Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

The month’s stories from some of the regular ezines and a couple less regular small press publications. I found some enjoyable work, particularly from Tor.com and Unlikely Story, which is the journal of cryptology this time.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Tor.com, February 2014

Featuring The Anderson Project, a group of three original stories written to illustrate a painting by Richard Anderson [rather than the usual other way around]. Tor has done this sort of thing before, two years ago. There are also independent stories, plus a special Valentine’s Day offering – stuff that I like quite a bit better.

The Anderson Project

The image is strongly SFnal, a shadowed space station or craft resembling a jellyfish, with two apparently-human figures in the foreground, who seem to be tethered to a sort of umbilical. But that’s what I see; the point of a project like this one is to explore what the various authors see, what story they find in it.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the project is too successful. Liu employs the ship as an essential element of his story, but not in a way that fully makes sense. Moffett uses, not the ship, but the painting of the ship, as a launching-off point to lecture us on dream interpretation. And Goonan focuses more on the Gaugin painting that she uses for her title. Everyone seems to find a jellyfish in the image; it’s not just me.

“Reborn” by Ken Liu

This story was posted January 29, but I held back the review in order to discuss all three pieces together.

Aliens have conquered Earth, and they have modeled their Judgment Ship on a flying saucer as an intended sop to human sensibilities, or so the Tawnin say. It’s a benevolent occupation, or so they say. Stubborn xenophobic elements in the human population are still hostile. The ship is where they brainwash such humans, then release them back into the population, “reborn”. Josh is a Reborn counterterrorist agent, mated to a Tawnin, which involves regular mindprobes. Now he is investigating an attack on the ship at the moment it released its latest crop of Reborn.

At the end of each line is a human, securely attached like hooked fish by the Tawnin ports located over their spines and between their shoulder blades. As the lines slowly extend and drift closer to the ground, the figures at the ends languidly move their arms and legs, tracing out graceful patterns.

As Josh traces leads to the attack, disturbing old memories of his past life resurface.

The basic plot is pretty predictable. What’s of interest here is the question of the relationship between self and memory, the conflict between two opposing positions: “We are what we remember.” and “We are not the sum of our pasts.” The Tawnin shed memory and self as a snake sheds its skin, but it doesn’t work that way for humans. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is revealed mostly through infodump. I have other problems with the piece. I don’t credit the drive of the Tawnin to mate with humans, an activity which is penetrative but focuses on the sharing of memories, not generative material. Is this how the Tawnin mate among themselves? It’s as if the author thought this would be a convenient device to account for the constant mind probing. I also can’t think that the Judgment Ship is a very efficient way of processing the large number of Reborn that the occupation seems to produce. It seems as if the image spawned the story, but then the story grew away from the image. That often happens with story seeds, but in this case, the seed couldn’t be dug up and discarded as the Tawnin do with their memories.

“Space Ballet” by Judith Moffett

Another Josh, this one a student of precognitive dream research. He paints his dream, then brings the canvas along to therapy class, where they all try to figure out what to make of it, why it scares him. His twin brother Tim is in his dream; it turns out that Tim had a similar dream, in which Josh was present.

Amid generalized fear, an object or objects—ship, shuttle, maybe both—are in space, and are also deep underwater. In your dream there’s no image or sense of the object plunging from space into the water, but your twin dreams of a tidal wave, and his dream and your reentry experience are linked through your moon painting.

Exactly what is going to happen – and when? And if a disaster, how can they try to avert it?

Using the Anderson painting, not just as an image but as a painting of one, gives a sort of metafictional effect, but also feels overly literalized. It’s an idea story, but the idea is the interpretation of dreams, with such details as asters and hemorrhoids adding up to asteroid, and the score of a baseball game giving the date of impact. I find myself uncompelled by these elements.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

As a young parrot, Meitner was implanted with human DNA and neural enhancements. Liberated from the lab in a raid, she ended up in Hawaii, where Jean Woodward took her to live with a flock of non-native parrots and learn their behavior as well as English and math. Meitner grew up and learned with Jean’s daughter Leilani, specializing in mathematics, but some aspects of human behavior always disturbed her. Eventually she flew away to live an independent life as a mathematician. Now she has finally come out to deliver a lengthy manifesto demanding rights for all creatures.

