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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.

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

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).

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

This wasn’t the column I’d intended to write, but material for review doesn’t always come in according to my plans. So here are a couple of the regular periodical, a less-regular one, and a couple of new [at least to me] publications. My favorite is Unlikely Story.

Here is also a theme, inspired or perhaps incited by the recent issues of Clarkesworld analyzing in great detail the publication statistics of genre short fiction by the sex of the author. I’m not claiming any particular significance for the numbers I discover, nor do I plan to make a habit of it.

Publications Reviewed

Clarkesworld, July 2014

After taking note of the statistical articles, I observed that all three original stories here are by female authors, with female protagonists, which probably has nothing to do with the fact that this is a weak issue.

“The Contemporary Foxwife” by Yoon Ha Lee

This one is, for Lee, a simple and straightforward work, based on folklore that doesn’t seem to belong to any specific culture, but has a similar flavor to several that readers might recognize. Kanseun Ong is a music student who one day finds a foxwife at her door – a boy foxwife, as he calls himself, announcing that he is her foxwife. He is, in the manner of fox spirits, a shapechanger, and his role seems to be that of a housekeeper, not “wife” in the sense of a spouse. Kanseun can’t bear to turn him away. Eventually, as these stories usually go, her benevolence earns her the reward of help with a personal problem of her own. A piece with charm but conventional in form.

“Stone Hunger” by N K Jemisin

“Once there was a girl . . .” She has a name, but we never learn it. The girl lives in a world wracked by seismic disturbances, which may in part be natural but may also be the doing of entities with the ability to channel the power of the living stone into destruction. The girl is one such person. She breaks city walls so she can get inside to feed off the population. Her own city was once broken and killed by another such, whom she recognizes by his distinctive vinegar taste. Now she has come to a city that’s different in many ways.

There’s a lot in this premise that isn’t clear and even seems contradictory. We are told by the narrator that people like the girl can’t be permanent residents of cities, yet the girl with her family appears to have been permanently resident in her own city, “until the world broke.” It isn’t clear whether she had her powers from birth there, or if she acquired/learned them from necessity while out on her own roaming the broken world. “Once, she ate breakfast in the mornings”, but now she subsists in whole or part on the power in the stone – although this feeding leaves her still hungry and apparently in need of normal human food. Hunger is a constant with her; she eats normal food when she can get it, yet it isn’t clear how she feeds off the population, whether she just steals or goes further; some things in the text suggest she might be a sort of vampire. In the city [which probably also has a name, but again we never learn it] she finds that there are others of her kind, but also a very different, even more dangerous, kind. Their nature, their power, their hunger all remains unclear; all we know is that the girl’s kind fears them, yet one of them, at least, befriends the girl for reasons of its own, that we never learn.

There’s some striking imagery here, which is the best element of the piece.

—and it is easy—delicious!—to reach further down. To visualize herself opening her mouth and lapping at that sweet flow of natural force. She sighs and relaxes into the rarity of pleasure, unafraid for once, letting her guard down shamelessly and guiding the energy with only the merest brush of her will. A tickle, not a push. A lick.

The ending, after a nice vengeful scene, turns soft and conventional, which is dissatisfying. The girl, because of what she is, is an interesting character but not a sympathetic one. Although she regards herself more as a parasite [on cities] than a predator, parasites can kill; she habitually harms and kills others to assuage her own hunger. The text accurately calls her and her kind “monsters”, and for most of the story, it treats her with a cold and edged regard. When she takes her revenge, one of the others remarks that one day some new stranger is going to show up to take the same vengeance on her, and just as deservedly so. Then, suddenly, the edge softens and we are supposed to buy into a “awww, the poor widdle ting” conclusion, apparently for no other reason than this character being the protagonist chosen by the author. For such a conclusion to work, readers have to care about the character, and the story gives us no reason to.

I’m also dubious about the unnamed city’s sliding roof. Such an installation, as described, would seem to require close tolerances, which wouldn’t be possible when constant seismic disturbances are warping and collapsing its walls and foundations.

“Soul’s Bargain” by Juliette Wade

We begin with a reading from myth, its mythic language quite overdone, in which a goddess throws the souls of human heroes into the sky as a reward. Readers will assume that this will have Significance later on. The protagonist is Pelisma, now an old, blind woman but once acclaimed as a hero. What concerns her now are the floating sparks, wysps, that seem to be following her everywhere, ever since she began to lose her sight. Her people live underground for fear of these sparks and the fires they start on the surface, but they can appear even in the caves and tunnels where the people are building their cities. The author is coy; she doesn’t explicitly tell us in the beginning that Pelisma’s people are human colonists on an alien world, because, as soon as readers notice this, of course we know what the wysps must be. But making this clear upfront would render Pelisma’s entire quest moot, and there would be no story. Which would probably be for the best. I would particularly not regret the epiphanic conclusion, complete with violins and hosannahs of enlightenment.

Apex Magazine, July 2014

Tales of oppression and the efforts of the oppressed to resist.

Because I seem to be counting this time, there are two female authors and three female protagonists.

“The Food in the Basement” by Laura Davy

A familiar scenario: a vampire keeps a human locked up in the basement for the convenience of feeding. The fact that the vampire is male and the food female is likewise familiar; the thoughts this evokes cannot be ignored, and indeed, for many readers the associations with sexual predators may be primary. As we can recall from the news, such kidnap victims have often bided their time until they found an opportunity to escape.

The flat narrative voice is the most notable aspect of this one. The narrator keeps Sondra’s plans to herself and doesn’t let readers deeply into her thoughts. We have to wait to see what action she takes. Nothing surprising or novel here, but effectively done.

“Blessed are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando R Ocampo

An extreme religious dystopia set on a generation ship perhaps halfway to its destination. The colonists are crammed into tight quarters, forbidden birth control, and kept on starvation rations.

The only certain number was that each family had to maintain at least eight souls. This was the minimum at all times. I had always wondered how many people were already onboard our one–way trip to Gliese. The decks were forbidden to mix, although father said that hadn’t always been so. For all we knew, there were millions of people on the higher levels, multiplying like roaches behind our nano–plastic walls. That was probably why our rations got smaller every year–cycle, even when the mushroom harvests were good.

Birth defects have also risen among the population, and a few people can hear voices – a fact that they keep a strict secret, as heresies and deviancies of any sort are punished by expulsion through the airlock by the Domini Canes, the Bishop’s mechanical enforcers. The airlock gets a lot of use. At last the desperate denizens of Elsa’s deck decide to protest, whereupon she makes a fortuitous discovery.

There are two sides to this discovery. In the first, we learn the reasons behind the conditions on the ship, which make sense of the situation and explain how matters have reached such a low point. In the second, unfortunately, we discover the presence of a deus ex machina unexpected by Elsa or anyone else on her deck. Elsa is a character of strength and determination, but it isn’t these traits that allow her to prevail, it’s a factor from outside, supplied by the author. This makes the resolution less satisfactory.

“Insurrection in Silk” by Gillian Conahan

Following conquest, the silk merchants offer tribute to the Empress in exchange for their lives, and a merchant’s pampered daughter becomes the Imperial dressmaker, a life of stitching silk. By the time it is finished, hundreds of hours will be bound into the gown’s seams. “The stitches are a chronicle of her captivity, ticks of the clock like hatches on a cell wall.”

The strength of this piece is in the tension, the miasma of terror that pervades the Empress’s court. Readers can feel strongly how no one there is safe, even the dressmaker whose skill in creating the ruler’s silk gowns is without peer. Even better, we have no way to know if any single act of defiance will meet with success or punitive bloodshed. A well-done debut story.

