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Faren Miller reviews Will Elliott

The Pilo Traveling Show, Will Elliott (Resurrection/Underland 978-1-63023-008-1, $16, 232pp, trade paperback) September 2015

Like most Americans, I came late to The Pilo Family Circus (reviewed in issue #576), since Will Elliott’s unnerving deep-black comedy, a first novel, appeared in Australia in 2006, won an award, and received two more English-language editions in the following years, but didn’t find a US publisher till Underland released it in 2009. By now, Elliott is a multiple award-winner – au­thor of a trilogy and two further unrelated novels – and with The Pilo Traveling Show he returns to the Circus on his own time. (Publication date, here and elsewhere, 2015.)

Chapter Two sets the scene, not quite a year after the murderous rampage that ended the previous book:

There is work to do, so much work repair­ing, resurrecting, cleaning, rebuilding. The world needs its distractions and entertain­ment, after all. It needs its circus…. Yet like something injured it has held off, held off, not yet sure enough of itself to brave the rigors of its trade, troubled by premonitions of its own total doom, troubled that some of them up there [in our human world]… have seen it naked without its glamour to shield their eyes and memories. And it is nervous. Its collapse has left a gap in the world which will be filled sooner or later, by their show… or someone, something else’s.

From this perspective, the circus/freak show/fun fair seems like a sleazier version of the movie-house melodramas Severin deplores: crass entertainment for mindless masses who scarf it down along with their popcorn and candy floss.

But bringing it back after many deaths (and some desertions) among the performers also requires the unholy skills of the Matter Manipulator. With a ghoulish mix of mad science and black magic, he resurrects the clowns: despite names that seem to echo the Seven Dwarves, this group of weirdos is far more deadly, led by a vicious schemer. The current circus-master sends them up to modern Brisbane, in search of both escapees and new players. In alternating chapters Below and Above, the first book’s hero Jamie (once kidnapped and transformed into an auxiliary clown) reappears as an amnesiac who managed to flee the Circus but recalls it mostly in vague nightmares – until he’s seized again, with a housemate and that horny dude’s girlfriend. As costumes and face-paint change that threesome (while other stolen humans try to cope, some doppelgangers join the crew, and older, eerier players undergo their own metamorphoses), the clowns continue to forge covert alliances for ultimate rebellion.

Multiple viewpoints, settings, and storylines never slow The Pilo Traveling Show in its head­long, brutal course. Nonetheless, it finds ways to reflect on humanity’s desperate need for pleasure, fright, and awe: showgirls, monsters, gods.

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 Jason Gurley

Eleanor, by Jason Gurley (Crown, 978-1101903513, 384pp, hardcover) January 2016

The trope of a domestic disturbance—a family crisis, a spousal tragedy—triggering a rift in normality, an imbalance in the natural harmony of life, an occult outbreak, is a potent and highly emotional one, capable of engendering great empathy and interest and identification among readers. After all, not all of us can occupy such mythic protagonist roles as savior, leader, warrior, explorer or chosen one, and play the starring part in great adventures in exotic locales. But all of us in our real lives do inhabit familial niches to varying intimate degrees: child, parent, spouse, sibling. These quotidian domestic relationships are imbued with great resonance and power. And when they go wrong, it seems natural and metaphorically appropriate to imagine the inner wrongness seeping into external reality.

Such troubles of consanguinity serve as the engine in a wide spectrum of tales, to greater or lesser degree, from John Crowley’s Little, Big to Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan, from Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time to Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series. And certainly this motif is at the heart of Jason Gurley’s new book—which happens also to be one of those self-publishing success stories, being picked up by its current large house after an initial small-scale release.

We start in that far-off year of 1962, tracing the daily angst-filled life of a woman named Eleanor. Feeling stuck in a marriage which, if not loveless is still turbulent and clotted, Eleanor is sinking fast, unable to offer her young daughter Agnes the support she needs. The reader might flash on the woman’s gloomy namesake, “Eleanor Rigby,” of Beatles fame, especially due to the omnipresent motif of rain, which recurs in subsequent chapters. Eleanor’s life ends tragically, and we jump twenty years forward. Now, Agnes, married to Paul Witt, is a mother herself, to pre-adolescent twins named Esmerelda and Eleanor. And her life is about to be shattered by a death within the family circle.

Another disruptive jump of a decade, to 1993, as if Gurley were employing bold cinematic cutting techniques. Now Eleanor is a troubled teen, her father having left in the wake of the tragedy, which also reduced Agnes to an alcoholic. So far, we have been witness to a finely honed mimetic narrative, engaging in its depth of emotions. But now things are going to go strange.

One day in her high school cafeteria, Eleanor takes a single step and vanishes. From her POV she rematerializes instantly in a strange pastoral landscape. After observing the inhabitants there, she is transported, seemingly at random, back to her high school. Hours have passed on our Earth. Eleanor explains away the gap of her absence in a half-convincing manner. But the next translocation, from her bedroom to an apocalyptic landscape, for an interval of days, is impossible to wish or lie away. She must solve this condition, or be unable to live her life.

Meanwhile, we readers have been privy to the experiences of two beings outside normal time and space, a place dubbed “the Rift.” “In the rift, time is a boundless sky [from] the instant when your world was formed in the darkness…to the moment of its death, when it is consumed by your sun.” Our alien presences are Mea, a woman, and Efah, a man. Their nebulous roles as a sometimes contesting, sometimes cooperative cosmic dyad are teased out over many chapters. Not surprisingly, their focus appears to be a certain human named Eleanor Witt…

Continuing the naturalism of the early part of the book, Gurley escalates Eleanor’s occult troubles in a satisfying fashion, pushing her past the initial mere inconveniences to mortal danger. Throughout her tribulations, he takes the time to build her character in a deep manner. While not precisely a strictly YA perspective, Gurley’s stance towards Eleanor and her best friend Jack (who knows of her dilemma and is her sidekick in solving it) is fully immersed in all the angst and expectations and potential of the adolescent mindset. This book would surely cross over well between mature and intermediate audiences.

Once Eleanor understands the nature and desires of Mea and the Rift, she is given the opportunity to practice a kind of oneiric surgery to heal the wounds of her world. Her success is neither guaranteed nor without charges. Especially when one of the dreamscapes proves to contain an avatar of Agnes Witt, her mother, “a frail witch in a gutted wasteland.” And all dreamroads eventually lead back to where the whole tale began.

Ultimately, Gurley’s novel exhibits some of the transcendent but hardnosed New Age mysticism of Paulo Coelho’s work, hybridized with the gritty, pain-driven otherworldliness of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series. As an example of the “as above, so below” theory of existential harmony and disharmony, it does its job with micro-machined precision.

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’s 2015 Reviews in Review

Lovers of SFF can only deplore the late year’s outbreak of divisiveness and animosity, with the hostile parties displaying a willingness to destroy the genre in order to deny it to the other. Calls for unity go unheard while the partisans make plans to continue the hostilities in the upcoming year. The only bright spot is that ordinary readers appear to have largely ignored the entire thing.

While I’m deploring, I also observe that these developments have only deepened existing fissures in the fiction landscape, notably the persistent gap between print and electronic periodicals, where I see little hope of reconciliation.

A year ago, in my summary of 2014’s short fiction, I noted a general falling-off in the quality and appeal of the stories, particularly in the print digests. This year, I’m seeing an improvement in the printzines, especially relative to online publications, where a decline seems evident. In this regard, I note a recent editorial from Neil Clarke predicting a contraction in the number of publications as the number of quality stories fails to keep up with the expansion of online markets.

But such changes tend to come as a slow, creeping erosion instead of an earthshaking convulsion. Or perhaps a self-inflicted death of a thousand mutually-destructive cuts. Otherwise, I saw no great seismic shifts in the genre, no significant new publications striding onto the scene, no more important ones dying off. The zines that had been publishing good stuff largely continued to do so, the others largely didn’t.

In past years, I’ve used these annual reviews to single out a newer author who seemed to show particular promise. This hasn’t worked out quite as well as I’d wished. Instead, for 2015, I want to take note of the publishers who are featuring translated work from non-English-writing authors, greatly expanding the diversity of viewpoints from which we see the worlds our imaginations can create. And an honorable mention to Ken Liu, who’s been ably translating many of the stories from the Chinese.

Following are the publications where I found potentially award-worthy fiction.

PRINT PERIODICALS

Once, these publications defined the genre, but erosion has taken a great toll. The magazines we have left are survivors; most of them have been around for decades. But longevity can have its own drawbacks. Editors and publishers can get caught in a rut and fail to keep up with the changes in a genre that was born with its gaze on the future. I’m happy to note that in 2015 there was a general shaking-off of dust. It was a relatively good year for stories in print after a disappointing 2014. I’m pretty confident that these periodicals will be with us for some more time to come.

