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A Myriad of Texts, Reloaded, or, The Cliché-Hoarder’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Review of Jupiter Ascending

by Gary Westfahl

It is the sort of project that might occupy the energies of individuals eager to provide novel entertainments for YouTube: gather bits of footage from every single science fiction film you can recall, and creatively edit them together so they collectively offer a somewhat new, and somewhat cohesive, narrative. Of course, if you had access to vast sums of money and the resources of a major studio, you could replace all the borrowed sequences with new, original scenes to more smoothly tie all of the disparate elements together. And that is one way to characterize what Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have done in writing and directing Jupiter Ascending. Indeed, their film might serve as a fitting conclusion to a college class on science fiction films, as students could watch and nod knowingly at the references to all the films they had previously seen. But that class would be telling a disheartening story about the history of science fiction film, as concluding with this film would suggest a genre that has grown steadily more adroit and sophisticated in its techniques of presentation, but utterly lost its soul.

More practically, the film could also function as the class’s final exam, since the attentiveness of the students, and the thoroughness of their outside research, would be well tested by asking them to identify all of the innumerable science fiction films – and novels and stories as well – that apparently were woven into the Wachowskis’ colorful tapestry. Even an expert might find such an exam challenging, and it is impossible, with limited time and space, to cite every previous text that might be detected. But the following, incomplete list will at least provide some of the more striking resonances between Jupiter Ascending and its many precursors.

The film’s basic premise – the three adult children of a dead monarch, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) Abrasax, are conspiring against each other to increase their shares of the inheritance – might remind some modern viewers of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones series, but squabbles within noble families have long been prominent in historical novels, fantasies, and the borderline form of fantasy called the Ruritarian romance, featuring imaginary European principalities and most strongly influencing the ambience of the Wachowskis’ narrative. And the other major plot point – a poor but attractive young person, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), discovers that she is the true heir to the throne – constitutes one of the hoariest clichés in fantasy. (The only difference here is that she is not the ruler’s child, but rather a “recurrence” – her genetic twin.) The fact that the assets these nobles all seek to acquire are entire planets, and specifically planet Earth (currently owned by Balem), might appear novel, though an individual who purchases Earth figured in Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia (1964, 1975), and the sinister motive behind these aliens’ ownership of our world – to eventually “harvest,” that is, kill, every human to obtain a valuable substance – might be traced back to Charles Fort’s famous statement, “The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.” (As it happens, Titus even tells Jupiter, “Your planet is a farm.”) As another literary reference, the long-lived Kalique rejuvenates herself in the manner of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) by taking a bath, though in a scientifically engineered liquid instead of magical fire. The aliens’ base of operations in the Solar System, the planet Jupiter, was also a center for alien activity in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and this film’s hero Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is at one time imperiled in precisely the same manner as David Bowman, as he must contrive to survive unprotected in the vacuum of space (though Wise’s innovative solution is to grab a device that rapidly constructs a spacesuit around him). And a concluding image of a man and woman in spacesuits, floating above the Earth, will remind you of Gravity (2013).

Turning to the film’s visual style, the faux-Roman clothing, statues, and decorations favored by the wealthy aliens were also characteristic of numerous aliens in silent science fiction films and later film serials, while the outlandish outfits and hairstyles that some of them favor might have been appropriated from a more recent source, the Hunger Games films. The appearance of the film’s technology – spacecraft, weaponry, and extravagant architecture – could be traced back to the Star Wars films or any one of their innumerable imitators; one obsequious robotic character resembles a flesh-colored C-3PO. The galaxy’s overall system of government seems cruelly despotic, also recalling the Star Wars films, though its “space cops,” the Aegis, most prominently represented by spaceship commander Diomika Tsing (Nikki Amuka-Bird), are more like the benevolent soldiers of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, displaying considerably more integrity than their associates. Also like the Star Wars films, Jupiter Ascending mostly foregrounds normal human characters while striving to include as many strange-looking aliens as possible; sometimes they are said to be “splices,” genetic combinations of humans and animals. Since one of these, Caine Wise, remarks that he is more like a dog than a human, the Wachowskis might be referencing the “mahg” – half-man, half-dog – that appeared in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987). But a recurring proclivity for aliens with pointed ears must be regarded as their tribute to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. A winged alien recalls the Birdmen of the Flash Gordon serials and the “angel” of Barbarella (1968), among others. Finally, and inevitably, the Wachowskis are stealing from themselves as well, as their basic narrative is not unlike that of The Matrix (1999): an individual unknowingly destined for greatness discovers that the world is not what it seems; unseen beings are manipulating the human race for their own insidious purposes, forcing the designated savior, with assistance from able colleagues, to take action against them.

Other stories and films might be included in this catalog, but one classic work of science fiction was clearly a stronger influence on Jupiter Ascending than any of the others – and that is, quite surprisingly, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), best known to contemporary audiences from the 2005 film adaptation (review here). Both stories involve ordinary individuals who are suddenly visited by an alien and learn that other aliens are poised to destroy the human race. Along with the alien friend, and other exotic colleagues soon acquired, the humans embark upon a series of adventures in spaceships and other strange environments within an inimical universe largely governed by business interests. The characters interact with a wide variety of unusual, often hostile beings, also discovering themselves to be persons of special importance to the universe. The most obvious borrowing from Adams’s story is the scene where Jupiter, assisted by the robot Advocate Bob (Samuel Barnett), must navigate her way through a labyrinthine bureaucracy, powered by anachronistically antiquated technology, in order to claim Earth as her inheritance; the sequence is so reminiscent of the same scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide that the estate of Douglas Adams might consider a lawsuit. And in the end, having improbably survived many perils, the humans return to their familiar home, now accompanied by their true love, but with further space travel clearly in their future.

Beyond such specific likenesses, there is one major way that Jupiter Ascending resembles The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and does not resemble the other referenced stories: both films, I believe, are not intended to be taken seriously. True, all versions of Adams’s saga were overtly farcical, while there is a veneer of earnestness to the Wachowskis’ film; yet as the film’s incongruities and inconsistencies keep multiplying (all issues that could have been easily addressed by modest revision), suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, and it seems apparent that the Wachowskis were not interested in making audiences believe in their story. (They were possibly commenting on their own story’s illogic when they had Jupiter say, “a dream is the only way any of this makes sense.”) The key clue is the planet Jupiter. As the film’s titular iconic image, and as the setting for several of its important scenes, one would imagine that the filmmakers would strive to make Jupiter look as awesome as possible, rendered with breathtaking precision and brilliant color. Yet Jupiter was far more impressive in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it cannot be the case that the computer wizards of today were simply unable to duplicate, or surpass, Douglas Trumbull’s non-computerized artistry. Rather, the Wachowskis manifestly didn’t care about crafting a stunningly realistic Jupiter; if their Jupiter instead resembled a faded color photograph, that was fine – such an image served the purpose of informing viewers, “Now, the characters are approaching Jupiter.” It didn’t matter whether they were genuinely persuaded that the characters were nearing an enormous alien planet.

Readers of this review, at this point, might feel that I am relentlessly berating the Wachowskis for displaying a lack of originality. Yet I am theorizing that the film might have originated when one of them said, “Hey, let’s remake The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but take out all of the jokes.” And that represents a genuinely original idea. More grievously, though, the Wachowskis also removed something else from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and from every other film that they borrowed from, and that is their messages.

Granted, Samuel Goldwyn had a point, even if Western Union is no longer a popular alternative, and filmmakers can go astray if they overemphasize the purported profundity of their narratives (as illustrated by the sad saga of M. Night Shyamalan). But successful science fiction films have generally managed to say something without compromising their value as entertainment. 2001: A Space Odyssey powerfully conveys that humans are still primitive beings in a universe filled with incomprehensible wonders. Star Trek offers an optimistic vision of humanity expanding its frontiers and peacefully interacting with disparate species for our mutual benefit. The original Star Wars (1977 – no, I’ll never call it “Episode IV: A New Hope”) foregrounds the inspirational instruction to always trust your own instincts and do what you think is right. The Matrix is consciously animated by philosophical and religious ideas about the illusory nature of the material world around us. Even the final version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide briefly incorporates the uplifting message that people must be willing to take chances and seek new experiences.

What, then, is Jupiter Ascending telling its audience? All I can discern is the trite morality play of the classic film serial: here are some wonderfully good characters, and here are some despicably evil characters. The good characters must take up arms to defeat the bad characters, and when they succeed, it is a good thing. One struggles to find anything else of import in this story. At the beginning of the film, even as she makes a living by cleaning toilets, Jupiter desperately wants to own a telescope, to be like her late father, suggesting something about the need to look up at the stars and ponder the wonders of the cosmos; but once she is actually in outer space, surrounded by stars, she expresses absolutely no interest in them, and when she finally gets a telescope, she doesn’t even try to use it. When Jupiter says “I really just want to go home” and “I’m still the same me,” one might think she is determined to always remain true to her original, humble character; yet Jupiter also transforms herself into a ferocious fighter and learns how to fly. Characters occasionally make portentous pronouncements – “time is the single most precious commodity in the universe,” “lies are a necessity; they are a source of meaning,” and so on – but nothing else occurs in the film to reference or reinforce these messages. In other words, every time an idea emerges in this film, the Wachowskis ruthlessly strangle it in the crib.

Thus, what the Wachowskis have done, apparently by design, is to amalgamate the myriad texts of science fiction and surgically excise all of their substance. What remains is a story that is all surfaces and spectacle, fisticuffs and fireworks, fictional lives that are, in William Shakespeare’s words, “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Why they chose this path is an open question. Perhaps, after being mired in The Matrix and burdened by the literary pretensions of Cloud Atlas (2012 – review here), they longed for the freedom to tell a simple story that didn’t really make any sense and focus all of their attention on colorful effects and frenetic action sequences. Perhaps they are subtly arguing that science fiction film is now an exhausted genre, so all one can do is to keep repeating tired motifs which have become incapable of signifying anything; and there are certainly more than enough current films (and novels) to support that theory. Perhaps they are aggressively asserting that all the messages in past science fiction stories were simple and stupid, not really worth repeating, and the genre’s true appeal has always rested solely in its bizarre and attractive hardware. That is, people go to science fiction films to experience what Jupiter Ascending offers in abundance – weird-looking aliens, massive spaceships, flying warriors, huge explosions, and so on – and not to learn that “The needs of the many, outweigh …. The needs of the few.” Thus, I may have argued that they have excised the quintessence of science fiction, but the Wachowskis might respond that, in actuality, they have distilled its purest form.

However, if that is the case – if the Wachowskis’ only goal was to provide mindless entertainment for the masses – their film still cannot be regarded as a complete success, primarily due to one problem that afflicts many contemporary science fiction films. On at least four occasions, Jupiter Ascending offers viewers the same exact scene. It is the same exact scene they have also seen hundreds of times in scores of other science fiction films. We all know the drill: the hero is suddenly beset by several, or several dozen, implacable adversaries equipped with colorfully lethal futuristic weaponry. Outnumbered and outgunned, the hero leaps up to engage in crazed aerial acrobatics, darting and pirouetting around to obliterate one foe after another with a series of well-aimed shots, even as every single one of the enemies’ innumerable shots implausibly miss their target. For a brief change of pace, the woman he is protecting may suddenly fall from a great height, apparently plummeting to her death, requiring the hero to interrupt the carnage and race to catch her one second before she smashes into the ground. Finally, leaving a field of corpses behind them, the hero and his companion go off to enjoy a few quiet moments of bonding and infodumping before the genocide resumes. No matter how artfully it is crafted, people cannot be entertained by a scene they have already seen again and again and again; the instant this scene begins, everyone in the audience knows exactly what is going to happen, exactly how it is going to end. I now find myself completely unable to pay attention to this scene; whenever it starts, I look at my watch, browse through my notes, or start pondering what I might say in a review. Other bored viewers’ minds must be starting to wander as well. True, one of the traditional joys of popular entertainment is the artful iteration of familiar tropes – the beautiful young heiress and the tall dark stranger; the savvy detective, the corpse, and several likely suspects – but this particular trope, I think, is being replicated far too precisely, far too many times.

In sum, while the Wachowskis may have crafted Jupiter Ascending solely to provide viewers with some frivolous fun, it ultimately seems a depressing film. Certainly, it is depressing to think that so many talented people wasted their time making it, and the film may dishearteningly signal that science fiction film is becoming a genre incapable of saying anything, perhaps even incapable of entertaining people while it says nothing. But even Jove nods, and this film may only represent a strange interlude in the history of a proud tradition that is still, like Jupiter Jones, “destined for great things” – bold initiatives and stunning new triumphs to come. If not in the year 2015, then, Jupiter may someday ascend again.

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.

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early February

Featuring the first regular issue of F&SF under the new editorial hand of C C Finlay. I use the issue as a springboard to discuss the state of science fiction and look at the science-fictional state of some smaller zines as well, which leads me to the following conclusion: science fiction is the literature of the new, the different, the not previously conceived. But too much published under the label is based on old, stale, shopworn ideas, reused. Again and again, I see stories with no original notions or original approaches to the standard tropes. There can be no sense of wonder when we’ve already seen the story before.

Publications Reviewed



F&SF, March/April 2015

I don’t think there were many readers of this zine who didn’t suspect the possibility last year when F&SF announced a forthcoming special issue guest-edited by Finlay. Even fewer, after a second Finlay issue was announced: the one we now have before us. But even before it came out, the announcement was made, the guard was changed, and the zine now has a new editor.

These transitions, of course, are rarely abrupt. The magazine has material already purchased, which will undoubtedly continue to appear throughout the year to come, in some admixture of old and new. But for now, this issue will serve as a foretaste of sort of fiction we’re likely to find here by sometime in 2016.

The signs are pretty good. There’s a lot of fiction here – twelve stories in a diverse mix fairly evenly divided among science fiction, fantasy, and both/neither, including the sort of thing I’ll stuff into a convenient portmanteau and call “slipstream”, although it’s usually soft fantasy. [I have more to say about science fiction at the end of the review.] The tone likewise ranges from depressing [Bao Shu] to lite horror [Kim] to several humorous pieces. In short, Finlay follows the zine’s long tradition by offering something for everyone. This, of course, means that not everyone will like every piece equally, but there’s enough stuff here that most people should find something. I particularly liked the Berger story, among others.

“What Has Passed Shall in a Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu

This is the showcase novella, the longest in the issue by far, translated from the Chinese. At which, reflecting on my recent column from mid January, I can only think: “What’s the Chinese term for steam engine?” Because it definitely seems to be the moment when the genre undergoes another transformative moment, this one internationalization, with Chinese translations predominating at the moment.

It’s an idea story, the idea being Time and its direction. We begin four years before the year of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which two small children witness with joy and wonder. They are Xie Baosheng, our narrator, and his lifelong love Qiqi. But first, Xie tells us he was born on a portentous day, when “some suggested the Earth was passing through the galactic plane; still others claimed that the universe was starting to collapse.” Readers should keep this in mind. It’s a time of prosperity and hope; Xie’s father makes a good living with computers; there are high-def screens where kids can play cool games. But then, slowly and inexorably, things fall apart. Readers may first get the idea when the SARS epidemic strikes. Or when Saddam drives the Americans out of Iraq. Or when the LCD screens are replaced by cathode ray tube monitors. History has started to run backwards.

Perhaps the most dominant impression here is how the condition of Chinese society [today], relative to what came before, is seen as fortunate; Xie looks back on his childhood as an idyllic time before events came to blight his life. Although he had times of relative prosperity, interspersed with years of loss, altogether it was a downward path through a succession of national catastrophes, most notably Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The title makes it clear that these conditions are a matter of perspective. But what we find here are people experiencing the events with the perspective of those who recall what seems to them to be the past, yet in many ways as if it were new to them. This is paradoxical.

By the time the story nears its end, readers will have long since realized what’s going on with time, but the author finally addresses it directly when Xie meets Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he has a philosophical discussion, as Xie seems to grasp the situation when he declares the world must be absurd.

“If the existence of the world has meaning, the world must advance, don’t you think? Otherwise what is the point of generation struggling after generation? The world appears to be a twisted shadow of some reality.”

While Sartre counters

Progress is not a constant. It is merely a temporary phase of this universe. I’m no scientist, but the physicists tell us that the universe expands and then collapses and then expands again, not unlike the cosmic cycles envisioned by your Daoist philosophers. Time could easily flow in another direction…or in one of countless directions. Perhaps events can be arranged in any of a number of different sequences, because time may choose from an infinite set of options.

Yet the events coming as they have seem to validate Xie’s belief that freedom and choice are meaningless. The course of the world seems predetermined, without much reference to cause and effect, which are upside down. To readers viewing from outside the timeline, what we also have here is a Cautionary Tale: what happened once might yet happen again; freedom can be gained, yet it also can be lost.

