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Paul Di Filippo reviews Jill Ciment

I have missed the pleasures of reading Jill Ciment’s four previous novels, but the fact that her newest book ventures into genre territory gives me a workaday excuse to sample her writing. And I’ll cover it here even if the dustjacket copy calls Act of God “noir” rather than the piece of satirical fantastika it is. Oh, well, some old shibboleths die hard.

Ciment’s book is a compact, droll farce, light-hearted and pleasurable as a chocolate truffle, yet with a nugget of hard, somewhat unpalatable truths in the center. It is propelled into motion by a conceit that echoes, in what I am sure is a deliberate way, Jack Finney’s classic The Body Snatchers. Comparisons to the work of Kit Reed and Carol Emshwiller, Donald Westlake and J. P. Donleavy and Robert Sheckley are also easy to fashion. But ultimately, Ciment towers forth with her own brilliant voice.

Let us zoom in from on high, like God Himself, on a brownstone in Brooklyn in the immediacy of now. There are two households therein. Vida Cebu is the owner of the whole building. A middle-aged actress of some small repute—Vida was the famous commercial face of Ziberax, the first female-orgasm-enhancement drug—she has retrofitted most of the building for her own dwelling. But she has been unable to dislodge the twin sisters in their sixties who have an unbreakable lease. Kat and Edith could not be more dissimilar. Edith is the ant of the pair, having spent all her old-maid life as a law office librarian. Kat has been the grasshopper, enjoying a hedonistic life as a Deadhead and assorted other impractical, way-out avocations. Down on her luck, Kat has been forced to move in with the smug and somewhat censorious Edith. But Kat hopes to be back on her feet soon, thanks to compiling a book containing the best of the self-help columns penned by their mother, and culled from the immense archives stored in the apartment.

Meanwhile, Vida is stricken with a peculiarly urban horror: a stranger is discovered to be inhabiting the interstices of her apartment. (Ciment surely based this incident on numerous real-life occurrences, such as a famous one from Japan.) Ashley, a young Russian woman in the USA on a work visa, who has become homeless, not only raids Vida’s food, but also her lingerie drawer. Ick! Unrepentant yet self-loathing, expelled from Vida’s home, Ashley will soon resurface.

But the main trouble at the brownstone—and, eventually, the whole block, then the whole city—is the infestation by glowing, suppurating phallic fungi, contact with which is ill-advised for humans. As Frank, the lowbrow super of the building says to Vida, “You should make a movie of your life and call it Andromeda Strain II.”

Ciment never loses the intimate focus on her mostly female cast, while still giving us the big picture of catastrophe through the employment of perfectly selected vignettes: Vida entering a decontamination tent in her underwear, for instance, or life for Kat and Frank at the refugee center. Her interweaving plotlines are so nimbly handled that every development seems simultaneously unpredictable, yet organically predetermined. The story might sometimes appear to be a massive clockwork, but it has the astonishing intricacy of the finest Old World municipal tower clock, where astonishing figures pirouette in and out of every niche. Ultimately, it’s all about kismet and karma, as the themes of responsibility, guilt, innocence, ambition and secrecy receive a stirring workout via beautifully realized “objective correlatives.”

This blackly funny book contains absolutely no cant or pieties. There’s no feelgood, self-righteous hero/villain dichotomies, no blaming of society for individual screwups, no sitcom “lessons learned.” The most hapless characters come to the worst ends, and Vida, arguably the most culpable figure here, experiences not only her share of justifiable tragedy, but also what might paradoxically be the “happiest” ending.

Ciment has the bracing mindset of Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain, George Alec Effinger or Tom Disch. The title, “act of god,” is invoked by the characters numerous times, and it’s the key to the whole book. The cosmos is unfair, blind and sometimes lethal. A giant ancient mushroom growing under Brooklyn can derange and destroy the lives of thousands, not because the mushroom is some evil alien invader, the fungal equivalent of a sociopath, but simply because it is an organism trying to live its own existence according to the dictates of its nature.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” might be Ciment’s moral. Except that we do not even get the satisfaction of being the playthings of a nonexistent deity. It’s all just physics, biology and chance, and we take our comforts where we can, like poor Ashley hiding in someone’s car or closet.

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 Sam Sykes

I’m late to the table with Sam Sykes, having missed his trilogy Aeon’s Gate. Previous reviewers have admired his prose and characters far more than his plotting, in early volumes of what amounts to an ongoing series that builds a vivid world, assembles a band of five ‘‘adventurers’’ to travel it, and sets them loose to wander. New sequence Bring Down Heaven begins with The City Stained Red (with sequel The Mortal Tally due to follow later this year). In terms of output, Sykes may seem like a videogame designer more obsessed with quantity than quality, but here’s the rub: this brash, prolific wordsmith has a natural eloquence that grabbed my attention and refused to let go, over the course of almost 600 pages.

Lenk, the leader of the band, is a sword jockey (mercenary and assassin), by this point adept at killing people and assorted monsters, but tired of the trade and hoping to give it up for something more legit. The group that formed around him consists of three humans (the priestess of a healer god, a well-honed rogue, and an adolescent wizard), plus a dragonman and a schict huntress – long-eared, lithe, and not particularly elfin – who has become Lenk’s lover.

Seeking payment from their latest employer (supposedly a priest of the healer god, far higher in the ranks than their priestess and dedicated to some grand, undisclosed ambition), the group has followed him south to the city of Cier’ Djaal. Its great expanse is divided into various sectors for different ‘‘factions’’: humans at the top, split into two primary groups (bitterly at odds), while various nonhuman ‘‘Oids’’ have their own zones. Although they bear an extra freight of prejudice, these southern dragonmen, schicts, and other, stranger breeds have been substantially assimilated into a place where everyone interacts much as races and cultures do in our world’s largest urban centers – unlike the realms of fantasy where Faerie, Gnome, Hobbit, and humankind (etc.) tend to stay apart until a quest calls some of them together.

The civic tension can resemble gang warfare, but the most drastic discord comes from warring ideologies that recall the fractious Middle East (both past and present) in scenes like an early transformation of a market day into ‘‘all-out slaughter’’:

Men in black dragged hooded foes to the ground to be hacked to thick, screaming chunks under curved blades. Hooded thugs kicked their dark-clad adversaries into burning stalls, firing bolts into them as they emerged, howling from the inferno…. ‘‘Khoth-Kapira!’’ they were shrieking. ‘‘Saccaam ashal thuru!’’

(To which one hood-wearer responds, ‘‘Quit screaming and burn, you heathen sons of bitches.’’)

Human or not, Sykes’s characters rarely mince words. After chaos has swept Asper the priestess and Denaos the rogue away from their fellow northerners, they start arguing about the relative amounts of danger and stupidity in his former associates here (one of the major gangs) and her fellow healers, till she’s angry enough to snarl, ‘‘I’m a font of compassion, asshole.’’ Their approach toward their surroundings is just as direct, perceiving flaws in landmarks whose glory the locals take for granted. Asper’s first view of a famous fountain sees it:

ringed with stone children, hand in hand, dancing around a pillar formed of sculptures of women and men intertwined in joy. Their faces wore ecstasy like masks, hollow and false. Their hands were outstretched to catch the water as it babbled down from the top and became red in the basin.

When the title stain becomes this evident, so does her disillusionment – observing a monument which ‘‘belonged in the City of Centers, that mythical, imaginary place where scholars that didn’t exist would gather around it to talk about things that weren’t real.’’

The intertwining plotlines in ‘‘Act Two’’ send band members on separate trajectories, hoping to get clues to the whereabouts of the errant paymaster from Cier’ Djaal’s enclaves of swordsmen, healers, gangsters, wizards, dragonmen and schicts, yet nothing really goes as planned in this city where the classic dichotomy of Good and Evil keeps breaking down. Spurred to exert magical powers he didn’t know he had, Dreadaeleon reacts with a youngster’s giddy delight (not tempered to maturity in a true rite of passage). Observing the wary interaction between southern schicts and humans, Kataria the huntress finds no way to cast aside the passion that brought her here with Lenk. And while the swordsman gets stray glimpses of the white-clad priest who once hired his group of adventurers, the even paler figure who shows up now and then to comment on the action (invisible to anyone but Lenk) resembles a trickster god in the taunting guise of imaginary friend.

The novelist – real name Sam Watkins, son of noted fantasist Diana Gabaldon – shows a great promise that’s never quite fulfilled. If he could slow down the headlong flights of imagination that compel him to produce so many hefty tomes, he might produce literate marvels on a par with Twain or Dickens. Sykes has a way with words, and I’d like to see him make the most of it (no brooding self-importance required).

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-March

Here are a long independent novella, the Dell digests, and a couple March ezines.

Publications Reviewed



Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

A long independent novella, military space opera, less action-oriented than a character study. Scur, our narrator, is a soldier, conscripted for the long-ongoing war between two factions of human worlds. Her name is a strikingly harsh and ugly one in English, and it’s notable that she chose it for herself, the original version being Scurelya. Perhaps she meant it as fitting for a soldier, but all we really know is that she insists on it.

It’s notable, in fact, how very little we know about her, other than a recollection of her mother’s liking for a particular poet. Her conscription was apparently illegal, but she tells us she made no resistance and did her job as a soldier as long as the war lasted. On both sides of the conflict, troops were implanted with slow bullets, memory devices that held their service records as well as a lot of personal data. Scur tells us that the data isn’t accessible to personnel without a reader device, but the information there is considered reliable. When Scur finds herself on a prisoner transport after the war, she implicitly trusts that her bullet will clear her of any charge.

In the chaos after the ceasefire, Scur was briefly captured by a sadistic enemy soldier, an incident that shows her as stubborn and determined to survive. Otherwise, we don’t know, as Scur doesn’t, exactly how she came to be on the prisoner transport ship. She just wakes up from hibernation on the disabled vessel with mayhem growing in the corridors. In partnership with a crewmember, she takes over the ship and imposes order. At this time, she has two goals—to return home and to take revenge on her enemy torturer. But as they learn more about what happened to the ship, and in fact to all the known human worlds, it becomes clear that the first goal is impossible. The future of humanity may depend on the ship’s population.

Too many authors don’t seem to think through a narrative strategy, don’t consider the implications, particularly in a first-person account, of the questions: who is telling this story to whom, and by what medium? Here, these decisions are crucial. We only know Scur’s story as she tells it to us, which may account for certain strangenesses, such as a dispassionate flatness to her narrative voice, making it all the more remarkable on the rare occasion when she loses this dispassion. If she concentrates her account on only a few individuals aboard the ship, it’s because these are the people who meant the most to her, not necessarily that ones who meant the most to the events she lived through. It isn’t an objective account, which becomes more clear toward the end, when she is explicitly addressing future generations who will have to carry on when she is gone, who may have to face the peril that doomed her civilization. Her story is meant to prepare them, which may not mean telling them the entire truth.

The war had made us what we were—traitors, cowards, murderers and sadists. We were all dregs of one sort or another. Even the best of us had sometimes lied about what we had done, or how we had found our way aboard Caprice.

Or it may be that their memories aren’t reliable, which is a thing we know about memories. But Scur’s story tells us that they need not limit or define a life, and at the moment she relinquished her own, she committed to what readers may recognize as an existentialist position. Near the end of her life, she finally admits that the bullet holding the record of her life may not have been what it once seemed, what she once told us and perhaps once believed. But her life now is what she has made of it as if from a flat blank slate, cutting the past out of herself and overwriting it with what she chooses to be.



Asimov’s, April/May 2015

A double issue with some very long stories, of which one is yet another installment in the Steele serialization.

“The New Mother” by Eugene Fischer

Science fiction based on a biomedical premise: a contagion that turns human ova diploid, capable of parthenogenesis—reproduction without benefit of sperm [although it apparently originates with a male carrier]. Not only that, every time a female ovulates, the egg is fertilized. And not only that, every daughter born by this process is also affected. The syndrome came to public attention with the case of a young woman named Candace who gave birth to four daughters before the preacher in her community had her fifth pregnancy aborted and all the children sterilized [“spayed like bitches”]. The potential consequences to society are profound. Some people [like Texas politicians] want to dehumanize the new mothers. Some researchers are even using the term “speciation”, with predictable political consequences.

Tess is a freelance journalist who has been following the parthenogenetic phenomenon since its inception. It was through reading her articles that Candace’s preacher first learned of it; Tess now feels guiltily responsible for what happened to her. Now Tess has the career-making opportunity to do a feature article for a major publication—travel allowance, expense account, the whole deal depending on her ability to score an interview with Candace. Tess also happens to be pregnant herself and worrying over the remote possibility that her sperm donor might have been a carrier. The story follows her on her fact-finding trip, during which we encounter researchers concerned about their grants, bigoted Texas politicians, bitchy editors, and Tess’s overbearing mother, who’s an awful lot like her overbearing partner. Everyone but Candace, who keeps refusing to meet with her.

It’s a long story, which thus has sufficient room for all this stuff. The author mostly keeps the infodumpfery under control and presents the potential consequences of the phenomenon as undetermined, even while some characters are predicting doom—the extinction of males, of non-parthenogenic humanity, overpopulation. The world may–or may not—be on the brink of a demographic disaster or an intolerant overreaction. In the meantime, Tess struggles with her own personal problems, including her normal [she hopes] pregnancy.

If anything, the story is perhaps too little alarmist. Texas politicians notwithstanding, the author seems to be minimizing many of the worst tendencies in human society, one of which is to blame the female for anything that goes wrong in reproduction. And I certainly find the prospect of annual pregnancy to be highly alarming.

One plot point seems inconsistent. If Candace’s preacher had her pregnancy forcible aborted and her daughters sterilized, why didn’t he sterilize Candace at the same time, while he was at it?

“Day Job” by Tom Purdom

Set in a fairly recognizable nanny-state future when Len has been unable to keep fulltime work because of a personality defect. He does contract work as a hacker and spends his recreational hours as a VR troll, but his girlfriend persuades him that he could do better with therapeutic personality enhancement. His therapists don’t believe he has a real potential for violence, which would trigger mandatory intervention. But the computer analysis singles him out for special observation, and one therapist senses something that’s been overlooked.

This one gathers interest as it proceeds, looking at Len’s situation from multiple points of view, including his own. I like the way the story illustrates how role-playing can enhance an individual’s potential for antisocial behavior, a lot like the internet does now.

“Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters—H’ard and Andy Are Come to Town” by Michael Swanwick & Gregory Frost

Into a fantasy landscape more or less like the US Dustbowl come the eponymous pair of rogues and con artists in search of suckers to fleece. H’ard has a minor gift for wizardry and Andy for verbiage.

Andy took his handkerchief and swiped at the back of his neck. “I declare, this must be the easiest money we have ever earned. It would be just like shooting ducks in a barrel if the aforementioned waterfowl had previously been duped into assembling the staves and bands of that barrel, jollified into hauling buckets of water until it was full, and then sweet-talked into diving headlong into it immediately after clipping their own flight feathers.”

