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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: early November 2015

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

Publications Reviewed

Meeting Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

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

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

“Rates of Change” by James S A Corey

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

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

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

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

“Desert Lexicon” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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

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

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

“Drones” by Simon Ings

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

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

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

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

“Body Politic” by Kameron Hurley

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

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

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

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

“Cocoons” by Nancy Kress

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

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

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

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

“Emergence” by Gwyneth Jones

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

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

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

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

“The Cold Equalities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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

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

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

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

“Pictures from the Resurrection” by Bruce Sterling

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

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

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


“Aspects” by Gregory Benford

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

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

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

“Memento Mori” by Madeline Ashby

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

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

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

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

“All the Wrong Places” by Sean Williams

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

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

My enemy was statistics.

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

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

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

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

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

“Exile from Extinction” by Ramez Naam

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

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

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

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

“My Last Bringback” by John Barnes

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

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

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

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


“Outsider” by An Owomoyela

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

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

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

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

“The Falls: A Luna Story” by Ian McDonald

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

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

The Dark, November 2015

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

“The Devil under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt

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

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

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

“The Canary” by Lisa L Hannett

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

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

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

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

“Self, Contained” by Kirstyn McDermott

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

“What Hands Like Ours Can Do” by Megan Arkenberg

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

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

Enigmatically intriguing.

Clarkesworld, November 2015

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

“So Much Cooking” by Naomi Kritzer

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

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

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

“Your Right Arm” by Nin Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Hexagonal Bolero of Honeybees” by Krista Hoeppner Leahy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Faren Miller reviews Nancy Jane Moore

The Weave, Nancy Jane Moore (Aqueduct Press 978-1-61976-077-6, $19.00, 356pp, tp) July 2015. [Order from Aqueduct Press, P.O. Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787].

The Weave, a first novel by Nancy Jane Moore, is science fiction that thoroughly deserves its ad­vance praise by Vonda N. McIntyre and Michael Bishop. Rather than simply chronicle the first hu­man expedition to a solar system beyond our own, First Contact with sentient aliens, and the ensuing war, Moore shows a future Earth and that alien world as experienced by two protagonists – one human, one alien – in plotlines that intertwine throughout the book, not fully merging even when Caty Sanjuro and the being known as Sundown finally meet.

Baldly stated, the space mission would seem to invoke past ironists who warped the grand epics of Golden Age SF for their own sly social satires. After centuries of exploring, exploiting and colo­nizing the Solar System, humans have achieved a somewhat faster means of space travel. Years after robotic probe Copernicus found that the Scorpius 41 system had a sparsely inhabited fourth planet and mineral-rich asteroid belt (prompting some wit to dub the world Cibola, after a legend of the Conquistadors), the first manned expedition sets out in spaceship Mercator, where Caty is the lone xenologist.

No generic form, however, including satire, can prevail in a fictional environment this fluid, with characters too vivid to become icons or pawns. In The Weave, even the sense of wonder gives way to outright surprise: comic, tragic, or somewhere indefinably between. Much as Caty and Sundown strive to know The Other, they come from worlds so different they’ll need to recognize – and dis­card –their most fundamental assumptions about existence, before they can begin to understand.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late October 2015

A special issue of BSC with lots of extra fantasy and the final stories of the year from the digests, where I find plenty of science fiction. Also a strong month’s worth of stories from

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #183-185, October 2015

A double dose of fantasy from this zine, as a 7th anniversary double issue aligns with a three-Thursday October, including a dark fantasy issue for the solstice. I usually enjoy trying to discern a theme unifying the stories in a given issue. For double issue #183, it seems to be justice. Along with the pieces reviewed here, there is also a reprint Lord Yamada story from Richard Parks. Issue #184 features cruelty, and #185 bloodthirsty monsters.


“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg

Set in a milieu previously used by the author in which magical power is linked to deepnames, the more, the more powerful—usually. Here, we find more explanation for this phenomenon.

Beneath the surface of the land, as we have learned so many years ago, embedded in the earth, there is a naming grid. Inert, it shines too softly for most minds to discern. It is unto this grid that the first people spoke their magic. They created deepnames for the land, watched them alight upon the land’s naming grid like fireflies; and it is those ancient deepnames that we see, those of us with enough power to do so . . .

Now there is a government crisis over war on the borderland; the naming grid is ailing, wounded by war, and its protection should be a priority. Parét’s powerful mentor/lover is working to avoid new war. Parét himself is three-named, but his names aren’t strong ones, so that he was expelled from the University. He’s now working as a mind-healer among the poor when he is abducted by Lord Brentann, a political rival of his lord, the leader of the war party, a hateful individual who ostensibly wants him to coerce his grandchild to accept her female identity but in fact has political motivations, aimed against Parét’s lord.

This is a long story, and I’m not sure how much of the backstory derives from previous works; accounts of certain events give that impression—the previous war, the tragedy of Parét’s family. Of most interest to me is the naming magic and the geometries that Parét and Dedéi explore, in which the weaker names turn out to have a subtle power that most adepts fail to understand. Coming up with a unique system of magic is a real accomplishment. Unfortunately, the author’s characterization is too often one-dimensional, particularly in the case of Brentann, in whom intolerance of variant sexual identities turns out to be bursting with every other moral flaw imaginable. This is caricature, not characterization—perfect villainy with black hat and twirling mustachios. The story deserves a more realistic antagonist and a more multidimensional moral compass.

“The Four Schools” by Naim Kabir

The reincarnation of souls drives this tale. Here, it’s an eternally recurring cycle with no end ever in sight, except that certain heinous criminals, such as murderers, will fall away into nothingness at death. Normally, a child, about the time of puberty, will suddenly remember its past lives, take up its true eternal identity. The central character here is the monk Arzey, whose eternal Task is the pursuit of the criminal soul Garza the Provoker. Garza’s invariable habit is to torment his victim until he murders the provoker, who is then reincarnated with an increased share of good fortune, while the killer’s soul suffers annihilation. If Arzey succeeds in finding Garza in childhood, before he remembers who he is, he often attempts to convince the child bearing his soul to commit suicide; people in this world don’t fear death as an absolute evil. If this fails, there are other means. But the task is endless; Garza is always reborn somewhere and Arzey just has to track him down again. At the monastery, the pillar memorializing his lives grows higher and higher.

An intriguing premise driving the story, which covers a multitude of souls, of encounters, and each one ends differently. I find it interesting to note how adults in this world readily accept a child’s word concerning its destiny and respect its authority; from the moment of remembering, the child’s birth identity is shed. But the story is Arzey’s, and Arzey sometimes shows signs of burning out, sometimes manifests desires and ambitions that may not be entirely devoted to his Task. He might even fall in love.

“The Sons of Vincente” by I L Heisler

Medusa had a son. Or she was some similar gorgoform creature with snakes for hair and a gaze that can turn humans to stone, because it was a prince named Vincente who killed her, not Perseus.

She lay in a quiet glade, sprawled between two petrified hounds, one crouched with its gums drawn back, the other halted mid-leap and lying on its side. Her body was unscathed, excepting her head, which was gone. All that remained of it was one snake, cut away by the sword and writhing in the grass. I remember the coolness of its scales as it died and the lingering warmth of my mother’s body when I curled up beside her.

A kindly quarryman found the child clinging to the body of his mother; he cut the snakes from his head and took him home to raise. Young Calvino soon manifested a talent for stone carving.

If the theme here is justice, it’s even moreso revenge. I like the way the author shifts this myth into a new setting and milieu, yet retains its core.


“A Careful Fire” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

There are wingéd women who fly and sing at night. They have blue skin and can be baited with sugar water, like butterflies. Humans envy them and lust after them and mutilate them; they cut off their wings, like butterflies. Then there is Mabella who may be the hybrid offspring of a wingéd and a human male, possibly her master [they seem to have no males of their own species, but how they reproduce without diluting their bloodline isn’t mentioned]; Mabella has no wings of her own. She is seduced, then abandoned by her master, after which she runs away to the wingéd, who taunt her. She then turns to mutilating innocent creatures and cutting off their wings.

It’s a distasteful story, where every character is mean and cruel, where they all envy beauty yet destroy what they can’t possess. There is no artistry to the cruelty, or any point. I add that blueberries, in their natural state, are rather tart and usually require sugar.

“Unearthly Landscape by a Lady” by Rebecca Campbell

Here, on the other hand, is artistry of a most delicate, decadent kind. Mina is a governess who raised a young girl, Flora, and taught her the ladylike art of painting china, of which she developed a mastery. The subject matter of her works was ostensibly conventional, but Mina began to notice a hidden world concealed in it, a disturbing one of cruel and violent beauty that Flora seems to be attracted to.

“At first I did not realize it, but the plants are sentient, and when they are in pain and afraid, they exude a substance from their central stem that is remarkably delicious. Somewhere between a mango and a new vanilla pod. That scent—it’s a perfume, too, they use it to scent the air in the sky-cities—made me think when I first saw them they were on some southern Island, somewhere very far away. So far that I cannot imagine. So far away that the sun is the wrong colour, distant and cold and tinted faintly green.”

This dark fantasy could easily be considered horror, but like Flora’s painted teacups, the delicacy of the images at first obscures the merciless character of the scenes. But this world that Flora, perhaps, has so often visited is corrupting in more ways than morally, leading to a very sad end and a more sinister conclusion. I find it more disturbing than the more sanguinary monsters in the next issue.



“Demons Enough” by Ian McHugh

A fantasy version of an Anglo-Saxon-like culture, filled with monsters. The usual monsters here are the leeches [an ambiguous term that might mean lich or upir—vampire]. The humans have made a treaty with these creatures by which they are given condemned criminals to drain of blood in exchange for leaving the rest of the population in peace. But now there’s a new monster in town who can rip leeches limb from limb—a farkasember [shapechanger], who claims to be hunting the leeches; the human victims she leaves scattered in pieces are only collateral damage.

The nobleman Thorfinn conceives of a plan to turn the two types of monsters against each other, while humans wait to attack the winner. But the Aetheling Hallveig, the prince, becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the shapechanger for the death of her only son, and she charges into the heart of peril to the destruction of Thorfinn’s carefully-laid plans.

The setting is of interest, but it also raises questions. Historically, in such a culture, nobles didn’t directly inherit their titles but were elected by an assembly. They were expected to be war leaders; children or incompetents were disqualified. If Hallveig was Aetheling, she would be expected to lead in battle. So I’m not sure why Thorfinn, below her in rank, was always trying to keep her back from the fray.

