Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July 2015

Here are the Dell digests, along with a couple of ezines. I found plenty of stories this time to reward the reading, if not to add to the award list.

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Lightspeed, July 2015

The zine is only posting three individual stories this month, with two installments of a long novelette. The editor clearly thinks it’s worth making the exception to his usual length restrictions, and I have to agree.

“Saltwater Railroad” by Andrea Hairston

Historical fantasy. The main strengths here are setting and atmosphere. The year may be 1833, from the evidence of the famous Leonid meteor storm that was viewed by many at the time as a portent—of something. An assorted group of fugitives from slavery has gathered on a barren coastal island, a place with natural hazards that make it difficult for pursuers to approach.*

Miz Delia’s Island was protected by deadly reefs on the Georgia/Florida side and nine hundred feet of jagged cliffs on the other. Indians called it Thunder Rock, a place where the wind and sea played rough and tumble. Spaniards named it Ghost Reef because of whirlpools, deadly fog, and wailing drowned folk who wouldn’t rest. English sailors claimed that Delia was a vengeful slave haint, howling demon talk and luring men to a bloody death. What ship’s captain would risk his crew or his own hide on quicksand beaches and breakneck ledges?

Delia calls the islanders “Run-tos” because they’re in search of a place where they can live securely in freedom, as the title suggests. The island, despite its natural advantages, is not the right place. As their numbers grow, the Mainland is increasingly aware of their presence, and they live in constant watchfulness for the approach of raiding ships, after the reward for the capture of fugitive slaves. So when a young woman is washed ashore under mysterious circumstances, some of the islanders suspect her of being a spy.

Conventionally, readers might expect the plot would center on the islanders’ aspirations to freedom, whether an attack from the Mainland can be averted or repelled, whether they find another path to freedom. These matters are taken care of by the end, yet most of the interest lies in the past. The center of the story, and the center of the fantasy, is Delia, a middle-aged woman with a dark and guilty history that both islanders and Mainland know but poses a secret to readers. There remains a lot about Delia that we never come to fully understand, but these are matters she wants to put behind her. She is haunted by spirits both waking and dreaming; they seem to be ghosts of her kin. Their messages don’t always seem to make sense, but making sense of them is a large part of what the story is about.

This is an unambiguous fantasy; the presence of magic is quite evident, but this doesn’t mean that every fantastic message can be taken literally. Spirits tell Delia that castaway named Rainbow is fallen from the stars, but we later learn she came from a ship named L’Etoile. Delia thinks an underground railroad to freedom must be a tall tale, but we know the name is a metaphor for a real escape network [that was not, however, known as such in 1833, if this is the story’s date]. Both Delia and Rainbow are linked by mystery and magic. Both suffered mutilation at the hands of slavemasters; both magically had lost limbs replaced by “Ethiopian” flesh, darker than their own—evoking an ancient miracle. Magic and miracles aren’t distinguished here, and Rainbow’s transplanted hands sparkle in the dark like stardust. The younger woman is secretive about her origins, but despite this, Delia and most of the islanders accept her presence—Delia, certainly, because her coming was foretold by the spirits and, indeed, miraculously brought to pass. And the islanders have seen too often the results of Delia’s foretellings.

Overall, the atmosphere has a misty, evanescent quality. Spirits and apparitions float in and out of dreams, but the characters, likewise, are hard to grasp. At times they put on masks and seem to take on another identity, perhaps a spirit one. There’s a large named cast here, ethnically varied: the escaped slave Maroons that Delia has led to the island, members of several American Indian tribes—Seminole, Muscogee, Creek—and whites; some are described as pirates, evoking the earlier history of this coast, although any raids they undertake now are on a minor scale. The personal histories of these individuals, however, are more indistinct, and we learn just enough about some of them to make us want to know more than we ever do, almost as much as the details of Delia’s past.

The narrative has its odd points. While Delia is the central character, she is neither the narrator nor the sole point of view. The story seems to be told by some figure from its future, relating these events from an omniscient point of view, with an acquired a patina of legend from sources like the renowned “They Say”. It’s this narrator who first recognizes and names Rainbow when she’s washed ashore, not Delia. Indeed, the other characters seem already known to the narrator’s audience, as figures from legend would be. The tale washes backwards, mingling in the tidepools of story with streams of miracles and magic, becoming mist.

