Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction: late October

A lot of the stories in this batch of ezines are just plain weird. Most of the stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies are not weird, but the zine is celebrating its 2nd anniversary with a double issue. The new historical fiction zine Alt Hist is making its debut. At the same time, Realms of Fantasy is posting its final issue online. Zines are born, zines die.


Publications Reviewed


Alt Hist #1, October 2010

A new magazine in both print and electronic formats, featuring historical and alternate historical fiction. The subtitle is: The new magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History, and the publisher expects it to take the place of the short-lived historical fiction zine Paradox. This debut issue has six stories plus an interview; other types of nonfiction such as reviews may be appearing in subsequent issues. I’m not sure what the schedule of frequency will be.

The mix of this issue is slanted towards the historical: three pieces of more or less straight historical fiction, two alternate, and one outright fantasy [despite the publisher’s claim otherwise]. The ToC was determined by date of acceptance, an unfortunate editorial choice that places one of the weakest pieces first in the lineup and groups the three straight historicals one after another.

“The Silent Judge” by David W Landrum

The narrator, a successful banker, was a regular customer of Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth victim of the Ripper. The news of her killing and mutilation shakes him, and he resolves to solve her murder since the police seem incompetent to do so. With improbable ease, he locates his man before he has to join his wife at the seaside with their children. He concludes that the killers wishes to be found, to go down in history as a famous killer. The narrator decides to thwart his intention.

I will not tell you who he was. To do so would be to fulfill his greatest wish and make come true his greatest twisted dream. He murdered five women, Mary Jane Kelly being the last. I murdered him, but above all I murdered his name.

In a work of this sort, the narrative voice is paramount. The narrator makes several references to Sherlock Holmes as a model of a detective, but the strength of the Holmes stories lies at least as much in the narration by Dr Watson as it does in the identification of the criminal by Holmes. This is a lesson the author here has not absorbed. His voice is meant to reflect the time of the setting and the character of a man more concerned with his moral reputation than finding the killer of his whore, but it comes across only as stuffy and lackluster, as well as inept, when he suggests that the characters are sleeping [“reposed”] at their breakfast table.

“Easter Parade, 1930” by Rob McClure Smith

An account of a Glasgow gang battle between the Protestant Billy Boys and Catholic Conks, put down with even greater violence by the constables waiting in ambush. This one is all narrative, and a strong, colorful voice it is, although sometimes dialect-heavy.

This habbleshow is greeted by a cacophony of hoots ensuing downpour of bricks, missiles and broken glassware from windows high and nethermaist, and from every rooftop all the wrack of the midden comes showering with the rain’s blash. This debris cascades upon the paraders, a volcanic eruption of woodplanks, brass and glassen ornaments, slates, hammers, pliers, nails, copper pennies, tongs, the whigmaleeries and faldarals of the fireplace, raw tatties with razor blades protruding, a settle bed, a camshacle truckle, bowsaws, bucketfuls of warm piss, pails of cold piss, a flying mewling cat.

Just fun to read, and I love the concluding comment as well, which offers a word of wisdom.


“Holy Water” by Andrew Knighton

When the wooden statue of Our Lady falls and crushes Lady Hunwold, the Lord orders his clerk Oswine to execute the image for murder. Oswine obeys, although inwardly troubled by the blasphemy. But the statue refuses to die. Which, of course, it can hardly do.

An irreverent look at faith in Anglo-Saxon England, with the shepherd Huw getting the best lines as Oswine’s reluctant assistant.

‘Hang it, drown it, burn it, what difference does it make?’ he said, spitting crumbs. ‘With priests like that, we’d be better going back to the old beliefs, like my grandma talked about. No churches and Latin, just an empty clearing and some bloke in robes killing a chicken.’

“Lament for Lost Atlanta” by Arlan Andrews

Alternate history: Radical Republican Edwin Stanton took the presidency after the assassination of Lincoln. 150 years later, Atlanta has been renamed Sherman and schoolchildren are bussed to see reenactments of Robert E Lee’s hanging.