I also wonder about the monsters, which are apparently not native to this land. The term used here for the shapechanger, farkasember, is from Eastern Europe, definitely not from the Anglisc tradition, while the very appropriate and well-known Germanic term is deliberately avoided. Likewise the Slavic term upir, translated here as “leech”. The explanation is hinted at by the shapechanger, who tells Thorfinn “that the leeches were driven from their homeland, and driven from her country in turn.” It sounds like a fascinating historical episode, of which I might like to know more.

“Bloodless” by Cory Skerry

Monster set against monster. In this world there are undead monsters called bloodless that prey on human communities, draining their victims of blood. To defend against them, communities create their own bloodless gate guards. Kamalija comes from a family tradition of gate guards and was chosen at a young age to be transformed, a rather dubious honor.

Kamouk had held her hands in his when they pried her teeth out of her jaw; the procedure had to be performed while she was still alive, or the wolf’s teeth wouldn’t take. She had squeezed her brother’s fingers until they were purple, screamed and screamed, but he was the one who got sick down the front of his shirt. He never let go of her hands, even while vomit dried in his beard.

Finally, her own blood is used to form a protective perimeter around the gate that the predatory bloodless can’t pass, nor can she. Now comes a new predator who tries to convince her that the tradition is a lie, that she’s being used, that she should abandon the gate and, of course, let him inside.

The “bloodless” is a novel sort of monster, but I’m not sure about the notion of the wild, predatory bloodless being of the same complicated, artificial creation as the gate guardians, if there is no natural generation of such monsters. Seems to me that this has the chicken/egg sequence backwards.

Asimov’s, December 2015

I certainly can’t complain about a shortage of science fiction in this issue.

“The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred” by Greg Egan

Humans have colonized much of Earth’s solar system, in at least some cases as for-profit enterprises. Vesta was settled for mining, with its various founding syndicates making material contributions—ships, machinery—in exchange for their stake in the enterprise. One group, known as the Sivadiers, contributed know-how and intellectual property. Generations later, however, the descendants of the other Vestan groups have decided to renege on the original contract, convincing themselves that these non-material assets were of no or lesser worth. They start to call the Sivadiers “Freeloaders” and insist on a special tax to repay their “debt”. The Sivadiers protest at first, which soon turns to resistance. Which soon results in reaction and retribution from the other side, sabotage and, as the confrontation escalates, accusations of war crimes. Sivadiers become refugees and fugitives, heading for the safety of Vesta’s nearby trading partner Ceres.

Here is where the science-fictional aspect of the work is most evident. Vesta and Ceres have a regular trade: basalt stone exchanged for ice, with the shipments drifting gravitationally into each other’s orbits for retrieval; the Vestans call it a “river of stone.” Now the fugitives are fastening themselves to the rocks and floating in coldsleep to their destination.

But however gentle the encounter had seemed, the rock she was riding had been struck head-on by an equally massive block of ice, and, like the pieces in a cosmic Newton’s cradle, the two had had no choice but to exchange their states of motion: the ice now took her place in the parking orbit, while she, very slowly, was on her way to Ceres.

The Cererian society is clearly based on very different social principles from Vesta—on a form of utilitarianism in which the prime value is the greater good; it’s notable that this includes the good of the Vestan refugees, measured equally. Thus they eventually face the ethical quandary when the fate of four thousand refugees must be measured against the lives of eight hundred. This crisis takes up half the narrative, from the point of view of the Cererians. And in this, I have to take up the defense of the Cererian administrator on utilitarian grounds. The calculation of the greater good isn’t simply an arithmetical matter of adding up the number of lives on either side of a decision. There’s also the issue of probability, which outcome is more likely. If the consequences of one decision are certain and the other option is indeterminate, it has to make a difference in judging the act. This isn’t the same as the “moral vanity” of “putting a personal sense of doing right above any objective measure of the outcome.” It’s recognizing that there may be more than one way of measuring expected outcomes.

It’s clear that Ceres is being held up here as the superior example of a society, in contrast to Vesta, which is shown falling deeper into a repressive state. But both are human societies, and we have to wonder how long the Cererians will continue to accept the refugee Vestans into their polity, particularly if it comes to even more open conflict with Vesta. How long before the charge of “Freeloader” will be aimed at the Vestans, with more justification than on their homeworld? In this, I find the warning of one Cererian to be particularly wise:

“I think Vestans are exactly like us. They had a life every bit as good as ours—just as safe, just as prosperous—and like us, a lot of bored, aimless people who’d never really found any purpose. But then they realized that they could fill that hole by inventing a grievance, and taking sides, and refusing to be swayed no matter what. Maybe you think we’re immune to that kind of thing, but I don’t.”

The story is definitely true science fiction, as we see mostly clearly in the account of the rock and ice shipments. But the ethical theme is one that we might find in any setting where human beings are involved. It’s a strong and timely warning that a single expression of hate and intolerance can have far-reaching consequences involving ruin for all sides.


“Empty” by Robert Reed

A future in which humanity hasn’t quite succeeded in obliterating itself—not for want of trying. But its creations are determined to finish the job and take over the universe for themselves. It began, of course, with war.

Incompetence is what saved us. Blessed, precious incompetence. Billions died, but two trillion souls were left shivering inside null-bunkers from Mercury to Dione. Which was an astonishing success. Even our mother world endured, though Luna was battered and covered with irradiated rubble. And from those blessings came one more glorious spark: Every survivor was left profoundly if temporarily wise.

Leading to the conclusion: “We had to invent a sanctuary, some worthy and enduring realm safely removed from our genius for slaughter.” Thus the narrator is now onboard a spacecraft with the mission of founding this sanctuary.

At which point, readers may be thinking that when the narrator says “we” he’s talking about human beings. But it gradually becomes clear that this is an entirely posthuman universe. The few organic humans who survived the initial war were extirpated thoroughly in a post-cleansing, down to their DNA and through the ranks of primates, lest the species re-evolve. The narrator and all the other characters we meet are autonomous machine intelligences; the narrator is of the Data tribe, using the human-derived name Lerner Pong. The other Data among the crew is known as the Authority—authority over the ship’s data libraries—and uses only the name Empty. The Authority and the ship’s captain are at odds, the narrator caught between them. The Authority has discovered an inconvenient truth, a truth previously suspected by humans, and the captain rejects it, tries to silence it.

This dismal and depressing narrative is a dense one, that rewards re-reading. It’s a mystery on several levels, and it becomes ever more clear that the central character is the intelligence named Empty, which is one of the clues to her discovery. Our narrator isn’t on her level, always following several steps behind [along with most readers, I suspect]. It’s notable that he calls this account his confession, and also that it’s addressed to someone in particular.

Most interesting to me is the notion that machine intelligences of human origin, even if not directly human-built, will partake of the human “genius for slaughter” or, if you will, our original sin. In seeking a sanctuary where human influence can never reach, they are carrying it along with them. Lerner Pong clearly identifies as human, but I find it still a mystery that he repeatedly uses the term “beast” for himself and the others on the ship. There are plenty of other mysteries here to intrigue readers.


“Of Apricots and Dying” by Amanda Forrest

The setting is a near-future Pakistan, the mountainous northern region where nearby Kashmir has historically been the scene of war among its covetous neighbors. Now there is renewed conflict over rich lithium deposits discovered in the region, but war would end the plans of Asma’s brother Rashid, who has been prospecting since he was a boy, hoping to make a strike. This is a country where social change comes slowly, against resistance, and Asma’s father is a strong force of resistance. But as she grows up, she uncovers the thick web of lies that has ensnared her family even before she was born, with the lives of some sacrificed for the good of others. Asma must decide if she’ll allow herself to be another sacrifice.

The setting, while a plausible future, remains mostly in the background and serves mainly as a device to endanger the family’s son. Readers will probably take this as a feminist work and cheer for Asma to embrace independence and self-empowerment. But for me it’s primarily a tragic tale of family and its ties, and unraveling the lies that this particular family has tangled itself in—in part, out of a desire to do good, as they conceived it at the time—primarily the good of the family’s male members.

“We Jump Down into the Dark” by M Bennardo

Way out in the asteroid belt, a few benevolent optimists built an oversized space station as a habitat for gorillas, a species doomed in the wild on Earth.

A high orbit wagon wheel, a tube two kilometers around and two hundred meters wide at the jungle floor, filled wall to wall with flora and fauna imported from the rain forests of the Congo, then left to spin with its two caretakers and occasional visitors for fifteen long years.

Anders and his now-ex Jessica were part of the project, but she remained there as crew, while Anders works search-and-rescue in the belt. Now comes an emergency call: something is wrong with Eden. As they enter the station, it’s clear that it’s about to break up. Their mission is to get the crew off before it’s too late, but Jessica is out in the jungle trying to find a missing gorilla.

The author doesn’t make the situation clear at first, and the action is pretty sketchy. There’s a lot of Anders arguing with himself about the ability of individuals to make a difference in a universe that doesn’t care. I don’t believe the term “bull” is generally used for a male gorilla.

“Riding the Waves of Leviathan” by Garrett Ashley

Leviathan has shown up on Earth, near Apollo Beach to be specific, ruining the oil drilling and the fishing and the economy of the place in general, and generating really great waves when he breaches. The teenaged narrator’s best friend Tim went out to surf them and got killed in the attempt. Now the narrator thinks he has to ride a Leviathan wave on Tim’s board to get some kind of closure, and because he doesn’t dare actually do it, he develops an obsession with the beast.

I continued to go out and study the heartbeat of Leviathan. A quickened pace meant he was moving swiftly; he often appeared above water when this happened, and he’d zip across and make a hearty wave ten or fifteen feet high. I tried to hone in on the times he’d jump. Rarely, it seemed, but the statistic wasn’t impossible, because when his heartbeat slowed and faded, then you’d know he was about to take flight. He’d go down to the bottom, then shoot himself up, and that’s when the sound of the heartbeat would return and you’d see him fly out of the water like something that wasn’t meant to be there or here on Earth, or like something that should be stuck up in the sky with the Moon.

In fact, the story is really about the narrator’s relationship with his father who has morally deserted him, a fisherman before Leviathan and now a miner who drinks all the time while their home falls apart around him. It’s more about feeling than making sense, as well as being one of those stories that suffers from the absence of the narrator’s name, making him seem almost as unreal as the non-whale.

“Bidding War” by Rich Larson

The sort of absurd story in which the author inflates the absurdities of today to create lives that seem even more meaningless, with faint cyberpunkish overtones. So we have Wyatt, engaged in an online bidding war for a fake Mesoamerican flute that he erroneously supposes will win him back his girlfriend. I’m not amused or much interested, which may actually be the point.

