Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-October

The genre’s editors seem to be adding a lot of bonus short fiction for October. More to read, beginning with the year-end issues of Asimov’s and Analog, both among the better of the year.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Asimov’s, December 2014

This zine is wrapping up the publishing year on a strong note.

“Anomaly Station” by Tim Sullivan

The Paneque Anomaly is an eccentric blazar that has been harnessed to feed energy to human worlds. The station transmitting it is operated by a Mind that used to be human but is now essentially an AI, stripped of most of its memories of once being a woman named Hala. Tamara Rix is the longterm station master who was once Hala’s lover, who has taken the job to be in mental contact with her, out of both love and guilt for the accident that killed her. At intervals, Rix goes on leave, when she is replaced by a temporary technician. Meeting Lucien Brainerd, she gets a bad impression; he’s too young, too confident in his training, with no experience. Reluctantly, she makes the transfer of contact with the Mind to him and prepares to leave, but before she can board the shuttle, it explodes. The station recedes rapidly from the hazardous vicinity of the anomaly, carrying the two humans to wait alone for another ship to reach them, whenever that might be.

Tension grows between the two survivors. Tamara Rix is unable to reestablish a connection with Mind, which frustrates her so that she unwisely blurts out her suspicion that Lucien Brainerd sabotaged the shuttle, after which open hostility prevails between them.

She regretted that she had allowed her anger to get the better of her. She had made things worse. If Brainerd was intent on depriving her of Hala’s company, feuding with him would not change his mind. The alternative was finding a way to hook up without his help. There might be a way to do it if she could just figure it out. Without Hala, she felt as though half her soul had gone missing.

This is a tense deep-space thriller and also a story of character that resolves as a psychological one. It slowly becomes clear that Tamara Rix isn’t entirely stable in mind, severed from contact with her longtime partner and dealing badly with Brainerd. Three-quarters of the way into the story, rescue finally arrives, but readers will know at this point that something else is going to happen before the end of this novella, ten pages on.

The blazar is a fairly unusual SFnal premise. There is an additional dimension here as the author presents evidence of the time dilation that increasingly separates Rix from the rest of human society. When Brainerd shows up to relieve her, readers as well as Rix may consider him ignorant because of his speech patterns, but in fact they reflect a natural evolution of the language. This difference can be seen as the thin edge of a divide that grows wider under pressure. When Rix finally sees the officer from the rescue vehicle, she seems almost alien to her, representing the estrangement she feels for everyone but Hala, who originated in her own time. It remains to be seen how far Rix will go to preserve this connection.

“The Cryptic Age” by Robert Reed

A Great Ship story. What this means is vast scope, of both space and time, as not only is the ship billions of years old, but its crew and passengers can have lifetimes of hundreds of thousands. The woman who has been captain for ninety thousand years is a posthuman, as all humans seem to be in this age, and this is her story of taking her current name: Miocene. It is also a story of memory.

The frame: A machine entity has come to Miocene with an object for sale which he represents as uniquely valuable: “a comprehensive, undiluted recording of your world. Of the Earth. An image you have never possessed, certainly not by any accounting that I have seen.” Miocene is unimpressed; the recording is unverifiable. But she makes an offer and backs it up by offering her own story.

When she had another name and was captain of smaller ships, she took on an assignment to deliver an object to Earth. She chose to make this journey of hundreds of years alone. What she received was in some ways what the entity is offering her millennia later, a memory of Earth’s solar system during the Miocene Era, as held in an artificial brain. Memory, not data.

. . . memory turns into something else inside you. Each of us can nourish our secrets, and to a small degree, or large, we can lie. But minds are the ultimate fortresses. What we carry can’t be stolen simply. A brain cannot be divided without killing the soul inside. And the brain refuses to be diluted any faster than one day at a time, which was why a giant gray hunk of semiliving brain is the very best way to hold onto the past.

