June looks to be a very interesting month in genre short fiction, with special, guest-edited issues of some of our more prominent zines, notably F&SF and Lightspeed, the latter expanded to several times its normal length.
F&SF, July/August 2014
An issue guest-edited by C C Finlay, via electronic submission, and featuring some less usual suspects for this zine. There is no story from Albert E Cowdrey. Although the issue itself doesn’t appear to be longer, there are more stories than usual – thirteen, scrupulously divided among male and female, with the latter taking the odd slot. If that has any implication for anything.
“Palm Strike’s Last Case” by Charlie Jane Anders
Geo-engineer Luc Deveaux was planning to take a terraforming position off-planet when his only son was abducted and killed by a drug dealer. For revenge, he became a superhero [it’s not clear how he obtained his powers].
The thing that keeps Palm Strike running past water tower after water tower along the cracked rooftops of Argus City, the thing that keeps him breaking heads after taking three bullets that night, is the knowledge that there are still innocents out there whose lives haven’t yet been ruined.
But when the Space Agency confirms his appointment to the mission, he decides to go. At the last minute, however, someone [like a drug dealer] sabotages his coldsleep capsule, so that by the time he is revived, the colony is dying of starvation and there are drug dealers trading addictive substances for food. Enraged, he brings Palm Strike back to life to make things right.
This one isn’t trying very hard to be realistic; the comics overtone is too strong. So it doesn’t seem quite fair to place too much emphasis on all the stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense, like the way oversimplified ecology. At the same time, however, the comics elements aren’t strong enough to make this a real superhero story, either. Neither fish nor fowl, and not as amusing as I think it’s supposed to be.
“Subduction” by Paul M Berger
Oliver seems to have amnesia along with a sort of compulsion to migrate north along the Pacific coast until he has now reached the island fishing town of Macquerie. As he walks along the beach, hoping for the return of memory, the ground underfoot is made unstable by tremors, and once he finds a dead sea monster washed onshore. It turns out that the island is being threatened by a vast fault-dragon, and only the local witch can protect it – maybe. Until Oliver shows up.
There was a brief second of silence, then the dragon burst back into the air, equally at home swimming through stone, water, or sky. As it soared, the rising sun cleared the horizon and the dragon’s great scales glistened and shone. It rippled like a banner as it stretched itself out over the strait, then plunged under again, a perfect glittering rainbow arc. The air in its trail turned solid and rained down onto the water in a bombardment of hailstones and sapphires and seashells. Fleeing gulls became meteorites and whistled straight upward into space.
Excellent adult fantasy, tapping lightly into archetype but keeping the focus on the characters who have to face primordial forces of immense power – and pay the price for it. Tying the Earth’s great fault-lines to dragons is an inspired notion, and the prose makes it a joy to read.
“The Traveling Salesman Solution” by David Erik Nelson
Topology, if hard science is what you want. Our nameless narrator knows about that sort of thing, being that sort of mathy IT guy. He’s also legless, and a veteran, to round him out. The problem starts out when his brother-in-law is pissed about some guy who cheated in a marathon.
Clicking back through the pics, something snagged my attention: everyone else was bedraggled and haggard, each T-shirt or singlet bearing a long dark oval of sweat from the nape of the neck to the waistband. But Kip Turner was in his stride, cool as a cucumber in his dark hat and glasses, with not a drop of sweat discoloring his pristine white T-shirt. And his left shoe was untied for the full two hours and thirty-eight minutes of his run.
In short, the guy actually wants people to notice what he’s doing. It’s a game. The narrator is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. He might have expected a working teleporter, but not a kid with an elegant mathematical solution to the Traveling Salesman problem. Which, he informs us, is essentially the same as any other NP-complete problem, the intractability of which underlies all current electronic civilization. And the kid is planning to release his code into the wild for any evildoer to find.
One of those stories where the problem is more interesting than the solution. In fact, even the narrator isn’t happy with his solution, although it comes as quite a plot twist. A good, strong narrative voice actually makes a mathematical problem interesting to this dyscalculia victim.
