This time, the bonus fiction comes from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with a sixth anniversary double issue added onto a three-issue month. We also have more of the regular and less regular ezines. I give the high scores for October to BCS and Tor.com.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #157-159, October 2014
Twice as many stories as a usual month for this zine, with the editor presenting some favorite authors for the anniversary double issue, which introduces us to ghosts and spirits. Issue #158 has tragedy, and #159 is horror, appropriate for the date.
“The Sorrow of Rain” by Richard Parks
A Lord Yamada story. Yamada and his sidekick Kenji have been summoned to a village where unceasing rain threatens the rice harvest. From the local shrine, Yamada sees the rain spirit, watching and waiting for someone who never comes.
She stood about thirty paces from us. The shrine was nestled onto the crown of a wooded hill overlooking the village of Aoiyama. The rain spirit had stationed herself at a spot where there was a gap in the evergreens and one could see the village below and the rice paddies beyond it. ‘Blue Mountain,’ the peak that gave the village its name, towered above all some distance away on the left. There was no sound except for the rain on the roof of the shrine and the clinking and splashing as the water flowed down the rain chains located at the eaves on the four corners of the building. The rain spirit, of course, stood bareheaded in the rainfall and seemed to take little notice of it, except to occasionally lift her hand and delicately lick a few raindrops from her pale fingers.
He has already questioned the village headman, Yoshimasa, but the old man has clearly kept some secret back. And now there is a death spirit at the side of his bed, giving Yamada very little time to uncover the mystery.
A moving, simple story in a setting that evokes a scene on a painted scroll. The Yamada stories can sometimes be dauntingly tricky, as the demon-hunting detective cracks a problem with sharp-edged logic more often than his sword. This is a gentle tale, in which the characters have only to face and accept the inevitable. It requires no prior familiarity with the series to appreciate.
“Heaven Thunders the Truth” by K J Parker
The narrator [who has a good reason for namelessness] is a young doctor, which is to say a wizard, which is to say that one day a supernatural snake crawled into his head and took up residence. The snake is incapable of lying, or so she says, and thus the narrator is also incapable, except at great cost; the king bears the titular title and lies whenever he pleases. The kings in this place have the habit of killing off their relatives, lest they attempt to usurp the throne. The narrator has inadvertently discovered that the current king’s dead brother had a son and a daughter who are still alive. After killing the girl, the king summons the narrator and demands that he find his brother’s missing son. Which of course leads to complications.
The narrator, like all doctors, has many sources of advice in his quest – the snake, of course, but also a vast crowd of ghosts. The ghosts usually tell the truth, but they don’t always reveal everything they know.
It’s in our dreams, though, that we meet and talk to our own kind. There’s actually nothing particularly special about that, we do the same as you but in a different way, but at least we have the advantage that we can consult or spend time with any of our kind, regardless of the trivial constraints of geography, or indeed whether they happen to be alive or dead.
One of these ghosts is the king’s dead brother, whom the narrator rather likes, but who will haunt him if he carries through with the king’s demand. But the king will kill him if he doesn’t.
One reason I was particularly unhappy in learning that the Subterranean online magazine had been discontinued was the prospect of life without new Parker stories. Happily, I find they will now be appearing here in BCS. This one features a magic system with which I’m not otherwise familiar, told in the author’s usual wry and witty narrative voice. The concluding theme turns out to be truth and the utility of a lie, but there are other issues to engage readers. I look forward to more of these.
“The Moon over Red Trees” by Aliette de Bodard
Historical fantasy set in Vietnam [known here as Cochinchina] during the time of French imperialist rule when rich Europeans liked to collect the valuable treasures of the country – ivories and jade and artworks – the valued heritage of families that had no choice in giving them up. The narrator’s family lost many treasures that way, most notably scrolls written in an ancestor’s calligraphy; these, they have vowed to retrieve with the help of a spirit’s magic. The narrator’s sister chose the way of the sword, and failed. The narrator took another path, a French name, and an appearance suitable for seducing the Frenchman who possesses her family treasures. But magic has its own costs.
