Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late March

Some regular ezines and a couple of quarterlies for the end of the month, not quite as many stories as I had expected from several of these sources, but a bonus amount from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Publications Reviewed

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142-143, March 2014

Month #2 of this ezine’s science-fantasy special issues, doubled-double issues that would total seven stories if one of them were not annoyingly a two-parter. Still, it’s a lot of fiction, stories of substantial length including a novella. Issue #142 sends us on quests; #143 takes us to the fortresses of fading gods.

#142

“The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard

I’ve usually liked this author’s work, although some of her scenarios combining childbirth and spaceships I’ve found odd. This one goes way beyond odd. We have humans* who’ve colonized a planet and adopted the practice whereby every woman goes up to the mountains at the onset of adulthood and carves a breath-sibling from a special sort of stone, then gives it life with her own breath. This golem becomes her lifelong companion and takes on many of her personal characteristics. But the kicker is that all her children will be stillborn unless the stone sibling breathes life into them at birth. At which point – No. No way. OK, it’s fantasy, but it still has to make sense, and this makes none.

So we have Rechan, whose life plans as a young woman were all destroyed by the war then raging on this world. So when she went into the mountains, still apparently accessible despite the war, she put all her frustrations and wishes for escape into the figure she carved, not a humaniform companion but a spaceship. Then, with the war winding down, with no prospects of marriage, she has herself inseminated. So we open the story with Rechan in the early stages of labor, heading into the mountains in hope that her spaceship will come back in time and make everything all right for the birth.

Now there is more than one way of not making sense. The premise here makes no sense in the way of things that just could not come to pass. What Rechan does here makes no sense in the way of things that people foolishly do. The first is not credible; the second, given the first, is. But as readers, we’re supposed to sympathize with Rechan’s self-created problems, to wish that, somehow, she manages to reach her goal and find her breath-sib and safely bear her child. Well, I have no such sympathy. Rechan is entirely responsible for her own situation. She’s been foolish in every possible way, yet she doesn’t accept the consequences of her acts. The plot proceeds on the wishful thinking that some auctor ex machina will wave a fairytale wand at the last moment and make everything right for her. And that’s what makes this a fantasy in the bad sense, the lie that if we just want something hard enough, it will magically happen, because we’re the protagonist of our story.

(*) The people on this world seem to be related to the Rong, who feature in many of the author’s recent works.

“The River Does Not Run” by Rachel Sobel

For generations, the city Nimarat thrived in the middle of the desert because of the river magically brought forth from the sand and rock by their captive demon. But at last the demon broke its chains, left the city in ruins, and instigated war over the wastelands it created. Doormaker is now the last and best of the wizards of Nimarat, her quest is to destroy the demon and restore her city.

What lifts this piece above the ordinary and makes it fresh is in part the language and the way the author casts magic in terms of physics. The demon, created from “great and secretive mathematics”, glows in the blue of Cherenkov radiation. Doormaker

. . . is clad in an armor wrought of primordial isotopes, imbued with mathematics of sufficient strength to reinforce its stability against the demon’s fallout. Beneath it, she hides her war-given wounds, which burn and twist at certain hours of the day or beneath the shadows of certain trees.

Thing is, I think I’m on the demon’s side here. The glory of Nimarat was based on slavery, the work of an entity bound in chains. Its fall seems just. And Doormaker, I believe, comes in a way to agree by the story’s end.

–RECOMMENDED

“Stonebones” by Nathaniel Lee

We’re on a sunbaked desert world where people live in the stone carcasses of massive dragons. There are legends of dragonslaying Knights, and now Jenivar has run off from a life of relative luxury, as this place goes, having never known real thirst, on an ill-conceived quest to slay a dragon and become a Knight. Adventures ensue, as Jenivar proves herself resourceful although initially lacking good sense.

Around her, outside of the tiny ring of radiance, came the sounds of squelching and crackling. Drackles coming out of hiding. She saw the hive-substance heave and fracture by her feet, and a pincer as long as her forearm emerged. They were coming from every direction, and she had only a sword and a broken gun to face them.

