Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, Late November

With one foot in the old year and another in the new, I redeem the Good Story award from the pawnshop to bestow on “Where the Trains Turn” from Tor.com.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #160-161, November 2014

There are no obvious thematic links between the stories in either of these issues. The Lindell might equally well be considered SF as fantasy.

#160

“A Guest of the Cockroach Club” by M Bennardo

At the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, tempers in the US Senate were heated, and the anti-slavery Senator Warren spoke intemperately about a former territorial governor of Missouri. The man’s son, who happens to be a crack shot, has now challenged Warren to a duel, and the senator sees no other way to save himself but submitting to the demands of the Cockroach Club, run by a seeming man known only as Roach, for his “uncanny ability to survive and thrive in dark corners of the government.” In fact, Roach might as well be the government, so great is his corrupt power.

Warren clenched his fists as a blur of memories flooded his mind—former colleagues suddenly ousted from their seats. Or worse—suddenly gone spineless and simpering! At least when a monarch stretched the neck of an uncooperative vassal, the murdered man became conspicuous in his sudden disappearance. But when an elected man stood on principle and got himself turned out of his job, all evidence of corruption could be buried under the seal of a secret ballot.

Satire doesn’t have to be satirical, and here is a case in point. The prose is played straight and avoids language unsuitable to the period, but the atmosphere of horror, the glimpses of Roach’s true nature and that of his minions, creatures that scuttle in the dark, all effectively make it clear that the author is describing the fundamental state of corruption that has always prevailed in the nation’s government, and does to this day. The only false note is struck at the end of the piece, in which the newborn state of Missouri is held up as a potential center of clean government.

“The Streetking” by Peter Hickman

Dustrabbit is a streetman, which is to say a thief and a thug, who has a strange encounter.

The sun scaring the last of us streetmen away, when I near knocked her over. Defiant child, shivering and spitting at me, awkward in the morning. Me, a man thrice the width and twice the height. I were blade shining ready for a teaching when those flashing green eyes caught mine.

The child, it turns out, is likewise a thief, pilfering first from her parents, then her parents’ friends. She and Dustrabbit eventually begin to deal regularly with each other, until she is threatened with the worst of fates: marriage. So she makes another, life-changing deal, but it changes Dustrabbit’s life as well. He is without ambition of his own, but his new partner is not, and she’s smart enough to spot the advantage and the trap.

A sort of Thieves Guild story with its own distinctive voice. In a way, it’s a love story, although by no means a sexual one; the relationship between the two is loyalty, not lust.

#161

“Sweet Death” by Margaret Ronald

Another in the author’s police-procedural series set in a world where a war has recently concluded, filling the streets of the City with nonhuman refugees. Thus when a bearlike envoy to the City is found dead in the street where the kobolds live, his head bashed in by a honey crock, a diplomatic incident ensues, which Inspector Swift and his kobold sidekick Mieni must avert by solving the crime.

This one is less than convincing. The crime scene is set up to be more difficult than it should be, with the witness/suspect refusing to talk for reasons I don’t find credible. The villain reveals himself by being too villainy. And the overall point is underwhelming.

“We Were Once of the Sky” by Yosef Lindell

Some time around the thirteenth century, or so it seems, a group of humanoidish aliens crash-landed on Earth, where they weren’t particularly welcomed by the xenophobic population of Europe. The Beta, as they come to be called, retain some relics that they claim to be remnants of their spaceship, also a story that they once came from the stars, but over the generations they have forgotten most of their origins. When Kev notices that his father can’t consistently point to the star he claims as their home, he abandons the traditional belief and turns to human science, insisting on learning to read, a skill that the Beta don’t need, having other means. But now bubonic plague is advancing on their settlement, and the Beta know that humans will blame them for it. One Beta has the notion that their people could serve as physicians and earn human gratitude, but as usual, this doesn’t work out.

What I find most interesting here is the irony in the way Kev is so certain of the truth of human science, as summarized in Ptolemy’s Almagest, lecturing his parents on their superstitious beliefs, when in fact human science was about to discover that the stars don’t actually revolve around the Earth. On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that the Beta, of extraterrestrial origin, could have been susceptible to the plague. And the “Bureau for the Societal and Literary Advancement of the Beta” is definitely anachronistic terminology. As I mentioned above, this story is closer to historical SF than fantasy.

