A somewhat unusual column, as I try to get as much 2013 fiction as possible read while the clock ticks down on the year, including several longer works from sources I don’t normally review. The Good Story award to Yoon Ha Lee’s “Iseul’s Lexicon”.
Clarkesworld, December 2013
Liking two out of these three, but not quite loving them unreservedly.
“Daedalum, the Devil’s Wheel” by E Lily Yu
Deal with the devil, if devils specialized. The demon here specializes in animation, having moved on to film from still drawing.
I am in the twenty-fourth of a second between frames, where human perception fails. Right now, in fact, I’m shining on theater screens and on the glass of cathode-ray sets and in the liquid crystals of monitors across the world.
Animators are its acolytes, suppliants and victims. The current victim did not consciously invoke this devil, but no matter, it’s come to him now, and time to make the deal. Generously, the victim is given three choices.
What distinguishes this one is the sharpness of the malevolence and cruelty shown by the demon. And its hunger. The human who accidentally invoked it is definitely not in charge here. I think of this demon as a muse gone to the bad, having decided not to work for free. Interestingly, the ancients did not have a muse of the visual arts.
“Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
A far future in which the ruling Costeya Hegemony has the ability, through neural implants, to edit and synchronize the memories of the populations on its subject worlds. This, they claim, is for the sake of harmony and peace. But now a tricky situation has arisen, and General Lunha has been revived/reincarnated to deal with it. It seems that her former spouse is now leading a movement on her homeworld Tiansong to disconnect their minds from Hegemony control, and the secret knowledge of the mind synchronization has spread. The Hegemony doesn’t fool around; entire worlds have been laid waste for such acts of rebellion. But this time it has given Lunha a chance to persuade Xinjia to give up her campaign.
A story of loyalty. Lunha has to decide whether her own lies with her homeworld, her clan and ancestors, as well as the woman she once well loved, or with the empire for which she had given her life. It’s noteworthy that the Hegemony has imposed restrictions on her access to data and given her a minder whose authority can override her own; if loyalty goes both ways, the Hegemony is definitely holding back. We see Lunha’s wariness as she suggests that destroying the planet might be a simpler solution, denying her own personal loyalties. On the other hand, there are definite limits to her power to alter the situation; a minder will be with her there, with what powers to override her, Lunha doesn’t know.
Because the author has opted for style over clarity in the story’s opening, it isn’t obvious at first what species we’re dealing with if we’re not familiar with previous works in this series. A reference to chitin suggests the possibility that this is an insectile population, perhaps one with a female warrior caste. I rather liked this notion, as it would have emphasized the point that we are dealing with people, no matter what kind. However, it soon becomes more clear that the characters are human, although technologically advanced in a number of ways; characters have the ability to alter their sex at will, although exactly what this entails isn’t specified. It’s noteworthy that while both primary characters have at some time been male, they are now female, as are almost all the others we encounter on Tiansong, which would seem to be a matriarchy of some sort. The depiction of the very ancient traditions of this culture illustrate what is at stake on this world.
“They can take all we are from us. They can rob us of our languages, our cities, our names; they can make us strangers to ourselves and to our ghosts, until there’s no one left to tend the altars or follow the hour of thought or sweep the graves.”
I find one minor irritation. The operative sent by the Hegemony as Lunha’s minder is referred to in the text by the contemporary neologism “neutrois”. Such a usage is an anachronism that jars the reader out of the otherwise well-realized far future back to the year 2013, rather like “you’re the ginchiest” would evoke 1959. I don’t think this is an effect that works.
“Of Alternate Adventures and Memory” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
A utopia in the making, as humans [makers] and robots integrate, tearing down the barriers that once separated Metal Town from Central City. There are also now alternates being created, artificial minds housed in bodies almost indistinguishable from makers. Adventure Boy is a twelve-year-old alternate when he first meets an old metal family friend and visits the deserted ruins of Metal Town. His parents think this is important but don’t explain why.
