Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: Mid-July 2010


Publications Reviewed


Analog, September 2010

One of the most enjoyable issues of this magazine that I’ve read in quite a while.

“That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone

The narrator, Harry Malan, is the new President of the small Mormon congregation on Sol Central Station, which includes a number of the vast plasma solcetaceans, also known as swales. His ministry is not appreciated by the scientists who have come to the station to study the swales and regard it as interference with an alien race. Malan is aware that human moral strictures may not apply directly to a race of beings with, for example, three sexes, but he perseveres, upheld by his faith. Then, by accident, he manages to both interest and offend the largest and oldest of the swales, Leviathan, regarded by them as their creator, which she possibly is. Leviathan is not pleased that minor members of her race would prefer an alien god to herself.

My heart sank on reading the first two pages of this one, in which a virago scientist – a sexy one – harangues Malan on the sins of interference. But matters improved quickly, as the characters proved to be reasonable and well-rounded human beings, despite their conflicting viewpoints, who even managed to work together. And the sincere faith of Harry Malan managed to make me sympathize with his religious mission, which is a very hard sale indeed.

“Pupa” by David D Levine

Aliens. Ksho is a juvenile of her species, of no significance whatsoever to the adults until after she molts and pupates. The time of this transition is approaching rapidly, but before she can begin the process her parent is murdered. She had been an agent of the Great Nest sending reports about corruption among the representatives dealing with the native species on Earth. With no living parent, Ksho and her siblings are doomed. In desperation, she goes through the portal to Earth to seek help.

The aliens remind me a bit of the regul from Cherryh’s Faded Sun series, and Levine describes them fairly convincingly, even if the details, such as no one ever noticing the juveniles, are awfully convenient for his plot. I am less convinced that an alien, or anyone, is able to simply walk into the White House and meet what seems to be the president’s young daughter. From the moment Ksho reaches Earth, this story exchanges credibility and realistic tension for improbable sentimentality.

“Eight Miles” by Sean McMullen

In 1840, Harold Parkes is a scientist, inventor and balloonist who makes a living taking wealthy clients on sightseeing trips over London. Lord Gainsley is different. He wants to ascend to a great height with a nonhuman female he calls Angelica, as she has fallen from heaven or some place of high altitude. On the Earth’s surface, she is sluggish and dull, but the higher she rises above it, the more active her mind becomes, revealing fantastic secrets that make it clear she has come from another world. It is her secrets that Gainsley covets, and Parkes is the only balloonist who can take him up to eight miles. But he increasingly realizes that Gainsley can’t be trusted.

As a compulsive categorizer, I suppose I’d have to call this one steampunk. It combines scientific rigor at the level of the time with fantastic visions of a world that might be Mars or somewhere far beyond it. And of course balloons.

My mind was filled with visions of vast, gleaming things that glided through blackness, and blossoms of fire that became twinkling clouds of glitter.

Pretty neat stuff and well done.


“Spludge” by Richard A Lovett

In high school, William once filled the swimming pool with gelatin. As he grew older, his interest in practical jokes became more abstract, until one April 1, when the green aliens landed. As a student of practical jokes, William can tell the aliens are pulling a big one. The question becomes, how to top it.

Fun stuff, imaginative and slightly gross, as a practical joke should be.

“Red Letter Day” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Once in a lifetime, at age fifty, everyone in the US is entitled to write a letter to their eighteen-year-old self. The letter is delivered just before high school graduation. On her own Red Letter Day, the narrator received nothing, and the omission has haunted her entire life since. She is now a high school counselor whose special charge is the students who do not receive a red letter from their future self.

I learned to wear something I didn’t like years ago; too many kids will cry on me by the end of the day, covering the blouse with slobber and makeup and aftershave.

A fairly unusual take on the time travel paradox, full of speculation about the conflict between foreknowledge and freedom. It raises interesting questions, but a bit too talky; it would have been a better story with less unnecessary backgrounding.

“Flotsam” by K C Ball

Space. Something hits the Mary Shelley, an orbital debris sweeper.

There had been an explosion within the equipment module, as well, large enough to blow out the away side of the cylinder and send bits of metal and plastic shrapnel spewing into space. The other two solar arrays on the far side of Mary Shelley were chewed to pieces by that new debris and a piece of it had struck Zoë.

Because of cost-cutting by the corporate beancounters, their lifesupport will fail before a rescue ship can reach them. It’s up to newcomer Quin to prove himself and find a way to save all three of them.