 

Tor.com, November 2014

A theme of horror in the stories of this month, a strong one beginning with a vampire from October 29. The best piece is by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinin, a new author from whom I want to see more.

“A Kiss with Teeth” by Max Gladstone

To begin with, readers have to accept that Vlad Tepes* is not the person he actually was but a superhuman too much like a figure of contemporary romantic fiction – not usually a Good Thing. Vlad has fallen in love, married, and fathered a son. He and his wife have agreed that the boy should have a normal life, so Vlad has concealed his fangs with blunt false teeth and studied the art of moving slowly, sometimes clumsily. He plays catch with Paul in the park.

They throw and catch the ball in this empty not-empty field. Vlad throws slow, and Paul catches, slower, humoring his dad. Vlad sees himself through his son’s eyes: sluggish and overly skinny, a man walks and runs and throws and catches as if first rehearsing the movements in his mind.

Paul is having trouble in school, and his wife asks him to speak with the teacher, an experience that threatens to awake what Vlad has spent so much trouble suppressing.

A vampire story is a very, very hard sell for me these days, but Gladstone has pulled it off. Vlad clearly loves his wife, loves his son, so much that he makes substantial sacrifices for them. He struggles with the pace of human life, struggles with temptation. Temptation grows. The tension here is very strong, and Vlad’s struggle is intense. Is this false-human life worth it? The resolution comes in a moment of joy as intense as the struggle. I believe in it utterly.

[*] The story uses a different name, but I must think this a pseudonym. He could hardly use the other.

“Where the Lost Things Are” by Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson

A medical advance has freed the geezers from their nursing homes, but Bert and Jack find nothing to do with their unexpectedly extended lives until Jack drops one of his pills and it disappears.

“Looking for it makes things worse,” said Jack. “Elementary quantum mechanics. The observer effect. An electron doesn’t have a position until it’s observed. A dropped pill isn’t fully lost until you look for it. And then its wave function sidles away. Across the dimensions.”

Specifically, into the parallel alsoverse. With nothing better to do, they decide, along with their friends Amara and Darly, to shrink themselves, go there and look for their lost stuff. Nonsensical fun ensues.

I have to love a story where one of the characters has taught part-time for fifty years at Knowledge College in Next Exit, IN, retiring as Adjunct Emeritus.

“The Walk” by Dennis Etchison

A Hollywood story. The writer and the director, and their respective spouses Amber and Chanel, are visiting a potential location for their new schlock movie, a place owned by the writer and designed as an all-purpose set. Amber is meant to be the female lead, but all final decisions are made by Freddie, who remains unseen. During their excursion, the director is dismissive towards Amber and speaks to Chanel as if she were part of the production. Finally, the writer gets it. He takes steps to secure his position.

This is lite, nonsupernatural horror. Why I don’t get here is why the director is so insistent that his wife remain behind alone on the set. What does he mean that she has to “walk the walk”? Unless, perhaps, she is supposed to kill Amber to take her role – which I doubt. The first half of the story primarily takes the writer’s point of view, but when it switches to the director’s, enlightenment doesn’t happen. While the horrific events happen offstage, revealed only through the audio of cellphones, I wish the author had left them a bit less specifically described and more darkly ambiguous.

“Where the Trains Turn” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinin, translated by Liisa Rantalaiho

Emma, who has never been attracted to men, once had a fleeting heterosexual encounter that resulted in the birth of her son Rupert. Eventually, we learn the reason for this, but early in the story we only know that Gunnar proves to be a responsible father who comes regularly to take the boy on excursions, usually to observe trains, with which young Rupert is developing a keen interest. This comes to an abrupt end on the day they return home with Rupert claiming hysterically that the train jumped off its tracks and tried to kill them. Only a few hours later, Gunnar’s car is struck by a train at a crossing. Following this traumatic incident, Rupert becomes increasingly unstable emotionally; Emma discovers he is skiing off in the night to find a place in the woods where, he claims, the rogue trains come. Instead of taking him to a therapist, she decides the problem is the boy’s overactive imagination, which she cures by forbidding anything fantastic and fictitious [Donald Duck comics] and involving him in fact-based activities. This seems for a while to work; Rupert grows up to become a promising young lawyer. Until a payment becomes due.