Unlikely Story, June 2014

aka The Journal of Unlikely Cartography. This quirky little zine always manages to pull me in with its concepts, and this one delivers a couple of strong stories.

In the author sex count, we have five females and one lone male, with a lone male protagonist.

“How a Map Works” by Sarah Pinsker

Derona was a mapmaker before soldiers came, killed many of her people, and drove the rest far away to be imprisoned in caves. Her daughter Nomi was born there in the dark, has never seen the light. She asks questions, and Derona tries to answer, to teach her.

I know her face, though I have never seen it. I’ve learned to dress her cuts and bruises, to wash her, to treat coughs and fevers, all in the dark. Her hair would be thick and curly if it had proper care, like mine once was. I pick through its tangles strand by strand. I don’t know the color of her eyes.

There’s a very tight focus to this short piece. There’s no Why and little How to the current circumstances. A few people live in the dark. They sort rocks – whatever that means. There is a guard at the door [which implies a whole lot of guards if each one guards so few prisoners] who lets in food and sometimes takes away a prisoner, which seems to be a punitive act. But almost everything is Derona and Nomi, stacking rocks in the dark to make maps. Will this be always? Derona doesn’t want to answer, she doesn’t want to lie, unknowing. And readers know they don’t know, either.

The pieces in this zine tend to be on the light and absurd side. This one is not.

“How to Recover a Relative Lost During Transmatter Shipping, in Five Easy Steps” by Carrie Cuinn

An interview with Amrita Chakrabarty, whose smartass younger brother was screwing around with the transmatter shipping array, not intended for human use, and got himself lost in the system. Turns out, according to the other shipping clerks, he’d been doing this a lot, “not mentioning that he’d figured out a way to break himself into tiny pieces, a process that no one else has ever survived, and was shooting himself and you to parts unknown every time you three got bored on a Saturday night.” Only this time he didn’t come out on the other end.

Light and absurd. If readers were expected to take this scenario seriously, I doubt if anyone would credit that physicists could develop such a transmatter process without realizing it operated through wormholes, and that a bunch of bored shipping clerks would recognize the fact and not realize how it could be exploited for financial gain. The ending is odd, suggesting that the events continued after point where the narrative was broken off. Possibly the hint of a sequel?

“The Occluded” by Rhonda Eikamp

The other doctors, and definitely the cops, think Garland is a nutcase.

“Garland sees these patterns on the angiogram,” Baxton snorted. “In the lines of the arteries. They’re maps of cities, he says, or the patient’s house, and it shows him where things are lost or hidden. He helps people find things.”

When he assaults a patient under catheterization because he claims the heart map shows where he murdered Garland’s daughter, he goes way too far for the hospital administration. But Sonya Burmeister knows what it means to lose a young daughter, how it can mess up your life, your mind.

Definitely not light, involving the death of children, including serial murder. With regard to the mystery, I can’t help wishing the author had left the scene a bit more ambiguous, instead of pointing the finger of guilt. But that decision is the author’s privilege. The heart of the story, however, isn’t about guilt or innocence but loss and the damage it causes, the emotional myocardial infarction.

“All of Our Past Places” by Kat Howard

Miren’s friend Aoife has long been fascinated by St Patrick’s Purgatory, collecting maps of the place [which actually exists as an island near Ireland]. Now, having not heard from her, Miren discovers Aoife’s apartment deserted and the island’s location on the maps precisely burnt out.

The thing, of course, that’s supposed to happen in a situation like this is that you follow the other person to the Underworld. You bring them back. I mean, I’d been around Aoife long enough to be familiar with the stories. I knew the rules. Someone went to the Underworld, someone else came to get them, and then things didn’t work out. The end.

Still, someone has to try something.

A story of friendship and deep understanding of another person. Miren has known since childhood that Aoife’s maps were her ways of escaping her abusive home, and now her life’s pain. So while the first thing someone might think in this situation is suicide, Miren rejects it. Either way, however, there’s a great risk. Bringing a person back unwilling can be worse than leaving them there. Miren takes the chance in the belief that she knows Aoife well enough. Which is why this is Miren’s story, not Aoife’s, whom Miren knows but we do not.

“This Gray Rock, Standing Tall” by James Van Pelt

A story of fatherhood. In Robert’s childhood, his father Joel had been a man with an obsession, building a stone tower deep in the Olympic rainforest about a mile from his home. While young Robert was allowed to help him load the stone onto the ATV, he never saw the building; it was his father’s alone. After his death, Robert never saw the place again until now, when he returns with his son Pearce, who is just about the age he was when his own father died. He has found the map leading to the tower and wants to see it, wants his son to see it, wants to make a connection that hasn’t existed, since he and his ex had been divorced most of Pearce’s life, and the two of them are almost strangers. The trek is harder than he had expected, the trail harder to follow. But that is his own failure and the work of time, not the map maker or the builder.

My gaze had been resting on a fallen tree fifty feet away for several minutes before I realized that the middle had been cut from it, leaving a gap just big enough for an ATV. When we reached it, the trail was visible again, traversing the hillside, matching the left hand curve on the map. A few minutes later, and a hundred feet higher up the slope, a low wall reinforced the trail’s side, rising from the ground to three feet at the highest before sinking into the loam thirty feet later.

The forest setting is strongly evoked, but it’s a scene entirely of this world. The fantastic element is almost missing, and I wish it had been entirely, as it feels gratuitous and just a bit distasteful. As a mainstream work, it’s rich in mainstream values, the relationship between fathers and sons and the meaning of inheritance. Robert comes across as a man entirely estranged from life, from family, from purpose. Now he’s striving at last for connection, to discover his father and introduce his own son to him.

The story raises the issue of inheritance, which means more here than legal title to a piece of property. Joel was clearly a remarkable man, a man with an overriding vision, but for the most part, he shut his son out of it. Joel’s wife once called him a king, but Robert had no share in his kingdom. Joel didn’t seem to want him to. The kingdom was his because he created it, through his own work, not because he had inherited it. This makes me wonder what claim Robert has to it now, what claim he has to the allegiance of the kingdom’s subjects. What makes him a prince, if the king never did and he did nothing to earn the title but follow a map? This question bothers me perhaps more than it should, but it wouldn’t have been raised except by the story’s last lines.

“The Cartographer’s Requiem” by Shira Lipkin

A young singer, the lover of a famous cartographer now dead, has the honor of singing her long life. “This task — the singing — required someone who had known her mind.” Yet, once the song is over, we don’t, except for learning that she drew her maps in red.

Luna Station Quarterly, June 2014

It wasn’t exactly the best time for me to get Yet Another All-Female publication, in which we are told that women are angry because, presumably, they are being prevented from publishing. The evidence of the current batch of stories would argue otherwise, yet these sorts of zines keep springing up, causing cognitive dissonance.

So here we have eight short pieces of fiction [plus two reprints, although it's not clear that the editors know about one of these] by eight women, mostly with main female characters. Not so many are outstanding, but I did find one gem.

“The Sacrifice” by Robin L Martinez

A too-familiar scenario. Humans originally from Earth have left their own planet and decide to take someone else’s, exercising a lot of brutality in the process. T J, daughter of a prominent general, has deserted to join the opposition but is now a prisoner who has just been brutally interrogated. It seems she has turned herself in for a chance to meet with her father, for a particular reason.

An unoriginal scenario with stiffness in the dialogue.

“The Matron” by Sandra Wickham

The narrator and her little sister Callie’s are the products of a mad scientist father, recently taken away and killed by government forces. They’ve been living inside the secret passages in the house where he had his lab, but now strangers have come, apparently intending to buy the house. This could be a problem, but the girls have Powers.

The title is odd. The story has little to do with the Matron, a thing in a tank from which the mad scientist has bred his daughters. The Powers they have are the usual sort, but it’s Callie’s weakness that makes her human and gives the story some heart.