“Come-From-Aways” by Julian Mortimer Smith

The wreckage that washes up near Gull Island is the unearthly sort. The locals tell tourists that the fog brings it, but they don’t agree on the exact reason.

“There’s always been something special about this area,” he says. “We’re close to a portal of some sort. Ley-lines intersecting and whatnot. That’s where the fog comes from. It’s no earthly fog. Nobody who’s been out in it can claim it is. The portal opens, and the fog flows out of it. And our dimension is like a bridge. And sometimes, while a spacecraft is passing from one dimension to the other, a bit gets caught and breaks off.”

Out at night on the foggy ocean in a dory, the narrator comes pretty close to the truth. A local-colored fantasy, strong on place and description.

Analog, December 2015

Featuring a novella by Catherine Wells.

“Builders of Leaf Houses” by Catherine Wells

Alien contact, from dual points of view, although the native is predominant. Motherlove is the matriarch of her band, nearing the end of her lifespan at a critical time, when the Fragile One are encroaching on the territory and the local volcano beginning to stir. Much to be done in limited time.

She must select her successor. She must decide what to do about the Smoking Mountain. And she must make a law about the defective children, children like Neverrest, born without the one trait on which the Thinking Ones depended for survival. Children born without memories.

The mental defect that leaves some individuals without innate memories is recent and spreading rapidly among the entire population; it makes the selection of a successor difficult, the best candidate being one of the memory-impaired, the candidate with complete memories lacking good judgment and charity.

On the human side, we have Marta, guiding the scientific survey of this world they call Dray’s planet; she already suspects the presence of a sapient species. When her partner breaks a leg out in the forest, Neverrest, one of the memory-impaired Drayans, comes to their rescue. Communication and mutual understanding commences, not without complications to make things more interesting—looming largely among these, the imminent volcanic eruption. But the real issue is learning and memory.

This general sort of scenario is familiar, but here it’s well done and characterized. While there’s tension and conflict, there’s minimal hostility; just about everyone is a person of good will. The author takes care to point out that even the single exception also has her strong points. But as a moral story, the virtue promoted most highly here is tolerance, also good judgment and open-mindedness—not likely to be so highly valued in a population that tends to know rather than learn.

I do question the evolutionary assumptions here; the differences seem to be too great and occur too abruptly. I also doubt that the explorers would be without any means of communication with their base.

“A Case of Identity” by Edward M Lerner

No opening signals its genre more strongly than a dame coming into the narrator’s office. The differences here being that the office and the detective are virtual, and the dame has comlinked from the Moon. That’s progress for you. Mary Millikin is the heiress of Interplanetary Foods, and about to be voted onto a full position on the board. Or not. She wants the narrator’s help in locating her missing fiancé. The problem, the fiancé is, like the detective, a qmind, having emerged from one of the company’s quantum computers, which has now gone almost entirely flatline. A marriage between a human and qmind has been unheard-of. Which explains why she wants the narrator, now calling itself Sherlock, to investigate. He sees three possible scenarios.

“If Apple is still inside that server, his presence is being elaborately masked. Or someone or something expended a great deal of effort to hide”—Mary’s stricken look compelled me to shun
more plain-spoken wording—”. . . whatever happened.”

Or he’s gone.

Quite clever. Detective fiction channeling classic detective fiction, complete with clues, false trails and red herrings, melded with quantum AIs. And a love story.

“Footprints in the Snow” by Bud Sparhawk

Alien integration. The Tsuanit ship had crashlanded in the Pacific and its survivors washed up along the American west coast, where an uncharacteristically tolerant US government offered them asylum, much to the disgust of certain citizens, such as Alberto, who resents “a bunch of stinking freeloading aliens eating up his hard-earned tax dollars.” Now, making matters much worse, they’re moving into the vacant house next door to him—for free!

Alberto’s a pretty familiar cliché, and readers will assume the story will follow one of two plotlines: either Alberto will pay a sad price for his intolerance and hate, or he’ll acquire tolerance and befriend the newcomers next door. And so it does.

“The Museum of Modern Warfare” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A story of the survivors. Decades earlier, during the Dylft Wars, the narrator took part in the pivotal Battle of Craznaust, allied with the natives they called Cranks.

The Cranks weren’t that interested in fighting the Dylft. The Cranks just wanted everyone off their island chain, and we had gotten there first, with a promise of aide, personnel, and equipment.

The alliance prevailed, with great carnage and loss on all sides. Now the narrator has been appointed Ambassador to the Dylft System, a job that usually requires no more strain than the ability to speak the languages and follow prescripted protocol. But now the Cranks have established their museum and invited all veterans from all sides to visit; in fact, only veterans of the war can enter the innermost hall. There have been complaints about the nature of the exhibits: . . . horrifying . . .. . . disgusting . . .. . . insulting . . . The Ambassador has to see it for herself.

This is a strong indictment of war, and secondarily an examination of the nature of memorials to war. It makes the point that the losses most acutely felt are the personal ones, the loss of comrades, not the anonymous body counts, no matter how high. The author is working hard for emotional impact, with a lot of one-sentence paragraphs coming one after the other—punch. . . punch . . . punch . . .

“The Master’s Voice” by Brendan DuBois

Jake Stone celebrates his 7th birthday cleaning up goat turds. Given that this is Mars, he would be thirteen, a common age for adulthood in some traditions. Mostly, this is a hagiology idolizing Heinlein, which readers are likely to see for themselves. Readers, at least, who are old enough to have read the originals.

“Paris, 1835” by Bill Johnson

Dueling timelines. Time travel doesn’t seem to be working out too well. People travel back to observe and record notable events, but sometimes they can’t go home again. Something has changed, and their futures no longer exist. A group of these temporal exiles have established a network of safe houses across the timeline, where they work to bring about the return of their future. Now a new arrival has shown up in Paris, a specialist in altering assassinations. The group needs to stop her version of the assassination attempt on King Louis Philippe, which would keep their own timelines from coming into existence.

“So, Fieschi does not flee to Italy,” Martin said. He sipped his drink, focused on the countess. “There is no French invasion of Savoy. No Italian unification to resist them. No glorious victory over the French army. No Italian Empire.”

This version of the story acknowledges the fact that the right timeline for some may be the wrong one for others. Their enterprise is essentially selfish. They’re not working to create some greater future good or prevent some catastrophic evil in the futures they create; it’s all about who gets to go home and who doesn’t.

A bonus here are the glimpses at some historical events that readers may not be aware of, such as Barnum’s exhibition of Joice Heth, “George Washington’s mammy”, and the infernal engine built by the would-be assassin Fieschi., October 2015

Plenty of stories for adults this month, and good ones.

“Hold-Time Violations” by John Chu

Imaginative physics. The universe isn’t what it seems, being instead an infinite nested set; the narrator refers to matryoshka dolls. Universes are generated from the outside in, the product of a skunkworks packed with pipes, valves and other cosmogenetic plumbing. From time to time, things go wrong and adjustments are required; sometimes adjustments to prior adjustments.

Fixes have piled on top of so-called improvements have piled on top of emergency repairs forever. Rust covers the gates and reservoirs at the intersection of pipes. Most pipes block each other’s way and have to zigzag around each other. No pipes unscarred from dead welds of stubs where pipes used to join together.

These fixes are part of the job of Ellie’s family. There are probably others involved, as well, but the author isn’t clear on this point; we do know that there are factions, and one faction determined to prevent any adjustments at all, even if a universe fails. Assassinations happen. What we don’t know exactly is what Ellie and her family are, apart from architects and builders of skunkworks, generating universes. On the one hand, they seem to be human—Chinese, in fact—and mortal; Ellie’s mother has terminal cancer. On the other hand, they clearly have abilities that normal humans don’t, some of which may suggest an angelic nature. And on the third hand, Ellie informs us that the skunkworks generating the universe in which she [and presumably the rest of us] lives is pre-human. I’m not sure how much the author wants us to think about this sort of thing and ask this sort of question, but I don’t see how it’s possible not to, to wonder if we can believe in this universe, even while positing that the physical description—pipes and valves—is metaphorical, like the diagnostic egg tarts.

The questions we’re supposed to ask are ethical. The problem Ellie is faced with is an ethical one: can she accept the creation of a special sub-universe for a special purpose, when collateral damage is inevitable. And the reason Ellie is the person given the task is in her mother’s teaching. The text involves a lot of debate on this sort of subject, along with the infodump that really is sort of necessary. But a lot of it has to come down to, or back to, the question of what exactly Ellie and her family are, how they came to have this job, and who put them in charge? It’s a very thought-provoking piece, and while the conclusion comes to a clear answer, the unanswered ones are still hovering in the background.

“Variations on an Apple” by Yoon Ha Lee

Variations on the story of Paris, giving it universal scope and new fruit for speculation. Lee being one of my favorite authors and the Iliad my all-time favorite story, it’d be hard for this one not to be a winner in my list. Here, outside of time, we see a much wiser Paris, not likely to fall for the lure of a mere mortal Helen. Here, he’s the lover of Ilion, and when the goddesses give him the option to present the poisoned apple “to the fairest” he has only one choice of recipient: “Ilion, nine-walled Ilion, spindled Ilion with its robed defenses. Outside and inside, the city-fort shone black, girded with lights of pearling white and whirling gold.” But Paris also loves Ilion as an avatar, a beautiful youth of indeterminate sex. And Ilion accepts the apple, Ilion becomes “the fruit of fruits” that the enemy fleet will come to pluck in infinite variations on the war that always seems to end in some variation of the same way: “Because there’s a siege through the threads of time,” Athena said, “and you are knotted into it.” Nor can he escape it, nor any of them.

Of all the ways I like this, perhaps the strongest is the translation of the story into the terms of space opera, which of course is in itself a translation from the ur-story that always begins with Paris.


“Tear Tracks” by Malka Older

First contact. Flur and Tsongwa are the designated ambassadors to the alien world, although the mission is heavy with supervision, oversight and monumental efforts to avoid anthropocentric error. The aliens are surprisingly sort of humanoid, but the relevant aspects of their difference turn out to be social custom and history, not physical traits. You can’t prepare for everything.

It’s a slow, low-key narrative, but I really do think the human envoys should have been able to catch the point they missed, at least as presented here.

