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Paul Di Filippo reviews Laline Paull

Everything old is new again. Or maybe that’s just the feeling one gets when one has been a reader of science fiction contiuously for the past fifty years, as I have. (First adult SF book encountered: Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell in 1964.) Old themes, tropes, riffs and plots recirculate in endless cycles, accreting new bits and sophistications, but always revealing their essential lineaments through whatever new clothes they may don. Oh, sure, once in a blue moon some radical new conceit arises, such as the Singularity, and for a time the field is refreshed, before settling back to the familiar churn. But the essential recycling and retrofitting and reverse engineering continues generally unabated.

Now, this is not to say that there is no pleasure in the new avatars of old concepts, the reimaginings of what was once previously imagined, the fresh couture over old bones. That would be like saying that no newborn infant has any potential to amuse or enlighten, simply because there have already been born X billions of people on the planet. Yet just as every child is unique, so is every child also categorizable into broad predictible patterns of character and behavior. No shame there, just human combinatorial realities. The space of human behaviors is not infinite.

All of this preface by way of approaching Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, which imagines a sentient insect society.

In 1951 appeared L. Sprague de Camp’s Rogue Queen, the groundbreaking story of humanoid aliens whose culture and patterns of behavior resembled those of terrestrial bees. A little over twenty years later, in 1973, Frank Herbert gave us Hellstrom’s Hive, about actual humans engineering themselves along similar lines. (I’m shamelessly omitting from this lineage 1959′s cinematic marvel, The Wasp Woman.) Till now, these two excellent books seemed to have the notion pretty well covered, almost precluding further genre investigation of the topic. But I doubt that Paull, with her non-genre background, has ever heard of these novels, and so she’s felt unburdened in her foray into the theme. Good for her!

Paull’s lateral masterstroke consists in this: instead of imagining humans as insects, she’s chosen to contemplate insects as humans. Set inside a typical bee hive, her book, in the taxonomy of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, is an “Animal Fantasy,” a la Watership Down. “A pure AF is a tale which features sentient animals who almost certainly talk to one another and to other animal species, though not to humans, and who are described in terms which emphasize both their animal nature and the characteristic nature of the species to which they belong. A pure AF will almost certainly be set in the real world, and will usually teach its readers some natural history…”

After a short prologue where two humans stop to chat by a bee hive, we are dropped—invisible miniaturized observers as it were—into that hive, to witness the messy birth of Flora 717, destined by her genes to be a simple sanitation worker, but also possessing some variant attributes—size, strength, smarts—that seem to hint at a larger scope of existence. Ushered into the hive corridors by Sister Sage, one of the elite bees, Flora is given some anomalous nursery tasks for a while. But when she fails a certain test she is mindwiped and sent down to the sanitation corps. Exhibiting courage in battle against Wasps, she is for a short glorious time sent to attend the Queen Herself. Following this, she is allowed the rare privilege for her caste of becoming a Forager. All the while she nurses strange dreams, emotions and ambitions. (While Flora is unique and unusual, she is no destined savior or secret princess in her own right, but has a different, equally vital role to play; this lack of personal, self-aggrandizing High Destiny is refreshing.)

Paull’s accomplishments here are truly myriad and impressive. In no particular order, I would enumerate them thus.

She perfectly walks the line between alienness and humanity. Her bees are at once truly the creatures that they are, and yet also full of familiar human emotions and capabilities. One minute Flora will be on a blossom, unrolling her tongue and storing up pollen in anatomical fidelity to her nature. The next she will be “reading” the scent-stories that are the literary and mythic heritage of the hive and experiencing numinous aesthetic epiphanies. Such a blending of human and non-human attributes might appear parodic or silly in lesser hands, but Paull brings it off brilliantly.

Her prose is a marvel of precision and grace and poetry as well, and above all, sensual. “Her mouth was dry and the base of her tongue felt tight. She wanted a shining drop of water from the cool green groove of a leaf. She wanted the soft velvet slide of petals on her body…” The Falstaffian dialogue of the Drones is just perfect, and in fact the whole drama has a Shakespearean air about it, right down to the fate of the Queen. Paull’s descriptions of nature are vivid and Thoreauvian, or perhaps cousin to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Consider, for instance, the moment when Flora is caught outside in the rain, in Chapter Twenty-two. The narrative is intimately and intricately bound up in weather and the seasons.

What to compare this volume to? Besides joining the ranks of other great Animal Fantasies such as those of Richard Adams and Garry Kilworth, it summons up comparisons to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin and Jeff Ford’s “The Annals of Eelin-Ok.” There’s a trace of Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit order in the lives of the bees, especially when it comes to literally sharing personality simulacra from bee to bee.

What I would not choose to compare it to is any dystopia, as does the reductionist and generally blinkered Publishers Weekly review. Dystopias depict evil, dysfunctional societies organized to benefit an elite and stomp down everyone else. There’s always something a bit arbitrary about dystopias, an artificiality not seen here. The term does not apply to societies that simply exhibit a more stringent and strict set of rules than the United States. Is Saudia Arabia a dystopia? Is Indonesia? I think not, unless we wish to devalue the term entirely. Nor is this the nature of the hive, which is a logical and functional adaptation to genetics and the environment. The bees function as evolution built them to function. No one is pampered, although some existences might seem easier than others. But is the captive egg-assembly-line Queen really privileged, or are the Drones who are subject to Maenad-like slaughter? Is an internal combustion engine a dystopia, because the pistons bear more pressure than the fan belt?

What the hive represents is nothing more nor less than the eternal background of rules and customs against which a strong-willed individual must timelessly rebel. Consider Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be the ultimate template.

What Laline Paull has accomplished here is multivalent: a rumination on nature; a portrait of the struggle between individual and the stifling matrix of society; and a depiction of how humanity might organize itself along different lines. I’d call it, in the end, science fiction at its best.

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 Lauren Owen

Early in Lauren Owen’s first novel The Quick, library scenes help establish the narrative tone. Evidently splendid tomes, ‘‘delicious-smelling volumes,’’ line the shelves of Owen’s library, but by the last years of the 19th century it stands largely forgotten in a decaying Yorkshire estate with neglected grounds and ‘‘owls in the nursery,’’ until a pair of curious children – James and Charlotte – make the place their dusty treasure trove and proving ground.

After a brief excerpt from an 1890 document informs us the Aegolius ‘‘bears the dubious distinction of being the most mysterious club in London,’’ The Quick leaves the mystery hanging through most of Part One’s five chapters (nearly 100 pages) to focus on James’ story: youth in the wilds of Yorkshire, some years of education at Oxford, flight to bohemian circles in London where he tries to make himself into a poet and meets slumming aristocrats. The library where his younger self once reveled has some gothic touches, like a ‘‘priest hole’’ (not a true relic but a replica harking back to dangerous times where clergymen escaped murderous Puritans by hiding in such places), and the great city where our hero hopes to lose his innocence seems decadent enough (with denizens like Oscar Wilde), but the plot doesn’t veer into the genuinely eerie until he gets kidnapped near the end of Chapter Five. Until then, Part One reads more like Henry James describing a young American on tour in Britain. No obviously uncanny creatures, wizards, crones or fallen angels cross the traveler’s path.

With extensive excerpts from the damaged Notebooks of Augustus Mould, beginning in 1868, Part Two plunges into a dark fantastic back story where the novel finally unleashes its monsters – most, but not all, of them vampires. Along with the history of the Aegolius, we learn about antagonistic enclaves of the undead in various London neighborhoods, and the efforts of a scattering of offbeat mortals who oppose them. Though the club and its members seem to have remained almost dormant for centuries, surviving on the blood of reprobates while settling even further into their old ways, true change is now afoot. A relatively new recruit thrusts his way to the top, driven by unusual ambitions that combine a thirst for scientific knowledge with some surprisingly utopian dreams. When he recruits a tutor from his mortal childhood, human doctor and scholar Augustus Mould, to aid him in this quest, many long-standing assumptions about the differences between the Quick (obnoxious mayfly mortals) and the Dead collapse, amidst entangled subplots.

Three more Parts introduce a remarkable new cast of characters: schemers, idealists, and others (both human and nonhuman) who get swept into the escalating action against their will. When Charlotte comes to London, trying to track down her missing brother, she joins forces with this book’s rich young American tourist, perhaps the only man ever to escape the Club alive (with help from James). Figures and tropes suitable for tales of Jack the Ripper or Dracula clash with the revolutionary spirit of the times. Feral child-thieves like a gang straight out of Dickens (though one girl’s brash attitude seems closer to Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, in her days as Cockney brat) cavort through an urban Twilight Zone.

In The Quick Laurel Owen – a brand-new author with an M.A. in Victorian Literature – has produced her own mind-bending tour de force.

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 James Morrow

Most writers tend to favor either the short story or the novel in their oeuvre, although there are certainly a fair number of play-all-positions types who strike a pretty good balance between the two modes and provide the exceptions to the rule. But generally, literature breaks down into the marathoners versus the sprinters; the big-picture painters versus the vignette sketchers; the strivers for deep, slow effects versus the literary provocateurs with their short sharp shocks.

James Morrow is definitely a novel man. I think it’s fairly safe to say that his sterling reputation rests on his big, complex books like The Last Witchfinder. His bibliographical entry at ISFDB credits him with about thirty short stories in thirty years. Not exactly Ellison or Bradbury levels of production.

So it’s no surprise that his newest offering, The Madonna and the Starship, is also a novel. But what is surprising is its relative brevity, its light-hearted zip, and its rollicking comic tone, compared to the gravitas and black, piercingly satirical humor of his other books. Which is not to say that Morrow’s central theme of the role of religion in humanity’s affairs is absent. Just delivered in a madcap vehicle reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut and the film Galaxy Quest.

The year is 1953, and our hero/narrator is one Kurt Jastrow, journeyman science fiction writer who is currently earning his daily bread (prozines like Saul Silver’s Andromeda don’t pay very much, even when they do take a story) by scripting the kiddie TV show (filmed live in New York!) that is titled Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers. Like his tipoff partial namesake, the famed astronomer Robert Jastrow, Kurt is very much a believer in science and the utility of science fiction for conveying lessons and truths about mankind’s place in the universe. He tries to display this fervor in the gee-whiz popular science lesson he conducts on the air at the end of each telecast. And he must be doing a fine job, for he has attracted the attentions of an actual alien race, which has picked up the broadcasts.

The Qualimosans are a race that resembles blue lobsters mated with grasshoppers. Two of them—Volavont and Wulawand—are en route to Earth to present Kurt with an award for his logical positivism, the supremely rationalist creed they honor. All of this is conveyed unexpectedly to Kurt right over the Motorola TV set they have commandeered. Sure enough, the aliens actually arrive, appear live on NBC (taken by the audience to be expertly made-up imposters), and present Kurt with the award. But a hitch ensues: they have also tuned into another show titled Not by Bread Alone, a religious hour scripted by Kurt’s dream girl, Connie Osborne. Abominating superstition, the aliens have vowed to kill every loyal viewer of the sacred show via their own living-room television-sets-turned-death-ray-emitters. Unless, that is, Kurt and Connie can trick the Qualimosans by swiftly rejiggering the broadcast into an acceptably heretical anti-religious lampoon.

Needless to say, Morrow inserts many slapstick complications and farcical events into the rush toward saving two million TV viewers. There’s agoraphobic SF editor Saul Silver playing poker with the aliens. The scripting and rehearsal of the scandalous “The Madonna and the Starship” episode. Kurt and Connie’s tumble into bed—in the studio itself! And many other beautifully enacted wacky bits. Morrow’s story is carried on the backs of many finely sketched bit players—the bohemian crowd Kurt hangs with; the onscreen child actor Andy—and the whole milieu of Eisenhower-era NYC and the early days of TV is made palpable and vivid. I’m reminded of that other classic cinematic exercise in nostalgic hijinks, Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year.

