Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early December

The year turns. Here are two first-of-the-month ezines and the first of 2011’s anthologies.


Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld #51, December 2010

Not so enthusiastic about the fiction this time.

“The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” by Kelly Barnhill

The residents of the town have complaints about the taxidermist/mayor. He has slowly killed the town by closing the library, newspaper, and now the school. And his wife, his new wife who may be his old wife remade, is an automaton, a creation of his art.

We want to love her. We wish we could love her. But we can’t. We remember the Taxidermist’s first wife. We remember and remember and remember.

There is a horror story here, but it’s buried under so many layers of enigma and ambiguity that it raises more questions than chills. The mystery is not so much the status of the townspeople, which is evident by the end, but the sudden inexplicable alteration in their attitudes –- and this story is all about attitudes.

“The Children of Main Street” by A C Wise

Having traveled to a new world [on a spaceship with portholes] the colonists inexplicably begin to create a new version of the US suburbs. But their children, instead, immediately begin to flip their gender. Their parents do not react well to this mutation.

While no one would take this one to be hard SF [portholes] or a realistic depiction of extraterrestrial colonization, or a realistic depiction of anything, it’s hard to figure what it’s supposed to be. I read it a couple of times looking for some deep inner meaning and found nothing beyond the obvious surface.


Apex Magazine, December 2010

An issue full of horror.

“Radishes” by Nick Wolven

The failure of predatory agribusiness in planetary colonization. The right things aren’t growing and the wrong ones are; the colonists are hungry.

The bread is a dense, spongy substance that you can squeeze into a ball and bounce off the walls. Our last potato looks like a giant turd, and the stuff we’re calling corn makes me think of skin diseases. Fat, pale kernels like blisters full of mucus, big as an eyeball and tough to chew.

The narrator and his wife are finally desperate enough to try eating the weird things that have sprouted around their house.

Although the author casts aspersions in the direction of genetic engineering, the horror is more fantastic than sciencefictional. A cautionary tale about being where humanity doesn’t belong.

“Pale, and from a Sea-wave Rising” by C S E Cooney

Anatomy student Aquilo Vickery Makepeace is looking for likely corpses on the shore after a storm, but what he finds is, he suspects, an undine. His sister Babs, who knows suspiciously too much about this sort of thing, has warned him to avoid them, but Quill, despite his resolve, succumbs to the creature’s pleas to find a boat and row her back to the island where she lives with her brother. There he discovers that he should have heeded his sister’s warning.

An author takes a risk in employing a title like this one, in which she is declaring that her prose will be poetic. In this case, Cooney succeeds pretty well:

She managed to spare one trembling hand to sweep the panorama of the Atlantic, the late September roil. Blue wine, storm wine. Her hair whipped and tangled around her, blacker than the clouds that still lingered hatefully about the horizon.

I am not aware of any creature from folklore that exactly matches the description of this sea creature with her gold chain around her ankle, though there can be no doubt of the identity of her brother: he is Nuckelavee the Skinless of Scottish folklore, one of the water demons. But this tale goes well beyond a simple encounter with one of the seductive and deadly ladies of the sea. There is the parallel of brother and sister, the strong suggestion that Babs shares something dangerous with the undine, as “all women carried the sea.” I also like the way Quill looks at any person’s body as if he were about to take a scalpel to it, remove its skin and expose its underlying bones.



Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Anthology of hard science fiction written by some of the Big Names in the subgenre. While this does not always guarantee felicitous results, in the book at hand it has produced them. There are fifteen stories in 336 pages — a good length to get some meat on a story, although there are no novellas. Most of the names will be very familiar; a few are relatively new authors already making their marks in the genre. Overall, they give us a strong collection of stories that readers of science fiction will certainly enjoy.

“Malak (or, It’s Not Easy Being Green)” by Peter Watts

Battlefield robotics. Azrael is a killer drone that has received an upgrade giving it an amount of autonomy through Bayesian algorithms. Instead of potential targets tagged as either red or green, there is now a new class of blue, for neutrals. It is now supposed to calculate potential collateral damage to neutrals and abort any attack where cost exceeds gain. Unless there is an override. But there are a lot of overrides.

This is a very well done exploration of the ethical issues and pitfalls involved in the use of machine intelligence in war, where innocents are at risk of being harmed. While the story might be described as a robot developing a conscience, the narrative avoids such anthropic language and couches its descriptions in more machine-like terms. Warm-blooded beings, for example, are “biothermals.”

