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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August

Featuring the final issue of Subterranean Online magazine, a great loss to readers looking for good fiction, particularly at the novella length. Subterranean Press will undoubtedly continue to publish single-volume novellas, which alas I see all too infrequently for review. I also read the regular first-of-the-month zines.

Publications Reviewed

Subterranean, Summer 2014

It would otherwise be cause for rejoicing to see the Summer issue of this high-quality online publication coming in at twice the usual length. Instead, it’s cause for lamentation, as the editors seem to be clearing out their inventory into this final issue, after which it will be no more. I consider this a major loss to readers in our field. Few other venues offer fiction at the lengths we can find here; this ultimate issue has four novellas, one more at nearly that length. Here are superior authors that we rarely see from other short fiction publishers. The world of speculative fiction will be a poorer place for its absence.

“Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer)” by Caitlín R Kiernan

An aftermath.

When the australopithecine progenitors of Homo sapiens still struggled to master the most simple tools, the Djinn and the Ghūl waged a terrible war in the wastes of what geographers would one day name Arabia. The latter were defeated and were cast down into the Underworld at the very threshold of Dream. But not before they’d sacked temples and reliquaries, and so they departed this world with many objects holy to their foes.

But the Djinn, before this, had stolen from the demons the Key of Shackles, which they have always wished for the return. So it is a demon who waits with Elisheba, along with the ghouls, who keep their distance, for her coming death. Because Elisheba has not only come to the tombs to steal the key, she has turned it in the lock of her soul, releasing the actinic energy that she will not survive.

Very short piece evoking the deepness of time and the inevitability of death, whether or not we are ready for it. I like the bit that tells Elisheba none of the Hells will accept her, nor will Heaven.

“The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” by Alastair Reynolds

SF horror, set in the author’s Revelation Space universe; it can be read as an entirely independent work. The Lachrimosa is almost as derelict as the wrecks it seeks to salvage. Captain Rasht and his two crewmembers have found a piece of junk in orbit around a volcanic planet, and a lander crashed on the surface. In the lander, they find clear evidence that one crewmember, named Teterev, has survived and gone to explore a nearby cave, from which she never returned. Fired with greed, Rasht leads his crew [with his pet monkey] into the cave in hopes of finding some kind of valuable relics.

Why did we all go down to the surface? The truth was, that was Rasht’s way. If one or more of us stayed in orbit while he was down here, there was a chance of the ship leaving without him. If he sent one or more of us down here, while he stayed in orbit, he could not rely on our trustworthiness. We might find something and lie about it, keeping its secret to ourselves.

Where they see things they should not have seen, grotesque images of beings in torment, wrought in some kind of silvery nanomaterial. The place exudes dread, which they recognize as a psychological weapon, a deliberate attempt to repel intruders. At this point, Lenka and Nidra, and especially the monkey, want to take the warning and turn back, but Rasht insists on going deeper, impelled by greed.

We know from the beginning that things did not go well, as the piece opens with Nidra informing Rasht what his imminent and unpleasant fate is going to be, and the reason for it. In the course of this explanation, we learn just what she discovered there, the nature of the peril, and her plan to avert it, while saving both herself and Lenka. Even the monkey, despite the fact that she hates it. Now I wouldn’t call Nidra an unreliable narrator, but she is definitely a prejudiced one. So while she makes her case that Rasht’s fate is deserved, I’m not sure we can entirely believe her. Nor can we be sure whether it will be effective in its intended purpose, which is another question altogether, an issue of ends and means. It does seem that she’s going rather too far than would be strictly necessary, which is one thing that makes the piece horror—the other being the uncertainty, the suspicion that one day or aeon in the future another Rasht will come along and be even more undeterred, someone who may release what is within the cave into the universe.

I’m never sure that this narrative strategy, revealing the conclusion at the story’s opening, is an optimal one, but the author manages, despite it, to generate a level of tension and an atmosphere of adventure as well as dread.

“The Very Fabric” by Kat Howard

Dark fantasy. The sky tears open and kills Viola’s brother.

Viola looked up. “Oh my God, the sky.” It was obscene—the tear, the absence in the midst of the stars.

Then someone comes to her with the opportunity to mend it.

Nice realization of the image. The vows are a bit sententious and repetitive, however.

“The Things We Do for Love” by K J Parker

Set in the author’s Invincible Sun universe and featuring another con man and rogue, who calls himself Buto, here.

Let me explain. I was born a nobleman’s son, but that must’ve been a mistake. Really, I’m a thief. A nobleman’s son, caught red-handed committing a crime, treats the whole thing as a joke and pays the price for his fun with his father’s money. A thief, caught by the ankle in a dark shop, kills someone. I must have known that, or I wouldn’t have taken the knife with me in the first place.

Things go well for him in his chosen way of life until he meets a young woman who calls herself Onofria, a witch. An awfully accomplished witch. After a while, he realizes he can’t escape her—can’t leave her, can’t kill her, and can’t even kill himself.

After she brought me back to life on the battlefield, I confess, I loved her; more, I have to say, than I’d have thought possible. To owe someone your life; to know that you left her, and she followed you, and she was there when you needed her most, because she loves you—I realised just how wrong I’d been, running away from the most wonderful thing life could possibly give me. To think, I told her, to think I could’ve died, and never realised. There, she said, it’s all right now. It’s going to be all right for ever.

Ominous words.

A dark fantasy on the theme of having too much of a good thing, whether love, wealth or immortality. As is usual with this author, the narrative voice carries the tale briskly along in an entertaining manner, but there are also philosophical asides that make it even more interesting.

“West to East” by Jay Lake

Short piece of SF—a stranded on inimical planet story. This one’s problem is the incessant winds, that sometimes exceed 900 knots. The two-person landing craft has been disabled and can’t get back to the mothership in orbit, or even get off a message to it, telling what has happened. Then, watching the local lifeforms that they call ribbon-eels, our narrator gets an idea.

Her comment about spiders made me think of airborne hatchlings on Earth, each floating on their little length of thread. “I wonder if we could use some of those damned things as sails. If we could get the boat off the ground and pointed into the wind, we might be able to climb high enough on deadstick to at least get off a message to Prospero.”

It’s a neat idea in a neat setting. Some readers may consider it fragmentary, and it exhibits the ending narrative problem in which we’re not clear what condition the narrator is in or how he is telling the story. But it’s pretty clear that this ambiguity is intentional on the author’s part; the intent is to leave us suspended in an exhilarating manner that may recall the conclusion to a very famous film. Unfortunately, the narrator’s sidekick reminds me think of Marcie from the Peanuts comic strip, which isn’t a Good Thing.

“What There Was to See” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Ghosts. In the mid-19th century, Beate became almost entirely blind at age five, in consequence of a fever. In place of the world of light, she began to see the world of the dead, populated by centuries of ghosts. While Beate found this shadow world a place of interest, she caused her parents great embarrassment.

Together, the Abendroth’s [sic] bore the burden of their daughter. In public they were gracious sufferers of their misfortune, but at night, they’d silently lie awake, and blame each other. Their daughter was seventeen, but her mind was younger. She was pursued by imagined friends and enemies, never silent, always gabbling. Her parents dreaded her.

When she is seventeen, they learn of a doctor who claims to have developed a technique to replace her damaged corneas with those of rabbits. The surgery itself goes well, but other aspects of Dr Von Hippel’s estate prove unsettling. At first, Beate was dismayed to discover that his grounds seem to be entirely free of ghosts, a circumstance she has never before encountered. But afterwards, through her rabbit’s cornea, she perceives that the place is haunted by the ghosts of tortured rabbits, as well as an apparition from which all the other ghosts have long since fled in fear.

A fine piece of horror. Except for making it clear that the bear-ghost is not merely a bear, the author leaves much about this ghost as a mystery—how, for example, it is able to reach into the physical realm, and why it targeted Beate’s father. This deepens the ominous aura of the story, as we can never be sure what the unpredictable apparition might do next. The conclusion is also unusual. While most of the story is told primarily from the several points of view of the characters, near the end it turns remote and flat, reflecting the style of an academic report. We already know that for Dr Von Hipple, Beate’s original attraction was as an experimental subject; he exhibited her to medical conferences as well as in his report, under the anonymizing label B A. What we see at the end is that in the story the author has rescued her from this anonymity, as well as all the others, and rendered them as living individuals.

“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” by Rachel Swirsky

The title clearly signifies the ballet, and there is the strong influence of the work Coppélia, in which a mad scientist produces a life-sized animated doll. But the leap being taken by Mara is in fact the long, dark fall into death from osteosarcoma. Her mother had been a principal ballerina and danced in the Coppélia ballet, but she never wanted Mara to follow her there. Unfortunately, she died of a fall when Mara was quite young, and all her daughter has of her now are the video recordings stored by her home studio’s AI. For her father Yakub, his wife’s death would have been unbearable except for Mara, who became the center of his life. Now, with chemotherapy failing, the prospect of losing her is unendurable. He diverts his research into creating artificial soldiers and produces a replica of Mara, into which he wants to download her mind.

The story is divided into three acts, each with its own point of view. We begin with Mara trying to cope not only with her own impending death but her father’s obsessive, smothering grief. When her father shows her the doll, explaining it as a gift to her, Mara reacts with anger, knowing he has made it to replace her in the form of the healthy girl she used to be.

Guilt shot through her, at his confusion, at his fear. What should she do, let him destroy this thing he’d made? What should she do, let the hammer blow strike, watch herself be shattered?

Because of her love for him, she allows him to take the copy of her mind and download it into the doll that will be there for him when she is gone.

It is in Mara’s story, through her eyes, that we most clearly see Yakub’s ongoing grief. His own act [Tour en l’air] focuses more on his childhood and his marriage, the love for his wife, becoming finally his resolution to go on in his own way with the copy of his daughter. The final act [Échappé] belongs to Ruth, the name that Yakub gives her when he realizes there can’t be two Maras in the house. This is hard at first for her to accept, as her memories are all Mara’s, her identity Mara. But that Mara is already gone, and Ruth comes slowly to realize that she will have to form her own identity now, diverging from her original’s just as the biological Mara diverges from the person she had been, slowly becoming her death. Realistically, the two never really reconcile, never entirely escape their mutual resentment.

But no, her experiences were diverging. Mara wanted the false daughter to vanish. Mara thought Ruth was the false daughter, but Ruth knew she wasn’t false at all. She was Mara. Or had been.

This is a strongly moving story of grief and loss that transcends its comic origins. The science-fictional aspect is secondary, albeit essential. Most of the story is entirely and profoundly human.

While the setting is clearly in a near future, the story and characters have a strongly old-world feel to them. Yakub’s grandparents, who raised him in Poland despite his birth in the US, were Holocaust survivors; his first language still seems to be Yiddish, which Mara has learned as well. While he is clearly a skilled engineer working with artificial intelligence, on secret military projects, we see him here as a tinkerer in a basement workshop, not a modern laboratory. When he suspects that a rabbi friend might consider Ruth to be a golem, the concept seems to fit the story more than the thing Ruth is supposed to be, a near-future AI.

The text of this piece is marred by an unacceptable number of errors, which makes it hard to know if there’s a reason that Mara calls Yakub “abba” without capitalizing the Hebrew word for father.


“The Black Sun” by Lewis Shiner

In the issue’s longest piece, Shiner visits an alternate Germany of the 1930s, where master magician Ernst Adler assembles a group of colleagues in the Art to take down Adolph Hitler while he is still vulnerable. The story is all AH with no fantastic element, but there is a persistent hint of the possibility, since Adler’s plot rests on the known susceptibility of both Hitler and Himmler to the mystical occult, centering on the Lance of Longinus, supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross, imbuing it with great powers. The plot, as such things always go, is complex, as is the storyline, accordingly. This provides a great deal of the interest, along with the ensuing action. The complexity leads to tension, as the possibilities for failure accumulate. Shiner knows well that the best-laid plans can end up in the rubble, and he allows his characters to fail at some points so that events aren’t entirely predictable.

There is less interest in the characters; despite the author’s efforts in that direction, they didn’t really come to life. The plot tension results more in concern for Adler’s scheme failing to go off as planned than the fate of the people involved in it. They are a diverse group, each with unique skills, such as slight-of-hand, hypnotism, escape artistry, and impersonation, and the plot seems particularly tailored to their abilities. Which makes me wonder: Adler had no real idea which of his fellow magicians would respond to his call, yet the main elements of the plan seem to have been established beforehand. It seems a bit contrived. Of course, all stories of this sort have to be extremely contrived, but it’s not good when readers notice it, rather like the tricks of a stage magician.

“He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” by Harlan Ellison®

A slight piece, a series of incidents meant to exhibit the principle that some force of cosmic justice prevails in human affairs. Some of the incidents display a strain of sadism. The interest would seem to lie in sorting out the allusions and discovering where they point.

Clarkesworld, August 2014

A bonus this month, with four stories posted.

“The Rose Witch” by James Patrick Kelly

In a fantastic version of Eastern Europe, the rose witch has died, leaving her mostly untrained apprentice to tend the garden, where the plants are slowly beginning to die. Julianja was chosen because of her blood; a drop of it drawn by a thorn will mix with the odor of the selected bloom to cause visions. One day a young man comes seeking a vision from the dog rose; his family has been afflicted with an ancestral curse that is also a treasure and seeks to end it. In his vision, he sees Julianja, so he invites her to come with him to his castle where he will try to end the curse.

A neat fantastic premise here, with the wagon filled with the “uncles’” bones. In many respects, it resembles a fairy tale, but it’s more original. In particular, we have a narrator who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the readers directly.

You have very little understanding of the life of a girl at that time and in that place. You do not wake at the first hint of dawn or take to your bed at dusk because it is too dark to do anything else. You have never tried to eke a day’s nourishment from an onion and some rotting parsnips or squatted over a cesspit. Julianja’s life with Tzigana had presented her with precious few choices and all of those were predictable and circumscribed. She’d not even had the power to decide which chore to do first, whether to spend a dreary day sweeping dirt floors or scavenging firewood. Never had she had power over another—and a man, at that.

Julianja is a strong, well-drawn character who takes advantage of the change in her circumstances.

