It’s getting kind of unusual to see more than one print publication at a time. This time, I prefer their stories overall to the webzines.
F&SF, July/Aug 2015
Featuring a novella by Rachel Pollack. What I like in this issue are a couple of the shorter pieces, most notably the Chwedyk and James, as well as the V Hughes.
“Johnny Rev” by Rachel Pollack
Part of the author’s Jack Shade series. Some time ago, when Jack was afflicted by personal problems, he created a double of himself and, when its task was complete, dissolved it. Or so he had supposed. But after a series of disturbing portentous signs, the duplicate now shows up in his dreams, a Revenant, bearing his card, which obliges Jack to take up his cause, whatever it is. In this case, the cause is to defeat the original Jack, himself. Naturally, Jack looks for a way out, which means he runs around town consulting with a lot of experts in matters occult.
This one has the typical interest and flaws of the series, which is largely a matter of being too long. Ostensibly, it’s adventure/mystery fantasy, but in effect it’s a social journey through the series’ milieu, which is quite full of gods, oracles, and various other practitioners of the magical and arcane arts. Quite, quite full, and the narrative drags us along as Jack pays most of them a visit, which seems always to begin with a description of what everyone is wearing. There’s a certain amount of clothing-semiotics here, but much of it seems unnecessary. There’s also a lot of stuff about Jack’s identity, signified by the various names he gives to both himself and the copy, but this leans way too much on the backstory. The plot takes way too long to get traction; we’re a third of the way through the text, after multiple portents and a whole lot of backstorying, before the nature of the problem at hand becomes clear. I’d like this one better at about half the length, with a lot less backstory, concentrating on the present magical problem of the dream-Dupe-Revenant’s threat to Jack’s existence. Such as:
And then suddenly it wasn’t him. He could not have described how he knew, but it was like seeing yourself/not yourself in a dream. The goddamn Rev had his lips on Carolien’s right nipple, his hand between her legs. With all his concentration, like some novice Traveler trying to psychically lift a fucking pencil, Jack managed to push the body, the Dupe’s body, his body, away from Carolien.
“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir
Hester comes from a long line of seers, and in her sixteen summer, entering into her power, she notices portents in the local pond, sealife where it doesn’t belong. “Amassed dead. Salt into fresh water. The eldritch presence of the Department of Fisheries — ” These signs point to the all-devouring dread lords of the Pelagic abyss, who seem to be Personages not to mess with. The trees are weeping brine, and the rain is saltwater. Consulting the family archives, Hester concludes that one of the lords of the abyss is coming to take a bride. She regards the phenomenon as her birthright, her quest to find the chosen bride, which annoys her aunt, who had wanted her to have a normal, ie, mundane, summer. But such is not to be, not with Main Street coated in salt crystals. She locates the candidate bride, an airhead named Rainbow Kipley. “She would be taken to a place in the deep, dark below where lay unnamed monstrosity, where the devouring hunger lurked far beyond light and there was no Katy Perry.” So they become friends, which is what her aunt had wanted, more or less.
This is lite dark fantasy, and seems to be YA in an eldritch way, which makes it the rare YA that pleases me, in particular the narrative voice and imagery. It’s nicely complex for a YA, if it is YA. It could even be considered a romance of sorts, but I don’t want to think too hard about that. I do have a problem with the piece, because it involves mass death and destruction, with individuals dying before readers’ eyes. I find this in conflict with the lightness of the narrative tone, though granting that Hester, at least, recognizes that real people are suffering. Of course it helps that she and her family are immune to it, as designated archivists.
“The Curse of the Myrmelon” by Matthew Hughes
Cascor the Discriminator takes the case of a clerk who believes himself under a curse.
Ulph had risen to a senior clerical position in the accounts department by reason of his being one of those useful but undistinguished functionaries who delight in creating a neat column of figures and bringing them to a precisely accurate total. His triumphs and pleasures, though small, were meaningful to him, and he had enjoyed what he considered a satisfying existence until recently, when, as he put it, “Things began to go hinky.”
There is in fact no curse but rather malfeasance, which is the proper line of work for a discriminator, as opposed to curse-lifting, the provenance of the wizards’ guild, which guards it jealously. Cascor employs his associate Raffalon the thief to confirm his suspicions.