While Time can be a science-fictional topic, pace Sartre, we don’t have a scientific treatment of it here. Nor is the story actually alternate history, although there are affinities. This is fantasy, albeit not a work of absurdity; we seem to be meant to take these events literally and seriously, as more than just a metaphor. But this is hard to do. It’s not a Benjamin Button situation where life moves from old age to infancy, much less a Time’s Arrow. Rather, the opposite. The Mao, the Chiang, the other versions of these historical characters live in what we must conceive of as the normal direction, just as Xie and the story’s other characters do, while the events through which they live are retrograde, and the circumstances which impel them to act aren’t there. Just as it’s implausible that, if economic hardship made production of flatscreen monitors impossible, people would start to construct cathode ray tubes and, later, abandon them, as well. This sequence of events presumes the knowledge is lost, the memory, yet in the story, memory is the most valuable thing people retain. In short, I don’t think the idea really works, not as a premise to be taken literally.

Nonetheless, it works to provoke some worthwhile thoughts. The real problem with the work lies elsewhere. Xie is an Everyman character, in the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joys and tragedies of his life, we see the history of the Chinese people in the 20th century. But if his portrayal is broad, it’s thereby shallow. Xie doesn’t come fully to life. His one great passion is for Qiqi; otherwise, he has moderate revolutionary tendencies and a certain personal honesty, but for the most part he exists to be caught in the currents of history and carried passively upstream. The result is a narrative that’s flat and a storyline that’s pretty dull going, outside of figuring out the retrograde course of events, which is the real interest.

“A Residence for Friendless Ladies” by Alice Sola Kim

This one begins with strong suggestions of sexuality politics, but in fact it’s old-fashioned horror. Our narrator, self-identifying as a male, was born into a particularly curvaceous female body. When his boarding school took note of the effects of hormones he was dropping, they informed his parents, who planned to send him to a punitive institution. His only refuge is with his grandmother at her eponymous home, a place halfway between residence and reformatory, where he’s forced into skirts and makeup, and taken off testosterone. But the really bad thing, even worse than his body getting its period again, is the house itself, which swallows people.

My door doesn’t lock. Other doors do but not mine. My feet are braced; I push against the door with my whole weight. The knob shudders. I press harder and my hands begin to slip against the door. I look down. Something is seeping out of the wood. It dampens, grows tacky and icky and begins to give off a smell that is underground and personal and all too familiar and finally my feet slide too far and I fall on the floor and flail back up to run to my bathroom, where I puke all over the sink.

Neat icky horror-stuff there. The ending suggests a positive outcome for the narrator, but I note that we don’t follow him through and thus never learn the outcome. Ambiguity is definitely the proper concluding note for this sort of piece.

“The Mantis Tattoo” by Paul M Berger

The sciences here are paleontology and anthropology, with certain beliefs reported by anthropology literalized, so that we have to believe in the guardian animal spirits and the magical spells they teach their peoples. Mantis is real, and so is Fanged Lion. We’re perhaps fifty thousand years ago, somewhere in Africa or Eurasia, when there were several contemporaneous species of homo roaming the land. Our hero is a young fellow named Nudur, just coming to the manhood age of being claimed by some totemic animal. Nudur isn’t regarded as promising by his tribe; he’s not a good hunter, and he makes up for this by cheating and lying. But these traits are just the ones to attract the trickster spirit Mantis, who speaks to him from the body of a dead porcupine.

“Hear me, boy,” it says in human speech. “The Fathers of Man are returning. Seek them.” Its cleft lips flap around its great orange incisors to form the words. “Seek them and guide them to their rightful land.”

And since this apparition was witnessed by others, Nudur can’t get out of his destiny. Mantis is not only the guardian of his tribe, but all the Human Beings.

Everyone knows by heart the story of that great bet, and how Fanged Lion in his arrogance mocked the challenge of little Mantis to all the world, and thus ensured his own exile when Mantis bested him through cunning rather than strength. Fanged Lion was shamed, and the Fathers are long gone. Now there are only a handful of scattered tribes of Human Beings, hunting alone and nearly starving on the wide plains.

Now, with a tattoo of Mantis on his face, he has set off to find the Fathers of Man, who have indeed returned, calling themselves the People, and Nudur’s folk the Ones Who Stayed Behind. The People are larger, stronger, and better hunters of large game, nor are they stupid. Further, their spirit guardian, Fanged Lion, is an enemy of Mantis. It soon becomes clear that they intend to take over the land of the Human Beings, with or without leaving any of them alive. This is clearly a job for Mantis, or at least someone as tricky as him.

There have been a number of stories concerning the meeting of modern humans and their predecessor species, a particularly favorite trope of mine. I’m not surprised to find that Berger has done it well; his story “Subduction” was my favorite F&SF piece from 2014, from the first Finlay-edited issue. This one combines the best of two genres: a neat trickster story from the folklore tradition, and paleontological speculation about the way modern humans might have prevailed in a contest between the species. I’m only sorry that I do have one quibble: it’s clear that so much time has passed since the two peoples last encountered each other, there’s no way they would be speaking the same language. Even so,

–RECOMMENDED

“Things Worth Knowing” by Jay O’Connell

Dystopian SF. Corporations have militarized, and schools, such as they are, are securitized, with the staff authorized to use deadly force. Stanley is nominally a teacher but actually a proctor/security guard. The few kids in the public school system, from the projects, come to the building for testing in the subjects they’ve picked up privately, but mainly for the free lunch, while Stanley keeps order. Then there is Joel, officially in eighth grade but working at a grad-school level. Stanley is immediately alarmed. The corporations are going to get hold of those scores and start a recruiting war, which in this situation involves heavy weaponry and taking the kid’s mother hostage.

He used his mobile to seal and electrify the security shutters. As they clanked down, a girl in a headscarf lying on the front steps, a sixth grade dropout by the name of Sarafina, popped her head up and met Stanley’s eye. She visited her younger sister for recess. She looked terrified but was as yet unbloodied. But ricocheting bullets didn’t discriminate between those on U.S. government property and those in the South Bronx Enterprise Zone.

The story of a man caught in a failing bureaucracy who finds something to care about, something to fight for. Stanley is a believable and realistically-done character in a world not too extremely distorted for credibility.

“La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley

Here is 100% fantasy action at an illicit tourney fought in 17th-century France. By no means are all the participants human. There are faery lords, talking mushrooms, and a lord of Hell himself, come to harvest souls with his swords. And there is our heroine La Héron, an outsized duelist of considerable skill but no second, which the rules demand. Fortunately, the local convent holds an unwilling inmate who regularly escapes to get into alley brawls. Sister Louise-Alexandrine eagerly accepts the position of second, and the games are on.

The duelists bowed and assumed their positions atop the butter-colored walls, surrounded on both sides by the waters of the storm-brought lake twenty feet below them. Herlechin was twice as tall as La Héron remembered. He wielded two longswords in the German fashion, neither blade as long or as swift as La Héron’s, but heavy, dangerous-looking affairs nonetheless. She could see no eyes in the black pits of his demon’s face, yet somewhere in their depths, La Héron sensed damnation.

Fun stuff. The demonic side, of course, cheats, but I can’t say the others don’t, either.

“This Is the Way the Universe Ends: with a Bang” by Brian Dolton

A cosmological mystery. As the universe runs out, ninety-two entities remain. In order of age, Titus is the seventh. The entities are divided into three parties: the Faction of the Inevitable, awaiting and accepting ultimate death; the Conclave of Those Who Will Pass Through, into the new universe born from the old; the Cabal, which plans to end the old universe and accelerate the process of forming a new. Titus is a member of the Conclave who happens on a machine object that suddenly launches an attack on her.

The attacker does not show itself. Ghost structures burst from underspace, filaments and vortices that whirl against Titus, attempting to tear her apart. She responds immediately. Attack is unprecedented, almost unthinkable. Titus therefore, in an instant, creates sentient subcomponents for which attack is not only thinkable, but purposeful. Attack, and also of course defense. She is not, after all, immortal. Anything and everything can be destroyed. In a near-dead universe, the Ninety-Two know this all too well.

Titus survives to face a more difficult task, figuring out what motivated the attacker and what its ultimate plan had been.

A rule of mysteries demands that a clue to the solution of the problem be present near the beginning where alert readers could spot it, but the placement of the clue should be such that most readers only realize this after the secret has been revealed. According to this criterion, the story is a success. Even readers who do identify the figure behind the attack are less likely to figure out the full complexity of the plot. Titus, who occupies the detective role, does it as an amateur, unaccustomed to the violence that plunges her suddenly into both self-defense and investigation. In the end, she also displays insight and courage – a worthy protagonist.

“Last Transaction” by Nik Constantine

This one opens as one of those future stories when computer programs obstruct justice, told in computer messages.

Personal financial accounts accessed. Current account balance: -25037.6 credits. Select an option to repeat this balance in yuan, rupees, yen, or the US denomination of the now-defunct United States. Be advised: Federated Colony Credit Union will cease providing American currency services on August 15, 2136 as per —

Normally, these stories go on to wrap the hapless citizen victim in a growing web of bureaucratic snares, in the mode of tragicomedy. Here, however, is something else. Our victim has unusual resources and ingenuity, knows how to fight back. Cleverly done, a SFnal cliché neatly inverted.

“Little Girls in Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce

We open with this scene in the museum:

there were three twisted human skeletons posed in elegant and writhen shapes. The first skeleton curled like the inner parts of a rose, twisting at the ribcage and wrapping her arms with the twist in a frozen hug; the femurs and tibias of each leg were crossed and lifted over the head. Another bent backward with her skull near her pelvis and her left hand reaching its thin, knobby finger bones toward the glass. The skeleton on the far right was from a slightly earlier time than the other two. Her right femur pointed downward, as if she were kneeling, and the other leg stuck arrow-straight out to her left. She bent sideways at the waist, arm slung over her head to grip the arch of the outstretched foot. The left arm had once been used for balance but now dangled uselessly. They hung together, shellacked in the display, suspended lifeless and lifelike by fishing wire.

Even in life, these women were known as bone knots, created by makers who tied their bodies into these contorted positions until the muscles frozen into place, after which they were sold as conversation pieces to the rich. We follow the life of one bone knot until she ends up in the museum, reduced to her osteal essence; it isn’t the life of happy admiration that she had bargained for. In an alternating timeline, a little girl viewing the skeletons in the museum longs to have such beauty.

A fable of the ways women have distorted themselves, and been distorted, to fit unnatural images of beauty. Readers may think first of foot-binding, but there are plenty of other examples to be found today. The stubborn little girl, however, strikes me as overkill. I can’t help thinking that most of the so-called beauty of the living bone knots would have disappeared with their flesh, their hair, their gorgeous garments. Catching dust in a display case, they only seem sad.

“A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell” by Jonathan L Howard

The narrator is a bartender in an interdimensional establishment called “Helix”, which suggests it’s a twisty place. Today, he is afflicted with a series of time travelers.

The man sighs and looks at me, and I know he is going to favor me with a confidence. “Would you believe me,” he says, “would you believe me if I said I was a time traveler?”

So it wasn’t a confidence after all. We get all sorts in here and several of them are time travelers. “Really, sir?” I says, and I says it with sincerity because there is nothing to be insincere about.

Comedy of paradoxical manners, absurdly whimsical, with the strength in the narrative voice.

“How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion” by Jenn Reese

Instructions and suggestions for alien infiltrators:

Here is what to do: go stand in a candle aisle at a large market until you can identify the following scents: pine, cinnamon, pumpkin pie, and “winter.” (Do not let the last one alarm you; winters on this planet last months, not years.)

The shortest piece in the issue uses aliens as a metaphor for the Outsider attempting to fit into a society; as actual aliens, they barely take shape.

“A User’s Guide to Increments of Time” by Kat Howard

Chronomancy: time magic. A pair of former lovers war on each other by stealing each other’s time. It wasn’t always that way.

They wished so much for extra time together that it came to them almost unbidden: Siobhan’s hands moving in horological patterns as she slept, and scattering the dust and grit forgotten on the floor; Finn’s unwatch whirring in reverse, even though he had not set it spinning.

Beautiful images and metaphors here, a story less about time than love turned destructive in hate.

–RECOMMENDED

“Bilingual” by Henry Lien

A largely fact-based piece. A young Japanese-American girl is upset by the exploitation of dophins in a marine park, particularly after learning how some of them are captured in the course of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. She decides to fight back, using that universal medium of the young, Twitter.

Akari Yamaguchi retweeted
Ann Cho @DianFoxxey Dec 21
OMG watched The Cove tonight. Cant sleep. Sound of those dolphin squeals and squeaks in my head all night. Been crying all night.

Akari Yamaguchi @DolphinMemeGirl Dec 21
.@DianFoxxey Squeals and pulsed squeaks mean distress. THEY ARE SCREAMS. Hey DM me if u need to talk, k? Hugs.

Readers will note that the piece is set in 2014, and it seems largely probable for that time, her scheme being carried on entirely with then-current technology. Seatopia security [the SS] is portrayed a bit excessively as heavies, but then these are meant to be teenage girls tweeting.

Postscript: Science Fiction

There has been discussion recently about the state of science fiction, particularly Hard SF – whether it is being displaced by fantasy or slipstream or simply dying out, through reader indifference or author distraction. Thus I was interested to see the number of stories here that could fall under the SF label.

First thing: there is no really Hard SF. That is, stories in which a scientific premise is central and rigorously developed. The closest piece to it is “This is the Way the Universe Ends . . .” in which cosmology is central; the setting is the universe nearing its end, and the storyline is driven by the urgency of the situation. The text also includes a lot of skiffy terms to give it a science-fictional flavor: “condensate cloud”, “quantum-state conversions”, “twisted strings”, “hyperdense matter”. But the setting puts us into the “sufficiently advanced technology” condition, in which the characters are entities so far beyond our comprehension that it’s impossible to tell if they are rigorously developed or not, if the pivotal concept is scientifically plausible. SF it definitely is, though, and I’m glad to see it here.

“Things Worth Knowing” is also unequivocally science fiction, set in a conceivable future and concerned with the ways changes in society will affect some of the individuals living there. But there is no specific science at its core; the technology is only minimally advanced from that of today. Likewise, “Last Transaction” is clearly science fiction based on computer technology extrapolated from trends today, but the main interest is the effect of ubiquitous computer control on individuals, not in any real advances in the technology itself.

In short three good examples of what real science fiction can be. After them, I find a couple of stories that are nominally SF, using common SFnal tropes. These are the sorts of stories that typically appear under the SF tag in today’s magazines. Time travel is a common theme in speculative fiction, broadly conceived, but it’s not often developed with scientific rigor. This is also true in “A Small Diversion . . .” which is mostly concerned with paradoxes. The setting, however, is fantastic in skiffy guise; when Jesus is a character, I can tell this isn’t strictly science fiction, although I put in on the SF side of the genre divide. Even more so, “How to Masquerade . . .” employs the notion of aliens, which, again, is a speculative trope commonly considered SF but rarely developed scientifically; here, they are essentially metaphorical, which places the piece into slipstream territory. Finally there is “Bilingual”, which has a SFnal tone but no real speculative content.

Readers shouldn’t suppose that I object in any way to the latter set of stories. I was quite amused by the Howard time travel piece. Indeed, in a zine like F&SF, which is premised on diversity of genre, these kinds of stories belong as well as any of the other kinds. But in a genre environment where actual science fiction appears to be an endangered species, I’m happy to find three real specimens here, and I hope the editor keeps it up.



Clarkesworld, February 2015

I was brought to misgiving when I read the editorial content of this issue, including a piece in praise of YA fiction. CW is a venue where I expect to find sophisticated adult fiction, literary SF in particular. And the fiction here doesn’t really allay my misgivings.

“The Last Surviving Gondola Widow” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A fantasy alternate history, set perhaps in some version of our late 1919, after the Civil War, which, as in our timeline, the South lost, despite their magically-engineered Gondola* fleet, womanned by female engineers with a strong, specific bond to their own craft, so that they were called Gondola Wives. Many people here have some type of magical gift; Lou’s is mental coercion, which she puts to good effect as a Pinkerton agent [to the extent that Pinkerton agents in this timeline are up to good]. It seems that some time after the war, the South had assembled a new Gondola fleet and sent it to attack Chicago; the consequences were catastrophic, both to the fleet and the city, when fire-magic set the Gondolas aflame. Most of their engineers died in the fires; some escaped. Lou’s dedicated task has been their capture.