“Bonfires in Anacostia” by Joseph Tomaras

Sex and politics in the surveillance state. The center of the story is a middle-aged couple, Darius and Brandon, of whom the salient fact is neither that they are a racially mixed nor a gay couple, but that Darius works for a particularly secret division of the NSA. A dozen years in our future, control over the news media has been effectively achieved, so that most people in the country aren’t aware that the residents of DC’s Anacostia district are burning down their own neighborhood. The real secret, however, is the reason, which stems from the program to disguise the squalor of the place with projected holograms, to which the residents have taken offense. As Darius unadvisedly explains to the guests at their dinner party,

And someone—no one knows who, and I would know if anyone knew—tried to set one of the mansions on fire. And that was when they learned what it took government scientists a year and a million dollars to figure out: That fires disrupt the holoprojections. A well-aimed laser would do the same, anything that directs enough energy and light in the right place, but fires are more affordable. More democratic, if you will.

Cynically clever, subtly dark vision of If This Goes On, in which we see the continuing increase in the security state and the inequality of wealth and power. The author has a welcome deft touch.


“The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard

Miracles. There has been a proliferation of saints. In desperation, Joan asks for a miracle, making an offering to the Saint of the Sidewalk, a homeless woman whose belongings were consumed by a fire but whose body was never found.

She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up. Then lit the required cigarette—stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a bar—with the almost empty lighter she had fished out of the trash. You couldn’t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. That was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint.

Unfortunately for Joan, after the lightning struck her offering, she is all-too-easy for her devotees to find: the Saint of the Lightning. People send her emails asking for miracles, and there seems to be no way to escape them. Or the lightning.

Amusing short piece. This is the kind of stuff I’d like to see under the label Urban Fantasy, instead of the sparkling and kick-assing that unfortunately has prevailed for some time.

“Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M Yoachim

A list story of sorts. The Eridani have come to Earth, strangely unaware that the planet was inhabited, and spread the spores meant to develop into their staple food crops, while eliminating weeds, such as the native inhabitants. Large numbers of Earth species die out, and there is great mortality among the oldest and youngest humans. When they realize the consequences of their action, the aliens attempt to make amends, but they’re still not planning to leave.

This background is revealed in a series of linked vignettes, in which different humans react in their own ways to their loss from the spores. The best of these is “Denial”, in which Elli carries around a wad of old blankets that she identifies with her dead child.

“Did you paint the windows?” she asked. Their apartment was on the third floor, and it had a lovely view of the treetops. “Lexi will want to see the birds.”

Not all of these work so well, particularly the “Anger” section, so that I think the story is as much hampered as it is enhanced by the list format.

The Dark, August 2014

At one point, I wondered whether this new zine would fall into the horror or the dark fantasy side of the genre map. By now, it’s quite clear that the answer is fantasy, even when it includes dark SF.

“When Swords Had Names” by Stephen Graham Jones

The narrator is a former soldier, a deserter who was starving when he encountered a small group of men around a fire and begged to share their meal.

I sat, and the leader removed the meat from the fire, carved it into portions, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was not to just eat, but to be consumed myself, by the food I chewed. . . .

Each bite of anything else I ate, I would have to close my eyes to swallow it down.

From that moment, his only thought was to obtain more of that meat, by any means possible. Even when he came to realize what meat it was.

A tale of the willing embrace of evil, in a way worse than cannibalism. Yet a familiarity with addiction, with the effect of some drugs on the brain, makes this one disturbingly credible.

“Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley” by Octavia Cade

Tommy is more than a born engineer, he has a particular affinity for glass. It talks to him, it gives him ideas. Which becomes more important at the onset of WWII.

Turing wants a relay-based machine to help with decoding. Something to supplement the Bombe he already has, something to turn disembowelled alphabet into language. And there is the Heath Robinson, an infernal contraption too slow for Flowers, a cartoon effort he thinks. But when he looks at it he sees switchboards, and glass, and he goes to Turing, then, and tells him he can make something better.

This is a story of betrayal, and readers who know the way the British government betrayed Turing after the war will recognize this. Tommy can say it wasn’t his fault, he can say he was just obeying orders, he can say he was just trying to do the right thing, but the glass knows the truth. A strong indictment, a metaphor for a national shame.


“Not the Grand Duke’s Dancer” by Emily B Cataneo

Marina was a born dancer.

I didn’t always dance for the Grand Duke. Ballet was once my own, the burning light in my chest when I was a girl living among the smokestacks and tenements on the northern edge of Petrograd. In those years, I danced through dirty snow, pirouetting over pigeon-bones and practicing first through fifth position. I imagined I was twirling on the stage of Marinsky Theatre, that pastel-green puff of a building on the bank of a canal only a few miles away, but in another, glittering world.

At first, it was fine to have a patron, fine to be the Grand Duke’s dancer, but he becomes so possessive that he refuses to let her go, not even after her death.

A tragic piece, as we sympathize with Marina’s reasonable desire to be her own dancer, neither the Grand Duke’s nor the devil’s. She has determination and strength of will, but it isn’t ever quite enough. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s death.

“A Fairy Tale Life” by Daja Malcolm Clark

A fairy tale nightmare. Daniel is the lead developer on this interactive Goldilocks module, which he had intended to give to his son even before its official release. Instead, as he tests the program, he finds himself trapped in it.

This isn’t exactly a new scenario. Readers will be looking for the element that makes it original, unique, but instead there is a muddle of several, that don’t really make sense as a whole. It can’t seem to decide whether this is a science-fictional nightmare or a psychological one. One the one hand, it seems that the AIs are taking over the human world, and Daniel’s fate is their doing. On another, we find him reliving his nightmarish childhood, with Goldilocks morphed into the wicked Aunt Mary who raised him.

“Good boys don’t let down their parents so bad they go away. So—into the closet—where it’s too dark for your storybooks,” she says, and with the claw propels him past the front door to a narrower one in the hall. She opens the door and thrusts him into the coats and sweaters hanging there, and they swing on hangers against his back like the memories he’s tried to keep at bay. She shuts the door, and as the darkness of the closet envelops him, he’s ten years old again.

And on yet another hand, the scenario involves Daniel’s failure as a husband and father. These latter two would make more sense if the failure were a strictly psychological one, without the mediation of AIs—as indeed, we can’t be sure that it’s not. We have only Daniel’s own word for what’s going on, and his perception is clearly warped. But by what, we’ll never know.

Apex Magazine, August 2014

The editor introduces this issue by claiming it’s “incredibly good”. Such claims always cause the contrarian in me to rise up and ask, “Oh, really?” For one thing, a publication’s editor isn’t the best objective judge of such matters. And for another, an “incredibly good” publication isn’t something we see very often. I’d love to find more incredibly good issues of any magazine, but the fact is, I rarely do. Of course the proof of any claim is in the reading, but I’d say the editor ought to keep working on “good” before trying for “incredibly”.

“Ten Days Grace” by Foz Meadows

A very familiar dystopian setting where society has been taken over by an unoriginal religious police state, with things like the Spousal Laws and Bureau of Family Affairs. Julia has a black mark on her record ever since she became pregnant during an affair with a married man. The Bureau gave her the choice between losing the child or taking a husband of convenience. Now that man has died, finding his own side of the bargain unfulfilling, and Julia has ten days to find another.

Like homosexuality and abortion, single parenthood had been illegal ever since the National Family Party came to power nearly three decades ago. As soon as the cause of Julia’s sudden nausea was correctly diagnosed, she’d been brought before the Bureau and called to account for the genesis of her not–allowed–to–be–illegitimate offspring.

The conclusion comes with a nice twist, but in general the unoriginality of the scenario and infodumpfery are hard to overcome. While readers are clearly expected to sympathize with Julia, I find myself turning to one of the two real innocents here: the dead Robert, whose bad bargain forever denied him the role of progenitor and drove him, pretty clearly, to drink and death. We’ll never know what impelled him to make the decision to take Julia to wife, or what kind of prenup they signed, but I can’t help thinking he probably expected more and even may have deserved it.

“Sister of Mercy” by Amanda Forrest

A plague of hallucinations has filled the hospitals, patients driven insane by the visions it brings. The doctors, Lisette among them, can’t keep up with the inflow, and there is no known cure. Lisette has started to perform euthanasia on some of the worst cases, whose suffering is unbearable. Then her sister Rose is brought in, and she takes an even more desperate step.

When I slipped the spoon into the ocular cavity and extracted my sister’s sight, my stomach heaved because I couldn’t help but imagine the pain. My own sister. Do not vomit inside an airtight suit. I ran to the isolation airlock and managed to get my helmet off just as I pushed through the door and vomited. After returning, three hard swallows to strengthen my courage, and I accepted the scalpel from the nurse. Gentle pressure to sever the optic nerves.

Lisette escapes the hospital just ahead of a vengeful mob calling for her head, but she takes Rose with her, and now in the wilderness she devotes her efforts to curing her sister by implanting golemish eyes made of a special clay.

This one does a good job of challenging readers’ assumptions through the narrator. The odd ritualistic cure, the eyes of clay—it all seems perfectly reasonable if we believe Lisette. And why shouldn’t we believe Lisette? Until we listen to Rose. Even then, it’s hard to know just what to believe, except that narrators can be unreliable. I’d call this one SF horror, though it takes a while for the horror to seep in.

“The Sandbirds of Mirelle” by John Moran

The narrator, a teenage novice assassin, has come to this world that seems to have a single wonder:

Then a bird broke free. It was long and green and rose from far underground before skimming the crust in a wide arc. At least that’s how it seems now, after so many years. I saw the trailing filaments of its wings and its corkscrewed path through the sand — but instead of falling, the ground twisted and broke into a thousand channels and lattices. There were curls under and over, crystals mixing with the surface in swirls of red, green, yellow, and blue, all freezing into nets of light.

While the other two tourists and their guide ooh and ah over the spectacle, the narrator murders them in turn, even though his assignment is only for a particular one. He’s essentially practicing on them, an exercise in on-the-job-training.

For readers, this is an exercise in making no sense. The setting makes no sense—that an assassin would travel so far for such a task; for the people who die, their deaths make no sense to them, as one’s own death rarely does, particularly in circumstances such as this. For the assassin, the sense is in the payout he expects and the experience; he now knows what his profession will be. He doesn’t come to any profound epiphany as the result of his acts; indeed, he’s a kind of emotional blank, despite his penchant for discussing death with his potential victims. For readers, this isn’t enough sense to make. Death can be senseless. Violence can mess up a place. We may sift through the bloodstained sand for more significance, but it’s not there.

“Juniper and Gentian” by Erik Amundsen

We know from the opening paragraph, from the title, that this one will have a poetic conceit expressed in the prose. Gentian is that sort of name.

Gen walked on the endless, oscillating sea of liquid metal hydrogen and tried, tried to keep her consciousness together. The knight who followed her into the atmosphere, swam through the outer sea of hydrogen with her, he was here too. His armor defied the pressure, his banner defied the heat, and his hands, deep within the boiling, rolling mass of Jupiter. He stood beside a tree that constantly remade itself as it burned and crumpled.

So what’s actually going on behind this dreamlike imagery? It seems that Gentian, with nothing better to do, was recruited by a project meant to spread humanity across the stars like milkweed seeds from a pod, like invasive weeds. To do this requires the sort of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, which is to say an effort of the will in which Gentian, in the form of the starship, makes and remakes herself a near-infinity of times until she makes herself where she was meant to be. [Or fails to, which seems to be a definite possibility here, as Gen is not the most apt pupil in the program.] Jupiter is a trial run, a nice place to visit but not her destination.

Mostly, this is what I call pretty writing, pleasant to the read, although some readers may become impatient with it and start to demand what it’s supposed to be about, what’s actually happening in the real timeworld. Once we do realize it, there is no tension here, as we’re pretty sure Gen is going to succeed in her own way and her own time, which doesn’t matter here, as time is one of those magic things as well. And Gen, apparently, even if she fails, will be able to recreate herself to try again. But I do wonder, nonetheless, about the passengers in Gen-the-ship, waiting for her to find her way. Who would take passage in a ship so untried, who doesn’t know her way and might never find it? How real are these passengers in this ship of magic? Are they, too, destroyed and remade, over and over until the moment when Gen finally gets it right? This would suggest either that such a mode of transportation is commonplace in Gen’s future world or that the population is really really desperate, at which the text hints very faintly but doesn’t go into detail.

The piece provides an interesting illustration of the difference between SF and fantasy, or the ways we read them. If it were fantasy and the magic was magical, then the dreamlike knight could be Sir Jupiter, the planet’s avatar, who meets with Gen on the road of her quest and sets her a series of questions to prove her worthiness, after which he magically grants her the power to reach her goal. But if this is SF, then we see the knight figure as a figment of her imagination, a functional device created by her mind, and all that stuff must be taken as metaphor and symbol.

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Daryl Gregory

I’m not entirely sure when the meme of collective first-person plural titles got started, but by now you could pretty much compile them into a rather mordant short-short: David Marusek’s ‘‘We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy’’, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and now Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine, to which we might append E. Lockhart’s recent We Were Liars, just by way of putting all those other cheery groups in their place. That irony, of course, is implicit in the earlier titles, and is particularly apt for Gregory’s new short novel, which concerns a therapy group for victims of horror stories: an elderly wheelchair-bound man who was the sole survivor of a Sawney Beane-like family of Arkansas cannibals; a well-dressed woman whose flesh had been peeled back so that a psycho called the Scrimshander could carve designs on her exposed bones; a severely withdrawn young woman raised by a cult who incised cryptic symbols all over her skin; a young black man addicted to an RPG zombie game through his omnipresent smart glasses, which he thinks reveal to him actual hidden monsters; and a semi-famous former boy detective whose monster-hunting adventures in a town called Dunnsmouth became the basis of a series of YA books. That town name, a portmanteau of Lovecraft’s most famous villages, is an unsubtle clue that Gregory wants to invoke some of the materials of classic horror fiction, but Gregory isn’t a horror writer. He doesn’t try very hard to make us feel the terror of extreme experience, but he’s very interested in the pain of the aftermath, and particularly in the dynamics of trauma and the sense of isolation in the victims.

