Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-June

The current SF digests and the current issue of Orson Scott Card’s ezine, mostly fantasy.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, August 2011

A lot of familiar names, familiar stories.

“The End of the Line” by Robert Silverberg

Another Majipoor story. Stiamot is an official of the court of the Coronal, currently charged with arranging his royal progress across territory inhabited by the native Metamorphs.

The Metamorphs constituted a great political problem for the rulers of Majipoor, for in all the thousands of years of human settlement here they had never fully reconciled themselves to the existence of the intruders among them, and now seemed to be growing increasingly restive. There were constant rumors that some great Metamorph insurrection was being planned; and, if that was so, this would be the place to launch it. Nowhere else on the continent of Alhanroel were humans and Metamorphs so closely interwoven. It was not impossible that the Coronal’s life would be at risk here.

Stiamot is eager to learn more of the shapechangers and has sought out a local guide, a Dr Mundiveen. But Mundiveen turns out to have a past association with the Coronal – not a happy one.

These events are presented as long-past history, and there is a strong sense of inevitability about them – a tragic sense. We see no real agency on the part of the characters; it is not that they wouldn’t act, but that events overwhelm them. What we see is their reaction, and how they are affected. The reasons and motives driving events are concealed from them, as well, and thus to the readers. Just as matters reach a climax, the action fades into the ink of historical archive.

“Corn Teeth” by Melanie Tem

Sonya is an abandoned child in the process of being adopted by resident aliens on Earth. She is rather unclear about what this entails, but she wants it desperately, to belong and be loved. But her misunderstanding has consequences.

“We’re gonna go talk to a judge and Yoolie and Ib and Zama are gonna say they want us forever and the judge is gonna say we’re their kids forever and there’s this big hammer and the judge’ll pound on the table with the hammer and then we’ll turn into Alayayxans.”

One of those stories in which the first-person narrator talks in a childish voice in run-on sentences, supposedly to engage reader sympathy, but I only find it irritating. The xenophobia is not original; the bureaucracy of social service agencies rings true.

“Paradise as a Walled Garden” by Lisa Goldstein

Alternate history: an Elizabethan age of steam. Tip works in a manufactory staffed largely by robots [here called homunculi] made in Al-Andulus, which tries to keep secret the advanced technology it sells to backwards Christian nations like England. One day the homunculi malfunction [rebel] and try to wreck their workplace. The foreman, along with Tip, is sent by Queen Elizabeth to Al-Andulus to make an official inquiry, Tip being a clever girl working as a boy who knows how to read the Arabic numerals on the steam dials – a perfect cover for an industrial spy.

So no one in England knew how the homunculi worked, Tip thought. She had always wondered about that. And she saw immediately what Elizabeth was doing, that she was blackmailing the Arabs, making them share their precious knowledge to keep news of the homunculi’s rebellion from spreading to other countries. Many people had called Elizabeth a clever queen in Tip’s hearing, or a cunning one if they disliked women, but Tip had never understood why before.

I liked this alternate history scenario, the power games, espionage and sabotage among the various kingdoms and states of the age. I would have liked the story much better if it hadn’t emptied the box labeled STEAMPUNK of all its brass gears, steam cars, airships and automatons. Spunky girl disguised as a boy? Disaffected labor replaced by mechanicals? None of this is new. And at some point, the Caliph’s court seems to have gotten its hand on one of the Star Trek universal translators. That would be new.

“Watch Bees” by Philip Brewer

Post apocalypse. Farms are growing self-sufficiency and protecting themselves from bandits and raiders with GM watch bees, programmed to recognize strangers. David has come to the Ware farm in Illinois to steal some of the bees to protect his family’s orchard, because in Michigan, profit-seeking corporations have engineered bees that can’t reproduce a new queen. But the genetic engineering has made this more complicated than he’d supposed, and besides, he’s falling for the Ware’s daughter Naomi.

The nature of the apocalypse that has so altered life is not specified, but I would guess it had something to do with oil. This and many of the other issues that make up this interesting scenario are quite timely: agribusiness has increasingly replaced crops with patented varieties that don’t produce fertile seed, and colony collapse disorder has made us realize how very much we depend on bees [although I understand that native orchard mason bees are in fact more efficient as pollinators for tree fruit than honeybees]. But where I don’t follow the author is in his claim that the GM watch bees would be so expensive that fruit growers in Michigan couldn’t afford them, would instead take such extreme measures as we see in David’s case. Simply put – you don’t make a profit by pricing yourself out of the market, and Sayes Law, that demand creates its own supply, would seem to be contradict the premise in this case.

“For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again” by Michael Swanwick

Ireland. The narrator is a young Irish American eager to take up a future in space – which the alien conquerors of the world have made possible – and taking a last look at Earth before his departure. But though he denies he is looking for his Irish roots, he finds them. Ireland has more of a hold on him than he had supposed, and in particular the singer Mary O’Reilly, whose heart is on fire with the spirit of the eternal Irish resistance.

