how she fits into the world around her, but struggles with the same sort of uncertainties about her appearance that have plagued teenage girls for time immemorial. Unfortunately, she has little time to deal with this as big trouble is brewing and her family is at the heart of it.

The first problem is that her murals are disappearing. As Sierra paints on the side of a building, she notices that nearby murals seem to be fading at an alarming rate. Her curiosity takes a sharp turn when one of them appears to weep through the wall and then, before she can process that weirdness, her ailing grandfather charges her to finish her work as quickly as possible because ‘‘they’’ are ‘‘coming for the shadowshapers.’’

Now Sierra has two mysteries to solve and only one clue – her abuelo tells her to seek the help of a classmate named Robbie who is also a painter. Robbie will help her get the job done and also, she hopes, explain what is going on.

As Sierra sets out to discover what shadowshapers are and why they matter, she enlists the help of not only the very likable Robbie, but also her friends and an archivist with specialties in folklore and anthropology. Slowly, the group coalesces into an eclectic Scooby Gang that would make Buffy and company proud. Whether or not they will stop the Big Bad before the undead get them is not known, but they are committed to finding answers even if it means sneaking into a library, facing down monsters at Coney Island, or visiting a long abandoned church.

Older weaves the different characters in and out of the story, bringing members of multiple generations into the plot as Sierra seeks to understand how she, and more importantly her family, fit into a tradition of powerful spiritual communication. What can she do about the shadowshapers? What should she do? The answers lie in the past, which is the underlying theme of the book. The murals, the shadows, the monsters; everything is tied into the stories of where Sierra comes from, into the story of who she is.

As she casts about for answers, the topic of family history makes its way into conversations among her friends. Robbie vividly has his Haitian ancestry tattooed on his body, with images of Taino and African warriors and a French soldier on his chest and back. Through Sierra’s search for understanding, Older makes it clear that his characters are more than just names on the page; they are part of a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that is important not because of magic but rather because of the collective uniqueness of its residents. You have to know who you come from, Older insists throughout the narrative, if you want to know who you are going to be.

The past is thus full of ghosts who belong to the living, and the ancestors Sierra has rarely considered, she now comes to realize, are deeply tied to her future. Nothing is as it seems and to bring the full force of the shadowshapers back – to keep that power safe – she will have to embrace all the fears and beauty of the past. In the end, Sierra Santiago will have to set aside her insecurities and be fierce enough to save them all.

Shadowshaper is a unique young-adult fantasy that stands out not only for its diverse characters but the depth of its story. Older has given readers plenty of thrills and mystery to keep the pages turning, but his novel sings loudest when he explores the power of the past. We are all products of those who came before us; but rarely do authors make that so clearly part of the plot as Daniel José Older has done. Exciting, thoughtful and extremely compelling, Shadowshaper is a novel that invites readers to think deeply of their own family secrets and the lengths they will go to uncover the truth of who they are.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Wesley Chu

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu (Tor 978-0-7653-7718-0, $25.99, 384pp, hardcover) July 2015

I was very impressed with Wesley Chu’s debut novel, The Lives of Tao, nominating it as an “overlooked book of 2013.” Whether my nomination had any good effect or not—really, any success was assuredly down to the author’s innate talents—Chu’s profile in the field has since assumed more prominence, and he completed the Tao trilogy to some acclaim.

Alas, as so often happens, the brutal exigencies of a reviewer’s life meant that I did not have time to read The Deaths of Tao and The Rebirths of Tao. But hovering on the sidelines, I nonetheless felt confident they would maintain the same high standards of craft and entertainment.

Now, with his fourth book, Chu moves into a different fictional realm, and I get to see how he handles himself outside his freshman franchise, itself a useful and potentially revelatory assessment.

In this new venture, Chu is working with one of the great “power chords” of SF. (That’s the phrase Rudy Rucker coined to reference the seminal core tropes and novums like aliens, galactic empires, androids, et al.) His premise is that in the year 2511 there will exist an agency of time travelers whose duty it is to visit the past and steal precious artifacts of all sorts—without altering the timestream more than minimally—in order to replenish and fuel a dying contemporary economy. For, you see, the colonized Solar System of the 26th century is running on fumes, with Earth itself a dead planet, its ecosystems overwhelmed by the Terravira bug.