[*]While the physical setting, the island, strongly informs the story, it also poses problems. Such an island, as described, with its perilous reefs and nine hundred-foot high cliffs, doesn’t exist where the author very specifically places it. Nor, more to the point, would it be likely to. Islands in that part of the coastal region are low-lying, essentially built-up sand bars. Nor can we say, “Well, it’s just fantasy, it doesn’t matter.” It matters. As closely tied as this story is to the historic, it has to fit the given historic setting. Nor is the magic here of a kind and degree that could have created this anomalous island and placed it where no such island was.

A related problem: when Rainbow asks Delia where the food comes from, Delia puts her off. But in fact, the unshortage of food on the island demands explanation. The text tells us the island is barren, although there are apparently kitchen gardens. Mostly, the islanders survive by salvage, collecting flotsam washed up on the beach. But fresh peaches** don’t wash ashore, nor does dry unspoiled cornmeal, and there don’t seem to be peach orchards or cornfields on the island. The text makes it clear that the islanders can’t be making regular forays to the mainland for these supplies; detection is too great a danger. And again, there’s no sign that anyone is magically conjuring them up. Food would have been a real concern for actual refugees under these circumstances, and I wish the author had addressed it.

[**]Circumstances in the text suggest the peaches could be magical, but I’m still not buying the cornmeal and beans.

“Crazy Rhythm” by Carrie Vaughn

Making silent movies in Hollywood. Margie is the director’s long-suffering assistant, and the current production, a war movie, is over schedule and over budget because of her boss’s grandiose and impractical ideas. One of the mechanics back in the scene shop is a shell-shocked veteran, and Margie can tell he’s upset by the false depiction of the recent war. He tells her, “I just wish I could give him a taste of the real thing is all. Show him what it’s like to be afraid.” At which, we have a pretty good idea what’s about to happen.

This is listed as SF, but in fact there’s nothing really speculative in it, so I’d have to call it straight historical fiction. Pretty good use of the setting.

“Violation of the TrueNet Security Act” by Taiyo Fujii, translated by Jim Hubbert

It seems that about twenty years ago, a recovery program in Internet servers worldwide malfunctioned and took then entire system down. It was replaced by a more advanced net based on quantum programming, with stringent security measures in place to prevent a repeat of the previous failure. But especially in Japan, a legion of old, redundant servers remains up in place. It’s now Minami Takasawa’s job to staff the night shift and hunt the orphaned zombie programs still running on them, “shuffling around, firing off mails to non-existent addresses, pushing ads no one will see, maybe even sending money to non-existent accounts. The living dead.” Minami was once a program developer, but he never learned Q coding and now he’s too old to catch up, so he’s relegated to a role that could have been automated except for the requirements of the security law. One night he happens to find an old program of his own, still running, and he decides to take a look at his old code.

If the settings were intact, I should be able to log in, move all that musty old PHP code and try updating it with some quantum algorithms. There had to be a plug-in for this kind of thing, something you didn’t have to be a genius like Chen to use. If the transplant worked, I could show it to my boss, who knows–maybe even get a leg up to Project Design. The company didn’t need geniuses like Chen on every job. They needed engineers to repurpose old code too.

But what he finds is that someone has been messing with it, for no purpose that he can figure.

This is definitely science fiction, and fairly hard stuff, too, centered on computer science. There’s a lot of neepery and even paragraphs full of code, and I surprisingly find that my inner geek must actually live, because I rather enjoyed all this stuff, the details of bringing obsolete tech back to life. I must note that my inner geek isn’t up to the task of determining if this quantum computing network makes actual sense, but it projects sufficient authenticity to fool me if it doesn’t. I also find it rather heartwarming to discover Anonymous still active after all those years, complete with iconic mask. Minami, it seems, has the soul of a hacker, after all.

 

Asimov’s, August 2015

A pretty good issue. The main event is a science fiction novella by Will McIntosh. My favorites are a couple of the shorter stories.

