Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-July

 

Publications Reviewed

 

Interzone, July/August 2015

A strong SFnal issue. I’m especially enthusiastic about the Leonard story. But I want to remark on one thing after reading the Jonathan McCalmont editorial, in which he urges British SF to take back its own scene: how very overtly American the Tobler and Leonard pieces are.

“Silencer—Head Like a Hole Remix” by E Catherine Tobler

School shootings: a hellish vision. The narrator and partner, apparently once victims of such a shooting, are now serial perpetrators in the afterworld, hoping to find a way out. Which there isn’t. That’s the precise point of hell.

We are trapped, as are they all, in an endless and bloody loop, and there are no what ifs, not until Glasser starts spewing them from his cracked lips like he’s discovered the cat can be both dead and alive and also always always always bleeding to death in the same goddamn instant.

This is one of those “what the hell is going on here” stories that eventually resolve into a coherent image but still leave unanswered questions that we consider essential, such as, “Why me?” “Why these two?” But then, that’s what all the victims ask.

“The Deep of Winter” by Chris Butler

A prequel to this author’s series in which people emit spores that signal their emotions to others. Because some persons’ spores are more powerful, a coercive aristocracy has been built on them. Here, our protagonist is Sebastián, trusted servant of the Winter Duke, a member of his Guard. People have been reported missing, and the Duke has ordered the Guard to search the buried old city, where trespass has long been forbidden. Sebastián’s narrative alternates with that of Aluna, a mad scientist from an alternate world, ambitious to experiment with other realities, regardless of the consequences to the inhabitants of those worlds. When they meet in the buried city, questions are answered at last.

Aluna makes a fine villain, with the psychopathic self-absorption that makes her entirely indifferent to the fate of others.

She reached down and took his hand in hers. The life went out of him then, and he stopped breathing.

“He had nothing more to tell me,” she said. I thought at the time that she sounded sad about it. But now I think it was a kind of disappointment she felt, if she could be said to feel anything at all.

And it’s quite interesting to see the origin of the spores and how this society has evolved because of them. Particularly noteworthy is the comparison between Aluna and the Winter Duke. But it’s much more interesting, I’m sure, to those readers already familiar with the setting and how it works, and unfortunately less so to others.

“Rush Down, Roar Gently” by Sara Saab

Pity Beirut. After decades of civil war, assassinations, and oppressive government, the place is now drowning in endless rain. Punishment from heaven? Most people have long since moved away—away from Lebanon if they could manage it. Aya remains, largely out of guilt. Once, she and her friend Zeina were high on confidence, fully engaged in action. Because who else could save Beirut if not its own people?

She had declared a people’s takeover, a peaceful coup. They had come in droves, her supporters, to stage rallies and sit-ins millions strong. They called her Lady Spartacus, waved flags printed with her profile. At the height of it, she had been flanked by hundreds of protesters as she walked up the steps to the Presidential Palace and knocked on the door, demanding the President’s resignation.

They failed. Zeina gave up. She’d made plans to move to Paris, and when Aya came to persuade her to remain, she committed a terrible sin, stealing Zeina’s passport and travel documents. It was the last time she’d seen her. Now there’s a clear sense that she feels the perpetual rain is her doing, her punishment. She decides she has to give the documents back, even if she’s washed away in the flooded streets while attempting to reach her.

A depressing piece, a tale of hopelessness, when nothing can save a people from themselves. I take particular note of the story’s cross-genre character. The flooding of Beirut could well be considered either SF or fantasy, depending on the reader’s interpretation, while Aya’s personal history is apparently part of an AH, in which events took place similar but not identical to those in our timeline. It gives us pause for thought—if things had been different. If they could have been.

“After His Kind” by Richard W Strachan

A crashed-spaceship story. One man survived the wreck, though suffering the loss of an arm, that began to heal with unusual rapidity in the atmosphere of this new, fecund world. Years later, his progeny have begun to populate it, while he stands apart, a Father-god. The author sows the ground with symbolism before the crash, as the character experiments on other creatures in his shipboard lab–a bit obvious, there. But what we don’t see is whatever inspired the man to take unto himself the attributes of a god and set himself apart. Was this tendency already in him, or did the world incubate it? An unusual, weird imagery that’s slightly distasteful, on that account.