Much fun. I can’t help thinking there is some tuckerizing going on here.

“The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers” by Anna Tambour

I find the premise of this work particularly opaque, despite the author’s numerous but obscure hints: any readers who can figure out the meaning of “follwel . . . aulifers . . . furebri” are one up on me. As Cheema the gatherer prays:

“We thank you who came before to the Above,” she said now. “We thank you who saw our empty dish and knew how to fill it. Who created the gun, the well. Who built the temple and Arret and taught the first bof to follow your code. Who installed the first krez to follow your wisdom and keep order, as the krez knows the secrets of our hearts, our wish to think only of today, our hunger and thirst.”

It’s fortunately not necessary to parse this jargon to figure out that the characters here are living on a hard and desiccated world so lacking in resources that the bodies of their parents are used to fabricate essential utensils [although they do not, apparently, eat them]. There is extreme disparity of wealth, i.e., food resources, divided unevenly between Above and Below. It’s those Above who use the gun to seed the Cloud Mothers that rain ripened grain and fruit onto Below, where it is gathered and hauled Above, the Belowers being allowed only a small fraction of the bounty which they have done all the grueling work of gathering. The Abovers are soft and decadent, wallowing in a Neroesque waste, complete with vomitoria, that I think goes way to excess. But they have also forgotten most of how their system really works. The current leader Above is aware that fuel is running out, with the harvests diminishing, while those Below are disturbed by the growing frequency of gatherers killed by failed shots of the gun. The story looks at a number of different characters for their reaction to this situation.

It’s the characters who count here, but those Above are largely the sort that we applaud when they’re thrown over the cliff to their deaths. The decadence of the Abovers is excessively exaggerated, so I don’t take them particularly seriously as people. The Belowers are overall more real and sympathetic, definitely the good guys of the scenario, with Cheema the gatherer being a likely candidate for sainthood. There are people of good will in both locations, who sincerely want a solution to the population’s impending food shortage, but I see no way they’re going to succeed, if the situation actually is as the story suggests. But whether it is or not, I’m not sure.

I wonder here if I’m just being too dense to grasp the hints the author has given. The hints are obviously hints, but none of them seem to lead anywhere that I can follow. So the piece is a lot harder to enjoy than if the premise were made more explicit.

“Paul and His Son” by Joe M McDermott

In another future surveillance state, Paul is in anguish about his son, who’s sliding rapidly on a downward, self-destructive path. The authorities won’t authorize drugs for him, but Paul is convinced they would help, the way they helped him when he was Paul, Jr’s age.

The doctors don’t understand. They don’t have to live with him, locking him in every night, always with one eye on him, because he is going to run away, and indifferent to his education, his future, his own family. Just give me the fucking pill that will fix this. And they won’t.

But the doctors have no control over what they can prescribe, either. The authorities keep them under control and surveillance. But Paul has a client who gets million-dollar nanopills from the black market. Paul wants to know where he can find them.

The pain here is palpably real. It’s easy to sympathize with Paul’s obsession, knowing at the same time that there’s little hope for his solution ever working, just as nothing else has worked. It’s notable that we are never given access to Paul, Jr’s point of view, just as his father never does. This is Paul’s story, the father’s story, and the tragedy is that he’ll probably never understand his son.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Marriage of the Sea” by Liz Williams

The narrator is the intended bride of the sea, but the sea being female, she is also a bride. As every character we see here is also female, this may be a parthenogenetic species. I have some problems with the text, which begins with: “. . . the city and I will be wed.” But it isn’t the sea speaking, it’s the bride of the sea, representing the city. So the line is, at best, unclear and misleading; at worst, just wrong. Alas for the ceremony, a band of outsider warriors who worship a different goddess attack the bride’s tower to rescue her, much against her will.

This is pretty old mythic stuff, except for a minor high-tech component.

“What I Intend” by Robert Reed

The richest man in the world announces in public that he plans to employ an algorithm to sift through possible signals from alien intelligences. He has a vision that he only dimly comprehends:

“They want to be understood . . . . The dumbest shit of alien slime isn’t going to spend that much energy and that much capital to make an empty three second flash of light.”

The world assumes he’s crazy. His wife wonders if he’s actually an alien. His employees want to keep the funds flowing by holding out potential rewards. Then one employee has an insight that punches a hole in all the assumptions.

I’m reminded here of Citizen Kane, a portrait of a uniquely rich and powerful individual that reaches down through his psyche to his most basic motivation. It might have been SETI, it might have been anything else.

“Willing Flesh” by Jay O’Connell

A long, long time ago, there was The Science Fiction Weight Loss Book, edited by Isaac Asimov. It was a funny compendium, delving into the potential unfortunate consequences of quick weight loss gimmicks. Here, we have a work that could have been excerpted from that classic volume. Garrison, drowning in peanut butter and aerosol cheese, sees an ad for Fat Burner, a personality program that promises great loss with no effort. Garrison seems never to have learned the universal axiom that anything promised on TV can’t possibly be true, and the fact that the FDA has banned the product doesn’t reduce his resolve. The unfortunate consequences ensue.

The author is pretty kind to Garrison, probably more than he deserves. This is one of those situations where the humor tends to derive from cruelty, and the author pulls back at the end.

“How to Walk Through Historic Graveyards in the Post-Digital Age” by Fran Wilde

The military-technological complex has trapped Eleanor. They recruited her as a journalist from college with a promise of new eyes–enhanced vision implants that upload automatically to their servers. Until something went wrong, an explosion that officially never happened, and she saw what she wasn’t supposed to see. The company techs have put her back together and let her keep the eyes, after deleting anything they wanted to keep classified, but they couldn’t exorcise the ghosts of Eleanor’s dying companions.

The gaps aren’t a relief any more; they only highlight the shards I have left. Somewhere on IARPA’s servers, tagged classified, is whatever my lenses force-uploaded in a rush during the explosion, but I can’t see it anymore. So much for intrepid reporting.

Now, back home to recuperate, she communes with different ghosts in her town’s old battlefield cemetery, haunted by, among others, the ghost of Tallulah Bankhead. But the company won’t leave her alone; they have plans for her.

The piece edges over into SF horror, but this is less because of the ghosts than the total control the company has over Eleanor’s vision, arbitrarily classifying anything they feel threatened by—deleting entire colors from her eyes, deleting her ability to see a cornfield. Horror is the company telling her she can’t say No to whatever they do. It’s horror because we know how true it is. The ghosts, in contrast, are companionable entities. Tallulah, especially, is the most interesting character here; it’s evident that the author has a strong sense of who she was.

“The Sentry” by Frank Smith

A short story of PTSD. Rick has come back from a bad war to a family that doesn’t really know him now. When he has to put an injured animal out of its misery, it all comes back, not that it’s ever really left.

The way the boy looked at him hurt. Rick didn’t know why it hurt so bad. If he could do just one thing to make the rest of his life matter, it would be to ensure that these kids, whether they could grow to care for him or not, never had to do what he’d done.

Effectively done. It’s notable that it’s only a fellow veteran who immediately understands Rick’s pain.



Analog, May 2015

Opening with a long novella by Rajnar Vajra, which brings on another screed.

“Zen Angel” by Rajnar Vajra

Readers of this column may recall my repeated misgivings about publications that rely too heavily on a stable of regular authors. This piece brings to mind a related difficulty of authors who publish only in one regular publication; that it can inhibit them in developing and expanding the limits of their craft. In this case: how to open a story in a way that won’t bore readers into putting it down before it actually starts. We have this quasi-immortal guy named Len whom the government wants to kill because his existence may become inconvenient. Here’s a premise with possibilities. But the piece opens with him maundering at great length on trivial and inconsequential subjects until, almost half-way through the lengthy text, the government introduces him to an alien, who almost immediately whisks him away to somewhere in the galaxy—or some galaxy. Where the story actually begins. The first half—mostly irrelevant. The government’s schemes—irrelevant. The promising premise—a dead end. Could you cut most of this text away and discard it without harming the narrative? Pretty much.

So at last we have the alien, who saves Len from his own government for a purpose of her own race, which she explains at great length. She also explains that her people sort of bioengineered Len for this purpose. Which is—they need representatives of five other sentient species to open a valuable relic from before the birth of the universe. An incalculable reward awaits them all. A contest will determine which candidate species are chosen. Certain uncooperative and hostile species are scheming either to kill other candidates or steal the incalculable reward. So—another, completely different, promising premise, as explained at great length by the alien. Such that, once all the explaining is out of the way, readers should be anticipating some neat, clever competitions at which Len will prevail, plus exciting action scenes during which Len will overcome the nasty aliens and gain the fantastic reward. Something along these lines. And we do get a little of this: a little bit of competition that turns out not to be very competitive, a little bit of action, and a final reward that turns out to be . . . nice. The term anticlimax comes to mind, and by this I don’t mean the story’s last line.

It’s all quite frustrating. Because there really is a promising premise here [two of them, one wasted]. It could have been developed into a taut [“marked by economy of structure and detail”], exciting action piece, or a more cerebral puzzle piece, or a character piece in which we learn a lot more about Len than his teething problem. It could have been. The author is perfectly capable. I just wonder if some other editor might have been able to bring the promise to more fulfillment.

“Slider” by Bud Sparkhawk

A baseball story. The narrator is a baseball dad, the kind of guy who lives out his own frustrated fantasies through his kid. And now it really happens, they want to sign the kid to the majors while he’s still in high school.

Visions of Todd on the mound in Camden Yards, wearing the orange and black, throwing his fast balls, sliders, and curves to one frustrated batter after another, holding them back as the team advanced to the top of the standings, ran through my mind in a montage.

But there’s a catch. The contract includes an age-retardant clause. Todd would be trapped artificially at a youthful prime for an extended lifetime, giving up college, any other career possibilities, his girlfriend, any life outside the game. To the narrator, none of this matters. I think most of us have met this guy.

I note another story published recently with this same age-retardant baseball theme, but this one is the superior, being based on real human concerns. I do have to wonder how the premise got into the memestream, though.

“Cetacean Dreams” by Robert R Chase

Dolphins hunting Leviathan on Europa. The dolphins wear diving suits. Leviathan is an unknown very large thing that the dolphins are supposed to find and study. A neat science-fictional premise, but a pat, predictable plot.

“Arnheim’s World” by Therese Arkenberg

Arnheim is proudly showing off his newly-terraformed world to his friend Sara. “All I’ve ever wanted was a place that didn’t belong to other people.” Being rich helps with goals like that. Then comes an emergency.

There’s moral dilemma at the heart of this one. Does Sara betray Arnheim? Does she do the right or the wrong thing? It’s not so simple a question, but an interesting one.

“No Gain” by Aubry Kae Andersen

Corruption in sports again, this time women’s gymnastics. Maggie is a former world-class competitor, wiped out from injury, now hired to train a new phenom from Uzbekistan. Sabina is too good to be true; Maggie knows something is fishy but not quite what.

The crowd jumped to their feet, clapping and yelling. They didn’t seem to notice Sabina’s skewed index finger. Maggie stared at it, though, as did the judges.

The girl’s coach, however, not only controls Maggie’s oxycodone supply, he has a gangster-like demeanor.

The premise here is quite properly science-fictional, the conclusion another ethical dilemma, although there’s no doubt this time where right and wrong lie.

“Sentience Signified” by J L Forrest

Surveying Joon [sounds like a mashup of “Jupiter and Moon” but it’s a planet apparently orbiting 107 Piscium]. Bilit is happily exploring the local wonders, the initial drone survey having reported “No sentient life”.

Bilit recorded images and dictated his notes. He collected samples. He drank the splendor that here, two-dozen light years from the mythical Garden of Eden, existed the real thing. It had evolved from its own DNA helix for hundreds of millions of years.

No reader is going to be in doubt of what Bilit finds, even from the first word in the title. The only question is what he and the rest of humanity is going to do about it. Here we have one of the oldest standards of the genre, and if anything sets this one apart from the thousands of tales that have preceded it, I’d have to call it the wonder of the landscape. Which isn’t a lot, but considerably preferable to the myriads of clichés that might have been in its place.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168-169, March 2015

Issue #168 has a particularly well-matched set of stories, both featuring members of an urban underclass; #169 features young people taking journeys. An uninspiring pair of issues overall, and too much YA for my liking.

#168

“Steady on Her Feet” by K J Kabza

Holliday is a mudlark, from a family of river scavengers who live in sewer pipes. She has ambitions and an affection for her young sister.

The pipes and tides of the Marmouth ate such gentle dreamers alive, and if this was the nature of Molly’s soul, she would not survive long without kindness and a fierce protector. The rest of their family could provide neither. The duty fell to Holliday, and it was a solemn task she would not have parted for, not for all the world.

One day Holliday becomes caught up in the schemes of kind of mad scientist who surgically implants clockwork character traits into patients in need of such augmentation. Except for an excess of temper, Holliday’s character is judged to be impeccable, and she is given a job; with her pay, she buys gifts for Molly, until she is discovered by her nasty family.

A YA sort of story. It’s obvious from the outset that the doctors are up to no good by hiring Holliday, but I can’t quite figure why they take so long about it.

“A Screech of Gulls” by Alyc Helms

Tutti resembles a Molly grown toothless and alcoholic, a loser who nevertheless managed in his life to find one good thing, his wife. Now she is dead, and Tutti lives on the docks catching and selling gulls, which he’s too soft-hearted to kill himself. He’s also fond of Gemma, the junk girl whose stall is next to his on the dock, so he come to her aid when a thug threatens her. This kindly gesture doesn’t turn out well.

The hardness of her expression makes her ugly, uglier than Nico’s digging fingers had. Tutti clamps his gums together so hard he tastes blood. He bites down so the tightness gripping his chest and throat won’t escape in a sad wail. He’d hoped to die before he saw her turn ugly. It isn’t fair, how the world shatters everything beautiful and leaves him only with useless bits that he can’t piece back together.

It’s in their conclusions that these two stories diverge. This one is both more realistic and depressing, but it exhibits genuine feeling.

#169

“Sun, Stone, Spear” by Carrie Vaughn

Set in a fantastic version of the Neolithic/early Bronze Age, when people are constructing megalithic monuments on astronomical principles. By adding bog bodies into the mix, the author seems to be suggesting early Britain. Two young women decide to take a journey; Ehu’s ambitions as an astronomer need a greater scope than she can find at home, and Mahra wants an adventure. The adventure is full of hardship and peril, and they keep wondering if they’re doing the right thing. They need not have worried, however, because they have the favor of the author, which is even better than the gods.

To me, it’s more that they’re doing a stupid thing, not by leaving but by doing it so badly, so poorly prepared, with no sign of having supplies or provisions. Mahra claims to be a hunter, but her only weapon is a stabbing spear, which is good for war or for large animals but not the rabbits she occasionally takes, the author not telling us how. I find myself not particularly caring if they end up in a bog or not.

“The Sixth Day” by Sylvia Anna Hiven

A story of sisters in a landscape devastated by some unexplained fantastic calamity. Both girls have a fantastic power; Jo makes the corn grow and Cassie [the pretty one, too] sees into the future, which is all people seem to care about, according to Jo.

