Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: early October

Issues of ezines posted at the beginning of the month and one small press anthology in print.


Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld, October 2010

Both stories this month deal, in different ways, with religious faith and scrap salvage.

“Laying the Ghost” by Eric Brown

The crew of a salvage ship is approached by a woman who wants transportation to her homeworld, conquered decades ago by aliens. Strangely, she is wearing a high-end full body warsuit which she will not remove.

The oval faceplate in its sleek, silver helmet was as milky as opal. Its silver suit was streamlined and body-hugging, the surface swarming with millions of nanoware-bots like iron-filings in oil.

Karrie, who is jealous of Ed, resents his decision to take the job, and it seems correct that he is impelled by “male drives.” But she also distrusts their passenger, whose projected appearance is at odds with the age of a woman who fought in a war 25 years ago. Katerina will not reveal what she intends to do once she reaches the planet’s surface, and it might endanger them all.

This is one of the rare cases where revealing the ending would be a real disservice to readers, but it is a highly poignant scene and rather a shock when Katerina reveals her secret. Unfortunately, the piece is part of a series, which weakens it as the author grafts Katerina’s story onto the existing rootstock of the quarreling salvage ship crew. It is also a weakness when we are told that it is a long way to Katerina’s homeworld, a journey thus requiring a hefty fare, and then it takes all of three days.

“Salvaging Gods” by Jacques Barcia

Readers have to swallow a lot here: that gods are manufactured rather like computers, that they wear out and people throw them away. Given all this, it’s less surprising that scavengers would comb the landfills for discarded gods to recycle. Gorette only wants a rain god [it seems that the rich use their own gods to monopolize the water].

Gorette made her first wish that evening, after incubating some of the new godhead’s code in an altar of her own design. It was built out of the remains of a semi-defaced idol, a one-eyed marble bust wearing a tall orange hat, adorned with shattered crystals, split dragon horns, praying cords and barbed wire.

But her repurposed god turns out to be more powerful than she expected. In fact, it might even be God. It thinks maybe it is.

With the absurdity of the premise, readers might expect a humorous story, probably a silly one. But despite a certain lightness in the prose, it turns into a surprisingly serious examination of the nature of divinity and the relationship of human to the divine. If only it were easier to swallow. And if only a copyeditor had been able to decide between “Popess” and “Poppess,” or suggested some more felicitous alternative.


Apex Magazine, October 2010

The first issue in which I can really sense the editorial hand of Valente.

“Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale)” by Ian Tregillis

In a fantastic fairytale city, time has stopped. There is no day and night, no seasons, and no one ages except for one woman, Tick the clockmaker, whom time loves unrequitedly. Tick is in love with the handsome courtier Valentine, and contrives a number of ingenious solutions to make him love her, such as stepping with him out of time into stolen minutes. But the consequence is that Tick ages rapidly, while time remains frustrated in his love for her.

Essentially, this is a love story, a story of loves unrequited and fulfilled. It would take a very picky person to point out the contradiction between time stopped as it normally is in Nycthemeron and time stopped as it does for the rest of the world during Tick’s stolen minutes with Valentine [or the fact that there are minutes for her to steal].

The ballroom became a sculpture garden, an expressionist swirl of skin and feathers and jewels and silks. Beads of wine from a tipped goblet sparkled like rubies suspended in midair; plucked harp strings hung poised to fling notes like arrows.

But while I am normally such a picky person, I am so delighted with this prose that I would rather disregard the contradiction. I do wish that “time” had been capitalized, as it is a person here.


“The Girl Who Had Six Fingers” by Brenda Stokes Barron

That’s six fingers in total, not on each hand. But her mother was the Keeper of the Melding Stone, and the girl is now Keeper in her place, and the Melding Stone lets her take the fingers from other people to make herself whole.

It begins on a fairytale note: “And when the girl who had six fingers saw the grizzled fisherman, she knew he was the right one for her.” But as the storyline continues and we see what the girl is about, the tale takes on a decidedly sinister tone.


Abyss & Apex #36, 4th Quarter 2010

No monsters in this issue, mostly lite SF and fantasy.

“Sunlight” by Kelly Dwyer

Leo befriends an old man, a war hero whose body has been mostly replaced by poorly-designed prosthetics powered by solar wings, which are kind of neat except that Ray can’t reach the controls by himself.

