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Stefan Dziemianowicz reviews Joe R. Lansdale

Like the pulpsmiths of yore, Joe R. Lansdale writes in a wide variety of genres. Unlike the pulpsmiths of yore, there is nothing at all generic about his writing. He’s the perfect example of the writer whose work is sui generis. Whether you read a story of his in a crime fiction magazine, a horror anthology, or a collection of western tales, you don’t think of it in terms of the market – you think of it as a Joe Lansdale story.

Lansdale’s latest collection, Bleeding Shadows, features 21 stories and nine poems. It’s the biggest collection of his work produced to date and his most creatively varied. Only about half of its selections are weird or fantastic in nature, but anyone who likes that side of Lansdale’s writing will enjoy the others. Especially notable is ‘‘The Stars Are Falling’’, a tale that has been reprinted in dark fantasy and mystery story anthologies, even though it doesn’t really fit either genre. It’s a beautifully understated tale about a soldier returning home from World War I and trying to reconnect with his wife and child whom, he is pained to realize, he doesn’t really know anymore. There are surprises at the end, but not the kind that you find in a work of genre fiction. This story would not have been at all out of place in the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly.

Lansdale has written period westerns, notably the novel The Magic Wagon, and he can write wild west shoot-’em-ups with the best of them. Two stories in this volume, ‘‘Soldierin’’’ and ‘‘Hide and Horns’’, are episodes in the life of a nameless black cavalry soldier who gave rise to the legends that fueled dime novels about The Black Rider and Deadwood Dick. Though Lansdale describes them as warm-ups for a western historical novel he hopes to write, their occasionally raunchy banter and frank handling of racial themes will remind readers of his mystery novels featuring contemporary crime-solvers Hap and Leonard.

Lansdale is as well known for his crime fiction as his weird writing and there are several prime examples of it on display here: ‘‘Six Finger Jack’’, a brutal hard-boiled tale; ‘‘Old Man in the Motorized Chair’’, a gentle spoof of the armchair detection techniques of Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, and company; ‘‘Santa at the Café’’, a biter-bit tale of escalating double-crosses and betrayals; and ‘‘Shooting Pool’’, a slice of grim Texas noir. The latter features a passage that’s a fine example of how Lansdale is able to convey powerful emotion through his economic, plainspoken prose. Near the story’s end a young man is forced at gunpoint to haul up the corpse of a man who has just been shot through the head, and he notes,

Ross’s eyes were wide open, and I saw then that everything he had been or might have been, all of his plans and memories, dreams and schemes, they had fled, out through the hole in the back of his skull, across the floor in a puddle of blood and brain fragments, a piece of his skull…. Looking at him, in that moment, I knew there was nothing beyond our time on earth, that dead was dead, and I had never wanted to live more than I did at that moment with my eyes locked on Ross’s face.

Given his facility with both crime and horror fiction, Lansdale also is good at splicing the two together. ‘‘Dead Sister’’ begins as a conventional detective tale but quickly takes a turn for the weird when the detective discovers that the suspicious character he has been asked to keep under surveillance is a grave-robbing ghoul. In the title tale, a guitarist modeled somewhat on blues great Robert Johnson, and an unorthodox detective, sent by his sister to protect him, struggle to outwit and outrun a Lovecraftian hellhound on his trail.

The remaining fantastic fiction is a real potpourri ranging from the absurdist fantasy of ‘‘Mr. Bear’’, about the unwanted friendship that develops between a man and Smokey the Bear (who proves to be a little more unsavory than his public image would suggest); to ‘‘What Happened to Me’’, an excellent haunted house tale whose haunt proves to be not just your average ghost; and ‘‘The Folding Man’’, which begins like a comic tall tale before detouring sharply into hardcore horror. ‘‘Torn Away’’, a Twilight Zone-type tale about a reanimated dead man being stalked by his shadow, and ‘‘Quarry’’, a tribute to Richard Matheson’s classic ‘‘Prey’’, both feature characters trying to outrun supernatural pursuers, a theme that pops up frequently in Lansdale’s fiction. There’s a pair of zombie stories better than most – ‘‘A Visit with Friends’’ and ‘‘Christmas with the Dead’’ – and a quasi-science fiction story, ‘‘Star Light, Eyes Bright’’. ‘‘Metal Men of Mars’’, a tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series, captures the spirit of Burroughs’ interplanetary swashbucklers and sends John Carter on an adventure a little more extreme that Burroughs could have imagined. (It would make a much better movie than was made from A Princess of Mars.)

Nobody does weird mash-ups like Lansdale does and the book’s closing tale, ‘‘Dread Island’’, is a conflation of ideas and themes from Mark Twain, Lovecraft, and Uncle Remus (the ‘‘Song of the South’’ version), with nods to Peter Pan and the legend of Amelia Earhart. In this continuation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Huck is still grousing about the writer who wrote up his life and made money off of it), Huck and Jim boat out to a legend-haunted island that appears magically in the Mississippi on the first night of the full moon to rescue Tom Sawyer and a friend. The island is home to the animal characters from the Uncle Remus stories, and it turns out that Br’er Fox has gotten ahold of the Necrnomicon and is summoning Cthulhu (here written as ‘‘Cut Through You’’). Lansdale perfectly captures the cadences of Twain’s homespun storytelling style, and it’s amazing how well it suits the story’s outrageous plot. (Of Cthulhu, Huck says, ‘‘It had its head poking all the way through, and that head was so big you can’t imagine, and it was lumpy and such, like a bunch of melons had been put in a tow sack and banged on with a boat paddle.’’) It’s as though, having shown the reader his versatility as a writer in the 29 selections that precede it, Lansdale tried to condense every genre he’s written for into a single story that is remarkable for its comical audacity.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Eileen Gunn

Eileen Gunn’s wry, droll intelligence and cockeyed storytelling magic shine forth like some kind of quasar beacon from every one of these surprising, irreplaceable stories—two of which have never before seen print. She’s the Polaris of fabulism, a goal to steer by. And as if her stellar talents were not sufficient to induce you to snatch up this collection, she has co-stars in the form of Rudy Rucker and Michael Swanwick. You should probably abandon this review right now, for a minute or several, and go order this book online or at your local brick-and-mortar outlet.

Okay. Now that you’re back, let’s look at the tales.

“Up the Fire Road” is, for one thing, a miracle of voice modulation and emulation. Two narrators—a flaky dude named Christy and a more practical, skeptical gal named Andrea—get lost in the misty mountains while cross-country skiing and encounter a sasquatch. Or is the figure simply an old hermit? And what of the wilderness dweller’s gender? Male, female? In Rashomon-style alternating passages, the exploits of the threesome—along with some other supernatural denizens, are unrolled with a surprise around every bend of the narrative. That the whole affair culminates in a wild blowout on the set of a tabloid TV show is the least outrageous aspect of this hilarious yet eerie tale.

“Chop Wood, Carry Water” is one of the hitherto-unseen pieces, some thirty pages long. It’s the tale of the mythic Golem of Prague told from the golem’s POV. While it resonates with the great debut novel by Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni, to my ears it also compares favorably to the wonderful theological and existential probings of James Morrow. The Golem’s plight intersects the common lot of humanity at odd angles, rendering the creature both more and less than a child of Adam.

Just long enough at two pages, the little jape entitled “No Place to Raise Kids: A Tale of Forbidden Love” carries out the premises of slash fan fiction to absurd lengths.

In “The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree,” Gunn and Swanwick have accomplished something that I thought impossible. They have created a story that could be mistaken for a genuine period example of the best Edwardian YA fantasy, something by E. Nesbit perhaps, without falling prey to mere pastiche. They inhabit the antique worldview honestly and faithfully, and the result is consequently authentic. One Christmas Eve, malign elves slaughter the adults in a household, take their identities, and begin to weave a dire fate around the children of the family. The rescue of the children relies on daughter Sasha—aided by her suddenly intelligent and talkative dog, Mr. Chesterton. This is a wise and heartfelt tale.

Rudy Rucker brings to the table his patented gonzo stylings and cyber-themes for “Hive Mind Man,” a slam-bang account of how amiable slacker Jeff turns into a living conduit for the cultural zeitgeist. But I detect in the character of Jeff’s long-suffering and ingenious lover Diane the empathetic touch of Ms. Gunn. Not, as we have seen, that she is any stranger to generating many weird concepts herself. In any case, the piece reads seamlessly, without any sign of where one writer handed over the traces to a partner, and ends on an upbeat note so often missing from contemporary SF.

“Thought Experiment” focuses on time travel, and does up that hoary yet eternal trope in grand style, offering a clever new version of atemporality, full of paradoxes and humor. Mr. Swanwick returns for the epistolary, writer-centric humor of “‘Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!’” The appearance in F&SF of this story seems to me to be the continuation of a grand tradition most famously exemplified by Avram Davidson’s “Selectra Six-Ten.” Back solo, Gunn shows herself a true stylistic chameleon and Robert Benchley-esque maker of pastiches with the four vignettes under the rubric “The Steampunk Quartet,” each of which takes the hilarious piss out of a famous steampunk work.

The first sentence of “The Armies of Elfland” cleverly inverts the opener of “The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree,” just as “Armies” goes on to turn the entire charming-albeit-consequential fairytale ambiance and milieu of “Trains” on its head. Under the influence of co-author Swanwick, the follow-up piece seems an instantiation of his concept of “hard fantasy,” a type of fantasy which blends the mythic with the quotidian, as in his The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. Here, elves have exploded from another dimension into our plane and wreaked an apocalypse. Heroine Agnes, one of a handful of surviving humans and a quintessential never-say-die Gunn-ian protagonist, finds herself a captive of the fay Queen and perhaps the only one who might begin to reverse the global destruction.

A piece of meta-meta-metafiction, “Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005″ finds the allegorical avatars of the named authors on a road trip, noshing burgers and slinging semiotics. This is followed by the final collaboration with Swanwick, “Zeppelin City,” which is a rousing and pitch-perfect bit of dieselpunk, the kind of story that might have been written if 1938 had never ended, featuring two great heroines, Radio Jones and Amelia Spindizzy, battling the Naked Brains.

Lastly we get the second unreprinted piece, “Phantom Pain,” which to my ears sounds like Gunn beautifully channeling everything she ever loved about James Tiptree, Jr.—particularly “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” and “Painwise”—into her own visionary mold.

As many have lamented, including Gunn herself, it’s saddening that her stories don’t emerge from her keyboard at a faster pace. But what smart reader would exchange the current high quality of such a volume for a vaster quantity anyhow?

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early March

Here we have the Dell digests, about which I have only limited enthusiasm, also the first of the month ezines.

Publications Reviewed



Asimov’s, April/May 2014

I was happy to see in the ToC that this double issue was featuring two novellas, but less happy after I had read them. The Reed was especially disappointing, because I always have the highest expectations from this author. I prefer some of the shorter stories.

“Each in his Prison, Thinking of the Key” by William Preston

Another installment in the author’s series about the legendary and apparently immortal hero* known here as the Old Man. In the ultrasecure prison where he is held, they call him Methuselah; elsewhere in the text, he is compared to Odysseus. His presence and activities have disconcerted the security state, which considers his existence too dangerous, because uncomprehended, to be allowed to go free.

Jimmy is a military interrogator, specialist in a form of mind control supposedly based on quantum entanglement, that creates a conduit between his mind and that of the subject. It had met with mixed results in Iraq, but the authorities, out of alternatives, hope he can crack this prisoner’s iron self-control.

The passageway faintly echoed. The mind of the other man whispered back. This was good. Jimmy only listened, hoping to catch a tone of assent on the other side, notes of acceptance, openness—an agreement that Methuselah would never consciously know had been struck.

But the subject is too strong for him.

The narrative shifts in time, mostly between the interrogation and its aftermath, as an obviously traumatized Jimmy attempts to regain normality. Then a series of inexplicable incidents makes him realize that the connection isn’t at all over. Readers aren’t going to be surprised by the outcome of the interrogation. But what the story is really about is free will. Jimmy hopes to influence the prisoner’s will to make him reveal his secrets. His main revelation is that his subject is too good, which the authorities take to mean that he was too good, too powerful, for Jimmy to overcome. But Jimmy comes to understand otherwise, and finally makes a choice, freely.

At its heart, this is a moral story.

You couldn’t locate or understand the self by looking inward. You could only make sense of a self by observing its actions in the world. A good human was not a steady noun but a sequence of unexpected verbs. No matter if one sat in contemplation or acted for all the world to see: one became a full self by doing.

Perhaps the legendary figure is too good to be true, or his legion of helpers can’t all be as good as the story suggests. There’s a strong hint here, appropriate given the story’s origin, of superhero vs supervillain, with the moral blacks and whites too starkly painted for reality – or perhaps in the primary colors of the comics. Reality is the security state and the secret military base, which so often does wrong by intending to do right in its own lights, and whose personnel come in natural shades of gray. In this episode of the series, the security state isn’t the villain; they just aren’t capable of seeing the true picture and distinguishing the good.

(*) The hero is Doc Savage. The author doesn’t use the name but discloses his identity through hints clear to the knowledgeable.

“The Principles” by Robert Reed

Outtake from the author’s in-progress alternate history novel, dealing with the youth of his protagonist, Quentin Maurus. He lives in a world like but not like our own, and much of the interest here consists in discovering the scope of those differences, which turns out to be profound. Yet Quentin finds plenty of familiar-seeming science fiction books to read, as well as a famous work titled The Principles, in which the author proclaims an infinite worlds hypothesis. Which may be a novelty there, but a commonplace theory to readers here.

“Suppose you were a god,” she said. “Suppose gods could stand back and see the universe as infinite examples of what might be. Every moment leads on to a trillion, trillion possibilities, and there is no end to what will arise, and everything possible is inevitable.”

