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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

The Affinities, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor 978-0-7653-3262-2, $25.99, 302pp, hc) April 2015.

I suppose it’s pretty unlikely that Robert Charles Wilson had Goethe in mind when he titled his new novel The Affinities, but the fact is that Goethe’s 1809 romantic melodrama Elective Affinities stands a good chance of being the ur-text for stories which try to find connections between measurable scientific principles and the mysteries of human bonding. In Goethe’s case, the science was chemistry (a metaphor which has never died away, even though it has never quite worked), but then he lived long before the era of ACTs and Match.com, and his novel is really about the affinities between individuals, not whole groups. A version of eugenics was used to divide people into castes in Huxley’s Brave New World, but by the time we got to stories like Asimov’s ‘‘Profession’’ (1957), and much more recently to Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent series, standardized aptitude tests had pretty much taken over, just as they’ve pretty much taken over the lives of anyone under 18. Apart from ramping up the testing procedures to include neurology and brain-mapping, Wilson’s main variations on this theme, drawn mostly from social media, are that the testing is purely voluntary (and not cheap), that it’s run by a private corporation called InterAlia, and that only about 60% of the testees end up qualifying for any of the twenty-two ‘‘Affinity groups’’ that the company has identified through its research. It’s tempting to say the novel is a grown-up version of the Divergent series, but that would overlook one of the novel’s main insights: if the government pigeonholes you on the basis of required tests, it’s pretty much a dystopia to begin with, but if you choose to be tested and join a group, the dystopia or utopia is what you and the group make of it.

Frankly, this idea of affinity groups is not the most powerful of Wilson’s conceits, but his novels have always straddled a line between compelling stories of character and complex family relationships on the one hand, and Big Reveals on the other. To the extent that The Affinities is successful – and I think it is – depends far more on the former than the latter. Adam Fisk is a struggling art student in Toronto, his tuition paid by a loving grandmother even though his hardnosed father and politically ambitious brother disapprove. After a painful confrontation with the police during a demonstration he isn’t even part of, he decides to take the InterAlia tests, and finds himself assigned to the largest and most powerful of the Affinities, called Tau. His first meeting with members of the group is almost utopian, leading not only to a group of friends on the same wavelength, but to a romantic attachment and even a job.

At this point, many writers, and probably many readers, would find it hard to resist the paranoid thriller in the making – Tau is ominous! Tau is vampires! It’s a cookbook! – but to his credit Wilson doesn’t want to go there. The folks at Tau, from the Indian-American woman that he falls in love with to the aging ladies who run a kind of safe house to the burly gay man who serves as the local group’s muscle, are mostly ingratiating and humane characters. There are some conspiracies afoot, however, from the real purpose of the affinity groups (learned from a meeting with the original designer of ‘‘teleodynamics,’’ who turns out to be a kind of Hari Seldon with his predictions of future developments) to a competing group called Het – far more hierarchical and militaristic than Tau – which seeks to leverage political power through its members. Wilson never really makes how all the other affinity groups operate quite convincing, or what their different personalities are, or what’s supposed to happen to the 40% who never qualify for any group, but his central notion that such groups can find ‘‘new ways to model the boundary between consciousness and culture,’’ with the potential to reorganize human society along lines that might threaten traditional corporate, government, or ethnic loyalties, is intriguing. But without Wilson’s sharp character studies, ranging from Fisk to his ex-girlfriend to his rather unpleasant family members and his more likeable affinity mates, intriguing is all that it would be. Wilson has always written strongly humanistic tales of relationships within SF frameworks, and sometimes the SF itself is mostly a way of exploring the ways in which we cope, or fail to cope, with change. This may be Wilson’s grand theme, and it’s no less skillfully handled here than in his more spectacular slingshot novels.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Dale Bailey

The End of the End of Everything, Dale Bailey (Arche Press 978-1630230074, $16.00, 240pp, hc) April 7, 2015.

Much like a moderately more prolific Ted Chiang, Dale Bailey is one of those figures in the field whose every appearance, however distantly spaced, is cause for immediate attention and rejoicing, given the high quality of his writing and the freshness of his ideas and worldview. Since his first sale in 1993, the subsequent two decades have seen three novels and a story collection issued under his byline. Not exactly a Harry Turtledovian rate of production. But please see the opening sentences of this review for why this should not matter.

But the year 2015 bids fair to become a Baileyian Climacteric. Not only do we have this second story collection in hand, but his new novel, The Subterranean Season, appears in November from Underland. Huzzah!

This volume holds nine stories of obvious excellence. Let’s have a look.

“The End of the World As We Know It” features a protagonist named Wyndham and an explicit reference to apocalypse by carnivorous plants. The savvy reader immediately apprehends a metatextual edge to the tale. And, indeed, Bailey is out to deconstruct the very notion and tradition of the armageddon narrative. In interstitial paragraphs he surveys both literary and real-life disasters, times when the world seemed about to end, with the clear eye of some observer from outside mere mortal affairs. But Bailey is not content with any kind of semi-arid historical metafiction. Instead, using Wyndham’s life as the only human on Earth, he digs deeply and bravely into the painful skin and bones of how such an existence would actually feel, without any of the clichéd pulp trappings. Needless to say, the result is existentially bracing, like falling off the top of Mount Everest might be.

We are in patented Stephen King territory with “The Bluehole,” but Bailey makes the mode his own. It’s the 1980s, an era Bailey evokes with plenty of tight pop-cultural referents that add metaphorical weight to the events. Two teens, Jeremy—our narrator, a hapless but bright and sensitive lad flailing in a dysfunctional family—and Jimmy, the new cool kid, begin to pal around one summer. Emotional dynamics and balances shift and sway, but at the center of everything is the mysterious deadly lake alluded to in the title. The climax finds Jimmy and Jeremy there alone—or is a monster with them; and if present, has the monster surfaced out of its own urges, or because they called it?

“The Creature Recants” finds Bailey channeling, to some small degree, Howard Waldrop, with marvelous results fully worthy of the elder role model. We learn that the amphibian monster star of the fabled The Creature from the Black Lagoon was not a man in a rubber suit, but a real sapient being whose life story is being filmed—more or less accurately, given Hollywood’s sleazy predilections. Inhabiting his consciousness, the reader gets a lesson in prejudice, love and artistry—with some droll black laughs as well.

There have always been two schools of time travel fiction. The larger school revels in paradoxes and messing about with history, closer to a kind of adventure fiction. The other school, much smaller, uses the trope to explore the psychology and spirituality of its characters. I’m thinking Silverberg’s Up the Line and Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Aldiss’s Cryptozoic. Bailey mines this latter vein with exquisite delicacy in “Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous.” A couple on the outs with each other, Peter and Gwyneth, go on a dino-safari to save their marriage, but the events at the resort start to resemble a certain Hemingway tale rather than a second honeymoon.

The stark mimetic power of “A Rumor of Angels,” with its dusty, Steinbeckian heat and poverty, climaxes in a totally organic but still unexpected supernatural fashion. Runaway boy Tom Carver finds himself uneasily adopted by the Overton family, whose own son Charlie begins to dote on Tom. But Tom’s destiny seems to take him away from all he loves and those who love him in return.

Bailey melds the kind of Warner Brothers pre-code grittiness of those “career girl encounters the sordid details of life” films with the New Weird ambiance of a China Miéville tale in “Eating at the End-of-the-World Café.” The city of Acheron, full of damned souls, hosts our stressed and desperate heroine, Eleanor, a waitress struggling to keep her life together and to care for her sick child. Pushed to the wall, Eleanor eventually visits the infernal pit at the center of the city, where a certain bargain awaits, to be taken or disdained.

“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” reminds me of primo Roger Zelazny crossed with Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route.” In a crumbling future, gasoline is at a premium and organized gangs go after tankers. Narrated by Gus, a fellow who is “sidekick” to Lightning Jack (an always productive strategy, the off-center POV), the tale blends action-movie thrills with more intimate matters of the heart.

If Kit Reed had collaborated with Steve Aylett, the result might resemble “Troop 9,” Bailey’s account of a Girl Scout squad that goes dingo. Unapologetically presenting the irrationality of the girls as a given, the story plays mercilessly with Tarzan riffs and has resonance with all those tales of angry survivalists eluding authorities in the wilderness.

Finally, in a piece that neatly bookends the opener, I detect a masterful homage to J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands in the title story, which takes place in a decadent art community named “Cerulean Cliffs.” A slow entropic fadeout besieges the folks gathered in the resort, causing them to face their true motivations for the first time.

Throughout all these fictions, however varied their subject matter or atmosphere, Bailey exhibits his compassion for and comprehension of his characters, his inerrant sense of choosing just the right words, and his determination to make all the matter of fantastika over afresh. Such a book makes one hope that our genre still has a future.

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, late April

Giving the Good Story award this time to the Malik piece at Tor.com, where I found a couple near-misses as well.

Publications Reviewed



Tor.com, April 2015

A fine novella here from Usman T Malik. I wanted to enjoy the other two stories, but couldn’t get over some stumbling blocks.

“Ballroom Blitz” by Veronica Schanoes

A contemporary variation on the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, featuring twelve brothers “cursed to remain in a rock punk club for their bad behavior.” Which might not, to a certain set of youth, seem much like a curse at all, but after a long while, it begins to wear.

I remember the rest of it, too, waking up wanting to die, the hacking coughs, the bleak despair driving me—driving us—to drown ourselves in the neon darkness, the impossible wish to see sunshine just once more, the imprisonment. But when I look back, everything glows with false freedom, and I remember us always laughing.

Yet Jake, the oldest brother and the one responsible for their situation, makes it clear that the bar is indeed an outpost of hell, except that others there can freely come and go, such as the twelve sisters.

I really like what the author has done with the fairytale material, inverting the storyline to focus on the brothers, not the sisters, and omitting the outsider from the equation while adding a new central figure: the bartender/witch/goddess who lays the curse. We see that it’s the brothers whose boots have holes worn in their soles [only to self-repair every day]. There are hints, too, of other tales, such as the ones where dancing is a capital punishment, and stories of sisters saving their [own] brothers. And of course the obligatory near-impossible task imposed as the condition for saving them. And, most importantly, time, which is where I start asking questions.

In fairy tales and fairy lands, time can stop, and people can spend years without aging or dying. But once they leave, once the story, as revisions usually do, leaves fairyland and returns to the mundane world, mundane rules again apply, the aging process begins again, and people have to get jobs and get on with mundane lives. “Happily ever after” doesn’t apply, and the story doesn’t end with twelve weddings.

This story is Jake’s, for whose crime all his brothers are condemned to suffer, although the story makes it clear that they remained out of loyalty when they could have gone free. They suffered because Jake was an asshole who let himself be ruled by his rage. The story doesn’t belong to Isabel, the girl who brings her sisters to save them all, and definitely it doesn’t belong to her sisters, who remain blanks, except that they only come to the bar in loyalty to support her. The story wants us to go with Jake to find Isabel, who has refused to accept that he loves her because she suffers from crippling depression. But I can’t get past Jake’s brothers, and even moreso, time.