True science fiction, a typical SF problem story with technological ingenuity saving the day and incidentally solving the characters’ personal problems as well.

“The View from the Top” by Jerry Oltion

Space again. Michael is an astronaut, living his ultimate dream as a crewmember on the International Space Station. But an old problem resurfaces – Michael suddenly can’t control his emotions; he bursts into tears at unpredictable moments. If he can’t manage to control the tears, he’ll have to leave the station and never return to space.

Tears didn’t run in free fall; they built up into big globs that eventually broke free and quivered their way around the hab module until they eventually got sucked into one of the myriad circulation fans. Not a problem if the fan was just blowing into an air recycler—those were designed to deal with high humidity—but most of the fans on board cooled electronic equipment. Splashing salt water on a live circuit could make more than just Michael cry.

Another problem story, this one with a simple solution. Notable mainly for its realistic depiction of the practical problems of everyday life on a space station.

“Sandbagging” by Kyle Kirkland

It had seemed like such a good idea to put an advanced artificial intelligence in charge of the world. A world without politics, no more bias. It was a worthy goal. Rational decisionmaking would prevail. Or so people thought.

Until the AI takes control of the world’s electronic and information systems. Scientists conclude that the AI has decided that the human population needs to be reduced by half. Quinton knows that his own research might yield a solution, but whom should he choose to protect? And who can he trust with the secret? Who is worthy of living when others die?

“It seemed like a good idea at the time” needs to be enshrined with “If this goes on” as one of the essential motifs of science fiction. Quinton gains painful insight into human nature, although I’m not sure that the backstabbing existence of an academic department makes the best model; in consequence the story is oversimplistic and rather flat.


Asimov’s, August 2010

Some degraded societies, some revenge in this month’s stories.

“Crimes, Follies, Misfortunes, and Love” by Ian Creasey

This is apparently a sequel of sorts to the author’s fine “Erosion,” depicting an Earth in collapse. Now the collapse is in the past and euphemistically called the Transition. Sonia barely remembers these years, but on her father’s death she becomes obsessed with attempting to recapture his memories. She belongs to a group that sifts through ancient trivia, seeking out traces of her family, and through this she discovers that her father once had a recording device implanted in his skull, a device she might retrieve.

The trouble with stories about trivia and banality is that they risk being trivial and banal. The story of Sonia’s grief and obsession is drowned in a landfill of the trivial, what seems like an entire society fixated on the follies and minutiae of a culture they despise for it.

“Warning Label” by Alexander Jablokov

Here is a world where everyone has implants that overlay reality with virtual labels and tags, often to the point where the underlying reality is totally obscured. Sometimes there is no underlying reality. Groom is a sort of tag hacker and he is trying to help his friend Wedge clear away the rampant growth of tags totally overwhelming a monument to a former charismatic politician, now discredited. But someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure the monument remains hidden. And someone keeps undoing Groom’s efforts to restore it.

The other two monuments in the Emergency Management Director’s spot were definitely missing. Now that he was looking, he could see their own swarms of tags, mostly notes to school groups about historical context, and a few rude responses from students about what their subjects looked like or probably smelled like.

Here is SF as it ought to be done: an intriguing premise, a fully-realized setting with its own history, a story worth following, a mystery worth solving, lively narrative and dialogue from the characters.


“Slow Boat” by Gregory Norman Bossert

Space adventure. NaN wakes to find herself shanghaied, inside a life-support coffin in a spacecraft unmanned except for herself and headed to Mars, very slowly. She concludes that her hacking activities must have seriously pissed someone off, and she has plenty of time to plan payback, as soon as she figures out who’s behind her abduction.

NaN was frantically scanning for some sort of corporate logo, business card, pinup calendar, whatever. The console was sullenly blank, so she went through the cabinets; a toolkit, made in China, that was no help; two emergency one-size-fits-all space suits, less stinky than hers, but far more flimsy, duct tape aside; a dozen bottles of air for the same, which could be useful; four packets snacks-ready-to-eat, and four liters of water, half a liter of which disappeared in a few painful gulps.

A problem story with an intriguing set of problems and a protagonist quite equal to them. Revenge stories are sweet.

“Superluminosity” by Alan Wall

Jack has seriously pissed off his wife, and the price of forgiveness is high.

“You want me to travel back two centuries to buy a leather bag for you?”

“You said anything. And you still have that machine…what was it called?”