Here were replicas of a life he’d never known. Photographs and reliquaries that meant nothing at all to him. They were part of his mother’s long ago life, not his. He had come to awareness in Central City, and he only knew this place with its smooth asphalt, ordered subdivisions and neatly manicured front lawns.
I have to say this one doesn’t really work. The plot is centered around a monument in Metal Town that holds the memories of departed mechanicals. As such, it is a repository of history and thus valuable, but I can’t see why it’s threatened with destruction even when the rest of the town is scheduled for urban renewal. I also can’t help recalling that human memories are always lost at death – are the makers jealous of the robots? The story doesn’t say.
Primarily, it’s the characters who fail. The real story isn’t Adventure Boy’s. It centers on his parents and their friend Mechanic, but readers learn very little about them. Despite being told often how important Mechanic is, we have no idea why. Adventure Boy’s mother, Alternate Girl, may have been the first alternate created, and her creator was her husband – yet it’s not clear just what he is, maker or mechanical. At one point, the text refers to him as a “numbered man” without explaining this term. Her creation appears to be at the story’s heart, yet it’s concealed from us, except for a few hints. Thus the strong emotional tones that the story lays claim to ring hollow.
Lightspeed, December 2013
This time I find the fantasy stories a lot better than the nominal science fiction.
“The Correspondence Between the Governess and the Attic” by Siobhan Carroll
A reworking of Jane Eyre in even darker tones. This Jane is a changeling, with certain powers that she slowly comes to understand.
For fighting back, they punish her. The orphan pounds at the door of the haunted bedroom. Her screams claw down the hallway, but no one will save her.
She dies her first death in the red room.
There will be others.
Nicely twisted. The author knows the original well, the crevices where it can be warped even further than it was.
“Miss Nobody Never Was” by James Patrick Kelly
A ghost story – of sorts. Chaz is a barkeeper who turned alcoholic along with his wife Adele. Divorce, then sobriety happened. Chaz is alone, wishing he could escape the bar, when his past comes in and takes a table in the corner.
Even though I only saw her from behind that first time, I knew right away. It was the hair mostly: silky, almost limp, brushing the base of her neck, the color of the straw in the barn where we’d first made love. But it was also the way she held her body: waiting but gathered for flight. She didn’t like to be stood up, my Adele.
Problem is, it’s the Adele of thirty years ago, the Adele he originally fell in love with. Ghost Adele tells him that her older self has fallen back off the wagon. She wants him to save her – both versions. “I don’t want to be her.” This is a tough order.
Nice piece of noir. As usual with this subgenre, it’s all in the narrator’s voice.
“Invisible Planets” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
A travelogue across a number of imaginary planets, mostly relating the story of their strange inhabitants. This would be a completely dull and unoriginal piece, except that it’s also a metafiction. At intervals, the storyteller and listener interrupt the account.
Do you like these stories?
“Yes . . . and no. Why is every planet filled with visitors from across the stars? I don’t like this. It makes them sound like zoos.”
You’re right. I don’t like it, either. The uniqueness of each planet disappears over time in this manner, like a fingerprint being rubbed away. All right, let’s hear some stories about real natives.
This makes it somewhat more interesting, but it would have worked better if the underlying stories hadn’t been so dull and lame.
“Leaving Night” by Gregory Benford
Left Behind: A 24-hour period when about a third of Earth’s population disappeared.
Later research showed that they vanished while in their deepest sleep. The few available videos of sleeping people revealed that the air around them shimmered for a few seconds amid a soft humming sound. The bodies seemed to shrink to nothing. They were simply gone, leaving clothes behind. Seldom did the event even wake mates asleep beside them.
Right here, the story brings me short, because the narrator then tells us that drivers of cars and pilots of aircraft disappear while their vehicles are in motion; while people might nod off while driving, it’s not likely they would fall into their “deepest sleep” so I can only take this as a contradiction. The rest of the piece involves the narrator analyzing the phenomenon and its consequences. At the end, another voice is heard from.
