Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-June

Here are a bunch of the usual monthly zines.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Asimov’s, August 2014

The issue is anchored by a novella from Jay O’Connell; I can’t say any of these pieces enthuse me greatly.

“Of All Possible Worlds” by Jay O’Connell

In 1997, Costas, an unemployed youngish man with multiple useless degrees [Nonviolent Studies] is living with his fiancée Mary Ann in an apartment owned by a ninety-five year old curmudgeon commonly known as the Old Man, but named Galen Hieronymous – a sure hint that this is no ordinary fellow. Costas meets him the night he almost set the building on fire. It turns out that Galen needs an apprentice and Costas needs employment. The Old Man’s apartment is a packrat nest centered around a computer the likes of which Costas has never seen, and filled in with stacks of newspapers documenting life in a number of different twentieth-century timelines. “Every stack ending in one of two ways: cometary impact or nuclear war, both leading to projected global famine.” None of these outcomes, however, compared in horror to the Long Night of cannibalism that Galen had lived through, and which he has dedicated his life to retroactively preventing. It turns out that Galen is a timeline wizard, altering pasts in an attempt to create a line in which the Earth escapes holocaust. But now he is old, running out of time, and yet another comet has been discovered on a trajectory to Earth. The torch and the task finally pass to Costas, who knows he isn’t yet ready. But he has to be, if he is to save Mary Ann and their unborn child, the only remaining constants in his life.

This one is a nostalgic fannish delight, revisiting the sensawunda of the golden Astounding age with Orgone boxes, Dean Drives, and John W Campbell, a personal friend/rival of Galen’s. The plot is a full-stuffed sausage, bursting its casing with skiffy references, alternate timelines, aliens, and red-herring gizmos. Galen has a secret warehouse where he’s attempting to refit a submarine with a Dean Drive to transform it into a spacecraft capable of intercepting a comet. But in all the entertainment, the story’s heart is in the contrast between Galen and Costas, between the old man who has lived through the worst, over and over, and the young idealist who has suffered minimal personal adversity and makes it a condition of their relationship that he will never lose Mary Ann to the shifts of time.

“Placebo” by Nick Wolven

Paul works as the manager of a group home for seriously ill children who find an ad for a GenPet, a cute cuddly cybercritter. Naturally, they want one, and he’s talked into it despite knowing it to be a scam designed to sell more services, accessories, and upgrades when little Placebo, named by the children, malfunctions. As it does, to the consternation of his charges. Paul expresses his dissatisfaction to the company.

“This thing was designed to break down. You know it and I know it. It was designed to fail and fall apart in eight thousand warranty-busting ways. It was designed—you know that?—it was designed to suffer, to visibly hurt and suffer, to wring every last penny out of the hearts of gullible children. I think you know exactly what you’re doing.”

The story’s essence is in Paul’s relationship with the children. He has always kept his emotional distance, describing his primary responsibility as the maintenance of the machinery that keeps the kids alive. The author effectively shows the warming of his heart, nicely done without being cloying.

“Writer’s Block” by Nancy Kress

“It was a dark and stormy night, but it shouldn’t have been.” So Rob opens his story – or rather, several possible stories he can’t decide to write, or perhaps a single story in multiple genres “to, you know, get my feet wet.”

Truth was, he had had these four openings for six months, which was the last time he’d written anything. But now he was going to get moving again. He was! He had a secret weapon: a book titled Writing that Best Seller You Know You Have Somewhere inside You.

Unfortunately for Rob, art begins to become life, his life.

Obviously, a writer story. Like most such, this one is humorous, as the writer gets trapped in his block and has to try to write his way out. I don’t know the appeal of these things to readers who aren’t wannabe writers, if such exist.

“Mountain Screamers” by Doug C Souza

Which is to say, cougars. William’s grandmother is teaching him how a Relocator works, tranquillizing wild animals for transport to preserves. Once William has tranked the creature, he strokes its ears.