He tells us more than once that the youngest brother is fourteen years old, was fourteen when he came to the bar and apparently still fourteen when he left it. While trapped in the bar, he would cut himself. Another brother once hanged himself. Yet from the moment they are allowed to go free, most of this trauma seems to dissipate. All but Jake, the brothers do well, they get good jobs, they have nice houses and cars, they marry [not any of Isabel’s sisters]. But we aren’t in fairyland anymore. All that stuff takes time, takes years. I want to know how all this normality was achieved. I particularly want to know about the youngest brother [youngest brothers are always supposed to be important in these tales] and the other teenagers, how they recovered from their trauma, did they go back to school? I also start to wonder about their parents, if they had them, because while time stopped for the brothers while they were trapped for years in fairyland, it didn’t stop outside, as Isabel’s storyline makes clear. What did the brothers do about reclaiming their IDs and explaining the discrepancy of their ages? This is the stuff that matters in mundania. Isabel’s timeline suggests that it can’t have been much more than a year between the time the brothers were free and when Jake found her again, with his brothers all prosperous and employed adults. Is the story claiming that the brothers somehow, magically, became the ages that they would have been? While this is possible in a fairy tale, I see no evidence of it here.

So not only do I wonder what a fourteen-year-old kid was doing in a bar, I start to wonder about Isabel and her sisters in there. Because we learn that Isabel is the oldest of the sisters, which I certainly can’t accept. She was in high school, studying calculus, which ought to make her sixteen or seventeen, and when Jake finds her afterwards, she has just turned eighteen. So how old were all these younger sisters in the bar? Even if they’re not all natural sibs, as the story claims, the youngest have to have been way too young for this scene. Isabel does have parents, and we’re left to imagine the girls all sneaking out of the house at night, dancing till dawn, and no father/king noticing the fact and sending soldiers to follow them. And while I’m on this trail of thought, it leads me to wonder just how old is Jake, the oldest of twelve brothers, when he’s fucking this teenage, maybe underage girl in the bar? In fairyland, age may not matter, but in mundania this starts to feel kind of creepy.

“The Ways of Walls and Words” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

A potentially interesting juxtaposition: in a dungeon of the Dominicans in 16th century Mexico, we find two girls, both in their own ways victims of the Inquisition. Anica is a Converso, whose entire family has been denounced for practicing their ancestral Jewish religion. Bienvenida [not her real name] is of the conquered, indigenous Nuata people, whose ancestral religion and lore are likewise viewed with suspicion by the Dominicans. Bienvenida, now a servant tasked to sweep the floors in the hallway outside the cells, is well aware that circumstances might one day place her inside. The Conversos are isolated, kept in solitary confinement in cells so thick-walled that voices can’t pass, but Bienvenida is able to hear Anica reciting poems through her door. Although it is forbidden, she initiates contact. Both girls have formidable mothers, but Bienvenida’s mother is a stronger presence in the story, an expert in the uses of native plants for purposes medicinal and otherwise. Under the Inquisition, this is a precarious occupation, but she believes she has an absolute obligation to help anyone in need. Bienvenida shares this belief, which is in part why she attempts to help Anica.

So this is a potentially interesting situation with strong story possibilities, but somehow it doesn’t really come to life. I don’t feel a bond between the two girls, ostensibly based on Bienvenida’s love of poetry, of which we don’t see very much. Anica seems just a bit ungrateful for the other girl’s attention and assistance, for the risks she’s taking. Instead of a story of the connection between two characters, a story moving and heartbreaking, the author seems to be striving for an artificially elevated tone.

I look out my window now and, instead of an empty sky caged by bars, I imagine the leaves of our fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees fluttering there. My mother bought them dear, right off one of the Spanish ships, then planted them in our courtyard so that they would rub lovingly against one another when the wind blew. None had yet given fruit when we were taken from our home, but I picture globes of brilliant red, ovals of green, and sweet, dark teardrops hiding among their leaves. I pretend I am swallowing the sparkling, rubied seeds of the first, and reaching for the scion of the last amid its fragrant greenery. 

This piece is based on historical fact. Anica was the youngest member of the very prominent Carvajal family; their fates were as described here, except for Anica’s. Many of the details here, such as the Carvajals passing notes among themselves, written on seeds, are a matter of record.

“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T Malik

A cosmic mystery. As a child, Salman liked to listen to his grandfather’s tale of the impoverished Mughal princess who ran a tea stand beneath the eucalyptus tree near his school in Old Lahore. She used to say she could come to no harm there because of the jinn who lived in the tree, charged with the protection of her family. But except for Salman, family and friends in America scoffed at the old man’s tales. Later, when he died, Salman discovered a treasure of books on the nature of the jinn, as well as a journal that suggested his grandfather’s stories might be more true than he had ever suspected. He becomes determined to visit Pakistan and seek out evidence from those days, including the treasure, “the map to the memory of heaven”, that the princess might have bequeathed to his grandfather, hidden beneath the roots of the eucalyptus, destroyed by a lightning strike that might have been of supernatural origin.

It plummeted: a fluttering, helpless, enflamed ball shooting to the earth. It shrieked as it dove, flickering rapidly in and out of space and time but bound by their quantum fetters. It wanted to rage but couldn’t. It wanted to save the lightning trees, to upchuck their tremulous shimmering roots and plant them somewhere the son of man wouldn’t find them. Instead it was imprisoned, captured by prehuman magic and trapped to do time for a sin so old it had forgotten what it was.

So now it tumbled and plunged, hated and hating. It changed colors like a fiendish rainbow: mid-flame blue, muscle red, terror green, until the force of its fall bleached all its hues away and it became a pale scorching bolt of fire.

For readers who know of the jinn only through tales derived from the Arabian Nights, here is a deeper version. The story is concerned with them as expressed in Islamic theology, in relationship to the creation, as beings of fire, the earlier creation, as humans were made of clay. It’s fascinating and poetic stuff, at least to the theologically or mystically inclined. But it is also the epic romance of Muhammad Sharif’s life of marvels.

–RECOMMENDED



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 170-172 April 2015

A three-Thursday month giving us extra fiction from this site. #170 features fantastic creatures fighting back against capture, #171 has fugitives and exiles, and #172 is a Weird Western special issue promoting the publisher’s anthology of reprints from the zine. I’m particularly fond of this subgenre, and two of these pieces hit the right notes.

#170

“Primaflora’s Journey” by Cat Rambo

The revenge of the dryads. Primaflora was a happy dryad in her grove until it was attacked by agents of the Duke, the trees chopped down and the motile dryads captured and chained for transport to the palace, where they join the menagerie of abused beasts. This is her first, long, journey, on which Primaflora, alone of her fellow dryads, considers resistance to her captors. With the aid of an Oracular Pig [sic] she escapes and joins a resistance group, after another journey.

She would see the city brought down, chopped as savagely as the trees. She would see her sisters avenged. Instead of the slow green life she had known, a contemplative existence, she would choose one no dryad had undertaken before: a life of fire and vengeance. She would see the city destroyed somehow, see the ravenous maw that had eaten so many of her sisters closed for good.

I see a lot of problems here. The life cycle of the dryads themselves is fairly well-conceived, although I wonder how they breed, whether there are males of their species or if they’re gynoecious; the text doesn’t say. At some point of growing maturity, the motile forms undergo a compulsion to root and take on the form of a tree, which proves to be a growing difficulty for Primaflora in the course of the tale. But once we arrive at the city, we find way too many other kinds of fantastic beasts from a variety of mythologies and other imaginaria. It’s an incoherent muddle. At the least, the author could have limited the collection to creatures of the same mythological origin as the dryads. I get an uneasy sense that this is just another version of Narnia, where it’s OK to cut down trees as long as they’re not Talking Trees.

The wood of the dryad trees, once cut down, is good for nothing but burning. The Duke’s city runs on firewood power and has deforested its immediate vicinity. But there is a special bounty placed on dryad wood that makes no obvious sense. And when new dryads root in the Duke’s grove, the older ones, even if still flowering, are cut down to make room. It’s a wasteful practice that seems mainly to demonstrate that the system is evil at its core and justify Primaflora’s passion for vengeance. Although this, too, is inconsistent. Primaflora volunteers to join the camp of the resistance forces, but as soon as she is offered a weapon to raid the human settlement, she gets cold feet.

Mainly, though, this tale is tedious, slow and repetitive. Primaflora undergoes one journey after the other and never really gets anywhere. The very last scene does make up for a certain number of sins, but not the whole multitude.

“Wild Things Got to Go Free” by Heather Clitheroe

This one had me grinding my teeth all the way through, as it employs one of the more deceptive devices in fiction. The narrator is a child, Leah, whose mother is one several people in her village who are leaving for a reason no one will tell Leah, because she’s a child. Leah’s mother promises to tell her, then doesn’t. She promises to take Leah with her, then doesn’t. Naturally and justifiably, Leah whines and complains that no one will tell her because she’s a child, but in fact it’s the author she should blame, artificially attempting to ratchet up the story tension and make readers feel they’re being treated like a child, with the consequence that I, at least, don’t care about any of them.

#171

“The Fires of Mercy” by Spencer Ellsworth

In a fantasy realm something like Arabia where the religion is something like Islam, an assassin follows the repressed cult of a Thirteenth Prophet, on whose behalf she has led a raid on the Emperor to kill him and every member of his harem. But after the blood has been shed, she finds one woman and her baby surviving, hidden in a closet.

She had stared at them, and she thought not of the name of the Thirteenth Prophet, not of the crimes of the Faith, but of the Thousand Names she revered, and she remembered, for the first time in years, that one of those names was Mercy.

Thus, sparing the two, she heads into the desert on a quest to find a safe refuge for them, but her former followers pursue her.

I could have used more insight into the assassin’s impulse to mercy, but the story is sufficiently well-written to keep me from great heights of crankiness.

“Sinseerly a Friend & Yr Obed’t” by Thomas M Waldroon

The title definitely intrigues. It suggests the likelihood of humor, but that’s not really what’s going on here. It involves a Tall Tale, but it turns out to be a true tale. Mainly, it features an interesting protagonist and a very entertaining narrative. The central character is Mr Stutley Northrup, sometimes called “Old Stuck-Up”, who lives the near Pennsylvania shore of Lake Erie in the mid-nineteenth century. Now comes to him the Justice of the Peace, a former student, wondering about the rumors of a sea serpent in the lake. Northrup isn’t impressed; he already knows all about the sea serpent, seen it himself. But there’s a complication, the real reason the JP has come to Northup about—and against—the monster. A body has washed ashore, and it’s been identified as Amos, Northrup’s hired man, known by him as a fugitive slave.

The narrative wanders, entertainingly so, here and there, back and forth, in the course of which we learn of Northrup’s upbringing in a “hemi-demi-semi-quasi Quaker” community where he learned toleration of all living creatures, and where he sees a portent that he doesn’t, then, entirely understand. The mystery of the sea serpent is one that readers will grasp far more readily than the local JP, a man who requires some persuasion.

He continues: Now, as for our friend in the lake. Been there long as I’ve been alive. Longer, maybe. Plenty of time to wreak all the havoc a soul could fear, if havoc was wished for. If my understanding’s good, we’ve as long again to go before any hope of rescue. Yes, rescue. Don’t be a fool, Chambers. Sit down.

But there is a second, more subtle mystery that reveals itself only at the end, requiring readers to do some re-thinking of the evidence.