Instantly the collateral subroutines re-engage. Of thirty-four biothermals currently visible, seven are less than 120cm along their longitudinal axes; vulnerable neutrals by definition. Their presence provokes a secondary eclipse analysis revealing five shadows that Azrael cannot penetrate, topographic blind spots immune to surveillance from this approach. There is a nontrivial chance that these conceal other neutrals.


“Watching the Music Dance” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Familial dysfunction. When Suze is newly conceived, her mother reveals the beginning of an obsession, to make her into a musical prodigy. She pours all the family’s resources into enhancements, inappropriate and even dangerous for such a young child. And while her parents fight over her, over money, Suze retreats into her music. Eventually her father receives custody, but he can’t afford to continue her enhancements. But Suze has become dependent on them.

Mommy says there’s a better program, more advanced, more expensive (Suze hates that word). If Suze just thinks the name of a song, she’ll see the score dancing in front of her eyes. She’s watching scores right now. Watching the piano part, watching the vocals, letting the sound overwhelm her senses.

This is primarily a story of a family, a Cautionary Tale about the dangers of genetic engineering when parents want to have perfect, better than perfect children. The problem, the story makes clear, lies in the parents, not the process. It is a human problem with no simple solution, no good solution at all.

“Laika’s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder

Gennady is working for the IAEA trying to stamp out nuclear proliferation when it appears that someone has engineered a process by which anyone can produce a nuke. He is assigned to investigate an old Soviet bioweapons facility in Kazakhstan that may hold a clue, and incidentally to escort to a young American named Ambrose seeking asylum from a Soviet revival website, NASA and Google. It seems that Ambrose, while operating a remote Mars rover, spotted what appeared to be a pyramid on the red planet, something that nobody wants anyone to know.

This is a desolate setting, where hope seems to have leached away. A belt of postwar space debris has destroyed the promise of Mars, and global warming has put the bullet into the back of the former Soviet Union’s head.

Toxic, decaying: nuclear submarines heeled over in the waters off of Murmansk, nitrates soaking the soil around the launch pads of Baikonur. The ghosts of old Soviets prowled this dark, in the form of radiation in the groundwater, mutations in the forest, and poisons in the dust clouds that were all too common these days. Gennady had spent his whole adult life cleaning up the mess, and before yesterday he’d been able to tell himself that it was working — that all the worst nightmares were from the past. The metastables had changed that, in one stroke rendering all the old fears laughable in comparison.

Yet the seemingly unconnected factors that perplex Gennady all come together in a very neat, skiffy conspiracy.


“The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter

There seems to be an alien invasion on the way, but it’s on its way to Venus, not Earth. The Venusians [there are Venusians] and the aliens are communicating with each other but ignoring Earth. Toby Miller, from the environmental ministry, visits his old lover Edith, out in the country, where she and a group of volunteers have commandeered an old telecom dish to try to contact the Incoming ship. But their attempts are interrupted by the alien attack on Venus, repulsed by superior Venusian weaponry. The people of Earth now have to deal with the knowledge that they are inconsequential.

“And we’re just weeds growing in the rubble. Tell that to the Prime Minister. And I thought we might ask them about their gods! What a fool I’ve been — the questions on which I’ve wasted my life, and here are my answers — what a fool.”

It’s a bit surprising to consider that this is a pretty original scenario, an unusual twist on both the alien invasion and life-on-Venus plots that hasn’t been previously mined. A pretty humbling one, too.

“The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi

It was born like all servers were, from a tiny seed fired from a darkship exploring the Big Empty, expanding the reach of the Network. Its first sensation was the light from the star it was to make its own, the warm and juicy spectrum that woke up the nanologic inside its protein shell. Reaching out, it deployed its braking sail — miles of molecule-thin wires that it spun rigid — and seized the solar wind to steer itself towards the heat.

But the server discovers it has been planted on a solitary star heading away from the galaxy. Isolated, it has no purpose, nothing to serve, so it decides to create a new baby universe to nurture. But it is distracted by a stray data packet containing a virtual world with an inhabitant that calls itself a dragon. The server is lonely; the dragon is seductive.

This one is written in the vocabulary of physics, but the story is that of magic, of world-creating gods.

“Bit Rot” by Charles Stross

A massive gamma ray burst has hit the Lansford Hastings on its journey to Wolf 1061. Posthuman siblings Lilith and Lamashtu are among the crew, for which they are well designed, but by no means totally impervious to radiation. At the time of the burst, Lilith was working in a water tank and thus partially shielded, but Lamashtu’s job was out on the hull.