I pinched the velvet material, marveling at how delicate they felt. Grandma pulled her sIdekIck from its holster and ran it under the animal’s chest. The datapad brought up various specs across the main screen.

The animals are going to a sanctuary planet, a complete ecosystem established for wildlife, that Grandma has dedicated her life to. But she has plans of her own that aren’t on the official prospectus.

The details of the project, encountering the animals in the wild, are interesting. But the moral climate is too unsubtly black and white, with good and bad characters too easily identified as whoever bonds with or opposes Grandma. Here, as in many other stories, the villain is too clearly identified as an ass in every respect.

“Wet Fur” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Christina’s father apparently created the reapers, nanoclouds that, as the name implies, gather the souls of those about to die. But it was Christina who programmed them to search for dying dogs, to gather them into herself, because she didn’t want to let her own dog die. Now she’s a multitude, with a canine sensorium that can catch the odor of fear on people when they see the cloud hovering, wondering if it’s come for their own pet. People react to her with revulsion, particularly the dog owners, and travel in the confines of an aircraft is a torment.

You sniff and look at the cloud again. The nanites of the cloud flash and sparkle, catching bits of light as the plane banks and the setting sun shines through the windows. Then you see the couple whispering and gesturing your way across the aisle, their sneers, and you look away.

On this journey, however, she meets a man who actually understands.

A bit confusing, this one, because of the highly unlikely scenario. The interest is in observing the narrator’s canine perception of the world and other people, and the multiplicity she bears with her.

“The Low Hum of Her” by Sarah Pinsker

When Tania’s Bubbe died, her father made a golemish robotic substitute, which Tatania calls “it”, at first. But as they have to flee to American from a pogrom, she finds that this Bubbe is her remaining tie to home. “I whispered one of Bubbe’s songs under my breath, to show the memories they could come with us.”

A very short and heartwarming piece.

 

Analog, September 2014

Here, it’s a Lerner novella that’s featured, but alas, it proves to be part of a serial. I prefer several of the shorter pieces.

“Championship B’tok” by Edward M Lerner

Part of the author’s series in which an interstellar trading community has been established, although relationships among the members don’t always go smoothly. The member species include humans and Hunters, also known as Snakes. These species have previously been at war, and a rogue Hunter clan, Arblen Ems, now lives as a colony on the Uranian moon Ariel, under supervision of the human United Planets organization. Carl Rowland is the UP liaison, i.e. the supervisor, one of whose tasks is keeping advanced technology out of the hands of the Hunters. Their clan Foremost is Glithwah, whose current ostensible concern is a series of apparently inexplicable industrial accidents at Hunter facilities, but her long-range goals are far more ambitious, involving a secret military base. The entire situation reminds Carl of a game of b’tok.

For starters, b’tok was four-dimensional and could only be played virtually. The offensive and defensive capabilities of a b’tok game icon depended on its 3- D coordinates, the time spent at that location, and interactions with nearby pieces both friendly and rival. Also unlike chess, with its unchanging board of sixty-four squares, the b’tok domain of play evolved. It developed turn by turn, and the view differed by side. A player saw only as far as his pieces had explored.

Plenty of action-adventure here, with plots and spies and assassinations, as well as evidence of an overrace that has been directing the fates of all the UP species for millennia. But readers without a previous familiarity with the background events here will miss a lot of the impact of the current story, despite the heavy load of infodump, and the cliffhanger ending will also suffer, as well as lacking closure. I have to conclude that this piece is partial of a larger serialized work and doesn’t really stand independently.

“Plastic Thingy” by Mark Niemann-Ross

Roger is clerking at Hankins Hardware when the strange girl comes in asking for a plastic thingy, of which she doesn’t know the name, but it has to come in red. It’s pretty clear to readers, if not Roger, that Sara Ferrous is not of this time or place. It turns out that she’s part of the crew on a spaceship with a plantlike alien engineer who needs a spare part, and who considers humans too feebleminded to understand the mysterious ways of his craft.

