Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-December

Taking a first look at a new ezine, GigaNotoSaurus, the name a reference to the extended length of the fiction, although the stories are not all novella-length. Otherwise, most of the zines reviewed here come printed on paper.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, Jan/Feb 2011

Some enjoyable stories in this first issue of the year. The theme is families and the bonds that create them.

“Home Sweet Bi’Ome” by Pat McEwen

Because the narrator has hyperallergic syndrome, she has to live in an isolated, completely natural and hypoallergenic environment. But she wakes in the middle of one night, itching, to discover her house, constructed from her own stem cells, has contracted chicken pox, of which there seems to be a sudden epidemic. Worse, the county quarantines the place. Worse yet, they also quarantine the EMT in with her.

Although the notion of the self-house is interesting, the story overall is pretty silly. And the author ignores the rule that says just because one of the characters complains about an infodump, this doesn’t mean it isn’t boring the readers.

“The Bird Cage” by Kate Wilhelm

Grace Wooten has been hired by a nasty rich man to develop a coldsleep procedure that might retard the progress of his Parkinson’s –- by whatever means it takes. With his time running short, he insists that she employ a human volunteer as an experimental subject for her untested process.

“I’m fifty-three years old, Dr. Wooten. I watched my father die of Parkinson’s. I saw my brother die. And I have no intention of dying from it! You have two weeks!”

The volunteer is named Cody McCrutchen. While he lays unconscious, people connected to traumatic incidents in his life suffer seizures in which they experience flashbacks of these events. His mother, in such a seizure, is badly injured in a car wreck. The seizures seem related to unexplained spikes that Grace has seen in Cody’s brain scans.

Always a pleasure to read a new story by Wilhelm, with her impeccable prose. This fine piece adds new insights into the ethical dilemmas of medical research.


“The Bogle” by Albert E Cowdrey

Donny knows that Mama never wanted him; his older brother Tom, whose father was always her secret, was the great obsession of her life. But Tom was mean, and the judge finally gave him the choice between the army and jail. Mama didn’t want to let him go.

He was waiting to leave with the other guys when Mama gave a cry, not even a human cry, more like a wounded animal. She ran after Tom and grabbed him and clung so tight that Papa had to help peel her off. He kept his grip on her while Tom boarded and sat down by a window, his face so pale with anger that his freckles seemed to stand out from his skin like moles.

Even when Tom was reported missing in Korea, she insisted he would be coming back; she prayed to a Friend to make it so. And so it came to pass, but not in a good way.

A story of possession, either demonic or ghostly or perhaps both. The writing is straightforward; at one point, Cowdrey does a subtle thing, shifting the point of view from Donny’s to an impersonal one that doesn’t share Donny’s thoughts. It is true horror, but more than anything, it is about a family so dysfunctional as to be a horror itself. What seems extraneous is the bogle, a Tom-shaped apparition that occasionally haunts the house between the time when Tom is declared missing and when he is discovered alive.

“The Ghiling Blade” by Matthew Corradi

Here is a world strangely and strongly fantastic, filled with many different peoples and spirits. Near the bottom of the order are the fisher-people, the Selestrii. When Dah’nok was a young man, he imagined that he was something greater than he was, but failed. Now a wraith has crawled into his soul to grow there until it threatens what he holds dearest, his wife and family.

The wraith that infested Dah’nok, however, was a remnant from the Seelee Empire itself, born long ago of arrogance and nurtured on bitterness over many centuries. Seelee wraiths were powerful enough to dig into a man’s soul and work their evil from the inside out. They excelled at cultivating a host’s erastiss, that core selfishness in all people that would lead to a corrupted soul.

His quest is at once high adventure and self-realization. Although Dah’nok may sail to the ends of the ocean, his goal is always there at home, and the wraiths are formed of his own failings. Or so his wife says, and I think we should believe her.