This one is relatively light on the humor and absurdity often found in the author’s Archonate universe, rather more of a straight detective story, in which Cascor’s new studies of magic prove quite useful in his profession. At one point, I was wondering who would pay his high expenses—certainly not Ulph the clerk—until I realize that Cascor means to profit from the situation in his own right. While Raffalon is involved in the plot, he is definitely a secondary character, as Cascor takes top billing; I expect we may be seeing more of his adventures.
“The Body Pirate” by Van Aaron Hughes
Inspired, says the editorial blurb, by the song “A Murder of One”, the image of the soul as a bird beneath a woman’s skin. The story is hard at first to get into, partly because of a multiplicity of pronouns. We have bodies and souls, which are separable, the souls in the form of blackbirds. When united, they are plural, when separated, singular. Some souls/birds have more than one human body. The system seems to confuse some of the characters, as well.
These bizarre thoughts are making me dizzy. Her? Who is her? I have never before thought of Martayn as her. When conjoined, Martayn is them. When separated, Martayn’s soul is him. But surely this body I am touching is a woman.
The author has been quite deliberate in the text, shifting pronouns as bodies/souls separate and unite, with the text splitting into parallel columns. As the story progresses, readers have to adjust their assumptions, with concepts, soul and bird, that at first seem metaphorical being revealed as literal fact.
Adela, the soul/bird [bodies don’t have their own names] is working on a timesaving project, Freebird, whereby everybird can have two or more human bodies; there is a breeding project to supply these. There is also a glitch in the transfer of memories from the bodies when they have been left unoccupied to act on their own, which they are quite capable of doing, the more so as a bird occupies more bodies and leaves the unoccupied ones longer on their own. It isn’t long before some people begin to realize the truth, but some, like Adela, resist it.
This seems in the end to be slightly more science fiction than fantasy, although no definite explanation for the situation is given, only one hypothesis. While there are clear ethical themes here, the primary one is identity—not sexual/group identity as the pronoun thing might seem to imply, but the more basic issue of personhood, of “who am I that I am?” A lot to ponder here.
“Dixon’s Road” by Richard Chwedyk
A story of love and poetry. Alice is a curator of a museum that was once a home belonging to two people in love. James Dixon was the terraforming engineer who built the world, Laura Michel the poet he built the house for. But he could not stay and she could not leave. After her death, the house was preserved by people like Alice who loved her work, as a memorial for her, but as it was time dilation that kept them apart, it allowed him to return, as Laura knew he would, one day.
“I’m not crazy. I know that isn’t what Laura literally meant when she said she had to stay to finish her work. But it made sense to me, finally. What she had to do and what I had to do…worked together.”
A poignant love story. The author wisely keeps some things private between the two, in the letter that she left for him. The story reminds me a bit of Emily Dickinson, not in the verse but in the close connection of the poet to the place, to the particular house. “Laura Michel was the sort of poet who believed it was in the specificity — this tree, that garden, seen by this woman, on that day — that poems were found.” This is what Dixon recognizes at last. I do have to wonder about time and aging—how long it takes to create a world, even a small one that used to be an asteroid. How a man could go from one world creation to another and still not have aged beyond recognition. It takes an effort to suspend that measure of disbelief.
“Oneness: A Triptych” by James Patrick Kelly
Variations on a theme of copulation and communion, experiencing as the Other, as all Others. Kind of sex mysticism.
“This Quintessence of Dust” by Oliver Buckram
A plague has suddenly wiped out all the mammalian life on Earth, leaving most of the bots with no function to perform. It’s a matter of programming. In other similar scenarios, bots have sufficient self-awareness to create a society of their own, but not here.
“Paradise and Trout” by Betsy James
A young boy, newly dead, is sent on his final journey.
“At the chasm where the road ends, lay the bridge down. Cross it,” his father said, “and follow the upward path. Your uncles will meet you in paradise.” With a bitter look he pulled the last fold of linen over his son’s face. “Do as I say.”
So Halley sets out on the way to paradise, taking the familiar road, meeting on his way the demons his father warned him of, coming at last to the road he had never seen, and the chasm.
Short, simple, entirely engaging. The journey of death has to be one of the most universal subjects of myth worldwide. This is an original vision, highly specific to time and place and character, yet full of mythic resonance.
