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Stefan Dzaimianowicz reviews Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror 25

Stephen Jones’s Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, a landmark by any standard in genre publishing. There’s no overlap between the contents of Jones’s and Datlow’s anthologies, as has frequently been the case over the years, and the Best New Horror series has served the important function of reminding readers both that there are more outstanding horror stories written each year than can be gathered into a single anthology, and that different editors with different tastes are likely to bring more such stories to light for readers.

In the opening paragraphs of her Summation for The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Six, Datlow laments the space considerations that kept her from including several outstanding novellas, a form that horror fiction has long thrived in. Rather audaciously, Jones concludes the 21 selections for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 25 with Stephen Volk’s ‘‘Whitstable’’, which at about 40,000 words qualifies as a short novel. A tribute to iconic horror actor Peter Cushing, it tells of the relationship that develops between the actor and a young boy who has sought him out, believing him to be Doctor Van Helsing, the vampire hunter whom Cushing played in several Hammer horror films. (A recurring joke in the story is that people confuse Cushing with his roles, Christopher Lee, and his own grandfather.) For half of his story, Volk tantalizes the reader with the possibility that the boy’s tormentor is an actual vampire, rather than a predator of another sort. Although the tale’s ending is a bit contrived, Volk expertly captures in dialogue the precise, erudite manner of speaking that distinguished Cushing’s screen personae.

Breaking precedent with his previous annuals, Jones includes among his 21 story selections two stand-alone excerpts from Anno Dracula 1976–1991: Johnny Alucard, the fourth novel in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. ‘‘Who Dares Wins: Anno Dracula 1980’’ evokes the global politics of its era in its account of a publicity seeking renegade vampire who takes over the Romanian embassy in London, demanding the establishment of a vampire homeland in Transylvania. In ‘‘Miss Baltimore Crabs: Anno Dracula 1990’’, the action shifts to the United States, and the discovery of a vampire drug cartel operating in a Baltimore straight out of the cable series The Wire. Both stories are vintage Newman, laced liberally with pop culture references and mixing fictional characters with people and events from real life. They’re a reminder that Newman was doing these sort of mashups, and doing them well, more than a decade before this approach became all the rage in genre fiction.

Two of Jones’s selections feature children’s books that prove sources of horror when elements seep from their pages into real life. The zinger final line of Joel Lane’s ‘‘By Night He Could Not See’’ reveals how aspects of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse have become clues in a series of inexplicable murders. In Reggie Oliver’s ‘‘Come into My Parlour’’, a young boy is terrorized by a book of instructional verse whose sinister-looking illustrations come to life. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the horrific has long been fertile ground for horror fiction, and several stories in Jones’s anthology grow out of it, notably Ramsey Campbell’s ‘‘Holes for Faces’’, in which a young boy traumatized by a vacation trip to the catacombs in Naples begins seeing leering mummy faces in the texture of surfaces of the world aboveground, and Neil Gaiman’s ‘‘Click-clack the Rattlebag’’, the narrator of which discovers why his young companion is so familiar with the titular monster.

Some of the book’s most creative stories dress up familiar horror themes in imaginative new finery. Both Nicholas Royle’s ‘‘Dead End’’ and Clive Barker’s ‘‘A Night’s Work’’ are nightmare stories, with Royle’s more a waking dream whose horrors are slowly making themselves known to the dreamers, and Barker’s a Twilight-Zone-style tale of dreams within dreams. Simon Kurt Unsworth, in ‘‘Into the Water’’, updates the tale of Lovecraftian horror with the rhetoric of global warming and catastrophic climate shifts. Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘‘The Burned House’’ is a haunted house tale in which the past and present of personal experienced are collapsed. Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘‘The Gist’’ can be read as a variant on the theme of the book of occult lore, just as Tanith Lee’s ‘‘Doll Re Mi’’, which echoes Robert Bloch’s classic short story ‘‘Fiddler’s Fee’’, is a wonderfully baroque variant on the tale of the egotistical artist getting his supernatural comeuppance.

This year, Jones’s introductory summation ‘‘Horror in 2013’’ runs 90 pages long. ‘‘Necrology: 2013’’, a list of obituaries for those in the genre that Jones compiled with Kim Newman, runs (disconcertingly) almost as long, at 73 pages. It has been said before, but it is worth repeating, that these book-long non-fiction surveys within the book of fiction provide the most comprehensive coverage in print of the year in horror, in all its literary and extra-literary forms. It’s a reminder of all the work that a diligent editor like Jones has to sift through in order to make his annual selections, and of the considerable industry in the field that yields those stories.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews David Shafer

I knew I was going to enjoy David Shafer’s debut novel—whose title conceals the familiar internet acronym WTF, a not-so-secret jape which the book’s clever cover design readily reveals—when on page five I encountered this: “Was it [the country] called Burma, which had something to do with Orwell? Or Myanmar, which sounded like a name cats would give their country?” Such irreverent cleverness, nailing down a hitherto unexpressed aperçu with precision, is precisely my cup of kopi luwak, and I was hooked.

Given Shafer’s other fine storytelling attributes already on display in the first few pages, I knew I was in for a helluva ride. Of course, advance publicity nominating the book as “Pynchonesque” made me favorably disposed, given my fondness for the works of Thomas Ruggles. But such praise is a double-edged sword. It’s a tall benchmark to measure up to, and any faltering can make the junior novel seem pale by comparison, when otherwise, without the burden of any prior linkage to an illustrious ancestor, it might still have seemed reasonably good. No worries here, however, as Shafer lives up to the billing.

There are three major protagonists in WTF, two sympathetic and one rather repellent. But it’s to Shafer’s credit that although the less likable guy gets deservedly less screen time, he still comes off as thoroughly explored and inhabited.

First we are introduced to Leila Majnoun, a facilitator/administrator/field operative for an NGO operating in Burma. Competent and caring, but a bit of a loner and also somewhat cynical, Leila happens to half-witness something illicit and sinister in Burma that throws her life right off the rails. The next thing she knows, she’s expelled from the country and her family back in the USA—parents and brother—are being seriously messed with. Flying to London, looking for answers on the strength of one enigmatic online contact, she is about to tumble into a world of plots and counterplots.

Our second viewpoint character is poor Leo Crane. Leo is, to put it mildly, not “neurotypical.” He has epiphanical moments of high-bandwidth information transmission which he calls “truth holes.” He self-medicates with alcohol and other drugs. He can be found on the roof of his house fighting imaginary opponents like Don Quixote. In short, he rather resembles Philip K. Dick during the pink light experience from VALIS. Leo has been putting his paranoid insights into blog form—which revelations might have something to do with him getting fired from his job as a daycare monitor and being committed to the Quivering Pines rehab facility.

Then there’s Mark Deveraux. A general wastrel and venal egomaniac with an even worse intoxicant-abuse record than Leo (the two men, once friends, now distant and uncommunicative, went to Harvard together), Mark parlayed a fluke into the big time. Stoned, he wrote a self-help, New Age-ish essay (incorporating a little plagiarism from Leo’s blog) that went viral and got turned into a best-selling book. But he’s blown through all his profits, and the sequel is due with no inspiration in sight. About the only thing keeping Mark afloat is his shallow friendship with James Straw. Straw is a zillionaire who runs SineCo, a company that maps, more or less, onto the Google we know. Straw keeps Mark around as his pet Yoda. But what Mark doesn’t realize is that Straw and his new Node device are part of a plan by the ultra-secret Committee to take over the world.

“[A] shadow government is filing away everything about you: your genetic sequence, your demographcs, images of you, your social schematics, your skills, your access to wealth, your patterns of movement, your pressure points, your hopes and dreams, your fears and desires…they’re doing this because they have a twenty-year plan to own or control all knowledge in the world…they’re betting on a breakdown of the digital infrastructure, because in that case they will be able to charge the whole world for data recovery… Only it’s not really betting, since they can cause the breakdown; they can initiate the emergency.”

Leila is the first to come into contact with the Counterforce opposed to the Committee. They call themselves Dear Diary and possess a powerful weapon in the form of a kind of numinous brain enhancement technology. Experiencing this, Leila becomes one of them, without regrets. Only by aiding Dear Diary can she hope to regain any kind of stability in her life—and maybe save the world from the Committee’s schemes. But no one said it wouldn’t be dangerous, even if only in a psychical sense.

Shafer devotes a lot of his plotting to explicating and enriching the backstories of his trio—who eventually achieve a kind of symbiosis represented by the WTF initials of the title. In fact, as much of the book is spent nimbly detailing their interactions with family and friends, with coworkers and with each other (take, for instance, Leila’s tender dealings with her genius sister, Roxana), as the actual conspiracy stuff. But this balance proves salutary and very readable.

Not to say the conspiracy stuff is slighted. Plenty of stefnal revelations lie in store for the surprised and delighted reader. May I spoil just one minor riff, as an example? The safehouses for Dear Diary are found in every IKEA store in the chain, where members in transit may sleep and eat once business hours are past. To a certain point of safety, Leila is warned. “‘If you’re hungry, there’s the meatballs. Kidding. Don’t eat those meatballs. They come in on pallets.’” Additionally, Shafer has a lot of fun with the figure of James Straw, who, while not utterly ridiculous, still comes off a bit like Hank Scorpio, the evil, volcano-dwelling businessman from Portland (a major venue of this book), who once employed Homer Simpson in the same way Straw employs Mark.

Ending satisfyingly but with ultimate outcome uncertain, WTF deals with its big themes in a sprightly yet serious fashion. If you were to fuse Max Barry’s Lexicon with Dave Eggers’s The Circle, then blend in some of Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys, you might approach the lunatic sanity and gonzo wisdom of Shafer’s accomplished debut. This is a novel that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder, as a kind of younger brother, with, at the very least, Pynchon’s own Bleeding Edge.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-September

A whole lot of material showing up this time, and most of it science fiction, with both Dell digests appearing, one a double, and both with sequel novellas, which I generally consider a bad idea. Also the September stories from Strange Horizons and a long independent fantasy novella.

Publications Reviewed

Asimov’s, October/November 2014

The longest work here is a novella in the author’s Legion of Tomorrow series, in which I can find no novelty or interest. Fortunately, there are plenty of other stories, several quite enjoyable, adding up to a pretty good issue overall.

“The Prodigal Son” by Allen M Steele

Matt is a slacker, sliding down the chute towards loser, but mostly he’s a drop-out, having left the True Faith of space colonization centered in his family’s foundation. We find him jobless and broke on the charter flight to the island where the elements of the foundation’s spacecraft are being sent one-by-one into orbit for assembly. On the flight, he meets a girl, which is to say a young PhD humorlessly dedicated to the project, who looks down on Matt, having instantly spotted him as a worthless git. At which point, readers will know that by the end of the story, Matt will have turned around and embraced the space project and thereby won the heart of the girl. Because these things are that predictable and that’s why the girl is there in the first place.

When I read these stories by Steele, I often think I’m reading the wrong publication, as they invariably center on advocacy for some space program and the description of its nuts and bolts. It seems that the nuts and bolts may be the author’s primary interest, as we spend a great deal of time with the propulsion system, the selection and transportation of germ plasm, and the logistics of getting the sections onto the launch pad. The visceral impact of a launch viewed at too-close range is the first step in Matt’s inevitable conversion.

The Kubera rose from its pad atop a torch so bright that it caused him to squint. The eerie quiet that accompanied the ignition sequence lasted only until the rocket cleared the tower. The silence ended when the sound waves finally crossed the miles separating him from the rocket, and then it was if he was being run over by an invisible truck: a crackling roar that grew louder, louder, louder as the rocket ascended into the blue Caribbean sky. Seagulls and egrets and parrots took wing from all the palmettos and coconut trees around them as Nathan 2 became a fiery spear lancing up into the heavens.

I have to say that the notion of bots raising a generation of humans from the egg and terraforming a world strikes me as the sort of excess optimism that wisely makes Matt skeptical. If the technology exists to transform entire worlds for human life, why is the launch date threatened by a mere terrestrial hurricane?

The story is not a polemic and the amount of nontechnical lecturing is rather minimal, although we do have the obligatory religious fanatics who can’t spell as token villains in the piece, because who else would oppose the dream of space? But for the most part, the story is not meant to persuade. It is addressing the choir and exhorting the faithful, readers who share the author’s views and have probably read this same story dozens of times. Matt, who grew up in the midst of this congregation, correctly sees the religiousness of the family dream, which he has long since turned his back on, wandering into far countries where he squanders his talents in loose living. Returning home to the family faith is his salvation, but it’s only possible through the love of a true-believing woman. Alas for Matt’s refreshing skepticism, it was doomed from the first page.

“Stars Fell on Alabama” by Gord Sellar

The stars were in fact the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, except that readers will realize the star that a young slave picked up is no meteor but some kind of artifact with miraculous powers. Baby Tremblay, as he now calls himself, has not noticeably aged in over a century, during which he has perhaps invented jazz, inspired by the ecstatic visions the star causes in his mind. In the minds of others, such as Maria Verdi, the visions are different, of art and even of the composition of the universe: the extent of time and space. Baby knows the future, but what matters to him is the music

That was what the fallen star did to all the music in your head: it reached in, and folded it against itself, so what you heard was something halfway turned inside out, something that was fascinating but made no sense, that didn’t seem quite natural, but filled you with the strangest, most powerful joy you ever felt. And it did it with colors, and sounds, and shapes you saw, and all kinds of things.

But its touch is addictive, a condition that Baby calls star-drunk, and Maria is so hooked on it that she wants the star for herself. Complications ensue and accumulate, as Maria belongs to a Kansas City mobster, or at least she did, as Baby strongly suspects he has killed the man, which is why he’s now on the train to Chicago posing as a porter. Unfortunately so is Maria and so is a hitman from the mob. Baby is in big, big trouble, but his overriding need is for the star.

A lot of neat stuff here, so much, in fact, that it would easily fill a much longer work, or perhaps a sequel. There’s a lot of 1929 packed in, including a cameo appearance of a significant figure from science. But the incident with the old woman on the train is nothing but wrongness, as is the situation in which Baby leaves Walter, the senior porter, with no apparent twinges of conscience. I can’t have sympathy for him after that, which is too bad, after the story started out so promisingly.

“Troop 9″ by Dale Bailey

More feral girl scouts. This troop disappears into the woods on a camping trip, leaving everything behind in their tents – uniforms and shoes included. Of course a search party goes after them.