–RECOMMENDED

#172

“Splitskin” by E Catherine Tobler

Set in a fantasy world previously used by the author, which has explored various sorts of shared individuals, and where individuals seem to have their own spirit creatures. At this time, the California gold rush is underway. The protagonists are Native Americans born to thunderbird women who were one day seized by Raven and imprisoned in a mountain. It is their ambition to free their mothers, but first they have to reach the mountain. In this, they are aided by a shifty man named Jackson, who runs a magic circus train. Jackson’s motives are self-serving.

He believed the thunderbirds were true and he wanted their power for his own. He felt that with the double spirited children born of the thunderbird’s own bodies, he might achieve this. This was visible to anyone who looked into the depths of his eyes. The serpent wanted to wrestle the birds, wanted to claim them even as he knew he could not.

But the narrator is convinced that they are stronger than he is and takes his offer.

The piece strikes me more as fantasy than a Weird Western, most strictly defined, and it relies overly much on the previous stories in this setting. What interests me is the way Gugán is a raven, of raven heritage, while the narrator is eagle. This makes the precise nature of the identity, or shared soul, between them unclear. I’d think that if they were in any real way one, they’d have the same spirit bird. The mothers are both thunderbird, but it’s not clear if they, too, share whatever Gugán and the narrator share. How much we are to take this as literal and how much as imagery?

I also wonder is why raven and eagle are capitalized in referring to the two children. Gugán isn’t Raven, that is, The Raven, Raven Himself, the Trickster god, the individual who stole the thunderbird women while Gugán could only watch helplessly. Individuals can take on the forms of their spirit creatures, have the god’s spirit within them, but this is hardly the same as becoming the god itself. Or so it seems, when the narrator says, “Gugán blamed himself, believed he had called Raven because he shared a kinship with the trickster and his ways.” Raven is the adversary here, Gugán is the narrator’s ally against him, and I’m wondering how this is possible. Did the conflict between himself and his spirit doom him? Again, it’s unclear.

“Swallowing Silver” by Erin Cashier

A mining town in the Black Hills has some strange neighbors, a community of werewolves or, as John Halpern calls them, devil-men. Halpern’s sister married a werewolf, which makes him Eldred’s brother-in-law and gives him the right to ask a favor. A supply wagon has recently been attacked in the hills, and Halpern thinks it was a wendigo. He appeals to their common interest, thinking that sometimes it takes a devil to fight a devil.

“But if it’s as I say, Eldred—it’ll take every wagon that comes through. That’s how they work. They’re always starving, you know that. Give the thing long enough, and I guarantee it’ll attack town.” He still couldn’t read Eldred’s face, and he didn’t need to look to know what Merrill thought.

Definitely a Weird Western, with monsters and horror, although at its heart this is a story of family and its ties. As Halpern notes, some werewolves are assholes, some aren’t. This probably doesn’t apply to the wendigo. I rather wonder about the wendigo, how it ended up in the plains instead of its native forests of the north-east, but I suppose that, like anyone else, legendary monsters can travel.

“The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” by Shannon Peavey

Leo and Cary were brothers afflicted with reciprocal curses: Leo could only say what people want to hear and Cary only what they don’t. In consequence, Leo tended to speak lies and Cary the truth, however unpalatable. So unpalatable that one day Leo cut his brother’s throat to shut him up. He wasn’t happy to see the severed head appear in a jar, a new featured attraction of the medicine show where he works. At night, he sneaks into the tent and the head speaks to him, and Leo speaks back, unable as always to say what he really thinks.

Leo stepped closer to the jar. Cary’s white-blond hair floated up from his skull, the tips waving slightly. It looked like strands of spiderweb, or exposed nerves.

Another one definitely a Weird Western, emphasis on the weird. I find myself wanting to know more about these brothers, how Cary in particular managed to live as long as he did, although, as Leo discovers, telling people what they want to hear can also backfire.



Strange Horizons, April 2015

The Ausema story is my favorite of these selections. I like the whimsy.

“Noise Pollution” by Alison Wilgus

Urban fantasy in a future cursed by malignant clouds of Noise. Which is to say that the Musical, a minority of the population, are so cursed, not the Tonedeaf. The Musical must be sure to keep a Song going at all times, to ward off the Noise, and they employ the obsolete technology of cassette for the purpose. There is no rationale whatsoever given for this situation. Our hero, Cheryl, is a talented singer and also a screw-up, who hands us an overload of tape neep.

Type Two BASF ferrochromes, from before they moved production to Korea when I can find them. AC biasing is fine, but no Dolby noise reduction, I don’t care if you think I’m crazy, the preemphasis weakens the range of the spell, everyone knows it, sometimes we’re snobs for a reason. I think I’ve laid down maybe ten, twelve different ward Songs on quarter-inch ATR master tape, you know, different variations for different seasons, a couple specialty tracks for when I’m gonna fly somewhere, all pretty standard stuff. Dub off a new copy whenever a cassette wears out.

The piece is mostly about Cheryl yammering on in this manner while screwing up and making a save in an unremarkable way.

“Among the Sighs of the Violoncellos” by Daniel Ausema

The slaves in the marquesa’s garden discuss their work and hopes for eventual escape. This is essentially a setting more than a story, although it hints at a number of stories that might be set there—highly mannered stories that likely would involve an over-privileged aristocracy and the afflictions of slavery. It’s a magical, fantasy garden, requiring great pains on the part of the gardeners to make sure everything is just right and the marquesa is not displeased. It’s an intriguing setting, wrought with imagination and a touch of wit.

We have also begun some tests with the fairytale tree to see if it will put forth an evil lord of some variety. So far the nearest we have come is a marquesa, one oddly gifted in growing plants and hosting parties.

“Nine Thousand Hours” by Iona Sharma

A world in which magic users perform some but not all important functions, being divided into several different hereditary guilds. Amal’s family is Salt, and often refers to each other by this title, as if to remind them who they are. Salt involves “deep, wordless workings—heat and cold and calm and light”. Amal and some colleagues were attempting a working that promised improvements in magical text messaging. The consequences were catastrophic.

A bright flash of light, bright like a nuclear explosion or the wrath of God, and a great internal cracking, like the marrow turning itself inside out in my bones. And then nothing but the burn of salt, and drowning.

But for the rest of the world, all text, all written work, had been obliterated. The pages of books were blank, and pens refused to mark paper, sticks to scratch signs in dirt.

This is a work of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. It centers around Amal’s relationship with her family, who have remained at home near the salt sea where they belong and seem to feel that her original sin was going to London. I’m rather more interested in the glimpses into a world without written words, where any information not in human memory has been lost, even the backups.



Lackington’s, Spring 2015

A wide variety in the fiction here, from pieces with a high obscurity index to more conventional stories. It’s a sea-themed issue, five stories plus a novel excerpt.

“The Whale of Penlan Tork” by Steven Earnshaw

A weirdly literary piece with a Greekish chorus serving as quasi-narrator, going strophe and antistrophe with Simon not-Stylites on his pillar, who sends a delegation of them to seek the whale for reasons unrevealed. While they’re gone, Simon engages in dialogue with himself, suggesting that he’s been possessed—”the false Simon who emerges sometimes.” By the spirit of Penlan Tork, perhaps, otherwise unidentified, or the usurpers, likewise. Or not.

This is not why I believe in power. For Simon it is all or nothing. I would rather be on high in the wild air than trapped into a power-sharing arrangement in which my credibility, built up over decades of platform intransigence, remains solid. Now that the six of my Attylites have departed and my experiment with a shadow oligarchy has failed I return to Simon.

This one is pretty obscure [the editorial says “oblique” and certainly it’s not direct], but kind of interesting to follow if you don’t mind not knowing where you’re going, other than the obvious destination of Patagonia. If I were to guess, I might say the piece is about heteronomy, relying on authority to make one’s decisions and abandoning agency. Or not.

“Spider Moves the World” by Dominik Parisien

Had I not just read the preceding, I’d say this one is exceedingly odd. The sea in question is the Greensea, i.e., a sea of grass crossed by a caravan of elephantine spiders who have given a ride to the narrator, having discerned, so they say, that he has a spidery soul. It’s an unending journey, turning the world, as the spiders recite their myths around the campfire and make declarations that might be profound if they could be understood.

And Spider wove a web across the blue and black, caught and keeps the fires there to light our paths, suspends the moon and sun for us in nets. But she tires. Oh, she tires. She has been holding on so long. Today you will rope the moon down for her, to let her rest her weary legs, and tomorrow you will rope the sun.

But . . . spiders. Not octopedal aliens, or pseudo-arachnids but, apparently, actual giant sentient spiders. And insect cities, as well. OK, so this is fantasy and the impossible must be cast aside, but these entities are everything that actual spiders are not: social creatures, migratory, and capable of benevolence. The term “spider” here doesn’t mean anything that resembles an actual spider, except in some superficial physical sense. What, then, does it mean when they say of the [apparently human] narrator that, deep down, he is a spider?

Later they and I will play, in camps divided by the vastness of the Greensea, or the beetle city, or whatever else stands between us, and, looking at the sky, we will know that we are spiders.

This isn’t a matter of arachnophobia on my part [I’m rather fascinated by the beasties] but literal-mindedness; I’m not getting past it to the story’s heart, wherever it is.

“The Selkie” by David K Yeh

Not an animal wife but an immortal combatant, now fighting the Nazis in WWII by delivering an Enigma machine from Arkhangelsk to Scotland. The usual sort of action ensues. The real interest here is in the background based on northern folklores, especially the selkie’s sorceress wife and their talented children.

When she shed seven tears into the waves, I heard her summons and came to her. I did not know why, but she had placed a geas upon me. When I strode from the sea, she lay down beneath me and bore us six children, each with their mother’s sky-blue eyes and my dark glossy hair. These boys wrestled and played laughing in the pounding surf and never once felt the cold. Some could take on the seal-form, like their father. One spoke the language of birds. Still another could summon wind with thought, and another see far distant places in his mind’s eye.

There is irony, as the selkie recognizes, that once their mortal enemies were the Norse vikings, but now their descendants are all allies against the Nazis [this, despite the fact that the Finns were at that time German allies against the Russians invading their land, which our Finnish shaman does not mention]. I can also imagine that Hitler would have been vexed to know that a Wolf’s Head was against him. But the author has mixed in other mythoi, which seem out of place. The Pythia—well, this is a powerful oracle whose reach might well extend to the north. But Baba Yaga, while in the right place geographically, doesn’t seem right for the role she’s cast in here.

I’m also a bit disturbed by the repeated reference to the selkie’s “masters”. Have the Allies, too, like the Nazis, enslaved these creatures to compel their aid? Is the selkie’s wife a hostage? I wouldn’t put it past them.

“Ambergris, or the Sea-Sacrifice” by Rhonda Eikamp

There’s a metaphor here for a boundless love, “like the sand on the shore”. Which seems, as these things go, not exceedingly romantic, but that’s how it is. So it was that the old fisherman loved his young wife, and then the daughter she died in the bearing of. To save the child’s life, he gave her to the denizens of the deep in their onshore palace.