I looked at you. You looked so still and calm, still frost-rimed with condensed water vapor from when the rescue team pulled you in through the pressure lock. You’d been in shutdown, drifting tethered to a hardpoint on the hull, for over three hours. Your skin is yellowing, the bruised bloom of self-destructing chromatophores shedding their dye payloads into your peripheral circulation. One of our human progenitors (like the pale-skinned, red-haired female you resemble) would be irreversibly dead at this point: but we are made of sterner stuff. I refused to feel despair.

But the effects of the radiation on cyberhumans include bit rot: radiation-induced dementia. And in order to heal themselves, the afflicted need to find uncontaminated nourishment, which is in short supply. The most likely source is in the cortical shells of relatively unaffected survivors: in short, much of the crew has become cyberzombies. To save her sib, Lilith has to both find food for her and protect her.

An exceedingly neat idea for a space horror story, twisting the classic, and Stross, of course, works it out thoroughly well. No one actually staggers through the ship’s corridors drooling, Braaaaiiiiins!, but we can hear it anyway.

“Creatures with Wings” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Ever since his wife committed suicide, Kyo has been a drunk and a manual worker at a Zen meditation hall. Just as an asteroid is about to strike Earth, destroying it forever, his small group of monks is transported to another world by a race of sad, silent winged beings who want to achieve enlightenment, who want him to lead them there. Kyo believes he is unworthy; enlightenment is something he is very far from achieving. All he knows is how to make beer.

The Hanalb thought him a Roshi. He didn’t quite understand that responsibility; until he did, perhaps it was best to wait to carry out this enterprise. He had failed at everything else; when he drank, he was able to forget, for a little while, that nagging, gnawing feeling that he could face nothing, that he was worthless. A pleasant little forgetting. Immensely pleasant…

Not a story that can really be said to be hard SF, even by the most elastic definition. It is Zen-like, in that Zen rarely expresses clearly what it understands. I can not say that I found myself entirely enlightened.

“Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone” by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar

Lee Watson, professor of psychoanalytic semiotics, [teaching gibberish, as he puts it] is drowning his personal failures in alcohol when he runs an old film from 1931 in which he discovers himself, along with slightly older versions of his ex-wife’s new husband’s young sons. He assumes the film has been faked, but soon, and sober, he begins to have visitors from other times/dimensions/quantum states, attempting to explain the situation in terms of quantum entanglement and Bayesian probability theory.

“My experiment with single particle self-interference proved that a macroscopic extended object can be made to deviate through an instability threshold and surf its own pilot wave. But it can only do that because we chose to place it in that apparatus. We observe it from our own Bayesian priors, and its activity is objectively determined by the interaction between us and the particle. This is not mystical, Watson, stop curling your lip. It is the basis for everything that ever happens, to eternity and infinity.”

I am aghast at the hubris. “So we’re… engineering infinity?”

“No,” he tells me, sharply. “Precisely not. We are nothing until we are observed by the universe. Infinity is engineering us.

This time-loop story is the source of the anthology’s title. As is often the case when the term quantum is employed in SF, the effect, multidisciplinary jargon notwithstanding, is decidedly surreal. Yet, despite the authors warning us repeatedly that it is gibberish, it oddly makes a kind of sense.

“Mantis” by Robert Reed

They’ve installed infinity windows in the health club. They provide a view of a subtly altered reality.

I like to think that I appreciate new technologies. Not that I’m an expert in AI genius or digital gamesmanship. But curious, endearing joy kept rolling through me. These little nuggets of fiction made me laugh, reminding me of those silly pictures that my son liked when he was five, where the game was to spot the chicken wearing a hat and the panda eating steak.

The windows work in two directions; the people being watched can watch back. The narrative flips between the health club and the street, where two strangers share their delight in finding an obviously real preying mantis. They all confront the old philosophical questions — how can we ever really know that what we see is real, or that anything outside us is real — along with the difference between stories and reality.

A thoughtful story of how our lives are changed by circumstances and by technology. I can’t help thinking it might have been inspired by the way “reality” shows have been replacing actual stories on TV. This one is what I would call humanist hard SF.