This is essentially a lesson-learning story. The author doesn’t go into the background of this world and barely hints at Jenivar’s reasons for leaving her home. If it weren’t for the blaster and very faint hints of a fallen technological civilization, it would be pure fantasy.

“The Goddess Deception” by Dean Wells

This novella is serialized across both issues.

We suspect we’re in a steampunkish world when we see our narrator, Romulus Caul, with “twin electrick orbs implanted where my eyes had once been.” Caul, a Special Agent of Her Eternal Majesty’s Special Investigations Branch, is a remade cyborg full of gears and hydraulics, and his partner Plio is an alien. But a lot of the motive power here is straight magic, and besides, there is Aether.

Beddington was already cranking the massive orrery of gears and globes that represented Great Albion and the known Aspects of the Aetherial Deep. Allies of Her Majesty’s Government were rendered in warm copper and bronze, adversaries in cold steel. Two adjacent globes swung into view before us: one representing the mighty orb Boru, the other its companion Gamhanrhide.

In fact, this seems to be a universe the author has used before, a very dystopian setting called the Instrumentality. If not for the name of the realm, I doubt if I would have recognized it here, but aspects of the text suggest that this may be a sequel to some previous adventure of the protagonist.

As for the plot, our heroes have been sent in search of a missing technician, Kavita Patel, with friends in high places. Even before their arrival on Gamhanrhide, they encounter violent opposition; it’s clear that young Kavita had inadvertently stumbled across something big, and Someone clearly doesn’t welcome their involvement.

Shatter Guns and Gravitic Machine Pistols; Gatling Torches and Phase Mortars; Infinity-Beam Projectors and Time Siphons; Infrasound Dissonators and Zero-Wave Disruptors. Enough to take on an entire column of Royal assault vehicles and perhaps even win. An Analytical Engine sat at the foot of the stairs, a heavy clanking model decades old but clearly in good repair.

Conspiracies, revolution, mayhem, conflagrations, massacres, brawls, dragon attacks, explosions, and other adventures too numerous to enumerate ensue.

This is all action entertainment. The narrative tone has a light touch that makes readers pretty sure nothing really tragic is going to happen to our heroes, despite being blown apart and shredded into pulp – they’re the indestructible sort, who can stand at ground zero of a multimegaton blast and emerge in repairable condition. I’ve found promise in some of this author’s previous work, but the term that seems to come first to my mind is “excess”. This is manifest here in spades. We have an excess of backstory, an excess of place names, an excess of named characters and alien species crowding the story stage. On the other hand, the length of the piece affords scope for all these people to move around in all these places with all these weapons setting off all these explosions, all leading to more excitement.

What I miss here is the sense of dystopia that this setting has previously invoked. It’s clear that Great Albion is an Evil Empire spreading dark satanic industrialization across its universe, confiscating the territory of indigenous inhabitants. Our revolutionaries have righteousness behind their cause. Yet our heroes keep blasting away with minimal reflection on the proposition that they may be working for the wrong side, only a certain amount of sympathy for some of the individuals who have been caught up in the conflict.

#143

“The Bonedrake’s Penance” by Yoon Ha Lee

The human narrator was raised in a fortress museum at the heart of the universe, by a bonedrake, a wise and kind mother who calls her eggling.

I didn’t understand the way her eyes dimmed, as if in sorrow. She’d never minded my makeshift costumes before. Not that she was permissive about everything, but for a bonedrake she had sensible ideas about behaviors that did and didn’t harm human children. I especially remembered the way she had roared and clamored with laughter when I tried to glue myself, with leftover rice, into a caterpillar-priest outfit.

It’s an idyllic childhood until the day a visitor reveals the history that her mother had not yet told her, of the bonedrake’s own past and history, and presents her with a terrible choice.

An education-of story full of interest and charm, but all the time spent here is for the sake of waiting for eggling to grow up, to see what kind of person the bonedrake has raised and what choices she will make. At the center of the story is the secret the bonedrake has kept, her secret grief and secret crime, for which the raising of the human eggling is her penance. Yet I can’t really understand the depth of the outrage this secret apparently raises, as it seems to me that the bonedrake’s choice was a reasonable one, and not such a crime at all. The real pain, however, comes from the knowledge her mother can’t trust her child any longer, now that she is an adult. A devastating blow, the painful fact of growing up.

“Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis: A Computation” by Seth Dickinson

Egyptian mythos remade as an eternal cycle. Set has fled to a fortress in the primordial Earth, where Sekhmet pursues him, as she always does, from the beginning to the end of time. This is what Sekhmet is all about. “It is a tautology: that which is strong continues to exist. That which continues to exist, which promotes in itself and its progeny the ability to continue to exist, is strong.” She insists that between Sekhmet and Set, there is everything; outside them is nothing. But an emissary comes to her arguing otherwise.

I can find little here actually derived from the Egyptian myth, where Sekhmet is indeed a warrior goddess but not a creator, and neither the progenitor of Set nor his adversary – this being the traditional role of Horus. While authenticity to source isn’t essential in fantasy, I usually prefer it. These figures have been reformed to fit the author’s purpose. But Set, in particular, has always been a protean deity; while he came, like Loki, to be identified as evil, he served essential purposes in the Egyptian tale of life and rebirth.

The story is anything but adventure fantasy or science fantasy but rather a thought-provoking speculative fiction on philosophical themes, positing a dualistic, dichotomistic universe of opposing principles: life/death, male/female, predator/prey. At its center is an eternal conflict between the two divine principles over control of the nature and destiny of life. Sekhmet is all striving and conflict, while she calls Set “master of calculation and cognition”, “to reason and simulate, to issue forth cognitions and designs”. To put it another way, Sekhmet is evolution through the struggle of natural selection, red of tooth and claw, while Set would be the opposite – a deliberately planned creation; design opposed to descent. What, then, is the alternative to this dichotomy? “What is there outside her that does not belong to her enemy? How can there be more than Sekhmet and Set?”

The answer supposedly comes in the person of a transhuman purportedly beyond duality, or rather the union of it, signified as of ambiguous sex, as cyborged – flesh and machine. The transhuman goal is the creation of a singularity, the ultimate end of the eternal conflict cycle. But the transhuman’s name is Coeus, known in Greek myth* as the Titan of the intellect. How is this not also Set? Because Set, himself, is the union of the biological and the intellectual. As Set is born, in this mythos, from Sekhmet, so the human brain, the mind, the intellect are biological. It’s possible to have life without intellect, but not, as far as we are aware, intellect without life. Intellect pure and unembodied is not Set, and thus the conflict at the heart of the story is really misguided. We might imagine that this is Coeus’ goal, to abandon the biological altogether, to abandon the material. But that would not be the middle way but the other extreme, what Sekhmet imagines Set to be, but what he is not. Instead, it would be the child born of Set just as Set was born of Sekhmet, as this story has it.

(*) Does this mixing of mythoi bother me? A tiny bit. But Greek and Egyptian have mixed and mingled from ancient times.

 

Lightspeed, March 2014

Here are three of the issue’s original stories, the fourth being another installment of Matthew Hughes’ Erm Kaslo serial, entertaining as always, but hard to grasp for readers who haven’t been following it since back when.

“The Mao Ghost” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu

Readers may think at first: it’s not that Mao. But in fact, it is, although everyone in this story operates in denial. This is a future China in which history has been whitewashed and wild animals exterminated. Qian Qian’s father tells her fables:

When Dad was a little boy, the world still had many living animals. They weren’t kept in special, sealed cages and could freely play and run about. Other than specially engineered pets, people could also touch untamed, wild animals without worrying about unknown viruses. But time changed everything. People cut down the forests, dug holes in the rich soil, erected steel cities and pipes, released polluted water and poisonous gases—until other living things had nowhere to run.

When Qian was very young, her father seemed to be happy, even if he quarreled with his wife about money. After she nagged him to take a high-paying job near a contaminated area, he brought home expensive gifts, but he also began rapidly lost weight until it is now clear that he is mortally ill. But he tells Qian instead that he is incubating the soul of an animal, the cat she has always wanted. Her friends scare her with tales of demonic ghost cats, “mao ghosts” from the reign of an evil empire, until Qian is confused. The historical truth, however, is more mundane, and so frightening that people have invented stories to hide it from themselves.

