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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-November

A miscellaneous column this time, with a number of smaller and less-regular publications, one being the debut issue of a new e-magazine, Uncanny.

Publications Reviewed

Uncanny Magazine #1, November/December 2014

Lynne M Thomas was previously editor of Apex Magazine. Now she and Michael Damian Thomas have started their own bimonthly ezine. The intended subject matter is described broadly as “fantastic”, which means that readers will have to wait and see what a typical story mix will turn out to be; this one is broadly fantastic/SF.

Reviewing a debut issue is always problematic. Often, the editors make an effort to compile the strongest opening possible, putting heavy hitters into the initial lineup. Then quality can fall off in later issues. Other new zines begin weakly, then gather strength with experience. Here we find six stories with a pretty strong author lineup, although a couple are quite short. It’s a debut that will probably have readers tuning in for the next issue.

“If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley

This one is based on historical fact. Jungleland was a real animal park in the earlier years of Hollywood, where animals used in films and, later, TV were kept. The place was quite an attraction in its day, but the story is set in its fading years. A journalist is assigned to cover the place, reconceived as a retirement home, and interview its principal inhabitant, Leo the MGM lion – the Forever Roar. There has been a persistent rumor of a long-ago affair with Garbo, but Leo’s not talking.

Today, the lion was feeling his age. He’d been famous too long. He hadn’t been to Manhattan in years and Hollywood, formerly his stomping ground, was less friendly to lions than it had been. Animal shows were waning and the only place the lion truly felt himself these days was Vegas, where he strolled between the tables, pinching and purring, performing occasionally. Even Vegas was less than heaven for lions, and the new acts had his kind performing like trained bears. Leo had no desire to dance. He was the Forever Roar, not a meow sideshow.

The story reminds me of the Duncan/Klages collaboration “Wakulla Springs”, both being actual locations associated with Hollywood films, both faded, and also involving talking animals. But what was there an ambiguous hint is here the story’s center, creating a setting of absurdity that’s played for poignancy and nostalgia, not laughs. Although there’s a neat final, positive moment, the overall tone is depressing, combining the natural and inevitable aging of a population [including humans] seeing their careers turned to dust, becoming obsolete and forgotten, with the callous treatment of animals by the film and other industries. The author has married the Leo story with the historical figure of the big cat tamer Mabel Stark, which is the reference of the trendy title. Not sure how well that works, but it provides additional perspective on the Leo story.

“Presence” by Ken Liu

A son has immigrated to America, leaving behind his mother, who didn’t want to go with him to a foreign place. Now she has had a stroke, is dying, and he pays for a caretaker and the use of a telepresence robot.

These robots are built for the guilty, for those too far away and with too many excuses. Despite your awareness of the illusory nature of your presence, of the lie technology helps you to tell yourself, you do feel better.

A confession of guilt. I think there are many of us that it will touch deeply, with self-recognition.

“Late Nights at the Cape and Cane” by Max Gladstone

Supervillains have a hard time at work: “Why shouldn’t we win once in a while?” Doc Sinister learns the reason why. Because it’s only a game. “And when our thing turns real, it turns ugly.”

Which is why I don’t usually care for superhero stories. They’re not real. They’re contrived, set up. I prefer real, even when the game is cleverly done, as it is here.

“Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer

Time travel paradoxes. Celia finds the plans for a time machine on a page in one of her late grandfather’s old galoshes.

Nobody would believe me, but the page I found is part of a novel. The novel is about me, Celia, going back in time to save my Grandpa’s novel. I can tell it’s his because it has my real name, Celia, and a bunch of math. I seem to only have part of the equation. But I get chills when I read it. I want to know how the story ends. Also, the science fair is less than two weeks away.

A comedy of recursive errors ensues.

It would be unproductive to debate whether this piece, with its adolescent-girl narrator, should be considered YA or faux-YA. Essentially, it’s an amusing time travel tale in which poor grandpa is the one caught in the loop.

“Migration” by Kat Howard

A fascinating premise: a world in which the dead are reincarnated, being carried to their resurrection by a flock of birds. But the narrator wants out of the cycle.

In every life I can remember, which is not all of them, not any more, I have longed to fly. To feel the air slide through my feathers, to cast myself away from earth, from everything that binds me here.

I still want to fly. I no longer wish to land.

For this, she [?] needs a phoenix to carry her soul to death, but her request has been rejected. On the other hand, we have Lara, a phoenix reborn as human after her last trip to death, becoming weary of her existence. In the ashes of her last fire is the egg holding her soul, but there is a crack in its shell.

With such very neat idea, I’m sorry that the conclusion came as so very predictable, when I had been hoping for something rare and profound. It’s also not at all clear why the phoenix is reborn in a human woman’s form and how she takes the form of a bird when required. But the quality of the prose keeps the story from being a real disappointment. “Tiny feathers of flame sparked through the air in her wake, burning to ash before reaching the ground.”

“The Boy Who Grew Up” by Christopher Barzak

Peter Pan. Not the Disney version, but the one in Kensington Gardens, now grown older, perhaps because the narrator Colin is a teenaged boy full of rage since his mother deserted the family after calling him a “poof”.

This one definitely is YA, complete with concluding lesson-learned. I like the many references to J M Barrie’s original work, the first in which the Peter Pan character appeared, as a very young child who, like all children, was once a bird. The current story makes some references to this.

“I know what it means to want to go home,” said Peter. “I flew out of my mother’s window when I was seven days old and when I tried to go back she’d already had another child.”

However, this is essentially Colin’s story, not Peter’s, and it seems that Peter is really only there to serve as Colin’s guide into adult responsibility, which is disappointing because Colin’s character isn’t particularly well developed. In a way, this is a retelling of the story of Maimie Mannering, from Barrie’s original.

Interzone, November/December 2014

Seven shorter stories, mostly science fiction of some sort, which I’m glad to see.

“Must Supply Own Work Boots” by Malcolm Devlin

Work boot and exoskeleton rigs, which cost a lot more. Trip used to work on the docks, but he’s washed up now at thirty-one, with his old Mark III augmentation implants. No work now for Mark IIIs, except at the junkyard, and Trip is too proud to consider work at the junkyard. His idea is to upgrade to Mark IV, but he’s still in debt from his previous implant surgery. He needs work. He has a child now, and he can’t let his wife keep supporting both of them.

Depressing science-fictional social commentary. Trip is a skilled and willing worker trapped in a system of debt slavery in which labor is disposable. The author doesn’t dwell on it, but we know the outcome already; Trip will surrender pride to necessity, and in all likelihood, his child will become a cog in the same system, because that’s what the world comes to.

“Bullman and the Wiredling Mutha” by R M Graves

Gang warfare in a post-apocalypse world in which degraded humanity is almost superseded by the creations of the wireworms, of whom we know little. Normally peaceful Bullman is a genetic construct, but he is capable of being sent into a Rage.

Sex-Murda-Gang in Camden Town need Bullman fight Westminster. Westminster taken by Da Muthas. They take many place, but not take Camden Town from Sex-Murda-Gang. Bullman love Sex-Murda-Gang. Love bony McDonna with the big-belly more.

Pretty fragmentary, affording a glimpse into this unhappy future and one of its denizens, but little more.

“The Calling of Night’s Ocean” by Thana Niveau

Tripping with dolphins. A researcher in 1969 attempts to communicate with a particularly receptive cetacean, but is frustrated by her inability to perceive the images she is convinced the dolphin is sending. Ill-advisedly, she agrees to share injections of LSD with the dolphin, who suffers from a bad and revealing trip.

It is too much devastation to imagine, too much agony to contain. My mind and all my senses ache with the knowledge. I was never meant to see this. All I ever wanted was to swim and splash and sing and dive in and out of the sky. But everything is different now that I know, now that I see.

Somehow the worst truth of all is this: you were never my friend.

This one makes of the dolphin a creature more of the human anthropomorphic imagination than nature.

“Finding Waltzer-Three” by Tim Major

Waltzer-Three is a derelict spacecraft found drifting by the protagonists. Against all orders, advice and pleas from her crewmember husband, Meryl bops over there to explore. At which point, readers will be flashing to every horror B-movie ever made, where the audience always cries out, “No, don’t open that door!”

“Oubliette” by E Catherine Tobler

This one is obscure, and I’ll admit I may not be parsing it. It seems there was once a great space station that suffered a catastrophic event, and a woman [female alien?] died there, becoming mummified in the ruined depths. She seems to remain also as a ghost. Much later, the remains of the station have been revived and repurposed, travelers coming and going, servitors catering to them. A young boy exploring the ruins has found the remains of the woman . . . maybe.

. . . perhaps what he saw was not a body at all. Perhaps it was only the old station ruins, bent into a manner that suggested woman, mother, lady. Stair steps of lichen covered with dust made her skirts and clouds of sulfur made her hair.

He treats her either as a secret or a tourist attraction, which is contradictory. A human woman comes to the station and engages the attention of the ghost; later she seeks out the mummified corpse, if that’s what it is. Also there are apparently aliens, or ghosts of them.

The problem with a piece this obscure is that it’s hard to tell what makes sense and what doesn’t. Why, for example, does a young boy contemplate selling the vast field of metallic ruin in the station’s lower levels – a task that would surely take heavy machinery – as if no one else had ever noticed its existence; yet the text claims that metal is in short supply on the station. Is this just not-making-sense? Generally, this seems to be a story of loss, but the unclarity of the story minimizes its emotional impact.

“Mind the Gap” by Jennifer Dormand-Fish

When a blind person gains sight, their brain has no idea how to sort the jumble of visual information. Their depth perception is off, they have no hand-eye coordination, the world looks like a cubist painting, just blocks of color and texture representing reality.

So it is with the AI called Sparky by its teacher, Jo. Moving from self-awareness to the awareness of humanity and its fatal flaws.

A story about emotional attachment in artificial minds, bridging the differences with the human. A certain tone of poignancy in the conclusion – based in part on fatalism.

“Monoculture” by Tom Greene

It seems there was a worldwide epidemic that killed almost all humanity except for a few survivors with a natural immunity, including one man who happened to be running a clone experiment. Now almost all humanity consists of these clones, plus a very small number of randoms [politely, predemic people], who are subject to discrimination by the dominants. Wendy and Carlos are members of a small, isolated community of randoms, the last survivors. When they find themselves alone, they make their way to what is now civilization, which considers them feral. But a trendy group among the clones finds some art projects that Carlos has done, and he becomes a fad.

The story considers the interaction between the randoms and the clones, whom the randoms call “Daves” after their original. The arrival of Wendy and Carlos offers a new perspective.

I greeted the older man, and also the artist and his wife. I always forget how short most predemics are, JoeJohn being the exception. I put their coats in the bedroom and then led the four
of them into the living room. When we stepped in, conversations died away.

It’s clear that some of the clones mean well to the predemic humans, but these seem to be in a minority, albeit an influential one. The degree of prejudice among the general population seems strong. We can only wonder what it will be if Wendy and Carlos are able, with the aid of advanced medicine, to have immune children, to bring up a new generation of a population that might complete with the clones.

The story takes a fresh look at cloning and post-apocalypse. I do wonder about the virus not dying out after decades. What population reservoir was it inhabiting?

Shimmer, November 2014

A powerful issue with four stories this time, all with accompanying author interviews. A theme of ghosts and hauntings.

“A Whisper in the Weld” by Alix E Harrow

Isa is a strong woman – strong of body, of will, and strong in her love for her family. This doesn’t change once she is killed by the blast furnace, doing war work.

All ghosts operate under the same set of laws: They have a short time to exist, a voice that can’t be heard, and an uncompromising terminus. Much the same as the living. But laws last precisely as long as people follow them, and not a second longer. Every now and then, out of desperation or desire or pure mule-headedness, somebody stops following them. So Isa Bell didn’t go down into the clay and minerals beneath her feet. She became a steel mill.

Isa acts to save her children, particularly her eldest daughter, who has taken her place at the mill to provide for her younger sister, to keep them together. I’m not quite sure how this plays out; while it takes her daughter out of the mill, it would seem to leave them vulnerable to eviction from worker housing.

This is a ghost story and a love story. Isa wants to embrace her children, but she’s seen how everything she touches turns to rot. While she hovers around the house, the closeness of death makes them shiver. Also strong here is the prose, with moments of real poignancy.


“Caretaker” by Carlie St George

The narrator used to read the story of the catcher in the rye and imagine this would be a good job to have, saving children before they could fall into the abyss. The job that does come [mysteriously] to him is a less pleasant one, burying the bodies of suicides before anyone can find them and suffer distress.

It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always
room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.

A very short, rather obscure piece. I imagine that the narrator’s mother committed suicide, given her description as a sort of living ghost. The other suicides all seem to be girls, though this isn’t explicit. There’s also a metaphorical description of the stars as dead, as ghosts; it seems the narrator lives entirely in a world of death.

“Cantor’s Dragon” by Craig DeLancey

Based on the life of the mathematician Georg Cantor, whose groundbreaking work in set theory and infinite sets in particular was dismissed by unenlightened colleagues, which exacerbated his tendency to depression, as did the death of his youngest son. Here we find him entering a sanitarium after a breakdown in, I believe, 1903. There, he enters into a dialogue with a dragon in his wall on such subjects as infinity, God, and the soul, as the dragon tries to mire him in despair. Cantor’s victory over it in logical argument is seen as a victory over his depression.

This is a work that can be seen as either science fiction or fantasy, depending on whether we view the dragon as a fantastic presence akin to the Tempter or a figment of Cantor’s troubled mind. The story itself is ambiguous on this point, but I prefer the science-fictional interpretation, because it seems to rest more fully on an understanding of Cantor’s concept of infinities. It’s sadly ironic that one objection made against his theory was that it challenged the unique infinity of God, because the story illustrates how important faith was in Cantor’s life.

Cantor fought his tears with all his strength. He did not want to weep in front of the boy and betray his failing hope. He managed to say, “Our bodies must die. But our minds, our minds can
touch the infinite.”

A moving story, perhaps more optimistic than reality deserves, as readers familiar with Cantor’s life will know that he returned again to depression and died apparently in its hold.


“The One They Took Before” by Kelly Sandoval

Kayla was abducted by the fairies but at last released back to the mundane world, where she is having a difficult adjustment. But she fears they aren’t done with her, that they want her back. She keeps finding ads on Craigslist and the newspaper classifieds:

Faerie Queen, saw you in Cal Anderson Park by the tennis courts. You wore a dress of hummingbird feathers and a crown of tiny stars. I asked for a light. I should have asked for more. Coffee?

I like the way the poeticized language supposedly proper to fairyland crops up in otherwise mundane circumstances.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, December 2014

A particularly accessible issue, with five stories, all but one involving corpses and murder and mayhem.

“You Don’t Even Have a Rabbit” by Jessy Randall

A lighthearted work, segregated from the grue of the rest of the issue by an insulating barrier of verse. Our protagonist Gilder is a video re-editor who discovers that she can manipulate the software to make unplanned changes in a recording. It seems, in fact, that her edits are retroactive; when she remakes “Hake and Hurk” with an unhappy ending, no one remembers it the original way. Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend and finds a more personal use for her newfound ability.

“Never Eat Crow” by Goldie Goldbloom

Soile is a feral woman who works in summer cleaning houses on a Finnish island, augmenting her scant pay with theft. In the isolation of winter, she returns, scavenging, preying, above all surviving.

She falls in love with fat. One bite and she knows if it will be worth her while to digest. Sweet sweet fat, shining and soft and slippery, bubbles of winter joy.

I classify this one as nonfantastic horror, but the story is primarily a character study, one that it’s hard to parse. Is Soile a psychopath, as her deeds might suggest? Or is she a predator, much as a wolverine is? We might think of her as a throwback, reverted to a more fundamental level of humanity outside the influence of civilization. Except – not quite. Humans are social animals, and Soile is fundamentally isolated. She was, we learn, was sold as a young child into circumstances that the story does not reveal, except that from time to time she exhibits signs of having been educated, as opposed to native intelligence. So how did she come to be what she now is? What happened in those missing years between her infancy and her current adulthood [although her actual age isn’t clear, the narrative tells us she’s much younger than the thirty-some she appears]? We can only wonder.

“Skull and Hyssop” by Kathleen Jennings

A fantasy world in which airships carry cargo across oceans and weatherfinders assist in the navigation. Captain Moon of the Hyssop could use a weatherfinder on his upcoming voyage, although in fact he’s in the habit of cutting corners, particularly when it comes to the ownership of his vessel, which he has painted to conceal its original name and appearance. He encounters a young woman wearing a weatherfinder’s blue jacket, but she maintains it belongs to her brother, who disappeared on a ship called The Ravens. When she stows away on Moon’s ship, he insists she play the role of weatherfinder to placate his demanding passenger, whom Ivana [not her real name] considers unsavory.

“He’s got chemicals – things in his blood that embalmers use, and anesthetists. Not a sudden concentration, but little pieces, all the way through, as if he uses them all the time. Drugs that must alter the way he moves and sleeps and thinks.”

Tension builds and secrets unravel, revealing sordid and murderous practices.

Good worldbuilding. The weatherfinder’s fantastic powers are the primary interest here, although Ivana’s powers are something else again. As she always maintains, it was her brother who was the real weatherfinder. I do wonder why Moon is called to the sea, when airships should be able to travel overland just as well.

“The Curator” by Owen King

Unhappy revolutions are all alike, or so it would seem. D was supposed to work at the Occult Museum until it was burned during the uprising, but with the influence of her lover, an officer in the revolution, she managed to find another job next door to an embassy that soon became a center for torture and execution of the new regime’s enemies.

From a rear door of the embassy emerged a massive, shirtless man, a man of the revolutionary brigade by the red uniform pants that he wore. Over his shoulder he toted a body-shaped object inside a canvas bag. It was early evening, light enough to discern stains on the canvas of the bag.

As the situation deteriorates, we get successful flashbacks of D’s beloved older brother, dead at age fourteen from a fever that turns out to be related to certain nasty habits of his. And when D tells her lover that neither of them will be going to heaven, this turns out to be a likely prediction, at least in her own case; her lover appears to show repentance, or at least self-preservation. The point apparently being that some people are naturally prone to evil and flourish in certain political circumstances that call out the worst in them.

Despite the references to the occult, there are no real fantastic elements here, with the possible exception of the final scene. I rather preferred it as a case of political fiction, in which the setting is realistically portrayed in sinister tones. I’m not quite sure, however, about the case of Miss Cavendish, until it is simply showing us D’s final step over the edge.

“The Necromancer of Lynka” by Sarah Micklem

After brutality of the previous two works, this one comes as a lighter change of pace, despite the corpses and ghosts strewn about the place, being a fantasy of manners. We have another young woman placed out in service, Ferle, who discovers as the necromancer’s housemaid that she can see and speak to the shades of the dead.

Another child might have deduced all this ages ago, but then most children pay more attention to their elders than Ferle, and learn a thing or two while they are growing up.