Most non-humans have specific missions having to do with survival but I realized that, having the gift of speech, I had a wider responsibility. I understand other species, probably, as little as you do, but I do know that they have interior lives and that they deserve rights as living beings.

Her mathematical analysis of the dynamics of flocking behavior also allows her to take control of an experimental spacecraft [the one in the painting] and translate it elsewhere, an aspect of the plot that is slighted.

This is an intensely, excessively, optimistic celebration of the unity of life. “All living creatures have one goal, communicated, understood, and shared on a broad bandwith: the survival of all of us. With joy.” Also, with love. There’s a lot of that here. I must admit that I have an easier time accepting the notion of a parrot doing transdimensional mathematics than in the unity of all creatures, many of whom prey on the others. It’s all well-expressed, well-developed. But a bit much to take in a world where I see both ants and humans dismembering each other. The story doesn’t ignore the issue of violence. Jean is killed by parrots who become upset to learn, via the spaceship painting, that humans sometimes kill each other. Ironically, this behavior seems to be enabled by the presence of human DNA in their population, introduced by Meitner. The importance of the Gaugin painting, set in a Polynesian paradise, could include a tacit reference to original sin: if it takes human genes to recognize the evil of murder, does it also take human genes to recognize the rights of other species? The story suggests a number of such provocative moral issues.

“Mad Maudlin” by Marie Brennan

As the epigraph suggests, this is a repurposing of the eponymous 18th century poem, which was itself a reply to the better-known “Tom ‘o Bedlam”. Here we are in a psychiatric hospital, in which Peter encounters a new patient hiding under his desk.

He could see her bare feet through the gap where the modesty panel didn’t quite reach the floor. Hard feet, armored with calluses, and profoundly filthy. The nurses hadn’t wanted to bathe her. Hadn’t wanted to spend any more time with her than necessary. Downtown hospital, veteran staff that had seen absolutely everything three times over, and they didn’t want to be in the same room as this woman.

Readers familiar with the poem should immediately notice the reference to the lines:

Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes,
For to save her shoes from gravel

Peter, too, recognizes the poem, the song, the story. But he doesn’t expect to become a part of it, himself, to be using the tools of psychotherapy, largely Jungian, to reclaim the sanity of the archetype who is now his patient.

A fine piece of fantasy, a really neat reworking of the folklore in terms of a modern approach to mental illness – and the converse. Lots of symbolism threaded into it, such as the moon as lord of lunacy.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Tallest Doll in New York City” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Valentine’s Day, 1938, when “dolls” were paired with “guys”. Our narrator is a waiter in the Cloud Club of the Chrysler Building when, at 5:28 pm, the building steps off its foundation.

She just shakes the snow and pigeons loose from her spire and takes off, sashaying southwest. This is something even we waiters haven’t experienced before. The Chrysler is 1,046 feet tall, and, until now, she’s seemed stationary. She’s stood motionless on this corner for seven years so far, the gleamiest gal in a million miles.

The Chrysler is in love, and tired of waiting for her guy to come to her.

A totally cool conceit, and a love story to remember. Aside from which, it’s a Valentine to New York City and its history.

 

Strange Horizons, February 2014

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” LaShawn M Wanak

Obviously, a list story. These have become a hard sell for me. This one, though, I like, with its light tones of irony and wit.

The steps, it seems, are on the spiral staircases that sometimes appear unexpectedly at crucial junctures of a person’s life. Isa has now climbed three of them, so she’s a good choice to advise us.

When a spiral staircase appears in front of you, don’t panic. Just know that if you place your feet on that first step, it shows commitment. You can’t go back. You can only go up and up and up until you reach the very top.