“Into the Fiery Planet” by Gregor Hartmann
Zephyr is a misnamed volcanic moon covered in cindery regolith, where a human population struggles to exist with the aid of a sponsoring world. Alas, political exigencies are prompting that sponsoring world to withdraw its support. A desperate PR effort is now underway, and new immigrant Franden, aspiring author, has been recruited for the effort. Inspiration, however, is hard to come by.
What makes this place special? Special from a Mainline point of view? I need a story that will give Tensers a hard-on when they think about this pile of cinders.” The Conductor kicked the ground, made bits of regolith fly.
Light, humorous piece with a somewhat unusual setting. It’s never made quite clear exactly why Franden did come to Zephyr in the first place. It doesn’t seem like a likely place to launch a literary career.
Clarkesworld, June 2015
Four pieces of nominal science fiction this month. I found the Dudek strangely interesting; the others seemed variously incomplete.
“Somewhere I Have Never Traveled (Third Sound Remix)” by E Catherine Tobler
Vasquez, working to extract helium from the Jovian atmosphere, starts to hear a voice:
The voice spills from the planet, from deep within its clouds, pushing itself out of roiling gasses, tunneling through thirty-one miles of cloud, through the station’s skeleton and into my own. If I close my eyes (and I do), the sound rattles my teeth, my tongue, and when it has gone (it always goes), I am left with my cheek pressed to the cold window, as if I meant to go out with it—as if it meant to take me.
She begins to think she hears the voice coming from inside a pod of frozen helium, which she attempts to open and release the voice, causing her supervisor to send her to have her head examined—a reasonable precaution. But of course Vasquez isn’t crazy and there is actually something going on in the orbit of Jupiter, as readers will expect.
What this is about is the mystical/poetic communion between Vasquez and the whatever, not making a lot of sense of it. There are plenty of questions that readers might want to ask [like, why Vasquez?] but the text has no interest in answering them. While nominally science fiction, the mystery has no observable scientific basis. It’s all the subjective experience of the communion going on inside the narrator’s head, and the author’s expression of it.
“Asymptotic” by Andy Dudek
The title is ominous, portending the presence of math, but it turns out to be absurdly humorous; there’s something inherently absurd about infinity. SF readers are well aware how time travel fiction can become confusingly tangled in paradoxes, but Dudek has raised the confusion factor by several orders of magnitude here, as instead of a time patrol, we have our protagonist Nuhane as an officer of the Collection Bureau, pursuing violators of the laws of physics across the universe, a traffic cop in pursuit of vehicles exceeding the c limit. But of course this necessarily involves his own violation.
Beyond c there is no time and no speed. Bureau officers call the speed of light the “last speed.” Here in violation space, all of Nuhane’s violating selves are united. Beyond time there is exultant joy, infinite peace, and the “eldest” of Nuhane’s violation selves will find it hard to condescend back to the universe. They will leave pieces of themselves here.
Nuhane is succumbing to violation syndrome, a delusion of godhood, an addiction to the transcendence of spacetime. And the addiction to the hunt of the arch-violator known as Phlogiston.
I’m reminded somewhat of the Rucker’s work, the imaginative absurdity spun out of a base of actual physics, toying with the stuff that holds the universe together. Enough to make a reader’s head spin. I note that someone in this universe has had to invent a religion because people can’t stop questioning the sense in what they’re doing. Never a good sign.
“This Wanderer, in the Dark of the Year” by Kris Millering
Audra is what might have been called a war correspondent back when wars were more regularized. Instead, she mostly interviews the survivors of atrocities, recently the Roma being slaughtered by rightwing militias in Hungary. She has now flown back to that region to check out reports of a meteor fallen to Earth, which is being reported as a possible spacecraft, but at the airport she is abducted and imprisoned with the alien who emerged from it. The abductors seem to have targeted her, members of the same militia she had reported on. They want something—unclear—from the alien. “War has a habit of drawing us all in, eventually. Even a journalist. Even an alien who came here entirely by accident.” A painful process of assimilation/communication begins.
There’s much here that isn’t clear, being from Audra’s point of view, which is necessarily limited by imprisonment. We particularly don’t learn anything of note about the alien, except it’s not likely to develop a good opinion of the human species, despite its connection with Audra. We also don’t learn as much about Audra as the text seems to assume.