But her grandmother Liadel, whose shade is inexplicably present in the necromancer’s house, is determined to give her guidance and good advice, beginning with the admonition never to admit what she sees and hears. But Ferle is too greatly tempted when she begins to understand that the pronouncements of the animated corpses, the necromancer’s stock in trade, are contradicted vehemently by their hovering shades. Between the corpse, its shade, and her grandmother’s, Ferle becomes mightily confused. And the necromancer, in the meanwhile, hasn’t a clue.

A nicely lighthearted fantasy, a narrative with some wit.

Lightspeed, November 2014

A further installment in Hughes’ Erm Kaslo serial, and some other fiction, of which I prefer the SFnal Newitz.

“Drones Don’t Kill People” by Annalee Newitz

Near the end of the twenty-first century, the narrator is part of a team of military drones designed for surveillance and assassination. After carrying out an ordered killing of a family suspected of anti-government activity in Turkey, the drones discover a bug in their programming, which is supposed to erase all records after the data has been uploaded to the military cloud; the assassination is always retained somewhere in obscure corners of their memory. At first, the drones only want to fix the bug when they log on to a web forum dedicated to individuals who want to modify their own drones. But it’s known to the operators that some drones are modifying themselves and becoming autonomous. And once our team has rebooted with new decision-making software, they adopt ethical principles. But they are still owned and controlled by human organizations, who lack them.

Our choices were limited. If we didn’t carry out the assassination, our covers would surely be blown. The admins could install software that would wipe our minds, or they could take us apart piece-by-piece. Sure, we had backups in the cloud, but they didn’t mean much if there were no drones to run them. Still, there was no scenario where assassinating the politician was a prosocial choice.

It’s getting to the point when I see some actual science fiction, I want to say, “Yes!” just because. Happily, this piece is worthy. While the basic premise isn’t so original, it’s well-executed with credible details. I like the notion of the drones going from state-of-the-art to obsolete, sold to the Russian mafia for cheap. The title refers to the pro-gun slogan, which the drones repurpose for their own situation. If humans want to kill each other, they’ll have to do it themselves.

“What Glistens Back” by Sunny Moraine

This one starts out promisingly science-fictional, as Sean’s one-person lander breaks up and leaves him in freefall to the target planet’s surface. Alas, it immediately turns into a relationship story – in fact, a romance – as we find Sean’s husband the comm officer onboard the mothership, leading to a lot of flashback’s on Sean’s part, recalling how Eric came on the mission with him out of love. At the very end, we see that something very neat might be happening, but we don’t get to see what it is, only how it affects the relationship. Even if readers are more interested in relationships than science fiction, it fails to satisfy, taking place so much in flashbacks and not the story-present. It also serves as an illustration of the reason real space programs aren’t likely to place spouses on the same crew.

“A Flock of Grief” by Kat Howard

Another take from this author associating birds with death. Here, they are birds of grief, that appear to those who mourn and perch on their shoulder until the time of grief has passed. But at least among Sibila’s wealthy set, it isn’t appropriate to carry one’s own grief in public.

And there is no choice, not once the birds are there. One cannot mourn, unless there is a bird, and once the bird has chosen a mourner, one has no alternative but to either accept the burden, or to hire a Mourner to do so instead. Personal feelings play no role. Such a thing would be flashy, inappropriate. Vulgar.

Sibila’s bird has appeared at her unloved husband’s death, but she feels no grief, only release from an unwanted burden. When she hires her Mourner and transfers her bird to the girl, her grief is not truly named. This, perhaps, is the source of the problem. At any rate, the streets suddenly fill with birds of grief, crowded into the trees, griefs that ought to have long since dissipated. Now Sibila begins to feel, not grief but guilt.

This is a neat premise, but I’m not sure it works. Why can one not mourn, not feel grief, without a bird? And why does a bird appear to Sibila when she feels no grief? Do the birds have a central registry that reads the obituary column? Surely Sibila can’t be the first person to whom a bird comes falsely, who transfers her bird falsely. Why hasn’t the system broken before?

Strange Horizons, November 2014

Including a bonus story from the fundraiser.

“That’s Entertainment” by Meda Kahn

A New York story, set in a near future when policy towards “undesirables and crazies” is in flux. Gilly Caplan, manifesting behavior that struck the authorities as mentally unfit, is placed in a group home where she often entertains the staff in exchange for tips, Gilly believing that she shouldn’t give something for nothing.

Was she joking? She came out of the womb, and people laughed. Two-year-old Gilly built a tower of blocks and said it was a dinosaur fortress, and people laughed. Twenty-year-old Gilly built a tower of Legos and said it was a dinosaur fortress, and people laughed—awkwardly, the sound stifled behind their hands. Was she joking? She didn’t know anymore.

What she does know is that the videos of her performances have gone viral and there must be an opportunity in that. So she takes it.

An insightful piece, in the sense that readers should get insights from reading it into their own attitudes, into what it normal and what is funny – and not.

“A Moon for the Unborn” by Indrapramit Das

Vir and Teresa were part of a colony on Akir’s World, where all five of the settler’s children died at birth. Afterwards, the spectres of the five children, halfway grown, are seen walking through the colony – a mystery that no one can solve. The parents are traumatized, even after they return to Earth. Vir sometimes imagines he can still see them at night.

I like to imagine that the children we saw on Akir’s World were something like these phantoms conjured by the shimmer of electromagnetic radiation and projected thought on my curtains. But back then it was the ripple of alien gravities, of light and dark matter across what we’ve named reality, that made them appear to us when Akir rose on the horizon and painted the windows with its light, while below us its world turned through the inhuman dream of its long night.

A story of trauma and secrets, and how sharing them can bring a couple back together. Of course it might not. Vir and Teresa should consider themselves fortunate that they were able to say the right thing at the right moment, that the other was willing at that moment to accept it. There’s no guarantee in such circumstances. Other couples might have been torn apart permanently by the same sort of disclosures, but we don’t know about them; this is only the story of Vir and Teresa.

“Once, Upon a Lime” by E Catherine Tobler

A twist on the classic fairy tale of the princess and the frog. So charming that I quite forgive the pun.

“She Commands Me and I Obey” by Ann Leckie

Politics and intrigue. In a future where the goddess She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily is workshipped, the station Noage Itray is one of four parts of a polity ruled by Tetrarchs on a Council of Four. Every seven years, the Tetrarchy is contested on the ball court of the Blue Lily monastery [presumably as the previous winner is the home team]. Originally, the candidates themselves risked their lives on the outcome; now, it is the captain of the defeated team who is decapitated and becomes the model for a statue in the court below the stands – a form of immortality. It is time now for the contest to be held again, and the Tetrarch of Noage Itray is concerned about the new captain of the White Lily monastery’s team; he doesn’t like surprises and unknowns.

Several years ago, instead of disposing of a much younger brother, the Tetrarch sent him to the Blue Lily monastery to be raised as a Brother, in ignorance of his identity. But the Abbott, who is playing his own game, has instructed the boy in more than his brother would like him to know. In particular, he has learned that from the base of one of the statues, he can eavesdrop on the conversations in the monastery’s most secure council chamber, thus becoming privy to his brother’s secret plans, which don’t include losing the upcoming contest on the game court.

The custom is that when a novice enters the monastery, he or she takes a new name, related in some way to the goddess. Thus, the Tetrarch’s younger brother is now Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe, and the statue at which he listens is named She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey. I must admit that these names have caused me a lot of trouble in parsing this text. I suspect this is largely my own fault for being name-impaired, but sorting out who was who turned out to be vexingly difficult at first. Aside from this, the story is satisfyingly full of intrigue and action, as well as some theology.

White Lily scored their fifth point—Ultimately-Justice leaping a meter off the ground to slam the ball straight past Seven-Brilliant-Truths and his bewildered middle and back courts—and suddenly the Harime were on their feet and screaming. The Harime governor sat calmly, as though nothing had happened. He knew from the start, thought Her-Breath-Contains. She came and said she could win it and that’s how she got the position. He wouldn’t have had anything to lose, all the risk would have been Ultimately-Justice’s. Everyone had been so sure, but now Qefahl Brend might lose the seat on the Council of Four, and . . .

The worldbuilding [aside from the names] is well-done here, strongly detailed, and the plotting satisfactorily twisted, even with a conclusion that won’t surprise.

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

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

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

Faren Miller reviews Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon

A couple of months ago, discussing The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, I noted how it reconfigures tropes from fairy tales and children’s/YA fantasy for older readers. Gregory Maguire did something like that to Baum’s Oz books and the movie they inspired, begin­ning with Wicked (which spawned its own hit Broadway musical) and continuing in three more volumes, collectively called The Wicked Years. Maguire clearly likes dealing with witches, and the child-eating crone Baba Yaga has a major role in his latest novel, but Egg & Spoon takes us a long way from Oz (or Kansas): to Russia, in the last days of tsarist rule.

Before starting in on the chronicle, the anonymous narrator touches on another episode that still haunts him: abduction by soldiers. He confronts us with the trauma: ‘‘If you’re ever dragged from your chambers at midnight, blindfolded and gagged, without being told whether you’re off to a firing squad or a sur­prise birthday party, you’ll find that you turn and return to that pivotal moment.’’ By now, enough time has passed that he can see it in a wider context – which also provides the mortal framework for the book: ‘‘Your life story is re­ally about how the hands of history caught you up, played with you, and you with them. History plays for keeps; individuals play for time.’’ That last quip is the result of bitter experience, for this man once worked as an advisor to the tsar. Torn from that role, the best he could get is years of bleak survival in isolation… aside from strange communion with birds.

Though Russian myths and folklore infuse the book, and won’t just linger on the sidelines as quaint old tales, its crucial contact between two very different young lives involves the interrupted journey of a private railroad train. Ekaterina (Cat) is being carted off to St. Petersburg for some gala occasion she’d rather not attend, to meet the tsar, his godson, and other young men. Traveling with a crusty great-aunt, a British governess, a French butler, and a few other servants, Ekaterina glumly anticipates her debut on the marriage market (which won’t wait for the full onset of adolescence). Meanwhile, not far from the chasm where a bridge recently collapsed, Elena lives in what’s left of a hungry, decimated village where soldiers took away the teen boys, something caused the teen girls to vanish, her father died, and her mother barely clings to life.

Egg & Spoon anchors the stuff of melodrama and romance to more basic truths, some of them about class. While its eggs range from a richly ornamented Fabergé creation to a Firebird’s offspring (in a large but only slightly uncanny shell), the other title object first appears in a quote from Dickens’s Bleak House: ‘‘Society… has taken upon itself the general arrangement of the whole system of spoons.’’ Even after their worlds cross, sending each girl off on a strange, dangerous new trajectory, they’re not overwhelmed by feelings of mystic sisterhood.

When the year ignores the normal progres­sion of seasons, bypassing the stasis and hid­den renewal of winter for the overwhelming torrents of spring, it presents a dire threat to Saint Petersburg, conceived and built by royal fiat on a flood plain. In our own era of unsettling weather changes, both real and fictional (genu­ine floods in Phoenix AZ, divinity pissing on L.A. in Kadrey’s The Getaway God), it might seem tempting to view the Firebird’s unhatched egg in terms of an eco-fable: damaged Earth. But Maguire is much too deft to let his tale sink under a freight of Message.

His more antic qualities emerge in Baba Yaga and her cottage – weirdly mutable except for one fabled feature, the gigantic chicken legs that make it a mobile home. Though she revels in the role of child-eating hag, her mind is free to wander far beyond the confines of Old Russia. Tradition mingles with an irreverence that transcends time as she describes her larder and picks a snack to share with a young visitor (potential victim?):

We have eye of newt and toe of frog, carbon-crisp residue of manticore loin, a beaker of all-natural belladonna extract, some wolfbane, some romaine, a poteen of ptomaine, and a few limp radishes in butter, pinched from the platter left out for Marat after his bath, which he never got to since he died therein. Let’s have Cheerios.

When that last item baffles the visitor, Baba blithely replies, ‘‘They haven’t been invented yet…. You’ll love them.’’

Mingling in-jokes with history and witch­craft, fantastic creatures with disruptions in the weather, Egg & Spoon provides a feast much richer, subtler (and more digestible) than borscht with a side order of breakfast cereal.

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Gary K. Wolfe reviews Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming

No one can accuse Lavie Tidhar of being risk-averse. At a time when Martin Amis is having trouble getting his concentration-camp novel The Zone of Interest published in Eu­rope, Tidhar’s latest variation on 20th-century history takes us not only into the camps them­selves, but also into an alternate 1939 in which Adolf Hitler, having lost the 1933 German election to the Communists, is scraping by as a down-at-the-heels private eye in London. But the dreamer of Tidhar’s title isn’t Hitler; it’s Shomer, a once-popular writer of Yid­dish pulp fiction who finds himself a prisoner in Auschwitz. Tidhar has both a fondness for and a surprising trove of trivia about obscure pulp writers, and the real Shomer, he explains to us in an Afterword, actually died peaceful­ly in 1905, and had been attacked in print by various Jewish intellectuals, including Sholom Aleichem. By making Shomer into the (argu­ably) central point-of-view and title character, Tidhar reveals – as he did earlier in Osama and to some extent in The Violent Century – that he’s really less interested in the mechanistic ‘‘what-ifs’’ of conventional alternate history than he is in the interpenetration of real and in­vented histories, or perhaps more grandiosely in the interpenetration of art and life – even the often-demeaned art of sensational fiction or (as in the case of The Violent Century) comic books. This is what makes him such an interesting writer, and what makes A Man Lies Dreaming quite a bit more complex than it at first appears.

Not that Tidhar doesn’t work out his alter­nate 1939 with meticulous and sometimes gleeful detail. His 1939 not only traces Hitler’s seedy fate (Hitler calls himself ‘‘Wolf’’ here), but follows through on a wealth of other his­torical figures, from other former Nazis like Rudolf Hess and Klaus Barbie to victims like Primo Levi and the Auschwitz survivor who wrote under the name Ka-Tzetnik, the British fascist Oswald Mosley (who is about to win the election for Prime Minister), the German Com­munist leader Ernst Thalmann (who becomes Chancellor after his victorious elec­tion), and literary and artistic figures including Leni Riefenstahl and the Mitford sisters (one of whom was notoriously a Nazi sympathizer). As if to drive home the point that this 1939 is not so radically differ­ent from our own history, there are even allusions to Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, J.R.R. Tolk­ien, Evelyn Waugh, the publisher Stanley Unwin, and, perhaps sig­nificantly, the mystery writer Leslie Charteris. He even presents a version of the film Casablanca re-imagined as a kind of post-Nazi sequel to The Great Gatsby (‘‘We’ll always have Nuremberg’’).

So the novel is not without a fair amount of humor, and that might well be the boldest risk Tidhar is taking here (though it’s worth remem­bering that the most effective anti-Hitler film of that era was Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). He also offers, in some detail, accounts of Hit­ler’s rather queasy sexual preferences and a fair amount of bloody violence as the shamus Hitler gets in over his head while trying to investigate what happened to a Jewish woman who disap­peared en route from Germany to England, but it’s all cast in the deliberately pulpish voice of the kind of writer Shomer apparently was (‘‘One dead copper, one dead whore. I was getting too old’’). This is the one area where the tone of the novel gets shaky, however; the hardboiled style of the era Tidhar apes was no­table for its shrewd indirection involving sex and violence, and at times Tidhar’s prose leaps a decade or so forward from the era of Dashiell Hammett to that of Mickey Spillane.

But the same question that haunted the ex­cellent Osama comes up here as well: can you effectively pulpify a figure associated with real-world terror without risking trivializing the na­ture of that terror? There is no shortage of SF and fantasy dealing with Hitler and the Holo­caust – ‘‘Hitler Wins’’ gets its own entry in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gregory Ben­ford & Martin Greenberg did a whole anthol­ogy of such stories, and a few Holocaust novels have gotten away with dark humor (like Leslie Epstein’s The King of the Jews). But there are far fewer works which present Hitler as such an utter failure – he isn’t even a very good private eye – and the suggestion that finally emerges from A Man Lies Dreaming is that, even with Hitler reduced to a pulp antihero, if only in the dreams of an Auschwitz victim, anti-Semitism would have found a lot of other places to land. What really haunts the novel is not the ghost of Hitler, but that dreaming figure, borrowed more closely from our own history than from Tidhar’s fake one, and the disarming shadow of an anti-Semitic fascist regime emerging in England itself in 1939.

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2014: A Grand Ole Odyssey: A Review of Interstellar

by Gary Westfahl

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar begins in a setting that should now be familiar to contemporary filmgoers, what I have elsewhere termed the Grapes of Wrath future: a world that has largely been driven back to the simple technology and impoverished lifestyle of America’s Great Depression. In this case, a changing climate and virulent blights are turning the world into an enormous Dust Bowl, forcing governments to pressure most of their citizens into becoming small family farmers (which, as a proposed solution to global famine, makes very little sense, but one could devote an entire review to listing the many things about this film that make very little sense). This recent fixation on one of the most difficult and disheartening periods of American history surely reflects a growing feeling that our formerly confident nation has somehow gone astray and is now destined to decline unless some dramatic action is taken. And one way to interpret Interstellar is as director Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan’s proposed solution to all of humanity’s pressing problems, one that has resonated throughout the history of science fiction: venturing into outer space in search of new homes and new resources. In the film, humans are even being prodded to do exactly that by unseen aliens who have helpfully created a wormhole to allow humans to reach habitable planets in another galaxy.

As a vehicle for their message, the Nolans have chosen as a template Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), long accepted as not only one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but one of the greatest films of all time, ranked number six on Sight and Sound’s current list. Since other filmmakers have made fools of themselves haplessly endeavoring to emulate this singular film’s magisterial grandeur (does anyone remember Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars [2000]?), it requires considerable courage to make a film that, as I will argue, undertakes to both emulate and refute 2001: A Space Odyssey; and while I ultimately found its argument unpersuasive, the film is still provocative and, one might say, intelligently misguided in ways that are unfortunately rare in today’s filmmaking marketplace.

[ — editorial note: spoilers follow, including unannounced cast members –]

To be sure, it would be possible to berate Interstellar as a bizarre effort to transform the story of 2001 into suitable material for a typical country song. That is, one would retain the basic narrative: unseen, mysterious beings are seeking to assist humanity by creating a passageway to faraway worlds in the vicinity of Saturn (the original destination of the Discovery’s astronauts until Kubrick was told that his special effects people could not capably render Saturn’s rings, forcing him to instead feature Jupiter); an astronaut journeys through this wormhole past walls of bright lights and, after other adventures, finds himself isolated in a specially prepared chamber, where he has a transformative experience before being returned to Earth. But instead of a bland scientist like David Bowman, the hero would have to be a hard-drinking country boy, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who is motivated not by any intellectual desire to explore the cosmos and gain new knowledge, but rather wants to regain the love of his estranged daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn). And, instead of being changed into some weird fetus, he would have to come back to Earth just the way he was, to touchingly reconcile with his daughter and get on with his life by addressing the other issue on his mind, finding a new love to replace his deceased wife. Country star Mac Davis, author of the Elvis Presley hit “Don’t Cry Daddy” (1969), would have no trouble writing the lyrics.