“The Day of the Nuptial Flight” by Sarina Dorie
A small group of humans has begun to colonize a world where the indigenous species are insectoids human-sized or larger. The colony is failing, however, because its offspring are born dead. Enter the protagonist, an apioid drone unable to mate with a queen of his own species; he sees and falls for a human woman whose pregnancy he detects as fertility. According to the imperative of his own kind, his next function is to serve as a nursemaid for her brood, so he follows her to her hive and severs his wings.
The sensation of my armor crushing my thorax, my gut tube churning, and antennae tasting every perfume in the air was too much to hold any longer. This wasn’t what I had felt for that other queen of my kind. I was sure this wanting, yearning, craving was beyond what any drone had ever felt for any queen.
Within the human colony, he is treated as a pet, but observing their habits, he soon understands why their broods have been failing and offers a solution.
My suspension of disbelief has a hard time getting off the ground here. First, the size of the insectoids; despite the fact that they aren’t terrestrial insects, I’m distracted by wondering just what anatomical variations, differences in gravity or atmosphere, make their existence possible. Then there are the almost exact analogs to terrestrial kinds – too beelike, too spiderlike, too caterpillarlike. And the term “fuzzipillar” is just too cute.
“The Aerophone” by Dinesh Rao
Dark dark fantasy. Shanker is an ichthyologist from India working in the Yucatan when he attends a party at the home of a Doctor James, apparently an expert on both the Aztecs and Mayans, with an extensive collection of artifacts that may include an obsidian mirror looted by Cortés. James informs his company that such mirrors were used to communicate with the gods. In the house’s library, Shanker finds a collection of ancient flutes, apparently used to summon the gods. One, he is told, is the Aerophone of Death. All of them are perilous, but that one in particular. So naturally, Shanker has to play it.
Shanker looked into the mirror and saw his face. He stared, unable to quit his gaze, unable to blink. With a chill, hairs uncurled on his arms and he saw his face move, parts of his face shimmering. The forehead widened, the lips stretched, and his now apparent grin grew impossibly wide. But it wasn’t his face. His face was changing in front of his eyes. He lifted his right hand to his cheek and the figure in the mirror did the same — but it wasn’t his hand: the fingers were paler and ringless. The voice kept going in his head until the transformation was complete. He saw another face reflected back, and he started shaking. The face opened its mouth and he could see its serrated teeth as it started speaking. He heard words, plopping like raindrops, filled with “tl” sounds.
Ominous things ensue.
This is supernatural horror in the classic mode, and it suffers from the classic Idiot Plot, because if Shanker hadn’t been an idiot, the story wouldn’t have happened. I’m also not clear on the way the author has used the history and mythology in the piece. The god known as the Smoking Mirror was a deity of the Aztecs, although he might have had Mayan precursors. But he appears to confuse Shanker with one of the Zoque people, whom he has blessed with an offering of fish for millennia, and now owe him a favor. Surely a god would know his own people and not mistake a stranger for them?
“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” by Alaya Dawn Johnson
“Key helps vampires run a concentration camp for humans.” When she was young, while humans were still resisting conquest, she helped and fell in love with a vampire named Tetsuo. It was he who got her the job of caretaker. But now he has sent for her after a case of human self-waste, i.e. suicide, at a facility that provides the highest grade of human blood.
“Three years,” he says, quietly. He doesn’t look at her. She doesn’t understand what he means, so she waits. “It takes three years for the complexity to fade. For the vitality of young blood to turn muddy and clogged with silt. Even among the new crops, only a few individuals are Gold standard. For three years, they produce the finest blood ever tasted, filled with regrets and ecstasy and dreams. And then.…”
Tetsuo had planned to turn dead Penelope into a vampire; now that she is gone, he recalls Key, whom the girl had resembled. Key had been his first choice. Once, Key would have wanted this.
I can’t recall the last time I saw a vampire story. This one is less about the vampires but their collaborators, complicated, as it often is, by love, tempered by maturity and experience. The story leaves Key in an indeterminate position. We aren’t sure whether she will turn into a vampire, or die, or revert to the human condition. But we can speculate on the way her point of view, her convictions, will or will not alter if the transformation does take place. As individual humans have their choices, so, we assume, will individual vampires. As vampire stories go, this one is light on the clichés.
“Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident” by Annalee Flower Horne
Someone set off a stink bomb on the ship where the summit was taking place. Everyone assumes that Blanchard did it, because she has done such things in the past.
The commander hadn’t been on the Stinson long enough to internalize the slanderous gossip about my reputation for alleged involvement in works of staggering comic genius. But once I logged in, I could see why she had come gunning straight for me.
The malicious code had been checked into the MECU repository from my account.
Self preservation requires discovering the real perpetrator.
“End of the World Community College” by Sandra McDonald
The catalog, plus latest bulletins from an educational system for when times are hard – for different apocalyptic definitions.
Paper currency is useless, but the Registrar gladly accepts silver coins, diamond jewelry, gold teeth, and unexpired medicine. Fresh food, canned food, charged batteries, ammunition, livestock, and freeze-dried coffee are also welcomed with open arms. EWCC does not offer financial aid. Despite these desperate times, please do not attempt to rob the Registrar. He and his assistants carry pistols and mace at all times
The tone here slips. A faux college catalog would have been funny in one way, but the text departs from it into a mode of personal hectoring.
“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen
Sisters – a dark fantasy. Lucy and Milly spend the summers at their Aunt Vera’s place and in the water of her lake, singing together in the evenings, an idyll of proper young lady-hood, until the young man from the next farm shows up and severs their bond with his presence. “The years between us never felt big, but Mallery is like a wooden peg driven into a split pine. We are being pushed apart.” Milly, the elder and on the verge of adulthood, takes him for her own, the two of them officially an item. But at night, he meets in secret with Lucy.
This is a subtle magic, serving essentially to illuminate the eternal relationship between sisters, the bond and the rivalry, the love and the jealousy. As so often, it is a man that divides them, one sister attracted, the other hostile, sensing the impending separation, the potential for betrayal. Nicely done. It’s interesting, though, that while set in South Africa, it’s entirely within the insular colonial British South Africa, where you would hardly know what continent you were on.
“Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14–22 June, 1818, with Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis
Echoes of the Bounty expedition here, as we find the good ship Confidence being taken over by the Royal Society to gather the rare denizens of the sea bottom. One day they pulled up a hideous apparition that claimed to be a gentle lady, survivor of a pirate raid. Only Frobisher, having been deafened in an explosion during battle, was immune to her spell and could discern her true form.
The creature pulled itself upright, and with much stretching and wriggling sorted itself into a semblance of a woman, with a head, two arms, and two legs. Its head was a coil of those same tentacles, with a single milky orb in place of an eye, and before its mouth hung a curtain of hook-tipped tendrils.
Carnage ensues, and appalling horror.
Nice naval tone here. Readers will suppose this to be a siren yarn, but it takes a different tack into a more primal form of horror. What the story does not tell us is how Frobisher’s account was received by the Royal Navy officers hearing his testimony, but he is only a common seaman, taken by the press gang, with the marks of the lash on his back to attest to his unreliability. I have a feeling they failed to heed his warning.
“Five Tales of the Aqueduct” by Spencer Ellsworth
Linked fantastic and transformative tales of the California waterway through the desert, old and new tropes woven together.
Enormous and tumescent, a catfish birthed itself from the jar, beard of water trailing to the floor and soaking it. The catfish fixed him with eyes that gleamed dark and deep. The catfish’s mustache raised itself trembling into the air and traced a wet tentacular path along the map of California on the back room wall. “Canals, Pat!” he said. “They were too late to save Barsoom. Would you see California descend into that kind of anarchy? Canals! Wrap the world up like a present.”
Neat and imaginative.
“Belly” by Haddayr Copley-Woods
Thirteen years inside the witch’s belly. The witch can swallow anything. The narrator’s dog, her little sister. A live goat. All because she snatched a roll from her shopping cart in the grocery.
Sometimes the witch ate shit. Just so I would have to crawl around in it for days. She especially loved to eat dog or pig shit — knowing I would try to separate it from what I ate, knowing I never could — not quite.
It seems extreme, but the witch has her reasons.
Gross stuff, an original take on the material. Aside from the yuckkk factor, this is a story about survival, and retaining the essence of yourself when you do it.