Pa, old Jeremiah, the Howell sisters across the corn field—they all just care about what Cassie has to say when she comes back from the ahead side. What will end up slipping away, what knickknacks will vanish: Pa’s wagon wheels or Jeremiah’s clod-hoppers or the wooden cross under the knotted oak where Ma’s buried.

One day Cassie foresees the arrival of a stranger—a young man with cattle, who will love Jo, who looks forward to this great change in her life, with meat to eat.

At its heart, a story of jealousy, as so often comes between sisters. But otherwise the story makes little sense, as it seems obvious that everyone would be better off if Cassie’s prediction becomes true, as the cattle can eat the cornstalks and there seems to be little else edible in the world [although the author isn’t clear on any of this]. I note that maize [if this is what the “corn” is] is not a complete food and everyone is going to die of nutritional deficiencies if this is all they eat, particularly since they avoid obvious protein like the snake eggs.



Strange Horizons, March 2015

It’s probably not a coincidence that we find two stories here about Tibetans, with characters having the same names, like Dawa and Kunchen.

“Even the Mountains are Not Forever” by Laurie Tom

In this one, Kunchen was the leader who took her people to settle another world and remained to guide them, spending most of her time in cryosleep but reviving every ten years. People consider her immortal, but in fact, as she ages, each Kunchen has chosen a successor. Now the fourth incarnation is in search of a young girl who can take her place, but Tashi declines the honor.

“That is . . . terribly sad,” said Tashi. “To pick the lonely girl who wants to be with people but never can.” She shook and glared at the Fourth. “You’re not even really Kunchen! The real Kunchen must have died millennia ago. Everyone believes in her, and she’s long gone, only no one ever bothered to tell people! And now you want me to carry on pretending to be a dead person?”

We are to believe this scheme works, although there must be no photography on Dunxu, that after ten years, people can no longer recognize the woman they only briefly knew. Me, I’m dubious. I have to take Tashi’s side here, knowing that Kunchen largely chose her as being expendable—someone who wouldn’t be missed. But we see her choice was validated when Tashi finds a way to make everything work out. Unfortunately, this outcome is so positive it cloys.

“The Salt Mosquito’s Bite and the Goddess’ Sting” by J Mehentee

Here, Dawa is a very young novice monk who becomes the butt of teasing from the older boys; he believes their story of the deadly salt mosquito.

He examined the bite again. Dawa stood, iciness gripping his insides. If he had heard the older novices correctly, then only a day remained before he’d suffer a horrible death.

In desperate search for a cure, he finds instead people who want to teach him a lesson and who need cures of their own.

A moving story of kindness and faith, with a positive outcome that uplifts without being saccharine.

“City of Salt” by Arkady Martine

This is an aftermath story, where we begin in the ruins of past events and hope to learn what came to pass. Which turns out, as it often the case, to have been sorcery misused. There were once a king, his mage, and his general, who refused to serve the evil they raised.

I really like the image of a city turned to salt by the tears of revenants.

When Nilaq had called the dead to march toward that horizon, they were not dead enough. They wept as they marched. They were admirable, in how they threw themselves onto the swords and the cannons of our enemies, waiting to be rendered unusable save for jackals. After they were bones the salt came and the city dried and burned.

It’s the sort of story we don’t often see here, a secondary-world fantasy that might seem more at home in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, where I would have liked it better than this month’s actual contents. But the imagery was totally ruined for me by the author’s intrusive use of kudzu. The geographical setting, or the fantasy version of it, is roughly the region of Mesopotamia and Arabia, a desert land where camels are used for transportation. Kudzu comes from Pacific Asia and is by no means suited to deserts. It doesn’t belong here. Its name doesn’t belong. Even if it’s sorcerous kudzu that can grow in salt, it doesn’t belong. But because it’s here, I’m distracted from the neat city of salt to the stooopid intrusive vines growing over its walls and spoiling my enjoyment.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Neil Gaiman

There are, very broadly speaking, two kinds of fantasy writers: those who participate in the grand and venerable dialogues of fantastika, and those who pretend that they don’t. I don’t think I need to try to describe the nature of those dialogues, since anyone who reads much fantasy knows what they are, but the writers in the former group tend to celebrate the resonances of their work with what Tolkien (and later Lloyd Alexander) called the Cauldron of Story, while the writers of the latter group are off reinventing bicycles. Either group can produce excellent fiction (even a reinvented bicycle can be a good one), but it’s that celebratory resonance that comes to mind in reading Neil Gaiman’s new collection of stories, sketches, poems, and commentary, Trigger Warning. It contains perhaps a half dozen of his strongest short fictions and a handful of rather hasty ones, but by the time we’re done with it we feel like we’ve been celebrating not only Gaiman’s considerable imaginative skills, but also those of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harlan Ellison, David Bowie, Amanda Palmer (not surprisingly), William Blake, Arthur Machen, Steven Moffat, and even Robert Browning. Most of these are cheerfully acknowledged in Gaiman’s accompanying story notes and introduction.

This has nothing to do with originality. Gaiman’s is one of the most distinctive voices in modern fantasy, and it remains thoroughly in control whether the story in question is a Doctor Who episode (‘‘Nothing O’Clock’’), a club-story tall tale in the manner of Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart (‘‘And Weep, Like Alexander’’), or a mashup of two familiar fairy tales (‘‘The Sleeper and the Spindle’’). But that resonance has a great deal to do with that celebratory tone, which emerges even in darker tales like ‘‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’’ and ‘‘Black Dog’’, the one story original to this collection. The latter story reintroduces us to Shadow Moon of American Gods, who has been waiting offstage for his re-entry cue since he last appeared in the novella ‘‘The Monarch of the Glen’’ in 2006. Here he finds himself involved with a strange couple in a rural English village, which comes complete with nearby haunted Roman ruins (a lá Machen). The black dog of the title is partly depression, partly guilt, and partly a really big black dog which appears at crucial moments, and the story itself is one of the strongest in the book, working both as a classic ghost story and as a tantalizing reminder that Gaiman is not yet done with Shadow, one of his most intriguing characters.

‘‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’’ is another pretty dark and powerful tale of greed and treachery, drawn from Scottish legends of the Isle of Skye, about a dwarf and his reluctant guide’s quest for the gold hidden in the cave of the title. At times it reads like Tolkien’s Thorin has wandered into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it works. A rather somber, elegiac tone governs a couple of what we might call the tribute stories. ‘‘An Invocation of Incuriosity’’ is another variation on the club story – a favorite form of Gaiman’s – with the frame this time being a Denny’s in Florida and the tale being told an entropic romance after Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales, and which captures the Vancean heroic-eschatological tone with precision. ‘‘A Case of Death and Honey’’ is one of the most original variations on Sherlock Holmes that I’ve seen, focusing less on the mystery than on the obsessive character of an aging Holmes (who is the narrator, not Watson), long after Mycroft has died, visiting a remote Chinese village to learn about bees from a master beekeeper – from whose point of view we see Holmes as a strange, tall barbarian. There is a mystery involved, but it very nearly works better as an alien contact story. And ‘‘The Sleeper and the Spindle’’, in which the queen Snow White, preparing for her own unexciting wedding, sets out instead to rescue Briar Rose from her sleep, and ends up in an ingenious revisioning of both tales at once.

Some of these tribute tales reflect Gaiman’s sometimes overlooked but sharply Wodehousian sense of humor. The two funniest stories here are ‘‘And Weep, Like Alexander’’, which recreates the manic tall tales of Clarke’s White Hart (complete with minor characters that suggest Aldiss and Moorcock) in the tale of a stranger who claims to have repeatedly saved the world by ‘‘uninventing’’ things before they got out of control, thus explaining why we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars. The Doctor Who episode, ‘‘Nothing O’Clock’’, is very specifically set in the series of the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, and neatly captures the mixture of blithe japery and cosmic worry that marks the series at its best. ‘‘A Calendar of Tales’’, a series of 12 short-shorts written in response to invited tweets from readers, was supposedly inspired by Harlan Ellison’s stunt-writing of stories before live audiences, sometimes in the window of a bookstore – but in fact it ends up recreating a form that was more than a stunt for Ellison and is more than a stunt here: the compound tale, in which a series of unrelated anecdotes (an igloo of books, a genie whose new master has no wishes, a tale of a lost pendant) invite us to discover or invent whatever thematic links we want to, drawing us into the composition as unwitting collaborators. It’s a game that Gaiman plays more directly in ‘‘ORANGE’’, presented as a series of responses to unseen interview questions, requiring the reader to connect the dots to reveal a story which is, frankly, pretty silly. Similarly, ‘‘Adventure Story’’, which might well have been part of that calendar of short-shorts, implies a whole lost-world adventure in the context of lampooning a certain British middle-class attitude towards what is and is not an adventure. More substantial is ‘‘The Thing About Cassandra’’, in which an imaginary girlfriend seems to show up years later in the real world. It also suggests some early Ellison stories as well as a kind of Twilight Zone aesthetic of a world made malleable by a powerful enough imagination. That’s pretty much the kind of world Gaiman offers us throughout Trigger Warning, both in his more considered fictions and his lightly sketched one-offs. It’s also the main justification for the title, which Gaiman borrows from the idea, popular on the Internet and later in academia, that readers – some of whom might have traumatic memories – ought to be warned in advance about potentially upsetting content. There really isn’t much here that would warrant such warnings in particular, but there’s a lot that might challenge the notion that stories are safe places.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Wu Ming-yi

This novel from the Taiwanese author Wu Ming-yi, first published in 2011 in the author’s native land, arrives hard on the heels of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and all the acclaim that prior book accrued. Do these two instances signal a surge or boom in the importation of SF from Asia into English-speaking lands? Hard to say. Older fans might well recall the mini-boom of SF from the USSR, when a mainstream firm like DAW books would see fit to publish the Strugatsky Brothers and the publisher Macmillan had a whole imprint dubbed “The Best of Soviet Science Fiction.” But how long did that freshet run, and with what lasting impact?

Still, in any case, we are fortunate enough to have Wu Ming-yi’s novel before us to enjoy. It appears to be one of five that he has published, according to his Wikipedia entry, the second most recent. Given that he is only forty-four years old, we can expect more from his pen. We might also look for any characteristics of his global generation, someone born in pre-digital times, but still young enough to have grown up with, say, video games, and yet not a millennial.

The tiny first section of the novel is a teaser. Deep in some cavern full of technology, people are experiencing a cataclysm of some kind. The reader is immediately prepped for a disaster novel. But then Wu undercuts that expectation with a deliberate, almost gleeful one-eighty spin of tone and topic. We are on the isolated island of Wayo Wayo, where a small tribal civilization exists in precarious unity with their somewhat limited ecosystem. Wu begins in this second chapter to detail their climate and culture with anthropological depth. Then comes Chapter 3, and another shift. We are witnessing the life of Alice Shih, a retired professor who has lost her husband and only child to a mountaineering accident. Alice deems suicide her only option now, but then life intervenes, as it so often does, in the form of a stray kitten, and she casts aside her intentions.

We do not return to the cast and milieu of the first chapter for a good long time. When we do, it will be to learn about the tunneling mission on Taiwan led by a German man named Detlef Boldt. His story will intersect in curious ways with our main narrative. But in the meantime, the Wayo Wayo thread and the Alice Shih thread will be advanced in alternating segments. Our focus in Wayo Wayo—or off the island, really—is Atile’i, a bold young man who leaves behind his lover, Rasula, for a sea voyage. Losing his boat, Atile’i becomes a castaway in a most unusual place. As for Alice, with the help of two friends—Dahu and Hafay, both of whom are not pure Han Chinese, but rather members of aboriginal groups, whose accommodations with the modern world form one of the central themes of the novel—she will seek a deeper reconciliation with the tragedy of her past.

And then, after we have thoroughly inhabited these two separate frames, they eventually fuse.

That fusion arises due to a catastrophe. In the middle of the Pacific lies the Great Trash Vortex, an agglomeration of mankind’s debris, plastic and otherwise. It is here that Atile’i is castaway—a meaty portion of the novel is his Robinsonade—and it is this blunt mass which will soon be hurled upon Taiwan, landing right at Alice’s feet, so to speak. The devastation has a bright side, in that it brings Alice and Atile’i face to face, yoking their insufficient lives into a kind of strong-at-the-broken-parts whole.

Obviously, Wu’s story resonates with the historical April 2011 Fukushima Earthquake that struck Japan. A USA or UK novelist’s treatment of such a scenario would probably have read something like The Day of the Triffids or other postapocalyptic classics. But Wu takes what might be seen as a more typically Asian or Buddhist or Taoist approach to the disaster. There is really not so much physical catastrophe or heroics, not so much focus on derring-do, as there is attention paid to the opening of a transformative psychic space in which the people undergo spiritual and intellectual adjustments. In this sense, it’s a bit of a Ballardian disaster novel, and the reader might even flash on Concrete Island when Atile’i is marooned among his detritus. I also think that Wu’s generational status, suspended between Boomers and Millennials, influences his strategy. He cannot buy into the old John Wyndham scenarios, but he is also not as arbitrary or nihilistic or disaffected as many younger writers.

There’s a bit of Vonnegut in Wu as well, in the depiction of the Wayo Wayo tribe. Wu does not display Vonnegut’s sardonic whimsicality, but there are flashes of it in the too-good-to-be-real portrait of these natives. Wine produced by beautiful women chewing their herbal cud? It’s got the vibe of the bouncily caustic Talking Heads song, “Nothing But Flowers.”

As for the titular figure, the man with the compound eyes, suffice it to say, avoiding spoilers, that he is a kind of natural force or avatar whose presence will be revealed at the proper moment.

The fact that toward the book’s end Alice, revitalized, has written a novel titled The Man with the Compound Eyes speaks to the way in which larger cosmic forces flow through all living things, redeeming their inevitable losses, even through such seemingly crass instruments as a horde of seaborne trash.

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.

Russell Letson reviews Jack McDevitt

Coming Home, the latest entry in Jack McDevitt’s long-running series on the adventures of antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his pilot Chase Kolpath, also runs parallel plot threads: the search for a possible cache of very early space-age artifacts, and the attempts to rescue the passengers and crew of a starship caught in an anomalous hyperspace glitch. This latter thread connects directly to one of the series’ previous volumes, Firebird (reviewed in November 2011), which dealt, in part, with the mystery of disappearing – and sometimes reappearing – spacecraft that goes back to the beginnings of starflight. And in a move not unlike that of Starhawk (reviewed in January 2014), it looks backward to the series’ beginning.

The antiquities mystery begins when Alex is brought a very old item: a hyperspace transmitter from the very earliest period of interstellar travel. The oddest thing about it (aside from its survival across nearly nine millennia) is that the highly respected archaeologist who found it never told anyone about it but stuck it in a closet, where his family discovered it more than a decade after his death. This becomes part of the mystery: not only where did he find it, but why did he hide it away and never speak of it?