“Tunbi” by Chikodili Emelumadu

When Tunbi asks, “What do you want to happen?”, it happens. The narrator says Tunbi’s mother was a fixer, and it seems she must be a fixer, too. Thus she is highly respected, even by people who originally scorned her as an obese, ignorant village girl. She’s always willing to help, and people always tell her their troubles.

Tunbi brought out a bottle and collected the woman’s tears and some snot from her nose and went away. It only took a week. A week before the Arab who had thrown Mrs Adegoke’s son from the top of a skyscraper was a splotch on the curb, in the exact same spot her son had landed.

Here’s a really memorable character! The narrative rests on a lot of vivid descriptions, often of high physicality. Tunbi’s method tends to use bodily secretions, tears and snot being far from the most gross. There’s also a strong erotic component; aside from revenge, Tunbi would seem to practice a lot of sex magic. It’s noteworthy that most of her activity seems to be on behalf of women, and practiced on men. There’s a strong women’s society here, in which the opinion of other women is critical.

They came to her with their ailments. Their husbands behaved. Their children thrived in school. She brushed off all the attention, much in the same way she had brushed off their outrage over her arrival.

Tunbi rules, but she rules well, where a woman less wise might turn tyrannical.

[I notice in reading so many of these works that female characters sometimes seem only nominally women; change the gender of pronouns from "she" to "he" and there would be little real difference. Not so with Tunbi. Her womanness would be evident without any pronouns to signify it; she could not be mistaken for anything but a woman.]


“Tourist Attraction” by Nina Shepardson

Based on a real attraction, the metal, fire-breathing Kahokia dragon. It mostly serves here as a symbol of liberation, as the protagonist frees herself from the clinging apron strings after her son leaves for college.

“Revision” by Penelope Schenk

Academic entanglements. John gets a plum anthropology assignment from his influential advisor, to study consequences of the recently-concluded war on Delfinio as it affected a small dissident group called the Editors. He has been given a partner, a woman named Julie who once had an affair, which ended badly, with his advisor. The research goes well.

The text also includes snippets from a manual of the Editors, which prove to be very interesting indeed; they are claiming to be able to edit reality and history.

This exercise is useful when you’ve made a big decision and then realise that you’ve made the wrong choice. It requires nothing more than intense concentration on the moment just before the action you now regret. Some insist that the use of STET to remove controversial amendments to the Delfinio constitution sparked the recent Civil War, but his has been consistently denied by the Editors.

I very much like the notion of the Editors, the formulation of their techniques, and the story’s conclusion. I wish the background of Julie’s relationship with India had been better-integrated. [We have here a male narrator, but John is a nominal male; I see no difference that would have been made by switching gender of the pronouns. All the other characters we see are female.]

“Place of Plentiful Water” by Molly N Moss and Shereen Marie Jensen

Which is heaven, according to the Holy Qur’an. Shaista, having been stoned to death by the Taliban for being raped, knows that she isn’t there.

Instead she sees only Najeed Rawdah, the village where she lived and died. Patches of mud, made of her own blood mixed with the parched soil, stain the village courtyard. A village well stands in front of the stone-walled mosque, an oasis in a desert of ash-white dust.

Unfortunately, there’s not much more to this very brief piece. I can’t quite see how it took two people to write it.

“Forget about Me, I Am No One” by Megan Neumann

Channeling Odysseus, the collective calling itself NO ONE establishes control over society, with the rumored ability to read everyone’s mind. It selects the brilliant deviants for inclusion, and Dana’s friend Calvin receives the invitation no one can refuse. He claims to be proud, but they are both frightened.

That would be the last time I’d touch his fingers. Or any part of him. No one knew what happened to the body after joining the collective. The general consensus was the body was destroyed. To the collective, only the mind mattered.

A discouraging dystopia, not particularly original.

“Gretel” by Nancy O’Toole

A contemporary setting for the fairy tale. Not too contemporary, though; there are video games but no cell phones.

James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Issue 3, 2014

With this annual issue, the trend shifts, as two of the three original stories are by male authors, although one of these has a female protagonist. The issue doesn’t make a good case for male superiority.

“Winds that Stir Vermillion Sands” by David Bowles

Colonizing Mars has resulted in hard times for the refugees who fled to its growing slums, ruled by crime gangs. Rodrigo’s father is a feckless scavenger who one day finds an alien device useful as both weapon and tool. But one day the old man makes the unfortunate decision to sell it to a yakuza boss, despite Rodrigo’s warning. The parallel thread reveals Rodrigo’s gradual disillusion with religion; the God of his fathers having been no help, he resolves to help himself. A very basic, amateurish piece, with the religious thread clumsily integrated.

“The Chiseler’s Wife” by Hunter Liguore

Which is to say, a stonecutter, not a cheat, who carves headstones both for the local humans and for the faeries. One day a young man ordered a headstone for his deceased mother, but when he came to pick it up, he fell in love with the stonecutter’s wife, and they ran off together in such haste that their wagon strikes and kills a faery on the road [although they probably couldn't see her]. The stonecutter makes her a fine headstone, and in exchange she offers him a spell to retrieve his wife in a manner that will prevent her running back to her lover. Complications, however, ensue.

Rather too many complications in this fairy tale, in fact. The defining premise is that the chiseler has a special gift for seeing across the veil to commune with the faery spirits.

. . . he listened and spoke with the faery ghosts that walked the barren hills in search of their stories. Afterward, he would get to work on the front-piece, always starting with an image of the faery, and then beneath it he inscribed an epitaph that read like poetry, to sum up the life the faery once lived.

It contradicts this premise when the chiseler would, for no reason, twists and distorts the life story of a randomly-deceased faery, just to give her a reason to want revenge on him. Too bad, it had been a promising tale.

“Mars Bomb Bound for Titan” by Sean Monaghan

Carmen is a zealot. Along with her accomplice Richard Walker, she conspired to send an illicit terraforming bomb to Mars. Walker got cold feet at the last minute, Mars got an alien ecosystem that can’t be eradicated, and Carmen got ten years, later reduced to eight and finally parole after three. But on her release, she finds associates of Walker waiting for her, wanting her expertise to bomb Titan.

She remembered the whole period when she’d wrecked Mars. Ecological terrorism, they’d called it. What responsible scientist would even consider running that kind of experiment without any kind of control? But there was no spare Mars to use as a control. It had been an idea that had been around for a few generations. Seed Mars with tolerant genetically modified organisms and see what they did.

There’s a fundamental divide in the SF community, between those like Carmen who feel “a responsibility to spread out through the system”, which is to say, having laid waste the homeworld, to ruin other innocent worlds – and those who, like me, would have attempted to stop her by any means. It’s noteworthy that while Carmen understands intellectually the hubris and enormity of her crime, she would do it again if she could. And the author apparently admires her for it. Even if this had been a good story, I would have strongly disapproved of it, so I figure it’s just as well that it isn’t. And if this is heresy to the pro-space legions, so be it.

“Wait Your Turn” and “The Stability of Large Systems” by Peter Grandbois

Last, the debut offering from a micropress: The Wordcraft Series of Fabulist Novellas – a promising concept, although strictly speaking this initial piece isn’t a novella. The title page calls it a Double Feature, referencing the subject matter, which is monster movies. The two parts, taken together, do add up to what is generally considered the novella length, and readers can certainly think of it as a whole – in fact, the same story twice-told. Both times, we have a movie monster, a man-monster. We have his wife and their flawed marital relationship. We have his son and their estrangement. We have a whole lot of angst.