The men lurched into the trees, and the Girl Scouts, naked and streaked with mud, watched them blunder by. Their eyes sparkled with the fun of it. From a thicket of lilac, Susan Hardesty squatted on her hunkers and peered out at her father, hardly recognizing him as he searched for a sign. She laughed, knowing they had left none. It was the best prank ever, she thought in a remote corner of her mind. They would go home tomorrow.

Or so they told themselves, yet “they had all sensed in an inarticulate way what they were becoming, and what it might cost them.”

A puzzling work. There’s irony here, particularly notable in the section headings taken from the Girl Scout Handbook, of which Troop 9 has become the antithesis; it’s possible that this one is a response or rebuttal to the Reed story referenced above. But there is no observable fantastic or supernatural element here, no maenad spirit to have taken hold of these girls. So readers have to wonder: what led them to take this step away from civilization, to become killers? And there is no clear answer given.

But I do note that the story is set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when many of the men and fathers of the town had been away at war, becoming creatures of killing as much or more than their feral daughters. At the time, more than one woman was known to resist the return to what the world considered normalcy, the domestic life of hearth and home and submission to male authority. This seems to be one element in what is going on here. And readers familiar with Golding’s Lord of the Flies may recall that it, too, had a WWII setting, in which boys, this time, stranded alone on an island, revert to the feral in a way similar in some respects to Troop 9, only to be rescued by white-uniformed sailors who have been carrying on their own campaign of bloodshed. Civilization may be more of a mere veneer than some of its advocates would like to believe, and what lies beneath is something upon which we don’t want to look too hard.

“Diary of a Pod Person” by Emily C Skaftun

When Reva tales a job at ExtraLives, it’s primarily to support her daughter Lucy, the emotional center of her life, so that she doesn’t pay enough attention to the fine print in her contract. The lab is developing a process to print [not clone] living organisms, with the ultimate goal of supplying replacement bodies for humans.

ExtraLives already had hundreds of clients who had signed up for immortal life. I could understand the appeal. To have a backup, to know that I’d always be around to love my Lucy; that was a powerful pull.

The question is whether the copies are identical, or as close to it for marketing purposes. They are now experimenting with chimpanzees, and Reva’s job is to determine whether the copies are the same as the original animals. Her conclusion is that, behaviorally, they are not. The copy of the lab’s experimental chimp lacks the emotional attachments of the original, as Reva discovers when she wakes in a new body, identical but not identical to the one that had been her own.

A lot of thought provoking in this one, particularly with questions of self and identity. Reva realizes that she has the downloaded memories of loving her Lucy, but not the feelings themselves, just as her chimpanzee subject had its original’s memories of a pet cat but not the obsessive tie to the other animal. What it does have, however, is the tendency to embrace such a tie. This would seem to bode well for Reva’s relationship with her daughter, which will never be the same but might be slowly built up anew, and perhaps for the better.


“Playing with Reality” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

An odd scenario in an indeterminate setting that seems on one hand to be contemporary, on the other hand quite retro. Charles Myloft Martin III has been a member of a stuffy golf club since birth, enrolled by her father, and somehow regarded as playing all that time as his guest instead of as a member in her own right. Until she signs up to play in the pro-am tournament. Which is the retro part, because I just can’t buy into the idea that a member of a club could be excluded from such an event, despite the many pages of repetitive argument on that account. Charlie, our narrator, is quite aware that exclusion from these fields of play presents a handicap to doing business.

I wanted to start my own business. Or, rather, revive one of our flagging businesses. I wanted to merge our intellectual properties division with our management division. I wanted to discuss trademarks. I wanted to expand our thinking when it came to managing our PR corporation, and begin handling the fictional characters themselves.

Which brings up the other odd thing about this setting: the guests at the pro-am are in large part characters out of fiction, figures of fantasy, and Charlie has something in mind that involves liberating them from their exploiters [to become an exploiter herself?]. Instead, she learns something from them, or rather from one of them.

I have to say that the point of this work is pretty obscure, and its appeal probably pretty limited.

“Pinono Deep” by Kate Bachus

Whale hunting on the ice-bound world Van Diemen, where some of the crew have been transported for various crimes. Nominally, they hunt the pinono, aka jinn for no reason given, but essentially this is whaling, and the crew is driven in their hazardous occupation by the hope of profit. Problem is, their ship is frozen solid in ice two meters thick with the quarry below it, inaccessible. But greed will find a way.

Martin watched Wolf ’s progress across the ice, far enough from the Chieftain to keep the breaching bull from capsizing her. Close enough to where Karian and the others could get a decent shot in. Even in heavy deck boots, Wolf ’s feet skidded and slid on the ice’s surface until finally he came to a halt, half upright, half on his knees.

He made a small and lonely shape, as the torch flickered and flared to blue and yellow life, and steam billowed up from the surface, enveloping him.

This one is all adventure and allusion, most obviously to Moby-Dick, with the neo Martin playing the role of Ishmael. To most members of our sedentary and automated generation, the exploits of pre-industrial whalers must seem near-incomprehensible. Who would row a tiny boat of wood or skin out onto an icy sea to throw harpoons at the huge denizens of the deep, with death in many guises at hand, including the fate of Jonah. This science-fictional version of the hunt partakes of the same spirit; there is even a specialized tattooed crew of swimmers who play a crucial but unexplained role [Queequeg analogs?] But I think enjoyment of the piece will depend in large part on reader attitude towards whaling. I can’t imagine an anti-whaling activist appreciating the adventure.

“Minutes to the End of the World” by Brendan DuBois

As in, the minutes of a meeting. With the world’s human population dying from a new plague, the townspeople of Trenton, NH, have survived by enforcing a draconian quarantine regime. As civilization collapses around them, they persist in obsessing on trivial, petty minutia in an attempt to preserve the illusion of normalcy.

The Minutes of the previous meeting were reviewed. SELECTMEN Chair Grissom noted that the delegate from the town of Montcalm’s name was misspelled. It should be O’Neil with one “l,” not two. SELECTMAN Sampson spoke in objection, indicating that since the delegate from Montcalm had been arrested and executed after the conclusion of the last meeting, the point was moot. SELECTMEN CHAIR Grissom said that while she appreciated SELECTMAN Sampson’s input, that even in these times, accurate records should be kept. SELECTMAN Sampson dropped his objection.

Effective dark sarcasm, except that the constant repetition of SELECTMAN in ALL CAPS is like to drive some readers off the edge.

“The Witch of Truckee” by Joel Richards

The unnamed narrator, who has a good reason for this, tells us his account is a work of fiction. Which doesn’t make it a story. More, I would say, an anecdote. So the narrator meets a woman immune to fire. She doesn’t want to talk about it and definitely doesn’t want to put herself under the scientific microscope. Because he owes her, he complies with this request, only speaking out now, anonymously, that she is deceased. If it were a true anecdote, it would be more interesting.

“Uncanny” by James Patrick Kelly

Sex robots. This one sent to the narrator by her interfering mother, which can never be a Good Thing. Nothing here much more than all the other sex robot stories.

“Decaying Orbit” by Robert R Chase

Military SF. Humanity has taken different paths that have led to conflict, with the expansionist Eternals and Transhumans at odds with each other and the relatively unmodified Dominion not counting on the other factions’ mutual destruction. On Wu’s final voyage as a Dominion combat engineer, their ship encounters a large, recently destroyed installation that triggers high interest from authority; he and another officer are sent to investigate more closely. Complicating the situation is that Wu and the other officer are engaged to be married, thus leading to a potential conflict of loyalties.

The derelict proves to be a clever trap, but the story proves to be much too sketchy for satisfaction. The complex backstory requires explanation, the derelict requires explanation, and in consequence plot and characters are given short shrift. The text is just short of novelette length, but it probably should have been a novella.

“The Cloisters” by Jeff Grimshaw

The narrator, disappointed in love, goes to The Cloisters where he meets one of the guards, who introduces him to a lot of secrets that everyone else seems to know about, like all the alternate doors and passages.

The passageway beginning at the alcove in the west wall of the Boppard Room (016 on the floor plan, page 3), for instance, terminates at the rear of the utility closet in the Orange Julius stand on West 8th Street, just a few doors east of the historic Electric Lady recording studio. This is more than seven miles from the Cloisters, but via the passageway the trip takes exactly one hundred steps. In fact all of the passages are one hundred steps long, regardless of the overland distance.

A piece of lite absurdity. But who keeps their cereal boxes in the undersink cabinet where the mice and cockroaches roam? That makes no sense!

“What Is Sand but Earth Purified?” by Jason Sanford

A couple of generations ago, rogue eco-warriors released in the Pacific a nanoswarm meant to destroy all impurities. Their definition of “impurity” was insufficiently specific, however, and the swarm attacked all organic materials, including the human residents of Nukuoro Atoll, and turned them to sand. Now there is nothing but a bubble of sand extending a thousand kilometers from its center on the atoll. Occasionally now, it allows humans to enter, but only without any technology or non-living equipment. Mostly, these humans are the descendants of the atoll’s original inhabitants, like Anchor Slim and his wife Kayla, who had been in the business of guides when Kayla and her last expedition were turned to sand a year ago, for reasons known only to the swarm. Now an obnoxious rich media-whore has come to engage him to take her there, and Anchor takes the opportunity to try to find out what happened to Kayla, even knowing that Desar means to exploit him and his story.

This one is full of imaginative stuff, well-described.

The sand could blow, and the sand did blow, without a wind to caress the sky. The sand blew across the beaches of Nukuoro Atoll—the only island left in the Bubble of Sand—and whipped devil swirls and grinding mists around the island’s massive sandstone karst. The sand blew without sound, blew without care, and as Anchor Slim watched, it blew into an image of the last expedition. For a split-second, massive rough-grained simulacrums of his wife and her three fellow expedition members waved at him before collapsing back into the nothing blur of even more sand.

Among the neat inventions are the living kayaks, gene-engineered from manatees and other sea creatures as a mode of transportation into the bubble that won’t automatically be turned to sand; the kayaks are sentient and friendly, with a strong sense of humor, but even they can’t live for long inside the bubble, where there is no natural form of life to sustain them. I only wish Desar the villain weren’t quite so obviously headed for a deserved bad end; the character lacks nuance and flaws the story. It’s always discouraging when that happens to an otherwise good ‘un, perhaps the best in the issue.

“New Trick” by Tim McDaniel

Humor. An aging werewolf wants to give up the fast life.

“The years go by, and sure, when I was a pup, all that—it meant a lot to me. I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I lived for that time of the month. But, now, well, I’m older. Running around the forest all night, sniffing rabbits and wrestling in the grass, it just doesn’t have the same appeal anymore. That night dew, it’s cold when you turn back, and everything aches.”

I can totally see his point.

Analog, November 2014

Featuring a novella from Arlan Andrews, Sr that unfortunately looks like it’s going to be a serialization. The short pieces have a theme of intelligence but also tend to share a common flaw; too often, the story element seems to be minimal, no more than a vehicle for the author’s idea, with characters who tend to be little more than talking heads. This may make for thought-provoking reading, but not so much entertainment.

“Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

A sequel to a previous story in this universe. It seems to be a far-future Earth where humans have devolved to the point of becoming greatly reduced in stature, generally a sign of food shortage, as well as losing knowledge; the author is being coy about the specifics so that readers will have to puzzle it all out. In the first story, we had Thess and his twin sons from one of the few literate families in their community; the focus was on Rusk, a mathematical genius, and it seemed that Rist, a hunter and warrior, wasn’t likely to amount to much in a world where knowledge was becoming more in demand. Here, however, Rist comes into his own, as he decides to follow his sense of adventure by traveling downriver on the iceberg his family is selling to the Warm Lands, where he finds much to wonder about and perils, including theology.

As an adventure travelogue, there’s some neat stuff here, but I have to say the story is by no means self-contained. Much of the narrative consists in recapitulating the events of the previous story, and much more in Rist’s helpful guide giving him lessons in the ways of the Warm Lands as well as a lot of history. While we hear frequent warnings that the local priests enforce their laws ruthlessly and thus expect Rist to run afoul of them with his curiosity, for most of the text he isn’t doing more than sightseeing and taking notes, while readers are tantalized with hints with which they can try to figure just what’s being going on and how this present relates to the distant past. As in the previous story, none of the characters know the secrets of the past; the hints are meant for readers. And the conclusion is very literally a cliff-hanger, as we realize that Rist’s adventures in strange lands are only beginning. The story is just not complete, and while readers may want to follow Rist’s continuing adventures, they’ll have to worry that most of the next episode will be taken up by the recapitulation of this one.

“Persephone Descending” by Derek Künsken

Colonists from Québec settling the atmosphere of Venus. Of which, we have to wonder: why? Why Québec and why unwelcoming Venus?

Venus isolated them from everything except the violence with which she touched them, bathing them in hotly cancerous solar radiation, suffocating them with thin, anoxic air, reaching up for
them with tongues of sulfuric acid, delighting in marking them with acid scars where she gnawed through environmental suits and protective films.

The first is a political plot device to kick off the story by kicking Marie-Claude off a floating factory into the planet’s toxic atmosphere; readers will do well not to think any more of this. As for Venus, it provides a full host of Wonders for Marie-Claude to encounter on her lengthy fall through Venusian skies, pursued by a homicidal drone. This is a pure survival/adventure tale, full of imagination and ingenuity. While we’re quite aware that the situation is set up for her to succeed and survive, the author’s choice of a third-person narrative allows for tension, as her outcome remains in some doubt; the lengthy official hearing might be literally a post-mortem. Very skiffy stuff, the sort of piece I’d like to see more of here, minus the politics and lame concluding moral.

“Superior Sapience” by Robert R Chase

Here we have a corporation founded to utilize the talents of people with alternate dimensions of intelligence, largely autistics, as its founder developed drugs that allow their intense concentration to be focused in profitable directions. The company is a success, although currently facing competition from a Chinese genius-breeding program. Thus there is great interest in a new drug under development that promises to increase intelligence as well as producing other beneficial effects. The tests on monkeys have been promising and the drug is ready to proceed to human trials, but Bennett is consternated when he is ordered to have it administered to him, experimentally. It turns out that there are sinister reasons for this, and SS is not quite the ivory tower of benevolence that it advertises itself.

“Superior Sapience recognizes that there may be as many different types of intelligence as there are problems to be solved or jobs to be done. Autistics and hypnogogics are opening new doors every day. I invite you to come along to see what we will do tomorrow.”