Our source for all this, our narrator, is Emma, and readers will soon become uneasy with Emma, sensing that something about her is off. Her rigid empiricism, her absolute rejection of the fictional is extreme. She’s hiding a secret, from herself first of all. The author gives a brief prefatory hint at the opening of the piece, but for the most part, the horror remains in the background, biding its time, with only a casual remark here and there, such as the mention of prior train accidents in Houndbury, including one that Emma really ought to recall but dismisses as inconsequential. “But of all memories, the childhood memories are always the most confused and subjective, so I couldn’t be sure about it. Actually I didn’t even manage to think about the matter, the present was too much for me.”

The situation is portentous, but the author doesn’t rush the story. In this long novella, the details are presented meticulously, building characters and atmosphere layer on layer. Gunnar, for example, leaves the story very early on, yet we already have a precise picture of him, which is reflected in our later image of his adult son. All the time that Emma rejoices in the fulfillment of her motherhood, as she relaxes, takes a lover, when everything seems most promising, we know that the train’s time will come and Emma will have to face her past. Because we’ve known from the beginning that Rupert was right, and all Emma’s denial would be in vain.

“That kind has been taken out of service ages ago,” Rupert continued somewhere out of sight. “Over twenty years ago already. Consequently it’s here sometime before it was taken off. And now and then some come here to turn which haven’t even been made yet. That’s why I couldn’t find the picture of one of them in any books. That’s why watches don’t work here: this place is outside the timetables. They wake up on the rails and they break out of their own timetables and find a suitable blind track and come here, where ever or whenever they are.”

There is something demonic in the mythology of trains. Perhaps it’s the memory of the hellish smoke and cinders, or the sound of the old steam whistles, like the cries of damned souls pulled down to the infernal regions. For Emma, in her determined denial of the inexplicable, the unacceptable, the confrontation comes as a profound shock, releasing her long-suppressed memory. This is recognition:

The smoke crept on the ground to me, and when it touched my bare feet I shuddered with loathing—I felt that in its shelter the many-faced emperor Death himself was hiding; with his bony hand he was stroking my living flesh that fascinated him so much. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, it whispered gently among the engine’s hiss, let’s bear no grudge, dear girl, let’s meet again sometime!

At which point, the meaning of the story’s opening lines is fully revealed, and we know that Emma failed to be sufficiently careful in what she wished for, and now, in both versions of her life, she has lost her son, only in different ways. I think we can have no doubt that, given the impossible chance to go back, to have the moment over again, she would have chosen differently. But even in that event, she still wouldn’t have regained what she lost. And that is the tragedy: that what she loved most was only given to be taken from her.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Analog, January/February 2015

A double issue starts the year with a series novella by Richard A Lovett. In the shorter fiction, there is a theme of aliens.

“Defender of Worms” by Richard A Lovett

Another in the author’s series [or perhaps serial] about Brittney the self-willed AI implant, who used to reside in an outsystem miner named Floyd. Brittney is now on Earth and implanted into a socialite teenager whose politician mother wants to make sure she doesn’t embarrass her [although why a woman so rich and powerful would resort to a 2nd-hand implant is questionable]. They are now on the run, riding the rails in a boxcar [boxcar?], Memphis to escape her mother and Brittney to evade a group of rogue AIs who want to assimilate her, whether she likes it or not.

What I liked about the first stories in this series was the exogeology, the sparkling wonders of the far and lonely spaces where Floyd liked to prospect. Brittney herself, or the Floyd/Britney team, were of less interest. So finding her trapped on Earth is pretty much a letdown, as the author doesn’t really play up the desert landscape where the fugitives are hiding, and I doubt if it could generate the sensawunda of the earlier pieces. In fact, their adventures there are pretty much a letdown, and, worse, they’re punctuated with excessive reminiscences from Brittney about the wonderful Floyd, whom she misses and wishes she’d never decided to leave.

