Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

Concentrating this time on a fairly substantial anthology set on retro-Venus, from which I give the Good Story award to Ian McDonald’s “Botanica Veneris“.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Old Venus, edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

A companion volume to the editors’ Old Mars, presenting sixteen stories in the mode of the previous century’s SFnal visions of this planet, before the planetary romance age was cast down by the dusty facts and dismal reality of actual science. So while Old Mars had canals carved into a desiccated red soil, Old Venus had swamps and incessant rains, at least according to most of the skiffy visions.

Venus was never as popular a setting as Mars, so the models are fewer. For some readers, a large part of the interest in the anthology will be attempting to trace the lines of influence: Is this Burroughs’ Venus? Is it Heinlein’s? Or the author’s own interpretation of the setting? For the most part, the tales here can be appreciated without reference to antecedents, and this is generally how I have read them. [Readers more interested in this aspect may want to see Russell Letson’s take.] But I do think readers who have at least some familiarity with the earlier works will appreciate most of these a bit more.

These stories are of a good length and a good variety, from the pulpiest fantasy to real science fiction. Aside from inescapable similarities in the setting, I find less redundancy than in the Mars volume, less repetition of themes. Some authors are present in both books. Quality, as it usually does, varies, but for the most part these are entertaining reads, and some offer even more value.

Readers will notice one seemingly-odd common theme among certain of these stories: the colonization of Venus by a surviving Soviet Union or its descendants. This is no coincidence. As the anthology’s introduction reminds us, the year 1962 saw probes from the rival USSR and US sent to Venus, resulting in the drastic re-evaluation of the planet’s nature. For any scenario set before that dividing date, a Soviet or Russian aspect would seem natural.

“Frogheads” by Allen M Steele

One of the Soviet-settled versions of Venus—two now-obsolete visions of past futures.

Veneragrad was as utilitarian as only a Soviet-era artifact could be: a tiered hemisphere a kilometer in diameter, a shade darker than the ocean it floated upon, the long wooden piers jutting out from its sides giving it the appearance of an enormous, bloated water spider. Rickety-looking platforms, also constructed of native timber, rose as irregularly spaced towers from the outside balconies; they supported the open-top steel tanks which caught the rain and distilled it as the colony’s drinking water. Radio masts and dish antennae jutted out odd angles from near the top of the dome; a helicopter lifted off from a landing pad on its roof. An ugly, unwelcoming place.

Ronson is a detective come to Veneragrad in search of a rich tourist kid who disappeared about a year ago. A local cop gives him a lead, tells him to talk to the frogheads, the aboriginals, who not only recognize young David Henry, they’re eager to get him off the planet. They lead Ronson out to a floating dope farm, where he learns the reason.

Despite initial appearances and a hardboiled narrative, this isn’t a detective story; Ronson is more of a witness than a protagonist. The real story here is exploitation, and it doesn’t matter whether the perpetrators are Soviet or American; this is a human pattern, it’s what humans do when they discover resources they covet and populations that can’t resist a stronger force. It’s an old story, one that science fiction has often told. But it has a novel twist in the character of Mad Mikhail, a Russian gone native who considers himself the champion and protector of the indigenes [“Don’t call them frogheads.”] without wondering just what they think of him.

Given the steamy climate of the place, I’m surprised that the chocolate, brought by Ronson brings as a payoff to frogheads, doesn’t melt.

“The Drowned Celestial” by Lavie Tidhar

There are clues here to suggest our model is a Western: the setting is a place called Port Smith, where a guy named Colt is playing Martian Wild Card Stud while packing a gun. Just as he loses the hand, a dying man rolls through the door of the bar, his last words of treasure and an enemy. Colt has an interest in treasure and willingness to take on the enemy. His Venusian opponent at cards turns out to be handy with his own weapon as well, and the two of them team up in search of the treasure, leaving behind the Western theme and finding a witch in the swamp, who directs them to the treasure and warns them against it. Our Heroes, of course, seek it out regardless and find themselves enslaved by a megalomaniac in a swamp full of the zombified dead.

They were everywhere. They floated in a thick glow of decomposition and decay, staring at Colt with white, milky eyes. Venusians and Earthmen and Martians, sacrificed each day for the crazed god at the bottom of the swamp, this Roog, and with each death, it had grown stronger and more insane.