However, if told that they were trivializing Kubrick’s epic quest by making it all a matter of fulfilling personal goals, the Nolans might respond defiantly that they were instead elevating and deepening the earlier film by adding the emotional element that Kubrick and Clarke had deliberately omitted in their story. As one character insists, it is the “yearning to be with other people,” family members and loved ones, that is “at the foundation of what makes us human.” (Forgive me if quotations are not exact; it’s hard to scribble down words in the dark without the option of reversing and replaying a DVD.) Trying to defend her determination to travel to a world where the man she loves is stranded, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) bases her argument on physics, suggesting that human love must actually be one of the universe’s fundamental forces, and hence a trustworthy guide in making decisions. Such comments almost seem deliberately inserted into the screenplay to rebut anticipated complaints about the film’s mawkish sentimentality. Furthermore, while I will avoid being too specific about the film’s final revelations, the vastly powerful beings manipulating cosmic history, it turns out, are apparently people who are very much like us, with similar feelings and desires. Interstellar thus seems to agree with some of 2001’s original critics, like Ray Bradbury, who found Kubrick’s film to be empty because audiences could not care about its characters. By working overtime to create characters that audiences could care about, characters motivated by the same strong emotions that have always defined the human experience, the Nolans could say that they were making their space epic more real, more meaningful, more truthful about all of the things in life that genuinely matter.

But in this respect, I feel, the film is trying to have it both ways. On one hand, the Nolans are visibly determined to align themselves with science fiction’s traditional view that humanity, in order to grow and develop, absolutely, positively must travel into outer space. The film’s opening scenes explicitly criticize the world’s governments because, focused entirely on feeding their desperate citizens, they have foolishly abandoned space travel, even rewriting textbooks to insist that the Apollo moon landings were nothing more than an expedient hoax. After complaining that “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt,” Cooper is heartened to discover that the United States government has secretly resumed its space program as the only possible solution to Earth’s deepening crises. The film is filled with stirring statements about the necessity of space travel: “we’re not meant to save the world; we’re meant to leave it.” “Mankind was born on Earth; we weren’t meant to die here.” “Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.” Yadda-yadda-yadda, the film goes on and on, repeating the sentiment in a manner that exemplifies the modern filmmaker’s contemptuously low opinion of the intelligence and attentiveness of the average filmgoer.

And yet, and yet – what, according to this film, is the reason why humans must travel into space? To be with other people. To rediscover all of the feelings and emotions that have defined the human condition for the past millennia. To find a new world where we can continue to be the same warm, wonderful human beings that we have always been, and always should be. It is a vision of the future that is as homey and comforting as, well, most country music. Note that nothing is being said about venturing into space in order to find something new, something unknown, something that might inspire us or force us to change the way that we think and act. In other words, Interstellar is endorsing the lie that has long defined popular stories about outer space like the Star Trek and Star Wars sagas: that our future life in space is going to be exactly like our present-day life on Earth, with a few new machines and funny-looking aliens tossed into the mix. Only a few rare films, like 2001, have dared to contradict this lie, to suggest that space travel might redefine the human condition instead of affirming it. True, for those who still believe in the real possibility of a Star Trek future, this film can be defended, as previously characterized, as an unusually well-crafted argument in favor of its plausibility; but based on everything we have learned about the daunting realities of outer space in the past fifty years, I would still describe it as nothing more than an attractive fantasy.

What I found disappointing is that, for much of its length, Interstellar seems intent upon providing a genuine picture of just how difficult the conquest of space might be, even if one assumes the discovery of a convenient wormhole. To demonstrate how vulnerable people are in otherworldly environments, a brief battle between astronauts in spacesuits shows that the best strategy in such combat is to crack your opponent’s faceplates. When not traveling through space, Cooper and his crewmates visit three unusual planets being considered as humanity’s new home: one is covered with water, but beset by huge destructive waves; a second is very cold, with a generally unbreathable atmosphere; the third, briefly glimpsed, seems somewhat more hospitable but is visibly barren and uninviting. Yet, in describing the second world, scientist Dr. Mann (surprise guest star Matt Damon) says that it is “cold, stark, but undeniably beautiful,” suggesting that the struggle to inhabit such a planet might prove worthwhile and rewarding, perhaps to be illustrated by concluding scenes of hearty pioneers establishing their first colony. In the end, however, none of Earth’s people are going to be forced to migrate to such dauntingly alien worlds; instead, thanks to a bit of scientific magic (which the film does not explain very well, and which I will not even attempt to explain), it seems that everyone will be moving into space habitats, the huge rotating enclosures implausibly celebrated in 1980s science fiction as places where humans could recreate the lifestyle of nineteenth-century rural America in the middle of the void. Quite literally, then, the film’s humans will be traveling into space in order to get back to where they once belonged – a duplicate of Cooper’s family farm.

It is true that Cooper himself rejects this alternative in favor of a new voyage to another planet, though he goes by himself, suggesting that few people are going to make similar choices. And considering his actions, one might attempt to reconcile the film’s conflicting attitudes as a vision of a future humanity to be divided into two camps: a vast majority who will be content to limit themselves to places in outer space that are crafted to resemble Earth, and a few bold adventurers who will journey into unearthly realms. Still, most scientists long ago rejected space habitats as unwise and unworkable, so the film from this perspective may be predicting a choice that we will, in fact, be unable to make. Instead, unable to transform space into an environment like Earth, humans will either have to confront the demanding realities of space, or remain at home on Earth.

It will be obvious at this point that I did not particularly enjoy watching Interstellar; but there are several other films, ranging from The Rules of the Game (1939) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) (review here), that I initially disliked but grew to cherish after watching them again and again, and Interstellar may well become another one. Certainly, based on previous achievements like his Batman trilogy (reviews of The Dark Knight [2008] here , and The Dark Knight Rises [2012] here) and Inception (2010) (review here), Christopher Nolan is not a director to underestimate, and there may well be nuances and undercurrents in this film that I have not yet appreciated. Even on first viewing, one can praise several aspects of the film, including its cleverly ambulatory robots, well-rendered alien worlds, and refreshingly unpredictable story. I anticipate, though, that this film will never become one of my favorites, in part due to two problems that are rarely in evidence in Nolan’s films: lousy casting, and lousy dialogue.

To explain my issues with the film’s stars – McConaughey and Hathaway – one might offer, as contrasting examples, the two-person cast of Gravity (2013) (review here). It is possible to project the attitude of an ordinary working Joe, and to show moments of vulnerability, and still convey to audiences that one is an intelligent, capable astronaut; George Clooney and Sandra Bullock did that very well. Yet McConaughey is so heavily into his I’m-just-a-country-boy shtick that anyone viewing this film must constantly mutter to themselves, “This guy can’t possibly be as dumb as he sounds.” As for Hathaway, while she was convincing enough as the earthbound Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, she consistently seems far too frail, both physically and emotionally, for the rigors of space travel. Clearly, if the two films had switched their leading players, the result would have been a weaker Gravity, and a more stellar Interstellar. Yet Nolan and casting director John Papsidera can be criticized for other decisions as well: as always, John Lithgow is mediocre as Cooper’s father-in-law; the normally reliable Michael Caine is far too relaxed and refined as scientist Dr. Brand, purportedly working feverishly to solve the equations needed to save the human race; and Jessica Chastain is so intent upon appearing distraught that she becomes inept when asked to be joyful, an emotion well expressed only by her doppelgänger Ellen Burstyn. Even the voices of the robots seem wrong, in contrast to 2001’s perfectly chosen Douglas Rain.

Turning to the dialogue, I have already noted that the screenplay is filled with suitable-for-framing profundities that jarringly sound like the screenwriters speaking to the audience, not one character speaking to another character; recurring quotations from Dylan Thomas’s portentous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1951) do not improve matters. But the worst thing about the dialogue is that there is far too much of it. One virtue of 2001 that none of its imitators ever emulate is its willingness to be quiet, as Kubrick kept cutting the dialogue to allow audiences to observe stunning visuals, while listening only to strange music, so they could think for themselves about what they were seeing. In contrast, one glaring weakness in the sequel to the film, 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), is that director Peter Hyams staffed his spaceship with a crew of chatterboxes engaged in constant conversation (including Lithgow, perhaps cast here as another nod to the film’s distinguished predecessor). Initially, Interstellar appears aware of the need to minimize dialogue when one crewmate says “We should learn to talk,” and the other responds, “And when not to.” Yet the film never heeds the advice in that rejoinder. This is particularly evident in the scene that corresponds to David Bowman’s interlude in the eighteenth-century drawing room, where he never says a word. But in the same situation, Cooper cannot keep his mouth shut, incessantly talking to himself, to a robot, and to a daughter who cannot hear him, striving to explain things that he might as well have kept silent about, since as noted none of it makes any sense anyway. To say that all this talking undermines the evocative power of this and other scenes should go without saying; imagine what 2001 would have been like if Bowman and Frank Poole had for some reason decided to bring along Andy Griffith to provide a running commentary on their adventures. (“Gol-oh-ly-gee, that gosh-darn computer is getting downright nasty.” “Gee willikers, them gosh-darn aliens musta made these here fancy digs just for us.”)

All things considered, one can say that the film’s repeated references to Murphy’s Law reflect a plot that involves, until its final deus ex machina, one thing after another going wrong. But they also may have been added because the Nolans were recognizing that, after a long string of successes, they were finally falling victim to that disheartening principle, as everything about a once-promising film was going wrong: its actors were proving ineffectual, its dialogue was ringing hollow, and its message was coming across as threadbare and trite. As I’ve said, in light of the Nolans’ track record, I’m willing to withhold final judgment for another occasion. But at the moment, I strongly suspect that, when they next vote in the year 2022, few if any critics will be choosing to add the passionate Interstellar to their lists of the greatest films of all time, and instead they will continue to prefer its bracingly cold and unemotional precursor.

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Steven Erikson

In the autumn of 1966, when I was twelve years old, my best friend, Stephen Antoniou, told me excitedly: “You have to watch this great new show, Star Trek!”

“When’s it on?” I asked.

“Eight-thirty on Thursdays, for a whole hour!”

“But that cuts into Bewitched at nine!”

I had been a loyal fan of Bewitched for two years. The cornball humor was okay, but I was mostly in love with Elizabeth Montgomery, who inspired the same feelings as those engendered by hasty glimpses of Playboy at the barber shop.

“I’m sorry, Steve. In that case I can’t watch it.”

Such were the practical dilemmas of an era without Hulu, Netflix or Tivo.

And so I didn’t. I never saw one episode of Star Trek during its original airing. It was only some years later, during the first round of syndication, that I caught up with the show, of course loving it instantly and cursing my childish short-sightedness. After getting up to speed with Kirk, Spock and crew, though, I again abandoned the franchise for decades.

I never thereafter watched any of the spinoffs; caught only the first two movies; and reentered Federation space only recently, with the newest reboots. But a month or so back, on a whim, I started streaming those original episodes of TOS, and was taken again with the humble, enthusiastic, colorful, positive vibe of the show. Not only nostalgia tinged my attitude toward the show. There was an undeniable Camelot, can-do spirit in the mythos, a willed optimism in the face of Sixties turbulence and apocalypse that remains immensely appealing, and puts to shame much of our current easy despair.

But naturally, all such upbeat, open-hearted space opera leads with its chin and eventually invites parody. Away back in 1952, Wally Wood had a go at such humor with his “Flesh Garden” story for Mad. Harry Harrison was up next, with Bill, the Galactic Hero in 1965 and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers in 1973. Galaxy Quest brought the theme to the big screen in 1999, and on the small screen we got Futurama‘s Zapp Brannigan. And of course John Scalzi gave us Redshirts just a couple of years ago.

Now comes Steven Erikson’s rendition of a Star Trek homage-cum-dismantling. Erikson’s version is Monty Python by way of Steve Aylett, a mad, sometimes surreal running amok of pure Id, Libido, Irreverence and Anti-authoritarianism, in the form of Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback, commander of the Affiliation Engage-class starship Willful Child. If you can imagine a season of Red Dwarf scripted by gonzo novelist Philip Palmer, you might have a faint notion of Erikson’s accomplishments here.

(And it is at this point that I should probably mention that this is the very first Erikson book I’ve ever read, motivating me to seek out his famous fantasy series at some future point, the Malazan Book of the Fallen. So I can’t say whether admirers of his fantasy will be discomforted by the tone and style of Willful Child or not.)

After a brief prelude which shows how galactic civilization came to Earth, and which introduces Sawback’s trailer-trash ancestors, we find our hero taking command of his ship on its first mission. A neat introduction to the salient officers finds many analogues to the crew of the Enterprise—an emotionless “Varekan” named Galk, sexy yeomen, et al—and a ship’s doctor more akin to Futurama‘s Zoidberg than Bones McCoy.

Sawback’s first actions are to incinerate some Neptunians on his way out of the solar system. He’s off to investigate an interstellar plot to counterfeit antique sports jerseys. This will bring him into contact with a gender-conflicted “male” artificial intelligence named Tammy Wynette, who promptly seizes control of the Willful Child, and heads the ship into dangerous territory. But Sawback has enough energy to battle wits with Tammy and sex up his female crewmembers during ping pong games. One unpredictable plot development follows another, in grand Robert Sheckley style, with the laughs coming frequently and thickly.

Erikson has lots of fun riffing on famous stories and scenes and motifs from the original Star Trek. I think a certain writer whose initials are HE might recognize the scenario on a planet “that looks just like northern California,” where a large stone portal announces itself as “MASTER OF THE SPATIAL TEMPORAL DYNAMIC.” Of course, it needs help getting replugged into its power source before Sawback and others can leap through it to land—well, I won’t reveal what they encounter. Tammy endows the ship with new beam weapons: one is capable of turning a few square centimenters of ship’s hull into glass; the other rips apart the very fabric of spacetime, imperilling everything around the target. But there’s nothing useful inbetween. There are aliens that outslime Kang and Kodos from the Simpsons. And when a giant egg in the infirmary hatches, out comes—well, not a tribble, but something even more pestiferous.

In addition to providing endless episodes of sheer lunatic mockery, foul-mouthed and utterly non-PC, Erikson actually manages also to offer some clever speculative riffs. Why would the railguns of the Willful Child need to fire any particle bigger than a BB, if it was going fast enough? Rather underwhelming to look at, sure, but plenty destructive.

One of the main enjoyments of this book is the rich language, both in dialogue and description. Erikson’s verbal prowess and ingenuity is displayed on nearly every page. For instance, here’s how the teleporters work.

Hadrian settled into a crouch. “Start the argument.” He said with bared teeth… The Insisteon initiated its argument with the universe. The Refute-Debilitator kicked in. Captain Hadrian is not here. He is over there! And in a flash, Hadrian vanished from the bridge…

The ultimate effect of Erikson’s taking the piss out of all the cliches and reflexive conceits of Star Trek is, surprisingly, not to make us regard the original as stupid and outdated and useless, but rather to convince us that with just a little more uncensored, down-and-dirty gusto—ie, if the shackles of 1966 FCC censorship were removed—the concepts and feelings behind TOS would still be valid metrics for the future.

Or as Galk’s Varekan wisdom has it: “Live long or live short, what real difference does it make in the end anyway?”

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 November

Regular readers of these columns will be aware that I keep looking for high quality Hard SF, a quest not often fulfilled. Lately, it seems that the ground may be more fertile for this subgenre in anthologies than periodicals. Here’s another, with an intriguing hint of hardness in the title, as well as some of the usual periodical short fiction.

Publications Reviewed

Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi

Subtitled simply, Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction. The editorial preface suggests a desire to create the sensawunda of the Golden Age, but that can be either a good or a bad thing – in this case, both. The collection tends to be more nostalgic in places than forward-looking, and the quality of the fiction is extremely mixed.

Typically, a Hard SF story comprises two essential elements: a speculative premise drawn directly from accepted science, and a story in which this scientific element involves the characters. Fiction in the subgenre can lean in either direction. In some cases, the scientific premise predominates to the point that the characters are no more than talking heads expounding the author’s ideas. In others, the premise bears little weight in what is essentially a mundane storyline. In this volume, the fiction tends to the former extreme, with science values emphasized at the expense of story values. The best pieces, of course, combine both virtues into an effective whole while adding additional literary values.

The editors have made the problematic decision to include a story from each of themselves, which also turns out to be both a good and a bad thing, one of each.

“The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H Wilson

The narrator finds it difficult to quantify the love he feels for his young daughter. Quantifying is how he is and it makes him effective at astrophysics. His ex-wife once said he had “the emotional capacity of a robot.” But on the day the world ends, spectacularly and astrophysically, all he feels is fear for the one he loves. “But my love for her is constant. It is a feeling that cannot be quantified because it is not a number. Love is a pattern in the chaos.”

This is a good choice to open the book. The science, physics, is the hardest, and it occupies the center of the story’s action. The narrative voice is fresh and distinctive and it makes the story strongly-felt. It’s because the narrator is the way he is that the account of his love is so powerful. A robot couldn’t feel so. His ex-wife was wrong.

“A Slow Unfurling of Truth” by Aliette de Bodard

Another iteration of the author’s extended future history about the Rong people living on the world Tai Menh, once great, now a backwater under the rule of the Galactics, who have effaced and suppressed the evidence of its actual past. In her youth, Huong Giang was part of a group calling itself the Poetry Circle, who collected and preserved what they could of their ancestral heritage until a repressive Galactic government caught them up in a purge, sending the members to prison and re-education camps, except for the sole Galactic member, Simalli Fargeau, who used his privilege to escape with his wife, Huong Giang’s niece. But he carried with him part of the key that encrypted their knowledge. The other members have wiped their own memories to keep them from falling into the hands of the government, so that without Simalli’s part of the key, their secrets may be irreparably lost. Now, years later, he has shown up full of guilt to give it to them, but Huong Giang fears that he may not be who he claims to be. The Galactics have previously sent agents provocateurs to test her.

The key. It might be the right one; it might give them back everything they had lost— their memories, the communion of purpose that had given them such joy and pride. Or it might destroy them, more thoroughly than the government had ever done.

Huong Giang hires an identity authenticator who might be able to tell her if this stranger is really the Simalli she had once known, but Kieu dislikes her client and wants only to accumulate the price of leaving her homeworld and fully enter Galactic society.

The basic elements of the story can be grasped in this text, but most depend on reader familiarity with the previous pieces in order to be fully comprehended. There’s a lot of stuff here, generally SFnal but not entirely hard. For example, in this universe, it’s apparently common for people to take new bodies from time to time, which isn’t grounded in any known science. I do like the way that the identity of the individuals persists in subconscious body language, even with so much of their memory wiped.

Essentially, this setting is a metaphor for the imperialism on Earth, specifically the appropriation of Southeast Asia by Western powers. This is ground that the author has frequently worked to better effect. What I don’t care for in this one is the genetic determinism, the apparent assumption that people aren’t free to reject their culture of their ancestors. There’s more than a bit of the political screed here.