This is a dystopian world that has been at war for over a thousand years, between the Mongols and the western powers following a gynocentric religion like but not like Christianity. Women here are the priests, the rulers, the landowners, while men become warriors or soldiers. Quentin has a rare exemption from the universal conscription, but he makes little of his life after attending college, other than avidly reading. He begins a love affair with a former history professor and is drawn into a circle of dissent, less out of conviction than attachment.

The story here, such as it is, revolves mostly around this love affair. It’s not an erotic tale. The characters piss a lot, which is to say that the text refers to this act a lot, a way of describing their intimacy. During their meetings, Sarah tells him stories from her research into a famous woman ruler of this world’s Byzantine empire, wherein we can discern a number of the story’s themes, such as relationships between older powerful women and younger men. It’s not that nothing much happens, which it doesn’t, but nothing is really revealed by what does happen, by all that we learn of this world’s history and religion. Quentin, at the end, finds himself clueless, as if all these events had never happened at all, except for the lingering pain of a doomed attachment. And readers are left just as clueless, with him. I have to conclude that the piece fails as a story, and that this is because it’s too closely tied to the novel in which these events might at some point come to make some sense. But that point is nowhere here.

“Of Finest Scarlet Is Her Gown” by Michael Swanwick

One night, the Devil comes to her house and takes Su-Yin’s father away to Hell.

Flickering match-light played over the harsh planes of a cruel but beautiful face. In an instant of sick revulsion, Su-yin experienced a triple revelation: first that this woman was not human; then that whatever she might be was far worse than any mere demon; and finally that, given the extreme terror her presence inspired, she could only be the Devil herself.

Su-Yin follows the Devil’s car, determined to save her father. After she makes a nuisance of herself and refuses to leave Hell, the Devil offers her a deal, so we know what kind of story this is going to be.

The differences are in the details, first in making the Devil a female, which doesn’t do much to change her basic character. More important, unlike the classic story in which the Devil’s opponent proves more clever, here it’s a question of who can resist temptation – as tempter is perhaps the Devil’s most ancient profession. Cleverly entertaining, and a moral tale without being moralistic.

“Rules of Engagement” by Matthew Johnson

A fairly near future in which members of the military are fitted with neural feedback implants – a mixed benefit. Otherwise, little seems to have changed, including their missions. The story follows Butler and his buddies Hollis and Cervantes, two of them now facing discharge after their latest tour in Yemen.

Bishop has described that moment, when the rules of engagement allow them to defend themselves, as a feeling of release: “You can breathe again, like you just took off a belt that’s too small for you,” he told me. “The locals can see it, too, ’cause now you fucking feel like you’re Superman. That’s when you know if they really are Shabaab or not, ’cause if they are, this is when they shit themselves.”

Even after leaving Yemen, Bishop keeps up his use of ghat, which lowers the effective control of his implant over his behavior; he thinks this will help when he gets the notion to rob a popular bar – an operation that we know will not go well. Then it goes worse.

The text of the story focuses on the implants, how they interact with the brain in unpredictable ways, producing reward and punishment loops. The military, of course, takes the stance of denying that there is anything wrong with the implants and they aren’t responsible for whatever these soldiers might have done. In fact, however, the heart of the story can be found in the title, which identifies the real problem as the rules of engagement that that treat friendly force protection as the ultimate priority, and the lives of residents in countries under military occupation as totally expendable. A strong indictment of the sort of mongered war that sends troops into such situations, governed by such rules.

–RECOMMENDED

“Scout” by Will McIntosh

Alien invasion. Kai is now an orphaned refugee learning the ways of desperation. About the time he’s about to freeze to death, he hears a voice in his head – one of the telepathic aliens, offering help, telling him about a nearby corpse he can rob. It seems that the alien scout is also in need of help.

With a child protagonist, it seems axiomatic that everything will become simplified, the moral choices set out in an oversized, bold font, as if for a child reader.

“Like a Wasp to the Tongue” by Fran Wilde

In a universe where corporate interests are exploiting planets, military personnel convicted by courts-martial are sent as forced labor to work on such worlds. This is a labor force full of hard-asses, which often engages is stupid and potentially deadly acts out of little more than boredom. For example, “Someone had removed a batch of the garrison’s wasps from the vespidary. Someone had dulled them with smudges, then handed them out to waiting briggers.” The person charged with keeping all the personnel alive under these circumstances is the med tech Rios, a brigger herself, although she doesn’t like to admit it. But when a real emergency strikes their base, it takes cooperation to keep everyone alive.

The characters here are a rogue’s gallery, the corporate officers a typical lot of villains, but the most interest is in the wasps, that prove to be excellent at detecting not only valuable minerals but potential toxins. A pretty good adventurey read.

“Slowly Upward, the Coelacanth” by M Bennardo

A very short post apocalypse story, not an evolution story – not exactly. It seems that there aren’t enough resources for everyone human to survive, so some minds are downloaded and placed in animals.

Someone had said the coelacanth had survived this before. If anything could survive again, it would be those sturdy fish. But they would come again later. The humans would return after winter had passed—the very lucky ones would come out of their caves or descend from the sky. They would trawl the oceans and they would pull up their lost cousins, the still-lucky but also not-so-lucky ones who had been given this last bare chance to survive in the depths.

The coelacanth lives pretty contentedly for a hundred and fifty years, which is apparently long enough. But what about the fish who don’t survive, who are eaten, who rot on the seafloor, whom the nets miss? In short, I can’t think this is an idea that would be adopted, given all the resources that would have had to go into it.

“The Talking Cure” by K J Zimring

The narrator as an old man is hired by Sotheby’s to provide memory documentation of a Hitler painting alleged to have been owned by Freud, whom he visited when he was an autistic child in Vienna. But the process reveals a great deal more than that, it reveals the lies on which he based his life.

Strong psychological piece about true and false memory. The setting, when the Nazis were exterminating “mental defectives”, gives a forceful urgency to the events.

On the way out, my hand back in my mother’s, we passed a line of buses with their windows blacked out. I knew what those were for and even now it gave me a sick little jolt to see them.

But I didn’t have to get on them. I could go home and have a life. I talked because I had to.

I do wonder if the payment the narrator receives could possibly be as large as he supposes. I also have a strong urge to slap his wife and tell her to shut up so I can hear the story.

“Dolores, Big and Strong” by Joe M McDermott

When June is very young, her mother moves in with her own stepmother Dolores. Dolores isn’t big and strong anymore; she suffers from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and has the same rare blood type as June, who is given a shunt so her blood can be transfused into the old woman. June frequently remarks that nobody ever asked if this was OK with her. She grows up sullen and resentful, wishing for escape to somewhere less smelly.

Here I was, my arm really naked, bones and arteries showing, shunted open, blood pouring in and out between me and Big Dolores, and that cat stink all over her, and goat shit stink, and weed and farm stink. God, she stank. I stank just being here, around this place.

A dismal story about the sort of people who’ll never get a real chance in life, whose chances of ending up in jail are “when” not “if”. As June says, “we have a family history of very bad, very violent, or very stupid men.” These women can be violent, too, but their loyalty, such as it is, is reserved for each other. The SFnal element here is very slight, consisting of the transfusion technique and the family’s rare blood type. Otherwise, the setting is all too realistic.

“Someday” by James Patrick Kelly

Daya lives in a village on a colony world, where it’s the custom for women to take the multiple fathers for their children from outside. Despite everyone thinking that she should leave, Daya selects three local men, one of them her brother. What no one knows is that she is going further outside than anyone.

She had been so busy pretending that this wasn’t going to happen that she was surprised to find herself gliding across the river. She could never have had sex with the fathers if she had acknowledged to herself that she was going to go through with it. Certainly not with Ganth. And Latif would have guessed that something was wrong. She had the odd feeling that there were two of her in the skiff, each facing in opposite directions. The one looking back at the village was screaming at the one watching the starship grow ever larger.

The ending comes as quite a surprise, because so little has prepared us for it. We hear Daya discuss with her baby fathers the possibility that she might leave, someday. But for the most part, this is an anthropological exhibit of some rather different mating rites. We don’t really learn how these customs evolved or how they differ from the rest of humanity on different worlds; if we do consider the question, we’re likely to assume that the colony is the place where things have changed. With the ending, the ground shifts under all our assumptions, yet we aren’t given answers. This makes it unsatisfying.



Analog, May 2014

With no serial this month, we have a novelette and more shorter stories, seven in all. Again, it’s the shorter ones that I prefer.

“All Human Things” by Dave Creek

Military SF. It seems that an alien hive species is attacking Earth, and our hero, the artificial Human [sic] Mike Christopher, retrieves a human captive from a holed Jenregar spacecraft. Being a religious fanatic, the rescued captive isn’t grateful, despite being saved from vivisection without benefit of anesthetic. Quarreling ensues between them. Unfortunately, they seem to be stuck with each other, for the sake of their knowledge of the enemy.

This piece is pretty much a mess. Buried deep in the text is an idea that offers promise: how to defeat aliens whose senses are so completely different from the human. Unfortunately, the author has shoveled so much mulch onto it that readers are likely to forget for pages at a time what’s going on – and suspect that the author has done likewise. We’re supposed to care instead about these characters, one of whom is steeped in contrived angst and the other in contrived despicability. So in the supposed urgency of getting Mike to Brussels to work on countermeasures to the alien threat, everything pauses for several pages for a tour of the experimental facility where he was illicitly created, to be later bullied in school.

In a lot of other places, the plot makes no sense. Why, if Mike is so valuable for his specialist knowledge, is he risked by sending him into an enemy ship to retrieve an unidentified captive? How, after they are trapped in limbo when the alien craft engages its spacedrive, do they suddenly get retrieved by Mike’s ship? [Why is apparently to give Mike another opportunity to get angsty over his childhood.] And how, if Earth has defensive forces in its space, did the enemy get past them to start digging termite mounds in human cities, apparently without a real fight, even though we’ve seen human ships blasting holes in their spacecraft? And when did they do it, given that the characters weren’t even certain at the beginning of the story that Earth was the alien target? If the author had spent more effort on such matters and a lot less on school bullying, this might have been a more readable story.

“Cryptids” by Alec Nevala-Lee

Biological SF. Karen is a field biologist nearing the end of a declining career, currently doing a survey of the bird population in an area of New Guinea. She is approached by Amanda, a former student now working successfully for a drug company and nagged by the sense that she sold out, unlike the scrupulous Karen. Amanda is interested in the ultimate source of a toxin found in the feathers of the hooded pitohui, which gets it from consuming melyrid beetles, which get it from, she assumes, an unknown plant. She wants Karen to help her fit transmitters to the birds so they can trace the source, and offers financial incentives that would allow her to finish her season’s research.

All this is based on known fact. Unfortunately, the author chooses to inform us via the old “As You Know Bob” routine, when both these characters would know very well indeed what these facts are. Fortunately, once our expedition gets to following the birds into the forest, things get interesting. Unfortunately, the plot suffers from Redshirt Syndrome.

The scientific speculation is the best part of the story. New Guinea is an excellent location for it, as new species are even now being found there in large numbers. The ropen is known through folklore, and expeditions have been mounted to find it, so far unsuccessfully. The various species of melyrid beetles, however, are well-known, and since Amanda’s expedition has a local guide on hand, I would think they could have more simply cut the birds out of the location and simply searched out the beetles – if Amanda didn’t have an ulterior motive involving Karen.

“In Perpetuity” by Ellis Morning

One of the projects at the lunar research colony is the Alexandra Library, established to hold as much information as possible in the stable environment of the moon. But as is their wont, the bureaucrats on Earth have cut funding and are planning to send the library staff home. The librarian holes up in the vault to save as much as he can, while he can.

“Earth is too volatile, nothing lasts there. Your discipline grants you an acute appreciation of this fact. On the Moon, time stands still. Hiatus.”

That’s about it. The story begins with the discovery of interesting rocks, leading readers to expect something Hard SFnal to come of them, but it takes a wide turn to become, essentially, a lecture on information preservation.

“Bodies in Water” by Sarah Frost

Kay lives and fishes on the shore of drowned Florida in a small subsistence village. She has a number of impairments that seem to be congenital; she knows this makes her a disappointment to her parents. One day she brings up a mechanical fish that her father tells her was made as a surveillance device, but it’s missing its tail, and Kay decides to make it a new one.

The setting isn’t the story here, it’s the character; this is a story of family. Kay wants to make her parents proud of her. I do wonder, however, how far in the future this is supposed to be. The fact that any part of Florida remains, and the existence of salvaged tools from the pre-flood times, suggest that this may be no more than a century in the future. So I don’t understand the references to derelict “starships” wrecked offshore. Is Kay misspeaking, or the author? Could these be the rocket boosters of today’s NASA, on Cape Canaveral, or did something really interesting happen before the fall?

“Snapshots” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A family history beginning in 1955 at the viewing of Emmett Till, where young Cleavon sees the bullet holes in the face of a boy he had known. Cleavon grows up to hate and fear guns, the police, and city of Chicago. He refuses to go back there, even for the celebration of Obama’s presidential victory in Grant Park – to the scorn of his daughter. But his grandson Ty has known the gunfire, understands. And decides to do something about it.

This one comes close to where I live, which is not quite in Chicago but near enough that most of the events here were local news. I don’t know if they will appear to other readers with such immediacy. At its heart, it’s a generational story of a family [oddly, only Cleavon seems to have two parents on hand].

“Mama said you would be negative,” Ty said. “She said I shouldn’t tell you anything I’ve done well because you always take the pride out of it.”