It was the magic, of course; it was as false as her appearance, as her identity; but she can’t erase the memories; the sweet rush of them, the happiness from other simpler times, a feeling she cannot afford anymore. Her future in Cochinchina will be made of whispers and frowns and speculations, and of a hasty marriage to a man who will prize an alliance with her family above the rumours about her virginity.
There’s dreamlike quality to this one, as the narrator wanders her lover’s house in the night, searching, feeling the magic falling away and her true self returning, now that she has found what was lost. At one point, readers will suspect her of planning revenge, with more than sufficient reason, but the story takes a different path. Readers familiar with the author’s recent work will recognize, despite the shift from SF future to fantasy past, the same concern with ancestral heritage and the gynocentric family structure. Traditionally, the role assigned here to the sister would be played by a brother.
“Butterfly House” by Gwendolyn Clare
Yinghua is a butterfly keeper for the Empress, on a disagreeable mission to collect Corpsewings from enemy dead for the imperial butterfly house. Uniquely, this species feeds on the bodies of the dead, and myth has it that they were created to carry the souls of dead warriors into heaven.
A sea of bodies stretched away to the next hilltop and, she guessed, beyond. Blood stained the trampled earth, and the dark silhouettes of a hundred vultures spun lazy circles against a lapis-blue sky. She wanted to shrink away from the vastness of the carnage. How could he look upon this and wonder if the quantity of death was insufficient?
But after she has collected what she sought, the butterflies come to her dreams, causing Yinghua to doubt her mission.
This is in a way an ambiguous fantasy, although clearly set in a secondary world. The invented myth underlying it may or may not be fact-based, and the ending deliberately leaves matters inconclusive, hinting at sinister possibilities. There are intervals in the text devoted to butterfly lore, which don’t do a lot to advance the plot but add color to the setting.
“The Leaves upon Her Falling Light” by Gregory Norman Bossert
The chase, the hunt, was a very big deal in medieval life; forests were royal hunting reserves, and the noblest beasts of venery were reserved for the noblest hunters. So came the young prince Hugh into the woods to seek out “the hart in his harbouring” for the morrow’s chase. But whom he finds there is Tallys, the Wild Woman of the Wood, who is a lot older than medieval kings.
She seemed of an age with him, though where he was pale, sunlight on stone under open skies, she was every dark shade of the forest, green on brown, brambled hair and eyes like oak leaves. She seemed a girl, though she might have been brambles and oak leaves not long before.
Tallys is concerned about Hugh’s cousin Edouard, who will one day be Duke and Master of Game; she thinks he lacks the proper respect and fear of the wild places. But it isn’t Edouard to whom she gives a crippling vision but Hugh, who never recovers from the fear of that encounter. There is some suggestion that Edouard is involved, that he sent the boy into the woods when he was too young, or in some other manner conspired to weaken the heir to the throne, to take his place. It is Edouard who finds the boy under her spell, protected either by his hound or by the hart he had come to hunt [here is where the story is most unclear and Tallys most ambiguous]. But the ongoing enmity between Edouard and Tallys only grows as Hugh’s mind deteriorates, even with the support of a strong and devoted wife.
There’s a strong mythic tone here. The horned god and the mistress of beasts are among the eldest deities we have had. But Tallys as a goddess of this wood isn’t wise enough, or she makes a fatal error. The story is a tragedy, the destruction of an innocent in the course of a struggle between two greater enemies. Edouard, of course, is guilty by his nature; he is the villain of the piece. But the guilt belongs to Tallys. We find her at the end in a state of penance, which seems proper and right. What isn’t clear is what she thought she was doing with Hugh in the first place.
“The Rugmaker’s Lovers” by Brynne Macnab
The rugmaker is a weaver of magic, who looms her own house and settles in a village where she does a good trade and becomes a respected woman. All is well until a warrior comes through on his way to battle and falls in love with her. The rugmaker’s sight tells her this is not a man of peace, and she cannot marry a man who kills. Although she feels regret, she turns down his proposal of marriage, saying,
“I am a humble woman, and you have paid me a higher compliment than I deserve. Surely it was not the work of my hands but the presence of God in his church that disturbed your dreams. If you are afraid to lose that, do not go to this war, but go home and confess to your priest and ask him to take you into the brotherhood. That way you will follow God in whatever strange paths He may choose for you, and you will never be without what you have felt.”