I really like this imaginative world, which is far larger than the story, which seems to merge at several points into dream. It is a very dense setting, sometimes confusing, with a lot of strange terms, not all of them well-defined, and full of fascinating digressions into alien myths and legends.

“Long Time” by Rick Norwood

The narrator, who may be Cain, has lived just about forever. Here, he reminisces about his days as a mercenary soldier in Uruk, and its king Gilgamesh.

The giants we were looking for hadn’t done anybody any harm, as best I could tell. One was named Gog and another Magog. I forget the name of the third. Gil just wanted to make a reputation for himself by killing a giant. As is almost always the case, we did most of the fighting, and the king took all the credit.

This retelling of myth gains a lot of interest from the irreverent narrative voice. I also enjoyed the various encounters with gods.

“Canterbury Hollow” by Chris Lawson

Arlyana meets Moko when she takes a tour to the surface dome to view the Old City and the sun.

It took three hours for the shadow of the tower to connect with the entrance to a safety tunnel. For those three hours they sat together in the bus, hiding in the shade while the sun showered the world with light of many frequencies and particles of many energies, with some that knocked lesser particles off the land around them and made the world glow.

They hit it off and decide to spend their last weeks together, as both have been chosen in the death ballot. Arlyana shares her allotted days with Moko so they will both have time to climb Canterbury Hollow, together.

A rather melancholy story of doomed love, dispassionately framed as an evolutionary event in the history of a species that always overruns its resources.

“Christmas at Hostage Canyon” by James Stoddard

Eric’s family is spending Christmas at Hostage Canyon with his aunt and uncle. As they drive through the decorated streets, a figure of evil appears, visible only to Eric.

Inserting a finger of each hand into the corners of his mouth, the elf stuck out his tongue, pulling his mouth wide and then wider, impossibly wide, hideously wide, until his whole face was contorted beyond anything Eric thought imaginable.

“Death,” the elf said, looking right at Eric, his voice high and grating.

Of course, no one believes him.

The depiction of the relationship between the two brothers is believably done, but the unoriginal fight against Evil is awkward, a reworking of stale myths that inspires no belief.

“The Whirlwind” by Jim Young

Ben wakes up with no memory in some kind of simulation, along with a nasty guy named Sig and a woman named Kiya. Sig tells Ben they are in a virtual prison and Kiya says they are there to help Sig become empathetic. They both seem to think they are in charge, but it really seems to be the whirlwind.

One of those pieces in which everything is summarized in backstory, in this case, several different versions of it. Since we don’t know anything real about these people, it’s hard to care.

“Paradise Last” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N Malzberg

Zombie love.

The moment I saw him, I knew he was for me. Handsomely desiccated limbs. Slightly crumbling mouth. Skin flaked and discolored in a most enticing fashion.

I don’t think we really needed to know about the Great Change and the Recharging Stations.

“12:02 P M” by Richard M Lupoff

Time bounce. Myron Castleman keeps snapping back to the same moment, living the same hour over again so many times he’s lost count. Everyone else seems to forget when they are re-set, but he remembers. And he’s determined to find a way to stop it.

A sequel to Lupoff’s 1973 “12:01 P M,” but the editorial blurb is correct to say that it isn’t necessary to read the earlier story in order to enjoy this one. A lot of neat little details add to the interest with each bounce.

“Ghost Wind: A Mad Amos Malone Story” by Alan Dean Foster

The mountain man takes on a spectral wind that threatens the town, even though he’s been feeling a bit sickly.

Squinting into the howling, blowing grit that was now streaming down the street parallel to the ground, Barker allowed as how the clanging and banging they were currently hearing was due to the windmill from the Spencer place being blown straight down main street. This was soon followed by the Spencer place itself, intact and complete down to front porch and back barn.

A nifty tall tale. I’m liking this series.


Interzone #231, November-December 2010

A special Jason Sanford issue, featuring three stories by Sanford including author notes, an interview, and a story by a Sanford protégé. I note that while in the other stories the primary conflicts are internal, characters struggling within themselves, the Sanford stories feature external conflict, in which characters confront powerful, often alien forces. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a theme, memory and identity are featured in some of the issue’s stories.

“The Shoe Factory” by Matthew Cook

The protagonist [who should really have a name] experiences flashbacks to significant moments in his life while trying to cope with the fact that his spaceship will implode into a black hole within an hour. Death being certain, his only hope for any kind of survival is beaming his memories to a nearby station for capture. His memories are mostly of his dead lover, Emily.

She smells of oranges and river water. She smiles. Behind her is the churning shape of the Darkness, lovely and terrible.

Nicely done story, and I must commend the illustration for capturing its heart perfectly. I only wish I found it credible that a destitute street kid could trade a few salvaged bits of electronic scrap for a spaceship of any kind.

“The Shipmaker” by Aliette de Bodard

Dac Kien is a Grand Master of Design Harmony, in charge of creating a living spaceship that will house a sentient cybernetic Mind. But the Mind must be gestated within a human womb, and a crisis arises when she learns its time of birth will come before the ship can be ready. Dac Kien’s perfect design must be aborted, the ship transformed into a lesser thing. Her career will be blighted, her sacrifices wasted.

This story is set in the author’s alternate/future history of an imperial China, but so far into its future that it is almost independent of what has gone before. The conflict contrasts the childless Dac Kien, whose potential was once so great, with the Mexica woman whose untimely pregnancy will lift her from a much more lowly status –- and cast Dac Kien down. For those like Dac Kien, whose lover is a woman,

there would be no children, no one to light incense at the ancestral altars, no voices to chant and honour their names after they were gone. Through life, they would be second-class citizens, consistently failing to accomplish their duties to their ancestors. In death, they would be spurned, forgotten, gone as if they had never been.

Her integrity and resolve are admirable, but I see no reason why Dac Kien can’t have the children she obviously wants, and thus her inner conflict seems artificial.

“Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep” by Jason Sanford

Science fiction horror, based on the premise that the sheepdogs may have more in common with the wolves than the sheep they protect. Ellen Davies is a cop who finds herself handcuffed to a serial killer as the sheep turn on them both. Some alien force has possessed the minds of the majority, nonviolent population so that they are exterminating predators and protectors alike, anyone who has used or is willing to use deadly violence [except of course themselves].

This is my favorite of the Sanford stories. Ellen is a strong character, but Victor Braun, the serial killer, really steals the scene. It’s Victor who most fully understands what the wolves and sheepdogs have in common and the purpose of eliminating them.

“Memoria” by Jason Sanford

It seems that there is a multiverse of Earths. It seems that the Earth from which our characters come is surrounded by a barrier of ghosts, the ghosts of everyone who has ever lived there. It seems that the ghosts try to take over the minds of anyone who tries to escape this Earth, and that the crews protect themselves by getting prisoners [“the baddie bads”] to volunteer to host the ghosts so they can cross the barrier and return. This is why the narrator is on the ship as a shield for the crew, his mind so full of ghosts that he no longer has most of his own memories and now calls himself Oil Can Harry, as his latest ghost has named him. But on this return crossing, Something Bad happens.

I roll face down and bite the deck, teething into the ship’s blood. Scared by what I’d seen. Scared because this isn’t some barrier-stored copy of a human who live ages ago. No, this ghost is alien, and it’s now ripping Len’s mind apart piece by painful piece.

The crew now begins to realize why the inhabitants of every other Earth they have visited have turned on each other and destroyed themselves. They now have to stop it from infecting their own.