F&SF

If we were looking for change anywhere, it would be in this venerable zine, which acquired new editorial direction near the beginning of the year. I can already discern some difference, primarily in the expansion of the author base to include both newer and well-established writers rather than over-relying on an overused few. In the year to come, the nature and extent of the change should become more apparent.

For this year, my favorites came from established masters:

Dennis Etchison’s “Don’t Move”
Robert Reed’s “The City of Your Soul”
Jeffrey Ford’s” Winter Wraith”

And worthy works from somewhat newer authors:

“The Mantis Tattoo” by Paul M Berger
“Paradise and Trout” by Betsy James

Asimov’s

While there seems to be no overt change at this zine, I find my Year’s Best list quite loaded with Asimov’s stories, quite the way it used to be only a few years ago. This seems to speak well of longevity and stability. The Greg Egan novella especially has award-winning Hard SF quality.

“The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred” by Greg Egan
“Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Two-Year Man” by Kelly Robson
“Walking to Boston” by Rick Wilber
“Empty” by Robert Reed

Analog

The thought of change here would almost seem self-contradictory, but I’m seeing more better stories recently and fewer unreadable ones. My favorites:

Andy Dudak, “Samsara and Ice”
Adam-Troy Castro, “Sleeping Dogs”

Interzone

This is a publication that never stands in one place to collect dust; change is pretty much a constant. While this year saw more overt fantasy, the pieces I liked best were science fiction. The Reynolds story may be my very favorite of the year; I’m not often blown away, but this one did it. In addition, for the second year in a row, I find myself singling out the winner of the zine’s contest for new writers.

Alastair Reynolds, “A Murmuration”
Jeff Noon, “No Rez”
Mack Leonard, “Midnight Funk Association”

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet

A relatively new little printzine, in little print, that offers a lot of unusual and experimental works, sometimes but not always successful. My pick of these is the rather more conventional

“March Wind” by Eric Gregory

DIGITAL PERIODICALS

Crossing over into another country. In recent years, I’ve found the majority of my Year’s Best stories in these venues, and if that isn’t the case this year, I still suspect that the electronic medium is where the long-term future of the genre lies. Of course there’s a great variation in this part of the field, but reflecting on Neil Clarke’s message, I’m reminded how often I’ve seen readers commenting that a lot of the current ezines seem to be indistinguishable from one another. There seems to be a tendency for many online publications to be more author-driven and social-media-driven, as well as often recirculating the same few dozen authors among themselves.

Of the following, most look like they’ll be survivors.

Lightspeed
The zine persisted in 2015 with its “Destroy” special issues, of which the “Destroy Fantasy” issue, coming out under the Fantasy Magazine label, was superior. My picks are:

Chaz Brenchley’s “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coal”
Catherynne M Valente’s, “The Lily and the Horn”
Kai Ashante Wilson’s, “Kaiju maximus”

I also found fiction worth recommending in the regular issues, making 2015 the best year yet for this ezine.

Chen Qiufan, “The Smog Society”
Nike Sulway, “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club”

Clarkesworld

In previous years, I would usually put this publication at the top of my list, but I didn’t really find any one venue standing out in 2015. My favorites here:

Robert Reed, “The Empress in Her Glory”
Chen Qiufan, “Coming of the Light”
Andy Dudek, “Asymptotic”

Tor.com

Always a reliable source for fine fiction, although sometimes hard to find amid many other sorts of offering. This year, the best stories are:

“Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978” by David Herter
“Variations on an Apple” by Yoon Ha Lee
“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T Malik

Strange Horizons

Another publication, venerable among webzines, that doesn’t seem to change much from year to year. It hasn’t yet fallen into a rut that keeps it from producing some occasional good stories. The monthly word count, though, is still pretty low, and I note that the longer stories I’m likely to prefer are often serialized over a couple of weeks, which is frustrating.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby
“The World in Evening” by Jei D Marcade
“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link

Apex

Here’s an ezine that’s suffered from excessive turnover of editors the last few years, and readers can’t really know what to expect from month to month, the quality being highly uneven. The high points are as good as anything else out there:

“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon
“It Is Healing, It Is Never Whole” by Sunny Moraine

Shimmer

My favorite from this little zine is a lovely, imaginative fantasy about a woman who dissolves into mist.

“Serein” by Cat Hellisen

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Because of its subject matter, BCS isn’t likely to be mistaken for any of the other ezines here, although it’s increasingly using some of the same authors. The quality seems to have fallen off a bit in 2015, although there were still quite a few stories I liked.

Kate Marshall’s “Stone Prayers”
Rebecca Campbell’s “Unearthly Landscape by a Lady”

Unlikely Stories

The weirdest of all the publications I’ve seen recently, although this leads to a very uneven selection of fiction. My favorite:

Julia August’s “Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood”

Uncanny

One of two new publications that have successfully completed their debut year and are still with us. Uncanny is staking out a feminist turf, although readers will note a lot of the same authors in as other zines, making it less distinctive than it might be. The year’s real standout is:

Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”

The Dark

This first-year ezine is another distinguished by its subject matter: dark fantasy that frequently evokes the reaction “disturbing”. Best stories include:

“In the Dreams Full of Sleep, Beakless Birds Can Fly” by Patricia Russo
“What Hands Like Ours Can Do” by Megan Arkenberg

ANTHOLOGIES

Anthologies are always problematic. Some of the best stories of every year come from anthologies, but I don’t always receive all the books I’d like to review, and I don’t always have time to review all the ones I receive. This year’s anthology crop was relatively thin, based on what I did get to read—only two clear standouts: Meeting Infinity, hard and near-hard science fiction, and Old Venus, which I have to call science fantasy.

Meeting Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

This is a collection of future science fiction on the general theme of change, albeit not really infinite change. A lot of strong work here, but two real winners.

John Barnes, “My Last Bringback”
Bruce Sterling, “Pictures from the Resurrection”

Old Venus, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois

Stories set in the Venus of the imagination, before science poured cold water on the planetary romance. Again, a lot of entertaining stories and one outstanding one:

Botanica Veneris” by Ian McDonald

Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Bruce Sterling

A futurist anthology, not as strong as I would have liked, and I can’t really recommend it as I can the previous two, with the exception of one lively action piece:

“It Takes More Muscles to Frown” by Ned Beauman

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

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

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

Colleen Mondor reviews Nicole Kornher-Stace

Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Small Beer/Big Mouth House, 978-1618730978, 256 pp, tp, $14.00) May 2015.

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s new novel Archivist Wasp is an utterly beguiling and intense book on bravery for teens. Set in a post-technological world that harkens back to the Middle Ages, the story is steeped in myth and fear with levels of brutality that put The Hunger Games to shame. It is also utterly unique and further evidence of just how quietly significant Small Beer Press, and its YA imprint Big Mouth House, have become.

As the determined and desperate protagonist, Wasp is an aspirational character; the sort of gutsy truthseeker who finds a welcome home in young adult fiction. Echoing everything from Greek myth to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Kurt Russell’s Sgt. Todd, Wasp was chosen at birth by the celestial goddess Catchkeeper to capture and banish ghosts for the local popula­tion. Her other task is the source of her title: Wasp must maintain and update a 400-year-old archive of ghostly knowledge. These notebooks are the only guides she has to her job, and pro­vide fleeting glimpses into the lives of previous archivists.

Wasp is both respected and reviled by the vil­lagers, someone they need but have no interest in befriending. Her daily life is controlled by the Catchkeep-priest who took her from her parents when the telltale mark of her trade was revealed on her face as a baby. The Catchkeep-priest con­trols all of the child ‘‘upstarts’’, and once a year hosts the competition where the current archivist must individually face three upstart challengers in fights to the death. He hates Wasp and his joy is found in tormenting her, and her potential replacements, while he revels in his power over them and the prestige it gives him.

In her dreary, pain-filled existence, (and the opening pages are particularly bleak), Wasp goes about her job with little indication that life will change. One day she will make a mistake and find her death, no one will mourn her and only if her records prove to be useful will the next archivist even care that she ever existed. And then she meets a ghost like no other and everything – everything – changes.

The ghost was captured and is supposed to be banished. As Wasp prepares to do so, she notes the ghost has some uniquely strong tendencies – is more here than most others – and in study­ing this idiosyncrasy opens herself up to attack. The ghost challenges her and then, breaking all known rules governing his kind, speaks to her. He needs her help to find his now dead partner that she cannot refuse.

Into the underworld the duo travel. The ghost, a supersoldier who lived in the pre-apocalyptic time, can remember the woman whose back he guarded as she guarded his own, but cannot recall how or where she died. Frustrated by his fractured memory, he is driven by an internal demand to find her, convinced he must save her in death as he did not in life.