“A Thousand Nights Till Morning” by Will McIntosh

There’s a human base on Mars; it seems to belong to the US. Some or all of the staff is on a mission to divert an asteroid threatening to strike Earth. But while they are there, an alien invasion force shows up on Earth and wipes out most of the human population with bioweapons, leaving only a small population in Chicago to serve as a gene pool for their experiments. The force on Mars gets the idea of striking back by diverting the asteroid to strike the homeworld, which it was going to miss, after all. Only afterwards do they realize that survivors are still alive.

This general scenario seems fairly familiar in outline, but the details make the difference, and in particular the characters. Our anti-hero, Aiden, is a most improbable and unlikeable protagonist, likely to evoke both dislike and contempt in many readers. He suffers from crippling anxiety disorder, washes down handsful of Xanax and Paxil with alcohol, and is generally as useless a git as ever wasted space. The rest of the crew might be better, but not a lot. When they decide to take a shuttle back to Earth, for no particular reason revealed to us, their lack of leadership renders the expedition dysfunctional. Some individuals selfishly take off to try to locate family members, despite being needed at the ship.

The captain argued, but really, her authority was limited. Since the quiet, bloodless coup that ousted Manes as leader of the colony, orders had become more advisory than compulsory. In the end Mahajan relented rather than suffer the embarrassment of having her order defied.

A lot happens, and much of it is pretty unpredictable. The author does a good job subverting the expected plot elements, but for the most part, this rests on the characters, who aren’t the usual steely-eyed, granite-jawed heroic types of the usual SF adventure. Reflecting real, flawed and fallible people, they’re in large part a mess; they make mistakes; they fail. I only wish the author hadn’t felt the need for a concluding speech along these lines at the conclusion.

The aliens are well done, properly enigmatic and science-fictionally plausible. I like their biotech, which suffers catastrophic failure when the asteroid strike sets off a non-nuclear winter—a consequence unintended but serendipitous from the human perspective. It’s interesting that we see no great debate among the Mars humans over making the strike, also over the proposal to take the shuttle back to Earth. This is an awfully large jump cut in the narrative line, and I’m not quite sure it works.

“No Placeholder for You, My Love” by Nick Wolven

Claire dwells among the beautiful people in beautiful settings that we can tell from the outset aren’t quite real. At midnight, evoking Cinderella, a chime sounds, and the whole scenario stops, only to begin again somewhere else, with a different set of characters. Only if two people tell each other, “I’d like to see you again” will they meet more often. We realize that it’s a matchmaking game where no one lives happily ever after.

A scenario of eternity spent in luxury could be considered either heaven or hell; I vote for the latter, a Sisyphean version. But as Claire illustrates, we can make our own hells. She reminds me of Jacob Marley, who wears the chains he forged in life; Claire is apparently reliving the life she used to live. “I’m no one anyone should care about. I don’t even care about me.” Here we see how she might have become that way. A depressing, revealing piece.

“Caisson” by Karl Bunker

In the later 19th century, Dudek is an immigrant from Poland who one day meets a fellow-countryman, Mischke. Through him, Dudek gets a job working under water to dig out the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In a very real way, this is science fiction, for some definition of SF that includes engineering and allows for exploring the engineering of the historical past. The engineering of the bridge was a wonder of its age, and the story’s details effectively create a sensawunda quite as much as might a story of constructing an orbital habitat, or space elevator, or a bridge across a river of toxic mist. It also serves as a reminder of the way the physical underpinnings of our civilization were built, well into the last century, by brute muscle power, by laborers with shovels, even if assisted by mechanical pumps. As Dudek tells us,

I worked. I shoveled dirt, I cracked boulders with a pickaxe, I learned how to drill holes for gunpowder in the larger boulders. And at the end of each day I drank, I ate, I slept, I missed my home.

I would have been satisfied with this as historical fiction, but it does late in the story morph into something SFnal when Mischke makes a discovery.

“Two-Year Man” by Kelly Robson

A two-year man only served a short time at war in the colonies, coming home to find only menial jobs waiting for him, with four-year and six-year men lording over him. Mikkel’s job is as a janitor in a bio-lab where babies are grown in tanks, and one of his duties is to incinerate the waste. One day in the incinerator bin he finds a living baby, a “taint” as they call a defective one, with a beak and talons. Mikkel immediately knows he was meant to find her, to take her home. His wife Anna had sold her ovaries to the lab and can’t bear children. Now they have a child.