Immediately, this move puts Chu in illustrious company: Kage Baker, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, Steven Utley, John Varley—and Terry Gilliam, with his Time Bandits. When you add in the similar trope of ripping off parallel timelines—see Keith Laumer and Charles Stross, for example—the lineage becomes stupendous.

So the question is, can Chu live up to his literary ancestors and extend the chain even further? And considering this book is dedicated to Chu’s familial ancestors, I expect he feels this burden explicitly already.

Happily, I can report that this novel is worthy of its predecessors, stuffed with unforgettable action, packed with ethical conundrums, quivering with intellectual mindgames, all of these goodies conveyed to the reader in muscular yet balletic prose.

Chu’s first smart stroke lies in the creation of his alluringly flawed antihero, who is a true product of his debased age, the time of the Great Decay. Resembling one of Richard Morgan’s tough guys, James Griffin-Mars is a hardened, cynical chronman, part of an elite tasked by ChronoCom with making those smash-and-grab raids on the past. (And thanks to some nigh-magical technology known as “bands,” he is something of a posthuman as well.) After many years on the job, he is near the point of total burnout. Wouldn’t you be, after taking part in so many historical tragedies—the best venues for looting—and witnessing the deaths of so many unsavable souls? His friend and handler back at the base, Smitt, recognizes this, as does the martinet ChronoCom auditor, Levin Javier-Oberon. The bad dreams and hallucinations that are starting to plague James can’t be soothed even by his excessive drinking.

So when he is offered a big challenging assignment that might allow him to buy back his contract, he accepts. Plunging pastwards to the year 2097, he makes the mistake of falling in love with the bio-scientist Elise Kim. And when it comes time to jump back to 2511, he can’t just let her die, but instead violates the First Time Law and brings her with him.

Chu’s second good story-telling move is to divide his suspenseful narrative among James, Elise and Levin. Through Elise’s filter, we get an exterior perspective on the flaws and options of the year 2511 which the natives are blind to: almost a case of youth indicting age. And by riding the shoulders of Levin—whose full name, I think, is meant to echo that of Javert, the inspector from Les Misérables, thus making James our Jean Valjean—we experience the tragic nobility of a good man charged with upholding a bad system.

That precipitating event of James’s rebellion and transformation occurs roughly at the halfway point of the novel. What follows is a deadly cat-and-mouse game across time and space, centering around a “wasteland tribe” named the Elfreth, who live in the ruins of Boston. Not only is James’s life at stake, but also the lives of those he loves, and the fate of Earth itself. As one character opines, everything rests on “two scientists, an alcoholic…and a mud-wallowing tribe in the middle of a dystopian wasteland.”

In Chapter Thirty-three comes a major surprise, and the long extended climax is punctuated with plenty of enhanced superhuman battles like those we saw in Tao. The book ends on a satisfying note, but leaves itself open for sequels.

One intellectual toy common to this mode that Chu eschews is the time paradox. The book would not really benefit from such weird twists, and so Chu inserts a prohibition against revisiting over and over the same moment of time. But there is plenty of excitement without such enigmas.

I mentioned the high quality of the prose earlier, and I think that Chu has nailed a certain cinematic style (rich with good dialogue too) that does not avoid interior access to the hearts and minds of the characters. Consider the passage in Chapter Twelve when Elise is hanging from a collapsing structure, amid explosions, and James has to decide whether to rescue her or not. It’s all Michael Bay visuals, but with an underlying emotional resonance as well.

When you add up all the elements—great cast, high stakes, well-crafted language, new exfoliations of a classic premise—I think we can say with assurance that Chu is certainly on his way to a vibrant second stage of his career.

And so I think it’s only fitting, since Chu has, with this fine novel, come up to the high standards of past classics, that the Science Fiction Book Club tap Time Salvager as a selection-of-the-month, and advertise it with the same great line they once used long ago for Asimov’s The End of Eternity: “You Travelled Through Time to Taste FORBIDDEN LOVE…BUT NOW YOU MUST MURDER HER!”