In the little time I had left, I could never sort out my feelings for Mary, much less hers for me. I loved her, of course, that went without saying. But I hated her bullying ways, her hectoring manner of speech, her arrogant assurance that I would do whatever she wanted me to do. Much as I desired her, I wanted nothing more than to never see her again.

Nominally, this is science fiction, given the aliens and spaceships. But they might as well be sailing packets headed to New York, for emigration is another of the Irish traditions, albeit a relatively recent one. As is the sort of resistance that today goes by the name of terrorism. What pulls on the readerly heart, however, is the old magic – the old songs and stones and wells, the echoes of the old gods and heroes and saints. The story shows us that some women like Mary O’Reilly still command this old magic and use it to entrap unwary American tourists.


“We Were Wonder Scouts” by Will Ludwigsen

In 1920s America, Harald is an immigrant boy whose grim Norwegian father is determined to sweep away his active fantasy life, especially his imaginary land of Thuria. Harald is only consoled when he joins a group called Wonder Scouts, led by the singular Charles Fort.

We lived, as best we could with parents and schoolteachers nagging us to do dull things like chores and homework, by the tenets of the Wonder Scout oath. Will you say it with me?

On my honor, I will do my best
To confound the expectations of society,
To observe the super-consciousness in all its workings,
To seek independence in body, in intellect, and in spirit.

Fort proposes a scouting expedition to Moreau Lake, where a number of young women have disappeared. Fort is hoping for some Fortean explanation; Harald is in hope that he might be able to follow the missing girls into Thuria.

This one strongly reminds me of King’s “The Body”, though the horror is barely glimpsed and the fantasy is ambiguous; Harald may simply have been imagining things. This, of course, is what conventional society would say. But the horror is not what such stories are about. What the author evokes is the yearning for the roads we cannot take, that we never stop searching for.

“Pairs” by Zachary Jernigan

Posthumanity. Earth has been “ground up for fuel” and its human souls enslaved. Louca and Arihant are two of these, embodied as a ship and its companion, because Louca the ship is not sane and humans do not do well in isolation.

Our profession is transport. For three centuries we have hauled the disembodied souls of Earth — each stored in a projection cube — from star to star to be sold. They are quite expensive, I am told, but I have no understanding of the means of exchange. Nearly everything is hidden from me, and Louca sees nothing.

One day, Arihant sees by accident an enslaved embodied human woman, who sees him observing her. She comes to haunt him, which is to say that he haunts himself with his guilt until he decides to kill the being who owns and sells their souls.

Reading a story like this one becomes a reminder of how seldom we encounter something really different in these magazines, how SF’s imagined futures are so often formed on the same overused templates. The author here has attempted something new, or at least something with a newer look to it, which is refreshing even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The concept seems to be the fundamental nature of the human soul, as the story uses the term. Yet the aliens, who ought to provide contrast, seem every bit as human, aside from the color of their gums.


Analog, September 2011

Featuring stories of mindreading.

“Therapeutic Mathematics and the Physics of Curve Balls” by Gray Rineheart

Joey’s uncle sold him to the freak show shortly after his parents died. A congenital tumor in his head has the appearance of a baseball; the sideshow man sewed stitches onto it and put him on exhibit as Baseball Boy. But there is more difference to Joey’s brain than anyone knows. He can read minds.

He always found a mix of pity and revulsion aimed at him, sometimes more and sometimes less than what they thought about the other freaks, and even when their thoughts turned to normal things like home or business or farming it wasn’t worth enduring the agony to listen to them. So Joey retreated into numbers and formulas, the defense mechanism he’d learned growing up.

The man who runs the freak show is cruel and Joey has several times attempted escape. But on his twelfth birthday, all he wants to do is treat himself to a day off at the ball park.

An interesting enough situation, but weak on resolution, offering one of those ambiguous endings that don’t quite tell us what the character has chosen and definitely not what will come of his choice. There are some rather tantalizing hints of WWII secrets, but nothing comes of them.

“Helix of Friends” by Carl Frederick

Mark’s friend Gary is having trouble with his young son, mainly because Gary refuses to believe that Adrian hears the voice of another boy. Given that mind-linking is common in this world, this is rather thick-headed of Gary and also his therapist. While participating in a rather unlikely group therapy session with father and son, Mark manages to surf through the assembled minds all the way to Adrian and into Eric, the “imaginary friend” who is of course quite real and living in an alternate reality that turns out to be our own.

I’ve read a number of stories from the author in this zine, and they usually engage with interesting concepts. This one, however, is full of problems right from the beginning:

Waiting for Gary, his best friend, to arrive back on campus after a month sabbatical, Professor Mark Smith gazed idly through the window onto the early dew-bright green of Gormell University.

