Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August

A lot of fantasy here, little actual science fiction.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Lightspeed, August 2014

Only the Owomoyela piece is really science fiction.

“Undermarket Data” by An Owomoyela

A dystopia future in which wealth inequality has led to division between Upcity and the districts, where Culin lives and works as an electric tech, fixing lectric and data lines that need fixing a lot. Culin is also marked as contagious, with what we don’t know, making him a pariah even in the district, although he has work because people need him. One day, the data stops, all over the district, and he can’t figure out why, can’t fix it. Then an Upcity bureaucrat shows up and wants his help with the problem. Culin is hostile and suspicious, but Jace is persistent.

The interest here is primarily in the worldbuilding, details like the wall climbing that seems to be a main avenue of access, and the flags that people stick out their windows to signal that they need a technician [is this related to Culin’s contagion, or is it a normal practice?]. Culin recalls a do-gooder from Upcity who tried to live in the district.

Hadn’t counted on the lectric that was buggy at best, or the way the cold went right through the buildings no one thought to insulate. Hadn’t counted on half his protein coming from the larvae in the bread, or the way people bought up the buggy flour first, ’cause hell if they could afford protein otherwise. In the end, he’d bugged off Upcity again.

I do have to wonder about Culin’s stubbornness that refuses Jace’s offer to eliminate his contagion; maybe it wouldn’t help all that much, but it wouldn’t hurt, either, as I see it. The heart of the story, however, is the possibility of trust and even friendship between people from two very different worlds.

“A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman” by E Catherine Tobler

A dreamlike fantasy. The narrator, who seems to be a teenage girl, is brooding over a death in the family when the spaceman appears in front of her with vague warnings about the presence of malevolent beings. They meet a number of times subsequently and sometimes see malevolent tentacled beings, from whom they hide. The spaceman has no box but he does have stars in his pocket, that seem to be the constellation Orion.

It’s all just death, he tells you, and he opens a pocket of his spacesuit, because spacesuits have pockets, sure, and he shows you the thing that isn’t possible at all. The pocket opens into blackness, but the longer you look, the more stars begin to come out. Within that slit of black, pinpricks of starlight come to life, like cells dividing until they become something entirely Else and Other. The more your eyes adjust to the dark, pupils blown wide in the face of eternity, you see constellations you recognize—there’s Orion, and you know exactly where his nebula is, but how is it in a spaceman’s pocket, how is it . . .

Metaphorical, symbolic stuff, most of which is left to the reader to make sense of, or not. I go for not.

“A Meaningful Exchange” by Kat Howard

“Quentin told lies to people for money.” He does not, however, appear to be an SF author. He gets paid. And it’s the payment that ensures people will believe the lie, when other people tell it. That’s how magic works. One potential client presents a problem. She wants a particular man to say he loves her, which would be, apparently, a lie. Or maybe not.

A devious little con game going on here. Cleverly done.

“The Djinn Who Sought to Kill the Sun” by Tahmeed Shafiq

The djinn enslaved by Aladdin finally wins free, killing his master and stealing the prince his son, for reasons not quite clear. The djinn is a sorcerer who had long sought the secret of immortality, and in the course of his experiments he had caused the death of his beloved wife. Now he is determined to fulfill his ambition and bring her back to life, despite the fact that many wise figures he encounters on his journey tell him it is not possible.

The phoenix’s eyes grew softer somewhat. It almost whispered, “I am sorry. But I cannot give you that. I don’t have it, it doesn’t exist. There is no Philosopher’s Stone, no Elixir of Life, no quintessence, no Master Work, no object of divinity. I can see it in your eyes, you want it for your wife. She is gone, djinn, and what is gone cannot be reclaimed.”

But what he learns is that the immortal phoenix has the heart of the sun within him, and if he succeeds in killing him, it is his.

Which answers the question that hangs over much of the story: why the djinn wants to kill the sun in the first place – which turns out to be somewhat misleading. The tale is a quest through an Arabian Nights landscape, but like many quests, turns out to be a journey of enlightenment. But aside from wanting to recover his wife, the djinn’s motivations don’t become sufficiently clear. I found myself on the side of the phoenix.