He needs Wasp to hunt his friend and Wasp needs the ghost to give her his tool that will serve as a technological breakthrough in her own world. If she can survive the underworld, she might be able to buy her way to freedom and independence and find another life. The longer she considers this, the more she questions the harsh rules under which she has been living, an example of which is given in one dramatic pas­sage as she cuts her hair:

She explained how every year, after the fight, before she’d even recovered from her wounds, it all was unwoven, the new growth of her own hair trimmed, then everyone else’s plaited back in and glued where the plaits didn’t hold. How every year her head grew heavier, and if she were too successful for too long, the weight would blind her with migraines, slow her movements, level the field between her and the upstarts who would eventually tear her down.

‘‘Why?’’ asked the ghost.

‘‘It’s how it’s always been,’’ said Wasp. Then, realizing how weak this answer must sound, realizing she had not better answer to give, started cutting faster.

Kornher-Stace’s effectively shows that even at her most beaten-down, Wasp is never a weak character. She endures not only the rules of the Catchkeep society but further, through her journey, exposes a similar set of controlling tenets that affected the ghost and his partner. Archivist Wasp is thus a tale of a protagonist able to find truth and harness it for the greater good of all those around her, living and dead. Bloodied and battered, Wasp is a Joan of Arc for the 21st-century teen; someone to believe in with all their hearts and souls. Challenge those who would deny you a future, she and the ghost demand, challenge everyone who claims they own you more than you own yourself.

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 Adam Roberts

The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts (Orion/Gollancz 978-0575127722, £16.99, 368pp, trade paperback) December 2015

The clever formal construction of Adam Roberts’s new book (God bless his craftsmanly productivity, which keeps us fans reliably supplied with a fresh annual fix, year after revolutionary year) is just part of the novel’s enigmatic allure. The first thirty pages are a complete narrative arc, a short story, more or less, that could have appeared in a volume of Orbit, say, during that anthology’s prime years. Two young researchers, Roy and Charles, are doing radio telescope SETI research at an isolated Antarctic base in the year 1986. We hear the story from the POV of Charles, who seems a rational easygoing fellow. His partner, Roy, however, is a feverishly unstable dreamer fixated on the work of Kant, specifically The Critique of Pure Reason. Roy believes that the old tome of dense, complex philosophy contains the secret answer to the Fermi Paradox about the prevalence of intelligent life in the universe. After much taut, emotional and blackly comic interplay of an Edward Albee nature, a mortal crisis, involving, perhaps, some actual aliens, is reached and survived. Has Roy indeed solved Fermi’s riddle? And at what cost?

We cut jarringly in the next section to the year 1900, during which a pair of male lovers, Albert and Harold, are taking a leisurely Grand Tour of Europe. There’s just one hitch to their relaxation: Harold, after perhaps too-intense an involvement with the new book by Mr. Wells, The War of the Worlds, has begun to hallucinate. “The sweeper was moving piles of…tadpole-like beings, each head the size of a bowling ball and the colour of myrrh, the tails double-bladed and freaked with silver and blue.”

Part three jumps us back to Roy, in the present. His devastating experiences at the South Pole have left him spiritually and physically wounded—and literally haunted, by the image of ghost boy. Unable to maintain a professional job or relationships with women, he is leading a shabby dead-end existence as a trash man. Then, one morning, a beautiful woman named Irma shows up on his doorstep and announces that he has been summoned by a mysterious Institute that needs his expertise.

At the Kafkaesque Institute, he learns that Roy—immured in a sanitarium like some malevolent Magneto all these years—was truly onto something. The folks at the Institute have advanced Roy’s ideas to a certain degree, but still need Roy’s unique insights. Charles, at Roy’s explicit request, has been hired to broker that help. Reluctantly, he consents. And is plunged into an Alice-in-Wonderland scenario that involves a mordant and duplicitous Artificial Intelligence, Hitchcockian double-crosses and mad pursuits (with some antics from The Prisoner on the side), as well as nothing less than an existential recalibration of the nature of reality and the cosmos. The book—with those baffling yet ultimately organic and coherent historical sections, some in the future, continuing to alternate with the realtime adventure—runs pell-mell to a devastating conclusion.

Despite some peripheral and surface allusions to John W. Campbell’s famous tale of a shape-changing polar alien, Roberts is not really out to give us a First Contact story. The mode he is working in is Conceptual Breakthrough spliced with Odd John/Mutant/Midwich Cuckoo/Jack of Eagles shenanigans. It’s a potent mix indeed. Roberts is not afraid to lay on vast swatches of dialogue discussing matters of deep ontological meaning. Like Kim Stanley Robinson, he relishes what others might regard as non-plot-serving infodumps. But his talent with conceptual juggling and the sheer clarity of his prose makes such stretches fascinating, integral and easy to digest.

In crafting the character of Charles Gardner, Roberts gives us an utterly believable antihero whose fumbling actions bespeak a completely human set of both virtues and flaws. Like some wounded Fisher King, Charles would like to redeem humanity, but is held back by his inner turbulence and angst. Ultimately, he pushes himself beyond his worst aspects into some kind of redemptive victory.

And in Roy Curtius, Roberts gives us a Faustian figure who is neither wholly reprehensible nor vile, but rather a fellow seduced by the dark side of his own nerdy genius. Together, the two enact what is surely the best cat-and-mouse game of this nature since Frank Robinson’s The Power, a hidden template, I think, for this book.

In the end, though, Roberts transcends the simpler SF of Robinson’s era, and exhibits the same postmodern ramping up that he has brought to a dozen other different SF “power chords.” If Greg Egan and Stanislaw Lem had conspired to rewrite John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything, the result might have been half as ingenious and gripping and funny and scary and invigorating as The Thing Itself.

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.

Faren Miller reviews Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

An Apprentice to Elves, Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear (Tor 978-0-7653-2471-9, $26.99, 336pp, hc) October 2015.

All three books of the Iskryne trilogy by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear can make the reader feel the mixed emotions (frustration, challenge, exhaustion, delight) of a foster child being tu­tored in strange crafts a long way from home: someone like Alfgyfa, whose story dominates final volume An Apprentice to Elves. The mix­ture of Nordic and nonhuman cultures, compli­cated names, alternate history, and unusual forms of magic introduced in Books One and Two (A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men) helped shape the seven-year-old girl who grew up in a township of warriors, driven from their original homes by something like an invading Roman army, but keeping their bonds with both sentient wolves and a little group of alfar – elvish – exiles heretical enough to trade openly with men.

Though the much larger community of svar­talfar to the north is hidebound and insular, practicing their ancient rituals and traditional crafts of stone- and metal-work over the course of extended lives in cave systems where they can avoid the dire effects of sunlight on alvar flesh, a few are curious about these short-lived humans. Master smith Tin is unconventional (mad, she sometimes wonders) enough to take on Alfgyfa as a fosterling/apprentice – and keep her, after the fractious child in the Prologue, homesick primarily for wolves, enters a forbidden zone to save a half-grown cub.

Even for old-school alfar, magic doesn’t resemble wizardry or alchemy. By the age of 15 (an adult by human reckoning, as she keeps telling herself), Alfgyfa has learned to temper metal with her own hands, and feels the joy of the craft. When something like a diplomatic mission brings her to the isolated enclave of exiles where she renews ties with childhood friend Osmium, the ‘‘heretic’’ stonework that seems so natural to her (unlike the bizarre work of trolls) may strike us as more like ultramodern tech:

Osmium lived high above the city. Her door was a wonderful ochre orange that reminded Alfgyfa of autumn and butterfly wings. Osmium opened it not with a key but with a stroke of her fingers…. The door swung wide as silently and smoothly as if it were a living limb, not a construct on hinges.

While the threat of renewed war with foreign armies looms throughout this book, much as it does in Johansen’s, Apprentice places a spe­cial emphasis on the strange and fascinating cultures, crafts, and languages of locals. Driven by a mixture of circumstance, stubbornness, and insatiable curiosity, Alfgyfa manages to commu­nicate with both sentient wolves and alfar from an ancient civilization far more sophisticated than her own – despite blunted, merely-human senses that struggle to translate wolvish into words, and vocal cords inadequate to the multiple tones of alfar speech.

Young and with no predestined role to play in politics, battle, or the use of otherworldly powers, Alfgyfa brings this trilogy to an ultimately satisfy­ing conclusion without extravagant heroics. If you find her world as interesting as I do, that shouldn’t bother you at all!

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, mid-December 2015

In the previous column I looked at the first print digests of 2016, now it’s time for the last month’s ezines of 2015. This December is dominated by the Lightspeed consortium, with another Destroys issue in addition to the regular publications.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, December 2015

A strong issue. This zine is stepping up its game.