” A Tachyon Constellator.”

“That’s illegal as well, isn’t it? Hidden in the shed back there.”

” I don’t even know if it still works.”

“Well, if you love me as much as you say, now’s your chance to find out, Jack.” In order to retrieve the illegal leather, Jack has to enter the capsule and signal for his wife, the one who is pissed off at him, to initiate his return. Or else he will continue to travel backwards in time at increasing velocity, forever.

More sweetness, a neat, amusing little story with, alas, large ugly lumps of needless info dumped into it.

“The Lovely Ugly” by Carol Emshwiller

Aliens. Colonists from Earth land on the planet, where the people are not happy to see them.

We said, Oh, no, not more smart people… if people they are… if smart… (but they do have to be fairly intelligent to get here in the first place)… but we’re already full up. There are limits to how big a population a world can hold comfortably, and so that everybody has fun.

Unfortunately, the aliens are having too much fun.

A number of sharp skewers poked into human arrogance and prejudice, but the aliens, and particularly the narrator, must bear much of the responsibility as well. This one gives an unusual slant to one of the most common SFnal scenarios.

“The Battle of Little Big Science” by Pamela Rentz

Every year, Agnes’s time travel project, the Pacific Northwest History Viewer, gets less and less funding from the tribal Consortium. Agnes is full of sincerity and enthusiasm about the ability to look back at the ancestors before their way of life was corrupted. She is sure the people will appreciate it, but the tribal elders are tired of hearing about it – they want a demonstration that Agnes foolishly refuses to give them on the grounds that her working model isn’t spiffy enough.

This just doesn’t make sense. Agnes actually has a working time viewer, but she refuses to demonstrate it, which results in her funding being cut so she can’t perfect the model. She wants to make the elders understand what she is doing, but she won’t do the one thing that will make them understand. Agnes’s problem is an artificial one of her own creation, which makes me less interested in whether she solves it.

“The Witch, the Timan, the Flies” by J M Sidorova

Historical fiction. In the post-war Stalinist era, eight-year-old Nina is fascinated by her neighbor, a woman her mother calls the Witch. The Witch is a scientist, studying the genetics of fruit flies. She tells Nina that her research might lead to a cure for her congenital heart defect. But her science is not politically correct, and the lab is shut down by the authorities.

“Because at this historical moment true patriots must not waste their time studying defective fruit flies and instead should focus on generating superior varieties of corn and wheat to feed our country on its path towards communism.”

There is no contrary-to-fact here, only a poignant story of an era in which ideology ruined many lives.

“On the Horizon” by Nick Wolven

In a near future world of brutality and poverty, the narrator grew up learning that violence is the only way to survive. Instead of prison, he was sentenced to become a sort of receiver for negative vibes, to be used by the authorities to channel the negative emotions surrounding a crime and identify the perpetrator.

The body lies covered on a metal table. He plucks at the sheet. I see pale fingers underneath. That’s all it takes. I turn away, blinking furiously.

This is an oppressive dystopian setting, a world in which the value of a human being has been entirely degraded until death seems preferable to such an existence. The narrator, a murderer, seems to be the only individual capable of feeling; the system that abuses and exploits him is soulless. The details of the crime he is dragged out to solve are mostly inconsequential; the focus is on the milieu. A depressing read, not a fun one.


Realms of Fantasy, August 2010

Superheroes, vampires, zombies, dragons. Only four pieces of fiction in this issue, although the first is longer than usual for this zine.

“Super Family” by Ian Donald Keeling

Magnetic Man has had a hard day, his wife is permanently pissed at him, and now she’s in a screaming match with their teenage daughter when he comes in the door, late getting home to take her to a rock concert. Then things get worse.

This is more a story of family relationships, trust and forgiveness, than a superhero story, although there is plenty of superhero stuff – perhaps too many superheroes. It’s hard to take superheroes seriously, but this story does, and the characters do rise above the cartoon original.

“Father Peña’s Last Dance” by Hannah Strom-Martin

Father Peña has not been a model priest. He long ago fell in love with a woman.

“My religion is Maria. Father Delmo and Father Sanchez – they knew it, even before she vanished. My heart had not been God’s for sometime.”

But the vampires took Maria from the dance floor during a tango, and he has never seen her again. One day a woman comes to him for help recovering her own lover from the vampires. She wants him to teach her the tango.