“Some Gods of El Paso” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Back in Prohibition times, Lorna and Vix were healers in Texas; “they changed people’s hearts and fixed people’s minds”, expunging their negative emotions in a manner related to sex— the narrator calls it, the oldest profession. Putting the two of them together, they “were something to reckon with.” Then they figured that there was a market in the discarded emotions they’d cleansed from their clients, and took them on the road. Complications ensued.

Sheriff Hank Yarley’s own wife had gone on the run, driving her mother’s car clean across Louisiana to see if she could get her gaze on Vix Beller, and when she came back, she was no longer in love with the sheriff. Yarley wanted to repossess her love and fury (in her, they were one thing) and feed it back into her mouth by the spoonful, but it was with all the rest of the stolen emotions, in the trunk of one of Vix and Lorna’s stolen cars. He aimed to get it back.

A tall tale of outlaw gods with strong echoes of Bonnie and Clyde—the legend. Very effective narrative voice, just right for the subject.


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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Matthew De Abaitua

If Then, by Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot 978-0857664662, $7.99, 416pp, mass market paperback) September 2015

Given that Matthew De Abaitua’s first novel from 2007, The Red Men, has had no USA edition, as of this writing, his second book, If Then, newly issued by Angry Robot, more or less amounts to his introduction to a large cohort of readers. And a more splendid first impression could not be delivered. This is the kind of post-apocalypse, after-it-all-changed novel—with clever codicils—that the Brits do with so much more classy, idiosyncratic style than anyone else. It is full of magisterial weirdness, logical surrealism, melancholy joy and hopeful terror. If I begin to toss out names like Adam Roberts, Brian Aldiss, Keith Roberts, and J. G. Ballard, I will not be lavishing undue praise.

The first section of our novel is titled “If,” and that contingent word being so inextricably tied up with science fiction, it feels natural for us to be in the future.

The tiny village of Lewes is a tightly managed community existing post-Seizure. The Seizure was the collapse and/or transmogrification of capitalism. “After the Seizure, most people were redundant. [Now] we are data beasts in a…zoo…” De Abaitua plays off both meanings of the word “seizure,” a spasm or fit, and a confiscation. In any case, the inhabitants of Lewes are under the authority of the Process, a kind of artificial intelligence or distributed, algorithmic governing system that delivers its orders to select enforcers via implanted wetware. The scenario will stir echoes of Jerome Bixby’s classic “It’s a Good Life.”

James, the bailiff, is one such instrument of the state. He patrols the village, maintaining order and seeing that the Process is obeyed. (Its followers or chattel do not lack free will entirely.) His major task comes with each ritual Eviction Night (picture a hybrid of Shirley Jackson and The Golden Bough), when he dons a giant dieselpunk mecha-suit and goes after the listed villagers whom the Process wishes to expel, for whatever cryptic reasons.

James’s wife is Ruth—a fully rounded narrative figure in her own right—village schoolteacher and seamstress. Both of them had high-powered, high-status careers prior to the Seizure, but are now bitterly reconciled to their lowly, feudal fate. James is more embedded in the system than Ruth, due to his special implant, and the tensions in their marriage derive from his unthinking obedience to the Process.

One further player at Lewes is the Institute: a crumbling mansion inhabited by mutant savants, including a female scientist straight out of Ballard, Alex Drown, and the misshapen ancient sage Omega John. “I have undergone forty-eight procedures. Twenty voluntary, twelve of them vindictive. Fifteen were subsequently corrective; one, performed a long time ago, was particularly traumatic. My former rivals in the Institute took puerile delight in rearranging the regions in my global workspace.” Drown clarifies: “His mind.”

James’s regular life begins to go off the rails when he encounters an android soldier named Hector. Manufactured by the Process, Hector has been introduced into the village for unknown reasons. “The soldier is an error message,” opines one citizen. This kind of gnomic utterance, so reminiscent of Ballard’s style, is a major feature of De Abaitua’s deracinated world. “Addiction is a feature, not a bug” says Dr. Drown. “Time was fermenting here, becoming an intoxicant,” thinks James at one point.

The second part of the book is, of course, labeled “Then.” Suddenly, after the last Eviction goes bad, James finds himself back during WWI, as a stretcher bearer. He has vague memories of his life in Lewes, including his love for Ruth, but the reality of the trench warfare and the imperatives of his comrades are too vital and dangerous and heartfelt to ignore. But it is in this bloody ground, we gradually learn, that the seeds of the Seizure, the Process and Lewes were first planted. This war engulfing James is a simulacrum, an augmented-reality LARP. Or is he experiencing a true timeslip incident? De Abaitua keeps us in suspense till the very end, much in the deft manner of Christopher Priest’s The Separation.

The bucolic ruins of England are evoked as searingly as those in Aldiss’s Greybeard, and the WWI milieu reads like a first-hand, classic work of that exact vintage from, say, Dos Passos or Robert Graves. But of course De Abaitua weaves his stefnal unreality throughout everything, blending an intense naturalism with estrangement.

This novel, by turns dramatic and quiet, shattering and affirming, has much to say on a variety of essential topics. What is the nature and duty of Homo economicus? Should one surrender one’s self to any higher authority, perhaps more wise than oneself? What are the ultimate stresses that love can endure and surmount? Can humanity ever be perfected or even improved? All these issues and more are objectified in brilliant storytelling carried by persons we empathetically inhabit.

It is almost as if we, the readers, are the Process, empowered by De Abaitua’s skills, and our reactions, as with any good novel, will ripple out to change reality.

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 Ken Scholes

Blue Yonders, Grateful Pies and Other Fanciful Feasts, Ken Scholes (Fairwood Press 978-1-933846-51-4, $17.99, 272pp, tp) August 2015. [Order from Fairwood Press]

While the titles in Ken Scholes’s Psalms of Isaak sequence for Tor seem as monumental as Bach oratorios (Lamentation, Canticle, Antiphon, Requiem and the forthcoming Hymn), his col­lections have longer, more offbeat yet deliberately chosen names. In November 2008 (issue #574) I reviewed Long Walks, Last Flights, and Other Strange Journeys. Though I missed the sequel, I’m back for his third collection, Blue Yonders, Grateful Pies and Other Fanciful Feasts.

Since Scholes can adopt so many themes and voices and make them his own, this time I’ll focus on novelette ‘‘If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear’’ and novella ‘‘A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves’’ (the first a ‘‘holiday story’’ written for; the second originally an audio recording, and later part of an anthology of linked short novels).

The combination of myth and music, hope and grief in the Psalms books grows even more intense in the novelette whose title comes from the first verse of a holiday song (#475 in Hymns of the Dragon and his Avenger):

If Dragon’s Mass Eve be cold and clear

The Santaman’s grace may find us here.

But if Dragon’s Mass Eve be clouded sky

The Santaman’s grace may pass us by.

The Prelude to the Santaman Cycle (another part of the yearly rites) may sound bleak, compared to tales of the Magi and carols about the Jolly Old Elf, but it suits Melody Constance Farrelly’s task: digging her father’s grave, as she recalls past Eves where he recited the opening words: ‘‘Muscles tire. Words fail. Faith fades.’’

In this world, abstractions have become quite literal – most notably Bureaucracy, while Hope lies buried deep in half-forgotten mines. Humanity grieves, endures, and survives.

Like The Weave, ‘‘A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves’’ alternates between viewpoint characters: both of them earthly here, equally opposed to religious terrorism but approaching the task from different angles. Charity Oxfam heads an armed patrol that picks up criminals, until an old boss from her years in the military (now a female senator) sets her to find the son who vanished into a Christian sect. Preacher George Applebaum inadvertently comes into contact with followers of that cult, led by a former colleague whose faith became rabid while George’s grew more humane, unwilling to blindly accept dogma, breed fanaticism, or promote approaching End Times.

Maybe, he thought, a religion founded upon the principle of shedding blood in exchange for life was destined to breed that level of crazy. If the God you worshiped was willing to kill to make His point, why wouldn’t you be willing to do the same? He shook the thought away, foreign and frightening.

Scholes turns these elements into a suspense­ful thriller where plotlines take unexpected turns, invoking the kinds of violence we see in the daily news, but raising the stakes, in a future America that may not hold together if circumstances grow too grim.

‘‘Symmetry’’ was inspired by a character in­vented by Jay Lake, and several other tales show Lake’s influence: there are both collaborations and tributes, in a book dedicated to the friend and col­league who died much too soon.

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

Ysabeau Wilce reviews Marguerite Reed

Archangel, Marguerite Reed (Arche Press 978-1630230111, $16.00, 298pp, tp) May 2015. [Or­der from Resurrection House/Arche Press]

Though Archangel, Marguerite Reed’s debut SF novel, may begin with the warning ‘‘This is not Eden,’’ the planet Ubastis certainly seems that way to those not privileged enough to live there. Earth, exploited and exhausted by human greed, is dying. The space colonies are crowded and miser­able. To the desperate, Ubastis is the future, but in an effort to avoid mistakes made on Earth, im­migration has been curtailed until the planet can be fully studied and a resource plan implemented. This study is paid for in part by expeditions to hunt native animals led by one of the xenobiolo­gists sent to study them: Vashti Loren. Mercurial, brash, and headstrong, Vashti is the moral center of Archangel, the self-described Archangel Mi­chael of Ubastis, who will do anything necessary to protect the planet from enemies both within and without. The other scientists and colonists on Ubastis have been enhanced, genetically tinkered with to erase undesirable human traits: Vashti is a ‘‘natch,’’ a natural, and the only person on Ubastis with a license to kill, and the will to do so.

That is until Vashti’s friend, the quixotic wife of the governor of the capital of Ubastis, smuggles a Beast – a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a cre­ated super soldier – down to the planet’s surface. Contraband and considered non-human, the Beast inspires horror and loathing in Vashti. Years be­fore, a different rogue Beast murdered her beloved husband, the father of her daughter. First deter­mined to kill the Beast, Vashti soon finds herself forced into an uneasy alliance with the renegade soldier, who hopes that he and his brothers Beasts, outlawed in the Commonwealth, can find a haven on Ubastis. Their common enemy: those who see Ubastis only as a commodity to be exploited. Ev­ery ten years a popular vote is held to determine if Ubastis will be opened for immigration. A new vote is coming up and the clamor for colonization is growing louder and louder, but Vashti is not go­ing to let Ubastis be exploited without a fight.