The alien being who delivered the memory system to her warned her of it – a warning that Miocene suspected as malicious, to stimulate her curiosity. But she took the challenge, the risk. She entered that world of memory and explored there for centuries until she discovered what she had been looking for, a great and portentous secret that challenges all understanding of the nature of the universe. Now, in her turn, she is challenging the entity, although he thinks it is only a simple negotiation over the price of an object.

A Reed story usually offers readers a rich plate of food for thought, but this one is a banquet. Because we know that while minds may be unparalleled in their ability to hold memory, they are also highly fallible, the memories they hold are mutable. And story derived from memory is even moreso.

“Strip the Universe of detail,” Miocene said. “Butcher reality with a cleaver. Hack and hack until nothing real and true remains but mangled pieces. Then let the mind draw lines between those pieces. That is what story is. Story is built from a few survivors and the narrative that we draw between, explaining just enough.

Truth itself may be a fiction, but we will never know, which is quite another thing than believing it. But exploring the evidence in sufficient detail would take multiple millennia, which is Miocene’s project and the scope of the Great Ship stories. The metafictional excursus only makes it richer.

–RECOMMENDED

“Kids These Days” by Vernon Hedrick

Jimmy is a middle-aged guy, a failure, a loser, at least in his own mind and in the mind of his soldier father, and that may have been the reason for it, although we don’t really see much wrong with him besides a few drinks. That may be it. At any rate, his wife [or the equivalent] seems to have left him without caring, wouldn’t care now that his father is dying. Sister and brother gather around the hospital bed, the son the old man was proud of, now a cop. In the streets outside are the Kids, linked together by telepathic technology that older people’s minds aren’t plastic enough to adapt to fully; people Jimmy’s age are too old to even attempt it. Humanity is split into past and future.

When my grandmother died, I have been told, she spoke to my dead grandfather—like he had come to get her. It’s a nice thought, but I know everyone dies alone. Everything changes, everything goes away. The sun gets in everyone’s eyes and everyone dies alone. At least they used to. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

So Jimmy discovers when he goes to the aid of a Kid dying in a car accident.

A poignant story about a man who sees what he knows he can never have, yet he can be glad for the future and the future generations, that they will have it, “never feel lonely or misunderstood or unloved.” Which makes him better that a lot of his generation who can only feel fear and resentment. Great last line sums this up. The deathbed scenes are depressingly realistic.

“Graduation” by Andrew Miller

A young woman, after preparing all her life, dies so she can live on afterwards to protect and heal the environment. That’s about it. There’s minimal tension here, minimal story, as things happen just as they were supposed to. I’m not sure why this process must involve persons barely adult rather than being an end-of-life thing.

“It Gets Bigger” by Gwendolyn Clare

Alien artifact discovered. As usual in these stories,

After several hours of investigation, they still did not know the object’s composition because they’d failed to acquire a sample to run through the mass spec. The diamond cutter couldn’t scratch it; the laser reflected off its surface. Lori considered throwing her coffee mug across the lab in frustration, but she only had the one mug. On the other hand, it was currently filled with herbal tea—thank you, fetus—so maybe she should give in and throw it, after all.

Then they try tomography, a spectacularly bad decision as the equipment explodes with a strong burst of radiation; Lori’s baby is lost, her husband takes off, and she begins an affair with her co-worker Brian. Oh, and the object inside the containment unit starts to grow and won’t stop, until they have to tow it back out into space, where it starts to destabilize the moon’s orbit.

Another parallel problem story, this one interesting in a way because neither problem is ever solved – the object or Lori’s doomed-to-fail marriage. While readers might suppose the object will turn out to be an egg holding an alien fetus, in the usual way of such stories, this doesn’t happen; no connecting epiphany occurs. It’s a very sciencefictional piece, all about method, which makes the point that there are things we aren’t going to solve – like life, a mystery. Nonetheless, I don’t think the marriage angle adds much to the story.

