Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May

Getting caught up at last with the digests, also the usual monthly ezines. Wherein I learn that Genevieve Valentine is a very fortunate author. Her debut novel has just come out, and two different zines are helping promote it by printing stories set in the same milieu, timed to coincide with the launch.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, July 2011

Two novelettes, six shorts.

“Day 29” by Chris Beckett

Humans have colonized Lutania, where Stephen works as a data analyst for the Agency. He’s an antisocial fellow who rudely avoids his co-workers and prefers the company of the simple settlers in their farming villages. His three-year gig on Lutania is nearing its end, when he’ll be transmitted back to Earth. This process necessarily involves the loss of all memories accumulated during the last 29 days before transmission. Agency rules prohibit employees from working after their Day 40, a stricture that Stephen resents and fears, for reasons he doesn’t quite articulate to himself. Or perhaps that he can’t remember. Stephen seems to have a secret from himself.

A character study of a person who lives on the fringes of normality, or perhaps further off. He has a strong aversion to the indigenes, who seem to be able to read minds; can they see the secret he keeps hidden from himself? There are some oddly idyllic scenes when he enjoys himself alone in the native Lutanian forests, but this is not where he chooses to take his enforced vacation. A very subtle horror story. I wish the premise were more credible.

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell

Espionage, plots and conspiracies in an alternate universe where Jonathan Hamilton serves as an agent for a very Imperial British Empire that rules part of the Solar System in accordance with the balance of power that everyone holds sacred. As a young cadet, a young woman named Lustre Saint Clair was his lover.

Lustre was a secretary for Lord Surtees, but she had told Hamilton, during that night of greater intimacy, that this was basically a lie, that she was also a courier, that in her head was the seed for a diplomatic language, that sometimes she would be asked to speak the words that made it grow into her, and then she would know no other language, and be foreign to all countries apart from the dozen people in court and government with whom she could converse.

Fifteen years after disappearing under mysterious circumstances that almost led to war, Lustre shows up at the British Embassy in Copenhagen, speaking a language no one understands and apparently no older than she had been when Hamilton first knew her. Mayhem immediately ensues, and suddenly circumstances are again looking like war, over the information that Lustre carries folded in her head.

The editorial blurb states that this is an installment in a series previously published elsewhere. That’s quite a hurdle. The story leaps high, but I don’t think it completely clears the backgrounding bar. Some readers may consider the setting to be steampunk on the simple but erroneous identification with anything seemingly set near the fin de siècle. In fact, it seems to be an alternate history diverging from before the American Revolution, in which the social system has gone sclerotic while technology has advanced in sciencefictional ways that include space travel and Newton but seem to exclude Einstein and time dilation. It’s a world in which Hamilton is less shocked by routine murder and treason than by the fact that a parvenu would create his own coat of arms, not approved by the International Brotherhood of Heralds. Hamilton, in the tradition of British spies, is a combination of cynicism and duty, willing at any moment to sacrifice his life yet escaping from durance vile with suspicious ease.

Where I stumble is when Hamilton shifts from the balance of power among nations to some kind of cosmic balance: “The balance, having collapsed, would crest as a wave again, finally, and stay there, finally including all who had lived, brought entirely into God.” This sounds to me rather self-serving of the British Empire. As a tale of espionage, it’s a lively skiffy adventure, but I could do without the cosmological speculation.

“Pug” by Theodora Goss

If there is one thing that I abominate above all others [a lengthy list], it’s a Jane Austen pastiche. Unless it’s a Jane Austen mash-up. In this one, there is a door in the universe through which the characters to whom nothing ever happens, such like Miss Anne de Bourgh, can travel to meet persons to whom they would never speak in their own reality. It is Pug who is best at finding this door, although this cannot be Lady Bertram’s Pug, who is a bitch.

“Dunyon” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

After a cataclysm, refugees flee to the far ends of the sector and many of them end up on the narrator’s world, once an exclusive haven for the extremely rich. The narrator’s gambling house has always served the rich, was always exclusive.

I’ve already expanded more than I initially planned. In addition to my entertainment room, I have a high stakes poker room. No one gets in without a fifty thousand minimum. I raised the stakes when I learned the truly desperate were taking the last of their savings and trying to double their money on my tables.

I didn’t want to get rich by making desperate people poor.

Suddenly people start offering her vast sums of money for passage to Dunyon, a place she has never heard of. Someone has been running a scam.