Now the Nacreous Palace had always been there, just beyond the village, its mottled pink spire rising haughty against the sky at the end of the point. The man Sandoval was frightened of the colossal conch-shell, of its glow and the sound of the sea that whooped from its portico when the wind was high.

The child was saved, but both father and daughter emerged from the palace transformed. Ambergris proved a blessing to the whole community, yet it was clear that she would one day return to the palace.

As denizens of faerie go, these are a benevolent bunch, despite their reputation in the village, and it all comes to a particularly happy ending, driven by love. I must say, however, that when it comes to repelling an enemy, a giant magic conch shell would seem to be a lot more impressive than a single magicked girl.

“Littoral Drift” by L S Johnson

This is SF, but barely, set in a future when no one goes to the beach anymore. The narrator is an old woman who recalls past times there with increasing intensity, drawn to her memories.

Drift. Your body seeping away from you, one soft wave after another, until at last you are nothing more than sand, everywhere and nowhere. For a moment I feel it happening to me, a wonderful ebbing, being carried away into cool dark depths—

Good use of the sea imagery. There’s no tragedy here, although those around her might see it as such. There’s a time to let go and allow the tide to take you out.

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.

Methuselah’s Daughter: A Review of The Age of Adaline

by Gary Westfahl

In many respects, Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline is exactly what it announces itself to be: a classic Hollywood “women’s film.” And one expects that, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) (review here), a seemingly novel trope borrowed from science fiction – here, the secret immortal pretending to be an ordinary person – would be deployed in a perfunctory manner solely to generate an otherwise familiar tale about a tumultuous romance. Yet The Age of Adaline proves to be surprisingly attentive to the demands of science fiction, and amidst its emotional turmoil the film is also striving to thoughtfully explore the possible effects of human immortality. It thus qualifies as a worthwhile addition to a long tradition of science fiction stories about immortality, ranging from Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1833) to Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long and Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth (2007) (editorial review here).

The film’s trailer reveals its fantastic premise: in the late 1930s, a widow named Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is involved in a near-fatal car accident and afterwards discovers that, for some reason, she has stopped aging. Many screenwriters would have said nothing more about this remarkable event, confident that audiences would accept this scientific magic without further justification. Yet in J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s screenplay, the (at times intrusive) narrator (Hugh Ross) patiently explains that, when her car plunged into cold water, Adaline experienced an “anoxic reflex” causing her to stop breathing and her heart to beat more slowly; then, when a lightning bolt struck the car, this “defibrillated” her heart, “jolted” her to start breathing, and, by inducing “electron compression” in her “deoxyribonucleic acid” (DNA), made her “immune to the ravages of time,” destined to “never age another day” – all in accordance with scientific principles to be discovered in the year 2035. Actual scientists now working to extend the human lifespan would no doubt consider this “explanation” of immortality a nonsensical assemblage of jargon, but the screenwriters were obviously eager to persuade their audience that Adaline did not represent a one-time miracle, but was rather the accidental beneficiary of a procedure that will someday become routine.

As Adaline gradually realizes what has happened to her, she must radically change her lifestyle in ways that have long been recognized in other stories about immortals. First, she must conceal her condition by constantly traveling and adopting new identities, because otherwise both governments and private individuals would try to capture her and place her in a laboratory to discover her secret – the problem faced by the Howard Families of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958), Ben Richards of the short-lived television series The Immortal (1969), and many others. In her case, after improbably contriving to escape from the FBI, Adaline begins a new life of starting over with a new name and job every decade, the same rhythm adopted by Bixby’s John Oldman. When the film begins, she is Jennifer Larson, working in the Pacific Archives in San Francisco and preparing to move to Oregon and become Susan Fleischer.

Second, as a necessary consequence of her situation, Adaline can never have a lasting relationship with any man, as she must spurn all advances to maintain her secret; thus, stories of immortality often become cautionary tales, warning readers of the condition’s negative consequences. Suffering from perpetual loneliness, Adaline might have echoed the lament of Shelley’s “Mortal Immortal”: “Thus I have lived for many a year – alone and weary of myself …. [T]he ardent love that gnaws at my heart, never to be returned – never to find an equal on which to expend itself – lives there only to torment me.” Learning that she has rejected a man she felt attracted to, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), her now-elderly daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) urges her to reconsider: “don’t you miss having someone to love?” Later, receiving similar advice from Ellis’s father William (Harrison Ford), she is told, “You’ve lived, but you’ve never had a life.” There is, of course, a simple solution to this dilemma – find a partner willing to keep your secret and share a life with someone who never grows old – which is precisely what occurs in the most memorable section of Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love (1973) and at the conclusion of Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth; and any viewer has to suspect that this will also be the happy ending of this film. Yet presenting a male companion as the necessary solution to Adaline’s plight is arguably a bit sexist; after all, both Oldman and another one of Bixby’s male immortals, Flint of the Star Trek episode “Requiem for Methuselah” (1969), stoically soldiered on for millennia without ever finding True Love, and this film repeatedly demonstrates that Adaline is, as William says, “an extraordinary woman,” more than capable of living a fulfilling life without a male partner.

Indeed, in carefully developing the probable characteristics of a woman with a very extended lifespan, the film at times seems to be working at cross purposes to its sentimental premise. Adaline is impressively knowledgeable: she speaks several languages and can even read braille in Norwegian; she effortlessly wins a game of Trivial Pursuit; and she knows enough about the streets of San Francisco to provide a cab driver with a good alternate route to her destination. She is remarkably observant, emulating Sherlock Holmes as she glances at a man at a party and immediately makes accurate deductions about his background and activities. Preparing to launch a new life, she confidently purchases a home in rural Oregon and obtains the necessary forged identification cards. Adaline needs a man, in other words, like a fish needs a bicycle.

There are also intimations that an immortal, liberated from concerns about aging and death, might develop a more detached perspective, considering everyday worries as unimportant in the broader scheme of things. This is communicated by another aspect of the film that seems related to science fiction, its repeated references to astronomy. The film begins and ends with images of Earth as seen from space, emphasizing how small humans are from a cosmic viewpoint; Adaline’s positive effect on William’s life was to encourage him to abandon medical school and pursue a career as an astronomer; William becomes famous for discovering a comet that he names for Adaline (“Della,” the name she was using at the time he knew her), and he likens her to that comet, which will provide a spectacular show for humans but, as a “near miss,” will come close to but not reach the Earth; she surprises Ellis by taking him to “someplace he’s never been before” – an abandoned, enclosed drive-in theatre with a roof covered with glowing stars forming the constellations; and the narrator finally informs us that Adaline’s car accident was the last in a chain of events inaugurated by the impact of a meteor on the Moon centuries ago. Ellis is interested in the stars in another way, as we observe a copy of Louis MacNeice’s Astrology (1964) on his desk.

Even more intriguing, perhaps, are the film’s subtle suggestions that an immortal, while rising above petty concerns, might be able to transcend gender boundaries as well. Although Lively’s Adaline is a beautiful and glamorous woman, I sometimes detected an aura of androgyny in her performance, as brusque actions and comments suggested that she had been directed to act like a man in woman’s clothing. Perhaps this was intended solely to communicate her unusual independence, but it led me to recall that Bixby’s Oldman did seem like an unusually gentle and sensitive man, almost feminine in his inability to be harsh or violent. Living many lives, and keeping one’s distance from society, might therefore enable immortals to get in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides. And this would naturally influence their choice of companions, as Huisman’s Ellis is a preternaturally nice guy who patiently endures a series of rude rejections and happily welcomes her without complaints when she finally decides to seek out his company. He is, in other words, the sweet Boy Next Door that the typical romantic heroine would unhesitatingly reject in favor of the colder but more appealing Tall Dark Stranger. Adaline, clearly, is not a typical romantic heroine.

In being lonely, knowledgeable, wise, detached, and slightly androgynous, Adaline is arguably similar to other science fiction immortals; but in one respect, she falls short of her precursors, since she has accomplished nothing. Flint, after all, had previously lived as Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Brahms, and other luminaries, and Oldman had been Jesus Christ Himself; but Adaline has always been a nonentity. True, when William celebrates his fortieth wedding anniversary by proclaiming that “I could have no greater ambition in life than to be the best possible husband for my wife,” he suggests that, in keeping with the traditions of the romance novel, forging an enduring relationship is the greatest thing that anyone could achieve. Yet William’s own career as a noted astronomer indicates that he in fact had other, more conventionally greater ambitions, and the need to aspire to lofty goals – to reach for the stars, one might say – is a recurring theme in the film. One of the first things that Adaline says, to the talented young man who forges her documents, Tony (Richard Harmon), is “I just hate to see wasted potential,” and when she first meets Ellis, who has become rich after a chance discovery proved immensely profitable, he remarks that “If you want to make a real difference in the world, it’s harder than it seems.” Adaline is just as intelligent and capable as William, Jeff, and Ellis, if not more so, but her only victory is literally “Trivial.” Her desire to avoid becoming “a specimen” has forced her to become invisible, and after living for over a century, she has left absolutely no mark on the world.

This thought opens up another, entirely different way to look at this film, which is signaled by its title. Of course, Adaline’s most remarkable feature is her “age,” which is 108 years as the film begins, and one way to read the title is as “Adaline’s Age.” However, when the phrase “The Age of” precedes someone’s name, it is usually describing a period of time that was dominated by that individual, like “the Age of Pericles” or “the Age of Napoleon.” Interpreted that way, the title is describing the time period covered in the film – from 1908 to 2015 – as an era dominated by Adaline Bowman, which would be ludicrous because virtually no one during that time was even aware of her existence. If we see Adaline as a symbol of immortality, though, one could read the title as a reference to the twentieth century as “the age of immortality” – and arguably that is an apt description.

For this was the era when one way to achieve a form of immortality – photography – became ubiquitous. True, the art was first mastered by professionals in the 1850s, but only in the twentieth century did it become commonplace for virtually everyone to own a portable camera, and thus to have the ability to forever preserve their own images. Photographs permeate this film: Adaline keeps a photo album to remember her only companions, her dogs; she stares at a photograph of her wedding in her apartment, and while attending a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel, she sees a photograph of herself on the wall, celebrating during the same event decades earlier; people are regularly interested in taking her photograph; and in the final scene, we see that she still owns an old-fashioned camera. When William suspects that Adaline is the woman he met many years ago, he rifles through a box of old photographs to find one photograph that might provide definitive evidence. The twentieth century also ushered in a new way to record moving images – motion pictures – and these figure in the film as well, as one of Adaline’s early tasks at the Pacific Archives is to prepare some old newsreels for digitization, and she happily watches old films of San Francisco in 1906 and other eras. The Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (1966) blaring on Ellis’s car radio references the new way that twentieth-century people could also preserve their voices – sound recordings – and Adaline carries with her the modern device that enables anyone today to produce their own photographs, movies, and recordings, a smartphone. Thus, while we can read accounts or look at paintings of life in earlier centuries, the twentieth century is the first century that people will always be able to actually look at and listen to – the first immortal century.

Ironically, throughout the film, Adaline displays an aversion to being photographed; and there are practical reasons for this, since she has no desire to create potential evidence of her agelessness. But since she always looks the same – she dismisses photographs of herself by telling her daughter, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” – Adaline also has no need for photography, explaining why she never wants to be photographed. Blessed with true immortality, she has no desire for the ersatz immortality provided by photography.