Archangel contains all the requisite trappings of SF: space travel, an alien planet, augmented humans, and exofauna, but it uses those trappings elegantly, as elements of the story, not the story itself. There’s a certain sameness to much science fictional worldbuilding, but there is no sameness here. Reed has created a world brimming with luscious detail, described in precise, yet lyrical, writing. She puts as much thought into the human habitat of Ubastis as into its exobiology, outlining a community based in the responsibility of citi­zenhood and cooperation, rooted in Middle East­ern and Southeast Asian culture. A scene in which Vashti and her big game clients toast their hunt with glasses of rare olive oil, too valuable to be used for anything other than medicine or a luxury libation, is just one example of the worldbuilding that Reed does so well. Archangel is full of such delightful flourishes. Vashti herself is a fascinating character; equally at home shooting a high-pow­ered rifle at a charging Skeggoxus cyanus as she is changing the pee-soaked bedding of a three-year-old. She is both hunter and mother, killer and giver of life, as independent as her biblical namesake. Pleasingly, Vashti’s motherhood is not a mere plot point, but an integral part of her character; her interactions with her daughter show a private tenderness that her public persona dares not dis­play. Against the backdrop of interplanetary skull­duggery, the relationship between Vashti and the Beast quickly evolves into the familiar trope of a romance: she hates him for what he is; he loved her the moment he first saw her; and her antipa­thy masks a longing for connection. At times the plot deviates from political intrigue to follow the strictures of a romance novel. To make too much of this is to risk selling Archangel short. It is not a romance in space, but rather a thoughtful explora­tion into colonization, humanity, survival, desire, and responsibility, with a romantic element woven in. But the romantic element is there, and because the book is as much about Vashti – the narrator – as it is about Ubastis, this romantic element looms large and must be noted.

Archangel packs a lot into 300 pages. Its deep­est flaw lies in that very complexity. There are so many ideas, so much happening, and so many de­tails that the reader can easily be flooded. The im­plications of dramatic events are not always fully explored. One plot reveal in particular seemed much too serious to be tossed away so quickly – but better to have too much than not enough; all of these edges can be smoothed away as the se­ries continues. Happily, Archangel does not stand alone. The book ends upon the edge of revolution. The upcoming Legion will continue Ubastis – and Vashti’s – story, and, undoubtedly, cement Mar­guerite Reed’s position as a writer to watch out for.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews William R. Forstchen

One Year After, by William R. Forstchen (Forge 978-0-7653-7670-1, $25.99, 304pp, hardcover) September 2015

In my review of this novel’s predecessor, One Second After, I said, “Remorselessly, brutally deracinating, incontestable in its precise extrapolations, this leering skull of a novel exists as far from such ‘cozy catastrophes’ as The Day of the Triffids (1951) as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006).” But will such evaluations still apply to the new book, which finds our nation on the road to recovery—specifically, the hamlet of Black Mountain, North Carolina, where our hero, Professor John Matherson, and his family have survived the devastation resulting from an EMP strike that led to the death of eighty percent of the USA’s citizens? Surely, matters in the resurgent ruins must now look less bleak, resulting in a “happier” book?

Well, let’s find out!

Indeed, when we open on Day 730 after the attack, it seems as if a precarious stability is in place, with food and medical care of a barely sufficient nature now reliable. There are still nightly watches and barricaded roads, but the onslaught from roving crazies and pillagers has died down. Matherson is running the town as best he knows how, with much help from several ornery lieutenants, and his wife Makala, nurse turned doctor by necessity. But then two things precipitate a chaos that will engulf the town over the next three weeks. (The compact timeframe of this tale stands in contrast to the extended duration of the events in the first book.) Matherson tangles with some local “reivers” led by one Forrest Burnett, forming a reluctant alliance that will embroil him with the folks in nearby Asheville. There, a delegation from what bills itself as the revived Federal government has arrived, and they are about to dictate some harsh terms to Black Mountain for reentry to the Union.

It would be unconscionable of me to lay out the rest of the plot. Suffice it to say that there is an equal and satisfying amount of four threads.

There is lots of attention paid to the technicalities of how one actually rebuilds civilization from the detritus. “Anderson Auditorium was now a thunderous, smoke-filled workshop of wood-fired kilns, a foundry, wire works, and lathes powered by a somewhat gasping old VW engine…” Forstchen’s practical engineering side emerges here with utter believability.

Second, we get solid dramatization of politics and diplomacy, contemplating how a polity can engage with rivals and allies, what the civic duties of any individual are.

Third, we see all the personal ethical and emotional and utilitarian issues Matherson must face, from putting his own daughter into peril to treatment of prisoners, from handling contentious rivals to triage of wounded. And of course, there is also much thought given to what constitutes the soul of America and any responsible nation. Here, patriotism is the first refuge of the battered.

Lastly, of course, there is a huge but not disproportionate amount of vivid, pulse-pounding warfare, as Black Mountain ultimately is forced to tangle with the Feds in Asheville.

Forstchen’s braiding of these four chords is deft and exciting and symphonic. In the midst of battle, Matherson has a moment to contemplate his daughter’s condition. In the midst of a community pig roast, he is formulating strategy. The organic feel of the story replicates the blended nature of real life, where at any one moment we are all juggling a dozen different issues.

This novel does have a different ambiance to it, however, than the first one, somehow less urgent or imperative—which is not to say the stakes are not high and mortal. Black Mountain and all its population could indeed be wiped from the map. But in One Second After, life was more primitive, more hardscrabble and primeval, and sheer survival was always in doubt. Here, we are encountering the more sophisticated dilemmas of a civilization that is not fighting strictly for water and food. Also, the first book had something of a linear incontestability about it. Given Forstchen’s precipitating crisis, the reader could say, “Yes, yes, this is just what would happen next.” But the arrival of the Feds and the problems they represent, while utterly believable and meticulously naturalistic and logical, still has a feeling of just one possible path away from the inevitability of the first book. It was not a given, the only way forward, and not even the most predictable. We could imagine other scenarios, and thus this one is—well, not arbitrary, but selective. However, once you accede to Forstchen’s choices, you never look back and doubt him.

It’s interesting to contrast this series with S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse saga. The latter seems to be moving in a kind of Society for Creative Anachronism direction, whereas Forstchen is much less lyrical, more hard-nosed. Of course, both approaches have their different rewards, and Forstchen certainly wrings every bit of drama and suspense and emotion from his special premises, producing a novel at once heartfelt and clear-eyed, patriotic and dissenting.

Before leaving Forstchen’s nightmarish yet not unhopeful vision of the day after tomorrow, and remaining on this theme, I think we should all schedule a repeat performance (or initial performance, if you’re a newbie) of the cinematic masterpiece by H. G. Wells, William Cameron Menzies and Alexander Korda, Things to Come (1936). Not only would such a viewing remind us that there have been similar times in the past when the future looked grim and barren, but it would also reawaken us to the great role that SF has played in holding our hands, soothing us and guiding us wisely through such minefields in the past. And the ultimate transcendent ending of Things to Come might inspire us to imagine similar upbeat forecasts for our own desperate scenarios.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-October

A miscellaneous group of zines this time, several with quarterly or irregular schedules.

Publications Reviewed

Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2015

The stories here this time are mostly fantasy, although some show initial signs of science-fictionality.

“Rites of Passage” by Julia August

A sequel to previous work featuring a potent but naive pseudo-Hellenic witch with the prosaic name of Ann. Here, Ann has to wait til the second act to come onstage, while the first scene is occupied with an ambitious warlord intent on conquering all the desert tribes. Takeleyel seeks advice from a sort of ifrit who advises her to make a new war drum out of a dragon’s hide. She believes the foreign witch will help her kill the dragon.

I like this one rather more than the previous story, largely because this setting is a more credible secondary world, not an obviously-renamed historical place and people, such as “Dorikan” for Ann. There is, however, much less sense of Ann’s latent power, which she seems to regret after the disaster in pseudo-Firenze. There’s tension between her and Takaleyel the warlord, who dominates the opening. It’s unclear at first what sort of person she is, until she tells Ann, “‘There’s one dragon left in the southern desert. It lives in the mountains not far from here. I went there once, when I was younger. It’s been there longer than anyone can remember. It likes talking to people. The kel Hàhlé say it gives them more advice than they need.’” The dragon, on the other hand, is a fine fellow, leaving Ann with the problem of fulfilling her promise to the warlord.

The series appears to be a travelogue through exotic fantastic lands, during which Ann will presumably master her power and all the ill-intentioned persons intent on exploiting it. The fantastic lands here have interest; I like the dragon and the ifrit-like being, and what we see of Takaleyel’s people suggests they’re interesting as well.

“Dance of the Splintered Hands” by Henry Szabranski

A future fantasy world in which orbiting satellites have the power of gods, ruling the world and occasionally warring with one another. Many of their functions are performed by “hands”, remote-controlled robotic entities that sometimes take the form of human hands but more often functional shapes. Razay discovers a nest of hands has emerged near his village and are busily engaged on a construction project.

Strands of glassy material formed the outer skin of the dome, an open lattice of hexagonal sections. Basket-like frames meshed within each other, offset, obscuring the interior. The scale of the building was immense. Even at this distance, perhaps a mile away, I could see spider-like shapes crawling over its surface.

Coming closer to it, he and the village’s veteran soldier discover that these hands bear the mark of no god; they’re rogues, and the ruling gods will certainly obliterate them. But Razay is certain that his lover Katia is inside the dome and needs him to save her before disaster smites.

The gods/hands make for a promising premise that deserves a bit more than a love story.

“Alviss the Dwarf” by David A Hewitt

Retold Norse myth, the poem Alvissmal, here as narrated by Loki. Good, though familiar, use of this material, but it doesn’t deviate from the original.

“There are Rules” by William Stiteler

While readers might assume at first that this one is science fiction, given that it’s set on an alien world and people are using online data readers, in fact it’s a world haunted by arcane perils, any of which might kill the unwary. There are rules that generally guarantee survival if followed scrupulously, but these are only discovered through trial and error. Davyd Grimshaw failed to master the rules, but he turns out to be skilled at managing a couple of rather hapless, though talented, young savants.

Humor, in unusual circumstances.

“To Claim a Piece of Sky” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

A brutal war is underway, employing genetically-engineered weapons among other nastiness. Sybil is one such weapon, bred in a lab, the only survivor of her batch. She’s a protean creature, capable of assuming many different forms, but it’s not clear what exactly she does in the war, aside from tracking down certain enemies and traitors. She hates what she’s made to do and witness, being in fact a person who needs affection, clinging to small scraps of comfort like a sky-blue piece of cloth from a residence they burned, but there seems to be no way out. Tracking down others who tried to find a way out is her specialty.

