Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late December

And this winds up the year, except for whatever shows up late in January.I’m unhappy to bid goodbye to Electric Velocipede, of which we have the last issue here. A loss to the field. We also have a novella chapbook by Greer Gilman from Small Beer Press, which gets the Good Story award.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Electric Velocipede #27, Winter 2013

The final issue of this always-interesting little zine.

“Seven Ways of Bringing Down the Regime” by Daniel Ausema

Mostly through the arts, as that’s where the narrator’s skills seem to lie. Which is to say, not in active revolution but incitement. It’s hard to say, in his case, what degree of success he had, except in making his activities noticed by the regime. What readers should notice is that, particularly at first, he manages to get his partners arrested while going free himself. There are effective and ineffective ways to bring down a regime.

The soldiers came, and this time I had no disguise, no partner to take the blame, and no dance to shame them. I want to say I stood defiant before my creation as they dragged me off, but the truth is that I crumbled beneath the first blow and felt nothing after the fourth. Now I am imprisoned, as I always imagined I would be.

An optimistic point of view.

“The Coronation Bout” by Lisa L Hannett

A very weird tale, set in a place governed by pugilism, where the language suggests cock fighting, except that their hereditary leader, the Chanticleer [which suggests song, not fisticuffs] is a hen, so-called although seemingly humanish. Maybe. The Chanticleer wears as a crown her mother’s egg-like skullcap. As the old hen nears death, her two daughters, Regina and Nettie, compete for the honor, but Regina, built on the large side, worries that the skull won’t fit, particularly when the old woman seems to be shrinking towards the end.

I had her wits and, yes, her sharp tongue. But mine was a brawler’s build, stocky as the bull that killed Argent last spring. Firstborn I may have been, older than Nettie by a full hour, but I was ungainly for a Chanticleer.

Much strangeness ensues, especially as the old woman’s remains are smoked, carved up for souvenirs [not, apparently, consumption], yet still resist going into the pot for finally processing into bones, after the flesh goes to feed the foxes [foxes and henhouse?]. But her consciousness still resides in her skull, and she knows Regina’s guilty secrets all too well.

A surreal story of ambition and getting what you wish for. It’s by no means clear at all points what’s going on, but that doesn’t prove too much of an impediment. Moments of gruesome humor liven the tale.

“Ondine’s Curse” by Katherine Mankiller

A retelling of the mermaid story. This one doesn’t stray too far from the template: Mermaid rescues drowning guy, he seems to love her but betrays her. Don’t they always? There’s interest in the way social class works here; Lawrence is always probing to know what Ondine’s father does, not just to figure out if he’s rich but whether she is of the class he wants to marry or the class he can love and leave without self-recrimination.

“The Beasts We Want to Be” by Sam J Miller

Set in the early years after the Soviet establishment, in a barely-alternate version where orphans are tortured in Pavlov Boxes to turn them into the sort of beasts fit to do the dirty work of the Soviet regime, “slightly smarter than a dog but just as vicious.” Nikolai has come out of the box a near-beast, but the influence of his team leader Apolek has brought him back in the direction of humanity.

I didn’t like it anymore, when they wept. Joy in the suffering of others was the first habit Apolek broke me of, sparing me a couple hundred hours in a Pavlov Box in the process. Class enemies saw us coming and attacked, or begged, or burst into tears, but I no longer singled them out for special brutality.

On one assignment to strip the wealth of an aristocratic mansion, Apolek sees a small painting which has a disturbing effect on him. Instead of turning it in, he takes it and flees. Nikolai follows, at first believing that Apolek has been killed for the valuable painting.

The center of the story is a psychological one, Nikolai’s struggle between the beast in himself and the human. Separated from Apolek’s influence, the inner beast grows stronger. More largely, it is a denunciation of the early Soviet regime, rendered even more extreme than it was in reality, which takes some doing. The heart of it is this: How can ordinary people be brought to do acts of routine brutality? Or that there is something human in the worst of us? The story’s painting is the opposite of the boxes, an object that calls to the human. If it is meant to be an actual work of art, I fear I do not recognize it, but it is only a fragment.

In historical realty, there were no Pavlov Boxes, yet they were not necessary; the brutality went on regardless. What does it say – that there is always a Beast in us? Or that human is not so different from Beast, after all?

–RECOMMENDED

“Bones” by Helena Bell

A story of the need for human connections. The wheel chair man lived alone, died alone, and sat alone after he died with no one to bury him, until he gave up on it and moved to New Orleans, where he bought a house, now understanding “that since no one had noticed his passing, there was nowhere he could pass onto.” He hires contractors to build stairs he couldn’t climb, leading nowhere, and attempts to connect to the people he lives among.