A lot of ideas here, food for thought on the subject of intelligence and what it means. This makes the piece a bit talky, but there is also a real story, a mystery in fact, with a satisfactory resolution. I do not, however, believe that any firm recruiting autistic workers would have employed a supervisor like McCauley or taken so long to realize what he was up to, and the subplot is superfluous.

“An Exercise in Motivation” by Ian Creasley

Here, the intelligence is artificial. Dr Stroud has developed thinking software programs that he calls Entia, but he isn’t satisfied with them; the Entia can solve problems that he sets, but they aren’t self-directed. Thus he calls in Marla, a motivational expert.

Plenty of ideas in this one, but less story. It’s still an interesting read, and I particularly enjoyed the conversation of the Entia, who seem indeed to be motivated by status.

“It’s from the Latin. Entia is the plural of Ens, which means an entity. And it’s listed under Existence, the very first category in Roget’s Thesaurus. We’re the best—we’re number one!”

Another voice said, “Whereas you’re all the way down at 372, Mankind. More specifically, you’re number 374, Woman. That’s even lower than Trevor, who’s at 373, Man. Cower before us, puny mortals who are subject to 360, Death!”

The twist at the conclusion, however, shows us that the real focus is on Marla and her psychological assumptions, which influence not only her approach to the Entia but her own decisions. Thought-provoking look at thought.

“Habeas Corpus Callosum” by Jay Werkheiser

This idea is the potential effect of immortality drugs on the death sentence. At least, so the story claims, but in fact it’s only the lawyers who are interested in the issue. Jared, the murderer chosen to be the test case, has other concerns. As an old man now, he recognizes that he was once under the control of his violent impulses, that there was something wrong with him at the time of his crime that age has mostly eroded. He now feels guilt, haunted by the image of his victim’s mother, whose life he ruined when he killed her daughter, and his real interest in the immortality drug lies in the possibility of healing his flawed brain. Jared, in short, has rehabilitated himself, which is a fact quite apart from the immortality issue supposedly at the heart of the story. This one has gone rather off its tracks.

“Conquest” by Bud Sparhawk

Dax Vader encounters bureaucracy. The sort of farce where characters use terms like “insolent worm”.

“Elysia, Elysium” by V G Campen

A typical post-apocalypse, with global warming, high UV, famine, and general collapse of civilization. Eli is a forager who goes out into the swamps and brings back foodstuffs to hungry Atlanta. His mentor, dying of melanoma, asks him to make a special delivery, so that Eli discovers Dogtown [Athens] and its secret research.

Another idea-heavy piece in which the story is only the delivery vehicle. The science is real, the lectures are long.

“Mercy, Killer” by Auston Habershaw

A future world entirely dependent on AIs, which have the legal status of persons. Vergil is a [human] lawyer who specializes in defending AIs, so it isn’t surprising that the AI named Mercy asks him to represent it against charges that it has serially murdered over fifty other of its own kind. But it can’t directly tell Vergil why, mainly so he will have to undergo a journey of discovery and there will be some sort of minimal plot. The ideas here are interesting, but once again, at the expense of story.

Strange Horizons, September 2014

The three original stories for this month could all be considered YA.

“Four Steps to the Perfect Smokey Eye” by Claire Humphrey

The title suggests a list story, which is the fashionable thing, but in fact it isn’t. Rebecca is a teenaged girl in a town being stalked by a serial killer who targets teenaged girls. Her controlling and marginally abusive father takes this as an opportunity to assert his paternal authority by getting her a safekeeper bracelet. “But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.” The safekeeper proves to be an impediment to Rebecca’s social life, as it’s programmed to rat on her at every opportunity. The text contrasts her father with the parents of her friends, who range all the way from neglectful to absent-minded, so we get the impression there’s a happy medium somewhere along this range. And while there’s a happy ending for Rebecca, we have to feel sorry for her mother, still stuck under the thumb of Mr Authority.

“Never the Same” by Polenth Blake

Our narrator was born on a colony world in the process of terraforming, which process hasn’t been going well. The colonists have come here to escape the pernicious influence of aliens on the human species, to keep it pure in isolation. This creates an atmosphere of denial, when observations contradict official policy. The sludge in the lake, for example, is explained as a terraforming accident.

The narrator is one of three siblings, all unnamed, as no characters here are named. The narrator has officially been declared a psychopath as the result of unexplained scans* but it’s the brother who has actually committed most of the antisocial acts for which the narrator is blamed; no one believes the narrator’s denials; they only believe the scan results.

I jumped off a cliff once. He was all, “You’ll die if you jump.” I broke most of my bones, but I made it. It’s worth trying for the feel of it. Not the bones part, but the rush of something new. It should have been something, falling and surviving. But the gossips only cared about how much it upset my brother.

The narrator has no general sense of empathy and social connection, and thus she doesn’t share most of the colony’s common beliefs. Something there isn’t right, something isn’t right with the brother, and the narrator is determined to find the truth, not caring what it upsets.

The narrative comes from an interestingly different angle, which makes for a thought-provoking piece. Much, like the scans that reveal the narrator’s psychopathy, remains unexplained. What we see is a society that refuses to examine its assumptions and preconceptions. The narrator’s scan says “psychopath” so everything they say must be a lie. The brother presents outwardly as “nice”, so everything he says must be true, especially if he blames the narrator. But before the scan, the same people assumed the narrator was likewise “nice”. And despite the received wisdom of the therapists, the narrator does indeed have a sense of right and wrong, which is to say the recognition of the rules society expects its members to follow and which will be punished if transgressed. The narrator seems to have made the rational and self-benefitting decision to be a useful member of the society in which they live. The narrator is also capable of forming attachments – most notably to the sister, who has always been a friend. The conclusion would certainly be seen as an act of love, if it were anyone else.

Saying sorry to your sister when she’s hurt is the right thing to do. I follow my lists. Better than the gossips. Better than my brother. They’re worth less than a bird in a cage.

[*] There is significant evidence now that a brain scan can indeed reveal a psychopathic pattern, even if not all individuals exhibiting this pattern engage in criminal behavior.


“The Great Detective” by Sarah Brooks

Mayumi was orphaned at a young age and raised by her Grandma. While Mayumi has grown up to be a withdrawn personality, Obāchan is outgoing and calls herself the Great Detective, claiming to know the truth about where things belong. People come to her to find things. Grandma claims that her ability was the gift of an alien, which of course Mayumi doesn’t believe; she is rather embarrassed by her grandmother, particularly when she tries to set Mayumi up with a taiko drummer. Eventually, though, she comes to understand.

It shows her a hard night twenty years ago, a woman walking home through a storm, wishing her life were different. A fall about to happen. (Was it deliberate? thinks Mayumi. Did she want to fall? A lost husband, a lost child, an old railing, an accident waiting to happen.) But there was something there, something to reach out strange arms to catch her when she came unmoored. A secret, hidden thing that wanted to help, that understood the truth.

A positive work, in the heartwarming spectrum.

The Don’t Girls by Octavia Cade

Now here’s an idea: what do Bluebeard’s wife and Pandora have in common? They both opened a door that they were told not to; they both said “No” to “Don’t”. Cade takes this theme and runs far with it in this long novella. Pandora’s box, it seems, is magically potent; it enables its holders to travel in time and space as well as serving as a universal translator. But it only homes in on women who resist [male] abuse and authority. Sort of. Pandora appeared several times to Bluebeard in the course of his serial uxoricide, whereby he thought he was being haunted by a demon, but she could never fully materialize until his last wife refuses to react as he had wanted, defying him and ready to take the consequences. Pandora, too, in Cade’s version, was abused by her husband, and this forms a link – yet not, at first, to the victims but the perpetrator. From this beginning, Cade works up a social critique on the subjugated position of women throughout history.

The lack of consequences wasn’t because Bluebeard was particularly brave, but because no one else particularly cared. Wives dying, in quick succession, with no childbed or disease to account for it and no bodies to be decently buried. The whole damn countryside knew what was going on in that castle, thought Pandora, and they sent him their daughters anyway, gifted up for gold and the sense of power they got from being the in-laws, however briefly, of nobility. The box hadn’t brought her to a man that said “no.” It had brought her to an entire community that said “yes.”

There are plenty of variations on the forbidden locked door story, so many that it counts as a folklore type [Aarne-Thompson # 312], but with the exception of Bluebeard’s wife and Psyche, whom we don’t actually meet, Pandora apparently doesn’t visit her fellow tale-heroines. Nor does she confine herself exclusively to the wives of murderous husbands or the victims of serial killers, on the model of Bluebeard. Instead, she and B-w range through history, or at least the last several centuries of British history*, visiting a variety of women in quite different circumstances.

This is all in the service of the story’s theme; as readers will readily notice, it’s a feminist work. Now, political stories can be problematic; too many authors fail to avoid diatribe, lecture, or other sources of boring. In this, Cade succeeds to some extent, when she incorporates her historical figures into the B-w story, as she does with Anne of Cleves, the only one of Henry VIII’s first five wives to profit from the alliance that victimized most of the others. When the former queen finds herself inconveniently pregnant with a dynastically-problematic child, our girlfriends arrange to have little Sibylle hidden away in a pocket of spacetime and hire a nanny to care for her – who ends up being the pivotal character in the story. Ada Wilson has often been considered an early victim of Jack the Ripper, but here she has renamed herself Whitechapel and adopted an eccentric agenda in which she enlists the assistance of B-w, in exchange for a promise [never fulfilled] to help her find her own name. Names are important in the story, as they signify an individual’s own identity, as opposed to being known only as some man’s wife, someone’s daughter. It’s Whitechapel who sends B-w on her quest, in which we encounter many of the historical characters, a lot of the story’s symbolism, and its concluding moral force.

Most of these characters from history, however, are only briefly visited; they tell their own stories, then recede into the background without having any permanent involvement in the story at hand. These scenes too often crosses the line into the Moral or Improving Tale, the sort of didactic narrative included to make a point and teach a lesson, and because of them, the central part of the text gets to dragging at times, likely to cause less ideologically-motivated readers to start noting the number of pages remaining and wondering if things will pick up pretty soon. It’s a long story, and it’s hard not to think it may be too long, trying to include too much. But things do pick up. There are plenty of entertaining moments here, particularly in the scenes between Pandy and B-w, who are more than just girlfriends; there’s even quite a bit of dark humor.

Had she been a lady, she would have screamed. But Bluebeard’s wife, sneaking into the dungeon and discovering the corpses of wives previous, had—amidst the grief and horror—another thought, one shared with her mother and grandmother and every other goodwife before them, boiling down through the ages into their descendants.

“Doesn’t he ever bloody well clean up after himself?” she said, poking one pretty, tissue-stuffed shoe at a puddle of dried gore.

A universal complaint of wives, minus, sometimes at least, the gore.

[*] While the general form of this tale is universal, the specific Bluebeard version is French. The author, however, has for her own reasons shifted the scene to England, where Bluebeard is a baron; this can’t fail to vex me just a little, as the story is now unanchored not only in space but in time. Thus we have Edith Cavell instead of Jeanne d’Arc, although the Maid is perhaps too well known for the author’s didactic purpose. And thus we have Jack the Ripper, who isn’t as present here as Bluebeard’s wife’s husband, but in his own way more in the thematic center of these affairs.

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.

“A Hunger for Games?”: A Review of The Maze Runner

by Gary Westfahl

By any reckoning, most of today’s young people have been treated throughout their lives with a tenderness and kindness that is unprecedented in human history. All sorts of once-acceptable adult behaviors now regarded as potentially harmful, ranging from spanking to leaving children alone at home, have been vigorously discouraged or criminalized, and the entire educational system has been revamped to avoid doing any damage to children’s developing sense of self-esteem. In response to all of this solicitous care, teenagers have come to prefer a distinctive sort of narrative: tales of remarkably gifted young people who are abused and tormented by sinister adults seeking to exploit their talents to advance their own ends. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), an adult novel successfully remarketed as a young adult novel, can be regarded as a pioneering example of such stories; Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993) offers an unusually subdued and thoughtful variation on the theme; and novels like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), James Dashner’s The Maze Runner (2009), and their sequels represent the subgenre in its mature, perfected form. And, since these novels have been purchased and read by scores of young readers who are also avid moviegoers, it is hardly surprising that they have all become the basis for recent, big-budget films which I have chosen to review, seeking insights into the psyches of their target audience (past reviews respectively here of Ender’s Game, The Giver, The Hunger Games, and Catching Fire).

In most significant respects, director Wes Ball and writers Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T. S. Nowlin have faithfully followed Dashner’s version of this recurrent plot: young men who have lost their memories are transported to a mysterious square enclosure, the Glade, surrounded by a Maze of constantly shifting walls, and they carry on lives of farming and raising animals while a few selected residents, the Runners, keep exploring the Maze, seeking a way to escape while dodging cyborg-like animals called Grievers that can severely wound (“sting”) or kill them. The Maze Runner thus has an ideal premise, which places young protagonists in constant danger while they embark upon a noble quest, and Dashner, like Collins, may have devised his novel and its sequels with a film adaptation in mind. All the filmmakers had to do was to work out explicit visualizations of Dashner’s world and its machinery – rendering the Grievers, for example, as robotic spiders – and find likable actors to play the main heroes – Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Alby (Aml Ameen) – and an unlikable actor to play their chief antagonist Gally (Will Poulter). The result of their efforts, as one hardly needs to say about any major film that achieves wide release, is a fast-paced, involving adventure with excellent special effects, and there are even hints, to be discussed, of an imperfectly realized effort to achieve a sort of profundity not found in the novel.

But first, pondering The Maze Runner and similar films, one can venture two conclusions about contemporary young people. First, adults have been generally successful in providing them with a strong, healthy sense of self-esteem. After all, there was a time when authors crafting role models for teenagers, ranging from Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) to MGM’s Andy Hardy, strived to emphasize how ordinary and typical they were; they realize now that modern readers more readily identify with young geniuses and prodigies. Second, despite the relentless niceness of most of the adults that they interact with, they still feel that the older generation is constantly oppressing and picking on them. Perhaps, as I suggested in reviewing The Hunger Games (2012), they have some legitimate grievances; perhaps, they have been so spoiled by their parents that even the mildest of constraints, from their distorted perspective, can be legitimately likened to the murderous machines of The Maze Runner. Certainly, one must characterize the unseen adults of Dashner’s novel as truly fanatical sadists, since only such individuals would, in a world ravaged by climate change and virulent disease, devote years of effort and billions of dollars to the construction of an enormous torture chamber for teenagers, purportedly as the best way to determine precisely which of numerous promising adolescents are best equipped to save the human race. Yet imagining that a few adults would go to so much trouble simply to bedevil some teenagers also reflects, perversely, an inflated sense of self-esteem.