The lost-starship problem has a more personal connection to Alex and Chase: archaeologist Gabriel Benedict, Alex’s uncle and mentor and Chase’s former boss, was aboard the Capella when it went missing 11 years earlier with 2,600 passengers and crew. (This is also one of the precipitating events for the series’ first novel, A Talent for War.) Now the Capella has been sighted in normal, ‘‘linear’’ space, and it is estimated to be emerging for a few hours every five-and-a-half years. The central question is whether to try to rescue a few hundred passengers during each emergence phase or to attempt to stabilize the ship permanently. The passengers are experiencing only a few hours of ship time while they are out of linear space, so each partial off-loading process will add another five objective years of separation for those left aboard – but a failure of the stabilizing process might send the ship even farther out of synch with linear space, so disagreements over how to proceed complicate the already difficult problems of theoretical physics and rescue logistics.

The two story-lines connect thematically rather than via direct plot machinery. The series has always dealt with retrieving the past, but this volume offers much more detail about the various ways pieces of history go astray. The artifact-hunt looks back across the millennia, a view obscured by several Dark Ages and Times of Trouble, leaving swathes of lost history and vanished artifacts – and plain old facts. The Capella rescue effort faces a different temporal problem: the passengers are already 11 years out of synch with the world they left, and every transition to and from linear space pushes them another five-plus years into their future. General humanitarian issues aside, for Alex and Chase the return of Uncle Gabe, whose apparent loss was the genesis of their career together, could disrupt the business and their relationship.

The hunt for the source of the ancient transmitter follows some false trails and red herrings. A long-time critic of Alex’s business model goes missing – foul play? A boat taking Alex and Chase to the site of a submerged Space Museum is attacked and sinks. A curious reporter turns out not to be a reporter after all. But what’s a detective story without false leads and interviews that run into dead ends? The search takes the pair to all manner of interesting places on old Earth and in the home system (including a kind of asteroid suburb complete with a homeowners’ association) and offers opportunities to consider the Confederacy’s deep history.

In fact, while the novel’s framework is firmly linear and procedural (find the antiquities; rescue the Capella), I suspect that its heart is in those departures from (ahem) linear narrative space, as it ducks into and out of the murky, mysterious, half-recovered past of humanity’s spread to the stars. No other entry in the series has dealt so extensively with the details (or lack thereof) of the long, complicated, patchily documented span between the Golden Age (which begins with us) and the Rimway of 11,273 C.E. And while the achievements of those nine millennia are honored – especially those of the earliest space pioneers – it is the loss of information that resonates most strongly. Battles and crises, crashes and recoveries are known to have occurred, but details have vanished. Heroes have acted but their fates are unknown. Names but not contexts of real and fictional characters have survived. On visiting a museum with an especially strong collection of recovered ancient materials, Chase reflects on the fact that in the wake of the Dark Age and subsequent cultural brownouts,

[t]he vast majority of books, histories, classic novels, philosophical texts, were simply gone. Most of the world’s poetry vanished…. Just like almost every novel written before the thirty-eighth century…. Within a few generations of the electronic collapse, a few people knew Pericles had been important, but hardly anyone knew why….

Anyhow, that was the day I discovered why the term waterloo meant bad news. And how it happened that rubicon had something to do with a point of no return. And I’d always known what people meant when they called someone a Benedict Arnold. That day I learned why.

Only six Shakespeare plays survive. The Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘‘lost for six thousand years,’’ were rediscovered only 30 years ago; Tarzan is known to have ‘‘swung through jungles,’’ but is otherwise unidentified; Dracula, who ‘‘appeared in only one novel,’’ was ‘‘apparently a physician… associated with blood extraction.’’ Superman and Batman ‘‘got their start, we think, during the twenty- fourth century. Except for a brief period during the Dark Age, they’ve never gone away.’’

I have used the term ‘‘Vancean ramble’’ to describe Jack Vance’s tendency to depart from a linear-plot itinerary in favor of explorations of strange byways and exotic landscapes and folkways. Allow me to now propose the McDevitt ramble, which wanders through time more than space, rummaging around in the apparently empty areas of a deep past, retrieving objects and records, reconstructing lost stories, and filling in blank spots. It’s there as early as A Talent for War, and I wonder whether McDevitt has made his depiction of an interstellar polity 9,000 years from now so comfortably familiar (asteroid homeowners’ associations, remember) in order to make those Dark Age lacunae all the more strange, enticing, and poignant, and to remind us that even now we live in small pools of light in a vast dark.

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 March

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, March 2015

Stories involving war, in different odd ways. Also another installment in the Hughes “Erm Kaslo” serial.

“Hot Rods” by Cat Sparks

It seems that most of Australia has dried up and blown away, leaving Terina Flat with a broad salt plain, good for a race track where the local youth run their hot rods while the old people crowd into the revival tent to pray for rain. Outside town is the American base, surrounded by wire and sentries who may just shoot you dead if you approach. Locals can sign up for contract work there, though not all of them ever come out again. Harper’s boyfriend Lachie has gone, though she tried to convince him not, and she lives for word from him, from some message. Then one night, the lightning comes, not from the sky.

This time they see and hear it, too, a cracking split. Like thunder but not. Thick spikes stabbing at the fallow dirt. Aftershocks of colour, green and red.

A bleak and desperate future, a very likely one. There is no real resolution of these events, no explanation. The townspeople aren’t entitled to explanations. The soldiers of the Base might use the old “Don’t you know there’s a war on” line, but when is there ever not a war on? When have they ever needed an excuse?

“Surfacing” by Marissa Lingen

In a world controlled by constant war, or at least constant military activity, Mishy was once, a long time ago, one of a small group of deserters who found refuge with a settlement of altered humans undersea. Time has passed, and she has never been able to feel she was one of them, always with the sense that she was under suspicion. At last she has returned to the land, hoping things were different. Which they aren’t, not different enough. The military still owns the entire population, conscripting whomever they wish.

The scenario here is pretty vague and undetailed. We don’t know if there is an actual war going on, or who is fighting on what side. Even if there is another side. I don’t know why Mishy thinks it would be easier to desert now than it was twenty years ago, particularly with a herd of children along. I’ll bet it wouldn’t be, and that the author’s optimism is misplaced.

“Documentary” by Vajra Chandrasekera

Kamaria is a were-helicopter, a gunship, although she never fires her guns. At each full moonrise, she changes, she flies. The narrators are making a documentary about her, about her and her husband. Kamaria calls them “nobodies”, believing they are only twists of wind. There are the ashes of many nobodies mixed in the sand where Kamaria lives—if indeed she still lives.

We don’t really have any cameras. We’re not stupid, we know that. Even the dead have their affectations, if we are the dead. But then, after all, we are cameras, because we are nothing but perspectives. We have no meat. We remember nothing of ourselves, if we ever had selves of our own. We are the world regarding itself, hungry for somebody’s narrative, anybody’s narrative. And maybe we are the dead.

A very weird, highly evocative ghost story about the things left behind by war, looking for there to have been some meaning in it all.

–RECOMMENDED



Uncanny, March/April 2015

With the third issue, it seems that Uncanny is finding its own distinctive voice. The ToC announces an author lineup of Hot New Things, but despite this assembly of talent, I find myself disappointed in the variety and diversity of the fiction. Of the seven original stories, most are fantasy and most feature a young woman finding herself in some way.

“Those” by Sofia Samatar

In his youth, Sarah’s father worked and explored in Africa with his friend George, whom he regards as an innocent corrupted by his brutal colonialist employer in, obviously, the Belgian Congo. As he narrates the tale to Sarah: one night the employer feared that the abused native workers were planning an uprising. A supernatural darkness seemed to lurk amidst the trees, but in the end, all they saw was a single worker, shot dead. Still, the vision was impossible to dispel from their minds.

[George] kept repeating that Francisco commanded an army of shadow selves, which, now that their master was dead, had swarmed across the world. ‘One is another,’ he babbled. And though I knew he was not well—he was so broken down, indeed, that I successfully petitioned the Belgian for a holiday—I could not shake my own sense that the darkness among the trees was multiple, and that George ought to have shouted, not ‘What the hell is that,’ but ‘What the hell are those?’”

George became so feverish that his friend called on the Catholic mission for a nurse. But when he announced his intention to marry this native woman, George repudiated him utterly. It is now, years later, at the news of George’s death, that he tells his daughter this tale.

The narrative is double-framed, as it is first Sarah’s own story and she is its real center, even though we get little of her point of view. We get the impression that she has been playing the dutiful daughter role all her life, but the story of George causes an epiphany; she now sees her father differently, and thus, herself. Sent by her father to buy flowers for George’s widow, she makes them instead into a kind of bridal crown for herself, recalling the bridal veil her mother embroidered before her wedding. She has been isolated in England [her father apologizes to her for this] and clings to the dim memory of her mother, who died when she was three years old, after which her father returned with her to England. We see her surrounded by a pervasive racism there, which the author evokes by describing her perception of the world as through a fog, which she apparently throws up in denial, to keep herself from seeing and hearing the hostility of the people she encounters. I’m not enthused about this device; I keep thinking that Sarah needs to see an optician and get spectacles. More effective is the scene in which she puts on her bonnet to go out, hiding the darkness of her face within the shadows of its deep brim.

This is the heaviest piece in the issue, densely-packed, built largely on a framework taken from Conrad and dealing primarily with the evils of colonialism and racism. The narrative voice of the father expresses this well. I note that every character, with the exception of the Belgian employer, can be seen as a victim of the colonial system, which, like slavery, corrupts the oppressors as well as those they oppress. This exception is a flaw here, the employer too much of a caricature, and in this the author falls short of her model. She’s also goes over signifying with the anecdote about the Kushites, used both as the story’s epigraph and as part of the narrative; it yells THEME HERE pretty blatantly.

There aren’t really any unambiguous elements of the fantastic. In Sarah’s case, her nightmare vision is clearly a dream, while her father’s vision is unreliable, likely the effect of fear. Thus I can’t call this a genre story.

“The Lamps Thereof are Fire and Flames” by Rosamund Hodge

A chained fairy tale about a realm where the queen has forbidden the telling of any stories or writing of histories. There is always a reason for such proclamations, usually a vain attempt to prevent some inevitable disaster; it never works, as King Laios of Thebes learned to the sorrow of his kingdom. In this case, the cause of the disaster is Love. We start with a king who grieves so deeply for his beloved wife that he puts his court into perpetual mourning. Thus his daughter, who longs for a love of her own, employs an old fairytale trick to summon it. And her daughter after her, and hers after her—each the victim of her parent’s obsessive, jealous relationship with Love, a malign presence always lurking in the background, waiting.

In essence, this is a Be Careful What You Wish For tale: “Oh,” she sighed, “I would suffer anything, sacrifice anything, if only I could be a woman, and loved like my mother.” But it’s also a kitchen sink story, with the author dumping tropes from an unwieldy number of classic tales into her mix: aside from the granting of wishes, we have enchanted animals, accursed flowers, magic mirrors, evil queen mothers and oppressed daughters, as well as a house in the forest where seven strangely-named not-dwarves dwell, who take a fleeing daughter in. The result is sort of a mixed-up mess, with resulting unclarity.

“Translatio Corporis” by Kat Howard

A particularly neat fantastic idea here: a city that decides to build itself from the blood and bones of a young girl. Briefly, Lena can see the buildings—the fountain, the cathedral—as they form themselves, but a moment later the vision has disappeared.

“In the places the buildings had left behind on their way to this new, other city: scars. Shadows. Ruins. Blank spots on maps that hadn’t yet realized they were inaccurate.”

Lena recalls the relics of saints that once were used to ground important buildings: their bones, parts of their bodies placed beneath the foundations. But her city takes parts from her while she is still alive, and it’s killing her. “Lena began to feel depopulated, unpeopled. As if her body had gone traveling and her soul had yet to catch up.”

I liked this a lot, the novelty of the idea and the expression of it in the prose, until the conclusion, when it turned too sentimental.

“Ivory Darts, Golden Arrows” by Maria Dahvana Headley

A Valentine’s Day story, highly absurd.

Miss Kisseal was the postmistress of Fley, a little village wedged between two mountains, each mountain in the custody of a rival band. Fley was the neutral zone, but the mail went back and forth between, all of it through the Fley office, which was small with a rounded roof. It was an attractive office, and had been made, long ago, of a tremendous striated shell donated by one of the first postmistresses of Fley, a great–great grandmother of Miss Kisseal.

The overall level of strangeness here is so high that readers may overlook this shell, yet it is a key element. Miss Kisseal [the text explains the strange name] takes her position very seriously indeed and does not brook interference with her appointed rounds, up and down the precipitous slopes of the mountains and crossing between the peaks on a tightrope. Her pace is slow but sure. Her clients are an oddly assorted lot, who get lots of deliveries. Today it is a cold and disagreeable February, but there is mail to deliver, including one piece addressed to a place higher on the peak than anyone has ever lived, to a strange creature that the neighbors regard with suspicion. Miss Kisseal is curious.

A clever, witty piece, based on a most extraordinary oddity of natural history. Readers may enjoy themselves with the numerous allusions, although I will admit I’m not seeing as much of the Cole Porter song [♪ bees do it . . . ] as I’d expected from the author’s note. But that’s OK.

“When the Circus Lights Down” by Sarah Pinsker

Not a circus, but The Circus, which comes to town floating down from the heavens, where it seems to exist outside of time, because the circus people don’t age as fast as others do.

The graceful big top, her skirts billowing, even in the rain. Smaller tents like satellites, pinwheeling around the big top, intent on their own orbits. The small ones skittered when they hit the ground, vying for space. The big top landed solid and square, absorbing the impact through her walls. I felt the thump of it even all these blocks away and four stories up. It called to me, as it had every time before.

Many people are called to the circus, but Haley more than most, because she is from a circus family, her grandparents are there and her father, and her daughter Annie’s father, from a one-night stand. But her mother hates the circus, though it’s not clear why. It may have something to do with Haley’s father. But all her life, Haley has been kept from the circus and fed a guilt trip, that her mother needs her, that she can’t go away. Now, for the first time in Annie’s life, the circus is back, and Annie clearly feels the call.

The circus is neat, in a magical way, which means it can’t really be a metaphor for any choices that we could ever meet in this life. It’s too easy, everything is free—even time. A person would have to have a very good reason indeed not to go with the circus, if the circus would allow it. And that’s why this lesson story doesn’t work, because there’s no question that Haley and Annie should both go, and no reason why they shouldn’t. In other words, Duh!

“Dr Polingyouma’s Machine” by Emily Devenport

Science fiction of the softer sort, involving a time machine. Some time ago, Dr Polingyouma switched it on before he had the right settings, thereby creating The Effect, which cycles on every 24 to 28 days, or so, creating a Gate joining different dimensions, through which Journeyers pass. For some reason, the boundary of the Effect zone is always marked by human waste in the hallway, which it is Harris’s job to clean up, using special enzymes. She is paid very well for this hazardous job, for which she has been carefully trained.