And of course this is a meta-SF tale, insofar as it examines the roots and meaning of science fiction and the commercial milieu that supported it, in those far-off days before science fiction became the dominant and commodified entertainment mode it is today. Kurt’s wry observations about the impossibility of making a living from SF, and the unified family-style camaraderie that the genre’s isolated and sparse practioners enjoyed, all summon up a vanished era hard to credit by those living in today’s SF-saturated, fragmented landscape. As we leave Kurt, years after the incident of the Qualimosans, he has just begun to work on a little show called Star Trek, betokening the tectonic shift that would soon occur.

As for the central theme of religion versus rationality, Morrow jabs at both parties. The Qualimosans come off as secular atheist hardnoses like the worst Richard Dawkins stereotype, while the calculated pieties of Not by Bread Alone are no less objectionable. It’s a true Swiftian equality of shame—and of credit where credit is due. The charity-centric fate of the aliens points to Morrow’s real moral: deeds above words.

Like some blend of Rudy Rucker and Howard Waldrop, this latest book by the inimitable James Morrow is rife with gonzo charm and buried barbs and offbeat parables galore.

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, early June

June looks to be a very interesting month in genre short fiction, with special, guest-edited issues of some of our more prominent zines, notably F&SF and Lightspeed, the latter expanded to several times its normal length.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, July/August 2014

An issue guest-edited by C C Finlay, via electronic submission, and featuring some less usual suspects for this zine. There is no story from Albert E Cowdrey. Although the issue itself doesn’t appear to be longer, there are more stories than usual – thirteen, scrupulously divided among male and female, with the latter taking the odd slot. If that has any implication for anything.

“Palm Strike’s Last Case” by Charlie Jane Anders

Geo-engineer Luc Deveaux was planning to take a terraforming position off-planet when his only son was abducted and killed by a drug dealer. For revenge, he became a superhero [it's not clear how he obtained his powers].

The thing that keeps Palm Strike running past water tower after water tower along the cracked rooftops of Argus City, the thing that keeps him breaking heads after taking three bullets that night, is the knowledge that there are still innocents out there whose lives haven’t yet been ruined.

But when the Space Agency confirms his appointment to the mission, he decides to go. At the last minute, however, someone [like a drug dealer] sabotages his coldsleep capsule, so that by the time he is revived, the colony is dying of starvation and there are drug dealers trading addictive substances for food. Enraged, he brings Palm Strike back to life to make things right.

This one isn’t trying very hard to be realistic; the comics overtone is too strong. So it doesn’t seem quite fair to place too much emphasis on all the stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense, like the way oversimplified ecology. At the same time, however, the comics elements aren’t strong enough to make this a real superhero story, either. Neither fish nor fowl, and not as amusing as I think it’s supposed to be.

“Subduction” by Paul M Berger

Oliver seems to have amnesia along with a sort of compulsion to migrate north along the Pacific coast until he has now reached the island fishing town of Macquerie. As he walks along the beach, hoping for the return of memory, the ground underfoot is made unstable by tremors, and once he finds a dead sea monster washed onshore. It turns out that the island is being threatened by a vast fault-dragon, and only the local witch can protect it – maybe. Until Oliver shows up.

There was a brief second of silence, then the dragon burst back into the air, equally at home swimming through stone, water, or sky. As it soared, the rising sun cleared the horizon and the dragon’s great scales glistened and shone. It rippled like a banner as it stretched itself out over the strait, then plunged under again, a perfect glittering rainbow arc. The air in its trail turned solid and rained down onto the water in a bombardment of hailstones and sapphires and seashells. Fleeing gulls became meteorites and whistled straight upward into space.

Excellent adult fantasy, tapping lightly into archetype but keeping the focus on the characters who have to face primordial forces of immense power – and pay the price for it. Tying the Earth’s great fault-lines to dragons is an inspired notion, and the prose makes it a joy to read.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Traveling Salesman Solution” by David Erik Nelson

Topology, if hard science is what you want. Our nameless narrator knows about that sort of thing, being that sort of mathy IT guy. He’s also legless, and a veteran, to round him out. The problem starts out when his brother-in-law is pissed about some guy who cheated in a marathon.

Clicking back through the pics, something snagged my attention: everyone else was bedraggled and haggard, each T-shirt or singlet bearing a long dark oval of sweat from the nape of the neck to the waistband. But Kip Turner was in his stride, cool as a cucumber in his dark hat and glasses, with not a drop of sweat discoloring his pristine white T-shirt. And his left shoe was untied for the full two hours and thirty-eight minutes of his run.

In short, the guy actually wants people to notice what he’s doing. It’s a game. The narrator is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. He might have expected a working teleporter, but not a kid with an elegant mathematical solution to the Traveling Salesman problem. Which, he informs us, is essentially the same as any other NP-complete problem, the intractability of which underlies all current electronic civilization. And the kid is planning to release his code into the wild for any evildoer to find.

One of those stories where the problem is more interesting than the solution. In fact, even the narrator isn’t happy with his solution, although it comes as quite a plot twist. A good, strong narrative voice actually makes a mathematical problem interesting to this dyscalculia victim.

“The Day of the Nuptial Flight” by Sarina Dorie

A small group of humans has begun to colonize a world where the indigenous species are insectoids human-sized or larger. The colony is failing, however, because its offspring are born dead. Enter the protagonist, an apioid drone unable to mate with a queen of his own species; he sees and falls for a human woman whose pregnancy he detects as fertility. According to the imperative of his own kind, his next function is to serve as a nursemaid for her brood, so he follows her to her hive and severs his wings.

The sensation of my armor crushing my thorax, my gut tube churning, and antennae tasting every perfume in the air was too much to hold any longer. This wasn’t what I had felt for that other queen of my kind. I was sure this wanting, yearning, craving was beyond what any drone had ever felt for any queen.

Within the human colony, he is treated as a pet, but observing their habits, he soon understands why their broods have been failing and offers a solution.

My suspension of disbelief has a hard time getting off the ground here. First, the size of the insectoids; despite the fact that they aren’t terrestrial insects, I’m distracted by wondering just what anatomical variations, differences in gravity or atmosphere, make their existence possible. Then there are the almost exact analogs to terrestrial kinds – too beelike, too spiderlike, too caterpillarlike. And the term “fuzzipillar” is just too cute.

“The Aerophone” by Dinesh Rao

Dark dark fantasy. Shanker is an ichthyologist from India working in the Yucatan when he attends a party at the home of a Doctor James, apparently an expert on both the Aztecs and Mayans, with an extensive collection of artifacts that may include an obsidian mirror looted by Cortés. James informs his company that such mirrors were used to communicate with the gods. In the house’s library, Shanker finds a collection of ancient flutes, apparently used to summon the gods. One, he is told, is the Aerophone of Death. All of them are perilous, but that one in particular. So naturally, Shanker has to play it.

Shanker looked into the mirror and saw his face. He stared, unable to quit his gaze, unable to blink. With a chill, hairs uncurled on his arms and he saw his face move, parts of his face shimmering. The forehead widened, the lips stretched, and his now apparent grin grew impossibly wide. But it wasn’t his face. His face was changing in front of his eyes. He lifted his right hand to his cheek and the figure in the mirror did the same — but it wasn’t his hand: the fingers were paler and ringless. The voice kept going in his head until the transformation was complete. He saw another face reflected back, and he started shaking. The face opened its mouth and he could see its serrated teeth as it started speaking. He heard words, plopping like raindrops, filled with “tl” sounds.

Ominous things ensue.

This is supernatural horror in the classic mode, and it suffers from the classic Idiot Plot, because if Shanker hadn’t been an idiot, the story wouldn’t have happened. I’m also not clear on the way the author has used the history and mythology in the piece. The god known as the Smoking Mirror was a deity of the Aztecs, although he might have had Mayan precursors. But he appears to confuse Shanker with one of the Zoque people, whom he has blessed with an offering of fish for millennia, and now owe him a favor. Surely a god would know his own people and not mistake a stranger for them?

“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

“Key helps vampires run a concentration camp for humans.” When she was young, while humans were still resisting conquest, she helped and fell in love with a vampire named Tetsuo. It was he who got her the job of caretaker. But now he has sent for her after a case of human self-waste, i.e. suicide, at a facility that provides the highest grade of human blood.

“Three years,” he says, quietly. He doesn’t look at her. She doesn’t understand what he means, so she waits. “It takes three years for the complexity to fade. For the vitality of young blood to turn muddy and clogged with silt. Even among the new crops, only a few individuals are Gold standard. For three years, they produce the finest blood ever tasted, filled with regrets and ecstasy and dreams. And then.…”

Tetsuo had planned to turn dead Penelope into a vampire; now that she is gone, he recalls Key, whom the girl had resembled. Key had been his first choice. Once, Key would have wanted this.

I can’t recall the last time I saw a vampire story. This one is less about the vampires but their collaborators, complicated, as it often is, by love, tempered by maturity and experience. The story leaves Key in an indeterminate position. We aren’t sure whether she will turn into a vampire, or die, or revert to the human condition. But we can speculate on the way her point of view, her convictions, will or will not alter if the transformation does take place. As individual humans have their choices, so, we assume, will individual vampires. As vampire stories go, this one is light on the clichés.

“Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident” by Annalee Flower Horne

Someone set off a stink bomb on the ship where the summit was taking place. Everyone assumes that Blanchard did it, because she has done such things in the past.

The commander hadn’t been on the Stinson long enough to internalize the slanderous gossip about my reputation for alleged involvement in works of staggering comic genius. But once I logged in, I could see why she had come gunning straight for me.

The malicious code had been checked into the MECU repository from my account.

Self preservation requires discovering the real perpetrator.

Funny.

“End of the World Community College” by Sandra McDonald

The catalog, plus latest bulletins from an educational system for when times are hard – for different apocalyptic definitions.

Paper currency is useless, but the Registrar gladly accepts silver coins, diamond jewelry, gold teeth, and unexpired medicine. Fresh food, canned food, charged batteries, ammunition, livestock, and freeze-dried coffee are also welcomed with open arms. EWCC does not offer financial aid. Despite these desperate times, please do not attempt to rob the Registrar. He and his assistants carry pistols and mace at all times

The tone here slips. A faux college catalog would have been funny in one way, but the text departs from it into a mode of personal hectoring.

“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen

Sisters – a dark fantasy. Lucy and Milly spend the summers at their Aunt Vera’s place and in the water of her lake, singing together in the evenings, an idyll of proper young lady-hood, until the young man from the next farm shows up and severs their bond with his presence. “The years between us never felt big, but Mallery is like a wooden peg driven into a split pine. We are being pushed apart.” Milly, the elder and on the verge of adulthood, takes him for her own, the two of them officially an item. But at night, he meets in secret with Lucy.

This is a subtle magic, serving essentially to illuminate the eternal relationship between sisters, the bond and the rivalry, the love and the jealousy. As so often, it is a man that divides them, one sister attracted, the other hostile, sensing the impending separation, the potential for betrayal. Nicely done. It’s interesting, though, that while set in South Africa, it’s entirely within the insular colonial British South Africa, where you would hardly know what continent you were on.

“Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14–22 June, 1818, with Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis

Echoes of the Bounty expedition here, as we find the good ship Confidence being taken over by the Royal Society to gather the rare denizens of the sea bottom. One day they pulled up a hideous apparition that claimed to be a gentle lady, survivor of a pirate raid. Only Frobisher, having been deafened in an explosion during battle, was immune to her spell and could discern her true form.

The creature pulled itself upright, and with much stretching and wriggling sorted itself into a semblance of a woman, with a head, two arms, and two legs. Its head was a coil of those same tentacles, with a single milky orb in place of an eye, and before its mouth hung a curtain of hook-tipped tendrils.

Carnage ensues, and appalling horror.

Nice naval tone here. Readers will suppose this to be a siren yarn, but it takes a different tack into a more primal form of horror. What the story does not tell us is how Frobisher’s account was received by the Royal Navy officers hearing his testimony, but he is only a common seaman, taken by the press gang, with the marks of the lash on his back to attest to his unreliability. I have a feeling they failed to heed his warning.