I have to call this a fiction, not a story. The subject matter is the use of religious faith vs science. The last line offers a bit of wry commentary, but overall it’s a dry, lifeless narrative.
Apex Magazine, December 2013
The last issue from the current editor, going out with a strong lineup of authors. The usual tone of this zine is dark, which may or may not have influenced my take on several of these stories, which tends to the gloomy. Or maybe that’s just me.
“What You’ve Been Missing” by Maria Dahvana Headley
Not your typical dementia story. In addition to the usual sort of forgetful symptoms, Joe dips his pages of Proust into his tea and consumes them. He also becomes newly obsessed with horses. The situation makes his wife Bette unaccountably hostile and cranky, even with their sons. In the meantime, in another universe/dimension, a pair of hoofed, winged seahorses gambol in the waves – making me wonder if someone has been consuming the pages of Lewis Carroll.
The hippocampi swept through the water, side by side, and down below, at the very bottom of the sea, the sand sifted over gold coins and bones, bassinets, mammography records, fondue sets. A wedding ring lost in Greece in the sixties and replaced, pages from every book ever written.
A depressing bit of absurdity based on a play on the name of hippocampus region of the brain, which Bette concludes that in Joe is only “the places where everything should have been and wasn’t.” Joe having apparently been a professor of literature, it’s suitable that there are a number of literary allusions, beginning with Proust and the dissolution of memory. While all this is fun, I still find the implied conclusion to be that if you can’t beat dementia, you might as well join it, which isn’t very cheery, although the author seems to want to make it so. Bette is presented as a disagreeable character, but we see in this that she, as well as Joe, is a victim of the process. The “bright and white” world is, after all, an illusion, but it’s all we’re left with in the end.
“Haruspicy and Other Amatory Divinations” by Kat Howard
Quoth the narrator:
I am not here to tell you anyone’s story. I am here to tell you mine. So I am going to begin with the day that I pulled my heart from my chest, to look inside it and see my future. To see, finally, who it was who would love me.
Readers will suspect that this isn’t going to turn out well, both the narrator’s failed love affairs and her quasi-metaphorical attempts at divination. She concludes she’s been looking for love in the wrong place all along, but readers may be skeptical; she’s been wrong so often before, how likely is it that she’ll be right now? Perhaps she’s already lost her true love by failing to recognize it when she found it; perhaps she won’t ever find it at all. And then what? The narrator makes me feel like one of those advice columnists, who would probably tell her that life is what doesn’t happen while you’re waiting for someone else to fulfill it for you. The narrator should pull out her heart again and look for herself there.
“Before and After” by Ken Liu
The moment in a man’s life when he realizes everything has changed. The text is unusual, being a single extended sentence, broken in half, a stream of consciousness, broken.
. . . Jerry would not be able to remember, in all the following years, no matter how hard he tried, the moment when he finally understood that the world had changed, forever and ever, like a sentence that twists and turns, accumulating the detritus of thoughts and feelings and fears and memories and yearnings until one notices that somewhere along the way, a shift irrevocably altered its path and mood and tone so that upon reaching the final, abrupt period, one hesitates, waits, suspends a breath, to remember.
A rather audacious piece, very short, as it wouldn’t work so well otherwise.
“Our Daughters” by Sandra McDonald
Taking enforced celibacy to extremes. If this goes on, there will be no next generation of daughters.
Because we do not approve of you having sex with our high school daughters, we have equipped their vaginas with automatic intrusion alarms. Once triggered, these alarms will screech out at unbearable volumes, transmit emergency GPS information to the nearest security forces, and instantly alert the Purity Apps on our phones and phablets.
Dark humor. Not quite another sexbot story.
“Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee
In a departure from my usual practice here, an original novella from the author’s collection, which came out earlier in the year.
Long ago, a supernatural race euphemistically called the Genial Ones ruled the world with terrible magic until all the human nations united against them and, so they believed, destroyed them. This magic was based on the power of words, which our assassin/linguist protagonist Iseul has mastered as well as anyone.
Like everyone in Chindalla, she had grown up with stories of the Genial Ones’ terrible horses, whose hooves opened cracks in the earth with bleak black eyes staring out until they boiled poisonously away; the Genial Ones’ banquets, served in the skulls of children; the Genial Ones’ adulthood ceremonies, where music of drum and horn caused towers of glistening cartilage to grow out of mounds of corpses. Even in the days of their dominion, the histories said, there had been humans who objected not to the Genial Ones’ methods, but to the fact that they didn’t have mastery of those terrible arts for themselves. After the Genial Ones’ downfall, they had lost no time in learning.
Now, with their common enemy defeated, the human nations have turned on each other, and the Empire of Yeged has occupied part of Chindalla, with designs on the rest of its territory. Iseul has been sent by the Chindallan Ministry of Ornithology, which has nothing to do with birds, to find out why the Yegedin magicians have been interested in Chindallan books, Chindallan words. What she discovers is that the Genial Ones have by no means been eliminated.
Admirers of Lee’s elegant military SF should appreciate this one in a fantasy setting. As often in the author’s fiction, it’s informed by the history of Korea, which has frequently been threatened by its powerful neighbors. This is a story of war, and Lee effectively depicts its horrors, made worse by the use of magic – the soldiers of the border fort who know they must resist to the death, the refugees trying to decide what to carry with them as they flee, the innocents whom we would call today “collateral damage” and regret their necessary deaths.
The primary focus is on the use of a word-based magic, and in this novella, Lee has plenty of space to show it at work. This gives us plenty of neat details, such as the needle-like assassination dagger inscribed with the word for blood.
The dagger destroyed the person you stabbed it with if you drew blood, and distorted itself into a miniature, rusting figure of the victim: ghastly, but easy to dispose of. Useful for causing people to disappear.
It’s when this weapon fails to work as expected on the Yegedin magician that Iseul begins to realize the truth. She also makes the important and interesting discovery that originally the Genial Ones had no word in their extensive vocabulary for their own defeat. Original, strong, and well-crafted.
“Chalk” by Pat Cadigan
A novelette published as a solo chapbook.
A coming-of-age story, girl variety. As a former girl, I appreciate this change from the default twelve-year-old boy protagonist. In a shabby New England factory town, the narrator and her best friend Dee want only to find some place where their mothers can’t find them, where they can be free to play without interference. Dee gets the notion of chalking marks on the walls wherever an overgrown bush or shed might offer concealment. But the plan works all too well. Hunkered down in mean Mrs Coakley’s forbidden blackberry bush, the girls are scared when she comes to pick the fruit, but even more frightened when the woman simply can’t see them there, right in front of her.
Curiosity finally over-rode terror. I opened my eyes a tiny bit to see that her feet were right in the space between Dee and me. If she moved an inch to either side, she’d bump one of us. We both drew back from her as much as we could without actually moving.
The girls have inadvertently discovered a magic, but it only works when they’re together, only in places where they chalked the marks together. Then one day, with both mothers out on the street in search, the narrator goes forward while Dee pulls back.
To some younger readers, this setting may seem alien as another world, but it’s a world I know well, where kids were scared when adult neighbors yelled at them, where drawing a chalk mark on a wall was vandalism and the cops could be called. What doesn’t change is the quest for the magic, for the miracle, for the secret door, the invisible companion, the magical private world. In this case, however, the miracle goes wrong.
“Black Helicopters” by Caitlín R Kiernan
A chapbook novella published to accompany the author’s most recent collection.
A what-the-hell-is-going-on story, in spades. If it were told chronologically, we’d begin in the 1950s, grounded in the historical fact of the CIA’s illicit secret programs for mental manipulation, involving torture, sexual abuse, and psychotropic drugs, including LSD. [Thoughts of Manchurian candidates would not be amiss here.] In the storyline, the black programs were a mixed success and managed to breed individuals possessing certain mental powers. Most of the action, though, is in 2012, for some values of 2012 that are not in our own timeline, when apocalyptic events of apparently limited scope have occurred.