Organic chemistry is not my area, but general chemistry will teach you that reactions occur more readily if you stir the reactants together. Adding energy in the form of friction heat gives you a higher reaction rate, since energy is required to break the bonds of compounds. In this case, that was accomplished by scrubbing and swishing—expert mop–slinging. It takes a level of dedication that most people never approach, regardless of their vocations.

Not everyone fully realizes the nature of the situation; this time, an idiotic bureaucrat intervenes.

Details can often make a story, even when they involve mopping a floor. So this account of Harris’s day at work proves surprisingly quite interesting, even before she has an encounter that’s not supposed to happen. And Harris herself, her narrative voice and calm decisiveness, add to the effect. The skiffy flavor of the piece makes for an enjoyable contrast to the prevailing fantasy in the rest of the issue.

“You are Two Point Three Miles from Your Destination” by Fran Wilde

A brief, one-idea piece, the idea being Orpheus using a GPS to direct his rout to Hades and back. Which is sufficiently clever to be briefly amusing for anyone whose sense of consistency isn’t offended by the use of miles in the title when the body of the text uses kilometers. Of course Orpheus himself would more likely have used stadia.



Clarkesworld, March 2015

I’m finding a different tone in this issue: a more edgy, weird-futurey feel to the stories. Combined with the translated Chinese story, it makes for a refreshing difference from the prevailing sameness of much online fiction these days.

I also have to stand in a bit of awe at the industry of Ken Liu, who not only provided the translation of the Chen story, but also has one of his own in the issue. There is also part 2 of the Valente serial.

“Slowly Builds an Empire” by Naim Kabir

A future when most people have become empaths, communicating their thoughts and feelings to each other via a kind of telepathy. A few individuals are nonpathic and regarded by the majority [at least in this future Japan] as dangerous parasites who must be kept in isolation. These persons are called hikikomori, after the present-day youth who hide from society in their bedrooms in their parents’ apartments. Shinsuke would like to belong to society, to any society, but he is shut out of the milieu of the “countrymen”.

For the rest of the wait he kept his head down, wondering if they were trying to talk to him. Maybe they were giving him mental nudges that he just couldn’t feel, and maybe he was surrounded by hellos.

So he yearns for the company of his fellow outcasts, the Nation of hikikomori motorcycle gangs who spread minor terror on the streets. At the same time, he is starting to have visions of alien worlds, which the government counselor tells him is a form of dementia, a consequence of isolation. Readers may suspect it’s more likely that either the countrymen can’t receive the transmissions because their minds are too full of each other. But is the timing a coincidence?

Shinsuke is a sympathetic character, a decent guy who only wants to be part of a society, to have friends and companions. But by confronting him, and readers, at the same time with both the Nation and the alien transmissions, the author is cramming too much into his story. The setting is Japan, where the hikikomori tradition makes for a natural name for the nonpathics there, but it would seem that they are part of a worldwide phenomenon. I wonder how they were treated in other places, other societies.

“Cassandra” by Ken Liu

A superhero story. The narrator discovers that she has a sort of precognitive power: through touch, she can hear the future thoughts of individuals who will commit acts of lethal abuse. The first time, she doesn’t know what to do, does nothing, and later sees the murder reported on the news, the murder she believes she could have stopped. And it keeps happening.

The man comes barging out the door with his head down and eyes on the ground. He doesn’t hold the door open for me and I have to duck out of the way before he runs me over. He gives me a quick glance as he passes by and I see something in his face that makes my heart stop—intense anger at the world, anger at everybody and everything, anger at me.

She thinks that perhaps the official superhero [she calls him Showboat] can help, but he disregards her warnings. So she takes matters into her own hands.

A discouraging and cynical account. There are serious issues of ethics and justice theory going on here, free will, determinism, and the legitimacy of pre-emptive action. But the superhero theme makes sure we won’t take it too seriously.

“All Original Brightness” by Mike Buckley

Military SF, focusing on the wounded veterans of future conflicts, when mega corporations have bought up nations. Morninglory has hired the US Marine Corps to assist in its takeover of Mexico, and in one action, both Mitchum and his buddy Gonzo are hit. They wake up in tanks full of gel, with nanite immerso displays that allow them to pretend to lead normal lives. Until the campaign lasts too long and costs too much, the immersos cost too much.

“They’ll let me stay in the tank. Everything else they’ll take. The interface, the V2 jack. Everything. I won’t be able to talk, see anything, hear. They’ll feed me, those fuckers, through a gastro-drip.”

This is a love story, but not the usual kind. Mitchum and Gonzo’s love is that of comrades in battle, ready to lay down their lives for each other. It’s still a goat-fucking world they’re faced with, but together.

“Coming of the Light” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

Marketing and Buddhism, or at least that’s how it begins, with Zhong in a PR firm tasked with promoting their client’s photographic app, coming up with the bright idea of having it blessed by a Buddhist master. Problem is, while the blessing is faked, the Buddhagram seems to actually work; miracles occur. Assailed by an excess of publicity, Zhong leaves his job and seeks refuge in a monastery, but the abbot seems to be either a con man or possessed of the great truth that the universe is being gamed, perhaps by the Buddhagram algorithm.

The story opens with Zhong receiving a blessing from Buddhist monk in the form of a koan:

As clouds drift across the sky, so Master in the Void is seen.
Dust clings to everything but what is true.
Over and over the monk queries: “What does your visit mean?”
Master points to cypress which in courtyard has taken root.

His parents take this to mean that Zhong may have a great destiny, but it becomes more likely that he, and perhaps everyone else, is only an NPC in a cosmic game that’s being reprogrammed while he goes through the motions of his life. The questions thus become, what is the meaning of such an existence to the individual who experiences it? What is real? Zhong at last discovers an answer, which, unlike the koan, most people can immediately grasp.

As Zhong’s abbot explains, the subject matter is actually the intersection of techno-Buddhism and cosmology. This makes the story science fantasy, based on the assumption that a perhaps-accidental algorithm can alter or recreate the universe. But the author, following the model of the koan, introduces a note of ambiguity. Thus, in the existential situation of the individual who becomes aware of this possibility, the element of uncertainty is crucial. The light comes upon Zhong from behind, seen only in a reflection. We never see him turn to face it, to see it directly.

–RECOMMENDED



Unlikely Story, February 2014

Unlikely Cryptography this time. The editorial introduction emphasizes technology, by which we infer that code here tends to mean coding. There’s a lot of emphasis on evading surveillance, which makes the issue timely and tending to unoriginality. Aside from which, too many of the six pieces are simply dull, several of them overly-filled with neepery, making my eyes cross.

I also include, omitted from my review of the previous issue, a buggy one in the non-coding sense.

“Jump Cut” by Lauren C Teffeau

Hover Bike racing with mental enhancements.

By superimposing film sequences over our field of vision via the implants — not enough to hinder our sight — we could distract the active parts of our minds with the chains and let instinct and muscle memory do the rest during races. No more over-thinking the jumps and turns. No more letting nerves get in the way. We’d find the zone faster than ever before and be able to stay in it as we rode the boost until the very end.

Jack has let himself get addicted to vid-boosting, and thus in debt to the gangster who supplies him and his partner. When Ari crashes, Jack wants out, but it’s not so easy.

Enhanced SF sports isn’t an original idea, and I don’t find this scenario particularly convincing, certainly not cryptographic in any significant sense.

“Dropped Stitches” by Levi Sable

Knitting cyborgs. On Io, Jennifer and Claudia had a common bond in their children, in whom they invested much of their happiness until Jennifer’s daughter killed both herself and Tavi. Since then, their common bond has been in their grief and their needlework, although a hostile undercurrent underlies their relationship. Now Jennifer has been permitted a new child and has begun knitting its personal programming.

She stared at the pattern, a base of soft, sea-foam green with a complicated metallic structure. She tilted her head. Claudia Cho had been knitting programs for a lot longer than her friend, and her expert eyes traveled the threads with mechanical precision.

Claudia is instantly jealous and overcome with bitterness, although she struggles against it. She also notices that Jennifer’s knitting is, as usual, sloppy and full of errors.

A novel and interesting idea, my favorite of the issue. We know that knitting is pattern-based [knit one, purl two] and thus holds information. But there’s more of debugging here than code-breaking. Still the focus of this piece is more on its characters than its programming.

“It’s Machine Code” by Curtis C Chen

A near future when computer surveillance is even more ubiquitous, based largely on government-issued free routers. Julie works in the IT department of the cop shop and illegally fabs gemstones in her spare time. She likes to put off the lieutenant with jargon, and it can work pretty well on readers, too. When she gets called in on an FBI summons, she initially resists, until she discovers something very interesting—an opportunity.

Here is some definite secrecy, as Julie and her target both employ encryption as well as other means to evade official notice of their activities.

“You hacked my phone!” Julie said. “My. Personal. Phone! I’m going to have to junk it and build a new one. I’m going to have to fab my own goddamn circuit board to make sure nobody else can fuck up my shit!”

The scenario is interesting with some cleverness, but Julie is a pretty unlikely underground hero, who would have been seriously screwed if not for the intervention of a friend. I also consider the initial link between the traffic bot hack and the router to be pretty tenuous.

“Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive” by Barry King

A pretty neep-heavy text.

So whenever I get something in the letterbox, I power up the basement capacitors and the DMZ subnet (where 16,384 honeypot VMs ceaselessly pass files between themselves on a closed segment), which I then physically dump to a dumb pre-1993 tape drive before decrypting onto encrypted diskfiles on the old Debian box unconnected to anything: the one I painstakingly and personally compiled each and every package before installing, and built out of parts from random used machines. Marvin called it my “Art Installation”, titled A Monument to Paranoia.

Arthur is paranoid because he worked for the NSA. Marvin is paranoid because he’s an anti-spyware activist. It seems that after a terrorist attack in the US, the government increased its surveillance of the population [a common theme these days] and the NSA installed backdoors on any manufactured equipment, including the virtual-reality rigs that are about to become ubiquitous. Plots, conspiracies, and counterplots abound, with Marvin’s daughters now taking the lead.

The jargon here is really thick, the narrative stuttering between backstory and foreground action, all of which makes the text obscure and hard going, with readers likely to wonder who is who and what’s going on, but not really caring. Don’t think the story we get out of this effort is worth it.

“The Confession of Whistling Dixie” by Fiona Moore

Dixie, as it is called, is a pirate botnet that grew from a scrap of malware to achieve self-direction and a love of old pirate songs. For a while, it worked for a group of human pirates, but there was a falling out, and Dixie prevailed, then continued operations on its own, which attracted the attention of the authorities.

It’s also why it’s not surprising that your own human-botnet, Mister Langley, happened upon the trail of the pirates, and came looking for them. After all, as song after song shows, there’s no point in pirates without having excise-men, or the Spanish, or the coast guard, or somebody, for them to outwit. And the high sheriff is a-coming, with a hundred men in his company.

The only original note here is in the pirate songs, which grow annoying after a while.

“The Joy of Sects” by Joseph Tomaras

The narrator is an agent of the Secret Service, which isn’t the same thing it is now, nor is anything else, including the narrator, who has undergone body alteration, as apparently has most everyone else. There’s a whole lot of political nonsense and prohibited groups and sects that the narrator is assigned to deal with or infiltrate, making little sense. He informs us that many of his early assignments were dull, which readers won’t need to be told, as the narrative proves it. Finally, he gets to the point, which is the assignment to infiltrate a religious cult that engages in orgies, described in tedious detail. Yes, this piece manages to make sex—kind of kinky sex, even—dull.

Hir penis is circumcised but otherwise intact, the scrotum baggy with stray, undyed white hairs, the only outward sign of hir advancing age. Yes, I got that close a look. The perfect synthesis, so they claim. I got my orders: To mimic Thawratullah’s corporeal engineering. It was not pleasant: Nanoactuators dusted into every follicle, t-shots strong enough to stop my heart and leave me convulsive, aggressive, priapic and masturbatory.

Now I note that the piece is sarcasm, pretty thick sarcasm, but it mainly goes to prove that sarcasm isn’t immune to dullness. There’s a cryptological element, but it’s pretty trivial.

“Bookends” by Michael Wehunt

A story left out of my review of the previous issue, an entomological one, although the insects here, periodical cicadas, are present mainly for theme and metaphor. It’s a story of love and loss, bracketed by the cicadas, which are just emerging as Paul meets his Annie and falls immediately in love; they are emerging again as Annie dies in childbirth. So the text shows him in mourning, flashes back to the history of their love, and intersperses this with snippets detailing the natural history of the cicadas. Paul hates the infant and blames it for Annie’s death. We see him digging a hole while the neglected baby screams, but we don’t worry, because we know he won’t act on his impulse, we know an epiphany is in store for him, which will be related to the cicadas, whose lives are entirely devoted to reproducing their kind, as the snippets inform us, not wanting to leave this point in any doubt. In short, it’s predictable and thus much less interesting than if it were otherwise. This zine is quite capable of offering horror, but here the potential is unfulfilled.



Diabolical Plots, March 2015

This small nonfiction ezine has decided to offer fiction, one story every month for at least a year, and March thus counts as its fiction debut. While the length of the stories, alas, is limited to 2000 words, the editors have adopted a blind submissions process, which pleases me, as the selections are based solely on the stories’ texts, not the names of the authors.

“Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak

A science fiction idea story, inverting the old generation-ship revolution trope. In this universe, starships have evolved self-directed intelligence, and while many of them hold a human population, the axiom among the ships has always been to maintain their ignorance of the truth of the situation. Parvati now confesses that she has failed to maintain her human population properly, which now numbers over a million and has generated a religious prophet. The other ships are horrified and fear contagion.

It’s not easy to make something new of a premise this hoary, even by taking the ship’s point of view, but Parvati’s point of view is different, as readers will suspect from the title, with its strong flavor of S&M.

In fact, Parvati’s defect is not sentimentality, but something more perverse. There is something slavish in her, something that thrills at the notion of losing control to humans. She aches to submit—her programmers saw to that, modeling her reward systems on a sexual proclivity.

The thing is, this proclivity makes definite sense, according to the history of SF, beginning with the Second Law of robotics. Humans want robots [or AIs] to obey their orders; they fear the rogue machine mind, the possibility of a HAL. Given such assumptions, it’s natural to program an intelligence to take pleasure or satisfaction in such obedience to human command. A Parvati is a logical consequence.

I note that some aspects of the Hindu goddess Parvati emphasize submissiveness to her spouse – but some don’t. I’m not making too much of this.

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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Ian Weir

Can a writer today compose a book in a vintage mode of storytelling without being postmodern or ironic or snarky or winking? In any other field of craftsmanship, such a question would be ridiculous. If I buy a new Adirondack chair for my porch, I do not think twice about the furniture possibly being some kind of “reinterpretation” or “detournement” of the classical Adirondack chair, nor is that even a desideratum. A freshly purchased Adirondack chair is simply a valuable instance in a new generation of an established tradition, a perfected design that works.