“Five Tales of the Aqueduct” by Spencer Ellsworth

Linked fantastic and transformative tales of the California waterway through the desert, old and new tropes woven together.

Enormous and tumescent, a catfish birthed itself from the jar, beard of water trailing to the floor and soaking it. The catfish fixed him with eyes that gleamed dark and deep. The catfish’s mustache raised itself trembling into the air and traced a wet tentacular path along the map of California on the back room wall. “Canals, Pat!” he said. “They were too late to save Barsoom. Would you see California descend into that kind of anarchy? Canals! Wrap the world up like a present.”

Neat and imaginative.

–RECOMMENDED

“Belly” by Haddayr Copley-Woods

Thirteen years inside the witch’s belly. The witch can swallow anything. The narrator’s dog, her little sister. A live goat. All because she snatched a roll from her shopping cart in the grocery.

Sometimes the witch ate shit. Just so I would have to crawl around in it for days. She especially loved to eat dog or pig shit — knowing I would try to separate it from what I ate, knowing I never could — not quite.

It seems extreme, but the witch has her reasons.

Gross stuff, an original take on the material. Aside from the yuckkk factor, this is a story about survival, and retaining the essence of yourself when you do it.

“The Only Known Law” by William Alexander

Humanity, having destroyed Earth, moved into orbit and survived, where it was visited by an alien Messenger. The Messenger lives in Nicolao’s lab, and his wife Yaretzi, far more daring than he, was the first to speak to it in its own atmosphere.

“I have no home planet,” it would say, responding to questions. “Neither do you. Every technologically sophisticated species destroys its point of origin. There are no known exceptions. Everyone either perishes along with their world, or else they leave their world as it perishes behind them — and because of them. There is never a home planet to refer to or return to.”

Against his original inclination, Nicolao comes to speak a lot with the Messenger, particularly after Yaretzi becomes too busy preparing to join a colonization project on another world. The Messenger enjoys their conversation, so he omits too long to deliver the rest of his message.

A brief piece on the destiny of humanity, including a small story of love.



Lightspeed, June 2014

The Women Destroy Science Fiction! issue, guest-edited by Christie Yant.

I think I hear the 1980s calling. Back then, when projects of this sort appeared, it was generally because there seemed to be too few venues for the publication of women’s stories. Now, it seems that the problem is the publication of too many women’s stories – or so Some People apparently believe. From this issue’s editorial, I gather that Some People claim that women are destroying science fiction by producing “soft” SF that isn’t Real SF, rather like a cuckoo laying its eggs in the nests of the Real birds and turfing out the legitimate nestlings. This is an echo, to those of us who remember it, of the old claim that women were ruining the genre by producing fantasy instead of actual SF and crowding the Real Stuff off the shelves. And even earlier in time, that those hippie New Wave Humanists were crowding the Real Nutz&Bolts SF off the shelves. And so on, in infinite regression.

Like the editors of this issue, I have no patience with such claims. SF isn’t the exclusive property of any one group. It doesn’t belong by right to males, or people with slide rules in their pockets, or the lineal heirs of John W Campbell. If women are writing soft SF, it isn’t any less Real than Hard Science Fiction, and we can’t measure its value on a sclerotic scale. In my own view, what matters isn’t Hard Stuff or soft, but Good Stuff. And the recent efflorescence of Literary SF reminds me a lot of the way the New Wave revitalized the genre and raised it to a new level, so that a lot of what went before looks crude and clumsy in comparison. The same is unfortunately true of some of the fiction that claims to be Hard SF today, but relies on stale tropes and awkward execution. Things have to change and evolve if they’re going to survive, and the literature of the future perhaps more than the rest.

So here we have eleven original SF stories by female authors. There’s a variety of types and modes occupying different locations along the genre spectrum, from soft to pretty hard [but mostly on the soft side], from serious pieces to humor. A number of these were enjoyable, the humorous stories perhaps more than the rest. But except for being three times as long, this seems to be a fairly typical issue of Lightspeed. These stories aren’t going to destroy science fiction, but they aren’t going to transform it, either.

“Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire

Military SF, which is often taken to be, but is not, the same as Hard SF. A promising beginning here, as we find our nameless narrator serving in her submarine as one of the few seamen [note the term] still unmodified enough to be able to wear the traditional uniform, assuming as it does the existence of terrestrial legs and feet. The boots are a constant source of complaint. It seems there has been a bogey sighted nearby, in waters claimed by the US Navy, and she is sent with a patrol to investigate.

The formation forms without anyone saying a word, the hard-coded schooling instinct slamming into our military training and forming an instant barricade against the waiting dark. Anglers and lanterns in the middle, blues, makos, and lionfish and undecideds on the outside. The five of us who have yet to commit to a full mod look like aberrations as we hang in the water, almost human, almost helpless against the empty sea.

But alas, not before the author inserts an infodump informing us that humanity is colonizing/exploiting the sea, that the Navy insists on all-female crews. In this, the author jerks readers out of the world of her story and back to 2014 where they belong, with repeated reminders of 2014 concerns. Where the story wants to be is on the boat, with its constant conflict between the terrestrial origins of naval traditions that the brass is unable to relinquish ["seamen"], and the present, pelagic nature of its sailors, who increasingly have reason to suspect that they can’t trust the promises or motives of the authorities, that they are being exploited to serve purposes not their own. This is where the story should have remained, in its own time, and in the sea over which its nations are contending.

“A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering

Maureen is a sculptor who has won a fellowship taking her to an alien planet, one of the few achievements of a career in which her work has been considered “hopelessly banal, striving for beauty in form. She sculpts the shapes she finds in her mind, all smooth curves and edges that catch at the fingertips, demanding attention.” She is now, in transit, attempting to work, but the unexplained dead man in the corner is proving a distraction; he “decays at her in what she feels is a possibly reproachful fashion.” [I love that line.] Further difficulties arise as her automated microchip begins to break down around here, much like the dead man’s body. But Maureen rises to the challenge.

Very dark, cynical humor, lightened with wit that makes it impossible to see this as horror, despite the ooky process of decomposition. At the end, the narrative takes a turn into tragedy and pathos, explaining the presence of the dead man; I’m not sure, however, that this improves the story. It certainly takes career pressure to an extreme. Contemporary intrusions in the text are minimal.

“Cuts Both Ways” by Heather Clitheroe

Cyberwar. Spencer is flying to visit his sister’s family for Christmas, but airport security, unprofessional as ever, pulls him away to gawk at his augmentations, even though his authorizations are all in order.

. . . everybody wants to see it, to look at his scars and the ports that have to be flushed every three weeks with heparin and the smooth panels where cables can be connected. What they want to see most of all is the soft green glow from the strips of monitor LEDs along his ribs just under the skin that tell him, at a glance, that his system is functioning properly. Everybody wants a look.

The implants make Spencer a forecaster. He works in counter-intelligence [it seems that the Forever War is still going on]. But he’s starting to burn out; his body is failing. His monitors are showing amber now, not green. And he can’t stop the recall of a terrorist attack from playing in his brain.

A powerful story about the trauma of war, and the disconnect between the people who survive the cutting edge and the civilians at home, who can’t understand. The author has really shown us Spencer’s pain.

“Walking Awake” by N K Jemisin

Sadie is a caretaker for the children whose bodies will be taken for the Masters, crab-shaped parasites, to wear. She loves her charges and thinks it best to lie about the reality of what will befall them.

. . . the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36. It had spoken the truth about its skill. Ten-36 convulsed twice and threw up, but her heart never stopped and the bleeding was no worse than normal.

The children who are old enough to understand, such as the boy she calls Enri, regard this as a betrayal. But Sadie has been lied to, herself. After Enri is taken, he appears in her dreams to tell her the Masters aren’t really benevolent aliens but an artificial parasitic lifeform created by humans.

Not a particularly original premise and nothing special in the execution. I would have to say that the dream material puts it over on the fantasy side of the line.

“The Case of the Passionless Bees” by Rhonda Eikamp

Murder mystery, a Holmes story, but this is the amalgamated [robotic] Gearlock, not the human detective with which we are familiar. After an illustrious career, he has retired, but unhappy events have led him to call in his old friend Watson, as there has been a death in his conservatory, and his longtime amalgamated housekeeper Mrs Hudson now stands accused. It seems that a young woman, a possible German spy, has been stung to death by Holmes’ beloved bees.

“Miss Segalen was highly sensitive apparently. She’d said nothing about it, and her death would have been written off as a terrible and tragic accident if there had been only a single errant bee involved, rather than what one must assume was a basketful introduced into the room deliberately. And if the door had not been locked from the outside.”

Unless he can discover the true murderer, Mrs Hudson will be shut down. Ratiocination, red herrings, and false trails of evidence ensue, until the surprising conclusion. A neat twist, clever and entertaining.

“In the Image of Man” by Gabriella Stalker

If This Goes On. A future Huston where daily life is carried on within corporate malls and Wendell Weston attends St James High School in the Capital One complex. This makes it convenient for him to take out loans to buy more stuff with the credit extended to all teenagers.

Teen funds are my right, he thinks, feeling his face redden with inexplicable anger. Everyone has the right to a little bit of spending money, even if sixty dollars doesn’t buy a damn thing. Teen funds teach responsibility. They keep the mall up and running. Everyone benefits. Why would the mall do anything to hurt us.”

Satire, rather didactic.

“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” by Charlie Jane Anders

After Roger broke up with Mary, “loss was not an ache or a pang, or anything dainty. It was more like a bucket of shit that kept falling and falling on her head: itchy, ugly, humiliating.” Mary’s life, absent Roger, does seem pretty shitty, both her apartment and her job. The only thing else she seems to have are her friends, for what they’re worth. Dating is so hard, it takes so much time, it hardly seems worth the effort to get to know someone new. That’s why, her friend Stacia advises, she needs to get Roger’s memories of their relationship downloaded. No, this doesn’t make sense to Roger, and it probably won’t make sense to readers, but Stacia has an ulterior motive.

A wacky premise – have I mentioned that it makes no sense? But aside from that, a story of girlfriend relationships, which can often be more valuable than the other kind, that come from dating. Although Stacia was really pushing it and imo doesn’t deserve Mary’s kindness. There are also some interesting insights into the working of memory.

“Dim Sun” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Puns in the title! But the restaurants in this part of the universe really do serve suns in tomato sauce and black holes coated in crispity crust, which it’s dangerous to swallow. Rodney, who is always hungry, is buddies with a fearsome and lecherous restaurant critic, who often gets him into places where ordinary folks don’t have access.

The result of Bert Gold’s prodigious appetite and connections is that, all over the universe, pinned to the back walls of restaurants hoping not to re-encounter his savage tongue, there are photographs of him in the company of young lovelies.

But as chefs fear Bert, so Bert and everyone else fears his ex-wife Harriet, President of the Universe. As so they ought.

Hysterically funny stuff, highly inventive, ex-wife’s revenge in a gonzoid universe.

“The Lonely Sea in the Sky” by Amal El-Mohtar

A form of liquid diamond has been discovered on Neptune, named Lucyite [from the Beatles' song, of course], which has an unusual and valuable property: a sample, upon liquefaction, will instantaneously port itself back to its point of origin. Human scientists have based a technique of teleportation on this property, thus creating a great interest in studying Lucyite. Unfortunately, exposure to the substance sometimes produces an obsessive syndrome known as Adamancy. Leila Ghufran is a planetary geologist who has been diagnosed with the syndrome, and this resentful journal is meant by her psychologist [and former? lover] to be a form of therapy; thus it involves a certain amount of free association.

Diamond oceans on Neptune! I suppose that’s what started everything off—those early accounts of diamond oceans in the twentyteens. Determine that diamonds behave like water—that you can have diamond in liquid form that isn’t graphite, and chunks of diamond floating on it—and you have the realisation of metaphor, you have every fairy tale made flesh.