“Tomorrow When We See the Sun” by A Merc Rustad

This is either a far-far future or an entirely different universe ruled by seven quasi-gods calling themselves Suns, who once warred on each other.

as a measure of good faith upon the signing of the peace treaty between the Seven Sun Lords, each god decommissioned and executed one thousand of their most powerful warships. Each ship and its pilot self-destructed within an uninhabited system of choice and were granted honor in the eyes of the Seven Suns.

Some of the pilots, however, were not eager for such an honor and fled. The Suns have hunted down these wolflords, one by one, and executed them, extirpating all memory of them. The executioner is a cyborg organism called Mere, a prisoner to this function whose own memories have been wiped and wiped again. Between executions, it is kept in stasis. Now, with the last wolflord gone, it’s not clear what will become of it. Then comes one she who claims to be its creator and informs it that she made it from the fragments of her enemies. Adventures and disclosures ensue, but not all is disclosed.

This is an exotic setting, highly mannered, decadent and cruel, where the denizens compose poems at moments of great significance. It’s clearly well over the “indistinguishable from magic” line that makes it fantasy. There is no indication that any of the characters are or have ever been human. I like Mere’s diction, that of a being prohibited from using the first person in speech, leaving it with such locutions as, “What awaits this it?” A lot of mystery still remains at the conclusion of this story, suggesting more to come.

“Tea Time” by Rachel Swirsky

A revisitation of the world down the rabbit hole, full of nonsensical meditations, largely concerning Time and its stoppage, the tea hour grown infinite while the hare and hatter prolong their timeless tryst. A sample of the narration:

You may think that it’s fair to conclude that since the hatter loves his hare, it’s clear that the hare loves his hatter.
You are mistaken. It’s not the same thing a bit!
You might as well say that dressing a wound is the same as wounding a dress.
You might as well say that to like whom you tup is the same as to tup whom you like.
You might as well say that the heart knows what it wants so therefore it wants what it knows.

Fun stuff, quite in the Carrollian spirit, on a poignant minor note.

“Ex Libris Noctis” by Jay Lake

This is a nightmare that most readers should recognize: Beatrice’s father has died and she’s trying to go to his burial, but she is thwarted and diverted at every step, disintegrating as she goes. We know she’s in a dream, because at one point she finds herself flying, rising over the traffic that obstructs her way. She then finds herself in a library full of old books, the eponymous books of night “in various colors and textures of cordovan and calfskin. Some were marked with gold-stamped lettering, others with numbers or arcane symbols of perhaps alchemic or astrological provenance.” These prove to be the section headings of the story: the Ptolemaic planets, with relevant quotations taken from such sources as Chaucer and Shakespeare, as Beatrice cycles through the memories of her life with her father.

While I generally don’t like to speculate about the personal lives of authors, it’s impossible as a reader not to see the shadow of death, the endless night, falling over this story from the late Jay Lake. While depressing, it rewards rereading, unpacking the symbolism and allusions. [If Beatrice’s father is Lear, then which daughter is she?] The sense of nightmare, the surreal logic of dream, is quite powerful.

–RECOMMENDED

“Beneath the Silent Stars” by Aidan Doyle

Jean-Paul is a verifier for the human intelligence service, on a mission to discover why, fifty-five years ago, the rogue warship Mariposa X destroyed the hyperspace gate linking human space with the rest of galactic civilization. Since then, the ship has guarded the ruins of the gate and attacked any other ships that approached it, but now it’s sent a message that it wants to speak specifically to Jean-Paul, whose father was a verifier onboard the ship when it last crossed through the gate.

This is a story of truth and trust. Mariposa X trusts no one and nothing; it destroys Jean-Paul’s own ship after he and his partner have crossed to it; it insists they remove the smartsuits that they’ve worn continuously since early childhood, making them trust their bare flesh to the elements. Now Jean-Paul has to face the fact that there are some unverifiable truths, such as the message given him by the ship. A lot of issues in that. I wish the story had dug into them at more depth and length.



Fantasy Magazine, December 2015: Queers Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue

Every once in a while, this zine comes out from beneath the corporate umbrella and takes a few moments alone in the sun, as here in this latest iteration of the Destroys! series. There are four original stories. The list of authors is quite promising, and they deliver. Guest editor Barzak has put together a superior issue in this series, definitely the best of them I’ve seen.

The stories are varied, from a contemporary setting to the wildly fantastic. Some but not all the stories deal with queer subject matter.

“The Lady’s Maid” by Carlea Holl-Jensen

While this one seems to take inspiration from the Blood Countess Báthory, I’m also reminded of the 18th-century custom whereby the towering artificial powdered hairstyles of female courtiers were known as “heads”. Here, the heads worn by the lady have been severed from the bodies of beautiful young girls. She keeps them in jeweled glass cabinets and selects a different one to wear every day, assisted by her lady’s maid, who cares for the heads as well as performing all intimate functions for her, besides the duties normally assigned to housemaids and cooks, because the lady’s domain has fallen on hard times. The two of them are now quite alone in the decaying palace, which leads the maid into perverse thoughts.

From this vantage point, standing above her, the little maid has a clear view of the lady’s severed neck. Ordinarily, she tries not to look at it—somehow it is more intimate even than the lady’s naked body—but today she finds herself transfixed by the sight.

Fantasy erotica, of the sort where it doesn’t matter if the details make no realistic sense and the severed heads generate only minimal chills. I like the way the heads watch the goings-on from their cabinets with a distinct lascivious interest.

“The Lily and the Horn” by Catherynne M Valente

When the Lady Cassava opens this tale with a line like “war is a dinner party” we can assume the setting will be a highly mannered one, and so it is, but in a unique and unexpected way, because here, wars are settled literally at the table, in tournaments of survival where all the food has been poisoned by the skilled lady hostess.

This is how I serve my husband’s ambitions and mine: with the points of my vermilion sleeves, stitched with thread of white and violet and tiny milkstones with hearts of green ice. With the net of gold and chalcathinite crystals catching up my hair, jewels from our own stingy mountains, so blue they seem to burn. With the great black pots of the kitchens below my feet, sizzling and hissing like a heart about to burst.

Long ago, a legendary queen put an end to the carnage of conventional armed warfare and instituted new traditions. Now, all girls of good family attend a boarding school where they learn the craft secrets of the poisoner, becoming either Lilies, who employ the poisons, or Horns, who specialize in the antidotes. During those school years, Cassava, a student Lily, developed a strong attachment to Yew, a Horn, but both knew their fates were to marry, bear children, and use their skills to serve their lords in distant lands. Their only chance to see each other again now is if they are engaged in the conduct of culinary war.

The premise is intriguing in many ways, not least in the fact that it has shifted war from the domain of men into that of women, powerful chatelaines like Cassava, the Lily of her House. In comparing the death toll from armed warfare and war by poison, it’s hard to argue in principle against this system. Yet the will of lovers can be as powerful of that of kings, and there are ominous notes in the conclusion, the author having shifted smoothly from the well-mannered banquet hall to the prospect of corpse-strewn battlefields.

–RECOMMENDED

“Kaiju maximus®: ‘So Various, So Beautiful, So New’” by Kai Ashante Wilson

A provoking title, which suggests the promotional material for a game module in which a superhero battles monsters of various sizes. In case we might miss this, here and there in the text are apparent outtakes or excerpts:

At the RITUAL BENISON before each boss-fight, a hero will temporarily advance +1000 XP for every point of comeliness their spouse possesses. But the hero must ensure that his or her spouse always has food, water and rest enough to maintain this attribute. And superheroes must consider the welfare of their children as well, for the sword and the wings can only . . .

For the most part, however, the narrative comes from within the events—from the mortal point of view of the superhero’s spouse and father of her children. In order to receive the “ritual benison” just before the fight, the hero has to bring her family along on a lengthy trek across country, with the burden of childcare falling on the father. Here we see the mundane details the game scenario leaves out: the sprained ankle, the whining children, bathing them in the frigid water of a mountain spring. The hero may be off battling monsters; the father’s battle is to be a good parent and at the same time to serve his spouse in her mission. Does he let the children have the promised chocolate? Does he coax them into giving her a willing kiss before battle? And does he wonder what will happen when the children’s powers surpass his own and he’s no longer so young and good-looking?

The narrative seems to be addressed to an anonymous “you” overlooking the scene—the reader? The gamer? The characters seem to be placeholders with no real names of their own, although the father calls his children “buddy” and “pumpkin”. The only exception is a daughter now dead, whom we must presume can no longer be played, perhaps killed in an earlier session of the game. The father mourns her, regrets his failure to protect her from her mother’s ambition.