This has consistently been one of the trademarks of Gregory’s deeply humane fiction, whether he’s dealing with possession (Pandemonium), zombies (Raising Stony Mayhall) or drug-induced psychosis (Afterparty). Even the grotesque mutations of The Devil’s Alphabet were family, and a kind of family emerges from We Are All Completely Fine as well. Stan, the cannibal victim whose eaten limbs have been replaced by prosthetics, is a kind of cranky uncle impatient with Martin’s defiant refusal to take off his high-tech frames, while the cult survivor Greta is a withdrawn kid sister and Harrison the monster detective tries along with Barbara the Scrimshander victim to maintain a more cordial level of discourse like civilized parents. But the putative parent figure turns out to be Jan, the psychotherapist who has brought the group together, and who has a few secrets of her own (which, though foreshadowed, I didn’t see coming at all).

As the narrative progresses from the growing tensions during the therapy session – all narrated in that first person plural – to third-person glimpses of the home life and backstories of the various patients, the various hidden connections among the group become apparent, and an actual supernatural threat emerges that will require each member to make use of his or her particular strengths. This is where Gregory’s measured restraint emerges as one of the novel’s strongest virtues. The idea of a group of seemingly disparate individuals pooling their resources to face down an archaic terror is a well-worn convention of horror tales – think of Stephen King’s It or even Stoker’s Dracula – but Gregory eschews the sort of setpieces that could easily have made this novel five times as long, and that might disappoint some readers expecting a more conventional horror novel. But Gregory is interested more in empathy than revulsion, more in accommodation than heroics, and more in the victim than the monster. The result is his most tightly constructed and compulsively readable novel to date, and a small gem of what we might call post-horror horror.

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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July

This time, scheduling issues led to a shorter column than usual. I guess it averages out.

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #151-152, July 2014

The first issue has people afflicted by their pasts, the second by hostile forces. The one I like is the Marshall.


“Rappaccini’s Crow” by Cat Rambo

Referencing the Hawthorne classic, but not following it. The setting is an alternate history at a time resembling the beginning of our 20th century, in which a world war is being waged, even longer and harder than the one we know. The object of contention is not territory but a strategic substance: phlogiston. As one wounded soldier puts it:

“That’s the contradiction at the heart of the war, see! Fighting over a precious resource, and using all of that resource in the fight. They keep saying that once the war is over, humanity will advance, once it’s got all that phlogiston to devote to its own noble needs. But that will never happen. They’re too evenly matched. And too many people are making money from supplying the machines to fight the wars. It won’t stop.” He paused and lowered his voice, forcing himself calm. “It won’t stop till all of us are dead.”

These casualties are inmates of an asylum run by the eponymous doctor, who has obtained the contract for their care by promising to cut costs. Thus he stores their brass prosthetics, on the grounds of keeping them for subsequent patients. Less-disabled wounded are fitted up as cyborgs and sent back to the front, an image that will doubtless suggest to readers a steampunk-noir milieu.

Rappaccini has a pet crow, Jonah, of great intelligence and malevolence, hated by both patients and staff, such as the orderly Vivian, our narrator, another less-disabled soldier. Vivian knows that Jonah is a poisoner and has attempted to kill the bird, but fears Rappaccini. This is where readers will expect the heart of the story to be, given the title, but the author has decided to cram a lot more into the text. So we learn that Vivian was a Navajo child sent to a boarding school to be purged of tribal heritage and given to Jesus, whom he embraced there. Also that Vivian is transsexual and ran away to join the army as a boy—the desperation for cannon fodder making it easy for both the underaged and thinly-disguised women to sign up, although Native Americans are relegated to support jobs in this history. The irregularity of his enlistment also gives the authorities an excuse to deny him the honors and benefits he earned, now that he’s no longer of use to them.

What we have here is a jumble, as if the author were a tourist packing to go home with all the souvenirs of her journey and crushing them to fit them into her suitcase. In consequence, the story lacks focus and a clear center, with instead an overload of backstory. I keep thinking I’m going to hear a TV pitchman: But wait! There’s more! The amount of back-grounding would be appropriate for a novel-length work, not a story of this length. As it is, I have a great deal of information about Vivian, but I can’t say I really know him.

A title like this one generally declares a theme, as well as a claim of association to the work being referenced. Thus we must be aware that in the Hawthorne story, the title character was the mad scientist’s daughter, who was pure of character but toxic of flesh, due to her work tending her father’s poisonous plants. This Rappaccini is not a mad scientist but a war profiteer, his garden contains no more poisonous plants than is usual for a medical man, and his poisonous pet crow is highly toxic of character. Clearly, this represents an inversion of the original work. But otherwise, I see no real thematic connection here. Vivian, certainly, is not Rappaccini’s daughter. I can imagine a Hawthorne-like spiritual tale with Vivian caught between the love of Jesus and the hatred of the demonic figure of the crow, but I suspect that’s entirely in my mind and not the text.

“Crossroads and Gateways” by Helen Marshall

Dajan the hunter has been wandering Zamani, desert of death, trapped in his own past and unable to move on, until Esu the trickster god confronts him there to place him at a crossroad. In their encounter, we hear the story of Dajan’s life and his love for Duma, the cheetah woman who killed him.

Neat mythic stuff. I really like Esu, whose godhood is evident, particularly in his psychopomp role. The sense of time/eternity here is also well done.

When had he last tasted the gifts of the living? When had he last drunk in their memory of him? How long had he wandered the desert while his brother’s line fell to the sands?



“The Topaz Marquise” by Fran Wilde

Marcus is a jeweler who finds a ragged man at the door of his shop one morning, desperate to sell him a gem that he claims to come from the Jeweled Valley. Marcus cheats him on the price of the topaz and plans to make a large profit by cutting it into smaller, more fashionable stones. The topaz, however, proves to be cursed—as readers will be expecting after seeing the jeweler’s dishonesty.

That’s about what there is to it. No surprises. Marcus continues to reveal his bad character, taking advantage of his apprentice, while she begins to have ominous, foreboding dreams. Nothing could be more thick-headed than Marcus as he fails, time after time, to recognize what he’s dealing with, while it’s evident from the outset to the rest of us.

“What Needs to Burn” by Sylvia Anna Hiven

Interesting setting here, in a world being consumed by what its denizens call “the dry”. This is a supernatural phenomenon, involving carnivorous horses and other ills infesting the desert that encroaches on the inhabited places. Utah Sullivan has been on the run ahead of it, along with Shadow, member of some sort of supernatural race known to normative humans as savages or barefoot. Shadow claims he was sent from God to save Utah Sullivan, for reasons we are not given to understand. [I can’t help considering this a case of the Magic Negro phenomenon, even though it’s not an exact match.] They are both near death when they encounter Ephraim Wood, owner of a nearby town. Wood threatens to kill Sullivan unless Shadow can go out into the desert and bring back a Fishgirl, another sort of supernatural creature that exudes water.

Shadow is a credible sort of supernatural person; the Fishgirl is something else again.

She oozed water from her eyes, the corners of her mouth. It beaded from her pores, too, and ran down her belly and made her green scales glisten. The water was crystal clear, and where a drop landed on the ground, a flower grew. A flower. My jaw dropped at that.

And even if that were credible, the idea that such a being could fill a well to sustain and entire town is even less so. Also, while the setting has interest, the plot unfortunately does not, being both moralistic and predictable., July 2014

A good number of independent original works this month, at some substantial lengths.

“Sleep Walking Now and Then” by Richard Bowes

The title refers to an interactive play being both set and staged in the now-decrepit but once grand Angouleme Hotel, forever haunted by murders and mystery involving its owner, Edwin Lowery Nance. Nance is played in this production by Jacoby Cass, the playwright. A great point is made about the actors falling into their characters, which only enhances the readerly conviction that the sinister events of the past are about to be replayed.

Almost all tellings agreed that Nance, in the dim light thought Evangeline had gone to the elevator and stepped through the open door. He followed and found not Evangeline but a nine-story drop. How the elevator car happened not to be there was a matter of mystery and dispute.

The number of possible victims and suspects makes for interest, as we’re pretty sure that someone is going to die, but not quite who nor how. Yet the work is considerably more than a murder mystery. The strength is in the stagecraft, with compelling descriptions of the scenery that should surely make readers wish they could attend the production.


“The Angelus Guns” by Max Gladstone

Strong signs of allegory here. Our protagonist is Thea, her brother is Gabriel—”Gabe of the Seventh Chorus, Second Tenors, Antiphon”—of the heavenly chorus. Thea herself is retired from all that, gone from eternity into the timestream to observe creation in all its simplicity. But she remembers past wars when the chorus has destroyed creation when it got out of hand, taking its own way, its own ideas. Now there is rebellion in heaven, which is to say the Crystal City, and Gabe has joined it, celebrating life in its carnal physicality. Thea has gone to bring him back, to save him.

Thea’s old mother held out her hands, and the twin suns dimmed. Across her palms lay a sword. Fire gleamed from the four-foot blade. Fire was the blade: a nova’s fury, a fusion furnace confined by the magic of magnetic fields. The hilt alone did not burn. Jet, that, like her old mother’s flesh, and the grip wrapped in local lizard-skin. A personal weapon, honed and kept with care since long-gone days of active duty.

There’s no Lucifer here, but we get the point clearly without him. Totalitarian heaven, perfection, omnipotence is the enemy—of freedom, creation, individuality, for which Gabe is the spokesman. The moral dilemma belongs to Thea, to whom loyalty calls from both sides. It’s not exceedingly subtle. The story is primarily in the scenery, with its flashing blades.

“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Feminism, rockets, drugs and Disney. The story of Carol Elizabeth Hall, whose father was a rocket scientist after WWII and whose mother was a chemist-turned-reluctant-housewife. Wanting to emulate her father, despite his initial scorn that a girl would want to be a scientist, Carol takes up rocketry as a childhood occupation that leads, after setbacks and detours, into space. The most fulfilling aspect of the story is the evolving relationship between Carol and her mother and her belated understanding of her father’s failed career. The rest is highly nostalgic but takes a too-familiar path through the thickets of “girls can’t do that”. The author has made sure to hit every well-known landmark on that road, but for every former girl who will recognize some or all of them and say, “Yes, it was really like that”, others of us are here to say, “Well, no, not really.”

“Brisk Money” by Adam Christopher

An intriguing conceit: according to the editorial blurb, Raymond Chandler once wrote a series of stories featuring a robot detective; he attempted to burn them, but they were retrieved by his housekeeper and passed on to us. But there’s a problem with such a conceit, which is the questions it will raise in the mind of readers: Is this really Chandler’s voice? Are these anachronisms? To which I would probably say: No, and Yes. While these are minor issues, I would definitely have preferred this one unChandlered, as a generic noir robot detective story set in some past LA, to which readers could make whatever Chandler comparisons that seem fit to them. Because it’s a good enough story that I’d rather set the quibbles aside.

So our hero/narrator is the positronic robot Ray, paired with his mainframe Googol in the classic male detective/female secretary roles. Or so it seems. Because it’s 1962 and computer memory is based on large reels of magnetic tape, Ray’s capacity is limited; every night he has to return to his office and download the day’s memories, then start blank in the morning.

Those whirring tapes, they were me. My mind, my memories. Everything I’d seen, heard, done; everywhere I’d gone. Everything I’d thought and computed, calculated, figured. On those spinning reels I was copied, backed up—the last version of me, anyway. The last day’s work. At midnight I plugged myself into Googol and shut down my circuits to recharge the batteries. Then she began copying my internal memory bank onto an empty spool, a process which took four hours. Another two hours to erase my internal tape, then a restart and I was back in business.

One night, however, there is a power loss, and Ray finds himself with a retained memory, as well as a package of money and a gun. Being programmed as a detective, he tries to solve this mystery.

So, a pretty neat past-future detective story, of which the primary interest is in the programming and the memory; it is in fact a good entry in the smaller subset of Memory SF. The plentiful allusions are also of interest—the author pays appropriate homage to Asimov, for example, but I’m not sure about “Googol”.

“A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade” by John Chu

Civilization is perennially threatened by a deadly phenomenon called Turbulence, against which the Barricade has been erected. Ritter is a new engineer assigned to routine maintenance, but Turbulence has initiated a new mode of attack, and the Barricade has failed in his sector. An improvement to its design is urgently needed, and Ritter sets right to it, this being an entirely mental process not involving crude methods like physical tools and materials.

Creating a machine was like working out subtle mathematical analyses while hoisting unbalanced boulders into their proper places. Father could imagine vast, complicated designs outright. Everyone else imagined parts into reality and then hefted into place. Crenels deepened on gears Ritter imagined into tiny battlements. Cams smoothed into pleasing ovoids. He mated them to motors and actuators that he belted and wrestled into the design. Ritter’s body ached from the strain and sweat stung his eyes.

The fix works, but it isn’t good enough to satisfy Father, the chief engineer of the Barricade. It’s quite clear that nothing would have been good enough—Father being that kind of guy. Ritter is brilliant but handicapped as an engineer by his telepathy, which creates too much distraction to allow him to concentrate at full force. He would like to have it expunged from his mind, but of course it proves to be an advantage in the end.

A sufficiently advanced technology is not only indistinguishable from magic, it can be pretty dull stuff. The text employs the terminology of engineering and construction, but in fact it’s all mind-wavium; we might as well have mages holding off the forces of Chaos, from which this stuff is entirely indistinguishable. The characters and the storyline don’t help, being entirely cardboard. Not credible, not good.

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A novella connected to the author’s previous stories on a subject in Chinese myth: the archer who shot down the rogue suns and married the goddess of the moon. In these variations, Houyi the archer is a woman. Here, however, the focus is on the moon goddess Chang’e’s orphaned several-times-grand-niece Julienne, now living in contemporary Hong Kong, where her aunts keep an eye on her. Julienne learns that having divine relatives can involve unusual complications. This is her [rather belated] coming of age story, in which she finally identifies her heart’s desire. It is closely tied to yet another mythical tale: that of the white serpent and her green sister, here called a viper. Thus as the story begins with Julienne on her way to work, she meets

. . . a woman bleeding under the clock tower. She wears a vivid shade of good emeralds from eyeshadow to stiletto heels, marred by that one slash of red. The woman bears this coldly, eyes straight ahead, only now and then caught by a spasm that tautens her lips over her teeth. Her gaze catches Julienne’s and holds fast.