The thing is, Floyd is old news. The stories in which he and Brittney were a team date from 2007 and 2008. By now, unlike Brittney, I’ve mostly forgotten Floyd and don’t particularly care to remember him. Readers unfamiliar with these earlier pieces are even less likely to care about some old guy out on Neptune. There’s just not enough in these Brittney-on-Earth stories to be enthusiastic about. Even the AI’s defense of the worms [I,e,, lowly humans] doesn’t generate enough in the way of excitement and adventure here, certainly not in comparison with the first episodes.

“Malnutrition” by J T Sharrah

Diplomatic complications. Kadija is an Umabari who has come to the human station Haven on business that we never learn, as he and his translator are shot in a terrorist attack as soon as they arrive. Hardesty, the station’s mayor, is determined to solve the crime, which holds out the threat of deadly retribution from Kadija’s powerful father. The actual shooter turns out to be human, but Hardesty correctly believes that he was only someone’s hired gun. Following the money, however, leads to a more promising suspect, the smuggler Leopold Yunix, who happens to know a great deal more than Hardesty about Umbari ways.

“Did I or did I not accurately predict how Kadija would react? Some of the other space gypsies could advise you, but none of them are in port at the moment and none of them have been dealing with the Umabari as long as I have. Like it or not, I’m your local expert on the Umabari. Maybe you should ask me—for any insights I can offer, for any recommendations I can make, for any guidance I can give.”

A twisty plot that forces the reader to follow from one dead end and red herring to the next, from one character’s point of view to another’s, into a maze of conspiracy, until the mystery is finally sorted out in a satisfactory way. There’s a great deal of complication from alien customs, including the Umabari sense of honor and their revulsion at the process of public consumption. The name Kadija gives me a moment of cognitive dissonance, as it’s very close to that of the prophet Mohammed’s first wife.

“Just Browsing” by Stephen Lombard

Aliens from Epsilon Cygni have landed on Earth in the course of a quest for information. US authorities are eager to extend their stay, to get knowledge in return, but the aliens insist they have to leave after a final visit to a small town library. This happens to be where Kelly and Angie lived together in wedlock until Angie went off to D C to become a minor cheese at the Dept of Homeland Security. Her bosses want her to meet with the aliens at the library, but Angie is afraid of them and volunteers Kelly, instead.

This one employs another of the standard overused story devices: Kelly and Angie’s failed marriage, which the encounter with the aliens fortuitously mends. The problem is, I don’t like Angie and I don’t think she deserves Kelly, whom she’s treated like shit. I don’t find it satisfactory that he rolls over for her. The aliens, on the other hand, are pretty well done without being explicable. I like aliens to keep their mysteries.

“The Great Leap of Shin” by Harry Lien

A Tall Tale from a fantasy China. Imperial engineers of Shin have calculated that a “five thousand year” earthquake is due to strike. In an attempt to prevent vast loss of life, they have calculated that the quake can be artificially induced, thus saving many lives forewarned of the disaster. To accomplish this, they have formed two hundred million men into a Great Wall, ready to jump in unison on the orders of the Eunuch Mu Hai-Chen, in charge of the project.

“The Earthquake of Five Thousand Years
“Is due and coming any day!
“But Men of Shin need not to fear!
“The Earth our orders shall obey!”

But the emissaries of Pearl object to the plan, for they know that their island will be completely inundated by the flood released by the quake. These ambassadors, however, are actually assassins on knife-edged skates, intending to take the eunuch hostage until he orders the project disbanded. What follows is a battle of wills between the eunuch and the leader of the Pearl delegation.

The author has previously employed this conceit of an island built entirely of artificial pearl, on which the inhabitants skate and where the overriding ambition is to become part of the skating opera. Thus the tallness of the tale, which resembles in some ways a wuxia drama based in a fictitious, fantastic history. But the outsized story of the Great Wall of Men, despite absurdity, does reflect real aspects of the actual history in its megalomaniac scope, whereas the Pearl aspect is simply absurd. The two halves of the narrative don’t fit together well.