Actually, you can go back down, but only after you reach the top, where the epiphanies are found. But as Isa tells us, epiphanies are what we make of them. “That’s the thing about enlightenment. Unless you do something with it afterwards, it really don’t mean shit.” Wisdom, that. We’re all responsible for the course of our lives, but sometimes, a little enlightenment can’t hurt. This is also a story about family. Isa’s family has strong characters and weak ones, and one whose staircase only appears at her funeral. I have to wonder what epiphany Isa’s mother would have found at the top of her staircase, and what its unusual construction would have been revealed to mean. Even a totally self-sufficient person might sometimes do with a bit of an epiphany, even if she doesn’t believe it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Lysistrata of Mars” by Tory Hoke

Broke and desperate on Mars, Kay takes up pole dancing to earn money. All is well, relatively speaking, until an alien prince takes a liking to her, demanding more than Kay wants to put out. An interstellar incident ensues when the prince takes the strip club’s bouncers hostage. The brothel workers go on strike in solidarity with Kay. As one of them tells her, “A limit is its own reward.” Wisdom here, too.

MGN confirmed it in a bewildered nightly news segment, their straight-faced Limosian correspondent reporting from the foot of Tower 190. One refused patron gave them a quote (“Sigma 9’s got a hundred fucking princes. One of ’em’s gonna be an asshole.”) but refused to appear on camera.

A story of self-respect and solidarity. The outcome is awfully optimistic, but the characters are strong.

“The Suitcase Aria” by Marissa Lingen

Udo is a castrato in the Berlin opera when someone starts to murder patrons in the canals beneath the opera house. Udo also has a magical gift that he employs to keep people from noticing him except when onstage.

I had seen too many other musicos exploited, made public figures; I had seen them groped and made figures of fun, or I had seen them borne away on the tides of their own fame, enslaved to passions others had given them. I would not be like them. I would sing, and that would be all they could have of me.

Now, though, he has heard the murderer’s song. It is no human song. And only Udo can call the singer out of the water.

The interest here is in the details of 17th century opera, such as the suitcase aria, which sounds like something well got rid of.

 

Shimmer #18, 2014

An issue guest-edited by Ann VanderMeer, who informs readers that many of the eight stories here are refugees from her editorship of the former iteration of Weird Tales, which should make it of particular interest to readers.

Many of these pieces suffer from a similar problem: the authors begin with a promising premise, but can’t seem to form a complete story from it. So we have some neat settings, some of them nicely weird, but fewer satisfying conclusions. The best is the Dustin Monk.

“In the Broken City” by Ben Peek

The tone is set here by mention of people who live under the cremation ovens – and like it there. This is a dying world where the sky is a perpetual sunset. Beneath Broken City is the hospital, which seems to have a sinister reputation. It does a lot of amputations. After the nameless narrator decides to have his healthy leg removed, he falls in love with a nurse. Yet no one there has ever seen or heard of her.

A promising beginning to the issue, with a classic Weird Tales tone, dismal and strange.

Two days after her arrival, the surgeons here discovered that she had a worm living in her leg. It ran the entire length of her bone and grew by eating the marrow within. After the amputation, they put it in a jar for everyone to see.

Yet when we reach the crucial moment when the narrator can no longer naively accept what he has believed, he simply goes to his doctor to demand an explanation. And receives it. The subsequent sound is all the story’s mystery, its hints of madness and unreality, rushing suddenly out. A tale with a reasonable medical explanation is not a weird one, and readers looking for one will be left disappointed, even though the last line attempts to recapture the morbid tone.

“The Birth of the Atomic Age” by Rachel Marston

Alternate A-bomb testing, in a world where secrecy is shrugged off and the government makes it a spectacle to impress the citizens [and intimidate the Commies].

They said, “Bring your sunglasses, your wife, your husband, your children, your dogs, your blankets, your picnics.” So we did. We made fried chicken, egg salad sandwiches, chocolate cake. We packed coolers with drinks, juices and water for the kids, lemonade, beers. We poured ice over the bottles, letting the small squares slide over the glass.