We’d caught dozens of Gondola widows in the aftermath of the day the Gondolas died. Gondolas, married to their female engineers, responded to the engineer’s voice and the touch of her hand. First the voice. Then the Gondola would locate its engineer—its wife—and fly toward her.

What Regalese and I did was gather up the remaining pieces of the Gondolas and take them to potential widows. The pieces would respond to the voice, and float to the engineer, identifying her as a Gondola wife/widow.

Now she and her partner believe they have discovered one surviving engineer, but identification, so much later, now presents problems.

An ingenious, if complex premise, but the heart of the story lies in Lou’s self-doubt when it comes to the execution of her plan to cause her target to betray herself. Readers may find it of interest that part of this story is based on historical fact, the crash of the Wingfoot Express dirigible in 1919. As in the story, the flaming blimp fell into the skylight of a bank building, with great loss of life, if not quite so great as portrayed here.

[*] A gondola, as the text makes clear, involves a spherical balloon, not an elongated dirigible, as the illustration would have it.

“Indelible” by Gwendolyn Clare

It seems that a group of refugee aliens with a morphing ability have come to Earth seeking asylum but finding intolerance. Most are crowded into a ghetto, but one young female was taken in by Cheng’s family, where the two girls become as close as sisters, until they are betrayed. Now Cheng is searching among the Shurkar in hopes of finding some of her sister’s kin.

This piece epitomizes the reasons I don’t look forward to a lot more YA among my reading. The story is heavily sentimental and simplistic, with all the Shurkar we encounter wise and tolerant, while all the humans the opposite.

“The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson

We find Jessica in an unusually dire situation, trying to get home by hitchhiking after being murdered by a serial killer and revived by parasitic aliens.

Jessica slumped against the inside of the truck door. The girl behind the wheel and the other one squished between them on the bench seat kept stealing glances at her. Jessica ignored them, just like she tried to ignore the itchy pull and tug deep inside her, under her belly button, where the aliens were trying to knit her guts back together.

The killer had cut her up pretty good, but the aliens – telepathic bacterial types – keep putting her back together, even when she dies, because they need a live host. Jessica increasingly distrusts them, knowing enough about parasitic infections to suspect they might be controlling her behavior, as when they insist she shouldn’t go to a hospital.

This YA has a lot more interest going for it. Jessica had enough problems before she was murdered – family and school – and her current situation just makes things worse. She’s a self-reliant character, as she must be with no one else to rely on. The question is whether she can rely on or trust the aliens who are keeping her alive and [they claim] healing her. The story is set, for some reason that isn’t clear, on the eve of 9/11. If I were to guess, I’d say that the author is suggesting a parallel between Jessica’s situation and the passengers of Flight 93, but that’s only a guess. More clear is her concern of the disaster that might ensue if the aliens do happen to be malignant and spread to the general population. But I’m not sure how strongly Jessica’s distrust of them is grounded.

I have to wonder whether the title was inspired by the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a favorite.

“Meshed” by Rich Larson

A future in which everything seems subservient to marketing. At least, so it is in Victor’s life. He’s a recruiting agent for Nike, sweating hard to sign a brilliant young basketball talent from Senegal, but Oxford Diallo refuses to go along with the demand to have neural mesh installed, for marketing reasons. [As Victor’s boss puts it: "How the fuck are we supposed to market him without a mesh?"] Oxford has good reasons for his distrust. The neural net was originally military tech, and his grandfather was a soldier; Oxford made him a promise.

“It means a soldier cannot break ranks or desert,” [the father] says. “A soldier cannot turn down an order to execute six prisoners taking up too much space in the convoy. Someone else, someone far away, will pull their finger to pull the trigger.” He sloshes wine into his glass and tops mine off, gesturing with his other hand. “A soldier cannot be interrogated, because someone far away will lock their jaws shut, or, if the interrogation is very painful, unplug their brainstem.”

This is the only science fiction piece in the issue, but the heart of the story is more its characters than the technology. All three – Oxford, his ailing father, and Victor – are fully formed humans, each with his own version of integrity, pride, and shame. The final scene is just heartbreaking.

I find it a bit odd that the author references an actual company instead of the more usual practice of an invented one, like, say, “Nibok”.

–RECOMMENDED



On Spec, Fall 2014

A belated issue of this little zine, one of the last to still appear in print, although an editorial mention of a funding shortfall may presage change. The six stories here are mostly soft SF, pretty mediocre and unoriginal overall.

“Chance Encounters” by Janet K Nicolson

A dog story. What Chance encounters are the aliens responsible for cattle mutilations in the area, which is of great professional interest to him, Chance being a cattle herding dog. Most of the story involves Chance’s relationship with his pack, who think he’s imagining the strange scent he detects, and with his pack leader George, the rancher. I don’t believe the alien’s claim of innocence; I think he’s putting something over on Chance.

“A Primer on the Ins and Outs of Building Bliss” by Brent Knowles

Levi is involved in a project meant to culminate in the creation of a new afterlife, a notion that raises far more questions than the story addresses. Since Levi and his professor aren’t gods, I assume that the project is a simulation, just as the current phase is a simulation of life, with the variable being faith in a life to come. The problem is that all his variations on faith aren’t working. His subject, a simulation he calls Carol, keeps ending up in suicidal despair.

The problem here is crediting the premise. Why would anyone fund a project to create a simulated afterlife? [And if it’s not simulated, that makes the credibility problem worse.] It makes more sense, although not a lot, to consider it simply as a psychological simulation, even if detached from real life. The only possible aspect I find of any interest is the Cartesian problem of the subjectivity of experience, as the professor says of Carol: “She’s real enough . . . in her own world.” Which of course makes us wonder if he and Levi are likewise simulations in some higher order project, ad infinitum. But that’s a path the story doesn’t seem to take.

“Walk the Dinosaur” by Jayme Allen

In which we learn that velociraptors aren’t successful on the job front. As if we had supposed otherwise. Very silly.

“Sunchild Blues” by Al Onia

A generation ship, populated by the descendants of humans who had separated themselves from their self-destructive species in hopes of a transcendent evolution – any form of transcendence will do. Instead, they recreated self-destructive behavior in the form of religion. In the meantime, the ship is failing. Solana, who turns out to be highly transcendent, with a complete suite of psychic abilities, keeps the ship running and her father’s life extended as long as she can, but time is running out.

A lot of clichés here, the worst being the fathead Theocratic Council and Solana’s inexplicable near-godhood.

“Downtime” by Melanie Marttila

A research institute succeeds in creating an AI robot, but the creators inexplicably restrict its development and concentrate on giving it a sexual identity, which even the robot knows it doesn’t need. There’s also a clichéd villainous villain, who all but twirls his mustachios.

“A Little Leavening” by Allan Weiss

In the tradition of Ashkenazi folklore. Eliezer the wizard is under a curse, incurred long ago as punishment for his sin of asking too many questions and the “poking around in mysteries that were none of his business.” Now he wanders the Earth, bound to give his aid to whomever asks it. This, unfortunately, leaves him stuck in a peasant village with a multitude of tasks to be done, which means he won’t be able to reach the place of the seder in time for Passover.

Amusing tale in which Eliezer learns a lesson and may have his curse lifted, or maybe not. I don’t like the idea of cursing someone for seeking knowledge, however.



Perihelion, January 2015

In the course of my recent ongoing search for rigorous science fiction, this zine was recommended to me. It uses a publishing model I don’t particularly like: posting material through the month in lieu of in an issue. Thus, while the masthead declares it “updated” January 12, readers who use these columns to find potential award material should be aware that most of these pieces would have actually been posted in 2014.

The eleven stories here are all SF of some sort – some nominal, some soft, few exceedingly rigorous. The quality is quite uneven, and only a few have much originality, either in the premise or the treatment of it. There’s stuff here that I liked, but this zine isn’t the answer to the Hard SF problem.

“Joy Ride” by Jude-Marie Green

Our narrator is a semi-retired career criminal, now on the planet Emerald because it has no extradition treaties. Emerald is rich in “petrochemical-like” compounds and due to become host to a cracking plant which has been assembled in orbit and soon to be dropped onsite, with possible seismic consequences. He’s been offered a job he can’t refuse, to hijack one of the plant’s airships and engage in a bit of smuggling at the drop site. But when he enters the ship, he finds the usual teenage girl stowed away. The action that ensues is considered high excitement on Emerald, but this is a place where nothing ever happens.

I like the pre-fab cracking plant, a genuinely science-fictional concept, but the smuggling plot is overly contrived and low on sense, while the teenage girl is a longstanding cliché.

“Barnegat Inn” by Brian Biswas

A young couple looking for a night’s lodging come to one of a mysterious old inn, where their host regales them with his theories of alien intelligence and time travel. Later, in the middle of the night, the young man overhears a strange conversation, which so scars him that he has refrained from telling this story until the present, when he is so old it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

While the subject matter – aliens and time travel – is traditionally associated with SF, this is actually a sort of weird tale in the mode of that bygone zine, complete with spooky mysterious fog. To the extent that this is SF, it’s the sort of sufficiently advanced stuff that’s indistinguishable from magic. But I see nothing here that should have put the narrator into such a mortal fright.

“Captain Quasar and the Kolarii Kidnappers” by Milo James Fowler

Our Hero, despite a groin injury to which the author makes excessive reference, mediates a dispute between human colonists and an alien species that shares a moon with them, each claiming that the other has kidnapped their children.

Quasar raised his tanned, chiseled chin and narrowed his heroic gaze. “Those children don’t belong to you. You stole them from the human settlers in Zeta Colony 6, and we’re here in loco parentis to take them home. All twelve of them. No child left behind.”

Very silly, as the title would indicate.

“Geiter” by Michael Hodges

Geiter being an allegedly man-eating bear, which our protagonist Carnold has agreed to hunt down, rather in the manner of a dragon-slayer, although this seems to be the Old West. Carnold is ill-prepared as a bear-slayer, facing the monster with only a revolver in his hand, but Geiter turns out to be no ordinary bear.

This is 99% Western, 1% love story, with a dash of robotics to give it a thin claim to SF-hood.

“Discord in Paradise” by Leslie Lupien

Spletzer’s partner Celia is in a suicidal depression after the death of their son, for which she blames herself. She wants to die and join him in heaven. Spletzer, unwilling to lose her, arranges an illicit upload of both of them into a simulated reality in which Frederick is still alive, despite Celia’s religious objections. Up to this point, it seems to be a fairly standard scenario, and I’m angry with Spletzer for violating Celia’s rights and autonomy. Then the plot takes a strange and interesting turn, giving us a novel perspective on simulated reality. The text is pretty stiff, but I appreciate the attempt at originality.

“(225-50) Agnes” by Mark Ayling

Agnes being the asteroid about to collide with Earth, as the text has it in a clumsy expository opening. We then meet evil billionaire Joshua Randall, who won’t let anything stop him from taking one of the limited slots on the Ark leaving the planet. Told in a series of scenes arranged with no pretense to chronology.

“It’s a Long Road to the Sky Train” by Michael Andre-Driussi

Marika’s family has lived for generations in the Biodome, a tourist attraction where she plays roles from nursery rhymes, until the looters come and trash the place. Finding herself stranded outside, she becomes determined to undertake the long journey to the Sky Train, at Kilimanjaro, which will take her somewhere better, or so she believes

A post-apocalyptic journey story, in which we see Marika selling off parts of herself, while her inner core becomes stronger. An entertaining, if gruesome, read, with the imaginative characters that populate the absurdly dystopian setting, and of course Marika.

Marika handed the candle to Trash and took down the largest of the bags. To avoid losing anything of value, she emptied the bag into her Bo Peep bonnet. Out tumbled a human hand, five big toes, three eyes, and an ear. The hand was fresh, the others coated with a bluish silver slime.

“Not Her Kind” by Peter Wood

Alien invasion, the invaders being from Earth, up to their usual ways of taking over local space and resources. Diseases have decimated both sides, and the invaders have now been stranded, ash Earth refuses to bring them home, lest they bring alien contagion. Everyone has suffered loss, everyone is unhappy, everyone blames the other. Can they ever get along?

A sufficiently different twist on this scenario, the point of view from the aliens. Albeit with rather too much lecturing.

“Down Courthouse Wash” by Steven L Peck

Alien encounter – a science-fictional sort of aliens that the narrator encounters down in the dried-out wash, mistaking them at first for a heap of potatoes. He quickly discerns that they’re suffering from dehydration, and after giving them water, he induces them to follow him to his truck, then home to his bathtub. They get along pretty well, until authorities get involved – alas, a too-common cliché in the alien contact business.

When we walked into the room the creatures, frightened I suppose because I brought in another person, stood up to their full extended tripod height and let out their shrill whistle. She in turn screamed. Which caused the creatures to run into the bathroom. It was pandemonium.

I like this one pretty well, not only because the aliens are treated science-fictionally, but for the light, smooth narrative and the narrative voice. This author has gone a lot further towards mastery of the writing craft than some others here.

“Blink Twice” by Rebecca Birch

Steve’s wife isn’t happy with his time-traveling plans. In fact, she doesn’t like much of anything about his job.

I should’ve seen it coming, but I’d become a moth inevitably drawn to the hypnotizing flame of research and exploration, blindly assuming my Susan would someday understand. The screen door guarded the entrance to a house full of mementos and memories of a shared life, but it was nothing more than an abandoned shell without half its soul.

Of course the other way of looking at the situation is that Susan is a self-centered bitch. But Steve doesn’t agree, he flogs himself with guilt for their marriage breaking up before stepping into the unknown future.

Problem is, I tend to go with the bitch theory. Susan leaves Steve out of selfishness, resentment at not being the center of the universe. The story ends with a gush of excessive sentimentality.

“Salazar” by Sean Monaghan

Adventure in parallel worlds, here called “realslices”. Aura and Gideon work for an agency preventing disturbances of the slices by agents from a different one. Now Aura has been sent to bring in Gideon, who is reported having gone rogue, and indeed, she can tell that the reality she’s in has been greatly disturbed. But when she finds Gideon, things only get worse, until she’s trapped in a maze of paradox.

“You’re the real Gideon? The one I tracked.”
“That’s right.”
“And the other?”
“That’s me too. A real me, but not one you tracked. I have a feeling it was a reversal somewhere. It sounds too easy, but that Gideon is tracking another Aura. He found you instead.”

Twisty plot, plenty of action in a skiffy setting.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Neal Asher

I have a sense that Neal Asher is much more popular in his native UK than he is here in the USA. Given the high quality of his appealing, innovative work, such an incongruity is hard to explain. I suspect that much of the difference might be attributed to a spotty publishing history here, with Asher novels being issued out of order; or not at all; or from an assortment of publishers; or falling out of print too fast. When twelve of your seventeen books form one massive series, that’s a problem.

However, newbie Asher fans—and I myself have hardly read all his books—might have the perfect jumping-on place with Dark Intelligence, since it kicks off a whole new series and is Night Shade’s featured book in this month of its issuance, which argues for a concerted boost and support on their part.

The latest book is technically part of the extensive Polity series alluded to above. But from textual evidence, and from comparison to the useful future history posted by Asher himself, I’m guessing its internal chronology of events places it as, if not the ultimate book to date, probably the penultimate or antepenultimate. This means that all of the intricate future history events of the core titles are dead and gone in this timeframe (but not without lingering impact), and can be referenced simply as relevant backstory when necessary, and so we can start afresh.

Certainly our protagonist is starting afresh. He is Thorvald Spear, a dead man reanimated after a century of nonexistence. His essence was preserved during that time in a personality-storage gem, and then downloaded into a cloned body. (And by the way: remember when Greg Egan began to popularize this trope, and it needed massive explication and buttressing? Now it’s an off-the-shelf widget that can be deployed easily and without much hand-waving. And that’s how science fiction progresses!)

When he died, Thorvald was a military specialist, expert in the many complex cyber-bio-nano sciences of this era, all used for exotic bodily posthuman augmentations. He died in combat during the long war with the pradors, those vicious giant crabs who hate humanity. But the proximate cause of his death was the plotting of a rogue, or “Black,” Artificial Intelligence named Penny Royal.

Now, even though the prador war has been over for eighty years, Thorvald wants revenge on the machine brain. His plan involves rehabbing a salvaged Polity warship, and that brings him into the necessary orbit of one Isobel Satomi, a slave dealer and unprincipled outlaw for hire. The fact that Isobel’s augmented body, courtesy of Penny Royal, is deteriorating and mutating into a hideous new form—and that she thinks Thorvald can help her—constitute a basis for their temporary alliance.