This piece comes as close as any in this issue to Hard SF, as it involves an explanation of quantum entanglement, but the author’s interest is primarily metaphorical, concerned with love and longing in a way that reminds me of Plato’s eight-limbed androgynes, severed by the gods and constantly in search of their lost other selves. The conclusion is ambiguous: either Leila is indeed insane and suffering from a delusion shared by many others, or the system of teleportation is about to break down in a drastic manner. Well-done piece.

“A Burglary, Addressed by a Young Lady” by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall

Comedy of manners. Genevieve is a young debutante in a class-bound society [Pemberley Colony, no less!] where burglary [from one's betters] is an approved and socially regulated form of courtship. Her mother’s objection to her intended target [the desirable James Yendaria] is in her insistence that their own family is by no means of lesser status, despite Genevieve’s plans.

The desired consequence would surely materialize: James and his parents, recognizing the compliment paid them in such a daring raid upon their own stronghold, would naturally pay a call upon the Tadma household to request its return.

Very silly.

“Canth” by K C Norton

The Canth is Aditi Pearce’s submersible ship, named for her mother and powered by her heart, built by them together – her inheritance, her home. Or, it was.

I am unmoored—I am ruined—my ship has mutinied and spit me out. Now she trawls without me, guides herself by some inexplicable means in search of something I cannot guess.

Now Pearce follows, determined to retake her ship, in a hired vessel, the Jerónimo, for whose crew she begins to show a bit of affection, not knowing much of other people in the world at large. But the theft has been a plot by pirates associated with her estranged father, who knew the Canth would lead him to a treasure he had long sought,

A neat setting, a charming narrative voice, an engaging story.

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

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

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

“If You Get It Wrong, You’ll Get It Right Next Time”:
A Review of Edge of Tomorrow

by Gary Westfahl

From one perspective, Edge of Tomorrow is simply the latest, and strangest, in a long series of films about D-Day, strategically released on the seventieth anniversary of the daring assault that led to the Allied victory over Germany. Again, we observe American and British forces landing on the beaches of Normandy, confronting despicable enemies, and ultimately achieving victory. Its protagonist, an inexperienced soldier who feels ill-prepared to face death, masters his craft and bonds with his diverse platoon mates in the traditional manner. But yes, there are some striking novelties in this telling of the tale: the invasion has been transplanted into the near future (the very near future, literally the “edge of tomorrow,” as one observes current French president François Hollande and current CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and Erin Burnett); the opponents are not humans but sinister aliens who have occupied the European mainland; the soldiers are wearing exoskeletons equipped with advanced weaponry; and they prevail over their foes because one soldier, William Cage (Tom Cruise), is trapped in a time loop and can thus, by repeatedly reliving and learning from his experiences, transform humanity’s initial defeat into a resounding triumph. And the film thus offers a depressing lesson about how to get young people interested in history: by tossing in some futuristic gadgetry, time travel, and computer-generated monsters.

As is usually the case with contemporary Hollywood films, a number of different individuals contributed to the construction of this singular story. Its official inspiration, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 novel All You Need Is Kill, provided the basic idea of alien invaders, called Mimics, that include a few individuals with the power to place themselves within a time loop; so, if they are defeated the first time, they can learn from their mistakes and attack again and again until they succeed. By means of contact with one Mimic, the human Cage starts going through his own time loops, and he soon teams up with another soldier, Rita (Emily Blunt), who previously had the same ability, to repeatedly land on that beach and gradually work out a strategy for defeating the aliens. Interestingly, Sakurazaka set his battle on a Japanese island being defended to keep the Mimics from invading Japan, suggesting that his aliens were intended to represent the Americans who fought their way from island to island to threaten Japan in World War II; seeking a safer target, screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth moved the story to northern France, added all the references to D-Day, and made their aliens modern-day equivalents of the Nazis. Their other key change was to eliminate the novel’s final twist, having the soldier necessarily kill Rita in order to defeat the aliens, since that would surely upset audiences and prevent the desired outcome of having Cage and Rita develop a permanent romantic relationship (a possibility that the film’s ending allows for without really developing). Director Doug Liman kept the story entertaining, rising to the special challenge of any film about a time loop – keeping audiences interested while watching essentially the same scene several times – by employing different camera angles and artful editing to alleviate the aura of repetitiveness.

Next, Tom Cruise surely inspired the reshaping of the protagonist, an ordinary soldier in the novel; but since Cruise, as I noted, must always portray an “overgrown child,” his Major Cage is a soldier with a background in advertising who specializes in public relations, not fighting. And when he unwisely threatens British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who wishes to send him into combat, he is reduced in rank to a private and assigned to enter the battle wielding equipment that he has never been trained to use. Somehow, the implausibility of a general, no matter how peeved, imposing such an arbitrary and illegal punishment is more disturbing than the dubious science (never explained) behind alien-generated time loops. But this contrivance may have seemed necessary, for how else would one explain having a fifty-two-year-old man serving as a foot soldier? Indeed, if Tom Cruise wishes to keep playing Tom Cruise, his screenplays may have to work increasingly hard to justify having an elderly man play a male ingénue’s role. Finally, one must compliment the innumerable individuals who worked on the film’s special effects, as they wisely decided that the novel’s fat, frog-like aliens were insufficiently menacing and strikingly made their Mimics resemble long, metallic vines that abruptly emerge from the ground and zoom toward their human opponents. Still, the rare alien “Alphas” that create time loops rather disappointingly look like corpulent versions of H.R. Giger’s Alien, perhaps a nod to Sakurazaka’s original vision.

The aspect of the film that all its contributors agreed upon, and the one of greatest interest to science fiction readers, is its attitude toward time loops, which have figured in a number of previous stories. In the classic time loop, individuals have certain experiences during a short period of time, are suddenly transported back in time to their starting point, and then engage in the same actions until they are again shifted back to the same starting point, again and again and again. Such stories allow for two denouements. First, the affected people could find themselves permanently trapped in the loop, as seems to occur in Philip K. Dick’s story “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (1974). This gloomy scenario is in keeping with Dick’s frequent suggestions that people may in fact not be in control of their own destinies, as also conveyed in his stories “The Minority Report” (1956) and “Adjustment Team” (1954). This heterodox concept is naturally anathema to filmmakers seeking to please audiences, who accordingly altered both stories while adapting them as the films Minority Report (2002 – review here) and The Adjustment Bureau (2010 – review here) to provide their heroes with genuine free will. Adapting All You Need Is Kill did not present this problem because Sakurazaka had already chosen the second approach to the time loop story – to allow the affected individuals to learn from their experiences and eventually escape from the loop, reaffirming the principle of free will. Thus, in this film and its fantasy counterpart Groundhog Day (1993), the protagonists keep responding differently during each iteration of their day and slowly make themselves better people: Cage is initially cowardly, manipulative, and inept, but his repeated battles make him into a brave, savvy, and admirable fighter, just as Bill Murray’s weatherman abandons his egocentric aloofness and embraces altruism. And in the end, both men are rewarded with the opportunity to again move forward with their lives.

In contrast to Dick’s dark fable, these films appealingly resonate with optimistic messages about the possibility of redemption for all individuals, even the most despicable and downtrodden. Since Cage dies at the end of each loop, to be reborn on the previous day, his situation can be related to the Buddhist belief that individuals can gradually improve themselves through a long series of reincarnations until they finally achieve nirvana – one character even tells another, “I’ll see you in the next life.” This idea can also be detected in most video games, as I argued long ago, since one’s avatar will typically die numerous times as the player masters the game’s demands to eventually achieve success. More broadly, the film seems to hearteningly advise anyone who has failed that they will always have the chance to succeed another time, as stated in the song that would have worked perfectly as a theme for this film, Gerry Rafferty’s “Get It Right Next Time” (1979):

You gotta grow, you gotta learn by your mistakes
You gotta die a little everyday just to try to stay awake
When you believe there’s no mountain you can climb
And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time (next time).

One can even connect Cage’s experiences to aspects of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. After all, no film ever results from a single creative act: in the beginning, there is someone’s story – in this case, Sakurazaka’s novel; then, a series of screenwriters (here, undoubtedly, several more than the three credited writers) are assigned to achieve through multiple drafts a suitable screenplay; as filming proceeds, numerous changes might be improvised on the set; and after the completed film is shown to preview audiences, one might do some reediting or even film some new scenes before it is finally released. One can also discern this pattern in the careers of successful film stars, who may start their careers with some hits and misses before perfecting their screen persona and achieving the wisdom and clout to produce precisely the sorts of films that match their talents. In the case of Tom Cruise, one might say many things about his four most recent films – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), Jack Reacher (2012), Oblivion (2013 – review here), and this one – but if nothing else, they all qualify as remarkably well-crafted entertainments, as if the aging actor is working harder than ever to draw upon his long experience to select and polish each of his vehicles. Pondering these and many other examples, one must concede that Rafferty’s message, and this film’s message, is often correct: there are times when a person can in fact do something again and again until they finally get it right.

My concern, however, is that there are also times when life does not offer such opportunities, and some young people do not seem to understand that. Thus, a sobering contrast to this film is provided by the original D-Day: when he gave the final order to proceed with the invasion, Dwight Eisenhower was tormented because an experienced colleague had recently opined that it was destined to end disastrously; and he knew that if that man was correct, he would not be able to go back and do it again while employing a different strategy. That is why he and his advisers meticulously planned every aspect of the invasion and were ultimately triumphant. Contemporary youth, I sometimes fear, have not been properly schooled by their mentors and popular culture to recognize that second chances are not always available. For example, I have known college students who completely ignored the requirements of a course syllabus, which were carefully explained to them several times, and when they were then informed that they could not pass the class, they seemed genuinely surprised that they could not avoid this fate by explaining their personal problems and offering to do extra credit. And while failing one college class is not a matter of great concern, I worry that these students will later be facing their own personal D-Days, when they absolutely, positively must do something right the first time, and they will fail to appreciate the gravity of the situation until it is too late.

Yet one could also point to the film’s final scenes as a necessary corrective to the blithe optimism of its original premise. Without offering any details about the developments, Cage at one point apparently loses his power to loop back in time and hence, for the first time, must battle the aliens without the possibility of a redemptive rebirth. Accordingly, he becomes more cautious: advancing to attack, he previously would have charged into the open field, confident that if an alien killed him, he could later come back and take an alternate route. Now, he commandeers an aging aircraft to roll across the ground and provide himself with some protection as he moves forward. So, considering the film as a whole, one could say that it has two messages for America’s youth: yes, for a long time as you grow and mature, your kindly society will keep providing you with numerous opportunities to correct your errors and try again, but eventually, there will come a time when you only have one chance to do things properly.

It is hard to determine, though, whether the director and screenwriters actually intended to convey this message, or any message for that matter, as all of their characters are unusually circumspect about any matters not directly relevant to the plot. Rita at one point says that she is “not a fan of talking,” and there is something surprisingly evocative about the film’s final line: “What do you want?” Indeed, one asks, what do these characters want? To stay alive, of course, but everything else about their backgrounds and motivations mostly remains a mystery. As it happens, authors who devise intricate time paradoxes often focus more on manipulating their characters like pieces on a chessboard than on developing them, and in the case of this film, I don’t really regret the absence of the typical speeches in which characters reminisce about their childhoods or proffer platitudes about their personal beliefs, as they merely would have slowed the pace of its consistently involving story. And both Cruise and Blunt have been sympathetic characters in a sufficient number of films so that we can like them and relate to them without any revelations about their intimate thoughts.

A film that is seemingly striving to say nothing, to be sure, is also saying something, and this may represent the best summary of its central point: Edge of Tomorrow is a film about people who have a job to do (defeating aliens), and they do it very well; and it was made by people who had a job to do (making a successful film), and they did it very well. And if someone responds that such films are not genuine works of art, since they are failing to comment on the human condition, perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps having a job and doing it well are central to the human condition; perhaps that dedication to one’s work, regardless of personal issues, is the true lesson that I fear young people are not learning. In any event, under less than ideal circumstances, I have now completed the job that I had to do, and if not very well, I hope I have at least done it reasonably well.