Of the issues that Cleavon confronts, however, the central one is guns. This is an anti-gun piece, and strongly so. Also an optimistic one. I’m not at all convinced that Ty’s innovation will succeed, but the story is in the changes that make it possible.

“Repo” by Aaron Gallagher

Elise is a repo agent, specializing in spacecraft. She has no trouble getting onto the target freighter and immobilizing its owner. The problem is when a rival shows up and tries to steal her score out from under her. Elise isn’t having any of that, but the other guy is a pro.

She watched him nerve himself for the shot. Her attention focused on his trigger finger. One twitch, and she would put a bullet in his head, followed by two more.

“Don’t try me,” she warned.

Space opera, an action piece, good read.

“Another Man’s Treasure” by Tom Greene

In a scavenger economy, Maggie is a strict caretaker of her family’s claim on the landfill, knowing where the potential valuables are and where the hazards.

Toxic residues, heavy metals, infections, tetanus, diseased and toxic animals, and things even more mysterious, outgassing, genemodded microorganisms, biomedical waste, even radiation. Only by constant vigilance, drilling them on safety, hygiene, and thoughtfulness, had Maggie and Jake been lucky enough to get them this far.

It’s a hard life, and Maggie’s greatest concern is to make a better one for her kids. But it seems like everywhere she turns, someone is always out to grind her down. The story of a determined survivor under hard circumstances.



Clarkesworld, March 2014

A mixed issue. The Dickinson story proved thought-provoking, but I’m not so happy with the zine’s turn towards the YA.

“Morrigan in the Sunglare” by Seth Dickinson

After an alien invasion successfully repulsed, the worlds of Sol turned inward and adopted a pacifistic lifestyle, leaving their interstellar colonies on their own. When the interstellar Alliance came to Earth for assistance in preparing for another alien assault, the homeworlders turned them down. The consequence is now war between the two human powers, with Federation pilots having to struggle to cast off their humane values in order to fight effectively. Those who “talk about why the war started, how it would end, who was right, who was wrong” are the ones who break. But Laporte, callsign Morrigan, loves it out there, the killing.

How could you think like that and then pull the trigger, ride the burst, guns guns guns and boom, scratch bandit, good kill? So Laporte gave up on empathy and let herself ride the murder-kick. She hated herself for it. But at least she didn’t break.

Laporte loves her commander, Simms, who has had to embrace hate in order to pull the trigger. After their ship is disabled and falling into the sun, they have time while dying of radiation poisoning for a long discussion of such questions.

A provocative work, the sort that makes readers wonder: just what is the author doing here? Because we are immersed in Laporte’s point of view as protagonist, witness to her embrace of the murder-kick, it seems natural to empathize, to congratulate her success, and I suspect a number of readers will do exactly that. “Monsters win”, so Laporte’s transition to a monster is a good thing, a necessary thing for victory. Cheer. Wave flags.

But I think the author is quite a bit more subtle here, or at least so I read it, as a deconstruction of the Laporte position. This is a horror story, a monster story, an anti-war story. This is largely because we can see, as the antagonists apparently do not dare, that it’s an unnecessary war – a war of choice, not survival. At first, people could engage with that proposition. They can think: maybe we should make common cause with each other for the sake of our common humanity. There is one scene where we see the combatants make a temporary, wary truce, only to have it accidentally blown away, to everyone’s secret relief. Peace is hard, war is the easier alternative; you don’t have to think. This sort of thing becomes its own end, self-perpetuating. We can see from this point into a future in which, like Bear’s Hardfought, humanity has remade itself to service the needs of a forever war with no discernible beginning or end – monsters.

And readers will have to wonder: what happens when the aliens return, as the Alliance is convinced that they will. Will the two factions of humanity be able to unite to face a common enemy in a true war of survival? Will this fratricidal combat prove to have strengthened them, transforming them into the kind of monsters that will be able to save the species? Or will it prove to have weakened them so that, the next time, they fall? Some readers may think it might be a good thing if the aliens did suddenly show up again, to save humanity from itself, from its own monsters.

–RECOMMENDED

“Human Strandings and the Role of the Xenobiologist” by Thoraiya Dyer

It seems that Kelly’s family is trying to migrate illicitly to Centauri station, so that little Kelly is smuggled into a cargo module that goes astray and crashes on a world inhabited by beings far in advance of humans. Such crashes are not uncommon, so that they have written a handbook for dealing with any survivors. They would prefer, however, that the migrators get their act together and learn to navigate properly, to eliminate the nuisance…

It has no artificial intelligence in it at all. The shuttle is just a metal body. Its brain is somewhere else; somewhere in space. No wonder they keep crashing here. It’s as if the entity that controlled this shuttle, that fired this human into space, didn’t care enough about where it landed to waste time growing an independent mind for the module.

In the meantime, humans have increasingly given over their affairs and lives to the incompetent AI that let Kelly crash.

A dark outlook for the future, with ironic touches of humor, yet depressing at the same time. Humans here seem to deserve the negative opinion that the aliens form of them, and their AI doesn’t seem to deserve the I-word.

“Suteta Mono de wa Nai (Not Easily Thrown Away)” by Juliette Wade

Like all good Japanese schoolgirls, Naoko is driving herself crazy studying for the college entrance exams on which everything depends, as her grandmother keeps reminding her. The guilt is overwhelming.

Obaa-chan and I aren’t speaking. I haven’t eaten breakfast or dinner for two days because that would mean going into the kitchen. It would mean her serving me, reminding me as always of the filial debt that I can never repay.

Naoko has been hearing voices, which turn out to belong to spirits that have the form of old household junk, arguing over her fate very much like angel/devil figures quarreling over a person’s soul. One of the yokai urges her to obey her grandmother and study, the other tempts her to go out at night in her goth-girl costume and throw it all away.

Perhaps because the piece is YA, it doesn’t quite trust the reader to understand the Japanese references, using phrases like “zori sandals” instead of simply “zori”. Aside from the yokai, the story of family is entirely conventional, oft-told before.



Apex Magazine, March 2014

The editor says this issue has a theme of flight, and I certainly saw this in three out of the four original stories. She also says this is a month of “fresh starts and do-overs”, which I hope bodes well for the zine.

“Waking” by Cat Hellisen

A couple of generations ago, entities manifested on Earth and were given the name angels.

Eventually we stopped caring. An angel would arrive, alone, would stand uselessly still, and finally crumple to its knees with a sad dusty crash.

Alissa’s family runs a roadside museum featuring rusting artefacts of the angels, which haven’t appeared in decades. Except that out in the trees past the hedge, there’s a new angel, seemingly as dead as all the rest, although Alissa hears its voice in her head, telling her it wants wings. And people, including Alissa’s sister Cam, keep bringing it offerings. Finally, Cam brings it their screaming little brother.

This one ends on an enigmatic note, although the story’s metaphors have promised flight, or at least a rising epiphany. Readers familiar with the pattern will be expecting the interaction with the angel to also solve the problem of the little brother’s screaming, but that doesn’t really happen, either, or not clearly so. And when Alissa expresses confusion, one of the worshippers tells her, “You should know. . . . You brought us here.” Which only adds to the mystery, as it was Cam who first found the manifestation and Alissa who at first denied it. If there is supposed to be an epiphany here, or a connection between the angel and Alissa’s consciousness, the author has been overly subtle about it.

Perhaps because the author’s English is South African, the text seems overly-hyphenated to me.

“Undone” by Mari Ness

Short-short, part of the author’s fairy tale series – in this case, the swan brothers and what became of the youngest brother, who was left with one swan wing when his shirt was left undone. He strikes me as a whiner, even if he’s quiet about it. I’d have liked this better if we saw events from his point of view, with positive reasons for his decision.

“To Increase His Wondrous Greatnesse More” by Sunny Moraine

The maiden and the dragon do a deal. Actually, the maiden is a witch and it’s her deal, and the dragon has reason to wonder if she’s going to get the short end of it. Readers have reason to wonder as well, since the author provides three alternative versions of the conclusion; the last, however, seems clearly to be the true one.

A subversive work, which subverts Edmund Spenser first of all, in the title. Not only is the maiden set on subverting the traditional order of things, the author is set on subverting reader expectations. Thus we find that the dragon is likewise a maiden – or at least a female, and just as alluring in her own way.

She was tall and slender and she bent like a tree when the maiden came near. When she parted her lips to speak, the inside of her throat glowed like coals. Her red eyes smoked gently. She was very beautiful when it suited her to be so, and very terrible always, and when she wished to be at her most terrible beauty was the means she chose.

The expectation that the maiden is human, however, is a bit more tricky. She has a human shape, at least, but perhaps the soul of something else, something evil. I think the dragon is foolish to trust her, but love makes fools even of dragons.

“The End of the World in Five Dates” by Claire Humphrey

This is the only story in the issue that doesn’t have clear flying imagery. The narrator calls herself Cassandra because she’s a negative person, and because she has always seen visions of doom – specifically, lately, the end of the world. Both these traits make her hard to be with, although her friends keep trying. Cass also has a persistent pain that may be cancer, but she refuses to see a doctor about it, since the world is going to end anyway and she wants to spend her last days seeing it, not on “medical bullshit”. “I pictured eight months of concerned glances, eight months of printouts about alternative cancer treatments, eight months of scones I didn’t want.”

Her friends call Cass an asshole, a jackass, and I’m not inclined to argue with them. The author suggests that love can change all that, but I suspect it may be too late, and I can’t really feel sorry for her if that’s the case. Her mistake is in choosing from deliberate ignorance, not trusting her visions. I also, strangely, have trouble identifying Cass as a woman; her friends seem to have the same problem. “Jackass”, I note, is a term that refers to the male of the species.

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.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

The month’s stories from some of the regular ezines and a couple less regular small press publications. I found some enjoyable work, particularly from Tor.com and Unlikely Story, which is the journal of cryptology this time.

Publications Reviewed



Tor.com, February 2014

Featuring The Anderson Project, a group of three original stories written to illustrate a painting by Richard Anderson [rather than the usual other way around]. Tor has done this sort of thing before, two years ago. There are also independent stories, plus a special Valentine’s Day offering – stuff that I like quite a bit better.

The Anderson Project

The image is strongly SFnal, a shadowed space station or craft resembling a jellyfish, with two apparently-human figures in the foreground, who seem to be tethered to a sort of umbilical. But that’s what I see; the point of a project like this one is to explore what the various authors see, what story they find in it.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the project is too successful. Liu employs the ship as an essential element of his story, but not in a way that fully makes sense. Moffett uses, not the ship, but the painting of the ship, as a launching-off point to lecture us on dream interpretation. And Goonan focuses more on the Gaugin painting that she uses for her title. Everyone seems to find a jellyfish in the image; it’s not just me.

“Reborn” by Ken Liu

This story was posted January 29, but I held back the review in order to discuss all three pieces together.

Aliens have conquered Earth, and they have modeled their Judgment Ship on a flying saucer as an intended sop to human sensibilities, or so the Tawnin say. It’s a benevolent occupation, or so they say. Stubborn xenophobic elements in the human population are still hostile. The ship is where they brainwash such humans, then release them back into the population, “reborn”. Josh is a Reborn counterterrorist agent, mated to a Tawnin, which involves regular mindprobes. Now he is investigating an attack on the ship at the moment it released its latest crop of Reborn.

At the end of each line is a human, securely attached like hooked fish by the Tawnin ports located over their spines and between their shoulder blades. As the lines slowly extend and drift closer to the ground, the figures at the ends languidly move their arms and legs, tracing out graceful patterns.

As Josh traces leads to the attack, disturbing old memories of his past life resurface.

The basic plot is pretty predictable. What’s of interest here is the question of the relationship between self and memory, the conflict between two opposing positions: “We are what we remember.” and “We are not the sum of our pasts.” The Tawnin shed memory and self as a snake sheds its skin, but it doesn’t work that way for humans. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is revealed mostly through infodump. I have other problems with the piece. I don’t credit the drive of the Tawnin to mate with humans, an activity which is penetrative but focuses on the sharing of memories, not generative material. Is this how the Tawnin mate among themselves? It’s as if the author thought this would be a convenient device to account for the constant mind probing. I also can’t think that the Judgment Ship is a very efficient way of processing the large number of Reborn that the occupation seems to produce. It seems as if the image spawned the story, but then the story grew away from the image. That often happens with story seeds, but in this case, the seed couldn’t be dug up and discarded as the Tawnin do with their memories.

“Space Ballet” by Judith Moffett

Another Josh, this one a student of precognitive dream research. He paints his dream, then brings the canvas along to therapy class, where they all try to figure out what to make of it, why it scares him. His twin brother Tim is in his dream; it turns out that Tim had a similar dream, in which Josh was present.

Amid generalized fear, an object or objects—ship, shuttle, maybe both—are in space, and are also deep underwater. In your dream there’s no image or sense of the object plunging from space into the water, but your twin dreams of a tidal wave, and his dream and your reentry experience are linked through your moon painting.

Exactly what is going to happen – and when? And if a disaster, how can they try to avert it?

Using the Anderson painting, not just as an image but as a painting of one, gives a sort of metafictional effect, but also feels overly literalized. It’s an idea story, but the idea is the interpretation of dreams, with such details as asters and hemorrhoids adding up to asteroid, and the score of a baseball game giving the date of impact. I find myself uncompelled by these elements.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

As a young parrot, Meitner was implanted with human DNA and neural enhancements. Liberated from the lab in a raid, she ended up in Hawaii, where Jean Woodward took her to live with a flock of non-native parrots and learn their behavior as well as English and math. Meitner grew up and learned with Jean’s daughter Leilani, specializing in mathematics, but some aspects of human behavior always disturbed her. Eventually she flew away to live an independent life as a mathematician. Now she has finally come out to deliver a lengthy manifesto demanding rights for all creatures.