“Forestspirit, Forestspirit” by by Bogi Takács
In a far distant, posthuman future, the narrator was once a soldier of sorts, now transmuted into a protean, neuroplastic entity that can assume any shape. It now inhabits a forest, apparently a rarity in this world, as tourists come to view it and its mushrooms. A child comes to the forest, nephew of a man who lives on its margins, a man who has powers of his own, enough to identify the narrator’s presence. The child is unhappy because something called the Consentience is planning to destroy the forest.
This is a kind of children’s story, in which the political background of the world is ignored. Thus we have no idea what the Consentience is, or why it has made its decision, which may be an automatic response, but we don’t know, or what powers could countermand the decision. The boy doesn’t involve his uncle in his problem, although the uncle seems to be a person of some power and/or influence. It’s a pretty sort of fairy tale, but it makes no real sense.
An irritating note: in the course of begging the “forestspirit” for aid, the child is distracted into an irrelevant sidetrack about the gender of names, a matter that seems to be of contemporary interest to the author, but not in this posthuman world in which the narrator is far, far removed from such concerns.
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, June 2015
In my desk I have a magnification device that can be placed on a page to enlarge the print. This is a good thing, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this publication. With it magnified, I discover eight pieces of fiction, most on the short side, with enough nameless narrators to make me pretty irritable. I generally prefer the weird fantasy over the science fiction.
“The Beast Unknown to Heraldry” by Henry Wessells
Our man Thornton is a failed and unemployed scholar who, being in want of lodging, invites himself to Castle Delvoir, seat of his distant cousin the fourteenth Duke, where he proposes to sift through the archives in search of nuggets for publication. There he hits paydirt in accounts of a chimerical beast called the wulkderk, spawn of a mating between a she-wolf and a dragon.
Of the wulkderk, its head of the dragon father with teeth of the wolf mother, four-legged and of two forms, the male fur-clad with strong wings, the female scale-clad with furry man and back, like dog and dragon the wulkderk will sleep for days and decades, until hunger stirs it or the unwary trouble it lair [sic LT]
This one ends much as readers will expect, but I find great charm in the notion of a castle with such a library –complete with librarian—where impecunious scholars can page through ancient chronicles and retire to a comfortable room with supper on a tray. Fortunate Thornton!
“The Blood Carousel” by Alyc Helms
An unlikely premise, an odd variation on hell: a derelict carousel where dead parents are imprisoned and their children can free them by riding it through hellish revolutions. Hazel wants to retrieve her newly-dead parents, and her nasty friend Barnabas offers to help her find an animal to ride, as required by the devil/ticketman. Of course no one thinks of what will become of the animal.
In this sort of story, it’s typical for a child to be justified in anything she does to accomplish such goals as freeing her parents from death or hell. Here we have Barnabas, a vile little fiend, to serve as Hazel’s obvious foil and soak up the blame. I quite like how things turn out in the end, but the premise fails the credibility test.
“Marrying the Sea” by Kodiak Julian
Four girlfriends spend the high moments of their lives together, high on bottled magic, until the 2nd-person narrator is the only one remaining, with one final bottle to open. The friendship is the thing, the closest love, while the four explore their similarities and differences, fulfilling the terms of the magic: “May you each see all that you see and taste all that you taste. This mess is all that we get.” But we might get it again, if we’re lucky. Nicely felt.
“Everything is Haunted” by J M McDermott
Science fiction, a post-collapse world, the collapse caused by an earthquake, in which Stephen and Immie’s young son Andrew was infected with a designed virus that would have been fatal if they hadn’t gotten him a multi-organ transplant. The organ donor is a genetic chimera tailored to match Andrew. Most donors are raised in a stable but Stephen and Immie raise Andrew’s until the organs it grows have matured. The donor is sentient, capable of speech and affection; they even give it a name, Oreo.
It’s not hard to get over appearances when it looks up at you with those human eyes, places a head in your lap and you can feel how soft the hair is and it’s murmuring because it likes the affection.
Now Andrew is almost grown, reasonably healthy although overprotected by his parents, ready to explore his world on his own. There is no more Oreo. Unstated is the fact that Oreo was sacrificed to save Andrew, though not entirely forgotten, with residual guilt.