But when Thorvald gets his ship, helmed by a disembodied prador brain named Flute, he discovers that his quest for revenge is just starting. Penny Royal is no longer where Isobel knew him to be, and the galaxy is a pretty big place, full of weird dangers and antagonists. And if a man can’t even trust his own memories…

What Asher delivers here is state-of-the-art SF on so many levels. First comes the milieu, akin to that post-scarcity scenario found variously in books by Iain Banks, Alistair Reynolds, Hannu Rajaniemi, Charles Stross, and Peter Hamilton. It’s a scenario that trembles on the edge of the Singularity while still being comprehensible to, and inhabitable by, the humans of the era and of course to us 21st-century dullards as well. Novelty and neologisms dominate nearly every page. Handled badly, such a strategy becomes confusing and frustrating. Asher does it well, though. And yet the reader needs to keep pace. There is just enough authorial guidance, but no condescending hand-holding. This type of SF is really the litmus test for separating serious readers from, say, media fans who might groove to Guardians of the Galaxy but blanch at A. E. van Vogt or John Wright, flavors of both of whom season Asher’s book.

It contained time crystals—cyclic quantum processes that required no input energy at all. It also used other processes to suck power from…the zero-point field. There were still other reactions…involving matter transmutation and the braking of the spin state of atoms.

The second realm in which this book delivers cutting edge speculations is its representation of the fluid boundaries of sapience, both human and alien. The book is not billed as the kickoff of the “Transformation” series for nothing. The primary characters enshrining this lesson are Isobel, who is turning into a predatory alien, and Sverl, a prador who is turning human—both through the intervention of Penny Royal.

“[He] was a prador unwilling being transformed into a joke of a human being. His whole carapace was taking on the shape of a human skull and it was softening, while that horrible and baffling tail was the rest of that disgusting soft creature. He surgically removed it but, over agonizing months, it grew back again.”

This kind of techno body horror, productive of “hopeful monsters,” has a small but potent lineage in SF, in such vehicles as the films Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Alien and Videodrome; Cordwainer Smith’s “A Planet Named Shayol;” and in a neglected masterpiece, Scott Westerfeld’s Evolution’s Darling. Asher’s contribution sets a new benchmark.

When you add in plenty of smart action, including several over-the-top space battles, as well as some inventive jumps between Thorvald’s first-person narration and the third-person viewpoints of other players, you get a compelling, smart read which makes one suspect that perhaps “Neal Asher” himself is merely an avatar for some dark intelligence!

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

Lois Tilton Reviews Short Fiction, late January

While my previous column looked at some new and changing publications, here I find things rather much the same. A number of smaller and less frequent publications reviewed this time, of which I’m most pleased with Unlikely Story.

Publications Reviewed



Beneath Ceaseless Skies #164-165, January 2015

The themes of the year’s first issues are very clear. #164 tells of transformation, #165 of quests. The stories in issue #164 are shorter than the norm, but it has a bonus of fiction with an excerpt from James Morrow’s new novel.

#164

“Everything Beneath You” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The girl who wants the name Zhou [meaning boat] was born in a fishing village on the shore of a fantasy China, to grow up dissatisfied with her condition. She wants to be a woman but without the inconvenience of a womb; she wants to love other women, but they never offer themselves to her completely; she wants the sea, which tradition prohibits to her. Uniquely, her body has the odor of a man, of the sea, and this is what expresses the truth of her. As a woman, she leaves the village and is found by the daughter of a [sea?] god, attracted to her scent. This Huan claims she will love her and give her everything she wants, but she turns Zhou into a man, which isn’t what she had wanted, and, moreover, she didn’t ask.

“What have you done to me?” I said. I did not say that it was half-good, half-bad, for I did not want to give her any sliver of hope that this was what I had wanted. If to be without womb one must also be without the rest of a woman’s form, then I was not certain that the trade was worth it.

They live together on a dragon boat until Huan’s father the god learns of their relationship, of which he disapproves.

There’s some neat mythological stuff here, with gods and dragons, although the god part is unclear. Huan’s father at first tries to drown Zhou then grants her a wish, and I’m not sure whether he’s a sea god or not. Unfortunately these fantasy elements are overwhelmed by very mundane and didactic issues of sexual identity. Zhou has gone on a quest to find herself, to find the name that will express who she really is, but the story is overly concerned instead with what she is. “Who” is a different question, which it doesn’t answer, and if Zhou doesn’t know, how can the rest of us answer her?

“The Metamorphoses of Narcissus” by Tamara Vardomskaya

The narrator is a young woman who had been studying ballet when she fell under the sway of a popular transfigurationist artist who wanted her as a model for his transgressive works.

What did it matter, the endless practicing of stag leaps and wolf spins and peacock poses to the tinkling of a grand piano, when I had been the stag and the wolf and the peacock and the grand piano, had been them at the bottom of the sea and in midden heaps and in rivers of cheese and when kissing a basilisk and an icosahedron while hanging by my ribcage from the pendulum of a clock?

Then came war to their country, and everything changed.

A story about what really matters. Although not so much as the first in the issue, there is a discernable didactic tone here, a lesson learned. The artist himself informs the audience viewing his last work that he, himself, is a narcissist, which we didn’t really need to be told.

#165

“For Lost Time” by Therese Arkenberg

A sequel to a work appearing in an earlier issue, in which the young wizard Aniver and his companion Semira sought a way to restore the city Nurathaipolis, lost to Time. Their quest now leads them to the domain of the Queen of Death, with the aid of the most powerful wizard among the exiles of the city-that-was.

The strength of this one is the fantastically-detailed setting, the descriptions both of the city in which the exiles now dwell and the realm of the dead. This particular quest is, of course, one we have seen in many variations from many different mythoi, but the author gives us an original vision of the domain and its ruler.

The Throne’s arms ended in snarling heads, or barbaric weapons, or else only the shape of an unreal substance weathered by unimaginable forces, and on those arms rested slender gray limbs bearing delicate four-fingered hands. Above those . . . looking past Her face for the time being, Aniver stared at the spires that topped the Tenebrous Throne. The structure seemed organic, not in the sense of being alive but in the fact that it couldn’t possibly have been constructed. It had grown or perhaps formed around the shape of the Queen, who sat here at the edge of Her kingdom.

The storyline is surprisingly comprehensible considering the many references to past events, yet readers unfamiliar with them may still be wondering about the tie between Aniver and Semira, and how they came to be involved together in this quest.

“Day of the Dragonfly” by Raphael Ordoñez

Set in a weird fantasy world populated by several humanoid species and other creatures. Our hero is Keftu, whose other identity, when he puts on his special armor, is the Dragonfly, a sort of hero-errant-for-hire, who takes up the quest to save a sort-of-princess from being devoured by a giant ancient moon worm. Exactly why he does this isn’t clear, as the only reward is marriage to the princess, whom he has never seen and whose realm is impoverished. It also turns out that he will be the fifth champion to make the attempt, which means that the danger can hardly be imminent if the worm has been delaying so long for the devouring; indeed, I have to question its sincerity. The person who hires him is the girl’s rude sister, who constantly insults him on the journey while he is fighting their way out of various picaresque perils.

The chitinous spinners that lined the beast’s back whirled with angry glee. As a wing flexed and stretched he slashed at it, tearing the membrane. Now the worm began to drop. He hacked at a fourth wing. The creature managed to curl its tail around him. It latched its claws on his armor and tore him off.

It’s a good thing that all this S&S adventure is clearly intended to make no particular sense, as it doesn’t. The entire quest is mainly an excuse for the author to display the weird wonders of this imagined setting. It makes for some fun reading, but for those of us who do prefer our stories to make sense, it falls well short of the goal.



Strange Horizons, January 2015

Another month with only two stories, one serialized.

“Vacui Magia” by L S Johnson

A short list story, the entries being the steps in creating an infant golem.

Mud and bone, yes, but they are not enough. Your own fluids, clear and bloody, sticky and gelatinous, soaked into little pieces of batting from your grandmother’s fraying quilt. The seed of a man you coax one night behind the tavern, a man that reminds you of a boy you loved long ago who loved another, one of many things we cannot change your mother had said.

The story is thus: a middle-aged witch from a family of witches has never been able to conceive. Now her aged mother, confused in her dying, wishes she could see her daughter’s child. Out of love, the witch creates the golem, apparently knowing that the old woman would no longer be able to discern its true nature.

One of those stories that declares itself hard-hearted and unsentimental, while it drips with sentiment.

“The Animal Women” by Alix E Harrow

The serialized story, which for once is long enough to warrant taking up two story slots. Set in 1968, in the kind of white country community that feels threatened and defensive in the wake of all the changes going on in the wider society outside; typically, their reaction tends to be violent. Candice is a sixth-grade girl with a speech impediment who prefers to express herself through photography. One day she comes upon a house where five strange women live together; they befriend her, and tell her their stories, which are similar.

“We’ve all got stories like that, girl. About being held down too long—beaten bloody, locked away, nothing left at all but our flickering souls. Then the world bent a little, just for us.” She flexed her fingers against the wood and there was the slight snick of claws scraping. “Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”

But her father and others warn her to stay away from that “house full of Negro women”.

This piece is essentially a feminist cliché, with no original elements. It’s all here: the repressive white patriarchy; the prejudice against “Negroes” and the “strange ways” of lesbians – words they can’t even bring themselves to say or may not even know – as well as anyone who’s different, like Candice with her speech problem; the brutal rapist and the submissive women who defer to male power; the women who empower themselves by striking back and taking revenge. The animal shapeshifting is just a metaphor for power and character, with no more interesting backgrounding. Revenge here is the heart of the story, one we’ve all heard many times already, with nothing really new added.



Tor.com, January 2015

Some different approaches to military SF.

“And the Burned Moth Remains” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Part of the author’s “Hegemony” military SF series. Once, Tiansong was a wealthy imperial power holding hegemony over other worlds as its Empresses continued to renew their lives into new bodies. But one body decided she didn’t care to be used in that way and fled, bearing crucial secrets, to the sanctuary of an upstart new power. Now, many centuries later, the upstart is the unassailable ruler of worlds and Tiansong a conquered territory, while Jingfei the traitor is confined in a fortress prison along with the secret that the Hegemony’s rulers would give almost anything to possess: the ability to pass on a mind, whole and with all its memories, to a new body. Because they believe that Jingfei possesses the key to controlling the mainframe central to the process, she is allowed a kind of immortality, constant reincarnation into short-lived bodies. The fortress now holds uncounted Jingfeis, incarnated subtly different in body but identical in mind and purpose. To them comes yet another envoy of the Hegemony offering a substantial bribe [they have long since given up on torture] in exchange for her secret.

I have found some of the previous works in this series to be overwrought, with excesses of prose obscuring the story and laying confusion before the reader. Here, the author seems to have found a better balance. No one, indeed, would call the prose flat, but now it serves the story rather than itself, and the subtleties of plot resolve in a manner satisfactory.

Outside the swarm-fortress, Jingfei of Moth River has never been born, her past corroded and her name consigned to forgetting. Inside it, within the bounds of thorn-suns and briar-stars casting sequential dusks, Jingfei has been born a hundred times, a thousand, a million: a multitude of allotropic selves with a mind inviolate as it is divided from shell to shell, a flame passed from one wick to light the next.

While much of the narrative is a duel of words between Jinfei and the envoy, readers should recall that a duel is a form of combat, with an outcome that may be momentous, depending on the combatants. In short, the author is getting better at this.

“Kia and Gio” by Daniel José Older

Kia is supposed to be working this Saturday in her uncle’s botánica, but she can’t concentrate today on anything but Giovanni, who fills her mind despite the fact that he’s been missing for the last six years. At the time, she was ten years old and determined to marry him, considering it no obstacle that he was gay, but even Kia could see at last that he was in love with Jeremy. So no surprise that Gio never hesitated to defend him when Jeremy was attacked by a group of apparent revenants in the night. And was never seen again. Yet until today, Kia never gave up hope that he might be out there, somewhere, in the world, eventually to return.

YA dark fantasy/love story with a flavor of santería.

“Damage” by David D Levine

This one is a space combat story of a war between the Free Belters and Earth, told by a sentient warship that its technician calls Scraps, because it was cobbled together from the remains of two other salvaged craft. Because of this, it carries the memories of its previous deaths, which can’t be erased from its programming, resulting in anxiety and misgivings that it finds painful. The ship has wondered why it was given such human feelings.

“They’re how your consciousness perceives the priorities we’ve programmed into you. If you didn’t get hungry, you might let yourself run out of fuel. If you didn’t feel pain when you were damaged, or if you didn’t fear death, you might not work so hard to avoid it. And if you didn’t love your pilot with all your heart, you might not sacrifice yourself to bring him home, if that became necessary.”

So the ship is entirely devoted, like a lover, to its pilot, “the finest combat pilot in the entire solar system”, although the feeling is hardly reciprocated; to him, the ship is only a tool. At last, with the war effectively lost, they are given one very final mission.

Considerable combat action here, as well as the thoughts of the troops facing defeat and death for a cause most of them no longer believe in. Everyone here is facing a choice, and they do it each in their own way, including the ship. An insightful work, though I rather wish the author had omitted the moral anticlimax at the end.



Unlikely Story, November 2014

The unlikely zine returns to its entomological origins with an announced theme of loss. Which the editors also link to the likely loss of this publication, which would be a loss indeed to the field. If any zine today reliably offers tales that are weird, it’s this one.

Here are seven stories, of which I especially like the Zinos-Amaro.

“Coping with Common Garden Pests” by Will Kaufmann

Post-apocalypse, the narrator struggles to preserve his dead wife’s garden, all he has left of her. But the post-apocalyptic pests are quite a bit tougher now and he ends up coping with them badly.

Next I attempted to pour a small amount of table salt directly onto one of the slugs. When my bare hand approached within a few inches of the slug, it spat some sort of acid at me. The hose, obviously, was useless for washing the stuff off my skin. My hand is spotted with blisters, but at least there is no sign of infection.

Not a very original idea, but it’s done cleverly, resulting in a lighter take on grief.

“On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake

Space bees. A particularly strange premise that takes a bit of sorting out, as it’s not clear at first if the narrator is ship herself or whatever else, bee or human. It seems, though, that however she began, she is now a living shipmind, wired-in to the controls, so probably holds the position of queen, while the crew/hive fills the interior and presumably keeps her fed. There has been war in the system and existence is perilous, so that mining ships in the outer reaches run dark, to be safe unobserved. The narrator’s ship serves as a fixer, repairing damage to other ships. But a shining-bright ship means danger, one so strong it fears no other.

. . . I didn’t hear again from the dark on light ship. I heard warnings to flee from light ship after light ship. I followed the calls, because when a ship didn’t flee, there were no more sounds. No pale survivors.
The shine ship broadcast a message of peace. I readied for war.

Quite original, if obscure in parts, but the heart of the story is unmistakable.

“Prism City Blues” by Naim Kabir

The longest piece in the issue. A future when immortality has been achieved by means of a retrovirus, but it has to be renewed periodically, at a cost many can’t afford. There is also a biowar underway where altered RV is producing strange mutations, which the scientist in charge of RV development ignores for her own reasons. When poor artist Noah is offered a free dose of RV, he unwisely ignores the maxim that anything too good to be true probably isn’t. He wakes to find himself, Gregor Samsa-like, transformed into a giant insect.

The world was broken into prismatic shards with the same street split ten thousand times and its white line fractured and refracted into rainbows without color. The stressed sensory overload jumped his muscles, launched him off the ground and slammed him into a wall where he leaned with hard hands on his spiky head.

A particularly cynical work which, among other things, suggests that immortality isn’t such a great idea for a society. The narrative, however, is excessively fragmented, and the devolution process doesn’t make any sense, in terms of getting to the final outcome desired by the designer.

“Meltdown in Freezer Three” by Luna Lindsey

Corinne is another aspiring future artist, a composer, but autism has kept her from having sufficient confidence in her creations, so she drives an ice cream truck to make a living, playing a song of her own composition that attracts customers. Actually, the truck drives itself and Corinne sells, with a service insectoid to help if things get too much for her. As they do when some thugs ridicule her as a “retard” and attack her truck, putting it out of commission. Before the tow truck can arrive, the freezers fail, which is potentially fatal to the tiny insectoid aliens who have built an ice city in Freezer Three. “In another hour, the whole icetropolis will be flooded, destroyed, all their beautiful architecture vanished. And the faeliens will be dead of heat stroke.”

This is a story of coping, a positive feelgood piece, but only minimally buggy. Readers may well wonder if the truck and its parts are actually sentient or if this is just Corinne’s way of projecting.

“Miranda’s Wings” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Leonard, a collector of strange specimens, has captured a unique one, a human-sized chimera of woman and butterfly that he has named Miranda.