The first features the star of an alternate Creature from the Black Lagoon. The story calls him Gill, because once he was an abandoned gill boy left by his father in a lake – although amphibians don’t have gills, our star does, along with green skin and webbed appendages, as well as awesome pecs that attract girls on the beach, where he’s spotted by a talent scout. He falls in love with his co-star, despite a certain amount of cross-species sexual incompatibility. They marry, they have a kid. Rather than making him happy, this produces angst, and he ends up in a sideshow to nurture it.

The second version follows The Fly, as our mad scientist narrator develops angst while overthinking the Observer Effect, since his wife has looked at him and thus he isn’t the same man. As in the first version, there’s a great deal of talking here, mostly the narrators talking at great length to themselves. The central question of both would seem to be whether a monster can find/deserve love, and since everyone is a monster in some way, they address a universal problem. But not all of us monsters are as self-destructive as these characters, and as neither has any universal appeal, as the original characters in the films did, all we’re left with is the absurdity.

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.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June

Trying to catch up here after losing some time to an emergency. This column features a Hard SF anthology.

Reach for Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Another in the editor’s fine “Infinity” series of Hard SF anthologies on the subject of human expansion into space. This one, according to the introduction, focuses on the human striving for space, although I don’t really see this as a predominant theme in the stories here. Indeed, if there is a repeated theme, it would rather be yearning for homes left behind rather than striving to leave them.

Anthologies like this one are essential for our field, which gets so little these days of the pure science fiction without admixture of the fantastic. There are fourteen pieces from a good assortment of authors, with an Australian tilt, which we often get from editor Strahan. Most take place in our own solar system, hewing pretty closely to known scientific knowledge. I particularly like the McDonald and the Schroeder.

“Break My Fall” by Greg Egan

Migration to Mars, via a series of hops between orbit-tethered asteroids.

The Baza had performed a U-turn around the Stone, but with respect to the Earth, rather than reversing its motion it had just gained an extra hundred metres a second. Over the next hour the Stone would give a similar boost to every ship in the convoy – and then it would be free to spend a couple of years harvesting sunlight, replenishing its spin and tweaking its orbit until it was back in position to reprise its role for another group of travellers. It had taken three decades to nudge this rock and its companions out of the Amor group and into their tailored orbits, but the foresight of the pioneers who’d begun the process had paid off for the generation that followed. The Baza was not so much a spacecraft in its own right as a life support capsule being tossed from Stone to Stone, but this choreographed relay race would deliver it to Mars in just four and a half months.

The passenger ships are small, carrying fewer than a dozen colonists, and they travel in convoys, all following the same route. For Heng, the Baza‘s captain and sole crewmember, it’s normally a routine job, but this time a solar flare erupts, forcing the convoy to shelter at the nearest Stone – greatly prolonging their journey. The docking, too, should be routine, although a less usual one, until one of the ships ahead of him breaks its hold on the mooring spoke, dropping away into space and perturbing the Stone’s rotation. Heng decides to move on to the fallback position of the next stone, but their emergency docking is anything but routine.

In some respects, an excellent example of what Hard SF should be, centered on a Neat Idea, its engineering strongly displaying the physics behind it. Unfortunately, it also displays all the signs of being an excerpt from a longer work; the ending, in particular, is entirely inconclusive. Nor am I convinced, despite the text’s claim, that the cost of setting the Stones in their orbits could in fact have been paid off by this slow, incremental process of migration, droplet by droplet of colonists. The actual story involves the interaction between Heng, to whom it is all just a job, and a bright child colonist who has clearly learned her physics lessons to propose a plan to rescue the adrift ship. But the characters are flat, and the situation fails to raise the readerly pulse – which is just as well, given that the author never lets us know if their efforts succeed. Not the most auspicious opening to the book.

“The Dust Queen” by Aliette de Bodard

Inevitably, as the oceans of Earth rose, its coasts were submerged, making refugees of the inhabitants, including those of the Mekong Delta. Perhaps as a solution to their plight [the text is not clear on this point] the longterm project of terraforming Mars has begun, but the refugees are not allowed to set foot there until the process is complete; they dwell instead on the orbital platform called Fire Watch, looking down on their untouchable promised land. As a diversion from their [despair, frustration?], the authorities have allowed the presentation of shows on the Martian surface, dancing clouds of dust animated by bots controlled remotely from orbit. The master of these bots is Bao Lan, known and revered as the Dust Queen.

Back on Earth, however, people have begun to restore the drowned territories and recreate the landscape that was washed away. Many refugees have left Fire Watch to volunteer for this work, now largely complete. Bao Lan, growing old, wants to return to her childhood home, but there is a problem: long ago, she had her mind rewired to expunge all emotional attachment to her childhood memories. She doesn’t want to go home in that condition; she wants to reverse her rewiring. For this, she has summoned Quyhn Ha, a young woman whose reverence for the Dust Queen is profound. Reluctantly, she agrees to attempt the process.

“Rewiring is… like deadening. You can’t completely suppress the emotions involved, or the person will go mad. There’ll be one, or several cracks somewhere; tiny remnants of the original emotions. All I have to do is find one and amplify it – I can’t give you the original back, but it will be something much like it.”

This scenario raises a number of questions. Bao Lan says she has chosen Quyhn Ha for two reasons: that she is the best rewirer on Fire Watch, which doesn’t go in for the practice a lot, and that she is a fellow Viet, who can understand her. But is there a difference? Is the entire population of Fire Watch refugees from drowned Vietnam? Is the entire prospective population of Mars? There is much in the text to suggest that this might be so. Bao Lan is the Dust Queen, and her shows are apparently based entirely on Viet folklore, presented on a major Viet festival. There is no suggestion of, say, Bangladeshi festivals celebrated in this way, although refugees from the Ganges would certainly far outnumber those from the Mekong. There are other humans in space, among the asteroids, but we see only one orbital habitat, Fire Watch. And more, we have only one Mars; it seems strange to terraform the planet for the sole benefit of one refugee ethnic group, yet nothing in the text suggests otherwise.

The rewiring premise, as detailed here, is rather over contrived, which has the effect, ironically, of robbing the story of its emotional impact. The heart of it should be Quyhn Ha’s emotional reactions to the dust shows, particularly those of her childhood, but although the author describes the shows and the folklore they are drawn from, the viewer’s presence isn’t strong. We are supposed to feel that she has given up something precious to her, but the feeling doesn’t come through. Bao Lan, at the end, is clearly not who she had been, but Quyhn Ha seems much the same. I can’t help thinking the story took the wrong point of view.

“The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald

Adriana and Achi meet in transit to the moon, become friends because zero-gee sex is highly overrated. The work is good, friendship is good. Then Achi gets the word that her latest bone scan gives her only four more weeks.

All this I did, the endless hours riding the train like a moon-hobo, the hypothermia and being sling-shotted in a can of my own barf, because I knew that if Achi had four weeks, I could not be far behind.

Once your bones erode past that point, you can’t safely go back to Earth. You either have to leave before it’s too late or remain on the moon for life. Now Adriana and Achi, finally lovers as well as friends, have to decide. Achi wants to go back. But for Adriana, the moon is the place where a woman can put on wings and fly. It’s the place where the right idea, properly leveraged, can build her a dynasty, the fifth big corporation, one of the dragons.

Here, now, is story. A compelling central character, a fascinating world, an entertaining narrative. It’s Hard SF, for sure, with its depiction of a ruthlessly capitalistic lunar socioeconomy, where the charge for a breath can change from inhale to exhale, where the marginally useful are culled and the visionaries can find opportunity. Adriana loves Achi, but she loves that moon more.


“Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder

Entrepreneur Achille Marceau had a bright idea: build solar updraft towers that will generate electricity while taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the market for carbon crashed, and he had to shut down. Also unfortunately, the environmental consequences for the area surrounding the prototype tower were dire, as Gennady the troubleshooter discovers when he reaches the site.

