Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June

The new issue of F&SF, plus the regular ezines. The Good Story award goes to Tor.com, with a double.


Publications Reviewed


Tor.com, June 2011

Two good ones this month.

“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders

Precognition. Doug and Judy both see the future, but Doug sees it as fixed and Judy as branching possibilities. Both have known for some time that they would meet and fall in love, then break up. They both over think this a lot – obsessively.

Doug hesitates, then just comes out and says it. “I was savoring the moment. You know, you can know something’s coming from a long way off, you know for years ahead of time the exact day and the very hour when it’ll arrive. And then it arrives, and when it arrives, all you can think about is how soon it’ll be gone.”

Their relationship becomes a contest between their different visions of the future: determined or indeterminate. Judy worries that her relationship with Doug will result in canceling all her possibilities and locking her future into a single path.

It’s impossible to read this without making it a dialogue with Niffenegger’s time traveler, although it isn’t really the same thing. Neither of these characters travel in time, and the tone of the narrative is much lighter, on the side of comedy rather than tragedy. This is in part because it is Judy’s story; Doug is the more angst-ridden character. But these are serious concerns, and while the author treats it lightly, it is a serious insight that our knowledge of the future can only be our memory of it; it’s not the future that is questionable, but the past.


“Earth Hour” by Ken Macleod

Economic skullduggery in a high-tech future. Advanced technology has enhanced the quality of life in many ways; a large terraforming [geoengineering] project has been proposed for Australia that will alter the climate. Some people will get very much richer in consequence; others will lose. Angus Cameron is an influential figure behind the project, who becomes the target of a sophisticated assassination attempt. He immediately figures that someone wanted him out of the way of their profit. This means an opportunity for him to profit, if he can figure out who was behind the plot, and their reason.

Angus thought about what Catriona had told him, about the undocumented, unannounced mitochondrial module in the EU’s next genetic upgrade. An immunity to some biological weapon? But if the EU was planning a first strike — on Japan, the Domain, some other part of the Former United States, Brazil, it didn’t matter at this point — they would need food security. And food security, surely, would be enhanced if Greening Australia went ahead.

Although it doesn’t employ the usual clichéd tropes of the subgenre, this one is in many ways cyberpunk. Essentially, it’s a snapshot of a future in which many things are different yet certain basics of human nature remain the same, such as the drive to become rich and powerful, regardless of consequences. Addiction has been eliminated; war has not. The details are neatly and meticulously done; the world is new and literally sparkling. The plot is missing what readers will probably consider closure, which is left to them as an exercise if they feel it is necessary. Me, I wonder what the rules are on insider trading in this milieu.



F&SF, July/August 2011

Featuring a Robert Reed novella. The lineup has some other well-known names.

“The Ants of Flanders” by Robert Reed

Subtitled: A Tale of Five Adventures, which seems to promise a set of independent but linked stories; instead it is a tale of alien invasion that begins on a very skiffy note:

The mass of a comet was pressed into a long, dense needle. Dressed with carbon weaves and metametals, the needle showed nothing extraneous to the universe. The frigid black hull looked like space itself, and it carried nothing that could leak or glimmer or produce the tiniest electronic fart — a trillion tons of totipotent matter stripped of engines but charging ahead at nine percent light speed. No sun or known world would claim ownership. No analysis of its workings or past trajectory would mark any culpable builder. Great wealth and ferocious genius had been invested in a device that was nearly invisible, inert as a bullet, and flying by time, aimed at a forbidden, heavily protected region.

That’s some strong high space opera prose! The destination is of course Earth, where sixteen-year-old Simon Bloch is open-eyed to the wonders of it all, being congenitally immune to fear. The space needle strikes one hemisphere with vast devastation. On the other side, defenders are deployed, willing to destroy the Earth – again – in order to save it. It is cosmic war, with humans caught up between forces that barely recognize them as sentient sacks of water. Bloch, however, is infected and transformed, becoming more than he had been.