Here’s the sort of opening that could go to all kinds of neat places. Alas, it chooses one of the most banal destinations imaginable.

“Psychopomp” by Ramsey Shehadeh

Asgoroth has been in exile since his failed rebellion against Beelzebub, lord of Hell. His only alternative was to take service with Janikowski, an upstart power, but his most recent assignment to deliver a pair of his boss’s agents has failed, and now both he and they have fallen into the hands of his hellish enemies.

I look down at the souls in my arms: the woman, still glaring, her defiance unbowed by her imminent damnation; and the man, still gasping for breath, looking at me with unmasked fear.

A confused scenario. The politics of this dysfunctional hell could have been interesting if explored in more detail. Instead, there are too many stereotypical demon descriptions and torture scenes.

“Introduction: the Story of Anna Walden” by Christine Schirr

A faux-academic report [it has footnotes]. Some of my favorite stories have used this format. This one is a nested account, as the narrator attempts to piece together her subject’s “tragic tale”. But exactly whose tragic tale this is, readers have to piece together. We have letters from the subject’s psychiatrist and her own diary entries as well as what witnesses are willing to communicate.

The diary, while interesting, is in itself not a reliable source. The further into its pages, the more clear it becomes that Anna’s mind is deteriorating. At times, she is clearly hallucinating, and while the diary is fascinating reading, it cannot be considered an accurate representation of the event that occurred that November.

At which, of course, readers will suspect the narrator’s failure to see the truth, and it’s interesting to read in the footnotes of her similar conclusions regarding Dr Bell.

Tales of insanity often involve unreliable accounts, and here we clearly can’t trust what anyone is saying. Anna is convinced she is haunted by shadowy figures, and Dr Bell finds herself estranged from her absent husband. It’s just too bad that with all the narrator’s investigatory work, we learn so little about these characters. Here, because the story’s groundwork has been so meticulously laid, it collapse at the end is even more disappointing.

“Anuta Fragment’s Private Eyes” by Ben Godby

An odd name, Fragment. Readers will assume this is a low-status person, perhaps mentally impaired, particularly when we see her working as an office cleaner. Yet she has named her floor buffer Boethius. She has a speech impediment that almost prevents her from talking, out of embarrassment. She is a secret experiment, used by her employer to kill inconvenient persons, a task she doesn’t enjoy but can’t evade.

Ziad El-Charaak Tarani appears so peaceful, lying akimbo in the Dumpster out back of his apartment building. It strikes Anuta odd that she should think this, what with the way his legs and arms are bent all out of shape, and how his head is perpendicular to his neck. Certainly he cannot be comfortable; and yet the look upon his face, she knows, is carefree—nearly transcendental.

Aside from the look into the character’s mind, the main thing here is the pun on “cleaner”. Otherwise it’s standard crime SF, with a plot that doesn’t make a lot of sense, crime-investigation-wise. Nothing much weird.

“Unclaimed” by Annalee Newitz

Another detective story. After the brain eater case, Leslie Tom quit the force and went into private investigation. But a new client brings it all back when he hires her to find J J Coal, the missing author of a pulpy sci-fi book that’s been earning billions in unclaimed royalties for the last 50 years. The author is quite easy to find [the Registry hadn’t actually been looking] despite being reclusive and distancing herself from her books in favor of her biological research. “But something about the way Cohen described Coal made Tom think of Nelly, the antiquarian who ate brains as a bizarre form of literary preservation.”

Despite the predictability of the mad scientist plot, I kind of like the purple-pulpy monsters and the book connection. It’s a fun read.

“Fragments from the Notes of a Dead Mycologist” by Jeff VanderMeer

That’s mushrooms, of course – a subject long dear to this author’s heart. Sinister mushrooms. The eponymous fragments were found on notecards, 24 of them, presented here in what the compiler claims is “a best approximation” of their original order. In these ramblings of the bereaved mycologist, addressed in part to his deceased lover, we find that he followed a fungal trail from his beloved’s grave to a tunnel at the top of a hill in the graveyard. There, written in fruiting bodies, he found a message of hope and resurrection.