“The Only Known Law” by William Alexander
Humanity, having destroyed Earth, moved into orbit and survived, where it was visited by an alien Messenger. The Messenger lives in Nicolao’s lab, and his wife Yaretzi, far more daring than he, was the first to speak to it in its own atmosphere.
“I have no home planet,” it would say, responding to questions. “Neither do you. Every technologically sophisticated species destroys its point of origin. There are no known exceptions. Everyone either perishes along with their world, or else they leave their world as it perishes behind them — and because of them. There is never a home planet to refer to or return to.”
Against his original inclination, Nicolao comes to speak a lot with the Messenger, particularly after Yaretzi becomes too busy preparing to join a colonization project on another world. The Messenger enjoys their conversation, so he omits too long to deliver the rest of his message.
A brief piece on the destiny of humanity, including a small story of love.
Lightspeed, June 2014
The Women Destroy Science Fiction! issue, guest-edited by Christie Yant.
I think I hear the 1980s calling. Back then, when projects of this sort appeared, it was generally because there seemed to be too few venues for the publication of women’s stories. Now, it seems that the problem is the publication of too many women’s stories – or so Some People apparently believe. From this issue’s editorial, I gather that Some People claim that women are destroying science fiction by producing “soft” SF that isn’t Real SF, rather like a cuckoo laying its eggs in the nests of the Real birds and turfing out the legitimate nestlings. This is an echo, to those of us who remember it, of the old claim that women were ruining the genre by producing fantasy instead of actual SF and crowding the Real Stuff off the shelves. And even earlier in time, that those hippie New Wave Humanists were crowding the Real Nutz&Bolts SF off the shelves. And so on, in infinite regression.
Like the editors of this issue, I have no patience with such claims. SF isn’t the exclusive property of any one group. It doesn’t belong by right to males, or people with slide rules in their pockets, or the lineal heirs of John W Campbell. If women are writing soft SF, it isn’t any less Real than Hard Science Fiction, and we can’t measure its value on a sclerotic scale. In my own view, what matters isn’t Hard Stuff or soft, but Good Stuff. And the recent efflorescence of Literary SF reminds me a lot of the way the New Wave revitalized the genre and raised it to a new level, so that a lot of what went before looks crude and clumsy in comparison. The same is unfortunately true of some of the fiction that claims to be Hard SF today, but relies on stale tropes and awkward execution. Things have to change and evolve if they’re going to survive, and the literature of the future perhaps more than the rest.
So here we have eleven original SF stories by female authors. There’s a variety of types and modes occupying different locations along the genre spectrum, from soft to pretty hard [but mostly on the soft side], from serious pieces to humor. A number of these were enjoyable, the humorous stories perhaps more than the rest. But except for being three times as long, this seems to be a fairly typical issue of Lightspeed. These stories aren’t going to destroy science fiction, but they aren’t going to transform it, either.
“Each to Each” by Seanan McGuire
Military SF, which is often taken to be, but is not, the same as Hard SF. A promising beginning here, as we find our nameless narrator serving in her submarine as one of the few seamen [note the term] still unmodified enough to be able to wear the traditional uniform, assuming as it does the existence of terrestrial legs and feet. The boots are a constant source of complaint. It seems there has been a bogey sighted nearby, in waters claimed by the US Navy, and she is sent with a patrol to investigate.
The formation forms without anyone saying a word, the hard-coded schooling instinct slamming into our military training and forming an instant barricade against the waiting dark. Anglers and lanterns in the middle, blues, makos, and lionfish and undecideds on the outside. The five of us who have yet to commit to a full mod look like aberrations as we hang in the water, almost human, almost helpless against the empty sea.
But alas, not before the author inserts an infodump informing us that humanity is colonizing/exploiting the sea, that the Navy insists on all-female crews. In this, the author jerks readers out of the world of her story and back to 2014 where they belong, with repeated reminders of 2014 concerns. Where the story wants to be is on the boat, with its constant conflict between the terrestrial origins of naval traditions that the brass is unable to relinquish [“seamen”], and the present, pelagic nature of its sailors, who increasingly have reason to suspect that they can’t trust the promises or motives of the authorities, that they are being exploited to serve purposes not their own. This is where the story should have remained, in its own time, and in the sea over which its nations are contending.