By then, the story has shifted from the Western milieu to damned Atlantis, to decayed temples where mad gods were once worshipped. Plenty of eldritch and monstrous wonders abound in the midst of this adventure. But hand in hand with them is the more mundane and common monstrosity of exploitation, as humans gnaw away at yet another world for the sake of profit. It’s an odd, imaginative mix, altogether an oddly entertaining setting for this tale of planetary romance.

“Planet of Fear” by Paul J McAuley

Well-described non-fantastic setting here:

Across the glistening slick of the subtropical sargasso, amongst shoals and archipelagos of bladderweed, several thousand sunfish floated in intersecting circles of churning foam. They were big, the sunfish, big humped discs ten or fifteen or even twenty metres across, patched with clusters of barnacles and thatched with purple-brown thickets of strapweed and whipweed, and all around them soldier remoras flailed and fought, flashing and writhing in frothing, blood-blackened water.

Here we have another Russian People’s Republic, where biologist Katya is studying the sunfish until an emergency calls her craft away to the Makarov Mining Station, which claims to be under attack from monsters. Katya finds the notion of monsters professionally intriguing, perhaps a new species, as Venus isn’t known for its megafauna. The ship’s captain, on the other hand, is eager to find cause for a confrontation with the Americans, also colonizing the planet. What they find is carnage, several executed miners, and a single survivor driven insane with terror. Katya sees evidence that the miners have been infected by disease, but Captain Chernov insists the madness was caused by American psy-war agents; his actions threaten to ignite the local cold war into a shooting one.

While several of the tales here are fantastic in some manner, this one is pure science fiction, given the parameters of the premise. Nor is it explicitly Venusian, as it could have been set on any human-habitable planet. What it evokes more than anything is the terrestrial cold war, with armed Soviet and US fleets playing brinksmanship games, the most explicit example of this trend in the anthology. Only five years before 1962, the dueling powers had initiated the space race during the International Geophysical Year, a cooperative project that Katya’s survey is emulating, to Captain Chernov’s disgust and suspicion.

Readers might be alert to clichés here, with our feminist scientist paired off against the chauvinist-warmongering-authoritarian military male, but the author is better than that. Both characters are impulsive and inclined to disregard orders, but Chernov is a genuine hero, admired by his men. And neither of them are totally right or totally wrong in this novel situation, both too much influence by preconceptions. The winner here is science, which makes this real science fiction, touched lightly with horror.

–RECOMMENDED

“Greeves and the Morning Star” by Matthew Hughes

Part of the author’s series featuring a pastiche of a well-known gentleman’s gentleman. It seems that our gentleman, Bartholemew Gloster, has been hijacked to Venus by Slithey Tove-Whippley on behalf of their fellow brother of the Inertia Club, Baldie Spotts-Binkle, lover of newts who supposes that the Venusian swamps must be ideal for breeding the creatures. At which, we surely get the idea but perhaps not the degree of the absurdity about to ensue.

Readers may conclude, upon completion of this work, that it is a bit much. Or a bit much too much. Of course, some may have already concluded that the original model of this pastiche is a bit much himself, but these would not be the ideal readers for the work before us here, which, as pastiches go, contains the essential elements of the model, including the predatory marriageable female before whom all the Inertial brotherhood must quail—more, in fact, than one such.

I must say, however, and I’m sure that Greeves would agree, that while plus-fours and tweeds are eminently fashionable in the country, such as Slithey’s Venusian estate, they wouldn’t do in Belgravia, the very center of fashionable Town.

“A Planet Called Desire” by Gwyneth Jones

The travelogue through strange, wondrous and exotic worlds is a classic SFnal device, and this one twists it slightly as billionaire adventurer John Forrest takes an experimental trip to a primordial Venus, at the era when it is beginning to die. He is immediately attacked by nasty predators and parasites and then saved by a strangely sexy Venusian lizard lady from the civilization that has fled the inhospitable surface to the clouds. After various adventures, she takes him home, only to find more adventures there.

Their arrival at Tessera Station was as dramatic as darkfall, in its way. Her city, a sky raft the size of Manhattan Island, had come to meet them. Moored by mighty hawsers, it stood at the sheer edge of the Tessera Plateau, beside the cable car buildings. Forrest watched the underbelly as they came in: a mass of swollen, membranous dirigibles, layered and roped together in a gargantuan netted frame.

