Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: Mid-September

A couple of print magazines arrived.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, October/November 2010

The stories in this issue all deal, in one way or another, with the good and bad in human nature.

“Becoming One with the Ghosts” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Ivoire has been damaged in battle. In order to rejoin the Fleet, her captain, Coop, has no choice but to return for repairs to Sector Base V [32, not 5], from which they had departed only a month ago. But arriving in the repair room, it is immediately apparent to the crew that something is wrong; the base seems to have been deserted. It slowly – very slowly to the crew, less so for the readers – becomes clear that the spacetime-folding drive has delivered them to the wrong time, somewhere in their future. And a group of strange humans, the humans of this present, is outside the ship looking for a way to get inside.

This novella is a sequel. At some point, readers familiar with Rusch’s Diving into the Wreck material will recognize the woman in the repair room, which flips the story upsidedown as we realize that here, in the Ivoire, we have the original ancient technology that has caused so much trouble in Boss’s world. The title refers not only to the ghosts of the past who show up alive in the present but also to a previous story in the sequence, “The Room of Lost Souls.” In effect, we have two stories: one, Coop’s story, contained in the current work, and the second, Boss’s story, continued in it. While the first story is complete in itself, the second is more full. The theme of both is leadership, but readers already familiar with Boss’s story will find it a comparison of the two leaders.

So the problem with this piece is not the sequelization. Simply put, it drags. Particularly in the beginning, there is too much repetitive description and explanation. Coop’s extreme [excessive] caution produces tedium rather than tension. The author dwells at great length on details that turn out to be extraneous; while undoubtedly meant to fill in Coop’s character as a leader, matters like a subordinate’s choice of subordinates for a mission are just not very interesting. I can’t help wondering if some of these people, of whom we are told much and shown little, will play a role in some projected sequel; they do not, however, play a role here in this story that justifies the wordage spent on them. On the other hand, some matters of potential interest are treated vaguely: the original damage to the ship, the apparent damage to the repair room. The captain and his officers talk about “the weapons” without specifying them, and take time to tell each other what they certainly already know, that these weapons can not be used inside the base. The whole thing has a rather first-draft feel to it, as if the author had skipped that important step in which she goes through the manuscript and cuts out the dull and extraneous stuff.

“Several Items of Interest” by Rick Wilber

Another series story, this one in the S’hdonni sequence in which aliens have conquered the Earth. Insurrection has broken out, burning the crops from which alcohol is made for luxury export. Peter, a human collaborator, is asked by the S’hdonni governor, Twoclicks, to intervene, because his brother is a leader of the rebellion.

The demand for this, this authentic Earthie alcohol in its various forms, is very high on Downtone and Blink right now and doing okay on the other planets of The Seven. Twoclicks needs to capitalize on that demand while he can, and expand the market before his siblings get in on it. He sees this as the opportunity he’s been waiting a very long time for. It’s his chance to rise in the hierarchy. His chance to please his father.”

This is a story of sibling rivalry, as the conflict between Peter and Tommy is mirrored by the hostility between Twoclicks and his brother Whistle. The parallel is perhaps too pat. Much of the text is backstory, but this is less backfilling to catch readers up with the series as it is the unhappy family history of Peter and his brother. Tommy, from the beginning, is clearly the jealous and hostile antagonist of the piece, but it is also fairly clear that Peter, on whose success the story depends, is a dupe and tool of the alien overlords, as Tommy accuses him. Questions of loyalty and betrayal lurk in the background here, but it seems likely that they will break out into the open in further installments.

“Torhec the Sculptor” by Tanith Lee

Aamon van Glanz is a man so wealthy that he believes he can buy what is not for sale, in his case, one of the works of the sculptor Torhec, famous for smashing every creation he produces, recalling the fate of ephemeral sand paintings, that are eventually swept away.

Once begun Torhec did not hesitate. Inside two minutes five of the smaller artworks had been reduced to rubble. These chunks, even the most shapeless ones, the sculptor continued to mash, until they were only crumbs, splinters, dust. He was immensely thorough. It was his policy to be so. All creatures, things, all beauty—perished, and so should this.

