Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August

The digests from Penny Press and the usual online first-of-the-month publications.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2010

Stories set in skies and clouds.

“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A Landis

David Tinkerman is the technical assistant to Doctor Leah Hamakawa when she unexpectedly receives an invitation from Carlos Fernando Nordwald-Gruenbaum, the man who essentially owns habitable Venus. Except that he is not a man but a boy about twelve biological years old. Tinkerman travels with her to Venus but it is clear that his presence is neither expected nor wanted by Carlos Fernando, who is interested in Leah for marital reasons as well as her expertise in Martian ecology and terraforming. The question is, why terraforming, when human habitation is situated in Venus’s thick clouds.

Fine worldbuilding here in this version of Venus, a world of luxurious floating cities where fabricated diamond is the primary building material.

The barque was no more than a thin skin over a hollow shell made of vacuum-foamed titanium surrounding a vast empty chamber. It was designed not to land, but to float in the atmosphere, and to float it required a huge volume and almost no weight. No ships ever landed on the surface of Venus; the epithet “hell” was well chosen. The transfer barque, then, was more like a spacegoing dirigible than a spaceship, a vehicle as much at home floating in the clouds as floating in orbit.

The unique social system is also of interest, as well as the political intrigue. What seems less credible is why Carlos Fernando would be so interested in Leah, whom he has never met and who seems not to possess the expertise to assist in his covert plan. It is Tinkerman, not Leah, who figures out the secret; Leah remains a blank slate to him throughout the story, and thus to the reader, who was rather expecting some kind of revelation.


“Backlash” by Nancy Fulda


Time travel thriller. Eugene Gutierrez is a veteran intelligence agent who finds himself in the middle of a battle between forces from the future – one of them being himself. His future self was supposed to be downloaded into his present body in order to thwart a terrorist threat, but instead he finds himself under attack with little understanding of what is going on, and worst of all, one of the attackers is his beloved daughter, who seems to be working for the wrong side.

My future self’s motivations also began to make sense. This mission wasn’t a glory jaunt. It was a last-ditch effort to save my family. I hadn’t even known it needed saving.

Plenty of action here, with a protagonist fueled by PTSD, but the personal overwhelms the political in a way that sidesteps the hard choices and ends on a mawkish note.

“Wheat Rust” by Benjamin Crowell


Rui Santos is with his lover Anu when the two Outsiders fall out of the sky of the orbital hab where they live. The Outsiders have come to propagate a cure for the wheat rust which is infesting a neighboring nation’s fields, but the government doesn’t want this, as they prefer their neighbors weakened. One Outsider sends a drone in the form of a fly to solicit Rui’s help, but Rui is more concerned with his love life.

An entertaining SF story. Rui as narrator is particularly engaging, refreshingly honest about his motives and shortcomings, and provides a good window into the world where he lives.

Of course I knew better than to believe that it was a machine. Szemnik must have thought the Republic was a bunch of cavemen, if he thought I’d accept that. It’s true that we don’t have the amounts of metal that we’d need for building our own factories and spaceships, but that doesn’t mean we’re ignorant savages. I’m no academician, but I know that a machine has certain limits. Our orchestra’s grand piano is an amazing machine, with a small fortune worth of steel in its harp and its hundreds of strings, but it can only play eighty-eight notes, and it can only play the notes the pianist tells it to play.

The conclusion is suitable but feels very much rushed and abrupt, as if the author had run out of time or space. I would have been quite willing to read on at greater length.


“The Palace in the Clouds” by Eugene Mirabelli


When Napoleon threatened Venice, a small number of its nobles decided to preserve their Republic and its treasures as a floating city, based on the discoveries of hot-air balloons. But after more than a century the original balloon palaces were wearing out and its people returned to the ground. By the time Vincenzo discovered it, Lucia was one of the few Venetians remaining.