Rather surreal, filled with parables.

“Song of Mary” by Geoffrey W Cole

Science fiction. The surviving population of a dying Earth has fled in several large colony ships, and most of them have failed in one way or another. Each ship is captained by an AI, but another AI presence, sometimes called Mary or Old Mother, is tasked with making sure the passengers remain, more or less, human. The Pacifica is failing; it estimates that only 30% of its current population will survive to reach its destination. This population is divided into two tribes, hunters and farmers. Already, without knowing the odds, violence has broken out between the two groups. Mary attempts to mediate. “‘There is no other alternative,’ Mary says. Though she knows the alternatives. She saw what happened to the Earth in its last days.”

I often feel, when reading gung-ho tales of humans colonizing new, innocent worlds, that a species who has ruined one planet doesn’t really deserve another. This story isn’t calculated to dispel such a sentiment. Yet the overall misanthropism is balanced by one faint ray of optimism. Mary, at least, casts such a ray, although that might just be her programming.

“The Girls of the Forest” by Margaret Ronald

Variation on the animal wife story. The daughters of the forest seem compelled to go out into the world and mate with human males, perhaps because they don’t seem to have any males of their own kind there, not that we can see. Although this raises the question how new daughters are born, since their hybrid children don’t seem to survive there. Cynthia’s half-crane daughter, for example, won’t ever be able to fly. But the human males out in the world never seem to make good mates. Although, as Cynthia’s mother points out, the daughters who find good mates don’t come back to the forest, so we can’t be sure about that.

The setting seems made to fit the story but not to make so much sense in itself. Readers will probably see the conclusion coming from afar.

“Eating the Pomegranate” by Megan Kurashige

A wildfire is rampant in the area, but Aurelie and her sister Imogen sit at home, cooking and eating. Imogen is apparently unconcerned about the situation, but Aurelie is nervous. “She wishes for someone official, a man in uniform who will tell them to leave, who will lift them into a vehicle with flashing lights and speed them to the safety of someplace else.” Instead of officials, ash-covered refugees keep ringing their doorbell, looking for their favorite food.

Nicely crafted, but the title gives away the twist.

“The Fungi That Talk Softly” by Harry Markov

The story of Rostislav, who loves fungi, molds and other manifestations of decay. In his youth, he would

keep a single pair of white briefs for further olfactory savouring. He had worn those for two weeks straight and kept them well hidden for months. Each night he would sniff, press, and play with the material, noting its fermentation.

As he grows older and less connected to reality, he attempts to become fungal himself; he alone can hear the call of their subtle song.

A tale calculated to evoke revulsion in readers, most of whom will probably not find sympathy with the lushly fetid images of rot and decay or appreciate the beauty that the protagonist sees in them.

“The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown” by Caroline M Yoachim

A magician creates animated carnivals out of sugar syrup for children’s parties, at the end of which the figures are consumed by the celebrants.

The carnival glittered with sugar-glass lights. The Ferris wheel was made of chocolate with graham cracker seats and a motor that ran on corn syrup. Out near the edge of the table, a milk chocolate monkey rode bareback on a white chocolate zebra with dark chocolate stripes. The monkey did handstands and backflips while the zebra pranced in a slow circle.

Much fun, except for the clown, whom the magician keeps back as a seed to generate the next carnival from the syrup vat. The clown tells the other figures how wonderful it will be for them to be eaten by the children, but everything changes when she finally sees her companions being torn apart and consumed.

An imaginative premise with a surprisingly positive magical ending.

 

Cry Murder! In a Small Voice by Greer Gilman

A new novella by Gilman is a valuable rarity. Readers familiar with the author’s previous work should find this one surprisingly accessible in comparison. It’s a historical mystery set in the Shakespearean age. Someone is murdering the young boys belonging to the theatre companies. Making it worse, the coroner has been declaring the deaths to be suicides, making the victims ineligible for burial in sacred ground. Playwright Ben Jonson correctly suspects Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who had a reputation as a pederast at the time. But Oxford’s rank places him beyond the reach of the law. Jonson has to take matters into his own hands, and he and his allies must proceed with great care. In essence, then, this is an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Readers will also note how Gilman savages the Oxfordian pretensions, portraying de Vere as a poor poet, a thief of his betters’ verse.

It’s quite apparent that the author is deeply informed about the era and its characters. This goes well beyond mere meticulous research. Gilman pulls us into the milieu with an intense immediacy, as if she had just stepped out of the Globe’s tiring-room. We see how crucial was the role of boys in a theatre where women were not allowed on the stage, where Will, after the murder, is left with “his next week’s plays to fit with one less boy.”