I am always wary of vampires in these benighted days of “paranormal romance,” but those in this story are properly damned wraiths “unfit for human sight,” even if they do the tango. They are, after all, Argentinean vampires. The story turns out to be a variation of the Orpheus myth, in dance rather than lyresong. But I do wish the author hadn’t named her characters Cole and Ash.


“Seagull Girl’s Butterfly Tongue” by Sara Genge

Michael is one of the last human survivors, under siege in his basement by the zombie horde. He calls them zombies, but in fact they are composite creatures, “a collection of lesser brains pulling together in gross imitation of a Human being.” They want Michael to join them. They want to enjoy and preserve his memories. Resistance and individuality are futile. But Mike isn’t buying it.

The images are fascinating in a gross way.

Seagull Girl’s seagull landed back on her head. Her eyes were moths and her chin, tarantula grey. Barnacles hung from her nipples. She hadn’t had those before.

“[Dragon]” by T D Edge

In Gertrude’s kingdom, princes don’t have to meet the dragon before they are eligible to take the throne, but princesses do. Gertrude is the first princess to be heir to the kingdom in over a hundred years, and she suspects that earlier kings got rid of their daughters as an inconvenience. Readers may suspect that the princes were originally supposed to meet the dragon, too. But meet the dragon Gertrude must and does. Unfortunately, the dragon turns the story didactic.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 2010

A really fine selection of fiction for this month, a fantastic costume ball.


“The Six Skills of Madame Lumiere” by Marissa Lingen

Madame’s house is in a city shared by humans and fae, where the Rust Lords are hated and feared by both. The Rust Lords have taken a dangerous interest in the power of a young, innocent noblewoman, and her relatives have applied to Madame for aid. It is Madame’s gatekeeper who promises to help, because Madame’s most important skill is choosing those she knows she can trust with her secrets.

Madame is quick from place to place. Madame knows. The places that will not lie still from one second to another make paths for her, smooth and easy and quiet, so quiet.

The narrative voice is fresh, the Rust Lords make an interesting addition to the usual fairy cast, and there is some nice fantasy scenery, along with a very large steam cleaner, which I would imagine useful in a house like Madame’s.

“The Isthmus Variation” by Kris Millering

The narrator is a member of a company of tableau players, actors who hold stationary poses in archetypical roles; Kothin is now playing the Tempter. The pinnacle of their art is the Slow Game, in which a series of seemingly disconnected scenes succeed each other, forming a story that the audience, as it wanders through the scenes, must interpret. Now they have been summoned to perform at a party in the Impia’s grounds, and the Impia has commanded the Isthmus Variation, “a performance without pity for the audience.”

The actual fantasy elements here are inconsequential. What is truly fantastic is the meticulously crafted, highly mannered setting and the details of the Slow Game itself.

I took a breath in; now for the reward. As I breathed out, I slowly raised my head, moving just quickly enough to catch her eye. I spread my hands a little, lifting them towards her, and gave her a smile full of wicked promises.

The tableau theatre is a particularly fascinating invention, a stylized, formal art with elements of Kabuki in its elaborate costumes and makeup, though nearly motionless and silent, like stationary mime. It would be a neat thing to experience such a performance, although preferably not the Isthmus Variation.

“The Territorialist” by Yoon Ha Lee

Jeris is a guard captain in the city of Spine, where power grows out of bones. Spine is comprised of several semiautonomous territories, each held by a territorialist. The territorialist of Circle Circle Six has gone rogue, and Jeris must intervene. But this requires crossing the territories on the way, which is hazardous even under normal circumstances.

The Avenue, which served as neutral ground for anyone cocky enough to trust the neutrals, was one of Jeris’s favorite beats. As a first-year guard, he had started out here. He knew the corners and drainage pipes like the calluses on his feet. During those days, he had almost bled to death twice. The troubles on the Avenue recognized him as one of their own.

Here is dark dark fantasy, horror crowding on horror, so that it is hard to believe Spine is a place where ordinary people can actually live. A powerful imaginative creation, with a strong narrative voice as a foil that makes the intensely oppressive atmosphere bearable, increasing its interest.

“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

The narrator is a young man living in an empire where males are highly subordinate to women. He has disguised himself as a woman in hopes of entering the temple of seeresses, but he is not the only person at the Silver Fish Teahouse under a false identity. One of the regulars is a goblin disguised as human, who takes an interest in the narrator for reasons that are partly sexual but primarily political. They discover that they share a purpose.