A heartbeat wells up from deep below and thrums through the steps and into me. These are my words confronting me; I wrote them to him in a letter, and I placed it atop the coffin before they lowered it into the ground. But here they have been transformed, as if into a message just for me. Nothing can dissolve them. Nothing can destroy them.

While there’s a lot of mycological maundering here, the words of someone overly enthralled with his own subject matter, readers will find not only a story of love but of death, a struggle between hope and the skepticism that sees it as wishful thinking. We must also entertain the possibilities of madness and hallucination [which can, as we know, be brought on by certain fungi]. The answer is left to the readers. Nothing here very original, but done in a familiarly mannered weird key that should please fans of the subgenre.

“The Street of the Green Elephant” by Dustin Monk

The longest piece in the issue. There is longstanding civil unrest in a fantasy city that makes me think of southeast Asia, with intermittent warfare between two groups of people – the Sotiriraj, who may be indigenous to the area, and the magic-using Pbenyo.

Pbenyo tea-dreamers and soldiers from the north, with their milk-white blades and magic, had sacked and looted the Shining City, and burned much of it to the ground. The Street of the Green Elephant had been the site of one of the bloodiest battles. Miss Pthik-da said there were still ghosts trapped beneath the street, souls who couldn’t find their way to heaven.

At this time, the Sotiriraj are in the ascendant and enforcing oppressive measures against the Pbenyo, including the prohibition of tea, which gives prophetic dreams. Auw is a young child, the product of a marriage between a Sotiriraj father and Pbenyo mother, who had been a skilled tea-dreamer. But she has now died, and Auw’s father is eking out of living from a small tea-dreaming shop in the eponymous street.

The story is Auw’s, too young to appreciate the danger as the resentful Pbenyo plot an uprising. She fears the power of her tea-powered visions, which once showed her mother’s death, and she clings desperately to her father, while at the same time yearning for the freedom of the streets. But events are larger than young girls and anxious parents.

I like this setting quite a bit – the crowded, smelly street, the cluttered shops, the haven of the Temple, not so safe, after all. Some readers may be able to see references to contemporary conflicts, but it works quite well without. The unbroken cycle of violence that we see here is a universal. Other than the precognitive tea-dreaming, the fantastic element is slight.

 

Unlikely Story #8, February 2014

Aka, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. Although the editor’s note contains the disclaimer: “there’s nothing unlikely here”, given recent revelations about our security state. There are, however, some good stories, both the thought-provoking and the entertaining.

“Something in Our Minds Will Always Stay” by Barry King

The story opens on a rather ominous note with Rüdiger and Sophia in bed as security drones flit outside their window; they speak of fearing their children. In their case, the child is an AI that ends up running a powerful energy conglomerate, which is to say, much of the world. The scene is backstory; in the present thread, Rüdiger is dead, and readers will suspect he was murdered by the AI. He exists now as a virtual copy, a “black box”, who still has some capacity to influence the AI, which would rather he did not. The text continues to alternate between past, in which the characters discuss the proper upbringing/programming of the AI, and present, in which virtual Rüdi and living Sophia attempt to control the monster they created.

“[The shareholders] trust us to do our jobs, and that’s what we’re doing. I have the matrices already computed. We just need to merge them into the main core and the adaptations should take. It will remain concentrated on profitability and expansion, but will defer to Rapskil-Kleinman ethical imperatives. We will be able to overrule its decisions selectively.”

An elegantly-done tale, full of cautionary moments. As when the characters succumb to the temptation of funding and sell their work to the highest bidder. As when the AI hires lobbying firms and bribes senators, just as human executives do. As when it infiltrates communications so that Sophia and Rüdi have to resort to increasingly complex encryption to ensure that it isn’t intercepting their messages. And there are also intriguing philosophical questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence and the nature of thought itself, as well as the classical problem of other minds, perfectly expressed as “All three of us have always been black boxes to each other.”

