Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid August

Two printzines, an ezine and an anthology.




F&SF, Sept/Oct 2010

A Halloween issue, although there is nothing outwardly indicating it; the cover has cute mini dinosaurs. But the Bailey story that opens the issue sets the tone, and it’s a black one. There is a leavening of lighter short pieces by Big Name authors, but the dark heart of the issue is in the novelets.

“Orfy” by Richard Chwedyk

A sequel. The miniature dinosaurs were originally created as toys for children, but they are living creatures, sentient, even intelligent (some more than others), and mortal. Life is going on as usual one day at the refuge where the saurs live under the protection of their caretakers, when Diogenes suddenly dies. The others must now try to understand and cope with death, each in their own way, although the story focuses on Axel, who refuses to accept the fact.

Sometimes I feel like the Grinch. I know this series is a favorite among readers of this zine, who, I suppose, consider it heartwarming and poignant, not without reason. But it is also not without sappiness, particularly when the main character is the childishly naive, hyperactive, intensely annoying Axel, who spends his time inventing things with the help of the computer and broadcasting trivia to the Space Guys. The saurs are a varied lot of characters – some wise and compassionate, some simple, and several who are newly hatched – and their outlook on the problem of death is diverse, although generally hopeful and positive.

“When we came into the world,” Doc began, “our meaning was assigned to us by our makers and our owners. When we were no longer needed our meaning evaporated — until we came here. Now we live for ourselves and for each other. No one typified this better than our friend Diogenes. It may be too much to ask that we should all live like he did, but at least we can honor how he lived, and that he lived, and keep our love for him alive. And by doing so we can keep his love for us alive as well.”

Me, I’m glad that hostile and negative Agnes is also there to speak for the rest of us.

“Eating at the End-of-the-World Café” by Dale Bailey

Hell. Eleanor doesn’t work in the pit itself, nor is she out of it. The guards, blue uniform and sinister black, are her customers at the café where she works as a waitress to support herself and her young daughter, sick with cancer. But Eleanor has been skimming to help pay the medical bills, and people have started to notice.

Many authors have used hell as a metaphor for human institutions, but Bailey has created real horror here by doing the opposite, modeling his scenario of hell after the versions that operated in Hitler’s Reich, in Stalin’s Gulag.

She’d seen them once, the dead and damned, hooded blind, their hands bound at their backs. She’d seen blue lightning leap sizzling from electric prods as gray men in blue uniforms harried them stumbling down from enormous canvas-covered army trucks. She’d heard their cries, their moans, the shouts and the mocking laughter of the men in blue. She’d smelled the stench of their roasting flesh.

There is no escape from this place; the trains all come back to the pit. And the characters know they all are doomed to go there eventually, one way or the other. But Eleanor’s story is the moral corruption that pervades such systems, a legacy that goes back as far as history can take us and still prevails today in institutions we try to justify under the names of “justice” and “security.” Powerful, disturbing stuff.


“The Door in the Earth” by Alexandra Duncan

Ren and his younger brother Trey are unwillingly (at least on Ren’s part) staying for the summer with the mother who deserted them to run off and Find Herself, having now found herself living in a cave with her current neo-hippie lover. At night, Ren hears strange noises and discovers The Door.

The door was still there, slightly too narrow for its height, its round, metal doorknob mottled with tarnish. I glanced at my mother and Ian, deep asleep, unfazed by the diffuse circle of brightness the Maglite cast over the wall beside their bed. I inched forward, reached out my hand, and touched the door. The wood gave slightly, as if it were waterlogged or soft with termites.

Behind the door is of course A Thing. The Thing behind/inside/beneath is one of the oldest traditions in horror fiction, and this one doesn’t do much new with it. The descriptions are well-done – I am now quite convinced I do not want to go live off the grid in a cave – but the plot, once we realize there is a Thing, is pretty predictable. It seems overly convenient for the author that the two lovers had been dwelling for some time in the cave, using the place behind the door as cold storage with no malevolent apparitions, yet malevolence strikes as soon as the protagonist arrives. The ending is rushed and it seems an odd thing for Ren to do, when anyone could tell the sensible thing would be immediately to Run Away.