Still, Adaline remains captivated by images of other people, much like almost everyone else, and this might be regarded as a harmless diversion, a new way to be entertained. But The Age of Adaline also indicates that having access to all these records of the past might have harmful effects, as it sometimes seems that everyone in the film has an unhealthy obsession with the past. Adaline’s job at the Pacific Archives involves preserving old books and films, and facing the challenge of showing each other something they are not familiar with, both Ellis and Adaline do not turn to some new attraction, but rather to an ancient artifact – a nineteenth-century boat buried underground and an early drive-in theatre. William’s harmonious forty-year marriage is briefly disrupted when he first sees Adaline and starts babbling about how wonderful this woman he once knew was, inspiring his wife to complain that she is now feeling like his “second choice.” Certainly, any marriage might be threatened if the wife discovered that her husband had saved photographs of an old girlfriend, which is precisely why William kept his photographs of Adaline hidden away in a storage room, inside a box with a misleading label. William also muses that as astronomical instruments keep improving, astronomers keep look further and further into the past. The narrator’s reference to 2035 is thus jarring because nobody else in the film seems to be thinking about twenty years in the future – or even one year in the future; instead, their eyes, and their thoughts, are constantly drawn back to the enticingly clear images of the past that surround them.

The film itself, despite its virtues as a work of science fiction, is also studiously avoiding any consideration of the future it envisions – a world in which human immortality is not a rare accident, but something that scientists can achieve as a matter of routine. Since Adaline will still be alive in 2035, the filmmakers could conceivably craft a sequel wherein she lives to witness the emergence of such a world, but one doubts very much that they would ever do so. For there are many fanciful films about immortal vampires, and films about solitary immortals or handfuls of immortals (as in the Highlander films), but other than the cartoonish Zardoz (1974), one is hard pressed to come up with examples of films that ponder the implications of an entire society where immortality is commonplace. To find such stories, which do not lend themselves to conventional Hollywood formulas, one must turn to the literature of science fiction, not its films.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Algernon Blackwood

The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings, Algernon Blackwood, edited by Mike Ashley (Stark House 978-1933586700, $19.95, 222pp, hc) March 2015.

If you see a book with the byline of Mike Ashley on it, as either editor or author, buy it. You won’t go wrong. Ashley is a scholar of fantastika who exhibits a populist touch and an academic’s depth of knowledge. Readability and historical importance go hand-in-hand in his spelunking through the vast untapped storehouse of forgotten fantasy, science fiction and horror. Moreover, he knows these hidden nooks and crannies of the field better than nine-tenths of the rest of us alleged experts, and can be relied on to ferret out concealed treasures. Also, he is scrupulous in his documentation and annotations.

Now, when you yoke Ashley to the somewhat neglected yet canonical fantasist Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951, most famous for “The Wendigo”), you know you are in for a special treat, mainly because Ashley has previously produced a book-length biography of Blackwood and inhabits this terrain especially well.

This current Ashley-compiled volume from Stark House—a superb small press which concentrates on rescuing groovy vintage noir, but which has also reprinted ten Blackwood novels and story collections previously—features rare stories and essays from the early years of Blackwood’s career. Some thirty entries in the generous table of contents preclude an item-by-item discussion, so I shall have to cite just a few of my favorites.

The initial section of the collection is “Early Tales,” and it kicks off with Blackwood’s very first piece of published fiction, from when he was a mere twenty years old. “The Mysterious House” is very creepy, and presents a youthful flair and exuberance without a lot of sophistication. But that latter quality, along with more craftsmanship, shows up pretty quickly, for Blackwood was a natural storyteller. I don’t see how else someone could make a haunted piece of luggage, for goodness’s sake, really horrific, as he does in “The Kit-Bag.” Blackwood had a knack for coining really unsettling phrases, as in this story, that expressed uncanny symptoms and phenomena. “It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something that was strongly objected to by another person, a person, moreover, who had some right to object.” And the title story is a small masterpiece, because it leaves you in doubt right up to the end. Yes, the mad professor believed our planet was a sentient beast that demanded sacrificial victims. But just because he was possessed with this monomania, was he so very wrong?

Ashley segregates four stories into the second section under the rubric “Imagination Awakes,” because they all illuminate Blackwood’s notion of the powers of the non-mimetic mind. “Stodgman’s Opportunity” is an amusing piece about a fellow utterly devoid of that vital power of fancy. But the strongest item here is “The Night-Wind,” in which Uncle Henry, an author, summons up by his oral fairytales a deity which the children in his presence help to reify, joyfully but spookily.

Section three, “Nature Inspires,” consists of journalistic essays by Blackwood that give us further insights into the sources of his literary powers and the passions that served as the engines of his daily life. Many of them display a Thoreauvian quality, for Blackwood was in love with natural creation like that old Walden chap. “‘Mid the Haunts of the Moose” might call up comparisons to Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, with a similar mix of closely observed nature and philosophy. But “Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe” conjures up not Thoreau, but rather the gentle idle humor of Jerome K. Jerome.

Our final segment, “Conflicts of the Soul,” is a mix of fiction and non-fiction which surveys a sea-changed Blackwood who emerged from the horrors of World War I as a semi-shattered man and had to rebuild his soul. The standout item here is the story “Onanonanon.” In a very compact space, we get a seminal and semi-mystical childhood incident recounted in hallucinatory detail. Then we jump ahead by several decades to the recurrence of the incident, with mortal variations. If you were to read this story in, say, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, you would think it utterly congruent with Kelly Link’s own postmodern fiction, and acclaim it as the work of some hot new millennial fabulist.

With a fair shake, this collection should drive thousands of readers to seek out Blackwood’s mature work, rewarding the efforts and faith of both Ashley and Stark House, whilst procuring much reading pleasure for themselves.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

Featuring a special issue of Analog, plus its sister zine and a couple of online publications.

Publications Reviewed



Analog, June 2015

This issue marks a very notable milestone for the magazine: number one thousand, counting from the Astounding era. That’s venerable. That’s longevity. To mark the occasion, there are a number of commemorative essays, which, being nonfiction, I won’t review here, but which will doubtless be of interest to readers. As for the fiction, the ToC lists two novelettes, both among the best Hard SF I’ve seen from this zine. Both involve human contact with aliens, but these are well-done science-fictional aliens, not the silly kind with tentacles and snouts. Indeed, their presence is known primarily through inference, as the humans try to interpret the evidence for their existence. I’d like to see more pieces like these in the course of the next thousand issues.

The large number of short pieces, some very short, also include several dealing with aliens and/or war, but most aren’t particularly compelling.

“The Wormhole War” by Richard A Lovett

Forces on Earth are attempting to establish a wormhole link to a planet they call Gaia205c. On a day that Zeke happens to be in control, the wormhole explodes. Earth sends out more wormholes to find out what happened; they also explode, closer and closer to Earth. No one has any idea how to penetrate the mystery until after Zeke’s wife dies and he starts to spend more time in bars, where he explores a new notion of using the wormhole for time travel, taking advantage of the time dilation. Paradoxes ensue, whereupon Zeke and his colleagues realize that their wormholes aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood.

What do you do if entities unknown shoot multi-billion-dollar wormholes at you faster than you can get your own into their territory? Build more and fire them back even faster, the newly formed Planetary Defense Commission concluded. Going to Gaia 205c was now out of the question. The goal was to keep Gaia 205c from coming to Earth.

Genuine Hard SF, based on the hardest of the sciences, physics, married to military SF. The premise is a crucial one: what do you do if you inadvertently start a war against a power stronger than you are? One beneficial side effect is that Earth is forced to become truly united against a common danger. For Zeke, the central character, the situation is a tragedy. He can’t forget the days when wormholes meant exploration and new frontiers, not war and the threat of planetary destruction. While he becomes increasingly familiar with military strategy, he isn’t happy about what he’s becoming in the process.

I quite like the wormhole war, but I could have done without Zeke’s family problems, which aren’t really central to the story but are brought onstage at intervals, I assume to provide an unnecessary humanizing touch.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen

Jander opens the story by informing us that he’s the sole survivor of a five-person exploration ship sent to survey Abyss, an extrasolar planet now in the Oort Cloud region. Thus we want to know both what happened and why he’s telling us. Upon reaching their goal, the crew’s priority is refueling for the return trip. Fortunately, the planet’s rings are full of ice. Upon examining a sample, they discover specimens that make it clear the system harbors some form of life, probably in a subsurface ocean on one of the planet’s icy moons, after the model of Europa. A team of three is sent to probe further, and they are detonating sounding charges when they abruptly disappear, their bodies replaced by an equal mass of ice. The survivors realize there is an alien civilization beneath the ice with teleportation ability. Then the bodies of the crew start to rematerialize in the ship, animated by the presence of an alien intelligence.

An auditory scan showed that his heart was beating and that he was taking breaths. His head turned back and forth, and his eyes focused on some nearby instruments. Things that did not understand eyes were looking through his eyes.

The two lifeforms are studying each other, the humans only directly, but the aliens through the minds of the reanimated crew. The humans become increasingly alarmed at the evidence of the Abyssans’ abilities, and the fact that they are obviously very interested in their visitors and their ship. Now, alone on the ship except for an alien zombie watching his every move, Jander is convinced that they might pose a threat to Earth.

A neat story idea, well executed. The problem posed to Jander isn’t entirely original, but his solution is novel and clever. The crew’s speculation on the nature of the aliens is interesting, as they note that to these ice-dwellers, humans must seem like beings living on the surface of a sun. And there’s irony as Jander complains early in the story that he has no opportunity to practice his skills of disaster recovery. I only wonder why, after he has taken such great pains to eliminate all evidence that might point the aliens in the direction of Earth, he takes the risk of transmitting the warning message that is this story.

–RECOMMENDED

“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare

More aliens. This one appears to be a sequel to a previous tale in which human exobiologist Becca goes to the planet Albedo and ends up adopting an Albedan child. Now she and two Albedans are with a human exploration party on a different world where the indigenes are extinct. Or so they assume, although I have no idea why. Communication ensues—indeed, it’s the story’s theme. Kind of dull.

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F Wu

War is mean and cruel and bad and inspires cynical stories.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins

Short-short variation on the mother’s eternal “You never call” theme. Supposed to be funny, I find it rather depressing, considering a world full of young people with no prospects, no future.

“The Odds” by Ron Collins

War is treacherous. Another cynical short-short, told strangely in the 2nd person, instructing the individual assigned to commit an act of betrayal at a peace conference between two species. We assume that one of these is likely human, that the person being addressed is the human, but there is no guarantee of this, since both species in question are perhaps equally warlike and treacherous. There is also no guarantee that the other side isn’t planning just the same sort of betrayal.

The narrative makes this somewhat intriguing, being mostly abstract speculation. The odds, it seems, favor the fact that such species will evolve. May the worst side win, as usual.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C C Finlay

It isn’t, as the infodump makes tediously clear, a vaccine, but a gene therapy that eliminates the subject’s capacity for empathy. Our narrator, a prospective client, calls it “a performance-enhancing drug for corporate management”, which is to say for creating a psychopath. Alas, while the idea has some interest, the execution is clumsy and one of the worst cases of “how is he telling this story” that I’ve encountered.