“Judgement Eve” by John C Wright

Avenging angels, which is to say, aliens in the form of angels, have come to do away with humanity, who have abused technology in the service of evil to become so powerful they potentially threaten the universe. Only a handful of humans will be saved, and only those who have been rewired to be incapable of aggression and of reproducing their inherently flawed kind. But some humans have other ideas.

“Death angel! What you call justice is nothing but fear! Fear of mankind! And because you came, from fear, to doom us, we have no fate but to make ourselves as fearsome as we can do! Fools! Fools! All fools!”

As I first read this, I assumed it must be a parody. Writing so awful, with all the faux-Biblical and mythological characters, must be a parody of something. Slowly and reluctantly, however, I had to conclude the author meant this to be taken straight — not as a parody but a parable. I am half aghast, half still disbelieving. Besides being ghastly, the story is not what I consider hard SF, as the ubiquitous tech is too close to magic.

“A Soldier of the City” by David Moles

Babylon is a cluster of artificial world-cities surrounding a black hole named Tiamat, each ruled by its own god. Isin is a small agricultural city ruled by the corn goddess Gula until the day when terrorists from space attack the temple during the Corn Parade. Ishmenininsina Ninnadiïnshumi, one of Isin’s soldiers, witnesses the Lady’s death and is devastated by the loss.

Every time Ish allowed himself to remember that it was as if he was understanding it for the first time, the shock of it like a sudden and unbroken fall, the grief and shame of it a monumental weight toppling down on him. Each time Ish forced the knowledge back the push he gave it was a little weaker, the space he created for himself to breathe and think and feel in a little smaller. He was keeping himself too busy to sleep because every time he closed his eyes he saw the Lady’s pleading face.

Carrying an icon of his goddess, bent on revenge, he joins a punitive expeditionary force headed by Ninurta, god of Lagash and the Lady’s bereaved consort.

Another winner and definitely hard SF. I really love the wonderful worldbuilding in this space-Mesopotamia, the fine use made of the history and myth. The space war stuff is also well done.


“Mercies” by Gregory Benford

Warren is a time-traveling assassin, using his transflux cage to visit the romantic age of crime, the 21st century. “[For him] the past was a vast sheet of darkness, mired in crimes immemorial, each horror like a shining, vibrant, blood-red bonfire in the gloom, calling to him.” He has become obsessed with serial killers and tells himself that he is an angel of mercy, saving lives by killing them before they can begin their deadly careers. But he can only jogg to nearby parallel worlds, with the assumption that circumstances are close enough to the history he has studied.

Hard to think of a hard SF anthology without the inclusion of Benford, but this one is rather short on originality.

“The Ki-anna” by Gwyneth Jones

Patrice’s twin sister Lione was killed while on working on the alien planet KiAn to restore the atmosphere ravaged by war among the sibling species Ki and An. Patrice is convinced there was something suspicious about the reports of her death, but he needs official permission from the authorities to travel to the planet. They seem reluctant, but in fact the plans of many factions depend on his making his investigation.

Both the local and interplanetary situations are complicated, leaving readers wondering about a great deal, but I suspect that most will quickly grasp the secret of Lione’s fate; for a mystery, this is a deficiency. The sciences underlying the story are the social ones, focused on the strange customs of the sibling subspecies An and Ki.

“The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees” by John Barnes

Lars has been working for decades increasing the meteoric shower of iron into the oceans to solve the problem of global warming. But unintended consequences have happened. In the center of the now-frigid ocean, something big is growing. Lars’ humaniform ex-wife Nicole dives down to check it out.

“The towers are gigantic bones. The root-canopy above is a huge digestive organ, which did its damnedest to digest me. Luckily nothing it excreted was a me-solvent. So we have tree trunks, which are bones; and roots, which are stomachs, intestines, and livers, floating in a cloud above them. Two kilometres high and growing on an exceptionally cold and deep abyssal plain, across an area the size of Pennsylvania, and I think it might all be one big organism; definitely a lot of the tubes in the canopy hook to more than one trunk. Everyone will now please experience some real awe and surprise, okay?”

There are two stories going on here. One, which is more of a Wonder than a story, is the discovery of the gasoline trees. But it is a wonder that leaves little to wonder at, although it is quite wonderful; Nicole, who is too perfect, figures it all out right away and tells us. The other story is the three-way relationship among Lars, the superhuman Nicole, and his ordinary human young wife Stephanie, who is at first intimidated by Nicole and later infatuated. This part is thin owing to lack of background; these seem to be interesting people [Nicole is!], but we don’t really know them.

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.

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