It’s always tricky to do a story involving events far beyond human comprehension. Reed uses Bloch to good effect in that he becomes more than merely human, comprehending more than the rest of us water-sacks. Yet it is we as readers who have the final burden of comprehension – of the greatly simplified version that comes to us through Bloch’s point of view. For this, a single good metaphor – e.g., humans as the ants beneath the feet of contending armies – can be worth a thousand words of exposition. The real story is not in the events of the contending forces but in the human reaction to them. As Bloch’s dead-and-remade brother tells him, an adventure is “not the crazy, stupid, heroic shit you do in your life. Adventure is the story you tell afterwards. It’s those moments you pick out of everything that was boring and ordinary, and then put them on a string and give to another person as a gift. Your story.” That there are five adventures here reflects the stages of Bloch’s transformation from a not-ordinary young human to a player in the greater game. The sci-fi cliché would end up with him saving Earth, but this is not that kind of adventure.

“Bronsky’s Dates with Death” by Peter David

Bronsky is a retired salesman and compulsive talker, especially after taking a bullet in the head.

But then Bronsky slowly began to discover that whatever part of a person’s brain it is that screens out the things he shouldn’t be talking about… wasn’t there anymore. He talked with relentless earnestness about all the things you shouldn’t talk about. Politics, religion, whether that dress makes you look too fat, anything and everything, nothing was off-limits for Bronsky, especially if someone asked him. He was incapable of dissembling.

As he grows older, he begins to talk compulsively about death, to the annoyance of his family, who suspect he is slipping a few gears. Also to the annoyance of Death, who prefers to come unexpectedly.

A light look at a serious subject, with an entertaining narrative that becomes heartwarming at the end.

“The Witch of Corinth” by Steven Saylor

Historical mystery with a hint of fantasy that probably is only red herring. The author is best known for his Roman mystery series featuring Gordianus the Finder, who appears here as a young man of eighteen, making a tour of Greece with his old tutor. They have come to the ruins of Corinth, sacked fifty-six years before by Rome as a message to any other Hellene states that might think to rebel against Roman rule. Their superstitious driver will not enter the ruins, fearing the witches that are said to infest the place. As his tutor tells Gordianus,

“The Romans demolished her sanctuary, but this spot is still sacred to Persephone. The women of Corinth must have practiced magic here for centuries. Ever since Jason brought the witch Medea back from Colchis and made her his queen, there have been witches in Corinth.”

“But Corinth no longer exists.”

“Yet the witches do.”

At the nearest inn, they meet up with another party of Roman tourists, but the next morning Gordianus discovers all of them dead with their throats cut and a curse tablet lying among them.

This period in history is a favorite of mine, and Saylor knows what he’s doing with his lead curse tablets. There is indeed witchcraft being practiced in Corinth, but as Shakespeare reminds us, it is one thing to call on spirits from the vasty deep, yet quite another for them to answer. Gordianus discovers that the events are explicable without resorting to supernatural powers. The real story here is one of Roman arrogance and greed, as well as backstory of Gordianus as a novice investigator, which ought to be of particular interest to fans of this series.

“The Ramshead Algorithm” by KJ Kabza

On one side of the portal, Ramshead is renowned and respected: Ram of Earth, the only human member of the Trail Crew maintaining the paths between the worlds. “I help maintain things. I make everything behave how it’s supposed to… it’s complicated.” On the other, he is the despised younger son of a despotic billionaire. Now, on Earth, his father has suddenly decided to rip out the hedge maze where the portal is, and Ramshead is in a panic, rushing to relocate it before it is destroyed.

We begin on the other side, in the midst of an incomprehensible maze, where Ram and the other crew members are on the job, until he suddenly receives an emergency signal.

Beneath the four of us was a patch of bare earth, which Yuri had anchored into reality with a screw he’d muttered. Beyond our tiny island of the rational, the lines, as they say here, ran crooked: unknown suns rocked in the sky in polynomial smears of light. The walls of vegetation surrounding us reiterated with themselves, morphing each second into something different. The sudden paths in the undergrowth pulsed, as if breathing, before being swallowed by life again. Unchallenged by screws, The Maze reigned.

But most of the action takes place on Earth, within Ramshead’s highly dysfunctional family. Long-held secrets are finally revealed. I like Ramshead’s desperation; I can’t quite buy into his father – either the paternal monster or the altered version. There’s a definite tone of the gonzo here, as well as the arcane. A fun read.