Usually these days, when I see Rusch’s byline, it’s attached to a substantial novella. This is a short, sharp work of cynicism set in a place called Desperation, where the real enemy is hope.

“The Music of the Sphere” by Norman Spinrad

Two sonic story threads merge. Mario Roca is creating sub-sonic music that no human can actually hear, but that they can nonetheless sense. Caroline Koch is discovering that cetacean “songs” are actually visual images. When they meet, Mario is inspired by her work to play his composition to the whales themselves. “The Music of Silence will call their spirit from the vasty deep. And yes, they will come when I call.”

This one starts out as awfully talky, but it grows increasingly neat until the climactic moment. A global fantasy in the key of SF.

“Bring on the Rain” by Josh Roseman

After a solar storm, the world has been overcome by drought, so that colonies of converted ships roam the land in search of water. The Demetrius colony, like all the others, is often attacked by raiders; in its turn, they attack and plunder stationary cities.

William still remembers when the colony laid siege to the city, forcing them to give up the [solar] collectors and threatening the families of the engineers: come with us and make the collectors work on our ships, or we’ll kill the people you love.

William is the colony’s meteorologist, and the woman he once loved has been presumed dead, but now he discovers her alive and working for the most feared colony ship in the hemisphere. Rina orders Demetrius colony to divert course away from the storm William had discovered, but instead the Demetrius Commodore decides to fight.

There is more than an echo here of The Road Warrior, except that the treasure is water, not oil, and everyone is a predator to the extent of their ability; no one else but predators will survive. Although I’m not sure, given the nature of large storms to move across hundreds of miles of landscape, why the two colonies can’t share the resource of this particular storm, given that most of it will doubtless evaporate uncollected whether they fight or not.

“Twelvers” by Leah Cypess

Not Shiite eschatology, but persons who were gestated for twelve months instead of the usual nine in the artificial womb. Darla is a twelver; as such she doesn’t display emotional reactions like anger in response to stress. And junior high is a high-stress environment.

When Darla had been friends with Leora, it hadn’t seemed to matter. But then Leora started avoiding her and all at once, everyone else began noticing how Darla never seemed to lose her temper, how being at the bottom of the popularity chain never made her cry, how she wouldn’t break down no matter how hard she was bullied. She had been that way before, of course; the only thing that had changed was that now she was alone, and easy prey.

There is of course no difference so minor that junior high students won’t use it as an excuse for bullying, but this premise is awfully trivial and unlikely.

“The Messenger” by Bruce McAllister

Tim has subscribed to a Non-Paradoxical Time Channel so he can visit his parents when they are 35 and he is 50. Some people do this sort of thing for foolish reasons, but Tim is there for a specific purpose. He has a message to deliver.

And isn’t that the point? To do what we need to do to help them. To help them believe, I mean.

Before they leave.

Whether it’s in the loop or not.

A very brief story of love and uncertainty.


Analog, July/August 2011

The advantage of a double issue is that there’s plenty of room for more long fiction when the zine is running a serial. This time, there is a whole novella and a pair of very long novelettes. Unfortunately, they are overall less interesting than the stories in the previous issue.

“Coordinated Attacks” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Politics and mayhem on the moon. We have two alternating story threads: four years ago, homicide detective Bartholomew Nyquist saved the life of his new partner during a terrorist attack; in the present, someone is simultaneously murdering the heads of lunar government – a very sophisticated coordinated attack by self-destructing clones. The investigation leads Nyquist directly to that former partner, from whom he has not heard in the intervening time.

Part of a series in which most of these characters have already appeared; the author seems to take our familiarity with them for granted. The character most crucial to the events here is one we barely see and never get to know, because we only see her through Nyquist’s point of view. She is only one link in a very complex conspiracy; the rest remains quite unsolved by the story’s conclusion. A disappointment.

“Jak and the Beanstalk” by Richard A Lovett

Nomenclature becomes destiny. From an early age, Jak becomes obsessed with the notion of climbing the space elevator built to send cargo to Mars. Jak is more the geek sort than the jock sort, and the more he studies the problem, the more convinced he is that it’s a possible thing.

The top of the Beanstalk, where they launched the Mars shuttles, was 65,000 kilometers up. But with the centrifugal gees, that was equivalent to going up one side of a mountain and down the other. It was enough simply to go to High-Base Station. Geostationary orbit, a mere 35,786 kilometers.