The trees were draped in what looked like the fake cobwebs kids hung over everything for American Halloween. Great swathes of the stuff cocooned whole trunks and stretched between them like long, sickening flags. He glanced back and saw that an ominous white cloud was beginning to curl around the truck – billions of spores kicked up by his wheels.

While Gennady gets the tower’s turbine running again, he has a surprising encounter: Achille’s sister Nadine, a fellow UN arms inspector who seems to regard the installation as if it were a rogue nuke instead of a device with the potential to reverse global warming, as Achille has touted it.

This is part of the author’s series featuring arms inspector Gennady Malianov, who has had a previous appearance in this anthology series. This one is full of action, thwarting a truly dastardly plot [How To Profit From The Coming Mass Extinction] at an acrophobia-inducing height that makes me cringe to contemplate. As added interest, we have the Permian extinction and a remarkable physical setting in the Siberian “valley of death” alluded to by the story’s title.


“Report Concerning the Presence of Seahorses on Mars” by Pat Cadigan

Cognitive dissonance between the residents of Mars and some officious authorities back on Earth. Rose has been assigned to meet with remote robotic units hosting a US Special Envoy who claims “unauthorized and even criminal activity” by Mars residents.

I wasn’t sure what boggled me more – an outsider telling me how to pronounce Feenixity or the fact that an authority powerful enough to force an underground visit by mobi didn’t seem to know better than to speak before getting a response to their previous communication. It was the equivalent of talking over someone while they were trying to answer you in a normal conversation – not a felony but something a child would do.

There’s a lot about the society on Mars that Earth doesn’t understand, and a lot that Mars doesn’t want Earth to understand, like there being no actual official Governor’s office for them to go to, only a virtual construct. They do, however, want to keep receiving Earth subsidies, which have, up to now, been conditioned on population restriction, prohibiting natural [or semi-natural] reproduction. But people on Mars want kids. As Rose says, “A society without children isn’t the real thing – it’s weird, it’s unnatural, and it’s unhealthy.” So it didn’t take them long to decide that if the women were prohibited by law from becoming pregnant, the men would do it.

After a rather indirect opening, the author uses a pretty clever device to make the level of infodumpfery more palatable to readers: the narrative is framed as a report from Rose to people on Earth, “edited and annotated” with an occasional query, “How much do I have to explain to Earth people?” I like the colonial society and its unique way of operating. I particularly like the cultural differences between the two worlds. What I find questionable is the part of the premise whereby governments on Earth, despite financial straits, have set up the colonies on Mars as a sort of reality show, beaming the accounts of Martian fun and games down to entertain the homeworld. As the envoys states, “We didn’t send them there to lead normal lives.” The colonies weren’t expected to survive. But does that make sense, for a world so short on financial resources to expend them to set up a colony doomed to failure, just for the entertainment value? In the event of colony failure, would they have been willing to stand the very considerable expense of evacuating the entire population of Mars, if necessary, or just sit back and watch everyone slowly die? I don’t really think so.

“Hiraeth: A Tragedy in Four Acts” by Karen Lord

Hireath can be thought of as a human illness caused by loss or distance from home; in the case of pace, the greater the distance from the homeworld, the stronger the malady when it strikes. As a child on the Moon, Janik had a freak accident, falling and injuring his eyes, which his doctor, a fanatic on the subject, replaced with cyborg models. Later, working in the asteroid belt where he suffered from the most extreme version of hiraeth, Janik is convinced by the same doctor that the more augmentations, the greater the resistance to the illness, and he allows the installation of a prototype brain implant. The augmentation is successful, but it leads to a split within humanity. As unmodified Earthborn abandon space and return to the homeworld, the spaceborn and augmented move outward. But Janik retains a small seed of hiraeth, closed off so it can no longer affect him; its presence reminds him of his humanity as he lives, more and more, among the cyborgs.

The hiraeth is an interesting premise, raising the issue whether a psychological attachment to the human homeworld might cause any drive towards space colonization to abort. Oddly, though, the hiraeth seems to be unfelt in the story. Janik’s story is poignant and we strongly feel his suffering, but it seems to be caused, not for a longing for a world where he wasn’t born, but from simple loneliness. A unique prototype among the cyborgs, he clings more and more to the lost remnant of his humanity.

The storyline also seems incomplete when it comes to the pilot Lee, an unaugmented human entirely without hiraeth. The implications of this are tantalizing; we can’t be sure whether she’s an anomaly or represents a trend that will result in the posthumans we see at the story’s end. The question of her fate, left hanging, is quite frustrating.

“Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages

Which is to translate: BFF. A young girl named Corry is saying goodbye to her friend Anna and to Earth. Her parents are taking her off to space on a generation ship, never to return, and these will be her last vision of the places she loves.

Golden light pierced the spaces between the trunks of the trees, casting long thin shadows across the grass. They leaned against each other and watched as the sky brightened to its familiar blue, and color returned: green leaves, pink bicycles, yellow shorts. Behind them lights began to come on in houses and a dog barked.

The strength of this piece is in the description of such quotidian moments, cherished by Corry as her last. Which would be just about as emotion-laden if she actually wanted to go. Rather sentimentally so, however.

“Trademark Bugs: A Legal history” by Adam Roberts

I have to wonder why the title isn’t trademarked bugs, as the other wording evokes the notion of glitches that invalidate trademarks. Regardless, this is a neat faux legal document [complete with footnotes and bibliography] concerning the history and status of proprietary pathogens, concerning which there has been an extensive set of lawsuits and rulings. As one advocate argued:

People are getting sick with genetically tagged flu viruses for which the only cure is manufactured by these same corporations! People are being forced into the position where they have to purchase medication, manufactured by the same corporations that made them sick, in order to bring them back to the baseline position of health. This practice is profoundly inhumane, unethical, and monopolistic. This practice is wicked.

So it would seem! But the lawyers for the Pharma corporations had much deeper pockets to draw from. Indeed, it wasn’t long until they were waging war on each other in fact, rather than just in the courts, although that continued as well.

‘Killing and maiming is one thing,’ said Bayer vice-chairman Hester Lu. ‘Wars have entailed that for thousands of years. But violating commercial copyrights and trademarks is quite another, and such behaviour will not be tolerated, in peace or in war’.

An exception in this volume, being concerned with something other than space colonization. But this brand of satire is well in the SFnal mainstream – a clear case of If This Goes On. When one of the paper’s authors states, “Democracy has, broadly, shifted from a flat-rate one-person-one-vote model to a corporate, buy-as-many-votes-as-you-like model”, we know we’re not looking at the future, but a well-established fact of our present. And the proposition that the bugs have made the world a better place is audacious irony. I think the late Fred Pohl would have appreciated this one.

“Attitude” by Linda Nagata

On the orbiting Stage One, with the motto “Our Only Export is Entertainment”, Juliet Alo is a semi-pro Attitude player in a zero-G spectator sport that rewards her intuitive grasp of trajectories. In one championship game, just as she is about to score, something inexplicable happens:

Her momentum reversed so quickly it was as if a digital record skipped in time. All my calculations were thrown off by at least three-tenths of a second as she darted to intercept me, and before I could twist to protect the ball it was gone from my hands. She passed the ball on the fly, hurling it to a teammate waiting halfway to blue. Our backfield was left playing catch-up as Team August relayed the ball past fins and static drums. Then they blocked our lone defender before a player took the ball through the goal ring for an easy score.

Juliet knows what happened; the opposition player was enhanced beyond the limit allowed by regulations, thus threatening the integrity of the game, on which the orbital’s entire economy is based, the income going to habitat construction. The League decides to cover it up, which is never a good idea, as countless politicians have learned. But there’s more going on than simple cheating.