Gary Westfahl’s 24 books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and a contribution to the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson (2013).

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May

Playing catch-up here, trying to cover as many publications as I can get in before the end of the month. The prize this time goes to Tor.com, offering a fine set of original stories.

Publications Reviewed



Interzone 252, May/June 2014

An issue featuring Neil Williamson. Some apocalypse stories and a bunch of relationship stories, not exactly what I usually expect to find in IZ.

“The Posset Pot” by Neil Williamson

Post apocalypse. It seems that bubbles of some other universe keep showing up on Earth, exchanging their contents. Where this occurs, as in Jim’s home Glasgow, the topography resembles a Swiss cheese.

The building’s lovely, overworked symmetry has been sliced through so often now, sphere after sphere intersecting with the remains of the masonry, that those once ornate neo-gothic spires have been turned into a forest of precarious, delicate peaks; imagine African termite mounds modelled by rudimentary algorithm, but too slender, too sharp.

For Jim, surviving depends on scrounging, from the local ruins and, with occasional luck, from what the bubbles bring. Like the posset pot. His aged housemate Ettrick, who never goes out but relies on what Jim brings back, recognizes what it is and decides that what Jim really needs is a nice comforting posset.

A strong story of loss. References to the narrator’s lost girlfriend/wife seem gratuitous, but I like the images of the ruined cityscape.

“The Mortuaries” by Katharine E K Duckett

On a crowded, built-over Earth, young Tem loves to visit Brixton’s mortuary, enjoying “the sleek vaults, inviting and bright”, the tableaux of the deceased and the recorded narrative of their lives.

Tem pulled his chaperone by the hand to see his favorite vaults: often the ones that contained children his own age, who he liked to imagine would be his friends, if he were in the mortuary, too.

He loves the spaciousness of the vaults, the clean and quiet there, in contrast with the squalid, teeming world of the too-many living in a world where the population has reached critical mass. But there is another mortuary, the evil twin of Brixton’s, and this is where Tem’s father goes when he gives up on living.

A particularly grim and gruesome apocalypse as Earth’s human population collapses under its own weight. It’s not a story of loss, as people here have long had nothing to lose but their lives, which are seen by many of them as a burden. Tem is a striking character, an innocent, a person not made for the world in which he lives, who attempts to retain, if not hope, at least respect for life. And the image of the mortuaries is a powerful one. I’m dubious, though, that such a world would afford the relative luxury of a mortuary at all, or expend the resources, or retain the space for the dead, or that there would be room for recognizing individuals out of all the masses that fill the living space and die in crushing heaps in this world without hope.

“Diving into the Wreck” by Val Norton

The wreck being Apollo 11, the mission’s ascent module, jettisoned and lost until this near future moment when it is discovered on the moon. The mystique of Apollo has had many people searching for that module, none more fervently than Arthur.

If Eagle was out there then he meant to find it, retrieve and restore it so it might inspire once again. For Arthur, you see, the study of Apollo was not just facts and figures. No, it was something more, an act of resurrection, an effort to recreate the pure optimism of that first real human embarkation to the stars.

The nameless narrator, his wife Lena, and Art were was a threesome, wedded to the past dream of space, but it died for the narrator when Lena did. Now Art wants to call him back, to revive the old dream, but Lena’s dream was always the unobtainable mystique. She would have preferred the module remain lost.

A truncated piece that feels like someone had cut the center out of it and jumped right to the conclusion. Here’s an idea, a theme, but a real story didn’t grow from it. I note that the narrator addresses Arthur, either by his full name or Art, numerous times, but no one ever addresses the narrator so that his name is annoyingly kept from the reader. The text is mostly backstory about the narrator’s relationships with his late wife, rather than his present-story relationship with Art concerning the plan to retrieve the lost module. I wish it had made better use of its title, using these lines of the Adrienne Rich poem:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

“Two Truths and a Lie” by Oliver Buckram

A sort of list story, “a fun getting-to-know-you game” in which the narrator makes three statements and “you” are supposed to guess which is the lie. Also to assemble the story from the parts, which include suggestions from the narrator that “you”, the man who may or may not have washed up on her beach, are (1) an alien (2) a metaphor for Aeneas, who seduced Dido, then sailed away. We can be fairly certain that this is about a failed love affair, but all the rest might be a lie.

(1) While visiting the underworld, Aeneas (alive) encountered Dido (deceased).
(2) She refused to look at him.
(3) I’m sure this incident made her feel much better.

Lite and clever.

“A Brief Light” by Claire Humphrey

Ghosts are showing up all over the place, sometimes in the form of birds, sometimes as the humans they used to be. The ghost at Lauren and Richard’s place is a bird, and it leaves the windows open so it’s always cold. Lauren’s would-be lover Jo has a bird, too.

A great big pelican flapped across the room, right in front of me. I flinched and yelped and slopped latte over my hand. The pelican turned into a woman, a middle-aged black woman with a long elegant build and hollow cheeks. She stood in the doorway to Jo’s kitchenette and lifted her hands, beseeching, unbuttoned cuffs sliding down bony wrists.

And Richard’s mother has had to leave her house and move in with them, when his brother Martin comes back from his suicide in his own form, to sulk. In the midst of all this, Lauren and Richard have an epiphany about their marriage, which might well have happened without the ghosts, or the ghosts might well have happened without the epiphany. OK. But you carry this far enough, you get to the point where you don’t really need a story to read the message from, you could just as well get it out of the air. I do like the ghost-birds, though.

“Sleepers” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Here, it’s apparitions showing up all over the place, this time called sleepers, in the form of night horses, more or less.

A white blur, the slight shape of thin, bellbottom legs – thick at the bottom near its hooves and covered in matted white fur – galloping through the otherwise empty street.

The narrator sees a sleeper while she’s waiting for her father die, which she wonders if it has Significance. She wonders if it is her father’s spirit, trying to escape. Or watching her.

The juxtaposition of this story and the previous is odd. They are too similar, narrators reading meaning into apparitions, reflecting their own concerns, sparking their own epiphanies.



Tor.com, May 2014

Including the last story from April, a superior assortment of fiction, substantial in length and subject matter, offering a lot of fine reading. The prevailing tone is dark, with Lovecraftian notes. I’m particularly happy with the Tambour and Valentine stories.

“The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert

The author previously known as M Rickert. A novella split up annoyingly into 8 successive screens. A mysterious stranger drives into the village, his vehicle a hearse, and he proceeds by means not natural to seduce and impregnate a large number of the female residents, although this fact wasn’t recognized at the time; oddly, none of them seem to be aware that their lover’s favors are being shared among so many of their neighbors. These women range from underage teenagers to wives, mothers, and widows. At least one is thought to be a lesbian, which seems to have been irrelevant to the seducer. But this is only part of the general oddness, whereby all these women, so very different, react to the situation in the same way as the rest. Uniformly, they regard the experience as a wondrous thing. “When he held me I felt like I was being held by an angel. I felt like I would always be safe. I felt holy.”

It’s the first thing that comes to mind, reading this, that the stranger, with his appealing blue eyes and attractive scent, must be an angel, as several of the mothers supposed. That, and the wings; the children of these matings, all boys, are born with wings, and we automatically think of angel wings. Not so, however. The wings are not feathered; in fact, they’re sharp – sharp to cut at a touch. That suggests a very different association. If the stranger had wings himself, however, we do not know; none of the mothers has reported seeing them.

Almost uniformly, the mothers regard their children’s wings as something wrong, even monstrous. Uniformly, they treat them as a matter to be concealed, by all means, even from the most sympathetic people. None of them take their babies to be seen by a doctor, and most keep them swaddled in one way or another, to keep them from flying where they can be seen. This reaction is not limited to the mothers. Pete Ratcher, husband of Theresa and father of Elli, takes one look at his winged grandson and disposes of it as he would a deformed animal on the farm. Which suggests strongly that the mothers are right and reasonable to keep the wings a secret, for the children’s sake, lest others bring out their shotguns and open fire on the demonic flying things. But what the mothers do later, once their secret has gotten out, seems increasingly unreasonable; it seems like mass insanity, or perhaps even demonic possession.

And that is the question this story asks, without answering. Do the mothers of Voorhisville represent a case of mass possession? Is the similarity of their reactions the result of their similar circumstances, or is it something they are made to do, by the same force directing their actions, as an ant parasitized by a liver fluke will climb a blade of grass so it can be eaten by a sheep and pass on the infection. But we understand the liver fluke; it means to reproduce. If this is the means that the mysterious demonic stranger has adopted for reproducing his own kind, it’s a singularly disastrous method. If there’s some other reason for what he’s done, it’s hard to imagine what it might be, and this, more than anything else, is what makes the scenario horror.

The lengthy text is narrated in a number of distinct voices, for the most part the individual mothers, but occasionally the collective voice of “The Mothers”. If we assume that this is a case of mass possession, it would seem that this last is the voice of the possessor. But in the individual voices, we see the personalities of the narrators, the differences among them. We have the two teenagers: Maddy, who cherishes and accepts her son, and Elli, who secretly wishes hers would die. Several of the narrators dissent at times from the collective decisions. But in vain, and that, too, makes this tale horror.

Normally I like ambiguity in a story; it offers possibilities rather than restricting the storyline to one direction. Here, however, we have less ambiguity than confusion, and rather than opening possibilities, it leaves us in frustration with the inexplicable.
Still, this is a powerful, moving piece about motherhood, the special bond between mother and child, even when the child might be a monster. Although the children here show no clear signs yet of emerging monstrosity, it’s a reminder that there are indeed monsters born into our world, and many of them have mothers who love them, who want to protect them, at any cost.

“Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes

A feminist retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, “The Jew in the Thornbush”. In 17th century Germany, when the blood libel against the Jews is prevalent, Itte’s father Yakov was a peddler who fell victim to a man who had been the recipient of the usual three magic gifts from a fairy, one of which was an enchanted fiddle that forced everyone to dance as long as it played.

The residents of Dornburg were proud of their story, how they had destroyed the nasty Jewish peddler. How a passing fiddler had tricked the Jew into a thornbush and then played a magic fiddle that made him dance among the thorns, until his skin was ripped and bloody, and how the fiddler would not leave off until the Jew had given over all his money.

Itte, his only daughter, vows revenge against the fiddler and the town, both for her father’s sake and her mother’s, who never recovered from his loss. Her resolve is tested in a dream, and when she persists in it, the dream figure makes herself known as the Matronit, Kabbalist version of an ancient Semitic goddess. With the aid of the Matronit’s power, Itte is a match for the fiddler’s magic.

This piece is strongly rooted in Jewish history and folklore, with an emphasis on the feminine aspect. It is Yakov’s wife and daughter who seem to feel his death most acutely, who can’t carry on with the normal course of their lives. It is only his daughter who feels the impulse of vengeance. And while Yakov had been a pious man, Itte feels that his god had betrayed him by failing to protect him, which causes her to doubt her faith. The Matronit is more the kind of deity she wants; the Matronit does something about the crimes against the Jews. And the Matronit’s power is particularly female, causing Itte, a virgin, to lactate when she needs to take a position as a wet-nurse in the course of her plan.

Fairy tales were traditionally bloody-minded. Revenge was a common theme, and it often took a gruesome form. Thus it’s disappointing that when we reach the end of this one, we find the author pulling her punch. Faced with the Matronit’s fitting gruesome plans for Dornburg, Itte turns merciful and the story turns mawkish.