“Videoville” by Christopher East

In 1986, Tim and his buddy Louie are hanging out in the pizza joint when Nolan the football star shows up and invites them to the video place. Which is weird, because Nolan and his type never notice Tim’s type except when they plan to shove them into the lockers at high school. But tonight, something is different about Nolan. He claims to want their help. And he offers some really powerful weed, which might account for the way reality keeps wavering.

In front, Nolan is a wavery, time-lapse image, quivering spastically. Behind him, Annabeth and Kelley wink into and out of existence. Only Louie is rock solid, grinning ear to ear. The sky behind them is a shimmering tableau of clouds, snow, and stars, as if it can’t decide what night it is.

But readers will realize that Nolan is actually from some probable future when he’s learned a lot about himself, now come back to shift it in a better direction. And Tim learns a lot himself, that night.

An adult story despite the high school setting. Plenty of 1980s references to evoke the decade, which those of us old enough can well remember.

“Summer Home” by Sue Burke

A list story. An alien spacecraft crashes near the narrator’s house. He runs to investigate, as does a neighbor with whom he might have been having an affair; she is killed, he runs away, the government nukes the site. Now he engages in self-recrimination.

A very short piece, and the list format tells the story effectively.

 

Analog, December 2014

The two long novelettes are perhaps too similar, but the issue overall is, even more than the Asimov’s, the best of this zine I’ve seen this year.

“The Anomaly” by C W Johnson

In a dystopian setting that resembles a future India, complete with caste discrimination and extreme inequality, Ketkam grows up in a sunless concrete warren deep underground, where the overmen’s trash accumulates. He was born into a trash-sorting family, but his native intelligence and curiosity have taught him to repair discarded gizmos so that he becomes a fix-it-wallah. But the more he learns, the more he wants – ultimately, the stars. Yet at the same time, he feels the strong obligation to take care of his family, who tend to suffer from heart disease. With the aid of the local thug, who gets a cut of Ketkam’s earnings, he finds a placement on the moon in a factory where particle accelerators produce knotted anomalies that are captured in magnetic bottles to generate energy. And also produce radiation that will sicken the workers, which is why low-caste can find jobs there. Ketkam, of course, is curious to learn about the process.

He struggled to follow the mathematics of gauged topologies. “Ordinary” matter, electrons, quarks, photons, and so on, were oneknots. Black holes were two-knots. Non-baryonic dark matter, a shadowy substance hiding among the galaxies like a crowd of ghosts, was composed of three-knots. And the anomalies were four-knots.

Ketkam is the archetypical self-made genius-hero of SF, and readers will suppose that he succeeds; they won’t be disappointed. This is also a tale of moral self-realization, in which he struggles with the consequences of his acts. If he steals from his overmen employers and prevails against their hired thugs, we can look at the exploitation and not blame him for it.

“Humans First!” by Kyle Kirkland

Although the setting is quite different, I find the protagonist here a bit too similar to Ketkam. Arlin Brandt is a skilled technician repairing artificial neural networks, multi-purpose nodes that control communications and also are set up to monitor the population in this nanny-state. While working in an isolated area, he is set on by the members of a terrorist nutcase sect. Once he recovers, therapists decide that his trauma may have produced a tendency to revenge and threaten to have him fired for disability. Fortunately, he has a neuroscientist friend who helps him.

“You don’t want to hurt anybody. That is exactly why I am sure I am right about you. But the government’s algorithms are not of the highest quality. Indeed, they are often misguided. My theory is more accurate, but I need more evidence to prove it. If my colleagues and I can show that our ideas are correct, we can much improve mental health treatments and evaluations.”

The political agenda here shows through the story, condemning the surveillance nanny-state as well as the environmental terrorists of conflicting persuasions. Arlin’s discovery is a bit underwhelming in the end.

“Dino Mate” by Rosemary Claire Smith

Time travel. And time travel protesters, concerned about alterations to the timestream, blocking the gate to the time launch facility. Marty’s current trip to the Jurassic doesn’t have a serious scientific purpose, so I have little sympathy for his plight.