Most non-humans have specific missions having to do with survival but I realized that, having the gift of speech, I had a wider responsibility. I understand other species, probably, as little as you do, but I do know that they have interior lives and that they deserve rights as living beings.

Her mathematical analysis of the dynamics of flocking behavior also allows her to take control of an experimental spacecraft [the one in the painting] and translate it elsewhere, an aspect of the plot that is slighted.

This is an intensely, excessively, optimistic celebration of the unity of life. “All living creatures have one goal, communicated, understood, and shared on a broad bandwith: the survival of all of us. With joy.” Also, with love. There’s a lot of that here. I must admit that I have an easier time accepting the notion of a parrot doing transdimensional mathematics than in the unity of all creatures, many of whom prey on the others. It’s all well-expressed, well-developed. But a bit much to take in a world where I see both ants and humans dismembering each other. The story doesn’t ignore the issue of violence. Jean is killed by parrots who become upset to learn, via the spaceship painting, that humans sometimes kill each other. Ironically, this behavior seems to be enabled by the presence of human DNA in their population, introduced by Meitner. The importance of the Gaugin painting, set in a Polynesian paradise, could include a tacit reference to original sin: if it takes human genes to recognize the evil of murder, does it also take human genes to recognize the rights of other species? The story suggests a number of such provocative moral issues.

“Mad Maudlin” by Marie Brennan

As the epigraph suggests, this is a repurposing of the eponymous 18th century poem, which was itself a reply to the better-known “Tom ‘o Bedlam”. Here we are in a psychiatric hospital, in which Peter encounters a new patient hiding under his desk.

He could see her bare feet through the gap where the modesty panel didn’t quite reach the floor. Hard feet, armored with calluses, and profoundly filthy. The nurses hadn’t wanted to bathe her. Hadn’t wanted to spend any more time with her than necessary. Downtown hospital, veteran staff that had seen absolutely everything three times over, and they didn’t want to be in the same room as this woman.

Readers familiar with the poem should immediately notice the reference to the lines:

Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes,
For to save her shoes from gravel

Peter, too, recognizes the poem, the song, the story. But he doesn’t expect to become a part of it, himself, to be using the tools of psychotherapy, largely Jungian, to reclaim the sanity of the archetype who is now his patient.

A fine piece of fantasy, a really neat reworking of the folklore in terms of a modern approach to mental illness – and the converse. Lots of symbolism threaded into it, such as the moon as lord of lunacy.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Valentine’s Day, 1938, when “dolls” were paired with “guys”. Our narrator is a waiter in the Cloud Club of the Chrysler Building when, at 5:28 pm, the building steps off its foundation.

She just shakes the snow and pigeons loose from her spire and takes off, sashaying southwest. This is something even we waiters haven’t experienced before. The Chrysler is 1,046 feet tall, and, until now, she’s seemed stationary. She’s stood motionless on this corner for seven years so far, the gleamiest gal in a million miles.

The Chrysler is in love, and tired of waiting for her guy to come to her.

A totally cool conceit, and a love story to remember. Aside from which, it’s a Valentine to New York City and its history.



Strange Horizons, February 2014

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” LaShawn M Wanak

Obviously, a list story. These have become a hard sell for me. This one, though, I like, with its light tones of irony and wit.

The steps, it seems, are on the spiral staircases that sometimes appear unexpectedly at crucial junctures of a person’s life. Isa has now climbed three of them, so she’s a good choice to advise us.

When a spiral staircase appears in front of you, don’t panic. Just know that if you place your feet on that first step, it shows commitment. You can’t go back. You can only go up and up and up until you reach the very top.

Actually, you can go back down, but only after you reach the top, where the epiphanies are found. But as Isa tells us, epiphanies are what we make of them. “That’s the thing about enlightenment. Unless you do something with it afterwards, it really don’t mean shit.” Wisdom, that. We’re all responsible for the course of our lives, but sometimes, a little enlightenment can’t hurt. This is also a story about family. Isa’s family has strong characters and weak ones, and one whose staircase only appears at her funeral. I have to wonder what epiphany Isa’s mother would have found at the top of her staircase, and what its unusual construction would have been revealed to mean. Even a totally self-sufficient person might sometimes do with a bit of an epiphany, even if she doesn’t believe it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Lysistrata of Mars” by Tory Hoke

Broke and desperate on Mars, Kay takes up pole dancing to earn money. All is well, relatively speaking, until an alien prince takes a liking to her, demanding more than Kay wants to put out. An interstellar incident ensues when the prince takes the strip club’s bouncers hostage. The brothel workers go on strike in solidarity with Kay. As one of them tells her, “A limit is its own reward.” Wisdom here, too.

MGN confirmed it in a bewildered nightly news segment, their straight-faced Limosian correspondent reporting from the foot of Tower 190. One refused patron gave them a quote (“Sigma 9′s got a hundred fucking princes. One of ‘em’s gonna be an asshole.”) but refused to appear on camera.

A story of self-respect and solidarity. The outcome is awfully optimistic, but the characters are strong.

“The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen

Udo is a castrato in the Berlin opera when someone starts to murder patrons in the canals beneath the opera house. Udo also has a magical gift that he employs to keep people from noticing him except when onstage.

I had seen too many other musicos exploited, made public figures; I had seen them groped and made figures of fun, or I had seen them borne away on the tides of their own fame, enslaved to passions others had given them. I would not be like them. I would sing, and that would be all they could have of me.

Now, though, he has heard the murderer’s song. It is no human song. And only Udo can call the singer out of the water.

The interest here is in the details of 17th century opera, such as the suitcase aria, which sounds like something well got rid of.



Shimmer #18, 2014

An issue guest-edited by Ann VanderMeer, who informs readers that many of the eight stories here are refugees from her editorship of the former iteration of Weird Tales, which should make it of particular interest to readers.

Many of these pieces suffer from a similar problem: the authors begin with a promising premise, but can’t seem to form a complete story from it. So we have some neat settings, some of them nicely weird, but fewer satisfying conclusions. The best is the Dustin Monk.

“In the Broken City” by Ben Peek

The tone is set here by mention of people who live under the cremation ovens – and like it there. This is a dying world where the sky is a perpetual sunset. Beneath Broken City is the hospital, which seems to have a sinister reputation. It does a lot of amputations. After the nameless narrator decides to have his healthy leg removed, he falls in love with a nurse. Yet no one there has ever seen or heard of her.

A promising beginning to the issue, with a classic Weird Tales tone, dismal and strange.

Two days after her arrival, the surgeons here discovered that she had a worm living in her leg. It ran the entire length of her bone and grew by eating the marrow within. After the amputation, they put it in a jar for everyone to see.

Yet when we reach the crucial moment when the narrator can no longer naively accept what he has believed, he simply goes to his doctor to demand an explanation. And receives it. The subsequent sound is all the story’s mystery, its hints of madness and unreality, rushing suddenly out. A tale with a reasonable medical explanation is not a weird one, and readers looking for one will be left disappointed, even though the last line attempts to recapture the morbid tone.

“The Birth of the Atomic Age” by Rachel Marston

Alternate A-bomb testing, in a world where secrecy is shrugged off and the government makes it a spectacle to impress the citizens [and intimidate the Commies].

They said, “Bring your sunglasses, your wife, your husband, your children, your dogs, your blankets, your picnics.” So we did. We made fried chicken, egg salad sandwiches, chocolate cake. We packed coolers with drinks, juices and water for the kids, lemonade, beers. We poured ice over the bottles, letting the small squares slide over the glass.

Here’s the sort of opening that could go to all kinds of neat places. Alas, it chooses one of the most banal destinations imaginable.

“Psychopomp” by Ramsey Shehadeh

Asgoroth has been in exile since his failed rebellion against Beelzebub, lord of Hell. His only alternative was to take service with Janikowski, an upstart power, but his most recent assignment to deliver a pair of his boss’s agents has failed, and now both he and they have fallen into the hands of his hellish enemies.

I look down at the souls in my arms: the woman, still glaring, her defiance unbowed by her imminent damnation; and the man, still gasping for breath, looking at me with unmasked fear.

A confused scenario. The politics of this dysfunctional hell could have been interesting if explored in more detail. Instead, there are too many stereotypical demon descriptions and torture scenes.

“Introduction: the Story of Anna Walden” by Christine Schirr

A faux-academic report [it has footnotes]. Some of my favorite stories have used this format. This one is a nested account, as the narrator attempts to piece together her subject’s “tragic tale”. But exactly whose tragic tale this is, readers have to piece together. We have letters from the subject’s psychiatrist and her own diary entries as well as what witnesses are willing to communicate.

The diary, while interesting, is in itself not a reliable source. The further into its pages, the more clear it becomes that Anna’s mind is deteriorating. At times, she is clearly hallucinating, and while the diary is fascinating reading, it cannot be considered an accurate representation of the event that occurred that November.

At which, of course, readers will suspect the narrator’s failure to see the truth, and it’s interesting to read in the footnotes of her similar conclusions regarding Dr Bell.

Tales of insanity often involve unreliable accounts, and here we clearly can’t trust what anyone is saying. Anna is convinced she is haunted by shadowy figures, and Dr Bell finds herself estranged from her absent husband. It’s just too bad that with all the narrator’s investigatory work, we learn so little about these characters. Here, because the story’s groundwork has been so meticulously laid, it collapse at the end is even more disappointing.

“Anuta Fragment’s Private Eyes” by Ben Godby

An odd name, Fragment. Readers will assume this is a low-status person, perhaps mentally impaired, particularly when we see her working as an office cleaner. Yet she has named her floor buffer Boethius. She has a speech impediment that almost prevents her from talking, out of embarrassment. She is a secret experiment, used by her employer to kill inconvenient persons, a task she doesn’t enjoy but can’t evade.

Ziad El-Charaak Tarani appears so peaceful, lying akimbo in the Dumpster out back of his apartment building. It strikes Anuta odd that she should think this, what with the way his legs and arms are bent all out of shape, and how his head is perpendicular to his neck. Certainly he cannot be comfortable; and yet the look upon his face, she knows, is carefree—nearly transcendental.

Aside from the look into the character’s mind, the main thing here is the pun on “cleaner”. Otherwise it’s standard crime SF, with a plot that doesn’t make a lot of sense, crime-investigation-wise. Nothing much weird.

“Unclaimed” by Annalee Newitz

Another detective story. After the brain eater case, Leslie Tom quit the force and went into private investigation. But a new client brings it all back when he hires her to find J J Coal, the missing author of a pulpy sci-fi book that’s been earning billions in unclaimed royalties for the last 50 years. The author is quite easy to find [the Registry hadn't actually been looking] despite being reclusive and distancing herself from her books in favor of her biological research. “But something about the way Cohen described Coal made Tom think of Nelly, the antiquarian who ate brains as a bizarre form of literary preservation.”

Despite the predictability of the mad scientist plot, I kind of like the purple-pulpy monsters and the book connection. It’s a fun read.

“Fragments from the Notes of a Dead Mycologist” by Jeff VanderMeer

That’s mushrooms, of course – a subject long dear to this author’s heart. Sinister mushrooms. The eponymous fragments were found on notecards, 24 of them, presented here in what the compiler claims is “a best approximation” of their original order. In these ramblings of the bereaved mycologist, addressed in part to his deceased lover, we find that he followed a fungal trail from his beloved’s grave to a tunnel at the top of a hill in the graveyard. There, written in fruiting bodies, he found a message of hope and resurrection.

A heartbeat wells up from deep below and thrums through the steps and into me. These are my words confronting me; I wrote them to him in a letter, and I placed it atop the coffin before they lowered it into the ground. But here they have been transformed, as if into a message just for me. Nothing can dissolve them. Nothing can destroy them.

While there’s a lot of mycological maundering here, the words of someone overly enthralled with his own subject matter, readers will find not only a story of love but of death, a struggle between hope and the skepticism that sees it as wishful thinking. We must also entertain the possibilities of madness and hallucination [which can, as we know, be brought on by certain fungi]. The answer is left to the readers. Nothing here very original, but done in a familiarly mannered weird key that should please fans of the subgenre.

“The Street of the Green Elephant” by Dustin Monk

The longest piece in the issue. There is longstanding civil unrest in a fantasy city that makes me think of southeast Asia, with intermittent warfare between two groups of people – the Sotiriraj, who may be indigenous to the area, and the magic-using Pbenyo.

Pbenyo tea-dreamers and soldiers from the north, with their milk-white blades and magic, had sacked and looted the Shining City, and burned much of it to the ground. The Street of the Green Elephant had been the site of one of the bloodiest battles. Miss Pthik-da said there were still ghosts trapped beneath the street, souls who couldn’t find their way to heaven.

At this time, the Sotiriraj are in the ascendant and enforcing oppressive measures against the Pbenyo, including the prohibition of tea, which gives prophetic dreams. Auw is a young child, the product of a marriage between a Sotiriraj father and Pbenyo mother, who had been a skilled tea-dreamer. But she has now died, and Auw’s father is eking out of living from a small tea-dreaming shop in the eponymous street.

The story is Auw’s, too young to appreciate the danger as the resentful Pbenyo plot an uprising. She fears the power of her tea-powered visions, which once showed her mother’s death, and she clings desperately to her father, while at the same time yearning for the freedom of the streets. But events are larger than young girls and anxious parents.

I like this setting quite a bit – the crowded, smelly street, the cluttered shops, the haven of the Temple, not so safe, after all. Some readers may be able to see references to contemporary conflicts, but it works quite well without. The unbroken cycle of violence that we see here is a universal. Other than the precognitive tea-dreaming, the fantastic element is slight.