On the other hand, we might consider just how Dornburg deserves this punishment. There is one undeniable villain in the story, the fiddler. He has acted solely out of malice and greed, and is certainly the proper object for Itte’s revenge. But what of the town officials who carried out the hanging? They only acted after Yakov’s forced confession, when they themselves had been subjected to the same torture-by-dance; if he could not be blamed, how can they? And when Yakov came at first to make his complaint against the thieving fiddler, these officials immediately arrested the man and were about to hang him before his magic intervened. So are they innocent? Is the town? The reason they are not is that Dornburg has subsequently owned the act. They tell the story of tricking “the wicked Jew” proudly. The town tavern is named The Dancing Jew; their children play a game, Dance-the-Jew. This is enough for the Matronit to establish their collective guilt.

I do like the way this tale is tied to the better-known stories in which thorns are used as a snare, particularly the variants of Sleeping Beauty where the princes errant perish in the thorns as they attempt to reach the enchanted castle. The German “Dornburg” refers to the word for a thornbush. Wicked, deadly things, those thorns.

“The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys

A tale that will best be appreciated by readers familiar with the Lovecraftian mythos. When the US government raided Innsmouth and destroyed its cult center, Aphra Marsh was taken with her family to a desert internment camp, as far as possible from their ancestral home in the sea.

The state stole nearly two decades of my life. The state killed my father, and locked the rest of my family away from anything they thought might give us strength. Salt water. Books. Knowledge. One by one, they destroyed us. My mother began her metamorphosis. Allowed the ocean, she might have lived until the sun burned to ashes. They took her away. We know they studied us at such times, to better know the process. To better know how to hurt us. You must imagine the details, as I have. They never returned the bodies. Nothing has been given back to us.

At last, after WWII, the authorities have begun to realize their error, and the children of Innsmouth, at least, were released. Aphra has settled in foggy San Francisco, where she works in a bookstore owned by a collector of works of her people’s history and religion – kept from her up to now. She is terrified when a government agent approaches her, trying to recruit her to inform on cultists who might constitute a danger to humanity.

This is anything but a typical Lovecraft pastiche; indeed, it updates and inverts the original material in a number of ways. The prose, and Aphra’s narrative voice, are controlled, without histrionics. No one goes insane, gibbers, or dances around sacrificial altars. Aphra makes her ancestral religion and history a rational system built around mind, although blood certainly plays its important role. All she wants now is to recover what is possible of her heritage, so the knowledge won’t be lost.

Most importantly, it’s a story less about the Lovecraftian religion than our society’s reaction to the presence of beliefs it can’t accept or understand. It reflects modern sensibilities and values, rejecting the original material’s deep strain of racism. The author makes an explicit comparison with the Marshes’ fate and that of the Japanese-Americans interned during the war; Aphra is now lodging with one such family, who respects her differences. We can also see echoes of the Red-scare witchhunts of the 1950s, when the story is set, and the antiterrorist witchhunts of today – some things don’t change so much, and intolerance is one of them, as well as the bureaucratic suspicion of ideas it considers subversive of the established order.

“The Walking-Stick Forest” by Anna Tambour

Returned from the war to the wilds of Scotland, Athol Farquar creates walking sticks from living blackthorn trees, twisting and contorting the young shoots into unique shapes.

It was almost as if he enchanted the blackthorn. Thorns were his caressers. Branches bent to his will. And he loved bringing up his creations so much that many a moonlit night he spent bending, moulding, tending, admiring and listening, hearing and smelling the night breath of the forest.

His sticks are collectors’ items, very valuable, but some commissions he refuses, and he considered the proposal of Richard Galveny to be so obscene, he caned the man by way of emphasizing his refusal. Now Galveny is returning to kill him for the offense, which Farquar learns from the man’s daughter and victim. He isn’t impressed by the threat.

A tale dark in mood, dark in setting, a forest where light barely penetrates. Superior prose that lifts a fairly commonplace plot to a new level. This is how to work with thorns!

–RECOMMENDED

“The Insects of Love” by Genevieve Valentine

A story of sisters and the bond between them. As a child, Soraya didn’t understand how much Fairuz cared for her. She tried to scare her once with a large mantis, or so Soraya thought at the time, but the incident inspired a attraction to insects, and she become an ecological entomologist, which may have been the real point. Fairuz, after several false career starts, joined a secretive government organization where her letters home were censored, but Soraya gets the sense that she’s trying to tell her something, writing from her last posting in the desert and repeating the statement, “I’m out of time.” The authorities tell Soraya that her sister has gone alone into the desert and must be presumed dead, but she doesn’t believe it, or at least doesn’t believe it was an accident.

I wish, unfairly, that she’d let me grieve for a little while. If she’s only dead, if I go to the desert and there’s nothing, I can’t still be holding these letters. I can’t keep going like this, if she’s really gone.

The narrative is punctuated by fascinating imaginary insects such as Cetonia aphrodite, the Venus beetle, that produce erotic or euphoric sensations in human beings, which has often led to a trade in the creatures that threatens their extinction. Saving such species has become Soraya’s life work, and now it seems that Fairuz is involved, as well.

An intricately plotted and enigmatic account, in which memories turn out to be untrustworthy and events fall out of order. Incidents that at first seem to be random are revealed as anything but, such as the time that Fairuz took Soraya along while she got a large, complex star map tattooed on her back. It is all part of a message she’s leaving her sister, encoded so that only she will understand. I suspect that if the editors of The Journal of Unlikely Entomology read this piece, they’ll be awfully jealous.

–RECOMMENDED



Lightspeed, May 2014

Including another installment in the ongoing Matthew Hughes serial, which, again, is the most enjoyable original piece here.

“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson

We seem to have an alternate history here, where the Soviet Union fought a land war in Europe against the Americans. In this timeline, Valentina Tereshkova and Zhanna Yorkina were not cosmonauts but military truck drivers.

In the war, [Tereshkova] never showed any fear, not at Fulda, not even in the snows of Vogelsberg when the Americans dropped the first bomb. When Clinton and Yeltsin shook hands at Yalta, when the word came down to the 8th Guards Army to yield Frankfurt and withdraw to Soviet soil, Tereshkova spat into the dirt and said: “Too bad. We were turning things around.”

After the war, however, she develops a fear of the sound of diesel engines. Yorkina, her former co-driver, is even more traumatized. When she is offered a new form of psychosurgery, Tereshkova agrees, largely to help Yorkina.

The story opens: “The surgery makes Tereshkova into a tank.” Now, this is science fiction, where we have often seen humans transformed in some way into cyborged vehicles, so readers may think at first that the character has literally been melded into an armored tank. It turns out, however, that this transformation is metaphorical; Tereshkova’s fear has been short-circuited in her brain. What the story addresses is the trauma of war, and the all-too-common compulsion of soldiers to deny their fear. I’m not sure why the author chose to use the identities of these cosmonauts in his story; it’s a thing that tends to make me uneasy, using the identities of actual persons in such a way.

“Selfie” by Sandra McDonald

A future where time travel is a mainstay and people reside on the moon. Which is to say that Susan’s father is a tourist guide to the uncomfortable, flammable past, while her mother is on the moon. Now, to avoid another itchy sojourn in 1899, Susan plots to spend the time instead with her mother, instead, while sending a robotic double [the selfie] along with her father as a companion. Her plot suffers a glitch when a micro-asteroid collides with her spacecraft, leaving only the selfie surviving.

A story of individual identity and memory. Susan-the-selfie knows what she is yet thinks of herself as the genuine Susan. The original, however, had left certain facts out of her memory, such as Carlos. This is also a story of love, as we see Susan’s father sacrificing everything for the daughter he no longer has. Cleverly done, poignant yet told in a lightly humorous voice, but I don’t like the term “selfie” here; the anachronism makes it hard to take the situation as seriously as we ought.

“Willful Weapon” be Fred Van Lente

A fantasy alternate world after “the Awakening blew the tops off the Hollow Hills, expelling the Tuatha de Danaan from the gleaming paragon cities of the Otherworld into damp, drab Eiru.” Now Cellach, a young Sidhe with a murder charge on his head, has passed through Ellis Island and ended up in Five Points as a thug in the street gang that owns his debt. His adventures in the new world are just beginning when the text ends, leaving readers hanging.



Strange Horizons, May 2014

Only two stories, depressing situations that resolve in epiphanies.

“Saltwater Economics” by Jack Mierzwa

Anna is doing a survey of dead things on the shore of California’s dying accidental Salton Sea, where a monster is reputed to lurk. Anna doesn’t fear the monster as much as a recurrence of her breast cancer.

Most field biologists only last a season or two at the Salton Sea. It takes its toll, working in a habitat that cycles annually between slow deterioration and sudden, catastrophic extinction.

Anna stays because she needs the health coverage, but she becomes intrigued by the monster, who ransacks her backpack, eats her granola bars and looks at the photos in the magazines, the comics and picture books, being particularly fond of porn. He speaks Spanish and tells her his name is Félix. Anna is concerned about a growth on his neck, much like those on the dead and diseased fish from the sea’s toxic water.

A strongly-realized dismal setting, an extremely depressing piece, piling on the external decay of pollution, the internal rot of metastatic cancers, and the psychic corrosion of loneliness. Anna’s concluding epiphany may solve the last of these problems, but the larger disintegrations, of environment and society, don’t seem likely to find a solution.

“Sarah’s Child” by Susan Jane Bigelow

Problems here are all personal. Sarah begins to dream of being a mother, having a son named Sheldon. She tells herself she’s lucky in her life with her lover Janet, but that’s a lie. “I touched the space on my body where my womb would have been, if I’d been born with one, and ached.” Then she meets the actual Sheldon and discovers that he’s the child she would have had in the alternate universe where she was born a girl named June. It all turns out peachy and Sarah realizes she’s lucky, after all.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #146-148, May 2014

A three-issue month. Issue #146 has nonfantastic stories of quasi-siblings; #147 is monsters; #148 explores varieties of fanaticism.

#146

“The Lighthouse Keepers” by Nicole M Taylor

A story of sisters. Who, as is commonly the case, have a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship. After the lighthouse keeper dies, his daughters take over his official function, which is to say that Mona does, the responsible one, the capable one, the officious and sanctimonious, who looks down on Beatrice, the flighty, irresponsible, man-obsessed. Beatrice sees no reason to keep up the lighthouse; Mona insists there will always be a need for it – the truth of which depends on whether this setting is some version of our own, not so clear in the text. When Beatrice becomes pregnant after an affair with a soldier who deserted her, Mona insists that she herself is the only one responsible enough to be its mother. In the meantime, Beatrice seduces Mona’s husband, and the hostility and resentment among them continues to build.

This is a story in fragments, cut into sections and assembled out of order, beginning with the last. It seemed to me at one point that there must be two alternate endings going on, but I figured there’s a way to make it work as one vengeful tale. As we begin with “Mona’s children,” at the conclusion we have to wonder: what kind of relationship will this generation have as they grow up? It’s noteworthy that they aren’t sisters, and perhaps not even biological siblings. The possibilities tantalize. Other than the setting, there’s nothing fantastic here, and no adventure.

“The Dreams of Wan Li” by Andrea Stewart

Ling and Wan Li are children indentured in what seems to be an opium den, their task to creep below the haze of smoke and pilfer coins from the dreaming patrons. Breathing the smoke is dangerous, but Ling has a cherished dream of his own, involving Wan Li and a life of freedom. Wan Li, however, has always been the stronger one.

She wrapped her lips around the pipe, took in a deep draw of smoke, and then exhaled. The smoke formed. Two figures walked together, hand in hand. Wan Li and I. The smoke traveled further, forming a house, and then a field with sprouting greens. The shapes dissipated, swallowed by the air.

But the den is a place where dreams die.

Depression and hope vie with one another here, the cynical, hard-minded Wan Li and the dreamer Ling. Both, in their own ways, achieve their own dream, but it’s a question whether either has achieved happiness. Which makes me feel that depression definitely wins out. Again, except for possibly the setting, nothing here is fantasy.