An obvious ethical theme here. What the author doesn’t point out is that the fate befalling the donors isn’t unique or unusual, not in our carnivorous world.
“The Shadow You Cast Is Me” by Henry Lien
Here is a very sad, very depressing short piece about a man obsessed with his wife, who is perfection in all ways, or so he perceives her. He stalks her, taking photos of her in her sleep. She is a celebrity, she’s invited to events and he is not, probably her own wish. She refuses sex with him, yet she insists they remain married. She has given him an ultimatum: to “satisfy my needs” outside the marriage but not fall in love with anyone else. The narrator finds himself wishing “that there were some way that she could rape me and take whatever she wanted from me, because then there would have been something she had wanted from me.”
We can only think of the narrator that he is sick, that he suffers from an obsessive disorder, but what we lack is the wife’s point of view: why she wants to continue in the empty shell of the marriage. Did she ever love him at all? Did his obsession drive her away from him, or was her rejection the cause? From the narrator’s point of view, the relationship is a tragedy, but for her, it is likely something very different; the element of tragedy is that he doesn’t know, may never know. “Because one of us always walks in light, and one of us always walks behind. Always.” That’s beautifully expressed, and the story is perhaps the best I’ve seen from this author. Yet I can’t see in it anything fantastic.
“Auburn” by Joanna Ruocco
Farce, fantastic. Lord Abergavenny married Malvina Potts for the sake of her long and shining auburn hair, making her the ninth Lady Abergavenny, which should strike readers as more ominous than it apparently strikes Lady Abergavenny. He is not an ideal husband. He never is home in time for supper, and he drags his lady from one dismal, forested land to another in his searches for the rare Boffin Bird. He requires her to spend the days sitting in the forest “to improve her constitution by the strengthening vapors.” In fact, he is using her, which is to say her hair, as bait for his quarry, much as unicorn hunters may once have employed virgins [which would also seem to include Lady Abergavenny, although Lord Abergavenny isn’t in search of unicorns]. It isn’t clear if the quarry has devoured the nine previous Lady Abergavennys, or if they decamped, in which case milord may be a bigamist. But Lady Abergavenny is stout [of heart] and she has Had Quite Enough.
Amusing in the sort of repetitive way characteristic of this species of farce.
“The Square of Mirrors” by Dylan Horrocks
One consequence of the first-person, nameless narrator is the tendency of authors to neglect or deliberately refrain from indicating the gender of pronoun that might apply, which makes life difficult for reviewers. This nameless narrator was once a mage but left the profession to take up nothing in particular but looking out the window. I is currently living in the Square of Mirrors, although the mirrors seem to be illusory, or at least not glass. Someone has proposed glass as a subject for I’s book, and I becomes interested in a desert tribe that uses lightning to create glass out of sand, a process in which lives are always lost. This seems to imbue the glass with a supernatural quality, about which I speculates.
When Master Burbekker gazes on its dark frozen face, what does he see? The soul of the desert? The raging sky? Some elemental spirit, lonely and lost? Or himself, staring back from some finer, fairer world?
I never seems to look into the mirror of I’s self, so there is no reflection of who I is, only obscurity, as much for I as for the reader who sees through I’s eyes. The tale’s interest lies also in its setting, as I observes the events in the square, attractively different, which is the exotic, so important to fantastic fiction. From this outsider point of view, I begins to see magic again, which may be the missing reflection—or not.
“Sun Circles” by Jade Sylvan
Science fiction. When the first paragraphs of a story repeat the mention of “have a good laugh”, readers can be fairly sure that some kind of tragedy is in store. Here we have another nameless narrator, one for which I can find no excuse, who has been sent in a spacecraft, with only a parrot for company, to a distant world to determine if it’s suitable for human colonization. The narrator was selected for this voyage as a child, as being “the best with numbers and space in all the world”, but we later find reason to believe this child was considered deficient in aspects of life not involving numbers and space, and that it was thus supposed to be OK to send it into this lifelong solitary confinement. The narrative voice remains childish and repetitive although by the end, the narrator must be quite old and referring “the planet where I was a child”. No one, we have to assume, would send an actual child alone on such a voyage, with or without a parrot, which at least has a name, Tom, although its speech is nearly indistinguishable from the narrator’s. Tom has died by the time the spacecraft approaches its destination, and it seems likely that the narrator might die, as well, before it can send back the message saying that the world is or is not habitable. Which means, of course, that the narrator’s presence isn’t really necessary at all and thus the entire premise is artificial and untenable.