Things stayed kind of like that for the next forty minutes, all the way through the mass hanging where Stanton gives his famous order, Sherman pulls the trap door handle, and the Four Traitors gurgle and gasp and kick and twitch, their wicked southerners’ souls going to roast and scream in a laser-red Hell, while above them in white robes and wings, the smiling trinity — Lincoln, Grant and Burnside — wag fingers at their defeated, tormented enemies.

The narrator is a White Trash teenager whose ancestors once owned “half Fulton County” but now lives in a trailer where his subversive uncle J D has come from the Republic of Texas to foment rebellion. Rebellion is a messy business and kids need to learn to keep their mouths shut about it, or people close to them get hurt.

A familiar scenario, infodumped on us at too great a length by the narrator, who doesn’t seem to have a name. The protagonist’s story has real potential, but it’s buried amidst the dumps.

“The Bitterness of Apples” by Priya Sharma

Adam and Eve long after the expulsion from Eden, apparently also cursed with immortality. A story of love and guilt. The guilt is Eve’s; she has to relearn the love.

Her: I always knew when Adam was dreaming of Eden. His breathing changed, his eyes flickered beneath their lids. His face transformed to pleasure, then to pain. He’d murmur to himself and turn about as though on a bed of nails. I knew he was in Eden and I envied his restless sleep because I never dreamt of it at all.

This is fantasy, and ahistorical. There is nice writing and the sort of twist at the end that changes everything. I like this, but it’s not historical.

“Travelling by Air” by Ian Sales

Alternate history: three different alternative histories of aviation history, three different outcomes for the future of air travel. Yet for all three alternative Geraldines, some things remain the same.

In fact, it was a Boeing 777, but it didn’t matter that David was wrong. He was only saying it to demonstrate that he was qualified to protect her.

He glanced down at her. “It’s perfectly safe,” he added, and she marvelled that the two of them could live side-by-side in entirely different worlds.

This is more a triptych of sketches rather than a complete story. It serves as a reminder that flying around in aircraft is inherently a risky proposition. I wonder, though, that the Geraldine in our own world has never flown before, when air travel is so commonplace.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2010

This ezine has by now made itself a place in the field as a well-regarded source of short fantasy. Looking at this month’s stories, I note that the original mission of “literary adventure fantasy” has, I believe, shifted somewhat. It is a magazine of well-written secondary-world fiction. The prose is generally conventional rather than experimental, well crafted if not “literary,” whatever that means. I sometimes think there is too great a proportion of first-person narration, but that may be changing. What’s missing is the adventure; there isn’t much that could be called heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery; few epic quests. But there is just about everything else.

Well done, BCS. I hope to see this zine still thriving in another two years.

“Lady of the Ghost Willow” by Richard Parks

A Lord Yamada ghost mystery. Readers familiar with this series will recognize Shijo Bridge as Yamada goes there to view the moon, but this case stands well on its own. Yamada is summoned by a member of the Imperial court, requesting his aid for a man afflicted by a strange apparition.

The ghost was exactly as had been described. It was dressed in flowing white robes, as for a funeral, though it was hard to make out any specific details of the garb. Its long, unconfined black hair twisted and flowed in the freshening breeze as if it were a separate thing with its own will, framing a face of no features. No eyes, nose, mouth, just a white emptiness that was more chilling than the most ferocious devil-mask.

Yamada suspects the manifestation is actually an ikiryo, the angry spirit of a living person and more difficult to exorcize than a ghost. First, he must discover whose spirit it is, when the person involved may not even be aware of it.

To the combination of logical detection and the lore of Japanese ghosts is added the subtle art of courtly poetry. As usual, Parks masterfully evokes the highly mannered milieu of the Heian period.

“The Curse of Chimère” by Tony Pi

Horror attends the premier of the new color film by Chimère Studios. The eyes of the audience begin to bleed almost as soon as the film begins, and later the projectionist is found dead. The director suspects sabotage by her rivals, but Professor Tremaine Voss and Inspector Carmouche fear the problem may lie somewhere in the film itself, the camera or the projector.

“Suppose a saboteur etched a mystical symbol on the lens. When the symbol gets projected onto the screen might curse everyone watching! But wouldn’t people see it?”