Some time later, a minstrel comes to the village and asks to marry her, promising only his songs. She accepts, but discontent follows, leading finally to grief.
If this story, like the one above, can be called tragedy, it’s not in the same sense. The rugmaker’s sin is a personal one, a sin of weakness. No one here suffers undeserved; no one is an innocent. The scale is domestic, not dynastic. And some of the characters, at least, manage to find a manner of peace in the end, if not actual happiness or joy.
“Drawn Up from Deep Places” by Gemma Files
A Jerusalem Parry story. Our sorcerous hero is now a pirate ship’s captain, haunted by the ghost of his predecessor. As he was once taken onboard from the sea, he now takes onboard a young woman who calls herself Clione, who is apparently a seer, as she can perceive the ghost who follows him about. But she proves to be much more, and the sexually-innocent Parry is an easy mark for her wiles.
What followed in this maelstrom’s spindrift, however, was pleasure piled on pleasure: laxity, satiation, a deep and pleasant slumber, and for once blessedly dreamless….
…but only to a point.
Sorcerous action/horror. Clione is one of those many denizens of the deep to delight in luring sailors to their deaths, a succubus perhaps more than a siren. Parry, despite his innate power, is naïve and vulnerable to her charms. In fact, too vulnerable, too full of weeping and self-pity. While he is lost in the arms of the demon, it takes a crowd of ghosts to extract and save him. A weak character.
“The Burned Man” by Hannah Strom-Martin
The Burned Man counsels the narrator to avoid the fires of love.
Everyone in Div Kamia knows the Burned Man. Everyone has seen his tower appear. The Burned Man stands before the tower with the white dust both rising and settling around him, and his face and his form are as black as the candles that Sanjiib fortunetellers burn in their tents. He is diminished, also, like a candle, and there are stripes—awful red—on his melted skin. His hands though, when he bares them from his shroud, are lovely: brown and sinuous as the river. No one knows why his hands were spared. No one has ever seen the Burned Man’s shadow.
The Burned Man was once the confidant of Indri Pasha and also procured women for his harem. When he saw the new priestess of Pilara, he was enthralled by love but also know that the pasha would want her for the harem. So it came to pass, but still he burned for her, while they exchanged messages of love. At last she opened her doors to him, but alas, her love was a trap. The pasha, a sorcerer, sentenced him in punishment to endless torment, but the Burned Man was determined to take revenge in his own turn. Now, where the pasha’s palace once stood, he appears every day at the height of noon.
A tale of treachery and vengeance. The author leaves the narrator’s response as a mystery to readers – will he take the lesson or will he continue to pursue his own perilous love?
The Dark, November 2014
Only one tale here is at all horrific, and the rest aren’t really particularly dark.
“Calamity, the Silent Trick” by Sara Saab
An unusual, fanciful premise: “The universe was once an elemental batter, poured out of perfect enameled thimbles. This new universe clung jealously to itself, chemicals clutching like threatened lovers.” For the ninety elements, there are thirty entities, each with three of the cups. Our narrator is Au, whose cups once held gold, zirconium, and sulfur. Now, they are employed in a shell game of life and death. Au is called to deal the cups for a young boxer struck a possibly-fatal blow in a match. Three cups go down and Au picks one; if a ball is beneath it, Luccas Santo will die. There is no ball. But Au, contrary to the ways of the elemental kind, takes an interest in this human and begins to follow his subsequent life. The others don’t approve.
Not so much a dark fantasy as a kind of science fantasy, using the metaphor of the elements. But it makes little sense to me that the elements of the entire universe would be so concerned with the fates of some members of a single marginal species on a backwater rockball. There are two distinct story elements here, and they don’t really fit together into a coherent whole.