Aamon makes Torhec several offers, until the artist finally agrees to the sale on the condition that Aamon must never look at or even mention the existence of the item in his possession. But of course, once Aamon possesses it, the temptation begins to build.

This fabulist tale explicitly riffs off the classics in a world that is just-enough not our own to cast an exotic light over the story. It is a tale of temptation, in which we see Aamon continually coming to the edge and stepping back. It is also a story of the tension between the forces of creation and destruction, personified in the figure of Torhec, who seems suspiciously immune to age in a manner suggestive of godhood.


“Frankenstein, Frankenstein” by Will McIntosh

When Phineas Gage survives getting a railroad spike driven into his skull, he goes on the carny circuit as a credible Frankenstein monster. Perhaps too credible, as he attracts deranged persons eager to replicate the experiment they believe created him.

I had grown skilled at fabricating memories. The key was to stay in the vicinity of Shelley’s account, but to drift, thus suggesting I had information she did not. “I remember great wheels turning. The sound of rushing water. Blocks of black iron everywhere—”

Starting out as a light-hearted bit of fun about carny scams, this one turns darker than expected, and more human. But while I enjoyed the story, it departs so significantly from the life of the actual Phineas Gage that I wish the author had modified the name.

“Names for Water” by Kij Johnson

Hala, late for a math class in which she is foundering, gets a phone call from a distant, unknown ocean, or perhaps from her future.

It is also an illusion brought on by exhaustion. She knows the sound is just white noise; she’s known that all along. But she wanted it to mean something — enough that she was willing to pretend to herself, because just now she needs a charm against the sense that she is drowning in schoolwork and uncertainty about her future.

A warm and hopeful piece. I’m not quite sure how the math for physics is easier than the math for engineering.

“The Incarceration of Captain Nebula” by Mike Resnick

Is the patient in the sanatorium actually Captain Nebula or a madman under the influence of a highly consistent delusion? Dr. Weaver has no doubt, but he also rather wishes that Captain Nebula were real. A surprisingly strong illustration, given the subject matter, of the power and the drawbacks of fixed belief. The narrative is largely dialogue, as many of this author’s stories have been.

“No Distance Too Great” by Don D’Ammassa

Jason’s wife died before she could realize her dream of traveling to another world, and now he is taking her ashes with him through hyperspace to Dropout, where he plans to join her in death. The shape of hyperspace is a consensual reality, a fantastic terrain.

Humans perceived hyperspace as an infinite plain dotted with features that were almost always interpreted consistently from individual to individual. Many of these features had been named, like the broccoli trees, which were not living creatures at all, but they looked like trees and they looked like broccoli and everybody saw them as pretty much the same thing.

However the route through hyperspace is subject to alteration under sufficient psychological stress on the part of the passengers, which can seriously endanger the passage of ships, and Jason’s suicidal grief is very strong.

A love story. It’s hard to say whether this is also a ghost story or a story of the mind’s ability to alter reality — which may amount to much the same thing.

“The Termite Queen of Tallulah County” by Felicity Shoulders

Lacey has taken over the family termite extermination business after her father had an attack that left him brain damaged. Lacey takes her business seriously and has just become licensed to do temporal intervention, preventing damage that originated in the past. But she discovers more than she had counted on.

The builders had been incredibly sloppy. Dropped cigarette packs, odd remnants, and wood corners, yes, but also 2x4s they could have salvaged just piled around like termite lures. Where I’d seen the wisp of a long-ago food wrapper, sure enough, there was an empty Fiddle Faddle box.

A fairly typical time travel story is enlivened by the vivid details of termite tubes and black widow spiders in the dark crawlspaces. However, I can’t quite buy the notion that time travel is likely to become a commonplace tool of termite killers unless people everywhere are randomly popping in and out of time, which rather defeats the premise.

“Dummy Tricks” by R Neube

On a frozen world, vicious “families,” in the crime, not the biological sense, have divided up the territory where they harvest a kind of lichen bloom called ice cobras, an improbably valuable commodity. Because Hal has wrecked his brain with drugs, he is valuable to his family (although they constantly deny this and put him down) because the damage makes him immune to an annual electromagnetic storm that drives normal humans off the ice plateau. Except, apparently, for the group of pirates that Hal spots poaching on his family’s turf.