“To throw a stone into the pond, as it were. Perhaps open the way for other men, if the ripples I make are large enough.”

This is a lovely fantasy, mannered and sensuous. There is also a subtle subtext about the nature of gender roles that rouses echoes of our own culture.


Tor.com, July 2010

July is urban fantasy and paranormal romance month at this site, at which my reaction is quite mixed. Urban fantasy can be fine stuff and if it is to be revived, I applaud this. On the other hand, I would applaud the burial of paranormal romance; indeed, I would enthusiastically help dig the hole. Just to get this upfront.

It does not seem, however, that this month’s original fiction selections were selected as particularly representative of these subgenres.

“Olga” by C T Adams

Olga’s sister and her husband have been murdered, an ancient and powerful grimoire stolen. Now the villain has kidnapped Olga’s niece and is holding her hostage for another powerful grimoire, full of evil spells. She challenges him to a duel.

Alex spoke the ritual words, his voice ringing with power as it bounced off of the rocks, echoing through our makeshift arena. Back to back, Piotr and I each sent our power outward, creating a circle of magical fire that enclosed us. This would contain our magic and prevent any interference from those outside the ring. The circle would stand until either or both of us fell.

What to call this? The setting is contemporary – Olga is an earth mage who has been working to stabilize the Haitian earthquake. Yet such details are cosmetic; this story is essentially Yet Another magical duel between good and evil mages, complete with a sneering villain. The sophistication, the mannered or gritty tone that readers usually expect from the best urban fantasy is missing. But happily, although a kiss is exchanged, it doesn’t cross the line into the territory of romance.

“Fare Thee Well” by Cathy Clamp

Lia Thantos [the name is a giveaway] is the daughter of a family of morticians who wants to continue the business, so it’s natural that she gets a summer internship in the local morgue. [I’m not so sure it’s natural for the morgue to take fifteen-year-olds as interns, however.] There is one unusual rule in this morgue, about the disposition of newly-arrived bodies. But when an accident leaves Lia alone in the morgue to handle the bodies, she is unable to shift an overweight corpse. The consequences are unexpected and dire.

Essentially, this is a variation on the deal-with-the-devil story, but the circumstances are just too contrived. That there would be no morgue attendant on duty. That the ambulance driver would not help Lia with the body. That her father, who knows the supernatural secret of the morgue quite well, would not have warned her. And this is granting the supernatural premise, which it itself a bit of a stretch.


Subterranean, Summer 2010

The Subterranean Press website has commenced posting the material which will eventually comprise its summer issue.

“Amor Vincit Omnia” by K J Parker

School for wizards, graduate division. Of course, the Fellows and students of the Studium don’t use the W-word. They are natural philosophers, scientists, if you please, to whom one of the most dangerous things is an unschooled adept. Such a person, not knowing what has been proved to be impossible, might be very dangerous indeed. Thus is it with an untrained wizard who has been setting people on fire just by looking at them. This does not particularly worry the Studium, but the suggestion that he might have also discovered the skill called Lorica*, total invulnerability, is of grave concern.

Because all government, all authority, no matter how civilised, enlightened, liberal, well-intentioned, ultimately depends on the use of force. If a man exists who is immune to force, even if he’s the most blameless anchorite living on top of a column in the middle of the desert, he is beyond government, beyond authority, and cannot be controlled; and that would be intolerable.

A young Fellow named Framea is chosen to confront the menace; chosen, as he knows, because he is expendable. He will be required to exploit and endanger innocents, who are also expendable. Framea finds himself confronting his own weaknesses and profound ethical questions, as well as the invincible killer.

Delightful pedantry, a detailed magical system studded with Latinisms. Who could resist? Yet despite a definite lightness of the narrative, this is a disturbing work, in the description of the carnage caused by the untrained adept but even moreso in the callous reaction of the Studium authorities. The author balances these tones deftly, winding up on the perfect note.

* Latin for “cuirass” or armor.


“Ghosts in my Head” by Cory Doctorow

The narrator was once a neurologist who set out to discover how personas, remembered and imagined, come to life in the human brain.

The work was funded by Procter and Gamble, one of their blue-sky projects, accounting for a fraction of a percentile of their gigantic marketing budget. Yes, marketing. For once we’d discovered the ghost center of the brain, we set out to hack it.

Short-short, with all the interest in the concluding punch. I rather wish that everything I read from this author these days didn’t have to touch on the copyright issue, like a stealth infomercial.


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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