This sort of sports story has been done often enough that it needs something beyond the ordinary; here we don’t have it, just some action and a bit of predictability.

“Invisible Planets” by Hannu Rajaniemi

Subtitled “with apologies to Italo Calvino”, a reference to the masterpiece Invisible Cities – an audacious choice for a model. It serves to inform us that this is not just any kind of galactic travelogue. In place of the vastness of Central Asia, we have the galaxy-studded universe, through which the darkship has long been journeying.

During the millennia of its journey, the darkship’s mind has expanded, until it has become something that has to be explored and mapped. The treasures it contains can only be described in metaphors, fragile and misleading and elegant, like Japanese street numbers. And so, more and more, amongst all the agents in its sprawling society of mind, the darkship finds itself listening to the voice of a tiny sub-mind, so insignificant that she is barely more than a wanderer lost in a desert, coming from reaches of the ship’s mind so distant that she might as well be a traveller from another country that has stumbled upon an ancient and exotic kingdom on the other side of the world, and now finds herself serving a quizzical, omnipotent emperor.

As in the original, the planets are sorted by theme [Death, Money, Gravity, Eyes, Words], although there is only one example of each; the work’s length ensures this will only be a miniature, simplified version. As in the original, we suspect that these planets are all imaginary, reflecting a single reality, despite knowing that the traveler has indeed visited many wondrous and exotic locations, for each planet exemplifies only a single aspect of existence, each one a monoculture.

Nirgal itself has become a graveyard. It is populated only by travellers who visit from other worlds, arriving in ephemeral ships, visible only as transparent shapes in swirling red dust. Wearing exoskeletons to support their fragile bodies, the visitors explore the endless caves that glitter with the living technology of the Oyans, and explore the crisscrossing tracery of rover tracks and footsteps in Nirgal’s sands, careful to instruct their utility fog cloaks to replace each iron oxide particle exactly where it was, to preserve each imprint of an Oyan foot forever.

While the conclusion seems to echo Calvino’s original, there is, as there ought to be, one significant difference. For while the Khan and Polo are two distinct individuals with quite dissimilar personal histories, the sub-mind narrating here is and has always been part of the whole to whom she is reciting, and thus must be seen as a function of memory as well as insight, not relating what is new but casting what is already known in a different light.

The piece is another exception to the anthology’s general rule, as this is not Hard SF, nor concerned with colonizing the Sol system.

“Wilder Still, the Stars” by Kathleen Anne Goonan

As children, May and her friend Irene dreamed of building starships. They form a company, develop an innovate ship, lose funding, separate. Fast-forward a century, and May runs into an Artificial Person in a lunchroom; she feels guilty because her research in neuroscience might have contributed to their development:

blank adult humanoids – fully functioning but comatose humans – are infused with virus-borne agents that initiate and accelerate neural development a millionfold. The pre-AP is stimulated with the language of choice, and certain parts of individual brains are more
intensely oxygenated, depending on the use to which the AP is committed. Content organizes the brain. Sessions of intensive, finely targeted fine and large motor control exercises give them a developmental kick.

This is an expensive process, yet for some reason APs are doing scutwork and hanging out on the streets, their abilities unutilized. May takes a few home and realizes their superhuman potential, but zombie-hating hordes gather and menace. Re-enter Irene, with a present for May.

A long life can lead to a long story, which thus runs the risk of being somewhat dull. This one is disjointed, with only the beginning and end. The connection between the space-striving story and the AP story is tenuous. What bothers me most is the APs, about whom we know too little to be able to tell if they really make sense. Like, where do these “blank adult humanoids come from, in the first place? Why, if so expensive to produce, are they not being utilized according to their abilities? Why, if useful, do their users not defend them from prejudice or at least protect them? And why has this prejudice developed, so quickly, so strongly?

The story tends to the sentimental. With the exception of the mob-sorts, all the characters glow with goodwill; the APs are all savants and geniuses, all tributes to their type, leading me to wonder again why these sterling qualities seem a surprise to everyone but May. What no one seems to address is whether they’re fertile or could breed true, but since, in May’s small community, there is only one AP female, the possibility seems essentially moot. On the other hand, they may be effectively immortal – another question the story doesn’t raise.

“The Entire Immense Superstructure: An Installation” by Ken MacLeod

While working on an artistic grant in Antarctica, Verrall’s mind cracked, if it hadn’t before, and after he left the rehab clinic, he entered the ubiquitous halls of the WikiThing and ends up in Equatorial Guinea, where he grows his installation. A space habitat, or satellite, doesn’t quite seem like an art project, but definitions are plastic whoever gave him his grant seems to have gotten their money’s worth.

An absurd work without an obvious point.

“In Babelsburg” by Alastair Reynolds

Vincent is a robot and a space probe, going out where humans cannot. As such, he’s a sort of celebrity, and his public appearances are popular. But the thing that captures the human imagination at the moment are the dead colonists that Vincent recently found on Titan, killed after their lander had failed. It’s a good story, but to Vincent’s surprise, another robotic explorer claims to have a different version of those events, an account not to Vincent’s credit. From a celebrity, Vincent has suddenly become an embarrassment.

I may not be provably culpable, but I am certainly perceived to have been the instrument of a wrongdoing. My agency, I think, would be best pleased if I were to simply disappear. They could make that happen, certainly, but then they would open themselves to difficult questions concerning the destruction of incriminating evidence.

A lot of questions raised here, more than the story answers. Vincent is established as a being of human-equivalent intelligence, a sentient individual capable of appreciating art, and apparently of some free will. He deprecates the sentience of another robotic probe as inferior to his own. He is definitely a being to whom motive can be ascribed. Yet whatever the motive for his actions and inactions near Titan, the text makes no conjecture. In this account, which is as close as we get to a confession, he evades the issue – as if on the advice of legal counsel. What he feels now is regret, not for anything he has done, but for losing the stars.

A well-done quasi-mystery. I only wish the talk show hosts hadn’t been conceived as such grotesques. It detracts from the genuine potential pathos of the situation.

“Hotshot” by Peter Watts

Another story of free will. Yet Again, humanity has messed up its own world and now plans to establish a backup on some innocent planet far away, instantaneously through a wormhole that has to first be established on the other side. Sunday has been born . . . built . . . bred for this mission, for a life spent in coldsleep as the backup to an automated system, but the authorities keep insisting she’s free to say no, to back out, instead. Still, they don’t really expect it. Sunday is rebellious. She wants to go, but she resents being made to want to go. Still, she doesn’t say no, doesn’t walk away, no matter how often they give the speech. She does, however, say, “I’ll get back to you” when she needs to meet with the only person she can really talk to, the person at the receiving end of all her rebellion while she was growing up.

I’m scared, Kai, is what I want to say. I’m scared by the thought of a life lived in such thin slices, each one lightyears further from home, each one centuries closer to heat death. I do want it, I want it as much as you do but it frightens me, and what frightens me even more is that I can feel this way at all. Didn’t they build me better than this? Aren’t I supposed to be immune to doubt?

The psychological heart of the story, the tension in Sunday between freedom and destiny, is quite clear and effective. Less clear, however, is a trip to the sun, in which Sunday experiences not only true freedom but also preternatural vision in a manner that feels a whole lot like magic. This may well be the sufficiently advanced technology, but I’m not seeing the point of it, the reason the pioneers [not just Sunday] undergo this experience, what results it’s supposed to have – particularly when the insights are only temporary. Nice imagery, though.