The prose uses such neat terms as “insombration” and breaks at times into pyrotechnic description laden with similes:

Abruptly, some twenty kiloms down the valley, a bright volcanic arm —a hand of fire—thrust up from the earth and made a credible grab for the moon, incandescent fingers raking across the sky.

Brilliance snatched aside the black of night as though it were a flimsy curtain, the truth behind it high noon. They cried out, throwing up a hand or both as the dark cold valley was relit to midday green. The gushing white blaze spewed comets as a geyser does waterdroplets, these fiery blue offshoots waning yellow-orange-red as they fell to earth, as the sourcefire itself discolored: now dimming to ochre and yet still painful to see, even squinting through their fingers; now dimmer still, ruddy-black as the glowing crumbs of their own little campfire; now going out.

The text gives sufficient hints [kiloms, a mothership] that the scenario is meant to be an earthly far-future, but I agree with the editor that this is a work fantastic. Its heart, however, is with the love of a family that exists only to be exploited for entertainment.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Duchess and the Ghost” by Richard Bowes

A coming-out/coming-of-age story set in the past of our own world. Way back in 1961, at the age of eighteen, “Tony” jumped off the train taking him back from college to his disapproving parents and headed for the Village. “My one glance back had showed me a face staring with shock and horror from a train window.” Tony was very lucky for a young man who essentially had no life skills besides being a boy, which he was quickly outgrowing—lucky in his patrons/protectors/mentors. But he was haunted by the ghost of the boy he had been on the train.

Death is a primary force in this memoir, and the concern of many characters is how they will be remembered once they’re gone. The Duchess is certainly a memorable character, one of several mentors who set Tony on his path to adulthood and freedom from his ghosts. I must say that Tony certainly got the better of the Doorman in their bargain.



Clarkesworld, December 2015

The maximum length of the stories here has grown, a development I always applaud.

“Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by Liu Cixin, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan

In a drought-ridden world, Yuanyuan has always found joy in soap bubbles, “the gorgeous apparitions of water drifting through the air.” As she grew older and manifested scientific ability, this interest only became more pronounced. Her ambition: “big—biiiig—bubbles!” As a scientific entrepreneur, she does pioneering work in super-surfactants. Yuanyuan achieves her own dream, but she’s sad for her father, whose dream of a new city in the empty western territory has been eroded by drought and desertification.

A warm and positive story, mixing true science fiction with a buoyant sense of beauty.

Yuanyuan opened her eyes. She really did see a river of moons in the night sky! The countless moons were the reflections in countless massive bubbles. Unlike the real moon, they were all crescents, some curving up and some curving down, all of them so translucent and jewel-like that the real moon seemed plain in comparison. Only by its unchanging location could it be distinguished from the mighty current of moons crossing the sky.

“Union” by Tamsyn Muir

The setting, a town named Franckton, may not be in the outback of Australia or New Zealand, but it certainly seems to be the outback of somewhere, a hardscrabble frontier settlement ruled and exploited by a distant government with little understanding of the crofters’ needs. What they need are wives—entities that can bear children and do mindless tasks, not marriage partners; these wives are artificial constructs of vegetable origin, but the current batch is made of lichen, not like the last, satisfactory batch of poppy-wives.

When the news had broken that the Ministry was awarding them wives, the relief was so great in Franckton that it was more pain than pleasure. They’d spent the last fifty years incubating on Governmental loan and mortgaging over half the harvest each time. A lot of beers got sunk during all the frantic budgeting that came subsequently. The staunchest Union crofters forgot to do anything but tab up how many generations it would take before all they’d be paying for was the foetal scan.

Then mold starts to infest the crops. Simeon, the local hothead, blames the Ministry and talks insurrection.

It’s a strange setting, and we don’t get a lot of explanation for why things are this way. It’s noteworthy that while there are male and female crofters, none of them are married to each other and the women don’t seem able to bear children in the old biological way. In fact, this seems to be true of other mammalian species, such as the goats. The twenty wives are distributed without regard to the sex of the recipients, and it’s possible that they may not be meant to survive the process of giving birth, however this is accomplished.

The real story is in the ethos of the Franckton crofters, a hardworking bunch who really do seem to be getting a raw deal from the Ministry. They keep reminding each other that they have their pride, their dignity, don’t want to be made a laughingstock—although we might well wonder who there is to laugh at them. But they’re tough and resilient; they’ll get through this, we can be sure.

“Morrigan in Shadow” by Seth Dickinson

A sequel to the author’s previous story about the main character, the combat pilot Laporte, and it really can’t properly be read in isolation from it. Indeed, this second story completes the first, but it also incorporates a whole lot of recapitulation, which I believe will only be confusing to readers unfamiliar with the material. Briefly, we have an inner, isolationist, pacifist Federation and an outer Alliance that finds itself menaced by an inhuman Nemesis. The Federation rejects a defensive alliance with the Alliance, whereupon the Alliance conquers it in a space war that sees some Federation warriors, like Laporte, become monsters who love killing. Rejecting surrender, Laporte leads a mutiny to carry on the fight.

The story makes much of Laporte’s monsterhood.

She can be the necessary monster. She could call down genocide on the Alliance and save her beloved home. If she believes the Federation is the only hope for a compassionate, peaceful, loving future, then, logically, she should be willing to kill for it. If she has a button that says ‘kill ten billion civilians, gain utopia,’ she should press it.

In fact, to use a familiar line, Laporte is “just following orders”, not initiating the atrocities she commits. She’s a tool, albeit a willing one, of the strategists. This is a very plotty piece, full of conspiracies, tricks, feints, double-crosses. Involved in these are a number of characters, allies and antagonists who are no more than names, flat game pieces that Laporte has to figure into her plans. This, along with the fragmented nature of the narrative, might make it hard for some readers to follow, and it also flattens Laporte as a character, reducing her to little more than her monsterhood. The author seems to be attempting to make her sympathetic with her single positive tie to her former commander and lover Simms, but this tie was formed mostly in the earlier story.

Certainly the piece is disturbing. The characters may tell themselves they’re making hard moral choices, but it’s difficult not to see all of them as reprehensible, every side quite willing to exploit and sacrifice the others for the sake of self-preservation. The Federation, with all its high claims of moral superiority, comes off as most hypocritical in this respect [the other sides at least make no such claims]. If the ultimate goal is the salvation of the human species, I have to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. I see no triumph here, no reason for congratulations.

“When We Die on Mars” by Cassandra Khaw

Anna tells us: “We know why we are there, each and every last one of us: to make Mars habitable, hospitable, an asylum for our children so they won’t have to die choking on the poison of their inheritance.” Although most of the group doesn’t actually have children. Of course the alternative is dying on Earth; the difference is in the separation from ties of family and affection.

A sentimental piece with a too-obvious conclusion.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #188-189, December 2015

Issue #188 features memories; the protagonists of issue #189, a mannered set of stories, are skilled killers.

#188

“Eyes Beyond the Fire” by Nick Scorza

Lys, a former mercenary, is now sailing into exile, banished from the court where she was until recently a favorite. After she runs out of booze and emerges from her cabin, she senses a wrongness about the ship; for one thing, it’s not headed in the right direction.

This is a straightforward sword-and-sorcery action tale, with Lys fighting an Evil on the ship. The author attempts to meld this with her remembered backstory, but the seams aren’t very watertight.

“The Rest Will Blur Together” by John Wheeler

Melika has the gift of seeing into other minds and removing specific memories. The problem is that the memories then reside in her mind, where they become indistinguishable from her own; if she hadn’t written it down, she wouldn’t be able to identify herself. One day comes a client who wants to lose a memory related to a large, ill-gotten treasure. But another party wants that memory and isn’t prepared to be denied, despite Melika’s promise of confidentiality.

Events here are muddled and confused, as it’s unclear just what Melika is trying to accomplish.

#189

“A Killer of Dead Men” by David Tallerman

Otranto is an assassin in the city of Cold Harbour, where assassination is the foremost profession. He’s been engaged to kill a wealthy stranger, and he carries out the assignment with his usual skill.

From his concealment, Otranto considered the scene he’d left and decided that it was satisfactory. The ideal assassination looked like an accident, yet an accident that could never have occurred. Like the melodramatic seascapes that hung in the merchant halls, it mirrored reality even while exceeding it. Vixara might have been thrown from his horse, fallen badly, broken his neck. But he hadn’t—and they would know.

Except that it seems the target isn’t dead, and the Masters of Otranto’s guild are displeased.

An action tale, skillfully done. The stranger Vixara and his entire entourage have an unusual appearance that aids in the rumors they are demons or the undead, unkillable. Otranto needs to determine the truth and fulfill his assignment, if possible, to redeem his reputation.