“Edited” by Rich Larson

Future teenagers. The nameless narrator met Wyatt on the basketball team, making for an unlikely friendship, because Wyatt’s family is rich and privileged, getting him Edited for his sixteenth birthday. Now, after Wyatt’s recovery, he has the narrator and their friend Dray out for the weekend at his parents’ beach house. And what the narrator wants to know but doesn’t want to ask is: what was done in the Edit, how Wyatt is different now? Then everything changes when the narrator is finally able to get Wyatt alone without Dray between them.

This is a short piece, and the first half is pretty much occupied with being disgusted at Dray, who is all kinds of an ass. But it turns in the end to a painfully heartbreaking scene.

“Sorry,” Wyatt says again. “Didn’t think you’d care so much.” He grabs my hand and weaves the fingers tight. I look at his bony white knuckles on my brown ones and wonder how different you have to be before you’re a different person.

The hurtful betrayal is effectively done, from the leadup to the final cut. I do wish the author hadn’t gone quite so far overboard with the revolting portrayal of the token heterosexual shithead creep.

“Midnight Funk Association” by Mack Leonard

Winner of the magazine’s James White Award for non-professional authors. I was especially impressed with the quality of last year’s winner. This one, while quite different, measures up.

Our central character is Bunchess Taylor, impresario of the near-future Detroit techno sound, dropping sets at the Midnight Funk Association. But Bunchess is getting older and starting to burn out, which he won’t admit to himself, so he’s outsourced the creation of new sounds to a white boy and his impressive collection of high-tech audio gear. The white boy can be overenthusiastic, and now he’s on about some background noise he’s discovered that he claims is distorting the real sound. Bunchess denies it at first, but after a bong hit while trying to listen to an old favorite piece, he comes around to the truth.

That kid is fucking right, thought Bunchess as he smoked. There used to be something else about the music in this town. It used to have a different attitude. It used to have funk. And now everything was going to the dogs.

The white kid tracks down the signal to one of those sinister corporate sites with uniformed guards and razor wire surrounding “a vertical fixture, technical steel, five stories high, with an elaborate crown of electronic apparatus.” Bunchess doesn’t like that kind of place; he won’t go inside. His instincts are right, though at first he doesn’t know how right.

This is a character story, and Bunchess is a well-drawn character with a strong voice, a consummate master of denial. Among the things he doesn’t at first admit to himself is the tight bond between himself and the white kid, based on their mutual devotion to the true Detroit sound.

As he drove away, he played a song that he had listened to when he was young, ‘Hot Box’ by The Preps. Hearing it made him feel powerful again. When he got home, he decided, he would take his Bordeaux Jordans out the closet. The time had come to wear them.

–RECOMMENDED

 

Clarkesworld, July 2015

Five original science fiction stories here, all of which miss a bit in one way or another.

“When Your Child Strays from God” by Sam J Miller

Right out of the gate, the text signals to readers with the name Carolina Bugtuttle that this is a story not to take seriously—absurdity or farce. Besides which, our narrator Beth, mother of Timmy, evokes all too strongly those demented Old Spice commercials. Beth is also the properly submissive wife of Pastor Jerome, who has become ever more the tyrant since the boy’s adolescence.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So when Timmy fails to come home one night, Beth dares to drop an empathetic drug he’s been using, in hopes that it will link her to him. What it links to are mainly shared hallucinations, which only amplify the atmosphere of craziness as filtered through Beth’s stream of altered consciousness. Alas, the tone of dark gonzo humor fades once we finally locate Timmy, in circumstances that readers will have long predicted. By the end, Beth has started to channel Pastor Jerome and deliver sermons.