The author tries strenuously to convince us that this story is about Hal’s inner insecurity, but Hal seems quite aware of his strengths and flaws, quite aware that the family’s unappreciation for him is their problem, not his. The real story here is about the human need to bond with others and how this can be destroyed by selfishness and greed, the depths to which people can sink in the pursuit of wealth. Unfortunately, this setting is overly contrived, although vividly described. Having established that normal humans can not survive on the plateau during the Strumming, the author plops his poachers onto it with no apparent ill effects, unless their relentlessly murderous impulses can be attributed to the storm, which does not seem to be supported by the text.

“Changing the World” by Kate Wilhelm

Now that he is retired, Mel has time on his hands to notice the increase in hatemongering on the radio and internet, conspiracy theories increasingly detached from reality. He decides to perpetrate a hoax in order to expose the delusory nature of such beliefs, but he is wrong when he assumes there are some ideas too crazy to be credited.

If This Goes On. Unfortunately, as Wilhelm suggests, it probably will. This cautionary tale is not much different from our current reality.

“Under the Thumb of the Brain Patrol” by Ferret Steinmetz

If geeks bullied jocks. The tables are turned in this improbable tale, which would have had more impact if it weren’t carried quite so far.


Interzone #230, Sep-Oct 2010

Every setting in this issue is, at least for some persons living in it, a dystopia. A higher than usual fantasy quotient for this zine.

“Love and War” by Tim Lees

The most genre-typical dystopia in the issue. Our own Earth and an Earth from a parallel universe have intersected, with disastrous consequences. Things come through, including what seem to be primates, sentients. The narrator is a refugee from such an incursion, and a sleazy minor bureaucrat takes advantage of her irregular status. She becomes his mistress, later his assistant, profiting as his ruthlessness helps him rise in the Party ranks and in the government.

“The Convention binds our hands! It muzzles us! I don’t reject it — no need. The Convention,” he repeats, with just a hint of mockery, “is irrelevant. And I will tell you now: hold to its precepts and we, too, will be irrelevant.”

There are two strands to this story: the first and strongest is the easy descent to totalitarianism, politicians who use fear to promote their own advancement into power and will stop at nothing to hold onto it, followers who acquiesce in evil for their own advantage. The author makes sure that the parallels with the political situation today are explicit. The other thread is the narrator’s relationship with the captive alien primates, with whom she discovers a telepathic bond, despite their official designation as nonsentient. This part of the story remains unresolved and not firmly connected to the rest. I get the feeling that the story was originally meant to take one direction but shifted to another in which the obviously harmless aliens seem to be a peripheral problem compared to giant worms in the plumbing and mosquitoes that can drain a cow.

“Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders” by Aliette de Bodard

The god-machine and its army of robots have overthrown the gods of the Aztec empire and only Huitzilopotchli the war god remains alive, a captive. He is now being dragged in chains throughout the empire to be tortured to death for the satisfaction of the subjects who had lost so many of their loved ones to his all-devouring need for human hearts. The people are generally glad to take revenge on the bloodthirsty old gods, but it is clear that life under the god-machine is not a great improvement.

And he knows that nothing will make her come back, that he’s destined for the mine and the backbreaking work just as Izel’s children were marked for sacrifice, that he will live and work and die in an age of steel, and that he doesn’t know, not any more, if this age, this bright new age of wonders, is any better than that of the old gods.

The author has previously played a number of variations on the Aztec mythos and this particular god, so this piece is not a great surprise for readers familiar with her work. Her note reveals that she began it with the premise of Aztec steampunk, which I suspect is one of those notions that seem like a good idea at the time. I say this not out of a hate for steampunk, which seems to drive a lot of SF critics these days, but because I observe that the author has discarded most of the usual steampunky trappings and retained only the god-machine and robots, for which she was wise not to attempt an explanation, and the more mundane accessories of an age of steel, such as mines and 12-hour shifts. Still, the incongruity is jarring, and many of the details seem to have been put in place to demonstrate the not-difference of the new god from the old. Why, for example, do the mine overseers deploy whips and barbed gloves? In an age of steel, it is not whips that drive workers into the mines but sheer necessity.