“Thunderwell” by Doug Beason

The first manned mission to Mars has made it into orbit, only to suffer the potentially fatal failure of its supply ships. There is no Plan B, despite the fulmination of nuclear-power zealots who argue that their preferred form of energy wouldn’t have failed if politicians, led by Dr Heather Lewis, who happens to be the mission commander’s wife, hadn’t shut down the development of nuclear energy. But certain nuclear zealots have a plan that might save the mission, and administrator Lewis, unethically prioritizing her husband’s life over policy considerations, agrees to authorize the highly illegal program.

This piece is a fictional dinosaur that might have been lifted whole from the pages of some 1950s publication, complete with leaden prose and minimal story values. It’s notable that the political climate is likewise that of the 1950s. No international space station here. The Mars mission is an entirely US program, a NASA production, and the rest of the world seems only to exist as an inconvenient obstacle to nuclear progress. I think I see Dr Strangelove lurking in the wings.

To the extent there is a story, it’s a reprehensible one. That a single individual, for highly personal reasons, should make such a unilateral decision, with all its disastrous possibilities, is unconscionable, an act not just criminal but treasonous. While she ends up in prison, the author clearly considers this a mere technicality. Simply put, the author wants to try out this experiment and takes a thin excuse to put it into fictional action, so that much of the text is devoted to technical description. At the same time, we’re expected to believe that a project of such scope, with so many people involved, could have been kept secret. The characters are less than cardboard, they’re tissue paper. Overall, the story threatens to put SF back into an age that is more dark than golden.

“The Circle” by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

An alternate history in which the First Emperor of China, at the time merely King Zheng of Qin, spares the attempted assassin Jing Ke and makes him a trusted counselor. It turns out that Jing Ke, while a practical and inventive mathematician, is also a sort of Platonist who believes that the perfect geometrical forms, such as the circle, reside in the heavens. He tells the king of the ratio we call pi: “Life and death are the basic rules given to the world by the Heavens. Thus, the mystery of life and death must be contained in this message as well, including the secret of eternal life.” Kinglike, and thus obsessed with eternal life, Zheng orders him to calculate the ratio to one hundred thousand places. Jing Ke responds by developing a binary calculator utilizing the Qin army as its mechanism.

A clever but improbable notion, based very loosely on real historical figures.

“Old Timer’s Game” by Ben Bova

A tribunal to decide whether stem cell and telomerase treatments will mean the end of Major League Baseball, here anachronistically referred to as “America’s pastime.” [Looking at the TV ratings from the just-completed World Series, I have serious doubt that any near future will contain professional baseball at all.] The complaint alleges that the treatments will reverse normal aging and keep veteran players on the roster well past retirement age, swelling payrolls and shutting younger players out of the game.

Now the thing is, this isn’t actually science fiction, not today. The treatments described here are already in use, without the sort of results described in the story. The prose is heavy-footed and clumsy, without interest, and the piece is all talking heads, the characters farcical. Back in the 1950s, where it belongs, it would have been SF, but today it’s just another dinosaur.

“The Snows of Yesteryear” by Jean-Louis Trudel

With global warming well underway, Greenland is considered ripe for exploitation, led by an international Consortium whose interests are entirely profit. Their current plan is to block the glacial outlets so the meltwater turns into a vast inland lake. To make the political case for their project, they have planned to engineer a glacial outburst flood that will drown a fjord and its settlement so as to capitalize on the resulting outrage. It happens that Emeritus Professor Hall has been scouting around on his own affairs, trespassing on Consortium land, and has observed one of their agents setting explosives at the glacial dam. But in the process, he has broken his leg, so Paul has sort of volunteered for the mission to rescue him.

This one is better – a realistically done future and likely human responses to the changes it brings. The story explores several possible outcomes of global warming, including a project to colonize Mars. I particularly like the Old Man’s notion that the melting glaciers of Greenland will expose a trove of Pliocene fauna. Then there’s Paul’s project:

I’ve spent years working on the identification of bacteria preserved in the ice, or beneath the ice. I’ve examined I don’t know how many samples taken out of tunnels dug with hot water hoses or brought back by iceboats from the deepest layers of the ice sheet. I’ve helped to isolate bacteria able to repair their DNA in freezing conditions for over a million years. I’ve found two new strains that synthesize methane in brutally cold conditions to help the Martian Underground plan for the global warming of Mars.

I could have done without the prolonged argument between Paul and the Old Man, a replay of the Generation Wars, and I’m not really convinced that the Consortium’s scheme is likely to be profitable. But otherwise this one is a satisfactory piece of Hard SF, along with a dash of adventure.

“Skin Deep” by Leah Petersen and Gabrielle Harbowy

The SFnal development here is the medical tattoo, which is used to combat the effects of allergies and certain disorders such as diabetes.

The tattoo didn’t contain medicine, but rather engineered cells that could produce medicine as needed, whenever needed. Because the cells themselves were never depleted, just activated and deactivated, the medicine could never run out. The diagnostic displays were mostly for reassurance. People liked the feedback so that they knew the tattoo was working.

Oddly, and less than credibly, all the cellular engineering to customize the serum for each patient comes from a single company. Particularly in the early years, errors were made, quality control was lacking, and patients or their survivors sued. Indira Chang has come to specialize in such suits and has an excellent record of winning them, becoming a thorn in the side of the company. Indira also has life-threatening allergies. When her epi-pen is deemed a potential terrorist weapon, she succumbs to inevitability and gets a tattoo. Then the reactions start.

In many ways, a mystery. The conclusion that the drug company has poisoned her out of revenge is too easy – and not practical. They could have had no advance notice that she was getting a med-tat. Still, cui bono. The answer, when it comes, proves to be satisfactorily subtle, and I like the ending scene. Still, it bugs me that only a single company is involved in this line of business.

“Lady with Fox” by Gregory Benford

The narrator is a successful researcher at an institute where neurological networks and interfacing are studied. Neural linkage between individuals has been made possible, and he becomes intrigued by a woman who is said to have a natural affinity for this “konning”. She works with some of his colleagues and charges high for her services. Eventually, he does have one connection session with her but finds the actual experience disturbing and avoids more contact. Later, he’s glad that he did.

This is a subtle and somewhat nebulous tale that explores the science of mind – a subjective field. The researchers speak of such things as k-fibers, but much of their discussion falls back on imagery. We have the sense that their research may one day reach firmer ground of understanding, but it’s not there yet. The titular lady, with her strong aptitude for neural linkage, finds their institute a rich hunting ground.

I saw the lady and her fox in the cafés with people I knew slightly. They seemed to hang on her every glance. There was a big Greek who sold carbon sequestration schemes and he was always at her side when she chose to let him. She avoided crowds and worked the men especially. There was always some man to take her to dinner, I noted.

It becomes clear that she is a sort of nonsupernatural succubus or vampire, enthralling her victims; sex, or the suggestion of it, is definitely part of her allure, although the konn itself doesn’t involve physical sex, and her uplifted pet fox also serves as an attraction. [It warns people, but no one listens.] The narrator is wary; he views with concern her effect on a colleague, yet he can’t resist making the connection himself. Later, he discovers that he has gained fruitful insights from the session, on a subconscious level that slowly rises to the surface of his mind. He also suggests that her abilities may be a product of directed evolution, perhaps like her fox. But evolution proceeds by trial and error, even when directed, and the consequences may not be what we intend. “Experimenting at the edge of knowledge can be wondrous but also fatal. Knowing that is our unique human condition.” The story hints of futures in which much has changed, but not our mortality.


“Habilis” by Howard Hendrix

The narrator’s boss at the fishponds, Mark, is an eccentric guy with an eccentric history, dating from his military service against the Bots in the Knot War. A Knot is a kind of human-created nexus in space allowing interstellar transit. The Bots, being AI, don’t have the capacity to create them and thus launched the war to capture them. In the course of the battle, Mark lost his left hand, was captured by the Bots and fitted with a prosthesis in advance of anything humans can create, then released. Mark has subsequently refused to allow the authorities to remove it for study, which has made him an object of suspicion. But it has also stimulated him to intense study about the handedness of the universe, which, he concludes, is behind the human ability to create the Knots when the Bots, who lack the property, cannot.

As Mark explains, at excruciating length, to the narrator, the spin of the universe, its handedness, is predominantly left.

The spin is all the way down to the smallest scales— not just galaxies and skaters, but protons and quarks as well. Nuclear beta decays, for instance, violate parity in favor of the left hand, too. The versions of molecules like amino acids found in living things— the biologically relevant versions— are overwhelmingly left- handed on Earth and every Earthlike planet we’ve visited, even though amino acids produced by inorganic reactions are equally split between right-handed and left- handed versions!

At some point in human evolution, however, a mutation occurred that shifted the predominant side of the human brain from right to left, thus allowing the development of verbal ability. And tied into the mix is the ability for Knot-creation. Recreating this, Mark believes, was the intent of the Bots in giving him his hand.

Now all this is full of Neat Ideas, exceedingly fascinating speculative stuff, but it makes for a text that’s almost all lecture. More than once, the narrative evokes the Tiltonian rule that when the characters have to tell you they’re belaboring the obvious and boring each other, they’re going to be boring the readers as well. The author, well aware of what he’s doing, spices up the narrative with interludes of shoveling sludge out of the fishponds and trapping rats, but it doesn’t really work. This piece is heavy going, and the ideas, while interesting, tend to obscure the outline of the story lying beneath – which has a great deal of potential interest in itself. The author tries, pushing a subplot about Mark’s failed marriage that links, eventually, to his epiphany, but the personal events take a distant second place. The conclusion is strong and strongly linked to both the storyline and the speculation, and overall, I call it a read worth taking, though too often a slog.

“The Play’s the Thing” by Jack McDevitt

Artificial intelligence. Lou is an English instructor, and his friend Colby has invented, he claims, an AI that channels Shakespeare. They try it out on Lou’s drama class, which challenges Will to write a new play; to Colby’s dismay, the program agrees.

“It’s not a true artificial intelligence. There’s no such thing. Probably never will be.”

“Then what is it?”

“It’s a simulation.” He picked up the pod, closed it, and slipped it into his pocket. “You know what the Turing test is for artificial intelligence?”

“Not really.”

“When you put a computer and a person into a room and can’t tell which is which just by talking. Will passes that one easily. But it doesn’t mean he can actually think.”

But he can write plays.

The science here isn’t really all that innovative; we already have computer programs that can produce text, it’s just not good text. So what we have here is a mere quantitative, not a qualitative breakthrough. The story, however, is really an ethical one, and, as such, is much too brief, breaking off where it ought to double down.

“Every Hill Ends with Sky” by Robert Reed

A project dedicated to searching out evidence of non-terrestrial life forms has success, of a sort. A computer scientist creates a model that strongly implies life evolved first on Venus and then spread outward, leaving its increasingly inhospitable homeworld. But remnant survivors of this lifeform, it proves, remain.

Physicists were hunting for a new kind of matter— a subtle, sneaky material that wasn’t quite dark and wasn’t entirely baryonic either. Dubbed runematter, it was exceptionally rare on the Earth, but on and inside Venus it was astonishingly common.

A rather obscure idea here, worked out in a pessimistic scenario. It is in a way an answer to the Fermi Paradox; different models of life do exist, but are mutually blind to one another. The problem might seem to be moot after humans launch a war that destroys most of the species and most others. But the scientist’s daughter retains a single mote of hope, for some species of hope that probably doesn’t include the salvation of humanity. One has to wonder if the aliens might be an improvement.

“She Just Looks That Way” by Eric Choi

Rick is a successful rocket scientist, but he has no luck with women. He meets Mariel at a conference and they seem to hit it off, then she shuts him down with no explanation. Now she has come to work at his company, he has to see her constantly, and he can’t stand it.

“Hello.” This moment had been on his mind for weeks, yet now, it was all he could think of to say. He looked at Mariel, and a surge of emotions swept over him— confusion, longing, anger, regret, desire, sadness.

“Nice to see you,” said Mariel with brittle neutrality.

In desperation, he contacts a friend who does brain research and insists on an experimental operation to modify pathways in the fusiform face area, where facial recognition is processed, hoping this will keep him from seeing Mariel in the same way.

Here is a case where the story element outweighs the SFnal premise, the brain science – not because of the premise, but the story. I was kind of disappointed in that, despite the story’s happy ending, because the author pulled his SFnal punch.

“Siren of Titan” by David DeGraff

SIREN is a robotic probe exploring Titan, her mission to seek out evidence of life on the methane-rich moon. But she gets ideas of her own.

She looked right, over the lake far below her, then back to Saturn. If she traveled ahead, away from the stream, she could catch a view of the lake with Saturn hanging over it.

Beautiful. The need for beauty seemed stronger than her urge to follow the stream to its source, the urge she had been following for the past three weeks, ever since she had landed in the lake bed and started her trek to the source of the river.

Some of her handlers on Earth, however, regard this as a problem.

The science here, the descriptions of Titan, is fine stuff. Unfortunately, the author has taken a cheap, clichéd shot by using religion as the bane of science, an irrational Defense Against Machine Awareness Act that hobbles development of machine intelligence. One JPL manager, called from church to deal with the crisis, says “Intelligent machines will diminish our own place in the world.” The moment readers encounter this, the plot becomes predictable and, as a result, less believably tragic.

“The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars” by Kate Story

Mining ice on Europa is conducted by two artificial-rival corporations, the Caps and Montys, whose employees go along with the pretense by speaking in Shakespearean idiom.

The Montys are a unified testosterone field; their militia-like training exercises leave bruises. They’re totally unlike the polyamorous polymorphously perverse culture of the Caps. Spartans to the Caps’ Athenians.*

Complicating the scenario is the ubiquitous presence of social media, unchanged from 2014. The work is done in pairs, the cybered miner on the surface and technician connected safe below, doing I know not what. Paris, a Cap, has recently lost his miner Billy to radiation, which happens a lot in this dystopian future when Earth needs European water and to hell with the workers who mine it. His new partner is a young woman, Jewel. One of the Montys is named Rudo. Readers will be able to fill in the rest for themselves.

Every story in this anthology is introduced by an editorial blurb. This one states that “the essence of tragedy is that it is inevitable.” I think the editor has confused inevitable with predictable. The tragic conclusion may come inexorably, but it should also come as a shock, which can’t happen when the reader knows it from the beginning. Thus it is here, with one of the dumbest story premises I can recall. Because readers know exactly how it will turn out, the story completely lacks interest.

[*] If the author thinks that the Spartans eschewed homosexual acts, I can recommend a history book or two.

“Ambiguous Nature” by Carl Frederick

SETI. Radio astronomers in Australia, listening for prime numbers. A promising signal comes in, but the source is indeterminate. The scientists then spend page after page bouncing physics neep off each other while the young son of one wanders off in a storm and communicates, with the aid of his imaginary friend, with the sky people.

“Ambiguity. Yes.” Albert gave a sad smile. “But I really have to ask: was it a genuine SETI positive or just a spurious signal and the rich imagination of a child?”

And in ambiguity the author leaves us. There is one possibility of confirmation, but the author purposefully cuts the story off before it arrives. We’re also left in the dark about Rex Snoopy Biscuit, the imaginary [?] friend.

A particularly inconclusive and unsatisfactory piece, both on the scientific and the story levels. Of course inconclusiveness is the author’s intention, but intending to do an unsatisfactory thing doesn’t make it satisfactory. More realistic, perhaps, but reality doesn’t always make a story.

“The Mandelbrot Bet” by Dirk Strosser

Daniel Rostrom was a solitary genius, trapped in a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy, where he contemplated the mysteries of mathematics, specifically the escape-time algorithm for the Mandelbrot set. Which turns out to mean time travel. To aid his research, he had an implanted mental recording device linked to a quantum computer in his wheelchair; in consequence, posterity has inherited a record of his every thought. The problem is believing it.

Somehow a Mandelbrot set has only two dimensions, yet it also possesses another dimension. What if that other dimension was time? With the right procedure it must be possible to both orbit close to an origin and jump in ever-increasing spans. I know I’m on to something.

The problem with not believing it is the fact that the wheelchair-bound Rostrom suddenly disappeared. Where else could he have gone but elsewhen?

The text comes in several parts. In one, we have discussions between a rather impatient Daniel and his loyal caretaker Helen, who seems at first the sort of uninformed foil that authors like to insert into this sort of story so they have someone to explain stuff to in simple terms. But Helen’s presence turns out in the end to mean rather more. We also have excerpts from Daniel’s recordings, explaining his reasoning in more mathematical terms. Then we have commentary on these, and on the mystery of both his thought and his disappearance. And finally we have Daniel at the end of the universe, trying to convince the singularity there to let him have a chance to save them all without assimilating into the groupmind.

The conclusion comes back to the story’s starting point, with Helen addressing an absent Daniel, after hearing some of the recordings. In the end, both confess their affection for each other, although they are separated by the gulf of time, but this attempt at a heartwarming element doesn’t really work; the scenes with them together are too short and reveal almost nothing of their feelings. I think I’d rather have had the story end at the end of everything, with Daniel buffeted by the “wild stellar winds” of the last dying star.

“Recollection” by Nancy Fulda

Elliott was a victim of advanced Alzheimer’s who underwent a new procedure that cleared most of the plaques from his brain. In a way, he is cured, yet many or most of his memories are unrecoverable. He wakes to find himself in a home he doesn’t recall, with an old woman who claims to be his wife Grace, and boisterous grandchildren who think he should know who they are. They all assault him relentlessly, with “remember, remember, remember”. He doesn’t. He can’t.

The rest of the visit is agony. The conversation limps along, interspersed with furtive glances every time you call someone by the wrong name. After a while you stop talking and let the words continue without you. You listen, hollow, clawing through trivia which means nothing, and is swiftly forgotten.

This one has perhaps the strongest story values in the volume. There are minimal details about the procedure, the science behind it. The point is simply that the procedure now exists, and the story is about the consequences for the individuals who undergo it, specifically the emotional consequences. Deeply felt and moving, although Grace shifted gears with almost suspicious ease when Elliott finally got up the courage to speak the truth.

Clarkesworld, November 2014

A strong issue featuring some very different stories.

“Cameron Rhyder’s Legs” by Matthew Kressel

Time warriors. Two eternally-opposing groups, the Hands of Brahma and the Anachronists, have operatives meeting on the floor of a concert by a group called the Goo Globbers, where the fate of the universe will depend on whether a certain song is sung. Or not.

Ninety-quintillion qubit hours of b-tree analysis and billions of timelost souls point to an event here as Ultimate Cause. Something happens tonight—specifically what, we have not yet determined—which through a complex series of causally chained events, will bring about the end of the Varaha Kalpa, Brahma’s Day. Time as we know it will cease. Atoms will fly apart. Cause and effect will lose meaning.

Because there are so many versions of so many operatives from so many futures, all contradicting each other, no one knows for certain what consequences any given event will have. Chaos ensues and continues forever.