“A Word Shaped Like Bones” by Kris Millering
Maureen is a sculptor who has won a fellowship taking her to an alien planet, one of the few achievements of a career in which her work has been considered “hopelessly banal, striving for beauty in form. She sculpts the shapes she finds in her mind, all smooth curves and edges that catch at the fingertips, demanding attention.” She is now, in transit, attempting to work, but the unexplained dead man in the corner is proving a distraction; he “decays at her in what she feels is a possibly reproachful fashion.” [I love that line.] Further difficulties arise as her automated microchip begins to break down around here, much like the dead man’s body. But Maureen rises to the challenge.
Very dark, cynical humor, lightened with wit that makes it impossible to see this as horror, despite the ooky process of decomposition. At the end, the narrative takes a turn into tragedy and pathos, explaining the presence of the dead man; I’m not sure, however, that this improves the story. It certainly takes career pressure to an extreme. Contemporary intrusions in the text are minimal.
“Cuts Both Ways” by Heather Clitheroe
Cyberwar. Spencer is flying to visit his sister’s family for Christmas, but airport security, unprofessional as ever, pulls him away to gawk at his augmentations, even though his authorizations are all in order.
. . . everybody wants to see it, to look at his scars and the ports that have to be flushed every three weeks with heparin and the smooth panels where cables can be connected. What they want to see most of all is the soft green glow from the strips of monitor LEDs along his ribs just under the skin that tell him, at a glance, that his system is functioning properly. Everybody wants a look.
The implants make Spencer a forecaster. He works in counter-intelligence [it seems that the Forever War is still going on]. But he’s starting to burn out; his body is failing. His monitors are showing amber now, not green. And he can’t stop the recall of a terrorist attack from playing in his brain.
A powerful story about the trauma of war, and the disconnect between the people who survive the cutting edge and the civilians at home, who can’t understand. The author has really shown us Spencer’s pain.
“Walking Awake” by N K Jemisin
Sadie is a caretaker for the children whose bodies will be taken for the Masters, crab-shaped parasites, to wear. She loves her charges and thinks it best to lie about the reality of what will befall them.
. . . the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36. It had spoken the truth about its skill. Ten-36 convulsed twice and threw up, but her heart never stopped and the bleeding was no worse than normal.
The children who are old enough to understand, such as the boy she calls Enri, regard this as a betrayal. But Sadie has been lied to, herself. After Enri is taken, he appears in her dreams to tell her the Masters aren’t really benevolent aliens but an artificial parasitic lifeform created by humans.
Not a particularly original premise and nothing special in the execution. I would have to say that the dream material puts it over on the fantasy side of the line.
“The Case of the Passionless Bees” by Rhonda Eikamp
Murder mystery, a Holmes story, but this is the amalgamated [robotic] Gearlock, not the human detective with which we are familiar. After an illustrious career, he has retired, but unhappy events have led him to call in his old friend Watson, as there has been a death in his conservatory, and his longtime amalgamated housekeeper Mrs Hudson now stands accused. It seems that a young woman, a possible German spy, has been stung to death by Holmes’ beloved bees.
“Miss Segalen was highly sensitive apparently. She’d said nothing about it, and her death would have been written off as a terrible and tragic accident if there had been only a single errant bee involved, rather than what one must assume was a basketful introduced into the room deliberately. And if the door had not been locked from the outside.”
Unless he can discover the true murderer, Mrs Hudson will be shut down. Ratiocination, red herrings, and false trails of evidence ensue, until the surprising conclusion. A neat twist, clever and entertaining.
“In the Image of Man” by Gabriella Stalker
If This Goes On. A future Huston where daily life is carried on within corporate malls and Wendell Weston attends St James High School in the Capital One complex. This makes it convenient for him to take out loans to buy more stuff with the credit extended to all teenagers.
Teen funds are my right, he thinks, feeling his face redden with inexplicable anger. Everyone has the right to a little bit of spending money, even if sixty dollars doesn’t buy a damn thing. Teen funds teach responsibility. They keep the mall up and running. Everyone benefits. Why would the mall do anything to hurt us.”
Satire, rather didactic.