Which brings me back to Carolina Bugtuttle. This person plays no actual role in the story, never appears, even when Beth is at her house, where she’s conveniently absent. And the Bugtuttle husband isn’t a Bugtuttle but a Goldfarb. Now there are several plausible explanations for this [such as the name being made up by Beth in mockery], but what I see is the author using the Bugtuttlizing, dinosaur hallucinations and other gonzoid tricks as teasers to pull readers into the story, making it entertaining and fun until the time comes to deliver the message at which he had been aiming all along, when the crazy is now counterproductive and gets put away. Too bad, I was enjoying the crazy.

Aside from the spidery drug, there’s not much of a SFnal nature here.

“Further North” by Kay Chronister

Here’s a strange setting and stranger premise, more than just an alternate history in which Russia owns Alaska and is apparently on friendly terms with Turkey. No Crimean war? It also seems they have a new strain of giant hookworm [really giant, ie, boulder size] deadly to all ruminants. When Aliye, eldest daughter of a Turkish family who used to be goat herders before the advent of the hook, came down with a paralytic disease, they panicked, ostensibly out of fear for her, but in fact for the reputation of the family.

No doctor has tended Aliye since Baba first suspected that the hook had passed from our goats to his oldest daughter. The first human host to a parasite like the helminths wouldn’t be treated and released; they’d be quarantined, isolated, possibly put down. Before Aliye, the hook only happened to sheep and goats and cattle. Everyone thought humans were immune.

So Hafsa took her sister to Alaska, where no one from Turkey knows them, and goes into business bleeding the giant hookworms that lie frozen and dormant on the permafrost; the blood is valuable for medical research. They both hate this life for different reasons, but it all changes when Aliye decides to attempt a cure that will allow her to walk normally.

There’s a lot of imagination in this setting, but also a lot that gives off the tone of wrong. I have to keep reminding myself—this isn’t our world, things can work differently. Yet I’m not wholly convinced, and there’s no definitive answer to a lot of my questions; the author isn’t into explaining how this history/world came to be. Which is OK, because essentially, this is a story of family. Hafsa has sacrificed a lot for her sister’s sake, and besides, she’s ended up supporting the rest of her entire family from her blood farming. Aliye hates it that Hafsa has ruined her life for her sake. When they eventually return home to Turkey, their reception from the family isn’t what either of them had hoped. The contrast is between selfishness and selflessness, with a depressing look at the place of women in this society. It’s clear that matters would have been different if either Hafsa or Aliye had been a son.

“Android Whores Can’t Cry” by Natalia Theodoridou

Near the end of this piece, we get this excerpt from Aliki’s notes:

I know I’ll never finish this article—I still haven’t even decided on the title, or what this story is really about. What do you think? I might have called it:
Massacre Market
or
The Mechanical Reproduction of Violence: Truth, Massacre, History
or even
Android Whores Can’t Cry: Under the Surface of Death Meditation

Which suggests that even the narrator doesn’t really know what this story is all about, but it’s one of those jigsaw-puzzle pieces, thrown up in the air for readers to assemble where they randomly land, and it’s pretty certain that no one will end up with exactly the same image; there may be pieces left over that seem to fit in no particular place. I see it as a story about violence, abuse and oppression, as well as passive resistance. There are two primary threads, violence writ on a large and a small scale: first, the ruling tyranny that conducts the massacres and leaves the remains for the people to memorialize, which is all they can do; second, the android Brigitte who serves as Aliki’s local guide and the sexual punching bag for Aliki’s local host. In the assembly of these threads, each should cast its light on the other/s. The image found here is a fairly static one, particularly the larger scale of violence; the events we see have already taken place. Actions taken on the smaller scale have to suffice. Because of the lack of immediacy, I find the story less moving than it might have been.

“Hunger Tower” by Pan Haitian, translated by Nick Stember

A spaceship crashes on a barren world, leaving the passengers facing death from heat, starvation, and a predatory beast that follows them a manner highly symbolic—of something. They have hope of reaching a distant tower, but when the male survivors [the women and children having all succumbed suspiciously to hardship] arrive, they find the tower and its surroundings quite deserted. The tower had been the site of a monastery, and one survivor, a priest of a different tradition, finds it conducive to meditation. Outside, however, the rest of the men descend further into barbarism. The conclusion is ironic, but by that time, readers will have lost sympathy for them.