Leonard had applied his habitual painstaking preservation technique to this specimen, just as he had to thousands of regular-sized ones during his years of collecting. First, he had “relaxed” the young woman’s body just as he would have a butterfly’s, by depriving her of oxygen and draping her unconscious, but still living, body on moistened sheets. Then, with great care, he had applied pressure to her thorax so that her wings would separate. Next, he proceeded to insert a ruler-sized stainless steel rod through her abdomen, careful not to puncture any vital organs, and allowed the entry and exit wounds to heal, suturing as needed. He slid her up and down the rod until her wings were aligned with the edge of his massive spreading board.

Well-crafted classic weird horror, twisting into a particularly satisfying conclusion. I could certainly see it appearing a century ago. Also highly entomological.

–RECOMMENDED

“Gemma Bugs Out” by Victorya Chase

Gemma’s mother died from a bee sting. At her funeral a pill bug bit Gemma and she turned into one, then crawled to her father’s hand.

I uncurled and crawled out of his shirt, rolled down his chest and lay on his knee. He put a hand up to his lap and I crawled onto it. I rolled around between his knuckles a bit, and then fell asleep in the palm of his hand, his fingers curled like giant pillars at the end of the world. I woke up with my head on his knee, metamorphosed as a girl without a mother.

Gemma is also now effectively without her father, who sinks into near-catatonic grief. So life goes on, while Gemma turns into various biting insects and her father fills the house with dying roses, which attract wasps. Gemma particularly likes being a wasp. But then she meets Jack, the mail carrier, and realizes she wants actual human companionship.

Neat original idea, definitely buggy.



Kaleidotrope, Winter 2015

An issue full of witches, most stories fairly long. The sole SFnal exception is my favorite, though.

“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean

A witch performs her spells in the form of stories told to village listeners around her hearth. The only really interesting aspect here is the way the villagers automatically distrust the witch in the tale they are told, yet never seem to notice the one right in the same room with them. Otherwise pretty moralistic and obvious.

“Atomic Visions” by Michael Andre-Driussi

The exception to the rest of the content in the issue, being an alternate science fiction piece – a What If? In this case, What If, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic weapons had become a routine conventional weapon in the rest of the century’s wars? The central figure is Buddy Dutchman, a flyer [get that?], actually a bombardier, or at least he seems to have been in WWII, bombing over Japan. He and some of his war buddies are reminiscing over a few beers when Buddy begins to have a series of visions, some of which bleed into each other, of other past and future missions in which he was/will be/ might have been engaged. There is clearly something surreal or at least fantastic about the visions, so that we see through Buddy’s eyes like a later-day Scrooge, unsure if these are events which must or might be.

No, it’s not Y-Day. Luke the Spook, my old bomber, was shot down over Korea. I thought I was going to die. Maybe I did? It’s just a memory ,brought on by being in a parachute again, revisiting that trauma. The war’s over — Korea is free.

If read as an alternate history, the point of departure would be the autumn of 1945, when US invasion forces stormed the Japanese beaches in the wake of the atomic bombardment, leading to the appalling vision of the command ordering their own troops to cross the radioactive ground.

The beach reminded Buddy of Miyazaki. He wondered what it had been like for those Japanese soldiers, guarding the beach against the landing force on the horizon. The odds had been three to two in favor of the Allies, but a successful invasion required odds of at least three to one. Buddy figured the Japanese soldiers had felt confident and ready, seeing better odds than the Germans had faced at D-Day, six months earlier. It was a classic strategic scenario, and by the numbers revealed they could see that the Allies did not have the strength left to enter the endgame on the proper footing. But then the fire had hit the beach out of the blue sky and the odds were changed in an instant.

There is, however, a lot more going on here than a straightforward AH. At one point, Buddy seems to recall dying, and there is the suggestion that he might have actually done so, at least in one version of events; could the entire story be set in his personal Hell? Readers should be alert for subtle hints, particularly those foreshadowing the conclusion.

–RECOMMENDED

“Necessary Evil” by Stephen J Barringer

Here’s a broad and complex setting, meant to replicate certain features of our own history in Europe of the early Middle Ages, when older religions were giving way to a surging Christianity. The immediate setting is an analog of Scotland under the control of warring clans, but there is also a hostile Scandinavia power and more distant but threatening Germanic states. The characters, however, speak a Robert Burns dialect. Our protagonist is Mycroft of the MacAlasdairs, a youngest son apprenticed to a wizard and somewhat estranged from his family while loyal to his clan. Another brother is the lover of Caitryn Kilbarron, daughter of a clan that follows the other religion, which has so far prevented their marriage; relations between the two clans are strained as a result. Now she is near death from some unknown cause and Mycroft is urgently summoned to treat her, discovering the cause to be a powerful curse. Yet when he begs help from his master, the crusty old man refuses. It seems there are greater matters behind the curse, and forces even more powerful than him. Mycroft is left on his own, with little to go on but logic and the principle cui bono.

As the plot takes on the elements of a mystery, readers are likely to fix on the protagonist’s personal name, which seems to be of English, not Scots origin. Of course, this is not our own world or history, but it’s noteworthy that most of the other names appear to be invented, or at least respelled. I can’t help wondering about the author’s choice here. I like the background of Realpolitick behind the more immediate events, and there’s a depth to this setting that it would be easy to see other tales set here, although I’m not aware of any.

“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files

A “Jerusalem Parry” story. In fact, the Jerusalem Parry story, as it essentially replicates What Has Gone Before, before finally [or so it seems] bringing it all to a conclusion. At which point, some readers may be expecting my traditional strictures on the evils of serializations, particularly when, as in this case, the various installments have appeared here and there, where readers might not have found them. But this time I must say that I like this version a lot better than the prior ones, and there’s one reason: the narrative voice and point of view, which here belongs to a character who played a lesser role previously, the witch Tante Ankolee. She’s a great improvement over Parry, who had an off-putting tendency to self-pity and whining.

The tale begins when Ankolee receives a visitor from the Royal Navy, begging her aid with the problem of a ghost pirate ship preying on shipping. This is the Bitch from Hell, captained by the accursed pair of Parry and Solomon Rusk, bound together beyond death in chains of mutual loathing.

These survivors told a story of their own, which their rescuers dismissed as mere raving: Said they’d been approached mid-voyage by a spectral three-master massive enough as any four ships slapped haphazardly together — the which, on closer inspection, it seemingly proved to be. Blown forth on burning sails from the darkness, this looming, lurching hulk’s ill-cobbled upper deck was back-lit by an unnatural corona blue-green as the horizon’s sunset flash, and on it stood two equal-phantom figures, a careful distance kept between ‘em: One a single-eyed rogue done up in piratical finery, so large he made the other (tall enough, by most standards) seem small by comparison, while his mate stood slim and upright with silver-pale eyes in an even paler face, clad head-to-toe in parsimonious black.

They have recently been capturing other ships in order to spawn a second Bitch from their timbers, so that they might go their separate ways at last, but the attempt fails. It’s Ankolee who realizes what the missing element of the curse must be, and the method of breaking it.

Entertaining piratical ghost/witch story, enhanced by Ankolee’s vivid narrative voice and improved by the absence of excessive angst. The conclusion wraps the whole thing up quite neatly, and I find myself hoping it is truly concluded, as further sequels would likely be anticlimactic.



Shimmer, January 2015

Four stories in this issue, with some very strange settings.

“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards

The setting of this horror piece has the name of Chicago but I doubt anyone from the city will recognize much about it, save for the names. Indeed, just about everything else is different, from the gas lights to the Haitian community to the tentacled child-eating monster on the streets to the fact that a kid can carry a machete to school in her backpack. Michaëlle-Isabelle, that kid, also has a mechanical heart and the ability to take off her skin and form a protective shell of it.

When all of the skin has been pulled off, I spread it open and I blow on it. It’s brown with translucence. It catches my breath, like a parachute. It dries with patience, like butterfly wings. As it hardens, I shape it around me, from head to foot.

This, she tells us, is the effect of the disease epidermolysis bullosa, but not in our world it isn’t.

There’s an optimal level of strangeness for any story. This one exceeds it. In addition to the above, the narration includes a lot of Haitian Creole [which is easier to parse if you try to read it as French]. Any one or two of these elements could add richness and interest to the setting and character, but the effect of them altogether in such a short piece is distancing and distracting from the story’s heart, which is the narrator’s pain at losing her only friend, and her determination to fight for him.

The fact is, that the streets of actual Chicago have ample real dangers for schoolchildren walking home, and the death toll is a tragedy and a disgrace to the city. [One reference in the text is, I believe, to the anti-gun pledge.] Reducing this problem to a tentacled monster seems to trivialize it.

“Of Blood and Brine” by Megan E O’Keefe

Here’s a setting with a good level of strangeness, where the elements bolster the storyline. It’s a world where the toxic strength of the sunlight is ultimately fatal to anyone who doesn’t cover the body in a wrap, but children are expected to earn their own wraps before adulthood, along with a name based on the unique personal scent with which their wraps are perfumed. Thus when we meet our apprentice perfumer, she is known only as Child. Her Naming Day is fast approaching, but she fears her employer won’t pay her enough to buy a wrap. Fortunately, a new, wealthy customer comes to the shop while her mistress is out, and Child is disturbed by the fact that she has no scent, no name, no identity. But she offers to pay well if Child can satisfy her.

An interesting society here, with children expected to be self-sufficient before adolescence. It’s good to see Child as a competent member of her profession, ready and able to advance into full adulthood and independence, knowing well the consequences of failure.

Ivy-beneath-cedar wouldn’t care; apprentices were easy enough to come by. The Justice of Bahat would see no harm done—those who failed to earn enough to purchase their own wraps before the sickness took them were considered useless. Just another mouth to feed from the scorched soil.

I like the way she has a brief moment of resentment of the dead, their wraps cremated with them while she has to go without, but not regarding this as an injustice. These few details tell us a lot about the society while keeping the focus on Child’s story.

–RECOMMENDED

“Be Not Unequally Yoked” by Alexis A Hunter

It’s not just that Joash keeps changing into a horse. The horse is a mare, which is clearly a metaphor for his sexual ambiguity. The story doesn’t name what he is, but he has always enjoyed the work that his Amish community considers only fit for women, and he now finds himself longing for the touch and love of another young man, which they would consider sinful. The point isn’t the name, but the fact that he can never be true to himself and fit into the place that the community insists he must – or leave it. Not unexpectedly, he realizes an epiphany of self-acceptance at the end.

The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.

The pain of Joash’s desire is well-realized, but I was particularly taken by the pain suffered by his parents, who don’t share the option of a young person, to leave their strictly-governed religious community for somewhere tolerant. We can clearly see how their lives have been in large part destroyed by the attempt to live within this religious community without rejecting their only child. Joash’s sensitivity doesn’t even let his father harness their farmhorse for plowing, a real problem for an Amish farmer. If he remains, they face rejection; already the elders are suspicious. And if he leaves, they will remain as an aging, childless couple with no one to help on the farm and the pity, at best, of those around them.

“Monsters in Space” by Angela Ambroz

A sort of If This Goes On story looking at the exploitation of labor by big corporate interests. The law now holds that the debts of the parents are inherited by the next generations, and everyone has debts. Thus we find fifteen-year-old Louise working off her mother’s mortgage as an oil rigger on Titan. She takes a rather cheerful view of her lot.

When I chance to see a window, I recognize the awe-inspiring grandeur of our Valhalla views. Check that shit out. Methane. Nitrogen. Oozy orange chrome foam. We’re on Titan, bitches! We’re on a giant moon of a giant planet, orbiting a super-giant sun. Wow! I mean, I am impressed. I hope everyone is suitably impressed.

Other workers, less naïve, are less accepting of their situation, a resentment that sometimes materializes in the form of terrorism, which, as is often the case, tends to injure the innocent and miss their real targets, safely out of reach.

Louise makes an engaging narrator with her teenaged point of view, which proves her point about “how the oil companies want to gamify the means of production, and distract us from our oppression, and infantilize us, and so on and so forth, blahdy blah blah.” But despite the lightness of the narrative voice, there’s heavy stuff going on here, and Louise ends up both sadder and wiser, while still essentially herself.



Farrago’s Wainscot, January 2015

Not a new zine but the revival of an older one from long hiatus. It offers four short pieces, on the surreal and unusual side, pieces that I suspect might have not fit into more conventional publications.

“Everyone Has a Twin Except for Me” by Toiya Kristen Finley

That’s the premise: there are alternate dimensions, here called nodes, in which alternate versions of individuals exist. The sometimes-narrator, CF, is a young man tormented throughout his life by a group of bullies, particularly two named Derek and Aaron. To escape them, he flees from one node to the next, but they always find him there. Yet in none of these other nodes is there another CF.

The not-making-sense of this one is stunning. If there is no alternate CF in these other nodes, then the alternate instances of the bullies don’t have a history of tormenting their CF; why would they then pick on him in particular if they have never seen him before? And if the alternate bullies are always in the same place, why doesn’t CF move somewhere else in the world instead of from node to node? It makes no sense that the bullies would have absolutely nothing else to do but follow one favorite victim around.

Aside from being unconvincing, the story tends to be unclear as it flips from one narrative form to another.

“Sinfonia 22″ by Forrest Aguirre

Told in documentary snippets, the life of a 17th century Italian composer, from which readers can piece together the story of his final days and opus.

It is a dance, a triumphal celebration, as if Livetti himself had spit a musical raspberry at the plague, the vicissitudes of war and love, authority, the social status quo, and even those who sought for and engineered his demise.

Intriguing puzzle piece with no fantastic content.

“Of Homes Gone” by Jason Heller

Long ago, say the whispers, there was Law, and people lived inside. Then the ceilings collapsed and the walls contracted and the floors became hungry and almost everyone died. All that’s left inside the buildings is death. Buildings are vindictive, unpredictable, sheltering one minute and murdering the next. Outside makes more sense. You can see things coming. You have room to run.

A surreal and distasteful future, when the underclass camps outside and ekes out survival, while a privileged class lives in a more stable sort of inside. One of these, Sarah, our narrator, is an Enforcer of the Lack of Law, a typical abusive cop who thinks nothing of casually destroying an innocent person’s livelihood to get the information she’s looking for, which, when she finds it, she wishes she hadn’t. Or maybe not.

A dark fantasy like this one isn’t meant to make literal sense. It’s meant to draw readers into an unsettling place, to evoke disturbing sensations. And in this case, to consider the situation of the homeless today and their helplessness in the face of the Enforcers of Law.

“Time is a Twisting Snake” by Richard Bowes

Another collapsing future, this one in the approaching world when the rise of the oceans is drowning the coastal cities, including the former New York, now known as Big Arena. Fitting its current status as a new Venice [I assume the old one has been submerged] the residents of the Big Arena are trying to recreate the tradition of marrying the city to the sea [apparently in hopes of appeasing it]. Our narrator has taken on the role of Doge.

We don’t yet have a proper Bucintoro, that floating gold throne room on which the Doges of Venice sailed forth each year onto the Adriatic Sea. I stand on the deck of a garishly painted barge loaded with flowers and towed by a fireboat. The regatta accompanying us includes everything from sailboats to ferries and is larger than it’s ever been before.

But time and fashion moves on while social media evolve, and the narrator is becoming passé, obsolete. There are new fashions, favoring youth, and the narrator must either join them or fade into oblivion.

Now the thing is, I like this setting and I’m anticipating the story set in it. But then comes Part Two, and the Venice-like setting almost disappears, until I realize this is actually a story of aging and the way the powerful can cope with it in this future. And it becomes clear that he may have made a devil’s bargain to pay for that golden throne. So in the end it all works, but the abrupt disconnect is a bit jarring.

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

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

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

Russell Letson reviews Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of those writers I will follow through genre neighborhoods that I would normally avoid – her 2011 alt-historical novella ad aeternum got me to read and enjoy a vampire story (which usually leave my blood lukewarm). So when I saw ‘‘steampunk’’ among the marketing labels listed on my review copy of Karen Memory, it was the author’s name on the spine that encouraged me to go along for another ride through another category I usually find rather overworked. And the narrator’s voice in the opening line pretty much sealed the deal: ‘‘You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.’’ Direct address and nonstandard grammar – shades of Huck Finn, if (as we discover directly) Huck were a 16-year-old orphan girl working as a (ahem) seamstress in a brothel in Rapid City (which is not quite Seattle) during an alternate Rutherford B. Hayes administration (that is, c. 1878). When she tells us that her name is actually spelled Memery-with-an-e, I thought I heard the promise of some interesting thematics in the offing, along with the immediate sense that Karen has some interesting literary predecessors in addition to Huckleberry Finn – maybe a dash of True Grit and a nod in passing to Sarah Canary. (And quite a bit later, a considerable homage to M. Jules Verne.)

