Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January

Looking mostly at the print publications this time, not seeing much difference from the previous year.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Asimov’s, February 2015

The issue is anchored by an entertaining novella by Nick Wolven. There’s also an Elizabeth Bear reprint among the novelettes.

“On the Night of the Robo-Bulls and Zombie Dancers” by Nick Wolven

A near-future after wake-up pills have been approved and universally adopted, allowing everyone to be awake and working 24 hours out of the day – if they have a job. Gabriel is one of the fortunate, slaving dayshift and nightshift at the securities trading firm Kappalytics, although the traders only follow the dictates of the robo-quants, AIs who can calculate trends far more rapidly than mere humans. But the current trend worries Gabriel’s boss.

Meaning this time is different, Gabe. Meaning if this bubble pops, you and I and every other asset-wrangler on this planet are going to fall to Earth with a wet and splattery sound. Meaning the proverbial end of days just became a matter of high probability.

So he is sent across town, during the nightshift, on a mission to consult a legendary, now-reclusive guru, who would know the answer if any human might. But the nightshift is when the crazies emerge to carnival and howl, the werewolves and vampires, the warring mercenary companies, the satanic cultists who raise the dead with massive infusions of wake-up pills. It’s a journey across hell, wild and demented and a lot of maniacal fun for readers if not necessarily for Gabe.

The two science-fictional ideas here mesh quite well. The first and most important is the universal abandonment of sleep and its consequences, the severity of which make me dubious that the wake-up pill could ever actually have been approved by the FDA. The driver is ambition, as we see buildings full of families cramming their kids night and day to fit them for future success in the rat-race. But society’s losers, too, are popping the pills, driving them into a variety of frenzies. Only Gabe and his wife seem to be nostalgic for the possibility of sleep, of taking an evening off to have dinner together. Fragments of Shakespeare keep repeating in Gabe’s mind: Sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep. . .

The 24/7 workday would seem to fit well into a world of global securities trading, where the sun never sets on the markets. The author has the jargon of the milieu down, and the sense of universal desperation, but the problem is with the AI analysts, who are shown as not only omniscient but unanimous, as they would have to be. First, if the human traders do nothing but follow the lead of the robots, they would be entirely superfluous; the AIs could place the trades themselves, more quickly and efficiently. But more, if everyone has exactly the same information and is taking the same positions, no trading would be possible. A trade requires two sides; a buyer needs a seller. This half of the premise just doesn’t make sense. Fortunately, the premise isn’t taken seriously enough to fatally mar reader enjoyment in the more adventurous part of the story, Gabriel’s journey through the city’s sleepless streets.

[The location of the oracle was Delphoi, not Delphos, after whom the place was said to be named.]

“Rattlesnakes and Men” by Michael Bishop

After a tornado left them homeless, Wylene and her husband Reed made the mistake of relocating to southernmost Georgia, following an offer of housing and jobs. What no one had mentioned was the local requirement for every household to harbor a gene-modified watch-rattlesnake [although their benefactors’ name of Shallowpit might have been a hint]. Upon which, Wye enters into a local war, in which local authorities suppress any reports of snakebite injuries in order to protect the homegrown business/obsession.

The most immediate association might be with the practice of snake-handling in some churches of the region, but clearly the story’s primary metaphor is directed at guns and the obsession with them that prevails in many areas of the US. It’s an overtly political work. While the author doesn’t condemn the entire population, regarding much of it as victims, he strongly mixes the profit motive with a hostile fanaticism that sees women, especially “buttinski foreign hoors”, as a prime target, and snakes/guns a symptom of testosterone poisoning. In short, a political piece.

“Red Legacy” by Eneasz Brodski

A kind of confusing piece that seems to involve an alternate Cold War. Marya heads a secret Soviet cloning lab in which she is employing Lamarckian principles to develop organisms capable of withstanding radiation. She is an obsessive personality, but lately her primary obsession is with her daughter, who died of leukemia. In the course of numerous recreations, she has managed to eliminate Alexia’s cancer, but she still dies every time, after about sixteen days of life. In the meantime, she has to hide Alexia’s illicit presence from Soviet inspectors and hold off commando raids from the evil, Darwinian decadent capitalist regimes which want to destroy her work.