The plot is pretty conventional, and only the meditation scenes have real interest. But there’s something off about the prose, and I’m not sure whether to ascribe this to the original, the translation, or lapses in copyediting. All of the above is a possibility:

“Please search the wreckage for things that may be of use to us and share them with the group. If we are to be rescued, then we must band together in this time calamity,” the captain said. It comforted them all a little to look up at his ruggedly unyielding gray eyes, his muscular neck, his sturdy and well-defined chest.

Overall, I’ve been enjoying this series of translations, but this one is a disappointment.

“Snakes” by Yoon Ha Lee

A vast and disastrous war has killed Rhiis-2, the ship’s pilot. Rhiis-1, once the gunner, has now become the ship itself, taking her soldier-sister’s preserved corpse to a place where she hopes she can be revived. On the journey, memories and dreams.

Snakes everywhere: the crenellations of her brain, silent of electric flickers. Flaccid blood vessels. Winding ropes of intestine. Snakes.

As usual, the prose is the thing in one of the author’s pieces of literary military SF. This time, however, there isn’t a lot original underneath, a tale of undying love, but we’ve seen those.

 

Apex, July 2015

In this issue, we have one SF, one fantasy, and one neither. The featured story is by Rich Larson, who also appears in the current Interzone, above.

“Going Endo” by Rich Larson

Nominally military SF, but focusing on sex. Space battles are fought by organic battle “ships” that serve as exo-organisms, each with an “endos” who partners/pilots them, enclosed within their body cavities; organic communication and control links join the two. Our nameless narrator is a tech who maintains the exos, and he has a strong affinity for them, particularly for the veteran Puck. But his connection with exos goes way beyond the professional. One night while having desultory virtual sex, he overlays his partner with the cyber skin of an exo.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid effort. The vanes curled and flexed the right way, and the hide was smooth and dark as pitch, none of this glitter stuff. Feris’ base skelly was still human-size, of course, but that worked out better, almost, since I was halfway enveloped in slip-slidey flesh every time I pushed into the space the program estimated her quinny to be at.

And after that, things go further.

This is some kinky erotic stuff in a setting where casual sex is a given but some activities may still be considered perverted. With regard to which, it’s important to note that Puck has full agency in the relationship, even initiates contact. Nameless [this is a case where I consider his lack of a name to be a definite narrative flaw] has genuine admiration and affection for Puck and seriously resents the way her endo sometimes neglects or even abuses her. Some uptight persons may object to this or that about the relationship, but everyone involved seems content from this side of the screen. There’s a clear contrast between the normative sex which Nameless usually performs, in which the partners are so disengaged from each other they mask over their real appearance. His relationship with Puck is based on real caring and true, unmasked intimacy. Readers may be wondering where things might move on from that point, whether the narrator will indeed go endo in a professional way, but the story leaves it there, which is fine. Stories need to end somewhere.

“All Who Tremble” by A A Balaskovits

This one opens with a vexing grammar problem, where it’s not clear if “they” refers to the strange family or to the rest of the town’s denizens. Unfortunate editorial inattention there. The townspeople fear the strange family because of a whirring, clanking vibration that emanates from the basement of their house. The daughter of the strange family fears it, too, but she and her brother are forbidden to go down there.

The plaster and wood of the house trembled beneath her, but nothing quaked as greatly as her body. Her skin pulled away, stretched thin and taut. She was beaten upon by the whir and her skin beat back. There was so much wonderful whizzing and whirring inside of her, how had she never noticed?

There’s fascinating weird stuff here in a sort of Eastern European setting from which the premise seems to be derived. It’s a vivid image of individuals who embrace dependency and flee responsibility for their own lives, but the piece is fragmentary.