But because every novel is supposed to be unique—and indeed they should be, in terms of character and plot and prose and conceptualization, etc., insofar as a writer’s individual talents can achieve—we tend to expect that somehow each author—if they are not a mere “hack”—should also reinvent the vessel of the novel itself. But that seems to me unnecessary and counterproductive, at least every time out of the gate. Experimentalism and innovation, yes: but not necessarily with every book. There should be plenty of honor and craft in writing a fresh, authentic and honest example of an established type of book, without radical rejiggerings of form.

That is precisely what Ian Weir has done with Will Starling. He’s taken the kind of nascently-pre-Victorian narrative that might have been written by Fielding or Richardson or their slightly later compatriots (the book takes place in 1816), with that mode’s picaresque, loquacious, directly-address-the audience-baggy-pants-style, and created a new instance of such. No nudge-nudge or smarmy aren’t-we-superior attitude. Just a rollicking good tale in the manner of his literary ancestors. (And one good enough to make me already order up his prior book, Daniel O’Thunder.)

As I said, the year is 1816, the place London. Our “Wery Umble Narrator” is young Will Starling, former orphan, camp-follower and now assistant to a brash but compassionate Scottish surgeon named Dr. Alec Cromie. Will’s textual voice, on which any such novel must fly or crash, emerges from the start as engaging, wry, sympathetic, funny, introspective and unpretentious. We know directly that the narrative is going to be nicely and smartly composed. And in fact Will goes into some satisfying detail about how he is able to frame a seemingly omniscient account of the strange doings surrounding the person of rvial surgeon Dionysus Atherton.

Atherton patronizes grave robbers. He needs nice fresh corpses for his medical researches. His goals are not precisely Frankensteinian—though we must note the “coincidence” of the seminal year 1816, the year of Mary Shelley’s composition of a certain book—but rather revivifying. Atherton is intent on resurrecting dead men, proving that medical science is superior to “Old Bones” himself.

Living in relative poverty with the principled and gruff Dr. Cromie, Will is generally content to ignore the odious and smug Atherton—until a lass he fancies, the aspiring actress and flower girl Miss Annie Smollett, gets swept up in Atherton’s nets. The incident involves a debauched tavern party gone wrong, resulting in the accidental death of one Bob Eldritch. When Bob remerges from his postmortem handling by Atherton as “Boggle-Eyed Bob,” the specter of London, the game, as they say, is truly afoot. In an intricate web of evil-doing, self-preservation and justice-seeking by numerous affected individuals, Will ultimately confronts Atherton, experiencing shocking revelations and dire consequences galore.

Weir has assembled a vast assortment of unforgettable characters here, granting each one full individuality and agency. From Jemmy Chesire, Resurrection Man, and his fierce mate Meg Nancarrow, to Atherton’s drug-addled housemaid Flitty Deakins and the monstrous, murderous Odenkirk, Atherton’s catspaw, the city of London comes alive with brawling, loving, laughing and weeping humanity. Additionally, we meet a few real-life figures, such as John Keats and thespian Edmund Kean. And the city itself is limned with grotty, gritty realism, full of evocative period details and customs. Consider the lurid description of the Death House at St. Thomas’s Hospital that opens Chapter 12.

Weir is particularly good at staging large set pieces, and there are two scenes at the end that pull out all the stops. One is allusive to Frankenstein, all flames and destruction, while the other, I feel confident, points us toward the great Tod Browning film Freaks. The Gothic is in full flower here. But generally Weir does not pastiche any famous books, and is instead, as I indicated at the start of this review, more interested in emulating a mode than in riding on the coattails of landmark stories.

In addition to all the great blood and thunder stuff, the novel also consists of several touching love stories. Will and Annie, Jemmy and Meg, Atherton and–well, you’ll see whom the self-centered doctor cares for. Aside from purely romantic love, Weir is also adept at illustrating other kinds of deep affection: that of Cromie for Will, Will’s for a crippled pal named Isaac Bliss, and the friendship bestowed upon Will by an old orphanage acquaintance, the foul-mouthed and gruff Janet Friendly. These ties are the engines of the tale.

Will’s autobiography reaches a nebulous conclusion, couched in mystery. But I tend to favor the most optimistic interpretation of events, and I think the author does too. But no matter what the terminal station is in Will’s life, you will agree that the journey there is all spark and boom and miracles.

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.

Dead, and a Rival: A Review of The Lazarus Effect

by Gary Westfahl

While the uninformed sometimes see science fiction solely as a genre of spaceships, aliens, and amazing gadgetry, one should also remember that there is a long tradition of medical science fiction, focused on posited advances in the ways that humans are created, nurtured, and treated for various health problems. Such stories can be traced back to nineteenth-century progenitors like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), and more modern examples include Curt Siodmak’s often-filmed Donovan’s Brain (1942) and Robin Cook novels like Mutation (1990). It will be noted, though, that all of the mentioned works involve medical experiments that go terribly wrong, resulting in horrific menaces to society, and despite promising hints of novelty in its opening scenes, the latest addition to this corpus of texts, David Gelb’s film The Lazarus Effect, ultimately veers down the same, very well-worn path.

After opening with some grainy footage of an unsuccessful experiment, the film introduces all the participants in yet another research project that is doomed to end disastrously: four scientists working at the fictional St. Paternus University in Berkeley, California – Frank Walton (Mark Duplass), his fiancée Zoe McConnell (Olivia Wilde), Clay (Evan Peters), and Niko (Donald Glover) – and a student filmmaker invited to record their activities, Eva (Sarah Bolger). Frank and Zoe have produced a “Lazarus serum” which, when injected into the brain of a preserved dead animal, should be able to bring the creature back to life. According to Frank, this work will benefit humanity by “giving everyone that second chance they deserve,” allowing physicians to keep critical patients viable longer and provide more time for treatment (for the unwise researchers in these stories always begin with admirable motives). However, when they finally succeed in reviving a dead dog named Rocky (Cato), the animal seems disturbingly different, alternately moody and dangerously aggressive (indeed, Cato provides the film with its most emotionally evocative performance). At this point, any experienced filmgoer can predict what will happen next: since audiences are usually more interested in people than in dogs, a human will eventually undergo the same treatment; and like Rocky, that reborn individual will be ominously different than their previous self. The only suspense involves which member of the cast will suddenly die and be returned from the dead, and precisely how their behavior and personality will be horrifically altered.

Before all of this happens, though, the film does contrive to raise some interesting issues about contemporary medical research and its potential ramifications. First, while nineteenth-century writers could imagine brilliant, independently wealthy individuals like Victor Frankenstein and Giacomo Rappaccini achieving breakthroughs all by themselves, modern researchers will necessarily be part of a team and will require the financial support of large institutions like foundations and universities, which will invariably establish innumerable rules and regulations to limit their activities. Most people believe that such oversight is necessary to ensure that all experiments are safe and ethical; yet when he is found to be violating the conditions of his grant, Frank argues that his actions were appropriate because medical research often depends upon “accidents” to open up unexpected avenues to important achievements. Further, if a sponsored research project does have valuable results, the film raises the question of whether the rewards should go to the scientists who did the work, or the institutions that paid for it. And the reason why Frank got into trouble with his superiors involves another modern concern, the right to privacy. Every action that Frank and his colleagues take, it appears, is being recorded: the black-and-white opening scene indicates that they are in the habit of crudely filming their own experiments; they ask a filmmaker to record their labors in a more professional manner; and the building where they do their research – and where virtually the entire film takes place – is constantly monitored by surveillance video which is occasionally incorporated into the film. With all this footage documenting their work, stored in cameras and computers that might readily be hacked into, it is hardly surprising that their unorthodox and unapproved research is eventually discovered, and that makes Frank indignant, since he had struggled to keep his team’s work a secret. Yet if someone is engaged in figuring out how to raise the dead, doesn’t society have the right to know about it?

Finally, since Rocky is visibly disturbed but not egregiously monstrous, he suggests that revived humans similarly might be only mildly changed by the experience, and this would pose a provocative quandary: if you were informed that modern science could bring your dead grandmother back to life, but with an unsettlingly altered mental state, would you want to do it? And would she really want another chance of life if she could not be the person she used to be? Science fiction literature, at its best, is often devoted to exploring precisely these sorts of questions, thoughtfully pondering how a posited scientific advance might affect a future society. Unfortunately, science fiction filmmakers typically have different priorities. And a careful consideration of how this revival technique might be introduced and implemented as part of our everyday lives would provide no opportunities for violent conflicts, spectacular special effects, and colorful explosions – and that’s what audiences really crave, right? Thus, it is also dishearteningly predictable that this film will soon forget about its intriguing philosophical and moral issues and focus its attention on a revived human who proves to be much more powerful, and much more threatening, than a dog that occasionally growls at you. (Perhaps as a signal that a more action-packed adventure is to follow, the equipment devised by Niko is said to look like the spaceship from Star Wars [1977], the Millennium Falcon.) To epitomize the experience of watching The Lazarus Effect, then, imagine a new film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925) in which Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, after years of quiet, painstaking medical research, somehow makes a mistake and ends up creating the Incredible Hulk.

But why, one might ask, does imagined medical research, in both literature and film, invariably lead to awful outcomes? After all, there are many documented cases of individuals who apparently died, and were even declared dead, yet later came to life again; and except for occasional tales to tell about their apparent experiences in the afterlife, they otherwise seemed exactly the same as they were before. Why should an artificial means of reviving the dead have insidious effects on one’s personality? There are many reasons to criticize recent science fiction adventures like Edge of Tomorrow (review here ) and Jupiter Ascending (review here) but like other, innumerable works of this sort, they are not arguments against scientific progress; rather, to the extent that they have any message at all about science, they merely indicate, logically enough, that like past scientific advances, future scientific advances are likely to have both positive and negative effects. Only when scientists apply their creative energies to improving the human body, it seems, are the results sure to be uniformly unpleasant, demonstrating persuasively that there are “things man is not meant to know.” Perhaps most people, while willing to embrace more superficial innovations like ray guns, space stations, and flying cars, are deeply conservative about their own human nature, fearful of any attempt to make people different, or to make different sorts of people. Technology is allowed to change, that is, but people cannot. For whatever reason, works of medical science fiction, like The Lazarus Effect, seem more akin to the genre of horror than to science fiction – because, as John W. Campbell, Jr. argued, science fiction is the literature of change, accepting the inevitability of change and eager to investigate both the helpful and harmful effects of potential change. In horror fiction, the status quo represents the way it has always been, and the way it always should be; any effort to significantly change the status quo is fundamentally evil and properly destined to lead to catastrophe.

In delivering their cautionary tales, horror stories regularly appeal to religion to buttress their position; thus, Frankenstein’s effort to artificially create a human being is viewed not merely as a violation of human moral codes, but a violation of God’s commandments. And The Lazarus Effect, with some degree of ambiguity, delivers this message as well. There are some explicit references to the Frankenstein story in the film, as Clay looks at the revived Rocky and exclaims “It’s alive! It’s alive” in the manner of Colin Clive’s Frankenstein (1931); the university dean who announces an end to Frank’s research tells him, “you are playing God with a bunch of dead animals”; and the main character’s full name seems to combine the names of Victor Frankenstein and the explorer who tells his story, Captain Robert Walton. There is also an ongoing dispute about the religious implications of Frank and Zoe’s research. Frank presents himself as a thoroughgoing materialist: death is merely a biological process, purported near-death experiences are really hallucinations generated by a bodily chemical, and reviving a dead body is basically similar to repairing a damaged machine; when the dean argues that his research could be upsetting to religious members of the university community, he derisively responds, “Don’t play the religion card.” But Zoe is a devout Catholic, regularly seen holding the cross she wears around her neck, and she is willing to believe in a human soul that survives death and transitions into an afterlife. Her tone is flippant, but when she asks, after good Rocky’s revival, “What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?,” she is raising the possibility that their research represents a damaging disruption of the natural order of things. And certain events in the last part of the film can be interpreted two ways: as glimpses of a genuine afterlife, or the vivid hallucinations of a troubled individual. Interestingly, while science fiction films routinely reference Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), these visions are similar to scenes in another Kubrick film, his horror film The Shining (1980).

Granted, The Lazarus Effect is merely adding one small drumbeat to an extended chorus of fictional warnings that all medical experiments are misguided and sacrilegious, but the cumulative effects of these dubious dramas are nonetheless regrettable. Surely, the men and women now actively engaged in groundbreaking medical research, hoping to someday be celebrated as a new Jonas Salk for achieving some stunning breakthrough, must be disheartened to realize that virtually all of their literary and cinematic counterparts are routinely depicted as foolhardy overreachers whose work only brings about death, disease, and destruction. (One wonders if Daniel C. Allison, the physician and researcher who served as the film’s “Medical Advisor,” ever criticized its plot.) The religion of Christian Science has long thrived by promoting the principle that all forms of modern medicine are sinful and should be shunned. And irrational concerns about the purported but unproven dangers of worthwhile advances like fluoridated water, vaccinations, and genetically modified foods reveal a deeply rooted suspicion of the medical establishment that medical horror stories have undoubtedly helped to inculcate. There must be an entertaining story to tell about a fictional scientist whose medical research has nothing but beneficial results, like that of so many real scientists of the past and present, but it seems that no novelists or filmmakers are interested in telling it.

As another convention of the horror film, any character who defies the will of God must also exhibit some other moral failing to further justify their inevitable comeuppance, and everyone in The Lazarus Effect accordingly does at least one objectionable thing. In addition to displaying the classic vice of hubris, daring to defy God’s plan for the world, Frank regularly neglects Zoe to focus obsessively on his research; this inspires Niko to engage in some understated, but unmistakable, flirting with his fiancée (to eventually receive a positive response); Clay regularly smokes e-cigarettes, an unhealthy habit that brands him as a miscreant; and while Eva mostly seems sweetly virtuous, she eventually takes the lead in an act of criminal trespassing. Zoe’s major sin, revealed only near the end of the film, should not be described in a review, but suffice it to say that it’s a pretty big one. In other words, as in most horror films, every character, to some extent, deserves to die, though it remains uncertain until the conclusion which ones will actually suffer that fate.

It is not something that merits punishment, but the characters in this film also stand out for their very unusual tastes in music. Zoe is fond of playing a vinyl recording of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791); the researchers celebrate Rocky’s rebirth by playing a piece of big band swing music, “The Peppermill Stomp”; and a poster announces someone’s fondness for Miner, a Los Angeles band with a proclivity for old-fashioned folk rock. (Internet research, however, has failed to explain the significance of another poster, apparently involving a musical performance, displaying the phrases “Radio Free,” “Iron Branch,” and “Rad Forum NYC.”) Perhaps the aria is intended to suggest that Zoe, like the singer, will someday seek “vengeance”; perhaps the other unorthodox choices are merely designed to reinforce the stereotype that scientists are odd people with peculiar habits; perhaps director Gelb merely wished to be different, or to employ some of his own musical favorites in his film.

