Two print digest zines and a month’s worth of the usual ezines.
Analog, December 2010
A lot of Latin in this issue, but much less spacefaring.
“The Man from Downstream” by Sane Tourtellotte
Time travel. This one seems at first to be a rebuttal to the classic “The Man who Came Early,” as Quintus Julius Americus successfully integrates himself into the world of Augustan Rome and has made significant changes in only a few years. But Americus has come upstream for personal reasons, and not noble ones – although he does try to eliminate the slavery closest to him. The story’s true focus is less on him than on Marcia, the practical and insightful Roman widow who becomes his friend.
The author has successfully depicted a rural, quotidian 1st century Roman world. There are one or two small lapses into the temptation of puns, but the last line touches a true note.
“Home is Where the Hub Is” by Christopher L Bennett
This one does not begin well:
Nashira Wing fidgeted with the straps of her slinky dress as she signaled at the door of Suite 47. She practically jumped out of said dress when the door opened and a huge, slavering carnivore thrust out its head.
Also, it’s a sequel, in which Hub Scout Wing continues to go along with naive Earthman David LaMacchia’s attempts to discover the secret of the Hub transportation system. Complications ensue. More sequels can be spotted on the event horizon. The story is meant to amuse, but it is hampered by the awkward prose, silly aliens, and most of all the retread scenario. All of this buries a potentially interesting situation of a world that would rather evade the truth than alter its rigid sociopolitical system.
“Primum Non Nocere” by H G Stratmann
In a world in which obesity is a crime, treatment is not optional. Everyone is implanted with a Metabolic NanoMonitor that records and enforces healthy eating patterns. But some people, like Esther Thompson, manage to bypass it and are sent to reeducation, aka the Fat Farm. There Esther meets a fellow inmate named Nick, with a snowy white beard and a gut like a bowl full of jelly, who turns out to be a member of the Eaters Liberation Front.
Political diatribe, sneering villains, and tedious lectures.
“After determining that what you ate was above healthy limits, the MNM activated chemoreceptors and mechanoreceptors in your stomach and other areas of the gastrointestinal tract. That in turn stimulated parts of your central and peripheral nervous systems to cause the smooth muscle contractions, reverse peristalsis, and other effects you experienced.”
“The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned” by Brenda Cooper
Planetary colonization. The survival of the new human colony is in doubt.
We were failing, dying by bits each year as we missed goals, became food for the local predators, fought amongst each other, and tried ever so hard to learn the dangers and opportunities here.
The narrator begins to observe the large native herd beasts that they name Hebras, looking for clues to help them survive. He contrives a plan to capture Hebras, to use them as riding animals. But there is no advantage to the Hebras in this.
The ecology here is well-done, as is the pressure for survival. The problem is that the colony has not been on this world for generations, slowly declining, but has recently arrived from another, more technologically advanced world. It’s hard to accept that people capable of crossing space would arrive in such a helpless state without adequate defensive weapons, without even a length of rope to spare.
“Deca-Dad” by Ron Collins
Thanks to time dilation, Carlo meets his multiple-great spacefaring grandfather, in town on a layover.
What adventures could Ddad tell me, this man who had been merely in flight for more years than I, a student at Luna U, had even been in existence?
Too brief to be a portrait but a nice sketch of an indomitable character.
“Happy are the Bunyips” by Carl Frederick
An unexpected and unwanted shipment arrives at the zoo, and there is nothing to do but put the bunyips on exhibit until the mystery can be resolved.
The two crate occupants bounded out and padded up to the harp-wire barrier. Roger watched them. The bunyips looked like giant lemurs, but with slightly more compact faces. They walked upright. Roger gasped as he saw that their kneecaps were on the wrong side of their knees.
Humorous light skiffy piece with a moral. The irritable zoo director is a cliché. In the zoological institutions of which I am aware, newly-arrived animals are not put on immediate exhibit in public.
“A Placebo Effect” by Brian C Coad
Big Pharma throws patent attorney Wally Mason under the bus as a scapegoat when its patented line of placebos causes an international incident between China and India. But Wally doesn’t want to play the goat. What’s interesting here is the illustration of the connectedness of things, how small changes can generate global consequences. But blaming the patent attorney is too far-fetched.