I’m also going to wonder why the story uses this form of the term, which I have always believed to be the plural.

 

Strange Horizons, August 2014

All fantasy this time, with a strong theme of shape changing.

“Resurrection Points” by Usman T Malik

Daoud has an unusual inheritance: his family has the ability to animate the dead – not bring them back to life, like Lazarus, but more like the galvanic jerking of a bullfrog’s severed legs. His father uses his power for good, healing nerve damage in his own clinic, and now he has begun to train Daoud to follow him, having obtained a cadaver for practice.

And thus we practiced my first danse macabre. Sought out the nerve bundles, made them pop and sizzle, watched the cadaver spider its way across the table. With each discharge, the pain lessened, but soon my fingers began to go numb and Baba made me halt. Carefully he draped DeadBoy.

Unfortunately, the forces of religious intolerance intervene, with tragic results.

The setting is Karachi, Pakistan, where there seems to be a significant Christian minority, a population under increasing threat from Muslim intolerance. Daoud’s best friend is Christian and his own mother, secretly, was Christian before her marriage. The cadaver on which he practices was also a Christian and bears the signs of torture. These circumstances dominate the narrative and supply a horror that should strike readers more forcefully than the notion of animating the dead. These anatomical details are well done and add authority to the piece. Most horror isn’t so well grounded.

“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson

Cedric is working on an oil rig in the Baltic, as far as he can get from his pregnant girlfriend; the sight of her pregnant belly repels him, for reasons that seem to be related to a vaguely emasculating injury inflicted by his abusive father.

Then, one night, he saw her. She was adrift, flotsam, pale limbs splayed like a starfish, hair ebbing tendrils around her head. Cedric had never seen a corpse, only dreamed one, and he found the sight paralyzed him. Then she revolved in the water and began pulling languid strokes towards the rig.

The girl from the water turns out to be a shapechanger who may, in her true form, have webbed hands and teeth like a pike. Or not. Most of her kind have left the vicinity of the rig, along with the fish, and sometimes she vomits up black gunk. Something called fucking occurs between them, although the details are not clear.

I’d like this one better with less obscurity. The author is coy about the exact nature of Cedric’s injury and how this affects his relationships with both females in the story. At the end, it’s Cedric who gets the epiphany, so that we suspect that the author has put Volkova on the rig just for that purpose, without agency of her own.

“Cold as the Moon” by Sunny Moraine

Sharon’s father was always, in a sense, a bear, wild and uncontainable. He didn’t want to be contained, limited, by the demands of a family, particularly when his wife, suffering from cancer, gives birth to an infant girl, then commits suicide after he had moved the family somewhere to the frozen north, where there are ice floes. As Sharon tells it, he took the form of a grizzly bear and headed out onto the ice, leaving her alone with her baby sister.

At which point, we have to consider whether to take this transformation literally. Sharon is ambiguous on this point.

How do I know Daddy is a bear? How do you know anything? I look back on everything that’s happened up until now and really it’s the only thing that makes sense.

As readers, we can only conjecture. It seems safe to assume that Daddy has left the family, stranding his daughters on the ice to die – or at least Sharon’s indictment is pretty compelling. For the rest, we might assume imagination or hallucination, or else believe in the bear thing. In this case, it’s the ambiguity that makes the story.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #153-154, August 2014

Both issues this month feature a tale of foretelling.

#153

“Five Fruits I Ate in Sandar Land” by Michael Hayes

The narrator has traveled to this distant land to rescue his promised bride, whose father had sold her before they could wed. The title and theme evoke the fruits of the underworld, that the seeker must not eat, but Sandar is not the underworld, not quite. In form, this is a list story, and readers should note how it circles back to the first line.

The bitter apple is fatal. Only in large quantities, though, and its offensive taste makes it nearly impossible to eat enough of them to kill a man. As the sun dips below the horizon, I eat one my first night in Sandar Land, barefoot and sweatsoaked. The juices sting my chapped lips and give no comfort to my throat. It’s the first food I have eaten in three days. While I chew, I try to imagine it as something less noxious, but with each bite I nearly retch and lose it all.