“You’ve never seen this villa high among the cumulus, drifting with the clouds,” she said. “You’ve never seen this the way it was, the outside dazzling white with pale blue shadows in the silk, the rooms inside like jewel boxes, all floating. You don’t know what it was like when I was a little girl and saw the city all together— oh, yes, it was only splendid remnants, but all those clouds drifting together, sometimes so close we could carry on conversations from one ship to another, some of them with grand terraces and ramparts and cloud towers, all white, all floating.

Vincenzo fell in love with Lucia, and when his nephew Jason was a boy, he took him there to visit in his old biplane. Then floating Venice disappeared.

Not everything with balloons is steampunk. This one is as unpunk as it can be, a baroque vision, an alternate history love story. Romantic, in the good way.

“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal


On a family generation ship, the role of the AI is vital, so Rava is frantic when she accidentally damages Cordelia and can’t find the right replacement part. Cordelia can’t help because the damage keeps her from accessing her long-term memory. Rava finally decides to consult Uncle Georgo, who was Cordelia’s wrangler before turning the job over to Rava. But this only reveals a more serious problem.

The door opened and Uncle Georgo peered out with obvious distrust. His hair was disheveled and a streak of brown stained his shirt from chest to navel. His gaze darted to the corner of his glasses and back to look past Rava. “Where is she?”

This is an old-fashioned computer logic/ethics problem. Cordelia’s programming has been tampered with; her new imperative conflicts with her inability to lie. What is not old-fashioned is the story’s attitude towards recycling elements that are no longer productive, including humans with dementia. In the days of Make Room! Make Room! this was the stuff of horror and revulsion. Here, “It’s the most basic law of conservation of resources.”


Analog, October 2010

Although the number of pages are the same, there are more stories in this zine than in the issue of Asimovs reviewed above. I think, without counting words, this is because they’re quite a bit shorter. This month’s theme is the value of truth.

“The Rift” by John G Hemry


Military SF. The briefing said that native Izkop were “non belligerent.” This was an error.

“What did the damned civilians do to make the Izkop want to wipe out everyone and us in the bargain?” Private Nassar wondered. “The Izkop didn’t care how many of them we killed.”

Only Private Burgos answered, her eyes haunted. “We didn’t kill enough,” she whispered.

Now the eight survivors of the battalion, with a dozen civilians, are the only humans alive on the planet, holed up in a small research facility and surrounded by hundreds of hostiles.

What we have here is the battle of Rourke’s Drift [you know it from the film Zulu], but with a different ending and a different cause: mutual incomprehension, the Rift of the title. The Izkop interpret human actions in terms of their own mythology, which we learn in long discussions with the xenoanthropologist while waiting to be killed. One thing annoys me, that everyone assumes the children can’t be told the truth, that they have to be kept in ignorance, incomprehension and anxiety while events unfold around them. This is cruel, but the children are not real people in this story, only tokens meant to raise the emotional stakes.

“Midwife Crisis” by Dave Creek


Carrie is bioengineered for an aquatic environment, but this assignment goes quite a bit beyond the usual.

“You brought me here to inject me into a creature called a Leviathan so I can treat its unborn child? What am I, some sort of antivirus or something?”

Varis, the Leviathan, is suffering from seizures, which her people interpret as caused by sin, so she has been exiled. The humans want to protect her unborn child from the effects until she recovers, so Carrie and an aquatic creature named Sarbin make an unusual medical visit.

This one is explicitly patterned on Fantastic Voyage. The anatomical features are graphically described. I can’t really judge how plausible all the details are, though it seems to me that a creature small enough to travel through another’s veins would not cause much pressure jumping around on its bladder. The conclusion is pretty feelgooody. I do wonder, given that Varis trusts Sarbin and not humans, why Carrie was considered necessary at all.

“The Great Galactic Ghoul” by Allen M Steele


The rock hauler Gold Dust Woman receives an emergency distress call from the Ritchie Explorer mobile mining rig on Eros. It answers the call, and engineer Quon Ko explores the rig looking for the bodies in the totally destroyed command module. All he finds is one shoe containing a severed foot; later the corpses of four of the six crew are found floating in space, while two are still missing. It remains then to solve the mystery of how the disaster occurred, but sensationalists instead drag out the old legend of the gremlin that ate Mars probes, now lurking on Eros to eat mining rigs.