There is just too much stuff crammed in here. The heart of the story is supposed to lie with the narrator, the relationship between his identity and his memories. That instead of being who he was, he is now a sort of multiple personality comprised of all the ghosts in his head. That he was once a “baddie bad” but now, without his memories of his crimes, he is free to be a good person, even a hero, redeemed by love for Len, who is as good as a person can be. But there is too much other stuff, too much to wonder about what is going on, too many ghosts, too many Andy Kaufman jokes [and is a person really the sum of the jokes he has told onstage?], all of it keeping the reader so busy trying to follow it that there is not enough room for meaningful engagement with the protagonist.

“Millisent Ka Plays in Real Time” by Jason Sanford

An idea story, the idea being economic: a society that operates on time-debt rather than monetary exchange. Millisent’s parents are musical vassals, who pay off their debt-time to their Lord through their performances. Millisent, too, becomes a vassal when she turns 18, and the Lady Lord has always expressed high hopes for her. But it turns out that the Lady Lord has encoded the key to destroying the debt system within Millisent’s genes.

The idea is one worth examining, but we don’t really see it completely worked out in the entire society. Millisent and her friend Alessa are engaging characters, but they only act with what Millisent has been given. The real story is one we don’t see, why Lady Amanza has decided to destroy the system from within.


Intergalactic Medicine Show #20, December 2010

Leads off with another Sanford story and finishes with a couple of Christmas offerings, including one by publisher Card.

“The Never Never Wizard of Apalachicola ” by Jason Sanford

Sol is an astronaut haunted by a wizard who has followed him from his past, even into space.

And a raven, a true damn-it-all raven perched before me on the station’s new solar array, preening its purple-burn feathers in the vacuum of space.

While he and his sister grew up in Florida amid “swamps and bay, alligators and fish,” their parents originally were the servants of a powerful wizard in Africa, and when they were lost in a storm, his sister went to Chapél and made a deal. Sol grew up a prodigy and it wasn’t until he graduated as valedictorian from high school that the wizard took his sister away. After he returns from space, Sol is ready for a confrontation.

I like this setting quite a lot, but the ending requires us to take the wizard’s word on faith, when I’d like to see some proof.

“Sympathy of a Gun” by Gary Kloster

A plague of alien wasps has descended and killed everyone but pregnant women. They claim they are doing it to save humanity from itself, but Emily isn’t buying it, and it seems that some of the aliens have doubts, as well. This one is mostly talking heads, and despite all the talking, very little light is shed on the issue.

“The Vicksburg Dead” by Jens Rushing

George Ashby is not a man eager to die for any cause, and less for a lost one. As an aide to Confederate General Pemberly, he is aware that the general’s decision to hold out after Grant has besieged the city will result in great loss of life. On a visit to the front lines, Ashby is caught in an artillery barrage and mortally wounded. He knows he is dying, but one of the doctors commands him to live –- and he does. Ashby later confronts the doctor about this miracle and learns that for every life he saves in this manner, his own is shortened; the doctor is a dying man.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t send someone from this world. I have held the hands of a hundred thousand men, old men and children both, while darkness took them and their eyes went glassy with their last sight. And then the next carcass comes in, and I superintend its passage. I have seen death so many times — no one knows his face like I do! Having seen his face so many times, how could I know anything for him but fear?”

A good story about the evils of war, and the author plays his single fantastic card effectively. Despite a bit of slippage in the language of the period, the author evokes the horrors of the siege, particularly at its worst, in the surgeon’s tent.


“Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon” by Erin Cashier

Planetary colonization. Things haven’t gone well. The narrator’s mother had hope for her homestead, but after she died it went downhill and her daughter moved back into the central settlement. Now her aunt insists that the body be brought back for cremation, and the daughter reluctantly sets out, only to encounter a slight miracle.

A simplistically hopeful vision.

“The American” by Bruce Worden

The Americans have turned into something posthuman and are slowly absorbing the rest of the world rather like a black hole. Their camouflaged soldiers lurk in the Polish forest disguised as stags, but Petra’s brother has seen one and lived, and now Petra has even spoken to it. The Americans want part of her father’s farm, land that has been in the family for generations. Her father resists the pressure, but everyone knows the Americans will inevitably get what they want.