The woman turns out to be the green viper of the myth, and thus a demon, which rouses the ire of Julienne’s more formidable aunt, who doesn’t like demons on principle, and especially if they mess with her niece. It seems, however, that the green viper is seeking the intercession of Chang’e because her white sister has been abducted and imprisoned by an enemy who happens to be Houyi’s enemy as well. Lots of complications and adventures ensue, along with some romance.

This material is clearly of great interest to the author, although I must say that the previous stories in the cycle haven’t been favorites of mine. This one, though, is different in a number of significant ways, most notably the contemporary setting, which gives it quite an altered tone. The figures of the archer and moon are no longer at the center of the story; they’re living in relative domestic bliss as respected members of the divine community, albeit with some loose ends still dangling. But essentially this story is an independent work. Julienne, the primary character, appears to be an independent creation of the author, a member of the mundane and mortal world, without, as far as I am aware, any direct counterpart in the original material. I would have to say that familiarity with the source material is the real prerequisite for following it, and this is particularly true when we find ourselves involved in the tale of the white and green serpents. I suspect that readers familiar with this material, in one or more of its variations, are going to light up with the pleasure of recognition and will be able to follow the complexities of the ensuing plot with greater ease than those who may have to look it up on The Wiki.

Still, there are a large number of neat bits here that any reader should find enjoyable. I especially like the discussions on the nature and place of gods and heavens, in dimensions not normally accessible to mortals, although immortals have made a place for themselves in the human city. As Xiaoqing tells Julienne:

“It’s not topographical, or don’t you think your astronauts and the like would’ve found Lady Seung Ngo, the woodsman, or the rabbit when they made lunar landings? The immortals’ realm is open to the pure, the divine.”

One thing that bothers me is the confusion of names. Julienne’s personal name, she tells us, comes from a current fashion in Hong Kong for trappings of colonialism, but if she has another, as I believe she must, the story doesn’t seem to reveal it. In these respects, she is unlike the other characters. Each of them has adopted alternate names more suitable, apparently, to their current surroundings. Thus Houyi the archer is known as Hau Ngai, and Xiaoqing the green serpent has the name Olivia Ching on her business cards—highly colonial. I suppose this is a convenience to the characters, not to announce themselves to the mundane world as divine figures, but the narrative flips back and forth between modes of address, which doesn’t make following the story much easier, especially for those readers not familiar with the language.

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

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

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

Faren Miller reviews Erika Johansen

Though the galley of Erika Johansen’s debut The Queen of the Tearling arrived with promotional material that trumpets its sale to a major film company, sets the action firmly three centuries in the future, and reduces the plot to a few familiar tropes (‘‘A Young Woman, A Kingdom, An Evil Enemy, a Birthright Foretold…’’), Johansen won me over with something [Sheila] Finch [in Myths, Metaphors, and Science Fiction: Antique Roots of the Literature of the Future] sensed as a girl reading stories by Ray Bradbury and gradually came to understand as ‘‘the apparently effortless ability of simple words’’ – images – ‘‘to stir emotion.’’

Here’s the teenage heroine’s initial response to a palace bedroom:

Kelsea woke in a deep, soft bed hung with a light blue canopy. Her first thought was a trivial one: the bed had too many pillows. Her bed in Barry and Carlin’s cottage had been small, but clean and comfortable, with a single serviceable pillow. This bed was comfortable as well, but it was an ostentatious sort of comfort. The bed could easily have held four people, its sheets were pear-colored silk, and an endless vista of small, frilly white pillows stretched across the blue damask coverlet.

She concludes, ‘‘My mother’s bed, and just what I should have expected.’’

Raised by a pair of guardians on a homestead far from Tearling’s royal capital New London (where her uncle became Regent upon her glamorous mother’s early death), Kelsea Glynn is a tall, rather ungainly 19-year-old girl who loves to read, likes to eat, isn’t afraid to dirty her hands with practical matters, but has no real experience of the world. Now that she’s finally old enough for some politicians in New London to proclaim her its rightful queen, she can’t dismiss self-doubts with confidence in a Birthright Foretold, and has little idea how to approach the job. Nonetheless, she’s intelligent and observant, with an ethical backbone that will keep her steady in circumstances where others might be tempted to institute widespread purges, or yield to prevailing corruption. Confronted with an active slave trade that periodically sends a slew of victims to the neighboring kingdom where the Red Queen reigns, this unheroic heroine resolves to stop it – immediately!

Life has a nasty tendency to mess up major thought experiments, subverting efforts to change the course of history and achieve utopia. Several hundred years before this book begins, the bold explorer William Tear and some fellow idealists took matters into their own hands and made The Crossing, a journey from our world to one left unspoiled – somehow – by overpopulation, high tech or established religion. (Johansen reserves explanation of the method used, and exactly where it took them, for later volumes). Like most raw settlements with a few relics and dwindling memories of past sophistication, theirs devolved. The loss left room for other elements to intrude: strange magics, and equally mysterious jewels that counter the worst kinds of strangeness and amplify the good.

Or so it seems. Johansen leaves room for other possibilities by emphasizing how human all the characters can be (even the long-lived Red Queen) and showing the world in glimpses, from many angles. Like Kelsea, we’re strangers who can only try to piece together the bigger picture from fragments – for us, these are chapters that move among a number of viewpoint characters; for her, snatches of dream-vision that culminate here:

Kelsea glimpsed wonders, so briefly that she didn’t have time to understand them, or even to mourn their passing. She could see everything, the future and the past, her vision stretching into a place where time and land merged into one.

Despite the evanescence, it leaves her with a sense of mission and adult responsibility.

Finch noted how some fiction (from Ender’s Game to tales of Harry Potter) discards logic yet grabs the imagination with the primal archetype of ‘‘the unlikely person called to right a wrong,’’ the Stranger bound to bring healing and redemption to a Wounded Land. The Queen of the Tearling portrays the early stages of a quest where reason may be more relevant than you might expect.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Joe Abercrombie

In an era when fantasy seems enthralled by long series of huge volumes that seem to pass by like freight trains at a crossing when you’re trying to get somewhere, Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King serves as a reminder that there are considerable virtues yet to be found by efficient, on-the-ground storytelling propelled more by plot than by setting, with crisp dialogue, humane characters, and a distinct inward spiral of rapid-fire events. To be sure, it’s the first volume of a trilogy (although the entire trilogy promises a page count not much longer than some of those luggage novels, including a couple of Abercrombie’s own), and to be sure, it’s clearly a YA novel (though Del Rey’s price point and marketing suggests confidence that they will draw adult readers as well, which they should). But there’s certainly enough incident and background in his almost classically structured, Dumas-like betrayal-suffering-and-revenge plot to have pumped the novel up to three times its length, and while there may well be readers who would wish for that, I found myself relieved at a novel which is not only a page-turner, but in which something actually happens on the next page. At the same time, Abercrombie has found room for a few passages of extraordinarily graceful prose, though never to the point of self-indulgence or sentimentality.

The set-up seems almost archetypally familiar. Yarvi is the younger prince of Gettland, a vaguely Viking-like warrior society, but his studious nature and a birth defect of a withered hand lead him to study to be a minister rather than to prepare for succeeding to the throne, which is the role of his more traditionally macho brother. By the end of the first short chapter, he learns that his father and brother have been killed in a treacherous attack by the rival Vanstermen, and Yarvi finds himself not only inheriting the kingdom – with absolutely no one’s confidence – but betrothed to the daughter of his father’s chief advisor. It’s not long before he finds himself the victim of treachery, and he must use his intelligence and talents not only to survive a brutal coming of age, but to collect an unlikely but mostly likeable band of former slaves and outcasts in an harrowing effort to regain his true identity. Along the way, he not only gains a radically different perspective on his world – including the feared Vanstermen and the ancient metal structures left over from an apparently superior culture called the elves – but he meets a colorful collection of secondary characters, including a spectacularly alcoholic woman ship’s captain and a strangely quiet galley slave called Nothing. A good deal of the efficiency of Abercrombie’s narrative derives from the manner in which he reveals the inevitable things-are-not-what-they seem insights without interrupting his basic action-thriller template. While at least one of these revelations seems somewhat contrived, and a couple of others are apparently coupons for succeeding volumes, the overall pace of the volume is extremely satisfying.

In a way, there is nothing much new in Half a King for anyone familiar with the long tradition of redress adventures, but that’s not really the point. Abercrombie is not out so much to revise the tradition, or to wallow in his world-building, as to celebrate a particular kind of storytelling, not unlike the celebration of Western tropes he explored in his recent prequel to Red Country, ‘‘Some Desperado’’. If the novel introduces new readers to this kind of narrative, and reminds older ones of its virtues, he’ll have done his job. Sometimes a story is just a good story.

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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-July

Scheduling changes make this column an especially long one. It would have been considerably longer if I’d reviewed the all-too-numerous serializations, which is not my practice here. At least I managed to get caught up.

For the good stories, look at Interzone and the little zine Shimmer.

Publications Reviewed

Asimov’s, September 2014

Not an outstanding issue this time. The major work here is unfortunately an installment in an ongoing serialization, and while I liked a couple of the shorter pieces, they’re not enough to carry the issue. I discern a theme of dysfunctional organizations.

“Place of Worship” by Tochi Onyebuchi

This is a work of remarkable unclarity. I’ve frequently expressed my impatience with a lot of first-person stories that don’t bother to give their narrator/protagonists a name. A name helps make a character a person; without it, we have only a blank somebody, that the author may or may not succeed in filling with personality—usually not, as in this case, where our somebody is filled instead with alcohol for reasons that are never made clear. He finds something to assuage this emotional angst in a bar, a place that gives him the sense of the fellowship of religion and the solace of prayer, while/after going back and forth to somewhere he calls “space”, otherwise unclear.

Space, in fiction, is a useful metaphor for all kinds of different things—nothingness, the stars, God. But in science fiction we expect the term to do more than just signify casting our eyes upwards beyond the sky. Somebody here goes “to space” as a laborer, and there is a reference to “colonies”, to a bit of work in Zero-G, but the milieu is as undeveloped as his character. There’s a strong dissonance between the descriptions of Somebody’s childhood, that seems to take place in the mid-20th century, complete with SUVs, and his heading off as a young man to an inhabited offworld colony complete with bars. This space doesn’t seem to exist in our future but our past. In fact, the story could just as well have had Somebody moving to work in New York or Bahrain.

Somebody talks a lot—about his childhood, about his childhood religion, about his parents—yet through it all he remains opaque, a blank, a cipher. [At one point, I actually thought there might be two or more different narrators going on, given the fragmented timeline.] He cycles back and forth between alcohol and sobriety for reasons are never revealed. In consequence, I can’t care if he finally sees God when he looks up and out through the porthole in his home bar. I wouldn’t even know what that might mean here.

“A Lullaby in Glass” by Amanda Forrest

A future world drowning as the sea rises, with Vietnamese coastal villages now built on rafts. Bees and other natural pollinator seem also to be extinct. People are starving and refugees from the south are filling the northern region. The nation has fallen into totalitarian collectivism, with the consequence that everyone fears punishment for failure to make production quotas. Tuan’s village work group is tasked with the production of specialized diatoms.

Only the nano-glassware built by the diatoms yielded components small enough that the Indigestible parts of the pollination drones could pass through the stomachs of the country’s bird species. Without the output of the corrals, there was no fruit or nut crop.

But the diatom pools are contaminated, not producing, and everyone is afraid to tell the government representative when he arrives. Tuan, the representative’s son, knows that if he tells his father about the shortfall, someone will be punished; if he doesn’t, his father will bear the punishment for promising increased production, based on false reports from the village. In a subplot Tuan has also become infatuated with a refugee girl who seems intriguingly different.

The interest in this piece is the behavior of a totalitarian regime in the face of disaster. The government’s first instinct is secrecy and control; it wastes resources sealing its borders and making sure no one gets out to reveal the extent of the ongoing calamity, even if this means an increased death toll. The story of Ahn, the refugee, could have made these points more effectively if it had been more probable.

The story also tells us that the village foreman beats the single girls who work for him, because they don’t have husbands to protect them. But Tuan is concerned that the man will beat his mother [in revenge?] if he reveals the truth about the diatom production to his father, the foreman’s superior. This strikes me as unrealistic.

“Patterns” by James Gunn

Jeremy is a data analyst for the NSA; his specialty is patterns. Lately, he has discovered a pattern that disturbs him; he’s certain that the agency’s metadata has been hacked. Someone is watching the watchers.

What he saw, looking past the numbers into the storage units that were linked by miles of cable through which flowed rivers of information, was the great pattern of a nation’s communication: phone calls, textings, e-mails, all the ways in which an electronic generation connected itself like some vast hive mind. Pointless, irrelevant, purposeless—and yet vital, striving, struggling toward meaning. ” ‘Some rough beast,’ ” he thought.

The real interest here, as in the Forrest piece, is in the behavior of the institution, the inability to see recognize unfamiliar patterns, the CYA mentality of the bureaucrats—an all-too-familiar pattern.

“Everyone Will Want One” by Kelly Sandoval

On her thirteenth birthday, Nancy’s father gives her a present, a new model of synth-pet that his company is going to introduce.

She remembers him telling her about them, months ago. Reimagers were synth-pets for losers; they could analyze social networks and facial expressions, then tell their owners how to react. Nancy doesn’t wonder how her dad got the idea.

Because Nancy, despite her powerful father, is indeed a loser.

A sort of technological Mean Girls update, set in the snakepit of a junior high school, a milieu that never seems to change except perhaps to get more vicious. Essentially, and typical of YA, it’s a lesson story.

“Scouting Report” by Rick Wilber

Unsurprisingly, another of the author’s entertaining baseball stories. Here, Robert Johnson is enjoying a successful scouting trip to Puerto Rico.

And now Robert Johnson, failed pitcher and failed coach who’d finally found his place in the game as a scout, was convinced that he’d found the next Clemente, the next Big Thing, the next phenom from Puerto Rico; Aloysius Stevens-Arce, he of the great swing and the golden glove and the amazing arm. Nineteen years old but ready now, ready right now, is what Robert had said in that wrap-up he’d sent to Teddy Driscoll. Aloysius didn’t need any more Double-A ball playing for the San Juan Islanders or even the Pel’s Triple-A club in Buffalo. Aloysius was ready for the show right now.