The wings unfurled with a mechanical sigh. Thin spindles alongside Ray’s shoulders stretched the glittering fabric into taut semi-circles that extended down his back. The golden metal was etched with circuitry and multicolored lines that caught the light from the solarium and pulsed softly in flowing forms.

Leo helps Ray maintain his body, as the small robot supplied to do this is inadequate for the purpose, and they form a bond, as boys and old men often do.

A warmhearted, obvious sort of YA story. I was annoyed more than interested by the prosthetic mechanics that so obviously needed a friend to keep them maintained.

“Rumor of Wings” by Alter S Reiss

Shape-changers, in this fantasy world, bestow their souls into some inanimate object. Alaneth’s was stolen a long time ago, and she is now close to getting it back, enlisting the services of the gull people to retrieve it. The thief either does not know what her true form is, or underestimates it.

The plot isn’t very original, but this is a nicely-realized world, based more or less on the classical Greek model. I really like the scene where the eyes of the thief’s ship are put out.

When sailors saw that ship, the deep gouges and angry red paint where its eyes ought to be struck them harder. They blanched as they turned away, or they walked back from the docks, spitting twice over each shoulder. One old veteran, deep lines in his face from wind and spray, fell to his knees, and pledged two fine bullocks to the sea, should he survive his next voyage.

“For the Cause of the Saints” by Gary Cuba

Some things change, some remain the same. Father Peter Frambeau works in the Vatican office for the canonization of saints, according to rules laid down centuries ago. But to the annoyances of his superior, the candidate he is tasked to investigate is a virtual avatar in a game scenario, Ultra X-Man. The ending provides an extra layer of perspective into the ways things change and people have to adapt, even in the Vatican.

“Remembrance of Things Past” by James Hartley

Ken Doyle uses his time machine to de-geek his teenaged self. Naturally, complications ensue. There are no madeleines.

“High Art” by Alan Smale

Artist Durran has been summoned by an old nemesis to decorate a luxury space hab, which doesn’t fit his personal vision of Art. The space-environment stuff is nicely done. I particularly like the giant drop of water imported to fill a swimming pool.

He was halfway to the spike when the end of it ballooned outwards to form a gleaming, growing sphere in the exact center of the hab. He was floating free and could not change course to avoid it. Neither could he work out what it was. By the time he reached it, the globe was larger than he was. He stretched out his hands to meet the sphere, and surface tension brought him to a halt and pushed him away. The sphere pulsed rhythmically and dissipated the force of his arrival around its equator and across its poles.

“Spirits in the Night” by Michael Swanwick

A short glimpse of the most famous tourist attraction on Pluto: Ginhenge, a replica to scale in frozen Beefeater, according to the Archaeomixologists. A neat image.

“Salt Brides” by Shira Lipkin

The Animal Wife story, a colony of men who have all stolen selkie wives from the sea. Well-evoked love story.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, October 2010

A number of very different but generally interesting story scenarios in this issue, most with a concluding twist of some kind.

“Expendable” by Orson Scott Card

Physics. The first-ever human FTL ship, if all goes well, is heading towards the spacetime fold with only one human pilot at the controls to make the decision to go forward or abort. Ram Odin chooses to go forward into the fold, but the results are unexpected, as he finds his ship now moving backwards in time. After much computation, he and the computers determine that a law of compensation must have been triggered by their passage.

“Don’t you see?” said Ram. “Crossing the fold pushed us into the past a certain amount, based on the mass of the ship and its velocity or whatever. But the only way to pay for that passage across the fold was to send an equal mass backward. And because there were nineteen observers creating the fields that created the fold, it happened nineteen times.”

Ram, all nineteen copies of him, is now only part of the real ship’s exhaust trail.

This seems to be an excerpt from a forthcoming novel, but it stands well enough as a complete story. At the core is a Neat Skiffy Idea. Whether it makes any sense as physics, I can’t tell. As a story, it’s of course an idea story and necessarily an awfully talky one, as Ram and the avatar of his ship’s computers debate the situation, trying to figure out what has happened. The ending doesn’t really solve the situation, but it’s a strong ironic note.