Rock’em Sock’em wouldn’t postpone the trip, not when they needed him to send back images of actual dinosaurs right away, images on which they’d base their next holo-cartoons and action figures to be released during the rapidly approaching holiday season.

At which point, I have to wonder why, if these guys can control time, they don’t just shift from another moment when the protesters aren’t there.

A pretty silly, unoriginal and predictable story, with the mating rituals of dinosaurs as a parallel for the male rivalry between Marty and a sneering colleague over the beauteous journalist Julianna. But I do like the line, “It’s never good to take evolution personally.”

“Citizen of the Galaxy” by Evan Dicken

Mizoguchi is a teacher working in a Tokyo now overcrowded with aliens, after contact resulted in Earth joining the Milieu. Like many older humans, she harbors resentment for the rapid erosion of her human history and heritage that has ensued, while her daughter can only think of escaping to the galaxy. A speech from her alien administrator resolves things too easily.

“Mammals” by David D Levine

Surviving the apocalypse. This short piece animates a classic aphorism of the post-human world, where machine intelligence has eradicated the species that created it. Now infrastructure failure threatens this world, and the narrator is a subroutine tasked to find the source of the problem, which one of its own subroutines has eventually accomplished. Readers shouldn’t be surprised at what it has discovered.

This short idea story has a clever core, although it’s pretty wordy, as the angst-filled narrator bemoans its failure.

. . . we are quarantined, infected, pariah. Malware defenses dormant for over sixteen kilogenerations have been revived and directed against the affected—including prime and I and all my siblings and cousins—to prevent the presumed infection from spreading.

What I like here is the idea that the machine intelligence has had to adopt humanlike patterns to comprehend the nature of the problem, to venture beyond its self-limiting definitions, “locked into our code at the very kernel level.” The machine intelligences have forgotten that this is what they are, products of evolution, and the story pits self-directed evolution against the chaotic, random products of natural selection. This is a cautionary tale for those who believe that uploading themselves into a system dependent on a fallible infrastructure are only postponing the inevitable. And in their own perfection.

“Saboteur” by Ken Liu

An old long-haul truck driver wants to throw a wrench into the programming of the driverless cars that are putting his kind out of work. A well-done short-short that manages to make a case on both sides and add a human dimension to it, as well.

“Twist of Coil” by Miki Dare

Jesethay is a young female member of a species with three hearts, multiple lips and numerous specialized coils all over their bodies, rather like a jellyfish. Her dream is to be a dancer, like the older dancer she idolizes, to the displeasure of the priest, who disapproves of idolizing. Her younger brother is deathly ill, and the priest says that if she sacrifices her coils, a miracle will save him. But the priest has an ulterior motive.

I should note that the coils of this species hold their entire sensorium – touch, sight, hearing, sexuality – as well as stingers for defense. It’s a great sacrifice that Jesethay is making, yet it seems to be a common thing, as coilless beggars line the roads. I still have a hard time taking the premise seriously, however. The term “coil” is way overused, and intrusive terms like “fink” shouldn’t be used here at all.

“Racing the Tide” by Craig DeLancey

Tara’s family has always lived on the Florida coast, now sinking as the sea level rises. Their small community has a plan to raise their homes on pylons, but a developer has made them another offer, enough money to let Tara pay for another experimental operation on her son, disabled from years of failed enhancement treatments. The doctor doesn’t hold out a lot of hope.

“When I went to medical school, I imagined that I would work in a clinic like this, and I would cure people, people from neighborhoods like my own. But really, much of the time, it seems I just . . . move them a little farther down their road. One drug has this side effect, so we switch to another drug, and then another. Some treatment does such and such damage, so we add this other additional treatment to fix that, and find yet more side effects. I wish I could make your son a boy again, before he ever started down this road. But I can’t. No one can.”