Except that a woman comes up to him in the bar with some video that suggests Robert’s judgment may have been impaired by too many mojitos, or maybe he just isn’t quite as sharp as he thinks he is. But he’s already sent his report to the team manager, and they’re bringing the kid up to the majors for a tryout the next day. Or it could be the aliens, which the author has slipped into the mix. Readers will probably figure this out long before Robert, unless they, too, have had too many mojitos. Neatly done, baseball-rich. Some readers may spot a Tuckerization.

“Windows” by Susan Palwick

Vangie doesn’t get a lot of luck. The way her life goes, a piece of good luck always has to be paid for in an equal measure of misfortune. So when her daughter won the lottery for a berth on the generation ship to the stars, luck made it that her son got picked up for dealing cocaine. Now, on Graham’s birthday, she hopes for enough good luck that she can see him in prison, that she can bring him the video his sister sent from out there in space.

More than once, she’s spent the time and money to get down there—the time’s no problem, but the money’s not so easy, not with her monthly check as small as it is—to find the prison on lockdown, nobody in or out and god only knows what’s going on inside. All you get are reports you can’t trust, and you sit in the shabby town library Googling the news every two seconds until it’s time to catch the bus back home, because you can’t afford another night in a motel.

Depressing and moving, in equal measure. It’d be easy to believe that the balance of luck in Vangie’s life has cosmic force.

Analog, October 2014

I’m seeing a pattern here. The current issue of this zine also has a sequel novella that at least shows signs of closure rather than infinite serialization. But there are even fewer compensating good stories, and a couple are actively offensive. There also seems to be a theme of aliens.

“The Jenregar and the Light” by Dave Creek

Sequel to the author’s previous story about the invasion of Earth by hives of termite-like aliens that build their mounds in the middle of human cities, such as Nairobi, where Kamau Kimathi is governor, but also a bioscientist studying the aliens. Since it’s clear that military force isn’t enough to repel the invaders, he turns to genetics in the hope of establishing communication with a captive. In the meantime, Our Hero from the first story, Mike Christopher, is doing nothing in particular but dwelling with the angst of his early life and getting special treatment from the authorities because he’s such a special guy that the author felt the need to devote half the story space to him to do nothing in.

One of the pitfalls of authorship is falling in love with your character. Here is an extreme case, as the author has clearly elevated the Mike character to demigod status. We know he’s a Hero because the author keeps telling us, using the other characters for the purpose, as they all take one look at him and immediately begin to hero-worship, although he actually does nothing to defeat the enemy. But the author makes the false assumption that his backstory must be as interesting to readers as it apparently is to him. So important is this character that the Earth Unity, which has no time to spare defending one of the planet’s largest cities, makes special arrangements to provide an escape route for him when he’s stuck on a stalled train—thus opening the way for another Jenrager invasion. In the meantime, Kamau is actually figuring out how to defeat the aliens, a story that is very much slighted while the author is dragging us along with his favorite guy.

I didn’t like the first of these pieces, and I note that in this one we find out that the apparent success of that one has turned out to be a failure, in fact augmenting the power of the aliens. If other characters have managed here to put the Jenrager out for good so there isn’t another sequel and especially no more Mike Christopher, I applaud them.

“Threshold” by Tony Ballantyne

Aliens again. Eduardo is a tour guide taking a trio of supposed xenobiologists on a field trip to see the floating hives of Lucky Planet.

She was taller than me. All three of them were. Tall and very well built with shaven heads; they wore simple white tunics and trousers that contrasted with their ebony skin. Their consoles were set in the form of identical silver bracelets on their right wrists. The thing that really marked them, however, was their look of competence. I had taken other tourists into the jungle in the past, and had needed to watch over them nearly every step of the way. I doubted I would have that trouble with these three.

He’s wrong. The three turn out to be human supremacist fanatics intent on capturing a member of the S, the advanced race that owns Lucky Planet and leases part of it to humanity. Eduardo knows this is a bad idea, but they’ve threatened his family.

This is more like it. The author doesn’t heroize Eduardo, he simply presents a man who realizes he has hard choices to make in a hard situation, with a great deal at stake. The story begins at the ending, which I’m not sure is the best narrative strategy here, but it tells readers at the outset that the situation is going to become dire. The setting is well-conceived. Lucky Planet may have its paradisiacal aspects, but nature can be very cruel there. Eduardo’s three clients may believe they’re tough, but they don’t realize just what they’ve let themselves in for. Eduardo, who does, exhibits strong determination and resourcefulness, but also a capacity to wonder whether humanity has taken the most survival-positive path, after all.

“Opportunity Knocks” by Joyce & Stanley Schmidt

Another sequel, this one to a novel in which the alien fugitive Xiphar goes to ground on Earth to escape his pursuers, engaged in what they call the Great Hunt for him. Even though Xiphar has been blasted into obliteration, the Hunt goes on, although some of its agents, like Mixipoxi, have begun to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. By coincidence, because it’s that kind of story, he runs into Maybelle Terwilliger from the novel.

A silly piece, depending entirely on events from a previous silly book.

“Each Night I Dream of Liberty” by Andrew Barton

Libertalia might once have been a pirate haven, back in the century, and is apparently now a game setting. Here, it’s a free-enterprise dystopia comprised of several ships moored somewhere near a Pacific gyre where floating trash symbolically collects.

Libertalia was an upturned umbrella alone in the sea, and it caught the hopeful like raindrops. Most ended up dripping down into one of the four cargo ships tied to the city’s central column, the rusting undercities that the captains of industry in their aerogel palaces never had to see.

While under the jurisdiction of no national government, the UN apparently claims it, so its agent Taryn Liang has come there ostensibly in search of a rumor that someone has been engaging in restricted cognotechnology research—not that Libertalia would acknowledge any such restrictions—but in fact to take down its corrupt boss. Limited action ensues, as Liang single-handedly and improbably defeats the forces of evil.

The story is standard stuff, if you think a single agent armed only with a stunner can take on a whole criminal organization in a place like this. The text calls Liang an “elf”, a term undefined, which suggests to me that the character may have been part of other works I’ve not seen. What I find a bit interesting is the setting, given this zine’s tradition of libertarian advocacy. Libertalia doesn’t make the notion of a free-enterprise utopia look promising at all. But the author waffles here, suggesting that the real problem was corruption of the system, and now that the source of infection has been removed, sunshine will affect a cure and true liberty will now prevail. Rather than, as is far more likely, another boss moving into the power vacuum. Naomi Kritzer has been doing this setting much more effectively and entertainingly.

“Unfolding the Multi-Cloud” by Ron Collins

The narrator’s master has taken a very well-paid job in the multi-cloud, where he spends days at a time, returning home for 3-day leaves. She now lives in luxury, but there is a problem.

I have learned the multi-cloud steals a person a few bits at a time—slowly, yet certainly. It’s even acknowledged in the contract, though folders are not generally the types who read fine print. I have learned of the esprit de corps of the few who give their lives to this, I have learned of the addiction that folders have to the sense of wrapping themselves about the universe, spreading themselves across oceans of context, across galaxies of data.

This is a story that makes love look bad, at least love as the narrator obsessively conceives it, solely in terms of sex, lying in bed perfumed and curled, waiting for him. There’s no suggestion that the narrator has any life or thought outside her bed, or that she’d allow her lover any other sort of thought not focused fully on her. Her concern isn’t so much that his self is being stolen away piece by piece, but that it’s being stolen from her. Very icky. I don’t know if the author intended this piece as horror, but it sure reads that way.

“The Hand-Havers” by Mary E Lowd

These characters are nonhumans, which would mean they are aliens to us but of course not to themselves. This is a species that gives birth either to children, unique but immature individuals, or to hands, which are secondary bodies controlled by the original. Those with more hands are the most productive members of the community [and designated here as male], and six-handed Ebbence is a paragon. As a no-handed child, Delundia admired Ebbence and wanted to emulate him as a six-handed inventor. But her admiration ripened into love, while she was unaware that love leads to the production of children instead of additional hands.

There’s potential interest in this species, but emotionally they are all too human, which leads to problems. It rubs me the wrong way when the productive, many-handed individuals are given the male gender and the single-handed, relatively useless adults are considered females and relegated to the roll of child-rearing. The story centers on Delundia giving up her own dream and having to live vicariously through her children, which is bad enough. But we also have an incident of what can only be considered spousal rape, which apparently didn’t bother anyone in the story. These characters are too human in their relationships for that to be acceptable. On a more practical level, I find it unlikely that a young adult like Delundia would be ignorant of the most basic fact of life in her species, which gives this piece a sort of idiot plot.

“Chrysalis” by David Brin

Beverly and her colleague George join up at the cutting edge of research in growing replacement organs, during which they spend most of the text lecturing each other about matters they both should be thoroughly familiar with, even when moving on into tampering with evolution. In short, this one is all idea, with a couple of talking heads expounding it, not story. Although if it were a story, it would probably be sci-fi horror.

Still, it’s pretty discouraging to realize that this is as close as the issue comes to anything like actual Hard SF, which is supposedly the zine’s core mission.

Interzone, July/August 2014

Some interesting examples here of blurred genre boundaries, in an issue where most of the settings are close to being in our own world.

“My Father and the Martian Moon Maids” by James Van Pelt

A loving reminiscence of the narrator’s father, who had been a model to him as a boy, who watched the skies with a telescope, built a UFO detector in his closet, and saw the wondrous in the mundane.

Girls, hired by the mall, in matching costumes of red blouses and short, silver skirts, reflective as mirrors, mixed with the crowd, handing out promotional flyers from some of the businesses. They’d all dyed their hair an unlikely blue. Background music filled the air.

“They’re moon maids,” Dad said.

The contrast with the old man afflicted with dementia is moving and depressing. Essentially, this is a mainstream piece, except for the ambiguously sciencefictional conclusion, which hits just the right skiffy note.

“Flytrap” by Andrew Hook

Three characters contemplate an alien life, mediated by classic sci-fi horror movies.

What if humans were in fact empty shells and Venusians came to Earth and entered their bodies and everything which was championed as human intelligence was in fact alien. What if how we defined ourselves wasn’t us at all. Or in fact, was us; but we had forgotten where we came from?

This is the eternal daydream of geekish youth, which most readers will probably recognize – the sense of belonging elsewhere, of being alien to humanity. A wish-fulfillment fantasy, though nothing really comes of it.

“The Golden Nose” by Neil Williamson

Felix is a nose, an olfactory specialist whose craft is in decline, being replaced by molecular technology. In hopes of a reversal of fortune, he obtains the legendary Golden Nose of the Habsburgs, reputed to confer superior olfactory abilities on the wearer. Unfortunately, it also comes with a curse.

He died in a sanatorium in 1931 suffering from something called psychosomatic putrescence. According to the biography, the physicians had detected nothing physically wrong with the man. He had just wasted away, and near the end he had smelled so rotten the sanatorium staff had to be paid extra even to enter his room. A tragic and ironic fate for such a gifted individual.

Essentially this is a dark fantasy, in which the subject’s flawed character makes him particularly susceptible to the curse, which might even be considered fitting. The subject matter, however, is quite SFnal, involving the molecular nature of scent and the possibility of synthesizing it. The digital Teleroma device is pure science fiction.

The only actual golden nose I know of was Tycho Brahe’s, another figure whose historical importance to SF is profound.

“Beside the Dammed River” by D J Cockburn

The year’s James White award winner for non-professional writers.

After China dammed the sources of the Mekong, Narong’s region of Thailand has been reduced into an impoverished desert. Once a professor of engineering, he is now found pushing a water cart along the dusty road, yet when the truck carrying a valuable asteroid breaks down on the unmaintained surface, he not only knows how to fix the vehicle, he recognizes the nature of its load. He also knows that, having fallen on Thai territory, the asteroid belongs to his government and that the drivers are transporting it illegally across the border. “Still, if the government cared whether people in Ubon Ratchathani followed its rules, it wouldn’t have left them to desiccate.”

Nicely done. The author spins out his revelations at just the right pace, letting us know who Narong is, the source of his current situation, and what he is doing about it. This is a strongly-drawn character who has mostly come to terms with his reduced circumstances but is still subject to an occasional twinge of regret and envy.

He opened the toolbox. The shine of stainless steel assailed him. For the first time since he’d seen the truck, he wanted something. Rows of screwdrivers and spanners cried out to him, pleading their supremacy over his own rusty toolkit that he kept wrapped in an old shirt.

The story is also real science fiction set in a recognizably near future when water rights dominate global politics – a stroke of irony that the fresh water of the river has been diverted away, yet the coastline is being drowned by rising sea water. Under these circumstances, we find that Narong is the classical competent SF engineer, having developed a device to extract water from the atmosphere.

He’s also a man who’s retained his pride and resents being treated with disrespect by the arrogant punk of a driver from Bangkok who doesn’t even know how to maintain his own truck. The forms of respect that he wouldn’t expect from the foreign woman in the driver’s seat are a deliberate insult when omitted by the young man from the city who thinks too highly of himself. By the end of the story, readers won’t be surprised to learn that it’s Narong who come out the better from the encounter.


“Chasmata” by E Catherine Tobler

Mars – “this sepia waste of a place.” The narrator and her spouse were chosen as colonists to settle alone near Valles Marineris, for reasons not made clear. Such is the overall tone of this piece, enigmatic, as the narrator addresses her husband, who seems to have some sort of memory problem, perhaps of old age, or perhaps radiation, but again, not clear. It’s the poetic truth that counts here, not the literal, and to question why any sensible agency would sponsor such a project is to miss that point. Indeed, readers might suppose this entire piece is a kind of dream.

You suppose they should have known – in the end you know they did, and they wanted this specific pair (us, oh us) for this specific reason. They knew how it would go, what we would bring to this place, the child (children) we would create on this new world. How many years before others came? Before they joined our family unit? Too many. Not enough. There were others already, but flung so distant across this planet that they didn’t matter. Not here and now.

At its heart, this is an homage to Ray Bradbury, whose name is frequently evoked here, and the Mars of his imagination, to the beings he populated it with and the stories he set there, ignoring any concern with a boundary between their fantastic and sciencefictional aspects. A familiarity with these classic tales is necessary to pick up all the allusions here. So we look for the rains when they come, but they are not soft.