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson

A millennium or so in the past, facing some crisis, Earth sent out a fleet of seedships to propagate human populations on different worlds. Now, in the ideal condition of a “liberal democratic state” and apparently full of misgivings, it has sent out a new mission:

Locate the seedship colonies, the frozen progeny scattered by a younger and more desperate Earth. Study these new humanities. And in the most extreme situations: remove existential threats to mankind.

That’s pretty arrogant, but the reality is even moreso. There are three members of the mission, one with a predisposition to kill entire populations, one to reject the idea, and Shinobu, our narrator, as the tiebreaker. They also have a template for the approved sort of society, one that fosters art and culture, and a list of social diseases including the “Duong-Watts malignant”. This is a theoretical society in which humans have been engineered to suppress their individual self-consciousness. On Mitanni, this seems to have happened. The society resembles a global ant hive*, with each individual working for the survival of the whole. Now the mission has to decide whether to destroy it.

This piece is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. The characters spend a great deal of time debating whether Mitanni does or does not qualify as a “Duong-Watts malignant”, a term pretty meaningless. It’s really monstrous to decide that a world’s population should be exterminated simply because it doesn’t meet a pre-existing template of acceptability. The real question ought to be instead whether the society constitutes a threat to other worlds or to humanity as a whole. The three judges assume that it does, because Mitanni is preparing its own seedships. But I don’t think this follows at all from the assumptions given. Mitanni reproduction is artificial, and as such is controlled, which means overpopulation is unlikely. Since their imperative is survival, they will produce only the number of new births to optimize success. So spreading beyond their own world is not an imperative. In short, I don’t think this scenario makes sense.

Worse, the three characters seem primarily concerned, not with their mission but each other, not hurting each other’s feelings. They apparently have a long history together, which the story fails to show us directly. There is a clear sense that they are inclined to commit massive genocide as an apology to one character who was overruled on the prior occasion and took it badly [although, again, this is something we never actually see]. I find this particularly monstrous.

[*] One character insists that Mitanni does not resemble the model of ants, but I believe she is wrong about ants.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser

A crewmember from a high-c spaceship likes to bullshit the locals in the bars while his ship is in port. Tall tales.



Asimov’s, June 2015

This issue features a quartet of longer novelettes; I prefer the shorter Naylor.

“The End of the War” by Django Wexler

Military SF, of course. As the spearpoint of this conflict in black space we have individual operators commanding mobcoms, which stands for something like “mobile command”. They go out alone for 120-day tours, fighting to take resources and deny them to the enemy by deploying hordes of mobile devices. Because the solitude can drive an operator crazy, most of them have illicit communication devices to chat with any other operators in range—on either side. This tends to make their encounters seem more like a nonlethal, convivial game, and they do seem to have more in common than with the other personnel on their own sides, primarily their support and their commanders, who keep extending their tours.

Every operator has been tempted, at some point. It would certainly be a lot easier if we could just trade off, instead of fighting it out every time. But command won’t have it, and it’s common knowledge that our mobcoms spy on us, upload our out battle records into the big iron back on the Ark. A little unauthorized communication is one thing, but throw a fight and there’d be hell to pay.

The milspeak jargon here can be a bit off-putting at first, but the author paces things deliberately, with a slow reveal of the dire situation the combatants have fought themselves into. Nothing remains but the war, winding down to the last resources of both sides. Their home worlds have long since been annihilated, their populations removed to ark ships where they breed the next generations of combatants. Their battles now are fought over the salvage of earlier generations of war ships, rich with resources that seem profligate to these combatants. The situation proves more grim than it seems at first, when readers will be reminded of gaming scenarios; this war, in the end, is no game.

“The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien

It’s a bit jarring to go directly from the grim scenario above to this comedy of manners, featuring characters with names like Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe. The setting resembles the Gilded Age, when fortunes were made from whaling and railroads, and the possessors thereof summered at Newport to vie among themselves in games of social status, such as competing to own the most unique garden and sit the closest to Mrs Vanderbilt.

Now I’m fond of a good comedy of manners, full of cleverness, wit, and allusions to Jane Austen. In this case, though, what we have is a parody, a social commentary on the uses of extravagant wealth that actually descends to tragedy. Nevertheless a parody in the form of a comedy of manners has to succeed as a comedy of manners, with a light, subtle touch. This one plods heavy-footed through the gardens of farce, trampling the foliage of wit underfoot.

The deck of the ship was alive with speculation until the clarion at the top of the pulley sounded, indicating that the passengers were ready to be retrieved. The pulley was cranked to draw the diving bell back up along the rails and onto the platform and the passengers were disgorged. All of Newport society saw Mrs. Howland-Thorpe weeping quietly onto her husband’s shoulder. She lifted her kerchief from her face to shake her fist and cry “Saboteuse!”

I have another objection, rather more science-fictional. The narrative repeats several times that “It could not be known” what disastrous effects the sea-roses would have on the marine environment. But of course it could have, should have been known, since these organisms were artificially bred by “enterprising botanists at Harvard University” over a period of time sufficient to observe their pernicious habits. As farce, this scenario isn’t really required to stand the test of scientific reason, but the text shouldn’t rub it in.

“Ghosts of the Savannah” by M Bennardo

Some time in the apparent Paleolithic*, the narrator and her sister/friend Sedu are members of a band of cursorial hunters in which the primary skill of a hunter is the ability to run [the gazelle being their primary prey]. These two young women are excellent runners and have earned their place in the band, but a certain male leader resents them for it; the narrator knows he wants to take Sedu to bear children for him and keep his house. But if she can’t continue to be a hunter, Sedu would rather die.

Sedu doesn’t crow or cheer as we return, but simply glows with satisfaction. Everyone can see how often she wears the blood splashes of the dead gazelle. Everyone can see when she is the one who has driven the killing blow.

The descriptions here are well and vividly detailed, but the story premise is one that readers may find overly-familiar. Moreover, there is no real fantastic or science-fictional element present; this is straight prehistorical fiction.

[*] The actual era of this setting seems to be the Olduwan, the earliest known period of tool making. The hominins of the story work flint, crudely, and have fire, though we don’t see how they make it. But they have no spears or projectile weapons. The characters in this story are not at all modern humans, possibly australopithecine or Homo habilis. This suggests they are not yet well adapted for running, which makes the female runners of the story significant in evolutionary terms. Unfortunately for their own personal desires, it means their species would benefit more from their bearing children to carry on this trait, rather than running after game, as they would prefer. Evolution is like that. I do question, however, their inability to survive by foraging and gathering, as hominins of this era most likely did, not yet being so efficient as hunters. It’s a perplexing situation.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker

Luce and her band are on the road in a future where the road is dying, driving in their restaurant-grease van from one gig to the next as they become fewer and farther between as the venues slowly disappear, along with the few remaining live bands. All entertainment now comes as holos.

Town after town, we saw the same thing. And of course most people didn’t see anything at all, puttering along on the self-driving highways, watching movies instead of looking out the windows, getting from point A to point B without stopping in between.

She does it for the music, for the live music and the few people who still come to see it, but it’s a dying way of life, as they get older and creakier, scrounge in dumpsters for food and sleep in the funk of the van, constantly looking out for cops who’ll harass them on general suspicion. Anything but sell out to the holo corporations.

This one is mainly atmosphere, a future when where everything is artificial but only a few people recognize it. I can’t say whether it’s a dystopia; we only see the backwaters of this society, where depopulation is underway. The focus, though, is on Luce. She meets aging people who tell her, “I used to have a band,” but she lives the grimy reality of that life, and it’s wearing her down. The offer of the holo corporations is starting to become tempting. The details of existence on the road are compelling; I felt strongly impelled to take a shower with degreaser after reading it.

“Mutability” by Ray Nayler

In a quiet café somewhere in the Mideast, Sebastian encounters a woman who shows him a very strange photograph: he and she together, perhaps four hundred years ago. Neither of them have any memory of each other.

He turned left and went down the embankment, turning details over in his mind and trying to remember things. Did he remember her? Now that he had seen the picture, it seemed as if he did, but he knew the way these false memories could be constructed by the mind: you would remember a moment, but in the memory, you would be looking into your own face, or looking down at yourself from above—which meant it couldn’t possibly be real. And they said that every time you remembered something, you subtly changed the memory to suit the present moment.

Or perhaps we change the present to suit the memory.

This is an elegant, elegiac tale, a subtle mystery of memory. The setting is sketched with a fine economy; we don’t know exactly where or when we are, but it’s clearly way past our own time. People are very long-lived, and some appear to be living with no visible present means of support. Things here don’t greatly change. The café has been there for decades, if not centuries, largely unaltered. The story makes us slightly curious about these matters, but the real concern is with the alterations we discern.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Muses of Shuyedan-18″ by Indrapramit Das

Really neat aliens, very well imagined. Tani and Mi come across one of the creatures they call lifecastles just as it separates from the progenitor that budded it.

It wasn’t birth, it was a battle, full of lust and fury and what we might call blood, misting the air and falling upon us in a drizzle that glimmered on our faceplates as we watched. Strings of dark tissue stretched between the aliens like a cat’s cradle, scythes of cartilage emerging to snap them off. Steaming in the red light, Shuyedan pulled away and lay across the loamy ground, ultraviolet reflections storming across its fresh skin like lightning. A giant twisting to articulate itself, groaning to life. Its progenitor gasped flickering blood and shuddered away, its part done.

These creatures are artists, their own bodies their canvas. As the humans watch, crude images of their spacesuited selves appear on its integument. Later, overcome by the experience just witnessed, they have sex, and are surprised shortly afterwards to see images of their copulation forming a frieze across its carapace.

The naturalists I know would be disapproving of this scene, of humans imprinting a newborn creature, warping the expression of its art. Even Tani and Mi express some misgivings on this score. It’s a worthy subject for an SF story. Alas, this story veers away to consider the relationship between Tani and Mi, which is a lot less intriguing. Quarrels between lovers are a tedious commonplace in fiction; what is this worth, in comparison to really neat aliens? What effects did this imprinting experience have on Shuyedan, and did it contribute to its early death? The author doesn’t seem sufficiently concerned with these questions, and that saddens me.



Unlikely Story, April 2015

Another mini-issue, this one subtitled Unlikely Coulrophobia—which is to say clowns. Unfortunately, these pieces are all “flash fiction” [a term I have never liked], mostly too short for optimum impact. The five stories avoid most of the usual evil-clown clichés, but they tend to repeat some of the same themes among themselves.

“Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do” by Derek Manuel

This one starts out on a mundane note, so that readers may think: yes, indeed, this is good mundane advice for a mundane clown to emulate. But it gradually becomes clear that the clowns in question are not mundane at all. The slow reveal at work.

“Perfect Mime” by Sarah K McNeilly

A particularly creepy story in which the clown is the victim, a puppet being played by her masters. The plasticity of makeup obscuring the face beneath is used effectively to suggest the exploitation of women, but I find the scariest part the invisible ropes and belts that leave physical scars, unseen by the audience, which can’t hear her cry out from a mime’s silence.