“The Way It Works Out and All” by Peter S Beagle

An homage to the incomparable Avram Davidson. The narrator/author begins to receive strange postcards every day from Avram, from impossibly distant locations. He seems to be on some kind of urgent quest. It seems to have something vaguely to do with drains, with plumbing.

I write you from the historic precincts of Darkest Albany, where the Erie Canal turns wearily around and trudges back to even Darker Buffalo. I am at present engaged in combing out the utterly disheveled files of the New York State Bureau of Plumbing Designs, Devices, Patterns and Sinks, all with the devious aim of rummaging through New York City’s dirty socks and underwear, in hope of discovering the source of the

It seems that Avram has discovered a secret network of roads he calls the Overneath, although it seems to be more underish. He takes the narrator on a rather harrowing tour.

I was not acquainted personally with Avram Davidson, although I knew and treasured his works, like those of no other. Thus Beagle’s Davidson is not a figure I really recognize – except in this: “Avram . . . lived to digress.” And what wondrous digressions they were.

“Less Stately Mansions” by Rob Chilson

There aren’t many people left on Earth; everyone is heading out.

It was not known how many space colonies there were. Even estimates could only be approximate, based on the amount of matter that had gone to make them, and the average mass. They’d devoured the asteroids, then the minor planets and satellites, then they had eaten the major planets. Mars, Mercury, Venus were gone long before he was born, and Pluto, then Uranus and Neptune. Now they were sucking at Saturn and Jupiter, a million gravitronic straws dipped into two sundaes.

Spreading their solar sails, the colonies have increasingly blocked the light and heat from reaching Earth, which is gradually cooling. In a century or so, Jacob Mannheim’s vast farmlands, the heritage of many generations, will be covered in ice. But the farm is everything to him, and he had hoped to find some members of his family to share it with. Unfortunately, greed has overcome tradition and family-feeling. A group of his heirs has attempted to have him declared incompetent because he refuses to take a government buyout.

This is a sad story of mortality, of Jacob’s desertion by his family, a man left alone at the end of his life, near the end of his world’s life. Yet cause and effect seem backwards. People aren’t leaving Earth because it is cooling and dying; it is cooling and dying because they have left Earth. It’s not clear why. Perhaps at one time it had been overcrowded, but now, “green and pleasant was Old Earth in the afternoon.” Who would prefer food grown in sewage recycling plants, from pond scum, to the fresh potatoes from Mannheim’s farm? Or perhaps they have never tasted them. But this is not the story of the colonies; it is the story of one man left behind by them. It is a story the author does not complete. We are left with Jacob staring up at the sky where the colonies are, pondering options that will probably never come to pass.

“Hair” by Joan Aiken

A posthumous publication from this late, well-respected author. Tom Orford married a young woman named Sarah who had left her mother’s house at age twenty-one, having done nothing in all that time. She cut off her hair, previously confined to a bun, married, and lived intensely on their cruise ship until she died. Now Tom has come to fulfill her final request, to deliver her severed hair to her mother. He finds a ghastly, overheated tomb, filled with infirm and aged inmates, all ruled over by the matriarch.

Watching the clutch of her fat, tight little hands on the hair, he began to be aware of a very uneasy feeling, as if he had surrendered something that only now, when it was too late, he realized had been of desperate importance to Sarah. He remembered, oddly, a tale from childhood: “Where is my heart, dear wife? Here it is, dear husband: I am keeping it wrapped up in my hair.”

This is a strong hint of the fantastic, buy it remains only a hint. There is nothing overtly fantastic about this unsettling tale. Something is quite wrong in that house, but we know not what. Rather than Sarah herself, we see only the place she came from, nothing of her brief, sterile life or the manner of her death. Mysteries and secrets hover over it all, and mysteries and secrets they remain.

“Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” by Richard Bowes

A tale of Avalon, where sleep is the occupation. King Arthur never seems to stir, but from time to time some of his knights wake briefly and walk the halls, where they encounter our narrator, Sir Morgravain of misrule, who disturbs their rest by passing on scurrilous rumors.

Lately I don’t sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch and wander the halls the rest of the time spreading a certain amount of doubt and jealousy. I’m the fly in the ointment, the dead dog in the well, the sign that any system run by humans will have flaws.