Another arcane mystery in an appealingly mannered setting which evokes France of the Belle Époque, powered by alchemy. Color in films has just been introduced, but the alchemists can’t yet find a way to reproduce sounds. Voss is an adequate logical detective, but the mystery here is less subtle than the Parks.

“The Girl Who Tasted the Sea” by Sarah L Edwards

Abby has lived all her life on a house above the sea, but she has never been to the water. When an enthralled flying messenger arrives at her house, she offers to set it free if it will carry her down to the sea.

A lift of a wing and their circle encompassed the whole of the house. They swung around it and Abby could see them now, the twin pillars of stone upon which she’d stood all her life. Suddenly she was dropping nearer, nearer, and then they dove and landed flat in the carved hollow in one pillar just a foot above the tide. The stryke set her down, upright, and she ignored the trembling in her legs as she crouched at the edge and dipped her fingers in the water.

Very short but vivid glimpse into a wild and different world.

“More Full of Weeping than You Can Understand” by Rosamund Hodge

Violet has always known she was different, but when she was fourteen her faery mother came to her and she understood she was a changeling. When the faeries begin to make war on the humans, she believes she knows what side she is on.

Because she was a faery and had no heart. Intentions mattered nothing; and her nature was that she had always been a traitor.

But now that she knows she has no soul, she is driven to understand what effects the soul has in humans.

Fine prose. Beautifully done.


“Dying on the Elephant Road” by Steve Rasnic Tem

When Abe is trampled into goo by a herd of elephants, the nearby wizard Philoneous reassembles him. Most of him. The wizard keeps a few bits for his own purposes.

“A little bone, a little blood, inconsequential bits of organ, a finger-sized strip of brain. Nothing essential, I assure you.” He paused, apparently puzzling over how to word a particular label, then looked directly at Abe. “I might have asked your permission, perhaps, but people in your condition are seldom able to give the question due deliberation.”

Philoneous also wants Abe to do a small task for him: retrieving his stolen hat from the merchant Vangelin.

Clever and original humorous stuff. And weird.

“Beloved of the Sun” by Ann Leckie

Itet is caught up in conflicts among the gods. She has been raised as a sacrificial wife for Lord Sun, but instead she is [almost] drowned and possessed by the spirit of the river, who speaks through her. She also becomes the confidant of Ant, who lets her in on a lot of godly secrets, such as the fact that Lord Sun is only a human puppet of the real god, who has imprisoned most of the others. But Butterfly escaped and remained free, with the help of rebellious Ant, and is now plotting a rematch.

That one remaining, whom I am forbidden to name, older even than the river, capricious and chancy, ravenous in one season, abstemious in others, beautiful and deadly dangerous: she forced the interloper to meet her in open battle. At the point of defeat, she said, “When I confront you again, your power will be broken.”

A nicely complex tale in a well-imagined world full of magical creatures involved in plots and conspiracies. Itet is the narrator, but she has forgotten too much; the real protagonist here is Ant.


Realms of Fantasy, December 2010

It was sudden, shocking news that the current publisher of this print magazine has decided to pull the plug for financial reasons. The last issue was posted almost immediately online. The quality of this fiction makes me regret its passing all the more.

“Queen of the Kanguellas” by Scott Dalrymple

In Portuguese Angola at the turn of the 20th century, the narrator sets out into the interior looking for her missing missionary father. She was raised among the Umbundu, who gave her the name Kayela as a child. Her guide is frightened at the thought of her destination, for there the fierce Kanguellas reputedly dwell, although the Portuguese say they are only a myth. On their journey, they come to a village that has summoned the Mavumbula, a fearsome witch hunter. In order to save the accused witch, whom she believes to be innocent, the narrator challenges the witch hunter to the poison test.

I felt strangely alive, noticing details hitherto invisible to me: the lustrous silver and aquamarine beads braided into the witch doctor’s long beard; the warm, sweet smell of moldy thatch on a nearby hut; the sizzling wetness of green wood on the fire. Perhaps now, such minutiae were no longer beneath my notice, being as they were the last things I might ever perceive. Or perhaps, I thought, this was merely a symptom of the poison washing through my veins.