“Usher” by Jay Werkheiser

First contact. Dave was a chemist until Usher Syndrome began to cause the loss of his sight and hearing, at which he switched to psychology. Now he has been called in on the off chance that he might be able to communicate with a group of aliens who have inexplicably landed in Canada and don’t seem to operate on the usual level of human senses. The aliens take an interest in the emissions from Dave’s cochlear implant, from which he devises a communications system based on magnetics.

A squawking hiss sounded sharply in his implant. “Briz.”

Dave held the tablet in front of his eyes and scanned the snowfield until he found a squat gray disk with too many legs. BLACKBODY CURVE 240 K.

There’s some Hard SF in this premise, but the author, to provide plot tension, introduces the usual governmental and military fatheads to cause trouble and come between Dave and communication with the aliens they want to communicate with.

“Ulenge Prime” by Chuck Rothman

Ulenge is a megalomaniac dictator of a future Namibia who decides to build a space station as a monument to his glory.

[His wife Ifana] had heard the words whispered in the years since then. The deaths. The corruption. The conquest. The madness of the emperor to create a second moon in the sky, with his visage smiling down on Earth.

As often happens when dictators overreach, Ulenge is overthrown by a revolution and makes his escape, taking Ifana. On the way, they discuss his motives, and hers, for staying with him.

The story, such as it is, belongs to Ifana, her experience of living with a self-admitted monster. But it’s the monster who is the potentially more interesting character, and we seem to be expected to take his word at face value when he discusses his motivations, because we never really come to know the character in any way. As for the setting, it’s not Namibia-specific; any generic place, any generic dictator would do.

“Long Way Gone” by David L Clements

Mark decided to have himself copied and beamed into a nano-built body in a nano-built colony on an alien world. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until he got there and found that Anne hadn’t followed him there. Mark proceeds to mope and cut himself, making scars to differentiate himself from his original self on Earth. Then he meets another woman who holds out the promise of a new life on this new world.

Mark is a weak, self-pitying character for whom I have no sympathy, and his move into the forest is a facile solution to his problems. Aside from which, the premise is quite unoriginal.

Orion, Rising” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

A bunch of olde phartes gather at a bar to watch the latest moon landing and gripe about how much better things were done in their day. A twist at the end of this short-short doesn’t make it much less dull.

“The Yoni Sutra” by Priya Chand

Life in the new feminist Delhi, where women now have implanted chips that zap any unrelated man who dares touch them. This seems largely like wishful thinking, a social solution to a prevailing misogynist rape culture, but the author suggests there may be some drawbacks. Shalini and Nilam’s marriage was arranged, and both are ignorant about the facts of sex, ignorant both about contraception and their own true desires. When readers see her remark that of course no woman needs to worry about unwanted touches from men in her own family, we know that this is dangerously naïve.

“Why the Titanic Hit the Iceberg” by Jerry Oltion

Tony is leaving an overheated Earth and moving up to the space habitat.

Calling it a refuge was too close to the truth. Too close to admitting that the Earth was doomed, largely through the actions of the very people who were now taking up residence over the heads of the unfortunate billions left on the ground to die.

Unlike the rich and entitled on the shuttle with him, however, Tony is there to work, and he soon learns the size of the gulf separating the staff from the residents they call “piggies” for their conspicuous consumption. He also learns that not everyone is willing to settle for the status quo.

This is a piece about wealth inequality as well as a call to revolution, in a vulnerable environment where the targets are accessibly concentrated. I must say, however, that that author is exaggerating the circumstances past the point of credibility, and whatever the revolutionaries do, there will still be plenty of piggies on Earth, and their actions will neither save the planet nor the people on it. Their main satisfaction will have to be vengeance.

I must also add that despite the story’s title, it wasn’t class disparity that caused the Titanic to hit the iceberg, but it contributed to the high loss of life.

“Fool’s Errand” by Judith Tarr

One of the stasis tanks on the cargo ship is defective, so cargo officer Marina finds herself with a live horse on her hands, which isn’t likely to survive unsecured during transition through jumpspace. Fortunately, Marina is one of those horse-crazy people, and determined to save the animal. I have to think that the fool isn’t the person who ships live horses in stasis tanks designed expressly for that purpose, but the person who accepts the shipment in a tank known to be defective. If I were Nasir, I’d be seriously pissed and talking lawsuit.

“Samsara and Ice” by Andy Dudak

An interesting combination of military SF and myth. A far-future war has trapped two soldiers in a static eternal duel. Omni is bound by disciplinary conditioning; his opponent is trapped in an eternal cycle of reincarnation. Omni has lived objective centuries in stasis sleep, awakening only in time for the enemy to rematerialize; for the enemy, it has only been twenty-nine seconds. But there is no in end sight for either.

Two minutes left. He runs a finger along the stock, counting the notches. Three hundred and fifty one—that is how many times he’s killed the Dying God. He pans up and zeroes in on a neighboring ridge, on a table of melted, blackened rock: the altar.

For the diminutive inhabitants of the world where they carry on this duel, it has taken on the sense of a divine sacrifice: every three years, in their terms, the Sleeping God awakes and sacrifices the Dying God in a burst of godly power. Then it all changes when the Dying God puts down his weapon and asks to surrender.

A fascinatingly Sisyphean scenario, two once-ordinary men caught in a cycle of damnation from which there is no escape. Yet they are not entirely unfree to act, within the limits set for them.

–RECOMMENDED

“Markduk’s Folly” by Sean Vivier

An alien astronomer has a brilliant insight about the formation of a solar system that he and his colleagues are examining, but in doing so he trespasses against social norms. The author gives us clear hints that the system in question is our own, but no real information to tell us where Marduk and his fellow astronomers are, and what their mission is. Wherever it is, the gravity is crushingly strong; perhaps they are looking for a new world to settle, a place where they could live more easily. Perhaps their intentions or friendly, or perhaps they are bent on conquest. At any event, the consequences of Marduk’s discovery remain unknown at the end of this very short piece. But the lesson is clear: it doesn’t take the threat of the stake to suppress a Galileo.

“Unmother” by Alex Wilson

Here we have microscopic aliens who have invaded an Earthly host’s brain, an organism with which they are not sufficiently familiar. They are benevolent parasites, but their unfamiliarity causes them to make errors potentially harmful to their host. Thus they aren’t sure how to deal with a native parasite who has entered the brain. Our narrator is an organism damaged in such a way that makes her more autonomous than her sisters but excluded from communication with the mother, from whom all instructions originate – an “unmother”. Mother rejects her information. But if nothing is done, their host will die.

Careful to disturb neither host nor parasite, I hover close to a contact point where translucent tendril meets defenseless neuron. Our Brother is muscular and mature. Indeed, his tendril tip has not grown so much as swollen since last I studied this particular appendage.

The invented organisms here are interesting, based generally on social insects but with original features. I do wonder how they have the term “brother” in their language, as they seem to reproduce asexually. The terrestrial parasite is probably identifiable from the clues left by the author, but I admit I haven’t explored these sufficiently. Unfortunately, the copyediting failures here are extreme: “brother” and “sister” capitalized randomly, and “larvae” used in the singular. Someone isn’t paying attention.

 

Asimov’s, January 2015

Featuring another installment in Allen M Steele’s Arkwright serial. Of the shorter pieces, I like the Rucker/Laidlaw and the Rowe, but the rest are pretty inconsequential.

“Watergirl” by Rudy Rucker and Marc Laidlaw

Fun with the stoner/surfer dudes Del and Zep, and their quantum surfboards. The boys have washed ashore in Hawaii, where they eke out a rough existence while waiting for the waves. Until Zep meets a millionaire inventor whose device controls the waves – although not as well as the boys’ boards.

“Bromelian’s into real-world science now. He designed that new Wave Tamer water park in Honolulu—where goobs slide on slosh all day long? And now Joe’s kicking his act to an awesomer notch. Waves with minds, dude. Bromelian’s learned how to talk to them. And how to goad them into transcendence. Thanks to quantum aether.” A tsunami of manic Zep enthusiasm was building.