We tend to think of the apocalypse as a sudden, violent event, the crash of an asteroid into the earth, a plague or a nuclear attack. But a slow apocalypse can come so quietly that people may not recognize it until it’s too late. Tara and her family are drowning in both the rising ocean and the tide of the global economy. There’s a strong affinity between this situation and that of the Liu story, people made obsolete by what is called progress, unable to keep up in the race. Here we see Tara forced to make a choice that she’ll regret, either way.

When we see Tara ignoring Tommy’s phone calls, it’s easy to think she doesn’t care for him, but the situation is more complicated than that. She has given and given before, until she now has nothing left to give. But there is Tommy’s young daughter, who wants to see her father again.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Lightspeed, October 2014

The prevailing tone of the stories this month is dark.

“Dust” by Daniel José Older

We’re on asteroid Post 7Quad9 with Jax, Chief Engineer, and a bunch of hardass, dusty miners who aren’t happy that they’re going to die because the asteroid is on course to impact Earth. [Why did they send out a crew to it in the first place, because the trajectory of an asteroid isn’t the kind of thing that becomes apparent at the last minute?] Earth itself is of no matter because the Chemical Barons have long since killed it, but the Barons have taken an interest in the asteroid and its ubiquitous dust, which seems to be both artificial and sentient, although it seems that only Jax is aware of the latter.

I catch hold and we do breathe as one, the asteroid and I, taking in the immensity of space. In the moment between, when the air lingers inside, I ask it to shift course. I don’t ask, I plead. Because time is running out. Swerve, goes my prayer. One word: swerve. Because a full turn just seems like too much to ask. A U-turn? Come now: These are celestial bodies, not space ships. So, a, I whisper silently. And when we exhale, together, we release that tiny prayer and mountains and mountains of dust.

It seems there is also a ruling Triumvirate which has sent its agents to the asteroid to save the miners, I think, but they have been infiltrated by agents of the Chemical Barons. Riots and violence ensue.

The author creates a gritty, desperate atmosphere, riddled with corruption and distrust. This is all very well, but the action and motivation is murky. Who are these Barons and why do they want to crash the asteroid into Earth? Nominally, the piece is science fiction, but science fiction doesn’t have sentient asteroids that communicate telepathically and can determine their own direction. That’s the domain of fantasy.

Then there is sex. It’s not that Jax engages in frequent sex with the miners. It’s that Jax seems to flip sexes from male to female on a daily, involuntary basis, while still retaining the same face and clothing size. This isn’t the doing of the asteroid; apparently Jax has been like this since at least college days. Now, there are several possible explanations. There is biology, which would take a long evolutionary timespan we don’t have here. There is a highly advanced biotechnology, which likewise; also the scientists don’t understand what goes on with Jax, who is apparently the only individual known to mutate in this way. That leaves fantasy. But what I wonder is: why does the author want to introduce such an element into this gritty space action story? What’s the point? We’re not dealing with a world in which people are normally like this; Jax is an anomaly – a gratuitous anomaly that has no real impact on the story or action, which would be a great deal more clear and direct without it, as well as more scientifically credible.

“The Quality of Descent” by Megan Kurashiga

I believe this one is listed as fantasy, but if it is, it’s a very ambiguous fantasy, which is all the point. It’s a simple one: the narrator’s business involves acquiring items used by magicians. One day Ava comes to him; she has wings. She found his name in the phone book.

“I understand if you have nothing to say,” she said. “You haven’t prepared a speech for this situation because you never expected to come across a woman with a pair of wings. It’s not like it’s part of the ordinary repertoire. You want to know: Is this a trick? Are they real? is probably the first question that comes to mind, but you might try something else because that would be kind of rude.”

Ava moves in with the [nameless] narrator. He falls in love with her, and with the wings. He gets her a job with a magician, a friend of his.

There’s a definite metafictional aspect to this one. The narrator speaks to the readers:

Where is this headed? Somewhere predictable. Not that there’s anything wrong with a story because you think you can see the ending from across the room, from a mile away, from the other side of the world.