But it serves the story’s theme, which is the human need for companionship and love. We even have a reference to the Harlow experiment with baby monkeys, in case readers miss the point. What we see is how the narrator connects with the individuals in ground control, at first chatting back and forth and making repetitive jokes, but gradually losing that connection as the time lag increases so that it eventually takes over a year to receive a reply; individuals in ground control leave and are replaced by strangers, so that the only real, lasting connection the narrator has is with the parrot. I suspect that the childlike voice is intended to enhance the poignancy of the narrator’s situation, but I find that it has the opposite effect, particularly since I can’t take the premise seriously. At one point, the narrator is looking through “every cabin in the ship” for the lost parrot. Why are there a number of cabins in the ship, when there are no people to occupy them? Why send a sole passenger when there are cabins for more? Nope, not buying it. Not moved.
Apex Magazine, June 2015
Not too much originality in these scenarios, but the stories do what they can with them.
“Inhabiting Your Skin” by Mari Ness
Another sentient house, this one a nanny house in the usual sort of nanny state. Unfortunately for the house, while made responsible for its resident’s welfare, it’s not adequately enabled to do much about it, other than locking the resident inside, which isn’t what the nameless 2nd-person resident actually needs. You has fallen into depression after the loss of a girlfriend and wants to do nothing but eat pizza and lie in bed, but the house nags in desperation and makes deals with its charge, which only enable its dysfunction. You often hallucinates, which leads directly to the ambiguous conclusion—a good use of the 2nd-person.
When you finally fall asleep, between all the continued tingling and the inexplicable craving for pizza, you dream that the paint is changing in you. No, not you. Your rooms. You. Everything is askew. Moved. Trembling. You have to see it. You have to see what’s going on. You send a current of power running through your walls as the lights come blazing on. The power shoots right back into you, making your walls—no, you—shake. You can feel yourself shaking all the way down to your foundations. You will need repairs.
Some clever stuff here, though the basic premise is pretty old. I also note that the protagonist, spending all day and night in bed, seems to have no visible means of support to pay for the house and the pizza delivery. That’s quite a nanny state.
“Proximity” by Alex Livingston
Socialmediapunk. This protagonist seems to go by the nom de net Tipsy, if I have that straight, and she makes her living stealing the metadata from the phones of strangers, “tasty usage statistics the data providers pay my crew so well for. Every day we cast our nets and haul in hundreds of shimmering little stats”, which she and her crew then sell to the providers. Tipsy is good at what she does because she selectively curates the data, trolling the users most likely to be highly connected, highly rated, passing by those who obviously want to be noticed and homing in on the secretive and discreet. What she does also happens to be a crime. Tipsy also has ambitions to be connected in her own right in the arts field, which causes her to take risks that her crew doesn’t approve.
Much of the text is concerned rather obsessively with the details of the rating system, based on the proximity to a person who actually matters. It’s all highly contrived and artificial, which is why it’s so refreshing when Tipsy meets a person who doesn’t seem to be part of the net at all. But it’s also pretty derivative, a mix of today’s media nets with older tropes of cyberpunk. I note that the ubiquitous devices that drive the net are called “phones”, which is very 2015 and not convincingly futurey.
“Foreclosure” by D J Cockburn
A dystopian British setting, as they so often are, in a world suffering from global ocean rise, drowning London among other areas. This hasn’t been good for the banking and mortgage businesses, which have used their influence to pass stringent new laws enforcing payment of debts, even unto a pound of transplantable flesh. Colin is a striver working for bank collections, come to extract payment from a bankrupt whose mortgaged home is literally under water. Colin expects the usual sob story and pleas for forbearance, which he is quite ready to refuse.
So much of customer relations came down to choosing the right smile. Colin assumed the most professional smile in his repertoire. He couldn’t understand why so many of them asked that question. Did they think he’d have some sort of existential crisis and walk out on a job he’d been damn lucky to land in the first place?
Classic If This Goes On scenario with a sharply vengeful twist at the conclusion. The story is a moral one, making that point that the triumph of evil requires functionaries to facilitate it, whose excuse comes only second to “I was only following orders.”