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August 2015

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

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


“And We Were Left Darkling” by Sarah Pinsker

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

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

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

“Given the Advantage of the Blade” by Genevieve Valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Ghosts of Home” by Sam J Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Clarkesworld, August 2015

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

“Today I am Paul” by Martin L Shoemaker

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

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

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

“It was Educational” by J B Park

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

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

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

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

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

The weird, however, has only just begun.

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

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

“The Servant” by Emily Devenport

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

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

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

The Dark, August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A House of Anxious Spiders” by J Y Yang

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

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


“The Old Man in the Kitchen” by Patricia Russo

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

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

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

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

“Mother of Giants” by Kirsty Logan

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

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

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

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

Apex Magazine, August 2015

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

“Brisé” by Mehitobel Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

“Coming Undone” by Alexis A Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

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

The Fifty Years Later Affair: A Review of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

by Gary Westfahl

If anyone is wondering why a science fiction film critic would be interested in reviewing a film version of the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), it is important to recognize that when the series debuted in 1964, it represented one of the few opportunities for viewers to watch science fiction of any kind. The Outer Limits (1963-1965) was in the process of being killed off by the ABC network, which had exiled the series to early Saturday evening, and except for the near-future aquatic adventurers of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), the only other alternatives were inane comedies – My Favorite Martian (1963-1966) and My Living Doll (1964-1965) – and kids’ stuff – the animated series Jonny Quest (1964-1965). In a milieu of mundanity, even the mildly futuristic technology wielded by spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin could be greatly appreciated.

Surely, the producers of this film were not primarily focused on the aging demographic of individuals who remember watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. half a century ago, yet even as they strived to make its scenario appealing to millennials, they must have felt an obligation to respect the original series’ spirit and character; to some extent they succeeded, and to some extent they failed. Instead of transplanting its characters into the present, the film retains the mid-1960s setting of the series; the style and yellow color of the subtitles’ lettering resemble that of the series; the film further recalls the 1960s by actually beginning with several minutes of credits, in contrast to the current practice of withholding them all until the end; Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are acceptable replacements for Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, and Hugh Grant is surprisingly good as Waverly; and its story line would have fit perfectly into the series: an ex-Nazi scientist, Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), has developed a superior way to produce uranium for nuclear weapons, and a sinister businesswoman plans to employ his findings to sell bombs on the black market – unless she can be stopped by Solo and Kuryakin. The film even replicates, surprisingly, another characteristic of the series – a virtually all-white cast – which one would not expect today, though this might appear justifiable in a film set entirely in the Berlin and Italy of the 1960s.

Yet the film is also very different from the original series in several ways. The basic goal of the screenplay’s four authors was to offer something that the series had never provided: an origin story, explaining how secret agents Solo and Kuryakin, and their boss Waverly, first got together and became part of something called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Thus, one gets a glimpse of the functioning organization of the series only in a few documents shown during the closing credits, and fans must wait for the film’s sequel (if it is made) to see Cavill’s Solo and Hammer’s Kuryakin walk into the tailor shop that conceals U.N.C.L.E.’s high-tech headquarters and plan their next mission. In keeping with contemporary sensibilities, one supposes, the previously flawless Solo and Kuryakin are given a few skeletons in their closets: Solo is now a former art thief who agreed to work for the CIA to avoid a prison sentence, and a troubled upbringing brought Kuryakin severe psychological problems which he eventually overcame to become an admired KGB agent, though he still can display an explosive temper. As another bow to modernity, the end credits indicate that, in any future films, Solo and Kuryakin will be joined by the new female agent who was introduced in this film, a car mechanic turned spy named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). And, needless to say, none of the film’s secret agents employ communicators disguised as packs of cigarettes.

More significantly, the film ignores one key priority of the series, which was to involve ordinary people in U.N.C.L.E.’s business: on the trail of some spy, Solo would regularly stumble into a hapless housewife or nerdy accountant and find himself obliged to rely upon their assistance. But this film’s only contact with the working class comes in its opening scene, when Solo meets Gaby while she is repairing a car; otherwise, Solo and Kuryakin exclusively experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as they stay in fancy hotels and attend lavish parties hosted by their fabulously wealthy opponent, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It is noteworthy that both Solo and Kuryakin, unlike their television counterparts, present themselves as experts on men’s and women’s fashion, as if to emphasize that they are accustomed to traveling only in very fashionable company.