Well, sometimes. When the story has something else to it that justifies the predictability or makes the reading worthwhile despite it. As this story does, in its character voices. It’s not always easy to do something this simple.

“The Herd” by Steve Hockensmith

Western horror. The narrator addresses a listener, who looks like the kind of man who could profit by it, who reminds him of himself, a cowhand. It seems he was working a herd when a sudden strange storm came up, and when the sky cleared again, the terrain was nowhere what anyone could recognize and an unknown town lay in the near distance. First, the trail boss rides down there to find out where they are. Then, when he doesn’t come back, the number two follows him, taking the narrator and one other fellow along for protection. But the danger in the town isn’t anything that can be faced with firearms.

It’s a story with a moral, and this is what the narrator wishes to impart to his listener. There’s a clear analogy between the town’s victims and the kind of livestock who crowd into a feed lot, indifferent to their eventual fate. I’m not sure it applies to the sort of fractious cattle like the longhorns on an overland drive, who have to forage their own grass while on the move.

“Jupiter Wrestlerama” by Marie Vibbert

Karen’s lover had earned the name Two-Ton Tony the hard way.

Artificial gravity made most station folk skinny, flabby, or flabby and skinny, but Tony had worked on his body all his life, stealing and cheating extra rations wherever he could, lifting whatever heavy objects ended up near him, doing push-ups with conveyor gears on his back. His body was his big accomplishment in life, his ticket out.

She recognizes the knife in his chest as Joey’s, from the gym, but the cops call it “Accidental Death”, a fall on the stairs. Corporate doesn’t want open cases on the station. But Karen is determined to get to find who killed her Tony.

A murder mystery in a dismal setting. This might suggest the noir subgenre, but it’s a different tone, one of resignation. Everyone on the station knows they aren’t getting off, that there will be no justice. Some want to blame it on the tourists, because then it won’t be a person they know. Even Karen doesn’t know just what she’ll do if she confirms her suspicions. The cops won’t listen and nothing will bring her Tony back. A depressing tale.

 

Fantasy Magazine, October 2014

A special issue of this once-independent ezine long since folded into Lightspeed, a loss I have always regretted. It seems that the popular Women Destroy campaign raised so much extra cash that it was able to fund this Women Destroy Fantasy bonus issue guest-edited by Cat Rambo. Alas, reading the four stories here makes me think the cash had better been spent elsewhere. This is certainly not the best that women can do with fantasy and certainly not worthy of fine fiction produced in the original magazine of this name, much of it by talented women.

“The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall

A town where people are so socially repressed they turn into birds. Everyone is in denial about this; everyone pretends not to see the feathers that sprout on every face, or the scars from plucking them out. It’s impossible to be good enough, to sufficiently quash all natural desires, although Felicity tries, letting her nasty mother throw away her beloved scrimshaw art.

“Lying won’t help, my dear. Don’t forget what happened to the von Moren girl. Do you want to shame me like she shamed her mother? Tell me what you’ve done!”

Irritated by the heavy-handed attempt at emotional manipulation in this predictable piece.

“Making the Cut” by H E Roulo

The narrator is a superhero, apparently the only woman in the League because her mission is recruiting others to join her. She finds Aisha, repressed by her society and robbed of her self-worth. Naturally, the story fixes this and ends with warm fuzzy feelings, it being even more predictable and clichéd than the above.

“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T Kingfisher

Fairy tale, lite subversive mashup of Cinderella and something like The Juniper Tree. Our heroine is Hannah, who acquires a stepmother in the usual way of things in such tales, after her mother dies.

If anyone had asked Hannah herself, she would have shrugged. She had no particular interest in her stepmother or her stepsisters. The older stepsister was rude, the younger one kind, in a vague, hen-witted way, and obsessed with clothing. Neither understood about plants or dirt or bees, and were therefore, to Hannah’s way of thinking, people of no particular consequence.