Ficus explains (dances? mimes?) about how fluid enters the puck. When it leaves, it’s power—like electricity but different. Whatever flows through the puck changes state—fluid—power—fluid. This widget isn’t working because the fluid whatsit isn’t staying away from the power goo. They mix at the wrong time, and apparently mixed drinks don’t make spaceships fly right.

So Roger does his best to prove Ficus wrong about his species’ ingenuity.

Humor, featuring a displaced hippie who finds it bitchin’ to visit Earth again, where they have bubble gum and tater tots. Lighthearted and in fact ingenious.

“Release” by Jacob A Boyd

Military SF. The 2nd-person narrator [essentially, “I”], is a newly fledged fighter pilot as humans are facing a parasitic race called the Tivhari. The enemy’s biological imperatives make peace an impossibility. His pilot training involves a torturous procedure that implants a synaptic interface into the flyers’ arms. There is also, in his ship, an emergency button that creates a “zero bubble”, i.e. a stasis field. On his first mission, the fighter wing encounters a Tivhari seed fleet, and the battle is on, until the narrator comes face to face with an enemy pilot intent on ramming him. He pushes the button, trapping them both in the bubble.

The Tivhari’s mouth fingers part. Her cockpit glass fogs. She is screaming at you, a warning. If you do not release the bubble soon, best case scenario, when you do the atmosphere will tear at you. If you manage to remain intact and right yourself, you’ll have to dodge volcanic flares to escape. Your orbit won’t last four days. You are a good pilot, but if you wait it out, you will pay for your stubbornness with your life.

This one has the Right Stuff. Plenty of high-test action, a fascinating alien enemy. But the heart of the story is the way humanity has responded to the biological imperatives of this war by altering its own species, by making them in many ways no longer quite human.

–RECOMMENDED

“Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die” by Lavie Tidhar

A Central Station story. Vlad is afflicted by a hereditary curse of excessive memory, an error made by his father a long time ago and passed on to afflict all his descendants. He’s filled not only with his own memories but those of every member of his family, and the burden has become too much for him to bear.

He’d been sitting in his flat when it happened. A moment of clarity. It felt like emerging out of a cold bright sea. When he was submerged in the sea he could see each individual drop of water, and each one was a disconnected memory, and it was drowning him.

Happily, in this future, the right to end one’s own life is assured, even when members of his family try to talk him out of it.

An effective, affecting piece. There’s one beautiful moment when Vlad, who could remember everything about his late, beloved wife except, inexplicably, her name, recalls it at the last moment: Aliyah. Which, in Hebrew, means to ascend. Nice touch, given the means that Vlad has chosen to die. I can only wish that the author, once again, had not succumbed to the irritating compulsion to sprinkle the text with the names of characters from other stories in this series, whose appearance means little here, and particularly to readers unfamiliar with them.

“Artifice” by Naomi Kritzer

A future when most people don’t work and most tasks are performed by robots. When Mandy breaks up with her latest boyfriend, he took the housekeeping robot with him, so Mandy upgraded, to the consternation of her friend, our narrator Izzy.

“You couldn’t have gotten by with a standard housekeeping model and, oh, a really nice vibrator? Because I’m sure that would’ve been cheaper.”

But Mandy, tired of biological men, intends him as her replacement boyfriend; her companions are at first consternated when she not only brings Joe along to their game night but demands that he be included in the play. Which is annoying. At first.

A surprisingly moving piece. I only wish, here, that the author hadn’t felt the need to inform readers about details so basic to this society that anyone Izzy could be addressing would surely not need to be told, and which readers in ours could easily figure out on their own.

“Calm” by Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin

Humanity has recently been uplifted into the Unification, and now Marjan is a Counselor, assisting in the uplift of newer races, overseen by one of the officious and condescending Sophonts.