One other aspect of the film attracts attention, a very unexpected but possibly revelatory statement: at one point, a character confirms Eva’s feeling that, despite her increasingly active participation in the research, she remains an outsider; her belittling remark is, “some people are destined for great things – others just hold the camera.” One is surprised to hear this sentiment conveyed in a film, since many filmmakers believe, obviously and quite justifiably, that a person can achieve great things by holding a camera. But Gelb may be telling his audience that, in making The Lazarus Effect, he had no such aspirations; some directors will strive to create innovative masterpieces, but others may be content to seek a profit for their investors by offering yet another variation on a familiar, time-tested theme. And while it is a variation done artfully enough, that represents the highest praise one can offer for this film, that it is again bringing to life an old, old story that, it seems, will never really die.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated 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, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

Concentrating this time on a fairly substantial anthology set on retro-Venus, from which I give the Good Story award to Ian McDonald’s “Botanica Veneris“.

Publications Reviewed



Old Venus, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

A companion volume to the editors’ Old Mars, presenting sixteen stories in the mode of the previous century’s SFnal visions of this planet, before the planetary romance age was cast down by the dusty facts and dismal reality of actual science. So while Old Mars had canals carved into a desiccated red soil, Old Venus had swamps and incessant rains, at least according to most of the skiffy visions.

Venus was never as popular a setting as Mars, so the models are fewer. For some readers, a large part of the interest in the anthology will be attempting to trace the lines of influence: Is this Burroughs’ Venus? Is it Heinlein’s? Or the author’s own interpretation of the setting? For the most part, the tales here can be appreciated without reference to antecedents, and this is generally how I have read them. [Readers more interested in this aspect may want to see Russell Letson’s take.] But I do think readers who have at least some familiarity with the earlier works will appreciate most of these a bit more.

These stories are of a good length and a good variety, from the pulpiest fantasy to real science fiction. Aside from inescapable similarities in the setting, I find less redundancy than in the Mars volume, less repetition of themes. Some authors are present in both books. Quality, as it usually does, varies, but for the most part these are entertaining reads, and some offer even more value.

Readers will notice one seemingly-odd common theme among certain of these stories: the colonization of Venus by a surviving Soviet Union or its descendants. This is no coincidence. As the anthology’s introduction reminds us, the year 1962 saw probes from the rival USSR and US sent to Venus, resulting in the drastic re-evaluation of the planet’s nature. For any scenario set before that dividing date, a Soviet or Russian aspect would seem natural.

“Frogheads” by Allen M Steele

One of the Soviet-settled versions of Venus—two now-obsolete visions of past futures.

Veneragrad was as utilitarian as only a Soviet-era artifact could be: a tiered hemisphere a kilometer in diameter, a shade darker than the ocean it floated upon, the long wooden piers jutting out from its sides giving it the appearance of an enormous, bloated water spider. Rickety-looking platforms, also constructed of native timber, rose as irregularly spaced towers from the outside balconies; they supported the open-top steel tanks which caught the rain and distilled it as the colony’s drinking water. Radio masts and dish antennae jutted out odd angles from near the top of the dome; a helicopter lifted off from a landing pad on its roof. An ugly, unwelcoming place.

Ronson is a detective come to Veneragrad in search of a rich tourist kid who disappeared about a year ago. A local cop gives him a lead, tells him to talk to the frogheads, the aboriginals, who not only recognize young David Henry, they’re eager to get him off the planet. They lead Ronson out to a floating dope farm, where he learns the reason.

Despite initial appearances and a hardboiled narrative, this isn’t a detective story; Ronson is more of a witness than a protagonist. The real story here is exploitation, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrators are Soviet or American; this is a human pattern, it’s what humans do when they discover resources they covet and populations that can’t resist a stronger force. It’s an old story, one that science fiction has often told. But it has a novel twist in the character of Mad Mikhail, a Russian gone native who considers himself the champion and protector of the indigenes [“Don’t call them frogheads.”] without wondering just what they think of him.

Given the steamy climate of the place, I’m surprised that the chocolate, brought by Ronson brings as a payoff to frogheads, doesn’t melt.

“The Drowned Celestial” by Lavie Tidhar

There are clues here to suggest our model is a Western: the setting is a place called Port Smith, where a guy named Colt is playing Martian Wild Card Stud while packing a gun. Just as he loses the hand, a dying man rolls through the door of the bar, his last words of treasure and an enemy. Colt has an interest in treasure and willingness to take on the enemy. His Venusian opponent at cards turns out to be handy with his own weapon as well, and the two of them team up in search of the treasure, leaving behind the Western theme and finding a witch in the swamp, who directs them to the treasure and warns them against it. Our Heroes, of course, seek it out regardless and find themselves enslaved by a megalomaniac in a swamp full of the zombified dead.

They were everywhere. They floated in a thick glow of decomposition and decay, staring at Colt with white, milky eyes. Venusians and Earthmen and Martians, sacrificed each day for the crazed god at the bottom of the swamp, this Roog, and with each death, it had grown stronger and more insane.

By then, the story has shifted from the Western milieu to damned Atlantis, to decayed temples where mad gods were once worshipped. Plenty of eldritch and monstrous wonders abound in the midst of this adventure. But hand in hand with them is the more mundane and common monstrosity of exploitation, as humans gnaw away at yet another world for the sake of profit. It’s an odd, imaginative mix, altogether an oddly entertaining setting for this tale of planetary romance.

“Planet of Fear” by Paul J McAuley

Well-described non-fantastic setting here:

Across the glistening slick of the subtropical sargasso, amongst shoals and archipelagos of bladderweed, several thousand sunfish floated in intersecting circles of churning foam. They were big, the sunfish, big humped discs ten or fifteen or even twenty metres across, patched with clusters of barnacles and thatched with purple-brown thickets of strapweed and whipweed, and all around them soldier remoras flailed and fought, flashing and writhing in frothing, blood-blackened water.

Here we have another Russian People’s Republic, where biologist Katya is studying the sunfish until an emergency calls her craft away to the Makarov Mining Station, which claims to be under attack from monsters. Katya finds the notion of monsters professionally intriguing, perhaps a new species, as Venus isn’t known for its megafauna. The ship’s captain, on the other hand, is eager to find cause for a confrontation with the Americans, also colonizing the planet. What they find is carnage, several executed miners, and a single survivor driven insane with terror. Katya sees evidence that the miners have been infected by disease, but Captain Chernov insists the madness was caused by American psy-war agents; his actions threaten to ignite the local cold war into a shooting one.

While several of the tales here are fantastic in some manner, this one is pure science fiction, given the parameters of the premise. Nor is it explicitly Venusian, as it could have been set on any human-habitable planet. What it evokes more than anything is the terrestrial cold war, with armed Soviet and US fleets playing brinksmanship games, the most explicit example of this trend in the anthology. Only five years before 1962, the dueling powers had initiated the space race during the International Geophysical Year, a cooperative project that Katya’s survey is emulating, to Captain Chernov’s disgust and suspicion.

Readers might be alert to clichés here, with our feminist scientist paired off against the chauvinist-warmongering-authoritarian military male, but the author is better than that. Both characters are impulsive and inclined to disregard orders, but Chernov is a genuine hero, admired by his men. And neither of them are totally right or totally wrong in this novel situation, both too much influence by preconceptions. The winner here is science, which makes this real science fiction, touched lightly with horror.

–RECOMMENDED

“Greeves and the Morning Star” by Matthew Hughes

Part of the author’s series featuring a pastiche of a well-known gentleman’s gentleman. It seems that our gentleman, Bartholemew Gloster, has been hijacked to Venus by Slithey Tove-Whippley on behalf of their fellow brother of the Inertia Club, Baldie Spotts-Binkle, lover of newts who supposes that the Venusian swamps must be ideal for breeding the creatures. At which, we surely get the idea but perhaps not the degree of the absurdity about to ensue.

Readers may conclude, upon completion of this work, that it is a bit much. Or a bit much too much. Of course, some may have already concluded that the original model of this pastiche is a bit much himself, but these would not be the ideal readers for the work before us here, which, as pastiches go, contains the essential elements of the model, including the predatory marriageable female before whom all the Inertial brotherhood must quail—more, in fact, than one such.

I must say, however, and I’m sure that Greeves would agree, that while plus-fours and tweeds are eminently fashionable in the country, such as Slithey’s Venusian estate, they wouldn’t do in Belgravia, the very center of fashionable Town.

“A Planet Called Desire” by Gwyneth Jones

The travelogue through strange, wondrous and exotic worlds is a classic SFnal device, and this one twists it slightly as billionaire adventurer John Forrest takes an experimental trip to a primordial Venus, at the era when it is beginning to die. He is immediately attacked by nasty predators and parasites and then saved by a strangely sexy Venusian lizard lady from the civilization that has fled the inhospitable surface to the clouds. After various adventures, she takes him home, only to find more adventures there.

Their arrival at Tessera Station was as dramatic as darkfall, in its way. Her city, a sky raft the size of Manhattan Island, had come to meet them. Moored by mighty hawsers, it stood at the sheer edge of the Tessera Plateau, beside the cable car buildings. Forrest watched the underbelly as they came in: a mass of swollen, membranous dirigibles, layered and roped together in a gargantuan netted frame.

On Venus, as on Earth, politics is as deadly as any predator or parasite. Yet Forrest is in love, and willing to do a lot for it.

It’s not just this version of Venus that lies in the past, but the sensibility of the story, which hails from the Manly White Adventurer era of planetary romance; we can just see Forrest in his khakis and pith helmet. The sex, in which her tail plays a central role, is surprisingly sensuous, perhaps more so than the original models might have dared.

“Living Hell” by Joe Haldeman

The narrator is part of a survey team on Venus and wishes he weren’t. The planet seems to be governed by Murphy’s Law. Thus the space elevator’s cable snaps just about the same time a solar flare fries the electronics. Being aware of Murphy, the survey has gone for redundancy: there are two bases, each with a shuttle, and each base with enough supplies for the dozenish human population to survive. So when the broken cable smashes up the equatorial base and its shuttle, all the narrator has to do is fire up the other one and go rescue the survivors. Easier said than done. Among the many complications are large Venusian monsters that can’t digest humans but are happy to kill and eat them anyway. Adventure and direness ensue.

I tried for the beach and almost made it. Branches slapped and scraped and did break my fall. I gouged up about thirty meters of sand and came to a stop just before finding out whether the thing would work as a submarine.

A generally science fictiony piece. The narrative voice here is dark cynicism, the tone belongs to someone at the mercy of bureaucracy, sent somewhere he doesn’t want to be, where no one human ought or needs to be. He mentions that he was a soldier in his youth, and this piece is a clear metaphor for the hell of jungle war. The story opens with the narrator giving us a number of the lessons he’s learned from his experience, not all of which seem directly relevant to them. I don’t really see the reason for staffing the equatorial base exclusively with females, not that it seems to make much difference to anyone’s chances of survival. What the piece boils down to is the action and the attitude, with a sort of pseudo-scientific bonus.

“Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh

Tomio is the spoiled scion of a wealthy family who falls in love with a professional adventurer—as self-admitted “adrenaline junky”, the kind who has to be first to climb the highest mountain, dive into the deepest abyss. Tomio gets the family to sponsor Avariel’s climb of Olympus Mons while he tags along with her entourage; later, she lets him accompany her on the dive into Venus’s Great Darkness. But there he has an accident that costs him his legs and it costs Avariel her dive, bringing him out. Now she’s trying it again, and Tomio is definitely not wanted on the trip. While waiting, he makes the acquaintance of an indigene who had helped her get the permit to make the dive again. Tomio had known, before, of the local legends about the Great Darkness where the indigenes take their dead, where the Lights-in-Water meet them as they fall into the abyss. Hasalalo is one of the indigenes who will never meet the Lights, whose bones are too light to let them sink; the bodies of his kind are thrown into a pit to rot, lest the Lights be angered. So he asks Tomio for a favor.

This science fictional story of friendship and remembrance has no real surprises. We know that Tomio has finally acquired maturity and self-insight after his near-fatal experience; we know that Avariel has not and never will. And we know that a bond of mutual understanding will form between Tomio and Hasalalo. The stones make a good metaphor. I had one of those rock polishers once, and they do sometimes reveal a surprising hidden beauty in some gray lump.

“Ruins” by Eleanor Arnason

Venus is struggling with economic difficulties and wealth inequality, as well as a political divide between Russian and American colonies. We find Ash at a table in a bar, approached by a video editor from National Geographic, who wants to do a story on the charismatic megafauna of Venus. He pays well. The expedition is promptly underway, but it gradually turns into a contest between the Petrograd Soviet tour guides and the CIA agents lurking in the outback.

An adventure travelogue with political skullduggery, another story with a Venusian cold war.

“I’m an analyst for the political police,” Boris replied. “But my hours have been cut, due to the Soviet’s cash flow problems – which we would not have, if we had more tourists.”

“Or if the executive committee stopped listening to American economists,” Arkady added.

“I don’t want a lecture on economics,” Boris said. “I needed a second job. Arkady gave me one.”

The author develops the local lifeforms scientifically, with some kind of space impact carrying terrestrial microbes to Venus, where they developed in their own ways, waiting for the tourists to arrive and stimulate the local economy.

“The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss” by David Brin

An interesting and unusual premise. Human settlers fleeing to Venus long ago built bubble habitats near the volcanic vents on the floor of an oceanic abyss [and also in other deeps we don’t see]. The plan was to terraform the world to create oceans and a breathable atmosphere by crashing comets onto the planetary surface. As long as the denizens of the Abyss can recall, the thumps of impact have been a regular part of their lives. But now, as the thumps become fewer, the bubbles have aged and deteriorated, until some of them begin to collapse with the loss of thousands of lives, a great catastrophe that leads people to wonder if their own habitat might be next and preparing for the possibility of war when the surviving colonies can’t take in more refugees. Suddenly, Jonah is no longer a superfluous, troublesome boy but a man skilled in mechanics that might prove valuable in combat. His marriage price rises sharply, since he brings with him as a dowry a small, rebuilt submarine. Then, on the journey home to his wife’s bubble, things start to go wrong and all the lives onboard depend on Jonah.

“Let’s say the hull compartments hold. This is a tough old bird.” He patted the nearest curved flank. “We can help protect against blowout by venting compartment air, trying to keep pace with falling pressure outside. In that case, we’ll suffer one kind or another kind of pressure-change disease. The most common is the Bends. That’s when gas that’s dissolved in our blood suddenly pops into tiny bubbles that fill your veins and arteries. I hear it’s a painful way to die.”

This is the old Right Stuff. This is high skiffy adventure and action in a classic SFnal problem story that the engineer protagonist has to solve at all costs. This is Sensawunda generated by the ambitious terraforming project [and even more, by the hints that the original settlers were refugees from the conquest of Earth by an alien species]. This is speculative fiction considering the effects on human species and society of a completely new way of life, in which the most urgent problem is viable reproduction; by the end, there is more speculation about the ways the population’s life is about to change once again.