The narrative is also, however, in the first person, which leads to the common “How is the narrator telling this story?” problem. It’s particularly vexing in this case, as there are persons present whom the narrator could well be addressing, rather than the author’s readers.

“Make No Promises” by Rachel Halpern

Here’s an interesting premise: the prince of this land is a demigod tied in the traditional way, to its welfare. After a reign of several hundred years, she now has two daughters; the youngest, Mandeva [note that this name contains the term “goddess”], possesses a gift of foreseeing the future. Unfortunately, the future that her gift reveals to her is the treason of her sister, who will kill their mother and come close to blinding her in her takeover of the throne. Thus Mandeva discounts the promises people make, knowing that, more often than not, they will fail to keep them.

The heart of the story lies in the relationship between the sisters, the balancing act that Mandeva has to perform every day, knowing what the future is going to be, trying to not let it blight the present.

My left eye has always been weak, where I will lose it fighting to defend the fortress, and my mother, against my sister’s return. My sister has always been the better fencer—she will be faster than I, sure and swift, her blade striking before I can even unsheathe my own sword. She will fall short, though, misjudge the distance, and though I will lose the eye, I will not die as she intended.

Mandeva wants to love her sister, and she wants to avert the fate that seems destined to befall both of them. To this end, she makes many attempts to alter events, to change their apparently predestined course. But she can never be certain if these were actions she would have taken, regardless, and with the same consequences.

A nicely-done tale of godhood, the burdens of rule, and the tension between free will and pre-destiny.

–RECOMMENDED

#154

“The Angel Azrael Delivers Justice to the People of the Dust” by Peter Darbyshire

Another installment in this dark fantasy series about a gunslinger angel of death in the Weird West. The author gets off to a good gruesome start with his fallen angel lost in a dust storm, savoring his angst.

He had to stop every now and then to tighten the saddle around what was left of the horse. The storm scoured chunks of its rotting flesh away, and the saddle kept slipping. Soon there’d be nothing left of the horse but bone. Sure, he could raise another horse from the dead that would be more comfortable, just like he’d raised this one. But he had been through a lot with this horse.

He comes soon enough to a town where something is clearly wrong, but Azrael can’t figure out what’s going on – in fact, he initially figures it wrong. When he can’t deal with the situation as a gunslinger, he has to take it on as an angel, if he can remember how that goes.

I like this subgenre, and I’ve enjoyed the previous tales, but Azrael is turning into a pretty sorry, self-pitying character with only a tattered remnant of his former power. The title is also a bit misleading. Azrael doesn’t really deliver justice, only a partial liberation after his initial failure, and his parting line to the survivors is, “You’re on your own.”

“Seeing” by Stephen V Ramey

In a land governed by caste, Rahami was born to the lowest level, but when she attempted to kill herself using the venom of an oracle spider, her survival is taken to be a sign that she must be raised to the ranks of the seers. Rahami is not entirely happy about her elevation, as it requires her to give up hope of love and marriage, and bigots among the oracles are constantly hoping for her failure and demotion. Now war is coming to the land, threatening everything. The warlord, the one hope for victory against the invading enemy, is dissatisfied with the prophetic seeings of his official Sister Oracles; he suspects, correctly, they are lying to him for their own purposes, and he has requested the vision of Rahami, known to be more subtle in her prophecies than the Mother Oracle approves. Rahami’s orders are clear: she is to agree with the Sisters. But once she arrives at the fortress, it’s clear that the Sisters are deceiving their lord, upon whom everyone’s future depends.

It’s interesting to compare this one with the Halpern story from the previous issue. In both cases, prophecy becomes a tool of politics. Mandeva’s foretelling reveals an apparently determinate future, while the venom of the oracle spiders produces a strand of probabilities, some more robust than others. The politics of the story here are more complex, more messy, with different interests in conflict with others. The warlord Morshimon proves to be a particularly complex and There’s also a subplot involving the lowest caste that I think could have been more completely integrated into the story.

 

Tor.com, August 2014

Some very interesting stories here this month. And some others.