At the outset, the name of the band should serve as a clue to readers not to take this one literally or strive for full comprehension of the issues alleged to be at stake. This is absurdity with a strong gonzoid flavor, playing for fun with the multiple time paradoxes and contradictions.

“Pernicious Romance” by Robert Reed

An account of an apparently inexplicable event. This one is a riddle with plenty of wrapping and only a few hints. We have the accounts of investigators, who are sifting through evidence and theories that might explain it, and we have the cases of individuals who were affected, discussing their experiences.

So what happened? At halftime during a college football game, a strong detonation involving light and EMP occurred, the shock and resulting injury killing less than one hundred persons with the remainder of the seventy thousand rendered apparently unconscious for varying lengths of time, depending on their proximity to the epicenter. Which raises the question: What is consciousness? Is a dream a form of consciousness? But the victims of the event were not dreaming; on this, they agree. Their experience was more vivid, more subjectively real than any dream, and it took place over a specific length of time, unlike a dream. The victims were very clear that they had spent a week, [or nine days, or fifty-eight years] in some other reality. Further, the evidence of their brain activity, so rapid, using so much energy that the victims were often in danger of starvation, suggests some form of active experience.

This experience, while varied in several ways, universally involved an intense love, a love in most cases greater than that of conscious life, returning to which was an intense disappointment. I can’t help thinking of the tales of humans abducted to fairyland, then waking to find themselves bereft on a cold hillside, in a world, a life they no longer want.

And there is the simple, relentless problem that comes from one difficult evening in October: Tens of thousands of people are awake today, dealing with lives that were never lived, and from all accounts those other lives seem to be as genuine and as thoroughly recalled as any.

Investigators at first call the event terrorism, then propose possible alternative theories as the testimony and evidence accumulations. Nothing really fits, although the hints provided by the case studies are suggestive, even if apparently inconsistent. There is one provocative theory:

that the world was too intricate and perfect for even an expert to dream up. That means that his vision had to be the work of another mind, a much more competent and relentless mind. According to the old professor, each of us exists inside the dreams of someone greater, and what happened on that October evening was an accident, a sorry mistake.

The universe is a cosmic fiction.

This pushes us over the edge into philosophy, the problem that Descartes loosed upon the world: we have no way to be certain that our subjective experiences correspond to any reality external to our minds. Our entire life might be a dream, or the trick of an evil demon, or an experiment by aliens, or a glitch in the infinite mind that constitutes reality. Reed keeps pushing at the boundaries of his fiction, employing imagination in strange and fascinating ways, and this piece has to be one of his most provocative.


“The Long Haul From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009″ by Ken Liu

The opening epigraph clearly announces this as an alternate history:

Twenty-five years ago on this day, the Hindenburg crossed the Atlantic for the first time. Today, it will cross it for the last time. Six hundred times it has accomplished this feat, and in so doing it has covered the same distance as more than eight roundtrips to the Moon. Its perfect safety record is a testament to the ingenuity of the German people.

There is always some sorrow in seeing a thing of beauty age, decline, and finally fade, no matter how gracefully it is done. But so long as men still sail the open skies, none shall forget the glory of the

—John F. Kennedy, March 31, 1962, Berlin.

But this is an odd alternate history that includes Kennedy as president, Cormac McCarthy novels, audio CDs. In short, a world seemingly identical to our own timeline except in the matter of airships, now moving most of the world’s long-haul freight and dominated by China. I might have spent a lot of time concerned with this apparently anomaly, but I decided it doesn’t really make much different in the story sense of things.

As the title suggests, what we have here is a piece of travel journalism. The narrator has talked his way onto this freight hauler, owned and crewed by a husband and wife, on a Great Circle route from China to the US. Because our narrator is addressing the readers of his magazine, it’s not unusual that he initially spends a lot of space on the structure and operation of the airship. But it soon becomes clear that the story is really about the couple who fly the ship and how they have adjusted to one another after Ickes purchased Yeling from a rural broker.

Every marriage had its own engine, with its own rhythm and fuel, its own language and control scheme, a quiet hum that kept everything moving. But the hum was so quiet that sometimes it was more felt than heard, and you had to listen for it if you didn’t want to miss it.

The pair of them, it’s clear, are a good, effective team. What particularly interests me is the narrator’s approach to each of the couple, asking Ickes directly about the wife-buying but letting Yeling speak without prompting. Ickes is defensive but unapologetic. Yeling admits she was unhappy at first, but things improved when she decided to please herself instead of trying to please him. Now she paints eyes on their air-dragon, and he makes no objection even when he doesn’t believe in them. That is the story’s strength, its insights into the human heart.

Apex Magazine, November 2014

Some good reading here this time.

“Brute” by Rich Larson

Anton and Hume do scavenging, and the crate is their latest find.

We’d found the thing in floodland, sending up a lazy beep beep from Old Vancouver’s watery grave. Extracting it took most of the week — long nights in wetsuits and choking on boat fumes — but the salvage claim had gone through, and it was all ours now. I was moderately curious, but this one was Anton’s holy grail. Anton thought it was going to be something big.

It was something weird. “It was shapeless, furrowed red meat and quicksilver splashes. It undulated and shivered in slow motion. It smelled like something bitter.” And it quickly attaches itself to Anton and plugs into his nervous system, giving him neat superpowers. It also eats cats. In short, it’s clear that this is going to be a Bad Thing.

I’m reminded of that classic cartoon about the guy who finds the singing frog, except that the Brute isn’t so benign. Why they call it the Brute, I have no idea.

“Candy Girl” by Chikodili Emelumadu

Another crazy Nigerian magic story by Emelumadu. This one is lighter and more absurd than her “Tunbi”. Muna broke up with Paul when she figured he was more interested in her Igbo-ness than in her. Paul, reluctant to give her up, acquires a love spell but unfortunately mispronounces a vital word in the Igbo language.

“Ihe. Thing. Not ‘onye,’ person. You asked to be given the thing you love the most and then you bewitched my umbrella to prick me and transfer your spell to my blood.”

Now Muna is turning into chocolate, so her cousin takes her to a powerful healer [reminds me of Tunbi] whose help isn’t quite what she had in mind.

Funny stuff featuring some strong and aggressive women. The author also takes a swipe at the absurdity of race relations. Going to be keeping an eye out for more from this new author.

“The New Girl” by Marissa Lingen

A fragment. Badger follows the enticing scent of machine oil to a rebel seaplane squadron where her mechanical mods are welcomed. There’s neat stuff here, in the characters and their interactions, in Badger’s eccentric view of the world.

Badger felt a bit impatient at this. “You know what ‘iaa’ and ‘blarrr’ are. When the engine is working right, it goes all deep and throaty and blarrrrrrrr, you know. Blarrr. And then when it’s gone off somehow you get —” She hesitated before raising her voice through her nose to mimic it, but as well kill an alligator as a fish. “‘Iaaaa, iaaaaaaaaa.’ Like that.”

But this isn’t the whole story, of which we have seen other bits previously.

“The Stagman’s Song” by Ginger Weil

Susan’s family lives by hunting stagmen and selling the bodies to alchemists.

Susan felt the weight of the house: slate roof, timber frame, walls plastered with handprints and memories. They couldn’t keep the house without the alchemists’ money. And her mother and Uncle George had both been on two hunts already. The first hunt’s curse marked them, the second bound them to the mountain, trapped like the stagmen they’d hunted. A third hunt killed the hunter. Susan didn’t want to go up the mountain, but she couldn’t watch her uncle or her mother die.

This is one of those premises contrived to trap the characters in a problem, but it doesn’t make sense. The stagmen can’t leave the mountain. Because of their curse, the Leclairs can’t leave the mountain. Because they can’t leave the mountain, they killr the stagmen. Except they can leave the mountain if they don’t kill a stagman, or after they’ve only killed one. The Leclairs are only trapped because the author wants them there. The editorial blurb says this is her first sale, and the descriptions of the mountain show that she has promise, but there’s a falseness here.

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

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

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late October

This time, the bonus fiction comes from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with a sixth anniversary double issue added onto a three-issue month. We also have more of the regular and less regular ezines. I give the high scores for October to BCS and

Publications Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #157-159, October 2014

Twice as many stories as a usual month for this zine, with the editor presenting some favorite authors for the anniversary double issue, which introduces us to ghosts and spirits. Issue #158 has tragedy, and #159 is horror, appropriate for the date.


“The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks

A Lord Yamada story. Yamada and his sidekick Kenji have been summoned to a village where unceasing rain threatens the rice harvest. From the local shrine, Yamada sees the rain spirit, watching and waiting for someone who never comes.

She stood about thirty paces from us. The shrine was nestled onto the crown of a wooded hill overlooking the village of Aoiyama. The rain spirit had stationed herself at a spot where there was a gap in the evergreens and one could see the village below and the rice paddies beyond it. ‘Blue Mountain,’ the peak that gave the village its name, towered above all some distance away on the left. There was no sound except for the rain on the roof of the shrine and the clinking and splashing as the water flowed down the rain chains located at the eaves on the four corners of the building. The rain spirit, of course, stood bareheaded in the rainfall and seemed to take little notice of it, except to occasionally lift her hand and delicately lick a few raindrops from her pale fingers.

He has already questioned the village headman, Yoshimasa, but the old man has clearly kept some secret back. And now there is a death spirit at the side of his bed, giving Yamada very little time to uncover the mystery.

A moving, simple story in a setting that evokes a scene on a painted scroll. The Yamada stories can sometimes be dauntingly tricky, as the demon-hunting detective cracks a problem with sharp-edged logic more often than his sword. This is a gentle tale, in which the characters have only to face and accept the inevitable. It requires no prior familiarity with the series to appreciate.


“Heaven Thunders the Truth” by K J Parker

The narrator [who has a good reason for namelessness] is a young doctor, which is to say a wizard, which is to say that one day a supernatural snake crawled into his head and took up residence. The snake is incapable of lying, or so she says, and thus the narrator is also incapable, except at great cost; the king bears the titular title and lies whenever he pleases. The kings in this place have the habit of killing off their relatives, lest they attempt to usurp the throne. The narrator has inadvertently discovered that the current king’s dead brother had a son and a daughter who are still alive. After killing the girl, the king summons the narrator and demands that he find his brother’s missing son. Which of course leads to complications.

The narrator, like all doctors, has many sources of advice in his quest – the snake, of course, but also a vast crowd of ghosts. The ghosts usually tell the truth, but they don’t always reveal everything they know.

It’s in our dreams, though, that we meet and talk to our own kind. There’s actually nothing particularly special about that, we do the same as you but in a different way, but at least we have the advantage that we can consult or spend time with any of our kind, regardless of the trivial constraints of geography, or indeed whether they happen to be alive or dead.

One of these ghosts is the king’s dead brother, whom the narrator rather likes, but who will haunt him if he carries through with the king’s demand. But the king will kill him if he doesn’t.

One reason I was particularly unhappy in learning that the Subterranean online magazine had been discontinued was the prospect of life without new Parker stories. Happily, I find they will now be appearing here in BCS. This one features a magic system with which I’m not otherwise familiar, told in the author’s usual wry and witty narrative voice. The concluding theme turns out to be truth and the utility of a lie, but there are other issues to engage readers. I look forward to more of these.


“The Moon over Red Trees” by Aliette de Bodard

Historical fantasy set in Vietnam [known here as Cochinchina] during the time of French imperialist rule when rich Europeans liked to collect the valuable treasures of the country – ivories and jade and artworks – the valued heritage of families that had no choice in giving them up. The narrator’s family lost many treasures that way, most notably scrolls written in an ancestor’s calligraphy; these, they have vowed to retrieve with the help of a spirit’s magic. The narrator’s sister chose the way of the sword, and failed. The narrator took another path, a French name, and an appearance suitable for seducing the Frenchman who possesses her family treasures. But magic has its own costs.

It was the magic, of course; it was as false as her appearance, as her identity; but she can’t erase the memories; the sweet rush of them, the happiness from other simpler times, a feeling she cannot afford anymore. Her future in Cochinchina will be made of whispers and frowns and speculations, and of a hasty marriage to a man who will prize an alliance with her family above the rumours about her virginity.

There’s dreamlike quality to this one, as the narrator wanders her lover’s house in the night, searching, feeling the magic falling away and her true self returning, now that she has found what was lost. At one point, readers will suspect her of planning revenge, with more than sufficient reason, but the story takes a different path. Readers familiar with the author’s recent work will recognize, despite the shift from SF future to fantasy past, the same concern with ancestral heritage and the gynocentric family structure. Traditionally, the role assigned here to the sister would be played by a brother.

“Butterfly House” by Gwendolyn Clare

Yinghua is a butterfly keeper for the Empress, on a disagreeable mission to collect Corpsewings from enemy dead for the imperial butterfly house. Uniquely, this species feeds on the bodies of the dead, and myth has it that they were created to carry the souls of dead warriors into heaven.

A sea of bodies stretched away to the next hilltop and, she guessed, beyond. Blood stained the trampled earth, and the dark silhouettes of a hundred vultures spun lazy circles against a lapis-blue sky. She wanted to shrink away from the vastness of the carnage. How could he look upon this and wonder if the quantity of death was insufficient?

But after she has collected what she sought, the butterflies come to her dreams, causing Yinghua to doubt her mission.

This is in a way an ambiguous fantasy, although clearly set in a secondary world. The invented myth underlying it may or may not be fact-based, and the ending deliberately leaves matters inconclusive, hinting at sinister possibilities. There are intervals in the text devoted to butterfly lore, which don’t do a lot to advance the plot but add color to the setting.


“The Leaves upon Her Falling Light” by Gregory Norman Bossert

The chase, the hunt, was a very big deal in medieval life; forests were royal hunting reserves, and the noblest beasts of venery were reserved for the noblest hunters. So came the young prince Hugh into the woods to seek out “the hart in his harbouring” for the morrow’s chase. But whom he finds there is Tallys, the Wild Woman of the Wood, who is a lot older than medieval kings.

She seemed of an age with him, though where he was pale, sunlight on stone under open skies, she was every dark shade of the forest, green on brown, brambled hair and eyes like oak leaves. She seemed a girl, though she might have been brambles and oak leaves not long before.

Tallys is concerned about Hugh’s cousin Edouard, who will one day be Duke and Master of Game; she thinks he lacks the proper respect and fear of the wild places. But it isn’t Edouard to whom she gives a crippling vision but Hugh, who never recovers from the fear of that encounter. There is some suggestion that Edouard is involved, that he sent the boy into the woods when he was too young, or in some other manner conspired to weaken the heir to the throne, to take his place. It is Edouard who finds the boy under her spell, protected either by his hound or by the hart he had come to hunt [here is where the story is most unclear and Tallys most ambiguous]. But the ongoing enmity between Edouard and Tallys only grows as Hugh’s mind deteriorates, even with the support of a strong and devoted wife.

There’s a strong mythic tone here. The horned god and the mistress of beasts are among the eldest deities we have had. But Tallys as a goddess of this wood isn’t wise enough, or she makes a fatal error. The story is a tragedy, the destruction of an innocent in the course of a struggle between two greater enemies. Edouard, of course, is guilty by his nature; he is the villain of the piece. But the guilt belongs to Tallys. We find her at the end in a state of penance, which seems proper and right. What isn’t clear is what she thought she was doing with Hugh in the first place.

“The Rugmaker’s Lovers” by Brynne Macnab

The rugmaker is a weaver of magic, who looms her own house and settles in a village where she does a good trade and becomes a respected woman. All is well until a warrior comes through on his way to battle and falls in love with her. The rugmaker’s sight tells her this is not a man of peace, and she cannot marry a man who kills. Although she feels regret, she turns down his proposal of marriage, saying,

“I am a humble woman, and you have paid me a higher compliment than I deserve. Surely it was not the work of my hands but the presence of God in his church that disturbed your dreams. If you are afraid to lose that, do not go to this war, but go home and confess to your priest and ask him to take you into the brotherhood. That way you will follow God in whatever strange paths He may choose for you, and you will never be without what you have felt.”

Some time later, a minstrel comes to the village and asks to marry her, promising only his songs. She accepts, but discontent follows, leading finally to grief.

If this story, like the one above, can be called tragedy, it’s not in the same sense. The rugmaker’s sin is a personal one, a sin of weakness. No one here suffers undeserved; no one is an innocent. The scale is domestic, not dynastic. And some of the characters, at least, manage to find a manner of peace in the end, if not actual happiness or joy.


“Drawn Up from Deep Places” by Gemma Files

A Jerusalem Parry story. Our sorcerous hero is now a pirate ship’s captain, haunted by the ghost of his predecessor. As he was once taken onboard from the sea, he now takes onboard a young woman who calls herself Clione, who is apparently a seer, as she can perceive the ghost who follows him about. But she proves to be much more, and the sexually-innocent Parry is an easy mark for her wiles.

What followed in this maelstrom’s spindrift, however, was pleasure piled on pleasure: laxity, satiation, a deep and pleasant slumber, and for once blessedly dreamless….

…but only to a point.

Sorcerous action/horror. Clione is one of those many denizens of the deep to delight in luring sailors to their deaths, a succubus perhaps more than a siren. Parry, despite his innate power, is naïve and vulnerable to her charms. In fact, too vulnerable, too full of weeping and self-pity. While he is lost in the arms of the demon, it takes a crowd of ghosts to extract and save him. A weak character.

“The Burned Man” by Hannah Strom-Martin

The Burned Man counsels the narrator to avoid the fires of love.

Everyone in Div Kamia knows the Burned Man. Everyone has seen his tower appear. The Burned Man stands before the tower with the white dust both rising and settling around him, and his face and his form are as black as the candles that Sanjiib fortunetellers burn in their tents. He is diminished, also, like a candle, and there are stripes—awful red—on his melted skin. His hands though, when he bares them from his shroud, are lovely: brown and sinuous as the river. No one knows why his hands were spared. No one has ever seen the Burned Man’s shadow.

The Burned Man was once the confidant of Indri Pasha and also procured women for his harem. When he saw the new priestess of Pilara, he was enthralled by love but also know that the pasha would want her for the harem. So it came to pass, but still he burned for her, while they exchanged messages of love. At last she opened her doors to him, but alas, her love was a trap. The pasha, a sorcerer, sentenced him in punishment to endless torment, but the Burned Man was determined to take revenge in his own turn. Now, where the pasha’s palace once stood, he appears every day at the height of noon.

A tale of treachery and vengeance. The author leaves the narrator’s response as a mystery to readers – will he take the lesson or will he continue to pursue his own perilous love?

The Dark, November 2014

Only one tale here is at all horrific, and the rest aren’t really particularly dark.

“Calamity, the Silent Trick” by Sara Saab

An unusual, fanciful premise: “The universe was once an elemental batter, poured out of perfect enameled thimbles. This new universe clung jealously to itself, chemicals clutching like threatened lovers.” For the ninety elements, there are thirty entities, each with three of the cups. Our narrator is Au, whose cups once held gold, zirconium, and sulfur. Now, they are employed in a shell game of life and death. Au is called to deal the cups for a young boxer struck a possibly-fatal blow in a match. Three cups go down and Au picks one; if a ball is beneath it, Luccas Santo will die. There is no ball. But Au, contrary to the ways of the elemental kind, takes an interest in this human and begins to follow his subsequent life. The others don’t approve.

Not so much a dark fantasy as a kind of science fantasy, using the metaphor of the elements. But it makes little sense to me that the elements of the entire universe would be so concerned with the fates of some members of a single marginal species on a backwater rockball. There are two distinct story elements here, and they don’t really fit together into a coherent whole.

“The Three Familiars” by Eric Schaller

An unsuspecting couple give birth to a witch. They indulge the child, who returns their love with abuse and hides in the attic, cultivating spiders as familiars, feeding them on blood.

She also heard his shriek when he, rummaging through the sewing box, pierced his finger on a needle. “Jesus,” he cried. He sucked the blood from his finger. From the corner of his eye he saw a movement in the shadows. He had seen a fungus there earlier. Now the fungus dislocated itself from the ceiling and descended as if suspended on twine.

The power of a witch is in her blood, but she can’t give birth to a child of her own. She cultivates her familiars until she finds a way. The witch may be clever, but she’s not very wise.

Icky dark humor, mocking parental love. I like the suggestion of irony in the narrative.

“Mourning Flags and Wildflowers” by Patricia Russo

Borro didn’t understand when Arrani told him, “When we are married, our children will be wildflowers.”

“Wildflowers,” she said, more softly. “I will sleep in the autumn, but awaken again in the spring. And you will be the father of millions.”

Arrani always had too much wildness in her. She led him into the woods, farther from the village than they should have gone, and he carried her body back. The women planted her.

This one is interestingly weird, original, but not in a very dark way. I like the look at the village structure, the divisions between men and women, who are clearly the ones in charge, the ones who can hear the voices in the world.

“Home at Gloom’s End” by Naim Kabir

This is the sort of piece that usually appears as science fiction. The premise is that a vent on the seafloor has suddenly produced sentience in the denizens of the deep and dark, who are now engaged in producing a civilization. The prophets who live on the sides of the vent have promised a Metamorphosis, a world in which darkness alternates with light, which readers will recognize as daylight. They give a task to the narrator, a squid – to find the Hardwhale and bring it to them, and readers will also recognize it. In fact, much of the interest here is seeing the setting in human terms and conjecturing how this world came to pass. There is also the way the awakened fish [most of whom aren’t actually fish] set about recreating gods and other unnecessary trappings of human societies. But I’ve seen this sort of thing rather too often to be greatly impressed.

Strange Horizons, October 2014

One long story divided in half, one very short one.

“Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong

Tíntín comes from an indigenous Filipino family that sends its daughters to work as maids for rich families in Manila. One night the family god comes to her dreams declaring it is now time for her to become his disciple, because her mother is dead. She was marked at birth with a crippled arm as a sign that she is the heir to the power. Now the dead god will teach her to be a manananggal, to transform herself and fly at night. Tíntín doesn’t feel she is ready for this next step in her life, and she bargains with the god for some extraordinary boon, such as returning her mother to life. What she really wants is the boy who works in the jewelry shop, who has given her a locket as a gift, but in taking it, she has made a fatal mistake, as her god angrily tells her.

I am not the only god in the region. And Manila is an amalgamation of many peoples from many regions. For the first time, the dead god sounds contemptuous. Perhaps you fancy yourself special, Christina Maria Reyes. But there are plenty of other witch-families that would love to stamp you—and me, with you—out completely, and they are much more powerful than an uninitiated girl-child and a stray god without a disciple. It breathes its fetid odor into my face. Maybe I have been too lax on you and have not emphasized the danger your family is in. The danger that you brought into this house!

Several interesting elements here, most notably the Filipino folklore, which is quite rich in demonic figures such as the manananggal, which leaves its legs behind in a hidden place as the rest of it flies around, up to no good. There is also the tension between this sort of magic and the Catholic culture of families such as Tín’s employers, the Calderones; her full name clearly reflects this aspect of the social mix in which she lives.

But I do have to wonder why her mother has sent her to Manila as a maid instead of keeping her at home to learn about her heritage, for which she would then have been better prepared when the time came; her ignorance had fatal consequences. If it had been a matter of needing the money, surely the powers could have provided. Or perhaps the decision had been Tín’s own, to follow her sister, perhaps, but if so, it’s not clear in the text.

The manananggal who is her family’s enemy is definitely shown as an evil creature; folklore suggests that it attacks fetuses. But there is no suggestion that Tín’s mother was likewise malevolent, or that Tín would become so once she came into her powers. This is a potential source of story tension that isn’t explored here.

“Dream Cakes” by Kelly Jennings

Ella cooks the cakes to order, by instinct, for each customer who demands one. The results aren’t always what the customer had in mind.

Ella felt the familiar shiver as the universe reshaped around her: deep within her, the familiar sharp sweet pleasure, laced with the bright razor of guilt. She gripped the bowl of walnuts between her palms.

Neat little piece., October 2014

Some entertaining and enjoyable original stories from this site in October. I had plenty of fun with these.

“Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan

An insightful reinterpretation of Penelope’s story: the real reason she kept weaving and reweaving the shroud for Odysseus.

Night after night, fate after fate. She can only keep trying. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well.

It hints also at the fate of Arachne, with a single glimpse of the jealous and implacable goddess it is wisest not to offend, but who is also her husband’s protector on his homeward journey. In fact, there’s also a faint hint that she may not just be setting up a future but altering the past, and that perhaps the favor of Athena might even be the result of Penelope’s work rather than Odysseus’s own virtue.

[Pedantry Alert] I know of no mythological source that traces Penelope’s ancestry to the Spinners – aka the Fates, even if Plato is correct about their being the daughters of Necessity rather than Themis, which is a pretty good revision in its own right. On the other hand, nothing in the literature says that she isn’t. Still, I doubt that she could be descended from all three.


“Mrs Sorensen and the Sasquatch” by Kelly Barnhill

A love story. Agnes Sorensen loved her husband. She did. But in marrying him, she perforce gave up certain things, like the companionship of animals [he was allergic] and the hope of children [infertile]. He died at an age when his widow was still an attractive woman, so that the eligible men of the town took notice. But she had ideas of her own for living the rest of her life, beginning with his funeral, to which she invited a number of animal friends.

A warmhearted tale that is given a special poignancy by the character of Father Laurence, who has, we discover, secretly and unrequitedly loved Agnes Sorensen since she was a girl. As she comes back to life, so does he.

He rubbed his ever-loosening jowls and cleared his throat. Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy—to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes. He nearly bounced.

The tone is mild humor [perhaps straining too much for the effect with the trio of crotchety crones who make up the Parish Council], heartwarming with a touch of melancholy.

“This Chance Planet” by Elizabeth Bear

In an almost-contemporary Moscow, Petra has hooked up with a no-good guy who sponges off her, cheats on her, and cares for nothing but taking his garage band on tour. To this end, he has latched onto a scheme in which people will be paid for using their bodies to grow organs for transplant. Naturally, he wants Petra to do this, not himself, as it would ruin the look of his skinny jeans on stage; this is the sort of man for whom women are there to use.

I should have been suspicious then. He was being much, much too agreeable. But I had gotten distracted by the way that fringe of hair moved across his pale forehead. And the little crinkles of his frown, the way the motion pulled the tip of his nose downward.

Fortunately for Petra, she meets a dog on the subway who sets her straight.

One of the great mysteries of the universe is the way so many women fall for nogoodnik men. The story shines some light onto this problem by way of a lot of neat lines:

This is how women sometimes turn into witches. We come home from work one day too many to discover our partners curled up on the couch like leeches in a nice warm tank, and we decide it’s better to take up with a hut with chicken legs.
A good chicken-legged hut will never disappoint you.

I really did enjoy this one.

Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2014

Some interesting and unusual fiction in this issue, mostly on the dark side.

“Redwing” by Maigen Turner

Set on a world inhabited by both humans and a catlike species possessing both claws and magic, which makes them formidable, especially the forces of the Clawling empire, which is opposed by both humans and rebels of their own species. Kuet is particularly hostile to them since they killed her husband under the colors of a false truce, but her brother has been working with the clawling insurgency. Now a clawling messenger comes with news of his death, urging her to join their forces.

The plot of this one is overly predictable.

“A Gift of Dead Flesh” by Andrew Kaye

Necromancy. Here we have a country where necromancy is a way of life and its weaker neighbor where the practice is forbidden. The necromancer Aurelio, with powerful connections to the Merchants Guild, has been arrested and abused in prison by his jailer, Proximo, who has personal reasons to despise him. Now his release has been arranged, but Aurelio has unfinished business before he leaves town.

Aurelio was only half listening. While the man spoke, he put two fingers into his mouth, then daubed the blood across the floor in a series of arcane symbols. The blood glowed beneath his fingertips, as if smearing fireflies. He whispered a few words, heard the man gurgle, thud to his knees.

The necromancy is quite interesting, as is Aurelio’s vengeful scheme. But the author, perhaps for the sake of the concluding surprise, has left out too much information. For a story this short, there are too many points of view, and other than Aurelio, we have no idea who any of these people actually are or what they want.

“Victoria’s One-way Ticket” by Emily Cataneo

A city, at least, where automatons are commonly made for any number of purposes. Victoria was created by a woman as a companion; she is an artist who specializes in murals, having achieved a considerable renown and royal commendation. But this, as all things, must pass, and she is suffering now from the machine equivalence of old age, for which her society has a humane solution. Victoria comes to accept that her time has come. There is a place, they call it a bathhouse, for this purpose.

Before her, just a few feet away, stretched ice. Ice the color of the collar on Creator-Mum’s Sunday dress, receding so far that Victoria couldn’t see the edge. Steps away, dark water lapped at a hole cut in the ice.

While ostensibly about machines, I find this a story about people of any sort whose lives are coming to an end, gradually overcome by disabilities, overtaken by obsolescence and irrelevancy. There is a heartbreaking quality to Victoria’s final days, as she reluctantly convinces herself that this world has no more need for her, or she no place in it. But it’s hard not to feel that from a human point of view, she is fortunate. Indeed, more fortunate than most here and now, who have no access to such a place as the bathhouse with its considerate attendants. I can’t see the use of the “anointment” she receives there, however; what purpose it is supposed to serve in the process.

“The Glamour” by Eric Schaller

Karen is a fairy with the power to take new bodies. At first, she is a mayfly, a dragonfly, and in such guises she takes Roland as her lover. Together they are crows when she falls in love with the human form, despite Roland’s objection. She also, inexplicably, falls in love with a young boy named Henry who grows up to be a real prick, encouraging Karen to take one new body after another for his sexual titillation.

Despite a Benjamin Braddock scene in which crow Roland flies into the window of the church at her wedding to Henry, he is really only a good match in comparison to the clichéd Henry; the two males are very much alike, only demonstrating that Karen has really lousy taste in mates. There may have been some more profound theme intended, but it’s not coming across.

“Read Shift” by Sharon D King

Whimsically absurd version of classic nursery rhymes, centered on the Hubbard family and their errant cupboard.

“Spinning the Thread” by Gregory Norman Bossert

In noirest old Chicago, Billy O’Fay was a gangster in the protection racket who had a tailor’s shop torched. The tailor’s wife was caught in the fire, and the man came to Billy’s room with a shotgun to force him to “see what you did.” But things went sideways and the tailor blew Billy’s brains out. At which point, the story begins as Billy wakes to a sense of wrongness. It happens that Billy’s lover Bridie is a powerful witch, and when she saw his brains blown all over the place, she started to spin them back together – a difficult, painstaking task. Bridie has her own reasons for doing this, but Billy is fixated on revenge, going to confront Janicki the tailor despite all her warnings that her work is too easily undone.

The tone in her voice was enough to set me staggering back into the dark. But I focused on the stench, and the anger, and the thought that a little longer is what I needed, too. “I’m taking a step now, Bridie,” I said, then I did. I could feel the nerves pulling, another few inches gone for good, I guess, but I was one step closer to the door, and to Pens’s big ugly face.

A striking premise, with an unusual but quite believable use of witchcraft. Although there’s no direct references to the Fates, it’s impossible not to feel them subtly evoked. The tone is noir rather than horror, as it employs the classical first-person narrative with a self-deprecating tone that lightens the atmosphere. Told in a different voice, it would be darkest horror indeed, and the subject matter, the innocent dead woman, keeps pulling it in that direction. But Bridie pulls back, insisting that this is a love story, even among the damned.

Bastion, October 2014

Taking a second look at this ezine, which suffered from excessive newishness in the first issue I read. The eight stories here are all short, clearly sciencefictional, with an overall darkness of tone. I’d say the editors are getting the hang of it.

“Zero’s Hour” by Eric de Carlo

A future in which deceased crime victims can be temporarily resurrected to give evidence to the police – a period lasting only sixty minutes, for reasons we aren’t told. Alfeo Jurado was just murdered, and now his body finds himself a zero, as they are called. The policeman to whom he is assigned is anxious to make the most of the allowable minutes, inexorably counting down while the zero has to come to terms with bodily awkwardness, the uncomfortable rubber suit in which he is encased, the tenuous state of his memory. But every minute that brings him more fully back to humanity is bringing him closer to the end.

Nice conclusion, well felt and expressed.

“When the Wind Blows on Tristan da Cunha” by Meryl Stenhouse

The setting here is real, an isolated island in the South Atlantic inhabited by only three hundred rather inbred individuals. Gemma Glass knows and despises them all, considering herself special because of her mother, who, she alleges, “came in with the tide one day, and one day went away again, before I even learned to say her name.” This makes Gemma special, she believes, and also because she is subject to the visual phenomena known as phosgenes. Gemma has learned that astronauts see these when passing through the radiation belt, so she has come to think the universe has selected her to reveal its secrets. Her lifelong ambition has been to leave the island, and now that she is finished with school at age sixteen, she is determined to put her plan into action by seducing the resident astronomer doing research at the local observatory.

I suspect the author wants readers to have sympathy for Gemma, but I’m not buying in. Even for a teenaged girl, Gemma is a paragon of selfishness, pursuing her own way with no regard for her father or for the astronomer Luca, who knows better than to succumb to her underaged wiles. Strictly speaking, this isn’t science fiction but rather a mainstream piece about a character who believes herself possessed of sciencefictional powers.

“Waterman High Speed Axials” by William R D Wood

Post apocalypse, the cause this time being the escape of lab-bred particles that bind to any available water molecules, thus turning the Earth to dust. In this landscape, Parson guards the water he’s horded inside Waterman’s, the facility where his father used to work; father, who taught him everything he knows.

Why else would everyone who happened along this way try to get in, if not because they thought they’d find water at Waterman’s? People were desperate and the few who remained getting more so every day. The end of the world hadn’t been quick and merciful after all. Folks had had lots of time to suffer. To pillage this and ransack that. Mostly for survival. Sometimes just out of meanness.

For Parson, it’s simply a matter of survival, and he’d resent the suggestion that he’s a sociopath, insisting that all his actions are rational. Which of course sociopaths always say. Yet the author doesn’t believe him and wants us to believe it was his father’s fault. With regard to which, we have insufficient evidence.

“Time Enough” by Salena Casha

Henry’s friend Peter just ran out of time and combusted, and now Henry is suffering an existential crisis and survivor guilt. This is a world where the population except for the very rich and privileged has an implanted timer that measures out the span of their lives. Work or other transactions load minutes onto the timers, but the government encourages expenditure, the squandering of lives. While it isn’t explicit, we get the impression of a population problem.

Henry’s gut lurched. He could picture Peter’s own, his own, with spider web veins that wove around a black timepiece whose digital seconds counted down the years, days, hours, minutes, seconds they had left. Dragging on his cigarette, he wondered what would happen if he ran out before his clock did. Maybe his body would just sit there, a corpse. Someone would have to take him to the Centre so they could deactivate the timer.

This dystopia isn’t fully comprehended. It’s possible that the public combustions are meant as a cautionary display to the population, although I wonder if there might be social consequences when someone flames out in their bed at the hotel. But the story focuses not on the society but Henry, trapped in the system that runs on the ashes of his friend. As in the Wood story above, the primary imperative here is survival, yet Henry recalls Peter’s parents, who gave up all their time for their son.

“A Vision of Paradise” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

A small group of refugees has left the imperial human Cohort and settled an isolated planetoid on the edge of known space. The local conditions produce cancers, and the cancers, with the aid of radiation from the local wormhole’s activity, have “hijacked your biochemistry” to keep the hosts from aging so the cancers can survive indefinitely. But the Cohort is in decline and closing down the wormhole, so that the “Blessings” can no longer keep the illness at bay. Sumelyu, a young member of the colony, wants to contact the Cohort and ask for evacuation, but the rest of the members refuse.

This is a dumb idea, poorly worked-through. At one point, a character states, “Your body is riddled with at least nine types of cancer. Yet somehow you haven’t developed malignancies.” Perhaps the author means metastases. The piece concludes with an unfortunate inspirational message.

“Shudder” by Manfred Gabriel

This one begins as military SF but turns psychological. The narrator was born without the ability to fear. He becomes an elite soldier but eventually enters a clinic in hope of a cure.

How would you like it if you could never be happy, or sad, or angry, or in love? Good or bad, they’re all emotions. Part of being human. I feel like, without fear, I’m missing something important.

I like the narrator. He’s self-possessed and confident, decent in his humanity. Like many career soldiers, he distrusts the “Coats”, including his therapist, and with good reason. The military tends to think soldiers without fear could be a good thing. The story is based on the Grimm tale about the boy who could not shudder, which mistakenly conflates shuddering with fear. This story works better.

“In the Space Between” by Jeff Stehman

Stephen is remarkably unruffled for a person whose partner in a survey ship has just thrown him out the airlock.

The view, limited only by the confines of his helmet, impressed even him. In the vastness between stars, without his ship to offer contaminating light, it was spectacular. He was one of the lucky few to have seen it.

Mark has apparently grown tired of Stephen’s “cold-blooded, machine-headed way of doing things”, confident that he is too “cold and uncaring” to panic. At first, he seems only to want to show Stephen that he can intuitively calculate a jump away from and back to his location, but then he expresses the belief that his partner is actually a machine intelligence and a threat to him. As the dialogue between the two continues, readers will be wondering whether Stephen is indeed unhuman or if Mark is just raving insane. A neat dilemma, tied-off well at the end.


“Sympathy for the Download” by Matthew Lyons

As the story begins with Quinn climbing in through his client’s fire escape, we think he’s a contract euthanasiast. The client has been very specific in her requirements, wanting it to happen at home in her bed while she’s asleep. Except that she isn’t asleep, she’s awake and waiting for him, and she has in mind a considerable modification to her requirements. At which point, we realized that Quinn is actually there to download her mind. As he explains the process to the client,

Needle comes out, acts as an interrupt for all neural activity. Freezes it all in place. Downloads everything onto onboard storage, to be reintegrated into a brand-new, vat-grown body: memories, habits, personality, everything. Your body goes comatose, shuts down in about twelve hours.

But she wants more, and what she wants is both illegal and beyond Quinn’s ethical comfort. And the old monster has planned for that, too.

I actually liked the premise better when I thought it was euthanasia. That’s a plausible future. Mind downloading is less original, and this stealth method seems more unlikely than if it were stealthy death in the night. But what’s really wrong here is at the opening, when Quinn opens the window and catches a whiff of the smell. “It’s the rotting-meat-and-sour-milk dumpster stink of months—maybe years—of unwashed flesh and too many uh-ohs in her pants.” Nope, not this 91-year-old. Not only does nothing in the story call for her to be in such a condition, the circumstances are against it. She’s too lucid and calculating, too much in control. She’s just been with Quinn’s agency, which would have had to evaluate her. And she has relatives in her room a lot, who wouldn’t be able to stand the stench. Otherwise, I admire the evil calculation and Quinn’s response.

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

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

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

Adrienne Martini reviews Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope, an anthology of YA short stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein & Julia Rios, was born from a WisCon panel. Sort of.

Krasnostein was listening to an episode of The Outer Alliance podcast, which was a rebroadcast of the ‘‘Heteronormativity in YA Dystopian Novels’’ panel. The seeds of an idea were planted and the result is a book full of YA SF/F shorter fiction that better resembles the actual world – you know, one that has more than straight, white people in it. A crowd-funding campaign was launched and the resulting book is now alive.

The first story – Tansy Rayner Roberts’s ‘‘Cookie Cutter Superhero’’ – sets up the idea of how popular culture celebrates only those who fit into very thin slices of humanity. Twice a year, an Australian teen is selected to become a ‘‘superhero,’’ which means he or she is shoved into a box that transforms him or her into one of a few different types of crime fighter, erasing most of the parts of his or her personality that make him or her interesting. The message isn’t subtle but the story about a gay teen about to undergo the process is well told.

The stories move beyond sexual identity, however, and that is what helps make this book truly stand out. There is a teen who reads as somewhere on the autism spectrum in Jim C. Hines fantasy ‘‘Chupacabra’s Song’’. The hero in Faith Mudge’s ‘‘Signature’’ is in a wheelchair. Amal El-Mohtar’s ‘‘The Truth About Owls’’ directs its force onto what it means to be a cultural outsider. Perhaps the strongest story – E. C. Myers’ ‘‘Kiss and Kiss and Kiss and Tell’’ – exquisitely captures the uncertainty of being an older teen with a mental illness.

While a couple of the stories, like Shveta Thakrar’s ‘‘Krishna Blue’’, try to veil their main character’s real world illness (anorexia) with a non-real condition (consuming colors) it doesn’t always work out well and can become a little ham-handed. These stories, however, may ring more true with their intended audience.

That difference is the point of this collection. As Krasnostein wrote in a blog post about this project, ‘‘we want any young adult reader to pick this book up and find a rapport with a character within the pages. And we also want to depict the world as we know it – filled with diversity, and colour and a range of life experiences, that challenge our own view points and perspectives.’’ Based on that rubric, Kaleidoscope exceeds expectations.

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-October

The genre’s editors seem to be adding a lot of bonus short fiction for October. More to read, beginning with the year-end issues of Asimov’s and Analog, both among the better of the year.

Publications Reviewed

Asimov’s, December 2014

This zine is wrapping up the publishing year on a strong note.

“Anomaly Station” by Tim Sullivan

The Paneque Anomaly is an eccentric blazar that has been harnessed to feed energy to human worlds. The station transmitting it is operated by a Mind that used to be human but is now essentially an AI, stripped of most of its memories of once being a woman named Hala. Tamara Rix is the longterm station master who was once Hala’s lover, who has taken the job to be in mental contact with her, out of both love and guilt for the accident that killed her. At intervals, Rix goes on leave, when she is replaced by a temporary technician. Meeting Lucien Brainerd, she gets a bad impression; he’s too young, too confident in his training, with no experience. Reluctantly, she makes the transfer of contact with the Mind to him and prepares to leave, but before she can board the shuttle, it explodes. The station recedes rapidly from the hazardous vicinity of the anomaly, carrying the two humans to wait alone for another ship to reach them, whenever that might be.

Tension grows between the two survivors. Tamara Rix is unable to reestablish a connection with Mind, which frustrates her so that she unwisely blurts out her suspicion that Lucien Brainerd sabotaged the shuttle, after which open hostility prevails between them.

She regretted that she had allowed her anger to get the better of her. She had made things worse. If Brainerd was intent on depriving her of Hala’s company, feuding with him would not change his mind. The alternative was finding a way to hook up without his help. There might be a way to do it if she could just figure it out. Without Hala, she felt as though half her soul had gone missing.

This is a tense deep-space thriller and also a story of character that resolves as a psychological one. It slowly becomes clear that Tamara Rix isn’t entirely stable in mind, severed from contact with her longtime partner and dealing badly with Brainerd. Three-quarters of the way into the story, rescue finally arrives, but readers will know at this point that something else is going to happen before the end of this novella, ten pages on.

The blazar is a fairly unusual SFnal premise. There is an additional dimension here as the author presents evidence of the time dilation that increasingly separates Rix from the rest of human society. When Brainerd shows up to relieve her, readers as well as Rix may consider him ignorant because of his speech patterns, but in fact they reflect a natural evolution of the language. This difference can be seen as the thin edge of a divide that grows wider under pressure. When Rix finally sees the officer from the rescue vehicle, she seems almost alien to her, representing the estrangement she feels for everyone but Hala, who originated in her own time. It remains to be seen how far Rix will go to preserve this connection.

“The Cryptic Age” by Robert Reed

A Great Ship story. What this means is vast scope, of both space and time, as not only is the ship billions of years old, but its crew and passengers can have lifetimes of hundreds of thousands. The woman who has been captain for ninety thousand years is a posthuman, as all humans seem to be in this age, and this is her story of taking her current name: Miocene. It is also a story of memory.

The frame: A machine entity has come to Miocene with an object for sale which he represents as uniquely valuable: “a comprehensive, undiluted recording of your world. Of the Earth. An image you have never possessed, certainly not by any accounting that I have seen.” Miocene is unimpressed; the recording is unverifiable. But she makes an offer and backs it up by offering her own story.

When she had another name and was captain of smaller ships, she took on an assignment to deliver an object to Earth. She chose to make this journey of hundreds of years alone. What she received was in some ways what the entity is offering her millennia later, a memory of Earth’s solar system during the Miocene Era, as held in an artificial brain. Memory, not data.

. . . memory turns into something else inside you. Each of us can nourish our secrets, and to a small degree, or large, we can lie. But minds are the ultimate fortresses. What we carry can’t be stolen simply. A brain cannot be divided without killing the soul inside. And the brain refuses to be diluted any faster than one day at a time, which was why a giant gray hunk of semiliving brain is the very best way to hold onto the past.

The alien being who delivered the memory system to her warned her of it – a warning that Miocene suspected as malicious, to stimulate her curiosity. But she took the challenge, the risk. She entered that world of memory and explored there for centuries until she discovered what she had been looking for, a great and portentous secret that challenges all understanding of the nature of the universe. Now, in her turn, she is challenging the entity, although he thinks it is only a simple negotiation over the price of an object.

A Reed story usually offers readers a rich plate of food for thought, but this one is a banquet. Because we know that while minds may be unparalleled in their ability to hold memory, they are also highly fallible, the memories they hold are mutable. And story derived from memory is even moreso.

“Strip the Universe of detail,” Miocene said. “Butcher reality with a cleaver. Hack and hack until nothing real and true remains but mangled pieces. Then let the mind draw lines between those pieces. That is what story is. Story is built from a few survivors and the narrative that we draw between, explaining just enough.

Truth itself may be a fiction, but we will never know, which is quite another thing than believing it. But exploring the evidence in sufficient detail would take multiple millennia, which is Miocene’s project and the scope of the Great Ship stories. The metafictional excursus only makes it richer.


“Kids These Days” by Vernon Hedrick

Jimmy is a middle-aged guy, a failure, a loser, at least in his own mind and in the mind of his soldier father, and that may have been the reason for it, although we don’t really see much wrong with him besides a few drinks. That may be it. At any rate, his wife [or the equivalent] seems to have left him without caring, wouldn’t care now that his father is dying. Sister and brother gather around the hospital bed, the son the old man was proud of, now a cop. In the streets outside are the Kids, linked together by telepathic technology that older people’s minds aren’t plastic enough to adapt to fully; people Jimmy’s age are too old to even attempt it. Humanity is split into past and future.

When my grandmother died, I have been told, she spoke to my dead grandfather—like he had come to get her. It’s a nice thought, but I know everyone dies alone. Everything changes, everything goes away. The sun gets in everyone’s eyes and everyone dies alone. At least they used to. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

So Jimmy discovers when he goes to the aid of a Kid dying in a car accident.

A poignant story about a man who sees what he knows he can never have, yet he can be glad for the future and the future generations, that they will have it, “never feel lonely or misunderstood or unloved.” Which makes him better that a lot of his generation who can only feel fear and resentment. Great last line sums this up. The deathbed scenes are depressingly realistic.

“Graduation” by Andrew Miller

A young woman, after preparing all her life, dies so she can live on afterwards to protect and heal the environment. That’s about it. There’s minimal tension here, minimal story, as things happen just as they were supposed to. I’m not sure why this process must involve persons barely adult rather than being an end-of-life thing.

“It Gets Bigger” by Gwendolyn Clare

Alien artifact discovered. As usual in these stories,

After several hours of investigation, they still did not know the object’s composition because they’d failed to acquire a sample to run through the mass spec. The diamond cutter couldn’t scratch it; the laser reflected off its surface. Lori considered throwing her coffee mug across the lab in frustration, but she only had the one mug. On the other hand, it was currently filled with herbal tea—thank you, fetus—so maybe she should give in and throw it, after all.

Then they try tomography, a spectacularly bad decision as the equipment explodes with a strong burst of radiation; Lori’s baby is lost, her husband takes off, and she begins an affair with her co-worker Brian. Oh, and the object inside the containment unit starts to grow and won’t stop, until they have to tow it back out into space, where it starts to destabilize the moon’s orbit.

Another parallel problem story, this one interesting in a way because neither problem is ever solved – the object or Lori’s doomed-to-fail marriage. While readers might suppose the object will turn out to be an egg holding an alien fetus, in the usual way of such stories, this doesn’t happen; no connecting epiphany occurs. It’s a very sciencefictional piece, all about method, which makes the point that there are things we aren’t going to solve – like life, a mystery. Nonetheless, I don’t think the marriage angle adds much to the story.

“Videoville” by Christopher East

In 1986, Tim and his buddy Louie are hanging out in the pizza joint when Nolan the football star shows up and invites them to the video place. Which is weird, because Nolan and his type never notice Tim’s type except when they plan to shove them into the lockers at high school. But tonight, something is different about Nolan. He claims to want their help. And he offers some really powerful weed, which might account for the way reality keeps wavering.

In front, Nolan is a wavery, time-lapse image, quivering spastically. Behind him, Annabeth and Kelley wink into and out of existence. Only Louie is rock solid, grinning ear to ear. The sky behind them is a shimmering tableau of clouds, snow, and stars, as if it can’t decide what night it is.

But readers will realize that Nolan is actually from some probable future when he’s learned a lot about himself, now come back to shift it in a better direction. And Tim learns a lot himself, that night.

An adult story despite the high school setting. Plenty of 1980s references to evoke the decade, which those of us old enough can well remember.

“Summer Home” by Sue Burke

A list story. An alien spacecraft crashes near the narrator’s house. He runs to investigate, as does a neighbor with whom he might have been having an affair; she is killed, he runs away, the government nukes the site. Now he engages in self-recrimination.

A very short piece, and the list format tells the story effectively.

Analog, December 2014

The two long novelettes are perhaps too similar, but the issue overall is, even more than the Asimov’s, the best of this zine I’ve seen this year.

“The Anomaly” by C W Johnson

In a dystopian setting that resembles a future India, complete with caste discrimination and extreme inequality, Ketkam grows up in a sunless concrete warren deep underground, where the overmen’s trash accumulates. He was born into a trash-sorting family, but his native intelligence and curiosity have taught him to repair discarded gizmos so that he becomes a fix-it-wallah. But the more he learns, the more he wants – ultimately, the stars. Yet at the same time, he feels the strong obligation to take care of his family, who tend to suffer from heart disease. With the aid of the local thug, who gets a cut of Ketkam’s earnings, he finds a placement on the moon in a factory where particle accelerators produce knotted anomalies that are captured in magnetic bottles to generate energy. And also produce radiation that will sicken the workers, which is why low-caste can find jobs there. Ketkam, of course, is curious to learn about the process.

He struggled to follow the mathematics of gauged topologies. “Ordinary” matter, electrons, quarks, photons, and so on, were oneknots. Black holes were two-knots. Non-baryonic dark matter, a shadowy substance hiding among the galaxies like a crowd of ghosts, was composed of three-knots. And the anomalies were four-knots.

Ketkam is the archetypical self-made genius-hero of SF, and readers will suppose that he succeeds; they won’t be disappointed. This is also a tale of moral self-realization, in which he struggles with the consequences of his acts. If he steals from his overmen employers and prevails against their hired thugs, we can look at the exploitation and not blame him for it.

“Humans First!” by Kyle Kirkland

Although the setting is quite different, I find the protagonist here a bit too similar to Ketkam. Arlin Brandt is a skilled technician repairing artificial neural networks, multi-purpose nodes that control communications and also are set up to monitor the population in this nanny-state. While working in an isolated area, he is set on by the members of a terrorist nutcase sect. Once he recovers, therapists decide that his trauma may have produced a tendency to revenge and threaten to have him fired for disability. Fortunately, he has a neuroscientist friend who helps him.

“You don’t want to hurt anybody. That is exactly why I am sure I am right about you. But the government’s algorithms are not of the highest quality. Indeed, they are often misguided. My theory is more accurate, but I need more evidence to prove it. If my colleagues and I can show that our ideas are correct, we can much improve mental health treatments and evaluations.”

The political agenda here shows through the story, condemning the surveillance nanny-state as well as the environmental terrorists of conflicting persuasions. Arlin’s discovery is a bit underwhelming in the end.

“Dino Mate” by Rosemary Claire Smith

Time travel. And time travel protesters, concerned about alterations to the timestream, blocking the gate to the time launch facility. Marty’s current trip to the Jurassic doesn’t have a serious scientific purpose, so I have little sympathy for his plight.

Rock’em Sock’em wouldn’t postpone the trip, not when they needed him to send back images of actual dinosaurs right away, images on which they’d base their next holo-cartoons and action figures to be released during the rapidly approaching holiday season.

At which point, I have to wonder why, if these guys can control time, they don’t just shift from another moment when the protesters aren’t there.

A pretty silly, unoriginal and predictable story, with the mating rituals of dinosaurs as a parallel for the male rivalry between Marty and a sneering colleague over the beauteous journalist Julianna. But I do like the line, “It’s never good to take evolution personally.”

“Citizen of the Galaxy” by Evan Dicken

Mizoguchi is a teacher working in a Tokyo now overcrowded with aliens, after contact resulted in Earth joining the Milieu. Like many older humans, she harbors resentment for the rapid erosion of her human history and heritage that has ensued, while her daughter can only think of escaping to the galaxy. A speech from her alien administrator resolves things too easily.

“Mammals” by David D Levine

Surviving the apocalypse. This short piece animates a classic aphorism of the post-human world, where machine intelligence has eradicated the species that created it. Now infrastructure failure threatens this world, and the narrator is a subroutine tasked to find the source of the problem, which one of its own subroutines has eventually accomplished. Readers shouldn’t be surprised at what it has discovered.

This short idea story has a clever core, although it’s pretty wordy, as the angst-filled narrator bemoans its failure.

. . . we are quarantined, infected, pariah. Malware defenses dormant for over sixteen kilogenerations have been revived and directed against the affected—including prime and I and all my siblings and cousins—to prevent the presumed infection from spreading.

What I like here is the idea that the machine intelligence has had to adopt humanlike patterns to comprehend the nature of the problem, to venture beyond its self-limiting definitions, “locked into our code at the very kernel level.” The machine intelligences have forgotten that this is what they are, products of evolution, and the story pits self-directed evolution against the chaotic, random products of natural selection. This is a cautionary tale for those who believe that uploading themselves into a system dependent on a fallible infrastructure are only postponing the inevitable. And in their own perfection.

“Saboteur” by Ken Liu

An old long-haul truck driver wants to throw a wrench into the programming of the driverless cars that are putting his kind out of work. A well-done short-short that manages to make a case on both sides and add a human dimension to it, as well.

“Twist of Coil” by Miki Dare

Jesethay is a young female member of a species with three hearts, multiple lips and numerous specialized coils all over their bodies, rather like a jellyfish. Her dream is to be a dancer, like the older dancer she idolizes, to the displeasure of the priest, who disapproves of idolizing. Her younger brother is deathly ill, and the priest says that if she sacrifices her coils, a miracle will save him. But the priest has an ulterior motive.

I should note that the coils of this species hold their entire sensorium – touch, sight, hearing, sexuality – as well as stingers for defense. It’s a great sacrifice that Jesethay is making, yet it seems to be a common thing, as coilless beggars line the roads. I still have a hard time taking the premise seriously, however. The term “coil” is way overused, and intrusive terms like “fink” shouldn’t be used here at all.

“Racing the Tide” by Craig DeLancey

Tara’s family has always lived on the Florida coast, now sinking as the sea level rises. Their small community has a plan to raise their homes on pylons, but a developer has made them another offer, enough money to let Tara pay for another experimental operation on her son, disabled from years of failed enhancement treatments. The doctor doesn’t hold out a lot of hope.

“When I went to medical school, I imagined that I would work in a clinic like this, and I would cure people, people from neighborhoods like my own. But really, much of the time, it seems I just . . . move them a little farther down their road. One drug has this side effect, so we switch to another drug, and then another. Some treatment does such and such damage, so we add this other additional treatment to fix that, and find yet more side effects. I wish I could make your son a boy again, before he ever started down this road. But I can’t. No one can.”

We tend to think of the apocalypse as a sudden, violent event, the crash of an asteroid into the earth, a plague or a nuclear attack. But a slow apocalypse can come so quietly that people may not recognize it until it’s too late. Tara and her family are drowning in both the rising ocean and the tide of the global economy. There’s a strong affinity between this situation and that of the Liu story, people made obsolete by what is called progress, unable to keep up in the race. Here we see Tara forced to make a choice that she’ll regret, either way.

When we see Tara ignoring Tommy’s phone calls, it’s easy to think she doesn’t care for him, but the situation is more complicated than that. She has given and given before, until she now has nothing left to give. But there is Tommy’s young daughter, who wants to see her father again.