This is a good example of the distinction between a fiction and a story. The material here for a story is excellent, but Steele has chosen instead to write a fictive investigatory report, along with concluding lesson:

Everything could have been avoided. No one had to die that day. But six people lost their lives because stupid things were done in a place where stupidity isn’t easily forgiven.

I wonder if he decided to make this account as dull as possible in order to make his point that dull details are what matters, not sensational legends. But I would have preferred to read the story that this account has only hinted at.

“Ghosts Come Home” by Justin Stanchfield


Flying starships is in Dev Verlain’s genes, but instead he’s stuck flying a shuttle out of Oasis Station, where he’s married and expecting a child. Then an unexpected arrival at the station, a vast, gleaming white starship.

Something about the massive vessel called to him, reached deep into his soul and woke things he had fought diligently to keep asleep. The starship grew on screen, her sleek white hull making her seem more like a creature from some mythical sea than a mere construct of carbon fiber and titanium.

Something else calls to him, as well, a female member of the crew whose mate he had been bred to be. And the ship is recruiting pilots to go help fight a famine on their world.

The author manages to make the coincidences in this setup seem probable instead of contrived. I found the space rescue scenes to be tense and realistic.

“The Whole Truth Witness” by Kenneth Schneyer


Officious persons have developed a nano treatment that causes witnesses to be unable to lie, and these Whole Truth witnesses have been the bane of Manny Suarez’s legal practice. So Manny cheats. The solution is ingenious in its way, but it only addresses a single case and not the underlying problem, if there really is one.

“The Alien at the Alamo” by Arlan Andrews


Joke. The narrator has been abducted several times by aliens, and here comes another one with a deal – You answer my questions and I’ll answer yours. The setup is funnier than the punchlines.

“Never Saw it Coming” by Jerry Oltion


The last time a near-Earth asteroid showed up, the authorities kept quiet about it to avert a panic. Craig Hendrickson sets up his own network so amateur astronomers can share information about these events, but he underestimates the popular need to panic. Clever scenario, nicely done, as one always expects from Oltion.



Clarkesworld #47, August 2010

Tales of cosmos and conception. Another winning month for this zine.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” by Catherynne M Valente

Mythical cosmology mates with physical cosmology and gives birth to creation itself. Genesis will never be the same again. Creation is also the process of the author giving birth to herself. The cosmic alternates and resonates with the personal, building rich metaphorical layers in this marvelous piece of fiction. Authors often try this sort of thing, but it is rarely done so well.

Eve protested that she would not break covenant with God, but the Serpent answered: fear not, for you float in a random quantum-gravity foam, and from a single bite will rise an inexorable inflation event, and you will become like unto God, expanding forever outward.


“Messenger” by Julia M Sidorova


The angel Gabriel, while not yet an angel, is recruited by God to help carry out his plan of impregnating the girl Maria. But the messenger doesn’t understand his reasons.

If His purpose was to tap into humanity in bypass of me and my kind, then I have made Him fail. His Son is not really His. He is mine, too. When will He learn it? How will He punish us?

The more Gabriel understands of his master’s purpose, the less willing he is to serve. But he loves Maria, and he loves his son, which is more than the other father does.

An addition to the canon of alternative accounts of the conception, life and death of Joshua, this one strongly heretical. The recruitment of Gabriel is an extended rape. This is a story of love, but not the love of God. This variation should please and intrigue readers who were never satisfied with the original message. I do wish that the author had left it to the reader to discover the identity of the other messenger. And, being the nitpicker I am, I have to wonder why she used the “Maria” form of the name instead of some version of “Maryam.”


Apex Magazine, August 2010

The first issue of this online zine under Catherynne M Valente’s editorial control. Whether this will mean a change in direction, it may be too soon to tell. While the site’s masthead still reads Painting the Landscape of Dark Fiction, the contents of this issue are differently hued. The Goss story may be based on a sinister legend, but she has turned it into something compassionate and sad; and the Mamatas doesn’t get any closer than gross.

“Fair Ladies” by Theodora Goss


In Sylvania/Ruritania between the wars, Rudolph is wasting his time in the university to the annoyance of his father, the baron, who finally decides to take him in hand. He brings back his old mistress [or so she was reputed] to introduce his son to the right people, to find him a suitable wife. And Rudolph falls in love. He can’t help himself, because the Pearl is one of the Fair Ladies native to the forests of Sylvania. But when removed from it for too long, they fade and die.

Her pallor, these last few days. The dark circles under her eyes. The sharpness of her ribcage under his hands.

A lovely but inverted take on old fairytale legends that stretch back to the tales of nymphs and dryads [although I am not familiar with any Roman accounts of “puellae albae”]. Unfortunately, the inversion undermines the legend. Where the Fair were once the deadly and perilous, dancing their lovers to death, now they are the vulnerable ones, the ones who are trapped in a world grown alien. Where their allure was once a trap for their victims, now it is a trap for themselves. This alteration is not something that can be explained merely by the loss of their native forest habitat, it is an inversion of their essential nature. [Unless the legends were entirely wrong, which I do not believe to be supported by the text.] Moreover, it is not at all clear why the baron would introduce his son to an infatuation which he knows may be fatal to one or the other. And I would think he could have found a better person to introduce his heir into society than a courtesan who has spent the last twenty years away, out of touch.

“Four is Me! With Squeeeeee! (And LoLer)” by Nick Mamatas


Absurdity. Ivy [number four, get it?] claims to be the victim of his not-grandma’s computer, which has been fatally infected.

Spyware, malware (it was growing claws now), lolware, diseased pustules blooming into firm tits with suckling mouths for nipples, and now the whole mass jerked back and forth as competing scripts demanded that it jump off the desk and kill me, and stay where it was and kill itself.

And other nonsense, such as the villain Percocet G Viagra, but fortunately short.

Celebrating the metastasis of the online universe in an overdose of hyperbole. Too much excess to be really funny.


Abyss & Apex #35, 3rd Quarter 2010

The theme of this issue is love.

“Chinvat Bridge” by Erin Cashier


Dystopia. Srosh is a cyborged soldier on a colony cut off from its support base, where a civil war is being waged over the remaining resources. The rarest resource are females, known by the soldiers as “wombs.” Srosh, unable to be tempted, guards the dormitory where the young girls are kept until they are grown old enough to be forcibly bred. But the girls, particularly Thyan, keep escaping. She is convinced that an angelic creature called the Daena will find and save her.

Grim stuff, and not very flattering to the human race – particularly the male side of it. Yet the male soldiers, like Srosh, are victims of the ruthless expansionist empire that sent them to take over another world where they never belonged, and abandoned them there.

He took her suit off. Gasps went around the room at the sight of her naked flesh. Some of them men here had never seen a woman before, much less a nude one. My job as guardian had been, up until recently, not focused on keeping the girls in the dormitory, so much as it was keeping the men of the colony out.

“Fairyland” by Jennifer Greylyn


Andrew is a designer of virtual environments who injured in an accident, and now his mother Cecily has received a request he had programmed into his computer system, to access the virtual world where he keeps an illicit copy of his ex-wife, where they have a child that his physical wife could not conceive. Now Andrew needs Cecily to protect his virtual family, and to do this she has to enter their world.

“It’s–it’s like in the stories my mother used to tell me,” murmurs Cecily, torn between amazement and disbelief. “When mortals went to the land of the fairies. Whatever they wished for could come true.”

This is a story of human relationships, and of love. The characters are flawed: Andrew is selfish and manipulative, Amelia is spiteful, but they all love, or have loved, strongly. The author shows us this without being overly sentimental or mawkish, an admirable feat with the presence of the flawless child.

“Invention” by Jamie Mason


Grandma’s first day on the job at the family construction business is unexpectedly eventful when the androids go on strike and take her hostage.

“I asked him why they were striking in the first place. He seemed very hesitant to answer. “Humans strike to improve working conditions or to obtain a raise, dear,” I explained. “But you don’t get paid, do you? Is that what you want? To get paid?”

Grandma’s emails provide an engaging narrative voice, but my interest, which had been active, flagged when the android asks, “What is ‘happy?'” Nor is it long before they are into religion. This has been done too often before.

“Ice Moon Tale” by Eilis O’Neal


Among the People-under-the-Sky, the moon of a child’s birth determines the inherent knowledge it receives. Laila of the Reindeer people wants to be a storyteller, but the storytellers are all ice moon children, “born on the coldest nights of the year, when there was nothing to do but tell stories,” and Laila is a no moon child.

“You have shadow knowledge, and our people are grateful for it. Who else among us can call down the knowledge of shadows, can hide our hunters so that even the birds in the sky cannot see them? Why do you want to be something you aren’t?”

The mythology here is interesting and fairly original, although the story itself is a familiar one. I am normally not fond of excessive capitalization in fiction, but I think I would prefer it here, eg, No Moon child.

“Prelude to Battle” by Gwendolyn Clare


There was a war with an alien species called the Schranmari. Earth lost, because of a military analyst named Joslyn Crowley, who betrayed the fleet. Decades later, in the course of his research, a grad student in history comes across some archives of Crowley and realizes that something has been covered up. He is determined to discover it, but powerful forces are determined to keep it under.

The story here is Felix’s, the persistent researcher. But the more interesting story, of which we only get fragments from a remote distance of time, is Jocelyn’s. The fragments are simply not enough to make Jocelyn come alive to a reader, who is necessarily one more step removed from her video transmissions than Felix.

The inner nitpicker has a couple of comments on the editing: Felix refers to Jocelyn’s image as “the face that sunk a thousand ships,” which may be allowed by some but which bugs me. And shortly afterwards the author, twice, has “distain” for “disdain,” which I don’t believe to be allowed by anyone.

“In the Bag” by Kit St Germain


The wizard has given his apprentice a magic purse, which can hold everything he puts into it. But what shall he choose?

This is a compact little tale with a very neat conclusion.



Tor.com, July 2010

Last month’s celebration of contemporary romance fantasy at this site left me quite irritable, but I would have been less so if I’d seen the werewolf story by Dellamonica before wrapping up the late July reviews. This one satisfies my notion of what an urban fantasy should be.

“The Cage” by A M Dellamonica


The existence of werewolves is now an established fact, but their legal status is still in limbo. Paige Adolpha’s twin sister was killed by a fanatical vigilante who is now on trial for murder, and she is secretly passing off Pam’s werewolf baby as her own. This situation is becoming more complicated as baby Chase grows, so she has hired Jules to soundproof the basement in which she keeps the pup during the full moon. Jules soon finds herself falling in love with both Paige and the wolfbaby, ready to protect him when the vigilantes suspect what he is.

The point of view belongs to Jules, whose previous love affairs have not turned out well, particularly when children are involved. Her narrative voice carries this story effectively, particularly in the scenes that illustrate the problems of raising baby werewolves.

The air was stuffy, as Paige had said; it also reeked of baby wolf pee. Dirt from the plants was everywhere, mudded in with bits of fur, dog toys, moccasin, sawdust. A rabbit eye stared at me from the floor.

Unfortunately, the author has not convinced me on this point. If werewolves, like the normal kind, are pack animals, isolating the puppy is not the way to raise it, and waiting until it is five years old would be much too late for socialization at its apparent rate of development.

The author seems to have gone to a certain amount of trouble to establish her protagonist’s sexual ambiguity in the first scenes, but if this was her intention, it was undercut by the illustration and the too-cutesy blurb: The littlest werewolf has two mommies.


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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