“So Strange the Trees” by James Lecky

The city of PameGlorias has an abundance of duelists and jealous gods. Gunter Alquen is a presiding officer in the Place of Blades; Parasheeva is a goddess whose sworn Blossoms are forbidden to the sight of any man. But in an accidental moment, for the first time in his life, Gunter has seen the face of love, and it seems to be reciprocated, as far as the language of flowers can say.

Every city, even the Shining Cities of the World’s Dusk, have their secret places, those squares and gardens where lovers may meet and talk far away from prying eyes, where affectionate words may be whispered and tokens exchanged. In PameGlorias it was St Labre’s Park, ten square miles of living grass and trees in the southern quarter of the city, kept verdant by Parasheeva’s Blossoms.

But the course of true love does not run straight here, as I’m sure readers will anticipate, because otherwise the story wouldn’t be so interesting.



Strange Horizons, December 2015

Some very short stories, and I like one of them, the shortest.

“Tigerskin” by Kurt Hunt

A little boy and a tiger—where have I seen that before? This one is a bit darker than Calvin, and more tied to the existence and problems of real tigers in the wild, as a threatened species. But both works reference the tiger as epitome of ferocity. The story is imaginative and whimsical, but it’s unclear why this tiger wanted to engulf a small boy in the first place.

“At Whatever Are Their Moons” by Sunny Moraine

A very unlikely tale. Cara, working in a government office, falls in love with the analytical engines cannibalized from the spaceships that brought the population to this world.

Not that they had eyes, not that they would care even if they did, with their minds of numbers and the analysis of numbers. But there in that warmth, sweating very slightly under her collar, running her hands over the parts and components, replacing the little beads, oiling the joints that needed oiling, tracing her fingertips over the woven tapestry of metal pathways, cleaning dust from the vents, it felt like loving care. Care of something that might one day recognize it.

Which is kind of deranged. Then Cara decides to build an airship, powered in some way by a homemade engine. Which seems unlikely. Then she takes the airship into the desert, where she suspects the crashed spacecraft might be. It’s a nice journey through an alien landscape, but Cara lost me long before takeoff.

There are references to brass and of course airships, but this isn’t enough to make the piece steampunk, if that was the intent.

“Telling the Bees” by T Kingfisher

“There was a girl who died every morning, and it would not have been a problem except that she kept bees.” Now, there’s an opening! It seems there may be a curse involved, an imprecisely worded curse. Readers are probably familiar with the common “sleep like death” and should have no trouble seeing how it might be confused with “death like sleep”. At any rate, the girl does die and doesn’t sleep. She descends to the underworld, of which we see only enough to be tantalized [but not himself], then wakes/revives. And the bees, first thing, must be told.

A very very brief piece, with a great evocative potential for unpacking. “Telling the bees” of a death in the house is a well-attested tradition, sometimes also draping the hives in mourning black, as in the Whittier poem:

‘Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!’

An endnote to the text informs us that the byline T Kingfisher is an alternate of Ursula Vernon, whose work for adults I much admire.

–RECOMMENDED



GigaNotoSaurus, December 2015

Happy to see a long novella at this venue, fulfilling its mission.

“Quarter Days” by Iona Sharma

Historical fantasy under the same premise of at least one previous story by this author, involving guilds of adepts in magic on whom Britain relies for much more than it should. This one is set in 1919, when damaged soldiers have come home from WWI, one of them Ned, who has burned out all his power on the battlefield, losing him his membership in the Salt guild—the ingrates. Before the war, Ned had been one of the designers of a safety signaling system for railways, meant to prevent collisions. Now, however, a disastrous collision has taken place and the authorities are looking for someone on whom to pin the blame. The primary point of view comes not from Ned himself but his partner Grace, who is caught up in doubts about the future of the guild and her own place in it.

There’s interest here in the magic system, which is thoroughly worked out, but primarily this is social commentary on the world of the early 20th century, focusing on its class and race issues. Grace and Ned come from very different backgrounds, her family originating in the Caribbean and his from the British ruling class. Despite this, their personal ties are strong. “Grace gave him the look she reserved for idiots and the classically educated”. An important part of the plot involves the 1919 race riots, when returning British workers felt their jobs were being threatened by immigrants.

The 1919 riots are not as well-known as the 1926 general strike, but many of the same social issues were at the root of both. The story provides insight into this aspect of history, which is both interesting and a real problem. The narrative makes it quite clear that magic has for a long time been central to the condition of the British nation. This is a profound change from our own timeline, and it ought to result in a greatly altered history—indeed, the piece should be an alternate history, yet for the most part, we find the same events taking place at the same locations and the same time as they did in our own mundane world. The most striking difference I find is in the use of a magic spell where our own history saw poison gas. But this is by no means enough. The author wants to explore the workings of a society that her own premise ought to have swept away; the fact that it remains so almost completely unaltered is a grave but common flaw in this sort of scenario.

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

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

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

Actually, the Force Is Sleepwalking: A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

by Gary Westfahl

An introductory disclaimer: although I have repeatedly watched, vividly remember, and still cherish the first three Star Wars films – which I still insist upon calling by their original titles, Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) – I could never force myself to watch any of the three “prequel” films in their entirety, and I have no familiarity with the innumerable extensions of the franchise in television films and series, animated films, novels, comic books, and video games. So, for a detailed exegesis of how this film accords with, expands upon, and/or contradicts the established tenets of the Star Wars universe, you will have to turn elsewhere. The following is simply the impressions of a man who went to see a film promoted as a direct sequel to three films he had enjoyed over thirty years ago.

Do not be misled by my title, for I enjoyed this film too. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to not enjoy a film that is so visibly striving to replicate all of the elements that made the original films so appealing. Certainly, filmgoers of a certain age will be thrilled to observe fellow senior citizen Harrison Ford effortlessly falling back into the role of duplicitous, wisecracking Han Solo and demonstrating that a geezer can still do some heavy lifting as an action hero. Though they were less prominent, it was also pleasurable to see Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels reprising their iconic roles. (And, since purported pals Solo and Lando Calrissian so obviously despised each other in real life, it was just as well that Billy Dee Williams was not brought back to reprise his iconic role.) Yet director J. J. Abrams also recognizes that it is time to pass the torch to a new generation: Ford’s Solo goes out of his way to repeatedly praise the skills of prominent new heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), as if to give his blessing to the characters clearly destined to take his place in future films, and both seem capable enough of carrying on the tradition. As is always the case in Star Wars films, there are plenty of exciting spaceship battles and lightsaber duels, accompanied by the rousing music of John Williams, with scores of exotic aliens in the background to enliven the slower-paced sequences as another war against the forces of the Dark Side progresses toward its inevitably triumphant conclusion. What is there to dislike about such a masterful concoction?

The problem is that while one can praise to the stars the immense talent that went into the making of this film, it is hard to discern much creativity in either its design or its execution. Abrams was assigned to produce another Star Wars film, and he did so magnificently, but it is also a film that anyone familiar with the franchise, by this time, could have made in their sleep. And one is disheartened not by this film but by visions of the interminable series of clones of this film likely to be churned out annually by the Walt Disney studio in the wake of its guaranteed success. Again and again, there will be characters who loudly announce that they are giving up the good fight to pursue their personal interests, only to surprise everyone (actually, to surprise no one) by suddenly returning to the fray. Again and again, a virtuous man will abandon his parents to be seduced by the Dark Side, even while occasionally intimating that he might someday change his evil ways – if not in this film, perhaps in the next film. Again and again, a beleaguered band of freedom-loving heroes will face imminent destruction by an immense and seemingly unstoppable weapon – until someone improvises a desperate, patently impossible counterattack that somehow works, due to a last-minute assist from the Force.

Still, it would be unfair to criticize Abrams, or his probable successors, for failing to experiment with an innovative approach to the Star Wars saga, since creator George Lucas has forever precluded such initiatives. His universe has an inherent simplicity, even rigidity, in its underpinnings: there is a Light Side, there is a Dark Side, and there is no Gray Side. Those who follow the Light Side are virtuous and merit our admiration and sympathy – even if, like Solo, they occasionally indulge in minor transgressions like breaking a few laws or swindling a few scoundrels. Those who follow the Dark Side are evil and must be destroyed, to cleanse the galaxy of their unalloyed perfidy. There are only a few sorts of drama possible within such a framework: violent battles between followers of the Light Side and followers of the Dark Side; efforts to persuade people wavering between the two camps, or seeking to avoid the conflict, to join the Light Side; embryonic romances involving apparently incompatible adherents of the Light Side; and comic relief with lovable robots and eccentric aliens. There may be room for striking improvisations – like this film’s delightfully imaginative new droid, BB-8, and Rey’s liquid mixture that instantly inflates into a biscuit – but anyone undertaking to tell another Star Wars story will end up playing the same tunes.