“The Unification seeks nothing more than to foster understanding and to help its member species overcome artifacts of their biological evolution, whether those are a tendency to startle and flee when exposed to subsonic vibrations, or a tendency to decide first and examine evidence later.”

Humans like Marjan and her fellow Counselors have Proctors implanted that register their stress hormones and nag them about irrational tendencies. The new aspirant species, however, is subject to occasional murderous rages, yet refuses the notion of a Proctor that would eliminate the tendency, to which they attach great value. It turns out to need another “supposedly semisapient race” to solve the problem.

There’s always humor in puncturing pomposity.

 

Clarkesworld, June 2014

Some unusual points of view.

“wHole” by Robert Reed

Particularly strange piece. The point of view here belongs to a car, its AI, in a world where passengers rarely do any driving. So the man’s behavior perplexes it.

A man sits up front, sits before a wheel that he holds with both hands while his foot presses against a pedal. It is a strange arrangement, hands and wheel, foot and pedal.

The old man talks and talks to himself as he drives, even if no one seems to be listening, although the front seat also holds a silent woman – large, passive, near comatose – and in the darkness of the back, perhaps a very large number of other unseen persons. Driving manually, the man takes the car off-road, off the grid, until it is really distressed, “lost, useless and pathetic and lost.”

The man and woman have brought the car with them, besides transportation, to be a witness. Upon arrival at an empty spot that seems to have meaning to him, the man begins to dig a hole while reciting the story of his life’s ambition, since a very young boy, to create a way for humanity to spread across the stars. Exploring and discarding one idea after the next, he created nanoworlds the size of dust motes, full of miniscule persons, whose mass could be transported vast interstellar distances with minimal energy cost. When his story is complete, the woman suddenly seems to come alive and tells of her own seconds-long existence on her dustmote of a world, working to solve the same problem of interstellar travel. In some way, the two managed to become collaborative colleagues.

It’s an unusual device, placing a car as an auditor on the scene in order to present information to readers. From the combined accounts of the man and woman, we can piece together what’s gone on, as the car does, although it’s incredulous. “Loudly, with stubborn joy, it says, “This is crazy. I’m dreaming, or I’m trapped in someone else’s dream.” But the car is more than a plot device, it’s the most fully developed character here, caught in a distressing situation, the only person present who didn’t volunteer for it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Pepe” by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu

Several generations ago, a madman created a large number of cyborg children, then drove them out into the world, compelled to tell stories, unable to speak in any other way. For some reason, people hated and feared the storytelling children, hunted them down to kill them. The boy narrator saved a girl named Pepe, thus making him responsible for her. They only survived because he stopped himself, and her, from telling stories, but the untold tales backed up in Pepe’s mind and turned her mad. He has by now, much later when they are perhaps the only survivors of their kind, come to hate her. Every time she opens her mouth, she endangers both of them. The narrator, on the other hand, has learned how to survive.

When they asked me questions, I was certainly telling them stories. I treated everything that happened as a story to tell. You see, survival was just that simple. None of this is the truth. All of this is a story. As long as you think this, you can recount events in the way humans speak because you’re telling a story. This isn’t anything unusual. Those who are like us are unusual. I, myself, am also a little unusual.

Survival and responsibility for others are the moral themes here, asking how much the narrator owes to his friend, just because he once saved her. But there’s also a heavy freight of symbolism regarding love. Each cyborg was made with a spring, slowly unwinding, unspooling its stories. Each spring has a key/heart, but the narrator can’t find his key and will soon wind down, lifeless, heartless.

Indeed, this is clearly a symbolic, not a realistic piece. We have no idea why the inventor created the storytelling cyborgs, why he then tried to destroy them. We have no idea why the people so strongly hated the idea of storytellers. We can suppose, although it’s not clear, that this is a society unable to tell its own stories, that perhaps they have never heard a story and don’t recognize what a story is. Perhaps the cyborg children were created to do it for them. But if so, it’s also unclear what meaning these stories – Pepe’s stories – have for them, as well as the more general question: why do human beings tell stories at all?