Asimov’s, December 2010
It’s Asimov’s, not Analog, that has the hard SF space fiction this month, one among a large number of shorter works.
“Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly
A sequel. Mariska’s mother had her cloned to fulfill her own ambitions to work in interstellar space, so Mariska escapes by signing on as crew of an insystem asteroid bucket.
The Shining Legend was possibly the ugliest spaceship in SinoStar’s fleet. At the back end of its long spine was a heavily shielded antimatter drive. Forward of the reactor was a skirt of battered cargo buckets. Outbound, these had carried agro and manufactured goods destined for Rising Dragon station. Inbound, they contained unprocessed nickel-iron ore and dirty chunks of ice from SinoStar’s asteroid mines.
But the crew’s boss bears an old grudge against her mother and takes it out on Mariska. Then his error loses the ice from which the ship’s lifesupport is electrolyzed, leaving them with insufficient reserves of oxygen to make it back to base.
This typical space-problem story is actually an antidote to the typical romance-of-spaceflight scenario as Mariska scrubs mold and the rest of the crew escapes boredom in drugs and sexual fantasies. The episode works well on its own and has the right hard-SF feel to the space scenes. But while the ending is cathartic it lacks true closure, as we see that the direction of Mariska’s career is still undetermined.
“Warfriends” by Tom Purdom
Alien alliances. Two species have come together to combat a common enemy, which requires major compromises in strategy, customs, morality and even religion. It isn’t easy to overcome lifetimes of habit and generations of instinct.
Jila-Jen straightened up. The fur on the side of his head stiffened into bristles that turned his face into a broad angry mask. His free hand gripped the hilt of his sword. “Nama-Nanat has given his orders!” Jila-Jen screamed. “Nama-Nanat is your commander. He commands! We obey!“
This seems to be a sequel to a very early novel in which a human gains enough influence on the world to bring this alliance about. However, the human never makes an appearance in this battle, and the story really gets along quite well without him. Purdom makes it clear that the compromises that the two species have to make are not trivial; people are getting killed. It’s interesting that both species are carnivorous, and the species that seems less inherently warlike actually regards the others as potential prey. The complexity of the situation makes it a rewarding read.
“Libertarian Russia” by Michael Swanwick
Victor is cruising across Depopulation Russia on his motorcycle, intent on living the libertarian dream on the road where the government no longer reaches. He think he has it all figured out, but he’s figured wrong.
At the back of the room was a bar. Above it, painted in white block letters, were the words: WE KNOW NO MERCY AND DO NOT ASK FOR ANY.
Essentially a postapocalypse story about the line between liberty and anarchy, except that the Depopulation of Russia doesn’t really count as an apocalypse. It’s nicely done and suits the setting, except for an unforgivable “As you know, Svetlana” chunk of infodump.
“Sins of the Father” by Sara Genge
The merfolk have raised the sea and taken over the world, allowing the surviving terrestrial humans to live at a subsistence level. The narrator had argued with his mother, a dictator of the mer, that they were descended from humans; in consequence he has been exiled to the land, where he has made himself more or less at home in difficult circumstances, among a people with different customs.
What little land we have, we need for planting, so the villagers carve houses from stone, using the silt as base for whitewash and walling themselves into the earth with brick and plaster. I love them: houses like wombs.
Now he has married a woman of the land and his wife is pregnant, confirming the truth that his mother denied.
While the premise lacks credibility, the heart of the story is the experience of exile, of making a home among strangers. There is human truth here, and I would like to see more of it – the narrator’s conflict with his mother, his exile and integration into the human society. As it stands, what we have here is the conclusion of a story we can only infer.
“Freia in the Sunlight” by Gregory Norman Bossert
The drawbacks of autonomous weapons systems. Super-drone Freia’s inventor is proud of her capacity to analyze data and make her own tactical decisions, but she employs her autonomy for unplanned uses during an operation, diverting her attention instead to the content of remarks her inventor made during a public demo some time ago.
The text of this story generates some confusion by failing to clearly distinguish between the current timeline and the timeline of the demo with which Freia is obsessing. There is interesting stuff here about the drawbacks of using ordinary language, with all its ambiguities, for communication with artificial intelligence. Freia is hung up on a metaphor.