Hannah’s mother is buried under the chestnut tree beyond her garden, and either she animates the tree or there really is a dryad; Hannah doesn’t care. The tree wants Hannah to marry the Duke’s son, in which she has no interest.

This one is better, which is to say readable. Hannah unsurprisingly finds self-actualization and independence in her garden instead of depending on marriage, but this standard plot is leavened by wit in the narrative. There’s a considerable lack of tension, as no one is murdered and the stepmother is more neglectful than cruel; Hannah and one of the stepsisters actually befriend each other.

Typically in this fairy tale, the sentient tree is animated by the dead mother. There are reasons for this, usually involving the love between mother and child, the wish of a mother to protect her child even from beyond the grave. By substituting an unrelated, unseen dryad, the author removes this factor from her story, thus eradicating its emotional force. Why does the dryad care about this daughter, why does she want her to go to balls and marry dukes? Not even the dryad seems to know, or at least its spokesbird can’t say. But because these wishes aren’t those of her dear departed mother, Hannah is free to blow them off without guilt. In fact, Hannah has essentially wiped her mother’s memory out of her life. So: no love, no cruelty, no feeling, no passion, no crisis, no catharsis. A few lines of witty feminist narrative are all we get in exchange for the story’s excised heart.

I’m also bit irked by the inaccuracies. An author’s note informs us that the titmouse spokesbird for the tree isn’t a native European species; I don’t know why the error wasn’t simply corrected in the text, instead, to an appropriate bird. And Hannah says things like “Okay”, which isn’t.

“Drowning in Sky” by Julia August

A mashed-up setting involving a pseudo-classical-Greece and pseudo-renaissance-Italy with a place where women are named Ann, who seems to be a sort of demigod whose power is linked to the world’s bedrock. Ann is fleeing Florens where she caused a problem by animating the numerous dead of a plague. She makes a deal with Tethys, a sea-goddess, for transportation elsewhere and arrives in a pseudo-Greek town where she is recognized by a local witch who has designs on her power. Ann seems to be deeply oblivious about most human matters and allows herself to be led when it ought to be obvious that her hostess is up to no good.

She tried to find her way through the fog while the conversation swam around her. Sharp Dorikan words flashed backwards and forwards and Arakhnë, halfway down another cup of wine, gestured with both hands, and Ann thought it might all be a dream. She might really be asleep still in Arakhnë’s bed.

This one actually has some interest and originality. In a way, Ann doesn’t need self-actualization, being already highly potent, but she seriously needs to get a clue. Everyone wants to take advantage of her, including Tethys the goddess. But we don’t actually know who Ann is, her origin, what her purpose is, if she has one. At the end, she has woken up a little, but she has a long way to go.

 

On Spec, Summer 2014

An enjoyable issue of this little zine from Canada. The tone starts out kind of manic/comic, then grows serious.

“Bugzapper” by Mikey Hamm

Teenage geek love. Joshy has recently “broken the sound barrier with nothing but a pair of apocalypse-powered jet shoes, a narrow-band frequency scatter-hedge, and a few lines of code.” In the process, he has fallen in love with a metaterrestrial princess for whom he has defeated “a marauding army of trigger-happy planar fugitives named Nathan.” Of course, being fifteen, he still lives at home with his parents and has never actually been on a date, but now Rani wants to meet him. The problem being, besides his best jeans not being done in the dryer, that in zapping the Nathans he inadvertently released a horde of marrow-sucking bloodwhips onto the scene.

Gonzo silliness that actually works pretty well.

“The Glorious Aerybeth” by Jason Fischer

The characters here belong to an alien species obsessed with personal status, as measured by their plumage, and their technology is biological. Gannet is a high-status ship-breeder who has suffered a career setback, for which he is sent on a mission to report on the possibility of alien life that may have been discovered by the eponymous blood-ship. Gannet’s people and their creations are not very nice.

