Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early October

The crushing noise you don’t hear is the sound of the fiction avalanche that’s come down on my head over the last month. I’m trying to read myself out from under, but it looks like I just may not get to everything in a timely manner.

This column features the anthology Hieroglyph, from which I give the Good Story award to the Doctorow. Also several regular periodicals.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Hieroglyph, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer

Subtitled: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. Looking at the introductory and promotional material, we can see right away that we have more than a theme, but a mission. Two of them, in fact. First is a call for “techno-optimism”: positive, achievable future visions. Also the goal of saving science fiction from the “stale and repetitive” rut it’s dug itself into in recent years. Editor Finn speaks of “a limited pool of metaphors”.

The fact that we are all so steeped in the same shorthand of the future (intelligent robots; warp drive; retinal displays) is a hint that we’ve become complacent about our dreams. The stories we tell about the near future have become homogeneous and standardized. There are a handful of persistent narratives in Hollywood films and genre fiction about what the world will look like, much like the futuristic guns, helmets, and other props that get recycled from set to set.

This second cause speaks strongly to me. But I do have to dissent on the optimism and reject any contention that the current stagnation in the genre is specifically due to negativity. To take one prominent example, Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian visions are as dire as anything horror can produce, yet there is no denying their strong originality.

But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about anthologies, it’s that the editorial guidelines may prescribe, but the stories will always have the last word. And in this collection of stories, I’m seeing some pretty unhappy futures – many of them the consequence of misused technological advances, notably in information analysis and surveillance. In fact, if I were to pick a defining trope for this anthology, it would be “drone”. Or maybe “spybot”. And definitely “free”. These stories, generally, are set in relatively near futures, and perhaps for this reason we see not so many really novel ideas but advances and development of ideas already in circulation.

The directors of this project have assembled a team of authors, many of whom have serious scientific chops, chief among them Neal Stephenson, who largely initiated it. Unfortunately, his fiction contribution, the first story in the book, is one of a small number previously published. Given Stephenson’s prominent influence on the current volume, I really wish he had contributed an original story, or, perhaps better, reserved this one, which strongly reflects its themes. What’s unusual here is how these writers have been gathered into a collective, collaborative enterprise, along with scientists and science journalists, who all seem to have been brainstorming and critiquing each others’ ideas. This has produced some consensus among them, and readers will be able to see common tropes and concerns connecting the stories, such as automated fabrication and global climate change. Most notably, I find the common theme of information technologies affecting the level of freedom in society, both for better and worse.

Such factors aren’t why I like this anthology, however. It’s simply that I’ve been looking for well-written, real science fiction, unalloyed with the fantastic in the usual venues that claim to be publishing science fiction, and finding it only rarely. There’s a place in the genre for space opera, for aliens, for alternate histories, for pure imagination. But the field of science fiction without well-conceived stories about actually plausible futures, optimistic or otherwise, simply doesn’t deserve the name.

“Girl in Wave : Wave in Girl” by Kathleen Ann Goonan

The first original piece. This one is framed in an idyllic future when humanity has reached a higher potential. Teenaged Alia learns the personal history of her many-great grandmother, for whom an experimental nano-neurological treatment proved transformative and led to the improved humanity of which Alia is a representative.

I find this one a disappointing opener. Rather than exploring the details of the neuroscientific advance featured, the author resorts to vague handwavium involving nanobots – one of those overused recycled tropes this anthology is supposed to be sweeping away. Further, the author seems unclear about where her actual target lies, unable to decide if it’s the current educational system or faulty brain wiring. Melody as a girl had severe dyslexia and dyscalculia, which disappointed her parents and subjected her to bullying in school as well as frustration that she couldn’t learn what seemed so easy to everyone else. This is one thing; it’s another to suggest that nano-optimization of everyone’s brains can be achieved by the same process. Nor is it clear that the idyllic state is more the product of the treatment or of the new educational system that features mentored self-directed learning. I have to wonder if the improvement in the human condition is a permanent alteration in the genes in consequence of the universal treatment, or if the population would revert to its currently primitive state without it. The optimism of the piece is ungrounded.