The longest and most interesting piece in the issue, and the only one unequivocally science fiction, but the author goes rather overboard piling gratuitous cruelties onto Sybil, and in the prose:

A rotary fan gnashed teeth in the ceiling, sucking the green mist of Interval away into some distant chamber. The room shuddered from the precipice of unreality into life again. Feeling returned to the borders of the body on needled feet. Color heaved itself across the room, army-issue green seeping into the cave of blankets pressed against her cheek.

Because our point of view is Sybil’s, we know next to nothing about the war or the politics behind it. Nor do we find an explanation for such oddities as Sybil’s guards, who all seem to be wearing impractical, unmilitary shoes with stiletto heels. This probably means something, but we aren’t told what.

Apex Magazine, October 2015

More changes at this online zine, as the material in each monthly issue will now be divided and posted on a weekly basis. According to the editorial, the four original stories here share a theme of “protection”, which is at least true of the Martine story. It’s not an impressive lot.

“When the Fall Is All That’s Left” by Arkady Martine

Pursued by enemies unknown to the readers, Iris and her ship Gabriele evade them by flying though a star, which is a mixed success, as radiation and heat have been fatal in different ways to both, although Gabriele still has her propulsion. They now have only minutes before Iris dies and leaves Gabriele “without telemetry and watching over your corpse while my orbit degrades”. The two were friends before Gabriele was chosen to be a shipmind, and their time together in space has only strengthened their bond.

I’m dubious about the premise regarding Gabriele, as well as the opening line in which “gravity had ended”. Newton’s law hasn’t been repealed, it’s only that Gabriele’s artificial gravity is no longer functional, but the line is misleading, and I doubt that a scientist, as Gabriele used to be, would make such a mistake.

“All Things to All People” by D K Thompson

The narrator here suffers under an odd sort of curse that requires him to help people—whatever they need, not necessarily protection. After each helpful encounter, a new tattoo appears on his skin; when there is no more room for another, the accumulated ink will kill him. The very short piece ends ambiguously—unfulfillingly so.

“Super Duper Fly” by Maurice Broaddus

Satire. The central character comes to us from The Council of Negro Stereotypes. The other Stereotypes [The Tom, The Mammy, etc] aren’t happy with The Magical Negro, who’s been stepping outside the limits of his role. They warn him, “Know your place.”

Just in case readers don’t Get It, the author opens with an essay on the history and uses of the trope. As humor, it’s pretty obvious, even without the essay. Although, interestingly, the text engages in some metafictional self-criticism on this account, as the Stereotypes point out that the Magical Negro’s various character names are overly obvious, and the plot elements unconnected.

“Me and Jasper, Down by the Meth Shack” by Aaron Saylor

Redneck horror. Jasper calls the narrator Boo, and the two of them are armed and waiting for that scumbag Pookie by the meth shack.

He ain’t somebody you much care to have for a visit. He’s short and wirey, with jail tattoos all over both arms. Least he calls ‘em tattoos, but really they’re just half-assed scrawlins of knives and barbed wire and lady cartoon characters with their titties flopped out. His long hair mostly covers his face, and even though you can’t see his eyes, you still know they’re rheumy and half glazed over, barely able to look straight ahead, much less right at you.

Boo thinks we can’t figure out why they’re there, but it’s not all that hard.

This is classic horror, with the most individual aspect being the backwoods color and voice. I’d call it revenge as much as protection.

Unlikely Story, October 2015

Of all the publications I regularly follow, this ezine usually fills me with heightened anticipation when a new issue comes out. This time, it’s under the title The Journal of Unlikely Academia, a subject matter particularly attractive to me, with eight stories, all of full length and generally high quality. So what’s the problem? The Unlikelyzine seems to have lost much of its distinctive flavor, the unique, audacious weirdness epitomized in the very notion of devoting a whole publication to bug stories—to strange, fabulist bug stories at that. The stories here are more conventional, following the usual conventions of contemporary speculative fiction. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover most of them in any of today’s online venues. Where’s all the weirdness going? The uniqueness?

“Follow Me Down” by Nicolette Barischoff

Ramona was a student midwife in the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics when Kora, fathered by an incubus, was born in traumatic circumstances.

The woman’s back formed a perfect arch of terror and pain with every contraction, as she pulled away instead of pushed. And every time a contraction left her, she fell back to trying to wriggle out of the bed — as though she could leave behind the thing emerging from her body — making lakes of inky amniotic fluid on the floor as she collapsed, and was dragged back.

Unsurprisingly, but to her annoyance, the newborn demonic spawn imprinted on Ramona. Years later, she has classes to teach, grant proposals to write, a career to get off the ground, where it seems to be spending too much time, given that she’s still a TA. She doesn’t need a seven-year-old fiendish distraction who steals pages out of books in the library’s collection.

The name of the college is well in the unlikely tradition, given that it seems to have a plague of demi-divine hybrids on its hands. But the primary story is Ramona’s, who badly wants to carve out a career of her own. I can sympathize with her, indeed I have to wonder if a male student would be so quickly relegated to the status of nanny. But the story concludes with it all for the best, and Ramona achieving self-realization in her assigned role.

“Minotaur: An Analysis of the Species” by Sean Robinson

Results of a survey, the subject in this case being a species, not a singular being.

Though the socio-economic, racial, and geographic origins may be varied and are, according to the study conducted, as varied as the variables at play, in the end, like the modern cuckoo, the minotaur is a brood parasite (possibly symbiote) and is, in the end, always raised by something entirely foreign to its native parents’ species.

Good to see some pseudo-scholarship in this issue. What I find most interesting here is the variety of labyrinths, especially the one in the stacks of a university library. Indeed, there’s a strong unlikely-library subtheme going on in the issue.

“The Librarian’s Dilemma” by E Saxey

Jas is a mere lowly technician, currently assigned to venerable St Simons to update the catalogue system of the Harrod Collection, but his ambition is to be a real librarian. He sees his advanced techniques as a way to reconcile the eternal conflict in the heart of a librarian: “the desire to preserve a text, and the desire to make it available.” The Collection’s librarian, however, is entirely in the service of preservation—indeed, of restriction.

I will invest in any technology that means I know where my books are.” Tapping her desktop with a bloodless fingernail. “And which means they cannot be destroyed. Anything that makes it harder to steal them, to photograph them, to gain access to them without my knowledge — I want that.”

Of course the Collection is an unlikely library, and the librarian does have her reasons, as we eventually learn. But this is Jas’s story, and he’s an engaging, naive character. Not only does he learn the library’s reasons, he learns his own.

I’m particularly fond of the cataloging and scanning techniques Jas employs, which seem quite likely indeed.

“The Dauphin’s Metaphysics” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Unlikely philosophy. The Dauphin Jisun Fei suffers from a hereditary disease that is claiming his mother and complicating the matter of the succession to the throne. He’s seized on a notion inspired by the lectures of Professor Fu Hao on the theories of mind and identity, that it would be possible to transfer his own mind to a new body that could inherit the kingdom and prevent civil war. In this, supported by the king, he generously endows a new institute with Fu as the director, its purpose to prove whether mind replication is possible, using himself as the experimental subject. Fu, while disapproving, can hardly refuse either the project or the promotion, which would otherwise be unlikely in this sexist Academy.

The issue here is a fundamental one in philosophy, it being a basic paradox that the mind itself doesn’t know what it is. In this matter, Fu is a radical, an atheist who denies the existence of the soul and thus posits that the mind must have a material basis, leading Fei to conclude

“Memory, then, is also just a configuration of matter, right? The same configuration, the same pattern, can be transferred from one brain to another. The prince can possess the body of the cobbler, no miraculous soul-transfer required.”

To which Fu’s antagonist, Professor Zeng, argues

“It should be possible to produce a profusion of princes who share as much identity as any materialist can regard as worthwhile. In denying the unique Elemental identity of each individual soul, your materialism converts human individuals into ordinary, reproducible stuff — as reproducible as a metalworker’s lawn-balls. This is plainly too preposterous to tolerate.”

To me, the interesting question is: how could anyone tell if a replicant is an identical reproduction of an original? The replicant himself wouldn’t know, having no independent access to the original’s mind. The original might, but in this case he’s dead, making the project one of reincarnation, not just replication. The most this experiment could produce would be a replicant who appears, to external observers, to remember the same events as the original. This, however, is apparently considered sufficient for the purpose of succession to the throne, even for those such as Fu who acknowledge it as an open deception.

The piece is not only philosophy, it’s clearly science fiction, a subject with which the author is familiar, citing such familiar tropes as mind/memory downloads and brain transplants. But here he’s chosen a less-advanced setting, in which the primary means of transmitting memories is hypnosis. As long as he lives, Fei meticulously documents every thought, every event of his life to be transferred into the supposedly blank and plastic mind of a newborn child. The process makes me wonder if the author is familiar with Cyteen, which employs much the same method, using more advanced technology and cloned bodies.

One unexpected element here is Fei’s growing love for Fu Hao. The story, in fact, is always Fu’s. We follow her from the genesis of the project, through the alteration of her views, to her final resolution—with glimpses back to the person she once was before becoming to the Academy to upset the place. It becomes one of the few cases where I don’t have to ask the question: to whom is the narrator telling this tale? We already know the answer. Fu is a strong character, and I like her essential skepticism, tempered with undogmatic pragmatism.

Speculative fiction and philosophy have more in common than many people might suppose, largely because contemporary philosophy isn’t widely known. Issues of mind, identity and memory [the notion of the brain in the vat, for example] have long been shared by both disciplines [if we can consider SF to be disciplined]. I’m quite happy to have found this story here.


“Soteriology and Stephen Greenwood” by Julia August

Now this is the sort of way-out-there piece that I look forward to seeing in the unlikely venue. We have imaginary Latin texts, palimpsests even, an actual lost manuscript by Cicero, and a newly-imagined arcane discipline [soter being the Greek for “savior”]. It’s even a hyperfiction, studded with links that readers may wish they could follow. It’s an epistolary text, told largely in a succession of emails, the form that epistles these days generally take.

Greenwood is a distinguished medievalist, an expert in the manuscript known as the Codex Lucis, written by the 9th century Saint Lucia Lucilla, of which one section, known as the Prophecy, has long been missing. Out of nowhere comes an email from a woman named Cara Falco, saying she has come into possession of a fragment of the Prophecy and wishing his aid with the translation. Greenwood agrees, in exchange for permission to publish the fragment, which brings him considerable fame and controversy among his dubious and jealous peers.