The sea is the color of semen. The sea is the consistency of jizz. But it smells like sewage. It steams and disgorges demons. “Demons.” All but shapeless shapes that burst when shot of cut, their constituent molecules thereafter slithering back into the semen sea to reassemble and gather themselves for a new assault.
One of the characters calls these shoggoths, which readers will recognize as a Lovecraftian term. The story suggests that the phenomena were caused, not by pollution as we might expect but by something from the stars; the text makes several mentions of “Wormwood” from the Book of Revelations. It’s not clear, however, whether these refer to an event of the past or the future or, as seems most likely, some looping thereof. Because we are dealing with “All the ways history might have gone, but didn’t.”
In this milieu, we have two agencies, X and Y, with their various operatives, spies and assassins. These are persons who warmly embrace the notion of collateral damage, to whom people are all like the slaves who build the tomb of the king, to be killed to preserve the secret of his burial place. Agency interest focuses on a cryptic radio message from an unknown source: “Black Queen white. White Queen black.” This is correctly believed to refer to a pair of twins, of whom one is albino, the product of the covert breeding program. They are being manipulated by their handlers, kept apart, and the albino twin addicted to strong painkillers which the agency supplies – their leash on her. As we meet her, she is trapped on the island surrounded by shoggoths, and it’s clear that the crisis is rising to a breaking point. There are also scenes set a century into the future, in which we can see something of the way it broke.
I’ve come to believe that Kiernan can write anything, as long as it’s dark. Actually, I think she could write anything at all, but mostly it seems to come out in some shade or other of dark, although she could well do something sunny and cheery just to show me up. What she’s given us here, on the surface, is a spy thriller, and one that should satisfy readers of that genre; the details of craft and wetwork convince. Like many such works, it contains strong critique of the activities of agencies like X and Y, whose overlords are shown as regarding them as a chess game, bloodless, where their ends justify the worst of means. And, as is often the case in reality, their activities resulting in situations far worse than those they set out to prevent. The black helicopters of the title are usually identified as symptoms of paranoia and conspiracy theory, but we know all too well, particularly with recent whistleblower revelations, that there really are black drones up in the skies, and paranoids often do have people out to get them. In this respect, this is a very timely work.
But the story is also dark science fiction, which adds considerably to its complexity. We’re messing with timelines here. As the twin called Ivoire says,
I’m here to do the job I’m here to do, to flap my wings and set distant hurricanes in notion. That’s what I’m here to do, to mind sensitive dependence on initial conditions, the voyeur of utter destruction as beauty, marking micro-changes in deterministic non-linear, non-random systems. No, no. Not marking them. Setting them in motion.
Which all suggests that, at this demon-infested time, some significant wing-flapping and domino-toppling has already been done, or will have already been done. Someone has set into motion events that they can’t control.
So this is a long, ambitious, complex, challenging, dense and rich story. Allusions are everywhere – to Lovecraft and the Book of Revelations, as mentioned above, but also Lewis Carroll, Joyce, Twain, and many others [the author has made a list of them in a bibliographical afterward]. There are also references to paleontology, which reflect the author’s own experiences and suggest that in many ways, this is an intensely personal work.
But the author doesn’t make it an easy read. Several of these references are in other languages and scripts, eg, Greek, Hebrew. This greatly enriches the text, but there comes a point when readers may start to think it’s too challenging, may even suspect that the author is using some of these elements to kindle a smokescreen for the sake of obscurity. All the popping back and forth in time, for example, suggests a need for taking notes on the dates, to keep them straight. More than one important character is on occasion not quite sane, which makes their accounts unreliable. And one section, with the dialogue mostly in French, makes me suspicious that it was done as a taunt to the reader: See, if you only could read this now, All would be Revealed. [I could, and it wasn’t.] Despite these moments of confusion, though, the story was worth the perseverance and rewards a re-read.