“The Three Familiars” by Eric Schaller
An unsuspecting couple give birth to a witch. They indulge the child, who returns their love with abuse and hides in the attic, cultivating spiders as familiars, feeding them on blood.
She also heard his shriek when he, rummaging through the sewing box, pierced his finger on a needle. “Jesus,” he cried. He sucked the blood from his finger. From the corner of his eye he saw a movement in the shadows. He had seen a fungus there earlier. Now the fungus dislocated itself from the ceiling and descended as if suspended on twine.
The power of a witch is in her blood, but she can’t give birth to a child of her own. She cultivates her familiars until she finds a way. The witch may be clever, but she’s not very wise.
Icky dark humor, mocking parental love. I like the suggestion of irony in the narrative.
“Mourning Flags and Wildflowers” by Patricia Russo
Borro didn’t understand when Arrani told him, “When we are married, our children will be wildflowers.”
“Wildflowers,” she said, more softly. “I will sleep in the autumn, but awaken again in the spring. And you will be the father of millions.”
Arrani always had too much wildness in her. She led him into the woods, farther from the village than they should have gone, and he carried her body back. The women planted her.
This one is interestingly weird, original, but not in a very dark way. I like the look at the village structure, the divisions between men and women, who are clearly the ones in charge, the ones who can hear the voices in the world.
“Home at Gloom’s End” by Naim Kabir
This is the sort of piece that usually appears as science fiction. The premise is that a vent on the seafloor has suddenly produced sentience in the denizens of the deep and dark, who are now engaged in producing a civilization. The prophets who live on the sides of the vent have promised a Metamorphosis, a world in which darkness alternates with light, which readers will recognize as daylight. They give a task to the narrator, a squid – to find the Hardwhale and bring it to them, and readers will also recognize it. In fact, much of the interest here is seeing the setting in human terms and conjecturing how this world came to pass. There is also the way the awakened fish [most of whom aren’t actually fish] set about recreating gods and other unnecessary trappings of human societies. But I’ve seen this sort of thing rather too often to be greatly impressed.
Strange Horizons, October 2014
One long story divided in half, one very short one.
“Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong
Tíntín comes from an indigenous Filipino family that sends its daughters to work as maids for rich families in Manila. One night the family god comes to her dreams declaring it is now time for her to become his disciple, because her mother is dead. She was marked at birth with a crippled arm as a sign that she is the heir to the power. Now the dead god will teach her to be a manananggal, to transform herself and fly at night. Tíntín doesn’t feel she is ready for this next step in her life, and she bargains with the god for some extraordinary boon, such as returning her mother to life. What she really wants is the boy who works in the jewelry shop, who has given her a locket as a gift, but in taking it, she has made a fatal mistake, as her god angrily tells her.
I am not the only god in the region. And Manila is an amalgamation of many peoples from many regions. For the first time, the dead god sounds contemptuous. Perhaps you fancy yourself special, Christina Maria Reyes. But there are plenty of other witch-families that would love to stamp you—and me, with you—out completely, and they are much more powerful than an uninitiated girl-child and a stray god without a disciple. It breathes its fetid odor into my face. Maybe I have been too lax on you and have not emphasized the danger your family is in. The danger that you brought into this house!
Several interesting elements here, most notably the Filipino folklore, which is quite rich in demonic figures such as the manananggal, which leaves its legs behind in a hidden place as the rest of it flies around, up to no good. There is also the tension between this sort of magic and the Catholic culture of families such as Tín’s employers, the Calderones; her full name clearly reflects this aspect of the social mix in which she lives.
But I do have to wonder why her mother has sent her to Manila as a maid instead of keeping her at home to learn about her heritage, for which she would then have been better prepared when the time came; her ignorance had fatal consequences. If it had been a matter of needing the money, surely the powers could have provided. Or perhaps the decision had been Tín’s own, to follow her sister, perhaps, but if so, it’s not clear in the text.
The manananggal who is her family’s enemy is definitely shown as an evil creature; folklore suggests that it attacks fetuses. But there is no suggestion that Tín’s mother was likewise malevolent, or that Tín would become so once she came into her powers. This is a potential source of story tension that isn’t explored here.