#147

“We, As One, Trailing Embers” by E Catherine Tobler

Idalmis is two in one, two winged torsos rising from a single foundation, yet not identical twins; there is male and female, there is Beauty and there is Beast, and Beast has a terrible hunger. We might also think they are angel and devil, although the story doesn’t explicitly make this connection. Still, “Beauty wants so much to be good. Beast wants so much to be bad.” says enough. They are the star attraction in a freak show where most of the exhibits are manufactured fakes, flesh cut and sewn together. But Beast’s demonic hunger is overwhelming, despite Beauty’s protests, and it finally goes beyond their control.

Weird and disturbing erotic dark fantasy, full of the heat of twisted lusts. Idalmis lusts for theirself, but also uses their sexuality as a lure for their victims.

Always give them what they pay for, Jackson has told us. They pay for our time, our attention, for the feel of four hands upon flesh. She has touched us, so now we touch her, fingers withered and not plucking at her cotton dress the way she plucks at the silk which hides our secrets away. And then, this silk comes away, and she sees how we are made, and she slides from that civilized velvet chair and takes our soft flesh into her pink mouth, and the world washes away.

These are compelling/repellent images, sensuous yet strongly reflecting the pornographic allure of the freak show. The conclusion warps from a Halloween house of horror into the surreal, an aptly-named scene of hell, with a strong concluding image that melds it with a vision of heaven, the flight of angels.

Pronouns are important here. Idalmis is two individuals with one name, the story’s narrative voice that strongly prefers the “we”, but yearns for an “I”, for the two of them to be a “singular self”. Yet it becomes clear that this voice belongs to Beast, who, in speaking of Beast always uses that name and never “I” – “I” is reserved for the unified dream-self. Yet Beauty is, occasionally, “she”, object not subject. It is Beauty who is drawn by the possibility of separation, the freedom of flight. And perhaps repelled by Beast’s bloodlust, which she wants to stop and can’t. Perhaps. We don’t know, because we aren’t given access to Beauty’s own thoughts, don’t know if she might think sometimes of her individual self as “I”. Would she, in the final moments, have pulled away if she could? Or embraced the fate of “we”, as one?

One thing that bothers me: the character of Hoyt, the monster-fabricator, is perplexing. Idalmis surpasses all his artificial creations in appeal, yet Hoyt proposes to dismantle the wonder by severing them; I’m sure Mr Jackson, the show’s proprietor, would not approve.

–RECOMMENDED

“Here Be Monsters” by Carrie Patel

The narrator, who refuses to give his name, was shipwrecked on an island during a war that seems to be taking place in the equivalent of our late 19th century. He is concerned about a possible attack by an abyssus, a creature that presents a threat to ocean travel in this world.

You can recognize an abyssus by the shape of the water, but by then it’s too late. There’s a depression on the surface of the sea, as if something is sucking it down. Then the waters part, and whatever was unfortunate enough to get caught in the middle disappears beneath churning waves.

An abyssus will also sometimes come onto land, seeking light. The narrator’s more immediate threat, however, comes in the form of another apparent shipwreck victim, who takes away his lighter and flare gun, as well as pilfering his dwindling rations. It soon becomes clear that this man’s presence on the island is not by accident.

Not much mystery here, and fairly standard monsters.

#148

“The Use and the Need” by M Bennardo

Tom Brown is a beleaguered saloonkeeper, under constant assault by the cacophonous forces of the WCTU. Today, however, the enemy has deployed reinforcement in the form of a steam-driven robotic hatchetation engine.

Besides the hat, however, the thing wore no real clothes, so the circular stamp reading VULCAN IRON WORKS—WILKESBARRE, PENNA. was perfectly visible on its boiler-like torso next to a W.C.T.U. badge. Below, a chain-link skirt preserved some amount of modesty, swaying and rattling awkwardly around its legs with every awkward step. Its thick metal arms were jointed and riveted, and it gripped a formidable hatchet in its clenched and rigid hands.

Which about sums up this lite piece. I find it unfortunate that the law-abiding Mr Brown could not find protection against the regular vandalism of his business establishment. When we stop to think about this sort of vigilantism, it’s not really so funny.

“Celestial Venom” by Garnett Elliot

In a past India, Senjam Singh has come to Mount Muhundyana as an agent of a sinister organization known as the Grandfathers, his task to obtain the venom from the rare Gopti Serpent. As he expects, enemies of his organization attempt to prevent him, though he never expected one of them to be a blind woman. The most interesting character, however, is the old snake charmer, in whose presence things are not as they first appear.

The old charmer sat cross-legged in the clearing’s center, surrounded by at least a dozen prostrate Shudra workers. They wriggled against the dirt and each other as he played his pipe, emulating entwined serpents. Senjam’s vision blurred for a moment; when it cleared, the branches of the ashoka now dripped with sinuous, dark-banded snakes, so thick the trees appeared to be swaying.

Senjam achieves enlightenment, or as literary theory would call it, epiphany. The author attempts to make a point about caste segregation, but it never becomes really essential to the story.



Apex Magazine, May 2014

Three differently depressive stories, of which I enjoyed two.

“Paperclips and Memories and Things that Won’t Be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim

A very short, gently melancholy piece about the nature of ghosts, who collect things, depending on the nature of the ghost. A ghost in the narrator’s attic collected her infant son after he died at birth. She meant no harm, but the child was very much missed and his loss harmed the narrator. Even the baby collects “static from the radio and warm water from the bath and muffled voices that come up through the ceiling. Anything that reminds him of the womb.”

A sadly moving mood piece.

–RECOMMENDED

“Falling Leaves” by Liz Argall

An unlovely dystopia. It seems that large numbers of refugees “from the burning lands and the flooded coast” have washed ashore in Australia, where they have overwhelmed society to the point where the future for most is mere survival. Two outsider girls, one refugee and one “landed”, meet on the roof of their school and become grudging friends, the only friends either of them have because both are really disagreeable people. Everything here is ugly and hopeless, and there is at least one class of people even worse off than the licensed refugees. We don’t really know the extent to which these girls’ personalities are the product of their trying circumstances, which seem to be largely economic and Charlotte’s case and familial in Nessa’s. In fact, after reading this piece, I find myself quite depressed by it without really learning much at all about the characters. Its best use is as a Cautionary Tale for hard times to come, but some people manage to come through hard times as better people, and some don’t. Despite the insights these characters acquire in the course of these events, I don’t hold out much hope for them.

“Not Smart, Not Clever” by E Saxey

A different sort of dystopia, the dysfunctional world of the near-future university, churning out masses of useless and unemployable pseudoscholars. The institutions have become obsessed with rooting out plagiarism, as the students are increasingly incapable of producing worthwhile original work, to the point of requiring students to be face- and brain-scanned, and to sign lengthy [and plagiarized] non-plagiarism pledges. This unhinged our pseudonymous narrator’s ex-boyfriend to the point that he neglected his own research in attempting to create a plagiarism algorithm undetectable by current software. Lin herself was a successful student, a “swot”, one of the few actually capable original work, but when she found herself unemployable after getting her doctorate, she went into the “ghost-writing” business.

It’s fascinating to watch her hook and reel in her victims, a process much like pushing drugs.

The ones I don’t like, I do everything for them. I run all the searches and don’t show them how to use the databases. I steal their style and I tidy their grammar, but I don’t tell them what a comma splice is or how to use a semi–colon. They bob along. Sometimes they think what I do for them looks easy, and they try to write something of their own; their grades dip down, and they come back to me, begging.

The cleverness here keeps the tone from being too harshly bitter and makes it cynically entertaining, particularly for those of us who have been there and have the unmarketable degrees to prove it.

–RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Nnedi Okorafor

When it was first announced that Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel Lagoon would be an alien invasion story set mostly in Lagos, Nigeria, I imagine I’m not the only one who suspected the tone of the book might well be along the lines of ‘‘District 9, take that!’’ The very reasonable displeasure that Okorafor and other Nigerians felt at that movie’s portrayal of Nigerians as cannibalistic gangsters nearly overshadowed the film’s most original accomplishment, which was to suggest that aliens first visiting Earth might well end up somewhere other than suburban London or the Washington Mall. But it quickly becomes apparent that Lagoon is not simply out to redeem the Nigerian image, and some of the novel’s most powerful passages are bluntly honest about some of that country’s real problems – corruption, radical economic inequality, gangs of ‘‘area boys’’ roaming the streets, the sometimes thuggish behavior of the military, opportunistic religious leaders, intolerance bred of superstition. Lagos is as much a character in the novel as any of its central players. As it has grown into one of the world’s most populous cities, it seems poised on the brink of either unmanageable chaos or complete transformation, and in Okorafor’s skilled hands the arrival of the aliens serves as a kind of tipping point of possible futures.

Lagoon (a translation of the Portuguese Lagos, referring to the city’s most prominent feature) begins as Okorafor’s most conventional science fiction novel – an enormous alien craft smashes into the ocean just off Bar Beach – which ironically makes it the least conventional among her own novels. In place of her usually focused point of view, we get the multiple viewpoints more characteristic of disaster epics – not only the three main characters, but a proliferating host of other viewpoints, from a secretary who moonlights as a prostitute to a mute boy, an American singer, a corrupt clergyman, and even a swordfish, a bat, a wounded tarantula, and a spider. In place of her famously rich descriptions of empty deserts and lush jungles, we get a kind of gritty urban realism, occasional bursts of comic-book style action (complete with onomatopoeic sound effects (BOOM! Plash! Crunch! BONG!) and even, eventually, a few superhero powers. Other elements seem to derive from video games or movies (the story originally began evolving as a screenplay) with spectacular sea monsters, horrors from Nigerian folklore (a few of which we’ve seen earlier in stories like ‘‘On the Road’’), and allusions to everything from Star Wars to The Little Mermaid and, perhaps less directly, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Man Who Fell to Earth. In other words, while Okorafor’s impressive inventiveness never flags (and really takes off in the second half of the novel), it arrives in the service of a fairly familiar narrative setup.

Like her earlier novels, though, Lagoon combines elements of SF and magic in such a way that you’re never sure which is which at first. The three central characters are a marine biologist named Adaora, a compassionate soldier named Agu, and a Ghanaian rap star named Anthony, all of whom are on the beach when a thunderous explosion is heard, followed by a tsunami-like wave which seems targeted at them alone, sucking them into the aliens’ lair but later depositing them unharmed. At the same time, witnesses see a strange woman – initially described like smoke – emerge from the sea. This turns out to be Adoyele, a shapeshifting figure who serves as the story’s Klaatu, speaking on behalf of the aliens (many more of whom eventually follow her ashore) and their intentions, by taking over virtually all the media in Lagos. The social chaos which follows – many view the aliens as witches or demons – leads to scenes of graphic violence and apocalyptic terror, until Adaora and her pals finally manage to involve the President of Nigeria who, in a neatly inverted cliché, asks Adoyele to ‘‘take me to your leader.’’ That may be the novel’s most waggish use of SF boilerplate, but throughout there is a sense that Okorafor is having a good deal of fun picking up her Lego bricks from SF, horror, comics, superhero tales, folklore, horror, and even animal fables, and constructing something a good deal more architectural and less ungainly than it seems it ought to be. Fortunately, even though her central concerns are as serious as in her previous fiction – and perhaps a good deal more timely – we get to join in the fun as well.

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Cynthia Ward reviews Melissa Scott

In the city of Astreiant, the Dog Moon races are about to begin. So Nicolas Rathe, a senior adjunct point (police officer) in the Point of Dreams district, finds it odd to receive a missing person’s notice for Aardre Beier, an astrologer who specializes in canine horoscopes. Rathe suspects foul play, but can’t investigate. Jurisdiction belongs to the Fairs’ Point station, whose points see no cause for alarm, and have no liking for Rathe.

Dog-racing season is a recurrent madness in Astreiant. This time, the lunacy is exacerbated by widespread anger against the prominent Malfiliatre family, which has recently defaulted on a multitude of debts. One of the creditors is Rathe’s lover, Philip Eslingen. The ex-soldier needs the money, but tries to console himself with the thought that the bankruptcy court might award him a nice coat, or even a horse.