But the real richness here is the language. It is not Shakespeare’s language, not Jonson’s, but Gilman’s own unique and inimitable wordcraft set in Elizabethan terms.

On Venice:

Faugh, the stink of her. ’Twould make a maggot puke, this excremental reek, merdurinous, this stew of charnel house, this gallimaufry of dog and rat. The Thames is Pierian to this, unsullied, and the Isle of Dogs Hesperides. A prod of pole lets matter as a surgeon’s probe. The vent of Popery, said a cold voice in his head. A priestly pus. He could write that speech and rail it down, as puppet buffed at puppet in a show. The quarrel made his faith.
. . .
And yet—how beautiful her nighted mask, her play of fires on the deep. Her torches all her stars. All planetary. Qualmish as he was, yet he could gaze with pleasure on the spangling of her watery gown. Fie, poetastery.

Describing de Vere:

His suit would be a manor wasted—folds, barns, meadows in its broidering—its buttons downfall even to the rafters, slate-stripped, and their lead by alchemy turned gold; each glove a hamlet; aye, the very perfume on’t a living. Skirted like a spaniel bitch, pated with an oyster shell—if oyster ere had plumes—and ruffed like Winter in a masque. More rings than teeth. So much his swathing. But the man himself a puckfist: nothing, closed in kidskin.

And in the shadows, because this is also a fantasy, the ghostly presence of old gods:

Old Saturn who devours his children. In that eye of winter, in the fume of mercury—a lickerous, flickering blacksilver—sat Lord Oxford, cold and saturnine, a shadow of the king of shadows. Damned fantasy: but still Ben saw it, clear as on a stage. All but extinct: his fire ash, he fed it with a hekatomb of boys, a bonefire of their flesh.

This is word-mastery in the Gilman mode. This is to savor.

–HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

Tor.com, December 2013

“In the Greenwood” by Mari Ness

A Robin and Marian story, although the characters are not named. Nothing here is named – not the country, that could only be England, and not the forest, which is called the greenwood and seems to have a life of its own.

When he is in the greenwood, he tells her, he can feel its heartbeat. It throbs, he says, although not quite like the human heart. Slower, deeper, moving the leaves and bark of every tree, holding firm against the wind and the rain and the journeys of the sun and stars. He has felt that heartbeat engulf him, felt his own heart slowing, settling into the steady rhythm of the trees, as the birds laugh above him.

This is the usual good fantasy feeling, but when he says the forest doesn’t want him to leave, when the giant not named Little John says “the wood has taken him”, it feels sinister.

OK, Robin Hood as the Green Man, or Robin Goodfellow, is one thing, not in itself a good thing or bad thing, yet it has story-promise. But this element of the tale leaves out the political dimension – the robberies and killings, the theft of the king’s taxes that threaten to bring down the royal wrath on the shire’s peasant villages. What is the origin of these evils? Is it the greenwood itself, acting through the man, or is it the man himself, imperiling the wood by his deeds? This should be the heart of the story, but the author sidesteps it.

“Friedrich the Snow Man” by Lewis Shiner

Short-short. Friedrich is reincarnated, which brings him revelations that dismay. I like the way the author builds his story around the words of the Frosty song, but it ruins the fun when he reveals Friedrich’s full identity. Gets didactic towards the end.

“The Christmas Show” by Pat Cadigan

The Trebor Sisters, Coco and Dita, have come to Happy Valley to stage the town’s Christmas play [Dickens, of course], “like a couple of crazy cat ladies, except instead of taking in cats, we put on plays.” But the itinerant theater is in fact their way of working off an inherited curse. The Tabor Sisters come with their own ghosts already cast. They pretend it’s SFX. The circumstances make every production Fraught, but this one turns out to be very different, even for them.

Highly improbable scenario turns neatly heartwarming at the end, even if it takes rather too long to get to it. The story centers around the local actor chosen to play Scrooge, a man with some sort of deep personal secret that readers will be expecting to be revealed. We later suspect the secret might have something to do with the conclusion, but we never do find out.

“The Writ of Years” by Brit Mandelo

Mel Ashton is a failed writer who has taken an interest in an old tale that always begins: There was once a quill that could not be held by any hand. One day he finds an old lacquered box at an estate sale, and inside is a pen. He tries to pick it up, but the pen objects.

The hand I held to my chest was bleeding from a jagged rip down my index finger. The flaps of skin gaped like the box had a moment before, and I rolled on my side, gasping against the carpet.

The author foolishly ignores the lessons from the many variations of the old tale, in which those who attempt to hold the pen always come to a bad end – the term he calls himself is idiot, but drunk would also be appropriate.