“The Bars of Orion” by Caren Gussoff

The man who used to be Seth Ferguson was blown out of his own universe and now finds himself, under the name Blankenship, in this one, where he is undergoing therapy for the trauma. He can’t find his place in this world. “Because, in this universe, he was a ghost. It was best if he didn’t take up much space and left only the most fleeting of impressions.” But his therapist quickly goes to the heart of his situation. His place is caring for his daughter, who was blown into this universe with him.

Reading a story like this one, we have to consider whether to take the premise literally or metaphorically. Blankenship’s therapist clearly takes his situation metaphorically, believing that some trauma has caused dissociation in his mind. But it’s clear from a number of small details [his daughter Tibbi calls him "Baba"] that what Blankenship claims is indeed what happened. That’s not quite the same thing as finding it credible. I’m not quite believing that Blankenship, short on funds and living in the temporary quarters of a motel, would be able to afford the therapy; also that his daughter, having gone through the same trauma, wouldn’t also be in need of it. It’s also odd that, while he knows his wife is alive in this universe and married to another man, he apparently feels no overwhelming compulsion to seek her out. I think the ending would have been stronger if this element had previously been given more attention.

Strange Horizons, July 2014

I have mixed reactions to this month’s offerings.

“Chopin’s Eyes” by Lara Elena Donnelly

There’s a factual armature at the core of this piece: Chopin did in fact have an affair with the author George Sand [as she is known here] while he was afflicted with the probable tuberculosis that eventually killed him, some years later. They did travel together to Majorca, where his health was injured by the climate. The rest, however, has been laid on by the author in a manner not only a product of the fantastic imagination but contrary to the truth of her subjects’ real lives. Does this bother me? It does, quite a lot.

At the core of the story, George, attracted by the brilliance of Chopin’s music, discerns in his eyes the presence of a demonic persona, a parasitic entity that is not only the genius of his music but the cause of the drain on his life force. It is this persona with which George has her affair, at the expense of its human host, for the more she urges him to compose and play, the weaker he becomes.

“I know…” he says, and at first she thinks he must have read her mind. The long groove of her spine fills with freezing water, a trickle of fear. But he goes on. “I know that my playing… inflames you. As it does me, I must admit, but I must think of my health. And I fear sometimes that you… do not think of it. Because you love the music, but not the sickly man who plays it.”

In short, the George Sand of this story is a monster, a succubus-by-proxy who drains her lover’s life. Now if this had been a fantasy using imaginary characters, the scenario might have been effective, might even have been moving. But these characters were real people; their history is known to us. So it seems that one of two things must be going on here. Either the author is trying to make the case that Sand really was a monster, that her obsessive affair with Chopin was the cause of his ruin and death, using demonic possession as a metaphor. If so, however, it doesn’t work, for the possession was not George’s doing. It also dismisses the historical Chopin’s real genius. The other alternative is that the author is the parasite here, exploiting the names and reputations of persons now unable to defend themselves from her defamation.

“The World Resolute” by E Catherine Tobler

Short–short, a sort of prose poem with the refrain, “The trees are growing hollow here.” The labyrinth of the dead trees is the land of the dead, the hag sitting beneath them is death, and so is the narrator. And these things come in threes.

Mythic stuff, less a story than an image evoking a sense of inevitability, with time collapsing to a single point and infinite circularity.

“Witch, Beast, Saint: An Erotic Fairy Tale” by C S E Cooney

The witch is the narrator, who finds the beast down and out in the forest, cleans him up, and takes him as her lover, without transforming him back into the man he once was, because she likes him better as he is. Life in the forest is lusty and good, until the saint shows up. His mission is transforming beasts back into men, and the witch’s beast can’t resist his attraction. But eventually he comes back to her, wanting to be her beast again. And the saint follows him.

“I wanted,” he said again, “to see you in chains before me, blindfolded, senseless and speechless with pleasure from all I did to you. I wanted you naked on your kitchen table with a bowl of strawberries, that I might draw arcane figures on your flesh and take those runes back onto my tongue while you cried out beneath me. I wanted to touch you with these fingers,” his fiery fingers moved under my skirt, “until you screamed for mercy as he said he screamed for you. I wanted to gag your groans and gurgles with silk that would grow wet in your drooling mouth. To torment you with inventions I have not yet dared to dream. And after days and weeks and seasons of this, I wanted you to turn—and do the same to me.”

Definitely an erotic tale, employing the traditional fairytale material for subversive purpose. Readers will suspect that the threesome will live happily ever after.

Lightspeed, July 2014

The zine returns to normal after last month’s extravaganza issue, but two out of the four original stories are serial installments – the Vaughn and the Hughes. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of new reading.

“The New Provisions” by Adam-Troy Castro

Reductioed absurdity, in the mode of If This Goes On. Our designated victim is Phil, a blank punching bag for the system, with no real personal characteristics. The system here has sold out entirely to the corporations, giving them unlimited power over individuals. Thus Phil discovers his car has been towed, which is only the beginning of his woes.

Phil no longer had an active contract with that company and had not thought of them since severing ties, but the company had gone back over its list of old customers and retroactively inserted a clause allowing them to seize the assets of any customer who publically defamed their services in any manner.

This is technically a story, as we have a nominal character to whom things happen, but essentially it’s a rant, meant to whip up outrage in readers. Which it might have done more effectively if we could discern any feelings in Phil, or if his situation had been remotely believable.

“Cimmeria: from the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss

A group of anthropologists creates a country of their imagination, related to Iran and located on the Black Sea near Scythia and Sarmatia, countries imagined by another group; they bring it to life. While touring the country, they have an audience with the Khan, and Nolan has the opportunity to meet his daughters, who are ambitious to study in the West. He eventually marries the oldest, Shaila, who moves with him back to American and starts pre-med studies. But Shaila was born with a twin, and Cimmerian custom doesn’t acknowledge twin births. They insist that the Khan only has three daughters, not four, and Shaila’s sister is a shadow with no name of her own. As such, she comes with them to America, where everything changes. While Nolan can only wonder which of his colleagues created this situation and its unintended consequences.

The narrator acknowledges that this tale must seem to be a fantasy, not credible. People can’t go to imagined countries and marry their people. Yet,

Do we not create them, by drawing maps with lines on them and naming rivers, mountain ranges? And then deciding that the men of our tribe can only marry women outside their matrilineage? That they must bury corpses rather than burning them, eat chicken and goats but not pigs, worship this bull-headed god instead of the crocodile god of that other tribe, which is an abomination? Fast during the dark of the moon, feast when the moon is full?

And the narrator’s feelings for his wife, his pain at the loss of the life they might have led, is quite real.


Shimmer, May 2014

The editorial for this nineteenth issue announces a change to digital format. I don’t know if this is the reason, but the quality of the stories is high, and I particularly like the Ferebee.

“The Earth and Everything Under” by K M Ferebee

A world not unlike our own except for the existence and illegality of witchcraft. Elyse and her husband Peter were both witches but he, in some way not explained, went too far and was put underground – an enigmatic state of affairs, since it isn’t clear whether he was simply executed and buried or if he was subjected to some rite of immurement, such as burial alive. At any rate, he is still active down there in some version of an underworld that seems, from his description, to be largely ocean. Nor is he content simply to remain there quietly. He sends messages, through birds.

Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

Inside the birds, when cut open, are the notes, in which Peter describes his surroundings and expresses his longing for Elyse. In the meantime, the sheriff has been stopping by, suggesting that she do something about the birds.

An original take both on magic and the underworld; Peter’s descriptions of the place are fascinating, but his messages also begin to show that he is gradually fading there. This is beautifully done.

It stretches so far, this scentless water. Every day I forget and forget. I wave to the flowers that drift in the distance. What is their name again? There was something I promised not to lose. I locked it in the cage of my chest. I can feel it there, like a bright-winged bird.

We don’t know if Elyse could have saved him in some way, or how, or if he only wrote to her out of loneliness. Elyse’s situation is also interesting. She is clearly concerned not to trespass against the law and end up in Peter’s situation; she repeatedly insists to the sheriff that the manifestations of birds are none of her doing. Throughout the story, our curiosity about what specific transgression Peter committed only grows. It’s hard to imagine the sheriff, the neighbors that we meet, engaging in some kind of mob action, a lynching. Yet Elyse’s caution, her wariness, is certainly real. We also have to wonder exactly what her relationship with Peter was like while he was alive; she is certainly not one of those spouses who goes charging down to the underworld to rescue her beloved. It makes me wonder what Peter would have done, if their roles were reversed. Yet the piece is indeed a love story, only not what readers will probably have expected.


“Methods of Divination” by Tara Isabella Burton

The ancient Romans were a superstitious lot, who never liked to make a move without consulting the auspices; one of their most common means of divination was through the flight of birds. Here we find this tradition evoked by a contemporary fortune teller whose methods include the sighting of birds and the text of Virgil’s Aeniad, a work in which the hero famously deserts the woman who loves him. The narrator’s client claims he had visions of his beloved before he even met her; he knows they are destined for each other. But she won’t take his calls.

I did not tell him that turtle-doves came in pairs, always, and that they came to feed. I did not tell him that two times two turtle-doves, pecking at the flowers on your window-sill one rose-lit morning when the world made sense to you meant nothing, or else meant that you had forgotten to put away the bread.

It soon becomes clear that the narrator is letting her own feelings influence her work, and failing to follow her own advice.

This one and the Ferebee, one following the other, make for a too-close comparison, the messages found in the presence of birds being so central to both, and both being love stories of sorts. This one is more personal, more closely emotional, and more than a bit obsessed.

“Jane” by Margaret Dunlap

The eponymous narrator had an unusual beginning, born to a mother effectively dead but kept on life support for the sake of the fetus, then raised in a series of foster homes where she never developed feelings of attachment and came to believe she didn’t need them, despite her most recent foster mother’s attempts to keep her connected with the family. She is now an EMT whose life is apparently on track until the moment a seemingly-dead patient sits up in the ambulance and takes a bite out of her. Zombieish complications ensue, as Jane manifests an unusual ability related to her mode of gestation. Also ensuing are personal crisis and epiphany. The premise seems to be an original notion.

“List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent” by Rachel Acks

Obviously, a list story. The best of these employ a slow reveal, setting the pieces in front of readers to invite and tantalize us into the game. Here, it’s like the author has dumped the whole box of puzzle pieces on the table and walked away.

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, May 2014

Taking another look at this adventurezine. I still can’t be too enthusiastic.

“Mouth of the Jaguar” by Evan Dicken

A fantasy Aztec empire, felled in this case not by Spanish conquistadors but nasty toothed monsters from the sea. The Aztecs’ neighbors have moved into the power vacuum and are now cutting out the hearts of Tenochlitlan’s warriors on their own altars. Hummingbird, a member of the elite Cuachicqueh warrior society [apparently an all-female group in this reality], has other plans and single-bare-handedly attacks the guards and takes hostage the high priest’s namby son. They make a deal, a temporary alliance against the slimy monsters to obtain from the usual perilous location an arcane weapon with the power to destroy the nasties.

The pseudo-historical setting may be intended to interest readers to the point they overlook the fact that this is a very standardized S&S scenario, with a hero who swashes and buckles and slays her enemies wholesale while exhibiting not real personal characteristics. The unscarred wimp of a prettyboy doesn’t ring true for this society, in which ritual self-mutilation was mandatory in the leadership class.

“By Way of the Eastern Road” by Jesse Knifely

Here, we at least have an actual character in Ren, a slave of sorts in the Duke’s kitchen who tires of the abuse and entertains the notion that he is made for better things. After a feast that filled the scullery with pans to scour, he takes off in the night, setting the kitchen on fire in the process, which does a fairly good short-term job of covering his tracks. But his road is full of pitfalls.

The old man Elgin called from the front room for him to clear a table. Ren twirled his cleaning rag as he entered the dining room. The door opened and two riders entered. Their tunics bore the crest of the Duke, a hammer overlaying a gallows pole encircled with crimson and azure stitching. Their faces were stern as they regarded the room. With them was the local constable, a man of middle years with a fleeting relationship with his remaining hair. He had a round belly and looked like he’d spent more time napping in the shade than patrolling the village.

A fairly entertaining misadventures-of tale. Readers won’t expect Ren to have any better luck wherever his road takes him next. His fatal flaw is the belief that he’s a lot more clever than he is in fact, and he’s not showing any tendency to correct it.

“The Challenger’s Garland” by Schuyler Hernstrom

Inspired by the famous Frazetta painting, “Death’s Dealer”. Molok is the black-armored champion of the King of Death, and he knows nothing else.

“I sleep. I rise to lead my lord’s armies. I slaughter all who oppose his will, as you know, trickster. I have never been defeated. The weeping of widows is my lullaby. The crows fat with the flesh of the slain are my companions.”

He dreams of a white citadel and rides forth to meet its defender, who has likewise dreamt of his progress in his direction. Neither champion has been defeated, but this must come to an end.

There are some nice touches to this mythic piece, like the champion’s garland, that wilts as soon as Death’s champion touches it, and the protean figure of the trickster. But it’s not quite clear exactly what the King of Death is all about. There seems to be life in his domain. And it’s even less clear what the resistance stands for. The champion of the citadel claims that he was once immortal, but now knows he will someday die, either in battle or of old age. Would defeating Death’s champion change this? Death is, as its king declares, inevitable.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Scott Nicolay and Rhys Hughes

The big genre publishers have effectively abandoned producing short story collections, even for their best-selling authors. Just inspect that category in the annual Locus Recommended Reading Lists for 2013, 2012 and 2011 to verify that. True, Connie Willis was honored with a Best Of volume in 2013. But if you have to become a Grandmaster to achieve such a collection, there’s little hope for the average author, even if he or she sells well at longer lengths. This is a inexplicable and inexcusable historic default of genre support from publishers who rely on fantastika. Supposedly such decisions are strictly marketplace driven, but dubiously so, given the continuing high-profile attention paid to story collections by such slipstream authors as Karen Russell and Ben Marcus.

Thank goodness, then, that so many fine and bold small presses have stepped into the breach. They are performing a vital service to the field, and making all us short-story-philes very happy. They deserve our support.

Let’s look at two such volumes today.