“In the Sight of Akresa” by Ray Wood

Claire is the daughter of a duke returning home from this world’s equivalent of a crusade. Among his loot is a slave girl he has freed, called Aya because she can’t speak her true name. Claire immediately falls in lust, either with a fascination for the exotic or a prurient interest in her severed tongue [the story opens with Claire’s graphic imagining of the mutilation, strongly suggesting torture porn]. She pursues Aya, and their affair attracts the interest of her thuggish brother, who threatens to expose the illicit liaison. Tragedy ensues.

This is a creepy story, and Claire is the creep. She forces her attentions on a girl in a subordinate position who can’t really refuse them. She mutilates her falcon to have an excuse to see her. She trifles with the affections of an innocent boy in order to cover up her activities. And finally, the ultimate betrayal. Yet the editorial blurb calls the piece “a tragic fantasy romance”, and Claire’s narrative, addressing Aya, calls her such names as “my love”, which may lead the unwary to see it that way. But this is no romance. It’s a story of sexual exploitation and betrayal, told by the perpetrator, a perjured narrator who may indeed see herself as the victim of a romantic tragedy, as villains often do.

So why the misleading editorial blurb? Do the editors actually believe this is a romance? And what of the author? Does he really think he has written a love story, or has he been subtle, writing a creepy story under the superficial guise of a romance? If the former, this is very, very bad. If the latter, as I suspect, it still has problems. Much of the plot is generated by the strong and immediate dislike that most of the local population forms for Aya; people think, for no reason apparent to Claire, that she is a witch. I wonder why, if Aya gives out such strong negative vibrations, that the duke brought her home to begin with and tried to find a respectable place for her in his household. Of course, it’s possible she actually is a witch. She certainly attempts to harm, at the least, Claire’s brother. Aya presents a blank face to Claire, and thus to readers, who have little to go on but conjecture. Did Aya actually love Claire? Was she jealous of Claire’s new love interest? Was she actually guilty, despite Claire’s alibi for her? The title refers to the local figure of justice, with her blindfold, who presides over trials. The only thing clear here is that justice hasn’t seen the truth.

“Sleeper” by Jo Walton

In an If This Goes On future, where wealth inequality is enforced by a surveillance state, Essie is an award-winning biographer [don’t quit your day job or your night job] who is now completing a work on a BBC director named Matthew Corley who in his day knew Auden and Isherwood, Orwell and Kim Philby – “Everyone knew Kim”. In the course of her work, Essie has created a simulation of Corley, based on all the available information and a few assumptions of her own, that he was a Soviet sleeper agent, never active. Essie has ulterior motives, and she is now contacting the simulated Corley, attempting to enlist him in her plans.

Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong. He dismissed the article because he understands enough to know that simulating consciousness in DOS or Windows 3.1 is inherently impossible. He is right about that much, at least.

There’s no doubt about the recursive subtlety of this one. Essie is looking for input from Corley, from a Corley entirely the creation of her own input. When Essie wrote the simulation, she knew what she needed to be true. Yet there are things he knows that she doesn’t consciously know. As for Corley, after initial doubt, he has to accept that he is himself, even knowing he is a simulation; subjectively, what he knows about himself is true, even while realizing it was Essie’s input. A fascinating situation, yet I have no faith in the success of Essie’s plans, which are purely amateur.

“La Signora” by Bruce McAllister

Another of the author’s quasi-autobiographical stories of a teenaged American boy growing up in an Italian fishing village “of myths and superstitions that had no intention of dying.” Women known as streghe [witches] dye the fishing nets the ancient color of blood to earn the favor of La Signora, the Lady of the Sea, so she will give the men a good catch. We know from the outset that the narrator will encounter this figure, but not how she will affect his life.

The strength of this work is in its portrayal of the everyday, in the author’s intimate understanding of what it is to be a boy of that age, of that time, the humiliation he suffers in the face of his friends, the sons of fishermen.