“By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby

An altered approach to national borders. Ulicez and his wife Elena are moving to the new instant city [Just add water!] straddling the US/Mexico line, where they hope to begin a new life. Mariposa seems to be a sort of upscale, benevolent-totalitarian maquiladora, where the inhabitants are under constant surveillance by cameras, implants, smart toilets, drones, and spybots known and unknown. Everyone seems to have advanced degrees not actually required by the work they do; this system is clearly skimming off the top. But Elena’s pregnancy threatens their new future.

Aspects of this scenario may seem to support optimism; the material level of the living conditions is apparently higher than Ulicez and Elena enjoy at home. But in other respects, I see a capitalist dystopia of darkest dye, with the ubiquitous surveillance backed up by armed rent-a-cops.

Corporate surveillance flutterbys zoomed over and around them, automatically alerting the Border Patrol when they spotted a human darting northward whose gait, temperature, expression, and other secret factors did not fit the proprietary algorithmic definition of “employee”.

And add temporary, disposable. Many of the stories here feature societies gone down this road, often with the aid of technology. Here, the protagonists have to use naked ingenuity, not counter-technology, to survive.

“The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Cory Doctorow

With this novella, Doctorow provides the anthology’s real original showpiece. The title immediately compels a comparison with the Heinlein classic. The most prominent difference is in the characters, giving us anarchistic, postcapitalist burners in place of powerful billionaires, free lunches in place of the motives of profit and power. Greg Harrison is our narrator, a hacker who once sold out for enough to support his modest lifestyle of tinkering. He meets Pug, who’s been developing a mobile 3D printer that sucks up dust, sinters it with sunlight focused through a lens, and shits out building tiles that snap into place with each other. They try it out with success at Burning Man, where they get together with a woman named Blight and, eventually, her daughter, who has a pretty clear-eyed vision of their lifestyle: “‘Look at you three. You’ve organized your whole lives around this weird-ass gift-economy thing where you take care of yourself and you take care of everyone else.’” When Pug gets incurable cancer, they decide to do one last big project to memorialize his life. Using Kickstarter financing, they’ll send a Gadget to the moon where it will continue to produce tiles enough for any future colonists to use to build housing.

“When our kids get to the moon, or maybe Maya’s kids, or maybe their kids, they’ll find a gift from their ancestors. Something for nothing. A free goddamned lunch, from the first days of a better nation.”

All of which proves easier said than done.

This one has it all. The premise is a pretty neat twist on 3D printing, a practical proposal mated to the free economy that the author is high on, as signaled by the successive names the protagonists give to their projects: Freelunch, Freebeer, Freebird, Freepress, Freerunner. Here is pure techno-optimism: a new gadget that will make a better life possible for humanity, without the corruption of the profit motive. It also expresses a strong, idealistic optimism for the human spirit, whether or not this is justified.

–RECOMMENDED

“Johnny Appledrone vs the FAA” by Lee Konstantinou

Here’s one of those unpleasant futures, a post-employment US controlled by a totalitarian surveillance state using threats of terrorism to further suppress freedom. [“Another day, another domestic drone strike.”] This suppression is enabled by technology, including control of electronic communication media.

You run illegal encryption software, say, or watch a movie without paying, and your phone knows, and the network you’re on knows, and the platform you’re using knows, and the servers those platforms are running on know, and soon enough the US Department of Intellectual Property Protection, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation know.

Johnny Appledrone is a lone-wolf activist, a dronepunk who uses technology from his camper HQ to strike back by means of home-fabricated micro-drones, automated routers and servers that run the Drone Commons, a free communications network.

Our protagonist Arun works at a truck stop where the truckers grumble about the ongoing automation that’s slowly putting them all out of work. One day, a trucker sets off a bomb at the regional headquarters of the Dept of Transportation, an act of terrorism that the government seizes as their excuse for further crackdowns, shutting down all human-driven trucking. Arun finds himself not only unemployed but under suspicion, having once unjammed a vending machine for the man. [It would seem that the only source of employment in this economy is with the government.] Some of Appledrone’s girl interns have also come into his truckstop, and they solicit him to assist the activist with PR on social media, as Arun has a degree in this subject, in which there are no jobs. Unfortunately, his naiveté leads to tragedy.

If This Goes On. The author has exaggerated the degree of suppression in his future, but not unrealistically so. Readers will be able to recognize a lot of our own world in Arun’s. But Johnny is no flawless hero. Even his interns are frustrated with his refusal to see reason and changes in the society around him. Ultimately, I find this a deeply pessimistic work, and realistically so. Arun may find his own personal mission, but in the larger world, the FAA has won this round.

“Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder

As minister of aboriginal affairs in Ottawa, Robert Sky [originally Skaay] has made a career of blocking land-claims settlements with the First Nations. He doesn’t consider this a conflict with his Haida tribal origins; he’s personally loyal to the ideals of his political party, which seems to be the Conservative or its future equivalent. He’s also an expert in information analysis. So when the Haida use an oil tanker accident to block ratification of an oil pipeline treaty, he feels confident in his ability to blindside them. But Robert has fallen behind the times and quickly finds himself the one with the short end of the information-analysis stick, with his own son and tribe on the other side.

There, laid out in graphic boxes joined by lines – a kind of flowchart – were the problems the Haida and related stakeholders had identified, organized according to which problems caused which. The chart formed a tree, with issues like suicide rates and drug use and abuse clustered at the top. They connected down into poverty, schooling issues, cultural genocide, and so on. Tree continued through these too, down to the single root cause that the exercise has shown underlay almost everything else. That flowchart box contained the words The Haida Do Not Control Their Land.

The neat thing here is the software, the programs for analysis of information and consensus-building that drive the story. It’s interesting to compare this one with the Konstantinou above. In both futures, we see an erosion of personal freedoms and the control of information by the political power, largely in both cases for the benefit of the moneyed interests to which the political class is tied. Schroeder’s is the more realistic future in many respects, but I have to agree that Konstantinou’s more pessimistic outcome is the more likely. Agreement on concepts is all very well, but I can’t see it uprooting vested interests holding power.

“A Hotel in Antarctica” by Geoffrey A Landis

Zak Cerny is a failed young entrepreneur who believes in getting right back on the horse that threw him off. One of his dreams has always been the colonization of Mars, but he’s heeded the naysaying voice of a rival that demanded if Mars were so easy, “how come we don’t have condos on Antarctica?” He decides to take the challenge and build a hotel on Antarctica, hitting up an audacious hotel mogul for funding. Gajadhar Mistry takes him on – on his terms, which include the supervision of Mrs Binder, his accountant and generally efficient person, whose aid Zak badly needs [we get some sense of how Zak’s previous venture failed].

“He informs me that you are going to design a hotel in Antarctica. Quite a desolate place, I’m told. I’m not sure that it’s much better than outer space. How many units are you projecting to build? What capacity fraction do you think you can fill? What are your estimates for projected profit margin per unit?”

Naturally, complications ensue, including environmental protesters and the consequences of glacier melting.

Another audacious, stirring tale of adventurous enterprise in an extreme setting. And this one definitely is an adventure, as Zak and company’s lives are threatened by Antarctic conditions. But I recommend it primarily as a well-written story featuring well-done characters wrestling with a Neat Idea. The usual cliché in this sort of situation casts the environmental activists as the idiot/villains, brought on scene to obstruct progress and science. Landis upends this assumption, making his activists reasonable people who prove to make a positive contribution.

–RECOMMENDED

“Periapsis” by James L Cambias

An idea contest on Deimos, gem of the solar system, and the winner gets to stay. Only the top eight applicants are selected to compete for a single residential slot; Wu Ying is the only candidate from Mars, a promising young rocket scientist at age seventeen. Unfortunately, he bumps into one of the young female candidates in the hallway and suffers an immediate, distracting attraction.

This was going to be harder than I’d thought. I’d been approaching the competition as a project. Show what you know, solve the problems, work hard, produce good results. I could do that. Sofia understood the event was a performance.

This is one of several works here that make use of advanced fabricators, what people now tend to call 3D printing. The thing of real interest here are the ideas, like the several approaches to the challenge of making an omelet without breaking an egg. There’s also a scene of deep-space peril and a sudden moment of insight into starship propulsion that the author doesn’t reveal to us.

“Entanglement” by Vandana Singh

Otherwise, connections. A series of individuals around the world find themselves linked through a simple piece of technology, enabling one to assist another in time of need. Of course this bit of technology depends on pre-existing links and networks. We also see in these cases the different ways the physical and social world have altered and the ways that individuals are attempting to help heal the Earth; also several other technological advances that enable them.