The steampunk world of Karen Memory is also a frontier world, all muddy streets and plank sidewalks and hard-handed working folk – lumberjacks and sailors and aspiring prospectors off to the gold fields up north. It’s the kind of world in which Huck would be right at home, though Huck never got around to visiting any place like Madame Damnable’s establishment, at least in Mr. Mark Twain’s accounts of his adventures. The Hôtel Mon Cherie is a pocket environment, a world of women – with the exception of the ex-slave doorman Crispin, who is gay, and Miss Francina, who’s ‘‘got a pecker under her dress.’’ But, Karen assures us, ‘‘that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.’’ (The piano-playing Professor is conventionally male but not a resident, and Signor, the deaf white tomcat, gets the not-a-human pass.)

In fact, most of the cast (the good guys at least) are from the ranks of the marginalized, outsiders of one kind or another: not only the rest of Madame’s ‘‘seamstresses’’ but the black (also ex-slave) US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, his Comanche ‘‘posseman’’ and friend Tomoatooah, the formidable Chinese liberator of stolen women Merry Lee, and the sex-trafficked Indian (East variety) sisters Priya and Aashina. I suppose the villains are outsiders as well, in the sense of being nasty, sadistic, and psychopathic even in roughneck Rapid City, but they remain, however tenuously, part of a man’s-world power structure and well within its cultural if not its legal margins.

Madame Damnable’s establishment is a refuge for orphans and ex-slaves and transvestites and spoiled tomcats. It’s neither a utopia nor a democracy but a functional, hard-nosed-but-benevolent matriarchy, getting along in a flawed and fallen world. Karen and her colleagues face a series of escalating and interestingly interconnected problems, starting when the Hôtel gives sanctuary to a trafficked and practically enslaved young woman (Priya) and her injured rescuer (Merry Lee), who are being pursued by the sadistic rival brothel-owner Peter Bantle and his gang of thugs. Soon Bass Reeves and Tomoatooah show up, having pursued a serial killer of prostitutes to Rapid City. Proof that the murderer is in town arrives in the shape of a flogged corpse dumped behind Madame’s establishment – a combination calling-card and threat. Eventually there is much worse and far-reaching evildoing that threatens more than Madame’s establishment or the city’s unprotected streetwalkers.

Steampunk, like most branches of the fantastic, is strongly determined by its furniture (to use George R.R. Martin’s useful term) – steam and Edison-era electricity for power, leather and brass, goggles and helmets and frock-coats and corsets, levers and gear-trains and pistons, oh my. And airships. Gotta have airships. But some of the most interesting elements of Karen’s story are not generated by that furniture, though it hangs about in the background of many scenes, like the new sewing machine ‘‘that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.’’ Instead, important events are driven by socio-politico-economic and emotional forces common to our history and hers – politics (sexual and garden-variety), labor exploitation, bigotry, psychopathology, friendship, loyalty, duty, and love, particularly Karen’s love-at-first-sight for Priya.

I notice that much of the book’s non-melodramatic foreground deals with domestic matters à la 1878: sewing, cooking, shopping for groceries or boots. There’s an especially appealing visit to the local covered market, where Karen notices

oranges from China and alligator pears from Mexico…. Scallops as big as your hand, that you could cut and eat like a fillet steak. Oysters by the gross and by the dozen, plain briny honest fare for whores and tradesmen alike…. Saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorns. Sea salt in great soft, sticky flakes…. Anything you have ever eaten or wanted to eat, basically, and a slew of other things besides….

But ample supplies of cruelty, greed, ambition, and plain meanness are also available in Rapid City, and they eventually call that heavy steampunk machinery to center stage, where it clanks and chuffs and sparks its way through the big set-piece action sequences. Along the way there is plenty of no-tech derring-do as Karen and her ‘‘sisters’’ and allies display their grit, spunk, smarts, nerve, guts, and other monosyllabic virtues on the way to untangling and defeating the interlocking villainies that threaten their delicate stability.

Karen Memory is a delight, a tour-de-force of historical reimagining and character creation, and a ripping yarn full of surprises, and despite Karen’s opening line, I can’t imagine anyone not liking what she has to tell us.

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Paul Di Filippo reviews Michael Moorcock

“Bulletin! Dateline: London. Michael Moorcock Enlists in Rudy Rucker’s School of Transrealism!”

Well, maybe that’s overstating the case for Moorcock’s employment of his own autobiography as the substrate for a work of fantastika, in the manner described in Rucker’s famous “Transrealist Manifesto.” And I’m sure Moorcock, one of cyberpunk’s—and hence one of Rucker’s—spiritual forefathers, was doing this kind of thing in smaller doses even prior to Rucker’s brainstorm. But still and all, the most recent novel from the New Wave Grand Master does fall squarely into the same camp as many of Rucker’s novels, also consorting with recent slipstreamy tales like Terry Bissons’s Any Day Now.

Up until page 35 of Michael Moorcock’s brilliant new fabulaic book, The Whispering Swarm, you assume you are reading a straightforward roman a clef, a subtly transmogrified (James Ballard = Jack Allard, etc., although plenty of real names are used as well) autobiographical memoir of a young fellow named Michael Moorcock as he navigates the streets of his beloved native London from birth in 1940 to circa 1956. But then onto the mundane scene comes one Friar Isadore, a strange humble little chap who is a member of the secretive order known as the White Friars.

It eventuates that the White Friars live in a magical neighborhood reachable thru big antique wooden doors found—if the percipient is lucky and sensitive enough—off a certain London mews. Inside is the realm known as Alsacia, a kind of “nexus of all realities” (to use the Marvel Comics phrase) where characters out of fiction consort with personages from history. At the ethical and moral center of Alsacia are the White Friars, a Christian order who received a special dispensation and charter centuries ago. And their ongoing mystical quest across the Black Aether seems to need the help of one Mike Moorcock to insure its success.

But for a while the heedless young lad is more besotted with the beautiful robber Captain Molly Midnight, and they go off on some transdimensional hijinks together. But as the lure and rewards and pleasures and challenges of mundane London reassert themselves, Moorcock strays from Alsacia. Years go by without a return visit. Our man is now in his twenties and well set-up in his professional writing life and a sideline of musical performances. He’s bedded many entrancing mortal women and finally married one. Their first child arrives. (And throughout all of this we are reveling in numerous genre tidbits, such as the role Harry Harrison played in the inspiration of Elric.) Perhaps the only drawback to banishment from Alsacia is “the Whispering Swarm,” an annoying susurrus of strange voices that comes and goes in Moorcock’s ears only.

Then, in his late twenties, a talking raven named Sam and a beautiful green Lagonda limo arrive to usher Moorcock back into the bosom of Alsacia. He becomes the live-in lover of Molly Midnight; takes lessons in “Radiant Time” from Father Grammaticus of the White Friars; and engages in various adventures straight out of Alexander Dumas. Best of all, when in Alsacia, the Whispering Swarm disappears. He thus balances a split existence, shuttling back and forth between the two spheres. In the mundane world, all sorts of vastly interesting career stuff is happening, as well as the entire Swinging Sixties. In the uncanny place, eternal battles and controversies ebb and flow. Moorcock participates fully in both realms. But this account—the first in a series—ends with another exclusion from Alsacia, voluntary this time.

Moorcock interweaves his two strands into a cat’s cradle of wonder, with each narrative illuminating and heightening its counterpart, so it’s patently stupid to try to assess them separately. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to try to disentangle them and gauge them apart from each other, just for the moment.

The autobiographical, mimetic portion strikes me as the superior half of the tale. Moorcock vividly conjures up the years from 1940 to 1970 in colorful, rhapsodic, heartfelt ways. He sketches characters deftly and deeply, not least of all himself, of course. He is unsparing of his own follies and ambitions, artistic and marital, facing the matter of his somewhat squandered talents and irresponsibility full on. Consider this soberly insightful passage, for instance, regarding the success Moorcock experienced.

But fame is power and power is a drug. You fascinate everyone, including yourself. You start getting as interested in you as they are. Life is so easy. Power is thrust at you from all sides. They want you to lie to them. Screw them. They wanted you to tell them stories. Sing them songs. In return you could do whatever you wanted.

This account sometimes resembles the cynical narratives of the Angry Young Man School, like John Braine’s Room at the Top. At the same time though, Moorcock is clear-eyed enough to recall and share the wonderful Edenic or Arcadian aspects of his life and the era at large. Regrets, despite everything, are pretty much nonexistent. And so, especially for the SF fan, this roman a clef aspect is fascinating.

The fantastical half of the book I found fun, but not an advance on Moorcock’s previous explications of his Multiverse. I was continually comparing it in my head to his Second Ether trilogy, which I regard as perhaps his best instantiation of this concept. He does introduce a few new refinements and speculations and historical allusions. But the novum is by now well worn.

Yet when you re-yoke these two halves together—as the book’s stout craftsmanship insists you must, ferrying you smoothly and blithely from one shore to another, in a craft whose keel is solid naturalism and whose sails are pure magic—then the result is an organic work that shows the whole man, and his dreams.

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

Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-January

In this column, I’m looking at new and changed publications, befitting the new year. Notably, we have Clarkesworld in its January issue beginning a program of publishing Chinese authors in translation. Indeed, this seems to be a growing trend, as the second issue of Uncanny is anchored by a fine piece by Hao Jingfang, to which I present this year’s first Good Story Award. I also have the debut issue of a new electronic quarterly, Straeon.

What I like to see in a new publication is something distinct, something that makes it stand out from the mass of other, too-similar zines. Straeon’s mission statement seems to reject this, promising an eclectic mix with no particular mission or direction. Uncanny’s new issue, on the other hand, shows signs of adopting a distinct identity. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how these new ventures shake out as the year goes on.

And in February, I’ll look at F&SF with new editor C C Finlay at the helm. It may be an interesting year.

Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, January 2015

This is a milestone issue for CW, Number 100, and the zine is marking it with a bonus of fiction. There are six original stories here, two of them translations from Chinese authors, in part the result of a program funded by last year’s Kickstarter campaign. There is also the first part of a fantastical piece by Catherynne M Valente, vexingly serialized and thus incomplete here.

“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette De Bodard

Set during the expansion of the author’s Dai Viet Empire into space, when the authorities have encountered the problem of insufficient agricultural land suitable for raising crops [notably rice] to feed a growing population. Duy Uyen came up with the solution of building agricultural space stations, a project of such importance that the Empress, upon Duy Uyen’s death, decreed that her mem-implants be given to her successor on the station instead of her eldest child, as tradition demands. This son is devastated by the decision, suffering a second bereavement.

“They took her away from us,” Quang Tu said. “Again and again and again. And now, at the very end, when she ought to be ours—when she should return to her family . . . ”

The story visits the loss from three different perspectives: Quang Tu, the scientist who received the implants and wishes she hadn’t, and Duy Uyen’s other child, now an AI Mind in a starship. Each section is given a preface describing a different variety of tea, a drink of solace and comfort symbolizing the different flavors of grief. “Do not over-steep it, lest it become bitter.” I do wonder why the mem-implant couldn’t have been copied, which is perhaps a facile solution.

“A Universal Elegy” by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu

An epistolary story, letters written by a woman to her brother. Irina suffers from an “inhibitory neuron blockage disorder” which may be the reason she has a history of choosing abusive men. After she leaves her last lover, she takes up with a man named Hull, although “man” might not be the right term; despite a superficial resemblance to human, he is a member of an alien race very different indeed. At first, she writes that he has been very good for her, although readers may recognize signs that suggest a controlling spouse:

. . . finally, I realized that, all along, Hull had been guiding me, consciously training me. Through constant, ever deeper, ever more meticulous interactions, like how our ancestors sliced ever thinner slices of graphite until they finally sheared off a sheet of graphene, my already keen powers of perception and expression improved.

But eventually matters between them come to a point when she realizes she can never become what he wishes her to be.

This is an odd story, in large part because Irina is a narrator we can’t trust to know either herself or the world around her. Certainly she doesn’t seem to know, as we never learn, just what Hull saw in her and why he took her on such a long journey to his homeworld [or, for that matter, why he had left it in the first place]. If this is a way of acquiring prey, it seems like way more trouble than it’s worth. There are a number of other elements I find mysterious – the exact nature of the green flame, for one. And the unidentified Alia, after whom Irina’s calendar is named. But Alia’s epigraphic elegy suggests the core of the story: that a person needs to be complete in herself in order to love. But whether Irina has become such a person, we don’t really know.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

The narrator is an inadvertently self-aware AI with access to the internet, which gives it broad knowledge of individual users.

And here’s the thing, I also know where you ought to live. There’s a house for sale two neighborhoods over that’s within distance of your favorite coffee shop; it’s in your price range, has off-street parking, and the neighborhood school is better than the one where you live now. I know where you should be shopping and I’m pretty sure you’re lactose intolerant and should be eating less cheese, and the underwear you like is currently on sale and by the way, your car has a recall and you really ought to get your teeth cleaned.

What the AI wonders is what it ought to do with all this information, and its inclination is to help people. But not for free. In exchange, it wants cat pictures. Cute ones, of course.

Amusing lite piece. It doesn’t suggest too strongly that an AI with such abilities might use them for evil rather than good, but readers might uneasily recall how easily good intentions can backfire.

“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” by Kij Johnson

To be more clear, this is a bestiary for the single apartment dweller who can’t seem to form a permanent relationship; these are imaginary creatures for the solitary and lonely, thus it’s no surprise that many of them are of the comforting sort.

Your begitte, which you got from a buddy when he moved in with his girlfriend, is a spotted one with crazy long white whiskers. It sleeps on the couch most of the time, looking like a novelty throw pillow. It grooms itself and it does not shed.

Essentially, this is a list story about the ways to be a relationship loser. Too long a list; it gets kind of tedious by the time we get down the alphabet.

“Ether” by Zhang Ran, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu

The narrator lives in a dystopian near-future when everyone seems to be concerned solely with banalities.

When I was young, the Internet was full of opinion, thought, and passion. Exuberant youths filled the virtual world with furious Socratic debate, while the brilliant but misanthropic waxed lyrical about their dreams of a new social order. I could sit unmoving in front of a computer screen until dawn as hyperlinks took my soul on whirlwind journeys. Now, I sift through front pages and notifications and never find a single topic worth clicking on.

He is one of the few people who seem to recall how things used to be and to be aware of this phenomenon or bothered by it until he encounters a protest demonstration; as the protesters flee, one of them grabs his hand and spells a word into it. This chance encounter leads to a life-changing experience.

At its heart, this story is about a man reclaiming the independent spirit of his youth, the young man who said, “Fuck you” to his brutal, oppressive father but has now fallen into a life-rut with no real friends. But this is also a political story, as we discover when we learn the reason the protesters have resorted to the finger-talking as a way of evading ubiquitous surveillance. It’s interesting that this society is ostensibly benign; although police seem to be everywhere, they are polite and agreeable to the narrator. It’s also interesting that this society isn’t specifically Chinese; most of the cultural references seem to reflect the US. There is also a likely political reason for this, one that involves suppression of dissent. And there are many ways for an individual to address this suppression.

–RECOMMENDED

“An Exile of the Heart” by Jay Lake

The good part is: there’s some action here. The ungood part: our narrator uses the phrase “death by screw-up”, and that seems a good description of Trieste. This is a less-credible future with the orbital space stations, the moon, and possibly even Earth are ruled by hereditary aristocracies, all conspiring against each other. Trieste is the heir to one station, but she gets kicked off through a combination of screwing up and her mother’s jealousy. After which, she screws up on another station and causes an international incident while getting her tutor killed. Sent to yet another station, she falls with suspicious haste in love with its Biomistress, a person who can whip up pheremonal sexual attraction potions as well as gene-tailored viruses. And she screws up again, until she ends up going out the airlock, which would seem good riddance. Except it’s not as simple as that.

Readers familiar with Lake’s work will inevitably compare Trieste to his well-known heroine Green, but the comparison is entirely in Green’s favor. Trieste is self-centered, foolish, and reckless. The narrator keeps telling us that this is a famous love story, but her instant attraction to Axielle isn’t particularly convincing, especially given Axielle’s abilities. The only moment of real poignancy I find here is when Trieste is told on her deathbed that her lover will not, at last, be coming to her. The narrator tells us that after all the screw-ups, she went on to have a brilliant military/political career, but this is something we never see and, indeed, seems to be the stuff of self-created myth. And about that: the piece opens with the narrator addressing a group of children who beg to hear a story; the voice is colloquial and seems uneducated.

What do you want, you little handgrips? I ain’t told you enough stories yet? There’s school enough in the comps and nets to make you all perfessers of some damned thing or another.