“A Million Tiny Ropes” by Virginia M Mohlere

The ropes make up the net that the clowns hold to catch JennyAnne when she drops from the trapeze. A net can be safety and salvation, and it can be a trap, as this vignette illustrates.

“Everyone’s a Clown” by Caroline M Yoachim

When the narrator takes her daughter to the circus, she sees everyone’s face transformed into a clown’s. This, apparently, is how Amelia has always seen the world, the clown faces reflecting the inner reality of the individuals. While the visions are disturbing, particularly the cat, this is in essence a story of a mother attempting to do the best for her child in a difficult situation, even if she has to share it with her.

“Break the Face in the Jar by the Door” by Carlie St George

Another mother and daughter. The 2nd-person narrator, already afflicted with an emotionally abusive husband, now finds her young daughter afflicted with “coulrodermatism”, “that creepy clown disease”. It turns out that this is the child’s way of expressing her feelings about her oppressive home life.

This one repeats the themes of some of the previous pieces, which do it rather better.



Kaleidotrope, Spring 2015

Five stories, mostly fantasy, of rather medium quality at best. This zine will have to do better for me to keep reading.

“The Spine of Worlds” by Eric Rosenfield

After a harrowing youth in which he lost everyone he had, more than once, Hal discovered the Tower, full of multiple gates to the multiverse. Adventurers were constantly coming through the place on some quest or other, but Hal has realized that the goal of his own quest is the Tower itself, the only place in the multiverse where it’s safe. He’s lived there alone in contentment, scavenging, until the arrival of Aris, on her quest to regain her stolen shadow. For once, Hal helps an adventurer. Hal is falling in love.

In his years in the Tower he’d watched and listened, keeping to the shadows as the adventurers tromped through. He named the galleries and remembered what was said to be beyond each door. He’d never found an end to them — every time he thought he had, he discovered more uncharted space — but he didn’t think there was a living person who knew them better. If the Gnome King wouldn’t help her, and she didn’t know where to turn next, he could point her on the right path.

A nice, warmhearted little secondary world fantasy, in which I see two problems. First, it makes sense that the traumatized Hal would cling to a guarantee of safety, but just where is this guarantee? Who grants and enforces it? The place is a regular route of armed adventurers, who are often a ruthless bunch. If Aris was the first to put a knife to his throat, she probably wouldn’t be the last. Hal’s haven seems to be a delusion, or if not, the author hasn’t show us why. Secondly, this world is populated with generic fantasy figures [e.g. gnomes] and creatures of the author’s imagination. But one figure, Baba Yaga, is out of place here. She belongs to a specific folklore, a specific setting, which this isn’t.

“Monkey King, Faerie Queen” by Zen Cho

Here’s an intriguingly original idea: Monkey, the Chinese trickster god, finds himself in a foreign realm. Cultural dissonance ensues.

In foreign countries people don’t do things the way we do them. Instead of calling nice nice and not nice not nice, they like to say that what is bad is good and what is good is bad. So this benighted ragtag group of unreverenced lesser godlings were known as the Fair Folk, despite their pinched unpleasant faces. They were the Good Neighbors, even though they soured their human neighbors’ milk and stole the occasional baby. They were called the People of Peace, even though their favorite past-time was declaring war and perpetrating grotesque crimes upon each other.

Entertaining magical encounter, in which the Fae don’t come off well.

“Echoes of Life” by Jetse de Vries

Science fiction, sort of. Blaze has come to Europa to investigate the discovery of indigenous lifeforms and arbitrate between any native Europans and the human pressure for colonization. It would seem that the only real scientist on Europa is an eight year old named Jason, who’s discovered a creature he names the zeppelinfish. Jason also believes in Santa Claus, or rather the Dutch version, which prevails on this world’s small colony. Upon arrival on Europa, Blaze goes directly to Jason’s mother, apparently on account of her hotness, as no other reason is given. They immediately jump into the sack, leaving Jason to solve the mystery of Europan life, which he does with suspicious ease.

I’m not buying any of this, although I might be willing to buy the zeppelinfish under other circumstances, such as a different story.

“The Face of Atrocity” by Charles Ebert

Baba Yaga again, this time in an appropriate setting, a German military camp in occupied Russia during WWII. She is in league with the partisans and supplies Ivan with mushrooms to poison the Germans. This is a blow not struck without a cost.

Ivan eyed the witch with dread. In every tale he had ever heard with Baba Yaga in it, she made deals, offering to fix the hero’s troubles with the evil prince or stepmother, in exchange for something impossible or unspeakable. When the hero found himself unable to keep his side of the bargain, Baba Yaga would get upset and start loading firewood into her oven.

It seems that Baba Yaga is a Russian patriot, with a history of aiding the people against invaders. This doesn’t mean the witch is a nice person, and people associated too closely with her may absorb the taint. A cruel and vengeful tale, which is suited to this history. Unfortunately, the usual clichés and stereotypes abound.

“The Maquette” by Nicole M Taylor

A variation on the Pygmalion story, to the point that the sculpture, come to life, calls herself Galatea. It’s a moral tale about the futility of the quest for sterile perfection, in which we find no real surprises.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Tom Purdom

Romance on Four Worlds: A Casanova Quartet, Tom Purdom (Fantastic Books 978-1627556354, $12.99, 150pp, hc) April 2015.

For two decades now, Tom Purdom has slowly and slyly, regardless of my dim-witted inattention, been building up a series of stories centered on a fellow who might be succinctly—if reductionistically—described as an “interplanetary Casanova.” The stories all begin with the word “romance” and have all appeared in Asimov’s. This volume collects the quartet under the lovely and somewhat Vancian title Romance on Four Worlds, a title which blithely plays with the dual meanings of romance as carnal, emotional affection, a love affair, and romance as adventure, as in “scientific romances,” that great old term that predated “science fiction.”

Let us get acquainted first with our narrator and hero, Joseph Louis Baske. He’s relatively uncomplicated, having decided early on “to make the strange feelings a member of the other sex could evoke…the central concern of my life. I didn’t want to waste one hour of my life listening to committee reports.” When we meet him in the first tale, “Romance in Lunar G,” he is already seventy-four years old, and has used the historical Casanova and his philosophy and exploits as his template and spiritual mentor for the past twenty years.

But in this final quarter of the twenty-first century, being a septuagenarian does not mean what it once did. For medical science has brought with it longer vibrant lifespans, and various physical enhancements. (Need I mention that Baske has complete control of his amatory physiology?) More consequentially, in Baske’s estimation, science has allowed for understanding and tailoring mentalities, reining in or boosting certain baseline human impulses and brain abilities. As a connoisseur of feelings, Baske is very sensitive to modifications among his partners and interlocutors.

This whole moderately transhuman milieu of the initial adventure—to be ramped up as we progress—illustrates Purdom’s ability and desire to write the best postmodern SF that he can. While not as complex or ramified as the future imagined by Hannu Rajaniemi—nor as sometimes willfully opaque—Purdom’s future seems to foreshadow that mode: it’s not any off-the-shelf inhabited Solar System scenario, but a clever fleshing out of trends visible in our present day.

Despite the centrality of romance in his pursuits, Baske seems a proficient jack-of-all-trades when it comes to professions, with a sideline of mild espionage thrown in, just like his role model. But his fortunes have sunk to a low in the first story. Nonetheless, he has spent a lot of money to go on a lunar tourist excursion just to be next to the current woman of his fancies and fantasy, an artist named Malita Divora. Unfortunately, Malita wants nothing to do with Baske, being partnered with a politician-cum-journalist named Wen Kang. Trailing the pair to a secret assignation with a renegade secret agent, Baske finds himself fighting for his life on the harsh surface of the Moon, with his stoical sangfroid intact: “In spite of all the traditions of romantic fiction, it’s been my experience that heroic feats are an overrated form of courtship.”

The second story, “Romance in Extended Time,” occurs in 2089, and jacks up the transhumanism quotient. We are in a nanoengineered biome that encircles the planet Mercury, full of exotic humans and animals. (Cue hints of John Varley here, and perhaps even the “four worlds” title is meant to invoke Varley’s famed Eight Worlds future.) Baske has fallen in love with one Ling Chime, who is acting as secretary/bodyguard to Elector Katrinka Oldaf-Li. To be next to his reluctant inamorata, he has agreed to accompany the pair on a small journey, providing the transportation. But Baske has not realized that the powerful Yan family, opposed to the Elector’s policies, intends to sabotage her journey with everything short of fatal firepower. The resulting battle of wits fills about two-thirds of the story, leaving plenty of space for a coda involving Baske and Chime’s subsequent relationship. And auguries of further stages in human self-directed evolution come into play as well.

In “Romance with Phobic Variations,” Baske is on one of the Martian moons, in love with a woman named Nento. But it takes the intervention of a new pal, the adolescent genius named Sori, son of another woman in Baske’s life, to inform the Casanova that Nento has been deliberately remodeled just to push all of Baske’s buttons so that she can run a money-draining scam on him. Undone by his own lusts, Baske and Sori seek to scam the scammer, but run afoul of some of her tough pals.

In the final entry, “Romance for Augmented Trio,” we exist in the total post-scarcity, posthuman milieu, cleverly imagined and depicted. Baske and his latest gal pal, the superhuman Ganmei, are in a little spaceship heading for the Kuiper Belt on a multi-year journey. Out there they encounter a bad apple whom they nickname Red Boots for his Ming the Merciless-style costume. But Red Boots, thanks to his machine-intelligence linkup, proves a formidable foe, and it’s only through synergizing their talents that Ganmei and Baske escape his merciless grasp, after some suspenseful action. To praise the story properly, I’ll say that it reads like an episode of the original Star Trek as if written by John Wright.

While not exploring the matter of sexual and emotional love to the depth of a Theodore Sturgeon or a Samuel Delany, Purdom nevertheless succeeds in fashioning some farcical yet genuinely speculative and authentic romps along themes that are noticeably and regrettably absent from so much SF.

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.

Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Ellen Datlow’s Nightmare Carnival

Nightmare Carnival, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse Books 978-1-61655-427-9, $19.99, 384pp, tp) October 2014.

For her anthology Nightmare Carnival, Ellen Datlow has assembled 15 new stories that explore the horrific possibilities inherent in carnivals and their entertainments. The dark carnival theme has been a staple of weird fiction since the early part of the twentieth century, and over the decades numerous writers have written stories drawn from its most familiar inspirations, notably sideshow performers whose incredible feats border on the uncanny, and the grotesque physical horrors of the freak show. Several of the stories in Nightmare Carnival fit this bill, but to Datlow’s credit a number of her selections take the dark carnival theme into provocative new territory.

Among the book’s more traditional tales are N. Lee Wood’s ‘‘Scapegoats’’, which fictionalizes an actual historical incident that occurred in Erwin TN in 1916, when angry townspeople compelled the grisly execution by hanging of a traveling carnival elephant who had the day before killed one of her handlers. The most horrifying aspect of the story is the cruelty of the townspeople, who see the spectacle of the elephant’s death as just another form of entertainment. Wood grafts a twist ending onto her tale that will put readers in mind of Tod Browning’s cult film Freaks, whose source material – Tod Robbins’s pulp story ‘‘Spurs’’ – was possibly the very first dark carnival story. The lynch mob spirit pervasive in Wood’s story also permeates Nick Mamatas’s ‘‘Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip’’, a period tale that leavens its grim depiction of racial bigotry in early twentieth century America with ironic reflections on the artifice of carnival entertainments and the treatment of sideshow exotics as outsiders to normal human society.

