Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-February

The good story prize this time goes to Electric Velocipede, and the Bradley story in particular. I take a look at Daily Science Fiction and wonder if I will continue to review it on a regular basis.


Publications Reviewed


Electric Velocipede #21/22, Winter 2011

This Tenth Anniversary double issue is Full! We have the usual mix of fiction and verse and other stuff, but more of it: over 200 pages and 30 titles. These fantasies are primarily strange, most less than weird, but few of them are conventional or boring. The publisher’s note hints of the possibility of moving to an electronic format in the future.

“Witherking” by T J Berg

Post-apocalypse. When the Earth’s magnetic field flips, Ray’s mother succumbs to ion sickness while insisting that he keep his sibs together after she is gone. But he and his sister Jessa are victims of the wither, so the government ships them both out to the farms.

His sister probably died at the farms. She surely wouldn’t have been allowed to live to eighteen, then get sent away to live with normal people where she could tell what happened. No one came back from the farms.

But Ray manages to escape, and now, two years later, he’s taken a different name and joined up with a crew ambushing road shipments from the farms.

A lot of graphic violence combined with a rather naive faith in the survival of justice, if only people knew what was going on.

“Care and Feeding of Your Piano” by William Shunn

Oh-oh! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO OPERATE YOUR PIANO UNTIL YOU HAVE READ ALL TOPICS AND PASSED THE CERTIFICATION QUIZ IN SECTION 12! The instrument is actually an organic pNano®, and the instruction guide is customized to the purchaser, in our case a Sr Espinoza. However, it seems that Sr Espinoza has not read the disclaimer nor fulfilled all the conditions of the warranty, with unfortunate consequences.

Very cleverly done, with affectedly macabre overtones.

“Pistols at Dawn Amongst the Evergreens” by Samuel Mae

Strangers have come to town. One of them claims to be an officer with Sunfleet Command, come to arrest the other for crimes committed in the course of his duty. But the local forms must be observed.

“We’re here at the dueling place, this duel was registered yesterday at the jail, and I’m recording the official dueling notes. Therefore this must be a duel.”

A nice, short look at cultural dissonance, in which everyone gets satisfaction, each in their own way, without upsetting their own worldviews.

“The Next Day” by Dave Justus

Every day when he wakes up, Peter Shale discovers how he has changed. It’s always something: gills, exoskeleton, a tail. One day, his breath exhales the scent of mint. His coworker Tara loves mint. They go out together, go to bed together in Tara’s apartment. And Peter wakes up the next morning.

The power of hope. A fascinating bit of psychology as Peter’s expectation changes totally, and his reaction to it. The author keeps us wondering about this world, not making it clear that Peter is the only undergoing these changes, or why [although it seems to be related to his apartment, which undergoes its own alterations.]

“Shoes Worn Once” by Keffy R M Kehrli

Michael is a man who has struggled all his life with his female persona, who has named herself Alice. His wife loves him and wonders what’s wrong, but he is compelled to hide the secret, ever since she was young.

Alice gathers everything that makes her happy, the panties she hides deep under the mattress on her bed, the blush and eyeshadow that have been taped under her desk where nobody will ever look. She sneaks downstairs (because his sisters know he is in trouble and will be curious). She sneaks a tea candle out of the closet and matches from the brick shelf over the wood stove, and she puts all these things in her emptied out bookbag (the one that he drew hearts all over on the inside where nobody could see).

A powerful, painful look at a tormented man in conflict with part of himself. The fantasy element primarily serves a symbolic function.

“Memories of Chalice” by Peter M Ball

The narrator was a broker of memories, a trade made possible because of the Nexus that lies beneath Chalice. While most of the memories traded on the Exchange are mundane, the rarest and most valuable seem to come from other worlds, and a strange man named Mustapha once came to the narrator offering these for sale. Until the narrator was compelled to learn his secret.

What I remember clearest is the cellar, and the warped hoop of steel that resembled a tree root. Suspended in this hoop was a tiny replica of the Nexus, small and perfect like a precious jewel, twisting in the darkness like a mangled star. The space between replica and hoop was a void, an absence that ached when gazed upon. And when one gazed into that void … Well, I have no poet’s words to fall back on, but I will say this: within that void lay possibilities, a myriad of worlds no larger than a grain of sand.

A glimpse of mysteries too perilous for humans to penetrate, and the fitting punishment for those who dare. While the narrator speaks of dollars, rock stars and penthouses, the setting seems more to be some timeless European castle in a valley isolated from the mundane world, where wealthy gnomes guard vast fortunes in their vaults beneath the mountains. This author is one I always look forward to; his offerings are fine and well-crafted.