The meeting ended when my father offered to bring the children downstairs so that the government men could shoot the whole family without having to trouble themselves with climbing the stairs.

It’s something about this issue. I see stories here that begin so well. I like the settings, I like the characters, I like where the story is going –- until the authors have to bring them to an end, when they can’t seem to carry it off. So it is here. The story establishes the Americans as a sinister, inhuman force, but at the end we get the Star Child. The focus has been on the local situation –- the forest, the farm, Petra’s father –- and now the story turns its back on all this just after we have become interested. It’s frustrating, is what it is, and unsatisfying.

“Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue” by Maureen Power

A household in the Depression. Patsy’s birthday is on Christmas Eve, and this year she gets a cake and roller skates, even though her cranky stepmother thinks they can’t afford it. This is a fairly sentimental story of family love, a variation on the Christmas ghost.

“Wise Men” by Orson Scott Card

The fallen angel whom most of us know under other names is determined to foil the plan of Eloi when the Beyn is born, the child who will be the savior of the mortal beasts. He possesses the body of a servant of Herod and has become his trusted advisor when reports of the strangers arrive. He knows they are sent by Eloi with his gifts.

As for the frankincense and myrrh, they were anything but that. Philter and bioform, that was what they held. The tools to transform the baby into the kind of being who could only die if he permitted it, and never lost the connection with his body even if he did.

This variation of the familiar story is told in the language of the Mormon religion, but it is readily recognizable. The ending gives it yet another twist.


Albedo One #39, 2010

There’s no date on this Irish printzine, but it came to me in December. There are five original stories plus a reprint from Mike Resnick, along with an interview. The theme is lost children, the tone is dark.

“Frogs on My Doorstep” by Annette Reader

When Ellie was three years old, she disappeared from the family’s back yard and hasn’t been seen since. Or rather, she has, but her parents could never accept the eighteen year old woman who knocked on their door a year after the disappearance. Her brother Jack has always sort of known the truth.

This one is the winner of the 2009 Aeon Award sponsored by this zine. It’s a tragically moving story of a mother in denial and the loss she inflicts on herself.

“Of course you don’t know her,” mum hissed. “How could you?” I looked from one to the other, even at that age I caught the undercurrents, although I couldn’t understand what they meant.

The author tries to add a layer of profundity by talking about reality as a myth, but this only distracts from the emotional impact of seeing a child make her way home to find the door closed in her face.

“The Horse Shoe Nail” by Mari Saario, trans by Liisa Rantalaiho

From Finnish folklore. Alice’s ancestors were master smiths and their old smithy still stands, but her father is an abusive drunk who knows nothing of the craft. Alice likes to hide in the smithy and read, but one day strangers come through a portal to ask for the smith, her grandfather, seemingly unaware how much time has passed.

“This forge has been cold for a long time, much longer than it should. The smithy’s time is almost over. I can speak to the memory of the glow, but nothing else. Each smithy has its own smiths, known by its special fire.”

One of the strangers is a strangely attractive man named Reynard, who is not quite human. As the years pass, the fey travelers return again and again to the smithy, and Alice learns that the spark has not only descended to her but to her son, who may also be Reynard’s.

In Finnish mythology, the smith is related to the gods, and this connection comes through strongly in the story, though it reads in this translation as if set in Britain. The core of it is quite familiar, and although it begins in a child’s point of view, it is an adult story with adult concerns, and Alice as a woman and mother is the central character, not the little girl. A good use of the material.

“Eskragh” by Martin McGrath

“Eskragh’s not a big lough, but it’s deep,” everyone always says, deep and cold enough to drown the narrator’s friend Tommy. The death devastates his father, who declares at the empty graveside that “No man should live longer than his children.”

There’s a mystery here, and possibly a miracle about to happen, but the story isn’t clear about that, only about the pain of a lost child.