Unlikely Story #8, February 2014

Aka, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. Although the editor’s note contains the disclaimer: “there’s nothing unlikely here”, given recent revelations about our security state. There are, however, some good stories, both the thought-provoking and the entertaining.

“Something in Our Minds Will Always Stay” by Barry King

The story opens on a rather ominous note with Rüdiger and Sophia in bed as security drones flit outside their window; they speak of fearing their children. In their case, the child is an AI that ends up running a powerful energy conglomerate, which is to say, much of the world. The scene is backstory; in the present thread, Rüdiger is dead, and readers will suspect he was murdered by the AI. He exists now as a virtual copy, a “black box”, who still has some capacity to influence the AI, which would rather he did not. The text continues to alternate between past, in which the characters discuss the proper upbringing/programming of the AI, and present, in which virtual Rüdi and living Sophia attempt to control the monster they created.

“[The shareholders] trust us to do our jobs, and that’s what we’re doing. I have the matrices already computed. We just need to merge them into the main core and the adaptations should take. It will remain concentrated on profitability and expansion, but will defer to Rapskil-Kleinman ethical imperatives. We will be able to overrule its decisions selectively.”

An elegantly-done tale, full of cautionary moments. As when the characters succumb to the temptation of funding and sell their work to the highest bidder. As when the AI hires lobbying firms and bribes senators, just as human executives do. As when it infiltrates communications so that Sophia and Rüdi have to resort to increasingly complex encryption to ensure that it isn’t intercepting their messages. And there are also intriguing philosophical questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence and the nature of thought itself, as well as the classical problem of other minds, perfectly expressed as “All three of us have always been black boxes to each other.”

–RECOMMENDED

“Ink” by Mari Ness

A neat idea, based on the practice of writing notes on the back of one’s hands. In a shadowy, secretive, conspiratorial setting, a woman works as a courier, meeting other messengers who touch the bare skin of her hands, transferring the message.

It’s supposed to be simple enough. Place your hand flat on the paper, still the mind, and allow the letters and words to leach out, one by one, onto the paper. That, supposedly, is where the trick comes in. Followed by the next trick: sorting the words into some sort of sense.

In addition to being transmitted in quasi-invisible ink, the messages are encoded, requiring her to decipher them. The woman is constantly anxious, fearing failure, discovery. The work pays badly, but she has no other option, as we gradually learn why.

A chillingly Kafkaesque tale about a person trapped with no way out in circumstances she doesn’t understand, required to do a difficult task at which she is likely to fail. Effective mood-building in the mode of a weird tale.

–RECOMMENDED

“Chilaquiles con Code” by Mary Alexander Agner

Rosa is her mother’s bright hope, a promising coding student now taking a tricky employment exam. Entering the exam room, everyone is given a corporate laptop and the single instruction: Don’t get hacked. It’s clearly a test of initiative and ingenuity as well as programming skills.

The text is full of neepery.

While that runs, Rosa sends out her own packets, following both the gopher and this new source. The gopher wants to talk, sending a SYN. Maybe the congrats was just a congrats. While here it can hurt to listen, Rosa wants to try anyway, and she’s got her guard up. Out goes her SYN-ACK, the rodent’s ACK nearly simultaneous.

But the real issues here are ethical. As little as she likes it, Rosa must assume that she is the token Latina in the group, that the other applicants are her enemies. The real test is knowing who can be trusted, and proving that she can be.

A well-done piece, but under the stressful conditions of the test, I have to wonder if all the male applicants would really be more interested in hitting on the women than in undermining them.

“How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” by Ada Hoffmann

An annoying future world subsumed by social media, in which everyone is crudely classified by personality type. Emma, our narrator, is a Relator. Her best friend Rania is a World Saver, currently unhappy because her crush, a Pleasure Seeker, seems to be ditching her, or possibly just using her for the ratings value. But Rania has her own ratings problems.

“If the Infallible Cloud gets word Rania went to a party in Brightside, it’ll lower her World Saver rating. She’s extra worried about her rating. Wants to get into Harvard, you know. But her boyfriend’s in Brightside and she needs to talk to him. So we need to get to the party, do what needs doing, and get out again, without anyone knowing.”

Naturally, the setting is a high school, a milieu where everything has always been like that, if less formalized, although here the same silly ratings system is inflicted on everyone, even celebrities. The story is humor, not to be taken too seriously. Still, I found little here that was enjoyable or original. Or interestingly cryptographic.

“Two Things about Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque” by Gregory Norman Bossert

Try to say that title fast three times. For which reason the place is apparently more commonly known as Zandy’s TnT. Our hustler heroine Halo is there on behalf of her client, Xujenc the Tonguebiter, to do a deal with some yakuza, and she really needs to make it work. But we know, when Zandy’s network connection goes down, that the deal is cocked.

The overlay spun and glitched like a migraine. I was just turning to complain to Zandy about the wireless again when the connection went through: the padlock icon of a secure connection, a green plus for retinal match. A 100% match, which was rare given the crap scanner in my lenses. It was too slick, like Fujiwara himself, but data was data, and I doubted Xujenc would accept my dislike of perfection as reason enough for screwing the deal.

This piece of spacepunk is entertaining, with a good quota of action in addition to the cyber factor. I’m particularly fond of froggy Zandy’s alliterative verse: “Drinks he downed delighted/Credit counted clearly.” What bartender could ask for more?

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 Adam Roberts

I have always stood in awe of Adam Roberts’ ability to take a simple speculative conceit and spin it out into a vast world of meaning and significance and drama. Ponder an early novel of his from 2004, The Snow, in which an endless snowfall transforms life on Earth beyond all reckoning. What could be more conceptually “simple,” yet so rich in potential story, so ripe with fabular materials? Not all his books follow this Ballardian Crystal World mode—he has a lot of arrows in his literary quiver—but when he chooses to go into this fictional territory, he excels.

Roberts’s latest, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, is a return to such an eye-popping and mind-blowing extrapolative technique, and our author outdoes himself, by creating a book that is so allusive and multivalent in its clean-limbed premise that the reader hardly knows how to parse it. We are as much “at sea” as the characters, about whom we shall learn in just a few paragraphs.

But first allow me to toss out these comparisons.

Beyond the pitch-perfect Jules Verne associations, this novel evokes the following classics.

It summons up thoughts of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, in its description of a runaway vessel penetrating new realms of physics.

It brings up such Big Dumb Object explorations as Larry Niven’s Ringworld with its portrayal of a vast weird frontier.

It explicitly references Hollow Earth theories, and by implications all those classics of that trope.

It harks back to those few submarine-centric SF books such as James White’s The Watch Below and Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea.

With its “yesterday’s tomorrows” technology, it’s a bit of a dieselpunk romp.

It rings changes on classic tales of insurrection at sea, such as The Caine Mutiny and Billy Budd.

It’s a Lord of the Flies-type study in the breakdown of small group interdynamics.

And it’s an exercise in Camus-grade existentialism: what validates an individual’s being when all cultural and institutional supports are removed?

That’s a lot of weight for any narrative apparatus, but Roberts’ tale supports all these interpretations and more, without losing an iota of storytelling verve.

The year is 1958, and the experimental atomic-powered French naval submarine, the Plongeur, is about to undertake its maiden voyage with a smallish shakedown crew. Roberts introduces the men, including old-fashioned and autocratic Captain Cloche, with short, sharp sketches. Several of them are plainly going to be “redshirts” of sorts, but are fully inhabited nonetheless. The man of greatest mystery, who eventually fulfills the role of protagonist insofar as any of the crew do, is Alain Lebret, government liaison. It soon becomes increasingly apparent that Lebret knows more about the real purpose of the mission than anyone else.

The craft powers off from the French coast, descends to one thousand meters—and then all hell breaks loose. Three crucial mechanical systems fail simultaneously. Is it just bad luck, or sabotage? In any case, the Plongeur is heading down, down, down, to where pressure or impact will crush it. The men all make their last-minute confessions and repentances—and then all destructive forces equalize, and the submarine is sailing through some kind of weird infinite ocean—a conclusion reached after much argument and speculation.

The rest of the novel concerns the harrowing adventures of the craft, with life-support and social systems deteriorating in parallel. Each man fails in his own unique way, with Lebret maintaining discipline and mental rigorousness for the longest time. What they eventually encounter is a transcendent force of startling nature, which reveals almost as much as it obfuscates.

I think Roberts has a general reputation as a “chilly” writer, one in whom intellect and philosophy prevail over emotions and passions. I can see where this impression arises. All his books give the sense of being first templated to a master schema, often tackling a narrative challenge (Jack Glass), philosophical conundrum, or bit of topical contrarianism (New Model Army). He’s not Ray Bradbury, all heart and intuition, who famously said that his method of writing a story was to conceive of a character, then set him loose and follow his footprints. But I would argue that by his nature and achievements, Roberts represents the core and essence of the SF methodology. He’s Stapledonian or Clarkean with better stylistic chops and a not-unfeeling heart. His characters may serve didactic purposes, but never at the expense of their functionality as true literary creations. As for a parallel charge of nihilism and despair being predominant in his work, I think Roberts does tend to see the universe as a somewhat implacable and grim place, but one in which the prevailing cosmic uncaringness makes human endeavors shine all the more brightly, however doomed.

Certainly his latest book exudes a sense of humans “out of their depths” and fighting hopelessly against impossible odds. Yet when one considers how Lebret struggles on with all his hideous injuries, even “beyond death” and succeeds in solving not only the riddle of the endless sea, but of all creation, then I think the fair and generous reader will admit that Roberts counsels not defeat, but rather a more stoic and heroic attitude of “we who are about to die salute you.”

Last but not by any means least, I must insert high praise for the numerous interior illustrations by Mahendra Singh, which manage marvelously to be both retro and futuristic in the same breath.

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.

Faren Miller reviews Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente’s new collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams proved challenging to review. Though the contents range from offbeat poetry to an award-winning novella, in a multitude of styles and voices, this isn’t just a random gathering of her shorter stuff. The more I read, the more these pieces seemed to resonate both intellectually and emotionally – like the interplay of themes and movements in a symphony – for a final impact greater than the sum of its parts. Wild ravings of a rabid fan? Maybe not.

‘‘The Consultant’’ serves as a brief, effective introduction. In the guise of a wry old Private Eye, this character advises clients who come to her for help, ‘‘Step right up; show me your life. I’ll show you the story you’re in.’’ She should know (‘‘I’ve heard them all. It’s what I do.’’). No matter what we call them – mystery, myth, fairy tale – they follow patterns, which will just keep on repeating around an oblivious cast of heroes and villains, murderers and victims, even gods. But this P.I. can offer a ‘‘sightline,’’ new self-awareness that could break the cycle and bring freedom. Immensely knowledgeable yet never didactic, Valente also frees the reader, in every genre she explores.

The title novelette features a demon refugee from Hell, where she once served as the chief baker. Rather than shoveling damned souls into eternal flames as one might expect, for this Hades – whose ‘‘industries’’ and ‘‘amusements’’ can be quite sophisticated – her job was more like a combination of head chef and high priestess. Her devious gourmet confections delighted both the lords of the Underworld and its lesser gentry (eccentric marquises, countesses and kings), yet she also baked for earthly dreamers. Perhaps it piqued her interest in mortals. We first see her in modern backwoods Maine. Though she spent her first years of exile conjuring and devouring wild stags in primeval forest, and never lost the powers of a demon, by now she’s toned things down. Still naked, she works a piece of land near a town in the shadow of the Bald Moose Mountains. ‘‘The Bread We Eat in Dreams’’ also looks back to the Salem Witch Trials. It combines striking imagery and questions about the nature of morality, with the bluntness of a rebel who rejected Hades and all its glamors for the wild outskirts of New England.

In the space of just ten pages, ‘‘The Wolves of Brooklyn’’ chronicles the impact of enormous metaphysical change on the narrator and others in her NYC neighborhood, when the juncture between nature and the supernatural pulls another fast one. Where Arcanum showed the aftermath of magic dispersed, a return to the empirical world of elder days, these lupine invaders take things in the opposite direction the moment they show up, as ‘‘the collective everyone looked out of their walk-up windows… and saw these long shapes, their fur frosted and tinkling, streaming up the sidewalks like a flood, like a wave, and the foam had teeth.’’ Where long-dismissed ideas and tools helped Morden’s Carinthians survive the cold blast of reality, much older instincts resurface when Brooklyn plunges into a Fimbulwinter where the snows won’t stop: the self-made demigoddess has an edge; a hunter thrives. Elsewhere, the 21st century trundles on. Hollywood might do a film about these wolves, and shoot it on location – if the borough stays in contact with our world.

In some of the stories and poems that follow, the author herself seems to emerge from the shadows with an emotional directness that strengthens the more it bares, like the demon/witch in ‘‘The Bread of Dreams’’. Catherynne Valente is a woman drawn to other women; looking back, we find her in the first line of ‘‘The Consultant’’, as a beautiful dame strolls into the office ‘‘legs first, a long drink of water in the desert of my thirties.’’ When she strays into the realms of parody or bawdy verse like ‘‘The Secret of Being a Cowboy’’, we see things through her eyes, and feel them on her skin.

Many readers will already know the multigenerational saga of Artificial Intelligence, triumph, and tragedy that ends this book (except for one brief coda), the celebrated novella ‘‘Silently and Very Fast’’. I’ll just give you one piece of advice: read it again here. All that has gone before will add to the experience – highlighting some dimensions, granting new insights into the work and its creator.