She had her breakthrough in the middle of a code regression test. She was “flying” a simulated mission, resolving possible routes in a high-stealth scenario, when she saw it, through the filter of her route heuristics; she dropped the sim in surprise, and barely had time to flush her thoughts to non-volatile RAM before the technician aborted and rebooted her. “Beauty” was how she resolved possible plans; a positive contextual comparative, the best path, the best word, the best shape for the need. In a particular situational analysis, the optimal choice was “beautiful.”
It seems to me that results like this should have indicated quite clearly to the developers that this system had serious problems with its programming. But what bothers me perhaps more than the story logic is the sexism: If “Freia” were “he” or “it” would the drone be so obsessed with being called “beautiful” that it aborts its mission? I suspect not.
“Variations” by Ian Werkheiser
Joe’s father was a piano virtuoso and Joe as a child was a prodigy, but he later rejected it all and left music for the bottle. Now, needing the money, he accepts the offer of a software company using his father as a template for a program that replicates a musician’s performance. It succeeds all too well: for Joe, the program has replicated his father.
Flipping a switch made the piano silent for a moment, before it started up again playing a medley of music written in the last few decades, prepared beforehand to demonstrate this new advancement. Modern pieces for the piano blended into jazz and then pop, ending in a rendition of several well-known themes from movies and commercial jingles, but all recognizably played by Benjamin Novak.
This is a personal story about a father and son, but it is well-informed by musicality directly out of the author’s own experience. A promising debut story.
“Excellence” by Robert Reed
Larry Voss is living the virtual good life by his own definition, with very little effort, which is part of his definition.
On ten very different earths, I am a trillionaire. On an eleventh earth, I’m a warrior of distinction, famous among those players who genuinely appreciate the history of the Mobius War. All told, there are four hundred artificial earths, plus thousands of partial places and unmoored scenarios. My doppels aren’t significant presences in any of those realms, but I don’t know anybody who can juggle eleven earths as well as I do, and that doesn’t even include the drab, exhausted world where I happen to live.
Then one day a total stranger comes up and expresses a great interest in his “badly wasted potential,” and makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
This story about the drawbacks of genius has a nicely twisty ending, but it takes such an indirect route to get there that the impact is less than it might have been.
“The Prize Beyond Gold” by Ian Creasy
Delroy is the Olympic champion in the 100 m, and he now has a chance to break the world record, which has stood for seventy years. But increasingly he is chafing against the restrictions of his training regimen; rebellious thoughts arise:
It would be a splendid gesture to deliberately throw away everything he’d striven toward during his career. It would assert his freedom, his individuality, and show that he couldn’t be reduced to a mindless marionette.
An interesting look at the strictures of athletic training, If This Goes On. But this short piece can’t quite seem to decide whether it’s about the singleminded pursuit of success or the conflict between standard and enhanced humanity.
Fantasy Magazine, September 2010
While these stories are strongly fantastic, their settings are still recognizably our own world.
“Stone Flowers” by Aidan Doyle
When gods fade. No one has worshiped Daisuke for centuries, and he has faded to the point where only other gods can see him, notably his friend Yoshiko.
Daisuke had lived so long that he couldn’t remember what he was a god of. He liked to think that in his youth he had been a brave warrior god, but his memories were jumbled and confused.
Now Yoshiko is disappearing, but she leaves him a parting gift.
A poignant short tale about the loneliness of immortality. The author speaks of the significant of the gods’ flesh becoming solid and visible again, but I must admit it evades me. Are they becoming corporeal and mortal? Or withering away like the cherry blossoms?
“Bloodlines” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Witches. The power runs in Lourdes’ family, in the women.
My whole family was filled with beautiful women. Black and white photographs, old Polaroids and even painted portraits testified to a lineage that gave way to the most ravishing beauties in the region. It also gave the women magic and an explosive temper.
Lourdes is not beautiful and not powerful as a witch, unlike her cousin Elena. But when Elena is planning to put a strong maleficio on the lover who dumped her, Lourdes decides she has to warn him.
The responsibility of power. Although this is a simple tale, Lourdes is a sympathetic and admirable character with an appealing narrative voice.