She survives the contest and wins the witch hunter’s belt of shrunken heads. She continues her journey through many more adventures and misadventures, but at the end she has earned her adult name.

A transformative journey through a landscape that challenges the narrator’s assumptions of reality, and probably some of the readers’, as well. The author writes with great authority; the narrative voice is strong and authentic. And the landscape is one in which we believe implicitly on the strength of the author’s description alone*, even if it turns out to be a world of the narrator’s imagination.

For it is an ambiguous fantasy; it is possible to read this account as a realistic journey through late colonial Africa. The narrator believes that the Mavumbula’s magic is nothing but trickery, and she may be right. When ghosts whisper to her in dreams, these may merely be dreams, the voice of her own subconscious. And her father might have gone mad. Or she may be the one gone mad. There is certainly a deep mystery about her identity, which would seem to require that either someone is insane or supernatural forces are operating.

*[It is always a problem in assessing the authenticity of a setting when the reader or reviewer is not personally familiar with it. A fictional landscape is the consensual creation of the reader, using the materials provided by the author. Encountering an error of fact or assumption can cause the entire setting to collapse. But in fiction, what we always see is a landscape of the imagination.]


“Banjo Singer” by Dennis Danvers

Marie’s father is a hard man with huge abusive hands, who owned a music shop where his wife worked putting inlays into the wooden instruments, until she escaped into death. Marie’s instrument is her voice, which she has kept from her father.

Marie sang whenever she was alone. The store had an enormous collection of old sheet music, and she loved learning new songs. Once when her father went to Missouri for a funeral, she sang all day and all night, the entire time. She stood up straight and breathed deeply, smelling the dust and the brass polish. The shadows contained hidden listeners to whom she sang as beautifully as she could until her heart ached with the effort, until they were weeping, laughing, falling in love, shouting bravo!

But when her father insists, for some reason, that she learn to play the banjo, he gives her an instrument inlayed by her mother with hummingbirds, who speak to her and teach her songs. Marie becomes a star on the radio, singing, but this enrages her father, who is determined to stop her and destroy the hummingbirds who defy him.

Lovely story. I particularly like the use of the old-timey Gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away.”* I just wish it made more sense that the father insisted Marie learn the banjo, given his reaction to her singing.

*[In fact, the story reminds me of one of my favorite movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou? But this may just be me.]

“Maiden, Mother, Crone” by Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

Marja has the Mark of a witch, although in other days such women were prized for their power. In Marja’s case, it has mostly meant ill luck. A solitary witch has little power, without her mother or daughter, and bearing a daughter would certainly attract the attention of witchhunting priests. She marries a man who promises her a home, but his mother has always complained of her. Now she is pregnant when her husband dies, and she knows she has to escape before her daughter is born and reveals her secret.

This scenario is too contrived to be credible, which is unfortunate as it would otherwise be well done.

“Tools of the Devil” by Jerry Oltion

Mary’s parents always said a photo would steal a bit of her soul, and when her boyfriend takes a snap with his cell phone, she realizes they were right.

She put her own finger on the delete button, but she couldn’t bring herself to push it. Part of her soul was already in there. Would she get it back if she deleted it? More to the point, did she want to? The photo was a work of art. And what good was a soul, anyway? If her parents were right, and apparently they were, then it was a ticket to eternal boredom on one hand or eternal damnation on the other.

So Mary decides to take all the advantage she can and sell her soul to the Devil. She makes a good deal, while planning all along that by the time it comes to pay off the terms of her contract, she won’t have any soul left.

Cleverly done. This one makes an interesting contrast with the very sincere and moving Danvers story.


Fantasy Magazine, October 2010

Here’s the strongest concentration of weirdness, and a strongly varied group of stories.

“Over the end, and over again…” by Toiya Kristen Finley

According to Virgil,

I gotta hole in me. It’s somewhere around my chest. I first noticed it when I was eleven. It ain’t an obvious thing where most people can stare me through. The hole pulls me backwards. It tugs sometimes when I’m standing still. Recently, that hole’s gotten bigger, and more of me’s coming out. Little pieces of me smaller than dust mites get sucked through my back and float away, dissolve somewhere on the air. Not my skin, or my bones, mind you. It’s the real me fading.

There seems to be a curse on the men in his family; they meet early and violent deaths. Virgil finally begins to understand why when his father discovers a hidden attic in their house with a bunch of old papers hidden there, including a strange diagram showing a line of men with a ribbon running through them. It is the ribbon that makes the holes, through which their essence drains backwards in time.

According to the author, the story is based on events in her own life, for which she felt compelled to construct an explanation, invoking the ghosts of her own forebears. It is a very strange explanation, which give it an aura of veracity, just because it seems so unlikely that anyone could have made such a thing up. This is not a conventional or obvious ghost story but the product of a strong imagination.

“The Interior of Mister Bumblethorn’s Coat” by Willow Fagan

The man who calls himself Bumblethorn is living in a very creepy city where the buildings are alive.

The windowshade crept up and disappeared into its pouch above and Mister Bumblethorn confronted the naked window — was it an eye? Was it looking back at him? Mister Bumblethorn looked away, held his breath, tried to determine once more if the walls were breathing, were expanding and contracting rhythmically, ever so slightly.

He has forgotten who he really is and how he got to this place, and to make sure he forgets, he smokes some kind of narcotic weed. But more than the weed, he needs water, and in Fleet City water can only be purchased in blood.

Here is a nightmarish vision inhabited by grotesques. They appear at first to be rather benign characters, but eventually Bumblethorn is made to recall why he has come to this place, and the scene turns ominous as we see the true nature of the place. This is strong stuff. For a brief moment, it skirts the edge of conventional heroic fantasy but rapidly turns darker. Bumblethorn has good reason to want to forget.


“Monsters” by Lavie Tidhar

One of those stories that make readers wonder what’s going on. Two entities on spaceships, escaping from their respective worlds or leaving them to explore, merging in some manner. It is possible that one has eaten the other. The point is what they have in common, not what divides them, which is not exactly a novel concept.

I am me and I am also him. I am a human and an amphibian being.

Once there was only me.

Then I awoke, here on the ship, and I was two, I was more than two, I was the sum of a drowned world. There is a monster in me. I am a monster in him.

The rest is apparently left to the imagination of the reader. Sometimes Tidhar is too enigmatic, and this is one of them.

“Bitterdark” by Eljay Daly

Aelyn was once a faerie king, but he abdicated long ago to live with a mortal wife, since grown old. In his absence, however, the Bitterdark have arisen from supposed defeat and now threaten all Faerie. His daughter has come to bring him back to save them, and Aelyn knows he has to go, to leave what he has loved.

This story takes a sharp and unexpected turn into darkness, but the prose is even stronger than the storyline. The descriptions are vivid and colorful. Mizein is a powerful faerie queen, yet she was fashioned from river mud and is nervous as she approaches the riverbank where Baza is scrubbing clothes; the river mud always wants to reclaim her.

Baza was a brown-green woman, a knotty stump of a woman, squat and short and muscular — a lump of a nose, hair like cattail fuzz, fingers like roots clutching her scrubbing brush, no chin to speak of. A troll of a woman, and however did such a thing catch the eye of a hero like Aelyn?



Strange Horizons, October 2010

SH doesn’t really do weird, but there are ghosts and a trip through hell.

“Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” by Sandra McDonald

On ice skates. The six robots were supposed to be part of Kay’s alimony payoff from her inventor husband Herbert; the ice skates were his way of getting even. She loves them anyway, and they love her, each in their own way. But each in their own way, robots and humans are mortal. Batteries wear down and arteries clog.

Neill was exactly where I expect him to be: center ice, arms raised up, legs crossed, face proud. He had skated his final performance. He would stand there until the roof caved in and winter buried him forever.

A mix of lite humor and heartwarming.

“Last of the Monsters” by Emily C Skaftun

Medusa’s sister looks for her immortal remains. Finds them. Very short.

“Styx Water and a Sippy Cup” by Hal Duncan

Limbo. The unbaptized kids growing up in Limbo call the narrator Uncle Sal, which may be supposed to be a clue to his identity, but if so I don’t get it. Once an inmate himself, he works now as a stork, delivering the newly dead babies to the nursery and manifesting bad attitude.

It’s the one loophole in God’s Law, the original sin exemption clause: dying unbaptized is . . . decriminalised. Which, given His nutjob notions of sin as a stain of temporal temptations, means He can go smite Himself, cause legally my immaterial ass is incorruptible as gold even if it farts the Lord’s Prayer backwards.

Mostly, what we have here is an irreverent survey of the afterworld under a succession of different managements, none of them much better than the last.

“What We Left Behind in Jacksonville” by Colleen Mondor

Bridget tells her friends the story of the haunted house her family lived in when she was three years old and they were happy together.

So she did what you do when your faith is that strong and she put the crucifixes on the walls and the stains went away. She thought it was all taken care of, the answer to a prayer. That’s who we were then, people who believed.

This is a story of families and how they stay together through adversity and how they don’t. Bridget’s final insight is worth thinking about.


Tor.com, October 2010

For whatever reason, the Tor site is putting on Yet Another Steampunk [half] Month, ie, a Steampunk Fortnight. I have a Few Words to say about this subject below.

“Good Night, Moon” by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Not Steampunk. Definitely weird. Ganzer and Morse are meeting in Shwartz’s Deli in Hollywood to discuss the new dreamware they hope will revive their prospects. But the cutting edge has already cut them off; the hot now thing is ribbonware, reality changing. Oh, and someone has disappeared the moon.

Crazy stuff, a lot of fun, and a sharp dissection of Hollywood trends.

Morse narrowed his eyes with a critical stare. “Does our average dream consumer really want to be a paramecium? Is this, like, the fulfillment of an unconscious urge? An urge to become single-celled?”

But there is also cruelty here, a heartless milieu run by the shallow and self-absorbed. The contrast with the warm and loving world of the eponymous children’s book is pointed.

“Clockwork Fairies” by Cat Rambo

Desiree’s father, Lord Southland, calls his daughter’s suitor Claude a “blasted pedantic popinjay,” which omits the fact that he is also a prig. But because Desiree is mulatto, her prospects for a good marriage are limited, even though she is an heiress. Claude figures that once she has children, Desiree will give up her interest in fabricating automatons like the clockwork fairies that greet him at the door of their townhouse. But there are others who actually appreciate what Desiree has to offer.

And now a few words on nomenclature. There is a backlash underway against steampunk, charging with some justification that it has been reduced to derivative product repeating the same tired set of clichés like dirigibles and gears. Now, I happen to think that steampunk can be fun when done well. [As for example and for instance] The problem is that much of what is now published under this label isn’t properly steampunk at all. Steampunk properly is a type of science fiction, specifically alternate history. It also has or should have a subversive punkish edge.

But what seems to be taking over the label now is what I call Clockwork Fantasy, and this is what we seem to find in the present selection.

At first I thought them hummingbirds or large dragonflies. One hung poised before my eyes in a flutter of metallic skin and isinglass wings. Delicate gears spun in the wrist of a pinioned hand holding a needle-sharp sword.

Despite the author invoking the name of Babbage, the sciencefictional elements here are purely nominal. This is a fantasy in a Victorian setting. On a second look, however, it seems that the clockwork fantasy element itself is likewise nominal, used simply to convey the point that Desiree is a girl with a sharp and inquiring mind, unworthy of her priggish suitor. Desiree could just as easily have been a “Suffragist,” and indeed I think this would have furthered the story’s theme more effectively.

What we really have here is fantasy of manners, or rather a fantastic comedy of manners, as the character of Claude is a comic one. As such it is a fair example of its type, light entertainment, seemingly at first too predictable but taking a neat twist at the end.

“Lightbringers and Rainmakers” by Felix Gilman

We may be on a world colonized by humans some hundreds of years ago, despite the presence of the aboriginal Folk, now hunted and driven into the hills at the edge of the world. If so, the colonists have devolved technologically, and a totalitarian force called the Line is at war with a possibly-worse force called Gun, and ordinary people like Harry Ransom are caught in the middle.

They are hunting for someone, and one of the things about the Line is that even though you know it isn’t you and there is no reason for it to be you it still always feels like it is, like you have done something terribly wrong for which you must be punished, and will be punished forever.

Ransom seems to be a flimflam man who specializes in Electricity and Light. His Apparatus, which has never worked as he would like, is destroyed during a raid by the agents of the Line, and he arrives destitute in a town that has employed as a rainmaker fellow named Flood. But it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on, because everything is related by Ransom in letters to various recipients, to whom he tells different versions of his story, and we already know he’s a liar.

Now if this piece weren’t being posted here during Steampunk Fortnight, I would certainly not suspect it of belonging to this subgenre, despite the iron flying Vessels of the Line and Ransom’s Apparatus, which seems to be much like Edison’s. In fact, I still don’t consider it such, because if all you have to do is throw a flying machine into a story and call it Steampunk, then the label doesn’t really mean anything, does it? So no, what we have here is a rather weird piece of SF adventure with a particularly interesting unreliable narrator and a whole lot more going on than we can figure out, but which doesn’t need to be figured out to entertain. Which it does.


Lightspeed, October 2010

Cannibal month.

“Hindsight” by Sarah Langan

It seems that a gravitational anomaly, apparently a black hole as it is named Black Betty, is approaching Earth, and everyone is doomed.

It started with plastic grocery bags, moved on to the engraved quartz stones in the clinic courtyard, and after twelve months, ended with human beings. They held each other, a chain that lasted for miles, until, one by one, they were gone. Some got lost in space, others ended up spinning with the garbage around the Earth’s orbit, like Saturn’s rings.

Almost everyone. Plutocrat Osgood Blunder has constructed the Second Coming, a survival capsule that people erroneously call a ship, buried deep under Omaha. Sarah managed to get her family onto it by volunteering as a doctor. Blunder says they will be able to upload their minds to the ship’s mainframe and survive, but time is growing short.

The setting, pre-Black Betty, is a Bacigalupi-style dystopia, and existence on the Second Coming is only a logical extension. But the tone here is more farce [eg, Osgood Blunder] than horror, even when the “colonists” recycle the dead for the protein. Sarah’s moral struggles can’t be taken seriously, and the notion that minds will survive in a mainframe is absurd when the mainframe itself will be reduced to neutronium. But these are sciencefictional considerations, and the ending shifts the game to the metaphorical level. None of it is real.

“The Taste of Starlight” by John R Fultz

There is a grossness advisory at the beginning of this piece, but I would quibble with the term “mature content.” The Goya is headed for the Dantus colony with its crew in cryostasis when a near-collision with a comet threatens disaster. Pelops wakes in his shattered pod and manages to start the ship moving again, but there is no way for him to return to stasis. It will be 16 months before he reaches the Dantus colony and the emergency supplies can only be stretched for three. There are twelve more crew members in cryopods.

This begins as a kind of utilitarian Cold Equations calculation of the greater good but devolves predictably. I believe the author intends it to be horror, but, as above, the element of farce seems to predominate.


Redstone Science Fiction, July – October 2010

I reviewed the first issue of this new science fiction ezine, when I was so irritated by the need for repeated clickthroughs just to read a short story that I hadn’t gone back since. I’m taking a second look now to see if they’ve abandoned this odious practice [no] and if the content might be worth the effort [maybe some of it]. Here is the original fiction from issues 2 through 5.

A comparison between this zine and the other new science fiction ezine, Lightspeed, is interesting. Redstone is more inclined to reprints and thus posts a bit less original fiction. The quality is uneven in both, though maybe moreso here, with both zines leaning towards newer authors. But the primary distinction is in focus. Lightspeed takes a very wide view of science fiction and spreads across the genre boundaries, while Redstone seems more tightly focused on science fiction, on the future and particularly on space exploration, as reflected in the name of the zine. This unfortunately gives them the tendency to take weak stories if they are set on the moon.