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

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Lavie Tidhar

History is pulp. If Lavie Tidhar didn’t plant that notion firmly enough with his World Fantasy Award winning Osama, reinventing much of our recent history as a series of paperback thrillers, he reminds us of it throughout his strange superhero-historical fantasia The Violent Century: Hitler ‘‘rewrote the world like a lurid paperback’’; ‘‘It is too fantastical, this world, with its marching armies and its death camps. It’s just the world of a cheap novel’’; ‘‘like a lurid paperback the yellowed pages turn’’; ‘‘They bore into the Minister’s eyes as if they can read the contents of his mind, the way one reads a cheap paperback book’’; and perhaps most tellingly ‘‘We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.’’ There are subtler reminders as well; the historian who delivers that last bromide is none other than Joe Shuster, who in this world has written a history of supermen (or Übermenschen, or Surhommes) with his partner Jerry Siegel; another scholar who produces a biographical dictionary of supermen is named Stanley Lieber, the birth name of Stan Lee. Even Spider-man gets a brief walk-on, not to mention recognizable versions of the Hulk, the Flash, and several others.

What causes all these unlikely figures to inhabit a history that in many other respects is a grim, Guernica-like tapestry of our own, ranging from the early 1930s through WWII, the Holocaust, the Cold War, Vietnam, 9/11, and Afghanistan? The central conceit of The Violent Century is that a German quantum physicist named Vomacht (possibly from the suspended-animation Nazi daughters in Cordwainer Smith, given Tidhar’s penchant for allusion) created a machine in 1932 which propagated a kind of probability wave around the world, affecting everyone in minute ways but transforming a select few into ready-made Marvel franchises, complete with Stan Lee-like monikers: Tigerman, Whirlwind, the Electric Twins, the Green Gunman, Surfer Girl, Frogman, etc. And those are just the American ‘‘League of Defenders,’’ who manage to turn D-Day into an Avengers movie as reported by a frenetic sportscaster. There are also Soviet supermen (the Red Sickle) and a particularly obnoxious Nazi called Snowstorm. But the two central point-of-view characters are both Brits who, as the novel opens in the present, seem to have wandered into George Smiley’s world of tired, disillusioned, and superannuated spies (the agency they work for is even called the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs).

The Violent Century isn’t an alternate history, since none of the effects of the Vomacht wave seem to have derailed history from its familiar course, and it’s not a Tim Powers-style secret history, since the superheroes are large-scale public figures throughout. A few key alterations are recognizable – instead of working on codes at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing shows up as a trainer for the British superheroes preparing them for wartime service, and the Eichmann trial gets transformed into the Vomacht trial – but by and large Tidhar isn’t interested in showing us how things might have been different or how the real story is covert. Instead, we might call it enhanced history – a narrative which grafts pulp-comic fantasies onto the existing record, with just enough quantum gobbledygook to make it sound vaguely science fictional. It’s the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino did as bloody wish-fulfillment in Inglourious Basterds, multiplied by several orders of magnitude.

For example, Tidhar doesn’t hesitate to take us into Auschwitz itself, where one of his heroes, a Hulk-like giant named Tank, is subjected to Mengele’s horrific experiments, or into a Southeast Asia where the CIA partly finances its operations through a drug-smuggling operation under the guise of Air America. While passages like the latter would likely warm Oliver Stone’s heart, Tidhar’s almost facile evocation of events like the Holocaust sometimes results in a queasy disconnect between tone and substance. The most effective adventure scenes are more understated in their pop-cult allusiveness, such as Fogg working with resistance fighters in a Transylvania haunted by the specters of vampires and werewolves (and of course there’s a Nazi werewolf; Tidhar doesn’t much mind if his comic-book villains are largely clichés.) What really gives the novel its emotional center, and eventually its tragic weight, is the depiction of the decades-long friendships among the ‘‘changed’’ themselves, and especially between Fogg and Oblivion, as the world increasingly passes them by and as Fogg pursues what seems to be a doomed romance with Vomacht’s own daughter, who is associated with a literal dimension of brightness largely lost to the violent century itself. All this is presented in the present-tense, stage-directed style of a movie treatment which values efficiency over grace, but it manages some genuinely powerful moments, some memorable figures, and a thoroughly unhinged view of the 20th century that almost convinces you of its own demented logic.

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-February

Mostly a John Joseph Adams column, featuring his ezine Lightspeed and an anthology co-edited by him. Also the February stories from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.



Lightspeed, February 2014

“Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber

Gaming story. First time she played Coma, Jenny did so well at the game she won her own rig. And one for her little sister, who turned out to be even better, with tragic consequences. “I love how you can do these things that fuck you over forever, that change your goddamn life, and not even care at the time, not even know.” The game is addictive and Annie was too young to start, so now she lies in bed, hardwired in and on life support.

But here’s the thing, and I know this makes me a fool, but deep down, I believed, somehow, that if I could just beat her everything would be all better. Believed, with that sort of secret inner ferocity of a fairy tale or a religion. I would win against her, like nobody ever had, and there would be a silent, eternal moment. And then her name would blip out of existence, and I’d pull off my rig and look over to where she was doing the same, prying her goggles away from her eyes and sliding the probe out from the back of her skull.

It’s not quite clear how Annie got to be the way she is, because, as their dysfunctional mother complains, it’s expensive. But that’s not really essential to the story, which is about Jenny’s relationship with her sister – rivalry, guilt, protectiveness. That’s how it is with sisters. It’s YA, but less limited than the usual.

“Harry and Marlowe and the Intrigues at the Aetherian Exhibition” by Carrie Vaughn

Another in this steampunk series about Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Maud* [aka Harry] and her undercover work defending the British Empire against German aggression [or so they put it] as both side attempt to exploit the advanced technology recovered from the aliens known as Aetherians. In previous installments, we’ve seen Harry engaged in derring-do with her companion Lieutenant Marlowe, but here there is only minimal action as Harry must act her role of royalty and pretend to be helpless and demure, fending off the matrimonial attentions of princes while yearning in vain for Marlowe.

The weight of backstory here is growing burdensome as it becomes clear this is in fact a serialization. In the absence of action, we are reduced to intrigue amidst the stifling atmosphere of the Victorian court, and there is a definite whiff of romance. Essentially, this piece is a sort of stepping stone in the plot, establishing a basis for further installments.

(*) Unless matters are arranged differently in this alternate history, Maud would not be, as the text has it, Maud, Princess of Wales but rather Princess Maud of Wales, a distinction which was not trivial in this milieu.

“None Owns the Air” by Ken Liu

In an imagined island kingdom that bears a slight resemblance to Japan of the Meiji restoration period, young engineering officer Kino gets caught up in palace politics and ends up as the aide to the new Secretary of the previously nonexistent air force, after he and his superior pretend to have been possessed by the gods with a message praising air power. Kino’s devout sister is happy that he has apparently found religion and drags him on a pilgrimage to Mount Kiji, where he notices something very odd about the sacred falcons there.

Kino had to bite his tongue as he listened to Lowi recount how the monk in charge of the hostel described Kino’s conversion to her, “I’ve never seen anything like it. The young master spends all day meditating at remote spots along Lake Dako, vowing to not journey up to the Temple until he has sufficiently purified himself. When he returns in the evenings, he spends all his time at the abbey, studying the scriptures and wisdom sutras left by generations of monks. I’ve never seen a pilgrim more dedicated or fervent. He says that he will not go into the presence of Lord Kiji until he has completely recovered his faith, and that is why he has requested an extended stay here.”

In fact, the scientifically-minded Kino is busy studying the falcons, which includes illicitly dissecting one, an act of sacrilege for which there are consequences.

I’ve noted previously that the works labeled fantasy and science fiction in this zine are often indistinguishable, and the story at hand, the most clearly sciencefictional, is listed inexplicably under Fantasy in the ToC of the current issue. Very odd. The sciencefictional aspect of the premise is a neat and imaginative one, and while the setting is rather generic, the religious details have some interest. It’s both a cynical and a tragic story. If this were actually a fantasy, if we were to believe that the gods here were real, then we might think Kino stands to be punished for his sacrilege. But for a moral tale, I think we have to ascribe his sin to ambition and deceit.

“So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” by Sunny Moraine

Actual fantasy – mermaids and witches. A metafictional retelling. The mermaid doesn’t accept the way her first bargain ended. She wants to make another. She was betrayed, and now she wants revenge.

If she were sea foam, she thinks—and perhaps this is after and perhaps it is before or perhaps it is both things simultaneously—she could become the rain and patter down onto his windowpanes, trickle down the glass and watch him inside in his bright warmth. Or in a storm she could come to him riding, or walking, or anywhere unsheltered, and cut down through the air to strike his cheeks. She could fling herself at him and run down his body like sweat, down his face like tears.

The language is evocative, but as the excerpt suggests, the time sequence here is not entirely clear – purposefully so. It is a cruel story. Love, of course, is the cruelest thing, but the mermaid comes in a close second. The problem is, she doesn’t seem to gain anything in her revenge. The trophy she takes from the prince, she gives to the sea. There is no going back for her, but where she is going now, she doesn’t seem to know.



The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey

The world of publishing is changing rapidly, although it’s too early to know for sure whether this presages an apocalypse of the written word. I doubt that several years ago I would have looked at such a volume as this, a self-published anthology. On the other hand, several years ago, it was much less likely that such a volume would even exist, put together by a professional editor and a best-selling, self-published author, with prominent authors listed in the ToC. But as the tides rise and fall, so must we float on them.

So here is the first volume in an anthology trilogy titled “The Apocalypse Triptych”, the subject matter of which should be obvious. There are twenty-one stories featuring a variety of apocalyptic scenarios – environmental, astronomical, epidemic, eschatological. In most, the focus is on the human beings caught up in the world-ending events, as opposed to the details of the events themselves. Few if any of these scenarios are particularly original. There are some good stories here, but I fear they are in the minority. Most just sit there in the median rank without rising to the level of outstanding.

Typically, an anthology editor will place the volume’s best pieces as the opening and closing works. Instead, the editors here seem to have led from weakness, leaving the stronger stories to come later in the book – a strategy I can’t recommend, as readers are likely to become discouraged at the prospect of finding worthwhile fiction. It’s in there, but it may take a long while to find.

“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman

Abraham is a con man working the End Times racket. A Sign that things are going to go wrong comes when his ex dumps his unwelcome ten-year-old son on him and takes off. At first, it’s not so bad, until the kid starts asking questions.

“We’ll go to heaven with the rest of the righteous people,” I said. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

“You don’t even know me. How do you know I’m righteous?”

“Fair point.”

The kid gets faith and turns the flock into survivalists, while Father Abraham waits to take off with the cash.

Cynical as this is, there is some true stuff here about the nature and uses of faith. It’s not the strong story I would have chosen to kick off the volume, though.

“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich

Apocalypse by aliens, who claim, without explanation, that they plan to vaporize Earth and transfer the consciousness of every human to another world.

There, on Planet X, humanity would find themselves in fresh bodies – remade vessels. These reincarnations would live eternally in a world of infinite luxury.

The narrator has been drafted as an enforcer for project X; the reason for this is cause for much speculation, some of it doubting that there are actually aliens at all.

Even more cynical, a commentary on human nature more than on alien duplicity.

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders

As a kid, Rock Manning’s father threw him off the roof to turn him into a stuntman, and Rock grew up devoted to creating video mayhem, while all around them, actual mayhem proliferates.

Some people said the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen didn’t exist, but how else did you explain the state we were in?

Cynical and nihilistic, with an echo of 1984 and a touch of gonzo.

“The Gods Will Not Be Chained” by Ken Liu

When Maddy’s father was alive, her mastery of his old laptop was her greatest joy, but now she’s at a new school, cyberbullied by the mean girls.

She had stopped using social networking sites because of the constant stream of mockery—when she deleted any of their comments, it only made them redouble their efforts. If she tried to block anyone, she thought it might also make them think they got to her, might appear as an admission of weakness. She had no choice but to endure.

Then help comes from a mysterious source, messages in an iconic language that Maddy and her father had used for private communications when he was alive.

Not cynical. The apocalypse here is only a possible one. Powerful forces have been unleashed, but it’s not clear exactly what they will do. It’s neat, however, to see the emoji glyphs in the text.

“Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr

The asteroid is going to hit North America, and everyone is scrambling desperately to get out. Em and Lynn, having waited forever for same-sex marriage to be legal in Texas instead of going to some civilized state, continue to dither and delay while they try to figure out their way of escaping the imminent impact. Finally they set a date, but by then the emergency government cancels all weddings to keep people from gaming the Expatriation Lottery.

This premise is just too absurd and contrived for words, as the characters take forever to come up with the answer that readers will have telling them from the outset. Get married already! Stop procrastinating! Sheesh!

“Removal Order” by Tananarive Due

Epidemic – seems more on the scale of calamity than apocalypse, but that distinction doesn’t matter much from the inside. Nayima hasn’t obeyed the evacuation order so that she can remain home to care for her dying grandmother. But the authorities are going from neighborhood to neighborhood, burning everything down to kill the contagion. There isn’t a lot of time left.

The details are clear and sharp-edged here.

Nayima retrieved her jug of boiled water, dipped her sponge in it, and gently washed Gram between her legs, water running in streams down the wrinkled crevices of her thighs. Washed Gram’s downy, thin patch of pubic hair. Checked her for signs of skin irritation from urine, and was thankful to find none.

I’m a bit dubious that the authorities wouldn’t have evacuated an elderly sick woman, but I’m inclined to trust the author on this, as everything else here has been well thought through. The tone is grim; the story takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of hard choices. The first of the better stories in this volume.

“System Reset” by Tobias S Buckell

Charlie is a skip tracer, now trying to start over after a previous job went bad. His sidekick Toto comes up with a wanted poster for a hacker/ terrorist, with a fat reward. Problem is, on the way to the money, their prize starts talking.