“Logovore” by Joseph F Nacino
“Logovore” is such a neat word. I had high hopes for a story with such a word for its title. But the author makes very little of the notion, treating us instead to the uninspiring life of an uninspired and undereducated English teacher who seems to be able to read minds. Potentially interesting scenarios pass by, but the story never seizes hold of any of them. For a story so focused on language, much of the dialogue is awkward. Who would actually say, “Me, all I understand is that I’m overloaded with students clamoring for classes.” Nobody says “clamoring.” It may be a fine, tasty word, but it is never served in social discourse.
“Nine Bodies of Water” by Monica Byrne
Alba, a destitute and despairing single mother of a young son, finds a lottery ticket and learns it is worth fifty million dollars just as she is filling the bathtub to drown, probably, her son. As she struggles to absorb the fact, “simple as that, time unhooked itself like a taut laundry line and snapped violently free.” She finds herself immersed in a series of scenarios of possible futures that the money has brought her, and in every one her son is lost to her in some watery way.
This ambiguous fantasy confronts the threat of predestination with the weapon of free will – pulling a hopeful and optimistic conclusion out of a strong sense of inevitable doom. I find the use of the water metaphor a bit forced.
Strange Horizons, September 2010
This month’s set of stories illustrate the convergence of science fiction and contemporary fantasy [which I would call “urban fantasy” except that the term has been debased]. The line between them has blurred to near-disappearance.
“Aphrodisia” by Lavie Tidhar
The narrator and his friends are visiting Earth to help him in his recovery. Once, he was perforated with sockets and plugged into the datastream, where he was addicted to contact with Aphrodisia, whom he imagined [I think] to be his lover. They [whoever They are] cut him off, apparently for his own good.
But they took me off the cables and they barred me from that pure wide ocean, and when I cried and fought and tried to kill they restrained me, and pumped me with drugs, and plugged all my sockets to stop me from going back.
But on Earth, Aphrodisia’s song are everywhere, and They have no power there.
Tidhar isn’t generally much given to explanations, and readers of this one have to work a lot of it out themselves, because the narrator lacks a firm hold on reality and is thus profoundly unreliable. The setting in Vientiane is vivid, as this author’s settings usually are — an exotic place as seen through non-Earthly eyes. At its heart, it is a tale of friendship and fellowship, about the people who will help you get through the bad times.
“And She Shall Be Crowned According to Her Station” by Genevieve Valentine
Roaches have invaded Jessie’s apartment. They are not behaving like normal roaches. She would really like her father to take care of them, of her, but she is supposed to be independent now, living on her own, as he reminds her.
Conclusion may be predictable, but it’s well-wrote.
Almost all the glass from the lower frame is missing, and a hundred roaches are clustered over the hole, throwing the room into twilight. Two or three have impaled themselves on the jagged edges to make a more stable base for the others.
“Iteration” by John Kessel
Enzo is leading a marginal existence when he gets an email: “Re-invent the world.” The site it leads to allows him to make one change – a small change – every 24 hours. But a single change can not be made in isolation, and others are making changes, too. The world alters for the better.
This is not simply an exercise in wishful thinking but an exploration of the dynamics of social change behind a simple facade. An interesting thought experiment that suggests a path of action.
There are data sets in iteration that converge to single points, called attractive fixed points. Enzo wondered what point his series was converging toward? But it wasn’t just his series. It was everybody’s.
“Over My Shoulder” by David Sklar
Musician/ex-junkie Orpheus, as he called himself, once made a deal with the devil in exchange for an opportunity to get the woman he loves. Now he has a new song, a good song, a new destiny, and Vespers, as the story calls him, shows up to collect it.
At half past one, I was still at it when I felt a vague unease, like someone was watching me. I looked around and saw no one, but it was late, and the shadows were heavy, and my reflection was a stranger who did not wish me well.
It’s a wonder that the devil [this is the devil, no matter that he seems a bit on the mortal side here] is still in business, with everyone cheating him. This is what Orpheus is determined to do, to hang on to what’s his, and he uses some risky black magic in the attempt. I suppose that the reason this devil is not really THE devil is so he can fall for this magic, although it’s not clear to me why Vespers doesn’t realize what’s going on and abort the rite. I like the metaphor of thread as destiny; it’s as old and powerful as fate. But it seems too easy, if anyone can just pick up a book and find a spell that will work on so heavy a figure as Vespers is said to be, or that a novice could so easily master it. Of course it’s supposed to be OK to cheat the devil because, after all, he’s the devil, even if he’s the one who keeps his side of the bargain and it’s the other guy who wants to weasel out of paying his lawful debt. And, perhaps more important, Orpheus doesn’t really sacrifice anything of great value.