Not just a sea: an endless seething expanse, the incandescent floor of all creation. Plasma fractals iterate everywhere I look, endlessly replenished by upwells from way down in the convection zone. Glowing tapestries, bigger than worlds, morph into laughing demon faces with blazing mouths and eyes. Coronal hoops, endless arcades of plasma waver and leapfrog across that roiling surface to an unimaginably distant horizon.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #149-150, June 2014

The publisher celebrates the 150 milestone with a double issue. These are becoming pretty frequent as this ezine continues its success. #149 gives us horrific tarry nastiness and evil father-figures; #150, far the better issue, is full of immortal powers.


“Ink of My Bones, Blood of My Hands” by Vylar Kaftan

The narrator is the son and unwilling apprentice of the evil necromancer Ghraik, serving him, complicit in his crimes, to protect his mother, whom Ghraik holds hostage under a spell of immortality.

All of this I did because he trusted me, and I dared not cause him to question that. For I was the only soul that could free the island of Surthenon from his brutal grip, suffered these two hundred years. Only I, so close to his blackened heart, could find and exploit his weakness.

A day finally comes when his master is perturbed by a threat and subjects him to a rite of immersion in the tar pit that is the source of his power. The pit, with its awful secrets, claims him.

How to regard a work with lines like, “Vile fiend!”? The initial readerly impulse in these days, in a venue like this one that claims to be literary, and with such a title, is to suspect irony, some subversion of the traditional tropes of dark Sword and Sorcery. But no, this is traditional dark Sword and Sorcery; the author is playing the tropes straight, and piling them high, with a tar pit full of tortured and dismembered children to let us know just how dark and satanic this sorcerer is. The plot, such as it is, centers around the narrator’s quest to learn the nature of the bond among him, the necromancer, and the tar pit, so that he can seize his master’s power and destroy him. It’s a dated and unoriginal conceit, and the author brings nothing fresh or new to it.

“Silver and Seaweed” by Greg Linklater

The father-monster here has suffered accidents that turned him into a tentacled part-shark and forces him to remain underwater, where he is raising a girl he calls his daughter and transmuting her into something like himself, or what he used to be, in order to gather treasure from the deep seafloor that he can no longer reach.

She swallowed the contents in one gulp. It slid thickly down her windpipe and she gagged. He massaged her back gently, taking care around the budding fins and tender patches of scale. The essence grabbed her from the inside, pulled open her veins and raced to her brain. She could feel the transmutation always now, a dull ache in her bones, as the essence turned her on a wheel away from what she had been toward what he wanted her to become.

The contrast between these two stories is interesting. Although the girl protagonist in the Linklater story is not the narrator, we come to know her far more intimately than we do the narrator in the Kaftan story, we can sympathize with her situation, admire her determination, and appreciate her plan to free herself. There is a real, twisted relationship between the two characters here, and at its heart is the protagonist’s uncertainty about his true feelings for her, his real intentions. There is also originality in the premise.


“The Manor of Lost Time” by Richard Parks

The demon, summoned, tells the tale of Driana to his interlocutor. It begins when he was trapped in the workroom of a sorcerer named Ledanthos, who noticed one day that a witch had infiltrated his sanctuary. He bound and summoned her there, where she saw the demon in his true form, not the statue into which he had been bound – not by Ledanthos, who wasn’t up to such tricks and didn’t possess such sight. The two made a bargain for their mutual freedom, and Driana entered his prison to open the door that was closed to him.

Humans and demonkin alike generate a nearly infinite cache of lost possibility for every path not taken. This is the place where all the ‘might have beens’ reside. That is what you’re experiencing now. The potential was there, but it was thwarted, for better or worse. What you’re seeing and feeling now, and knowing now, did not happen. You’re right—it’s not an illusion, but it’s also not real, and never can be real.

Nicely done fantasy with a light, ironic tone, but also brief. By which I mean not so much short as sketched, the condensed form of a potentially much larger, more colorful tale, involving the history of two legendary beings without the legends. It hints of so much more.

“The Black Waters of Lethe” by Oliver Buckram

Life, or something like it, on the riverbank, where starlings fall from the sky and people sometimes wash up. So far, we have the greybeard, obsessed with reaching the other side of the river, the prince [who probably isn't] and the warrior. Now a boat with a new castaway has washed up.

Lying inside is a dead man wearing a blue robe. Perhaps his heart forgot to beat. The river sometimes kills men this way. For others, drinking the black water, or breathing its vapors, leaves body unscathed but mind empty. When the prince first arrived, he drooled and babbled for days before regaining the power of speech.

Brevity here, too, and a great deal left unexplained. It isn’t at all clear where we are, except that this is the river of forgetting in the Underworld, or whether these characters are alive or dead or in some intermediate state. It would seem that some are more dead than others, however, and they are capable of becoming more dead than they presently are. While these lacunae are intriguing, they are not compelling as in the Parks piece; the state of readerly unknowing feels acceptable, and there is no real urgency to know who these people were, how they came to the riverbank, and what will happen to them next. It is what it is, and probably will remain so, but the details are for forgetting.

“The Inked Many” by Adam Callaway

Another in the author’s uncommon series set in the paper city Lacuna, where the Inked Man finds that his city is dying, his words impotent. The Lacunans had long since pulped every tree on the continent, even digging up the dead roots, and now the place is being overtaken by sand. In his long lifetime, the Inked Man has seen it all come and go.

Over the centuries, he had learned dozens of languages—real and fake, futuristic and historic, ancient, extinct, imagined, fabricated—the Inked Man collected languages in the same way some used to collect rare coins.

At the same time, on a mundane level, poverty has driven Chernyl to take a job in the mine, joining the exploited, who promptly name him Inky Britches.

This one links the past and future of the paper city through its archetypical founder. I don’t believe that any reader not already familiar with this setting will appreciate the nuanced appeal. The Lacuna that fascinates in those earlier pieces is no longer here, only its desiccated bones; it’s a dying city like any other, and like many others, a victim of its own past excess – that we no longer see. But Lacuna-that-was was a dystopia, charming perhaps in a few ways, but mainly for what we see as its oddness; living there was more a form of industrial slavery to the monstrous demands of paper. This being the case, the Inked Man’s quest to bring the place back, to recreate it, must likewise be seen as monstrous; what could have seemed a good idea in the first place has been revealed as a path to perdition.

What this piece also does is to rationalize the paper city, to explain it in more-or-less naturalistic terms. And this is a dreadful mistake. The attraction of the paper city in earlier tales was precisely in its inexplicable uniqueness. Stripping away the fantastic wrapping to expose the pathogen behind it robs the place of its wonder.

Readers previously unfamiliar with this wonder are unlikely to care much, and will be taking the present story on its own merits. In which the story of Chernyl gives us a strong protagonist, knowingly trapped in a sort of postindustrial hell. If he knows about his city’s wondrous past, he doesn’t seem to care much; his concern is with his own future, to which he optimistically clings as it erodes beneath his feet. To this, the parallel tale of the Inked Man on his quest for that past seems oddly detached and pointless, when it ought to evoke wonder. But the time for that wonder is gone.

“The Unborn God” by Stephen Case

A new god is coming into being and power, and it promises to be a tyrannical one. A boy comes to the wizard for refuge from its cruel priests, and the wizard trains him in his craft, explaining that the god’s growing power has begun to warp time and causality. Every time the boy recalls his father’s fate, what he remembers is more brutal

“Because the god is growing,” he answered. “Because it is growing toward omniscience, perhaps omnipotence, and its influence is reaching backward and forward in time. When you came here the priests were bands of clerics who had succeeded in bringing the god to root in the city but were still flailing in their newfound power.”

Now, as the god’s forces seek to destroy them and the alterations to the past continue to grow with the god’s growing potency, the wizard and his new apprentice race to confront it in its seat of influence.