This is quite a muddle, with everyone constantly lying. Qian’s father lies out of kindness and love, but he doesn’t do her any good by it. There are two main issues here. In the past, the crimes of the Maoist regime, which the authorities lie about to cover up, and the population lies about to forget either their suffering or their complicity. But in the present, there is also the materialism and greed that has ruined the environment and led to the father’s death. In this, Qian’s mother is guilty, and I don’t credit her sudden and complete reformation at the end. Personalities just don’t change like that, so abruptly.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sophia Samatar

A tale of camp, as in cabins and campfires.

Camp is full of stories like that. People say the ice cream makes you sterile, the bathrooms are full of hidden cameras, there’s fanged, flesh-eating kids [sic] in the lake, if you break into the office you can call your parents. Lots of kids break into the office. It’s the most common camp offense. I never tried it, because I’m not stupid—of course you can’t call your parents. How would you even get their number? And bugs—the idea of a bug planted under your skin, to track you or feed you drugs—that’s another dumb story.

From which readers will gather that, despite the camp similarities, this is not quite our own world. Here, everyone goes to camp in her teens and comes out as an adult, assigned to her adult work. At Tisha’s camp, one of the girls shows the others how to puke up their surveillance bugs, and how much more she felt without hers, until they took her away and put another one in. In this world, the only freedom comes when the girls go into the woods, but even there, if they remain too long, someone comes after them. And adulthood turns out to be no better.

The story is written as an adult Tisha addressing her memory of Cee, the girl who disappeared from camp, recalling that moment of freedom. By the end, it’s clear how dystopian this world is and how much worse it’s becoming. The camp scenes ring true – if not to camp, which in our world is not so often for older teens, but the prep school or college dorm experience, where a whole lot of puking goes on in the bathrooms.

“A Different Fate” by Kat Howard

Fates, weaving, and myths. The actual story element here is very slight: the narrator’s sister becomes a weaver. “She particularly liked making tapestries of women weaving. I asked her if that wasn’t just a little recursive, and she laughed and said that was the point.” Otherwise, most of the text of this short piece is taken up by enumerating the classic weaving tales of myth and folklore.

These lead to an interesting insight. Of the three Fates of Greek classic myth, their functions were related to a single thread: spin, measure, cut. In the tales cited here, however, spinning and weaving are treated as equivalent. But they are not. Weaving is a fourth, separate function, not cutting a single thread but uniting a multitude of threads; it is in fact the opposite. A reader might consider this, along with the title, and reach the conclusion that the Fates have decided to add a fourth to their number.

But this doesn’t seem to be what the author is about. She emphasizes the triune aspect; over and over she cites the three classic functions. The Fates who come to the gallery are two, mentioning that their sister is ill, and they are pleased to know the weaver’s given name is Lachesis – which imo is going a tad too far. This is the name of the measurer. So it would rather seem that what’s going on here is a replacement, a different person to fill the same role, rather than a different role.

 

Strange Horizons, March 2014

Fiction wordage is scant this month, with one piece serialized and the only other story very short, but cleverly subtle.

“Such Lovely Teeth, Such Big Teeth” by Carlie St George

A pedophile story, cast in a mix of Red Riding Hood and werewolves. Which is a combination less-used than one might think. Readers will probably suppose at first that the wolf is a metaphor for abuse, which it is, but literalized. As a young child, Reagan, along with her grandmother, was attacked and traumatized by a predator. But no one believed them; grandmother was sent to a facility for dementia, Reagan to a therapist, where she learned to lie.

“Sometimes,” Reagan says, “there are monsters in my dreams. But they’re just dreams, and I don’t have very many anymore. The man who hurt me, he was a kind of monster, but really, he was a man. And he can’t hurt me anymore.”

But there really is another wolf in her new neighborhood. In fact, more than one.

It’s also a coming-of-age story. The part about Reagan’s transformation linked with her growing sexuality is well-done. Alas, the ending comes on a heavy didactic and moralistic note, too sadly common in YA.