In addition to these moral issues, this piece irritates me by giving every character a silly romanticized name, including a poor child named Ocean. Orpheus’s “real” name is Spider. I must also chide the copyeditor for failing to spot the redundant line about the screen in the room.
Lightspeed, September 2010
The best issue yet from this new magazine.
“Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Yoon Ha Lee
When causality runs backwards.
But in some universes, determinism runs backwards: given a universe’s state s at some time t, there are multiple previous states that may have resulted in s. In some universes, all possible pasts funnel toward a single fixed ending, ?.
In one such universe of reverse causation, a weapon master named Arighan created four unique guns; most powerful is Arighan’s Flower, which eliminates the entire ancestry of its target – an act of revenge on a culture that worships its ancestors. By using it unknowing, Shiron has inadvertently deleted the human race. Now, in a universe where neither she nor humans have ever existed, she learns that someone wants to use her gun to eliminate Arighan herself, and thus all the weapons she created.
The reverse determinism is a Seriously Neat Idea, full of delicious paradoxes. I am not totally convinced that using it could have eliminated the entire human race, but if so, it requires that Arighan not be human, and her descendants likewise – a point not directly addressed in the text.
“Amid the Words of War” by Cat Rambo
This is a story of exile, of a being cast out from everything that has been its life and grateful even for the touch of hate, when it comes from home. What Rambo is attempting here is creating sympathy for a war criminal – or so we judge what Six has done. This seems to call for extenuation, and we see that Six and its clutch-mates were raised and trained entirely for war, to murder and torture and exterminate its species’ enemies. Thus we might conclude that it is not responsible for its actions, having never known anything else. When captured, it is subjected to torture itself and then, being exchanged, tortured again by its own side as a traitor. But this extenuation is not really the point, and Rambo explicitly [or so I think] does not say that Six is sorry for what it has done, that it recognizes its acts were wrong. Six suffers. Even the most guilty can suffer, even the unrepentant and unextenuated.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, September 2010
Fantasy set in worlds that are definitely not our own.
“Two by Zero” by Garth Upshaw
In the sort of city where heretics and criminals are hung on hooks to die, student sorcerer Orlen D’Hamilton foolishly attempts an illicit spell and manages to summon a dark aspect, although his hand is transformed in the process into a tentacle. But the demon [it isn’t called this, but I know a demon when I read one] is more difficult to control.
An author needs an awfully good excuse to begin a story with a line like:
I, Orlen D’Hamilton, manifested an almost perfect category-three dark aspect early Friday morning, two days after the fourth full moon, in the year 1637 of the Twin Saviors.
I see no justification for it here. Orlen is not the sort of protagonist I can have any sympathy for. It is not just that he is a fool, but his foolish ambition causes grave harm to others; people are tortured to death. It is just not enough that he tries to put things right, and when it turns out that he is rewarded for his actions, it is clear that this is a gravely immoral story that the author takes all too lightly.
“The Swallow and the Sea” by E Catherine Tobler
Abigail is unhappy living as a human [I suspect she may be a Nereid], so she commits suicide after getting Jakob to promise to throw her body into the whirlpool Scylla. Jakob stows her body away on the pirate ship Swallow, but Abigail is restless and walks the decks at night. And her vengeful brother, with inhuman powers, is sailing in pursuit to retrieve her, while the crew is getting nervous.
Finch shook his head. “As I figure, it’s none of my business, save for lasses cursing the ships, ye know. It ain’t right, her being on board like that. Even if she is dead. Makes it worse, her being dead, don’t it?”
There’s a lot of neat fantastic stuff in here, but much of it seems to have been established in some earlier story that we don’t get to read, as if it were a sequel or a second chapter. The author drops us into the water in midstream, while we stare around the scene treading water and wondering, Who? What? Why? Huh?