“Partly ES” by Uncle River

In remote Partly, New Mexico, the emergency services are all staffed by aging men and women in their sixties, but they are supposed to work under the oppressive regulations of the Department of Homeland Security, which is up to no good.

One older rancher, who had been tending a horse that had tangled itself in barbed wire, several miles out, had refused to leave the injured horse. He had been taken into custody. Not arrested, as the young men who ordered him into their unmarked car, at gunpoint, didn’t say anything in explanation of what they were doing. He was held for five days, incommunicado. His family were frantic. Then he was brought home, at three AM, and left… to frighten them half to death coming in at that hour. No explanation. No legalities of any kind. The horse died.

Uncle River brings the scenario If This Goes On much too close for comfort. These are fine warm and caring characters doing their best to retain basic humanity in a world where it is rapidly becoming eroded under the excuse of “security.” Be afraid.


“Grappler” by J L Abbot

Horror. A demon pays repeated visits to a tribe of people living in the area that becomes Sacramento. It always happens the same way. He demands a woman from the tribe and offers to wrestle for her. Since he only has a single, withered arm growing from the center of his chest, he does not at first seem formidable, but he can’t be defeated. And what happens to the women he takes is worse.

Just before spring Night Story came back to camp. She had no eyes and her mouth had been sewn shut. She felt her way to a stump beside the fire and sat. Everyone was afraid to get near her and she died. After she was dead they cut the stitches from her lips and saw her teeth were gone and her mouth was filled with a ball of black hair.

I’m not aware that this story is based on any particular tribal folklore. It’s rather a monster story that might have been set anywhere, among any people.


GigaNotoSaurus, November and December 2010

A new ezine devoted to longer fiction across the SF genre, presenting a single story every month. It is not too encouraging to see that the editors are urging authors to send them stuff unable to find a home elsewhere. So far, there has been one science fiction piece and one fantasy.

“The Bleeding and the Bloodless” by Ruth Nestvold

Sabotage forces a crash landing as the Aspiration is on its way to Sol from Epsilon Eridani. The surviving crew and passengers are rescued by humanoid aliens who seem quite hospitable. However, when the landing module has repaired itself the natives refuse to let the fertile females leave; the high UV levels on their world have resulted in so many birth defects that they are having trouble sustaining their population.

The number of improbable circumstances here is too great for me to list, but by far the worst relates to the identification of women and men, or as the natives put it: those who bleed and those who do not, ie, males and infertile females. I find it impossible to credit that, full of nanotechnology as they are, the women of breeding age among the humans would not have suppressed their fertility during the transit of space, along with their menstrual cycles [an atavism unlikely to survive much longer in any event]. But in the unlikely event that some of the women were indeed “bleeders,” I can’t see how the natives would have so quickly determined this fact after only a few days.

“The Winged City” by Yoon Ha Lee

The Winged City lives by conquest. It has raised the White Road across the sky for its soldiers to march forth to conquer and to bring back their offerings to its gods.

Of the city’s three-and-three generals, they said that Minkhir had the coldest heart. She did not spare children or the mothers of children. She salted the small springs of the landbound little gods. In the years of his service, Chukash had never seen the general weep.

Her servant Chukash is made of clay, but he has the handprint of Minkhir’s dead brother on his heart, and she favors him as no man of clay has ever been favored. These days, the offerings do not suffice to bring rain; the Winged City is dying of thirst. When the gods again send the armies against the last of the Crescent Cities, Minkhir insists on bringing Chukash with her. At the gates of Engaz Ut, they find the city defended by an army of clay men, animated by the arts of a black sorcerer. Then Chukash knows what part he is to play.

Here is a fine fantastic setting, full of imaginative details. It reminds me in some ways of the Aztec “flowery wars,” waged to bring home blood to feed the thirsty gods, although its appearance is entirely different. While the human story is clear, the stories of the various gods are rather obscure and difficult to fully grasp; some readers may be confused.


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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