On Venus, as on Earth, politics is as deadly as any predator or parasite. Yet Forrest is in love, and willing to do a lot for it.

It’s not just this version of Venus that lies in the past, but the sensibility of the story, which hails from the Manly White Adventurer era of planetary romance; we can just see Forrest in his khakis and pith helmet. The sex, in which her tail plays a central role, is surprisingly sensuous, perhaps more so than the original models might have dared.

“Living Hell” by Joe Haldeman

The narrator is part of a survey team on Venus and wishes he weren’t. The planet seems to be governed by Murphy’s Law. Thus the space elevator’s cable snaps just about the same time a solar flare fries the electronics. Being aware of Murphy, the survey has gone for redundancy: there are two bases, each with a shuttle, and each base with enough supplies for the dozenish human population to survive. So when the broken cable smashes up the equatorial base and its shuttle, all the narrator has to do is fire up the other one and go rescue the survivors. Easier said than done. Among the many complications are large Venusian monsters that can’t digest humans but are happy to kill and eat them anyway. Adventure and direness ensue.

I tried for the beach and almost made it. Branches slapped and scraped and did break my fall. I gouged up about thirty meters of sand and came to a stop just before finding out whether the thing would work as a submarine.

A generally science fictiony piece. The narrative voice here is dark cynicism, the tone belongs to someone at the mercy of bureaucracy, sent somewhere he doesn’t want to be, where no one human ought or needs to be. He mentions that he was a soldier in his youth, and this piece is a clear metaphor for the hell of jungle war. The story opens with the narrator giving us a number of the lessons he’s learned from his experience, not all of which seem directly relevant to them. I don’t really see the reason for staffing the equatorial base exclusively with females, not that it seems to make much difference to anyone’s chances of survival. What the piece boils down to is the action and the attitude, with a sort of pseudo-scientific bonus.

“Bones of Air, Bones of Stone” by Stephen Leigh

Tomio is the spoiled scion of a wealthy family who falls in love with a professional adventurer—as self-admitted “adrenaline junky”, the kind who has to be first to climb the highest mountain, dive into the deepest abyss. Tomio gets the family to sponsor Avariel’s climb of Olympus Mons while he tags along with her entourage; later, she lets him accompany her on the dive into Venus’s Great Darkness. But there he has an accident that costs him his legs and it costs Avariel her dive, bringing him out. Now she’s trying it again, and Tomio is definitely not wanted on the trip. While waiting, he makes the acquaintance of an indigene who had helped her get the permit to make the dive again. Tomio had known, before, of the local legends about the Great Darkness where the indigenes take their dead, where the Lights-in-Water meet them as they fall into the abyss. Hasalalo is one of the indigenes who will never meet the Lights, whose bones are too light to let them sink; the bodies of his kind are thrown into a pit to rot, lest the Lights be angered. So he asks Tomio for a favor.

This science fictional story of friendship and remembrance has no real surprises. We know that Tomio has finally acquired maturity and self-insight after his near-fatal experience; we know that Avariel has not and never will. And we know that a bond of mutual understanding will form between Tomio and Hasalalo. The stones make a good metaphor. I had one of those rock polishers once, and they do sometimes reveal a surprising hidden beauty in some gray lump.

“Ruins” by Eleanor Arnason

Venus is struggling with economic difficulties and wealth inequality, as well as a political divide between Russian and American colonies. We find Ash at a table in a bar, approached by a video editor from National Geographic, who wants to do a story on the charismatic megafauna of Venus. He pays well. The expedition is promptly underway, but it gradually turns into a contest between the Petrograd Soviet tour guides and the CIA agents lurking in the outback.

An adventure travelogue with political skullduggery, another story with a Venusian cold war.

“I’m an analyst for the political police,” Boris replied. “But my hours have been cut, due to the Soviet’s cash flow problems – which we would not have, if we had more tourists.”

“Or if the executive committee stopped listening to American economists,” Arkady added.

“I don’t want a lecture on economics,” Boris said. “I needed a second job. Arkady gave me one.”

The author develops the local lifeforms scientifically, with some kind of space impact carrying terrestrial microbes to Venus, where they developed in their own ways, waiting for the tourists to arrive and stimulate the local economy.