“Never Chose This Way” by Shira Lipkin

Set in a past or alternate world where insurance pays for prolonged institutionalization of disturbed adolescents, along the well-worn lines of the story Girl Interrupted. The narrator employs transformative metaphors that are meant to be ambiguously fantastic but are clearly just metaphors. The narrator also engages in prolonged and repetitive self-pity.

When we went around the circle at group, the litany of why-are-you-here was generally “drugs”, “depression”, “family problems”. Time and again, “family problems”. And we would nod, we would accept that as code for “they wanted a good girl, but they got me instead, and now I am here.”

It’s all quite stale, and made no less so by the hints that the narrator’s “family problem” might be some form of non-normative sexuality. Women have been institutionalized for inconvenient manifestations of their sexuality since before the previous century. I find that because I don’t care about the narrator, her namelessness doesn’t bother me.

 

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, July 2015

A guest-edited issue from Michael J DeLuca, on a theme of “humanity’s relationship with the earth”. Such a theme gives me depressing thoughts, but this is by no means true of all these stories, many of which are positive. In which light, we have scenes featuring bodily decomposition and shit, processes that give back to the soil. As is often the case in this publication, a number of the pieces are very short, vignettes of several sorts. While there is fantasy and some slipstream stuff, the majority are set in more-or-less apocalyptic SFnal futures.

“I Bury Myself” by Carmen Maria Machado

The sequelae, done in a lyrical manner. The decomposing body hopes to one day nurture a tree. I quite like this, but I have to think the author minimizes the dying process, which tends not to be such an easy one.

“Starling Road” by Alena McNamara

A tale of hostile frontiers. The forces of the Empire are attempting inroads into the independent mountains—inroads literally, as they’ve constructed a road to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. Nisima lives in a border village through which the road now passes. One winter day a fugitive comes to their door, an escaped captive stone-singer of the mountain people. As the snow drifts prevent travel, Starling remains in the village and she and Nisima become lovers, knowing that, come spring, soldiers will return.

One of the issue’s conventionally plotted stories. It opens as if it were a sequel to previous events but otherwise is self-contained, even while acknowledging that the military conflict isn’t over. The story doesn’t make clear why Starling doesn’t want to return to her own people. It doesn’t seem to be simply for love of Nisima, which appears to be more of a while-this-lasts kind of affair, and it’s just as likely as Nisimia would go away with her.

What I like best here is the look at the uses of roads and of borders.

For the first time, I saw that the Emperor’s city and the mountain people both thought of us as a boundary to be rested or braced, an edge to hone like a knife-blade on a stone. I had always before felt myself, my village, to be the center.

Nisima will never feel that way again, no matter what else happens, but I suspect this is in part because of the nastiness and hostility of her neighbors.

This is one of the more human-centered, not earth-centered stories in the issue.

“Ape Songs” by Giselle Leeb

Not one of the issue’s conventionally plotted stories. It seems that humanity has laid waste to the natural Earth. Although people in the past made plans for its eventual restoration, these have been forgotten and distorted. They now revere a remaining natural “scraggy acre”, a “Peace of Earth”, without recalling why. There is an Ape of the Earth, which seems to be a robot, and a girl buried as a seed; these two figures alternate narratives as we see things, once again, go wrong.

A depressing piece, in the sense that there is and will a lot to be depressed about, concerning the Earth.

“For Me, Seek the Sun” by Michelle Vider

A dialogue on constipation. “i dream of the day you are free to shit again”. Out under the sun, that is, like the bear in the woods. Of course in today’s humanity-packed world, outdoor defecation is a serious health problem, as it likely was in the days of cabbage-gnawing peasants.

“Medea” by Deborah Walker

Irony. A prophet comes into a bar where the barman is trying to watch the footie on TV, while the players have to keep stopping for oxygen. The prophet declines to buy a hit and tells the barman that Earth is like Medea, not Gaia, killing its children. Me, I’d say it was the other way around.