“Dream Cakes” by Kelly Jennings
Ella cooks the cakes to order, by instinct, for each customer who demands one. The results aren’t always what the customer had in mind.
Ella felt the familiar shiver as the universe reshaped around her: deep within her, the familiar sharp sweet pleasure, laced with the bright razor of guilt. She gripped the bowl of walnuts between her palms.
Neat little piece.
Tor.com, October 2014
Some entertaining and enjoyable original stories from this site in October. I had plenty of fun with these.
“Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan
An insightful reinterpretation of Penelope’s story: the real reason she kept weaving and reweaving the shroud for Odysseus.
Night after night, fate after fate. She can only keep trying. Surely somewhere, in all the myriad crossings of the threads, there is a future in which all will be well.
It hints also at the fate of Arachne, with a single glimpse of the jealous and implacable goddess it is wisest not to offend, but who is also her husband’s protector on his homeward journey. In fact, there’s also a faint hint that she may not just be setting up a future but altering the past, and that perhaps the favor of Athena might even be the result of Penelope’s work rather than Odysseus’s own virtue.
[Pedantry Alert] I know of no mythological source that traces Penelope’s ancestry to the Spinners – aka the Fates, even if Plato is correct about their being the daughters of Necessity rather than Themis, which is a pretty good revision in its own right. On the other hand, nothing in the literature says that she isn’t. Still, I doubt that she could be descended from all three.
“Mrs Sorensen and the Sasquatch” by Kelly Barnhill
A love story. Agnes Sorensen loved her husband. She did. But in marrying him, she perforce gave up certain things, like the companionship of animals [he was allergic] and the hope of children [infertile]. He died at an age when his widow was still an attractive woman, so that the eligible men of the town took notice. But she had ideas of her own for living the rest of her life, beginning with his funeral, to which she invited a number of animal friends.
A warmhearted tale that is given a special poignancy by the character of Father Laurence, who has, we discover, secretly and unrequitedly loved Agnes Sorensen since she was a girl. As she comes back to life, so does he.
He rubbed his ever-loosening jowls and cleared his throat. Seeing no one there (except for a family of rabbits that was, en masse, emerging from under the row of box elders), Father Laurence felt a sudden, inexplicable, and unbridled surge of joy—to which he responded with a quick clench of his two fists and a swallowed yes. He nearly bounced.
The tone is mild humor [perhaps straining too much for the effect with the trio of crotchety crones who make up the Parish Council], heartwarming with a touch of melancholy.
“This Chance Planet” by Elizabeth Bear
In an almost-contemporary Moscow, Petra has hooked up with a no-good guy who sponges off her, cheats on her, and cares for nothing but taking his garage band on tour. To this end, he has latched onto a scheme in which people will be paid for using their bodies to grow organs for transplant. Naturally, he wants Petra to do this, not himself, as it would ruin the look of his skinny jeans on stage; this is the sort of man for whom women are there to use.
I should have been suspicious then. He was being much, much too agreeable. But I had gotten distracted by the way that fringe of hair moved across his pale forehead. And the little crinkles of his frown, the way the motion pulled the tip of his nose downward.
Fortunately for Petra, she meets a dog on the subway who sets her straight.
One of the great mysteries of the universe is the way so many women fall for nogoodnik men. The story shines some light onto this problem by way of a lot of neat lines:
This is how women sometimes turn into witches. We come home from work one day too many to discover our partners curled up on the couch like leeches in a nice warm tank, and we decide it’s better to take up with a hut with chicken legs.
A good chicken-legged hut will never disappoint you.
I really did enjoy this one.
Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2014
Some interesting and unusual fiction in this issue, mostly on the dark side.
“Redwing” by Maigen Turner
Set on a world inhabited by both humans and a catlike species possessing both claws and magic, which makes them formidable, especially the forces of the Clawling empire, which is opposed by both humans and rebels of their own species. Kuet is particularly hostile to them since they killed her husband under the colors of a false truce, but her brother has been working with the clawling insurgency. Now a clawling messenger comes with news of his death, urging her to join their forces.