“The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss” by David Brin

An interesting and unusual premise. Human settlers fleeing to Venus long ago built bubble habitats near the volcanic vents on the floor of an oceanic abyss [and also in other deeps we don’t see]. The plan was to terraform the world to create oceans and a breathable atmosphere by crashing comets onto the planetary surface. As long as the denizens of the Abyss can recall, the thumps of impact have been a regular part of their lives. But now, as the thumps become fewer, the bubbles have aged and deteriorated, until some of them begin to collapse with the loss of thousands of lives, a great catastrophe that leads people to wonder if their own habitat might be next and preparing for the possibility of war when the surviving colonies can’t take in more refugees. Suddenly, Jonah is no longer a superfluous, troublesome boy but a man skilled in mechanics that might prove valuable in combat. His marriage price rises sharply, since he brings with him as a dowry a small, rebuilt submarine. Then, on the journey home to his wife’s bubble, things start to go wrong and all the lives onboard depend on Jonah.

“Let’s say the hull compartments hold. This is a tough old bird.” He patted the nearest curved flank. “We can help protect against blowout by venting compartment air, trying to keep pace with falling pressure outside. In that case, we’ll suffer one kind or another kind of pressure-change disease. The most common is the Bends. That’s when gas that’s dissolved in our blood suddenly pops into tiny bubbles that fill your veins and arteries. I hear it’s a painful way to die.”

This is the old Right Stuff. This is high skiffy adventure and action in a classic SFnal problem story that the engineer protagonist has to solve at all costs. This is Sensawunda generated by the ambitious terraforming project [and even more, by the hints that the original settlers were refugees from the conquest of Earth by an alien species]. This is speculative fiction considering the effects on human species and society of a completely new way of life, in which the most urgent problem is viable reproduction; by the end, there is more speculation about the ways the population’s life is about to change once again.

I note that, despite the anthology’s premise, this isn’t really Old Venus. The setting seems to be Real Venus transformed in a SFnal future to resemble the habitable water world of the ancient legends. And I consider this a Good Thing. The story has the advantage of difference, which imparts a refreshing novelty to the reading. And that brings me to the subject of anthologies. People don’t send me the guidelines to these things, but it’s possible to conjecture from the contents that in this case they put a strong emphasis on indigenous Venusians and very likely the Soviet Union factor. Which gives us lots of faux cold war stories as well as lots and lots of stories with Venusians. This can be a problem, as I noted in last year’s Mars anthology. So if Brin has decided to give us something different, even if it ignores some guidelines, I say it’s all for the best. [Although it’s possible to see the mutated human settlers here as native Venusians.]

–RECOMMENDED

“By Frogsled and Lizardback to Outcast Venusian Lepers” by Garth Nix

Shuttle pilot Kelvin is unhappily reminded on landing at fungus-infested Venusport that he’s liable to be reactivated as part of the Terran Navy’s reserves. The press gang tells him that the spoiled scions of some VIPs [“plutocratic larvae”] have idiotically crash-landed in the worst part of the Deep Swamp, and Kelvin was the closest qualified pilot they could nab for the job of rescue. He’s joined by one of his clone-sisters, who has gone more-or-less to seed on Venus.

There were broad blue patches of what the locals called swamp lichen growing on her forearms and up her thighs. More grew on her face, here carefully guided by the sparing use of antifungal agents to grow in concentric circles on her cheeks, across her forehead, and around her neck.

But even Vinnie regards the swamp-dwelling humans known as “Lepers” to be extreme. However, given no choice in the matter, off they go on lizardback, wondering what information the military is holding back, knowing that the military regards reservists such as themselves to be expendable. Turns out they’ve been holding back a lot. A great deal of action ensues, some involving imaginative batches of lethal Venusian fungus.

A fun, adventure-filled skiffy read, making the best of the setting. Given the nature of the military secret crashed in the swamp, readers do have to wonder exactly why they drafted Kelvin for the job. I’m thinking it had to be a cover-up story, but not a very effective one. Lies often aren’t.

“The Sunset of Time” by Michael Cassutt

Here’s an unusual version of the usual scenario, Terrestrians settling Venus with antisocial exiles, which the Venerians complacently allow, since to them it doesn’t really matter what the Terrestrians build, as it will all soon be washed away in

the great Sunset of Time, that moment each ten or hundred-thousand or one million (accounts vary, depending on which Venerian clan is asked) years when the clouds fade . . . the Sun is clearly visible. And it sets as Venus creaks into a partial rotation, unleashing storms, floods, ‘quakes. Remaking the landscape. Where once was Twi-Land would now be Noon, or Nightside.