. . . there is no evidence that the fragment was illegally acquired, but no one so far has offered any proof that it was obtained through legal and transparent channels either. It is incumbent on Dr. Greenwood to rectify this situation as soon as possible. Ownership, provenance and object history all need to be clarified, preferably with full documentation on all counts.

In the meantime, barely noticed while the academic frenzy is underway, Cara continues with her own mission, which results in no fame whatsoever, as is intended by her covert group, busy robbing museums.

What I love about this one is the completeness of it, the authenticity of the details: listserves and journals that really ought to exist, academic disputes over a Latin translation, and of course the backbiting that always accompanies such controversies. Oh, and the humor.


“And Other Definitions of Family” by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Definitely unlikely but not really academic. May was trained as a xeno-anthropologist, but she discovered she could make a lot more money hiring out for sex work with the various aliens on Nueva Nova station. What she doesn’t expect is the alien male who wants her to carry his offspring in her womb, now that his mate has died. But the money is good, and she stands to learn a great deal about the reproduction of this species, and its related customs. If she survives. The Bitocktee reproductive customs tend to be lethal.

The third week, civility wore thin. Red2 reverted to the Bitocktee standard of rudeness to other life-forms. The alien inside May moved frequently, with flutterings and hard thumps that sometimes caused sharp pain. She tried not to imagine the wings and talons inside her, and failed.

Light skiffy stuff with a humorous bent.

“Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat” by Pear Nuallak

Art school, not really academia, nor very unlikely. Pensri has earned a scholarship there, first in the family to achieve higher education, with the concomitant duty not to let everyone down by failing. All the signs suggest Pensri has talent, but the tutors at the school are critical—one in particular.

They saw the mark and instantly felt ashamed. Dry-mouthed with shock, Pensri read the tutor’s comments and felt sure nothing would be right again. They’d failed their mother, sisters, aunties, and cousins. The rice crop would instantly wither, disappointed. The water buffalo in the family herd would snort in disgust upon hearing the news.

Typically in such stories, the overcritical teacher turns out to be a figure of wisdom and benevolence, the criticism actually to the student’s benefit. That’s not what’s going on here, however. The apparently hostile, prejudiced tutor turns out to be an actual hostile, prejudiced, racist, colonialist tutor, described by Pensri as having “mousy centre-parted hair, how it opened onto a face which resembled a stretch of clean, raw pork rind.” Which may exhibit some hostility and prejudice on Pensri’s part.

The setting is important in understanding this work. It appears to be a fantasy version of Thailand where mythical figures are more present than they seem to be in our own world, and may take different forms. Pensri’s work draws on this Jamathewi mythic material, especially the angelic thewada, which Pensri portrays as androgynous—in large part a matter of identification. The tutor Miss Emily objects to such a portrayal as “poor grasp of ideas resulting in imbalanced, inauthentic response.” Not coincidentally, Miss Emily is of foreign origin, and her Angrit family founded the school; she has strong notions that the Jamathewi native people are prone to be childishly wayward—a racial trait that she intends to stamp out in her students. In short, she epitomizes the wrongs of colonialism. Students attend the school because of its prestige, but everyone seems to despise Miss Emily.

Pensri is a complex central character—sometimes strong and confident, as when negotiating the fee for a commission, at other times diffident and insecure. But the story’s positive outcome owes a lot to divine intervention. The problem is the weight of Agenda that directs events, in which we know what side the angels will take—the side with which the author identifies.

“The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye” by Rose Lemberg

Definitely academic but not really unlikely. Warda is fortunate. Although she’s knows they whisper about her as a “diversity hire” she manages to achieve tenure while many of her cohort are stuck in the eternal adjunct track. Warda likes teaching, is good at it, but the senior faculty keep saying, “Publish, publish.” And tuition is always rising, while the administration rants about increasing the enrollment—”enrollments are dollars.” They warn her not to allow students to audit without paying tuition, but she can’t bring herself to turn them away, and gradually her classes fill with unenrolled ghost students, their bodies blurring at the edges, becoming transparent.

She knows she is teaching too many courses again this spring, that she won’t have time to write; she knows it’s not right to abandon her scholarship, that it’s the answer that’s always, always given by those who care, which is why those who care are so rarely in power.

Other than the ghosting of the students, an effective metaphor, there’s little that’s speculative here, let alone unlikely. Only depressing, because of the truth in it.

On Spec, Spring 2015

A special 100th anniversary issue with a “punk” theme, delayed owing to circumstances. This isn’t wholly unfortunate, as several of the five stories here turn out to have a dark sensibility quite suited to the late October reading season.

“Roundheels” by Carrie Naughton

Tracy plays with her band in bars, goes to bed with the customers, likes booze, cigarettes and [ptooi!] Cheeze-Its, and doesn’t apologize of any of it. Also, she doesn’t take any shit from ghosts.

“Hi there,” Tracy said to the guy, who towered over her by a foot, and who smelled like the grave.

I like Tracy. And while urban fantasy isn’t much my thing, more of this sort could change my mind.

“Serenade on Lake Ontario” by Mike Rimar

Alternate history. During US Prohibition, Tony had done well shipping whiskey to Chicago, but things have changed now that the Nazis have taken over Canada and started arresting the Jews, including Tony’s wife. Now he’s using his smuggling talents to ship uranium south, where the US is making some kind of secret weapon. Trouble is, there’s a rat in his organization.

I’m not buying the AH premise, but the main thing here is the action and the period flavor.

Reaching under the bench seat, Tony found the lever he’d been looking for and yanked hard. The trunk lid flipped over back-to-front providing a protective shield. Bullets pinged harmlessly off the reinforced metal skin as Tony, kneeling on the leather seat, reach down into the trunk and pulled. A gun mount arose easily on well-oiled accordion joints and locked into place.

“Relocation” by Rich Larson

Urban fantasy again. Faeries aren’t integrated totally smoothly into human society, and from time to time they still swap human babies for changelings.

“But it’s an ingrained behavior, like migrating birds, and every so often the poor little buggers just can’t help themselves. Especially around solstice.”

Dominique works for the agency tasked with retrieving and relocating the babies. She’s a kind of a rogue in the organization, and she’s not really happy with her temporary [she hopes] new partner, all-too-strict with the dress code.

Essentially, this is a standard veteran cop/new partner story, with satisfying action and a not quite unexpected twist.

“The Secret Dragon of Imperial Power” by Claude Lalumière

Part of a series by the author featuring the fictitious Mediterranean city Venera, for which I read Venice. There’s a definite steamy flavor to this, with technology far in advance of our own 16th century, including, of course, airships, as well as hovercars and autopigeons for sending covert messages. These are employed by our narrator, Karim Khalil, a Veneran agent of Turkish origin now spying out Ming dynasty China during the reign of the decadent Zhengde Emperor.

There’s a certain amount of reality in the historical background. This emperor was indeed feckless, spendthrift, and irresponsible; he was indeed threatened by numerous rebellions and assassination attempts. But the author portrays this milieu as a wuxia cartoon that makes a mockery of the history.

“Shriek Season” by Wes Smiderle

Not spooks but winds, in a future when the world’s population is plagued by storms and other sorts of afflictions undoubtedly caused by global climate change. Those who can afford it live in magnetic houses that can be flown away to safety ahead of an approaching front.

As my older brother Iffy used to say, when bad weather hits, there isn’t much you can do except shed weight, uproot and float your mag-rez the hell out of the area lickety-split.

Teenaged Jay has a knack for knowing when bad weather is on its way, but his M and D don’t always listen. And his M and D have some odd notions about shedding weight.

This is one that rests on the edge of dark and humor, with occupational family names like Springfastener and Pigkisser, but not to the point where we can’t appreciate the dire conditions and worry about Jay, who turns out to be a bit smarter than he sounds.

Strange Horizons, October 2015

In the midst of an annual pledge drive, the zine is posting bonus offerings this month, including a story by Kelly Link. There’s a theme of the fate of children.

“Broken-winged Love” by Naru Dames Sundar

This short piece is a story in the form of a prose poem about a dragon whose egg hatches impaired. The refrain of each paragraph/verse is “I didn’t love my baby”, but of course we can see for ourselves how she does, as the title tells us.

I didn’t love my baby when I held him with my claws, sweeping west to empty aeries, leaving the taunts of other hens far behind. I found one, a pearl amidst the ocean, a strip of beach and raised rock like some dead lizard of old. Here my child danced, free from comparisons. Here lay I, sundered from the sky, ever watchful of my growing gold-eyed boy.

“Let’s Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children” by Margaret Ronald

A reimagining of Lilith, immortal, unlike her ex and replacement but also, apparently and despite legend, eternally barren. Lilith has no high opinion of the legends concerning her, but then it’s been quite a while, and truth degrades. The legends seem to be silent on the subject of her abducting children, and it’s also been quite a while, “not in decades, nearly a century, maybe more.” But these days she can’t avoid the news and all the stories of lost, murdered children, and they’re likely to set her off again.

Lot of echoes here, such as the legend of La Llorona and other figures of women who’ve lost or been denied children. But I also think Lilith is exhibiting the symptoms of an addict, constantly haunted by the urge to relapse. Like many addicts, she’s lying to herself.

“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link

The story is Anat’s, told in a voice with the brevity and simplicity of sentences that usually designates the point of view of a young child. As is often the case with a young child, Anat isn’t entirely sure what’s going on in her life, but she’s fairly confident that everything will be revealed at the proper time, when she’s old enough. While she waits, while she plays games with her caretaker brother Oscar, readers try to figure out what the situation really is. It would seem that Anat and Oscar live alone [except for the vampires and drones] in a habitat orbiting a uninhabited world they call Home. Their parents have left Anat in Oscar’s charge, but eventually they will return and everything will be fine. In this sort of story, we tend to make assumptions; we tend to assume, for example, that Anat is a human girlchild. But assumptions can be misleading, and that’s the kind of story this is, in which we have to pick out the correct path through the field of strewn evidence that points, especially at first, in a direction meant to mislead.

Among the various themes the story is exploring, one is sentiment—emotional attachment—as announced by the opening lines: “If there’s one thing Anat knows, it’s this. She loves Oscar her brother, and her brother Oscar loves her.” But it’s the child Anat saying this. Perhaps things will change. Perhaps things aren’t quite as they seem. From time to time it seems that Oscar is unhappy. Perhaps he worries that their parents may never return as promised. Perhaps he resents being left alone to raise a younger sibling. Anat seems to be concerned about these possibilities, concerned for her brother’s sake, because she loves him. But perhaps things will change, and then, what will happen to love?