–RECOMMENDED

“Ink” by Mari Ness

A neat idea, based on the practice of writing notes on the back of one’s hands. In a shadowy, secretive, conspiratorial setting, a woman works as a courier, meeting other messengers who touch the bare skin of her hands, transferring the message.

It’s supposed to be simple enough. Place your hand flat on the paper, still the mind, and allow the letters and words to leach out, one by one, onto the paper. That, supposedly, is where the trick comes in. Followed by the next trick: sorting the words into some sort of sense.

In addition to being transmitted in quasi-invisible ink, the messages are encoded, requiring her to decipher them. The woman is constantly anxious, fearing failure, discovery. The work pays badly, but she has no other option, as we gradually learn why.

A chillingly Kafkaesque tale about a person trapped with no way out in circumstances she doesn’t understand, required to do a difficult task at which she is likely to fail. Effective mood-building in the mode of a weird tale.

–RECOMMENDED

“Chilaquiles con Code” by Mary Alexander Agner

Rosa is her mother’s bright hope, a promising coding student now taking a tricky employment exam. Entering the exam room, everyone is given a corporate laptop and the single instruction: Don’t get hacked. It’s clearly a test of initiative and ingenuity as well as programming skills.

The text is full of neepery.

While that runs, Rosa sends out her own packets, following both the gopher and this new source. The gopher wants to talk, sending a SYN. Maybe the congrats was just a congrats. While here it can hurt to listen, Rosa wants to try anyway, and she’s got her guard up. Out goes her SYN-ACK, the rodent’s ACK nearly simultaneous.

But the real issues here are ethical. As little as she likes it, Rosa must assume that she is the token Latina in the group, that the other applicants are her enemies. The real test is knowing who can be trusted, and proving that she can be.

A well-done piece, but under the stressful conditions of the test, I have to wonder if all the male applicants would really be more interested in hitting on the women than in undermining them.

“How My Best Friend Rania Crashed a Party and Saved the World” by Ada Hoffmann

An annoying future world subsumed by social media, in which everyone is crudely classified by personality type. Emma, our narrator, is a Relator. Her best friend Rania is a World Saver, currently unhappy because her crush, a Pleasure Seeker, seems to be ditching her, or possibly just using her for the ratings value. But Rania has her own ratings problems.

“If the Infallible Cloud gets word Rania went to a party in Brightside, it’ll lower her World Saver rating. She’s extra worried about her rating. Wants to get into Harvard, you know. But her boyfriend’s in Brightside and she needs to talk to him. So we need to get to the party, do what needs doing, and get out again, without anyone knowing.”

Naturally, the setting is a high school, a milieu where everything has always been like that, if less formalized, although here the same silly ratings system is inflicted on everyone, even celebrities. The story is humor, not to be taken too seriously. Still, I found little here that was enjoyable or original. Or interestingly cryptographic.

“Two Things about Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque” by Gregory Norman Bossert

Try to say that title fast three times. For which reason the place is apparently more commonly known as Zandy’s TnT. Our hustler heroine Halo is there on behalf of her client, Xujenc the Tonguebiter, to do a deal with some yakuza, and she really needs to make it work. But we know, when Zandy’s network connection goes down, that the deal is cocked.

The overlay spun and glitched like a migraine. I was just turning to complain to Zandy about the wireless again when the connection went through: the padlock icon of a secure connection, a green plus for retinal match. A 100% match, which was rare given the crap scanner in my lenses. It was too slick, like Fujiwara himself, but data was data, and I doubted Xujenc would accept my dislike of perfection as reason enough for screwing the deal.

This piece of spacepunk is entertaining, with a good quota of action in addition to the cyber factor. I’m particularly fond of froggy Zandy’s alliterative verse: “Drinks he downed delighted/Credit counted clearly.” What bartender could ask for more?

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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