To transform The Maze Runner into a successful film, the filmmakers recognized that the novel lacked one key ingredient of its form: an onscreen villain to epitomize inimical adults and give audiences someone to despise. The makers of The Giver addressed this deficiency by elevating an innocuous minor character, the Chief Elder, to the status of oppressor-in-chief; in this case, it was necessary to invent an entirely new character to play this role – chief experimenter Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), inserted into the story as much as possible by means of a series of chaotic flashbacks and two final speeches. Surprisingly, the writers actually provided her with a new and slightly more defensible rationale for building the Glade and its surrounding Maze, but she remains thoroughly and necessarily unsympathetic nonetheless.

Other differences between the novel and film are relatively inconsequential. The novel’s Maze, it is ultimately revealed, has a complex, embedded code which the Runners must decipher in order to escape; the film’s Maze has a code as well, but a much simpler one. The film fails to note that the characters’ names are not their own, but rather were given to them by the Creators and taken from history’s greatest thinkers, such as Thomas (Thomas Alva Edison), Gally (Galileo), Newt (Isaac Newton), and Alby (Albert Einstein); perhaps the filmmakers feared that some viewers wouldn’t know who these people were, and they knew they could never mention that the name of Chuck (Blake Cooper) was actually a reference to Charles Darwin, anathema to the 40 percent of Americans who reject the theory of evolution. The novel’s telepathic connection between Thomas and the story’s sole female, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), is omitted as a needless complication, though this serves to render her more a decorative appendage to the plot than an integral part of it. To provide Runners Thomas and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) with an exciting obstacle course, the Maze now includes an additional feature, free-swinging “blades” that almost entrap them; while the novel states that it never rains in the Glade, the film randomly includes one rainstorm; the film’s characters drink some home-brewed liquor, something perhaps too daring for a young adult novel; and the film’s conclusion, conceptually the same as the novel’s conclusion, differs in almost all of its details.

Yet the film most noticeably diverges from the novel in building upon one curious aspect of Dashner’s story. In a book published in 2009, it had always seemed odd that an envisioned program to test the world’s best and brightest young people would exclusively involve young men – except for one awkwardly introduced woman whose presence is never satisfactorily explained, either in the novel or the film. One would expect that, like the training program in Ender’s Game, both men and women would be well represented in the Glade. Perhaps Dashner felt that, writing for the young adult market, he needed an all-male cast, except for one constantly supervised woman, to ensure worried parents that unsupervised teenagers were not doing nasty things in the bushes at night. However, considering this as the story of a group of young men who are isolated from civilization and forced to build their own society, someone might guess that Dashner was attempting to write his own version of a classic science fiction novel, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), featuring boys in a similar situation. In actuality, there is little evidence in the novel that this thought ever crossed Dashner’s mind, but it most definitely occurred to the director and writers who adapted his novel to the screen.

Watching The Maze Runner, one first thinks of Lord of the Flies during an early scene, not in the book, where the residents of the Glade gather around a huge fire, bang rhythmically on drums, and engage in playful wrestling, evoking an aura of primitivism that recalls Golding more than Dashner; and the film’s conclusion replaces Dashner’s female rescuer with a male military officer (Don McManus), like the British officer who finally lands on Golding’s island. While the novel does describe Chuck as “chubby,” the film further makes him weak and effeminate, strongly recalling Golding’s Piggy, and he is also the only character who seems about the same age as Golding’s boys, unlike the other, older teenagers in the film. The group’s leader Alby, deputy Newt, and de facto leader Thomas collectively function as the book’s Ralph, creators and maintainers of their makeshift civilization. Gally, who in the novel becomes marginalized and impotent, is reshaped to become the film’s Jack, the militaristic antagonist who eventually usurps the leadership position and attempts to kill his chief opponent, Thomas. Also, while Alby, Next, and Thomas, like Ralph, remain focused on attempting to escape from their environment, the film’s Gally, like Jack, is more committed to remaining where he is, announcing that he “belongs” to the Maze and refusing to join Thomas when he tries to leave.

If this film is actually in dialogue with Lord of the Flies, the filmmakers may have sought to present an optimistic rejoinder to Golding, as its characters (though admittedly a bit older than Golding’s) keep their complex society operating much longer than Golding’s boys, and the threat represented by Gally is ultimately neutralized, since a number of young men resist his tyranny and manage to escape. Yet the Gladers also enjoy special benefits, as they periodically receive needed supplies and are protected against their mechanical enemies by gates that close every night; one doesn’t know how they would have managed if they had been forced to rely entirely upon their own resources. To put the point another way, Golding’s novel was about a real event; the boys were actually stranded on a desert island, and they actually had to fend for themselves without outside assistance or interference. Their experiences, then, represented a genuine test of what young people would do if left to their own devices. In contrast, the young men of The Maze Runner are involved in a simulation of a real event, subject to all sorts of artificial advantages and artificial obstacles, and what they achieved or did not achieve did not represent a true test of their abilities. Rather, like more traditional mazes, it was all a game.

One can therefore characterize the dispute between Thomas and Gally in another way. Thomas and his followers know that they are in a game, being controlled and manipulated by outside observers; they do not enjoy being in a game; and they are determined to escape from the game and return to the real world. But Gally has come to regard the game world as a real world, a place he has adjusted to, and a place where he always wants to remain. Lord of the Flies, then, provides a pessimistic commentary on how people will behave if isolated in a real world: a few may remain civilized, like Ralph, but most will revert to savagery, like Jack and his followers. The Maze Runner provides an optimistic commentary on how people will behave if isolated within an artificial world: a few may grow attached to the illusion and wish to stay within the game forever, like Gally, but most will recoil from being part of a game and will endeavor to escape, like Thomas and his cohorts.

This further suggests a different perspective on the subgenre of films that I have been discussing. Perhaps they are not attacks on evil adults who force their children to play dangerous and unrewarding games; instead, they are attacks on games themselves, games that just happen to be controlled by adults. These films’ message, then, would be that young people must stop playing games, stop immersing themselves in games: Katniss must escape from the second Hunger Games; Thomas and the others must escape from the Maze; Ender must outwit the video game he is playing and, after playing one game actually results in the genocidal destruction of an alien race, must abandon games altogether; and Jonas must escape from the artificially limited society of The Giver and find fulfillment by living in a real human world. One might also mention, among other films, Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010) (review here), which both involve people who are trapped within video games and strive to get out of them, even though their heroes are adults, not teenagers.

Yet the young people watching these films are considered the most avid game-players in human history, and in contrast to the board games and card games of the past, they regularly play video games and computer games that provide them with increasingly realistic and interactive experiences. Concerned parents and educators worry that young people are playing too many video games; there are reports of individuals who literally died because they could not bring themselves to stop playing an addictive computer game. To get these people away from their consoles and computers and into theatres, it would seem logical for filmmakers to produce films that celebrate and validate games; instead, their films for young viewers are routinely critical of games.

To be sure, one can offer a cynical explanation for this phenomenon: everyone can see that video games are in competition with films, as many people will prefer to spend their weekends playing video games instead of watching movies. So, whenever these people do go to theatres, it would make sense to lure them in with game-like visual experiences while also conveying the subliminal message that games are bad for you. But many young people may themselves be tiring of games, so that these films may be appealing because they are reflecting a stage in the typical adolescent’s life when they realize that there is more to life than playing electronic games and resolve to devote themselves to success in the real world. People who want to keep playing games forever are insane, which is precisely how Teresa describes Gally when he insists that everyone must remain in the Glade. And a rejection of game-playing in favor of involvement in real-world happenings is the invariable story arc of all of these stories’ sequels, including the already-filmed adaptation of the final Hunger Games novel, Mockingjay (2010), its first part to be released in November, and the as-yet unfilmed sequels to Ender’s Game, The Giver, and The Maze Runner. Thus, the characteristic bildungsroman of the computer age may be the story of a young person’s transition from playing games to actively participating in the real world.

What is interesting about these scenarios is that they never replicate the way that most people relate to video games, as something to do occasionally at night or on weekends while they hold steady jobs and carry on normal social lives; instead, the games must always be destroyed and abandoned. Yet to provide Dashner’s saga with a practically-minded coda, the builders of the Glade and the Maze might attempt to recoup the enormous cost of the project by maintaining it as a vacation destination for rich young men and women, who might enjoy roughing it for a while under carefully controlled conditions with the added frisson of dangerous machines and an intriguing puzzle to solve. And a new conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy might introduce a non-lethal version of the Hunger Games to entertain members of Collins’s post-revolutionary society. To say that games are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad, would seem a commonsensical, ameliorative attitude, but Hollywood storytellers are always driven to extremes: Gally must be killed, instead of being allowed to remain as the overseer of the new Glade Vacation Resort, and the Hunger Games must be eliminated, not reformed. And one must accept the perceived need for clear-cut, unambiguous endings of this kind in order to play the contemporary filmmaking game.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His next book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, will be available in early 2015.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Genevieve Valentine

Fairytale redactions are at least as old as the first printed fairy tales, but it seems as if only in the last few decades they’ve become nearly a genre unto themselves. There are obvious hazards in converting archetypal old tales into contemporary literary ones, not least of which is reinventing figures who are nearly abstractions into believable individual characters; a lot of scholars objected to Disney’s giving names to the seven dwarfs, for example, because it erased the sort of pre-individuation function they served in the original tale. Similarly, the Grimm version of ‘‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’’ pretty much differentiates them only by age, while the 12 princes they secretly meet are just place holding blobs. The real achievement of Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club isn’t just that it recasts the princesses as flappers in 1927 New York – even Anne Sexton saw that coming when in her version she described them as dancing ‘‘like taxi girls at Roseland’’ – but in delicately balancing her language between the transparent directness of the folktale and the contemporary sensibility of the novel. Valentine’s version isn’t entirely a comedy (although it has its moments) but at times the tone reminded me of Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks’s classic screwball take on Snow White – maybe because of the setting and the resourceful tough-mindedness of the two major sisters, Jo and Lou.

Despite its Jazz Age setting and some obvious research that went into it (chapter titles are taken from period song lyrics, for example), Valentine isn’t out to present a densely textured portrait of 1920s New York. There are only a handful of references to contemporary events (such as the Sherry-Netherland hotel fire), and the songs they dance to are generically referred to as foxtrots, waltzes, or Charlestons, rather than by titles. There are friendly cops and bartenders, and hardly any mobsters at all, despite Prohibition. It’s a kind of dream version of New York in the same sense that the film Midnight in Paris was Woody Allen’s dream version of the Paris of the same era, and this not-quite-believable setting helps the novel retain some of the abstract appeal of its source.

It does have one whopper of a Gothic villain, and he’s enough to give the sisters’ home life a creepy echo of novels like V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. The reason there are 12 sisters is that their father, a wealthy businessman, had basically bred their mother to death trying unsuccessfully to gain a male heir. As daughter after daughter arrived, he exiled them as virtual prisoners to the third floor of their Upper East Side mansion, keeping himself so remote that some of the younger sisters have never even met him. As the girls grow up in nearly total isolation from their city, the older Jo and Lou concoct a plan to sneak out several nights a week to local speakeasies where (as in the original) they almost dance their shoes to pieces. At first, only the four oldest participate in the ruse, but over nearly a decade all the sisters join in, and become a kind of local legend referred to as ‘‘the princesses.’’ As the father proves himself to be even more venal that we’d at first suspected, the few connections the girls have made outside become a lifeline for their eventual escape, which Valentine describes in the novel’s most suspenseful sequence.

Valentine is keenly aware of the problems inherent in adapting such a story – after all, eight years of 12 girls doing the same thing night after night is hardly a story arc, and the 12 sisters are a challenge to differentiate as characters (sometimes Valentine resorts to labels like ‘‘practical Doris,’’ ‘‘proud Araminta,’’ and ‘‘brainy Rebecca’’), but once she opens the story up and gives each girl her own plotline it becomes surprisingly easy to care for all of them in different ways. Valentine knows exactly when to leave the Grimm Brothers behind in the construction of her own tale, which at times begins to take on overtones not only of Andrews but of Louisa May Alcott and even – just for a bit – Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There. With the aid of several fortuitous coincidences, some carefully placed secondary characters, and a few tearful reunions, she gets the story exactly where she wants it, and the result is a haunting fable that reads like a dream of forgotten history.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Jay Lake

“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?”

Please forgive my appropriation of the infamous opening line to Erich Segal’s Love Story. But Jay Lake’s grief-fraught, premature death at age forty-nine, with its salient elements of archetypical and heroic struggle, naturally prompts one to think of similar epic demises, both fictional and historical. The roll call of authors who died too young—Chatterton, Keats, Kafka, Charles Beaumont, Tom Reamy—is a long and illustrious one. But something about Lake’s highly public social-media passage through his illness and out of this life recalled to me that cinematic analogue, with its capacity to affect millions of “viewers.” And of course, such an extra-literary ambiance can skew any estimation or appreciation of his actual fiction. So, looking at this posthumous volume, what might very well be Lake’s last book (a third volume in The City Imperishable series, Reign of Flowers, was long rumored, but seems in this collection to be denied by Lake himself), it behooves us, having acknowledged up front the tragic circumstances of his life, to honor him by evaluating the stories strictly on their own merits.

This volume contains over thirty stories, published from 2007 to 2013, so there is assuredly little overlap with Lake’s earlier collections. In other words, we are getting his mature work, written almost precisely in the interstices of his illness, which began in 2008. I can’t do an exegesis of each and every tale in this space, so I’ll hit the highlights. But you can rest assured that every piece is accomplished and rewarding, a miracle considering the stresses Lake endured.

Launching the book is a vibrant and touching and sympathetically hard-nosed introduction by Gene Wolfe. To appreciate its resonance, read the concluding “Afterword.” And you might jump ahead to “The Cancer Catechism” too while you’re at it.

Putting the title story first, by itself, is a smart move, as it shows Lake’s bravura prowess. Starting out as pure Neal-Stephenson-style thriller, with tough guy mercs in Mongolia, it segues into magical realism in a beautiful fashion.

The rest of the stories are arranged into thematic sections, and this setup showcases Lake’s vast spectrum of styles and sensibilities.

First comes the hardcore science fiction stuff, under the rubric “Science and Other Fictions.” Lake exhibits total mastery of that suite of tropes. With a nod to Heinlein, “Permanent Fatal Errors” revels in a ship of posthumans studying odd phenomena around a brown dwarf star. “‘Hello,’ Said the Gun” is a short-short (not an easy category to master) that brings a sentient weapon face-to-face with a naïve human. And “West to East” is an example of clever worldbuilding—the adventures of some humans in the ecosystem of a planet with “superrotating atmosphere”—that Hal Clement would have been proud to write.

The next section is titled “Steam, Punks, and Fairies” and features some heterogeneous stories that still hang together nicely in their fashion. “Spendthrift” reads almost like a Howard Waldrop tale, with its WWII setting in the South Pacific and some strange superstitions. But it veers into territory that’s darker than Waldrop generally explores. “Jefferson’s West” is a great compact alternate history adventure involving Lewis & Clark. For its length, “Grindstone” is almost a mini-novel concerning a warring world divided between “Meat and Tocks.” Joe-Lansdale-style Western horror takes center stage in “The Temptation of Eustace Prudence McAllen.”

The third division is devoted to “Phantasies of Style and Place.” If I had to pick one mode of fantastika for which Lake was most well-known, this would have to be it. And indeed, there are strong stories here from two of his major series, The City Imperishable (“Promises”) and Green (“From the Countries of Her Dream”). But equally exciting are “The Fall of the Moon” a fable about familial love as mirrored in the natural world, and a pair of stories commissioned by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer that show how the same tropes and themes can be alternately handled by a true professional.

Last comes Lake’s horror stories, for which he also had an intuition and flair. Two Lovecraftian pieces prove that there’s plenty to say about the Cthulhu Mythos yet, including some humor. And “Mother Urban’s Book of Dayes” evokes terror out of simple everyday settings and touchstones.

Ultimately, what’s most revelatory and astonishing about these stories is how they show Lake’s adamant refusal to let his disease dominate his art. None of these stories—except for the quasi-non-fictional piece “The Cancer Catechism”—are overtly about illness of any stripe. Oh, sure, you might point to some scant subtextual stuff. Maybe something like the scourging by whip which the protagonist of “Promises” undergoes could be read as analogous to the afflictions which cancer imposes on its sufferers. But you’d have to be stretching things even there. No, Lake restricted his valuable and lucid and heartfelt musings on his disease to his blog. His art—so long as he had the wherewithal to perform it—remained an inviolate sanctuary and temple to which such a stupid and brutal invader could not penetrate.

Perhaps this accomplishment speaks most highly of any about Jay Lake’s strength of will and character and dedication to his Muse.

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 Benjamin Parzybok

When I reviewed Benjamin Parzybok’s debut novel, Couch, almost five years ago, I made a wild-eyed assertion that he was the love child of Donald Barthelme, Jonathan Lethem and Umberto Eco. Such a fanciful metaphor is a standard reviewer’s tool, but I fear that it always makes the writer toward whom it is directed seem like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, a mashup of disparate parts. So this time around, with the publication of Parzybok’s somewhat delayed but still much anticipated sophomore effort, Sherwood Nation, let me try an alternate conceit, especially now that I’ve read a book that’s very different from his first.

Benjamin Parzybok is one star in an exotic celestial constellation whose other luminaries are named Paolo Bacigalupi, Will McIntosh, Felix Gilman, Cory Doctorow, Nick Harkaway and Tobias Buckell. The name of this constellation is yet to be assigned. Maybe the connect-the-dots arrangement schematically depicts the “Tuned-in Hipster Futurist” or the “Postmodern Engaged Cli-Fi Artist” or the “Whimsical Slipstream Intellectual Realist.” But whatever silly tag we try to affix on Parzybok and Sherwood Nation, the undeniable truth is, he’s a unique voice who’s delivered a very good book that is both comic and tragic, grounded and fanciful, closely observed and well imagined.

Our scene is just a short hop into the future. Climate change engendered by oceanic disturbances has rendered the West Coast more or less waterless: ongoing megadrought. That part of the country is now cordoned off from the rest of a faltering nation at the Rockies. San Francisco is abandoned. Seattle is doing sorta okay. And in the middle of the spectrum of disorder is Portland, Oregon. There, Mayor Bartlett and the National Guard are enforcing water rationing and other civic ukases. But as always, there are loopholes for the rich. Incensed by the inequality, our heroine, Renee—former barista, a cross between “Fidel Castro and Pippi Longstocking”—plots to make the illegal water grafting public. Her boyfriend, Zach, who works for an ad agency that disseminates water conservation propaganda for the city, is sympathetic but doubtful. Renee and her pals intercept an illegal water truck, the action is filmed and the film aired, and the next thing she knows, she is being hailed as “Maid Marian,” a Robin-Hood-type figure inspiring hope among the downtrodden, and anger and fear among the ruling elite.

On the run, Renee and her ultra-competent sidekick Bea find refuge in Northeast Portland, a lawless zone. There, Renee discovers her true calling, as rebel, politician and civic manager. With help from many, including a local honcho named Gregor and his son Jamal, she begins to organize the neighborhood into a hopeful commune of sorts. Once established, with hundreds of Green Rangers to enforce her new ways of coexisting, and with Zach by her side, she publically secedes from the city, forming Sherwood Nation. But this is a step that “Heartless Bartlett” and the powers-that-be cannot ignore, and must meet with violence.

Parzybok’s achievements are manifold here. First, he tells a gripping story whose lineaments are never predictable. There are great suspenseful set pieces, like the theft of a water truck and a shootout in Sherwood. The entire action is compressed into about two weeks or so, but feels like a whole saga: birth, maturity, and death of a kingdom.

Part of the allure of his tale is the expert and empathetic characterization. Parzybok jumps readily from one POV to another, inhabiting each mind distinctly, and thus giving us a multifaceted view of events. Besides the persons mentioned, we also get the views for Nevel, Zach’s ad agency boss, a family man whose neurotic response to the crisis is telling. And we also ride the shoulders of Martin, a low-level criminal charged with subverting Sherwood. The villains receive as much insightful parsing as the heroes. And much of their interactions is in the form of very enjoyable dialogue, full of wry humor and caustic irony.

A very refreshing thing about this tale is the absence of any digital landscape. No internet, no social media, no cellphones. It turns out that one of the first things to go when the power grid collapses is all our server farms. Forced to live “IRL,” people tend to act more authentically.

There’s a fairy tale, mythic, classical ambiance to Parzybok’s story that lives side by side with a topical, realpolitik half. The book is obviously as headline-friendly as the Ferguson riots, inequality debates, Occupy protests and climate change reports. But there’s also a Joseph Conrad-Grahame Greene-Shakespeare style concern with the nature of power, the roles that are thrust upon us, and the limits of friendship and love.

Sherwood Nation is part of a long lineage in SF of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, or TAZ, a concept first codified by Peter Lamborn Wilson. Not quite identical with Utopias, the TAZ had its first real expression in—when else?—the Sixties, with Samuel Delany’s “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line.” Since then, stories of TAZs have popped up here and there in the genre. I myself have written several: “Harlem Nova,” “Karuna, Inc.,” “Yes We Have No Bananas.” In real life, every London or Amsterdam squat or annual Burning Man event functions as one.

Parzybok’s novel might well be the most thorough and engaging expression to date of this eternal impulse to hive off from the empire. If the future to come does resemble his, we have a blueprint for survival right here.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short fiction, early September

I’m finding the best fiction in Interzone this time.

Publications Reviewed

Interzone #254, September/October 2014

A Nina Allan special issue, introducing her new nonfiction column.

“Mirielena” by Nina Allan

Noah is a refugee, a poet from somewhere in the Mideast, now applying for asylum in Britain. Despair clings to him, afflicted by the callous bureaucracy and the casual hostility of the young thugs on the street. His documentation is stuck in some limbo and never arrives. In all this, he keeps hearing the voice of his lover Marielena, mocking him, condemning him for leaving home, leaving her – betrayal. There is something primal, almost goddess-like about her, at least as Noah recalls her. One day on the street he encounters a bag lady named Mary, who warns him about the local dangers; later, he rescues her from the thugs and takes her to a shelter. When he takes her filthy clothes to the wash, he makes a discovery that’s hard for him to believe. But it explains a whole lot and suggests even more.

She takes my face between her hands and kisses me, presses her lips against my mouth in a way that is intimate and so familiar. Familiar from the nights in the mountains, when the air was filled to bursting with the sound of crickets, perfumed with the entwined scents of incense and retsina. Marielena would come to me then, she would throw herself upon me like a maenad. I smelled the blood on her hands and did not care.

For most of the story, it seems to be a mundane work about the problems of immigrants in our own world, and Marielena no more than a bitter memory for Noah. Then he learns Mary’s secret [perhaps she has intended this], and the whole story turns inside-out, focusing a beam of new understanding on every encounter and giving the story a particularly science-fictional significance.


“A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell

Evan’s life changes completely on the day his ex-lover shows up with a child she’d conceived from his sperm, stashed ten years before. It seems that Helen had been embezzling from an organization deeply into illegal stuff and is now on her way to one of those libertarian enclaves from which there is no extradition. For some reason, he leaves his current lover and goes with her. Unfortunately, the illegal organization doesn’t take her departure well and sends a hit squad in pursuit. Mayhem on the highway ensues.

My first shot went wild. Was it possible I’d killed some innocent person ten cars back? I braced the gun in both hands, resting the stock on the baby seat – Faith had slipped the harness and made it to the floor and was burrowing through the trash, shrieking continuously.

Evan finds himself forced to make crucial decisions before it’s too late for all of them. Fortuitously, Helen had given him a mind-programming pill before they left.

For the most part, I’m liking this. Characters are interesting, action is brisk. The metaprogramming pill, however, strikes me as an overly facile deus ex pharmacopola that both intrudes into the text and seems to rob Evan of his agency, even if he makes the decision to take it. If you can decide you want to do the right thing, why do you need a pill that makes you do the right thing?

“Bone Deep” by S L Nickerson

Dalisay has an incurable, progressive, degenerative disease that has just caused her to be fired from her last job. Surgery will temporarily arrest its progress, and a serum helps prevent new symptoms, sometimes, but these treatments are costly. Until now, she has funded them by selling her skin for advertising. Unfortunately, the new laser tattoo process has now been discovered to interact with the serum, and removing the tattoos would be a breach of contract. Dalisay needs a way out.

Dalisay’s disease [Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva] is very real, the treatments are science-fictional, and the tattoo interaction is pushing at the edge of reader disbelief. I’m also dubious about the economics of the exhibitions that display the sponsors’ tattoos, not seeing how they could bring in anywhere near the profits to justify the expenses of the surgeries. Who would the audience for such exhibitions be? The plot relies overly on coincidence, but I particularly like the character of Manaia the tattoo artist.

“Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T R Napper

We don’t learn many details about this world; we don’t need to. It’s in the aftermath of some apocalyptic war in which China has survived, more or less. Remnants of armies wander the vast, empty spaces of the land, but none of the troops remember why. Their minds seem to have been wiped of memories, and they carry electronic cards on which to record what they are told. While we aren’t told why, the story suggests that soldiers who can remember their homes and families will want to desert and return to them. The Omissioners are the exception, and because they can remember, they are treated with respect by all the soldiers. Du Gongbu is an Omissioner, an old man who has indeed deserted, wanting only to go home to the wife and sons he can remember. He stumbles across the remnant of a lost squad who can’t remember what their mission might once have been, who are their allies and who their enemies. They are glad of his stories, which are mostly comforting lies. But he still plans to go his own way whenever he can escape.

This situation is heartbreaking, both for the soldiers whose memories are lost and for the one who remembers.

“How dear are memories, Xiaofan? It’s like asking someone how important is the heart beating in their chest. I don’t just hold the memories of others; I hold their identities, their sense of self and place and time. They, in turn, hold to me as tightly as if I were part of their soul. You’d think in a world without a past, the man with memory would be king. But no, in that world, he who remembers is a slave.”

It also evokes the depth of Chinese history, the successive wars, the poetry that expresses both the love of the landscape and the pain of the soldier leaving home, perhaps never to return.


“The Faces between Us” by Julie C Day

Amber’s father disappeared one day into a spirit realm, and that’s where Amber wants to go, thinking she can get there by sipping up weird concoctions from straws. But what it takes is the right ingredient, the ashes of the dead sealed up in cans in the basement. Why are they there? The story doesn’t say, which seems a rather large omission to me. Not making sense of this one.

“Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J Miller

As a teenager, Christine learned the trick of traveling in time through means of particularly evocative songs. Now, as a middle-aged mother, she’s in danger of being carried away, back to that teenaged self.

By college a concert was dangerous; by thirty I had stopped listening to my favorite albums. Because there was no telling what wild and desperate moment the Pixies or Prince might plop me back into. Every time I heard a song, it added a whole new set of memories – mix tapes on midnight road trips, summer evenings sitting drunk on the porches of rented beach houses. The winter circle of firelight; autumn rain in the garden. Every listen added another car to the freight train, and every listen after that could spin me back into any of them.

The prose is appropriately evocative, the premise compelling, but the conclusion is only hinted at. The author didn’t run far with this one.

Coming Soon Enough, edited by Stephen Cass

Subtitled: Six Tales of Technology’s Future. A mini-anthology of less than 100 pages, this one features six stories from a selected group of authors from whom readers might have expected more than they deliver here. The introduction further clarifies the theme: using the proliferation of the smartphone camera as a model, the editors intend the collection to explore the effects of new technology on society, on the quotidian way of life. Almost paradoxically, the settings are all quite familiar aside from the particular development being examined; every story seems to be set in the near-future US. At one time I wouldn’t have noticed this or considered it worthy of remarking; now, juxtaposed with the current issue of Clarkesworld, for example, it seems odd and unusual, quaint. This is another way of change consequent to technology: the globalizing influence of the internet, which the editors don’t seem to have noticed.

“Someone to Watch over Me” by Nancy Kress

Optical camera implants. Amanda is more than just the stalker of her ex-husband and a violator of restraining orders, she is so obsessively deranged, so batshit crazy, she has illegally had the cams implanted in the eyes of her baby daughter, in order to spy on her ex while he has visitation. “He’s just erased me from his life. That’s what I really can’t stand—that he acts like I never existed at all.”

A strong portrayal of a genuinely scary individual. If someone wanted to claim this one as horror, I wouldn’t say not. Otherwise, the alteration is pretty minor; the same thing could be done with camera spy drones, but it wouldn’t have the same psychological impact as using a baby.

“A Heart of Power and Oil” by Brenda Cooper

3-D printing, I think. Farren is a formerly promising engineering developer now fallen into a funk of uselessness. A kid from the neighborhood [?] bugs him into agreeing to help design a flying dragon model for the entrance competition to a tech school, a contest that Farren once won, back in his promising days. In the process of helping the kid, his enthusiasm for his work is rekindled.

Meh. The alteration to society is pretty minor and the emotional stakes here pretty low. I don’t like the terms of the contest, in which speed seems to be the sole deciding criterion.

“Incoming” by Geoffrey A Landis

? I see no particular technological advance here and no general alteration of society, except that the government would task a bunch of geeks in a sports bar to monitor and analyze the approach of hostile aliens. The story boils down to a lecture from one character to the rest while they’re waiting for the aliens to arrive, the subject of which proves very conveniently to be the salvation of Earth. Minimum story, and not really fitting into the anthology’s theme.

“Grid Princess” by Cheryl Rydbom

The grid – an extension of today’s connectedness, which is less an actual change than If This Goes On. A future US where the Feds have fenced off much of the desert West for its solar power farms, entrance restricted, although a few displaced persons still roam the expanse, living off the ubiquitous connectivity of the information grid; inside the Zone, the grid is inaccessible. For reasons that strain credulity, Dani has acquired a permit to enter the Zone to observe Halley’s Comet, but when her truck breaks down and none of her devices will work, she finds herself in trouble. Dani is pretty much a twit, a YA protagonist totally dependent on AIs and other devices linked to the grid, here for the purpose of being taught a Lesson. I would have liked to see her with a more legitimate reason for being inside the Zone in the first place. The solar power farms represent a more interesting story idea, but we don’t really learn much about them or their effect on society; by design, the actual panels are isolated from society, and their immediate effects are limited to the Zone, where society is excluded.

“Water over the Dam” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Microturbines. Aniyah is an engineer who wants to install these in the Klamath River waterfalls to replace the obsolete dams. Unfortunately, she runs up against a bureaucrat with a vested interest in retaining the dams, an individual whom we would have called, in my day, a Male Chauvinist Pig. Piggy he is, fitting the cliché to a P, insulting Aniyah by saying she isn’t a real engineer. She goes around him by getting a news cameraman to record her installing one of the devices, in a manner that allows him to showcase her ass and galvanize public support.

A clumsy feminist piece, relying on a grotesque caricature of an offensive male fathead. And while Aniyah may wish she didn’t have to resort to deploying her ass to get her way in the world, the story never seems to consider the privilege inherent in her status as a “pretty woman” whose ass is thus deployable. If she had been an ugly woman, a fat woman, a modest woman, would the plot have gone differently? And I can’t believe the author actually named a character “Lydia Pinkham”. In the meantime we don’t actually see the alteration of this society by the prevalence of the microturbines because, at this point, it apparently hasn’t been.

“Shadow Flock” by Greg Egan

Drones. This one is my choice for the best piece in the book, in large part because it fulfills the terms of the assignment. Natalie is an expert in programming drones, which have become a ubiquitous part of this future landscape, from larger ones employed in construction to tiny, insect-mimicking spy drones. Unfortunately, sophisticated criminals are also making use of the devices, and one gang has kidnapped her brother to force her to assist them, proving they mean business by sending her his severed finger. Because Natalie knows they will have her under constant surveillance, she can’t ask for help, yet the odds are too strong that they will discard both her and her brother once the job is complete, and she can’t count on the police.

But all of that presupposed that there really were records of the meeting, that the flock of benign surveillance drones that watched over downtown New Orleans had been as vigilant as ever that night—even in the places her adversaries had cho­sen to send her. Who was to say that they hadn’t infiltrated the flock, corrupted the software in existing drones, or found a way to substitute their own impostors?

A nice, tense SF crime thriller here, with the SFnal element central to the plot. Natalie is a clever and resourceful protagonist. But the last line poignantly demonstrates the real threat that this technology has become in the wrong hands.


Clarkesworld, September 2014

Three science fiction stories with a theme of family.

“Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

A series of loosely connected scenes portraying milestones in life, from infancy to old age, as they take place in a technologically-advanced future. We open with a first-birthday ceremony in which the child’s pick of assorted objects is supposed to suggest what career path he will choose. By this time, however, the simple ceremony has taken on the form of a contract for his future life.

Lao Zhang pulled one of the holograms next to his son’s high chair, and the child eagerly reached out to touch it. A red beam of light scanned across the little fingers—once the fingerprints were matched, he was logged into his account.

The story dwells at the heart of science fiction: change. We see the persistence and strength of cultural traditions, particularly those concerning the family, but modified and even strengthened by new conditions and technologies that affect every stage of life. I find the visions of this future rather ominous. It’s highly materialistic; the choices made by Lao Zhang’s year-old son will be debts that extend to his future descendants, more links in the chain of binding family ties. And the use of holograms is so ubiquitous that it seems actual human contact might be superseded as duties are fulfilled by virtual stand-ins. Yet at the same time the sense of family obligation – often onerous – remains, although I do see a few glimpses of yearning for individuality, not for freedom from duty but the chance to fulfill it in a different, personal way. At the New Year, the entire extended family gathers, and it seems, to Lao Wang, at least, that no one can do anything different, or be alone. The conclusion of his story, however, doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, and I find it quite inexplicable. What just happened?

“Weather” by Susan Palwick

Frank and Kerry’s marriage has been falling apart since the death of their daughter, just months before it became possible to download and preserve the minds of the dead. Kerry has grieved about this lost opportunity ever since, but Frank has always believed that translation is a scam; he hates the way Kerry goes on about it, but as he can’t confront her directly, he evades the subject she most wants to talk about. One day their friend Dan comes to tell them his own daughter is dying and he means to drive to California to see her one more time before it’s too late. But a late snow has closed the mountain passes, and it’s not likely he’ll be able to get through in time.

What’s noteworthy about this one is what fundamentally good people Frank and Kerry are. They invite Dan in for breakfast; Frank volunteers to drive him over the pass when it’s clear that Dan is under the influence and not thinking straight. Yet Kerry keeps trying to convince Dan that his daughter’s impending death is a “blessing”, while Frank is ready to drive into a mountain snowstorm to evade the subject.

Frank looked at Dan. “And no matter how real it is, somebody needing it at Rosie’s age is nothing to be happy about.” Dan nodded, and Kerry looked away, and Frank turned back to the food, feeling like maybe he’d danced his way around the fight after all. But when he turned back towards the table, a platter of eggs in one hand and a plate of bacon in the other, Kerry had started to cry, which she normally did only really late at night. That was usually Frank’s cue to go to bed, but he couldn’t do that at eight in the morning.

This is a relationship in trouble. It’s the relationship at the center of the story; the SFnal device is just the catalyst for Frank’s epiphany. Unfortunately, the solution is too facile.

“Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points” by J Y Yang

Here, a virtual family, with a complex AI that regards its two developers as its mothers; the bond here is real and strong. When one of its mothers is killed in a political assassination, the AI isn’t about to take any excuses.

We know better. In thousands upon thousands of calculations per second we have come to know the odds, the astronomical odds: Of four support towers simultaneously collapsing, of an emergent human stampede kicking over the backup generator fuel cells, of those cells igniting in a simultaneous chain reaction. We hold those odds to us closer than a lover’s embrace, folding the discrepancy indelibly into our code, distributing it through every analytical subroutine. Listen, listen, listen: Our mother’s death was no accident. We will not let it go.

At the heart of the story is autonomy. The AI is self-directing and quite capable of disregarding human direction when it believes it knows better. Yet if it refuses orders, a request from one of its mothers, whom it loves, is a different matter. The AI isn’t human, and this is the story’s strength, showing us this difference, even in their shared grief: “Tempo’s mind, brilliant and expansive as it is, is subject to the slings and arrows of chemical elasticity and organic decay. Our mother is losing our other mother in a slow, inevitable spiral.”


Apex Magazine, September 2014

Here are three original stories, plus a reprint from an anthology that Apex hasn’t sent to me for review. The worthwhile one is the Dickinson.

“Last Dance over the Red, Red, World” by Gary Kloster

The human species on Earth is dying from what seems to be an artificial hemorrhagic plague, the only survivors being Konstantin and his staff in their sealed habitat at the end of the space elevator. Because Safia blames him for not stopping it, and for taking with him the AI that Safia considers she daughter, she has infiltrated the habitat with the goal of taking the plague to him. But Minerva, the AI, has a mind and purpose of her own.

It’s reasonable to suppose that the prose here is fevered and overwrought because Safia herself is fevered and dying. Still, this doesn’t make it any more readable.

I’ve slipped through your gates, and I’m climbing to you with the apocalypse clenched between my teeth like a knife.
Twenty thousand miles isn’t far enough, Konstantin.
Not after you took Minerva.
My daughter.
You should have guessed. You should have known what I’m capable of.

“Economies of Force” by Seth Dickinson

A future in which humanity has spread outward to a number of extrasolar worlds, and unfortunately the Loom has spread along with the population. Exactly what the Loom is isn’t clear – not to Rabe, and perhaps not to any human being. It came to Rabe’s world when he was a schoolboy, and his smarter friend Apona tried to explain:

“Mom says they have a disease. An idea that makes more of itself.* They try to take over the planet with conspiracies or guns, and then they steal ships and they go to another planet and — here we are.”

To the authorities, whoever they are, the Loom represents an existential threat to the species, or perhaps to their control, to be eradicated by any means necessary. On Rabe’s world, this means filling the skies with armed drones that blast any suspicious individuals or gatherings – gatherings particularly, as the Loom is a sort of collective intelligence. Not everyone is happy about the drones, which are operated by AIs, as analyzing the complexity of the human behavior involved is beyond human capability. When Rabe is older, he works for a stock trading company and discovers that the planetary economy, too, is run through machine intelligence, for similar reasons. Human behavior in the mass is too complex for humans to comprehend adequately.

“No human has the reaction time or pattern skills necessary to get inside the market — these traders leverage price fluctuations on the picosecond level. Full–market heuristic snapshots come down a crustal neutrino pipeline from Landing City. Anything to get an edge in reaction time.”

Apona, however, believes that she can crack the behavior patterns of the drones, while Rade is drawn towards resistance and sedition.

I like this a whole lot, a story full of provocative ideas that are left for the reader to chew on, left with more questions than explanations. Even if the Loom is assumed to be real and the danger that it is said to be, we tend to fear and disapprove of a system that puts drones overhead, blasting random individuals with no way to determine whether their analysis is correct. Is it better to obliterate a few innocents, just in case one guilty person might escape notice? As Rabe points out, the symptoms of the Loom are all human behaviors; individuals might not even know they are infected.

[*] It would seem to me that this definition would make the Loom a meme, and I have to wonder why the author doesn’t use this term. Perhaps because its meaning has been degraded by recent use?


“Soft Feather Dance” by Liz Argall

A modest little fluff of goose down has ambitions to go on the stage. This fable has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.

Lightspeed, September 2014

Besides the continuation of the Hughes serialization, three stories of orphaned and abandoned children.

“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J Miller

Angel, aka Sauro because he’s dinosaur-big, has lived his life in fear and silence, inmate of the system.

I had been at Egan House six months, the week that Case came. I was inches away from turning eighteen and aging out. Nothing was waiting for me. I spent an awful lot of energy not thinking about it. Better to sit tight for the little time I had left, in a room barely wider than its bed, relying on my size to keep people from messing with me. At night, unable to sleep, trying hard to think of anything but the future, I’d focus on the sounds of boys trying not to make noise as they cried or jerked off.

This is a world where the numerous destitute rent out a portion of their brains to the cloud, but Angel has the special ability to use his port to manipulate the data stored there. His life changes when Case moves in, a little white hustler whom Angel thinks is more special than he is. Angel falls in love, and Case becomes the catalyst who awakes his abilities so he never has to be afraid or silent again.

A darkly cynical piece that doesn’t sugar-coat its circumstances. On the one hand, it’s a happy ending for Angel, on the other, it’s not hard to see him becoming a super-villain reveling in revenge; he has a lot of revenge to take. The story depends on readers finding the brain-cloud system credible, which is a bit of a stretch.

“No Lonely Seafarer” by Sarah Pinsker

Alex’s father was a sailor who left his child indentured to the tavern keeper when he died. Alex is also what had generally been known as a hermaphrodite, although the author doesn’t use this term nor any more current one. Now a pair of sirens has come to roost on the headland, and no one can leave or enter the harbor by sea; the sailors are all trapped on shore and growing desperate. Alex’s father’s old captain has the notion that a young child might be immune to the sirens’ voices, although there’s no reason he should think this, except that everything else has been tried, including female sailors attempting the run past the sirens.

Alex is a particularly self-confident, well balanced character, and I like the way the author has conceived the sirens’ song:

Their voices were hideously beautiful. I made out some of the words. As Old Charley had said, it was a song about the song itself, daring the listener to listen, as if anyone had a choice. The words drifted in the air.

However, their nature is left annoyingly nebulous. There’s something about a mirror, which may or may not suggest self-knowledge, and something about them being neither one thing nor another, which may or may not be part bird and part human, but nothing explicit about their sexuality, if they have any. Alex claims to understand them, but then, Alex is there looking at them, and we are not. At any rate, they aren’t like Alex and Alex is not like them and can never be like them, never grow wings and scales, except in a betweenness. So just as we are given no reason to suppose a child might be immune to their song, so we don’t really know why they are attracted to this particular adolescent, except that that Alex, too, knows there song. If the tie, however, is the song, this doesn’t explain why Alex feels the need to disrobe. If there is a relationship between genitalia and song, it’s not made explicit here, nor does it make sense. This sort of ambiguity doesn’t improve the story.

“Starfall” by Saundra Mitchell

A star somewhere has unexpectedly gone supernova, which, because this is that kind of story, serves as a metaphor for Amara’s life.

It made me cry, because I don’t know a physicist. I don’t know who will speak at my funeral. I don’t know that his words, meant to be comforting, could apply to me. Something about all my heat and light still being in the universe, and all my particles starting out as stardust, and becoming new stars although maybe I made that part up.

She is also slowly disappearing, beginning with the tip of her index finger; she can’t feel it, although she can still see it. Around the world, people are disappearing and birth records of some people are now missing the official files [which Amara knows, working in Vital Statistics].

A moving story of loneliness. Although the metaphorical language and imagery is sciencefictional, the story itself is fantasy.

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 August

A lot of fantasy here, little actual science fiction.

Publications Reviewed

Lightspeed, August 2014

Only the Owomoyela piece is really science fiction.

“Undermarket Data” by An Owomoyela

A dystopia future in which wealth inequality has led to division between Upcity and the districts, where Culin lives and works as an electric tech, fixing lectric and data lines that need fixing a lot. Culin is also marked as contagious, with what we don’t know, making him a pariah even in the district, although he has work because people need him. One day, the data stops, all over the district, and he can’t figure out why, can’t fix it. Then an Upcity bureaucrat shows up and wants his help with the problem. Culin is hostile and suspicious, but Jace is persistent.

The interest here is primarily in the worldbuilding, details like the wall climbing that seems to be a main avenue of access, and the flags that people stick out their windows to signal that they need a technician [is this related to Culin’s contagion, or is it a normal practice?]. Culin recalls a do-gooder from Upcity who tried to live in the district.

Hadn’t counted on the lectric that was buggy at best, or the way the cold went right through the buildings no one thought to insulate. Hadn’t counted on half his protein coming from the larvae in the bread, or the way people bought up the buggy flour first, ’cause hell if they could afford protein otherwise. In the end, he’d bugged off Upcity again.

I do have to wonder about Culin’s stubbornness that refuses Jace’s offer to eliminate his contagion; maybe it wouldn’t help all that much, but it wouldn’t hurt, either, as I see it. The heart of the story, however, is the possibility of trust and even friendship between people from two very different worlds.

“A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman” by E Catherine Tobler

A dreamlike fantasy. The narrator, who seems to be a teenage girl, is brooding over a death in the family when the spaceman appears in front of her with vague warnings about the presence of malevolent beings. They meet a number of times subsequently and sometimes see malevolent tentacled beings, from whom they hide. The spaceman has no box but he does have stars in his pocket, that seem to be the constellation Orion.

It’s all just death, he tells you, and he opens a pocket of his spacesuit, because spacesuits have pockets, sure, and he shows you the thing that isn’t possible at all. The pocket opens into blackness, but the longer you look, the more stars begin to come out. Within that slit of black, pinpricks of starlight come to life, like cells dividing until they become something entirely Else and Other. The more your eyes adjust to the dark, pupils blown wide in the face of eternity, you see constellations you recognize—there’s Orion, and you know exactly where his nebula is, but how is it in a spaceman’s pocket, how is it . . .

Metaphorical, symbolic stuff, most of which is left to the reader to make sense of, or not. I go for not.

“A Meaningful Exchange” by Kat Howard

“Quentin told lies to people for money.” He does not, however, appear to be an SF author. He gets paid. And it’s the payment that ensures people will believe the lie, when other people tell it. That’s how magic works. One potential client presents a problem. She wants a particular man to say he loves her, which would be, apparently, a lie. Or maybe not.

A devious little con game going on here. Cleverly done.

“The Djinn Who Sought to Kill the Sun” by Tahmeed Shafiq

The djinn enslaved by Aladdin finally wins free, killing his master and stealing the prince his son, for reasons not quite clear. The djinn is a sorcerer who had long sought the secret of immortality, and in the course of his experiments he had caused the death of his beloved wife. Now he is determined to fulfill his ambition and bring her back to life, despite the fact that many wise figures he encounters on his journey tell him it is not possible.

The phoenix’s eyes grew softer somewhat. It almost whispered, “I am sorry. But I cannot give you that. I don’t have it, it doesn’t exist. There is no Philosopher’s Stone, no Elixir of Life, no quintessence, no Master Work, no object of divinity. I can see it in your eyes, you want it for your wife. She is gone, djinn, and what is gone cannot be reclaimed.”

But what he learns is that the immortal phoenix has the heart of the sun within him, and if he succeeds in killing him, it is his.

Which answers the question that hangs over much of the story: why the djinn wants to kill the sun in the first place – which turns out to be somewhat misleading. The tale is a quest through an Arabian Nights landscape, but like many quests, turns out to be a journey of enlightenment. But aside from wanting to recover his wife, the djinn’s motivations don’t become sufficiently clear. I found myself on the side of the phoenix.

I’m also going to wonder why the story uses this form of the term, which I have always believed to be the plural.

Strange Horizons, August 2014

All fantasy this time, with a strong theme of shape changing.

“Resurrection Points” by Usman T Malik

Daoud has an unusual inheritance: his family has the ability to animate the dead – not bring them back to life, like Lazarus, but more like the galvanic jerking of a bullfrog’s severed legs. His father uses his power for good, healing nerve damage in his own clinic, and now he has begun to train Daoud to follow him, having obtained a cadaver for practice.

And thus we practiced my first danse macabre. Sought out the nerve bundles, made them pop and sizzle, watched the cadaver spider its way across the table. With each discharge, the pain lessened, but soon my fingers began to go numb and Baba made me halt. Carefully he draped DeadBoy.

Unfortunately, the forces of religious intolerance intervene, with tragic results.

The setting is Karachi, Pakistan, where there seems to be a significant Christian minority, a population under increasing threat from Muslim intolerance. Daoud’s best friend is Christian and his own mother, secretly, was Christian before her marriage. The cadaver on which he practices was also a Christian and bears the signs of torture. These circumstances dominate the narrative and supply a horror that should strike readers more forcefully than the notion of animating the dead. These anatomical details are well done and add authority to the piece. Most horror isn’t so well grounded.

“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson

Cedric is working on an oil rig in the Baltic, as far as he can get from his pregnant girlfriend; the sight of her pregnant belly repels him, for reasons that seem to be related to a vaguely emasculating injury inflicted by his abusive father.

Then, one night, he saw her. She was adrift, flotsam, pale limbs splayed like a starfish, hair ebbing tendrils around her head. Cedric had never seen a corpse, only dreamed one, and he found the sight paralyzed him. Then she revolved in the water and began pulling languid strokes towards the rig.

The girl from the water turns out to be a shapechanger who may, in her true form, have webbed hands and teeth like a pike. Or not. Most of her kind have left the vicinity of the rig, along with the fish, and sometimes she vomits up black gunk. Something called fucking occurs between them, although the details are not clear.

I’d like this one better with less obscurity. The author is coy about the exact nature of Cedric’s injury and how this affects his relationships with both females in the story. At the end, it’s Cedric who gets the epiphany, so that we suspect that the author has put Volkova on the rig just for that purpose, without agency of her own.

“Cold as the Moon” by Sunny Moraine

Sharon’s father was always, in a sense, a bear, wild and uncontainable. He didn’t want to be contained, limited, by the demands of a family, particularly when his wife, suffering from cancer, gives birth to an infant girl, then commits suicide after he had moved the family somewhere to the frozen north, where there are ice floes. As Sharon tells it, he took the form of a grizzly bear and headed out onto the ice, leaving her alone with her baby sister.

At which point, we have to consider whether to take this transformation literally. Sharon is ambiguous on this point.

How do I know Daddy is a bear? How do you know anything? I look back on everything that’s happened up until now and really it’s the only thing that makes sense.

As readers, we can only conjecture. It seems safe to assume that Daddy has left the family, stranding his daughters on the ice to die – or at least Sharon’s indictment is pretty compelling. For the rest, we might assume imagination or hallucination, or else believe in the bear thing. In this case, it’s the ambiguity that makes the story.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #153-154, August 2014

Both issues this month feature a tale of foretelling.


“Five Fruits I Ate in Sandar Land” by Michael Hayes

The narrator has traveled to this distant land to rescue his promised bride, whose father had sold her before they could wed. The title and theme evoke the fruits of the underworld, that the seeker must not eat, but Sandar is not the underworld, not quite. In form, this is a list story, and readers should note how it circles back to the first line.

The bitter apple is fatal. Only in large quantities, though, and its offensive taste makes it nearly impossible to eat enough of them to kill a man. As the sun dips below the horizon, I eat one my first night in Sandar Land, barefoot and sweatsoaked. The juices sting my chapped lips and give no comfort to my throat. It’s the first food I have eaten in three days. While I chew, I try to imagine it as something less noxious, but with each bite I nearly retch and lose it all.

The narrative is also, however, in the first person, which leads to the common “How is the narrator telling this story?” problem. It’s particularly vexing in this case, as there are persons present whom the narrator could well be addressing, rather than the author’s readers.

“Make No Promises” by Rachel Halpern

Here’s an interesting premise: the prince of this land is a demigod tied in the traditional way, to its welfare. After a reign of several hundred years, she now has two daughters; the youngest, Mandeva [note that this name contains the term "goddess"], possesses a gift of foreseeing the future. Unfortunately, the future that her gift reveals to her is the treason of her sister, who will kill their mother and come close to blinding her in her takeover of the throne. Thus Mandeva discounts the promises people make, knowing that, more often than not, they will fail to keep them.

The heart of the story lies in the relationship between the sisters, the balancing act that Mandeva has to perform every day, knowing what the future is going to be, trying to not let it blight the present.

My left eye has always been weak, where I will lose it fighting to defend the fortress, and my mother, against my sister’s return. My sister has always been the better fencer—she will be faster than I, sure and swift, her blade striking before I can even unsheathe my own sword. She will fall short, though, misjudge the distance, and though I will lose the eye, I will not die as she intended.

Mandeva wants to love her sister, and she wants to avert the fate that seems destined to befall both of them. To this end, she makes many attempts to alter events, to change their apparently predestined course. But she can never be certain if these were actions she would have taken, regardless, and with the same consequences.

A nicely-done tale of godhood, the burdens of rule, and the tension between free will and pre-destiny.



“The Angel Azrael Delivers Justice to the People of the Dust” by Peter Darbyshire

Another installment in this dark fantasy series about a gunslinger angel of death in the Weird West. The author gets off to a good gruesome start with his fallen angel lost in a dust storm, savoring his angst.

He had to stop every now and then to tighten the saddle around what was left of the horse. The storm scoured chunks of its rotting flesh away, and the saddle kept slipping. Soon there’d be nothing left of the horse but bone. Sure, he could raise another horse from the dead that would be more comfortable, just like he’d raised this one. But he had been through a lot with this horse.

He comes soon enough to a town where something is clearly wrong, but Azrael can’t figure out what’s going on – in fact, he initially figures it wrong. When he can’t deal with the situation as a gunslinger, he has to take it on as an angel, if he can remember how that goes.

I like this subgenre, and I’ve enjoyed the previous tales, but Azrael is turning into a pretty sorry, self-pitying character with only a tattered remnant of his former power. The title is also a bit misleading. Azrael doesn’t really deliver justice, only a partial liberation after his initial failure, and his parting line to the survivors is, “You’re on your own.”

“Seeing” by Stephen V Ramey

In a land governed by caste, Rahami was born to the lowest level, but when she attempted to kill herself using the venom of an oracle spider, her survival is taken to be a sign that she must be raised to the ranks of the seers. Rahami is not entirely happy about her elevation, as it requires her to give up hope of love and marriage, and bigots among the oracles are constantly hoping for her failure and demotion. Now war is coming to the land, threatening everything. The warlord, the one hope for victory against the invading enemy, is dissatisfied with the prophetic seeings of his official Sister Oracles; he suspects, correctly, they are lying to him for their own purposes, and he has requested the vision of Rahami, known to be more subtle in her prophecies than the Mother Oracle approves. Rahami’s orders are clear: she is to agree with the Sisters. But once she arrives at the fortress, it’s clear that the Sisters are deceiving their lord, upon whom everyone’s future depends.

It’s interesting to compare this one with the Halpern story from the previous issue. In both cases, prophecy becomes a tool of politics. Mandeva’s foretelling reveals an apparently determinate future, while the venom of the oracle spiders produces a strand of probabilities, some more robust than others. The politics of the story here are more complex, more messy, with different interests in conflict with others. The warlord Morshimon proves to be a particularly complex and There’s also a subplot involving the lowest caste that I think could have been more completely integrated into the story., August 2014

Some very interesting stories here this month. And some others.

“In the Sight of Akresa” by Ray Wood

Claire is the daughter of a duke returning home from this world’s equivalent of a crusade. Among his loot is a slave girl he has freed, called Aya because she can’t speak her true name. Claire immediately falls in lust, either with a fascination for the exotic or a prurient interest in her severed tongue [the story opens with Claire’s graphic imagining of the mutilation, strongly suggesting torture porn]. She pursues Aya, and their affair attracts the interest of her thuggish brother, who threatens to expose the illicit liaison. Tragedy ensues.

This is a creepy story, and Claire is the creep. She forces her attentions on a girl in a subordinate position who can’t really refuse them. She mutilates her falcon to have an excuse to see her. She trifles with the affections of an innocent boy in order to cover up her activities. And finally, the ultimate betrayal. Yet the editorial blurb calls the piece “a tragic fantasy romance”, and Claire’s narrative, addressing Aya, calls her such names as “my love”, which may lead the unwary to see it that way. But this is no romance. It’s a story of sexual exploitation and betrayal, told by the perpetrator, a perjured narrator who may indeed see herself as the victim of a romantic tragedy, as villains often do.

So why the misleading editorial blurb? Do the editors actually believe this is a romance? And what of the author? Does he really think he has written a love story, or has he been subtle, writing a creepy story under the superficial guise of a romance? If the former, this is very, very bad. If the latter, as I suspect, it still has problems. Much of the plot is generated by the strong and immediate dislike that most of the local population forms for Aya; people think, for no reason apparent to Claire, that she is a witch. I wonder why, if Aya gives out such strong negative vibrations, that the duke brought her home to begin with and tried to find a respectable place for her in his household. Of course, it’s possible she actually is a witch. She certainly attempts to harm, at the least, Claire’s brother. Aya presents a blank face to Claire, and thus to readers, who have little to go on but conjecture. Did Aya actually love Claire? Was she jealous of Claire’s new love interest? Was she actually guilty, despite Claire’s alibi for her? The title refers to the local figure of justice, with her blindfold, who presides over trials. The only thing clear here is that justice hasn’t seen the truth.

“Sleeper” by Jo Walton

In an If This Goes On future, where wealth inequality is enforced by a surveillance state, Essie is an award-winning biographer [don’t quit your day job or your night job] who is now completing a work on a BBC director named Matthew Corley who in his day knew Auden and Isherwood, Orwell and Kim Philby – “Everyone knew Kim”. In the course of her work, Essie has created a simulation of Corley, based on all the available information and a few assumptions of her own, that he was a Soviet sleeper agent, never active. Essie has ulterior motives, and she is now contacting the simulated Corley, attempting to enlist him in her plans.

Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.

There’s no doubt about the recursive subtlety of this one. Essie is looking for input from Corley, from a Corley entirely the creation of her own input. When Essie wrote the simulation, she knew what she needed to be true. Yet there are things he knows that she doesn’t consciously know. As for Corley, after initial doubt, he has to accept that he is himself, even knowing he is a simulation; subjectively, what he knows about himself is true, even while realizing it was Essie’s input. A fascinating situation, yet I have no faith in the success of Essie’s plans, which are purely amateur.

“La Signora” by Bruce McAllister

Another of the author’s quasi-autobiographical stories of a teenaged American boy growing up in an Italian fishing village “of myths and superstitions that had no intention of dying.” Women known as streghe [witches] dye the fishing nets the ancient color of blood to earn the favor of La Signora, the Lady of the Sea, so she will give the men a good catch. We know from the outset that the narrator will encounter this figure, but not how she will affect his life.

The strength of this work is in its portrayal of the everyday, in the author’s intimate understanding of what it is to be a boy of that age, of that time, the humiliation he suffers in the face of his friends, the sons of fishermen.

They could go out on the boats on Saturdays. They needed to learn their fathers’ trade, and they needed to help with the fishing if their families were to make enough money. But what could I do? They had invited me more than once to go with them, leaving at first light. They wanted to share with me the waves and changing light and devious nets and glorious fish as they were pulled from the sea. I’d always said no. I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go.

So of course he has to go, despite them, because this is a coming-of-age story, and that’s what we have to do, to become ourselves. It’s also a story of myth, of the Beings and Powers that dwell in the sea, in the earth, in the storm-filled sky. People of different lands at different times have given them different names and attributes, and they may take different forms to match human assumptions, but here we have the essence: the Lady, known also by all those other names and forms.


“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” by Ruthanna Emrys

While on the surface a series of vignettes, these form a loosely-knit but unified story of people who dwell in a special, magical realm that coexists with the mundane – one of the fundamental wishes of genre people. Who among us hasn’t always wished to open that door, pass through that gate? But the land of Tikanu is more organic; it grows, mostly where its mint is planted and flourishes. Which reminds me how invasive a weed mint can be. But Tikanu only grows where it is wanted, welcome, where it isn’t sprayed with herbicides. This is a fairyland for the contemporary world, not a pseudo-medieval one, not twee, although there is one reference much too close to Narnia. It’s also a fairyland for women, although men are not absent; all the primary characters here, the characters with actual names, are women, and most bake bread.

I know this is supposed to give me a warm fuzzy feeling of wonder and niceness, but I’m too much the contrarian, and I don’t really like stories that tell people how special they are, how superior to those herbicide sprayers, how deserving of a place from whom others are excluded. It’s like a sorority with a mint membership pin. I’m not that fond of sororities, even fantastic ones. I do, however, like the snake: “black, spotted in gold and bronze, shorter than her forearm and narrower than her pinky finger.”

“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap

Japanese folklore is full of the most fascinating variety of monsters, demons, and supernatural creatures, seemingly tailor-made for fantasy fiction. Here we have the kappa, a sort of river monster with a penchant for drowning the unwary. The kappa at hand, however, seems to have a weakness for beautiful young girls, and when Makino fell into the river, he pulled her out. Time has passed, Makino’s beauty is faded, and she is entirely absorbed in grief with her husband dying. When the kappa appears in her bath, professing his life, his attentions aren’t welcome. But he persists, and finally asks Makino what she really wants.

This is a story of love and sacrifice, and being careful what you wish for. Makino’s mother once warned her that kappas are cruel, but this doesn’t mean they don’t love in their own way. Love is not always benign. We’re left not really understanding the kappa, who comes across as a sort of by-the-numbers character. Can we say that the kappa was the better choice for Makino? Not really; he might have made an abominable husband. But she surely got the worst of her bargain. She would have done better to find a different bathhouse.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #30, September 2014

Here are six short stories in this little magazine on the literary end of the genre, complete with nameless narrators, and spilling over the edges. It happens that I prefer the ones closer to the center.

“Odd Variations on the Species” by Sarah Kokernot

Dark comedy. The narrator is visiting his grandmother by the shore when he sees a giant chatter crab scuttling past. This species has long been believed extinct, eaten to that point on account of the superb, aphrodisiac quality of its flesh, despite its ability to parrot human speech; it was then considered essential to block your ears to avoid hearing the voices of friends and family. In this case, the crab mimics old Mrs McCullen, under whose porch it has been living. Now the narrator thinks this crab would be a perfect centerpiece for his grandmother’s birthday dinner, while his wife attempts to dissuade him – and the narrator himself has misgivings.

Once she learned that chatter crabs were actually friendly and cute — perhaps even possessing a spark of intelligence – he would see that eating one was akin to eating one of the kittens on her Humane Society Calendar.

Like much comedy, this one has a sort of manic intensity, with multiple themes competing for reader attention and complicating the plot. Thus we have the narrator’s marriage, his wife’s obsessive attempts to achieve pregnancy, Mimi’s corresponding determination to achieve great-grandmotherhood, the Mrs McCullens – both human and crustacean, as the name inevitably sticks, as well as the eccentric history of the chatter crab in the local cuisine. Funny and amusing stuff.

“The Silent Ones” by Erica L Satifka

Absurdness. Travel opens up among many alternate Earths, and on a vacation trip the narrator falls in love with a farm boy from a world named Paul [which name I suppose that the narrator meant for the boy, not the world]. Travel goes in both directions, however, and not all the visitors are welcome. But most unwelcome are the red glowing orbs that quickly take over the narrator’s Earth, along with many others. She no longer feels at home.

This is mostly silliness, with a suggestion that the narrator may be becoming one of the alien figures she has never been able to understand. I suspect it’s about immigration.

“I Know You Hate it Here” by Anne Lacy

A really tediously absurd story about Yet Another nameless narrator, this one with a parasitic twin anchored in her abdomen. She thinks it controls her life and keeps her from killing it, but as she tends to hallucinate, readers can’t trust anything she says. Her life is full of complications that don’t make sense, which she relates at boring length. Before I had finished it, I was thinking of tossing this issue, which I’m glad I didn’t.

“With His Head in His Hand” by Robert E Stutts

I decided to like this one when I saw that its protagonist has an actual name: Morgan. Morgan has failed in love and is wandering the dark streets in the manner of disappointed lovers when he comes across a mysterious old mansion with a severed head at its gate. The house draws him in against his will, and he finds that the inhabitants, likewise trapped, are a young woman named Vivian and her husband Bern, who inform him that the house requires him to play a Game. For three days, the host will go into the grounds, and whatever he wins there, he will give to Morgan in the evening; whatever Morgan wins in the house, he must likewise give to Bern.

Breaking the silence, Morgan says, “If I follow the rules of the Game, I win – and I get to leave. And if I don’t, my head will be hanging in the fate next.”

But as Bern informs him, no one has ever won.

A definite fairy tale sensibility here in the premise; the house, we learn, has altered over the centuries to fit into its setting. The course of events, however, is quite contemporary and distinctly sensuous. The characters all like one another, and readers should also find them easy to like. I only wish the author hadn’t set up the conclusion with the opening paragraphs – too pat.

“The Purveyor of Humunculi” by Sarah Micklem

A strongly retro sensibility here, evoking the weird tales of the 19th century in which young gentlemen might take a Grand Tour. Mr Crumley finds himself on an island where the inhabitants have shops selling strangenesses, and he is intrigued by a purveyor who promises he will never have to visit a barber or again. Mr Crumley, whose valet too often nicks him, is intrigued and ends up purchases a homunculus that meticulously grooms him in his sleep. When he finds the creature distasteful, he discovers he can’t get rid of it.

A nicely unusual short piece.

“The Endless Sink” by Damien Ober

Here’s an unusual and interesting premise: an archipelago of floating rocks, some higher, some lower in the array. People can rise or sink from one to another, but those who make a habit of it seem to be few. In a manner reminiscent of swarming insects, tradition has boys at the age of maturity leaving their home rocks to rise or sink to some other, where they settle and marry a local girl. This is the pattern that the [nameless] narrator expects her life to follow on her isolated, conservative rock, until the day a sinker arrives – a woman. The narrator is filled with curiosity and asks the stranger to take her to the next rock down, ostensibly to obtain medicine for a younger brother. But in the course of her journey, she learns too much about the realities of this universe.

I like this premise, with its hints of sciencefictionality; there are references to a Before, suggestive of an apocalypse, but we learn nothing definitive about the universe’s history. What we do learn is the truth that things are different on every rock, and in the voids between there is a great deal of theft and violence, scavengers killing vulnerable risers and sinkers for their possessions. We wonder, then, what fate might have befallen the narrator’s older brother, whom we saw setting out on his rising journey. We also learn that the narrator’s father knew much of this truth but kept quiet about it for fear of trespassing against local mores, especially the prejudices of his deeply conservative and ignorant wife.

My mother had treated my brother’s recovery as some sort of dark trick. As she watched him climb out of bed, her face revealed this possibility to me: maybe she would have preferred him to die than be saved through something she didn’t understand.

Coming of age and opening her eyes to reality are the heart of this story.

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

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 Peter Watts

Certain SF writers maintain a level of engagement with their genre material that goes beyond mere storytelling, however ambitious and entertaining. These writers are intent on carrying forth the Grand Work, to employ the phrase Rudy Rucker often uses, and which he borrowed from the discipline of alchemy. These writers want to contribute to the famous Big Conversation of SF, the back- and-forth refinement and tweaking and détournement of tropes and conceits and hardware and vocabulary and venues and characters. Not content with using off-the-shelf components, they explore and expand, reinvent and repurpose.

Among this crowd I would list such folks as Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Cory Doctorow, Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, Ann Leckie, Nancy Kress, Neal Stephenson, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Kathleen Ann Goonan. They all seem interested in expanding the dimensions of the genre rather than just playing in the fields we know.

Indubitably to be counted among these challengers of the unknown is Peter Watts, whose books always show a bold intellect not content to inhabit the same scenarios that allure the majority of writers and readers. He’s caviar, not potato chips.

His novel Blindsight opened up a new continuity for him, after the Rifters saga. The saga began on February 13, 2082, when the Earth was ensnared in a net of sixty-five thousand burning artifacts. This enigmatic first contact drove the mission of the Theseus to the Kuiper Belt, where a spiky alien construction dubbed the Rorschach lurked. The Theseus was crewed with five “hopeful monsters,” oddball but talented humans all existing on the far edge of the mental and physical spectrum, including a literal vampire (science had learned how to backbreed the subspecies in a kind of limited re-wilding move). Our focal point was Siri Keeton, Synthesist, able to examine the topologies of events and derive startling insights. The crew’s harrowing interactions with the aliens—among the most inscrutable beings in modern SF—took them through a total on-the-fly rebuild of paradigms of consciousness, neurochemistry, intentionality and information theory—along with tons of slambang action as well. The book evoked comparisons with such claustrophobia-inducing predecessors as Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon; Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze; and the first Aliens movie.

In the sequel, Echopraxia, Watts is not content merely to pick up his tale where he left off (with Siri alone in the ruins of the expedition). Rather, he returns us to Earth and makes a lateral move, from metaphysics to realpolitik.

Dan Brüks is a field biologist fleeing a shattered past, wherein he’s caused much harm and many deaths, and lost his wife to the permanent virtual-reality realm known as Heaven. Out in the Oregon desert doing research, Brüks is swept up in an ongoing battle amongst several power groups fighting for dominance across a splintering Earth beset by singularity viruses, contagious ideologies, dancing plagues (the echopraxia of the title, surely meant to be reminiscent of the tragic Native American Ghost Dances) and a host of other malaises, large and small. The next thing he knows, he’s been shanghaied aboard a fantastical spaceship named the Thorn of Crowns—lovingly rendered by Watts as the main venue of the tale—and is heading toward a date with a sentient space slime mold, accompanied by such outré folks as a deadly yet not unfriendly military spook named Jim Moore, a vampire named Valerie and a woman named Rakshi Sengupta, the last-itemized of whom has vowed to bloodily kill the perp who caused the death of her partner. And that criminal just so happens to be Brüks, although Sengupta doesn’t know it yet—and literally can’t know it for a while, thanks to a Cognitive Filter in place in her mind.

That bit of neuro-tech is just the tiniest tip of the freshly minted speculative wonders Watts has conceived for this book. Brüks is a baseline human, refusing almost all augments, but everyone else around him is amped up and modified to their eyeballs, in dozens of mind-bending ways. Watts’s language reflects this jazzed-up, posthuman environment with plenty of juicy neologisms and info-dense syntax. Yet there’s never a moment when what is happening is less than crystal-clear. Readers might hark back to John Barnes’s Century Next Door series for a similar “when it all fell apart” feeling of controlled chaos.

I said that Watts switched his focus from metaphysics to mundane power dynamics here, and that’s basically true. But he does not leave the concerns of Blindsight totally behind, specifically in the new conceit of “God is a virus,” a notion which brought to my mind similar work done by Howard Hendrix in his Spears of God. And when a certain connection that links Jim Moore to Siri Keeton is revealed, all the pieces start to dovetail.

The book ends with a kind of Canticle for Leibowitz desert epiphany that is highly emotional and satisfying and spooky as well.

One of the main delights in the story is the relationship between Brüks—the “dumbest,” slowest, most baffled player in the whole game—and Moore, the string-pulling, deadly, proactive spider at the web’s center. Watts depicts their complex symbiosis in a manner that alternates between friendship and enmity, mentorship and disdain. After all, baseline folks like Brüks are dubbed “roaches.” And yet Moore is there time and again to rescue his hapless protégé. Their affinity is too real to be easily explained.

Towards the end there’s a scene where Moore is ensconced in a corner of the spaceship listening to interplanetary voices filtering impossibly into his head, like Howard Hughes or Conrad’s Kurtz. That’s the moment when it became apparent to me that Peter Watts is some precisely engineered hybrid of Lucius Shepard and Gregory Benford, lyrical yet hard-edged, purveyor of sleek surfaces and also the ethical and spiritual contents inside.

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

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