“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” by Charlie Jane Anders
After Roger broke up with Mary, “loss was not an ache or a pang, or anything dainty. It was more like a bucket of shit that kept falling and falling on her head: itchy, ugly, humiliating.” Mary’s life, absent Roger, does seem pretty shitty, both her apartment and her job. The only thing else she seems to have are her friends, for what they’re worth. Dating is so hard, it takes so much time, it hardly seems worth the effort to get to know someone new. That’s why, her friend Stacia advises, she needs to get Roger’s memories of their relationship downloaded. No, this doesn’t make sense to Roger, and it probably won’t make sense to readers, but Stacia has an ulterior motive.
A wacky premise – have I mentioned that it makes no sense? But aside from that, a story of girlfriend relationships, which can often be more valuable than the other kind, that come from dating. Although Stacia was really pushing it and imo doesn’t deserve Mary’s kindness. There are also some interesting insights into the working of memory.
“Dim Sun” by Maria Dahvana Headley
Puns in the title! But the restaurants in this part of the universe really do serve suns in tomato sauce and black holes coated in crispity crust, which it’s dangerous to swallow. Rodney, who is always hungry, is buddies with a fearsome and lecherous restaurant critic, who often gets him into places where ordinary folks don’t have access.
The result of Bert Gold’s prodigious appetite and connections is that, all over the universe, pinned to the back walls of restaurants hoping not to re-encounter his savage tongue, there are photographs of him in the company of young lovelies.
But as chefs fear Bert, so Bert and everyone else fears his ex-wife Harriet, President of the Universe. As so they ought.
Hysterically funny stuff, highly inventive, ex-wife’s revenge in a gonzoid universe.
“The Lonely Sea in the Sky” by Amal El-Mohtar
A form of liquid diamond has been discovered on Neptune, named Lucyite [from the Beatles’ song, of course], which has an unusual and valuable property: a sample, upon liquefaction, will instantaneously port itself back to its point of origin. Human scientists have based a technique of teleportation on this property, thus creating a great interest in studying Lucyite. Unfortunately, exposure to the substance sometimes produces an obsessive syndrome known as Adamancy. Leila Ghufran is a planetary geologist who has been diagnosed with the syndrome, and this resentful journal is meant by her psychologist [and former? lover] to be a form of therapy; thus it involves a certain amount of free association.
Diamond oceans on Neptune! I suppose that’s what started everything off—those early accounts of diamond oceans in the twentyteens. Determine that diamonds behave like water—that you can have diamond in liquid form that isn’t graphite, and chunks of diamond floating on it—and you have the realisation of metaphor, you have every fairy tale made flesh.
This piece comes as close as any in this issue to Hard SF, as it involves an explanation of quantum entanglement, but the author’s interest is primarily metaphorical, concerned with love and longing in a way that reminds me of Plato’s eight-limbed androgynes, severed by the gods and constantly in search of their lost other selves. The conclusion is ambiguous: either Leila is indeed insane and suffering from a delusion shared by many others, or the system of teleportation is about to break down in a drastic manner. Well-done piece.
“A Burglary, Addressed by a Young Lady” by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall
Comedy of manners. Genevieve is a young debutante in a class-bound society [Pemberley Colony, no less!] where burglary [from one’s betters] is an approved and socially regulated form of courtship. Her mother’s objection to her intended target [the desirable James Yendaria] is in her insistence that their own family is by no means of lesser status, despite Genevieve’s plans.
The desired consequence would surely materialize: James and his parents, recognizing the compliment paid them in such a daring raid upon their own stronghold, would naturally pay a call upon the Tadma household to request its return.
“Canth” by K C Norton
The Canth is Aditi Pearce’s submersible ship, named for her mother and powered by her heart, built by them together – her inheritance, her home. Or, it was.
I am unmoored—I am ruined—my ship has mutinied and spit me out. Now she trawls without me, guides herself by some inexplicable means in search of something I cannot guess.
Now Pearce follows, determined to retake her ship, in a hired vessel, the Jerónimo, for whose crew she begins to show a bit of affection, not knowing much of other people in the world at large. But the theft has been a plot by pirates associated with her estranged father, who knew the Canth would lead him to a treasure he had long sought,
A neat setting, a charming narrative voice, an engaging story.