A fanciful scenario where things are not what we would have expected. Although our knightly narrator is puzzled by the situation he finds himself in, surrounded by disembodied faces who watch his movements with avid interest, it is possible that this is hell, as he speculates. But I would bet it is instead some kind of virtual reality into which Arthur and his knights have been reincarnated for the entertainment of the spectators. Perhaps they even invented Sir Morgravain to make the place more interesting.

You faces watch all this with fascination. I don’t know if this is a great event or a great entertainment. But if, as I believe, it’s a dash of mischief you want, then I am your own true knight.

“Someone Like You” by Michael Alexander

Time travel and paradoxes. The narrator is a woman who may not really exist, and she means to rectify this. In 1964, her mother’s first husband was murdered; this single act ruined her life, her son’s life, and prevented the narrator from being born. Her mother later married, then divorced, a brutal man who fathered a daughter, the narrator. But the narrator always insists the murdered man was her true father, and asks her mother constantly to tell her about him. She is convinced that if she goes back in time and prevents the murder, she will be born to have the life she was meant to.

We were hoping for another child, someday.”

“Me,” I said.

She tightened her arm around my shoulder. “Someone like you, honey. Someone like you.”

I put my head against her chest and was quiet for a bit, listening to the odd heartbeat signaling the arrhythmia that would eventually kill her.

“Me,” I said again.

This has a kind of twisty fascination. The narrator insists from the beginning that she needs to know why the murderer killed her father. Yet when she confronts him, he turns out to have no idea. Indeed, he suffered from the consequences of his act more than anyone. In the end, it turns out that the reason doesn’t matter at all. That’s odd and makes little sense.


Strange Horizons, June 2011

One fantasy, one two-part piece of nominal SF. Both about people finding their place among other people.

“Peerless” by Karen Munro

Peerless Pesterton is a bootblack, a trade inherited from his father, after his father died from a fall while washing windows – which seems improbable, given his wings.

That was Pesterton & Son, window-washing with a flourish, no ladders, aerialist stuff. Real show-offy. But people don’t like a show-off. They’ll throw stones when you’re not looking, they’ll put a hot plate on the window ledge. They’ll leave a heavy sash propped halfway open and wait to hear you fumble with it, then run in yelling so it drops and clips your tips, and down you go.

But Pesterton is now commonly called Hunchy, as he keeps his own wings hidden beneath his coat, for reasons not really clear. Until he has the usual transformative experience with a woman who shoes her hooves proudly in custom-made leather.

I think we’ve all read this one before. The setting appears to be some time in the past, when a shoeshine might cost two bits. But the premise doesn’t make sense. It seems clear that the Pestertons were once show-offy with their wings, and that means that people would remember them, would know what Peerless is taking such pains to keep secret.

“The All-Night Truckstop Polka Band” by Shaenon K Garrity

Thirteen years ago, as an overweight teenager, Ari went off with the band as a roadie. Then they disappeared. Ari got a real job. Now the band is back, the same age as when they left, and crashing in Ari’s apartment without paying for the food or the beer. Their story: they were abducted by aliens, given superpowers, used the superpowers to escape, and are now back to save the Earth from destruction by the same aliens. It is a dubious story.

Meanwhile, the band members were busy. They were saving the world. They mentioned this pretty often, although all they seemed to do was drink beer, smoke Marlboros, watch TV, and raid the kitchen. They all loved TV. They’d missed thirteen years of it, and everything fascinated them. They adored all reality TV shows and were disappointed when Ari said that reality TV was kind of not that popular anymore.

A story about growing up, the good side and the downside of it. The story and the narrative are pretty amusing, not to be taken seriously in any way. It still manages to say some true things.


Lightspeed, June 2011

The first of the original stories is pretty much actual science fiction, which we really don’t see all that much of in this zine.