This is as much a series of linked vignettes as a story, although it comes round at the end to connection in a satisfactory way. It’s also perhaps the most optimistic work here, relying, as several of the others do, on a fundamental good-will among the individuals involved, human and otherwise. This, as I have already suggested, isn’t something in which I fully believe. There is only one really disagreeable individual, epitomizing the problem instead of the solution, and he is safely already dead.

“Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper

A short piece showing surveillance technology used for good, to protect the world’s remaining elephants from poachers.

“Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear

A change of pace here, with the concentration on criminal rehabilitation and neuroscience. Science has developed an effective treatment for psychopathy. The narrator, a serial killer, has been offered it. Being a psychopath, he thinks he can beat the treatment.

He stayed silent. Impulse control had never been his problem.

“It’s not psychopathy you’re remanded for,” she said. “It’s murder.”

“Mind control,” he said.

“Mind repair, she said. “You can’t be sentenced to the medical procedure. But you can volunteer. It’s usually interpreted as evidence of remorse and desire to be rehabilitated. Your sentencing judge will probably take that into account.”

In fact, the procedure does work and he does become remorseful, haunted by the guilt of his past self. To repudiate that psychopath, he takes a female body.

The plot is suspense-thriller while the premise is science-fictional. It covers much the same neurological ground as the Goonan piece, above, but this one has a stronger specificity to the treatment and a much more realistically conceived outcome. The story is quite short. An online blurb called it “creepy”, but I find the story a positive one of rehabilitation. This much optimism, I can buy.

“Transition Generation” by David Brin

Carmody isn’t having a good day. His accounts are down. His wife is nagging him in augmented reality and he can’t shut her off. And his skuzzy young rival is hovering around to gloat. Carmody has had enough. He jerks open the office window and jumps. Fortunately, people in his future can fly. Also fortunately, he feels better after seeing his 2nd grader at school.

Seems to me that someone with a kid in 2nd grade is too young to be having Carmody’s midlife crisis. Otherwise, fairly amusing humor based on fairly conventional VR tech.

“The Day It All Ended” by Charlie Jane Anders

Bruce Grinnard works for the flashiest, most wasteful consumer products company and has just had enough. He storms into the boss’s office and resigns.

“Your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. . . .You’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless.”

Whereupon his boss congratulates him for finally getting around to it. Seems this all was a Plan.

Very short and very unlikely.

“Tall Tower” by Bruce Sterling

The anthology both begins and ends with Tall Tower stories. Stephenson’s [see link above for review] describes the High Adventure of constructing the tower. Sterling visits the structure in its obsolescence, when Cody Jennings arrives with his horse, Levi. His wife Gretchen has left for orbit and superhumanity but Cody can’t see leaving his Levi behind.

So I settled my affairs. I sold off the spread, and I gave away my earthly possessions. I took a last farewell look around, and I saddled him up. The two of us headed for the Tall Tower to meet our destiny.

And adventures ensue, along with some philosophical meanders. I do wonder how Levi manages to sire a new generation of horses if he’s the only one on the Tower, but science can do wonders. Cody, however, doesn’t emulate him in this.

More warmhearted than humorous.

 

F&SF, November/December 2014

This issue features two novellas, one much longer than the other, but the theme is set by the Di Filippo story, the first of several pieces of transgressive fiction contrary to the spirit of 2014’s political correctness, according to the editorial blurb. Undoubtedly some of these will offend various parties; this is clearly the intent. Perhaps this spirit also accounts for the female-free authorship. I’m rather fond of transgression as a general thing, as long as it’s cleverly done and directed against worthy targets.

“The Judging” by Rand B Lee

A sequel to the author’s earlier story in this universe where change storms have confounded all reality and turned the world into a mosaic of different probabilities, some involving only minor alterations and some monstrous ones. Wandering this chaotic landscape is Thomas Whitsun, a sort of mendicant friar from an order devoted to reducing the disorder as far as it can. To this end, the members have been endowed with a power they call wealfire, which seems to emanate from some divine source; its function often involves the sacrifice of the members’ blood, which becomes a problem in itself.

As this episode begins, we find Whitsun passing through the arcane barrier surrounding the town of Valleverde, having first noted the crucified bodies of the townspeople on the other side. In this side of reality, however, they are alive, well, and welcoming to both Whitsun and his animals – a circumstance that I find suspicious, as they have no way of knowing these are telepathic creatures with a higher sentience than the usual run of mules and dogs. In fact, the residents of Valleverde appear so uniformly benevolent and saintly there obviously must be something wrong.