Fortunately, de Bodard’s writerly strength overcomes such problems, and if readers squint a bit they can read through to the essence of the scenario: that the old gods have been overthrown by a more powerful force, beginning a new cycle in which the fundamental reality remains unaltered despite the outward changes. The heart of the story is in the people, from whose points of view we see the alterations in their lives: the deposed, tortured god, the villagers whose children will not be restored by this deposition, even the robot priest. Strongest and central is the portrayal of the former god, who can comprehend the grief of the villagers and their desire for revenge but still admits that he would take the sacrifices again, were they offered. Perhaps most fascinating is the unanswered question of the dead, the ones who were sacrificed, as the god admits he does not know where they are, where they have gone.

“The Insurance Agent” by Lavie Tidhar

The narrator who calls himself James Turner is some sort of human engineered for combat, currently working as a mercenary/bodyguard, which he euphemizes as “insurance agent.” A mysterious female figure hires him to guard Kim, a Spiritual Being. There is a theory that SBs are aliens, but they seem to be a sort of god, more or less. Kim makes it clear that her powers are, if not quite godlike, certainly supernatural. She is attempting to lay claim to the Golden Triangle area in Southeast Asia, but she has competition. She declares she does not want Turner’s services but accepts them anyway, so that he ends up playing what seems to be a preordained ritual role in a myth under creation.

This is the kind of piece that is mostly about its setting — lushly decadent, colonized by exotically violent lifeforms:

Discarded Vietnamese battle dolls; Thai war drones that refused to shut themselves down and lived in complicated social flocks; Chinese nanogoo that never quite worked the way it was supposed to.

Trying to discover the story here is rather problematic. There are godlike beings doing godlike stuff in archetypical ways and expending lesser beings in the process. They will probably change the world in some profound manner. There are powerful figures behind them, perhaps backing up the gods on different sides, perhaps scheming to profit from their activities, or making book on the outcome of their conflicts. The narrator doesn’t know. He just does his job and fills the role he’s assigned. The reader doesn’t know any more than he does, can really only enjoy the scenery.

“Camelot” by Patrick Samphire

The narrator who calls himself Sam [Do I see a pattern here?] is searching France for his brother Jack, who was shot down during WWII. The narrator has not aged since that time. A powerfully seductive woman begins to follow him on his quest, always greeting him with the words, “It’s never Camelot.” Never what he is looking for. Through her, he begins to dream of his past existence before he was cast out into this mortal world.

There are heavy themes here. The curse of immortality. Betrayal and loyalty. The anesthesia of forgetting. The Arthurian mythos certainly has powerful associations, but although the author invokes Camelot, I don’t feel its presence in the story; it’s not clear to me to what extent we are supposed to identify the characters with the Arthurian figures, or which version of the tale. I suspect it may be just me, but the image I take from this piece is not Camelot but Paradise, not Mordred but another fallen personage.

“The Upstairs Window” by Nina Allan

Another dystopia. Ivan’s friend Niko was obsessed by his art to the point of being oblivious to political realities and their consequences. He unwisely produced a work that was labeled pornography but more to the point involved the image of the Prime Minister. As he witnesses Niko’s subsequent fall, we see Ivan’s growing recognition of the state to which his country has fallen.

I became suddenly aware of how irretrievably he had lost his place in the scheme of things. He could not go to the travel agent’s down the street and book a seat on an aeroplane, nor could he apply for a teaching post in another part of the country. He could not send mail or email with the risk of it being opened by the Home Office censors. He could not vote. He could not broadcast. He could not publish except under a pseudonym.

This is not a political allegory with explicit parallels to the situation in our own world, but rather a world so much like our own that it appears at first to be mimetic fiction, until the changes for the worse become evident. Still, the setting is familiar and the narrator’s concerns are mostly mundane; it is a personal more than a political work. We, for example, see a great deal of his ex-wife as his friend’s fate forces him to confront his own life and place in the world, finally leaving much of it behind as he takes a new direction. The story continues beyond the point where a genre reader might expect it to end, then stops so abruptly, without the author’s note that usually signals the ending in this zine, that I turned the pages ahead and back in search of missing text. Returning to the words, however, I decided the conclusion was just right: in life, while we might want to know how the story ends, its direction is up to us.


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.

3 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: Mid-September

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *