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Paul Di Filippo reviews James L. Cambias

Corsair, James L. Cambias (Tor 978-0-7653-7910-8, $25.99, 336pp, hardcover) May 2015

After fifteen years of whetting our appetites with his fine short fiction (his first story, “A Diagram of Rapture,” appeared n F&SF in the year 2000), James Cambias delivered his debut novel to us last year. A Darkling Sea, utterly accomplished and au courant, with a simultaneous respectful nod toward the classic Hal Clement-stylings of the past, immediately raked in great reviews and vaulted to the short list of contenders for the Campbell Award for best SF novel of the year, a decision I, as one of the judges, am proud to have had a small hand in. Now, just a year later, we get his second novel. The big guy is on fire! Moreover, the new book is also excellent, but in a totally different manner and mode from A Darkling Sea. That’s the mark of true talent.

To narrow down its category, Corsair is something of a near-future thriller. But in an earlier, less complicated marketplace, one might have just labeled it pure SF. It has the vibe, for instance, of Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer: engineering and entrepreneurial and romantic machinations—but without Heinlein’s less-than-rigorous time-travel angle. Toss in some military and terrorist hijinks, and the recipe is complete. Perhaps the first template for this was Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist in the year 2000, followed by his The Zenith Angle in 2004.

But allied albeit not identical books have also emerged recently (a nascent trend?) from the fertile brains of Alexander Jablokov (Brain Thief); Nick Harkaway (Tigerman); Michael Swanwick (Dancing With Bears); and Charles Stross (Halting State). Yet the one most in sync with Cambias is Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. Cambias delivers the same savvy, hip speculations; the mix of louche and straight-edge rivals and quirky supporting players; the realpolitik insights; and the propulsive, cosmopolitan thrills of Reamde, but does not feature Stephenson’s sometimes exhausting obsessiveness and digressiveness. If Neal Stephenson is an entire operating system for a desktop iMac, James Cambias is a sleek app for your iPhone.

Anyhow, here’s where we’re at. The year 2031 features helium-3 mining operations on the Moon, fusion power on Earth, and a radically reconfigured balance of international power and commerce and relations. Our two top protagonists work opposite sides of the fence. David Schwartz is a genius outlaw hacker who fancies himself a Star Pirate in the best tradition of Doc Smith space operas on down. Except that he does all his nefarious work with a laptop from a luxury hotel room. He is able to hijack satellites, steal shipments of helium-3, and earn himself millions of Swiss francs. But he is also childish, overconfident, lazy and boastful. Cambias does a great job rendering him as a mix of insufferable and endearing. When David takes on a new client, he does not realize that he’s dealing with terrorists who have a radically different notion of “mission success” than he does.

Arrayed against David is Elizabeth Santiago, an officer in the US military’s task force concerned with orbital security. David beats her in one encounter—awfully demoralizing, since they were once students and lovers together at MIT—causing her to lose face and get a de facto demotion to liaison on a cooperative military-civilian space shot. Intent on getting back at David, she hopes to secretly repurpose the civilian project as a means to thwart David. And she ultimately does, but in a twist that you will never see coming.

Along with these two main players we get Anne Rogers, a beach-bum kind of gal on a cruise to nowhere; the spooky assassin Vlad Draganovic, possessor of a serious mustache; Halfdan, David’s daydream-addled assistant; and Jack Bonnet, astronaut and Elizabeth’s new boyfriend. Toss in a handful of other sharply edged folks and Cambias has enough plate-spinners with various motivations to produce a plot machine that is all smoothly interlocking gears and shafts and bellows, which narrows down to a great, edge-of-your-seat, multi-thread simultaneous climax.

The intricate future Cambias predicts and delivers—just some fifteen years or so from now—is, I think, excellently done and utterly believable. He seems, knowingly or not, to be utilizing a brilliant formula devised by Charles Stross a couple of years ago, and quoted here in part: “Here’s my recipe for building a near-future world (in the context of writing an SF novel). Start with a horizon 10 years out: 85% known knowns; 10% known unknowns; 5% unknown unknowns.” If you look back fifteen years to the year 2000, and gauge the year 2015 from that vantage and use Stross’s formula to try to retrodict what we have, you’ll see it’s pretty efficient and accurate. I think Heinlein instinctively used something very similar as his template, and that why Corsair and books like it strike us as “Heinleinian.”

Cambias has a wicked sense of humor, and despite all the danger and tragedy in the book—which are not minimized—he provides at least one deep laugh per page, especially in the witty dialogue and empathetic characterizations. Consider Elizabeth’s pressured rant: “At this point, the question is just how long I am going to spend in jail. I got kicked out of the Air Force for being too aggressive, and I’m probably an alcoholic. I haven’t had sex for two months, and right now I’m emotionally distraught and under a great deal of stress and my period’s about to start. Don’t test me!

This novel fulfills all its multiple mandates to perfection. It thrills and amuses, enlightens and surprises. James Cambias has validated every SF novel that ever featured cutlasses in space.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May 2015

I find one favorite story in each of the publications reviewed this time.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #173-174, May 2015

There’s no obvious connection between the stories in Issue #173; both stories in #174, the better issue, are set on rivers bordering an otherland. I note an interesting contrast between these two tales: in one, the rules are of ultimate importance; the other is all about breaking them.

#173

“Out of the Rose Hills” by Marissa Lingen

Tirene, with her bodyguard Yelen, has ridden across the cloying rose hills to the city that is either Balfer or nameless, on a mission to hire mercenaries to support her family in their local civil conflict. Once there, they find a shadow woman following them, who contradicts everything they say, insisting that Tirene is a princess.

If ever in her life someone was going to mistake her for a princess, today should not be the day. And yet she had the sudden urge to lie, to tell them yes, absolutely, she was the princess, she was the princess foretold, anything, as long as they would come back with her through the rose hills and help.

The shadow woman is a pest, but what Tirene dreads most is riding back home through the roses. Yet it must be done; she has come for no other reason.

A quirky story that plays off some fairytale tropes in the person of the shadow woman, particularly suggesting an inversion in which a princess comes through the wall of roses to rescue some enchanted princes. Of course this, like everything the shadow says, is a lie, but it’s a sufficient reminder of how many tales involve roses, despite the fact that this is no fairy tale, and particularly how lethal they can be. I’m not especially fond of roses, but it’s not for the scent, it’s the thorns. Even with my most protective leather gloves, the things bite through. So I’m wondering just how these two adventurers manage to cross the rose hills without the legs of their horses being shredded to bone in the process. And whether the hills are there to keep travelers out of the city, or to keep the inhabitants in.

“The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” by Bill Powell

Yes, in the form of an operetta script, as I discern the burlesque affect of Gilbert and Sullivan.

SONG–VILLAGERS
(emphatic, even thumping)
VILLAGER 1: What’s all this? How remiss! What a social abyss!
  Our enamoured inventor in ignorant bliss!
VILLAGERS: A momentous event he has managed to miss!
  We’ll ensure he remains here as we reminisce.
VILLAGER 1: For in this very place, from the reaches of Space,
  We have coolly conferred with an alien race!
VILLAGERS: Yes, in this very place, with a grin on our face,
  We have cravenly cringed to an alien race.

In which Our Hero, Whitlock, being dismissed on the grounds of lateness from his position of tutor to the young lady he loves, decides to invent a time machine. Romantic comedy of errors ensues, complete with time travel paradoxing and crazy aliens. Exceedingly silly, with a difference.

#174

“Two to Leave” by Yoon Ha Lee

I’m always happy to see another example of this author’s elegant, measured prose. The piece here is a fantasy in which the mercenary narrator comes to a river bordering the parched lands, where the ferryman demands a toll: One to enter, two to leave.

I was no connoisseur of rivers, my main concern being whether I could pass them or not. But the waters sheened darkbright like a million rippling coins, melodies of light playing across the ripples. I was moved in spite of myself.

The payment demanded is in eyes, which is a common currency of the kind to which both the narrator and the ferryman belong. References to their thirst suggest a vampiric nature, but these are no clichés with cloak and fangs. What they have most in common is the transformation of their hearts into idiosyncratic weapons, crafted by the thirstsmith in the Forge Beneath the World. The narrator’s weapon is the Apiarist’s Gun; the nature of the ferryman’s weapon, and his mission, is part of the story’s mystery.

An original melding of several classic fantastic tropes, perhaps the strongest being the ferryman, a figure of ancient myth. But the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between the two deadly characters.

Among my people, the exchanging of hearts is very literal, and true reciprocity is rare. The old stories are full of fools who disarm themselves only to find their regard unreturned.

Delightfully done.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Warriors, the Mothers, the Drowned” by Kay Chronister

A journey-through-the-underworld tale, the underworld here being Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead. We have Ana carrying her daughter Sylvie to escape death, although it’s not quite clear whether the baby is actually still alive. They are followed by a nagual, a shapeshifter in the form of a coyote taking the role of the ferryman and psychopomp, insisting that Sylvie belongs among the dead. Ana, of course, refuses to give her up; she believes that if she manages to cross to the other side of the deadlands, the child will be saved.

The coyote smiles open-mouthed. Here is a game he knows how to win. He trots ahead, dragging a tail of thorn and goldenrod, then waits at the riverside for them to climb astride his back. He is a towering creature—his head comes to her chest—but somehow they both mount comfortably, Ana and her baby, swinging bare legs over his hoary sides. When he swims across the river and Ana is submerged up to her chest she feels coldness but not wet.

The story is a kind of mythic mashup, just as Ana’s heritage contains both Aztec and Catholic elements, with the coyote being the mystery character. In Aztec tradition, the psychopomp is a dog, but this nagual appears not to be a real coyote nor a real shapeshifter; more than anything, he seems to be a sort of god. As the title reminds us, in this mythos there are two distinct realms of the dead, and the one designated for warriors and women dying in childbirth is a much better place—heaven as contrasted to purgatory or hell. While Ana didn’t die in childbirth, somehow, the coyote insists, she doesn’t belong in the same deathland as her daughter; it’s not quite clear why, but it doesn’t really matter if Sylvie can’t go there too. Characters in fiction and myth often view themselves as exceptions to the rules, which is what this one is largely about.



Tor.com, May 2015

Including the last-posted story from April, the better piece of the independent adult fictions, relatively thin on the ground this month.

“Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh

The frame here seems science-fictional, with reference to a “Conceptual Machine-Space”, but within are three linked stories that can only be called fantastic, in which the concepts of circuitry and spellcasting blur into each other, and time loses linearity. It’s a mystery that compels individuals to follow it wherever it might lead. It could be said to begin in medieval Timbuktu, where a fantastic device had been first created, then concealed in the desert. Or perhaps in Italy, where the tiles paving the courtyard of an old church were decorated in a fantastic pattern, and one of them had been split in half. Or in the Gobi, where an engineer compelled to make a war machine for his captors finds the missing half of the tile.

It was inlaid with a pattern of great beauty and delicacy, picked out in black and cream on the gray background. An idea for the complex circuit he had been struggling to configure suddenly came together in his mind. Setting aside the tile, he returned to work. At last the machine was done, and tomorrow he would die.

Or it could be said to be the spirit uniting the individuals who encounter the design, a deep yearning for connection with others.

It’s lovely, mysteriously fantastic stuff, but I must say that I don’t care for the frame, in which students are urged to discover Significance in the individual accounts of the design. That there is significance to be found here is undeniable, but I don’t really think readers require reference to “the Compendium of Machine Anomalies, the Hephaestian Mysteries, and the Yantric Oracle” in order to discover it in themselves.

“Elephants and Corpses” by Kameron Hurley

Nev is a body mercenary, which means that in the course of his work he inhabits corpses that he purchases on the docks, if they’re not too far gone. Thus his skills include those of an undertaker, to preserve the goods and keep them in good condition until ready for use.

A body mercenary without a good stash of bodies was a dead body mercenary. He knew it as well as anyone. He’d found himself bleeding out alone in a field without a crop of bodies to jump to before, and he didn’t want to do it again. Every body merc’s worst nightmare: death with no possibility of rebirth.

This time, however, there’s a different kind of trouble, as an armed gang bursts into his workroom to steal the body he’s just purchased. It seems the corpse is a member of a religious cult, and incidentally his assistant’s sister. Now they’ve burned his workshop and gratuitously murdered his pet elephant, as well. Tera wants her sister’s body; Nev wants revenge for Falid.

Nice action-adventure premise, but the author has other things in mind, like psychoanalyzing Nev, which doesn’t work too well, because we don’t see why Nev has become what he is, alienated from other people. She also throws in a bit of sexual dysphoria, noting that Nev’s birth body was a woman’s. Did he take up body-jumping as a way to alter this? We don’t know, can only speculate. Is it a metaphor for transsexuality? That seems to be in here somewhere. A serious discussion about the immortality of the soul? Or maybe all of the above, hiding under the guise of a lite action piece.



Analog, July/August 2015

Following last month’s thousandth-anniversary issue, this time we have a double, featuring the first installment of a serial from the former editor, Stanley Schmidt. For me, the highlight is the novella from Adam-Troy Castro. Otherwise, the ToC has a very long list of very short stories.

“Sleeping Dogs” by Adam-Troy Castro

A psychological thriller, tense and edgy as a tight-wire crossing. The setting, which we see in the well-crafted opening scene, is a paradisiacal oceanic world where Draiken has come to retire and escape from his past working for the kind of agency that doesn’t trust its operatives wanting to quit. He’s adapted well to the place when an informant passes on the news that outworlders have come to town. Draiken recognizes the man who presided over his torture, decades ago, and attacks, certain they have sought him out at last. But the man insists his presence on the world is only a coincidence, that his former employers have entirely forgotten about Draiken and no one is hunting him. Draiken doesn’t believe it. He can’t afford to believe it or trust the promise of safety. And there are other outworlders hanging around town.

Here is a neatly constructed psychological trap. Draiken, we come to see, has been damaged by his experiences, living so long as a predator in an ocean full of predators and prey.

. . . the shape, more sensed than seen, continues to glide on past, and he belatedly recognizes it what it is: a bladderfish, essentially a big gas-filled balloon, big and round and mindless and no good for any purpose human beings know: not as food and not as bait and not even as a threat to be avoided. It is the illusion of danger, nothing more.

It is, he realizes decades too late, the very life he has lived on Greeve, personified by a creature with the brains of a sponge.

We also see, as he confronts this latest threat, that he’s getting old, can no longer swim as far or dive as deep as he once could. Now, at the end, he is faced with a choice: to believe at last that he’s safe, that he can now afford to make lasting human relationships and give up his constant life on the run. Or not. Or take another alternative. I must admit that when I finally see the choice he makes, I want to say, No! But this isn’t a flaw in the story; it’s a rational conclusion given the man that Draiken has become.

[I do have to wonder what passes for editorial oversight these days when I see phrases like: “the schools of silvery needlefish, traveling in schools so dense that light cannot be discerned in the spaces between them”. The story deserves better attention.]

–RECOMMENDED

“The Smell of Blood and Thunder” by Liz J Andersen

We’re informed by the opening infodump that the narrator is a veterinarian with a history of treating alien creatures for something called the Federation of Intelligent Life, although readers of the previous pieces in this series would already be aware of the fact. It seems this time that someone has unwisely created giant smartfleas. For some reason, the narrator regards this as an opportunity, since she has to figure out how to deal with the fleas, which now have the protection of being a sentient species. In short, a ridiculous premise, made even more so when she singlehandedly wrestles a bloodthirsty flea into submission. Fleas are remarkably strong organisms and this scene right away snaps the thread on my suspension of disbelief. I also wonder what happened to its exoskeleton, but not enough to call for an explanation, which I fear might be forthcoming.

The thought that there is an ongoing series of these things is quite depressing.

“The Tarn” by Rob Chilson

Opening a story to find a character named Gensifer Quat doesn’t do much to develop my confidence in it. This character is the arbiter of a town called Firkle Fountain, where the inhabitants have suddenly gone rushing off to investigate rumors of a treasure to be found at the bottom of Taunder Pond, which they explain to him in a patois that punctuates its sentences with “heh” or “ha”, and that about exhausts my patience. It is of course humor, and actually acquires some funniness toward the end, with the best line being, “I’m from the government in Zhuzianti. I’m here to help.” It’s also quite definitely fantasy, despite references to some fabled high-tech past in which the government takes an interest, due to the possibility of high-tech weapons.

“Breakfast in Bed” by Ian Watson

Max and his girlfriend Sandra are both on the geekish side, so they often have geekish discussions on such subjects as Max’s theory that the universe is only a high-order simulation. In the middle of one night, he suddenly finds himself touching Sandra with his hand under the cover of the duvet instead of on top of it—a shift in reality to which most people would probably pay little attention, but for Max, it inspires a flood of geekish speculation.

“It’s in undertime. Undertime has a different geometry to ordinary time. As it were! Instead of undertime having analogies to depth and width and length, it has energy or mass, same thing—and width and length. Of course this can only be expressed mathematically. But where does math come from? Does math preexist the Universe? Does math emerge from the Universe as the cosmos evolves during its very first microseconds? Or is math entirely invented by ourselves? Hypothetical armless aliens might have developed different math.”

Thus is born science fiction, and other weird things. A wild mental carnival ride. I like Max and Sandra, I hope they land safely, somewhere/when. And I like their crumb tray.

“Potential Side Effects May Include” by Marissa Lingen & Alec Austin

Regina is taking part in a clinical trial of an antianxiety brain implant. It takes some fine tuning, such as when her mother calls, but in general it seems like a good idea. Where can I sign up?

“In the Mix” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

Not so much a story as a premise: no one communicates with the written word anymore, it’s all video and direct emotion in the Mix. Sounds familiar.

“Guns Don’t Kill People” by Jacob A Boyd

Lurlene is a smartgun in a future with detailed bureaucratic oversight on her use.

She couldn’t not send a report. The Expansion satellite remained in orbit. It’d know her trigger was pulled. She had to file a report soon after, or submit to a deconstruction dispatch for insubordination.

But within these constraints, she possesses a certain amount of free will and autonomous judgment.

This is a bit much, but I find the situation in which she finds herself even more artificial.

“Pincushion Pete” by Ian Creasey

Pete is the founder and director of the Campaign Against Intellectual Discrimination. He likes the work and is devoted to the cause, as in his youth he had been of subnormal intelligence and suffered from discrimination before gene therapy patches boosted his abilities. Unfortunately, critics have gained access to his brain scan to show how many patches he’s downloaded, and they’re now accusing him of being a shill for the gene therapy industry. Bad publicity. His Board of Directors suggests he may be addicted to patches; they press him to take a leave of absence, during which he knows they will make changes he isn’t going to like.

An interesting premise, and I liked the twist at the conclusion.

“Tumbling Dice” by Ron Collins

Jupiter Kelly is a professional gambler, not a particularly successful one, who meets his true soulmate when Kaatji walks into the casino. Or rather, that’s how he sees her, but so does everyone else. This turns out to be Kaatji’s burden, and she has a plan to lift it, but the plan requires money.

She was going to change herself, was going to fix things, she was going to find something in the very molecular structure of her being she could tweak to make her stop releasing this wavefront of pheromones, or to stop creating this electric field from her nervous system, or whatever other thing the doctors said might be firing her constant come-hither beacon.

So far, what she’s accomplished gives her the ability to manipulate the dice. And Jupe knows that she’s switched the dice on him, knows she means to take his money, and he doesn’t care.

This is a love story, questioning whether two people can create true love from false premises. The thing is, I don’t care. Because both of them, especially Kaatji, prove to be ruthless manipulators who’ll sell out their own side for reasons purely selfish. If the casino goons catch up with this pair, my eyes will be dry. What I can’t quite figure, though, is whether this is what the author had in mind, or whether he thinks we should overlook the corruption in these too-well-matched hearts. But he seems pretty dismissive of the harm they’ve caused.

“Dreams of Spanish Gold” by Bond Elam

Seeing a beautiful young woman standing at the edge of the sea, an AI realizes he doesn’t know what it means to be human. It proves a disillusioning experience. The account is effectively done, but the metamorphosis is improbable. I also find it unconvincing that the AI would regard itself as “he” and suffer from some of the usual dysfunctions and jealousies of that sex. What the story means is that it doesn’t know what it means to be a man.

“Ashfall” by Edd Vick & Manny Frishberg

Emma and her family are itinerant beekeepers who deploy both hives of natural bees and robot bees to pollinate orchards and crops. A nearby volcanic explosion coats everything with ash, threatening to kill the natural bees, but some fortuitous programming saves the day. A typical SF problem story.

“Delivery” by Bud Sparhawk

An automated order/delivery service. Amazon should eat its heart out.

“The Narrative of More” by Tom Greene

One of those stories that open after they end in disaster, being fragments from the log of a “Fateful Mission” to a planet inhabited by a devolved human population with no social instinct or altruism.

Every one of them is suffering from what, in a normal population of Terranoids, would be diagnosed as any of several varieties of clinical depression and anxiety disorders. This appears to be their natural state. The outward calmness of their expressionless faces and bodies hides the fact that each of them lives in a continual purgatory of terror, uncertainty, and sadness.

The narrator, alone on this world, first attempts to reform them, then to discover the reason for the devolution. This is less a story than a fictional essay on human nature. The narrator deplores the possibility that this population might spread into the wider universe but seems quite OK with the ur-population of humanity doing so.



Asimov’s, July 2015

A very short number of longer stories in this zine, a distribution I always regard as promising, but this time my favorite is the shortest.

“Pollen from a Future Harvest” by Derek Künsken

The editorial blurb informs us that this one is related to a fine and fascinating previous story with a similar theme of alien life cycles and time travel. There are deep mysteries here. While Major Okonkwo audits the Expeditionary Force and the pollen problem, readers will be trying to make out the complex future universe in which the major lives and works. It’s a dense narrative, and the author doesn’t disclose information until he’s ready to do so.

So first of all, we have a human expansion into space that has discovered pre-existing wormholes; the states that control them are now great powers. The Sub-Saharan Union is a subject state of the Venusian Congregate, but it’s a restive subject. On a covert expedition into another territory, it’s discovered a world with a previously undiscovered pair of wormholes—a cosmic anomaly.

These double gates were small ovals, only a dozen meters wide and half that high, partially embedded in the ice of the planet. They were not only locked together, but unevenly so, like two picture frames hanging on the same hook. And they did not reach back and forth across space, but led from one to another in one direction only, backward in time by eleven years.

The Union immediately seizes this opportunity of controlling time travel to rebel from the Congregate and become an independent power. Officers on the Expeditionary Force suspected of loyalty to the Congregate have been arrested and held in detention while the Union forces consolidate their power and attempt to learn how to control the wormholes to allow transmission of information through time.

The nameless world happens to be occupied by another species that the humans call vegetable intelligences; these entities have already gained a measure of control over the paired wormholes. Individuals release their pollen on the future side, and eleven years later, it arrives where individuals are waiting to be fertilized. Pollen, of course, is a medium of encoding information. When the Union discovers that the flow of pollen from the future has suddenly ceased, they realize some disaster will have occurred. At the same time, a senior auditor has died on the world, and his wife, who is Major Okonkwo, is now dispatched with unlimited clearance to investigate the situation. Okonkwo hopes that in the course of her duties, she will learn what happened to her husband, whom she suspects was murdered. But was his death related to the problem of the wormholes? To the Union’s rebellion?

Auditors reacted to coincidences exactly opposite to the way scientists did. To a scientist, a coincidence meant nothing unless proven otherwise. To an auditor, a coincidence meant everything until proven otherwise. And she was swimming in coincidences.

Swimming indeed. Okonkwo and her auditing team uncover information at a rate that suggests attempting to drink from a firehose. There is the science of wormholes and time paradoxes, there are the botanical mysteries of the vegetable intelligences, and there is politics on multiple levels, with betrayals within betrayals. There is the disturbing possibility that the Expeditionary Force will have committed genocide on the vegetable lifeforms. And yes, there is the murder of Okonkwo’s husband, a subtle assassination. And a multitude of suspects, witnesses and red herrings. She unravels the knot in the end, but as a reader I sort of have to take her word for most of it, because of the density of the narrative. I would say, in fact, compressed, as if this were a novel’s worth of idea put through a compactor. I found the reading worthwhile, but it was a hard push through. The story would have befitted by greater length, giving its many ideas and characters more room to breathe and grow.

“Like Native Things” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tilda works for the military, head of a program that allows human controllers to take over animal minds through wetware patches.

That, really, was the secret to riding animals; if you understood their urges, you could manipulate them. A carefully managed animal could often be given a task that they would complete on their own, and that allowed you to ride more than one animal.

Or rather, it allowed Tilda to ride more than one. For most people and most situations, one animal took all the rider’s attention.

Through an elaborate ruse, a group of terrorist saboteurs take over her animals to attack a power station, and Tilda is the only one who can stop them.

It’s an interesting premise for a thriller, but I have to say the plotting comes pretty pat, with the enemy having more than its fair share of well-laid plans and the luck to keep them from gang agley.

“The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, Or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley” by David Gerrold

An alternate history based on the premise of abundant, cheap helium, so that the disasters attending hydrogen craft never came to pass. Accordingly, we find ourselves in 1937 aboard the great American airship Liberty, beginning its maiden cross-country voyage with a balloon full of celebrities. Everything is first-class.

The sheer size of those glass walls made it feel as if we were not within a vessel, but simply drifting along on an airy platform, as removed from the mundane cares of the world as the gods of Olympus—well, we were—but the sense of a heavenly condition was deliberate.We floated gracefully across the sky, trailing a massive shadow that traversed the ground below, a visible reminder of the Liberty’s astonishing size.

The narrator is an aspiring journalist now working as a steward to gather material on the famous and notorious of the day, which doesn’t include Hugo Gernsback, although he is present as an opportunity for the author’s in-jokes. Indeed, the voyage is mainly concerned with name-dropping the celebrities, of whom the narrator is most interested in the writers of the Algonquin Round Table, as they drink themselves across the continent and amuse themselves plotting a murder mystery onboard an airship, in which a steward is proposed in the role of the killer.

This would be a nostalgia piece for an era with celebrities and no Facebook or cell phones, except I wonder how many readers will know who these people once were. Robert Benchley? Who he? I don’t recall them personally myself, and the author is about my age, but I do remember the shadows of their reputations as in the form of New Yorker caricatures, lasting into the 1950s. Long shadows. The author does a pretty good job recreating this scene, known for its cleverness and wit, but often pickled in the alcohol of failure. Other than the fictional and speculative mystery scenario, there is no real plot, just a glitzy stage.

“Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen

Back in the 1960s, Barry was a writer for a weird and obscure TV show—low-budget fantastic stuff three or four dimensions out from The Twilight Zone. But he wasn’t the lead writer. That was a guy named David Findley, and Barry was just the guy who brought his imagination back to the set on Earth. Truth is, Barry was jealous of David—of his imagination and of the fact that he had a gorgeous, devoted wife whom David had left to become a screenwriter in Hollywood while Barry had to keep his own love in the closet. One day on the set a strange group of backwoods types showed up with Melody, David’s wife, having tracked him down to bring him back home. And David, when drunk enough, told a story that came right out of one of his scripts: that while looking for the moonshiners who sold him some bad stuff, he fell into a dark hole in an old stump.

“I fell for a long, long time—so long that I had dreams. The vibration of cold whispers on my ears. The tremble of fingers up and down my arms. Something with claws combing over my scalp. I smelled oceans from other places, imagined music played with water and leaves.”

Ever since, he’s believed he is now on the other side of that hole.

The story is Barry’s, not just in the sense of his being the narrator but because it’s about the way his encounter with David changed his life, as it changed David’s. In part, it’s a story of love, but in greater part it’s about the creativity that makes a writer. Despite this, there’s a light humorous tone, with a lot of stuff about the business of being a writer in the TV business. With the fantastic aspect, there’s ambiguity. Barry doesn’t at first believe David’s tall tale, but later, he starts to have doubts. Even if we reject it, the story is at least meta-fantastic because of the subject matter of the TV show.

“Petroglyph Man” by Rudy Rucker

Julio and Beatriz are trying to salvage their marriage on vacation in the cheaper part of Hawaii. Beatriz has boned up on volcanic rocks and ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, and Julio takes photos with the new app he works for; it modifies the photos in reaction to the user’s mood. But it turns out that taking a photo of the petroglyphs isn’t such a good idea.

A numbness percolated up Julio’s arm and into his head. It was like the Benthos app had ported itself into his brain. Installing itself as a low-level quantum computation. And now Julio was seeing through the Benthos app all the time. The petroglyphs were jiggling. Laughing at him.

I like the tight weave of this piece, with all the story elements working together. Like the Benthos app, the setting is full of elements that might turn sinister, depending on point of view. This isn’t a predictable author, and readers are likely to be apprehensive that sinister will turn into horror. I must say that Julio seems to be working harder at this marriage thing than Beatriz.

–RECOMMENDED

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Clive Barker

The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker (St. Martin’s 978-1-250-05580-4, $26.99, 368pp, hardcover) May 2015

It’s now thirty years on from the moment when Clive Barker burst into the consciousness of readers with his Books of Blood, story collections that signaled a new style of horror fiction for the latter portion of a twentieth century that had outpaced the older, staider modes of literary creepiness. That impressive launch has been matched, although arguably not surpassed, by his subsequent work, which has maintained a high standard of splattery shivers. Barker’s newest novel extends and caps his Hellraiser franchise with suitably gory glory.

This specific demonic universe of Barker’s began in 1986 with The Hellbound Heart, which quickly morphed from page to screen as Hellraiser. Readers and viewers were introduced to the Cenobites, an infernal order of malign and merciless beings, chief among whom was the now iconic Pinhead (a name which the creature detests, by the way, and wouldn’t you?). With eight films total, as well as some graphic novels, Pinhead’s story and mythology became highly ramified, and, not being utterly conversant with everything, I am no authority on the minutiae of Mr. Nail Brain’s continuity.

Now switch to another Barker protagonist, occult detective Harry D’Amour. He had cameos in some early work by Barker, but made his significant debut in the novel Everville, in 1994. Like Pinhead, D’Amour next jumped to film with Lord of Illusions in 1995.

Now, in The Scarlet Gospels, Pinhead and D’Amour go mano-a-mano, and of course only one of them can emerge victorious.

The book opens with Pinhead appearing vengefully before the last six master mages of Earth and slaughtering all but one of them in Grand Guignol style. (That survivor, Felixson, will go on to suffer a fate certainly worse than mere annihilation.) Now, this highly graphical foretaste of the carnal and psychical horrors to come will surely challenge readers who don’t normally go in for this type of fiction, and in fact such over-the-top carnage raises the tangential issues of torture porn, boundaries of good taste, etc. But although I myself often fall into that sector of readers who generally prefer my horror fiction to be more abstract and “refined,” I found myself sticking with the narrative, and gratified at the end of the book that I had persisted. Why? The answer, I think, relates to four qualities of Barker’s writing.

First, one has to respect Barker’s uncensored self-expression. His unfettered imagination is king. Basically, he is intent on taking all those somewhat glib Lovecraftian sentences such as “The demon had its way with the poor mortal” and unpacking them to show us what is really involved in such a throwaway line, making us reconsider our addiction to easy violence.

Second, is the quality of the writing. I am willing to forgive a lot when the prose is purty, and Barker can indeed craft a sweet sentence. “They looked like shadows thrown up on steam, their edges evaporating, their features scrawled on the air like an artist was working on the rain.” (Although the elitist in me does want to revise that to read “as if an artist were working on the rain.”)

Third is the fact that Barker is primarily a visual thinker. He sees and writes cinematically. His plot here (see below) is not particularly deep or complex or even original. His characters are believable but stock. What really matters to Barker are the visuals, and he is going to depict his eye candy and make you taste it through whatever tools are at his disposal, blunt or sharp. If you don’t want such visuals, you don’t want Barker at all, and might as well go read someone else.

Lastly, there’s the humor. Barker is not precisely serious about all of this. I defy you to read a line like the next quote and then deny that Barker’s tongue is considerably into his cheek. “Caz looked down at Dale and smiled coyly as he brushed a severed nipple off his shoulder.” (That’s a demon nipple, by the way, in case you were wondering.)

In any case, assuming you make it past Pinhead’s initial rampage, what do you encounter?

We next get familiar with occult detective Harry D’Amour and his posse. D’Amour is the latest in a long line of such supernatural-centric sleuths who can be seen most recently in places like DC Comic’s Constantine and Paul Cornell’s two most recent books. It’s a sturdy motif, and D’Amour fills the role nicely. When his pal Norma is abducted by Pinhead, D’Amour has no hesitation about following her to this infernal realm, with the assistance of his pals Caz, Lana and Dana.

We alternate between Harry’s POV and Pinhead’s, and while the human perspective contains much of interest and suspense, what’s really surprising is that Pinhead becomes something of a vaguely sympathetic antihero. It eventuates that our Cenobite Hell Priest in seeking to usurp Lucifer’s place, and their Miltonic battle shakes the very roots of the realm of the damned, with our human “Harrowers” scuttling about to survive, like shrews in the midst of battling dinosaurs.

It’s war in this venue that allows those extravagant visuals I mentioned. In Chapter 21 of Book Two, we get a long, vivid word-portrait of a giant aquatic Hell beast known as the Quo’oto. You think Barker has done all he can with the animal in that passage. Then, a hundred pages later, the Quo’oto literally resurfaces for a titanic climax with Lucifer. It’s Barker pulling out all the stops, ramping up the stakes and trying to outdo himself.

The fate of the human characters is unexpected and affecting as well. A nice touch is how Pinhead and D’Amour become complicit in each other’s schemes in a way. If you stare too long into the abyss, we know, the abyss will stare back.

With the painterly brio of H. R. Giger and Guillermo del Toro, and the transgressive flavor of some French antinovelist, Clive Barker splashes as much crimson on his gospels as the page will permit.

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.

Star-Crossed Horizon: A Review of Tomorrowland

by Gary Westfahl

In the final analysis, Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is a film that one yearns to love, but not a film one can actually love. In contrast to a superbly crafted piece of entertainment like Mad Max: Fury Road (review here), the film’s pacing sometimes seems awkward or hesitant, and its back story is poorly explained and not entirely logical. One wishes to argue that none of this really matters, that this film needs to be cherished and celebrated because of its resoundingly optimistic message about the future, driven home by an uplifting and emotionally powerful conclusion that constitutes by far the film’s best sequence; but sadly, the more one thinks about that message, the less resonant it seems.

Although director-writer Bird and writers Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen apparently wished to keep their audience baffled during the first part of the film, its developments are actually just as enjoyable if viewers understand what is going on. Long ago, at the 1889 Exposition Universelle which introduced Paris’s Eiffel Tower, a small group of visionaries, including Jules Verne, Thomas Alva Edison, and Nikola Tesla, came together to establish a secret society dedicated to achieving scientific and social progress outside the purview of a society that routinely impeded such initiatives. Gaining access to another dimension, this group constructed a wondrous city there, referred to as Tomorrowland, and launched a program to bring promising individuals, like the young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), into their world to assist them, using special pins with a “T” symbol to show them the way to Tomorrowland. However, disillusioned because Earth seemed to be turning its back on the future, they resolved to cut themselves off from ordinary humans and exiled an older, embittered Walker (George Clooney) back to Earth. When a bright youngster named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) belatedly learns of Tomorrowland’s existence, she joins one of its robot recruiters, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), and Walker in a quest to get to Tomorrowland and, not incidentally, save the Earth from imminent destruction. Much of this story unfolds with an appealing, childlike charm, as Newton picks up a pin and gazes in wonder at the tall towers of Tomorrowland and later marvels at its advanced technology; but it also transpires that the denizens of Tomorrowland maintain a team of human-like killer robots on Earth, designed to spring into action and slaughter anyone who does something that displeases them. Thus, whenever they attack, Walker, Newton, and Athena must pick up some futuristic weapons and stage their own robot demolition derby. (Officially, the film’s robots are called “Audio-Animatrons” or “A.A.’s,” employing Disney’s term for the robots deployed in their theme parks.)

While one could say that Tomorrowland is engaging because of its novel and unpredictable plot, the film exists, clearly, not because it was a story that Bird felt compelled to tell, but because it presented an argument he felt compelled to convey. Decades ago, as illustrated by the exhibits at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, people looked forward to a wonderful future of gleaming white cities with soaring skyscrapers, elevated monorails, regular space travel, the peaceful use of atomic energy, and helpful scientific gadgetry. Such dreams of an attractive “retrofuture” were featured in the works of inventor and science fiction pioneer Hugo Gernsback, whose name actually comes up in the film – bizarrely, as the name employed by one of the homicidal robots; and related hopes for a future world of people from different cultures interacting harmoniously were embedded in the ride introduced at that World’s Fair, It’s a Small World, which young Walker briefly experiences. However, the film’s central image of these antiquated but appealing visions of tomorrow is the jetpack. In the opening scenes, young Walker is attempting to win a prize for inventions with his own jetpack, made out of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, that unfortunately never really flies; when he gets to Tomorrowland, though, he is delighted when its robots repair his jetpack and enable him to soar through the air. Later, during Newton’s tour of Tomorrowland, she watches three teenagers flying with jetpacks; when one has a mishap, an ingenious device – a suit that inflates to function like an airbag – protects him from harm. And when the adult Walker engages in his final battle with Tomorrowland’s leader, Governor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), he again dons a jetpack to save the day.

Today, however, images of a future filled with happy, flying people seem outdated, the film argues, for as our news reports and popular culture relentlessly emphasize dark, catastrophic futures, people no longer believe in, or seek to achieve, a better tomorrow of scientific wonders and social harmony; indeed, instead of being inspired to avoid the apocalypse, people have embraced it – “gobbled it up like a chocolate éclair,” according to Nix. In the film, contemporary society’s relentless pessimism is actually about to cause humanity’s demise, unless dogged optimists like Walker and Newton intervene to prevent disaster and restore hopefulness to the world. And the film’s final image, after the closing credits, of a hand reaching for a Tomorrowland pin conveys the explicit hope that filmgoers will leave the theatre inspired to follow in their footsteps.

While preparing their film, Bird and his colleagues could not have known that the film would be opening one week after Mad Max: Fury Road, but Tomorrowland can readily be interpreted as a response to, and a repudiation of, George Miller’s film and others like it. How appalling!, Nix might say after watching Mad Max: Fury Road; they have taken a nightmare vision of a world devastated by nuclear war and an energy crisis and transformed it into a setting for diverting adventures! (A fictional film of this kind is advertised on the film’s billboards: ToxiCosmos 3.) Rather than recoiling from Armageddon, Nix would continue, these films demonstrate that the people of Earth have embraced it – and hence, Armageddon is precisely what they deserve. Making an analogy to the doomed Titanic, Nix even maintains that people are content to “steer to the iceberg anyway – because you want it.”

But none of this makes any sense. After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, no one leaves the theatre thinking, “Gee, I guess we don’t have to do anything to avoid running out of oil or launching a nuclear war; in fact, I hope those disasters occur as soon as possible so I can get to live in Mad Max’s wonderful world.” In other words, the mere fact that people enjoy films and video games that take place in horrible future societies doesn’t mean that they love those societies or are looking forward to inhabiting them; in fact, stark scenarios of coming catastrophes might inspire people to want to prevent them – might inspire them much more than visions of a future city with towering buildings. After all, George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) not only because he feared a future totalitarian society, but because he hoped that his readers might be persuaded to take action to avoid that outcome; one can argue that Mad Max: Fury Road and similar films have the same, quite optimistic intent.

In decrying our society’s preoccupation with disastrous futures, Tomorrowland even seems a bit hypocritical. Consider the amount of time that the film devotes to images of its placid, idyllic Tomorrowland, and the amount of time it devotes to images of people destroying robots with ray guns, bombs, and force fields; one doesn’t need a stopwatch to figure out that the latter scenes take up more screen time. People battling for their lives in desperate situations are entertaining; people calmly embarking upon a peaceful journey into space are boring. Our purported predilection for disaster, in other words, may simply reflect our predilection for drama and conflict, the essence of all storytelling. Further, the film itself, arguably, is expressing deep pessimism about the future, as a group once led by starry-eyed idealists like Verne and Edison devolves into a group headed by a bloodthirsty tyrant, determined to kill anyone who opposes him and willing to calmly watch and do nothing while Earth is destroyed. In its own way, then, Nix’s Tomorrowland has become just as dystopian as Mad Max: Fury Road’s Citadel. One might respond that Tomorrowland does end on a very hopeful note; then again, so does Mad Max: Fury Road.

One can also criticize the notion that virtually nobody in the world is now making any effort at all to “fix the world,” except for a very few “special” people like Walker and Newton. In fact, there are innumerable individuals today who are devoting their lives to stopping nuclear proliferation, preventing global warming, avoiding famine, and alleviating poverty, and they may be distressed to watch this film and be informed that they do not exist. And although the film vehemently condemns NASA for ending its manned space flight program, it fails to note that several private companies and foreign governments remain dedicated to sending people into space, so the world is hardly abandoning this form of progress. (Amusingly, the film’s closing credits include a statement that while NASA “cooperated” with the makers of this film, they did not “endorse” its “contents.” In other words, some people at NASA were terrified that they might be chastised by Obama administration officials if they appeared to align themselves with a film that opposed one of their decisions.)

Still, despite the work that is being done, one can reasonably say that not enough people are now striving to achieve a better future; that is, the film’s concerns may be exaggerated, but they cannot be entirely dismissed. It has become commonplace to complain that contemporary science fiction has grown overly pessimistic, and while a touch of dystopia might be a necessary element in effective storytelling, an overemphasis on dystopia might be discouraging to a few people who might otherwise have chosen to address the world’s problems. Nix, who at times is allowed to seem more misguided than evil, makes a telling point when he argues that people are comfortable with a catastrophic future because “that future doesn’t ask anything of you today”; and in contrast to their hard-working ancestors who endured the Great Depression and won World War II, many modern citizens do seem less willing to take on difficult tasks, like fixing the world. Along with effort, solving the world’s problems also requires imagination, as Walker acknowledges near the end of the film: “it isn’t hard to knock down a big evil building. What’s hard is figuring out what to build in its place.” And, in an increasingly interconnected world, individuals may be finding it more and more difficult to think outside the box. In sum, maybe we do need more stories and films that would encourage people to be a bit more hopeful, a bit more energetic, a bit more creative, and even if Tomorrowland, as noted, sometimes seems to be overplaying its hand, it still might be praised as a heartening alternative to standard Hollywood fare.

Yet today, when given hundreds of millions of dollars to make profitable films, directors cannot entirely avoid the conventions of standard Hollywood fare – which explains the stark contrast between the quiet, affecting film that Bird might have wanted to make, and the flawed film that he actually ended up making. At the heart of Tomorrowland is this simple story: a group of enlightened individuals, to avoid the distractions of turbulent times, resolve to isolate themselves from the world in order to maintain and improve human society. Occasionally, they bring in new recruits to join their benevolent efforts. One virtuous individual becomes part of their world and is delighted to be in the company of like-minded people striving to achieve progress; and though he soon leaves, he later resolves to return to this enclave, eventually to serve as its leader. As it happens, this story has been told before; for shorn of a few complications, this is not only Frank Walker’s story, but also the story of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon and its 1937 film adaptation, directed by Frank Capra, now enshrined as a classic.

But simple stories do not get the green light today, so complications had to be introduced. It was not necessarily harmful to introduce the character of Casey Newton as Walker’s young female counterpart, though it did mean that the film effectively ended up telling the same story twice: in the prologue and in flashbacks, we see how Athena recruited Walker, and in the first hour of the film, we see how Athena recruited Newton (admittedly, in an entirely different fashion). More deleterious was the nonsensical insertion of all those killer robots. When Walker returns to Tomorrowland, Nix shakes his hand, greets him as an old friend, and treats him humanely; it is never explained why he had previously ordered his robots to murder Walker. For that matter, there is no logical motive for the robots’ attempts to track down and destroy Athena, since any individual she recruits can never get to Tomorrowland anyway or do anything that would bother its residents. And as already explained, all of this gratuitous robot violence badly undermines the film’s inspirational message. However, as reviewers observe with depressing regularity, expensive sci-fi films must include their quota of punches, pistols, and pyrotechnics, and I suppose one must admire Bird for limiting the carnage to three extended battle scenes.

As a final aside, one should also praise Bird for a scene in which he pays tribute to some of his film’s noteworthy precursors: seeking information about her Tomorrowland pin, Newton visits a Houston store, Blast from Your Past, that is filled with memorabilia from old science fiction films. Given the prominence of robots in Tomorrowland, it is not surprising to see statues of several famous film robots, including Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956), R2-D2 from the Star Wars films, and Bird’s own The Iron Giant (2004); a prominently displayed poster for the 1945 horror film Dead of Night may reference the film’s most renowned sequence, the story of a ventriloquist’s dummy that comes to life, which might be regarded as a sort of robot. But one also hears the voice of Neil Armstrong on the Moon – part of what I have argued was the ultimate spacesuit film – and one observes other Star Wars items – Stormtroopers and a frozen Han Solo; a Donald Duck toy; some piece of Planet of the Apes merchandise; and a poster for The Black Hole (1979), Disney’s first, and most disastrous, effort to make an expensive science fiction film. By having Newton place her Tomorrowland pin on that poster, Bird may have simply been inserting a plug for a film that Disney is now planning to remake, or he may have been expressing fears that his film might become another box-office disaster. It is not a fate that this much better film deserves; but in the real world, unlike the world of this film, being a visionary optimist is not always rewarding.

Gary Westfahl has published 24 books about science fiction and fantasy, including 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 (here). He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books, and he has appeared in two nationally televised documentaries. His new book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, is now available.

Liz Bourke reviews Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis (Orbit 978-0-316-24800-6, $17.00, 480pp, tp) March 2015.

After his debut trilogy, the Milkweed Triptych, I think it’s safe to say that Ian Tregillis is a writer with a reputation for the bleak and unnerving, but with a reputation for talent, as well. The Mechanical is his fifth novel, after 2013’s standalone Something More Than Night. It’s the opening volume in a new series, and it lives up to Tregillis’ reputation – both parts of it.

The Mechanical opens in the Binnenhof in the Hague, at the site of a public execution. It’s immediately clear that this is a world deeply different from our own: not only is the Hague the seat of a Dutch Empire instead of a Republic (with a queen instead of a Staten-Generaal), but it is an empire whose inhabitants possess mechanical servitors – Clakkers – who are self-aware but constrained from free will by the alchemy and magic that the Guild of Clockmakers puts into their making. We’re introduced to the Clakkers from the point of view of one of their own, Jax, who’s present – despite the geas that compel him – because he wants to witness the execution of several French agents and, more importantly, a rogue Clakker – one of the legendary few who attain free will and flee.

‘‘Clockmakers lie’’ are the rogue Clakker’s dying words.

But – as we come to see – in The Mechanical, everyone lies. The Clockmakers and the Dutch, the Clakkers, and perhaps most especially the Catholic French, whose small besieged territory in New France (somewhere in Canada) is the last holdout against the mighty Dutch, and whose papist doctrine of Free Will – even for mechanicals – is anathema to the Clockmakers. In the Hague, the conscience of priest and undercover French spy Luuk Visser drives him into the very heart of the Clockmakers’ power to commit acts for which he will pay a terrible personal price. While in Marseilles-in-the-West, infamous spymaster Talleyrand – Beatrice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord – deceives her monarch in the cause of fighting the Dutch, and is deceived in her turn, with bloody and disastrous consequences.

As Jax finds himself suddenly, astonishingly, possessed of free will and Visser finds himself deprived of it, Beatrice – exiled from New France, no longer Talleyrand – sets out on a personal quest for vengeance deep into Dutch territory. If she can fuck up the Dutch war effort along the way, so much the better.

Tregillis screws his characters’ lives up in interestingly horrible ways. The Mechanical is a touch on the gruesome side in parts: if detailed descriptions of eye injuries bother you, or non-consensual brain surgery makes your stomach turn over, you should probably know going in that these are things that occur in The Mechanical, and they might not be the most gruesome things to take place.

The Mechanical is an excellent novel. Truly excellent: I have rarely found myself this gripped by a book which I began knowing full well there could be no happy outcome. (However I did distract myself by wanting to nitpick the logistics of a mechanised workforce: where are all the poor people and what are they doing now? And, for that matter, what happened to everything that wasn’t French or Dutch?) At the climactic points, I had to pause and walk away for moments at a time, because the intensity of the tension became nerve-wrackingly hard to bear. Tregillis has an excellent eye for characterisation, and a master’s grasp of how to build tension to a breaking point: the sheer narrative drive here, the way in which the storylines of the three point-of-view characters support and reinforce the tension in each other, is a thing of beauty.

I can’t escape the feeling that it’s shaping up as a long arc tragedy – in the classic sense of tragedy – for all of its protagonists, but it is immensely well done. I’m very much on board to see what happens next.

Even though it’s probably going to horrify me more.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May

A bunch of shorter publications in which I find little to be very enthusiastic about.

Publications Reviewed



Lightspeed, May 2015

Finally ending [or so it seems] Hughes’ “Erm Kaslo” serial, with the rest of the original fiction on the short and weak side.

“Time Bomb Time” by C C Finlay

Hannah’s boyfriend is messing around with his time bomb in her dorm room. Boring relationship argument ensues. The boring argument contains numerous references that would clue in the reader to the nature of the plot twist, if any readers can push through the tedium to pay attention.

“Mouth” by Helena Bell

When Ann was five years old, she slapped her baby brother and his mouth flew off his face. She didn’t know how to put it back and it went bad, so she finally threw it out. When she grew older, she learned how to put stuff back, but she didn’t always do it. There’s a suggestion that some of this is the product of her imagination, but her brother really doesn’t have a natural mouth, so we really do have to take the premise literally. The point of all this absurdity seems to be that people don’t listen to what other people tell them, but it might be something else.

“The Myth of Rain” by Seanan McGuire

Drought has moved north from California as the rich move ahead of it, taking over.

Protection for endangered species and habitats wasn’t as important as space for homes and cities and jobs. Commerce and trade were coming to the Pacific Northwest, whether we wanted them or not, despite our protests that they had been here all along. State legislators looked at a sky that was black with crows and said, “The wildlife is doing fine without our help.”

Julie is part of a team of environmentalists gathering up as many specimens of endangered species as they can before the construction crews move in. She knows her quest is doomed to failure, but she has to try.

An angry, overtly political work in the mode If This Goes On.



Strange Horizons, May 2015

The fiction here is psychological, with some of the insights casting light but not much excitement.

“The Pieces” by Teresa Milbrodt

A relationship story, here mainly the relationship between father and daughter. A short, surreal fantasy in which the narrator’s father has literally fallen apart, his various segments lying around the living room. This doesn’t stop him from being difficult and critical, as usual. His wife says he’s having a mid-life crisis. The narrator takes him, head and torso at least, out for coffee.

Dad has never been good at expressing that concern in a way that makes me want to do anything but push back. And now he’s a head and two blocks of torso stacked on top of each other. For once I am in control.

Minor catharsis ensues in this altogether minor story, in which the realization of the metaphor is about the whole of it.

“Cloth Mother” by Sarah Pauling

Earth died. As resources ran out, authorities rapidly mobilized to send habitats stocked with embryos into orbit where they would be safe until the planet was ready for recolonization. As this time approached, the AIs running the habitats attempt to hatch and raise a child who could raise the others. These efforts didn’t always succeed, but Mazie was more acceptable than most. Now the Revitalization, with the aid of a subroutine filling the function of mother, must raise and educate the child to be as good and empathetic human as possible, consistent with a limited energy budget. As she approaches maturity, Mazie takes a more active role in her own preparation, having studied enough psychology to manipulate her caretakers.

“They did experiments on monkeys,” she said. “Do you know what happens to monkeys when they grow up alone in a pit without other monkeys, Vita?”

An interesting piece about child development. The title, which the author tells us in case we don’t get it on our own, recalls the classic Harlow experiment with baby monkeys; the AI Vita is the wire money who provides sustenance, but the mother simulation is the cloth monkey who approximates love. The conclusion is optimistic; readers can assume the programming succeeded, as Mazie claims.

“By Degrees and Dilatory Time” by S L Huang

Marcus has had bad luck and good luck in his life. Bad luck ended his career as a competitive skater because artificial implants aren’t allowed in sport, and now it’s taken his eyes with cancer. The good luck is the technology that can replace damaged joints and eyes. He undergoes the surgery. He recovers, physically. He recovers mentally, too, but that takes more time. In the end, “It’s just . . . life. Like everything else.”

The plot here is minimal. It’s a contemplative work, following Marcus through the stages of disease and recovery; it’s an insightful work. I’m not sure we learn a whole lot about Marcus, who he was and is, but the insights have value.



Apex Magazine, May 2015

A rather more promising issue, although in all of the stories I keep tripping over facty flaws that prevent them from being what they might have been.

“Remembery Day” by Sarah Pinsker

In the aftermath of a particularly painful war, veterans everywhere have agreed to the imposition of the Veil, a collective mental block that prevents them from remembering. Once a year, however, in fullness of recollection, they gather in parade to revote the issue. The story is told from the point of view of Clara, whose mother is a disabled veteran. We see how carefully and lovingly they prepare her uniform for the event, how proudly they applaud her service, and how eagerly Clara waits for the opportunity to question her about those lost years. “Maybe I’d get to know the other Mama, too: the one who remembered my father, who had died before I was born. The one who could someday tell me whether it had been worth everything she had lost.”

Another story where sentiment predominates, evoking sympathy for veterans and the trauma they’ve suffered in war. The story suggests that this last war’s trauma has finally been the cause of ending all wars; the flags of all nations are flown, and all the old uniforms have been abandoned for common use, reserved for this day alone. But I find myself with more questions than are answered here. The premise seems to be a degree of trauma so universally great that survivors would choose to forget—not only the trauma itself but all that part of their lives. And the text makes clear that this isn’t voluntary, that the Veil isn’t limited to those veterans who choose this drastic amputation of memory. Some, as we see, vote every year to lift the Veil, but they are overruled by the majority. In short, it seems that this treatment must be involuntary, compulsory, universal.

I note that the presence of pressed uniforms and polished boots suggests a 20th-century, 3rd-generation model of warfare, with armies formally-organized and controlled by states. It doesn’t seem likely that any near-future war on that model would have altered the proportion of rear-echelon troops to those relatively few on the front lines, who suffer the brunt of the trauma. And of these, the survivors are relatively few. Yet it would seem that the scenario here condemns even the minimally-traumatized and untraumatized veterans to this compulsory mental amputation, which would be extreme.

Furthermore, in more recent wars, both 3rd and 4th generation, trauma has been widely extended to include civilian populations, who are the primary victims of terrorism. Rape, for example, is now acknowledged as a weapon of war. Bombing is randomized and its damage collateralized. Yet we see no sign in this story that these victims are accorded the benefits, such as they might be, of a veiled memory. In short, the entire premise doesn’t seem particularly thought-through.

I also have to consider the well-known axiom: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This suggests that the unremembered war of the story is unlikely to be the last.

“Wildcat (From the Secret Diary of Donna Hooks)” by David Bowles

At the beginning of the 20th century in the American Southwest, the eponymous narrator is a woman outside the prevailing norms, being feminist, divorced, and a practitioner of witchcraft [a gringa santera]. When her farmhands shoot a wild jaguarundi shapeshifter, concern is raised over her kits, who will grow up fully neither human nor cat without intervention.

“Problem is they don’t know they are human. Right now their tonal, their animal soul, it’s in charge. How you’re going to get them to understand, gringa witch? How you’re going to awaken the human soul and get it to take charge? The older they get, the harder it’s going to be to put them down. Can’t release them: their personhood would twist inside them, make them mankillers. So what’s the solution, Miss Donna?”

She succeeds in transforming the two female kits, but the sole male is a harder case.

Overall, this is a successful piece, and for the most part my objections could be characterized as nitpicking. It’s remotely conceivable, for one, that Donna Holt in 1918 could have taken the title of “Ms”, first known to be proposed in 1901, although less conceivable that her farmhands would have used it. And it’s also conceivable that her teacher, an adept in Obeah, might have used the Chinese term chi for the “divine spark”, but I’m dubious. The jaguarundi, on the other hand, is a small cat, in the general size range of the housecat. A chicken-coop raiding cat, certainly, but slaughtering three full-sized horses? Even for a creature of sorcery, I’m not buying it. The cumulative effect of these unlikelihoods diminishes the author’s authority and my acceptance of the story.

“A Sister’s Weight in Stone” by J Y Yang

The setting is a fantasy alternative China in a fantasy late 19th-century, where the livelihood of a silk-farming village is being destroyed by an oceanic infestation of dragon-worms.

. . . the seas across the warmer parts of the world seemed to churn with their gelatinous bodies, serrated teeth destroying everything in their path. Fishermen’s boats went out in the morning and came back empty driftwood torn with holes. Stilt houses fell whole into the sea with their occupants, foundations razored away to nothing. Coastal cities closed their ports to all but airships and erected walls to keep hungry mouths away from the soft flesh of populace.

The old women claim that the dragon-worms are the servants of the great dragon princes of the sea, and indeed we get no other explanation for them. But with the silk trade failing, the young people have been forced to leave the village to seek work elsewhere. Little Phoenix and her sister Jade are on their way to Singapore in an airship when Jade falls overboard and passengers see her taken below the waves by a dragon prince. Once in Singapore and working on a construction crew, Little Phoenix attempts to scry out her sister and discover a way to earn her release.

OK, I’m finding facty problems again. Silkworking is a delicate, skilled occupation. It takes meticulous care to unwind the threads from the cocoons and weave them into fabric, thus an occupation requiring delicate dexterity, not calloused, scraggy hands that would snag the threads, as rough labor produces. The women of the village have devoted their lives to this weaving, to the point of lifelong celibacy. Sitting in front of a loom handling fine, gossamer strands is the very opposite of the heavy labor that the authors suggests they are engaged in, carrying bales of silk, and I really doubt it prepares the women for the heavy labor of hauling bricks and quarried stone.

Aside from this, the author hasn’t laid a groundwork for the eventual conclusion, so that it comes as an unpleasant surprise; readers may feel misled, as viewers might have felt decades ago, seeing Bobby Ewing step out of his shower. And it also leaves us without an explanation for the dragon-worms.



Shimmer, May 2015

Four stories about women in various stages of life. The most interesting one is the Wallace. Readers, however, might prefer more diversity.

“The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars” by Kali Wallace

Doing natural history in the far Southern Ocean. Aurelia has come to Asunder Island because her parents once did, as they circumnavigated the globe and explored strange regions while their daughter waited in London for their letters. During that visit, they observed the Summer Star at the observatory on the island, the only one situated sufficiently south for the purpose, and Aurelia is determined to defend their conclusions against fatuous skeptics.

The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

The setting is apparently some time in the 19th century, and although later than O’Brien’s Stephen Maturin, we can see much of the spirit of that era’s scientific exploration into unknown seas. I note that, as readers of O’Brien know well, sailors of the time, relying on celestial observation for navigation, were far from uneducated in this field. Aurelia, of course, is an early feminist, resolved to go her own way, albeit with the chaperonage of a convenient aunt. As for the Southern Star, from the description of its movements, readers will suspect it to be something like an orbiting spacecraft.

So the story would seem to be a piece of retro science fiction, and as such, I find certain aspects problematic. If the study of this anomalous star were so important, why didn’t the observatory’s builder conduct a proper survey of it, one that would withstand skeptical opposition, rather than leaving it to random travelers who, like Aurelia, come for a single night of observation and then sail away? This behavior on her part is quite inexplicable. She’s sailed thousands of miles to reach this destination, and she only plans to spend a single, very short, night making her measurements of the star’s motion? The text makes it clear it’s not the case that the star is visible for only a single night in a year. She should have come with scientific instruments and sufficient supplies to last the whole season instead of knocking on the door of a hovel and expecting accommodation from their destitute inhabitants. It makes no sense, and if this were all there was to the story, I wouldn’t think so much of it.

But it’s not all there is. There is a fantasy so powerful that Aurelia almost forgets entirely to look through her telescope. Besides the observatory, Asunder Island is the home of a population of Atrox*, fierce black birds of unknown origin [although the text hints they are connected to the star], who live in a volcanic chasm that evokes the subterranean worlds of Jules Verne.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

The scant human population is intimately connected to the birds, their huts all the mouths of tunnels leading down into the chasm. The only one who will speak to Aurelia is a girl who is clearly much older than her appearance would imply; one of her limbs is a wing. She tells Aurelia a strange tale that she claims was related to her by Aurelia’s mother when she came to the island, a tale of growing wings and flying away from a world that holds men, only returning for the sake of her daughter. At the end, it’s the truth of her mother that Aurelia discovers on the island, not stars or birds. Still, it’s an awfully long trip to realize she needs to come back again and do it right, as she should have done in the first place.

[*]The name means “fierce”, although it feels like only part of a proper binomial scientific designation, with the genus missing. But that would suggest these birds have a place in the terrestrial chain of life.

“The Mothgate” by J R Troughton

The gate stands between the worlds, opening when night comes, to let the monsters pass through. Mama Rattakin has been teaching Elsa all her life to stand guard and shoot them as they come through the gate to attack humans.

Emerging from the trees, glistening in the moonlight as they danced, came the witika. Sylph-like figures covered in pale robes who spun and twirled as they sang, stepping closer and closer. Their long white hair flowed like rivers of snow, swaying about their hips. Each of their heads nodded along to the song in perfect synchronicity.

It’s a cyclical story with fairy tale elements, although the characters hope one day to end the cycle by learning enough about their enemies to close the gate. Pretty standard stuff.

“Good Girls” by Isabel Yap

Sara’s new roommate at the Good Girls Reformation Retreat is a Filipina named Kaye, who isn’t there because she’s a manananggal, because the authorities don’t know this. Monsters of her sort fly around at night with the lower halves of their bodies left behind, looking to suck the fetus from a pregnant woman’s belly. Sara, in contrast, only fantasizes about killing babies but doesn’t actually do so. Still, the two of them get along pretty well. “Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.”

YA horror, more explicit than usual, with the fetus-sucking thing, but this is all from the folklore, not the author’s creation.

“In the Rustle of Pages” by Cassandra Khaw

A fantasy world in which people turn into buildings, a condition called “city-sickness” that confers immortality. Zhang Yong is becoming a bookstore. His wife, Li Jing, is immune to the condition, but they’ve promised each other they’ll remain together until the end. Unfortunately, their interfering grandchildren, full of filial dogoodery, are determined to put her into a care home for her own good.

She knows from experience they won’t relent until she is subdued. So Li Jing nods meekly instead, dispenses ‘maybes’ with shrugs, hoping against reason that indecision will outlast her grandchildren’s persistence. She sighs as they close in on her, allowing the tide of their words to wash over her like foam on a distant shore, carrying away talk of relocation, complex treatments, and futures she stores no interest in.

A story of love and family, heartwarming to the extent readers can buy into the premise.

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

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

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

Mad Maxine and Her Marvelous Machines: A Review of Mad Max: Fury Road

by Gary Westfahl

I must begin by acknowledging that my memories of the first three Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior) (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – are fading and fragmentary, so I cannot provide a detailed exegesis on how this fourth film continues, expands upon, or contradicts its precursors. Yet I suspect that most of the people now buying tickets to see Mad Max: Fury Road have never seen the earlier films, as my interactions with contemporary college students indicate that young people are generally unaware of any films released more than twenty years ago. So, George Miller’s new installment of the Mad Max saga must stand entirely on its own, and for the most part it does so remarkably well. The film’s first hour is an enthralling thrill ride featuring men and women rapidly driving a variety of vehicles across the desert while battling with numerous weapons and with their fists, and if the equally well-executed second hour seems less successful, that may simply be because viewers have been exhausted by all of its nonstop action; perhaps this is a film best watched in two sittings. And those seeking intellectual as well as physical stimulation will find that the film’s dystopian future society is interestingly in dialogue with a modern world that no longer shares the concerns that inspired the original series.

The film retains the back story that was first explained fully in the second film: conflicts over diminishing oil reserves have led to a global nuclear war which devastated the landscape and shattered the fabric of civilization; the survivors have mostly gathered into isolated tribes, distinguished by colorful costumes and strange rituals, who employ whatever gasoline they can garner to maintain their rusting cars and motorcycles and violently prey upon outsiders. Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former police officer maddened by memories of the daughter he could not save from marauders, wanders alone through the countryside, ostensibly devoted solely to his own survival but regularly impelled to assist others. Here, he is captured by the “Warboys” who reside in the Citadel, controlled by ruthless dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he is caged to function as a human blood bank for the ailing Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But through a series of contrivances, he escapes and joins Immortan Joe’s rebellious driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her effort to escape from the ruler’s clutches, along with the five young women he had imprisoned to serve as his “breeders.”

While staging the film’s intricately choreographed battles was undoubtedly director George Miller’s main priority, he was also attentive to presenting a detailed portrait of a completely transformed world. Each tribe has its own, imaginatively distinctive style of clothing, regalia, and weaponry; indeed, while watching the film, it occurred to me that it had the same narrative structure as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900): a woman seeking to return home is assisted by male companions as they journey through strange new realms and encounter diverse characters – the difference being that these diverse characters are all armed to the teeth and poised to slaughter visitors. And the rare quiet moments in the film are often memorable. The opening scene, featuring a two-headed lizard that Max steps on and devours, speaks volumes about the grim realities of living in an irradiated world. (Later, Nux drives home the same point by eating a bug.) Because cows are presumably unavailable, Immortan Joe obtains milk by pumping it out of large-breasted women, a scene that will remind a few viewers of the similar setup in Piers Anthony’s story “In the Barn” (1972). While Max and Furiosa are traveling through a murky landscape haunted by crows, we briefly observe two people walking on stilts attached to their arms and legs, making them resemble elevated four-legged creatures. And when their vehicle is bogged down in mud, Nux tells his comrades that there is dry land “just beyond that thing”; a woman explains, “he means ‘tree’” – telling us that people are now growing up without any knowledge of trees.

While Mad Max: Fury Road is thus successful on many levels, one had to question, when the repeatedly postponed fourth Mad Max film finally began filming in 2011, whether its story would still resonate with twenty-first century audiences. After all, the earlier films had arguably succeeded by merging two of the nightmare scenarios that had haunted the 1970s. First was the fear of a global nuclear war, which had diminished since the 1950s but had never entirely vanished; second was the realization, after the oil crisis of 1973, that the world was utterly dependent upon a finite resource, oil, that might be depleted in the future, so that civilization might someday collapse if we did not begin to aggressively exploit alternate sources of energy. These are the problems that primarily afflicted Mad Max and his compatriots in the earlier films, as the atomic bombs had destroyed most of humanity’s structures and technology and rendered much of the land uninhabitable, and survivors had to fight for increasingly scarce supplies of oil in order to maintain a semblance of civilized society.

Today, few people are actively worried about a nuclear war or an energy crisis: the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s seemingly eliminated the possibility of a World War III, and even if Vladimir Putin sometimes behaves badly, no one imagines that this will inspire world leaders to launch their nuclear weapons. And scientists proved unexpectedly resourceful in locating new reserves of oil, and unexpectedly ingenious in devising new methods for extracting oil from the ground, so our supplies of oil remain ample, and most people are confident that the energy crisis has been indefinitely postponed. These shifting attitudes necessarily influenced the film: there are no overt references to nuclear war, and signs of the effects of radiation are minimal – the tiny lizard (and many viewers will not notice its two heads), the tumors on Nux’s shoulder, a tiny dwarf, and people with missing limbs (perhaps due to war wounds, not mutations). And no one in the film seems particularly worried about lacking gasoline, which seems much more plentiful than it was in the other films. True, Furiosa at one point seeks to obtain safe passage through dangerous territory by giving its residents a tanker full of oil, indicating that the fuel is still valued, but none of the innumerable vehicles that crisscross the landscape ever run out of gas, and Immortan Joe is positively profligate in wasting oil, as his forces are accompanied by an electric guitar player whose instrument periodically spews out flames solely as an arresting visual effect.

So, if we no longer worry about a nuclear holocaust or an energy crisis, what should we be worrying about, according to this film? As Californians begin to endure unprecedentedly severe restrictions of their water usage due a prolonged drought, they will relate to the fact that the people in Mad Max: Fury Road are mainly worried about running out of drinking water, not running out of oil. Immortan Joe maintains control over the citizens of the Citadel largely because he periodically supplies them with a flood of fresh water; having developed mechanisms for extracting substances from deep underground, he employs them to pump water, not oil, to the surface. We further learn that the residents of Furiosa’s former home were forced to leave when changing conditions left them with insufficient water for their crops. Immortan Joe even warns his subjects, “Do not become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” making him an unlikely spokesperson for the need to conserve water. (It is true, however, that Furiosa and the breeders later display no worries about wasting water when they freely employ a hose to wash themselves.)

As surveys indicate that increasing numbers of people are no longer affiliated with organized religions, the film is willing to explicitly indict religion as a false tool used to oppress and manipulate the masses. Seeking a belief system that validates warfare, Immortan Joe has turned to Norse mythology, telling his Warboys that if they die in battle, they will be transported to “Valhalla”; however, this revived religion is tied to the culture’s fixation with gasoline-driven machinery by its new name, “V8,” referencing the V8 engine. When they believe they are about to be killed, Warboys spray their mouths with silver paint, probably to provide them with a more metallic voice and appearance when they join the company of gods that are devoted to machines. Mad Max, Furiosa, and their friends naturally recognize that this religion is bogus, telling Nux that Immortan Joe is a “lying old man,” yet when a distressed breeder is later mumbling, she says that she is “praying.” “Praying to who?” another breeder asks. “Anyone who’s listening.” Thus, even as they turn away from religion, it seems, people still feel a need for its comforts in times of need.

More so than the previous Mad Max films, Mad Max: Fury Road depicts future individuals who are fiercely devoted to possessing and operating an amazing variety of advanced weapons, and as the number of guns owned by American citizens continues to rise, this undoubtedly represents a trait that many filmgoers can relate to. In Mad Max’s society, everybody owns and operates at least one gun, and the film’s combatants also employ grenades, flame throwers, chainsaws, mines, dart guns, and explosive spears, among other weapons. Granted, owning firearms might seem a necessity in a world lacking organized governments, and these beleaguered denizens do refrain at least from arming their children, as Immortan Joe, after leaving the Citadel in the hands of his young “Warpups,” comments that his stronghold is now “undefended.” (In general, though, defense does not seem to be these warriors’ strong suit: the bare-chested Warboys are needlessly vulnerable to enemy fire, and watching several vehicles set on fire, one wonders why nobody brought along a fire extinguisher.)

Another issue that comes to the forefront in this film is the mistreatment of women. There is a long and sorry tradition in science fiction of imagining that post-apocalyptic societies would be dominated by men, as the frail womenfolk would necessarily depend on the protection of strong, manly men to survive in anarchic conditions, and one could detect glimmerings of that attitude in the first two Mad Max films. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gestured toward feminism by featuring a strong female leader, played by Tina Turner, but her Auntie Entity did depend upon male henchmen to enforce her orders. In this film, all of the women resist being pushed around by men, and they are all able to defend themselves. The breeders are willing to risk their lives in order to get away from Immortan Joe so that their “babies will not be warlords,” and although they initially appear to be helpless, they eventually pick up guns and actively participate in slaughtering Immortan Joe’s minions. When Furiosa encounters some elderly women from her former homeland, they prove to be pistol-packing grandmas, capable allies in her final battle against Immortan Joe.

The film’s preeminent woman warrior, of course, is Furiosa; and while Tom Hardy emerges as a suitable replacement for Mel Gibson, and while his Max is responsible for more than his share of the film’s carnage, Mad Max: Fury Road is really Furiosa’s film, and this is not simply because of Charlize Theron’s superior acting ability. Even though periodic flashbacks of his deceased daughter are designed to make the tormented Max a sympathetic figure, audiences will more likely be intrigued by Furiosa’s background and mainly concerned about her fate. The film is essentially her story – a woman who successfully escapes from, and eventually defeats, the evil man who had long oppressed her and her friends; the character of Mad Max, her most effective assistant, could have easily been written entirely out of the film. At one point, demonstrating her superior ability, Furiosa watches as Max is unable to hit a distant target with a powerful rifle running out of ammunition; he hands her the gun and she hits it with the last bullet. And one way to unambiguously identify a film’s true protagonist is to ask: who gets to kill the main bad guy? Here, it is not Mad Max, but Furiosa. All things considered, then, it is not surprising that George Miller, having become enamored of the character, at one point announced that this film would be followed by a sequel, called Mad Max: Furiosa, which would have featured her as its protagonist. But a bolder and better strategy would have been for Miller to reimagine his iconic hero as a woman, merge the characters of Mad Max and Furiosa, and christen the new protagonist and her film Mad Maxine.

By minimizing some old issues, and foregrounding some new issues, Mad Max: Fury Road might be regarded as appropriately modernized; yet there is one aspect of the Mad Max saga that can never be altered, even if it seems outdated, and that is its obsession with motorized transportation. All post-holocaust stories, in describing where the survivors focus their energies, identify one aspect of human civilization as most central. In Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), for example, the protagonists are dedicated to restoring and promoting literacy, whereas the younger generation of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) rejects book learning for lives of hunting, fishing, and physical exercise. In the Mad Max films, in addition to their weapons, people seek above all else to maintain and use their cars, trucks, and motorcycles, suggesting that the power to travel long distances, not reading and writing or communing with nature, is what defines a true modern civilization. And they have calmly adjusted to the loss of the twentieth century’s other major innovation, long-distance communication. As conveyed by Furiosa’s rediscovered countrywoman, the Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer), people are aware that the Earth-orbiting satellites they observe at night once broadcast messages and shows throughout the world, but they are making no effort to restore that technology. Instead, to find out what is happening far away, they rely on telescopes and binoculars; to determine if his breeders are missing, Immortan Joe must run to the chamber where they were held captive, unable to call them or look at a monitor; and in order to communicate with his lead driver Furiosa, a Warboy must leap from his own car to the top of her vehicle and then, while clinging to her door, shout questions through her window.

At first, one thinks that few people today would agree with these people’s priorities; for example, if asked to choose between a world without motorized vehicles, and a world without computers and smartphones, I am confident that almost all of my students would choose the former option. Still, more so than getting one’s first smartphone, getting a driver’s license and gaining the ability to travel long distances remains a key turning point in the lives of young people, a rite of passage signaling their increased maturity; and if they actually experienced months of being confined to their immediate neighborhoods, young people might again long for the freedoms they now take for granted – to travel to and experience different environments, visit with distant friends, and simply enjoy the sensation of rapid movement. If today’s civilization did fall apart, then, it remains possible that people would mostly dedicate themselves to rebuilding their cars, not to rebuilding the internet.

Overall, one might have wished for a Mad Max: Fury Road that was a little calmer, a little less violent, a little more willing to give its characters time to breathe, and its audiences time to sedately appreciate its imaginative world-building. But considering the realities governing contemporary filmmaking, no one can expect ideal films to emerge, and considering all of the obstacles that were placed in his way, one must compliment George Miller for his unwavering dedication to finally getting this fourth Mad Max film completed, and for doing an excellent job. One hopes we will not have to wait another thirty years for the next installment.

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 new book, the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History, is now available.

Russell Letson reviews Kit Reed

Where, Kit Reed (Tor 978-0-7653-7982-5, $25.99, 236pp, hc) May 2015.

No single voice dominates Kit Reed’s Where, certainly not the kind of low-key Midwestern tone that Arnason gives to her Icelanders. Instead, the internal voices of Reed’s various viewpoint characters range from on-edge, to anxious, to frantic. These are people stretched thin by the tensions of family history and the weight of personal failings, and especially by a mind-boggling event: early one morning, everyone at home in the island village of Kraventown SC disappears, as if taken in mid-stride or -shave or -breakfast-bite. Local communications channels are down and police and the military cordon off access to the island, causing traffic jams and inspiring all manner of upset and speculation. Meanwhile, the vanished townsfolk find themselves in a strange, all-white replica of their village, dotted with surveillance cameras and surrounded by a blinding desert that is searingly hot by day and sub-arctic cold by night.

In the outside world, Davy Ribault is frantic not only because his lover Merrill Poulnot is among the missing but because he regrets matters left unsettled the night before, and he needs to the resolve the tensions and repair their relationship. The immediate cause of the rift was Davy’s personal and professional suspicions about slick Yankee real estate developer Rawson Steele, and Davy had left the island early in the morning to confront Steele about his business intentions for the town and his attentions to Merrill.

The story alternates between Davy’s efforts to evade the roadblocks and guards to get home and the Poulnot family’s trials in the white faux village, and both threads are salted with bits of back-story that help explain why these people were so wound up even before they found themselves in their bizarre situations. Merrill’s emotional life is driven by her relationship with her violent, alcoholic, whited-sepulcher of a father. Hampton Poulnot’s bullying and abuse drove away his wife (unless something worse happened to her), then drove away Merrill, and has caused his teenaged son Ned to take refuge in an immersive, interactive on-line video game, where he is not a beat-upon kid but the Hydra Destroyer, fighting monsters with the rest of his fighting team.

After a spasm of violent near-rioting, the hundred displaced Kraventowners subside into a stunned passivity, remaining inside their replica homes, accepting the meals and clean coveralls that appear daily. Only Merrill and Ray Powell, the town’s unofficial keeper of sense and sanity, are willing and able to go outside at night and explore the village – until Merrill meets up again with Rawson Steele, whose presence is more than anomalous. What they find does not answer questions about Where or Why or Who, but it is clear that this is not, as some fear, a supernatural event.

The literal and the metaphoric bleed into one another, starting, of course, with the landscape and extending to the social and psychological environments. The featureless structures of the village are as blank as an early-generation videogame environment. Ned sees

White shutters on every window closed tight…. the grainy white sidewalks lead out to white, white houses laid out like blocks on a Monopoly board with no colors and no printing and no squares so you can’t tell whether you’re moving, just the bleached streets spreading out to the cement rim surrounding…. Even the barrier dune beyond it is smooth and perfect, like a giant potter threw a porcelain bowl to put us in and the wheel stopped.

Merrill sees it is as a trap: ‘‘Whoever did this to us built the compound with security and comfort in mind…. Uproot a group and while you’ve got them flailing and terrified, enclose them. Keep them clean and fed… so we’ll forget our wants.’’ And just a few pages later, out in the ordinary world, Davy looks at a perfectly restored plantation house and thinks that it looks like ‘‘one of those high-end resort islands where everything runs smoothly and nothing goes wrong.’’

The townspeople are also imprisoned inside themselves, by anger, hurt, jealousy, and craziness. The book has a large dose of Southern Gothic – Faulkner in 21st-century South Carolina. Kraventown and environs have held onto the past in the form not only of carefully preserved architecture but of family ties and rivalries and perquisites that go back to the Civil War. This side is clearest in Hampton, a violent, possessive, obsessive man who sees himself as Moses sidelined and ignored. His Faulknerian internal monologue, an entire chapter near the center of the book, combines half-crazed Old Testament wannabe-prophet and failed Confederate general.

Understand, I am Hampton Calhoun Poulnot of the Poulnot family out of Charleston and Kraven island and nobody takes that away from me! I will go forth, and my people will rise up!… Then my people and I will march out and get Them or I or He who extracted us and dumped us here, and we will get out of this place and I will get even, no matter who or what I have to destroy.

This book requires not so much a Spoiler Curtain as a Spoiler Matryoshka Doll. In fact, even a consideration of its genre identity might be a discussion too far. Nevertheless: Where sits along one of those inter-generic fault lines, or (to shift metaphors) it is contained in a literary Schrödinger box, waiting for some categorical function to collapse it into a definite condition of fantasy or science fiction or magic-realism or expressionism, or any number of half-sibling traditions and forms.

Allow me to approach cautiously. At the end of the book Reed appends ‘‘Military Secrets’’, the short story from which the novel grew and which, she writes, shares its world: children orphaned by warfare are singled out at school and put aboard a bus filled with similar orphans from across history. The story is only slightly less enigmatic than its longer sibling, and despite its initial appearance in Asimov’s, it does not feel quite like SF. Nor does it feel quite like a supernatural fantasy, which posits an agency that operates beyond or despite material physical laws. As with the white village of Where, everything about the gray bus says, ‘‘This is made; this operates according to the rules of the material world, however miraculous or impossible it might appear.’’

There is no sense of continuity of intelligibility between the ordinary and contrafactual worlds. Instead, it is reminiscent of the kind of uncanny tale that first appeared in the nineteenth century at the same time that both SF and what we now would call fantasy were evolving into distinct genres. It might be called the naked fantastic: not dressed up in half-believed or fully abandoned metaphysics or supernaturalism, not re-rigged and rationalized and metaphorically transformed into science fiction, but flat-out contrafactuality that somehow resonates with feelings, suspicions, fears, and desire, untethered to and uncushioned by any particular rationalizing framework.

What would seem to drive both Where and ‘‘Military Secrets’’ is not ‘‘what might happen if we had a machine that could do X?’’ (SF and some kinds of fantasy) but ‘‘what would it feel like to have inexplicable Y happen to you?’’ Or, from the writer’s-technique side: ‘‘What narrative or dramatic situation can best represent emotional and psychological complex Z?’’ If that is the case, then Where, How, By Whom, and even Why matter much less than That: the naked fantastic. Where possesses what the most haunting dreams do: the relentless combination of actuality and impossibility, of an awareness of the impossible-true.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early May

The best fiction this time comes from The Dark, which is free from the taint of sentimentality that I find all too frequently in the other publications.

Publications Reviewed



The Dark, May 2015

A particularly good issue of this dark fantasy zine. The four stories divide into two groups: one darkly horror, the other more fantastic and less shaded. Yet across three of them is a theme of new fatherhood.

“The Ghost of You Lingers” by Kevin McNeil

A real estate agent is showing houses to a young couple, but there is a sinister impediment to every prospective home: a ghost, a neighborhood serial killer, a recent murder-suicide. The 2nd-person narrator expresses determination to find the right house, one where he can start over and shed the dark burdens of his past with a new family. But it increasingly becomes obvious that the narrator is the real problem.

This would seem to be straight horror in a mundane setting until the narrator pushes aside a wardrobe in the basement of one house to reveal a menacing cavity in the wall, radiating heat like an inflammation, or perhaps a gate into hell.

A strong desire to climb into the hole comes over you as you squat in front of it, gently stroking its moist edge. Right now, in this moment, climbing in seems like the most important thing you could do—to travel deep into the darkness and curl up in its heart. You somehow understand that the hole only leads in one direction, and there is no way back. This is incredibly scary, but it is also incredibly exciting.

Taken literally, this is a clear fantastic element, but for some reason I hesitate to take it literally; it seems like more of a hallucination, projected by the narrator’s imagination. But whether or not this is the case, it’s definitely a representation of the narrator’s inner demons and his weakening resolve to turn away from them. The final scene, in which he nails up a picture drawn by an innocent child, is especially ominous. I can’t help recalling how many serial killers have hidden behind the façade of a happy family, all unknown to them. It’s a chilling picture, effectively drawn.

“An Ocean of Eyes” by Cassandra Khaw

Another sinister opening, as a stranger accosts a woman waiting at a bus stop in a city named Ulthar. We see “the scythe of his mouth, his milk-pale skin, his eyes like tatters of the noon sky. A foreigner, most definitely.” We expect the worst but suspect it may not come in the most likely form. Frederic is odd, but Sigrid is equally so. He repels her, but she tries only half-heartedly to put him off. Telling him, bluntly at last when it’s much too late, to leave is a warning calculated to be unheeded.

The reveal at the conclusion, the exact nature of Ulthar’s wrongness, comes as a bit of a disappointment, as the explicit usually does in horror. There’s a subtlety to it, as least, and a care to avoid splatter. But the real interest is in the play of responsibility between the characters, the mutual seduction.

“A Shot of Salt Water” by Lisa L Hannett

While I enjoyed all the stories in the issue, this one is my clear favorite. The setting is a fishing village with a strange heritage, where brine as well as blood flows in their veins, where the young women take ship every year for voyages of adventure and reveling while the men stay home and tend to the children their mermaids bring home. Their return is always cause for celebration.

The shore party leapt overboard, hauled tired skiffs from hard-packed to soft sand. Their hair was dreadlocked, rimed with spray. Ten months at sea had staved in their cheeks, chiselled the roundness from hips and breasts. Blubber-treated packs were slung cross-body, leaving their arms free for fighting. Several hefted short-swords, others had daggers—though weapons weren’t needed for this landing. There were no screams at the seafarers’ approach, no terror at the sight of harpoons. Instead a baritone chorus whooped its greetings, singing tunes that beckoned them, one and all, inland.

Billy Rideout has been especially anxious for their return because his own lass, Beetie, has been gone on her first voyage. He’s now dismayed to find that she’s come back with a baby, and when he gets his first look at the bub, he knows it can’t be his own. It’s much more than a matter of webbed fingers and toes, or a bit of gill-slit. According to custom, none of that matters. It shouldn’t matter to Billy. But it does.

What I’m most pleased with here is the colorful language; it makes the setting glow vividly and the characters leap off the page. I’m also liking the hippocampus reference, as the seahorse is notable for the father’s care of the young after birth.

–RECOMMENDED

“Momentary Sage” by Erik Schwitzgebel

In the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king blesses the eventual issue of the young lovers’ marriages, that their children will be without defects. Which goes to prove once again that you can’t trust fairies. Because, in this account,

That midsummer’s night, after we four collapsed in fairy sleep beneath boughs and moon, I roused to see a sprite looping through the flowers. Carrying a single seed in his ant-leg fingers, he ducked beneath Hermia’s skirts. She turned once, in dream.

The changeling issue of this seed is born with a preternaturally sharp spike in place of his left hand, and a precocity focused on suicide, for which purpose the sharp tusk is intended: “Non-existence,” he says, “sets a floor beneath suffering. But milk is also good.” The parents, Hermia and Lysander, have been bespelled to love the child Sage unreservedly, so they immediately begin spoiling him in order to extinguish this desire for self-destruction, even to the point of dosing him with opium. Or it could all be yet another dream, as the scenario is related by a bitter and jealous Demetrius, who announces his narrative as unreliable from the outset, like the sensations of love generated by fairy mischief.

A weird rebuttal of the Bard and one of his weakest works, albeit much-beloved by fantasy fans. I rather like the philosophical debates between Demetrius and the infant Sage, but the heart of the story is the repudiation of coerced love.



Interzone, May/June 2015

Not enthusiastic about the fiction in this issue.

“a shout is a prayer/for the waiting centuries” by T R Napper

Two stories alternating, that join at the end, but it’s really all one. In the first, we have a refugee family attempting to escape a war zone in Vietnam. With death-dealing Chinese bots on their trail, the father sends wife and daughter on ahead, promising to join them when he can. In the second is another family of parents and young daughter, in somewhat better circumstances: they have food to eat, they have a regular income, they have peace if they can avoid the attention of the cops. The father is a former prize fighter, now working as a waiter, enduring the imperiousness of the wealthy whose faces he would love to smash in for their arrogance.

I’m reminded of a school exam: compare and contrast. Both stories deal with desperation, sacrifice and hope held out against the odds. The promise in both is the same:

Trung nodded and picked his daughter up. He was about to walk away when Phuong said: “But you’ll follow us? You promise?”

“I promise. Nothing can keep us apart,” he replied. But there was a sadness in his eyes as he said the words, a sadness that twisted in Phuong’s chest.

On the contrast side, the level of desperation differs. The circumstances facing Trung and Phuong are more extreme, their immediate prospects more dire, starvation and annihilation. There is little room for ethical choice, and if Trung commits what we might call an atrocity in order to survive, we may be tempted to excuse him. George and Nhung are materially better off despite their poverty in the affluent milieu where they live, and one measure of this is that they have the luxury of limited choices; George in particular has the luxury of caring for his self-respect. The overwhelming impression of both, however, is deeply dystopian. In this future, if there’s any hope for the downtrodden masses, it’s scant and unlikely; still, they grasp for it.

“The Re’em Song” by Julie C Day

Life in Norumbega rests on the bones and blood of the unicorn re’em. First the settlers slaughtered the wild herds, then gathered the bones.

Harvesting unicorn bones wasn’t easy work. With death, re’em bones condensed God’s blessing inside their hollows, little bone-trapped bolts of His holy spirit just waiting for an opportunity to jab through a digger’s flesh and find the living bone underneath. The entire Kerill Valley was charged with ghosts.

Sunnifa wants out, wants away, and that includes away from her husband Orri. But life in the city’s knackeryard slaughtering domesticated re’em is even worse. Sunnifa comes home to confront her ghosts.

There’s a powerful—powerfully disturbing—central image here, but the story built around it is scanted in a number of ways. The background is theological, but unclearly so. We can see there is some reality to the belief in the potency of the unicorn bone and blood, but otherwise it’s a mystery. Are the re’em holy or diabolical? How sentient are they? Are we dealing with an animal slaughter or a genocide? As for Sunnifa, exactly what is she running away from, and what has changed between her and Orri? We come to her only after her decision to leave is made, which gives us limited knowledge of her motivation. The conclusion sheds some light, but insufficient.

“Doors” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

I’m not at all sure why Nikki takes her developmentally disabled adult brother to the fair, when he doesn’t really want to go, when she doesn’t have the money to pay for all the treats he’ll want as soon as he sees them, when he won’t take No for an answer and she can’t control him. I think she feels guilty about not taking him anywhere since their mother died and she was left alone as Zack’s caretaker, the end of her own dreams. One of the only attractions she can afford is something called the Space Bender, which the attendants call the hub of the multiverse. Before Nikki can stop him, Zack disappears through one of the doors.

It’s a story of choices, and Nikki is offered several—a universe where her father never left them, one where her mother doesn’t die, one where Zack lives happily without her in an institution. And one other. The choices can all be seen as temptations, holding out the possibility of life without the burden of her brother, a life of self-fulfillment that fate has closed off in this time and place. Since it’s a sentimental piece, there’s little doubt about what she’ll eventually choose. I feel little connection to the story because Nikki is fairly blank as a character. The others in the story seem to think she’s something kind of special, but I don’t see this in her.

“Angel Fire” by Christien Gholson

The narrator is a self-hating rich bastard who has given up on capitalism’s creative destruction. Below him, the poor and ordinary folks are lighting bonfires to call down angels of the apocalypse. The narrator thinks they’d be better off burning people like himself. His self-pity is pretty boring.

“Her First Harvest” by Malcolm Devlin

Purportedly science fiction on a world where the people of idle society grow mushrooms on their bodies, to be harvested at a ball in the governor’s mansion. Nina has come from the country and is worried because this is her first crop, and it seems sparse, and because people might look down on her as provincial. It’s supposed to be a story of manners, but the premise is too ridiculous while the rest is entirely clichéd. Will the ingénue get the nice boy by the end of the ball? Wanna guess?



Clarkesworld, May 2015

This online publication keeps expanding its offerings. I count five pieces of original fiction here, counting new translations as original. Alas, the tone overall is awfully heavy on the sentimentality.

“The Garden Beyond Her Infinite Skies” by Matthew Kressel

A cosmic tale, set in the long early instants of the universe’s first expansion. The universe, it seems, grows like a tree, with branches sprouting new branches, swaying in the gravitron wind. And among the branches are a multitude of Farmers, pruning out anomalies so the branches will grow in the approved manner without giving rise to cancers, such as metastasize into things like life. Aya is a skillful Farmer, but she has come to doubt the rightness of her task, finding the pruned branches sterile.

The sparks from the snuffed world fell. Where the first sparks touched the ground, new realms were born. They flashed, inflated, and slowed, their quark-gluon plasma too hot for solid matter. It would take an eon before galaxies formed. Two or three more before animal life arose. The Farmer folk sang ballads about the sparks of dead realms. The dust, forever alive, the lyrics went. Death, an illusion, just forms changing.

The plot here is of little interest; we know from the outset what decision Aya will make by the end. The real neatness is in the setting and the story’s conception. In essence, it’s a fantasy using the material of cosmology to build with. Some readers will be wanting to match up the author’s rather fanciful, metaphorical descriptions with the current version of the ever-mutating theories of the cosmic birth:

Yi herself was one of sixty four ova gestating inside Delicate Womb, the reproductive organ of Mother Lily, who gloriously blossomed inside the 501-dimensional field, Sky of Skies, who accelerated madly inside the meditating Z-space, Incomprehensible Mind, who lived inside another being who had a billion names and even more descriptions, none of which sufficed to circumscribe it.

So is it turtles all the way down or if the being in question is someone we might have heard of? But what I really wonder is, who hired Aya and all her fellow Farmers? Who gave them their instructions? Me, I’m thinking of the Demiurge must fit in here somewhere. At any rate, what we have here is a conflict between the dead and sterile universe of Central Planning, and the wild, chaotic cosmos of evolution; the formal French garden vs the weeds. We are meant by the plot to be on the side of the weeds, as weeds ourselves, but sometimes I wonder about us.

“For the Love of Sylvia City” by Andrea M Pawley

Actual science fiction, apocalyptic type. The land surface of Earth has been overtaken by wars, with the consequence that overwhelming numbers of refugees seek out the safety of underwater cities—far more than they can absorb. The nameless narrator was lucky; her parents had vital engineering skills, so they were let into Sylvia City along with their child, now the last dryland refugee. Because of her background, she can function closer to the light than those born to the benthos, so she’s been assigned to monitor and repair a communications cable that links the city with the drylands. But an incident with falling debris reveals that war has broken out again; the sky is on fire, turning everything to ash. The narrator knows the consequences, and she knows what she has to do to save her home.

The ocean will suffer greater injustice than ashes though. Carbon weapons release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. So do survivors willing to burn anything they can find for warmth and cooking fuel. Like the last time, the ocean will attempt to absorb it all. The water’s acidity will shoot up. Great colonies of plants and animals will die. New, sickly species will add to the ranks of mutated sharks, thin-shelled snails and algae that grows where algae shouldn’t be able to grow.

Hard-hearted, anti-sentimental reader that I am, I really wish the author hadn’t chosen to drop a vulnerable child into the deeps. The story could have gotten along quite well without him. Further, the text makes it clear that stuff is constantly drifting down to the ocean floor, burying the cable in debris. In a war, there ought to be thousands of corpses in the water. What, then, alerted the narrator’s proximity alarm to this one particular bit of organic debris?

“Mrs Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight” by A Que, translated by John Chu

Alas, we’ve seen this one too often before. Mrs Griffin has outlived everyone who once loved her. She’s lonely and doesn’t want to live alone any longer. Her helpful domestic robot advises her on the least painful, least messy methods. Pretty mawkish, albeit well-wrote.

“Ossuary” by Ian Muneshwar

A rather familiar scene: an automated facility out in trackless space where wrecked spacecraft are brought for recycling, although They speak to the AI in charge in terms of graveyards and bones. While Magdelena is ostensibly no more than a collection of chips and circuits, she has dreamlike memories of another form of life.

It always ended with the image of a small, hard planet spinning circles around a star. It was covered by green waters, oceans more vast and deep than Magdalena had ever thought possible. The vision would fade as quickly as it had come.

There’s a coincidence here that I find very hard to credit, that a creature from Magdalena’s world of origin would somehow manage to find its way to the very remote facility where she works. Or, if not a coincidence, still unexplained.

“An Evolutionary Myth” by Bo Young Kim, translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park

Historical fantasy set in a fratricidal era of the Korean kingdom, with the universal theme that as the king does, so goes the kingdom. The current king does not do well at all, being a megalomaniac tyrant. The kingdom, accordingly, is afflicted by drought and the people are suffering, which puts them in hope of a hero come to deliver them. Our narrator happens to be a surviving son of the previous king, and he has good reason to suspect his tyrant uncle will seek his life. Seeking anonymity and concealment, he ruminates on the nature of evolution.

This tendency of creatures to metamorphose into the complete opposite of that which they long to become is also fascinating. Do you realize that the widely-credited notion that sunflowers follow the sun, is actually mere fantasy? They certainly do grow large flowers out of admiration for the sun, but then they bend their faces down toward the ground. They do this because they cannot bear the weight of those flowers. I thought then that perhaps I was like these others: since I wished nothing so much as to flap my wings and fly far away, maybe I would die instead with a heavy body, its belly stuck to the ground as it crawled about.

Thus, as he flees from the tyrant’s reach, he takes on a succession of different forms. So portents come into being, like the white fish with red wings of legend.

My favorite piece in the issue. I like the weirdly fanciful nature of this transformative story, even when the narrator gets a bit talky and moral. Metamorphosis is a central theme in folklore and myth, but the narrator here attempts a general theory to explain it, and that’s a neat fantastic thing. The piece opens epigraphically with reports of portents regarded as having significance. This, too, is a universal theme: the birth of two-headed calves or turtles with the face of Jesus on their shells have always attracted popular attention as having some great meaning or predicting some great event. I also note that the term “monster” comes from the verb “to show”, a thing made manifest. But the monster himself may have more personal motives, such as the narrator here, who wishes only to fly away.

–RECOMMENDED



Uncanny, May/June 2015

The editorial introduction responds to certain criticism by declaring that the zine means to publish stories that “make you think and feel.” But I find that the feeling part predominates in this issue, with too much of it being goodfeel. Other than the humor pieces, only the Valente takes a clear, hard look at a tragic situation without making a positive spin or succumbing to sentimentality; it certainly takes thought, which I prefer.

“Planet Lion” by Catherynne M Valente

A military survey vessel happens on a planetary system with a single Earthlike world and a host of gas giants—nothing of great economic value. Certain officers, however, consider it of significant strategic value, and they set up an outpost intended to draw out the enemy, staffing it with disposable organic constructs modeled on actual troops. The constructs were designed to operate telepathically through a mental matrix; on devouring them, the native carnivores, called lions, absorb the matrix as well as elements of the human personalities they were modeled on.

All lions hunt in the watering hole. The watering hole networks the heart of every lion to the heart of every other lion into a cooperative real–time engagement matrix. The smallgod inside one lion lays down the words cooperative real–time engagement matrix in the den of one lion’s brain. One lion called Yttrium accepts the words though they have no more importance than the teeth and hooves left over after a kill. The words mean the watering hole.

The text includes several short reports from the humans involved in the ensuing disaster, but the main narrative belongs to the lions, and we see these events from the lions’ point of view. This results in confusion, since the lions, understandably, don’t comprehend the strategic motives of the humans, and they interpret the consequences in their own terms. The main reason for the confusion as far as readers go is that the military reports aren’t in the same chronology as the lions’ story, which takes place in the aftermath of the conflict, while most of the reports are written prior to it. So when we first see the lions, immediately after the initial survey report describing them, it’s impossible to tell if this is their native condition, if the watering hole is or is not a native telepathic matrix. We see that they have absorbed information from humans they’ve consumed, but the initial survey mentions casualties; perhaps they have killed and devoured members of the survey team. Other terms, most notably the “steelveldt”, have no clear reference at this point in the text.

As consequences accumulate from the lions’ point of view, aided by additional reports, the situation clarifies somewhat, and we see that what initially seems a carnivore’s idyll is in fact the early stages of an ongoing tragedy, the collateral damage of an ill-conceived military adventure in which the possible fate of indigenous sentients is callously dismissed: As for the lions, honestly, I will lose precisely zero sleep over it. Let our jacked–up boys and girls play Hemingway down there with the big cats, they won’t be a problem for long. By the end, we see that the planet has been trashed, its native ecology devastated. I find the final scene heartbreaking: one lion called Yttrium has mated and now looks forward to the arrival of new cubs, not realizing that the world they will inherit is a ruin that may not be able to sustain their species’ population; the lions are doomed.

At least, that’s one interpretation. There’s also the possibility that with their new hybrid human/lion consciousness, the next generation of lions will evolve a different civilization, perhaps leading them eventually to conquer space and devastate the worlds of other species. But that’s not where I imagine they’re going.

“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A C Wise

Humor. Beginning with methods mundane [Zillow] and moving on to methods more arcane, most of which are concerned with the house’s independent will:

The house is not your antagonist in this process. It is also not your friend. You are each working toward an abstract point in your future, one that may never come to pass. Gain its trust, let it win yours. Accept that you will break its heart one day and be open to having yours broken in return. Prove yourself worthy and make it do the same.

“Restore the Heart into Love” by John Chu

After xenophobic violence breaks out across Earth, the Byzantium Library launches into space with a complete archive of the world’s cultural heritage, its sponsors hoping that by the time the ship returns the world will have returned to sanity. It’s been a long voyage, with the crew spending most of its time in hibernation, being waked only when necessary, when something goes wrong. Which, lately, is happening more and more often as the archival media and backups fail.

The ship had an alternate archive grade medium. It rendered data in the crystalline and amorphous states of chalcogenide glass. His team had planned to maintain a copy of the archive in each medium, but they didn’t have the funding to build a ship that large. Instead, the Byzantium Library had just the one copy. Max had chosen to use the proven technology, the organic dye, then stuffed the ship with as much blank chalcogenide glass as they could, just in case.

Here’s the making for a potentially interesting SFnal problem story in space. But the author makes it personal. In this case Max suspects sabotage, as the entire batch of corrupted files are in the traditional Chinese archive, files from Taiwan, which had been in conflict with China. Not only is the medium degrading, the characters in the files have been altered from the complex traditional form to the 20th-century simplified form. OK, that’s one thing. But the author goes much further in making the situation personal, by flashing back to his relationship with his mother, portrayed as a stereotype for whom Max can’t ever do anything good enough. Max had learned Chinese to please her, to be able to communicate fully with her, and it’s from her that he’d learned the value of the traditional forms of the characters, including the word for “love” including the radical for “heart”. [The text is partly in Chinese, illustrating these differences.] Which is really way, way more sentimental than I like.

There’s another troublesome aspect of this piece. The author makes it clear that the ship is failing generally. Hibernation pods have failed; members of the crew have died. And lifesupport supplies were always planned to be minimal. There are decades remaining in the voyage. Is Max, by remaining awake to restore the corrupted texts by hand, using up resources that might doom the rest of the crew? Are any others of the crew now still alive? It’s an odd thing that, while Max wants to make sure their deaths haven’t been in vain, the story has no references to any other individual crewmembers, almost as if Max has been alone on the ship all along [which we know isn’t the case]. Or is Max deliberately sacrificing his own life, the last life, for the sake of the archive’s integrity?

“In Libres” by Elizabeth Bear

“Into the books!” This spell is dreaded throughout the university of sorcery in which Euclavia has almost finished her dissertation. In fact, she’d believed she already had finished it, were in not for her tutor’s insistence that she cite one additional source, to be found, alas, in the library, a labyrinthine institution reaching into other planes of existence. Worse, in Special Collections. Her quest would be hopeless except for the aid of the librarians.

Librarians, with their overdeveloped hippocampi, their furled cloaks, their swords and wands sheathed swaggeringly across their backs. The university bureaucracy was nightmarish, Byzantine, and largely ornamental. But those caveats did not apply to the Librarians, an elite informational force second to none. They were lean, organized, and they knew when to turn left and when to turn right.

Following the glowing sigil on her pull slip, Eu and her faithful centaur companion make their way into the maze with a ball of twine to show them the way back.

This piece fills me with a happy nostalgia for the sub-sub-basement stacks in the graduate library, the air thick with book mold, the fitful lighting. I suspect the author has likewise once inhabited such a place.

“Three Voices” by Lisa Bolekaja

Dark fantasy with music. Andre’s father was an immigrant from Mali whose masterwork was a song, originally written for his son, so difficult that no one could sing it properly, not even himself. He destroyed the ending, then disappeared. Now Andre is a composer himself, and his quest is to find a singer worthy of the song, which he has recreated. He thinks he’s found this singer in Tye, a talented performer from Mali who even sings in his father’s language. What he fails to mention to Tye is that every singer who previously attempted the song has developed throat abnormalities, including cancer in one case.

I’m seeing considerable problems here. First, the story is from Andre’s point of view. Well, Andre is a selfish bastard and I’ve got no sympathy for him. We see this at the story’s opening, with his superficial judgment of women, but it’s very clear when he fails to warn Tye about the dangers of the song.

“But do you fucking care if anything happens to me? That’s my question to you,” she said. Sullen, he didn’t say anything for a few minutes and continued playing the keys until she started gathering her things.

Tye knows, we know what Andre cares about—his stoopid song. She recognizes that it’s an obsession with him. Now the question is, knowing the danger, why does she keep singing it? Is it for the challenge? Is the song that good, good enough that she’d sacrifice her voice for it, or even more? We don’t really know, because we don’t have Tye’s point of view. We don’t know why she chooses, at last, to appear onstage as she does. Knowing what’s going to happen? Choosing what’s going to happen? If it were her own story, we might know, but it’s not, it’s that SOB Andre’s.

Which brings me to the ending. This piece is dark fantasy. Might even be considered horror. The song, very clearly, is a curse, and this is undoubtedly why Andre’s father destroyed it, to keep it from ruining more lives. Andre himself is probably under the power of the curse, which would explain his obsession and his mendacity; the son wants to be sung, and it will do anything to have its way, no matter how many people it destroys. I can only wonder if Tye recognized the curse, if she perhaps thought she could defeat it, which could account for her appearance onstage. But after it all works through to the conclusion, when the evil ought to be most manifest, the author chooses to turn it into an optimistic, feelgood closing scene, a piece of pure wishfulthinkium, denying the horror. And ruining the whole thing.



Fingerbones by Erzebet Yellowboy

In a promising opening, we meet Nusht on the island graveyard where her mother is buried, facing imminent death from the plague that haunts the place. Immediately, the prose pleases:

This is Karbesh, the island of ghosts, one of a crescent of islands in the Karbashi archipelago, the farthest island from Karbashi itself and the only one inhabited. One large, parabolic dune borders the west-facing beach like the half-hump of a sunken camel. Sparse, brown grass spears through its slip-face; between its horns are the graves. Bones wash out to sea and back again. Some never return. This is freedom. This is what the women want. Wash us away, they sing. Wash us clean.

In Karbashi, it seems, a sect of quasi-scientific priests hold a large amount of power. Some time ago, there were false rumors that a plague, once eradicated, had returned to a remote village. The priests descended with their test tubes and samples and succeeded in infecting some of the women. To cover up their error, they moved all the pregnant women to the island and eradicated the rest of the population. The boatmen who still come bringing supplies have all had their tongues cut out to keep the secret.

Nusht dreams of escape and makes fanciful constructs with bones and feathers that wash ashore. Because of some latent magic in her, these come briefly alive. Her latest construct is made from finger bones:

one proximal, one intermediate, and one distal phalange—one for every year her mother has been gone. She knots everything together in the shape of a bird. The distal phalange is its head, the proximal its body, and the intermediate is its tail. The shell becomes its breastbone, and the feathers its wings.

It takes flight in the direction of Karbashi, where Fairka is about to be sacrificed by the priests. She has been their ward since childhood, when a street vendor cut off her fingers for stealing a peach. Fairka prays for salvation to the Divine of Plague, offering the lives of the priests in exchange for her own. Just before the fatal injection is made, a strange bird made of feathers and bones flies into the temple. Fairka reaches for it, and her fingers are suddenly regrown. The priests are eager to study this miracle, and their excitement multiplies when Fairka touches another ward and the girl is suddenly cured of a skin disease.

So far, this is all very well indeed, but then the plot-thread for Fairka becomes the primary one and takes an unfortunate turn onto improbable paths, where she falls into the hands of unlikely villains and remains there entirely too long. I find it especially vexing that the priests, highly motivated to recover their missing ward, are clueless about her whereabouts, which every street vendor seems to know. Eventually, she finds her way onto the right path and matters resolve almost satisfactorily, but there’s still that long dead spot in the story’s center, where much of its early promise dissipates, including, alas, Nusht, whom I regard as the more interesting character.

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

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

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Robert Charles Wilson

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

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

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

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

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