Intriguing possibilities here. The story presents the sort of revelation that requires readers to look with new eyes at what characters have said and done, after things change. But the author has prepared us for it, just as the characters have been prepared.

“Artemis, with Wildflowers” by Ani King

A very short piece reflecting on the myth of the hunters Orion and Artemis, and jealousy. There were a lot of variations on the story even back in the day, but the most common denominator of such tales was jealousy of humans who dared to challenge the gods or attempt to rise to their level or aspire to their sister’s virginity. In fact, they didn’t need an excuse.

The story makes this point, suggesting that whatever course events might take, in any setting or circumstance, the outcome would be the same. It’s unusual in shifting to different colors in the text, primarily for emphasis and point of view.

The substitution in some lines of a rifle for Artemis’s bow works well in universalizing the myth, but the reference to her wearing a toga is just wrong.

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

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

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

Faren Miller reviews N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit 978-0-316-22929-6, 468pp, $15.99, tp) August 2015.

N. K. Jemisin’s new novel The Fifth Season starts the Broken Earth, a series ‘‘set in a world where apocalypse is routine.’’ We see its devas­tating impact on a large continent known as The Stillness, an ironic name for land this volatile, periodically beset by Fifth Seasons where great faultlines crack, spawning volcanoes whose smoke can hide the sun for years at a time, while lava obscures most of the previous culture – leav­ing behind only a mix of rumors and ruins, in the fragments of ‘‘stonelore’’ that endure.

Rather than depict an escalating series of di­sasters where some brave survivors live beyond Great Doom (the format shared by most scripture and myth, epic F/SF and disaster novels), Jemisin scrambles narratives and viewpoints throughout the book. As early as the Prologue she defies tradition, declaring ‘‘Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with, and move on to more interesting things.’’

While this intro makes no obvious connection between the ‘‘personal’’ ending of a woman devastated by finding her young son’s ‘‘broken little body’’ in her own home, and the act (else­where) that triggers a new Fifth Season, it does acknowlege that a wound which ‘‘will scab over quickly in geological terms’’ has a deadlier effect on more transient beings, where it ‘‘will fester with not only heat but gas and gritty dark ash – enough to choke the sky.’’ But the prologue’s attention soon wanders to relics of earlier times: the obelisks, ‘‘huge and beautiful and a little terrifying: massive crystalline shards that hover above the clouds, rotating slowly and drifting along incomprehensible flight paths….’’ Though general opinion either ignores them or considers them ‘‘irrelevant’’ (later, a character calls one ‘‘just another deadciv leftover’’), Jemisin takes care to inform us they that ‘‘play a role in the world’s end, and thus are worthy of note.’’

After this preliminary bout of worldbuild­ing – strewing the stage with endings, wounds and relics – the next chapters establish separate but possibly connected narratives of female orogenes: wielders of the kind of ‘‘magic’’ that periodically strikes the Stillness. ‘‘You, at the end’’ returns to the woman with the dead son, and we discover that she has a stolen daughter; ‘‘Donaya, in winters past’’ looks back at a girl whose fearful mother turned her over to someone who brings her in for training in tight control; ‘‘Syenite, cut and polished’’ shows a young woman, on the eve of her first mission back in the outer world, with an accomplished male to mentor her (and perhaps sire a child). No one escapes the fear and loathing of ordinary Stills, or manipulation by Guardians.

Plots that can resemble both SF and fantasy, in quasi-epic mode, share other themes. The Fifth Season is dedicated to ‘‘all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question,’’ so prejudice is foremost. As a black writer, world-builder, and activist, Jemisin doesn’t link hatred directly to color in this far-future world where humans and transhumans all come in a range of skin tones. Nonetheless, our own troubles seem to echo in the most loathed word for an orogene, ‘‘rogga’’ (damningly like a derogatory term for black people, sometimes known as ‘‘the N-word’’). In the course of their travels, these characters witness enough horrors to prompt the act that split The Stillness – an act of doom that could last for centuries.

But the moral structures that dominated myth and legend, persisting through fairytale, fable and beyond, seem vulnerable now. Could they be mutating into different forms? Hobbs’s medievalesque fantasy and Jemisin’s somewhat more SFnal repeating apocalypse share a surpris­ing number of elements. Where Fool’s Quest involves portals, The Fifth Season has obelisks; where Quest leaves room for Fitz to question his own identity and purpose, ‘‘You’’ questions them here – each after years away from life as a kind of agent at the center of power, spent tending to a family that got broken along with their world.

Both novels (epic-length) are haunted by wounds and weirdness. Since I first encountered that spirit in poems like Eliot’s ‘‘The Waste Land’’, and songs like Dylan’s ‘‘The Gates of Eden’’, I shouldn’t call it new … unless it’s come more recently to hefty works of genre fiction, driving a few explorers far from the realms of arch-mages and Doctor Strangelove.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Tor 978-0-7653-8072-2, $25.99, 400pp, hardcover) September 2015

Next year, 2016, marks the fortieth anniversary of C. J. Cherryh’s debut with Gate of Ivrel. Her influence on many younger writers who followed her is, I think, under-acknowledged. Cherryh’s unique blend of intense, cryptic, codified alien cultures; her ofttimes febrile emotional climate; her languorous pacing and intricate dance of manners substituting for more conventional action—all these traits can be seen in many contemporary fantasy and SF novels. In toto, she has contributed a truly quirky and stylish new wing to the genre’s many mansions, while telling some unforgettable stories. I opined in this venue a while back that Norman Spinrad deserved a SFWA Grandmastership. Surely the same can be said of Cherryh.

Cherryh’s influence can be seen and felt, I think, in the debut novel from Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. There is the same sense of culture clash mediated through politesse, with deadly stakes, for one major aspect. But another tributary stream flows into the book, and those equally rich waters derive from Samuel Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series. Dickinson has taken the gender concerns of Delany, and Delany’s attention to economic/vocational matters and colonialism/imperialism, all set in a pre-technological milieu, and conflated them with some of the aforementioned Cherryh-esque literary/thematic tactics to create a truly fine and distinctively individual fantasy novel that delivers action and philosophy, economics and warfare, love and hatred, in equal measures. His voice, however originally influenced, rings out strong and clear as a new addition to the chorus of fantasists.

“Baru Comorant” is the name of our unstoppable, ingenious, lonely heroine. We see her first when she is just a small girl living a somewhat idyllic life on the benign and humble isle of Taranoke, an independent realm that has a blended feel of both our Polynesia and maybe some Caribbean and Greek islands as well. The dominant family setup there features two father/husbands and one mother/wife. Baru, only daughter, is enmeshed in the kindly, protective folds of her own quintessential domestic arrangement. But then, insidiously at first, as mere traders, come the representatives of the faraway Empire of Masks (who happen to classify polyandry and lesbian/gay relations as mortal sin). Soon Taranoke finds itself being colonized both economically and bureaucratically and ultimately, militarily. Finally, in Baru’s adolescence, her birthplace is fully under the yoke of the Empire, her family life is broken up, and she finds herself enrolled in the Empire’s educational system, akin to those classic institutions we recognize, from contemporary England and France to ancient China and imperial Rome, that have the main purpose of grooming functionaries for service to the Empire, and, secondarily, of habituating the conquered to their new overlords and cultivating their “barbaric” loyalty.

Extremely smart and talented, prized as a worthy discovery by her Machiavellian mentor, Cairdine Farrier, Baru realizes quite clearly exactly how she is being shaped for the ends of the Empire, but she resolves to take the tainted gifts of her new masters and someday utilize them to liberate Taranoke and restore it to the pristine condition of her youth. But can she become a tool of the Empire and still retain her original drive and commitment? That’s the essential quandary of the book, and of Baru’s life.

Once graduated, Baru is sent to the mainland of Aurdwynn, a land of rival duchies, in the role of—get ready for her prestigious new title—Imperial Accountant. Yes, here come the Delanyesque riffs. Baru is no warrior woman, but rather a green-eyeshade-and-cuff-garters toiler over ledgers and agricultural futures, the truly important vectors of Empire. “Follow the money!” becomes her battle cry. The book could have easily stalled dead at this point—I am reminded of the parody of Star Wars on The Simpsons, where the anguished family was subjected to a three-hour onscreen debate about interstellar tariffs—but somehow Dickinson manages to make Baru’s exploits—which involve more than a few threats to her life—into engrossing material. By the time she unleashes her secret fiscal weapon to attain her goals—which overlap those of the Empire while not being entirely congruent—the reader will be wholeheartedly rooting for Baru and her plots. In a way, given the glamour that our current culture attaches to rich bankers and hedge fund traders and their ilk, this is a perfectly logical development for the fantasy genre. Conan the Libertarian, maybe?

And, as I mentioned in a yet unpublished review of Fran Wilde’s Updraft, there exists a very potent mythic narrative template—“talented novice from outside the system joins the establishment and works to undermine and reform it without being coopted”—which Dickinson employs here to good effect.

In any case, the Imperial Accountant bits constitute only the first third of the book. The second part, “Warlord,” segues into actual combat as Baru seemingly betrays her Empire allegiances to lead the duchies against the Masquerade. But even in this section, Baru remains true to her own capacities and nature. Asked if she considers herself a military general now, she replies, “I’m not. I know money, logistics, shipping, and infrastructure. And those are the weapons…” The long campaign continues in the third installment, “Autarch,” as Baru pursues her “rebellion of shadows,” built out of “tricks of ink and paper wealth.” The conclusion to the rebellion leaves her in a highly unanticipated situation, as Dickinson masterfully inverts almost all of the reader’s expectations. A sequel seems both necessary and welcome.

Dickinson’s prose is deft and forceful. Here is just a single example of its sensual and sensory force and impactful poetic utility: “The winter smeared her in Aurdwynn, caked her in its churned mud, filled her with its guinea-fowl curries and venison and salted fish, clotted her pores with the oil and scents of cumin and wild ginger and crusted salt… She learned the different tastes of cedar and redwood smoke…”

As for his characters, they are all built to clever and deep dimensions, with fully human qualities and motives. Some of the relationships here, such as those between Tain Hu and Baru, are deeply poignant. And Dickinson can evoke physicality with even a single sentence. “How ancient and forbidding her eyes…eyes of dry bone, eyes of scurvy and desperate cold and rime on stone.”

By the end, this somewhat mannerpunk volume succeeds in building and exploring a morally treacherous world populated with exotic characters whose hearts nonetheless align with ours. Readers who have enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet or Paul Park’s Starbridge Chronicles will find much to admire here.

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.

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