It is true that Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt’s screenplay did introduce precisely one complication into Lucas’s equation, but they refuse to develop it in any manner. Finn is a former Stormtrooper, who explains that he had been kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated to serve as a loyal soldier to the Empire …. excuse me, it’s now being called the First Order. However, after resolving that “I wasn’t going to kill for them,” he decides to rescue a rebel pilot because “it’s the right thing to do” and soon joins the resistance. Well. Stormtroopers have traditionally functioned in Star Wars films as the anonymous, implacably evil agents of the Empire who are routinely slaughtered without compunction; if we are suddenly advised to regard them instead as victims of abduction and brainwashing, that would apparently change everything. For in that case, instead of always killing them on sight, the rebels should be making more of an effort to capture the Stormtroopers, rip off their masks, talk to them kindly, and strive to undo the repressive conditioning that made them into merciless enemies. Yet the film does absolutely nothing to inspire any further sympathy for the Stormtroopers, who carry on with their traditional role as cannon fodder, the Them who must be eliminated in order to protect Us.

It is in this respect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has unsettling resonances with contemporary politics. There are no explicit parallels: one commentator recently attempted to argue that the Empire represents the Western world, while the rebels are the jihadists, fiercely dedicated to their ancient religion. But the comparison is hardly appropriate: the last time I checked, President Barack Obama was not ordering soldiers to exterminate entire towns of people opposed to his policies, and the last time I checked, the spokesmen for ISIS have issued no calls for a return to democracy and respect for human rights. Still, the Manichaean world view of the Star Wars universe can be said to encourage confrontation instead of compromise, solidification into opposing factions demonizing each other instead of constructive engagement in pursuit of mutually satisfactory outcomes; and such attitudes have contributed to ongoing political disputes both at home and abroad. Yet this perspective in endemic in contemporary Hollywood films, as I have observed in previous reviews, and there is no reason to single out Star Wars for criticism in this regard or lengthen this review with repetitive denunciations of the phenomenon.

There is, though, an illuminating contrast to be made between Star Wars and its illustrious precursor, the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), which portrayed a future universe filled with moral ambiguities: the Klingons and Romulans were regularly portrayed as the Enterprise’s opponents, but there were recurring suggestions that they were not entirely villainous and might someday become allies of the Federation; in the case of the Klingons, this actually occurred in later incarnations of the series. Most of the conflicts in the series stemmed from misunderstandings that concluded with reconciliation, rather than attacks by unrepentant reprobates who are wiped out by representatives of the virtuous Federation; in the episode “Errand of Mercy” (1967), Kirk was even explicitly criticized as self-righteous and ignorant. And, to bring this discussion full circle, one could summarize my complaints about Abrams’s earlier refurbishing of the Star Trek franchise in a review of Star Trek into Darkness (2013) (review here: here) by stating that he was improperly attempting to transform Star Trek into Star Wars. In retrospect, I suppose, that work can be seen as ideal preparation for the task of reviving the Star Wars franchise.

Still, even if its bedrock philosophy is improbably, even dangerously, simplistic, the Star Wars universe has always been more realistic than the Star Trek universe in other respects, well illustrated by this film. In Star Trek, an occasional phaser blast might damage a spaceship’s engine and require repairs, but its machines otherwise always seemed to be brand-new, in tip-top condition, and they rarely malfunctioned. In Star Wars, machines regularly grow old and decrepit, frequently breaking down and demanding yet another spit-and-duct-tape solution so they will keep working long enough for the heroes to complete their mission. Moreover, more so than the characters in Star Trek, the residents of the Star Wars universe forge genuine relationships with the machines they depend upon, whether it is Solo and Chewbacca’s affection for the Millennium Falcon, the bond between BB-8 and pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and later Rey, or the way that Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber mysteriously summons Rey. The franchise’s machines thus take on personalities of their own and become meaningful components of their owners’ lives, just like many machines in the real world.

In addition, there is generally a sort of stiff formality in the personal interactions within the Star Trek universe, imposed by the military chain of command that governs starships and other Federation facilities, and while conflicts do occur, individuals tend to be preternaturally polite and cooperative as they work together to meet various challenges. In the Star Wars universe, perhaps as a subtle criticism of Star Trek, one encounters such an atmosphere only within the confines of the enemy’s headquarters; the heroic characters inhabit a very lived-in world, they always seem relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings, and they are never hesitant about being flippant or cantankerous. Invited to visit the world of Star Trek, people would feel that they had to be on their very best behavior; invited to visit the world of Star Wars, they would feel free to just be themselves.

Finally, Star Trek always insisted that an advanced civilization would progress beyond economics, as technology would provide limitless resources and eliminate the need to use money or work for an income. Star Wars offers a futuristic world that, more plausibly, is still driven by commerce: Han Solo transports dangerous animals to pick up some money and habitually gets in trouble by declining to repay his debts; Rey makes a living by scavenging parts from wrecked spaceships and standing in line to sell them to a parsimonious pawnbroker; and when Solo offers to make Rey a member of the Millennium Falcon crew, he emphasizes that she will receive a salary, albeit not a generous one. And, ever since the phenomenal sales of merchandise from the first Star Wars film, every Star Wars film itself becomes a matter of commerce, as there will always be at least one innovation that seems custom-designed to inspire profitable toys, ranging from Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks to this film’s BB-8 (worth “sixty portions” in the film, a functioning miniature BB-8 will cost you $150 in the real world). While microeconomics is foregrounded in all Star Wars films, though, one might question the franchise’s grasp of macroeconomics. Other commentators have noted its previous failure to explore the catastrophic financial consequences of the destruction of the Death Star, and watching this film, one wonders how, even if the principle behind the device was well understood, the First Order would ever muster the enormous amounts of money it would require to effectively rebuild an entire planet to function as a sun-absorbing, world-destroying weapon.

While the Star Wars universe can be praised in these respects, there are still a few other complaints one might make about this film, all falling into the category of missed opportunities. I have argued elsewhere that the success of the first Star Wars film was largely due to the sense of conviction imparted by Sir Alec Guinness’s brilliant portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and when the equally capable Max von Sydow appeared in an early scene, it aroused the hope that he might be similarly employed as a persuasive father figure for this new Star Wars saga. Yet his character is quickly thrown away, never to be seen again. The impression that this film is thoughtlessly repeating its precursors’ plots was needlessly enhanced by the unwise decision to have new villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) almost precisely mimic the appearance of the earlier films’ Darth Vader; one can convey that a man is striving to emulate his grandfather without having him dress up like his grandfather or haplessly endeavor to sound like his grandfather. Trying to outdo the original film’s cantina scene may represent an irresistible temptation to any Star Wars director, but Abrams’s version – the bar run by diminutive alien Maz Kanata (Luita Nyong’o) – fails to impress, and it further contributes to the aura of déjà vu surrounding the proceedings. Traditions should generally be respected, but some of them deserve to die, like including the line “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” in every single Star Wars film. And while it’s great to bring back beloved old characters, one has to give them something to do; here, Daniels’ C-3PO has absolutely nothing to do, and his intermittent appearances and lines of dialogue become little more than annoying interruptions. Perhaps this highly anticipated film was rushed into production with a reasonably strong script that nevertheless needed one more rewrite to address these and other infelicities.

Overall, to epitomize the experience of watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one can liken it to making a return visit to Disneyland and going on a favorite ride – Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain – for the umpteenth time. You will enjoy the ride; you may notice an occasional new embellishment, as Disney’s creative team is constantly trying to incorporate slight improvements into even their most popular attractions; but you will never be surprised. Further, if you keep going on even the greatest of rides too many times, you may start to grow weary of it, as I have started to avoid a few famous rides that have lost their power to entertain me. It is a pattern of human behavior that the Walt Disney company would be wise to consider as they confidently plan their next dozen Star Wars films.

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 (2015), is now available.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Adam Christopher

Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher (Tor 978-0-7653-7918-4, $24.99, 240pp, hardcover) November 2015

Adam Christopher’s first novel, Empire State, appeared only in 2011. In the short interval since, he fleshed out that dieselpunk duology with The Age Atomic; completed another series consisting of The Burning Dark and The Machine Awakes; produced two singletons, Seven Wonders and Hang Wire; and now has launched “The LA Trilogy” with Made to Kill. It’s a productivity worthy of one of the old pulpsters, or a Silverberg or a Malzberg or a Resnick. But readers must only hope it’s sustainable, and that he is not overtaxing his gifts. Those novels of his I have so far sampled have all been well done, and one would hate to see either a diminishment in quality or a halt in production entirely, due to burnout. It seems a shame that part of this super-fecundity might be attributable to marketplace realities. This is now the way you have to produce in order to sustain a career.