Rathe becomes drawn into the matter when a dog trainer purportedly kills himself over losses to the bankrupt family. The death is suspicious, since the man stood to earn a good income from the Dog Moon races. The death occurred in Rathe’s jurisdiction, but his investigation is foiled nonetheless, because the decedent was a resident of Fairs’ Point.

When the court handling the Malfiliatre bankruptcy awards Rathe’s lover a racing dog, Rathe gains a legitimate reason to enter the Fairs’ Point district, where the race-tracks are located. Policeman and ex-soldier once more find themselves working together on an investigation. This time, however, the collaboration doesn’t go too smoothly, because Eslingen is weighing an offer to join a new, horse-mounted law-enforcement company–an organization that threatens to render Rathe and his fellow points superfluous.

The investigation itself yields only deeper mysteries. A second man associated with the races goes missing. Silver coin disappears from double-locked strongboxes, while copper and gold are untouched. The thefts are obviously magical. They’re also impossible, because silver is impervious to magic.

Or so Rathe’s alchemist friend avers, until the missing men turn up. Both were slain by magically potentiated silver. The stars are in an unusual alignment, and a person or persons unknown has discovered a way to move silver by combining astrology with alchemy. But the goal isn’t murder or clever little thefts. The ultimate target must be the accumulated winnings, which are paid out on the last day of the Dog Moon races. Such a sizeable and dramatic loss would affect innumerable individuals and result in mass rioting and fatalities. But the Fairs Point station doesn’t accept Rathe and Eslingen’s radical explanation, and they’re forbidden to act on their own.

Melissa Scott’s new novel, Fairs’ Point, is the most recent book in the Astreiant series. It’s also the latest by internal chronology, following Point of Hopes (1995), written by Scott and the late Lisa A. Barnett, Point of Knives (2012) by Scott, and the Lambda Literary Award winner Point of Dreams (2001) by Scott and Barnett. The Astreiant books are police procedurals, but with a difference: they’re set in a secondary world in which alchemy, necromancy, and astrology are working sciences.

The stars and planets above Astreiant aren’t the ones we know (for starters, the sky sports two suns). And, while the stars hardly control every aspect of a character’s life, they do shape destiny. Someone born to a thieves’ dynasty under the wrong stars will fail as a thief, though she receives the most expert training. Unless she wants to end up in jail (or worse), she must pick a profession suited to her horoscope.

Because astrology works, Astreiant society is arranged along very different lines than we know. So, while some professions in Astreiant are considered “women’s jobs” and others “men’s jobs,” no one thinks anything of seeing a man in a woman’s job, or vice-versa, because birth stars trump biology and social status. For the same reason, no one sees any significance in skin color or sexual orientation. But don’t leap to the conclusion that Astreiant and its neighbors are peaceable kingdoms. Nations go to war, lovers quarrel, and ambitions and body counts mount. All the usual emotions apply. So does inequality. The nations are monarchies; the monarchies are queendoms; and women are more likely than men to hold the other positions of authority. And, while the “levelers” oppose class differences, no one questions the sex discrimination.

The societal aspects of the world-building are well thought out and fascinating; and so are the rest. Scott provides enough detail in Fairs’ Point to let you know she’s worked out every particular of her world, yet she never provides so much detail as to confuse, overwhelm, or bore the reader. As a result, Astreiant feels very real, very lived-in, even very familiar. You might almost be convinced that her city is a real place, and that you almost wouldn’t need a map to get around.

Scott provides a similarly balanced approach to characterization. Her twin leads, Rathe and Eslingen, are as convincing and comfortable as Rathe’s old coat, but they never become so familiar that they lose their ability to surprise the reader. Even Scott’s minor players ring true.

As for the mystery, it’s as strong as the characterization and world-building. Centered on a crime that could occur only in Astreiant, Fairs’ Point takes many unpredictable, impressive twists and turns on its way to the conclusion. And, if the reader deduces a guilty party slightly ahead of the protagonists, that doesn’t make the mystery any less fresh or imaginative. In its mystery–in all its parts–Fairs’ Point is, like its predecessors, a pleasure.

 

Faren Miller reviews Robin Riopelle

Deadroads, first novel by Canadian illustrator Robin Riopelle, moves deftly between the flashbacks of three children growing up in southern swampland (here Bayou Country in the 1990s) and contemporary scenes of the hunt for an uncanny serial killer, as a long-dispersed family reacts to the father’s death.

Louisiana Cajuns cling to folkways that go back to medieval France. As children on the Bayou, the Sarrazin kids couldn’t help but notice their parents’ remarkable sensitivity to the ghosts, demons, and angels who lurk near our world and sometimes touch it, for good or ill. Maman tamed a private ghost-companion; Papa Aurie sent more restless, difficult ghosts down the Deadroads with the force of ritual.

After his wife left him – taking along a young daughter she would later abandon – Aurie moved to the Midwest, but continued to find work breaking up hauntings, until the last case left him dead in a rail yard. Though Lutie (the girl her mother dumped far from Louisiana) has grown into her teens with a loving foster family in Canada (none of them Gifted or Acadian), she still has enough Sarrazin in her for news of the murder to jolt her into action. She needs the brothers who drifted apart in the States, where Sol became a driver/paramedic for Denver Health and Baz tours as a wandering musician. They still have their own odd talents: Sol traces unworldly pathways; Baz fascinates spirits wherever he sings, despite a professed disbelief in magic.

When Lutie, Baz, and Sol rejoin to hunt the killer (a monster driven by entirely human passions and grievances) through rural Nebraska, the supernatural never seems far away. Here Sol isn’t just an outsider bored with his new surroundings: ‘‘Running between the two – the dying river and the crumbling highway – bright open sky, thin dry earth, blocky black cattle destined for the dinner plate, and iron rails. These were the constants, cardinal points in this limbo.’’

Deadroads is a Novel of Supernatural Suspense with elements of the Western’s quest, showdown, and vengeance… Riopelle knows what she’s doing.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Stephen Baker

If two incidents constitute a trend—as they surely do, according to the careless metrics of desperate journalists such as myself—then science fiction is in for a spate of books in which the common furniture of the genre gets a fresh, down-to-the-roots reconceptualizing. What exactly do I mean by this?

Consider William Forstchen’s recent Pillar to the Sky, in which he takes the common, decades-old trope of the space elevator—presented nowadays in most books that have cause to employ it as an offhand bit of assumed technology used mostly to further a plot—and foregrounds it, examining the initial creation of such a device in fresh, complex detail. This recontextualizing or rethinking or inversion of background/foreground is something that I think is a very useful tool, in limited doses. I’m not sure we need to reinvent the wheel for every item in the SF toolbox. But with a few select ones where the hard edges have been smoothed down to a featureless nub, the technique proves stimulating.

Such a literary tactic often appears appealing when new developments in the real world mandate a rethink. In the case of the space elevator, new progress in materials science has made the prospect seem more do-able. And fresh economic and environmental worries also serve to propel Forstchen’s narrative.

In the case of Stephen Baker’s debut novel, The Boost, whose focal trope is that of brain implants, the impetus for tackling this bit of standard cyberpunk gear—again, used nowadays mostly as off-the-shelf background hardware—is not, I believe, technical progress, but social and cultural events. The science of inserting computers into the human brain has not really advanced much in the past three decades since such implants were a common feature of Gibsonian SF. No recent headline has really demanded we prep ourselves for some imminent deployment of such devices.

But what has happened since the cyberpunk days is the advent of mobile computing, in the form of smart phones and tablets and similar gadgets. In effect, these exterior devices mimic or mirror or foreshadow actual brain implants. And what the usage of such devices has shown us is troubling. The ways they have changed face-to-face communicating, mating rituals, recreational pursuits and a dozen other aspects of social and civic behavior is sometimes encouraging, but more often, to my mind, highly disturbing. There are now confirmed instances of cell phone addiction, and individual usage rates of 150 app interactions daily. Think about it: that’s multiple screen swipes roughly every ten minutes of one’s entire waking interval, day after day after day.

Reading The Boost, one discovers that Baker plainly knows all this and is intent on giving us a stefnal allegory about our contemporary madness. But that goal does not stand in the way of a rousing, idea-packed adventure story from this highly competent beginning novelist, whose CV as a tech writer for BusinessWeek has obviously prepped him well to speculate on cutting edge technology and its impact.

The year is 2072, and every single citizen who is not an outcast “wild” human has “the boost” in his or her head: a gadget no bigger than a fly’s wing, implanted in youth, that offers virtual reality, augmented reality, mind-to-mind communications, life-logging, auxiliary memory and general internet access. With free annual software upgrades! “Every year, some 430 million Americans wake up one day in the middle of March feeling different, smarter, snappier.”

But that upgrade is now the source of trouble. This year’s download contains a secret back door inserted by the Chinese engineers, Gate 318 Blue, allowing who-knows-what kinds of hacking. Learning of this, our hero, Ralf Alvare of the federal Upgrade Department, finds his life immediately overturned and in peril before he can even act. He’s kidnapped and his boost is surgically removed.

Escaping with the help of a mysterious Asian man, now a helpless “wild human” himself, he goes on the run, hooking up for assistance with sometime paramour Ellen (who happens to sport the fashionable “Artemis” somatype). They head to El Paso to meet with Ralf’s brother Simon, who might offer some solutions.

But on their trail, under the command of despotic, ninety-three-year-old billionaire John Vallinger, is the oversized hired killer named Oscar Espinoza. The trio of Ellen, Rafe and Simon eventually flee over the border, into Ciudad Juárez, where everyone is a wild human. There, they encounter the local crime kingpin, Don Paquito, whose old-fashioned illicit network—featuring an actual newspaper, of all antique things!—might just offer a solution to their problems and to the larger dilemma of the tainted upgrade.

Now, before we begin to look at Baker’s commentary on the nature of the boost—and by extension, our always-wired cell phone culture—let’s give him props for sheer storytelling. His tale is rendered in light, easy, smooth prose which walks the tragicomic tightrope brilliantly and deftly. There’s a definite Donald Westlake vibe to such elements as put-upon hit man Espinoza, who relishes becoming wild because it frees him from his overseer, Vallinger’s hireling, the virtual-porn entrepreneur George Smedley, allowing Espinoza to luxuriate in Mexico with lots of meals of delicious goat. Then there’s the intriguing love story between Ellen and Ralf; the surprising family dynamics of the Alvare clan; the lifestyle of being a beautiful Artemis woman; international realpolitik; and a host of other non-tech aspects of late-21st-century life.

But the most substantial aspect of this adventure is Baker’s dissection of what the boost does to baseline humans, who are deemed Neanderthals and essentially disabled compared to the boost users. Baker catalogs the dismaying shifts: people can be rudely having virtual sex while seeming to converse with you. They are content with eating tasteless protein pills and allowing the boost to fool their sensorium with artificial tastes. Eye-to-eye contact is painful. Ralf to Ellen: “It’s easier to manage memories of you…than to manage the relationship in real time.”

Perhaps the core speech occurs when older brother Simon and Ralf are talking about their different childhood experiences of the boost, echoing some of the same thoughts that Rudy Rucker has blogged about, concerning simulations versus nature.

Simon goes on to describe the generation gap that he still feels with his little brother. He and his friends grew up with their experiences grounded in the wild brain… “Then they come along and give us virtual apps that were just the crudest version of reality… When we were disappointed, they called us Luddites… But your generation was different… You accepted the virtual as real.”

And there’s the theme in a nutshell. Reality versus simulation, solipsism versus mutuality, dominance by constructs versus unmediated interactions. This is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time, explored here with sophistication and insight.

One final observation on this novel: Stephen Baker comes from outside the genre, but is as proficient, savvy and adept as any prozine-trained acolyte of Campbell. Like Ernest Cline with Ready Player One, Kenneth Calhoun with Black Moon, Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of other allied “mainstream” books, he proves that SF is now truly a universal language accessible to anyone anywhere who is willing to learn it.

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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