“The Literomancer” by Ken Liu

Lilly has moved to Taiwan with her parents because her father is an agent of [probably] the CIA, working against the Communist Chinese. The girls in the US military school bully her, and Lilly finds consolation with kind Mr Kan and his grandson Teddy. Mr Kan is a scholar and teaches her some of the hidden meaning in Chinese characters.

“This is the character yi, which used to mean ‘righteousness,’ and now also means ‘-ism,’ as in Communism, Nationalism, Imperialism, Capitalism, Liberalism. It’s formed from the character for ‘sheep,’ which you know, on top, and the character for ‘I,’ on the bottom. A man holds up a sheep for sacrifice, and he thinks he has truth, justice, and the magic that will save the world. It’s funny, isn’t it?”

But in Lilly’s innocence, she makes a grave error.

This is a highly political work, a work of historical fiction, and only last a work of fantasy. Above all, it is a haunting tragedy. There is a bit too much of the didactic, with lectures on history, but this is balanced by the humanity of the characters, who remind us that we still live in the unrighteous world of yi.

“Uncle Moon in Raintree Hills” by Fred Chappell

Imaginative Claudia calls herself the Princess of Thieves, and her little brother Jason is her Sturdy Helper, capable of envisioning what others can not see. When their grandmother is dying, the children sneak over to her house where their stepmother’s drunken brother is supposed to be watching over the old woman. Claudia has a plan to save Grammer.

Claudia was ready for it — or him. Jasper and Claudia were prepared to trap this Raptor who had been approaching for thirteen nights, coming to woo Grammer out of her weary body, out of this weary world, to set her soul spinning in a blackness that possessed no stars, no sun, no breath. The Golden Net was waiting, with Claudia’s magic all imbued.

But instead, they smother and kill her. Now Uncle Hobart is following the children around, making sinister hints that he knows what they have done. Claudia is sure that she can defeat him, but Jason is doesn’t want to be her Sturdy Helper anymore.

This is a strange story. It is possible to read it as a tale of dark magic, with the powers that Claudia insists on as real, but seems clear that it is actually fiction steeped in the spirit of fantasy, the product of Claudia’s overactive imagination. She has definitely absorbed much more fantasy than is good for her or her brother, but she is not the only one. Hobart is genuinely creepy, and the Halloween revels of Raintree make me expect to see Jack the Pumpkin King appear in the procession. The conclusion is very abrupt, as Jason makes it clear that the story is really his, but it leaves readers in great uncertainty what will happen next. Jason’s plan does not seem likely to succeed and the menace of Hobart’s threats still hangs over the house. I think others will turn the page back and forth several times, as I did, to make sure the text had not been cut off.

“The Window of Time” by Richard Matheson

At age 82, Richard Swanson decides he is a burden living with his daughter and her family, so he leaves a note and goes to check out the Golden Years old age home on nearby Flatbush Avenue, where he grew up. But when he looks out the window of the room he is shown, he is on the Flatbush Avenue of 1941, when he was age 15. Only he is still 82, still old. He walks the street in delight at revisiting the vanished scenes of his youth, until he encounters the girl he had always loved, across the street from his feckless teenage self who could never gather the courage to speak to her.

The same tongue-tied inability to speak which had assailed me in the delicatessen that afternoon now took place again. I wanted — desperately — to tell her who I was. That my younger self was, at that very second, gazing at her through a window across the way. That he loved her now and that I, the old man standing in front of her, had loved her always.

A heartwarming story with an engaging narrative voice, a reminder that the term “golden years” may refer to different times in a person’s life.

“How Seosiris Lost the Favor of the King” by James L Cambias

Seosiris the magician was once a favorite of his uncle, the Pharaoh Merneptah, until a foreign magician came to the kingdom and took his place. But the foreign magician follows Seosiris to the small farm where he has moved in retirement, wanting a confrontation that Seosiris is not willing to allow him.

“I am not a jealous man. If another enjoys the Pharaoh’s gifts, my heart is glad for him. Besides, now I have more time for study and exercise.”

But when he discovers the foreigner has intentions of usurping the king’s place, Seosiris takes action to defeat him.