It’s a given in most dark carnival stories that, at some point, entertainments that seem inexplicably fantastic are revealed to be genuinely so. In Jeffrey Ford’s ‘‘Hibbler’s Minions’’, a second-rate carnival runs full tilt into the supernatural when its virtuoso flea-circus performers, who have been harvested from the corpse of a sideshow monstrosity, prove to be formidable monsters in their own right. The heroine in Priya Sharma’s ‘‘The Firebrand’’ presents her formidable fire-wielding talents as just a well-staged act, until her troubled relationship with two other carnival employees forces her to reveal their true nature. Similarly, the singing acrobat in Dennis Danvers’s ‘‘Swan Song and Then Some’’ – whose nightly act involves swan-diving to her death and then resurrecting herself – proves to have a much more profound explanation for her talents than the incantatory power of her song. For readers who prefer their carnivals unabashedly weird behind the guise of glitzy entertainment, there’s A.C. Wise’s ‘‘And the Carnival Leaves Town’’, about a traveling sideshow that leaves a legacy of death and disappearance in each town it passes through, and Terry Dowling’s wonderfully unconventional ‘‘Corpse Rose’’, in which a traveling carnival’s offbeat attractions prove to be encoded with malignant meaning that determine the type mayhem the carnival will secretly wreak upon the world.

Two of the book’s selections are sequels or sidebars to earlier stories by their authors. Glen Hirshberg’s ‘‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’’ is a follow-up to ‘‘Mr. Dark’s Carnival’’, his World Fantasy Award-nominated story from 2000 about a carnival of the dead that manifests on Halloween and snares a university professor studying its lore and legendry. The new story recapitulates the events of its predecessor, with academic colleagues drawing a newly tenured professor into the same web of eerie incidents that overwhelmed the protagonist of the earlier tale. In Laird Barron’s ‘‘Screaming Elk, MT’’, the heroine of his 2013 story, ‘‘Termination Dust’’, who survived an attack by a supernaturally empowered serial killer, plays a crucial role in ending a curse that has dogged a traveling carnival for half a century. Barron’s protagonist, Jessica Mace, is a wonderfully feisty fighter with a badass streak, who can easily hold her own with any of the tale’s macho male characters. She’d make a great series character in future stories.

A handful of stories in Nightmare Carnival approach their carnival props more obliquely, to evoke the carnival midway’s spirit of strangeness. In Genevieve Valentine’s ‘‘The Lion Cage’’, the reason for the narrator’s strong aversion to a carnival’s pair of caged lions lies tantalizingly just beyond explanation, and this intensifies the menace and mystery of the tale’s events. Likewise with Stephen Graham Jones’s ‘‘The Darkest Part’’, the characters’ obsessive interest in killing a carnival clown (something that will resonate with any reader who remembers being terrified of clowns as a kid) cripples them with haunting visions and memories after the act. Robert Shearman’s ‘‘The Popping Fields’’ is a poignant meditation on life and art that juxtaposes the pregnancy of the daughter of a carnival-following balloon artist with the nightly parade of malformed balloon animals who come to him to be euthanized.

And then there’s Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘‘Skullpocket’’, the story in Nightmare Carnival that reads the most noticeably as an homage to the fiction of Ray Bradbury, the leading exponent of the dark carnival tale. In his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, the wraparound story for his collection The Illustrated Man, several stories in his short-fiction first collection – the aptly named Dark Carnival – and elsewhere, Bradbury used the monsters of the midway as mirrors for reflecting the dark side of the human condition. ‘‘Skullpocket’’ will put readers in mind of these tales, as well as Bradbury’s tales of the Elliott family, fixed up as his novel From the Dust Returned: supernatural outsiders who live on the fringe of human society and who number among themselves witches, werewolves, vampires, and the occasional misbegotten mortal. For his tale, Ballingrud has created a fully realized culture of ghouls who haunt the cemetery of a seaside everyville named Hob’s Landing. They go by names such as Wormcake, Slipwicket, and Stubblegut, and they all worship at the Church of the Maggot and participate in rites and rituals particular to ghoul culture. The event at the center of the story is the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair – ‘‘skullpocket’’ refers to a game played by the young that might best be described as an extreme ghoul version of kick-the-can – to which a select audience of human children are invited and told how and why the fair came into being.

The ghoul point of view of Ballingrud’s tale is marvelously inverted. Events are recounted predominantly from the viewpoint of Jonathan Wormcake, one of three mischievous young ghouls who, a century before, disobeyed their parents and left the confines of their cemetery to venture into human society. The trio goes unrecognized because, to humans, they look simply like ‘‘sickly children, afflicted with some mysterious wasting illness that blued their flesh and tightened the skin around their bones.’’ The ghouls, on the other hand, are horrified at the pageant of the living that they see at a carnival whose grounds they’ve intruded upon: they are used to seeing ‘‘humans in repose, quiet little morsels in their thin little boxes.’’ This is all part of the story being told to the children at the Skullpocket Fair, and just when it seems that Ballingrud’s tale will end as a child’s history of human/ghoul social assimilation, it takes a startling turn into the darker territory that its events have paved the way for. Like the story told to the children, ‘‘Skullpocket’’ proves, in the words of one of its characters, a type of ‘‘mythmaking’’ designed to make palatable the gruesome realities of death and dissolution that are the hallmarks of human mortality. Ballingrud’s tale is a magnificent piece of storytelling. Accompanied by another 14 estimable acts, it makes admission into Nightmare Carnival well worth the price.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

Harrison Squared, Daryl Gregory (Tor 9780765376954, $25.99, 320pp, hc) March 2015.

Since I’ve already mentioned Daryl Gregory as a writer of unannounced left turns, it’s very helpful of him to provide me with evidence. In last year’s We Are All Completely Fine, Gregory introduced us to a therapy group of trauma survivors, one of whom was Harrison Harrison, whose real-life experience in the Lovecraftian town of Dunnsmouth had led to a series of YA novels about a boy detective/monster hunter. In some ways, that short novel read like a sketchbook of ideas for horror stories, and his new novel, Harrison Squared, is basically one of those YA novels. It’s a lot of fun, and Gregory is shrewd enough to pepper it with allusions that offer something for everyone from young readers (the setup of going to a new high school where everyone is weird is basic R.L. Stine), to horror fans (research buoys named after famous horror writers), to more literary types who’ll enjoy allusions to everything from Coleridge and Melville to Auntie Mame. The main template, though, is Lovecraft, and particularly ‘‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’’, although Lovecraft fundamentalists might take exception to the light-hearted liberties Gregory takes with the mythos. One of the fish-people, for example, turns out to be a teen with a passion for comic books, and when something called the Toadmother erupts from a subterranean pool, she’s more Ursula the Sea-Witch than shoggoth: ‘‘scarlet lipstick, pink eye shadow, a smear of blush on each cheek like a rash.’’ Even the ghosts and monsters here are more cranky and petulant than terrifying.

As a child, Harrison lost a leg and his father in a nautical incident that he barely remembers, and now he’s accompanying his marine-biologist mother on a month-long research trip to the remote, off-the-grid New England village of Dunnsmouth, where she supposedly is seeking evidence of the colossal squid. The local high school he enrolls in turns out to be a cavernous, labyrinthine Gothic castle, where the spookily placid students communicate through an elaborate finger-code and the teachers are obsessed with the virtues of totalitarianism, reanimating dead frogs with electricity, and teaching such things as the arcana of local history and tying knots to make nets. When his mother’s research vessel disappears, Harrison’s blithely clueless New York sophisticate Aunt Sel shows up to look after him (though it later becomes apparent she has her own reasons for going off the grid). Determined to find his mom, even after the somewhat suspect local authorities have abandoned the search, Harrison manages to enlist the aid of a few classmates, including a girl named Lydia, and the aforementioned fish-boy, whom he first encounters trying to steal Harrison’s favorite comic-strip omnibus. They find themselves up against not only the eldritch cult that seems to involve all the adults in town, but such monstrous figures as the Toadmother and the terrifying Scrimshander (of whom we also got a brief preview in We Are All Completely Fine), as well as dark secrets that go back generations.

Despite some genuinely scary moments – mostly in the few chapters that shift to Harrison’s mother’s point of view – the generally good-natured tone of the tale, along with wonderful characters like Aunt Sel and the fish-boy Lub, suggest Daniel Pinkwater as much as Lovecraft, and despite the HPL furniture Harrison Squared is in no sense an imitation or pastiche. Even though it seems everyone has had a go at it, I don’t think you can really get the full Lovecraft effect without a measure of the gnarly hostility that seemed to govern his worldview, and Gregory is anything but a hostile writer. After all, if he can turn a zombie into a civil-rights leader in Raising Stony Mayhall, why shouldn’t he turn an exasperated Elder One into Jack Benny?

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Faren Miller reviews Brenda Cooper

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (Pyr 978-1-63388-050-4, $18.00, 408pp, tp) March 2015. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

Brenda Cooper established the far-future background for Edge of Dark, Book One of duology The Glittering Edge, some years ago in The Creative Fire (2012) and The Diamond Deep (2013), but newcomers won’t have much difficulty getting their bearings as she moves forward a generation and introduces three new viewpoint characters to a solar system whose human settlements and satellites face a growing threat from long-isolated deep space where colonies of ‘‘undesirables’’ have managed to survive – and vastly extend their lives – through forms of high tech that make them resemble shape-shifting robots.

Until now, these humanoids who call themselves the Next have limited their contact with humans largely to raids on the fringes of civilization, brief attacks by ‘‘ice pirates’’ who don’t look like an advance guard scouting out territory for invading armies. None of the lead characters have reason to suspect what’s coming. Charlie works as a ranger on Lym, a planet twice trashed by colonists but now being ‘‘rewilded’’ to something like its original state. Nona, a biology teacher who has never gone beyond vast satellite The Diamond Deep, comes into unexpected wealth with her mother’s death and resolves to leave both parents’ ashes under the skies of Lym, as they intended. Chrystal, a former schoolmate and friend of Nona’s who moved a smaller satellite where the closest thing to farm life consists of breeding strange evolutionary variant plants and animals on the gardened inner walls of a metal cylinder, expects to spend long years there with her ‘‘family’’ (another female and two males) as part of a romantic foursome.

While Nona is on Lym with Charlie as her guide, a group of Next take over Chrystal’s satellite. When all communications cease and the place seems to vanish, human complacency suffers a major jolt. In changing times, viewpoint characters get drawn into the most dangerous game of all: political manoeuvering between major powers, with a reluctant Nona and a horrified Charlie obliged to represent the satellites and planets as best they can in a fractured political landscape. Chrystal and her family, moved from bodies into more enduring, sensorally heightened quasi-robotic forms, are bitterly resentful (for the most part), yet can’t ignore the links between Man and Machine, knowing they were designed to bridge the gap.

Edge of Dark brings events on a grand scale down to the level of individuals, portrayed with an intimacy we can’t deny, and capable of suffering and feeling loss – whether or not they fit into a standard definition of humanity.

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