“What I mean is, in all my years of traveling since the big Change first hit, I’ve never encountered a community so normal. Everywhere else I’ve gone, I’d say a good third to a half of the people I’ve encountered have sustained some level of physical, mental, or historical mutation as a result of the probability squalls. Yet I look around me here,” the red-robed man said, waving a long-fingered hand at the crowd, “and all I see is happy, healthy people. No evidence of Change at all, and no evidence of obvious emotional trauma, either. And these days, that is a miracle without a parallel in my experience.”

The problem is, it takes well over half the text of the novella to get to this point, as Whitsun meanders through the streets tediously greeting everyone, being introduced, and listening to their unremarkable stories. It takes too long for the action to commence and the plot to get into gear. After which, matters get more interesting and we encounter some potentially insights into the nature of the supernatural force behind the wealfire, which may just as likely be the Opposition as God. I’m suspecting there to be additional episodes that may answer this question. The editorial blurb is correct in saying this one can be read independently, but I’m not sure how far that can be carried on.

“Hollywood North” by Michael Libling

The longer novella. Based, as they say, on a true story, on a true place: Trenton, Ontario. It’s classic suspense from the archetypical point of view of a twelve year old boy, Gus – as in Gloomy.

From the beginning of me, I sensed the town would be the end of me — as if my designated bogeyman had vacated his lair beneath my bed, preferring to lie in wait in less patent territory. I saw neither streets nor avenues, only dead ends and dead endings. While other kids made do with stamps and coins and baseball cards, I collected fears.

Gus has two friends, one being Annie, whose relationship seems based largely on pity. Then there is Jack, who enjoyed a brief notoriety as a boy because he always found things, got written up in the local paper for it, until the other kids decided he must be a phony. But what Jack actually uncovers were secrets, and Trenton seems to be full of them.

In this case, the history includes the fact that the town was once a center of the silent film industry, before progress passed it by. But when Jack and Gus come across a box filled with old movie intertitles, no one is willing to talk about it. In fact, the local newspaperman, McGrath, insists that they burn the title cards and never mention them on pain of death. The boys spend the next several years in fear of McGrath, particularly after they do mention the intertitles to old Mr Blackhurst, who now runs the cleaners but once was a filmmaker – in fact, as we learn, the title cards were made for several of his productions. But the secret is only exposed after the old man’s death, when the boys finally see his films.

The author has worked history seamlessly into his fiction so that we can’t tell exactly where it leaves off, although a quick check will confirm the factuality of some of the most notorious incidents. While this might seem to justify Gus’s sense of pervading dread, a moment of reflection will point out that eventually everyone in a town will die, and some horrifically, as a matter of course. When a boy, Gus’s worst fear was that his mother would die, which, in her time, she duly did. But the secret of the Blackhurst films is on another order, as we find in a slow, leisurely reveal that leaves plenty of time for a coming-of-age story within it. At the end, the true horror is revealed to lie in Gus’s own heart, leaving the story to conclude on a sinister note of ambiguity.

In a nice touch, the story is illustrated with several images of the title cards.

–RECOMMENDED

“I’ll Follow the Sun” by Paul Di Filippo

Time travel. In 1964 Dan Wishcup is a graduate student in math at Toronto, working with his mentor, who’d been blacklisted in the US for subversive thoughts. Tragedy looms when Dan receives his draft notice, but Professor Davis has an idea based on his research “attempting to map the ordinary correspondence between the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics and the formulation in terms of unitary evolution of states in Hilbert space with an eye toward plotting closed timelike curves.” Also based on science fiction, of which he is a fan, particularly Doctor Dormammu. His notion is for Dan to hide out in the future until the war in Vietnam is over. Dan agrees, but first he goes back to 1914 to save his namesake great-uncle from WWI by transporting him to 1964. Things do not go too well for Dan in the future – our own present – which is corrupted by smartphones, social justice, and banal slogans – that PC stuff to which the editorial refers.

One of the story’s transgressive heroes is the antiwar activist professor, but what I mostly see here is the author channeling Heinlein. The Door into Summer is one of Dan’s introductory texts to time-hopping. The multiplicity of Competent Man Dan Wishcups and beautiful breeding Marigolds is strongly Heinleinesque, and not really in a good way, as these persons seem not to be involved with the generality of society but stand apart in their superiority. I do wonder how 1914 Danny, taking the place of Dan while on his time travels, manages to avoid the Vietnam draft, even if this was a frying pan compared to the fire of his own time.

“Golden Girl” by Albert E Cowdrey

Doreen has an ulterior motive for taking a job cataloging the antique library of the antique Lucien Valois; she wonders if he might have murdered her grandmother, along with the other elderly owners of the adjoining antique townhouses on McCarty Row. All the deaths involved insects in one way or another, and Valois is an entomologist. At first, she sees no real grounds for suspicion, except for some antique French editions of de Sade. But then the old man fires his household staff, resigns his positions at the university, and retreats from public view. Doreen unwisely seeks him out.

In the introductory blurb, the editor claims that Cowdrey’s work is “sometimes favorably compared to that of James Tiptree, Jr.” To which I can only say, No. Emphatically. Certainly this piece, a rather conventional horror-with-insects, deserves no such comparison to Tiptree’s brilliant, original and insightful work.

“Yeshua’s Dog” by Tim Sullivan

A revisionist gospel. The villagers always enjoyed listening to the stories, tall tales and lies told by Yeshua. But then the old man got a swelled head when a Greek came along and wrote them down.

I guessed that they didn’t have storytellers like old Yeshua in Antioch. In the big city, they must have been too busy to enjoy such a simple pleasure. But people along the Sea of Galilee’s shore enjoyed sitting around listening to an old man dream aloud while the fire crackled and a dog slept at his feet. It was cheaper than the whorehouse, and you couldn’t catch anything from it. There was even wine to wash down the harmless lies Yeshua so loved to tell.

But their favorite was the old man’s loyal dog Judas, who becomes the center of a possibly-real miracle.

Amusing lite blasphemy, nicely subversive. I suspect this one may be grouped among the transgressive pieces, but I found it charming, rather than offensive. Opinions may vary.

–RECOMMENDED

“Nanabojou at the World’s Fair” by Justin Barbeau

St Louis, 1904. Nanabojou is otherwise known to the various tribes as the Trickster, but here he is living with the Ojibway in a tar-paper shack, “for though Nanabojou is a mythological being, he never puts on airs or acts as if he’s better than the rest of the Indians.” The government has put his lumber royalties in trust, for his own good, so Nanabojou doesn’t have money to buy tobacco or food. When he learns that the big fair is hiring Indians, he decides to hitch a ride out there, see the sights for himself, and get an ice-cream cone. But when he looks for a job, he is informed he lacks authenticity.

“Just look at him!” said the professor dismissively. “A bandana instead of a headdress, trousers instead of a breechclout! It’s inappropriate, inauthentic. No one would believe he was Indian.”

Cutting irony, pointed truth. Nanobojou explores the concepts of progress and authenticity and finds both to be largely facades in a world where no one seems to know the difference between the hall of anthropology and the wild west show. But there is ice-cream.

“Feral Frolics” by Scott Baker

Greg goes from wild animal control to domestic cat control to domestic cat extermination. This was originally because it was easier, paid better and smelled less bad. But

I found I liked killing cats. Loved it even, which was the whole problem; it was like getting high, and that made me stupid. One time when I was off in some light woods where I didn’t think anyone was around to see me, some teenage girl was there to see me, though I never saw her. She got a ninety-second video of me zapping some woman’s prize doll-face Persian with my baton.

Just like that, he becomes notorious and unable to get a job even after his release from Soledad. So he really doesn’t want to lose his furniture delivery gig, even when it turns out he’s supposed to deliver some couches to a Cat Lover’s Café.

Baker pulls out all the stops to offend ailurophiles and persons of common decency, using a smartass darkly humorous voice. It counts, certainly, among the transgressive offerings in this issue. Alas, it all comes to a flabby, conventional conclusion, not a bit of clever in it, which something as offensive as this really needs.

“The Bomb-Thing” by K J Kabza

The 1960s again, with the same Professor Davis as in the Di Filippo story. Blaine and his best friend Mason are sort of losers, although Mason insists that he’s a genius even if he works as a janitor in the University’s math department. Blaine slings tacos and doesn’t make any claims, except for admiration of Mason, whom he’d follow anywhere. When a sexy young woman with a pair of big bombs, in Mason’s parlance, shows up on campus, he lets her into the labs in an attempt to get laid. Phyllis, however, turns out to be an alien come to take away the time machine.

“My job is to monitor and neutralize certain potentially dangerous technological developments made by your species until you, as a race, can demonstrate that you are mature enough to handle their applications.” She gestured behind her, at Mason, in disgust. “Which you, at this point in time, are obviously not.”

Mason’s reaction reveals him to be a consummate horses’s ass, but Blaine still loves him anyway. Not that he’s gay or anything like that.

The most notable thing about this one is that when we shift in time from 2014 to 1964, nothing appears to have changed. Which is quite unlike the Di Filippo story, in which the temporal disconnect is critical, as it ought to be.

“The Old Science Fiction Writer” by David Gerrold

Young Danny-Marie [unsettled in pronoun before opting for adolescence] asks Grampa to tell about the olden days before the Big Think. At which, Grampa flashes on Father William. At which, I wonder how many readers will know Father William. [Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs.]

I think this is supposed to be transgressive mockery of current trends in pronouns, but it’s not really funny.

 

Clarkesworld, October 2014

A lite dark fantasy issue full of ghosts. Must be Samhain coming on.

“Taxidermist in the Underworld” by Maria Dahvana Headley

The Devil abducts Louis from the museum because he claims to need a taxidermist to stuff his ghosts. Ghosts are hard to stuff. Time passes with no success at ghost-stuffing, while Louis mourns his lost life and wonders what his lover Carl is doing without him.

“You can leave Carl a note,” says the Devil, and so Louis cribs out a message to his lover: Wait for me, I had to leave town, I won’t be gone long, I’ll explain, it’s something about my soul.

But Louis is wrong about that, as he discovers when Carl shows up in hell.

Dark humor. Clever, twisted love story. Poor Louis, ending up with the consolation prize. This one is largely about relationships and complications among lovers, with neat lines like “kisses him on the cheek in the prickly way one kisses the lover of one’s love.”

“Lovecraft” by Helena Bell

As a history student, Ann is sent to interview an old woman named Luzenberg, whose ancestors have a long a sinister residency in New Orleans. She eventually becomes her paid companion and surrogate family. Her employer has an unusual trait, which may be a hereditary curse: on irregular occasions an orifice opens in her flesh and baby cthulhus emerge.

She does not seem to notice their slithering, nor does she acknowledge the quiet, quick barks in rapid succession as they tumble over each other, biting and scrabbling at their siblings while Ann picks them up with a pair of tongs and drops them, one by one, into the garbage disposal and then turns it on.

But one small monster has escaped and taken up residence in the house, where Ann comes to consider it a kind of pet, eventually taking it on a leash for walks in the cemetery, where she encounters a young man named Howard from New England, who takes an interest in which Ann is deceived.

This is a neat weird premise. I think I’m overthinking it, wondering if Howard is the Howard from Providence, and if so, how did he come to be in this time. But I suspect this doesn’t really matter. The heart of the story is in the relationship between the two women, the life of single women in this milieu and the attachments they form in lieu of men, who are only after one thing and Ann is better off without them. Except that Howard was actually after something else that Ann valued more highly. The conclusion is weirdly uplifting with both expiation and revenge, although we can suspect no good will come of it.

–RECOMMENDED

“Seeking boarder for rm/attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500/Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia

There’s always a catch:

Sole caveat: The living room, garage, basement, and third bedroom are used primarily for ectoplasmic storage. Don’t know if you’ve ever seen them, but ghost flasks are small, unobtrusive, and thoroughly safe. However, mine do emit a slight noise. The previous boarder, a twenty-seven-year-old medical student, is leaving due to excessive emotional involvement with the ghosts, and I’d prefer if my next boarder attempted to leave them alone as much as possible.

The owner, you see, is in the ghost removal/storage business. Now an overly literal-minded reader might want to suggest to the character that it would be better to rent an offsite storage unit, but that would be missing the point, which is the owner’s negative history with his former boarder. This is a person who has difficulty with his self-concept. While he writes that, “if his listeners are right-minded people, they’ll sense the truth pouring out of him”, this isn’t true in the sense that he intends. But it’s up to readers to decide whether he’s more to be pitied than censured.