Seosiris was a well-known figure in Egyptian lore, the greatest magician in the kingdom. This addition to his legend has all the flavor of the ancient Egyptian tale, with Seosiris a perfect model of virtue and wisdom as well as a great magician, still dedicated to using his magic for the kingdom’s protection. A highly fitting tale.


“Blind Spot” by Rick Wilber and Nick DiChario

Baseball fiction. The narrator’s father was a minor league pitcher with a smoking fastball, a weakness for the sauce, a habit of abuse, and a rotten temper.

And once he got mad Dad couldn’t find the plate. It never took much. One inning he’d be fine, the next he wouldn’t; he’d be in the dirt, or behind the hitter’s back, or ten feet high and into the backstop.

But there was one night when he threw a perfect game. He had promised the ball to his son Danny as a birthday present, but a kid in the stands caught it instead. Now the old man is dead and Danny has come to his funeral after years of estrangement. And he discovers that his father has left him the ball as a legacy.

This is a ghost story and a story of forgiveness, which is something that often concerns ghosts and those they leave behind. The love of baseball and its lore is evident.

“Steadfast Castle” by Michael Swanwick

Upon the reported disappearance of the house’s master, it gets the third degree. A neat little detective story.

You’re not making this any easier on yourself, you know. If I have to, I can get a warrant and do a hot-read of your memories. There wouldn’t be much left of your personality afterwards, I’m afraid.

But I haven’t done anything!

Then cooperate. I have no particular desire to get out the microwave probes. But if you’re going to stonewall me, what other options do I have?

“F&SF Mailbag” by David Gerrold

Objections to the editor’s unfair labor practices.

“Consider this, Gordon. If you continue with your cloning program, pretty soon you will be publishing so many stories from the cloned masters of the field that there will be no room left in the magazine for new and upcoming writers.”

Entertaining and less in-jokey that this sort of thing usually is.

“About It” by Terry Bisson

The Lab had a surplus Bigfoot.

They were going to put it down so I took it home. The Lab guys knew about it. I was helping them out. They could save the autopsy ritual as they call it, plus the paperwork, and say it fell into the vat or something.

Such creatures are not long for this world, but a little kindness doesn’t hurt anyone. More sad than humorous.


Albedo One #38, 2010

SF zine from Ireland, although it seems to publish mostly non-Irish writers. It comes out irregularly, and I can’t discover a specific date for this issue. In addition to fiction, there are interviews and reviews.

“The Better to See You With” by Allison Francisco

The Polaroid Man comes to the park and takes pictures of certain children. He photographs Richmond’s friend Marquez, but never Richmond, who feels jealous and slighted. Then Marquez goes away with the man. We suspect, of course, that he is a pedophile, and so he seems to be, but something more. The photographs seem to be capturing part of the souls of the children he targets.

His eyes looked different than Richmond remembered from the milk carton. They looked tired and dazed. The smile, that looked so bright and charming on that printed package that night by the merry-go-round, looked fake and unstable on the wall.

I can’t help thinking that the title of this piece is “The Polaroid Man.” It is a disturbing one in a number of ways. The subject matter, of course. But something about the story itself is subtly off. How old are Richmond and Marquez? Why do their parents never seem to wonder where they are? Why are the caregivers of the children at the park oblivious to the presence of an obvious pedophile hanging around the place? Such questions stand between the reader and the story.

The story is the author’s first publication, the 3rd place winner in the 5th annual Aeon Award for Short Fiction, sponsored in part by this magazine.

“Precious Metal” by Aaron Polson

Post-apocalypse clockwork SF. An old man makes a clockwork bird out of salvaged parts, and the bird helps him find more salvage metal that the gangsters demand from him as protection. A grim setting, a tragic story.

“The Nature of Bees” by Priya Sharma

Vivien moves into the old beekeeper’s house next to the estate where bees have always been raised. The honey is said to be an aphrodisiac. Although Vivien has led a life of celibacy for years, she blossoms there. But there is more to the place than honey. The denizens of the estate are more bee than human, and their queen is dying, worn out by constant procreation.

The society of the human hive, with its sterile sisters and indolent brothers, is nicely done. But the sensuous descriptions of Vivien’s transformation are erotically compelling.

The lovers slept with the bedroom window open. A swarm of males stood among the trees in vigil, gazing up to where she lay. They could smell her. Her fertility was fragrant. It carried on the breeze.


“The Hot Chocolate Rocket” by Martin Elverson

Mack and Stevo have been partnered in invention since kindergarten. Although they are geniuses, they have not been successful in promoting their projects, and the incident with the armored SUV has left them on probation and working as janitors at Badger’s Biscuit factory. But the factory’s old rocket-shaped storage silos give them an idea.

Improbable humor. I think the best part is when one of the rockets falls on Barnley and sets off a revival of the Lancaster/Yorkshire War of the Roses.

“The Child” by Matthew F Perry

The narrator has an unsettling encounter with a child that it more than it seems. Briefly creepy.

“Heart of Hearts” by Bruce McAllister

The narrator is an American boy living in the village of Lerici, where the poet Shelley washed ashore, drowned. His legend lives on there, with the additional story that he fathered a child in the village. Bradley is a collector of shells, and he is attracted to a strange girl who sits on the beach and makes designs out of shells – and does magic with them. Livia’s problem is not that she is a witch – this is expected of her – but that she doesn’t use her magic as intended.

As she spoke each word, a shell rose, danced in the air, and remained until all the shells from the circle were there, dancing in the air, and they were the poem.

Someone who reads a whole lot of short fiction in the genre may notice a pattern coalescing out of McAllister’s recent tales, something biographical involving young boys, Italian villages and collected shells. The echoes of these enrich the reading experience of this one, but even considered as it stands alone, the personal element is evident. What we have is a story about its setting, realized with the authentic touch of an author for whom the place is still alive in his heart.


Intergalactic Medicine Show #18, August 2010

Five original stories with a lot more freshness and excitement than the previous issue. A very wide range, from space exploration to horror.

“Trinity County, CA” by Peter S Beagle

With the D Patrol up in the mountains, where the dragon breeders share space with the pot growers and meth labs. Gruber is the veteran, Connie the trainee on her first patrol, which turns out to be quite eventful when the San Ysidro Black unexpectedly shows up.

It was deep, deep ebony all the way, even the wings, at least nine feet tall at its breastbone, easily thirty feet long from head to tail-tip, and spiked everywhere, with a flattened viperine head that looked too big for its body, and yellow-orange eyes that blazed in the twilight like amber stars. The fire dancing in its open mouth seemed redder than any other flame in the world, and different as well, as though it was the D’s real tongue, ready to lick and caress and savor.

Unlike most dragon hunter tales, this one is science fiction, not fantasy, in a realistic near-contemporary setting informed by the law enforcement problems posed today by the pot growers and meth labs. The patrol’s equipment is uniquely designed for its job, particularly the Heap, their massive, armored fireproof vehicle. Interesting and action-filled.

“The Mystery of Miranda” by David Simons

Lance is an explorer, searching the solar system for undiscovered wonders. His ex Shelley, a geologist, made a chance discovery of the canyon on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, and gave him the chance to make the first descent in exchange for taking her down with him. Shelley’s motives are not entirely geological, but Lance is fixated only on being the first to set foot on the canyon floor.

It was the deepest canyon in the solar system. Twenty-three kilometers, straight down, from surface to floor. Three times deeper than the Hebes Chasma on Mars, twice as deep as the Herschel crater on Mimas, deeper even than the ice rifts of Tethys. A dark void in the ground, like an open mouth, plunging to depths never encountered by man.

Lance epitomizes one aspect of classic science fiction, the drive to discover and explore new frontiers of unknown worlds, where no man has gone before. Shelly’s isn’t going to land him this time, either. Lance is individualist to the point of being antisocial, ignoring the advancement of science and other collective goals to go his own way, alone. Some may find this admirable, others reprehensible, but there is probably not room for many like him and he would doubtless agree.

“Forcing Coin” by William T Vandermark

Lenny is living under a curse. Some might think his spasms are epilepsy or a form of Tourette’s, but Lenny knows otherwise.

His cheek twitched, his eye winked, he coughed a guttural bark, the sound capped with pips and a squeak. A carrion stench filled his nose, and hairs rose on the nape of his neck.

His symptoms have left him homeless and isolated, but Lenny has a way to banish them temporarily. The question is whether the price is worth it; Lenny seems to think so, but others doubt this.

A dark fantasy, but primarily a story of affliction and loneliness.

“The Quanta of Art” by Adam Colston

Whistler owns a successful art gallery. One day a malevolent gangster appears and threatens to kill his son over gambling debts if Whistler does not display the works of an unknown artist. But the artist and his paintings are works of damnation.

He turned back to the picture and beams erupted from his eyes. Metal flaps across his head opened and lasers folded out and traced flickering patterns across the surface of the picture. He began to move the brush, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Energies swirled and coalesced; strange three-dimensional shapes spun into being. Shadows from other realities pushed through in rainbow-like nimbuses, bulging from the surface of the picture.

This is horror in a strange, alien milieu. A strong taint of evil surrounds the gangster Hei Long, and Violix, the artist, has made a horror of himself for the sake of revenge.

“How About it, Roomie?” by Chase Guyman

A deranged serial killer looks for a new place to stay. This is light horror/dark humor; the actions of the narrator are made harmless by the narrative voice. Not a very original scenario.


Is Anybody Out There?, Nick Gevers & Marty Halpern, eds.

Anthology of SF stories considering Fermi’s Paradox: With 250 billion stars in this galaxy alone, why have we encountered no intelligent alien life? Where is everybody?

The fifteen stories presented here are for the most part in the style of classic science fiction. The order and placement of stories in any anthology is always of interest, and here there is a clear trajectory from the abstract to the concrete; from stories of people who only think or dream about aliens to actual alien visitations. There is also a recurring theme: loneliness. Individuals or humanity itself yearn for the arrival of aliens because we can not stand the idea that we are alone in the universe. The anthology seems to be carrying on a symposium on the question, not exactly: Where is everybody? but, Why do we care so much?

“The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello” by Alex Irvine

Dalton Topolski thinks obsessively about aliens – where they might be, what they might be, when he might encounter them. His therapist believes he is seeking a relationship with the aliens in compensation for the fact that he is unable to form any meaningful relationships with humans. His therapist seems to be right.

This is the first and the strongest appearance here of the theme of loneliness. Dalton’s existence is a sad, lonely thing. “The universe was one big hello, said to everyone else but him.” In a way, Dalton is the alien, apart from the rest of the human race. Poor guy.

“Residue” by Michael Arsenault

A couple, who are probably married given the familiar quality of their mutual sniping, lies on the grass and contemplates the stars. They begin to wonder where the aliens are, and one of them suggests a rather elaborate theory in which the aliens have already come and their presence has been erased. Except that,

“Nothing can ever be completely erased. You see, time traveling prevented the invasion, but those events did happen. And it left something hanging over us. Like a faint echo in our shared consciousness. A kind of residue.”

There’s a kind of neat, old-fashioned sort of sci-fi space war story here, folded into a sort of Jungian or Platonic premise that explains why we wonder about aliens and write science fiction. It also stands in contrast to the loneliness of the previous story, stressing both the communality of humanity and personal bonds.

“Good News from Antares” by Yves Meynard

In an alternate universe very much like our own, Gerrard is a failed and embittered scientifiction writer who once wrote a single hit: the Exben series about an alien trying to understand humanity. But scientifiction and his career died after science discovered that the universe is almost empty.

There are only a few, a very few stars; all the rest are illusions, artifacts of the structure of space. Ghosts from the distant past, a thousand thousand images of the same few stars endlessly repeated and distorted…

Now Gerrard has a dream where Exben comes to him and offers him the old, wondrous infinite universe back.

Another story where loneliness is the theme. Gerrard tells Exben that he is only “a grownup’s version of an imaginary friend.” The dream becomes an epiphany in which he recognizes his need to reconnect with real humans.

“Report from the Field” by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn

The Galactic Coordinator reports on the fitness of humanity to join the Galactic Community. I doubt there is a reader of this story who hasn’t seen at least a dozen versions of it before. Hokey humor about a half-century past its sell-by date.

“Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake

Maduabuchi St Macaria (delightful name!) is part of a small expedition sent to explore the brown dwarf Tiede 1. While he is in the observation lounge, he notices a flash of green from the star, a color not emitted in nature. It seems to be evidence of an alien presence, but Mad discovers that the rest of the crew, all posthuman like himself, seems already to be aware of it and involved in a conspiracy to withhold the knowledge, a conspiracy that might include his elimination if he presses the issue.

There’s a contemporary freshness to this one, made particularly interesting by the eccentric behavior of the crew, who are all Howard immortals, modified by a process that makes them eccentric – antisocial, quick-tempered and often irresponsible. The Howards are the aliens here, even to Mad, who is too young to really be one of them yet.

She knelt close. “I kind of like you, okay? Don’t get excited, you’re just an all right kid. That’s all I’m saying. And because I like you, I’m telling you, don’t ask.”


“Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul Di Filippo

Fayard Avouris is suffering from a form of anomie fatal to his career as an anthropologist. Despite the near-infinite variety of human societies filling the galaxy, he has lost interest in his own species. He is not alone in this affliction, which he will eventually call Mirror Sickness, the weariness of seeing only one’s own self in the universe, as humans are the only form of intelligent life known. The syndrome becomes of great importance when suddenly planets with no sentient native life forms inexplicably turn into worlds where an intelligent native species has evolved over the usual span of billions of years. It is Fayard’s discovery that this is taking place wherever the incidence of Mirror Sickness is highest.

The solution to this mystery bears more than a slight resemblance to the Arsenault story above. The concepts here are interesting, but unfortunately the author has chosen to inject a strong dose of silliness into his text with the names of characters and worlds, eg, Wangba-Szypyt IX. This makes it hard to take the story seriously as anything but humor.

“Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch

Maddie is doing community service in a hospice where she befriends an old man who was once an astronaut, who now has the reputation of being somewhat deranged. Once, while on a spacewalk, he had an Encounter.

“Like being knocked out by a high-voltage wire. Like having your eyelids ripped off and being forced to watch a nuclear explosion. Like going blind and stark raving mad at the same time.”

What Sam has tried and been unable to convince the authorities is that there is a message in the sound of the universe, what he calls the symphony as opposed to each individual part, which the scientists are currently focusing on. No one else has listened until Maddie.

Maddie is a sympathetic point of view character for a teenager, and readers will probably sympathize with her frustration at Sam’s constant vagueness when she asks him, “What does it mean?” The emotional tie between them is the real story, and again we find the theme of loneliness.

“Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford

At first, the librarian in charge of the Total Library thinks the texts have been cybervandalized, even though the library is isolated from any network. But Ceri Evans, expert in information theory, figures out that someone has been using “acausal channels” to leave a message composed of quotations from the library’s texts, beginning with It is a truth universally recognized. It can only be aliens, and what they are offering turns out to be a recipe for vast quantities of antimatter. As Ceri says, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Clever and sly, with a nicely barbed ending.


“The Dark Man” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Once a reporter before the death of news, Condi is now working as an investigator for the Organization of Strange Phenomena Ancient and Modern. Her current assignment is the black figure which has been reported to appear periodically on Rome’s Spanish Steps. She notices that someone is following her, and it turns out to be a member of a society dedicated to the protection of the figure they call the Dark Man, just as others like herself are dedicated to solving the mystery. The society has the theory that the Dark Man is an alien, or the remains of one, who is out of phase with time on Earth. At first Condi thinks they are just crazies, but after seeing the Dark Man for herself, she knows it is real, whatever it is.

Yet the past lived in Rome, more than in any other place she had ever been. If someone – something – were to phase in and out of time, this would be the place, because time was strange here. Old and new and forward and backward all at once.

Another story connecting the appearance of aliens with shifts in time, although the figure is less alien than inexplicable. More concerned with belief than with speculation, this one would have fit quite as well into an anthology of ghost stories. Its strength is in the well-drawn character of Condi and particularly in the lively descriptions of Rome, its spaces and its denizens, including the Spanish Steps with their colorful history.