“The Mountain Demon’s Ballad” by Nathaniel Lee

In the great northern kingdoms, the demon dwelled on a mountainside, underneath a prison of thornbushes that pricked and scratched whenever it dared to move. The sword of the heroine Grambion rested nearby, its pommel all that remained. The rest, ’twas said, had been devoured by the demon’s blood.

The demon is said to be able to grant wishes, although not its own wish for release. Some people are tempted by the wishes but they suspect the demon’s intentions, given the nature of demons. Still, temptations can be very strong and the demon’s price apparently so small. . . .

A very short, neat piece about good intentions, patience, and truth. And the deviousness of demons.

 

Tor.com, March 2014

This site, too, is very short on original independent fiction for the month, most of the pieces being tie-ins.

“Doppel” by Lindsay Smith

Keystone is the code name for a British SOE agent in occupied France during WWII. His mission is to liberate certain prisoners, but in the course of establishing himself in Paris, he encounters the unsetting SS-Oberführer Albrecht.

And yet . . . and yet, there is something about being fixed in his gaze that made me feel as if he were examining me with a jeweler’s loupe, studying all my hidden facets. It was at once unsettling and refreshing. While the moment couldn’t have dragged on for more than a second or two, I felt both a clear certainty that he’d seen through our mad gamble and a beautiful calm at that fact.

Alas, Keystone has fallen under Albrecht’s arcane spell, to the alarm of his SOE superiors.

The story is told in the form of wireless transmissions to and from the Special Operations boffins. Keystone’s voice is light and amusing, suggesting a typical upper-class twit. Otherwise, we have the usual ancient runes and old Germanic gods but not, as readers might suppose from all the sniffing going on, werewolves. The ending is inconclusive, as if this might just be the first episode of something, and leaving several mysteries unresolved.

 

On Spec #95, Winter 2013/2014

This issue of the Canadian little zine offers six stories, of greater length than usual here. They range in genre from post-apocalypse SF to necromantic fantasy. Nothing really impresses.

“When Soft Voices Die” by Harding Young

An unknown plague has taken over, leaving the infected wandering around in the manner, but not exactly, like zombies, before they presumably die. The narrator, although uninfected, is trapped inside the quarantine zone, where he wanders looking for something undefined, the voice of his dead lover his only constant companion. There are temporary companions, however. He finds a condo tower with utilities still working and a couple of women living there in relative comfort. They call themselves Mary and Shelley; he reciprocates with Percy. The setup is, as he says, all too perfect. But the women are a couple, and he isn’t really welcome to stay.

An odd scenario. Readers are used to post-apocalypse settings where everyone is a raging cannibal. In this one, everyone in the quarantine zone is all too civilized, quoting the romantic poets and playing sophisticated jazz, despite being sentenced in effect to eventual death. Would isolated women really dare post an illuminated invitation to party without worrying about who would show up?

The theme, from the title, is the persistence of memory; our Percy finds epiphany, a glimpse of hope and future, when the voice of his past fades. It’s the most original and engaging piece here, but the whole thing is way too rosy-tinged for me to find it credible.

“The Marotte” by Tony Pi

A realm where two religions are in competition for supremacy – a situation that rarely works out well. Vod was once the Tsarina’s Lord Conjurer, now accused of necromancy and beheaded by the head of the opposing religion, who displays all the usual signs of villainy. There seems to be something to the necromancy thing, as Vod finds himself reincarnated in the court jester’s marotte – a sort of fool’s scepter. Together, they strive to save the Tsarina from the villain.

Not an original plot to this light fantasy, but the plight of the disembodied wizard makes for some interest.

“The Young Necromancer’s Guide to Re-Capitation” by Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin

Humorous fantasy. Ivan is the young scion of a family adept in the black arts whose current project is creating minions from dead monsters. But his latest, a dragon, has had its head taken by the hunter who killed it. Dragon needs its head, so Ivan and his posse of minions brave the hunter’s castle, which is warded against the likes of him, to retrieve it.

There was only one door left, at the end of the hall, and it seemed to recede as Ivan and Griffin approached. Every step they took covered less and less ground until they were frozen in place, their eyes wide and staring, not moving at all.

Fun, albeit silly stuff.