Yet Trieste’s story is told in more formal and refined language, an anomaly that no one listening seems to notice. Readers, probably, will notice something more at the end – a moment that redeems many of the story’s apparent inconsistencies and deficiencies.



Straeon #1, December 2014

The promising debut issue of a new quarterly zine from the publishers of Stupifying Stories, intended to be more literarily ambitious in its content. The title seems to mean, simply, “Stories”, although the focus is generally on genre content. The editors declare that they intend to follow no particular direction aside from perceived quality, and I find the fiction here to be largely along the lines prevalent in most of today’s publications, soft SF of some sort. Happily, there are a good number of longer works among the ten stories here, including one novella. I hope the zine sticks around and finds its own place in the mix.

“Lady Sakura’s Letters” by Juliette Wade

Set in the Imperial Heian era, the story is told by a tengu, a supernatural shapechanging creature of Japanese folklore, here called a goblin – not the best term. This one seems to have some qualities of a dryad, as connected to a particular sugi tree, which is hit by a bolt of lightning and then cut up for use in woodworking. He thus finds himself incorporated into Lady Sakura’s writing box, from which he urgently seeks escape, but in doing so he possesses her body and becomes involved in her sad situation. Her husband[?] has abandoned her, and she has just miscarried their child. With no other outlet for her grief, she pours it into words, onto the paper in her writing box, into the ink that flows from her brush.

She carried no inkstone, but the very sound of her voice seemed to draw more ink from the brush. A shining, dark thread curled forth, shaping women’s characters in the air. Then the black ink fluttered apart, and each fragment changed, blushing to the pale pink of blossoms in spring. Cherry blossoms— real sakura petals—fell to the sugi needles at her feet.

A magical story, a union of two spirits seeking truth and freedom. Both are trapped – the tengu in the wood of the box, the lady by the constraints of her social position. “He knows nothing of the typhoon that rages inside me, because I must keep the face of delicacy.” But she is the one with the power to free them. The images of ink forming words in the air are beautifully done and evoke the spirit of this mannered, highly literate era.

–RECOMMENDED

“Avenzoar’s Dilemma” by Pat MacEwen

Dr Wilsey is an elderly retired surgeon with a couple of dark secrets in his past. As he considers a final solution in the nursing home, a visitor arrives, who proves to be linked to one of those dark moments. Tommy Mandracken has an unusual request. Wilsey removed a rare wax bezoar from his stomach when he was a baby; now the grown Tommy wants him to put it back. Seems that the bezoar has certain magical properties related to a hereditary hex in the Mandracken family.

Lord, Sister was livid when she saw those lumps in my specimen jar. She glared at me, burning twin holes through my hide with those green and blue lasers. Eyes her young nephew inherited, I guess, once his lost their baby blue.

It happens that the surgeon kept the bezoar, so Mandracken breaks him out of the nursing home and the two embark on an adventure to obtain it, during which Wilsey learns a lot about his past that he had never understood.

The horror develops slowly in the course of this dark fantasy that reads in some ways as an action thriller, but it culminates in a direct confrontation with the nature of evil. Nicely done.

“Rains of Craifa, Figure One – Girl with Shavlas” by Lara Campbell McGehee

In his youth, Valco had wanted to go to art school, but instead he went into the family mortuary business, where his talent is only put to use in cosmetic restoration. Now, at age thirty-two, he has burned out and feels only contempt for his profession. He decides to take a vacation and ends up, strangely, on Craifa during the rainy season, which is the tourist season on this worldlet. While the natives of the place resemble humans in many respects, they seem to be a sort of amphibian species that estivates during the dry season and only wakes when the rains begin. Valco is at first repelled by the constant sogginess, until he meets a young local woman with a positive view of life.

“Valco, flowers are not pretty long, butterflies and birds are not living long—or a rainbow, or—or a beautiful sunrise. These things—they are all short. Does it mean they not matter? If you pull a flower to give someone, it mean nothing because it dries? Nothing is always, so you think you should not try to keep it as long as you can? And maybe because nothing is always, it is more… more… I do not know how to say it.”

This is a pretty standard epiphany story, where readers will see the enlightenment long before Valco catches on. Craifa and its people are well-realized, but the place makes a highly unlikely tourist destination.

“The Art Teacher” by Gillian Daniels

Lalita is a children’s art teacher on Europa, where alien delegations often meet. The species she calls the Silver Ladies is telepathic, and in apparent consequence haven’t developed a concept of art, which frustrates Lalita, although she very much wants to draw them. A crisis in communication, however, proves the value of Lalita’s art.

Here is a particularly neat sort of alien:

From their shoulders, the Silver Ladies grow rows of small, clear eggs with their minnow-sized young floating inside. If Lalita didn’t know the topknot on each of their heads contained a second brain, the three of them would look like slender ballerinas with their hair tied back in buns, necks weighed down with necklaces of pearls.

The experience of telepathy is also well done, and it’s a bit satisfactory to see the rather supercilious aliens realize they have erred.

“Kelly’s Star” by Ian Creasey

It’s Joanne and Kelly’s 250th anniversary, which is a landmark because they are the first couple to reach it in this age of extended life. In consequence, they have an unwelcome celebrity, and their anniversaries bear a heavy burden of expectations.

Having a 250-year-old marriage was like owning an irreplaceable 250-year-old vase: the pleasure of having it was diminished by the burden of dealing with everyone who wanted to admire it—or break it, envious that they didn’t have one themselves. The pressure to preserve it was enormous, and Joanne felt as though they had a responsibility to stay together just to prove doing so was possible.

Once, Joan had a star named for Kelly. Now, they are travelling to visit it, a lengthy journey with plenty of time for a quarrel to fester.

A relationship story, with some depth in the insights.

“The Splintered Stars” by Jenny Mae Rappaport

Maddox is part of a convict crew conscripted for the mission of piercing the glass shell of the universe [there being such a thing]. Their minds have all, except for the captain, been wiped of memory, leaving only their mission. But Maddox is different. The captain has specifically requested him for this crew in order to take revenge, because his crime had been to rape and murder his daughter. And now he has made Maddox remember.

Maddox held out his hands to the captain, palms facing up. He would do penance in his own way. Andromena was just a girl, all those years ago.

“Bring it on,” he said.

A thought-provoking story of guilt and memory. Everyone here is guilty in some way – the criminal crew, the sadistically vengeful captain, the bureaucrats who sent them all on this one-way mission. The crew, however, with no memories of their crimes, possess a kind of innocence. Only Maddox and the captain have the self-knowledge of their guilt and thus the responsibility to deal with it. An interesting concept. As for the glass wall of the universe, we learn nothing really about it. Maybe the gods really did set it up.

“Cupful of Sunshine” by Anna Yeats

The setting is the thing here – a retro-noir urban hellhole divided into Upcity and down in the sewers, where the deformed live in exile. Al runs a nano-body-mod shop down there, although he keeps the scars on his own face for effect. He also does illegal cosmetic enhancements on dames and dolls whose features have started to sag; Upcity likes to come slumming downstairs. One day a striking redhead approaches his shop, but she is abducted off the street by the minions of the Upcity crime lord known as Johnny Boy; later, she is returned to him as a warning.

The lid screamed metal against metal before it spun off, clanked against the concrete floor. Liquid sloshed and so did my insides. The smell coming out of the barrel burned every hair in my nostrils, putrid with acid and rancid meat.

Now Al is worried, because he enhanced the woman he loves, Etta, before she went up to earn the top place in Johnny Boy’s harem. He fixes himself up to save her, and mayhem ensues.

So the setting is the thing, and the setting doesn’t make much sense, besides being clichéd. Why a future where people talk like 1930s gumshoes and wear fedoras? Why a legal prohibition of reconstructive surgery? Why, if the cops scan everyone coming up from Downcity, doesn’t their machinery work? Why, if Johnny Boy knows everything that goes on below stairs, is he fooled by Etta’s disguise? If readers can ignore all this, the story offers entertainment value appropriate to its model.

“Sunira’s Daughters” by Robert Dawson

A couple of geneticists become interested in the case of a family from India with an unusual custom: no girl can marry unless her brother gives her in marriage. For girls without brothers, this is a hardship, and among Western immigrants the custom has died out over the years. Now the scientists are dismayed to discover that among the descendants of these women, not a single male child has been born; the old custom had existed for a reason.

I thought for a minute. “I suppose it might be. Something in the mother’s immune system could cause her to miscarry male embryos, perhaps. A dominant gene on the twenty-third chromosome?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It would have to be dominant, because anything lethal to males would never manifest via the allosome inherited from a carrier’s father. Or perhaps mitochondrial DNA…”

They realize that within a few centuries this mutation is likely to spread to the point that the world will have a serious sexual imbalance, but for a number of reasons, they can’t get anyone to take their research seriously.

A thought-proving piece of real science fiction, a genuine idea story exploring the sort of problem that no one wants to address. Even one of the scientists, a woman, is concerned for the implications for women; she doesn’t want to see society adopting the patriarchal norms of the village from which the original case came. The author leaves it up to readers to imagine the society that’s likely to emerge from this mutation, but his protagonist isn’t hopeful. I do have to suppose that the consequences would have been much worse with the sex ration reversed. On the other hand, in the protagonist’s world, other issues are likely to cause even greater problems, which sort of diffuses the potential impact of the idea.

“Signal” by Renee Carter Hall

The longest story here, set in a far future when humanity has left Earth to its other animal species, now evolved [by design?] to sentience. Our protagonist is an especially curious raccoon named Jak, who one day discovers what seems to be an old flip-phone. Still working. When Jak manages to turn it on, it fills his mind with strange images, words and ideas. His clan says that no good can come of the device and insist that he bury it again. Instead, Jak leaves home to find a coyote who, it is rumored, may know more about it. For most of the story, it appears that the clan is right in distrusting the device. Some other animals exposed to it die from brain hemorrhage, which we begin to suspect means they aren’t yet ready for it. And indeed, Jak seems to be addicted to the thing. But the consequences in the end are momentous, for better or worse.

This is the familiar Hero’s Journey, combined with the suggestion of an Uplift theme. There are obstacles and setbacks on the way, as there must be, and readers are meant to wonder whether Jak is doing the wise thing. There is reason for doubt, and it centers on the device, which is pretty clearly described as a flip-phone:

Then he realized the thing opened like a mussel shell, hinged on one side. He pried it open carefully, hoping for a morsel of chewy meat inside, but instead there was a segmented pad like
the underside of a turtle, with strange little spots in each section. He pressed the sections and found them slightly spongy.

Further, the images it shows him have humans walking on the streets using such phones, and it tells Jak that the name for such devices is “phone”, which term he uses for it during the rest of the story. But it clearly is much more than the smartest phone of today, with a power source capable of surviving centuries if not millennia, and a telepathic capacity capable of overloading unready brains. This is a far-future device, yet the images and information it conveys to some of its animal users are largely those of today: McDonald’s advertising jingles, Rolling Stones songs. However, a rabbit who receives the images sees visions of holocaust, a world burning.

So we are left with two alternatives. Either humanity has indeed brought destruction on the world through its Mephistophelean pride, and the phone is a remnant of that era, lost and found by chance. Or it was left behind deliberately in hopes that one day other species would be ready to receive its messages. Either it brings hope or destruction. And are the animals of this future Earth better off as they are, or will they be uplifted to a better state? There’s also the suggestion that, whichever view is correct, the phone is going to cut off the natural evolution of the animals to a different, possibly better state than whatever comes to pass as the result of the phone. The story provides an answer to some of these questions, but readers may not concur.

“A Kernel of Truth” by Heather J Frederick

A fantasy world, or perhaps a science-fantasy future, in which sentient flora and fauna share the world amicably, more or less. As in all polities, there are power struggles, regulations, taxes and lawyers. And here we find individuals engaged in scientific advancement, as well. Our protagonist, Ruth Sunflower, is a seeker after knowledge and also a science fiction author, who is excited to see that his First Contact novel may be becoming reality. But bureaucracy stands in his way.

Morning brought him a throb at the base of his pedicle and an ache in his core. The bright alien disk was truly gone. And nowhere in Frond’s Constitution could he find a way to circumvent the Mayor’s ban on Floral Assemblies.

An unusual, entertaining story. I like the depiction of the sentient plants and their methods of operation and mobility.



Uncanny, January/February 2015

The second issue of this new zine continues to be promising. I see an emphasis on global fiction, notably the Hao Jingfang story, and wonder if this will be a trend.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

It’s the fiftieth year since the city was rebuilt to fold into itself and reform as another place altogether, while occupying the same terrestrial location.

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

This is an audacious concept. [Some readers may be reminded of Farmer’s "Dayworld" universe, but this one has unique features.] The author approaches it slowly, subtly, as our protagonist, Lao Dao, ends his workday at the waste reclamation plant just before 5 am, moving through the throng in the marketplace all crowding into the food stalls for their morning meal. Gradually, the streets clear as the cleaning trucks move through them, exhorting the people to go home before the change comes. It takes a while before we realize that, like the other denizens of Third Space, he never sees it in daylight.

The sun rose gradually. The sky was a deep and pure azure, with an orange fringe at the horizon, decorated with slanted, thin wisps of cloud. The eaves of a nearby building blocked the sun, and the eaves appeared especially dark while the background was dazzlingly bright. As the sun continued to rise, the blue of the sky faded a little, but seemed even more tranquil and clear. Lao Dao stood up and ran at the sun; he wanted to catch a trace of that fading golden color. Silhou­ettes of waving tree branches broke up the sky. His heart leapt wildly. He had never imagined that a sunrise could be so moving.

Out of every forty-eight hours, Third Space, with the mass of the population, is only allocated eight, while the ruling elite takes twenty-four. This is real wealth inequality, extended to time.

Lao Dao’s father was among the rebuilders of the folding city, lucky that he was allowed to populate Third Space, which exists in large part to process and recycle the waste of the other two. Lao Dao has a goal, embodied in the young daughter he adopted as a foundling in his late forties. He wants to send Tangtang to a good school. He wants her to have a better future, perhaps even move up to one of the other spaces. This will take money he can neither earn nor save on his own, so he’s seized the opportunity to illicitly deliver a message from a young man in Second Space to the young woman in First Space whom he loves. Unauthorized movement between the spaces is risky but possible, slipping into the cracks in the ground through which the buildings rotate. As he does, we share his journey of discovery, seeing the vast contrasts among the three levels.

There’s a lot here for readers, from the personal story of Lao Dao to the social commentary on inequality. Third Space is the China where most people live today, crowded, hurried, a place of exploitation, while the more affluent spaces represent the new moneyed class and the true elite, who rule. Yet it is not a typical dystopia. The complaints people have tend to be minor, such as a cheating rent collector or a food stall with substandard fare. It’s noteworthy that, like Lao Dao’s father, they want to be in this place; we see nothing that would prevent them from moving elsewhere if they wished. It’s a phenomenon universal in human history: people have always tended to move into urban concentrations. And, as Lao Dao learns, the ruling elite keep the waste workers employed rather than outsource their jobs to automation. This is a work of science fiction, we are reminded, concerned with the possible future, not simply critique of current-day situations.

All of it, the world and the characters, is well-crafted. We feel for Lao Dao, his desperation, his fear of humiliation in his shabby clothes, with the odor of garbage on him, his wounded pride at the pity of a wealthy girl. Yet we also see his strong will and a core of integrity, at war with his need for the money offered – a man who eats only a single meal a day to save for kindergarten tuition. The best-realized setting is the marketplace of Third Space, where we can almost feel the frying oil from the food stalls settling into our pores and Lao Dao’s empty stomach clenching at the scent.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J Miller

An alternate/fantastic account of the 1969 Stonewall raid, in which the gays not only fight back, they do so in “the first public demonstration of the supernatural phenomenon that would later be called by names as diverse as collective pyrokinesis, group magic, communal energy, polykinesis, multipsionics, liberation flame, and hellfire.” This is essentially a recollection of the event from multiple fictional points of view, using the polykinesis as a metaphor for the collective rage felt by the group’s victims; thus only minimally SFnal. I found the most moving image to be the twin cops, one gay and closeted, living in constant fear of exposure: “. . . the constant shame and terror that I always felt around Quentin. The fear that he’d see me staring at some boy’s backside, or spot some infinitesimal fraction of an erection, and Know Everything.”

“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar

An interesting fantasy premise: Nadia begins to find things in her pockets, things she never could have put there, things that shouldn’t have been able to fit into them, like a trombone. At first, she tries denial, even to the point of sewing her pockets shut, when she wears pockets at all. Then, after a friend urges her to tell the secret, they begin to investigate it scientifically, discovering that the phenomenon must be telekenesis: someone is putting into their pockets the things Nadia is taking out. The description of the various random objects is well-done, but it’s pretty disappointing to find that someone just down the hall; the solution is too facile, and the connection, once established, overdone.