The plot of this one is overly predictable.
“A Gift of Dead Flesh” by Andrew Kaye
Necromancy. Here we have a country where necromancy is a way of life and its weaker neighbor where the practice is forbidden. The necromancer Aurelio, with powerful connections to the Merchants Guild, has been arrested and abused in prison by his jailer, Proximo, who has personal reasons to despise him. Now his release has been arranged, but Aurelio has unfinished business before he leaves town.
Aurelio was only half listening. While the man spoke, he put two fingers into his mouth, then daubed the blood across the floor in a series of arcane symbols. The blood glowed beneath his fingertips, as if smearing fireflies. He whispered a few words, heard the man gurgle, thud to his knees.
The necromancy is quite interesting, as is Aurelio’s vengeful scheme. But the author, perhaps for the sake of the concluding surprise, has left out too much information. For a story this short, there are too many points of view, and other than Aurelio, we have no idea who any of these people actually are or what they want.
“Victoria’s One-way Ticket” by Emily Cataneo
A city, at least, where automatons are commonly made for any number of purposes. Victoria was created by a woman as a companion; she is an artist who specializes in murals, having achieved a considerable renown and royal commendation. But this, as all things, must pass, and she is suffering now from the machine equivalence of old age, for which her society has a humane solution. Victoria comes to accept that her time has come. There is a place, they call it a bathhouse, for this purpose.
Before her, just a few feet away, stretched ice. Ice the color of the collar on Creator-Mum’s Sunday dress, receding so far that Victoria couldn’t see the edge. Steps away, dark water lapped at a hole cut in the ice.
While ostensibly about machines, I find this a story about people of any sort whose lives are coming to an end, gradually overcome by disabilities, overtaken by obsolescence and irrelevancy. There is a heartbreaking quality to Victoria’s final days, as she reluctantly convinces herself that this world has no more need for her, or she no place in it. But it’s hard not to feel that from a human point of view, she is fortunate. Indeed, more fortunate than most here and now, who have no access to such a place as the bathhouse with its considerate attendants. I can’t see the use of the “anointment” she receives there, however; what purpose it is supposed to serve in the process.
“The Glamour” by Eric Schaller
Karen is a fairy with the power to take new bodies. At first, she is a mayfly, a dragonfly, and in such guises she takes Roland as her lover. Together they are crows when she falls in love with the human form, despite Roland’s objection. She also, inexplicably, falls in love with a young boy named Henry who grows up to be a real prick, encouraging Karen to take one new body after another for his sexual titillation.
Despite a Benjamin Braddock scene in which crow Roland flies into the window of the church at her wedding to Henry, he is really only a good match in comparison to the clichéd Henry; the two males are very much alike, only demonstrating that Karen has really lousy taste in mates. There may have been some more profound theme intended, but it’s not coming across.
“Read Shift” by Sharon D King
Whimsically absurd version of classic nursery rhymes, centered on the Hubbard family and their errant cupboard.
“Spinning the Thread” by Gregory Norman Bossert
In noirest old Chicago, Billy O’Fay was a gangster in the protection racket who had a tailor’s shop torched. The tailor’s wife was caught in the fire, and the man came to Billy’s room with a shotgun to force him to “see what you did.” But things went sideways and the tailor blew Billy’s brains out. At which point, the story begins as Billy wakes to a sense of wrongness. It happens that Billy’s lover Bridie is a powerful witch, and when she saw his brains blown all over the place, she started to spin them back together – a difficult, painstaking task. Bridie has her own reasons for doing this, but Billy is fixated on revenge, going to confront Janicki the tailor despite all her warnings that her work is too easily undone.
The tone in her voice was enough to set me staggering back into the dark. But I focused on the stench, and the anger, and the thought that a little longer is what I needed, too. “I’m taking a step now, Bridie,” I said, then I did. I could feel the nerves pulling, another few inches gone for good, I guess, but I was one step closer to the door, and to Pens’s big ugly face.