The Terrestrians, a particularly fatheaded set, even for humans, naturally scoff at this prediction, for which their inferior science finds no evidence. They concentrate on building up their settlement, even as the Venerians dismantle their own, reducing every material to its basic constituents—bricks to mud, glass to sand.

Now it’s obvious from the first couple of pages how this situation is going to end. But that’s not really what the story is about. The story is about Jor, a once useless spawn of a powerful family on Earth, now risen in exile to head up the construction of the Lens, which when complete will generate a portal through which more Terrestrials will pour onto Venus. Jor, unusually in this setting, has a Venerian lover whom he never quite understands. Abdera is looking forward to the Sunset, to riding out the cataclysm on an oceanic skiff. Jor yearns for commitment from her, for a future with her, but she is unresponsive when he brings up the subject; yet she does seem to want something from him, something of crucial importance that she won’t reveal. Jor will have to figure it out for himself.

We don’t really come to understand either group of people. From the human point of view, the Venerians are enigmatic, but the Terrestrials are almost as much a mystery, with their abhorrence of calculating devices and their social deviance quotient [the human settlers on Venus take perverse pride in their quotients, the higher the better]. There’s no making sense of this from our own perspective of today; how the people of Earth arrived at this condition isn’t revealed to us. And I find it very dubious that even humans could be quite so offensively wrongheaded. It’s the weakest aspect of the story, Jor being the only one who isn’t a caricature.

“Pale Blue Memories” by Tobias S Buckell

Not Soviets this time, but Evil Nazis who shoot the narrator’s rocket ship out of the Venusian sky, where they aren’t welcomed by the locals. [I’m not clear why the Americans were heading to Venus during this alternate WWII.]

The ground thudded. And again. I looked oh-so-slowly over my shoulder. A ten-foot tall, six-legged beast with dappled green hide and a fiercely reptilian face hissed at us.

But that wasn’t what made my stomach clench. A thin-limbed man, with skin so pale it looked almost transparent, stood up on leather stirrups and pointed what was unmistakably a long-barreled weapon at us.

Classic scene planetary romance scene, that. Once captured, the crew is sold into slavery, where the adventures shift into moralizing.

This is a highly unsubtle and unoriginal work, the tired old inversion-of-fortune bit, studded with clichés like a fruitcake. Our narrator, Charles, is a mixed-race American passing for white. Because his father has told him stories about life under slavery, he has some appreciation for the realities now facing him. On the other hand, the rocket ship commander is a “red-blooded American” named Heston [!] who blathers clichés cluelessly and fails to face the reality that he is now an inferior. The Nazis, of course, are evil because they’re Nazis, which is why we have Nazis, for the convenience of authors looking for disposable characters. I find it interesting that Charles is still loyal to slavery-apologist Heston because they’re fellow Americans, and he mates with a Venusian because they’re fellow slaves, yet refuses an offered alliance from the Nazis on the grounds of fellow humanity; there is no notion of their being individuals in their own right, which is remarkably prejudiced. But, hey, Nazis!

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” by Elizabeth Bear

Here, the adjectival term for things pertaining to Venus is Cytherean, which I like better than most alternatives. We’ve got a small bunch of scientists onplanet, doing scientist things—exploring and discovering and the like. Of these, Dharthi and Kraken are lovers and partners, Kraken highly successful and respected, Dharthi jealous of her success. So she stupidly decides to prove herself by going out alone into the perilous jungle until she discovers something or other. Because she’s the author’s surrogate here, naturally she does.

Here’s a case where adventure is boring, because predictable. We know Dharthi will encounter perils. We know she’ll survive them. She seems to care much less about object of her quest than using it to one-up her lover. I don’t care about this relationship and her inferiority complex; she’s a self-absorbed, self-pitying fool. “If she could have this, Dharthi thought, just this–if she could do one thing to equal all of Kraken’s effortless successes–then she could tolerate how perfect Kraken was the rest of the time.” Whine, whine.