“Communion” by Mary Anne Mohanraj

Chaurin belongs to a saurian species that lives mostly underground on their own homeworld, but his brother Gaurav had moved to an interspecies world, where he was killed in a terrorist attack. Now Chaurin has come to return the remains home for the important ritual in which relatives and friends consume the flesh. He arrives resenting, even hating humans, whom he holds responsible for his brother’s loss, but instead he discovers Gaurav’s friendship with some of them, notably Amara and Narita, who make a very unusual request.

“Some believe that his knowledge will be passed down, and Gaurav has more knowledge of humans than most of my people. Many of my people have half given up already, have begun long tunnelings, planning to sleep through the next few decades, in the hopes that the battles will pass them by. But some do not wish to sleep; if we are to survive this war, we may need to know what Gaurav knew.”

A straightforward, warmhearted story of tolerance and acceptance – even love. Somewhere in this world there is bad will and malevolence, but we don’t meet in here in these characters.

 

Apex Magazine, June 2014

I like this issue quite well, all the stories.

“Cape to Cairo” by Eden Roberts

Alice is a tourist in Africa, traveling the road backwards, from Cairo to Cape Town, looking for something she can’t articulate. She is alone on her trek, lying to herself in her journal, not setting down her disappointment. She leaves, moves on, but has started to realize she is running out of continent. Then she overhears a group of younger foreign tourists talking about some experience as very profound, although inexplicably so. Cutting short her trip, she heads for Cape Town and the Time Bungee.

Despite that name, the experience has a very old vibe, reminding me a great deal of the ancient world’s oracles, especially the Delphic, who dwelt in the darkness of a cave. This wonder is also a woman, one with the ability to send people into the far future, to the end of the world – “the only new thing left to discover.” Alice’s resulting epiphany isn’t in the form of a prophecy or lesson learned, but a shift in attitude. At last, she has seen something that excites her, something she desires. Very neat touch of that in the ending, with its childlike joy.

“Soul of Soup Bones” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

Necromancer-on-necromancer. Adrienne has used the centuries-old journals of necromancer Jacoben Stoyan in an attempt to bind him to her service and learn his accumulated secrets.

Adrienne found his bones; butcher-bare, pristine.

And still warm after five hundred years.

But once she has him home in her apartment, Jacoben won’t speak to her or respond at all to her questions; he will only, obsessively, frustratingly, cook.

I like this one. The tone is light, the situation is novel, the food is appetizing, the solution is fitting. I especially like the reference to Thor’s goats, who can be eaten then returned to life.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Salt Path” by Marissa Lingen

A small band of soldiers has deserted their war and are now looking, with no real plan, for a refuge. Among them, Ilahi is the outsider, the only one of them who has never killed. Along the coast, they come on a comfortable house where some provisions are stored, and a substantial dock is built. Inadvertently, Ilahi sets off a signal that calls the users of the house – the apparently-alien crew of a submersible. Inadvertently, when confronted by them, he kills one of the crew.

The author is deliberately uninformative about the setting. We have no real reason to believe any of these characters are human, and indeed some of the characters refer to the soldiers as having been “made”, without specifying what this might mean. The theme is one of belonging. Ilahi has never entirely belonged to this squad of soldiers. The submersible crew knows where they belong, and perhaps some of the soldiers might come to belong among them, but probably not; they are not the same kind, and most likely the most they could find would be refuge, not belonging. Ilahi, having killed one of them, doesn’t seem to have this option; we think he may be fated to belong to no one. As the story’s central figure, he is a sympathetic one, and it’s easy to feel his fear of isolation, losing whatever belonging he now has.

I have to say that these are very uncommon soldiers. History doesn’t lead us to expect that roaming bands of deserters in war are so likely to worry about messing the beds of the homes they occupy or paying for the food they eat. One might think that if these people are so socially evolved, why are they still fighting wars and killing?

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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