∞ by Darin Bradley

An official bibliographic appraisal and analysis of the work, An Anonymous Salvage, lot 3821 of the de Blainville estate, consisting of various documents of varying ages bound together in a single volume, all related to the production of books.

[T]he calfskin appears to have been inadequately limed prior to being stretched, facilitating, it would seem, varying microbial infestations. Furthermore, the worming patterns in the pages are consistent with those attributed to the common book louse (Trogium pulsatorium), suggesting that the colonies provided the proper environments for mold and other decayed matter upon which the book louse feeds. As there is no significant water damage to the vellum, I cannot conclude any other source for these organic anomalies.

This piece pole-axes the reader between the eyes with the markers of authenticity [that is, if the bibliographical details aren’t actually authentic, they’ll sure fool a non-expert]. Together, the documents form a mystery for the attentive reader [and it takes attention] to solve, and it is both a subtle and sinister one. This seemingly-irrelevant comment in the introduction takes on more meaning towards the end: [Our bibliographer] felt (and still does) as if the documents scanned and uploaded themselves — as if, through his analytic processes, their perpetuation occurred as a foregone matter of course.


“The Comedy at Kualoa” by Monica Byrne

Sergei Olsen, theatre critic, is invited to a private premiere performance of the new dolphin play. He’s thinking Sea World. But this piece was written by the dolphins themselves, who call it a comedy, according to their scientific mentor, Dr Abbas. But there is a problem in communication, interpretation. This is a tragedy.

A depressing story about the perils of anthropomorphism. It would have been more effective if the author hadn’t exaggerated Dr Abbas’s flaws.

“The Stonecutter” by Damon Kaswell

A world in which each city has its own beating stone heart, as healthy as the soul of its ruler. Marick is a stonecutter chosen by Halshami the Carven Goddess to tend stonehearts, and he was once the stonecutter of the Imperial city Prolimneo. But the emperor was evil and the stone corruption to its heart. When Marick struck the corruption, both stone and city died, along with a thousand of its citizens. But not the emperor’s son Olbert, as evil as his father. Now Olbert is mayor of Hektanos and Marick is its stonecutter, constantly having to excise the rot.

He struck hammer to chisel.

The corruption split away cleanly, leaving healthy stone beneath, smooth and unmarred. The Stoneheart’s pulse quickened for a moment, then settled back down.

A conventional fantasy with a kind of neat fantasy premise, but the plot violates its own story logic when Olbert survives the destruction of Prolimneo. Olbert is too evile for credibility and Marick too twisted up with angst.

“Intrepid Travelers” by Josh Rountree

Psychedelic space opera. The Earth is long dead, but AI personas like Kennedy and Khrushchev have their own worlds, and a lot of them are stockpiling nukes, despite the treaties. The narrator, an actual human called Cool Breeze, is working for the AI called Kesey to steal them and bring about universal peace or something. Kesey has unconventional methods, but the narrator is pretty sure none of this stuff is actually real, so he’s cool with it.

I don’t know shit about ancient drugs but I understand what’s happening, for the most part. Kesey figured out a way to convert the effects of these drugs into an electrical … impulse … that can alter consciousness and that means … well, with Kesey that means altered reality. And a man that can change reality can be anywhere he damn well pleases, including behind the planetary defenses of the Kennedy sector’s mother planet, New Hyannisport.

Crazy stuff, full of spies and conspiracies and counterconspiracies and lots of hallucinations. Fun stuff, trying to figure who and what everyone is supposed to be [the author gives it away too much, though.]

“Carte Blanche” by Genevieve Valentine

Torture and brainwashing under a totalitarian government.

I expected pain, when they brought me here. I expected the beatings and tearing out your fingernails. It was what everyone said would happen if they caught you.

(“They’ll take your tongue,” someone said. “If you ever get out of there, you can’t even talk any more. It happened to my uncle. He killed himself later.”)

It wasn’t true. The guy in the cell next to me still had everything, even if his mind was pudding, and I was stronger than he was. I could hold out.

But their methods are more subtle, more insidious, more effective.

A powerful dystopian impact, made with skillful economy of words.


“Worm Days” by Karl Bunker

The invasion of 200-foot earthworms. The narrator finds one of them on his own street. The worm is essentially a foil for a look at modern suburban living.

Sheila turned away from the window and picked up the drink I’d left on the coffee table for her. “Of course my idiot husband decided not to get insurance against worm attack.”