Fedogan & Bremer was always one such press, until it went on hiatus, due to circumstances beyond the control of the caring and competent owners. But now they are back, and one of their lead titles is from a relative newcomer, Scott Nikolay. It’s a standout volume, on a par with Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters.

First mention of ancillary goodness goes to a sincere, appreciative and insightful introduction by Laird Barron. Second, to subtle yet evocative interior illustrations by David Verba. Third to a satisfying afterword by John Pelan. And fourth to the handsome physical qualities of this book. Well done, F&B!

We open with “alligators,” which finds our narrator stuck in a school counseling job that does not tax his wasted potentials. His family life is on the fritz, and he conceives of a visit to his New Jersey boyhood roots. But he really should have heeded a recurrent dream about the notorious “Watchung Pit of Sacrifice.”

A young boy narrates “The Bad Outer Space” in a highly seductive and convincing voice. He and his friend Sari learn how to see extradimensional beings. But seeing does not always mean avoiding.

The title story is a calm yet spooky novella, reminiscent of Lucius Shepard’s work, set on Easter Island. A six-member research expedition, rife with social dramas, finds itself encountering much strangeness, centering around one particular cave—and natives who come and go without being seen. Or is all this the stoner delusions of Max, who has already been on one fatality-plagued project in his life already?

“Eyes Exchange Bank” returns to a New Jersey setting, and reads like Springsteen-meets-M. R. James, as a group of longtime friends comes apart, leaving our hero, Ray, to navigate some local terrors all by himself.

“Phragmites” illustrates how Nicolay is just as concerned with naturalistic storytelling virtues as with horror per se. His vivid and tangible depiction of New Mexico—zeroing in on a mysterious part of the Navajo reservation, where our hapless protagonist Austin goes in search of anthropological mysteries—and Nicolay’s portraits of the residents, reveal his skills with replicating our consensus reality, but tinged with the weird, of course.

Young lust and rock ‘n’ roll fuel “The Soft Frogs,” in which a certain horndog named Jaycee meets odd swamp inhabitants and their human representative.

“Geschäfte” is remarkable as an example of building-centric terror, where infrastructure is as eerie as the living actors.

And finally, the unstoppable novella “Tuckahoe” seems to me to be Nicolay’s EC comics homage, full of sexy autopsy assistants, inbred locals and corrupt cops. Toss in a little Jim Thompson, and you’ve got a heady brew.

Nikolay’s writing is clean-limbed, not a shred of rococco excess on it. Poetry and the demotic mix well in his prose. He expertly delivers clues and foreshadowings and backstory tidbits attendant upon his enigmas and frights without hammering the reader over the head with gore or hyperbole. His characters are engrossing, if often repellant, his plotting assured, and his venues enticingly nasty. This book marks the start of a fine career, I am sure.

* * *

Journalistic integrity compels me to announce that I contributed the introduction to Rhys Hughes’s engaging new collection, The Just Not So Stories. I took no fee for the privilege, and make no profit from sales of the book. Rhys and I have exchanged maybe ten emails in ten years, and have never met in the flesh, so we aren’t best buddies. He’s just an excellent writer whom I admire, and I don’t imagine that my foreword to his book constitutes anything more than an advance draft of this review from some alternate timestream! That said, what’s Rhys Hughes all on about then?

Along with Don Webb and Steve Aylett, the fellow is one of the few true madcap surrealists working in the field these days. Enormously productive—last I heard, he had written and published over 700 stories, and was shooting for 1000—he’s always operated on a shoestring, appearing from numerous micro-presses. Despite an undeserved lack of monetary and fanboy support, he remains upbeat, incorrigible and always creative. A role model for the writer who values his art above commerce.

With some thirty stories compressed into a little over 200 pages, this collection offers a wealth of fecund invention and humor. I cannot possibly synopsize all thirty items here, so how about a sampling?

I compared Hughes to Webb and Aylett as living peers, but of course his literary ancestors are numerous and honored: Sheckley, Calvino, Barthelme, Breton, Seuss, Lafferty, Bayley (Barrington), Python (Monty) and Bunch (David). But Hughes bows to no ghost, and his stories reflect his own unique manic wit.

The book opens with “The Mistake,” which conflates the world of jazz with NASA, and rewrites history in the bargain. You would think you could anticipate the development and outcome of a story titled “The Great Bicycle Migration,” but you’d be wrong, as Hughes maneuvers his explorer protagonist into a most unseemly pickle. “The Mark of Cain, the Jeremy of Abel” finds our two Biblical Brothers trying to host a soiree without benefit of a large set of friends to draw from. Thank God for plenty of salted hazelnuts!

“The Leveller of Neptune” is one of the longer stories, and a definitive instance of the book’s nature. It reads like an episode out of Lem’s The Cyberiad, perhaps cast in graphic novel form by Fletcher Hanks and Mobius doing an art jam. Geber van Tockle specializes in rare animal theft, but he has to reach new heights of chicanery to attain a gigundo leveller. Delivery does not ensure happiness for his client.

“Message to Rosita” finds a habitual sender of bottled missives getting a rude comeuppance by a secret organization of anti-floating-epistle vigilantes. But watch for the happy ending! “The Underwear Shop” opens with typical drollness: “It was the year love came to town. But it wasn’t the town I lived in and it wasn’t the kind of love I liked. It was whipcracking sadomasochism with a side order of bestiality. I was glad I was in a different town.” From here, this becomes Hughes’s skewed episode of Futurama, where all the robots have taken up the custom of wearing underwear after mankind evolved beyond it.

And finally I’ll force myself to a conclusion by bringing up “Climbing the Tallest Tree in the World,” which burns with a fairytale like simplicity and punch.

Hughes employs a mind-blowing torrent of reversal/explosion of cliches, absurdity, and non sequiturs like a master. His stories read, to the naïve eye, almost like free-associating scat singing. But you can bet that every part is carefully selected to achieve certain effects. And while his stories are packed with satire and mockery, there’s never a trace of malice or ire in his approach. He loves these toys he’s juggling. He’s like the living personification (see his story titled “Personification”) of the website TV Tropes, which, while it mercilessly dissects overused commonalities, adores them as the building blocks of story. “Tropes Are Not Bad” is their motto, and Hughes’s, who turns dross into treasures.

Oh, by the way: did I mention the superb introduction to this volume? That Di Filippo can write!

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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Vintage Visions

We certainly live in a Golden Age for critical works on fantastika. Simply the sheer existence of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is almost sufficient proof of that utopia. When one looks back at such founding giants of SF scholarship as Knight, Blish, Merril, and Moskowitz, they appear as isolated beacons along a rather barren coastline, with the interior of the continent of fantastika all unexplored. But nowadays, savvy and respectful academics and journals abound, conventions like ICFA proliferate, and homegrown commentators such as John Clute, Samuel Delany, Adam Roberts and Graham Sleight operate at the highest levels of smart, sympathetic discourse. The whole field benefits, of course, from this insightful feedback on our primary texts.

Award-winning scholar Arthur B. Evans deserves much credit for his contributions to this splendid era, helming as he does the essential journal Science Fiction Studies (SFS) and editing the Wesleyan Early Classics of SF program, as well as specializing in all matters Vernean. Now he assembles a rich volume of essays that voyage back deep to the roots of modern SF, thereby illuminating contemporary productions from a foundational angle. I always recall Thomas Wolfe’s remark (which I cannot seem to source at the moment) about the era of our grandparents being strange and weird and fascinating in a way that the generation of our parents, with whom we as children are intimate and disdainful, was not. There’s lots of that esoteric appeal to be found here.

These sixteen essays all derive from SFS, and appeared from 1976 to 2010, but boast new afterwords. The books they cover date from 1657 (Cyrano de Bergerac) to 1937 (Olaf Stapledon). That’s a lot of rewardingly oddball grandparental material.

Sylvie Romanowski, in “Cyrano de Bergerac’s Epistemological Bodies: ‘Pregnant with a Thousand Definitions’,” surprises me with an account of an episode from de Bergerac that sounds like something out of Stranger in a Strange Land. She clearly shows us how Cyrano embraced both fresh heliocentric findings as well as an older hermetic philosophy.

I had never even heard of the book discussed in Paul K. Alkon’s “Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century,” which Alkon maintains is literally the first novel (1733) to acknowledge the future as a fit venue for narratives. Despite its obscurity, the book serves as illuminating instance of a quantum jump in expanding SF’s boundaries.

In William B. Fischer’s “German Theories of Science Fiction: Jean Paul, Kurd Lasswitz, and After,” one truly gets a picture of how early pioneers had to conceptualize from scratch and invent a vocabulary for themselves before they could even begin to concretize their theories. The insight into non-Anglo culture is fascinating as well.

In “Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and ‘The Structure of Torture’,” Josh Bernatchez examines the carnality of Frankenstein’s Monster and how the creature shares a common experience with the victims of torture.

Evans himself distinguishes between two modes of early SF in “Science Fiction vs. Scientific Fiction in France: From Jules Verne to J.-H. Rosny Aîné.” I must say that he makes the more gonzo speculations of Robida and company look very appealing, compared to Verne’s somewhat more stodgy tomes.

I.F. Clarke is masterful and poetic in “Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871–1900.” The once overwhelming dominance of this sub-genre is driven home brilliantly. I particularly enjoyed learning about the long-winded best-sellers by Commandat Driant, whose La Guerre de Demain ran to 2,827 pages!

Continuing the theme of carnality seen earlier, Allison de Fren blends filmic allusions with literary ones to consider “The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow’s Eve.” The book in question hails from 1886, but sounds as relevant as the Richard Calder ones to which de Fren links it.

The next two pieces venture into the southern hemisphere and come back with marvels. Andrea Bell gives us a look at “Desde Júpiter: Chile’s Earliest Science-Fiction Novel.” Her analysis of how the Jovians in the book are different from other early aliens who functioned mainly as human analogs is enlightening. Expanding her remit to three major early Latin American novels, Rachel Haywood Ferreira limns “The First Wave: Latin American Science Fiction Discovers Its Roots.” The variety of modes and approaches in this very early period show that SF was always a multipurpose tool.

But digging up rarities is not the only critical way to knowledge. Nicholas Ruddick casts fresh light on a classic with “Tell Us All About Rosebery”: Topicality and Temporality in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.” “The Time Machine is about the transformed post-Darwinian relationship between humanity and time.” That’s a radical observation you can use!

Likewise, Kamila Kinyon goes back to the original Czech text of R.U.R. to discern Karel Čapek’s true intentions and accomplishments. Hegel also comes into lively play in “The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

Zamyatin’s We is one of those classics that seem more honored than actually read. But by providing period context and analyzing the satire in the book, Patrick A. McCarthy’s “Zamyatin and the Nightmare of Technology” makes the reader keen on encountering the book face-to-face.

Without minimizing any of the man’s flaws, Gary Westfahl gives full props to Hugo Gernsback as a seminal figure in the formation of modern SF in his “’The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story’: Hugo Gernsback’s History of Science Fiction.” Westfahl’s afterword regarding the hidden forces behind the composition of his essay is nearly as rewarding.

Forsaking a focus on one or two books in favor of a whole trope or theme, William J. Fanning, Jr. walks us brilliantly through “The Historical Death Ray and Science Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s.” This might be the essay with the highest amount of gonzo milestones revealed.

With admirable concision, Susan Gubar steps through almost the entire career of a pivotal woman SF writer in “C.L. Moore and the Conventions of Women’s Science Fiction.” It makes me want to go out and re-read all of Moore’s fabulous work immediately.

Finally we get to watch two titans engaged in an intellectual wrestling match, when Stanislaw Lem opines “On Stapledon’s Star Maker.” You can sense Lem straining to rewrite Stapledon’s opus to his own satisfaction. What a book that would have been!

All of these writers, while showing the greatest academic rigor, also conceal the hearts of fanboys and fangirls, from whence all true passion for the literature flows. That combo makes for great writing and great reading.

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.

Paul Di Filippo reviews K.J. Parker

Never having sampled K. J. Parker’s many acclaimed novels, I relished the chance to encounter at least the author’s more rare shorter fiction as an introduction to Parker’s style and concerns. This volume from Subterranean—exhibiting the panache and sterling craftsmanship generally associated with that house—collects thirteen items. Given that the Internet Science Fiction Database lists exactly twelve stories total for Parker, only a couple of which do not show up here, being supplemented with three non-fiction pieces, this collection pretty much represents Parker’s entire short-story oeuvre to date.

I have not yet in this review, you might notice, employed a male or female pronoun to refer to Parker, since the writer’s true identity remains a stout, impenetrable mystery. Unlike many folks who chose a pen name that is an open secret meant to fool only the Bookscan sales-tracking algorithms, Parker seems genuinely to want privacy and anonymity, a Tiptree for the twenty-first century. So we will stick with the gender nonspecificity.

Before delving into the fiction, let me report that the three essays—”On Sieges,” “Cutting Edge Technology,” and “Rich Men’s Skins”—exhibit a fair measure of the erudition and charm of Robert Silverberg, L. Sprague de Camp and Avram Davidson, qualities of which authors extend to the fiction as well.

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong,” the opening story, won the World Fantasy Award, and it’s plain to see why. The elegance of its convolutions, the sharp conflict between archetypical characters, and the keenness of its moral ambiguities all consort to produce an exceptional tale. An older man, a music teacher and mediocre composer, finds his prize pupil about to be hung, with some measure of justice, for a rash murder. The genius lad escapes with the professor’s grudging help, but in leaving burdens the professor with a strange unhealthy measure of unearned success. Their relationship resumes after an interval, and becomes more twisted and complicated than ever. End of story.

The venue seems at first to be a somewhat off-the-shelf fantasy world which still has plenty of sharp, amusing details to give it solidity, but also a fairytale kind of generic broadness that helps the tale assume a certain wide application of fabulism. There’s no blood and thunder, just a rather precise and droll recounting of events. Parker is also fond of multiple mini-climaxes and lateral zigzags in the plotting.

“A Rich, Full Week” finds a healing “wizard” on his rounds in a similar storybook realm, encountering as patients first a killer zombie and then a youngster in a coma. Employing psychical skills akin to those of Zelazny’s Dream Master, the wizard finds his two cases oddly intersecting. Told with the same laconic restraint as before, despite a greater number of action-packed scenes, Parker’s fiction begins to look rather mannerpunk in its chosen approaches.