“Remembrance” by Brandon Crilly

Anna’s father came back from Afghanistan a sole survivor of his squad, minus a leg. Social services gave him a new leg and a virtual gateway to the companionship of his old squad, so that he now spends all his time in the basement, hooked up to the program. Anna hates the program that keep him from reintegrating into life, and hates the therapist who enables his addiction. Finally, in an epiphany, Anna comes to understand the strength of the temptation of the past. Despite which, I think Anna is in the right here. Her father has never really come home, and never will. Could he have? He’ll never know.

“A Place to Be” by Adria Laycraft

Post-apocalypse again, this time in the form of the loss of potable water supplies. Dreya lives in a settlement where she guards an outpost against the threat of intruders, typically refugees from the former US, despite the fact that the settlement once killed her refugee father, back in more desperate days. A single man approaches her position, and Dreya takes a liking to him, agrees at last to take him with her as a potential addition to the settlement community. But it’s not as easy as that.

This one addresses the issue that the Young story avoids: how, in desperate circumstances, can people know who to trust? Where should they draw the line between xenophobia and gullibility, when a single mistake in judgment can be fatal?

“Double Vision” by Kevin Harkness

The setting isn’t quite clear – somewhere in a provincial town near Montreal, but either in the dismal past or a degraded future. M Tremblay is the richest and most sanctimonious resident of his small town, even to the point of bullying the local priest. He has now dragged his abused daughter to a local seer with the reputation of being able to see the truth, for proof that she stole from him. But Tremblay gets more truth than he had counted on.

The only interesting aspect of this one is the ambiguous nature of Chartrand’s ability, which he alleges to be the results of a drastic head injury that apparently severed the corpus callosum, the connection between the two halves of the brain. Despite this nominal medical explanation, I’d have to call the piece fantasy.

 

Stupefying Stories, March 2014

Subtitled: Hot Fun in the Fimbulvetr. Sitting at my computer at the heart of the Polar Vortex, I appreciate the sentiment of defying the winter that won’t end, also the use of Norse terminology. Here are nine stories, some hot fun, some not. Unusually for me, I like the humor pieces better.

“Anachronic Order” by Christopher Lee Kneram

The first scene is set in late 19th century Morocco, a place where the hot sun shines. John Katy is there on the track of a thief who is herself tracking down certain arcane objects, one of which she took from Katy’s time machine several years ago. It’s been a long quest for both of them, but they’re both the obsessive sort.

He later deduced that the thief had probably been after an archaeological artifact his father had left him, the Zakariya Idol. Some legend or other spoke of untold power to the wielder of the idol, but Katy cared little. He had kept the idol in a closet, and had kept his work focused on real science.

Entertaining cross between a mad scientist story and dark fantasy. Fun. Neat ending.

“Dried Skins Unshed” by Julie Day

The Hamills have lived and fished for generations at Ocean City, passing down the legends of their origins, throwing green glass beer bottles into the sea as an offering to their relatives, but Angie is now the only one left. Until one night at high tide she sees them.

I could see the lights long before I reached the wooden pilings. They peeked out from underneath the pier, small pinpricks, greenyellow like fireflies. The night was dark, the stars and moon hidden behind the ever-present clouds.

The author doesn’t leave any mystery about the Hamill’s origins, but the story doesn’t end as readers will expect.

“A Nun’s Tale” by Pete McArdle

Sister Mary Dismas has died in the night, but this isn’t enough to stop her.

She clumsily climbed out of bed, knelt down on the hard wood floor, and began her morning devotion. As she prayed, the nun felt numb and extremely sluggish, but this concerned her little, for Sr. Mary Dismas had taught fifth grade for fifty-two years, never once missing a day. She was not about to start now.

Trials await her in the classroom as the natural progression of bodily failure takes its toll on her faculties, but Sr Mary Dismas has one final task before she can rest, for one of her pupils has been foully murdered.

Absurd dark comedy. The author adroitly balances the disparate elements here, so that while he calls the dead nun “a distaff Darth Vader” in her white coif, we actually find her a sympathetic character.

“They Followed Me” by Carol Holland March

The narrator is constantly followed by a growing group of enigmatic figures he assumes to be ghosts.