Zep is also building a plot against Bromelian’s chainsaw-toting, herbicide-spraying gardener, whom he suspects in the recent death of his girlfriend.

If this were less crazy fun, readers might consider it horror, but it’s too hard to take seriously for scare value. We might also start to think that Del and Zep are really getting too old for this scene. Del is the narrator but Zep is the character who gets the women and drives the action, as his buddy largely watches on. The real attraction, though, is the lively language that keeps the story sliding on a wave of effervescence.

“The Unveiling” by Christopher Rowe

On the world Castellon, where the term “pollution” is prohibited, Tayne is supervisor of a work crew tasked to scrub the atmospheric sludge from the statues of former rulers and soldiers, in preparation for a ceremony unveiling of a new figure. Once, he had hopes for change, but by now they have died, leaving nothing but toil.

“It’s overtime, anyway,” he told each of his crew members in turn when he reached them. For one or two, this meant a call over the vox to the same sort of communal hall phone that word had come to him by. For most of them, though, it meant rousting them out in person from the bunkhouses along the river, enduring the curses of a dozen or a hundred others housed in the warehouse-like barracks. Tayne made it a point to learn the favored bunks of all his workers for days just like this, when he had to pick his way through the dark and dank to find them and tell them of a change in the schedule.

Well-done image of a political dystopia and a portrait of a revolutionary hero who knows when the moment of opportunity has unexpectedly come.

“Ninety-five Percent Safe” by Caroline M Yoachim

On a dystopian, overcrowded Earth, Nicole’s family is one of the lucky ones, able to afford private housing, even if they are constantly reassigned to smaller quarters. Nicole wants to move to the new colony, just as her friend Grant’s family has done, but her mother refuses to consider the possibility because there is a five percent chance of being lost in the wormhole. Nicole finally takes matters into her own hands.

An unusually tragic ending for a YA, the usual lesson learned at too great a cost. I like the term “defaults” for the unprivileged class.

“Candy from Strangers” by Jay O’Connell

A creepy love story. Morgan, himself a failed suicide, now preys on the desperate, people poised to jump in front of a train. He offers them a quicker way out, counting that they won’t take it. But his most recent target, a woman named Ariel, is different.

Morgan’s scam is awfully lucrative, given the scope of his resources. Not sure I buy it.

“Butterflies” by Peter Wood

Mad scientists tinkering with radiation to produce monster insects. Full of clichés. And I don’t believe that any entomologist would call butterflies “bugs”.

“Songs in the Key of You” by Sarah Pinsker

A high school story. The current fad is a wrist speaker that broadcasts peoples’ individual musical themes whenever they enter a room. Aisha is a talented songwriter, but also the only person who can’t afford the bracelet, making her the mockery of the Mean Girls. As is usual, virtue wins out. It’s pretty off-putting when the Mean Girls broadcast a recording of their assault on Aisha and suffer no consequences; clearly, anti-bullying hasn’t taken on in this otherwise standard future.

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.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, Late November

  • December 1, 2014 at 3:27 pm
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    Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not *really* a new author – at least not for Finnish audiences (he was born in 1966 and has published 4 novels). “Where the Trains Turn” is the title story of his first collection of what he has termed “realfantastik” tales (a term John Clute is sure to love) from 2000; it won the Atorox Prize (the highest Finnish SF/fantasy award) when it first appeared on 1997. Last year, Desirina Boskovich included his story “Those Were the Days” in her e-book anthology “It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction”; Pushkin Press brought out the English version of his novel “The Rabbit Back Society” in September. (According to the blurb: “Only very special people are chosen by children’s author Laura White to join ‘The Society’, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips. But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, ‘The Game’? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura’s winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light…”)

    Reply
  • December 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm
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    PS: “The Rabbit Back Society” is the English translation of his first novel, “Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta”, from 2006. By a curious (?) coincidence, a German translation, “Lauras Verschwinden im Schnee” (Laura’s Disappearance in the Snow) came out from Aufbau Verlag in the very same month as the English version.

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