“Amor Vincit Omnia” shares a continuity with the prior piece and with the one that follows. And this continuity enlarges Parker’s subcreation, with the arrival of many more inventive details about the land’s history and magical systems. Let’s call these stories the “Studium” cycle. Another wizard from that fabled college/guild of wizards, the Studium, must confront an untrained wild talent who possesses murderous instincts and an unprecedented talent. Cheating and collateral damage to civilians provides the morally dubious win.

“Let Maps to Others” is certainly be my favorite piece here. A ironic and blackly humorous account of the rediscovery of a Prester John-style kingdom lost to history involves scholarly rivalry and deceit and royal bull-headedness. It’s comic gold where, as in much comedy, the most vile deeds are the funniest.

Parker presents dual protagonists in “A Room With a View.” An older adept and a younger female student explore the mystical realm of the Rooms in a manner akin to a Matthew Hughes story. But who’s leading whom by the nose? “Illuminated” involves a similar duo, and concerns the dangerous powers and knowledge inherent in an ancient manuscript.

Both these latter two stories contain a few humorous comments from the male POV about the unsuitability of women for magic. Can we assume from these that Parker is male? Recalling Robert Silverberg’s famous gaffe when he insisted Tiptree had to be a man, based on the Tiptree voice, I am not inclined to go out on a similar ledge. Parker is plainly sophisticated enough to be pulling a double bluff on us with such asides.

“Purple and Black” is a full novella in the Studium cycle where realpolitik takes center stage, through an enlightening and amusing epistolary exchange between Emperor and his insurgency-battling underling. It goes on just a tad too long for my tastes, however.

But the next item, “The Sun and I,” my second-favorite piece, is a paradoxical miracle of compression and glorious over-stuffedness, just perfect in fact. In “Purple and Black” we saw that there existed a religion dubbed the Invincible Sun. Now we learn of its founding by a handful of young rogues and wastrels intent on mulcting the public with a scam. But their sham cult soon turns into a real one, metaphysics and all, and the joke is on them. The first-person narration is charmingly amoral, as the voice also is in the subsequent two allied tales. “One Little Room An Everywhere” concerns a forger of Invincible Sun icons, while “Blue & Gold” gives us the exploits of a rascally alchemist whose experiments start out by killing his wife and go downhill from there.

This final story crystallized for me an echo I had been hearing in Parker’s stories: the voice of Fritz Leiber. The same sophisticated worldliness, acceptance of cosmic indifference or perverseness, and amiable rascality as a mode of getting through life is here as well, nicely done. I might also mention that the use of the place name “Mezentia” divulges another possible influence: the elegant mannerism of E. R. Eddison, as in The Mezentian Gate.

K. J. Parker’s fiction, then, proves itself insouciant, mocking, wry, unpredictable and polished, without any of the cliches of High Fantasy. I can’t wait to try his—or her—novels.

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.

‘Carrying That Weight’: A Review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

by Gary Westfahl

The original series of Planet of the Apes films took on the character of a cycle, as apes from the first two films traveled back in time to instigate the events that were seemingly leading, in the fifth film, to the emergence of the world of the first film. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, properly characterized as the second film in the third series of Apes films, offers a cycle within a single film, as the filmmakers devote two hours of screen time to energetically taking their story back to its starting point. True, there are plenty of pyrotechnics to keep audiences entertained, but nothing is really done to advance the plot. That is, at the beginning of the film, humans and intelligent apes are poised to start fighting, they proceed to fight, and at the end of the film, their issues unresolved, they are poised to start fighting again, only with the promise of bigger and better battles in the next installment. As if director Matt Reeves wished to emphasize his film’s circular structure, its very first image, after an introductory montage, is an extreme close-up of the eyes of the apes’ leader Caesar (Andy Serkis), and its last image right before the credits is precisely the same. So, if you are interested in finding out the end result of the story that began in the previous film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (review here), you can easily sleep in instead of confronting this Dawn, and you might skip the upcoming Morning, Afternoon, and Twilight of the Planet of the Apes as well, hoping that something meaningful might finally occur on the Night of the Planet of the Apes.

Instead of criticizing writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, though, one should sympathize with them, as they were clearly instructed to construct a screenplay that would not only continue the saga of the previous film, but also lay the groundwork for an indefinite series of future films. (Reports indicate that Reeves and Bomback are already working on the next one.) To appreciate their achievement, one could reference James Blish’s old argument that there were two types of series in science fiction: “template series,” wherein each story is essentially the same, and “evolutionary series,” wherein a larger narrative unfolds and develops in each successive story. For film executives, template series are easier to execute and more likely to be profitable, as illustrated by the unending James Bond franchise: to come up with a new film, you simply create some horrid villain to threaten the world, you have Bond defeat him, and you take a break before crafting your next horrid villain. Evolutionary series, like the first five Apes films, are more complicated and less predictably popular, as devising ways to extend a larger story that should have ended long ago requires considerable ingenuity and may drive the franchise far away from its original character. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Bomback, Jaffa, and Silver have efficiently transformed the Apes saga from an evolutionary series into a template series: it’s Apes Versus Humans, Round Two, and while the apes so far seem to be winning on points, you can’t count out those pesky humans, as like the Bond villains they seem likely to grow more crafty and resourceful in each upcoming round.

If there is something different about this film’s formula for success, it is that it lacks the moral clarity of traditional Hollywood melodramas, in which completely virtuous heroes face off against completely loathsome adversaries. Here, whereas the previous film conveyed that the apes were generally more admirable than the humans, the story emphasizes that both sides in this conflict have their heroes and villains. There are good humans, like Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who want to get along with the apes, and there are bad humans, like Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who want to kill them all because they unfairly blame them for the plague that devastated humanity. There are good apes, like Caesar, his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), and son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), who wish to avoid a war with humans, and there are bad apes, like Koba (Toby Kebbell), who are happy to attack and kill the humans who once abused them. In case viewers miss the point, Caesar helpfully spells it out: “I always think ape better than human. I see now how much like them we are.” But since both apes and humans comprise a similar mixture of good and bad, the sympathies of the film’s audience are constantly shifting: whenever Caesar or Dreyfus dominates the scene, one roots for the apes against the humans, but when Koba or Malcolm comes to the forefront, one roots for the humans. Only in the end, after Caesar’s inevitable triumph over Koba, do the apes emerge as the film’s definitive heroes.

In one respect, however, the apes and humans remain significantly different, as the apes embody harmony with the natural world while humans represent artificial technology. Caesar’s cohorts are content to live in the forest and despise guns, destroying every one they find as they instead rely upon spears and bows and arrows to hunt and defend themselves. The humans have chosen to live in downtown San Francisco, are desperately seeking to sustain their electric power, and are eagerly planning to employ their huge stockpile of firearms against the apes. In most respects, the film clearly takes the apes’ side, as apes without guns are consistently able to defeat humans with guns, and one character remarks that because the apes “don’t need power,” “that makes them stronger.” Yes, the evil Koba at one point crosses the line and begins using guns to kill both human and ape opponents, but this ultimately leads to his downfall: for when Caesar seems about to kill Koba, the villain cleverly reminds the leader of one of the tribe’s cherished precepts: “ape not kill ape.” Yet after giving the matter a little thought, Caesar replies, “you are not ape,” and sends him falling to his death. If an ape picks up a gun, in other words, he is no longer truly an ape.

Yet there are clearly some advantages to advanced science, as when Cornelia gets very sick and Ellie cures her with antibiotics, and there are scenes where Alexander reads a book to the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and later gives him the book, indicating that at least some apes appreciate such material. Further, there is definite ambiguity in the scene after Malcolm finally gets a hydroelectric plant working, causing lights to turn on and a revolving sign to start revolving again. As the humans celebrate, audiences are also invited to celebrate this rebirth of technology. What I didn’t understand was why the Band’s classic song “The Weight” (1968) was chosen to be the first music played during this festive moment, since its enigmatic lyrics about a man’s visit to a small Southern town apparently bear little relationship to the film’s story. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything – it was just one of the director’s favorite songs. Perhaps someone thought it would be nice to feature a song from the year – 1968 – when the Apes franchise was born. But just possibly, the writers were struck by the song’s theme of the “weight” that an individual must bear until it is passed on to somebody else. For certainly, anyone creating the eighth film in a series must feel that they are taking on the “weight” of carrying on a noteworthy tradition, responsible for replicating its best qualities, sustaining its success, and preparing for another installment. And Bomback, Jaffa, and Silver have visibly sought to relieve themselves of the burden of this franchise’s past by mostly ignoring it.

Thus, while Rise of the Planet of the Apes was filled with knowing references to earlier Apes films, there are few if any of them here. Only two things might be mentioned: the trite message that apes and humans should get along could be traced back to the fifth film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), and an anti-gun message briefly surfaced, in an almost joking matter, in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001). More strikingly, the filmmakers have jettisoned the entire human cast of the previous film, although James Franco fleetingly appears in a video clip that Caesar watches when he revisits his old home. There may have been purely expedient reasons to not bring back certain performers, or this could represent a conscious strategy to foreground new characters in order to enliven an otherwise familiar story. Yet relying entirely on new humans, and making them uniformly one-dimensional, also conveys a message: that this is primarily a story about apes. Hence, the film does bring back several key apes to function as its true stars, though they are sometimes portrayed by different actors.

As I must confess, this focus on the apes may be one reason that I did not enjoy this film as much as its immediate predecessor, in which the humans were more prominent. One might speak of irrational prejudice, but a preference for looking at human faces is virtually hardwired into the human psyche, as experiments have demonstrated. Thus, audiences might find Roddy McDowall’s Caesar, who is visibly human despite his outlandish makeup, more appealing than Andy Serkis’s Caesar, who has been transformed by computers to look entirely like a genuine ape. As in the previous film, the apes also do not move like humans, as they effortlessly travel in three dimensions by skillfully using both their hands and their feet. Perhaps, despite Serkis’s excellent performance and a script that makes him thoroughly likable, we still might prefer to have someone who looks like James Franco as a viewpoint character.

As an additional problem, people may be unable to fully respect intelligent beings who do not resemble humans, especially ones who have long been regarded merely as animals. On one hand, the film makes fun of people who do not fully appreciate these apes’ abilities: in one scene, Koba confronts two men holding machine guns, and they could have easily shot him dead. But Koba cunningly begins acting like a circus animal, playfully cavorting and gibbering, so the men come to believe that he is entirely harmless. Later, however, he grabs a gun and kills them both. On the other hand, the screenwriters display precisely the same sort of inappropriate condescension in the dialogue that they write for Caesar and the other talking apes. We are informed repeatedly that Caesar is just as intelligent as a human being, and his vocal cords are capable of human speech. Yet he talks like a toddler, employing brief, simple sentences, one-syllable words, and ungrammatical constructions. How, then, can one admire Caesar’s vast intelligence when he says things like “ape not kill ape” and “I chose to trust him because he is ape”? One never questioned the acumen of the apes played by McDowall and Maurice Evans in the original Apes films precisely because they were very articulate, and if Serkis will indeed remain the leading actor in future films, he should be allowed to speak in his normal manner, showing off his English accent and properly conveying his human intellect. (I note, though, that the credits do identify one Michael Wilson as the film’s “ape vocal researcher,” presumably the Professor Michael Wilson of the University of Minnesota who has studied chimpanzee vocalizations, and it might be argued that Caesar’s speech accurately reflects the limitations of apes’ vocal cords. But if one can posit that apes can develop human intelligence, one can certainly imagine that their vocal cords might improve as well.)

If a sequel is inevitable, it would also be nice for it to have a setting other than San Francisco, which appears to be replacing New York City as the inevitable site of futuristic catastrophes; in fact, two of the last three films I have reviewed – Transcendence (review here) and Godzilla (review here) mostly took place in or near that California city. Thankfully, thirteen years after 9/11, filmmakers have finally realized that it is no longer clever or evocative to locate fictional disasters in New York City, and if New York represents the financial capital of the world, San Francisco, close to Silicon Valley, might be regarded as the technological capital of the world, and hence a fitting place for monsters and mutants to emerge. The difficulty filmmakers face is that they can never afford to actually film any scenes in San Francisco and instead, like the makers of this film and Godzilla, they more economically film their urban scenes in Vancouver, British Columbia. However, while it’s easy enough to put up “Market Street” and “California Street” signs in that Canadian metropolis, that uniformly flat city remains an unpersuasive substitute for the notoriously hilly San Francisco. Any viewer who has actually visited San Francisco, then, can immediately recognize that none of the actors in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were actually in that city at any time.

One further worries that the next film, seeking to outdo its predecessor, will grow more and more violent, following the disturbing trend in this film. First, we only see the spears and arrows of the apes; then humans appear, bringing handguns and rifles. After the San Franciscans raid their armory, they and Koba come to rely entirely on machine guns; then, a human brings a tank into the fray, which is promptly commandeered by the apes. And at the end of the film, we are told that a human military force is advancing toward the city, probably equipped with grenades, rocket launchers, and drones to provide more excitement in upcoming battles. Surely, if the filmmakers are sincerely committed to offering the message that apes and humans should peacefully coexist, they should refrain from including scene after scene of apes and humans slaughtering each other. And one doesn’t need bullets and explosions to entertain audiences; if they want some genuine novelty in the next film, the writers might call a halt to the arms race and consider adding the one element from the original Apes film that the recent pair has entirely lacked: some gentle humor.

In looking over these comments, I recognize finally that contemporary Hollywood is entirely changing the way that people perceive films. Since virtually every major film, if successful, is certain to generate a sequel (and in many cases is already a sequel itself), audiences inevitably begin to view each film not as a complete narrative, but as one chapter in a larger story to be continued. And, instead of focusing entirely on the film itself, one begins speculating about its sequel: which threads in the plot will be picked up and continued, what characters will be doing to get themselves in the same predicament again, and what devices will be employed in the sequel to generate future sequels. In essence, every contemporary film now has an invisible companion – its forthcoming sequel – that inescapably becomes a part of its evaluation. So, consider this a review of both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the “Untitled Planet of the Apes Sequel” already scheduled to be released on July 29, 2016. And I must say that, based on the decline evidenced in the first two films, I am not looking forward to it.

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

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