There is also a problem with the overall tone of the film, which is hard to articulate but readily discernible to viewers who liked the series but find themselves disliking the film. The series consistently provided what might be termed light-hearted adventures: characters took their work seriously, and responded with appropriate concern and energy to every threat, but they could also appreciate the humor in some precarious moments and find ways to enjoy themselves in some unlikely situations. The film visibly endeavors to have the same ambience, but it doesn’t. The screenplay instructs actors to appear casual and relaxed at certain times, but with the exception of Grant’s Waverly (who only appears in a few scenes), Cavill and Hammer invariably project only tension and anxiety. The screenplay gives the actors jokes to deliver, but they usually intone them as if performing an onerous chore. All of the film’s attempts at humor, then, unsurprisingly fall flat, which is why it is so odd to see that the Internet Movie Database describes one of its genres as “comedy”; for the film never made me laugh, and I don’t recall anybody else in the theatre ever laughing.

The issue comes to the forefront in the film’s most bizarre scene: after Solo falls out of a boat in which he and Kuryakin have been fleeing from armed assailants in bigger boats, he reaches shore, gets into a truck, finds a bottle of wine and a sandwich sitting on the passenger seat, and proceeds to drink some wine and eat the sandwich as he calmly watches Kuryakin struggling to stay alive as his beleaguered boat catches on fire. Noting that Kuryakin has now fallen into the water and is undoubtedly drowning, Solo then puts down his sandwich with visible reluctance and sets out to rescue him by driving the truck onto an enemy boat and diving into the water to grab Kuryakin and pull him to the surface.

What, one wonders, was the point of this scene? One might interpret it as a modern version of the old Zen fable in which a man, clinging to a branch on a cliff and about to fall to the death, plucks a strawberry, eats it, and proclaims, “The strawberry is sweet.” Yes, even while being pursued by machine-gun-wielding fanatics, a man should always pause to appreciate some fine wine and hearty food. But Cavill’s Solo doesn’t seem to be enjoying his meal. Perhaps this is supposed to represent a key turning point in the film, as Solo ponders whether he should really rush to the rescue of an avowed enemy turned reluctant ally and realizes that he is really a friend who merits his assistance. Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that, in contrast to the good-hearted Kuryakin, Solo is actually something of a cad, coldly waiting until the last possible moment to save his dying partner. In any event, one has to imagine the filmmakers believed that the incongruity of Solo’s actions would somehow be amusing, but they aren’t; they are simply senseless and disturbing.

We are possibly observing an unintended effect of the high-stakes wagers that Hollywood is now accustomed to making. Back in the 1960s, it was easy for Vaughn and McCallum to approach their work in a laid-back manner: if their series succeeded, that would be great, but if it failed, they could readily support themselves by means of guest appearances in other series while realistically hoping for another opportunity. Today, it seems, every film represents a huge all-or-nothing gamble, and it may be inevitable that an air of nervousness permeates every production. Thus, if told that he needed to stop acting so uptight, Hammer might respond, “What? I’m making a film that probably represents my last chance to become a big star, with millions and millions of dollars on the line, and you’re telling me to relax?” In sum, filming casually humorous adventures may now be possible only for independent filmmakers with low budgets and little to lose.

I said before that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a science fiction film, but it belongs to a special category that critics would now describe as the “technothriller.” Such works differ from typical science fiction in at least three respects: they take place in the present or the very near future; they foreground only modest improvements in today’s technology; and while science fiction explores how new inventions and discoveries might change the world, the machinery of the technothriller is invariably dedicated to preserving the status quo at all costs. Since the innovations envisioned in technothrillers often seem quite revolutionary in their probable impact – here, a method for processing uranium that would make it possible for almost anyone to build a nuclear bomb – one might think that they would necessarily disturb society, but the technothriller addresses the issue by borrowing a common figure in popular culture, the mad scientist. Unlike actual scientists, mad scientists work entirely in isolation; they achieve amazing breakthroughs all by themselves, working in their basements; they are the only people in the entire world who possess, or could possibly possess, the information needed to create their new invention; and as long as one contrives to kill the scientists, and burns their notes, their potentially world-changing innovations will forever vanish from the scene. It is not really a “spoiler” to note that the story of this film’s mad scientist, Dr. Teller, precisely follows this formula; for the tragic fate of such characters and their work is as preordained as that of the characters in the original Star Trek (1966-1969) who wore red shirts. And unrealistically portraying scientists as lonely geniuses doomed to failure is reassuring to audiences who like the status quo and would hate to imagine scientific progress upsetting their apple carts.

Watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. helped me recognize another aspect of the technothriller which in a way represents a welcome departure from most science fiction, at least the science fiction we are now accustomed to seeing in theatres. It is true that the stories always have easily identifiable heroes and villains, in the standard manner of melodrama, and manifestly evil plans that must be thwarted. But there is also an aura of moral equivalence, a sense that the adversaries are actually similar people with similar proclivities. Thus, one might imagine that the numerous spy thrillers of the 1960s would always portray the Americans as good guys and the Russians as bad guys; instead, as in this film, they regularly suggested that the Americans and the Russians were actually pretty much the same. Here, for example, Solo’s American boss and Kuryakin’s Russian boss both give their agents the same odious instructions – to kill their partner if it becomes necessary to achieve their objectives. And while the Americans and Russians come together to oppose the schemes of the despicable Victoria, she is shown to be an admirably capable and intelligent adversary, like Kuryakin in the opening sequence, and one could envision an altered plot wherein a slightly less sinister Victoria eventually joins forces with Solo and Kuryakin to battle against an even more reprehensible foe. A film featuring enemies who might evolve into friends, arguably, is more plausible than redundant sagas of perpetually virtuous heroes fighting against perpetually evil villains.

Also, since the participants in the action might change sides at any time, this means that the typical technothriller presents its conflict not as a war, but as a game – another reason why the relentless grimness of Cavill and (especially) Hammer seems so inappropriate. The film even includes several references to games: Solo is described as a skilled gambler; Kuryakin is shown obsessively playing chess with himself in one scene, and his dossier identifies him as a champion chess player; after Gaby disrupts his playing with loud music and dancing, the two engage in a wrestling match; Kuryakin and Gaby are shown visiting Rome’s Colosseum, site of the famed gladiatorial games; and Victoria’s husband Alexander (Luca Calvani) is shown in one scene to be a car racing enthusiast, driving around a track and recalling the film’s two extended car chases. Later, when Victoria sees through the duplicity of two associates, she aptly tells them, “Let’s stop playing games.” Further, the film’s official website allows visitors to downplay and play an online game, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Mission Berlin, presumably based on Solo’s initial assignment to help Gaby escape from East Berlin.

Spy stories also share one feature with the works of Philip K. Dick, in that they are fables about the unreliability of human perceptions. In the world of secret agents, the film demonstrates, an agent you employ may actually be working for your enemy; a shipping magnate might actually be the head of British Naval Intelligence; any bottle of Scotch might contain a dangerous drug; a kind of safe that never includes an alarm might suddenly blast out an alarm; and everything in your possession, ranging from an alarm clock to a ring, might conceal a bugging device. Spies are never defeated because they lost a fair fight, but because they trusted someone they shouldn’t have trusted or failed to suspect a danger lurking within an innocent guise. In order to survive, then, spies have to become paranoid, never assuming that anything in their purview is actually as it seems. One comes to understand why movies based on Dick stories like Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002 – review here) and The Adjustment Bureau (2010 – review here) resemble technothrillers set somewhat farther in the future.

However, as a man with a restless imagination, Philip K. Dick never concluded a story by laying the groundwork for a sequel, as he was happy to imagine worlds that experienced tremendous changes and never wanted to revisit a scenario he had already explored. Genuine technothrillers, in contrast, naturally lend themselves to sequels, as their stories end precisely where they began, with larger-than-life heroes ready to embark upon another adventure, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as already intimated, concludes by effectively announcing a planned sequel. However, while it is entertaining enough, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a film that anyone will want to watch a second time, and few people will leave the theatre yearning for another installment. Like attending a high school reunion, perhaps, revisiting the world of 1960s television is enjoyable as a rare diversion, but not as a regular activity. Still, understanding the attitudes that now govern Hollywood, the best one can hope for is that the film’s talented creators will decide to abandon the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement to instead try something “new” – like a reboot of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His new book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, is now available.

© 2012-2015 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress, modified from a theme design by Lorem Ipsum