While the general template here is an old one, it’s well-done and fitted with fantastic stuff, particularly the treatment of time, which makes it more original, but also the magical teaching scrolls, the wizard’s flying house, the scenery, and the jealous embodied wind who serves the wizard, hoping to earn his love.


Strange Horizons, June 2014

A theme of friendship for this issue.

“Tomorrow We’ll Go Yak Herding” by Michelle Ann King

Despite the plague of unexplained displacements that turn bungalows into shopping malls and hotels into petting zoos into tea shops, Jessica is on her way to Edinburgh, to Sera’s house. Hoping it will still be there when she arrives.

“‘It doesn’t matter,” Jessica says. “Because you’re right. We’ll learn how to make cider, or surf, or whatever else it is we need to do. And if we get yaks, Siberian or otherwise, we’ll herd them.”

Except that it actually does matter, because time is becoming displaced as well, and while the slippage doesn’t seem to be so bad wherever Sera is, on the road, things are different.

A short piece that starts out as lite absurdity but grows darker towards the end, when the purpose of their daily phone calls changes. [I wonder where Jessica is charging her phone.] At its heart, a story of comfort between friends.

“Rib” by Yukimi Ogawa

The narrator is a skeleton woman, a sort of succubus who likes to stroll outside at twilight when humans are less likely to notice what she is. A small boy named Kiichi, however, mistakes her for his mother – not so unreasonable as she is wearing his dead mother’s kimono, which creates a bond between them. It turns out that foul play was involved in the mother’s death, and the narrator decides to help him. “This is a boat I’ve put one foot onto; I’ll row to the end.”

A good deed and a grateful recipient, more than friendship. This is nice use of the folklore, but I’m afraid I find the faint hints of incest a bit disturbing.

“Storytelling for the Night Clerk” by JY Yang

An interesting narrative structure here. Our protagonist is a sort of cyborg, who works as the night watchman for the National Archives of selected downloaded individuals, jacked in as an extension of the building’s sensory network, and as such, a composite individual, part building-think, part human. It’s her human judgment that matters over the network’s logging of consistencies. As a composite, she is “you” in this narrative, who notices the anomaly of an old man haunting the vicinity of the archive’s second floor control room. “Machine sees no issue with this; there has been no breach. Your human mind sees the dots and sees premeditation.” The old man turns out to be a blacklisted individual who wants recognition for his late son, attainted by the father’s deeds. He has developed a scheme to have the young man illicitly archived; intercepted by Night Clerk, he begs her to enter him into the database. Night Clerk makes the official response: “If we archived people just based on the fact that they were loved, this building would cover the surface of the Earth.” But when she removes her exoskeleton and jacks out of the network, she is Wei En, a fully-human woman with a sick partner whom she deeply loves.

In that moment Wei En could have listened to her speak of a lifetime of banalities, a never-ending parade of gritty details that could be picked at over and over in memory until they slipped away like fish in a tide. She wanted to live in a world without time, without money, without death, so she could stop grasping at the sound of her lover’s tongue and just listen to it curling around the hard realities of life, on and on and ever after.

That is a moving and beautiful description of love, the simple joy that Wei En has in her lover’s presence, and the author happily refrains from drawing an explicit lesson, comparing her love to that of the old man for his son, delivering a didactic epiphany or a consequent change of heart, as would be the case in many such stories. It is left for the readers to make of the situation what we will.


The site is short on the original, independent fiction this month, but that’s OK when it includes an excellent story by Yoon Ha Lee, worth several lesser works.

“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones

Zombies. Really. Shambling and rotting and devouring in hordes. While civilization falls apart, Crain and his dissertation advisor in anthropology, Dr Ormon, natter on matters abstract and theoretical.

“Herd mentality,” Dr. Ormon said, handing the binoculars back. “Herd suggests a lack of intelligence, of conscious thought, while horde brings with it aggressiveness. Or, at the very least, a danger to the society naming those invaders.”

Ormon has decided that all their research is going to prove relevant in the coming days of tooth and claw, after all – specifically Crain’s dissertation on evolution. Thus they are now out in the field, following the horde, cracking discarded bones for their marrow, and debating points of evolutionary theory, specifically whether humans evolved as scavengers or hunters.

Pretty silly dark comedy with a fairly high grue factor. Essentially it’s a parody of actual field research and mockery of the academic mentality.

“Combustion Hour” by Yoon Ha Lee

“The eschatology of shadow puppets.” That’s what it says, and readers will immediately be wondering what it might mean. The easy part: the end of the universe, when the last stars go out, not to be reignited, leaving all in the darkness and cold. Here there are shadow people in a shadow world of two dimensions, an artificial construct illuminated from the three-dimensional universe of dying stars, here called “lanterns”. This is a world of metaphor, where reality is masked by evasive names – reality, which the people here most assiduously avoid seeing. Yet it is explicitly said: “people are shadows, and shadows are souls.” In some way, or more likely in many ways, they have fled the dying universe into a two-dimensional shadow world, a population of shadows, of apparently disembodied souls, all of them puppets whose strings are held by the queen.

The queen with her scepter is one exception. Not only does she touch people with it, she also commands them. It is not entirely accurate to call it a scepter. Rather, it is a rod of puppet-strings, condensed to hungry facets. You have never seen your string, but you can feel it like a flickering ember even when you are far from the queen’s presence. Doubtless her other subjects experience something similar.

The protagonist is the queen’s knight, the queen’s hand, but rather than manipulating the puppets, it is a puppet itself, its string controlled like all the rest by the queen’s scepter. But the knight has a unique weapon that gives it the power to sever its own string; from the beginning it’s clear that the knight freely chooses to carry out her commands for the good of all, or at least it’s supposed to be. Ultimately, this is a story of autonomy, of responsibility. Whether there is a point at which the knight will say “no” and take on itself the responsibility for the consequences, which are ultimate indeed, as is everything at this ultimate point in the universe.

The two-dimensionality of the shadows tempts us to think that they are less real than the [former] people of the three-dimensional world from which they originally came, that their suffering may count for less. Certainly this is the attitude of the queen, who turns worlds to ash to extend or preserve her realm. The knight and a defeated king calmly discuss the king’s impending death in a manner that would lead us to assume it doesn’t much matter, even to him. But perhaps this assumption is incorrect, for the point of the knight’s moral rebellion rests on the belief that there is some level of suffering [and I have to think here of the eternal suffering of the souls of the damned, burning in hell, although we also have to assume these particular souls are innocent] that is too much to accept, even if it means losing the universe itself.

The shadows are not only puppets but paper puppets, ie combustible. Which is clearly metaphorical, a metaphor of fragility and vulnerability: paper, so easy to tear, to disintegrate in wet, to set on fire. And paper, burning, emits light. The knight itself was cut by the queen from the paper of a dying star, or so we are told, and its weapon is combustion, the force not only of destruction but of reignition. And combustion is impossible without fuel.

This author is known for combining elegant prose with topics in math and physics, and several asides in the text speak with literal clarity of the processes of star-death. But there is no way to place mathematical weight on a soul or measure its light upon combustion [although apparently some theorists are trying], and when the queen says the souls will burn forever, the question has shifted from the cosmological into the theological. We have to realize that the souls here may well not be human. Yet I can’t help imagining, with the help of hints in the text, of the current sciencefictional conceit of translating personas into electronic form, usually for downloading into some digital storage. Of course, if this is what’s going on here at the universe’s end, we’re way past digital storage in some material medium; we seem to be past matter itself, as the stars run out of fuel. At least, this is one way to think of the two-dimensionality of the world inhabited by souls, as immateriality. If we think of these souls as something like electronic shadows of once-material persons, this can be a way of understanding what it means for them to be combustible, transmutable into light.


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.

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