The author tosses anachronisms into the text. One, Kraken warning Dharthi, “You’re going to get eaten by a grue,” is kind of funny, for anyone old enough to get the reference. But we also get this observation, coming out of nowhere as Dharthi contemplates the landscape before her:

For a moment, Dharthi considered such medieval horrors as dentistry without anesthetic, binary gender, and as being stuck forever in the body you were born in, locked in and struggling against what your genes dictated. The trap of biology appalled her; she found it impossible to comprehend how people in the olden days had gotten anything done, with their painfully short lives and their limited access to resources, education, and technology.

Way to jerk readers out of the story and remind them it’s not really future Venus but here-and-now 2015. I had expected better from this author.

“Wizard of the Trees” by Joe R Lansdale

Jack Davis, once a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was on his way home aboard the Titanic when it went down. He was on the way down with it when something intervened and he found himself in a pool of mud on Venus. Being a veteran of wilderness survival, he sets about doing just that when warring Venusians intervene.

Flapping down from the sky were a half dozen winged men, carrying swords and battle axes. Except for the harness that would serve to hold their weapons, and a small hard, leather-looking pouch, they, like the others, were without clothes. Their eyes were somewhat to the side of their heads, there were beak-like growths jutting from their faces, and their skin was milk-white, and instead of hair were feathers. The colors of the feathered were varied. Their targets were the yellow men in the shiny machine on the tremendous tree limb.

Typical of this sort of tale, one of the yellow men turns out to be a woman, and they’re passing familiar with Earth. Davis falls in with them, having assisted them in their fight, and in love with her, so he’s off on quests and adventures, which readers will recognize if familiar with the classic pulp-era Sword and Planet tales. More than any other piece here, it exactly fits the model. As such, it’s pure fantasy, with no real attempt at a scientifically sound explanation for Davis’s translation to Venus. In fact, as it winds down, readers might suspect the whole thing might have been a dream, or a dying hallucination—a literary device well-known by the pulp era.

“The Godstone of Venus” by Mike Resnick

Here we meet again Scorpio and his telepathic partner Merlin, from the companion Mars anthology. Scorpio is human and Merlin is hungry. A criminal human client hires them to help find the eponymous stone, reputed to confer great mystical powers on its possessor, but in fact his mind is controlled by his Venusian female companion Sapphire, whose mind Merlin can’t read—and that scares him. But Scorpio says they need the money.

I like this one rather more than the Mars story, the mystery it adds to the adventure, which is not the Mcguffin godstone but: What exactly is this Sapphire person?

You ever see her eat, or sneak off to relieve herself?

No. But I already told you she wasn’t human.

I could fill a book with things she isn’t, replied Scorpio. What the hell is she?

Which at last we find out, in a fun read.

Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan” by Ian McDonald

Over fifty years ago, Ida Granville-Hyde [for she repudiated her late husband’s title and name] visited Venus and, disappearing there, left behind a collection of diaries, notes, and sketches, as well as the completed art, which has since greatly risen in value. Now her great-niece has published these in an illustrated volume, of we have unfortunately only the catalog descriptions:

Plate 1: V strutio ambulans: the Ducrot’s Peripatetic Wort, known locally as Daytime Walker (Thent) or Wanderflower (Thekh). Cut paper, ink and card

From the title and the framing introduction, we might get the impression that this is a list story, and/or one of those fictional collages interspersing journal entries with ticket stubs and grocery lists, from which readers are meant to assemble a coherent narrative. But this narrative is sufficiently coherent as it stands, consisting of Ida’s personal diary of her travels and the accounts she hears from the persons she seeks out on her quest. For while ostensibly on Venus to create the Botanica, Ida is in fact searching for her missing brother Arthur, suspected by everyone as the thief who stole her family’s heirloom jewel, her dowry, on the very eve of her wedding. To this end, she has embarked on an increasingly-perilous travelogue of wonders across a well-imagined Venusian landscape.

The rolling travel of the high-train made me grip the rail for dear life, but the high-plain was as sharp and fresh as if starched, and there, a long line on the horizon beyond the belching smokestack and pumping pistons of the tractor, were the Palisades of Exx: a grey wall from one horizon to the other. Clouds hid the peaks, like a curtain lowered from the sky.

At each stop, she draws closer to Arthur and learns more details of his very checkered career on Venus, coming to a final revelation at the conclusion of her journey, which is in moral terms, a hellward descent, a road marked with crimes and atrocities winding through the wonders of the world.