This is the story of an individual driven to madness by obsession, told, for no discernible good reason, in alternating first- and third-person voices. But the science-fictional interest is in the Lamarckian science, which apparently works in this version of the universe as it did not in our own, when Stalin tried to force it down the throats of Soviet scientists, to disastrous effect. Here, the disastrous effects are mostly the product of Marya’s mania.

“Ghost Colors” by Derek Künsken

Brian has inherited the Pablo’s ghost from his aunt Nicole, which isn’t unusual, as ghosts tend to follow families. Pablo isn’t a very bothersome ghost, mostly just whispering about his research into the color of extinct animals now only known from fossils: “Traces of copper, revealed by synchrotron rapid scanning x-ray fluorescence, map the presence of eumelanin to predict the color of ancient feathers.” But the whispers do bother his new lover Vanessa, who lives entirely in the present and never clings to relics. And Brian can’t do that, can’t discard everything connected to his past, which includes Nicole. But Vanessa wants him to undergo a treatment to alter his DNA, that will exorcize the ghost.

This one touches the heart. But I can’t think the DNA treatment is the safest idea, not for a man who hasn’t yet had children. Is Vanessa worth it? The story doesn’t really let us know her well enough to judge.

“Forgiveness” by Leah Cypess

Anna is a high school student whose boyfriend, a classic abuser, has anger issues that he has taken out on her. After she reported him, the courts installed a chip that doesn’t allow him to strike out. In theory. But Anna still loves Michael and hates to see how he’s been broken by the consequences of his sentence. Problem is, if his violence has been curbed, his anger hasn’t. Anything but.

I suspect this is going to be a controversial story, because the issue has been politicized and positions solidified. Anna suffers as much from this politicization as she does from Michael’s anger, because it deprives her of real support. Her therapist has a sign on the wall that declares “Feelings can’t be wrong”, but Anna has learned this is a lie. The heart goes its own way, even if it doesn’t make sense to others. But how she feels for Michael and what she should do about him are different issues.

 

Analog, March 2015

Unlike its sister-zine’s February issue, this one is very full of much shorter pieces.

“Tasha’s Fail-Safe” by Adam-Troy Castro

An “Andrea Cort” story, which is to say, a series story. One of my numerous problems with series is that I tend to harbor the suspicion that the story could just as well have been told using any invented protagonist without the need for the backfill required by referencing a character readers may or may not be familiar with. So I wonder: does this particular story require the presence of that particular character? Here, I have to answer: Yes, it probably does. Andrea Cort, to put it most simply for readers unfamiliar with her, is an angry individual who hates everyone and everyone hates her. At one earlier point, she encountered the eponymous Tasha, with the usual inimical consequences. Tasha has gone on to a successful career as an undercover agent, working to uncover the identity of a spy. Unfortunately, the spy caught on to her, and Tasha was forced to activate a program that short-circuited her brain. Her superiors have reason to believe that Cort will know the safeword to deactivate it.

So there’s a lot of talking. Way too much of it. The author takes most of three pages to keep telling us that Tasha had made a mistake by trying to go alone home at night. Later, more pages are devoted to explaining the convoluted plot she’s been trying to unravel, when these details impinge not at all on the story at hand – Cort doesn’t even have the clearance to know about them. Then lots more pages are spent as Cort tries to trick the spy into confessing – totally unnecessary, as the spy’s identity turns out to be already known. Which is why I tend to be impatient with series stories. The author is overly fond of this character and believes her to be of such superior intelligence that she can solve any insoluble problem put to her; the entire plot seems to exist in order for her to prove this, once again, by talking and, once again, assert her asocial nature. But a lot of pages are sacrificed to this end, at which the whole thing comes down to a single word, almost in the manner of a punchline.

“Brigas Nunca Mais” by Martin L Shoemaker

Another series, or at least a prequel. Following the events of the previous story on the Aldrin, Carver is marrying his Tracy, at which she demands the story of the ship’s captain’s long-ago tragic wedding, which is the story here. I don’t know if the author expected the reveal at the end to come as a surprise to readers, but I’m sure it won’t.

“Karma Among the Cloud Kings” by Brian Trent

Preema is one of a small group of Jains who have fled to space hoping to find lives of pure ahisma, subsisting on photosynthesis. They have taken work at an extraterrestrial hydrogen generating station, clearing debris from the collection spires.