This is the sort of piece, filled with data and engineering details and other sorts of space elevator neep, that the readers of this zine should particularly appreciate, with a chance of checking the author’s math and physics for possible errors. It’s a long novelette, and the first half is filled with the step-by-step minutiae of the long climb. Fortunately, half way up, the author introduces a secondary element that alters Jak’s perspective on the situation and adds more drama.

“One Out of Many” by Kyle Kirkland

Tad Bruler works for a science regulatory agency that seems to have a low priority for government resources. One morning he is abducted and shown a demonstration of neurological effects in the mind of a person using a substance called Neuro Fac. Someone really wants him to investigate the drug. The demonstration impresses Bruler, although I can’t particularly see why, because, while there’s a lot of info dumped, we get no real clue to its significance.

I hypothesized a more precise mechanism by which Leguer’s circuit could work. I proposed that the feedback within a column — from the lower layer to the middle layers — might be instrumental in setting up the oscillation.

Instead of doing his job, he begins to investigate on his own, and soon discovers people being killed, which he does not report to the police; he becomes a target himself.

Essentially, this is a very dull detective story, overly reliant on infodump, so that we have one neuroscientist explaining the history of split brain experiments to another. By the end, when several final infodumps reveal the secret, I find myself satisfied only that I no longer have to read any more of it. A bit more interesting are glimpses at the world in which this story takes place, but a world in which government officials have to stand in line for hours at a public data terminal in order to do their jobs is not a world that makes much sense.

“A Witness to All that Was” by Scott William Carter

“It was just another dead planet, as useless and wasted as their marriage.” Of course one might think that Marco and Kelsie are lucking to have a marriage at all, given that most of the universe has been obliterated, but things don’t work that way when people have to spend the rest of their lives scavenging. On the dead planet, they discover a robot, and the robot has a story to tell.

Unremarkable sentimental story.

“Death and Dancing in New Las Vegas” by Ernest Hogan

On the road to play at the first Nuzoom Neomartian Cultural Arts festival. Outside the dome of New Las, nanohudu has made everyone purple and happy. Inside the barrier that keeps out the nanohudu, Nuzoom has stocked the place with artificial purples to help bankrupt the tourists. Nuzoom is trying to corrupt the narrator, who used to be named Paco Cohen, but his anarchist nature prevails, as in his anti-Nuzoom lyrics:

They’d send ninja bugs at you
So don’t go boo-hoo-hoo
Be a nice little you.

This one may make more sense to readers familiar with the much earlier tale to which it is a sequel, but I suspect it would be pretty gonzo regardless. I have a hard time imagining that Paco’s songs would be as popular as the author says, but more unlikely things have happened.


Fantasy Magazine, May 2011

With the first of the Valentine Stories.

“Study, for Solo Piano” by Genevieve Valentine

The Mechanical Circus Tresaulti takes a break in its travels when it comes across a decaying mansion. With some misgivings, they move in. In one of the rooms, Panadrome the musician discovers a broken piano.

(Panadrome’s hands are pipes and gears. He does not have the spread between fingers that you need — the spread you could achieve if you practiced hard enough, if you held enough oranges, if you were born with the necessary reach. He could cover thirteen notes, in his prime.)

He has not seen a piano in a long time; winters are hard, and their wood burns as well as any other.

Soon, trouble arrives and the circus moves on.

This clockwork fantasy is set in a highly dystopian world where mobs run rampant, pianos are burned for fuel, and the circus scavenges whatever it can find [though not piano wire]. It could best be called a teaser. We get a brief glimpse of the circus and a few of its denizens, primarily Panadrome, now reduced to playing an accordion. We glimpse an existence tainted with regret, but not the compensations, if there are any.

“The Devil in Gaylord’s Creek” by Sarah Monette

Morgan hunts devils and other manifestations of nastiness, a skill she possesses either because she’s undead or because she has a magic sword. Some unknown organization runs her and supplies her managers, the current one being Francis, after John Ray was eaten by a possessed alligator. They don’t always get along. Now they are after the Devil in Gaylord’s Creek.

It would’ve started out a dust witch, like the thing I’d killed earlier that afternoon, but it must have been building out here for years, decades, with nobody near enough to give it shape and color, until the boneheads in Gaylord’s Creek went and built a church smack on top of it. And there was the crossroads, and there was the accident, and there was a man whose grief needed someplace to go.

Lively narrative makes this one a bit more interesting than the usual supernatural kick-ass thing.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2011

Not one of the better months for this fantasy zine. The second pair of stories, about orphaned apprentices finding their power, is too repetitive; this is not a shared theme, it’s the same story told over again.