Neat, old-fashioned curse story. It’s a writer’s story, the oft-told tale of the blocked author who would do anything to be able to regain what he has lost. It frequently comes in the form of a deal with the devil, but this is a good variation, with a distinct tone that, except for a reference to typing – and I suspect a typewriter, not a computer – could have been set in a previous century.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #136-137, December 2013

I can discern no link between the stories in issue 136; #137 is tales of debts and sacrifice.

#136

“Kurtana” by Christian K Martinez

A knight with acquired supernatural powers comes wounded to a temple where the priests have a different sort of supernatural powers, primarily pacific except when they go berserk.

They were healers and singers, artists, companions. They were witches, too, of course. With a thousand different kinds of sorcery. Meeting one was supposed to touch you forever, granting you a moment of relief, a memory to cling to in the darkest hours of never.

These kurtana, for all that they are supposed to be enlightened, are jealous of their youngest member, which seems to be why they send her to heal the knight.

The story here is thin, with a lot of backstory implied but not shown, particularly on the part of the knight. Mostly, the author is highly impressed with his creations and spends most of the text painting pretty word-pictures while the characters talk at each other. I like pretty world-pictures, but would rather see them in the service of a story.

“Walking Still” by C T Hutt

The opening epigraph tells us this is inspired by the song “Duncan and Brady”, recast as a fantasy Western. Here, Duncan Bismuth is known as the Shiner Man, which we can take as moonshine, although he claims to be a patent medicine man, and he travels with his robotic walking still and his mule Belch. Trouble is, Sheriff Brady [and Mayor Volstead] don’t hold with moonshiners, and Brady has a robotic war machine of his own.

Those listening removed their hats and placed them over their hearts, all of them knowing what would come next for the stranger and his walking still.

An awfully silly story. The narrative voice may amuse readers, but it’s not quite up to the highest standards of the fantasy Western genre. It’s still neat to see snippets and allusions to the original song, which this doesn’t resemble more than a bit.

#137

“Stitched Wings” by Beth Cato

An intriguing situation: Madeline’s mother is a fugitive mad scientist who keeps her dead husband packed in salt until she can revive him. In the meantime, Madeline, who has the interesting ability of smelling lies, evades her officious governess in the forbidden garden, where she finds a fairy caught in a trap, sewing himself a pair of wings; releasing him puts him in her debt. Now she discovers that it’s her mother trapping the fairies to use their magic.

A mix of the absurd and the poignant that would have worked better with rather less of the absurd.

“Whistler’s Grove” by A E Decker

If you go the Hangman’s tree and ask a question the Whistler will answer it, but at a high price. Four servants of their lord have come to purchase victory for him; Miro is prepared to be the designated sacrifice.

I am an evil necessity. For our lord I have spied, I have lied, and I have killed. Since a poisoned dart pierced my side during the last raid, I have measured my life in breaths. The war—there has always been war—goes badly. I can be of one last use to him.

No humor here. The premise is interesting but the conclusion enigmatic. The author leaves us to wonder what question Miro has asked and what he intends to do with the answer.

 

Strange Horizons, December 2013

A collection of light, mostly amusing tales.

“Why Don’t You Ask the Doomsday Machine?” by Elliott Essex

The Ultimate Weapon takes charge of its own existence. Zillions of ages ago, an ancient race built the machine as the last resort against cosmos-destroying war. Its power is such that it obliterates its creators and users along with everyone else, which is meant to be a deterrent against its ever being used. In the zillions of ages since, no greater power has ever been created; although the machine has occasionally been tweaked, it has never been controlled. While the premise isn’t quite credible, the interest is in the machine’s self-aware reflections.

I really think most of them would have been much happier if they had let me be, and concentrated on not being enemies with more than half a galaxy at once.

“The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library” by Ada Hoffmann

In her own way, using the materials at hand, defying the nay-saying of the whales. Very short, inventive, but I don’t know if I can countenance the abuse of the eels.

“Significant Figures” by Rachael Acks

Stephen and his trusty waffle iron save the world from the alien invasion, which is unlikely given that Stephen is actually one of the aliens, a deserter, aka ZETA ROSE KICK. But they don’t have waffles on the fleet. A very silly piece.

The power fluctuations were getting worse. And it was, to the waffle iron’s mind, Stephen’s job to figure out this problem. It made waffles, Stephen ate them, and then Stephen made certain the world continued to spin cheerfully on its axis so the waffle iron could make waffles again the next day. This was the proper order of things. From its perch on top of the refrigerator, the blender agreed, albeit with greater focus on fruit and frozen yogurt smoothies.

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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