But if they just eliminate the damn clickthroughs, I might be back.

“Michelangelo’s Chisel” by Christopher Miller

The narrator states that he is haunted by the future, but it looks more like a case of possession by the future’s artificial intelligence. It began, he tells us in 1976, seven years before, when he was stoked on caffeine and stumbled by mistake into a lecture by a Renowned Computer Scientist on the subject of artificial intelligence. Even if art is created by a computer, the RCS opined, it is only a tool, no more a creator than Michelangelo’s chisel. At this point, the future intelligence took offense and possession of the narrator’s tongue, so that he began to prophesy.

The author clearly set the story in the past so as to make the predictions credible; readers know these things have come to pass so we are inclined to believe that the predicted future will likely come to pass. He also creates the aura of omniscience by knowing the time and manner that various individuals in the audience will meet their deaths. These details, as well as the supposedly predictable reactions from audience members from various academic disciplines, add interest to what would otherwise have been merely a recitation. The fact that the narrator, in his present, seems to work in the computer field is ground for further speculation.

“Death’s Flag is Never at Half Mast” by Rahul Kanakia

A future in which France and England are at perpetual war in space and both fleets are officers by heroes harvested from the past — in the case of the English, by a vast staff of nelsons. Lieutenant “Halfacre” Nelson is a failure of this system. He values order and discipline more than a proper nelson should.

That was one reason admiralty had sent them out to the fringes of the war, doomed to play out tiny trafalgars around Barnard’s Star, little skirmishes where disgraced nelson fought disgraced tourville.

Sort of a Neat Idea for light entertainment aimed at naval history buffs, although looking behind the facade, it horrifies.

“Memorial at Copernicus” by Gray Rinehart

In an alternate 1974, astronaut Deke Slayton rescued cosmonaut Valeriy Edemskoi on the lunar surface, at the cost of his own life. Now Edemskoi’s grandson has come on the 50th anniversary to his grave, along with his own young grandson, who fails to properly appreciate his heritage. A predictable lesson is learned the hard way.

A homage to Slayton and the other pioneer astronauts and the dream of lunar colonization. As a story, it is obvious and thin.

“Salt of the Earth” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Melia’s ex Theo spoils the kids when he has custody, just to get a rise out of Melia. Unfortunately this includes giving them salt treats on a world where sodium is in such short supply it’s reclaimed from human sweat and from their corpses. When the kids OD on sodium while in his care and Dora dies, autistic Nicholas starts to scream when he sees Theo. Melia has to protect her surviving child.

Real science fiction, based on the chemistry of sodium. The society is well-conceived, with a body’s salt used as if it were a sacrament and people offering up their tears for the dead.

As they went inside, the people surrounding them all had tearsheets under their eyes catching tears for Dora. Melia wondered which ones were really shedding tears, and which had bought pre-salined sheets to demonstrate their shared grief. The reclaimer by the entrance to the chapel was already full of the tearsheets.

“Lunar Voices (On the Solar Wind)” by Nick Wood

The winner of the site’s Accessible Futures fiction contest.

Phulani is a newbie at the moon base on what seems to be his first trip out on the surface when the rover’s driver and commander suddenly passes out just as they are rushing back to shelter to escape a solar particle storm. The spirit of Phulani’s Zulu grandfather and his dog shows him the way back.

There is nice depiction of the lunar surface environment here, but the story is pretty hackneyed. Is this zine going to feature a solar flare every month, just as a plot device for its authors?

“Witness” by Vylar Kaftan

The narrator is a military android created as an experiment, which has gone wrong. It has a conscience.

I’d woken with vague memories of violent dreams. “Killing is wrong. I don’t like to kill because I think about it later. I don’t know who should live or die and I don’t want to choose.”

Parris is a commando sent into the training module to destroy the rogue androids, but he is astonished by the narrator, who refrains from killing him when he has the chance. Parris begins to believe the android is a better man than he is.

A vivid look at a future combat environment, privatized for profit. I like the revelation of the android’s consciousness, but I find Parris’s reaction improbable. Kaftan can turn a phrase: gut soup in plastic wrap.


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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