They could go out on the boats on Saturdays. They needed to learn their fathers’ trade, and they needed to help with the fishing if their families were to make enough money. But what could I do? They had invited me more than once to go with them, leaving at first light. They wanted to share with me the waves and changing light and devious nets and glorious fish as they were pulled from the sea. I’d always said no. I knew my parents wouldn’t let me go.

So of course he has to go, despite them, because this is a coming-of-age story, and that’s what we have to do, to become ourselves. It’s also a story of myth, of the Beings and Powers that dwell in the sea, in the earth, in the storm-filled sky. People of different lands at different times have given them different names and attributes, and they may take different forms to match human assumptions, but here we have the essence: the Lady, known also by all those other names and forms.

–RECOMMENDED

“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” by Ruthanna Emrys

While on the surface a series of vignettes, these form a loosely-knit but unified story of people who dwell in a special, magical realm that coexists with the mundane – one of the fundamental wishes of genre people. Who among us hasn’t always wished to open that door, pass through that gate? But the land of Tikanu is more organic; it grows, mostly where its mint is planted and flourishes. Which reminds me how invasive a weed mint can be. But Tikanu only grows where it is wanted, welcome, where it isn’t sprayed with herbicides. This is a fairyland for the contemporary world, not a pseudo-medieval one, not twee, although there is one reference much too close to Narnia. It’s also a fairyland for women, although men are not absent; all the primary characters here, the characters with actual names, are women, and most bake bread.

I know this is supposed to give me a warm fuzzy feeling of wonder and niceness, but I’m too much the contrarian, and I don’t really like stories that tell people how special they are, how superior to those herbicide sprayers, how deserving of a place from whom others are excluded. It’s like a sorority with a mint membership pin. I’m not that fond of sororities, even fantastic ones. I do, however, like the snake: “black, spotted in gold and bronze, shorter than her forearm and narrower than her pinky finger.”

“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap

Japanese folklore is full of the most fascinating variety of monsters, demons, and supernatural creatures, seemingly tailor-made for fantasy fiction. Here we have the kappa, a sort of river monster with a penchant for drowning the unwary. The kappa at hand, however, seems to have a weakness for beautiful young girls, and when Makino fell into the river, he pulled her out. Time has passed, Makino’s beauty is faded, and she is entirely absorbed in grief with her husband dying. When the kappa appears in her bath, professing his life, his attentions aren’t welcome. But he persists, and finally asks Makino what she really wants.

This is a story of love and sacrifice, and being careful what you wish for. Makino’s mother once warned her that kappas are cruel, but this doesn’t mean they don’t love in their own way. Love is not always benign. We’re left not really understanding the kappa, who comes across as a sort of by-the-numbers character. Can we say that the kappa was the better choice for Makino? Not really; he might have made an abominable husband. But she surely got the worst of her bargain. She would have done better to find a different bathhouse.

 

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #30, September 2014

Here are six short stories in this little magazine on the literary end of the genre, complete with nameless narrators, and spilling over the edges. It happens that I prefer the ones closer to the center.

“Odd Variations on the Species” by Sarah Kokernot

Dark comedy. The narrator is visiting his grandmother by the shore when he sees a giant chatter crab scuttling past. This species has long been believed extinct, eaten to that point on account of the superb, aphrodisiac quality of its flesh, despite its ability to parrot human speech; it was then considered essential to block your ears to avoid hearing the voices of friends and family. In this case, the crab mimics old Mrs McCullen, under whose porch it has been living. Now the narrator thinks this crab would be a perfect centerpiece for his grandmother’s birthday dinner, while his wife attempts to dissuade him – and the narrator himself has misgivings.

Once she learned that chatter crabs were actually friendly and cute — perhaps even possessing a spark of intelligence – he would see that eating one was akin to eating one of the kittens on her Humane Society Calendar.

Like much comedy, this one has a sort of manic intensity, with multiple themes competing for reader attention and complicating the plot. Thus we have the narrator’s marriage, his wife’s obsessive attempts to achieve pregnancy, Mimi’s corresponding determination to achieve great-grandmotherhood, the Mrs McCullens – both human and crustacean, as the name inevitably sticks, as well as the eccentric history of the chatter crab in the local cuisine. Funny and amusing stuff.