The first thing to mention about Christopher’s entertaining new book is that it belongs to a kind of retro-SF which I am starting to see cropping up more and more. I can’t quite call it dieselpunk, since to me that term refers to fantastical fiction set in some era identical to or analogous to our consensus reality years of 1935-1955. Christopher’s novel is set in the year 1965, and I suppose it might be called Atomic Age fiction. Or Sputnik Fiction. Or Space-Age Bachelor Pad Fiction. Personally, I have been thinking of it as Mad Men SF or New Frontier SF. The reference to the famous TV show should conjure up obvious images. But the “New Frontier” allusion is not only to JFK’s political era, but to the great graphic novel of that same name by Darwyn Cooke. And sometimes one finds Howard Chaykin working the same vein.

In any case, such fiction takes the extant technology of that era, along with the extant science fiction of that era, and recalibrates them and plays knowingly and ironically and sometimes even sincerely with these elements, to produce frissons both nostalgic and hip. Christopher’s novel exhibits all three characteristic stances, and delivers the goods.

Ray Electromatic is a unique robot, and in fact the last robot surviving a grand purge and dismantling of his cyber-brethren. Introduced in the Fifties, robots came to be resented and were scrapped en masse. (Shades of Herbert’s Butlerian Jihad.) But Ray was allowed to go on, under the protection of his creator, Dr. Thornton, who contributed his brain patterns as a template for Ray’s consciousness. Now Ray operates with his partner/controller, Ada, a giant mainframe AI who relies on Ray as her mobile extension. Lately, Ada has started hiring out Ray as not only a private eye, but a contract killer, since that latter business is more lucrative and feeds into Ada’s Prime Directive for survival.

Ray also operates under a curious constraint: his taped memory bank fills up after 24 hours of sensory input, and he starts each day as a blank slate, save for some hardwired essentials, his operating system more or less. Right away, we sense the postmodern Jonathan Lethem-style PI-with-a-disability riff, but it consorts well with the more classic venue.

One day a beautiful gal comes into Ray’s office, hires him to find and kill a certain Hollywood actor, and pays him off with a bag of gold ingots. This strange assignment leads Ray from the famous Hollywood hillside sign to a chichi club called the Temple of the Magenta Dragon, to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Along the way are spies and bombs and mysterious gadgets and such perfectly named Hollywood types as Alaska Gray, Rico Spillane and Fresco Peterman.

Christopher does a fine job of plotting and mystery-novel misdirection. I don’t think you will unriddle the full set of enigmas before he is willing to disclose them. He does not stint the stefnal elements either, and Ray’s existential quandary hews to the best Asimovian heights. Moreover, Ray’s blithe homicidal nature harks back to a classic of the Sputnik era, Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit.”

The one area where I see some small deficiencies is in the Chandler homages. In his afterword, Christopher talks about Chandler being the inspiration for this novel. And while Ray does get off a few droll quips, Marlowe-style—“I assumed this was standard operating procedure for teenagers in an ice cream parlor when being given a free drink by a robot…”—the level of the metaphors and dialogue never comes close to Chandler’s brilliance, and Chandler’s noirish focus on corruption and decadence, greed and callousness, is abandoned in favor of the admittedly fascinating espionage shenanigans.

At the end of the book, Ray is left in a new condition that portends even larger adventures in books two and three of the LA Trilogy. And given Christopher’s track record, we should not have to wait long for them!

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.

James Bradley reviews Dave Hutchinson

Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Re­bellion 978-1781083987, $7.99, 384pp, pb) November 2015.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn was one of the real delights of 2014, a perfectly pitched riff on the spy thriller that married the shifting realities of Christopher Priest to a blackly comic vision of the absurdities and contradictions of European nationalism.

Now, 18 months later, we have Europe at Midnight, a novel set in the same universe (or universes), which takes both the concept and the politics that made the first book so interest­ing and amplifies it.

Although its title suggests it is a sequel, it isn’t, and neither is it a prequel. Instead – to borrow the metaphor of the railway that helped structure Europe in Autumn – it’s perhaps best understood as a separate but convergent line in the same network, its narrative traversing dif­ferent terrain before finally intersecting with the narrative of the first book.

As such, its setup will be familiar to those who have read Europe in Autumn. It’s a few decades from now, and Europe is in the process of fracturing into scores of ever-smaller poli­ties. Some of these new micro-states are asser­tions of traditional privilege, micro-states set up by ‘‘Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg Gotha heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century’’; others are little more than excuses to fence off bits of countryside or cities on behalf of thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly want European home­lands as well, and religious groups, and Com­munists, and Fascists.

This process – which has been hastened by ongoing economic malaise and (significantly, it turns out) a devastating flu epidemic – has also led to proliferating bureaucracy and border controls, as these micro-states seek to control (and often profit from) the flow of people and goods across their territory (and as the current influx of Syrian refugees continues to expose the imbalances and contradictions in Europe’s governance, this looks more prescient with each passing week).

Much of the action of Europe in Autumn focused on these borders, or more particularly ‘‘Les Correurs des bois’’ or ‘‘Couriers,’’ a state­less organization of spies and fixers who spe­cialize in circumventing the mechanisms set up to control those borders, a focus that allowed the novel to explore both the physical and psy­chic landscapes of a fractured Europe and the degree to which borders (and indeed maps) are really expressions of particular sorts of power.

But alongside these more conventional ele­ments, Europe in Autumn introduced another, significant wrinkle (those who wish to enjoy the novel without knowing its big reveal in advance may want to stop reading now) in the form of the Community, a secret nation sequestered in a pocket dimension that abuts the real Europe and that was magicked into being by eccentric English cartographers in the 19th century.

Although much of the action of Europe in Autumn turns on the maneuverings of vari­ous groups seeking to uncover the secret of the Community’s existence (and the unveiling of its nature serves as the big reveal of the novel’s final pages) it is front and center in Europe at Midnight, much of whose action takes place in this parallel dimension.

Interestingly – and significantly – the novel does not open in the Community itself. Instead it opens in a peculiarly bleak and impoverished place known as the Campus, a tiny world unto itself that seems to exist in order to carry out various kinds of research. As the story begins, the Campus is in the process of trying to recov­er some kind of stability after the overthrow of its former government, a process that has seen the novel’s narrator, a former Literature profes­sor, take up the position of Professor of Intelli­gence, a job that has placed him in the invidious position of attempting not just to root out the secrets and sympathizers of the old regime, but of being responsible for imposing order on the malnourished and increasingly restive popula­tion of the new.

Only ever identified as Rupert – in a rather lovely flourish he introduces himself as ‘‘Ru­pert of Hentzau’’ during an operation early on (‘‘I’d been reading too much Anthony Hope’’), invoking the fictional nation of Ruritania – the narrator soon finds himself investigating evi­dence of horrific research involving genetic en­gineering and biological warfare, a line of en­quiry that sees him stripped of his position and, after an attempt on his life by the forces behind the research, leads to him deciding to flee the Campus for the outside world.

The action then shifts to the ‘‘real’’ world of England, where Rupert resurfaces, taken into the custody of the secret services after he is stabbed by what seem to be operatives of a group representing interests allied to those whose existence he uncovered back in the Cam­pus, an event that leads to him agreeing to work with the security services to help unravel the question of who or what is behind the efforts to keep the Community’s existence a secret.

Like Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight derives at least some of its effect from its shifting perspective and jumps in time, as Rupert shuttles between background and fore­ground, and the action shifts from the Campus to Europe and England and then back to the Community itself. Although part of the pleasure of the book lies in the unraveling of its various threads, there are moments when the result is more than a little destabilizing, particularly as the narrative proceeds, and Rupert’s work takes him deeper into the world of the Community. Yet it also points to the book’s larger interest in the malleable nature of social reality, the degree to which both national and personal identity are constructed and deconstructed, and to the de­gree to which these processes are hostage to the agendas of the powerful.

Given its subject matter, it should come as lit­tle surprise that Europe in Autumn often reads like a loving and perfectly pitched homage to the thrillers of the Cold War, and those of Le Carré in particular. Like Le Carré, Hutchinson is keenly attuned to the hypocrisy and casual brutality of power. And, also like Le Carré, he is deeply skeptical of Englishness, and the way the ‘‘dream of the perfect England’’ embodied by the Community disguises not just the ruth­lessness of its rulers, but also the degree to which the Community’s order serves to protect those who occupy the upper echelons of its so­cial order.

Yet, in a way, what is most striking about Europe at Midnight is not the hard edge of its politics, or even the casual brilliance of its science fictional reworking of the political thriller, but Hutchinson’s thrillingly assured control of his material. Hutchinson writes wonderfully, his prose animated not just by a keen eye for character, but by a blackly witty sense of humor, qualities that make Europe in Autumn both darkly entertaining and disturb­ingly timely.

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