“All Arthur would say about it was, that’ll make some fine china. That’s what made porcelain from the Valley of the Kilns so fine: bones–the bones of the dead, ground up into powder. He would never drink from a Valley cup–he said it was drinking from a skull.”

Of all the stories in the volume, this is the one I see as least likely to have been published during the heyday of Old Venus, given its literary devices and the delightfully mannered prose. There’s a subtle mystery here—in fact, more than one—with secrets slowly revealed, so much so that it amply rewards a second read. Definitely my favorite.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Tor.com, February 2015

Not such an outstanding month for this site.

“The Human Engineer” by Jessica Brody

The third in a ridiculous series published here, for some incomprehensible reason, about an Evil Corporation that commits crimes no actual company would ever get away with even contemplating. An insult to readers’ intelligence. Also featuring a whining, self-pitying protagonist, which seems to be a theme here this month.

“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov

A world in which the bodies of the deceased are ritually dismembered and formed into cakes [which would seem to me to be more like meatloaf]. The narrator, in the 2nd-person “I”, is a master of this rite, in which his daughter has been training ever since her favorite father, the narrator’s husband, died. Now the apprentice faces her test of mastery. All through the process, she is expert and controlled, with a “stone face” showing no emotion, all while the other parent wallows in self-pity, both at the loss of his husband but more the fact, that their daughter always loved the other father best and blames him for his death.

It’s a pretty dull story, with the lengthy process of preparing the body described in detail, while the narrator is consumed with his emotions but fails to evoke much empathy, either in daughter or reader.

“Acrobatic Duality” by Tamara Vardomskaya

The narrator was an acrobatic gymnast—a competitive sport involving pairs competition—when she was translated by some sinister process into the bodies of two other young women who can now compete with one mind.

The extra difficulty points of our blind front salto are undeserved, since the base can see where the top’s feet are going. We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time. Cooperating is as easy as being one with ourself.

While each of them has another identity, they both now consider themselves Jennifer Smith and constantly wonder what happened to her, and what happened to the people who they used to be. Their coach says he isn’t allowed to tell them. Then Kim, the top, begins to date a young man, and the two are no longer one, no longer move as one, as their experiences and concerns diverge.

Interesting premise related to the philosophy of mind and the problem of identity, as Kim and Alana’s identity shared begins to diverge. The narrative is filled with details of the competition, very immediately described. The conclusion, however it resolves the pair’s uncertainty, offers no explanation to readers.

“Schrödinger’s Gun” by Ray Woods

Set in a sort of alternate ‘30s Chicago, with rival gangs shooting it out over territory, where certain law enforcement officers, like O’Harren, have “heisen” implants that allow them to perceive and select alternative possibilities and timelines. This is supposed to increase their detecting ability, mostly in interrogation situations. Now the gangster Johnny Rivers has been murdered, and O’Harren is investigating, with the possibilities narrowing down to two: gang business as usual or a crime of passion.

They stood there, overlapping, like two different movies projected onto the same screen; a fault line between two universes. A perfect quantum tightrope. I was looking at the cat inside the box, alive and dead at the same time, and I had seconds left to choose which possibility remained when the lid came off. I couldn’t speak. For a moment, two versions of myself stood inside of each other, our hearts beating different rhythms.

The heisen also, as in O’Harren’s case, causes problems with personal lives, her marriage and child. She occasionally falls into some self-pity over the situation, but usually resists the impulse. This is one of the most common plot formulae in genre fiction: the parallel professional and personal problem; solving one usually leads to an epiphany about the other. I’m happy to say this one doesn’t really go there, instead deploying a really appropriate ending.

Still the difficulties that O’Harren encounters make it clear that the heisen device is really a bad idea, more trouble than it would ever be worth.

“The Hell of It” by Peter Orullian

Malen works scrubbing fish guts off the deck of a trawler to support the young son he must raise alone, until the corrupt oppressive tax system forces his boss to lay him off. Malen then proceeds to make a series of idiotic but honorable choices which all leave him even worse off, the corrupt oppressive system being stacked against the poor-but-honest, as oppressive systems usually are.

Malen doesn’t wallow in self-pity here, because the author has assigned that task to readers, jerking on our emotional chains like a whole gang of cathedral bell-ringers. There is also no unambiguously fantastic element present.

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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