I note that, despite the anthology’s premise, this isn’t really Old Venus. The setting seems to be Real Venus transformed in a SFnal future to resemble the habitable water world of the ancient legends. And I consider this a Good Thing. The story has the advantage of difference, which imparts a refreshing novelty to the reading. And that brings me to the subject of anthologies. People don’t send me the guidelines to these things, but it’s possible to conjecture from the contents that in this case they put a strong emphasis on indigenous Venusians and very likely the Soviet Union factor. Which gives us lots of faux cold war stories as well as lots and lots of stories with Venusians. This can be a problem, as I noted in last year’s Mars anthology. So if Brin has decided to give us something different, even if it ignores some guidelines, I say it’s all for the best. [Although it’s possible to see the mutated human settlers here as native Venusians.]

–RECOMMENDED

“By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers” by Garth Nix

Shuttle pilot Kelvin is unhappily reminded on landing at fungus-infested Venusport that he’s liable to be reactivated as part of the Terran Navy’s reserves. The press gang tells him that the spoiled scions of some VIPs [“plutocratic larvae”] have idiotically crash-landed in the worst part of the Deep Swamp, and Kelvin was the closest qualified pilot they could nab for the job of rescue. He’s joined by one of his clone-sisters, who has gone more-or-less to seed on Venus.

There were broad blue patches of what the locals called swamp lichen growing on her forearms and up her thighs. More grew on her face, here carefully guided by the sparing use of antifungal agents to grow in concentric circles on her cheeks, across her forehead, and around her neck.

But even Vinnie regards the swamp-dwelling humans known as “Lepers” to be extreme. However, given no choice in the matter, off they go on lizardback, wondering what information the military is holding back, knowing that the military regards reservists such as themselves to be expendable. Turns out they’ve been holding back a lot. A great deal of action ensues, some involving imaginative batches of lethal Venusian fungus.

A fun, adventure-filled skiffy read, making the best of the setting. Given the nature of the military secret crashed in the swamp, readers do have to wonder exactly why they drafted Kelvin for the job. I’m thinking it had to be a cover-up story, but not a very effective one. Lies often aren’t.

“The Sunset of Time” by Michael Cassutt

Here’s an unusual version of the usual scenario, Terrestrians settling Venus with antisocial exiles, which the Venerians complacently allow, since to them it doesn’t really matter what the Terrestrians build, as it will all soon be washed away in

the great Sunset of Time, that moment each ten or hundred-thousand or one million (accounts vary, depending on which Venerian clan is asked) years when the clouds fade . . . the Sun is clearly visible. And it sets as Venus creaks into a partial rotation, unleashing storms, floods, ‘quakes. Remaking the landscape. Where once was Twi-Land would now be Noon, or Nightside.

The Terrestrians, a particularly fatheaded set, even for humans, naturally scoff at this prediction, for which their inferior science finds no evidence. They concentrate on building up their settlement, even as the Venerians dismantle their own, reducing every material to its basic constituents—bricks to mud, glass to sand.

Now it’s obvious from the first couple of pages how this situation is going to end. But that’s not really what the story is about. The story is about Jor, a once useless spawn of a powerful family on Earth, now risen in exile to head up the construction of the Lens, which when complete will generate a portal through which more Terrestrials will pour onto Venus. Jor, unusually in this setting, has a Venerian lover whom he never quite understands. Abdera is looking forward to the Sunset, to riding out the cataclysm on an oceanic skiff. Jor yearns for commitment from her, for a future with her, but she is unresponsive when he brings up the subject; yet she does seem to want something from him, something of crucial importance that she won’t reveal. Jor will have to figure it out for himself.

We don’t really come to understand either group of people. From the human point of view, the Venerians are enigmatic, but the Terrestrials are almost as much a mystery, with their abhorrence of calculating devices and their social deviance quotient [the human settlers on Venus take perverse pride in their quotients, the higher the better]. There’s no making sense of this from our own perspective of today; how the people of Earth arrived at this condition isn’t revealed to us. And I find it very dubious that even humans could be quite so offensively wrongheaded. It’s the weakest aspect of the story, Jor being the only one who isn’t a caricature.

“Pale Blue Memories” by Tobias S Buckell

Not Soviets this time, but Evil Nazis who shoot the narrator’s rocket ship out of the Venusian sky, where they aren’t welcomed by the locals. [I’m not clear why the Americans were heading to Venus during this alternate WWII.]

The ground thudded. And again. I looked oh-so-slowly over my shoulder. A ten-foot tall, six-legged beast with dappled green hide and a fiercely reptilian face hissed at us.

But that wasn’t what made my stomach clench. A thin-limbed man, with skin so pale it looked almost transparent, stood up on leather stirrups and pointed what was unmistakably a long-barreled weapon at us.

Classic scene planetary romance scene, that. Once captured, the crew is sold into slavery, where the adventures shift into moralizing.

This is a highly unsubtle and unoriginal work, the tired old inversion-of-fortune bit, studded with clichés like a fruitcake. Our narrator, Charles, is a mixed-race American passing for white. Because his father has told him stories about life under slavery, he has some appreciation for the realities now facing him. On the other hand, the rocket ship commander is a “red-blooded American” named Heston [!] who blathers clichés cluelessly and fails to face the reality that he is now an inferior. The Nazis, of course, are evil because they’re Nazis, which is why we have Nazis, for the convenience of authors looking for disposable characters. I find it interesting that Charles is still loyal to slavery-apologist Heston because they’re fellow Americans, and he mates with a Venusian because they’re fellow slaves, yet refuses an offered alliance from the Nazis on the grounds of fellow humanity; there is no notion of their being individuals in their own right, which is remarkably prejudiced. But, hey, Nazis!

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear

Here, the adjectival term for things pertaining to Venus is Cytherean, which I like better than most alternatives. We’ve got a small bunch of scientists onplanet, doing scientist things—exploring and discovering and the like. Of these, Dharthi and Kraken are lovers and partners, Kraken highly successful and respected, Dharthi jealous of her success. So she stupidly decides to prove herself by going out alone into the perilous jungle until she discovers something or other. Because she’s the author’s surrogate here, naturally she does.

Here’s a case where adventure is boring, because predictable. We know Dharthi will encounter perils. We know she’ll survive them. She seems to care much less about object of her quest than using it to one-up her lover. I don’t care about this relationship and her inferiority complex; she’s a self-absorbed, self-pitying fool. “If she could have this, Dharthi thought, just this–if she could do one thing to equal all of Kraken’s effortless successes–then she could tolerate how perfect Kraken was the rest of the time.” Whine, whine.

The author tosses anachronisms into the text. One, Kraken warning Dharthi, “You’re going to get eaten by a grue,” is kind of funny, for anyone old enough to get the reference. But we also get this observation, coming out of nowhere as Dharthi contemplates the landscape before her:

For a moment, Dharthi considered such medieval horrors as dentistry without anesthetic, binary gender, and as being stuck forever in the body you were born in, locked in and struggling against what your genes dictated. The trap of biology appalled her; she found it impossible to comprehend how people in the olden days had gotten anything done, with their painfully short lives and their limited access to resources, education, and technology.

Way to jerk readers out of the story and remind them it’s not really future Venus but here-and-now 2015. I had expected better from this author.

“Wizard of the Trees” by Joe R Lansdale

Jack Davis, once a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was on his way home aboard the Titanic when it went down. He was on the way down with it when something intervened and he found himself in a pool of mud on Venus. Being a veteran of wilderness survival, he sets about doing just that when warring Venusians intervene.

Flapping down from the sky were a half dozen winged men, carrying swords and battle axes. Except for the harness that would serve to hold their weapons, and a small hard, leather-looking pouch, they, like the others, were without clothes. Their eyes were somewhat to the side of their heads, there were beak-like growths jutting from their faces, and their skin was milk-white, and instead of hair were feathers. The colors of the feathered were varied. Their targets were the yellow men in the shiny machine on the tremendous tree limb.

Typical of this sort of tale, one of the yellow men turns out to be a woman, and they’re passing familiar with Earth. Davis falls in with them, having assisted them in their fight, and in love with her, so he’s off on quests and adventures, which readers will recognize if familiar with the classic pulp-era Sword and Planet tales. More than any other piece here, it exactly fits the model. As such, it’s pure fantasy, with no real attempt at a scientifically sound explanation for Davis’s translation to Venus. In fact, as it winds down, readers might suspect the whole thing might have been a dream, or a dying hallucination—a literary device well-known by the pulp era.

“The Godstone of Venus” by Mike Resnick

Here we meet again Scorpio and his telepathic partner Merlin, from the companion Mars anthology. Scorpio is human and Merlin is hungry. A criminal human client hires them to help find the eponymous stone, reputed to confer great mystical powers on its possessor, but in fact his mind is controlled by his Venusian female companion Sapphire, whose mind Merlin can’t read—and that scares him. But Scorpio says they need the money.

I like this one rather more than the Mars story, the mystery it adds to the adventure, which is not the Mcguffin godstone but: What exactly is this Sapphire person?

You ever see her eat, or sneak off to relieve herself?

No. But I already told you she wasn’t human.

I could fill a book with things she isn’t, replied Scorpio. What the hell is she?

Which at last we find out, in a fun read.

Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” by Ian McDonald

Over fifty years ago, Ida Granville-Hyde [for she repudiated her late husband’s title and name] visited Venus and, disappearing there, left behind a collection of diaries, notes, and sketches, as well as the completed art, which has since greatly risen in value. Now her great-niece has published these in an illustrated volume, of we have unfortunately only the catalog descriptions:

Plate 1: V strutio ambulans: the Ducrot’s Peripatetic Wort, known locally as Daytime Walker (Thent) or Wanderflower (Thekh). Cut paper, ink and card

From the title and the framing introduction, we might get the impression that this is a list story, and/or one of those fictional collages interspersing journal entries with ticket stubs and grocery lists, from which readers are meant to assemble a coherent narrative. But this narrative is sufficiently coherent as it stands, consisting of Ida’s personal diary of her travels and the accounts she hears from the persons she seeks out on her quest. For while ostensibly on Venus to create the Botanica, Ida is in fact searching for her missing brother Arthur, suspected by everyone as the thief who stole her family’s heirloom jewel, her dowry, on the very eve of her wedding. To this end, she has embarked on an increasingly-perilous travelogue of wonders across a well-imagined Venusian landscape.

The rolling travel of the high-train made me grip the rail for dear life, but the high-plain was as sharp and fresh as if starched, and there, a long line on the horizon beyond the belching smokestack and pumping pistons of the tractor, were the Palisades of Exx: a grey wall from one horizon to the other. Clouds hid the peaks, like a curtain lowered from the sky.

At each stop, she draws closer to Arthur and learns more details of his very checkered career on Venus, coming to a final revelation at the conclusion of her journey, which is in moral terms, a hellward descent, a road marked with crimes and atrocities winding through the wonders of the world.

“All Arthur would say about it was, that’ll make some fine china. That’s what made porcelain from the Valley of the Kilns so fine: bones–the bones of the dead, ground up into powder. He would never drink from a Valley cup–he said it was drinking from a skull.”

Of all the stories in the volume, this is the one I see as least likely to have been published during the heyday of Old Venus, given its literary devices and the delightfully mannered prose. There’s a subtle mystery here—in fact, more than one—with secrets slowly revealed, so much so that it amply rewards a second read. Definitely my favorite.

–RECOMMENDED



Tor.com, February 2015

Not such an outstanding month for this site.

“The Human Engineer” by Jessica Brody

The third in a ridiculous series published here, for some incomprehensible reason, about an Evil Corporation that commits crimes no actual company would ever get away with even contemplating. An insult to readers’ intelligence. Also featuring a whining, self-pitying protagonist, which seems to be a theme here this month.

“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov

A world in which the bodies of the deceased are ritually dismembered and formed into cakes [which would seem to me to be more like meatloaf]. The narrator, in the 2nd-person “I”, is a master of this rite, in which his daughter has been training ever since her favorite father, the narrator’s husband, died. Now the apprentice faces her test of mastery. All through the process, she is expert and controlled, with a “stone face” showing no emotion, all while the other parent wallows in self-pity, both at the loss of his husband but more the fact, that their daughter always loved the other father best and blames him for his death.

It’s a pretty dull story, with the lengthy process of preparing the body described in detail, while the narrator is consumed with his emotions but fails to evoke much empathy, either in daughter or reader.

“Acrobatic Duality” by Tamara Vardomskaya

The narrator was an acrobatic gymnast—a competitive sport involving pairs competition—when she was translated by some sinister process into the bodies of two other young women who can now compete with one mind.

The extra difficulty points of our blind front salto are undeserved, since the base can see where the top’s feet are going. We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time. Cooperating is as easy as being one with ourself.

While each of them has another identity, they both now consider themselves Jennifer Smith and constantly wonder what happened to her, and what happened to the people who they used to be. Their coach says he isn’t allowed to tell them. Then Kim, the top, begins to date a young man, and the two are no longer one, no longer move as one, as their experiences and concerns diverge.

Interesting premise related to the philosophy of mind and the problem of identity, as Kim and Alana’s identity shared begins to diverge. The narrative is filled with details of the competition, very immediately described. The conclusion, however it resolves the pair’s uncertainty, offers no explanation to readers.

“Schrödinger’s Gun” by Ray Woods

Set in a sort of alternate ‘30s Chicago, with rival gangs shooting it out over territory, where certain law enforcement officers, like O’Harren, have “heisen” implants that allow them to perceive and select alternative possibilities and timelines. This is supposed to increase their detecting ability, mostly in interrogation situations. Now the gangster Johnny Rivers has been murdered, and O’Harren is investigating, with the possibilities narrowing down to two: gang business as usual or a crime of passion.

They stood there, overlapping, like two different movies projected onto the same screen; a fault line between two universes. A perfect quantum tightrope. I was looking at the cat inside the box, alive and dead at the same time, and I had seconds left to choose which possibility remained when the lid came off. I couldn’t speak. For a moment, two versions of myself stood inside of each other, our hearts beating different rhythms.

The heisen also, as in O’Harren’s case, causes problems with personal lives, her marriage and child. She occasionally falls into some self-pity over the situation, but usually resists the impulse. This is one of the most common plot formulae in genre fiction: the parallel professional and personal problem; solving one usually leads to an epiphany about the other. I’m happy to say this one doesn’t really go there, instead deploying a really appropriate ending.

Still the difficulties that O’Harren encounters make it clear that the heisen device is really a bad idea, more trouble than it would ever be worth.

“The Hell of It” by Peter Orullian

Malen works scrubbing fish guts off the deck of a trawler to support the young son he must raise alone, until the corrupt oppressive tax system forces his boss to lay him off. Malen then proceeds to make a series of idiotic but honorable choices which all leave him even worse off, the corrupt oppressive system being stacked against the poor-but-honest, as oppressive systems usually are.

Malen doesn’t wallow in self-pity here, because the author has assigned that task to readers, jerking on our emotional chains like a whole gang of cathedral bell-ringers. There is also no unambiguously fantastic element present.

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

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

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


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