“Snapshots I Brought Back from the Black Hole” by K C Ball

A hazardous expedition. The AI narrator is the perfect witness to the events that unfold around a doomed love triangle – or perhaps it is a quadrangle, because the AI is not a neutral party. Sergei Kolenkhov is captain of the Einstein, but it is Chloé Dubois who pilots the actual observation craft, right on the edge of the black hole’s event horizon. Sergei is in unrequited love with Chloé. She is married to Andy Mercer, in a drone tethered to the Einstein and hovering near Chloé, making the recording which is expected to pay for the entire expedition. And now the tractor field is showing signs of failure. The engineer wants to reel in the drone. Andy insists on remaining out with Chloé, and she is backing him.

He’s arguing because he wants to have it all his way. I know his recording systems. He can fix imperfections when he does the final edit back on Earth, push the data through graphics interpretation coldware, clean the edges, let his own A.I. work on it.

I like this. The narrator’s voice is engaging, as is the photo motif, and there is subtlety to the plotting; I like the way the narrator knows when everyone is lying. I can’t quite figure how Andy, whom everyone seems to detest on sight, manages to captivate the incomparable Chloé, but that sort of thing can be inexplicable.


“Transcript of Interaction Between Astronaut Mike Scudderman and the OnStar Hands-Free A I Crash Advisor” by Grady Hendrix

The following transcript details the last known use of the OnStar Hands-Free A.I. Crash Advisor, once a mandatory install on all craft equipped for interstellar travel. The remains of Astronaut Scudderman were found approximately one year after this interaction was recorded.

It seems that the A I has been watching too many sci-fi movies. A short, somewhat funny read, but not as entertaining as I somehow expected it would be.


Fantasy Magazine, June 2011

Two stories from high school.

“The Immortality Game” by Cat Rambo

There were four of them in Glen’s high school: Fred and Derek, Penelope and especially Casey. They had a band, the Peaches of Immortality.

Glen thought later, years later, that perhaps every high school had them. The boys and girls who ruled the school, whose favor or lack thereof could shape a lesser kid’s personal existence. He thought, though, that usually everything after high school was uphill for them, that they would never achieve their glory days again.

But in the case of these four, they only went on to greater success as adults. Glen realized what had been going on when he heard a newly-released song and recognized it as something the Peaches had played twenty years ago. In this incarnation. Now he faces a decision that could change everything for him.

This basic story is a familiar one, but here it is the story of the outsider, Glen, finally given a chance at what he has always wondered about. The hint of Chinese legend gives it interest, but the revelation at the conclusion subtracts from the story’s credibility. Some things should remain enigmatic and unseen.

“You Have Been Turned into a Zombie by a Friend” by Jeremiah Tolbert

You are Dakota, a high school nerd and net mage. A cyberattack is going on, and the school is now full of the brain-eaten.

Dozens of kids with blank eyes sit at the workstations clicking and typing randomly. In the light of the old-fashioned big-box monitors that the school board is too cheap to replace, their skin is pallid and gray like corpses on the forensic cop dramas on TV that your dad loves so much. A soft sigh now and then from the students fills you with relief because it means they’re still breathing, not exactly dead.

Dakota and his fellow nerd-mages need to save the day.

Mostly, this is a high school story in a social networking world. The second-person narrative sets the gamish tone, but otherwise does nothing; it is Dakota’s story, not the reader’s. It’s entertaining, but also rather Messagey. I’m not sure if the narrator fully grasps the irony of a social networking expert having no time for actual people. The reader should.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2011

One longer story split into two parts that I didn’t find as pleasing as some of the shorter works.

“From the Spices of Sanandira” by Bradley P Beaulieu

Desert adventure in a fantastic pseudoarabia, characters with names like Uhammed and Jalaad. I don’t know if this is a sequel to some other work, but there’s a great load of backstory here. It seems that years ago the ruthless Sulamin usurped the throne from the rightful king; his power comes from his control of a potent spice/drug with which he enthralls monstrous desert giants who attack his enemies. This same drug conveniently allows a user to access the memories of a dead person. Now the king has discovered that Uhammed and Jalaad, former supporters of the deposed royal family, have been living under his nose along with their adopted son Riisi and a supply of the proscribed spice. They escape across the desert in a sandship, but the king sends his monsters as well as his soldiers after them. So instead of making as much distance as quickly as possible between them and their pursuers, Uhammed spends many hours on the sand in a drug-induced trance, communing with the memories of an old comrade in order to learn some secret.