“Jellyfish Dreaming” by D K McCutchen

Biology-based SF set in a future world in which many nations have been inundated by rising sea levels and so ruined by pollution that endocrine and hormone disruption have impaired the ability of most species to breed, including humans. So there seem to be no non-human species remaining more complex than jellyfish, which are thriving and form the basis of the diet for those who can afford it. Some street kids near the marketplace of one city appear to be true hermaphrodites, which has attracted the attention of researchers from a nearby university who hope to restore the human ability to breed—although it would seem that humans breeding is the source of the world’s problems. Jack is ostensibly one of them, but Jack is different in not-entirely-specified ways. For one, he is very, very old, although in form still a child. He hangs near the university hoping he can get some answers about himself from the researchers. While the text doesn’t directly reveal much about Jack in particular, we learn a great deal about a certain jellyfish: Turritopsis dohrnii, which is capable of reverting to its pre-sexual form under stress, thus being effectively immortal as well as being able to switch sexes. Jack currently [?] has a feminine side, named Jae.

While the idea here has intriguing potential, I can’t say it’s integrated too well into the story-of-Jack/Jae, much of the direct information coming in the way of infodump. But Jack isn’t a jellyfish, he’s a human who is apparently modeled on a particular jellyfish. He can’t have evolved that way, if indeed his DNA has jellyfish genes; he must have been engineered, and as the only specimen, thus his perpetual loneliness. Therein lies a potential story, but all we get of it are hints and jellyfish neep. There’s also a lot of unclearness about sexuality, which needs a lot more exploration than we get here. But endocrine disruption is something that’s already happening now, with a consequent increase in the ratio of female births over male. Yet in this setting, we apparently have an absence or shortage of females, except as female characteristics in intersex individuals—exactly the opposite of what would be expected.

“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” by Sofia Samatar

The narrator, along with a pair of cats, is stationed on a one-person communications space station, where she wants to stay, effectively, for life, having always been a person who not only tolerates solitude, but needs it. From orbit, while she recalls her unsatisfactory past life, she can look down on Earth. “At this distance, everything’s clear. I know where I’m from.” Which is, in part, the lands of the Dogon tribe in Mali, who have claimed they were once visited by aliens that might [who knows?] one day return. Readers may well wonder if she gets her extension, but I suspect she will, because what’s twenty more years when they’ve already gone for ten?

“Putting Down Roots” by M E Garber

It seems that researchers are experimenting with human photosynthesis, in consequence of which, Anni is turning into a tree, or more accurately entering a vegetative stage of life. This is a short epistolary piece addressed to Anni’s best friend, in which she goes through stages of acceptance. Readers really should compare this one with the Machado, above. In both, contentment lies in the growth of a tree.

“The March Wind” by Eric Gregory

An apocalypse may not come in an instant but gradually, as structures erode. In this near future, Caroline and Shannon find themselves in dead-end jobs teaching at a third-rate college where they become lovers. Caroline would like to leave, if she can find something better. Shannon can’t, in large part because of her disabled mother, who refuses to leave her home in a town that no outsider can reach without a guide and where no machinery will work. These isolated, occluded towns have been subsumed into the expanding wilderness, with shifting boundaries that can’t be mapped. Now Shannon is taking Caroline there in a last attempt to break the three-way impasse.

The occluded towns, where Earth is reasserting its dominion, are a powerful symbol of the erosion of human hope and possibilities. Shannon sees them as a consequence of humanity’s failure to control its technology. But Annie, her mother, has a different, more optimistic, opinion.

“I think nature is inexhaustible, and there are long cycles in the order of things, long tides that come in and go out. Maybe every hundred thousand years, the system of the world changes, and we’ve only just now had occasion to notice. I love being in a place like that. I want to dwell in the inexhaustibility.”

Thus we see how the conflict between these three characters is rooted in fundamentally different individual views of the world, different needs, as well as love, which pulls them together while other factors push them apart. While the point of view belongs more to Caroline, Shannon is the story’s center, the person tied to both of the others. She’s angry with Caroline for wanting to move on, with her mother for anchoring her there. Someone is going to have to give up something she values, something she loves, even if they all end up understanding each other more fully.

–RECOMMENDED

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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