“The Finest Spectacle Anywhere” by Genevieve Valentine

This “Circus Tresaulti” piece is more of an actual story than the one above. Little George is a newcomer to the circus, waiting impatiently to receive “the bones”, which is to say the metal skeletal structure of the performers in the “Mechanical Circus.” But Little George is not considered worthy by several of the principle members, especially Elena the secretive trapeze artist.

Still, there are more questions than answers here, particularly regarding “the bones”. The advantage of becoming mechanical is not clear. In fact, in the case of Panadrome in the story above, it appears that his skill has been reduced, not enhanced. In essence, then, another teaser.

“Buzzard’s Final Bow” by Jason S Ridler

Buzzard is a gladiator who long ago won his freedom in a fight against a giant red tiger, whose cub he had killed. Ever since, he has served the tiger and her vengeance, performing in a parody of their fight in the area. Now he has been summoned by the witch-regent of Baltikum, ostensibly to entertain the weakling prince and inspire him to manly deeds. But of course there is more to it – unfortunately, a scenario improbable in every respect.

“Letters of Fire” by Margaret Ronald

A warlord called the Bull is waging war against the alchemages, and Marten’s master was the last. He was never a good apprentice, or so his master often said, but Marten managed to save his experimental books from the fire. Unwisely, though, he revealed himself to the soldiers and found himself recruited into the division that creates the Bull’s war machines. It seems that the same powers behind alchemagic can be harnessed by engineers.

“But we’ve got no call for talk about ‘elixir,’ ‘grand speiric theory,’ or even ‘magic,’ come to that. It’s ore distillation, practical thaumics, and motile impetus, or just making the damn things move if you’re in a hurry. Got it?”

But there is one last alchemage alive; Marten’s fellow apprentice has also escaped and wants revenge.

The premise is overly-familiar, but the plot is even more so; Marten’s problem and his choice are entirely predictable. How many times have we read this same story?

“Cold Iron and Green Vines” by Wendy N Wagner

Here, while the coming-of-age story is essentially the same, the premise is rather different – rather strange. The bog is full of magic – for good and for ill. There are hinkypunks and sooleybooley men. People load themselves down with iron to ward off the magic, and take on steam-powered bodies of wicker, presumably immune to the magic, when they are old enough.

Here at the edge of warded civilization, the houses clumped more tightly, backs to the ward-walls, shrinking side-yards squeezing the gardens forward until the kale lapped over the street’s cobblestones. This close to the Wild, winter’s storms battered these cottages with waves of glamour that the outer ward-walls only weakened. It took a lot of iron to keep people inside safe on those nights.

The green-binders are the village guardians, but Yaricka’s mother has turned into a tree before she could pass on all her green magic.

There’s some interestingly original stuff in this setting – maybe too much of it. The cold iron and the green magic seem like opposites, but both are required for safety. And apparently it isn’t enough, if the people feel they need wicker bodies, for reasons that aren’t made clear. Nor is it clear how the inflammable wicker doesn’t ignite from the heat of the steam engines that power them. There is also a church and a priest, but it’s entirely unclear how they figure into this complicated magical equation.


Strange Horizons, May 2011

A month of science fiction love stories.

“The Thick Night” by Sunny Morraine

In a near-future Uganda, Mkali has survived war, drought, and the deaths of her parents. She has lived ever since for her young siblings. When she hears that the UN is distributing food, she lines up for it, but for her, the food comes with a robotic helper. With the robot, she soon has a new well and a limited prosperity, and more – a lover.

She buried them with her own hands, though she was exhausted and shaking and blind with tears. And she has rebuilt the house and beaten the earth into submission, but it has been so long, she is so tired, alone, and now there is a body against hers, warm but not human…

But with prosperity comes the jealousy of others.

This is a positive, hopeful and heartwarming story – rather too much so for my taste. The opening is realistically grim, but the problems at the end are awfully easily swept away.

“Young Love on the Run from the Federal Alien Administration New Mexico Division (1984)” by Grant Stone

Roland picks up an alien hitchhicker, although she claims to have been born in the US of A, escaped from a secret government facility where their abilities are exploited.

You reach your warm mind down to your brothers and sisters in the cold room, feel them stir just a little. They reach back with their thin, cold tendrils of being. Soon, you hope, you’ll get the chance and run, smuggling out as many of them as you can carry in your mind. But not today.

On the run, they get married, but there are suits on her tail, trying to recapture her.

This appears at first, from the title, that it’s going to be humor, but it’s actually a tragedy. Roland is left with only the question: did she really love him?

“The Holder’s Black-Haired Daughter” by Kelly Jennings

Hope springs eternal. Out in the Drift, the indebted contract labor, the free employee, the owner’s daughter – all convince themselves that what they wish for is true, particularly when it is love. It probably isn’t.

While an insightful look at human nature, it’s the sort of story that might be set anywhere, anywhen, even if it happens this time to be set on some other world. There’s no real reason for it to be science fiction.


Lightspeed, May 2011

The ezine seems to have slipped off its schedule for posting original fiction. Only one new story available as I send off this column. [Update: There was apparently a glitch in posting the second original story at this site, and I was unable to access it by the time I turned in this column. It will be covered next time.]

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory

Ez is a guide to the world outside the walls, where the zombies roam. The author doesn’t use the Z-word, but I know a zombie when I read one. A kid comes to engage his services to help retrieve his preacher father, who has fallen to a pack of dead wolves. Father and son had worked outside as a team of harrowers: the father preached salvation to the dead, the son picked them off and kept their souls from falling back into damnation. The preacher had a unique gift:

It was on the wall that he had his Revelation. As he fired his rifle at a cluster of dead in army camouflage, an angel of the Lord seized his tongue and set it ablaze with the language Enoch knew, the words spoken in the Kingdom of Heaven. The dead paused to hear his ministry, and he saw the light of Christ in their eyes. He killed them all immediately, before they could move or doubt. He was ecstatic.

Ez doesn’t buy the kid’s story, but he’s in debt and doesn’t have much choice.

A fresh twist on the zombies, set in a convincing and harrowing postholocaust world. The last line is neat. But are zombies by any other name really science fiction?



Redstone Science Fiction, 12 May 2011

“Party, with Echoes” by Patty Jansen

Diving under the ice on Europa. Yuriko isn’t totally happy about this client, but she needs the money. Part of the problem with the dives is the Echoes, bacterial colonies that form copies of divers who pass through the area.

They’re not alone in the cave. By the time Yuriko has climbed out, they’re surrounded by Echoes. There are at least three copies of herself, each subtly different from the other. All their mouths are moving.

It turns out that Yuriko’s misgivings were well-founded. This tourist is big trouble.

An original premise, nicely done, particularly the scenery.

“Zeno’s Arrow” by R L Ferguson

A colonization ship looses contact with Earth when it is forty years out. Many of the crew, wakened from coldsleep to stand watch, despair.

“After Antonio, a couple used pills, a trio asphyxiated themselves; finally someone used a cutting torch.  Took forever to get the blood out.  I tell you what I told the rest, either get back in your tube or step out the airlock.  Leave your spacesuit in stores, we might need it later.”  Andrea watched me with cold eyes.

Eventually, a cadre is formed to take the watches, the tough-minded of the crew. But even most of the tough-minded can’t take it when they learn near the end of the journey that their destination is uninhabitable.

Too sketchy to achieve emotional impact.

“Ask Not” by Bonnie McDaniel

All the narrator asks is to be left in peace in her isolated homestead, but somehow the salesmen keep finding her.

Maybe it has something to do with growing up on a ranch, where we raised our own vegetables, butchered our own meat, and solved our own problems. Or maybe it’s the memory of my grandmother, wielding her Ruger Bearcat against a rattlesnake who found its way inside her henhouse and saying, “If you don’t get the little pricks right away, they’ll come back and bite you in the ass.”

Except these aren’t ordinary salesmen. And something is going on out there in the world. Unfortunately, we never get to find out what. The narrator is charming in a curmudgeonly way, but her story isn’t finished.

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.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May

  • May 26, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Cool. I never thought of Jak as an engineer. I coach marathon runners (including two in the Olympic Trials) and he was cut from that mold (though my runners, I should be quick to state, are cool people who don’t need to get a life!). But it’s interesting: runners are generally geeky loner-types, at least when in high school. So it’s an interesting observation. Hmm, this interface doesn’t allow me to scroll back to edit, at least on my browser. Hope this comment makes sense!

  • May 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I didn’t think of him quite as an engineer, but as someone who was more interested in thinking out the project than actually doing it, except as proving the thinking-out. The cerebral over the physical. Or so I saw it.


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