“Unlocking the God” by L L Hannett

There’s a growth on the palm of Steward’s hand.

The discolouration was spreading. It engulfed the underside of his fingers, obliterated unique ridges and whorls. Rotcoloured blisters had pimpled their way across his life line and small fleshy tents festooned the heart of his palm. It looked like a miniature battlefield, mottled in shades of ham.

But the growth turns into an actual city, with actual people living in it.

Highly surreal, highly weird, and yet making a real kind of highly imaginative sense. The author has a definite knack for the disgusting, not just the meaty growth but the description of the medicine cabinet Steward shares with his roommate.

“My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band” by Damien G Walter

Amalfrida is a teenaged witch with a bad attitude.

I hear voices whisper my name. Antonia, Jane, and Elisabeth, the three bitches, are hissing at the back of the class. I used to be bitch number four, until I went from bitch to witch. There is nothing that teenage society hates more than an unauthorised image change.

But in Amalfrida’s case, it runs in the family.

I do like a good bad attitude, and this darkly amusing piece is full of it.

“Beata Beatrix” by Jenna Waterford

A brief tale of suicide and love, unrequited even in the grave. Some nice ghastly images:

The mirror crack’d from side to side, though no drifting boat awaited to bear Lizzie down to Camelot. In its place, they carried her to her grave in a casket full of flowers, the rich aroma masking her decay.

“An Abiding Memory of Scarecrows” by William Knight

A sorceress has conquered the people of Calgeron, taking their children, leaving scarecrows in their place, and cursing them with an immortality of despair and fear.

Memories tucked away with the rest: bloodshed, death, disease, horror, and fear. No matter how much ale he tucked away, they never quite seemed to vanish.

This conventional dark fantasy is quite depressing, as it is supposed to be. But pretty conventional for this venue.

“Pie in the Sky” by Michaela Roessner

The narrator’s food fights back and tries to escape its doom.

My eyes were on my feet, so in disbelief I watched one small sneakered foot, of its own accord, insert itself into that seam. Down I went, while the Davy Crockett — alas! alas! — pitched itself upward, then plunged to land head-first just inches from my nose.

At first, she tries to find rational explanations for the phenomena, then accepts the fact.

Slightly surreal, an extended cream pie joke. Funny.

“Gaining Traction” by Jonathan Wood

The narrator is trapped in Ramen noodles. Really, that’s it. This one is too senselessly surreal to be interesting.

“Checkmate” by Brian Trent

In this version of the Victorian world, the Chesswar has taken the place of battles between massed armies. Edward Oakshott is a Knight who has descended to the subterranean waters [it’s not clear that they are the usual sewers] beneath London to meet a mysterious sorcerer who calls himself Thoth in order to purchase his aid against a robotic Russian Rook. No Knight has ever defeated a Rook.

Each Chessman had an established menu of technological enhancements agreed upon by international guidelines. Edward’s success against four Spanish Pawns, a Portuguese Bishop, and even that legendary public duel with the German Knight was owed to an alchemy of skill, knowledge, and chance.

And now Anubis was a factor.

Reader might be excused if they look at the title of this zine and wonder: Where is the steampunk? Here, in spades, is all the steampunk they might crave: ladies with deadly parasols, rocket packs, robotic war machines, and the mannered imperial society behind it all. A well-executed specimen of the species, an alternate version of the ways technology affects warfare and the individuals who engage in it.

“Sampling the Aspic” by Penelope O’Shea

The narrator has gone, against her better judgment, to a karaoke bar, where she attempts to escape her suffering in thoughts of favorite foods, complete with vegetarian [not vegan] recipes. Now, I sympathize entirely with her reaction to the karaoke and can tell that the recipes would produce the results claimed [unless the frittata sticks to the pan]. However, I strongly suspect there is a point here that I’m missing. I would expect that the narrator is something like a vampire or werewolf about to rip her fangs into the clientele of the bar, but this doesn’t seem to be supported by the text anywhere that I can find it.


Apex Magazine, February 2011

The editorial blurb says that this is the first appearance here by Cat Rambo, which rather surprises me, as she has been appearing just about everywhere recently.

“Close Your Eyes” by Cat Rambo

Amber’s brother Lewis won’t die for about five years, during which she has to support him and endure his resentment of his dependency.

“[Dying] people just become more of whatever they were to begin with,” Lewis said. “Concentrated. Much more so.” Malicious smile. “Like ever so much more grateful to you, darling Amber.”