“Right Before Your Very Eyes” by Matthew S Rotundo

Barrett Webster is a stage conjuror who was failing badly until he hired his new assistant. Violet promised to bestow true power on him, to make him a sensation as a Vegas headliner, and so it has come to pass. But now it is payment time, and he has to send her back where she came from.

“Like I said, I’m exiled. The power, the energy — whatever you want to call it — has its own kind of… fingerprint, I guess you could say, unique to the user. Those who exiled me can sense that, and can block me from returning. They’d destroy this body outright if I so much as tried. So the energy has to come from someone else.

But Barrett senses that Violet is lying. And he is also seeing shadowy demons in his audience, watching and waiting for he knows not what, but probably not something good.

A suspenseful horror tale with a twist at the end.

“Schadenfreude” by Michelle Scott

Another stage performer, Chad is a pain comic who gets laughs by taking serious pratfalls and keeps going by using illegal bots to mask the pain and heal the injuries.

The encore involved a three-hundred pound weight and a rolling grand piano, a broken collar bone and a dislocated elbow. But it was worth it; like the pain bots, the audience’s laughter would keep him going.

Here we have a work of social commentary, a cautionary tale about a culture that can only be satisfied by blood and pain. The moralism overwhelms the story at the end.

“Deathsmith” by Pete Aldin

In a standard fantasy world, Aris makes a living by arranging deaths for his customers. He does this not from any skill in magic but by the use of an amulet that confers the power. In person, he’s a solitary and rather misanthropic aging man when a young girl appears in his life, wanting to become his apprentice. In a typical story of this sort, she would slowly win him over and soften his heart, but not this time.

She returned in the seventh week after her departure, when the first of the Winter snows lay fresh on the ground. She was a passenger amidst a group of disreputable-looking horsemen. Aris knew them instantly for bandits, surprised they hadn’t harmed her.

In fact, she looked healthier than usual.

I liked the direction this entertaining tale was taking, although the ending could have been a lot more subtle.

“Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived” by Keffy R M Kehrli

Science can now recreate the dead by cloning their bodies and downloading their memories. When Sara dies, her grieving parents want to bring her back, but the download is incomplete. Sara’s cloned body wakes up, but she knows she is not Sara. Her family knows it, too.

Sara’s brother Benjamin was not a twin any longer, and he didn’t say a word to me for three days. Sara’s room was left untouched after she died two years before, and I spent most of my time going through it. These were the objects that should have brought me memories, but all it did was make me feel like an intruder.

Sara’s clone doesn’t want to be Sara, she wants to be herself, but the world has no place for her.

An interesting look at the problem of personal identity through the eyes of a person who has none, but primarily a heartbreaking story that doesn’t fall into mawkishness. Sara’s dysfunctional family is well-done.


“Express to Paris by Dragon First Class” by Tom Crosshill

Even after mechanical flying machines replace dragons, Jima still clings to her dream of making the run to Paris. This very short piece manages in just a few words to evoke the glory days of dragons on the tarmac.


Tor.com, September 2010

Posted just after I thought it was safe to turn in the September reviews.

“River of Souls” by Beth Bernobich

A spoiled and feckless young man decides to take a hazardous journey, seeking not his fortune but a past life prematurely broken off. His irresponsible choices should by all rights have left him rotting in the mountains; he survives owing to no virtue of his own, but the sacrifice of an innocent creature and the unearned kindness of strangers. At last he meets the elderly poet who was his lover in the past life, and his presence comforts her final months and gives her hope for the next life to come.

…and so I join the great dance, the step and tripping step of lights across the galaxy, from void to void, from life to life. I ask you not to grieve. You will. I ask you to rejoice. You cannot now, but again, I say, you will. You will. Believe me in this one thing, beloved….

This seems to be an independent story set in the world of the author’s forthcoming novel. There is much to appreciate here. The settings are beautifully described, and Tanja Duhr, the poet, is an appealing character. From her point of view, this is a touching love story, nor does the author draw back from attempting to express her feelings in a poet’s words. But Asa is merely an undeserving young man upon whom much unearned good is bestowed by fortune, overindulgent relatives, and the author.


Panverse Two

Here’s a concept: an anthology. Of novellas. No theme, no designated genre. Just five stories. I find a great deal of merit in this idea, although the quality is uneven and readers will possibly encounter one or more stories not at all to their personal taste. I certainly did.