Each spire is a three kilometer-long lance through Tempest’s cobalt-hued clouds. Each collects planetary hydrogen day and night, pumping the gas straight up to Lindorm Refueling Station where ships from across the solar system come to refuel. A gas pump for spacefaring society.

Until they discover that they have been lied to.

The core of the story is one of the most oft-repeated scenarios in science fiction, but the author has set and populated it anew in an original way. He does have one slip into anthropomorphism at the conclusion, however.

“Robot Boss” by Erick Melton

A future workplace in which the supervisors of humans are AIs, with the usual robotic limitations, leading to trouble. Fortunately, Don finds a way to blackmail his boss into more reasonable behavior because it seems that AIs, as well as humans, can lose when they fail to meet production goals.

The robots here don’t seem sufficiently intelligent to qualify as AI, in the usual sense of the term, but what gives me pause is the notion that CDs would still exist in any sort of future scenario. I have an easier time believing in the paper documents. The narrator’s numerous mentions of obsolescence don’t change my mind on that one.

“After” by Ron Collins

A brief appreciation of the universe.

“Blue Ribbon” by Marissa Lingen

4-H fairs out in the Oort Cloud, where space racing is part of the competition. But as the competitors in the youth races come across the finish line, there is a disturbing silence from the station, which isn’t made better when an automated message does come, informing them that the station is indefinitely quarantined and all ships are to go elsewhere to dock. Problem is, the youth racing craft aren’t equipped with FTL and can’t go anywhere else. They’re also limited in rations and life-support. In short, we seem to have an SF problem story.

This is one of the most ancient and honorable strains of science fiction and usually showcases the characters’ ingenuity in surviving a desperate situation. This YA piece, however, showcases only the characters’ character and general good sense while they sit and wait for rescue, while the narrator discourses on the family structure out in the Cloud. Which is pretty dull stuff. Realistic, no doubt, because in many actual crises there isn’t anything to do but sit and wait for rescue, but dull nonetheless.

“Second Birthday” by Elisabeth R Adams

A distinctly distasteful [intentionally] story of reviving extinct species, and the ethics involved. I suspect that the author hopes that Erika might one day stimulate someone’s prey drive.

“The Badges of her Grief” by Andrew Barton

Another old story – humans have colonized a world and enslaved its sentients as work animals, although they have now been officially recognized as autonomous. In principle. Lot of lecturing, no real story.

“An Immense Darkness” by Eric James Stone

This one is timely, very much so. Antonio and his wife were partners in a team developing programs simulating human minds, until a terrorist attack killed Shanisha. Antonio slips into depression, spending every night in the lab talking with her simulation, until a Federal agent comes to tell him they’ve caught the terrorist and want to interrogate a simulation of his mind in ways that the law wouldn’t allow to treat a living person.

He is not certain that the sensory deprivation will succeed, so he works on creating the perfect torture environment, one that simulates every one of the tens of thousands of pain receptors in the human body. He creates a control panel that will allow the sensation of pain to be localized or general, strong or mild. With all the receptors set to maximum, it will cause pain beyond anything any human being has ever experienced.

But it will just be a simulation of pain in a simulation of a brain. Nothing more than that.

What we have here isn’t really an ethical problem. It goes beyond that, when the ethical problem is solved and all that’s left is the opportunity for revenge. Even if the torturer’s victim is only a collection of zeros and ones, the problem is in the mind of the torturer, which is real.

“The Extraordinary Extraterrestrial Togo Mouse from Ghana” by Ryan W Norris

A reporter has come to see the mice and give the author an opportunity to lecture on biology for most of the text, after which we get the explanation, which is amusing if not unexpected.

 

Interzone, January/February 2015

Five stories here, of which the first three have an awfully similar theme of dysfunctional individuals confronting their personal problems. There are no strongly science-fictional settings, with most being almost as fantastic as otherwise, and mostly enjoyable.

“Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Tori is someone whom readers will probably label a loser; after attending college, she is now sweeping up offices and toking on drugs that sharpen and sweeten her memories of her past, although we see that her former friends are even bigger losers and her ex is a toxic taker who rides in and out of her life, disrupting it and keeping her from developing a healthier relationship. The potentially healthier relationship is with Kay, a talented photographer who has Tori’s best interests at heart. But Kay is a “slate” [as in, blank] in the process of surgically taking on a sexless form, and Tori is concerned about how this will affect their relationship; physical intimacy is very important to her, and her relationship with Meredith was intense. “It isn’t a surprise to see Meredith there, but also it is a surprise, as each time she shows up it sends a shock down Tori’s belly to her groin. A Pavlov’s bell.”

Sexuality and sex are central to this piece, with vivid descriptions in several scenes, yet in several ways it is saying that there must be more to life than orgasm. Thus the contrast between Tori’s two lovers, in which Meredith is more of a turn-on, but Kay is the one who stands by her when she needs it. It’s notable that the text doesn’t promise that Tori is going to choose Kay in the end; perhaps she’ll find someone new. “It’s a beautiful feeling, to see and not see what the future will bring.”

The story is only slightly science fiction, set in a future pretty indistinguishable from our own.

“An Advanced Guide to Successful Price-Fixing in Extraterrestrial Betting Markets” by T R Napper

Altair, aka Spaceman, credits his Asperger’s, along with a healthy dose of o/c, with being bullied in school as a child, but he is also a math prodigy, currently obsessed with the mathematics of gambling, in which he has achieved a certain success. The first sort of problem is alleviated by the presence of Vega, whom he needs and loves. It’s the gambling that gets him in trouble, as gambling often will, when he becomes involved in a project to randomize the way he goes up and down the stairs in his apartment building, to create a market for alien gamblers.

The rules said you could not step on every stair, and wherever possible, not step on stairs with obvious stains: knots for wooden stairs, chewing gum for concrete, that sort of thing. So the rules, as such, were not too onerous. Randomising was basically to ensure that the aliens placing bets on which stairs I would step on would have a viable betting market. Some days I’d be creative – miss three steps, walk on one, miss another three. Those times I just knew there was some lucky alien punter up there grinning while they cashed in their long-shot ticket.

It’s not at first clear if there actually are any aliens or if Altair is imagining the whole scenario, until an alien enforcer shows up to inform him that he’s recently lost a bundle on his stair-stepping and Altair owes him repayment. And so that Altair will take the situation seriously, he tales Vega hostage. A desperate remedy is required, if only he can think of one.

I like this bit of science fantasy, with its darkly gonzoid tone, best of all the pieces in the issue. Happily, we can be pretty sure that Altair isn’t going to mend his ways altogether, take all his meds, and shower regularly, but I’d suspect he’ll be getting out of the alien betting rackets, for Vega’s sake if not his own. Those aren’t the kind of guys you want to be messing with.

“The Ferry Man” by Pandora Hope

Heldig has been suffering from morbid depression since the death of his wife, a siren he abducted from her rock in a Norwegian fjord when he was passing it on his ferry. He resents the efforts of his cloddish son Barry and Barry’s shrewish wife to return him to normalcy by gifting him with a dog, which fears his presence. He finally contacts a woman who claims to be a “hugger”, a giver of comfort, despite the objections of his son, and after several sessions with Maggie May, he begins to feel better, coming back to life. But matters aren’t as simple as that.

This is a subtle and enigmatic dark fantasy, told by a narrator whom readers must suspect from the outset, when we read the scene at his wife’s deathbed.

Every day, there was less and less of her. Just before she died, she was no more than a skeleton under the quilt, and only her eyes moved. There was something in them that scared me, something wild and angry and struggling to be free, like a caged animal. I was holding her bone-thin fingers and she pushed my hand away, one of her nails drawing blood. That was the last thing she did.

This is a variation on the “animal wife” story, in which a human takes a supernatural woman captive. In this case, there is no shapechanging, no hidden animal skin, but it’s clear that the siren has been with the ferry man against her will, finally wasting away, away from her native waters. We also have the testimony of the dog, which seems to know there is something very much wrong with him. Then there is the unhealed scratch on his arms, perhaps inflicted by his dying captive, perhaps by Maggie’s cat, an animal wiser than the dog. Other hints: a ferryman is, in many mythologies, a personage who carries the dead, even possibly a bringer of death in his own right. And there’s a suggestion that he might in fact be the shapechanger of the story, a pooka with the form of a horse, who often carries his riders away to their doom. The notion of a pooka abducting a siren may be stretch, however, and belongs in the realm of reviewer’s conjecture.