“Pithing Needle” by E Catherine Tobler

The author has this story that seems to obsess her: a ship full of alien prisoners crash-lands on Earth, where the starving captives escape and begin to devour the human soldiers sent to confront them. This is the second version of it that I’ve seen, although chronologically prior; it’s shorter and less complicated than the first version but still highly opaque. The ensuing war is shown both times as horrific on both sides, for the humans seeing their comrades being eaten, for the aliens being stranded on a hostile alien world, but the two species originally have no ability to communicate, not even the same sensorium for communication. Here, our narrator is a soldier who is swallowed into the alien hive and subjected to an intrusive mental process that allows understanding.

Language is patterns, repetitions; pauses and stops and resumptions, and this, this is what the alien is doing. It’s talking to me. Trying to tell me something. I understand none of the words, but the structure becomes familiar. The alien repeats itself, clicking, and then there are two aliens, and three, and more. They have no eyes, but they absolutely watch me as I drip saliva and mud into the cup of this room.

In consequence the narrator becomes a chimera, with a part-alien mind, a link between the species.

Of all the stories in the issue, this SF is the truly dark one. The intention seems to be creating the atmosphere of total incomprehension that prevails between the totally alien; in consequence the story itself is shrouded in incomprehensibility, confusion — blooming and buzzing. The melding that occurs doesn’t create the glow of mutual intelligibility or lead to peace and harmony. Matters are still hopeless and dismal. Even if comprehension is possible, the two species are too alien to one another. All of which leaves the narrator suspended between, neither one nor the other, no longer individual, no longer her* own self.

[*] It’s not clear, as little in this turbid landscape is clear, if the narrator here is the same soldier from the previously-published story, but I’ll assume by default that she is.

 

Apex Magazine, October 2014

I’m shaking my head here after reading this issue’s editorial.

These stories and poems are fiction and don’t contain the answers that solve GamerGate; they don’t explain how to include transpeople in feminist circles; they don’t broker peace between misogynist fans and women.

What I find odd is that the editor seems to feel the need to apologize for this, for publishing fiction, in a fiction magazine.

“Primrose or Return to Il’maril” by Mary McMyne

Our narrator is called out of retirement because the Il’maril’s sun is about to go supernova and most of the population refuses to evacuate. She confronts the chief shaman, who tells her that the supernova will be the culmination of their evolution, bestowing on them eternal life. At which point, readers will realize that, although the shaman is called a “man” and described as if he were human, the Il’maril are in fact entirely alien. This is not intended as a surprise, but is rather unclarity on the part of the author. The primrose of the title is a strained metaphor.

“Coins for their Eyes” by Kris Millering

Death is the great mystery, from which have sprung innumerable myths, which the author has gathered up and formed into this story. We begin in vagueness, with the narrator making dolls based on photographs. We follow her as she places the dolls on the graves of the people they represent, where comes the explanation.

I don’t even know how people know that the service I provide is available. I can’t exactly ask anyone, hey, do you happen to remember where you first heard of the ghost dolls? But what I do know is this: the payment is for the propitiation of the restless dead, those who died young, or violently. The dolls are vehicles, conveyances to elsewhere.

The dead get stuck sometimes. The dolls help them unstick.

As the story continues, we learn more of the narrator as she regains the lost bits of her memory, that she passed through the door to elsewhere but chose not to go on, instead acting as a psychopomp under the direction of the crossroads man.

The author makes pretty good use of all the mythical material she employs here, but the story seems rather crowded. I’m not sure both a crossroads man and a ghost doll are necessary for the passage of the dead. Still, it’s stronger stuff than the revenge subplot, which is pretty conventional horror.

“The House in Winter” by Jessica Sirkin

An imaginative variation on the Hansel and Gretel tale. Here the narrator is an old woman who isn’t a witch but is possessed by the dark presence of the house itself. Every winter when the hunger comes, cast-out children come freezing and starving to the house, where its keeper welcomes them. But eventually, they will end up in the basement, either willingly or by force.

He is looking at the children in the wall. Their eyes glow yellow in the light of his candle. Their mouths form silent warnings as they struggle and writhe against the bricks. The places where flesh becomes stone stretch and distend, pulling their skin across their faces, closing their eyes and working their jaws. Pain rolls off of them in waves, smelling sickly sweet, like too much sugar.

There is one alternative for the children, however.

Nicely done twist, although I’m not sure the fangs fit into the premise

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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