A striking premise, with an unusual but quite believable use of witchcraft. Although there’s no direct references to the Fates, it’s impossible not to feel them subtly evoked. The tone is noir rather than horror, as it employs the classical first-person narrative with a self-deprecating tone that lightens the atmosphere. Told in a different voice, it would be darkest horror indeed, and the subject matter, the innocent dead woman, keeps pulling it in that direction. But Bridie pulls back, insisting that this is a love story, even among the damned.
Bastion, October 2014
Taking a second look at this ezine, which suffered from excessive newishness in the first issue I read. The eight stories here are all short, clearly sciencefictional, with an overall darkness of tone. I’d say the editors are getting the hang of it.
“Zero’s Hour” by Eric de Carlo
A future in which deceased crime victims can be temporarily resurrected to give evidence to the police – a period lasting only sixty minutes, for reasons we aren’t told. Alfeo Jurado was just murdered, and now his body finds himself a zero, as they are called. The policeman to whom he is assigned is anxious to make the most of the allowable minutes, inexorably counting down while the zero has to come to terms with bodily awkwardness, the uncomfortable rubber suit in which he is encased, the tenuous state of his memory. But every minute that brings him more fully back to humanity is bringing him closer to the end.
Nice conclusion, well felt and expressed.
“When the Wind Blows on Tristan da Cunha” by Meryl Stenhouse
The setting here is real, an isolated island in the South Atlantic inhabited by only three hundred rather inbred individuals. Gemma Glass knows and despises them all, considering herself special because of her mother, who, she alleges, “came in with the tide one day, and one day went away again, before I even learned to say her name.” This makes Gemma special, she believes, and also because she is subject to the visual phenomena known as phosgenes. Gemma has learned that astronauts see these when passing through the radiation belt, so she has come to think the universe has selected her to reveal its secrets. Her lifelong ambition has been to leave the island, and now that she is finished with school at age sixteen, she is determined to put her plan into action by seducing the resident astronomer doing research at the local observatory.
I suspect the author wants readers to have sympathy for Gemma, but I’m not buying in. Even for a teenaged girl, Gemma is a paragon of selfishness, pursuing her own way with no regard for her father or for the astronomer Luca, who knows better than to succumb to her underaged wiles. Strictly speaking, this isn’t science fiction but rather a mainstream piece about a character who believes herself possessed of sciencefictional powers.
“Waterman High Speed Axials” by William R D Wood
Post apocalypse, the cause this time being the escape of lab-bred particles that bind to any available water molecules, thus turning the Earth to dust. In this landscape, Parson guards the water he’s horded inside Waterman’s, the facility where his father used to work; father, who taught him everything he knows.
Why else would everyone who happened along this way try to get in, if not because they thought they’d find water at Waterman’s? People were desperate and the few who remained getting more so every day. The end of the world hadn’t been quick and merciful after all. Folks had had lots of time to suffer. To pillage this and ransack that. Mostly for survival. Sometimes just out of meanness.
For Parson, it’s simply a matter of survival, and he’d resent the suggestion that he’s a sociopath, insisting that all his actions are rational. Which of course sociopaths always say. Yet the author doesn’t believe him and wants us to believe it was his father’s fault. With regard to which, we have insufficient evidence.
“Time Enough” by Salena Casha
Henry’s friend Peter just ran out of time and combusted, and now Henry is suffering an existential crisis and survivor guilt. This is a world where the population except for the very rich and privileged has an implanted timer that measures out the span of their lives. Work or other transactions load minutes onto the timers, but the government encourages expenditure, the squandering of lives. While it isn’t explicit, we get the impression of a population problem.
Henry’s gut lurched. He could picture Peter’s own, his own, with spider web veins that wove around a black timepiece whose digital seconds counted down the years, days, hours, minutes, seconds they had left. Dragging on his cigarette, he wondered what would happen if he ran out before his clock did. Maybe his body would just sit there, a corpse. Someone would have to take him to the Centre so they could deactivate the timer.