“A Clash of Eagles” by Alan Smale

Alternate history. In what would be our 13th century, Gaius Publius Marcellinus is leading the Fighting 33rd Legion through the unknown territory of North America, aka Nova Hesperia, in search of a rumored city of gold. He has to fight not only the redskin warriors but his own doubts about his mission and mutiny among his soldiers. What he never expects is to meet a military organization capable of defeating a Roman legion on the battlefield.

Essentially, this is the personal journey of Marcellinus, and the character is sufficiently interesting and complex to carry the story. The problem I have is with the alternate history. Smale seems to suppose that the Roman legion will remain basically the same over a millennium, with no change in weapons, tactics or armor. This, after successfully encountering the Norse, the Muslim sultanates, and even the Mongols. Whereas the actual Roman army was a flexible and mutable organization that easily adapted itself to new enemies and changing conditions. In contrast, the mound-building Cahokiani [Latin has no letter K] seem to have developed much as they did in our own timeline, except for one extraordinary military accomplishment, although there are no signs of wars that would have spurred this development. Nor am I very happy with such anachronistic prose as “the seat of his tunic.”

“To Love the Difficult” by Amy Sterling Casil

Post apocalypse. This one does not begin promisingly. Terry Herle would have us believe he is the world’s most famous blogger and poet, although the samples of his work that we see do not rise to the level of doggerel. Then he wakes up to find himself in one of the few isolated pockets remaining after global holocaust, but otherwise still a loser. It seems that a global computing system managed to save a few wedges of space and Terry’s neighbor was one of the administrators. Now they are the only two humans remaining in this part of the world, and Terry is required to become less worthless.

There are good bits here, but most of them were written by the poet Rilke, from whom Terry begins to learn what poetry actually is. The computerized feeding tubes are absurd, not in the good way. While the ending seems to promise hope, the previous events make this seem likely to be unfulfilled.

“Snow Comes to Hawke’s Folly” by J Kathleen Cheney

Fantasy. As pucas, Imogen and her husband Guaire are well qualified to run a racing stable, and the arrival of their son Patrick has completed their happiness. But the arrival of Imogen’s estranged father Finn threatens to spoil it, when soon afterwards baby Patrick is kidnapped by some supernatural force. Finn declares he had nothing to do with it, but Finn, like all pucas, is not really to be trusted, and his powers are beyond her own and Guaire’s.

His features seemed too perfect for Imogen’s taste, an unearthly beauty. Under her suspicious gaze that appearance wavered, briefly showing her the face underneath. Dark eyes gazed back at her, but she couldn’t keep the rest of the illusion at bay.

It’s clear from the background information in the text that this is a sequel, but rather than being irritated, I actually find myself thinking the previous tale might have been a good read, as this one is, with its details of fairy lore and family life in the early 20th century.

“The Curious Adventure of the Jersey Devil” by Michael D Winkle

Weird tale. Fallen on hard times, Charles Fort accepts an assignment from the eccentric publisher of the New York Herald –- to track down the recent sightings of the Jersey Devil. This he does, finding not only the Devil but other strange, Fortean phenomena, which he investigates like a seasoned paranormal detective.

Something slimy dropped into his mouth. He spat it into his hand. It was a frog, smaller than a nickel but fully formed. Its throat pulsed in and out as fast as the eye could follow. It jumped and vanished into a hopping, bounding, chirruping seas of its brethren.

So much the best piece here, it makes the entire volume worthwhile. The prose is period-perfect, both narrative and dialogue, delightfully entertaining. The portrait of Fort is sympathetic and shows both familiarity and respect for its subject, while a large cast of colorful characters enlivens the story.

I can’t help thinking that under today’s conventional publishing model, this fine story might have been buried under dozens of others in some Jersey Devil anthology –- or more likely overlooked because the editor was unfamiliar with the author. But someone certainly missed a beat by failing to employ this line as the story’s title: Fort! Bring me the head of the Jersey Devil!


“Dangerous Creatures” by J Michael Shell

Erotica. Two stories: fairies [the kind with wings] and vampires. Ick. Not at all to this reader’s taste. The only thing worse would have been if the fairies and vampires had got it on with each other, which I hope the author does not take as a suggestion.


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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