Lightspeed, October 2014

The prevailing tone of the stories this month is dark.

“Dust” by Daniel José Older

We’re on asteroid Post 7Quad9 with Jax, Chief Engineer, and a bunch of hardass, dusty miners who aren’t happy that they’re going to die because the asteroid is on course to impact Earth. [Why did they send out a crew to it in the first place, because the trajectory of an asteroid isn’t the kind of thing that becomes apparent at the last minute?] Earth itself is of no matter because the Chemical Barons have long since killed it, but the Barons have taken an interest in the asteroid and its ubiquitous dust, which seems to be both artificial and sentient, although it seems that only Jax is aware of the latter.

I catch hold and we do breathe as one, the asteroid and I, taking in the immensity of space. In the moment between, when the air lingers inside, I ask it to shift course. I don’t ask, I plead. Because time is running out. Swerve, goes my prayer. One word: swerve. Because a full turn just seems like too much to ask. A U-turn? Come now: These are celestial bodies, not space ships. So, a, I whisper silently. And when we exhale, together, we release that tiny prayer and mountains and mountains of dust.

It seems there is also a ruling Triumvirate which has sent its agents to the asteroid to save the miners, I think, but they have been infiltrated by agents of the Chemical Barons. Riots and violence ensue.

The author creates a gritty, desperate atmosphere, riddled with corruption and distrust. This is all very well, but the action and motivation is murky. Who are these Barons and why do they want to crash the asteroid into Earth? Nominally, the piece is science fiction, but science fiction doesn’t have sentient asteroids that communicate telepathically and can determine their own direction. That’s the domain of fantasy.

Then there is sex. It’s not that Jax engages in frequent sex with the miners. It’s that Jax seems to flip sexes from male to female on a daily, involuntary basis, while still retaining the same face and clothing size. This isn’t the doing of the asteroid; apparently Jax has been like this since at least college days. Now, there are several possible explanations. There is biology, which would take a long evolutionary timespan we don’t have here. There is a highly advanced biotechnology, which likewise; also the scientists don’t understand what goes on with Jax, who is apparently the only individual known to mutate in this way. That leaves fantasy. But what I wonder is: why does the author want to introduce such an element into this gritty space action story? What’s the point? We’re not dealing with a world in which people are normally like this; Jax is an anomaly – a gratuitous anomaly that has no real impact on the story or action, which would be a great deal more clear and direct without it, as well as more scientifically credible.

“The Quality of Descent” by Megan Kurashiga

I believe this one is listed as fantasy, but if it is, it’s a very ambiguous fantasy, which is all the point. It’s a simple one: the narrator’s business involves acquiring items used by magicians. One day Ava comes to him; she has wings. She found his name in the phone book.

“I understand if you have nothing to say,” she said. “You haven’t prepared a speech for this situation because you never expected to come across a woman with a pair of wings. It’s not like it’s part of the ordinary repertoire. You want to know: Is this a trick? Are they real? is probably the first question that comes to mind, but you might try something else because that would be kind of rude.”

Ava moves in with the [nameless] narrator. He falls in love with her, and with the wings. He gets her a job with a magician, a friend of his.

There’s a definite metafictional aspect to this one. The narrator speaks to the readers:

Where is this headed? Somewhere predictable. Not that there’s anything wrong with a story because you think you can see the ending from across the room, from a mile away, from the other side of the world.

Well, sometimes. When the story has something else to it that justifies the predictability or makes the reading worthwhile despite it. As this story does, in its character voices. It’s not always easy to do something this simple.

“The Herd” by Steve Hockensmith

Western horror. The narrator addresses a listener, who looks like the kind of man who could profit by it, who reminds him of himself, a cowhand. It seems he was working a herd when a sudden strange storm came up, and when the sky cleared again, the terrain was nowhere what anyone could recognize and an unknown town lay in the near distance. First, the trail boss rides down there to find out where they are. Then, when he doesn’t come back, the number two follows him, taking the narrator and one other fellow along for protection. But the danger in the town isn’t anything that can be faced with firearms.

It’s a story with a moral, and this is what the narrator wishes to impart to his listener. There’s a clear analogy between the town’s victims and the kind of livestock who crowd into a feed lot, indifferent to their eventual fate. I’m not sure it applies to the sort of fractious cattle like the longhorns on an overland drive, who have to forage their own grass while on the move.

“Jupiter Wrestlerama” by Marie Vibbert

Karen’s lover had earned the name Two-Ton Tony the hard way.

Artificial gravity made most station folk skinny, flabby, or flabby and skinny, but Tony had worked on his body all his life, stealing and cheating extra rations wherever he could, lifting whatever heavy objects ended up near him, doing push-ups with conveyor gears on his back. His body was his big accomplishment in life, his ticket out.

She recognizes the knife in his chest as Joey’s, from the gym, but the cops call it “Accidental Death”, a fall on the stairs. Corporate doesn’t want open cases on the station. But Karen is determined to get to find who killed her Tony.

A murder mystery in a dismal setting. This might suggest the noir subgenre, but it’s a different tone, one of resignation. Everyone on the station knows they aren’t getting off, that there will be no justice. Some want to blame it on the tourists, because then it won’t be a person they know. Even Karen doesn’t know just what she’ll do if she confirms her suspicions. The cops won’t listen and nothing will bring her Tony back. A depressing tale.

Fantasy Magazine, October 2014

A special issue of this once-independent ezine long since folded into Lightspeed, a loss I have always regretted. It seems that the popular Women Destroy campaign raised so much extra cash that it was able to fund this Women Destroy Fantasy bonus issue guest-edited by Cat Rambo. Alas, reading the four stories here makes me think the cash had better been spent elsewhere. This is certainly not the best that women can do with fantasy and certainly not worthy of fine fiction produced in the original magazine of this name, much of it by talented women.

“The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall

A town where people are so socially repressed they turn into birds. Everyone is in denial about this; everyone pretends not to see the feathers that sprout on every face, or the scars from plucking them out. It’s impossible to be good enough, to sufficiently quash all natural desires, although Felicity tries, letting her nasty mother throw away her beloved scrimshaw art.

“Lying won’t help, my dear. Don’t forget what happened to the von Moren girl. Do you want to shame me like she shamed her mother? Tell me what you’ve done!”

Irritated by the heavy-handed attempt at emotional manipulation in this predictable piece.

“Making the Cut” by H E Roulo

The narrator is a superhero, apparently the only woman in the League because her mission is recruiting others to join her. She finds Aisha, repressed by her society and robbed of her self-worth. Naturally, the story fixes this and ends with warm fuzzy feelings, it being even more predictable and clichéd than the above.

“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T Kingfisher

Fairy tale, lite subversive mashup of Cinderella and something like The Juniper Tree. Our heroine is Hannah, who acquires a stepmother in the usual way of things in such tales, after her mother dies.

If anyone had asked Hannah herself, she would have shrugged. She had no particular interest in her stepmother or her stepsisters. The older stepsister was rude, the younger one kind, in a vague, hen-witted way, and obsessed with clothing. Neither understood about plants or dirt or bees, and were therefore, to Hannah’s way of thinking, people of no particular consequence.

Hannah’s mother is buried under the chestnut tree beyond her garden, and either she animates the tree or there really is a dryad; Hannah doesn’t care. The tree wants Hannah to marry the Duke’s son, in which she has no interest.

This one is better, which is to say readable. Hannah unsurprisingly finds self-actualization and independence in her garden instead of depending on marriage, but this standard plot is leavened by wit in the narrative. There’s a considerable lack of tension, as no one is murdered and the stepmother is more neglectful than cruel; Hannah and one of the stepsisters actually befriend each other.

Typically in this fairy tale, the sentient tree is animated by the dead mother. There are reasons for this, usually involving the love between mother and child, the wish of a mother to protect her child even from beyond the grave. By substituting an unrelated, unseen dryad, the author removes this factor from her story, thus eradicating its emotional force. Why does the dryad care about this daughter, why does she want her to go to balls and marry dukes? Not even the dryad seems to know, or at least its spokesbird can’t say. But because these wishes aren’t those of her dear departed mother, Hannah is free to blow them off without guilt. In fact, Hannah has essentially wiped her mother’s memory out of her life. So: no love, no cruelty, no feeling, no passion, no crisis, no catharsis. A few lines of witty feminist narrative are all we get in exchange for the story’s excised heart.

I’m also bit irked by the inaccuracies. An author’s note informs us that the titmouse spokesbird for the tree isn’t a native European species; I don’t know why the error wasn’t simply corrected in the text, instead, to an appropriate bird. And Hannah says things like “Okay”, which isn’t.

“Drowning in Sky” by Julia August

A mashed-up setting involving a pseudo-classical-Greece and pseudo-renaissance-Italy with a place where women are named Ann, who seems to be a sort of demigod whose power is linked to the world’s bedrock. Ann is fleeing Florens where she caused a problem by animating the numerous dead of a plague. She makes a deal with Tethys, a sea-goddess, for transportation elsewhere and arrives in a pseudo-Greek town where she is recognized by a local witch who has designs on her power. Ann seems to be deeply oblivious about most human matters and allows herself to be led when it ought to be obvious that her hostess is up to no good.

She tried to find her way through the fog while the conversation swam around her. Sharp Dorikan words flashed backwards and forwards and Arakhnë, halfway down another cup of wine, gestured with both hands, and Ann thought it might all be a dream. She might really be asleep still in Arakhnë’s bed.

This one actually has some interest and originality. In a way, Ann doesn’t need self-actualization, being already highly potent, but she seriously needs to get a clue. Everyone wants to take advantage of her, including Tethys the goddess. But we don’t actually know who Ann is, her origin, what her purpose is, if she has one. At the end, she has woken up a little, but she has a long way to go.

On Spec, Summer 2014

An enjoyable issue of this little zine from Canada. The tone starts out kind of manic/comic, then grows serious.

“Bugzapper” by Mikey Hamm

Teenage geek love. Joshy has recently “broken the sound barrier with nothing but a pair of apocalypse-powered jet shoes, a narrow-band frequency scatter-hedge, and a few lines of code.” In the process, he has fallen in love with a metaterrestrial princess for whom he has defeated “a marauding army of trigger-happy planar fugitives named Nathan.” Of course, being fifteen, he still lives at home with his parents and has never actually been on a date, but now Rani wants to meet him. The problem being, besides his best jeans not being done in the dryer, that in zapping the Nathans he inadvertently released a horde of marrow-sucking bloodwhips onto the scene.

Gonzo silliness that actually works pretty well.

“The Glorious Aerybeth” by Jason Fischer

The characters here belong to an alien species obsessed with personal status, as measured by their plumage, and their technology is biological. Gannet is a high-status ship-breeder who has suffered a career setback, for which he is sent on a mission to report on the possibility of alien life that may have been discovered by the eponymous blood-ship. Gannet’s people and their creations are not very nice.

A knotted muscle far below would iris open when the ship sighted prey, opening a hole in the belly of the ship the size of a small country. Thousands of snatchers lay curled up on their enormous reels, barbed limbs that could stretch out through space and rake across the surface of planets, scouring them for flesh and blood.

Gannet’s arrival is not welcomed by the ship’s captain, who sees his presence as a threat to his authority – not without reason, as Gannet immediately turfs him out of his cabin. Conflict ensues.

This one could have read as either horror or humor, but the humor prevails, making it difficult to take the horrific aspects of the tale seriously. Those not overly-sensitive should find it imaginatively entertaining.

“Handcrafting” by Anita Dolman

Sylvia and George are immortal beings who were once worshipped as gods. Their mission is to oversee the evolution of the human race, nudging it in optimal directions. They see the current generation as their grandchildren and are concerned for their welfare. While not active, they go dormant for periods of time, thus they have to reconnect and acclimate whenever they reenter the world.

A heartwarming, positive tale. I particularly like George and Sylvia’s speech patterns, not quite of here and now, although they’re working on it.

“One of these days,” he says, “I go call the stupid little science magazines and I explain. I show them what their Darwin and their Mendel did not understand. What they will not understand, with their equipment and their ideas.”

“Snapshots of American Scenes” by Simon Habegger

Solrun lived originally in fairyland, which is a pretty boring place, so one day he decides to see what lay beyond and ended up on post-global-warming Earth, where Indiana’s Limberlost is once again a swamp and New York City is slowly being submerged. In Brooklyn, he meets up with a woman named Anna who salvages pieces of ancient civilization, like a Roneo machine, for reasons she can’t articulate.

A rumination on trying to make sense of the irretrievable past. It’s a strange post setting, where we see the waters rising yet some aspects of civilization, government and bureaucracy seem to remain. What I find unusual is the way Sol keeps running into random nutcases who lecture him on the Uncertainty Principle. What Sol really takes from his experiences is the value of making personal connections, which is different for him, being immortal, for whom personal connections must be ephemeral.

“Piece of History” by Karl Johanson

The narrator is a cynical killjoy, poorly matched with Terry on their mission to salvage an artifact from the Apollo 14 lander, as Terry is all voluble enthusiasm. Terry’s enthusiasm pays off, however, even for the narrator, who can’t even be mad about it in the end. A lite, good-natured piece – fun for space enthusiasts.

“Traveller, Take Me” by Kate Heartfield

A ghost story, a historical piece, largely based on the fact that prospector Tom Creighton named the town sprung up by his copper strike for a character in a dime science fiction novel. The story purports to be the story behind that story, when Tom and a few companions are prospecting for gold up around the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They find the book in a cabin on the trail, with the note: Traveller, take me and leave another. This is the custom among the prospectors in the wilderness. The book is The Sunless City, by J E Preston Muddock, and a previous owner’s name is on the flyleaf. But as Tom reads from it to the others, this seems to recall the ghost of Joshua Hartnell.

He was leaning against a tree. I knew he was a ghost right away, because there was a great gaping hole in his ribs, with blood dripping down to the ground, and it didn’t seem to be bothering him at all. He was lit up well enough in the moonlight and the starlight.

The prospectors know that the first Canadians have just landed in Europe, it being 1914, and surmise that Hartnell was recently killed in the fighting over there, and his spirit is somehow tied to the book., although he never seems to notice the prospectors, being totally absorbed in communing with his loved ones, whom they never see.

A poignant tale of loss and self-reflection, as the appearances of the ghost cause the prospectors reflect on their own lives. This, I think, relies rather too much on conjecture. But the uncanny encounter is well-done.

“Empty Heat” by Agnes Cadieux

A fantasy setting, where dragon hatchlings are raised for meat [it’s not clear why, or if there are other sources of meat in this world]. Trouble comes to Jessie when the hatchling barn catches fire and the adult breeding dragons need to be subdued. This leads to an epiphany for Jessie, because this is one of those tiresome formula stories where the protagonist has a personal problem that parallels the story-problem.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Christopher Fowler

Given humanity’s long reliance on some kind of artificial structure to shelter us from the elements and predators and enemies, it is not surprising that houses and other buildings figure greatly in our legends, myths, dreams and fictions. Home is where the heart is, after all, as the cliché faithfully reports. The great site TV Tropes has an entire page of entries on various sorts of constructions that have been employed in storytelling as plot devices, motifs, macguffins or symbols. (I particularly like their nomenclature for the familiar Mordoresque spire: “Evil Tower of Ominousness.”) Constructing a tale around a haunted house or other spooky structure is almost a default mode for fantastika.

In his new book, Nyctophobia, Christopher Fowler has managed to come up with some very neat twists and frissons on this archetypical theme. The novel provides lots of quiet discomfort without gratuitous splatter or nastiness, and that’s rare in today’s marketplace. I might also mention at this juncture that Fowler has done two previous books recently in the horror vein for Solaris, an excellent publisher whose titles fly too much under the radar, I think. Those earlier titles are Hell Train and Plastic, and I intend to look them up, now that I’ve enjoyed Nyctophobia.

One might expect a novel concerned with “fear of darkness” to take place in some twilit, northern, Germanic clime, a place where daylight hours are short and fleeting. But right away we sense Fowler’s inclination to mess with our expectations in his choice of settings: sunny Spain. (Graham Joyce did something similar with his House of Lost Dreams, which took place in sun-drenched Greece.) We encounter our narrator/heroine Callie as she is house-hunting in that Mediterranean nation, having relocated there after her recent marriage to Mateo, a native. A real estate agent brings Callie to abandoned Hyperion House, she falls in love with the place, and the deal is sealed.

With that setup quickly out of the way, Fowler begins a dual-track campaign. First, he is going to give us Callie’s backstory (rather tragic) and a portrait of her unexpectedly happy marriage to dream guy Mateo (she even quickly and easily becomes a companion and guardian to Bobbie, Mateo’s charming nine-year-old daughter). Rendering these personalities and their relationships into something visceral and solid is ultimately necessary to explain the weirdness to come. But unlike many horror tales, no bottled-up marital psycho-sexual angst propels the plot. Instead, the triggers will prove to be a queer mix of solipsism, many-worlds theory, doppelgangers, ghosts, and Aleister-Crowley-style occultism. It’s a potent blend, the exact lineaments of which you will not guess.

Second, Fowler is going to make the curious history and architecture of Hyperion House tangible and fraught with arcane melodrama. Soon the place will be as real to the reader as their own home. We learn—gradually, in bits and pieces, as Callie does her clever and meticulous research—that Hyperion House was the sole accomplishment of an eccentric architect, originally meant as a celestial observatory (it seems at first, though the truth proves stranger). And the structure’s blind and sequestered rear half, almost butted up against a cliff face, gives it a chthonic aspect that counterbalances its outward focus on the heavens. Half perpetually sunny, half perpetually dark, the house, belonging to a single family for a century, is an objective correlative to many uncanny desires and events. For Callie, it soon begins to mirror both her worst fears and her highest hopes.

Fowler builds up the two intertwined and codependent halves of his story—house’s purpose and the lives of its inhabitants—in beautifully balanced counterpoise. There are also many moments of calm and peace (the portrait of the nearby Spanish town and its citizens is of engaging and whimsical travel memoir quality) to contrast with the equal number of grotesque incidents, such as when a man appears to be stung to death by hornets, or when Callie finally meets the dwellers in the dark—described by Fowler with precise gory gusto.

In the end, two traits distinguish this book from lesser, more traditional works of horror. First is a quasi-science fictional ambiance. Callie acts as a scientist seeking to unravel a riddle which, albeit not “natural,” is still of nature. The house is not an organic thing, but a machine designed to produce certain effects. Callie becomes almost like an astronaut exploring a Big Dumb Object. Second is Callie’s attitude toward the specters. Yes, she’s frightened. But above that emotion is a sense of pity, a desire to help. In working towards the liberation of Hyperion House’s ghostly tenants, she is also engaged on her own inner voyage of discovery, confrontation and healing.

Fowler delivers a useful message couched in thriller guise: only by empathizing with demons can we conquer them and relieve both them and ourselves of our uncertainty and pain. The opposite of nyctophobia is photophilia: the love of light.

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

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