“It’s time to reboot,” Haswell says. “Time to put in a clean operating system. No more patches. No trying to get old buggy code to work. A fresh upgrade. Everything has to be wiped out for it to work properly. Now that I know you all are getting close, it’s time to hurry and press the power switch.”

And he means more than code.

Interesting in a number of ways. The setting is a police state essentially our own. Charlie and Toto come from the underclass, and Charlie in particular finds some sympathy for what Haswell is saying. We can see the way he’s tempted. It’s only that Haswell’s means are too extreme.

“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford

The 1910 Halley’s Comet hysteria. Darwin is working as a page at a Seattle luxury hotel while guests gather on the roof to view the comet’s passing, after alarmist rumors have been spread.

A few of the more intrepid guests wore gas masks atop their heads like party hats, while many of the older ladies veiled themselves in birdcage lace and toted comet umbrellas to fend off any errant dust and soot drifting down from the sky.

An unusual setting here, an interesting glimpse at a moment in history, particularly the social structure at the end of the Gilded Age, dominated by extreme wealth inequality. Darwin is a part-Chinese indentured servant who considers himself more lucky than the immigrants digging in the mud flats. Yet with the end of the world possibly at hand, the classes are united in fearful anticipation, as the author vividly demonstrates. There is a strong suggestion to readers that this world is indeed about to fall apart with the advent of WWI, all unknown to the characters gathered here. But there are also hints that this may not be exactly the world of our own history, despite the close resemblance in many of the details.

“BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H Winters

God is calling humanity home. Everyone hears the voice, everyone knows the day is nigh, almost everyone is ready. But Annabel has a secret: her daughter Pea is deaf; she can’t hear God’s voice. Annabel has heard God’s voice, though. He tells her, BRING HER TO ME. That’s all Annabel needs to know. Others, however, have doubts, including Pea.

This one opens with Annabel wearing a frock. I mean, a frock. Hard to get over that. The apocalypse is apparently supposed to be something like a Passover service with raw meat and green kool-aid on the table. Some think that everyone will die, others that they will be raptured. God hasn’t been quite clear on this. At one point, Pea’s father mentions the sacrifice of Abraham. Maybe it’s all a test. Or maybe it’s Someone Else’s voice. The ending comes on an ominous note, but it’s hard to get there from a premise that is really pretty silly.

“In the Air” by Hugh Howey

It seems that the government has seeded the world’s population with miniature bombs set to go off simultaneously – except for a few chosen survivors, with whom John and his family are supposed to be included.

He and his family should be outside Atlanta with the others, not on the side of the road in Iowa. They should be crowding underground with everyone else, the selected few, the survivors.

But John knows too much, knows not to trust them.

The text interleaves the present scenes with different moments in John’s past, as he weighs his alternatives, wherein we learn that he’s the kind of guy who does targeted assassinations by drone; his task in the bunker would be that of enforcer. What we don’t learn is what the government has in mind by depopulating the Earth. It’s one thing, if an apocalypse is inevitable, for the self-important to make plans to save themselves and damn the rest, but quite another to cause the apocalypse on the grounds that someone else might do it first. What they have to gain isn’t clear. Or how they pulled it off. This is a premise that just doesn’t make sense.

“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet

Neta’s stint on the moon is just about up when their base learns of an imminent collision with a rogue planet. Of the seven of them, only three have a chance to escape in the emergency shuttle; the remaining four must wait to die.

A slight work, with rational people facing the end in mostly rational ways. We have to approve of them. Yet we don’t really know them, despite the moments of Neta’s backstory. They remain admirable strangers to whom we bid goodbye.

“Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh

Johnny’s father celebrated his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by going into debt to buy a drive-in theater.

It was past time to put him in a home, but Johnny just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was having such a ball, running his drive-in. It was killing Johnny, though, getting home at one in the morning, then his alarm going off at six.

Even before everyone started staying home because of the virus, the drive-in was losing money every night. Then the virus hits their town, they’re shut down by quarantine, and he and Kelly across the street start taking care of the sick so they don’t die of starvation.

A very sad story – moving and human, about real people in believable circumstances.

–RECOMMENDED

“Houses without Air” by Megan Arkenberg

The world is running out of oxygen, and people have already been evacuated from some regions. Farrah has been moved into Beth’s apartment. As the clock runs down, they both try to leave something special behind: Beth, her project for immersive alternate reality [ie, uploading people to computers] while Farrah makes a mess in the apartment, planning an artistic memorial, the eponymous airless habitats, made from aquariums.

The story focuses entirely, not on the apocalypse itself but the reaction of the two characters to the impending end and their growing closeness to each other. The author is working a metaphor of matches. Each short section of the text is numbered: “The First Match”, etc, to recall the tale of The Little Matchgirl, igniting her small stock in a vain attempt to keep from freezing [the characters deny this connection, but readers won't believe them; the matches symbolize the story]. Farrah also uses the matches to burn out the vestiges of oxygen in her sealed habitats. “It is a race to see which is consumed first: the oxygen or the match.”

“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack McDevitt

Maryam’s thirtieth birthday celebration is marred by the news that a younger colleague in physics is going to receive a prestigious award. She begins to think she will never make her mark on her field, so she takes up a secondary task, hunting for comets, and actually finds one to put her name on. But, of course, it turns out to be more than just a comet.

As the title suggests, the story’s focus is on the way we live with the knowledge of impending doom – in this case, twenty years out. Priorities change. Maryam’s name will be known as long as humanity exists, but it makes no difference anymore.

Oddly, the brown dwarf had retreated into the darkness of my mind, and I was aware mostly of how fortunate I’d been over my lifetime, and how I appreciated having that night with my family.

Of perhaps greater interest is the ethical dilemma that engages the characters when the authorities attempt to keep the impending disaster a secret, not to take from people “the right to live normal lives.” Which most people consider a bunch of hooey.

The author appends a final paragraph to the story, perhaps as an illustration of the change in everyone’s priorities, but I would have preferred it without.

“Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen Are Going to Come Riding Through” by Nancy Kress

The narrator, whom we know only as Ms Drucker, is the hardworking single mother of two daughters who wants the best for them both, although the two girls are very different: fractious Sophie, always in trouble, and passive Carrie. What Drucker begins to realize as Carrie goes to school, that Carrie isn’t the only one who never fights back. She connects the fact with a massive volcanic eruption when she was pregnant. There were rumors, even then.

Some people said that the weird chemicals didn’t come from Earth, so they must’ve been put deep inside by aliens. I wouldn’t of paid no more attention to this idea than to the others, except it was on the news that some scientists agreed that the chemicals weren’t like any we had on Earth. They were brand new here. They blew all over the world and got into everything. Everybody breathed them in. They were found in breast milk.

The SFnal premise is similar to that of 2001, with aliens attempting to make fundamental alterations to humanity. But Drucker is convinced that, if so, the aliens made a big mistake. Not all the children were affected, and the passivity of the altered children brings out the bully in unaffected ones. It’s notable that Drucker’s character is that of a disadvantaged person who speaks ungrammatically and whose appearance makes the other parents in the school take a second, suspicious look at her. Yet she is both a caring and intelligent parent, who sees the scope of the problem when others do not.

“Spores” by Seanan McGuire

Megan works in biotech. “It was my job to make sure the big brains didn’t destroy the world in their rush toward a hardier, easier to grow a peach, or an apple that didn’t rot quite so quickly after it had been picked.” This makes her generally suspicious, as does her OCT, and particularly so when the bowl of fruit her wife brought home fresh just the day before has already been ruined by a rapidly-growing mold. But even her natural suspicion doesn’t prepare her for the worst.

This one seems to be a Cautionary Tale about bioengineered foods, but its heart is a story of family, the urge to protect our own. Unfortunately, this element sets up an irritation. The family here is based on a same-sex marriage. This is not exactly a novelty, not in the world we live in and certainly not in speculative fiction. Yet the author has to keep jumping up and pointing, over and over, Look! A same-sex marriage! When, you know, we can see this for ourselves. We can tell, really, when we see a female character refer to her wife. Let’s have some confidence in readers’ discernment.

I’m also not buying the proposition that, when the lab knew it was battling an infestation resistant to treatment, they would let any of their product out into the world, let alone sneak it into peoples’ kitchens. There are protocols for this sort of thing. Corporations may cut some corners on these, but what the story describe goes way beyond that.

“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Maberry

The narrator opens with a lengthy lecture about dealing with messed-up kids, which is his business. He sort of gives away the story in it.

I’m talking about a runaway who found what he or she has been looking for. Even if it’s a cult. Even if it’s a group whose nature or goals or tenets you object to with every fiber of your being. When you find a kid who ran away and found himself . . . what the fuck are you supposed to do then?

His case is that of an eighteen-year-old girl [ie, legally an adult] who joined a cult that believes a rogue planet is going to destroy Earth but save the True Believers. She also is going to inherit a trust fund that her parents think she will donate to the cult; they want to control her money. In other words, the job is dubious from the outset. Then we get more lecture.

This might have worked better if the author hadn’t spoiled his own story and overdone the lecturing.

“Agent Unknown” by David Wellington

Whitman is a field agent for the CDC, investigating a report of carriers of a new zombie-like disease. The subjects are violent, aphasiac, with glowing red eyes. They bite. There are more. And more. And while Whitman is out chasing them down, the CDC is back in the lab doing autopsies. Which makes me wonder, with sufficient dead subjects available for this purpose, why they felt it necessary to euthanize one, except to make the point that these are times for drastic measures.

As an apocalypse-by-plague, the premise is satisfactory. As a story, it’s not. As soon as the CDC guy announces the nature and extent of the problem to the president, it ends. We get the idea – this is going to be the end of the human race. OK, but that’s not a story in itself.

“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather

Insecure, overweight Effie meets Michael at a church meeting, and they hit it off, sharing similar views in opposition to speciesism. Effie is vegan; Michael seems to be, as well. But he turns out to be part of a cult that is something rather different.

“Just as consuming Christ is sacred, so consuming ourselves is a symbolic act that brings us closer to the god living in all of us—sacrificing a part of ourselves to atone for our sins, eating a small part of ourselves to atone for our share in mankind’s sins.”

The author attempts the point that cannibalism is a perennial response to overpopulation, but this trend doesn’t seem to be catching on in sufficient numbers to represent an apocalypse or anything close to it.

“Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi

In a world where global climate change has led to desertification and a wave of refugees out of Texas, photographer Timo tries to help his friend Lucy land a real story. Competition is tough.

“There ain’t no virgins, and there ain’t no clean stories,” he’d tried to explain to Lucy. “There’s just angles on the same-ass stories. Scoops come from being in the right place at the right time, and that’s all just dumb luck.

But now he has a tip, and it’s a good one: a dead Texan, part-eaten by dogs, caught on the border fence, strangled by his own prayer beads, left as an offering to Santa Muerte. And the vigilantes behind the deed, righteous in defense of their own.

No better chance for a prime apocalypse story than Bacigalupi, master of dystopia. He makes us feel the heat, the sweat, the decomposing scent of desperation. Desperation is everyone here, except that it comes in different forms. My favorite piece here.

–RECOMMENDED

“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan

The setting is obscure. Tom tells us he lives in an American colony, but it seems to be in Michigan, so whatever a colony means here is unclear. I’m not sure we need to know, because it’s an energy-shortage apocalypse in the making, with a police state dystopia, and on top like a cherry, an asteroid is about to hit the place. But the real evil is human. Tom’s [adoptive?] parents left him behind when they escaped, maybe because he’s gay, and the girl he thinks he loves is a skank. Who he really loves is his little sister, and he correctly suspects his parents don’t.

All this is set in a far-future frame when Tom’s account of these events has apparently been preserved in a museum, probably in the exhibit for human depravity. The fact that the story focuses on some of the good people, the ones who love, doesn’t really change that.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #140-141, February 2014

A good month’s worth of fiction. Both issues, all four stories, deal in different ways with themes of war.

#140

“The Face in the Window” by Brian McClellan

Taniel describes himself as “not some foppish noble’s son”, but you wouldn’t know it from the story’s introduction to him. Still, besides a student, foppish or no, he is also a powder mage, which means gunpowder, which makes him a soldier. His father had sent him abroad to keep him out of trouble, but at the first hint of war abroad, he signs up. He has a real motivation, though. The enemy had murdered his mother. But the enemy also has powerful sorcerers.

Light suddenly blinded Taniel, searing Dina’s face into his vision. He felt the grip on his shoulder disappear, and he fell back into the mud, arms flailing for purchase. His right arm sank through the murk and he thought he might be sucked down forever, before one fingertip touched something solid.

This piece seems to be an outtake of some sort from the author’s trilogy. Which almost always presents problems. In this case, they are problems of characterization. As the story proves, Taniel is not just some foppish noble’s son, he’s actually a well-trained soldier who manifests a strong dedication to his mission. So why did the author present him as a fop, as a wastrel student, as a petulant child requiring a chaperone to keep him out of trouble? I assume that these are elements of backstory that readers might find in the trilogy, but we’re not reading the trilogy here, we’re reading what is meant to be an independent story, and here, it’s confusing and inconsistent. Also, the character of the chaperone spends the first part of the story as if she’s going to turn out to be of importance, which turns out not to be the case. Aside from these issues, what we have here is a competent piece of military fantasy about a young soldier’s blooding.

“Atonement” by Alec Austin

Set in the aftermath of a long, bloody war. Under the leadership of General Turghar, Zrana and her troops had sacked the city of Dahar and left it full of vengeful spirits.