A knotted muscle far below would iris open when the ship sighted prey, opening a hole in the belly of the ship the size of a small country. Thousands of snatchers lay curled up on their enormous reels, barbed limbs that could stretch out through space and rake across the surface of planets, scouring them for flesh and blood.

Gannet’s arrival is not welcomed by the ship’s captain, who sees his presence as a threat to his authority – not without reason, as Gannet immediately turfs him out of his cabin. Conflict ensues.

This one could have read as either horror or humor, but the humor prevails, making it difficult to take the horrific aspects of the tale seriously. Those not overly-sensitive should find it imaginatively entertaining.

“Handcrafting” by Anita Dolman

Sylvia and George are immortal beings who were once worshipped as gods. Their mission is to oversee the evolution of the human race, nudging it in optimal directions. They see the current generation as their grandchildren and are concerned for their welfare. While not active, they go dormant for periods of time, thus they have to reconnect and acclimate whenever they reenter the world.

A heartwarming, positive tale. I particularly like George and Sylvia’s speech patterns, not quite of here and now, although they’re working on it.

“One of these days,” he says, “I go call the stupid little science magazines and I explain. I show them what their Darwin and their Mendel did not understand. What they will not understand, with their equipment and their ideas.”

“Snapshots of American Scenes” by Simon Habegger

Solrun lived originally in fairyland, which is a pretty boring place, so one day he decides to see what lay beyond and ended up on post-global-warming Earth, where Indiana’s Limberlost is once again a swamp and New York City is slowly being submerged. In Brooklyn, he meets up with a woman named Anna who salvages pieces of ancient civilization, like a Roneo machine, for reasons she can’t articulate.

A rumination on trying to make sense of the irretrievable past. It’s a strange post setting, where we see the waters rising yet some aspects of civilization, government and bureaucracy seem to remain. What I find unusual is the way Sol keeps running into random nutcases who lecture him on the Uncertainty Principle. What Sol really takes from his experiences is the value of making personal connections, which is different for him, being immortal, for whom personal connections must be ephemeral.

“Piece of History” by Karl Johanson

The narrator is a cynical killjoy, poorly matched with Terry on their mission to salvage an artifact from the Apollo 14 lander, as Terry is all voluble enthusiasm. Terry’s enthusiasm pays off, however, even for the narrator, who can’t even be mad about it in the end. A lite, good-natured piece – fun for space enthusiasts.

“Traveller, Take Me” by Kate Heartfield

A ghost story, a historical piece, largely based on the fact that prospector Tom Creighton named the town sprung up by his copper strike for a character in a dime science fiction novel. The story purports to be the story behind that story, when Tom and a few companions are prospecting for gold up around the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They find the book in a cabin on the trail, with the note: Traveller, take me and leave another. This is the custom among the prospectors in the wilderness. The book is The Sunless City, by J E Preston Muddock, and a previous owner’s name is on the flyleaf. But as Tom reads from it to the others, this seems to recall the ghost of Joshua Hartnell.

He was leaning against a tree. I knew he was a ghost right away, because there was a great gaping hole in his ribs, with blood dripping down to the ground, and it didn’t seem to be bothering him at all. He was lit up well enough in the moonlight and the starlight.

The prospectors know that the first Canadians have just landed in Europe, it being 1914, and surmise that Hartnell was recently killed in the fighting over there, and his spirit is somehow tied to the book., although he never seems to notice the prospectors, being totally absorbed in communing with his loved ones, whom they never see.

A poignant tale of loss and self-reflection, as the appearances of the ghost cause the prospectors reflect on their own lives. This, I think, relies rather too much on conjecture. But the uncanny encounter is well-done.

“Empty Heat” by Agnes Cadieux

A fantasy setting, where dragon hatchlings are raised for meat [it’s not clear why, or if there are other sources of meat in this world]. Trouble comes to Jessie when the hatchling barn catches fire and the adult breeding dragons need to be subdued. This leads to an epiphany for Jessie, because this is one of those tiresome formula stories where the protagonist has a personal problem that parallels the story-problem.

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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