When I gathered my courage to ask them about it, they all took two steps backward, in unison, and huddled closer together. The ones in the front looked so nervous, I never mentioned it again.

After moving across the country in an attempt to escape them, he finally sees an angel come out of the sea and hopes this will solve his problem. Which it does, in a way. A sort of benign curse going on here, in a light fantasy.

“Interregnum” by John J Brady

This one is anything but humor. The setting is an alternate Russia in the early days of the revolution, when it seems that beings called Scribes have appeared in the country’s monasteries, with the power to read and transmit thoughts. Nikolay has naively engaged in counterrevolutionary agitation, and he uses the services of a Scribe to attempt to warn his confederate Natasha that they have been discovered. It’s an unsettling experience.

The Scribe sat back, allowing me to see its abdomen clearly. The face! Embedded in its body, contorted in a rictus of terror, it looked so human yet it surely could not be. I locked my gaze with its blue eyes; its expression changed, a flicker of recognition, perhaps. It mouthed something silently and I lost my nerve.

But under torture at the hands of the revolution, Nikolay agrees to spy on the Scribes. When he reaches the monastery, the abbess tells him they are angels, the Host of the Lady. He doesn’t know what to believe, even moreso when Natasha shows up and points a gun at him.

It seems rather an overkill to add demons from another dimension to the Cheka, which was quite bad enough in its own mundane way.

“Full Fathom Five” by Judith Field

Joe is a discontented pensioner out fishing one cold day when he encounters an elderly mermaid trapped on the beach as the tide goes out. A reprehensible scheme comes to his mind. Mostly a lamentation on the universal pains of old age.

“Bone Mother” by Torah Cottrill

The soothsayer lives a tedious existence in a carnivorous hut that does not allow her to leave, and she is weary of it all.

As she waited, Bone Mother saw the faces of all of the children who had come to her gate. She hoped, each time, that this child would return home with tales of the old witch in the woods. The ones who never left weighed in her ancient heart like stones.

Finally she decides to act.

Strong folklore influence here, such as the hut on legs that seems based on Baba Yaga’s [Baba means “grandmother”, but “mother” is possible]. In several places, this shades into myth. Nicely done.

“Aleph” by Brandon Nolta

Sergei was a dancer until an accident ended his career and left him unemployable in a US suffering during the Depression. At last he’s offered a job in an ironworks as a golem driver, the device slaved to his own movements.

This world seems largely populated by immigrants from Eastern Europe, including the rabbi whose golems run the ironworks. It’s jarring to see characters in an employment office opening asking each other if they are willing to work with Jews; these aspects of the world make it seem quite distant and alien from the US in our own time. The theme of brotherhood through shared labor is rather moralistic, however. The other notable feature of the story is in the technical workings of the golems, which the author has developed thoroughly.

“Alien Treaties” by Randal Doering

Paul is schizophrenic, fallen through the social service cracks and living in a box in an alley, where he suffers increasingly prolonged blackout periods. During a relatively lucid interval, an eel-shaped alien appears to offer him a sort of uplift deal: sign the human race into slavery for five hundred years in exchange for the marvels of advanced civilization, including the cure for all illnesses. Paul says he’ll think about it and starts to read the contract.

During these long days Paul wondered if Sanjay was causing his attacks, to pressure him to sign the contract. If Sanjay could take away headaches, couldn’t he cause them to begin with? A race that could justify enslaving an entire species on the signature of one member of that species could justify damned near anything.

I suspect readers may think of this one in terms of a deal-with-the-devil story, with which it has a lot of similarity, although considerable contrary evidence. There is for one thing the continuing possibility that Paul, already subject to hearing voices, might now also be seeing alien eels where they don’t exist. Sanjay does, however, a lot to counter this supposition. We might also wonder if the whole thing is a psychological test or an entrance exam: Whether humans would sign away their whole world into slavery for personal gain.

Like the DWD scenario, this one involves a contract, where we might expect to find sneaky provisions hidden in the fine print. Typically, the human hero manages to discover these and turn them against the Adversary. Here, though, while the story raises all these issues, none of them are resolved in the end. The sole question is: Will he or won’t he? And that’s all we get.

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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