They’d called us the Hellhounds of Surnam, the Butchers of Bursa, and a hundred other epithets to make children wail and heroes grow faint. We’d fought Prince Zhar’s finest to a draw at Second Aktar and ended the line of the old kings at Kurqand. Depending on who you asked, we were the best soldiers in the world, or beasts in human form.

But now Turghar, after retiring to a Buddhist monastery, has entered the ruins of Dahar to purge the city of its ghosts, which the Queen fears would open up their homeland to invasion again. But perhaps the Queen is wrong.

The setting here is imaginary, but with a strong, effective historical flavor. We are clearly in territory resembling Central Asia, and Turghar’s campaign reminds me of the Mongol war of extirpation against the Khwarezmid Empire. Besides the obvious Buddhism, there are Zoroastrian influences. The theme is the evil of unquestioning obedience to orders, of letting this serve to justify the worst atrocities. Turghar and his soldiers have a lot to atone for, but it takes distance to allow them to see it.

–RECOMMENDED

#141

“The Days When Papa Takes Me to War” by Rahul Kanakia

An audaciously imaginative, albeit incredible, premise. It seems that during WWII, Papa, a journalist whose first name is Ernest, was mortally wounded and crawled into a cave, where he was discovered by the largest ant queen in the world, who revived him, sort of, by infiltrating his body with worker ants, much in the manner of nanomachines. Then they mated, generating their daughter Olivia, the narrator, whom her mother intends to become queen of all humanity. The queen urges Papa to take Olivia out into the human world with him, so she can learn the songs with which to control his species. This doesn’t work out quite as planned. The queen’s understanding of humanity is flawed.

Papa is on his knees. He’s striped with thin black lines of ants. They are spilling from his eyes and ears and nose and from the eternally open wounds beneath his clothes. The blackness pools at his feet.

While the portrayal of Papa is pretty completely a caricature, this tragicomedy of errors is full of neat surprises, such as the revolutionary tendencies of the worker and soldier ants, who can only be kept in line by the constant controlling song of the queen. [This contradicts what we know of the behavior of ants, but it makes the story entertaining. We don't expect realism here.] People who already suspecting that ants are plotting to take over the world won’t be reassured by this work.

“Pilgrims” by Ann Chatham

A story of sin, penitence and absolution in a quasi-Arthurian world. Magda, whom some consider a saint and some a sorceress, is on a penitential pilgrimage.

“I am not seeking the shrine of any saint who died in the God’s wars,” I told him, minding my feet so that I would not have to look up. “I seek the root of the Tree that the Lord cut down to end His war, that I may build a shrine at its heart, and burn an offering there.”

On her way, she buries the body of a man she finds killed by brigands, then later encounters a knight who, round-table-like, says he is under a geas to assist the first person he meets. She recognizes him as the man she has just buried; his geas is to repay his debt to her. But the connection between them is far deeper than she at first imagines.

I really like this setting, which has much of the Arthurian spirit yet a completely different theology than Christianity. On the one hand, I wish it were rather less obscure, on the other, I’m pleased that the author didn’t divert her attention from the story to give us a lengthy explanation. There is another subplot that evokes the crusades. The author has also introduced a metafictional element, as Magda remarks that she doesn’t want to end up in a romance, which is the proper term for the Arthurian cycle.

–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 Allen Steele

The alternate history or uchronia mode of science fiction is a particularly treacherous one for the writer. Done sloppily, with little rigor, logic, or true invention (and the temptation to be sloppy is enormous), it rapidly devolves into a slapdash game of casually inverting historical outcomes and casting famous folks into the most unlikely roles. What if Marilyn Monroe had been elected President of the USA, and JFK were a Hollywood actor who was her secret lover, and the USA were at war with France, a nation led by Brigitte Bardot?!? What if the South had won the Civil War, and Mark Twain were ambassador to Washington, and the petroleum economy had started a century prior?!? What if ancient Egyptians had colonized North America, and Sitting Bull were the current Pharaoh, and he met a visiting Arthur Conan Doyle who helped him solve a mystery!?!

You see, I think, how the subgenre can drift toward the arbitrary and gimmicky, the ultimate in cheap, flashy conceits trumping authenticity and verisimilitude and emotional resonance.

But of course, when the mode is done properly—The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, The Difference Engine, among many others—it has a unique power: performing thought experiments with the science of history—the only “labwork” available for that discipline—and instantiating a world as real and tangible and humanly populated as our own, but skewed along surprising vectors.

Allen Steele delivers just such a good and solid specimen of the subgenre with his new novel V-S Day, a prequel of sorts to his previous outing, The Tranquility Alternative. (Although as he explains in an afterword, he was not over-stringent about reconciling all continuity between the two widely separated tales.)

Our first chapter is a cliffhanger of an enigmatic stripe. The time is June 1, 1943, and we are at a secret US military base in the American Southwest, witnessing the tension-fraught countdown for a mysterious aircraft dubbed the Lucky Linda. As the countdown approaches zero, we leave the scene, not to return till the book’s climax. We are now in the year 2013, when a journalist is interviewing the few elderly survivors of WWII’s classified “390 Group.” Aside from a few returns to the perspective of 2013, the novel will consist of the wartime experiences of the 390 Group as they try to beat or at least match the Germans—led by Wernher von Braun—to the creation of the first suborbital spaceship, under the leadership of Robert Goddard.

We leave the reunion scene to eavesdrop on the Germans in their efforts to build the Silver Bird rocket. Throughout the book we will return to the Nazis, but in small doses. Vivid enough, with insightful and empathetic portrayals of von Braun and his crew, these scenes serve basically as suspense-building contrast to the American efforts. Steele’s heart and soul are with the Allies. After a hundred pages or so of watching how the info on the German schemes trickles out and energizes the Americans, Steele really gets the ball rolling in good “let’s assemble the gang and put on a show” fashion, delivering the key scientists and engineers and pilots into their common setting of Goddard’s Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soon the crew are busy brainstorming and testing the craft of the future needed to fight off the Nazi’s counterpart.

Steele does some deft work making all the individuals come alive, especially his central protagonists: Goddard, who emerges as a kind of Christ-like martyr to the cause; Jack Cube, an African-American who has to fight to get his intelligence acknowledged; and Henry Morse, whose off-hours romance with a librarian named Doris Gilbert adds some romance to the tale. In this mostly male milieu, Steele is very careful to give us some strong women in the persons of Esther Goddard, Doris Gilbert, von Braun’s secretary Lise Muller, and an Allied spy named Greta Carlsberg.

And so with awesome, meticulous attention to scientific details, engineering protocols, bureaucratic procedures, and international politics (though the larger war is just background noise), Steele walks us through what it would have taken to build a space plane rather than an A-bomb, not neglecting the emotional side of the drama either, including a surprising climax when Silver Bird and Lucky Linda tangle in the skies. And the novel’s end neatly opens out to the scenario of The Tranquility Alternative.

It seems to me that what Steele has accomplished here (with maybe a few dieselpunk touches) is to recreate the kind of fiction that Nevil Shute was writing in his heyday, “engineering fiction,” if you will. Curiously enough, I just happened to watch the Jimmy Stewart movie from 1951, No Highway in the Sky, based on Shute’s novel No Highway, in which Stewart portrays an airplane designer obsessed with proving the safety of a new design. Stewart’s a bit more “absent-minded professor” than Steele’s characters, but otherwise the kind of stolid, sober, no-nonsense attitude on display in both old movie and new novel is at the heart of such fiction, where visionary men grapple with physics and the material world to turn their dreams into reality, despite all naysayers and the resistance of their medium. It’s quiet heroism in action.

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.

Russell Letson reviews Stephen Baxter

We should get this established right up front: Stephen Baxter’s Proxima is just the first part of a longer narrative, the precise nature and destination of which is only hinted at by the passage that prefaces the main body of the story:

In the heart of a hundred billion worlds –
Across a trillion dying realities in a lethal multiverse –
In the chthonic silence –
Minds diffuse and antique dreamed the Dream of the End Time.

Yow. But of this promised cosmic-multiverse mystery tour we get the smallest clues and winks in what generally unfolds as an epic of interstellar pioneering and solar-system expansion against a backdrop of back-home political madness, with just the smallest dashes of lurking superscience puzzles. Add echoes of leapfrogging-technologies stories (e.g., van Vogt’s Far Centaurus) in which three expeditions using different technologies are despatched to the nearest star with a habitable planet, and you have a very busy, multi-threaded book.

The story proper opens with one of the novel’s four viewpoint characters, Yuri Eden, awakening from cryogenic hibernation to find himself aboard the sub-lightspeed starship Ad Astra, bound for Proxima Centauri. This is not the first time Yuri has found himself displaced in time and space and less than free: he had been put in a cryo tank on Earth in the late 21st century (for reasons that are revealed much later in the book) and was defrosted in a ‘‘prison-like colony’’ on Mars. Now, almost another century later, he is once again an involuntary colonist. Groups of conscripts are to be dropped in various locations on marginally habitable Prox c: a curious, tide-locked world (whose planetology is worked out in ways that Poul Anderson would approve of), where each will be left to establish a foothold settlement with the aid of an ‘‘autonomous colonisation unit,’’ or ColU, a multipurpose robot. (The unit accompanying Yuri’s group becomes one of the book’s most sympathetic characters.) And they’re all there to stay – the Ad Astra will return to Earth, but the draftees are now permanent pioneers and on their own, expected to put down (literal) roots and produce future generations. Yuri’s group rather sourly renames Prox c ‘‘Per Ardua,’’ and their struggle for survival eventually includes a First Contact element when the ColU establishes that Proximan life is sentient (if strange and enigmatic).

The back-story of the Ad Astra expedition – and a second narrative thread – starts with the discovery, on Mercury, of the energy-producing, exotic-physics objects called ‘‘kernels.’’ Kernels revolutionize space travel, and control of them becomes a leading source of tension in the Cold War-ish relationship between the UN that discovered them and the Chinese hegemony that dominates half of Earth as well as Mars and the outer system. (This is the same future history that includes the 2010 story ‘‘Obelisk,’’ in the Edge of Infinity anthology, reviewed in March 2013.) And as if that weren’t enough, Mercury yields up one more surprise: the Hatch, an even more exotic object found near the kernel fields, which opens up a whole new set of possibilities and pathways for the story lines.

These back-home events are witnessed by Stef Kalinski, daughter of a senior scientist on Mercury, and later by her twin (via a twist of cosmic fate) sister Penelope. And, just to keep things interesting, Yuri and his companions are not the first or only interstellar pioneers and explorers. Decades earlier, a solo astronaut had been sent on a pre-kernel-technology mission of no return to Proxima, and back in the home system Stef’s father has devised an AI that is also a starship, whose core personality, Angelia, thinks of itself as a sister to Stef. Angelia has chapters of her own as she discovers the nature and costs of her propulsion and communications systems.

The novel’s core, however, remains the story of Yuri’s little group of colonists: their conflicts, adjustments, and gradual and partial understanding of the nature of Per Ardua and its native life. The scientific puzzles and political tensions of the Stef/Penelope segments build toward a crisis and climax that do eventually affect Yuri’s story and even that of Angelia, but one suspects that they will be even more important to whatever follows in the sequel (or second half), which promises a major shift in mode.

In this volume, however, several motifs of less than cosmic interest bind the story lines together. The primary one is the way each expedition involves some kind of sacrifice or exploitation of the thinking payload, from the initial one-man/one-way model, through the press-ganged colonists of Yuri’s thread, to the destructive mechanism built into the Angelia AI’s design. These in turn echo other situations: the conditions that led to Yuri’s initial and second freezings; Angelia’s betrayal by her creator; an Ad Astra astronaut’s unexpected demotion from crew member to colonist status to replace a dead draftee; perhaps even Stef’s isolation as the bright, oddly socialized child of a genius scientist.

The cultural-political context for all this is a general rejection of earlier efforts to deal with the global crises of the Jolts. The current movers and shakers scornfully dismiss the ways of the ‘‘Heroic Generation’’ and its ‘‘hubristic planetary engineering schemes,’’ which they see as wasteful and irresponsible. Some of the technologies involved (notably strong AIs) have been ‘‘made illegal retrospectively,’’ and even the descendants of those held responsible are prosecuted for the actions of their parents or grandparents. But the 22nd century has its own big projects, along with its meta-tribal rivalries and its own version of arrogance, ruthless ambition, and hardball politics. The UN’s high-handed treatment of the drafted colonists is of a piece with the crazy brinksmanship that dominates the later chapters of the back-home thread.

As the book progressed, I kept thinking about Jupiter War, puzzling over why it seemed appropriate that these two apparently dissimilar books should wind up in the same review. Part of it was certainly the portraits of the callous and manipulative governments wielding powers that they are not up to controlling. Then I recalled what Donald Wollheim (in The Universe Makers, 1971) called ‘‘the cosmogony of the future,’’ a rough consensus about of the kinds of future-historical scenarios that science fiction could work within, and wondered whether Asher and Baxter might be a new version of such a consensus. There has always been what might be called a discontinuity option in SF scenarios: the notion that the smooth progress to a space- or star-travelling future might be interrupted by, say, nuclear war. The current version of that interruption is a period of ecological/climatic/economic troubles, on the far side (or in the midst) of which a recovered humankind manages to get off-world – Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds have also adopted and adapted this model to accommodate the bumpy ride we are in for in the actual future that has grown out of the optimistic, linear-progress thinking of the ’40s and ’50s.

But recall the novel’s strange opening passage, with its ‘‘minds diffuse and antique.’’ It is echoed and amplified on the final page, which suggests that not only is there more to come, but that it may well operate in a very different mode or genre. This volume’s mantelpiece is adorned with multiple firearms that have not been taken down and fired yet. I anticipate colorful and almost certainly unexpected explosions and ricochets, and perhaps an ambush or two.

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