“The Guilt Child” by Margaret Roland
A steampunkish fantasy world in which complex machines made of thaumic ore eventually acquire sentience and leave for the distant Hundred Cities of free automatons. The Vallon family has kept Stamper, the mechanical heart of Vallon Parts and Press, working long after his awakening by means of deceit, convincing him that only his remaining at the factory will keep them from total destitution. Thus Carla, a cousin of the family, is recruited to engage Stamper’s sympathies.
Carla stepped inside, pausing as a cold wind blew past her and set off a cascade of tiny metallic noises in the darkness. As her eyes adjusted to the dim gold glow of werlight, she could just make out a nest of machinery, thick with the scorched scent of thaumic ore. The competing stamp of presses came together in a united heartbeat, and under her feet a webwork of tracks and pipes rumbled and purred.
This one is set in the same world as some of the author’s previous stories, although it is not a direct sequel. The sentient machines are a Neat Idea, made even moreso by fairytales that equate them with ogres. It’s a promising world, although this particular tale pulls pretty hard on the emotional strings.
Adding that I am happy to find a break in the monotonous menu of first-person narratives that constitute the fare of this zine.
“Invitation of the Queen” by Therese Arkenberg
A puritanical militaristic group that calls itself the New Order in an manner reminiscent of Cromwell has conquered a land where the original inhabitants, the Djubati, have been resisting more vigorously than a later group of colonists. The New Order is thorough in its ethnic cleansing, even burning the books of those who have fled, lest they introduce subversive thoughts. But rank has it privileges, so Hary has saved a Djubati girl that a group of his soldiers were intent on raping. She seems to be his docile housekeeper until he lends her to a fellow officer who has definitely been subverted by a Djubati book.
A work in which the political predominates over the dark fantastic, although magic is definitely present and central to the plot. The character names suggest the Boer incursion into the lands of the Zulus, although the Boers might also be the conquered Amaasin – who are essentially superfluous to this story, except as a red herring. The references to “suicide attacks” suggest other, more recent cases of a land’s inhabitants resisting a foreign occupier.
Tor.com, September 2010
One zombie and one not.
“The Monster’s Million Faces” by Rachel Swirsky
Trauma and memory. Aaron was abducted and abused as a child, and the event has warped his entire life, making him an unpleasant person with no ability to form emotional connections to others.
Yeah, I get angry. I hit people. Sometimes I get so angry when I hit people that I don’t remember it afterward.
He is now undergoing memory grafting, a new form of therapy in which the memory of the abuse will be overlaid with one created to give him closure. But Aaron can’t move past hate and revenge to a satisfactory resolution.
The sciencefictional aspect of the therapy is quite plausible. But fundamentally, as Aaron’s therapist points out, it is still up to the patient, not technology, to achieve the resolution. Psychologically, Aaron’s path to closure, as he confronts his denial, feels right.
“Preparations” by Mark Mills
This site celebrated a Zombie Week in September – I suppose because of the 40th anniversary of the Romero movie. From this I received the impression that the zombie has lost its horrific cachet and become a butt of humor. Certainly it seems that the graphic medium is fond of them, and the illustration to this humorous zombie piece strikes the cartoon note. But the text of the story suggests that the reason for the many waves of zombies that afflict Ronald may be its pervasive use in fiction: art generating unlife.
Intergalactic Medicine Show, September 22 2010
A special story in honor of Elephant Appreciation Day.
“The Elephants of Posnan” by Orson Scott Card
A plague has wiped out most of the human race and rendered the survivors sterile, all but a few, whose DNA has been altered. The narrator manages to impregnate a fertile girl, but their child is elephantine and his mother does not survive his birth. The narrator reluctantly raises his son until he runs off to join a herd of elephants. Then, as an adult, Arek returns with the elephants.
Thus summarized, this piece sounds silly. That it is not is owing to the narrator and his speculation on the condition of humanity and elephants. While acknowledging that the elephants have inherited the Earth, he grudges it to them.
I changed perspective suddenly, and saw us as the elephants must have seen us. This was Africa after all, and we were the primates perched in the trees, hooting and screeching at the giants, unaware of our own insignificance, or at least unbothered by it.
One might well ask, “Why elephants?” But when humanity falls, our place will be taken by someone else – why not elephants? Still, I don’t think this piece shows particular appreciation for the species, or induces me to particularly appreciate them.