“The Silent Ones” by Erica L Satifka

Absurdness. Travel opens up among many alternate Earths, and on a vacation trip the narrator falls in love with a farm boy from a world named Paul [which name I suppose that the narrator meant for the boy, not the world]. Travel goes in both directions, however, and not all the visitors are welcome. But most unwelcome are the red glowing orbs that quickly take over the narrator’s Earth, along with many others. She no longer feels at home.

This is mostly silliness, with a suggestion that the narrator may be becoming one of the alien figures she has never been able to understand. I suspect it’s about immigration.

“I Know You Hate it Here” by Anne Lacy

A really tediously absurd story about Yet Another nameless narrator, this one with a parasitic twin anchored in her abdomen. She thinks it controls her life and keeps her from killing it, but as she tends to hallucinate, readers can’t trust anything she says. Her life is full of complications that don’t make sense, which she relates at boring length. Before I had finished it, I was thinking of tossing this issue, which I’m glad I didn’t.

“With His Head in His Hand” by Robert E Stutts

I decided to like this one when I saw that its protagonist has an actual name: Morgan. Morgan has failed in love and is wandering the dark streets in the manner of disappointed lovers when he comes across a mysterious old mansion with a severed head at its gate. The house draws him in against his will, and he finds that the inhabitants, likewise trapped, are a young woman named Vivian and her husband Bern, who inform him that the house requires him to play a Game. For three days, the host will go into the grounds, and whatever he wins there, he will give to Morgan in the evening; whatever Morgan wins in the house, he must likewise give to Bern.

Breaking the silence, Morgan says, “If I follow the rules of the Game, I win – and I get to leave. And if I don’t, my head will be hanging in the fate next.”

But as Bern informs him, no one has ever won.

A definite fairy tale sensibility here in the premise; the house, we learn, has altered over the centuries to fit into its setting. The course of events, however, is quite contemporary and distinctly sensuous. The characters all like one another, and readers should also find them easy to like. I only wish the author hadn’t set up the conclusion with the opening paragraphs – too pat.

“The Purveyor of Humunculi” by Sarah Micklem

A strongly retro sensibility here, evoking the weird tales of the 19th century in which young gentlemen might take a Grand Tour. Mr Crumley finds himself on an island where the inhabitants have shops selling strangenesses, and he is intrigued by a purveyor who promises he will never have to visit a barber or again. Mr Crumley, whose valet too often nicks him, is intrigued and ends up purchases a homunculus that meticulously grooms him in his sleep. When he finds the creature distasteful, he discovers he can’t get rid of it.

A nicely unusual short piece.

“The Endless Sink” by Damien Ober

Here’s an unusual and interesting premise: an archipelago of floating rocks, some higher, some lower in the array. People can rise or sink from one to another, but those who make a habit of it seem to be few. In a manner reminiscent of swarming insects, tradition has boys at the age of maturity leaving their home rocks to rise or sink to some other, where they settle and marry a local girl. This is the pattern that the [nameless] narrator expects her life to follow on her isolated, conservative rock, until the day a sinker arrives – a woman. The narrator is filled with curiosity and asks the stranger to take her to the next rock down, ostensibly to obtain medicine for a younger brother. But in the course of her journey, she learns too much about the realities of this universe.

I like this premise, with its hints of sciencefictionality; there are references to a Before, suggestive of an apocalypse, but we learn nothing definitive about the universe’s history. What we do learn is the truth that things are different on every rock, and in the voids between there is a great deal of theft and violence, scavengers killing vulnerable risers and sinkers for their possessions. We wonder, then, what fate might have befallen the narrator’s older brother, whom we saw setting out on his rising journey. We also learn that the narrator’s father knew much of this truth but kept quiet about it for fear of trespassing against local mores, especially the prejudices of his deeply conservative and ignorant wife.

My mother had treated my brother’s recovery as some sort of dark trick. As she watched him climb out of bed, her face revealed this possibility to me: maybe she would have preferred him to die than be saved through something she didn’t understand.

Coming of age and opening her eyes to reality are the heart of this story.

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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