This dystopia isn’t fully comprehended. It’s possible that the public combustions are meant as a cautionary display to the population, although I wonder if there might be social consequences when someone flames out in their bed at the hotel. But the story focuses not on the society but Henry, trapped in the system that runs on the ashes of his friend. As in the Wood story above, the primary imperative here is survival, yet Henry recalls Peter’s parents, who gave up all their time for their son.
“A Vision of Paradise” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
A small group of refugees has left the imperial human Cohort and settled an isolated planetoid on the edge of known space. The local conditions produce cancers, and the cancers, with the aid of radiation from the local wormhole’s activity, have “hijacked your biochemistry” to keep the hosts from aging so the cancers can survive indefinitely. But the Cohort is in decline and closing down the wormhole, so that the “Blessings” can no longer keep the illness at bay. Sumelyu, a young member of the colony, wants to contact the Cohort and ask for evacuation, but the rest of the members refuse.
This is a dumb idea, poorly worked-through. At one point, a character states, “Your body is riddled with at least nine types of cancer. Yet somehow you haven’t developed malignancies.” Perhaps the author means metastases. The piece concludes with an unfortunate inspirational message.
“Shudder” by Manfred Gabriel
This one begins as military SF but turns psychological. The narrator was born without the ability to fear. He becomes an elite soldier but eventually enters a clinic in hope of a cure.
How would you like it if you could never be happy, or sad, or angry, or in love? Good or bad, they’re all emotions. Part of being human. I feel like, without fear, I’m missing something important.
I like the narrator. He’s self-possessed and confident, decent in his humanity. Like many career soldiers, he distrusts the “Coats”, including his therapist, and with good reason. The military tends to think soldiers without fear could be a good thing. The story is based on the Grimm tale about the boy who could not shudder, which mistakenly conflates shuddering with fear. This story works better.
“In the Space Between” by Jeff Stehman
Stephen is remarkably unruffled for a person whose partner in a survey ship has just thrown him out the airlock.
The view, limited only by the confines of his helmet, impressed even him. In the vastness between stars, without his ship to offer contaminating light, it was spectacular. He was one of the lucky few to have seen it.
Mark has apparently grown tired of Stephen’s “cold-blooded, machine-headed way of doing things”, confident that he is too “cold and uncaring” to panic. At first, he seems only to want to show Stephen that he can intuitively calculate a jump away from and back to his location, but then he expresses the belief that his partner is actually a machine intelligence and a threat to him. As the dialogue between the two continues, readers will be wondering whether Stephen is indeed unhuman or if Mark is just raving insane. A neat dilemma, tied-off well at the end.
“Sympathy for the Download” by Matthew Lyons
As the story begins with Quinn climbing in through his client’s fire escape, we think he’s a contract euthanasiast. The client has been very specific in her requirements, wanting it to happen at home in her bed while she’s asleep. Except that she isn’t asleep, she’s awake and waiting for him, and she has in mind a considerable modification to her requirements. At which point, we realized that Quinn is actually there to download her mind. As he explains the process to the client,
Needle comes out, acts as an interrupt for all neural activity. Freezes it all in place. Downloads everything onto onboard storage, to be reintegrated into a brand-new, vat-grown body: memories, habits, personality, everything. Your body goes comatose, shuts down in about twelve hours.
But she wants more, and what she wants is both illegal and beyond Quinn’s ethical comfort. And the old monster has planned for that, too.
I actually liked the premise better when I thought it was euthanasia. That’s a plausible future. Mind downloading is less original, and this stealth method seems more unlikely than if it were stealthy death in the night. But what’s really wrong here is at the opening, when Quinn opens the window and catches a whiff of the smell. “It’s the rotting-meat-and-sour-milk dumpster stink of months—maybe years—of unwashed flesh and too many uh-ohs in her pants.” Nope, not this 91-year-old. Not only does nothing in the story call for her to be in such a condition, the circumstances are against it. She’s too lucid and calculating, too much in control. She’s just been with Quinn’s agency, which would have had to evaluate her. And she has relatives in her room a lot, who wouldn’t be able to stand the stench. Otherwise, I admire the evil calculation and Quinn’s response.