Mikkel laid the baby on the bed. He diapered and dressed the baby, and then trimmed her talons with Anna’s nail scissors. He fitted a sock over each of the baby’s hands and pinned them to her sleeves. Then he wedged Anna’s pillow between the bed and the wall, tucked the baby in his arms, and fell into sleep.

This is a truly heartbreaking story about a genuinely good man who wants nothing more than a home filled with love. The author creates an ominous tension that builds throughout Mikkel’s day at work, thinking every moment of the baby at home, waiting for him. The setting is realistically dystopian; we learn enough about it to understand Mikkel’s situation, but the text isn’t slowed down with unnecessary details. Well done.

–RECOMMENDED

“Wild Honey” by Paul McAuley

In a post-apocalypse world, Mel [means honey] is the keeper of a bioengineered bee colony, linked to the hive by quantum ties. From their honey, she distills elixirs and medications.

But the bees didn’t love her back. Every keeper had to accept that. Some outsiders believed that because they were tweaked and networked the bees had somehow acquired sentience, but they hadn’t. And even if they had, it was doubtful that they would have acquired any concept of love or hate, or free will.

When a band of outlaws shows up with a sick man, Mel agrees to help him, knowing the risk; knowing, and therefore prepared.

There’s not a lot of surprise in the storyline here. What stands out is the hard-minded, unsentimental attitude, refusing to romanticize either the bees or the world they live in.

“The First Step” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

This one, on the other hand, is entirely sentiment. Professor DeLeo makes a time machine so he can go back to a moment in his past. He repeats his intention a lot, while readers come to suspect that the eventual reveal won’t mean much to them, or to anyone not DeLeo. Disappointing from this author.

 

Analog, September 2015

Continuing the Schmidt serial and another installment in Shoemaker’s Aldrin series leaves room for only a few independent shorts. Readers who aren’t regular followers of these continuations are going to be seriously shortchanged with this issue, although the quality of the shorts themselves is quite adequate.

“Live from the Air Chair” by Maggie Clark

Post-apocalypse. Earth has gone bubbledy-goo, and the surviving population [which doesn’t seem to be very large, as everyone seems to know everyone else up there] is eking out survival in space aboard AI-run ships. Whately occupies his time as a music salvager.

“Goooooooood morning, space trash! This is DJ Whately coming at you with Wailin’ through the Ages: bringing you the best of what our shitty forefathers left behind.”

The overall mental health of the survivors doesn’t seem high; the space is full of nutcases, some of them dangerous.

The story could perhaps best be considered an incident. Stuff happens, the situation is resolved, though we don’t know how. Mainly, we see Whately and Eline get back together, which is a trivial outcome considering the dire possibilities that were briefly raised and the human cost some people had to pay, not to mention that we didn’t see them break up in the first place.

“The Crashing of the Cloud” by Norman Spinrad

Cyber jihad. Upon seeing which, readers may feel a chill of suspicion that this one will turn out to be political, perhaps even a screed. Not so, happily, it’s hackery and mostly fun stuff. It seems that Brother Rat, the Ace of Aces among hackerdom, has taken down the IRS, mostly for the lulz. The IRS, however isn’t laughing.

It had never occurred to him that Federales, lacking any sense of humor or appreciation for his masterpiece of the hacking art, would be so pissed off that, knowing that no jury would ever convict him, would instead decide that they needed to hit his delete button by whatever means necessary before he did something even worse. Meaning a presidential finding invoking extreme prejudice and turning the contract over to the Black Ops Boys, human or otherwise.

Thus he now finds himself too-hot-to-touch self. And naturally, the Caliphate wants its quid for the quo of harboring him.

The narrative slides back and forth between BR’s point of view and that of Hassan, the Islamic cyberwarrior who is now his guard, both men very different and much alike. It’s only marred slightly by a few contemporary references, such as to Snowden. We can live with that.

[It’s interesting to compare this one with the Fugii from Lightspeed, above, on the issue of the impossibility of actually taking down the Internet, whole and entire.]