“Tribute” by Christien Gholson

Several points of view here, and it’s quite possible that none are human, although this doesn’t really matter. First, we have the last survivor of a line of sort of godlike entities whose ancestors first came to this planet a very long time ago; their death shells stand on the barren plain, where the narrator attempts in vain to form a shell of her own, not knowing how, as her mother died before she could teach her. In the distance is a city where the inhabitants might be human. The people have a legend of a destroyer god they name Kaayem to whom they have made human sacrifice in the past. Now – or perhaps then – a political faction is reviving this legend in order to take control of the polity. Certain of the other citizens wish they could stop this movement but are unable. More and more frequently, they bring children to a cave up on the plain where they leave them as sacrifice. The first entity, whom we recognize as the original inspiration of the god, is greatly disturbed by this practice.

One of them made a sound. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that sound. A terror swept through me. And sorrow. I tried to speak with them. I asked who they were, why they were there, but when I did they both cried out. The pain waking off their cries was so overwhelming, I fled.

It’s noteworthy that one of the characters has the title of Ferryman, who leads the sacrifices to the cave where they die. We have no real idea what the first entities actually are, other than large and powerful, with an apparent ability to warp time. But what the two species have in common is that they have lost the knowledge of their pasts, and from this comes tragedy. The possibility that this is a cyclic process is intriguing.

“Fish on Friday” by Neil Williamson

After Scottish independence, a nanny state takes hold and does a lot of silly things, in a silly story.

 

Lightspeed, January 2015

Three self-contained stories, several of them YA, along with the latest installment in Hughes’ “Erm Kaslo” serialization, with our hero getting ever more tangled in complications.

“He Came From a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Longest piece in the issue. High school student Ben meets Mickey while they’re both working at the haunted house, and something gets set off between them. Not that Ben is gay, or anything like that, as he assures us repeatedly. But there’s this something. They start to get it on, although there are times when Mickey grosses him out, like talking about his semen. Eventually they move in together, and that’s when Ben realizes that Mickey is actually an alien, sent to Earth to clone humans as manual laborers [thru the use of Ben’s sperm, don’t ask how]. This discovery places a strain on their relationship.

Mickey stepped closer, and I realized too late that I should have backed away; that’s what you do when you’re scared of someone, when you’re mad at someone, and damn it if I wasn’t both at him at the same time. But then he got so close I could smell him, all weird and musty like he was, and he hugged me, and I couldn’t stay mad. It was even kind of cool, that he was from another planet and shit.

I often find YA a turnoff, but I the voice and point of view here are amusing and the lesson unobtrusive. It’s interesting that we don’t know for sure if Ben in fact is gay or whether he was only in denial about it, pre-Mickey. The point is, it doesn’t really matter. He loves Mickey, and Mickey loves him, and that’s what matters. They should both lay off the chips and junk food, though.

“Men of Unborrowed Vision” by Jeremiah Tolbert

Class warfare. In this near-future scenario, the protest movement is now using drones for surveillance of possible police brutality. Mara, a college student from a genuinely disadvantaged background, is a volunteer drone operator when she is alarmed to learn that people are dropping out of a scheduled demonstration. Worse, a longtime friend, a pacifist, has been arrested for murdering his college roommate. Mara drives to help him, along with a wealthy classmate, where they discover what the 1%’s latest dirty move has been.

This YA is awfully unsubtly political; the Evil Plutocrats are named Bloch.

“Headwater LLC” by Sequoia Nagamatsu

An ingenious use of Japanese folklore, specifically the figure of the kappa, a being with a hollow at the top of its head, filled with water said to have magical properties. Yoko once befriended a kappa, Masa, but when she let the Mean Girls at school know about the water, they set up a corporation to exploit them. Now bottled Headwater is a thriving business, but it’s too late for the kappas, in chains.

Masa has been crying—there’s a large puddle where he stands. Yoko mops the floor, takes a small towel and pats Masa’s feet dry. When she’s done, she pulls up a stool and takes a blue ribbon out of her pocket not unlike the one she gave him when she was a child and ties it around one of his wrists.

A story of betrayal and regret. The author doesn’t let us entertain the notion that there’s a facile solution to this situation, whatever Yoko might wish.

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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