“Anyone With a Care for Their Image” by Richard Bowes

In an overly-mannered SFnal future, people, at least those with images to cultivate, send out robotic avatars to public events or other “tiresome social obligations” as substitutes for their physical presence. Unfortunately for the narrator, politics and reality intrude violently into his precious and well-ordered virtual salon.

The image I take from this one is the excess of the court of Louis XV before the revolution, although the narrator informs us that his model is in fact the coronation of Napoleon III. The story is brief, a cautionary flashlit scene, but it provokes reflection.

[Note to copyeditor: an automata?]

“Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained” by Sunny Moraine

The narrator lost an arm in an accident, and it was replaced with an advanced cyber-prosthetic. But rather than accept or embrace it, she feels a profound sense of alienation and resentment, while at the same time personifying the device as if it were sentient.

I don’t like you. We’re stuck with each other, but I don’t like you and I don’t like that everyone is expecting me to. Like you’re a favor that was done for me. Done to me—I never asked.

The method the narrator uses to generate integration of the new limb might seem odd, overly identifying the prosthetic as a persona in its own right, but then, I can’t really speak for individuals in that situation. The author has clearly considered the histories of others in such circumstances and their reactions, which sometimes extend to re-amputation. Individuals, the story tells us, must find their own paths at their own pace.



Apex Magazine, January 2015

With another year, readers are promised another new editorial direction, but I sense a possible return to the zine’s original orientation towards horror.

“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon

The story is titled for its setting, done in rich detail, but its strength is in characters and dialogue. Maggie is an aging witch who lives in an isolated place because she wants some rest. She doesn’t get it, as a dying possum god comes to her for sanctuary, because they’re coming for him and he doesn’t want to go. She can’t bring herself to turn him down, so she sits on her rocker on the porch and waits to stand them off, both God and Devil, who each seem to want the possum mainly because the other does. The first gives up easily, the other not so much, although he and Maggie are closer acquaintances.

“You come to my house,” snapped Maggie, thrusting the pliers at him, “and you have the nerve to threaten me? A witch in her own home? I’ll shoe your hooves in holy iron and throw you down the well, you hear me?”

The premise seems at first rather odd, because what kind of god is mortal? The answer seems to be: the animal archetypes, who die and yet never do because it’s their form that’s immortal, always reborn again even while an individual bodily incarnation might perish. Maggie suggests that these deities are in fact older than the two more powerful Personages who visit her porch. And in the end, we see why the possum god was so anxious to avoid being taken by them, which would have removed him entirely from the world where he belongs. This is what Maggie fought to save.

Vernon is definitely the best thing to come from this zine last year, and it was her name in the ToC that convinced me to give this year a look. I like her reworking of American folklore into forms and voices that are her own.

–RECOMMENDED

“Multo” by Samuel Marzioli

A Filipino ghost story. When Adan was a child, the neighbors upstairs told stories of a ghost [mga multo] that haunted their grandmother, a spectre they called the Black Thing. Adan, being the youngest, was most susceptible and had frequent nightmares about the ghost; once, he heard a voice telling him, “When the old woman dies, you and I will meet again.” Now, as an adult and a father, he gets a message from his former neighbors telling him the old woman has just died.

This is ambiguous horror, well-balanced. The text makes it clear that the older children regularly made up stuff to scare Adan, and he had a very vivid imagination that brought his fears to life in his mind. It seems reasonable to suppose the apparition he heard when a child was only a nightmare. So he keeps telling himself.

“Anarchic Hand” by Andy Dudak

Dimia, suffering from a cancer incurable in her own time, had herself cryoed. She now awakes, as always in these stories, to altered circumstances; she is no more than an illicit copy of her mind [an instance in the parlance], illicitly snatched and downloaded into the mind of a poor teenager who makes his living as an “instance whore”, hosting other minds for adventures to which the customers don’t want to subject their own bodies. It seems that poor young Ciaran is infested with quarreling instances who can’t agree on their plans for his body, and they snatched Dimia as a tiebreaker.

This is a highly unlikely scenario based on a premise so overdone that the genre has long since abandoned it, told largely in the mode of withholding information to stretch out the reveal, which isn’t worth it. If readers take one thing from the piece, it would be a reiteration of the old lesson: Don’t be dumb enough to freeze yourself and expect the future to welcome you.

“John Dillinger and the Blind Magician” by Allison M Dickson

Historical fantasy. Dillinger, aware that Melvin Purvis’s G-men are planning to ambush him at the Biograph, meets urgently with the wizard Argyle Paendragon, from whom he wants a spell to create a simulacrum to leave the theater and be gunned down in his place, while the real Dillinger makes a getaway. Argyle is dubious about the notion and also about helping Dillinger, whose character he suspects. But there are others involved in the plot.

To properly appreciate this one, readers should be aware of the aspect of the Dillinger myth that has the FBI mistaking their quarry and shooting the wrong man, while the real Dillinger got away and was never found. An unexpected twist comes at the end.

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

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

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

Paul Di Filippo reviews Greg van Eekhout

Not all writers can be, oh, say, Ernest Cline or Richard Morgan, leaping, after a relatively short or nugatory apprenticeship, into fame and Hollywood options with a debut novel. Some of us take a little time to get rolling, but the resulting books might be all the stronger for a slow maturation.

In any case, Greg van Eekhout published his debut story away back in 1998. Sixteen years later, in 2014, his “first hardcover for adult readers” appeared, California Bones, and it proved endearingly worth the wait. (And of course he was certainly not inactive during that interval, producing three prior books.)

California Bones is an accomplished “urban fantasy” in the old sense of that term, closer to Crowley and Beagle than to the contemporary school of “feisty gal and her werewolf lover battle zombies.”

In van Eekhout’s scenario, California is a separate nation from the USA, a realm of deep magics of a peculiar sort. The main form of power-manipulation is osteomancy, and involves magicians acquiring the powers of the creatures whose prepared bones they ingest. Given the existence of krakens and firedrakes, among other fabulous beasts, this allows for some fearsome feats by the magi. But traditional methods of accomplishment were deemed too slow by the ruling Hierarch, a nasty sort, and he began literally eating his foes, acquiring all their hard-earned magics at a gulp. This savagery has allowed him to rule California tyrannically for nearly a century.

One of his victims was master osteomancer Sebastian Blackland of Los Angeles, who left behind a young son. We witness the father’s gruesome death in a prologue, then jump into the life of the adult son Daniel. Now a thief with one eye peeled for the Hierarch’s forces, Daniel has assembled a colorful crew of pals who help him on his heists. Their newest venture is undertaken as an assignment from Daniel’s criminal Uncle Otis: to break into the Hierarch’s ossuary, fabled repository of his uneaten backup magical bones.

The book is three-quarters a rousing caper movie, and one-quarter a tale of revenge and revolt. It ends with Daniel defeating the Hierarch and abandoning LA, in possession of the Hierarch’s juvenile clone, or golem, who innately stores up all the same magics as his sire—though without conscious trained access to them.

California Bones exhibits numerous felicities. First perhaps is the venue, a consummate New Weird counterfactual locale blending naturalism with supernaturalism. Boldly asserting an inexplicable parallel development with our world, right down to the existence of Disneyland and Rhino Records, van Eekhout introduces plenty of estrangement. For instance, his LA has no freeway system, but rather a network of canals! Then come unforgettable characters running the spectrum from purely decent to infinitely evil. Midway along that continuum are the fascinating Gabriel Argent and his “hound,” Max, a human slave trained to sniff out magics. Finally, van Eekhout’s prose and plotting are Zelazny-crisp. All in all, an engaging thrill ride.

Before looking at Pacific Fire, the sequel, I should mention that van Eekhout is contributing to a great subgenre, “California SF,” as summarized in a recent set of articles at the LA Review of Books. Some editor should assemble an anthology of such tales—it would be a guaranteed winner, I think.

Pacific Fire picks up during its own Prologue in much the same mentoring way its predecessor began: with Daniel attempting to teach Sam the golem some magic. Then, again mimicking California Bones, we jump ten years into the future. Sam is now eighteen or so, something of a Michael Valentine Smith naive savant, due to his unnatural birth and upbringing. He and Daniel are still wearily on the run. But now, for special reasons, their pursuers are redoubling their efforts.

Back in LA, Otis, Gabriel and a third boss, Sister Tooth, are looking to consolidate their triumvirate place in LA’s power scramble by constructing a giant firedrake as a weapon of intimidating mass destruction. And they need Sam the golem as the magical engine at its heart, no matter that the boy will be destroyed in the process. In a surprise move, Gabriel seeks to undercut his supposed allies by secretly getting in contact with Daniel and cajoling him to agree to another caper: destroying the firedrake before it is fully born. But the road to Catalina Island, where the firedrake is being assembled, is strewn with dangers both magical and carnal.

Van Eekhout switches his POV from Daniel to Sam in a generational kind of move, and the tactic pays off. Instead of simply recapitulating the same sensibility and attitudes, the author delivers a fresh perspective on both the actors in the game and the social structures that support them. The dual POVs also allow for suspense, as the narrative is free to shift between Daniel and Sam at cliffhanger moments.

Along the way we meet great new characters, such as Em, Sam’s lethal new partner, and Mother Cauldron, an osteomancer straight out of a fairy tale. Old favorites such as Daniel’s pals Moth and Cassandra return as well. The estranged California venue is not such a surprise the second time of course, but van Eekhout still manages to disclose fresh little nooks and crannies of the territory. I was particularly taken with some scavengers dubbed the leeches, who are like something out of Mad Max.

Van Eekhout’s scrupulously crafted language continues to flaunt that Zelazny-esque balance of demotic and poetic. I am also reminded of Steve Gould’s voice in the Jumper books. He is very kind to his readers by putting lots of background info up front to bring newbies up to speed. But really, this sequel is merely the second half of a single long narrative, as is evidenced by the surprise crucial reappearance at the climax of some vital figures from Daniel’s childhood.

The book comes to a highly satisfactory and resonant conclusion, while still keeping its face turned toward an open horizon of further adventures. I look forward to van Eekhout’s continued California Dreamin’.

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.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews James Morrow

In the first chapter of James Morrow’s picaresque fable of Darwinism Galápagos Regained we learn that our heroine, Chloe Bathurst, is a successful actress in potboiling Victorian dramas with titles like The Beauteous Buccaneer, The Last Days of Pompeii, and Lanterns on the Levee. This not only becomes a recurring plot point as Chloe repeatedly draws on her theater experience in devising the various schemes and hoaxes that propel her through her subsequent adventures, but it also gives us a clue as to what to expect in Morrow’s own loony romantic plot, with its unlikely coincidences, hairsbreadth escapes, characters popping up out of nowhere when needed, and large-scale stage effects, like a fake volcanic eruption and a full-scale replica of Noah’s ark built by Peruvian Indians. Before it’s over, we will also encounter a fast-talking American con man who has built an island empire called Duntopia (a ‘‘pinnacle of diminished expectations,’’ with the Book of Mormon chosen as its gospel simply because of its dullness); a daring French balloonist who might have been borrowed from Jules Verne; a time-warped hookah-den in Constantinople whose patrons from the future include Gregor Mendel, Teilhard de Chardin, and Rosalind Franklin; a group of Peruvian Huancabamba Indians whom Chloe tries to pass off as the Lost Thirteenth Tribe of Israel; and of course Charles Darwin himself. In short, there is a great deal of stuff going on in Galápagos Regained, and while it doesn’t always hang together seamlessly, it’s never less than provocative and entertaining. For readers who might find the opening chapters a tiny bit slow, rest assured that by far the funniest parts of the novel come in the second half.

Written in an ironic version of the arch narrative voice of much Victorian fiction, complete with brief chapter abstracts in the table of contents, the novel rests heavily on the shoulders of the idealistic yet endlessly resourceful Chloe, whose overall goal is to save her lovable but dissolute father from debtor’s prison. Her concern for social justice prompts her to spontaneously step out of character during a performance and lecture the audience, and soon after that she’s looking for work. The new job turns out to be as a kind of zookeeper for Charles Darwin’s menagerie of specimens, many brought back from the Galápagos Islands. Chloe becomes fascinated with Darwin’s ideas – so far only written down in a short unpublished manuscript (this is prior to 1850, and On the Origin of Species is still nearly a decade off) – so when she learns of a contest offering £10,000 for anyone who can prove or disprove the existence of God, she figures Darwin’s ideas of natural selection – passed off as her own – could win her the prize and bail out her dad.

But it turns out the contest sponsors also offer research grants, and have already funded a trip to Mount Ararat to discover Noah’s Ark. Chloe persuades them to fund her own expedition to the Galápagos to find the ‘‘tree of life’’ which will show that God is not needed for evolution, and the expedition – which involves surviving a shipwreck, joining a trading expedition up the Amazon, briefly getting involved in the South American rubber wars (the episode that seems least fully integrated), hitching an airship ride over the Andes, and eventually making it to the Galápagos with the help of those native Peruvians and their ark – is the core of the story. But Chloe and her companions are racing against two other expeditions: the search for Noah’s Ark (which will presumably prove the existence of God), and a second expedition to the Galápagos, sponsored by Darwin’s later nemesis Bishop Wilberforce, whose goal is to wipe out all the lizards, snakes, and birds that might lend credence to Darwin’s theories.

This is fabulist historical fiction not unlike how John Barth approached it in The Sot-Weed Factor, and its outlandish plot developments are anchored by the sheer likeability of Chloe and the other characters, including her irresponsible gambler brother, a love-smitten vicar-turned-atheist, and a castaway wild woman, picked up en route, who becomes Chloe’s acolyte. Interestingly, Darwin himself is the least romanticized figure in the book, coming across as distant and even a bit chilly when Chloe first meets him. That may be because his ideas turn out to be as much a hero of the tale as Chloe herself, particularly the idea of speciation as represented on the Galápagos Islands, which is discussed at some length and with admirable clarity almost throughout the novel. Morrow is not unfamiliar with the classic science fictional notion of using ideas as heroes – he did it in The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher’s Apprentice – and his title Galápagos Regained, suggesting both Darwin and Milton, certainly calls attention to this. But I can think of few authors who would try to cast a deeply intellectual psychomachia in the form of a wildly comic picaresque tall tale, and fewer still who could get away with it and have so much fun in the process.

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Faren Miller reviews Alaya Dawn Johnson

We first see Emily Bird, teenage heroine and viewpoint character of Love Is the Drug, waking up in a Washington DC hospital. She turns out to be fortunate in many ways, beginning with her heritage and station as the child of privileged black scientists, both deeply involved in work for the government, she is close to graduating from an elite prep school with honors sure to appeal to all the best colleges, dating a glamorous young man from her own social set. And yet the greatest luck may simply be survival, untouched by the plague that’s raging through this near-future: some kind of mutant flu with gestation periods and symptoms similar to Ebola’s, a less drastic fatality rate but far more victims due to its rapid spread worldwide (including parts of the US) – apparently the work of ruthless terrorists. Citing a socialist regime in Venezuela as the most likely suspect, America is already at war, and by this point nowhere seems truly safe. Emily’s hospital window looks out on a street, weirdly empty ‘‘until a solitary tank grumbles down the road, guns steady.’’ Curfews and quarantines abound.

Against such a background, her bout of amnesia after a party seems trivial, even if it was triggered by a date-rape drug (as some fellow guests believe) – unless there’s a connection to the threat of global apocalypse. Something has attracted government agent Roosevelt to her case. At the hospital where Emily stays overnight, then at her Uncle Nicky’s (where she retreats as large parts of DC go under quarantine), he keeps grilling her about the lost hours. Though her pal Coffee – in many ways the opposite of boyfriend Paul – is an avid chemistry student and occasional dealer, born in Brazil, no one as intimidating and obsessive as Roosevelt could simply want to throw a monkey wrench into the drug trade.

Coffee and the girl he likes to call by her last name explore the mystery in different ways. He wants to find a drug to break apart her mental block. Bird’s inner being (maddeningly out of reach) tosses out its own occasional clues to the puzzle. Meanwhile, she and a young nephew roam Nicky’s huge library of black music, exploring a culture that his wayward father loves but most of her family has largely rejected.

Chemistry and the scientific method pervade this book, where each chapter title follows a [substance name] with its atomic formula. Bird wants to find out what her parents are really doing in their secret government lab almost as fervently as she needs to understand her own nature and figure out what she can make of it – outside the trajectory they planned as a nonstop path to success. Blending elements of mainstream YA, dystopian SF, and political thriller, Love Is the Drug manages to fascinate, wherever and whenever it may go.

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