“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Advanced art collecting in a decadent-seeming far future that emits a certain scent of Vance. Of all the artgraves [from the German graf, or count] one of the most reclusive, pretentious, and arrogant is the palsgrave Greshmenn. As the story opens, he is obsessed with a flaw in a valuable Evolutive painting.

“If your visual memory enhancements allow, you will notice that the painting is subtly different now from what it was seconds ago. Diminutive alterations are occurring every instant: color, texture, angle, style of brushstrokes, and so on. That’s the norm for all Evolutive art—endless change. The work reassembles itself bit by quantum bit,” Greshmenn said.

A stranger offers to repair the flaw if Greshmenn, in turn, will edit a collection even more valuable than his own. There is, of course, a trick involved.

The setting is the primary interest here, intriguing but not very informative, as this world would doubtless consider primitive entities such as ourselves to be insufficiently evolved to appreciate the precious elegance of their milieu. The trick, however, is one that we can appreciate, in our own unadvanced way. Sneaky.

 

Kaleidotrope, Summer 2015

A good issue this quarter. A couple of the pieces are dark fantasy, strongly flavored with grue. I found only one real clunker. Maybe two.

“The Posthuman Condition” by Charlotte Ashley

The drawbacks of performance death art. Jesse is the stage manager for the posthuman band Carnopolis, posthuman in this case mostly meaning surgical modification.

Her own commitment to transhumanism had never gone beyond nanotech implants. She was a tech girl, really; a punked-up gadget-head with more virtual than real friends as far back as middle school. A neural upgrade that would allow her to interface with a wireless network? Sure, hook me up!

But H+ catered more to the biotech crowd, those freaks sharing blueprints for new organs or lighting systems spun from bioluminescent cephalopods. She’d exhausted her capacity to be shocked by what printed out of those spinners.

Or so she had believed before Michel’s performance suicide, which Krynn insists on leaving in situ for art’s sake. But this self-sacrifice is only the opening number.

Dark humor here with SFnal material. Jesse makes a lively narrator, as she punctuates her attempts to cope with invented monograph titles: Technological Transhumanism: Severing Ourselves from the Weaknesses of the Flesh. A Damn Good Idea From Jesse Bauman. I might also suggest: There’s no idea so crazy it won’t be embraced for fashion’s sake.

“Shuffle” by Jennifer K Oliver

Zombies—the brain-eating kind. Our narrator was Sarah when she was alive, and occasionally still remembers it after a full course of brains, but the cognitive boost fades quickly. Zombie point of view is pretty well done, for zombies, but I’m ambivalent on the conclusion.

“Bitter Medicine” by C A L

Here is a piece that starts with subtle strangeness in an artificially mannered world full of Beautiful People of the Fin de Siècle. Raoul is taking Percival from Paris to visit a friend in Siberia. Percival apparently once studied atomic theory at the Sorbonne with the Curies, but he’s suffering from amnesia; could this be the result of ODing on absinthe? There is a secret Arcane Society that they aren’t supposed to talk about. Arriving at Henral’s estate, they find him brewing up an elixir to restore his wife’s memory. He and Raoul perform tricks with matter transmission, which jog Percival’s memory.

The text is interleaved with provocative epigraphs, hinting at secrets. Eventually, the Reveal comes, and it’s worth waiting for, but there is yet more to come. Unusual premise with a strong aha! factor. Besides which, there are strong themes of memory and love.

–RECOMMENDED

“Chinese Poetry” by Robert Pritchard

Meta-mystery game with alternative solutions. Farcical fun for fans of this period genre, but I suspect readers may find some scenes offensive, notwithstanding the fact that the piece replicates attitudes which were commonplace in the bygone times that it satirizes.

“Her Mother’s Child” by Julie Sondra Decker

A world in which a Goddess chooses the right mate for every child at age fifteen. The narrator’s daughter is approaching that age; the mother has never been able to communicate with Iris, and this isn’t because she’s lost her voice for reasons we don’t know. Readers will know Iris’s secret a long time before the author stops repeating herself and comes on with the Reveal. A lesson story, a really old lesson, repetitively told and quite dully, too.

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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