“One Big Monkey” by Ray Vukovich

In which the premise seems to be that the aliens are out there, they just can’t get a word in edgewise past all the noise of online yammering. And they’ve been waiting for us to take the next evolutionary step. As DaveToMars tweets:

All of us are locked up alone in our own heads. But lately it’s not so quiet. My ears are ringing, or maybe something has come loose in the structure of the place.

The loneliness theme is here, in this case overcome by collective consciousness. The setting is very trendy and now, and the author successfully evokes the overwhelming annoyingness of all the trivial talktalktalk, although readers may find it a bit hard to push through the babble.

“The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan

Nell is suffering from synesthesia, in which her sensations are tangled, but her primary problem is the strong feeling that she is missing a sense, a sixth sense that she doesn’t understand. Her husband and the social workers think she’s demented, but Nell is finally coming to understand that the problem, the extra sense, is the ability to hear others’ thoughts because they are trying to communicate with her. Something can be a million light years away and in your eye at the same time.

Nell’s loneliness comes from the fact that no one can understand what she is going through. Her husband rejects her because she insists on sleeping in the streets, and I must say I also can’t really understand why she feels she must do this if the communication is happening internally. Nell does not seem to have sought this contact but she welcomes it, despite the damage it is doing to her other senses. I’m not sure that everyone would.

“Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes

Brodie, too, is hearing voices that the medical experts can’t find a reason for. Until he consults a hypnotist who does a past-life regression and helps him find the way out, back home. The hypnotic sessions are quite convincing, slowly revealing the secret of Brodie’s origin and the way he was trapped. This is another lonely, isolated character, a person out of place even though he wasn’t actually aware at first of the fact.

“A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson

Roderick is an ophthalmologist, a lonely ophthalmologist with an unrequited crush on the narrator’s wife. Roderick has developed his own variation on Fermi’s Paradox: with the vast number of stellar civilization that must have come and gone, where are the surviving artificial intelligences that must have existed? He has also provides an answer:

“They are in your very own eyes! We don’t see the aliens in our universe because it is through those alien intelligences that we perceive!”

While his friends suspect that Roderick is deranged, it turns out that he is more right than he knew.

This is a very far-fetched premise, and the author knows it. Explaining it, Roderick sounds like a nutcase. Demonstrating it, the imagery is impressive but when it comes to the point, unconvincing. The conclusion makes it clear that Roderick must have been right, which is certainly surprising but still not convincing, as we have no idea how it could be the case.

“Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What

Callum is a teenager who lives with his mother and his nicely batty grandmother, a classic packrat who has filled her house and garage with stuff collected over the decades, including a jar full of odd stones that she calls “moon agates.” One day the aliens show up, and it seems they are looking for Grandma Vera, or more to the point, her “moon agates.”

And there was Vera, enthroned in an old cane rocker, surrounded by six green spheres as big as volleyballs. They had steadily glowing cores the size of ping pong balls, surrounded by swirling color. Points glinted and faded on their borders.

This is a neat and mostly positive tale that makes me think of the psychedelic glory of the hippie era. It is also the most overt case of alien visitation in the anthology. Callum may have been a bit socially isolated, but because of the aliens he gets a girlfriend.

“The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow

The narrator, Donald Kreigar, is a philosopher specializing in logical paradoxes who is approached by the abbot of a very strange monastery with a similar vocation, in need of a new paradox with which to protect the world from a “voracious metaphysical menace.” It seems that there is a rift in the lithosphere from which a noxious tarn has oozed, “menacing the biosphere with poison, pestilence, and pandemonium.” Only constant meditation on the strongest paradoxes can keep the menace at bay and heal the rift. The threat of pandemonium is literal; creatures that Abbot Articulis calls cacodaemons have affixed themselves to the heads of the monks and nuns, weakening their concentration. The Abbot plans to lure the cacos away from them with a paradox so strong and alluring they will not be able to resist it.

Morrow does Something Different by going with the Paradox notion rather than the aliens. It is all wonderful nonsense, full of wit and philosophy jokes [which, I admit, may not be to everyone’s taste as they are to my own]. Kreigar first proposes Fermi’s Paradox to the abbot, but it fails on the grounds that the cacos are actually aliens. Of course Fermi’s is not a logical paradox at all, so this is hardly surprising. Morrow provides a refreshing coda to the anthology.


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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