After pulling back his lower eyelid, he tapped some of the powder into it. His eye began tearing immediately; it burned worse than the bright red peppers he used to flavor his dishes. He repeated the procedure with his right eye before the burning forced him to stop.

The actual protagonist of this tale is Uhammed’s former companion, now dead, whose memories he accesses. Muulthasa is the real hero, betrayed by Uhammed, who is now belatedly trying to make amends. There’s a bit of interest in recognizing the Arabian legends that the author uses in slightly altered form, such as Suleiman [Solomon] enthralling the djinn. But it’s rather an effort to push through all the backstory to reach the ultimate secret in this rather long work, and I find much of it contrived to the point of disbelief, particularly the drug-induced visions.

“The Nine-Tailed Cat” by Michael J DeLuca

The narrator is haunted by an unworldly cat with a variable number of tails and a collar of rubies around its neck. It came to seduce him, and he took the rubies as a bride price for the woman he had always loved. But the jewels have stolen her soul. Now he hopes that if he traps the cat, he can recover her.

I fall down beside her, gazing stricken on the curve of her neck and her hip. At last I touch her skin; I gently draw her left wrist out from under the pillow. And there I find it: the bauble that won me her hand and all the rest of her, when my ring and my love and all my charms could not. Nine rubies, like berries of blood on a golden vine.

When I first saw this title, I thought of shipboard floggings, not animal spirits. But the words have a double meaning. It seems that conquerors have come to this world and left the cats behind, as a scourge. Unfortunately, we know very little else about these past events. The cat’s secret will probably not surprise readers, but this short piece is lovely to read.


“The Godslayer’s Wife” by Therese Arkenberg

Four years ago, the hero Valien killed Rhiel Ghoulsmother, Goddess of Dust, and freed her servant Idaela. She claims that he murdered her for her sake, but in fact his deed was revenge for the death of another friend. The dying goddess cursed her killer with nightmares.

His sobs echo through the corridors of Datheiren Keep. The old stone absorbs its husky tone, the barely-voiced beginnings of words, apologies, curses; they reflect in only a sourceless, pitiable sound of misery.

Idaela, now his wife, has come to love him and at last organizes a quest of her own in order to find an antidote for the curse.

There are some nice insights about life and death and commitment at the conclusion, but most of the narrative up to that point is overly talky, with Idaela repeating a lot of reminiscences of the dead goddess that aren’t of very much interest.

“Sightwolf” by Erin Hoffman

The narrator, expelled from the city for nonpayment of taxes, goes to live in the magic woods instead of sensibly traveling to one of the “fairer cities of the north” where her children have gone. Starving, she deliberately eats a hallucinatory fungus that may cause her death, but instead she sees visions, including one of a dying mother wolf who wants her to care for her orphaned pups.

She had a very good reason, this maiden with wild brown hair like rabbit’s-fur. The blinding white of her gown, which bared her shoulders but enshrouded her feet, made us look away, and we lost our grip on forever-now. The red, rabbit’s-blood red, that bloomed flowerlike at her abdomen made us look again, to loose our grip on transcendence. Come back, she said. Come back.

In gratitude, the father wolf makes a partnership with her.

This one is set in the world of the author’s novel, which I assume to be equally overly sentimental. Much of the backstory seems to lie in the other work. The copyeditor seems to have missed the point where the narrator’s expulsion takes place “on a cold spring morning”, but she predicts she will “not last until the spring”.

“The Moral Education of a Mad Bastard” by Joe L Murr

At age twelve, Jack Cunningham is transported for theft. The colony’s governor sends him to mine redrock.

He turned back to me and said, “It’s all here, under your scalp. These protrusions and concavities are the map of your character. I’ve noted a clear statistical tendency towards greater abnormality in those raised in the proximity of industrial facilities. Or, to put it in terms you’ll understand, factories breed mad bastards.”

But redrock, besides fuelling industry, has strange effects on the human mind. Jack gains clairvoyant powers and learns to use them in this class-straited society.

A title like this one is highly promising, and the author comes through to deliver the beginning of a nice tale of adventure set in a fantasy Australia where entitled gentlemen hunt escaped convicts for sport. It reads more like the first chapter of a novel, in which I suspect readers would be quite interested.

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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