But Lewis has begun to study shamanism and he displays a strong aptitude for the dark side, not to ease his way across the divide into death, but to sacrifice another to save himself.

This is a strong, realistically disturbing picture of a character who is actually evil, but otherwise I find the story unsatisfactory, as Amber puts up with too much, allows her brother to bully her emotionally. What we see of her graphic characters, so important to Amber, have no appeal at all; they exhibit no power. It doesn’t work.

“Langknech and Tzi-Tzi in the Land of the Mad” by Forrest Aguirre

The artificial giraffe and the giant fly want to see the Maker who created them, and ask him some questions about it all. They set out on the quest. Eventually they reach the Maker’s tower, guarded by two robots and Frankenstein Don Juan, but before they can get their answers they have to wake the Maker, who is quite unconscious.

Longknech noticed an insectoid confusion in the awkward tilt of Tzi-Tzi’s head. The fly wiped her face with her black arms, as if she were trying to shoo away her consternation. Then she spoke in a distant, hollow voice as if dreaming:

“I don’t know. Except I know it’s not back over the mountains. Wherever I am from, it is hot. I do love the heat!”

Highly surreal stuff, a madman’s dreamworld. The explanations, when we finally get to them, are even weirder than the original situation. But none of it’s real, not in this setting.


Bull Spec #4, Dec-Jan-Feb 2010-2011

Since I last looked at this new printzine, it’s become a bit more professional in appearance, slicker, more pages and, most importantly, more fiction — five original stories plus a reprint, although two are of questionable length. The fiction is a broad mix across the genre.

Also questionable is the publication date, which can lead to eligibility problems. I received this copy at the beginning of February, but the copyright date is 2010, which is what usually counts.

“Freedom Acres” by Andrew Magowan

A dystopian too-near future. Carolyn occupies the middle ground; she lives with her husband in a down-market subdivision where she works from home as a remote factory supervisor of disposable labor. Even the cops are temps: hired, suited up and deployed in the event of a call. Her son, like most, has a shunt installed in his brain to control his behavior, mostly by remote. Bot no one can say that Carolyn isn’t a careful mother; when the creepy new neighbor across the street acts suspiciously, she is quick to act. “A mother has to.”

Carolyn is a character it’s easy to dislike, self-centered and uncaring. While she would like her husband to earn enough to allow them to leave Freedom Acres, readers are aware that she is more likely to fall backwards into the ranks of the permanent temps, and they are not likely to feel sorry for her. It’s a fairly effective If This Goes On scenario, but it would be better if Carolyn didn’t feel the need to tell us quite so much about it.

“O, Harvard Square!” by Nick Mamatas

Kelly is a transient who gets radio signals through her loose filling. The signals are telling her to come to “the fourth lie,” which she and her companions on the street interpret as the MBTA tunnels beneath the square. And Lo! …

This setting naturally evokes recollections of Harvard’s famous steam tunnels, legendary site of illicit dungeon adventures. Even so, the conclusion is quite unexpected, like sitting unawares on a whoopie cushion.

“The Burning Room” by David Tallerman

Miss Taversham had expected to live with an aunt while she took employment as a milliner, but she unexpectedly died, leaving the younger woman with an urgent need for lodgings. The second floor of Mrs Faraday’s house seems quite suitable, but her landlady’s nervousness clues Miss Taversham to the fact that something there is quite wrong. And indeed, when the ghost appears, he is not unexpected. But our narrator is not afraid. In fact, she regards the ghost’s appearance as a mystery to be solved.

A nicely-done ghost story in the classic mode, with a tragic conclusion.

“A Mathematician’s Apology” by Don Norum

As the narrator informs us,

For years, philosophers have argued over whether or not mathematical proofs are invented or discovered. Whether they are human constructions, or instead artifacts unearthed from the fabric of reality.

Now, with the aid of sufficiently powerful computers, we know. And the narrator is awfully bummed about it.

This is an idea story, heavy on the idea, light on the story. I do not credit, however, the leather-bound, gilded volume. Even today, any kind of paper printout is increasingly unlikely.

“City of Shadow and Glass” by Erin Hoffman

A vignette set in a new and seductive virtual city. Mostly setting rather than story, but there isn’t anything really original in the setting.


Daily Science Fiction, Jan 28 – Feb 4, 2011

When this new e-venture, proposing to publish a new story every day, was announced, I decided to give it a pass for two reasons. First, most of the stories promised to be very short, which I don’t consider productive to review. Second, because listing so many very short stories would take up a great deal of space and would likely not be very interesting.

However, as some contributors have complained about Locus not reviewing the zine, I am reminded that I have always tried to give any new zine at least one look. Herewith, therefore, is the first week’s worth of stories from February.

DSF operates on the subscription model, with stories emailed to subscribers and posted a week later on the site for free. I note that the “daily” in the title is actually a tad bit misleading: stories come out only on weekdays. Most of them do, in fact, turn out to be very short; out of this week’s sampling, two are long enough to be called short. The quality, if this batch is representative, is average: nothing awful, not too much I’d really recommend as award material.

I’d be interested in hearing from noncontributors whether they think it would be worthwhile to add this venue to the regular schedule of works reviewed.

“Jade Dragon” by Shelley Li

Following the death of his[?] mother, Kai Wen has been brought up by an abusive not-uncle who makes him work in a noodle shop instead of going to school. He has lost hope, until an incident restores it.

The scenario of this tearjerker doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. If the uncle can afford so many bots to run his noodle shop and waste water, why can’t he afford to send Kai Wen to school? What is behind the almost sadomasochistic relationship between the two? The author’s description of the actual encounter that inspired this one is more moving than this sciencefictionalization, with its extraneous material about bots and a change in religion.

“The Elephant Man’s Love Child” by Leslie What

The girl is the product of what must have been the ultimate mercy fuck, then abandoned by her mother, who fears she might become like the man who fathered her.

Every night, the girl’s small fingers probe her face for tags, warts, or wrinkles, flaws her mother feared so greatly she locked away her own flesh and blood.

A moving, tragic story of a child starved for love.


“E is for Excrement” by Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, Greg van Eekhout

A captive fairy finally hits upon a plan of escape, although we aren’t told if it works.

A clever and amusing idea based on the actual practice of brewing coffee from beans pre-digested by civet cats. I admit to some curiosity to know how four authors manage to collaborate on a work of less than 500 words.

“The Uncharted Isle” by James Hutchings

A joke of little more than 100 words, a sharp bite at old lovers.

“Imaginary Enemies” by Colum Paget

When Sandra wasn’t turning out to be the child her parents had planned, they messed around with her brain, with unfortunate consequences: Sandra’s brain split to develop an alternate personality, the antithesis of her own.

The two small, cheap wardrobes crowded the room, glaring disapprovingly at each other across the foot of the bed. The clothes in both were cheap, trying to be something they weren’t. They’d both had some better clothes in the past, but a war of tit-for-tat, ending in the burning of possessions, had left them impoverished to the tune of two pairs of jeans, a t-shirt, and a parka jacket.

Worse, they ended up on the Mental Health Register as a “Jekyll,” barred from any respectable employment, from any kind of respectable life. Sandra has decided to undergo a procedure to eliminate her alter, but she has to keep the truth from Ingrid.

The scenario of this full-length story is interesting, and the plot doesn’t take the predictable route I’d supposed. I would have preferred that the author do less dumping info of the background and more character development; even if Sandra is supposed to be the bland one, she needs some coloring in.


Wild, by Lincoln Crisler

Damnation Press may be known to most readers of this column as the new publisher of Realms of Fantasy. It primarily prints horror and erotica, stuff that mostly falls outside my genre boundaries, but in addition to novels, they also put out a line of novellas. This zombie Western, coming out in March, falls within the limits of dark fantasy.

Matt Jacoby is a Western gunslinger/detective with a mysterious past that I suspect can be found in other works by the author. While staying in El Paso, he is approached by a local lawman who wants his help investigating a case: a prominent local colonel and his son have been kidnapped. They pick up an ill-assorted posse, including the local outlaw and a former medic in the Mexican army, and set off on the trail, where they are ambushed by a small horde of the walking dead.

One of them was missing an eye; no, it was dangling from its socket! The skin was gray and pulled back tightly from their teeth, and their scalps were bare in places. A dull, gleaming patch of skull showed through on one of them.

Essentially, this is a Western with elements of detective fiction and dark fantasy. The heroes solve most of their problems with gunfire [Jacoby is the only hero I’ve seen since Roy Rogers to do the trick of shooting the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.] The elements of black magic that we encounter remain mostly unexplained. And we never do learn why the wizard contrived the very complicated plot to kidnap the colonel and his son. It seems to be part of a series, and the author suggests that the characters will be filling in each other, but not us, as they ride out of town on the train; this is frustrating. While it is told in alternating points of view, neither voice develops a distinct identity. It may be that these characters are further developed in subsequent stories, but I think only Western fans will seek these out.

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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