Reading this sentence, I could feel my eyelids begin to grow heavy. This is an anti-hook, a reader-repeller promising only dullness, and the weight increased as the professors engaged in infodumpish discussion of quantum states. Thick-headedness is pervasive among the characters; even when Mark sees an aircraft passing overhead in Eric’s world, he insists such a thing is impossible. When speculating, only in theory, that Adrian might not be lying about the existence of Eric, Gary and Mark ignore the obvious possibility that some other boy on Earth is mind-linking to Adrian, possibly an unknown twin [Adrian being adopted]. Instead they immediately jump to the much-less-obvious notion of quantum tunneling between worlds. There is also an obsessive concern here about people’s age. Mind-linking, it seems, is only possible between persons close in age. And when the therapist assembles the “Helix of Friends”, each individual in the link is supposed to be separated from the next by only a few months in age. If we assume a thirty-year gap between father and son, this arrangement is going to require at least a hundred people gathered in a single conference room – not a practical arrangement. Did the author think this through?

But the thing that raises a solid wall of disbelief is the alternate world – not a parallel world, as the characters tell us; the differences are too profound. In Mark’s world, for whatever reason of the author, evolution seems to have been a stingy process, quite unlike its usual profligate self. Plant species are few there, as well as animals. Observing Eric’s world from Eric’s mind, Mark does not recognize birds or a cat. Yet readers are supposed to believe that these circumstances would have resulted in the evolution of humans, exactly as they exist in the universe we are familiar with. And not just any humans, but the exact same individuals; in the almost-same university of Eric’s world is a Professor Marc Smith, who just happened to die at the same moment that Mark got stuck in Eric’s mind. Not only that, but Mark assumes, by some process of logic, that this doppelganger ought to exist. The author even throws out the suggestion that the split between the universes might have happened when Adrian/Eric died/was revived in infancy. But only if this event happened to throw evolution into retrograde by a few hundred million years. I don’t know the author’s purpose [though I’m sure there is one] in this very odd creation, but as it stands, I’m not buying it.

“Hostile Environment” by Emily Mah

Mala and her brother are irresponsible teenagers who are wrecking the Mars base through a combination of ignorance and recklessness, but the base commander’s son, being less ignorant and more malicious [we know this because the author shows him smirking], actually does more damage. Me, I think they should all be shipped back to Earth, but the author is more tolerant than I would be.

“The Chaplain’s Assistant” by Brad R Torgersen

It seems that human forces ill-advisedly invaded the planet they call Purgatory, and now the survivors are imprisoned there by the aliens they call mantes. The narrator, once the chaplain’s assistant, is now a religious leader in the prison colony. A mantis academic has now shown up in his chapel, wanting to learn about the human God before the remaining humans are disposed of. It seems they suspect that they may be missing something.

Not much theology here and no one is converted. The name for the aliens obviously came from their resemblance to the predatory insect; the author makes nothing of its original meaning, missing an opportunity for irony.

“Asteroid Monte” by Craig DeLancey

Another rookie cop story. Tarkos is a newly-recruited member of the Galactic police, just assigned to an alien partner who doesn’t like humans. “Your teeth are flat,” she hissed. “Like a herbivore’s.” First assignment: someone is stealing ecological seeds from the Symbionts. Tarkos proves to have an effective approach to crime-solving. The point is that rookie races make effective cops because they are less removed from their original criminal condition. Unless they’re herbivores. Sufficiently entertaining.


Intergalactic Medicine Show #23, June 2011

The stories this time are all fantasy, though one is clothed as SF.

“The Discriminating Monster’s Guide to the Perils of Princess Snatching” by Scott M Roberts

Here’s an oddly original fantasy universe with rules and background of its own. It seems that a satanic being lives on Bald Mountain, where he feeds on the destinies of young girls [princesses]. Vren is a monster married to a sort of human fairy queen, and they have two little monster sons. They are in debt to the satanic being, his wife is enslaved to him, and thus the monster snatches young girls with delectable destinies to pay him off. The current victim proves to be tougher than usual; in fact, everyone seems to be tougher than the monster, despite

the four-fingered, clawed hands, the enormous beaky nose, the bulbous eyes, the warts. I’m as tall as God, ugly as Satan, and it takes time to put all that in the context of the waking world.

It’s interesting that this doesn’t really work, primarily because it confounds reader expectations. The title suggests funny fantasy, but the subject matter is too serious. The setting suggests a fairy tale, but in fairy tales the rules are well-known. Here, anything might happen; there seem to be rules, but we have no idea what they are. We don’t know how the power is distributed, but some characters seem to be defeated too easily. What use is a monster who can be beaten off by a little girl?

“Four Wizards and a Funeral” by Mike Rimar

There were five wizards in the Cabal before one of them died. This makes Carmichael the business of the Undertaker. His will has left instruction for his funeral, but the other members of the Cabal each have their own demands. One wants him burned, another wants him soaked in preservative, another puts a dagger through his heart with the demand that no one remove it. And of course their demands are all backed up by the most dire of threats, not to mention the suggestion of necromancy. What’s an innocent Undertaker to do?

In this case, the suggestion of humor in the title is appropriate; this is light horror. The Undertaker’s solution is satisfactorily ingenious, as it ought to be.

“This is My Corporation, Eat” by Lon Prater

Religious totalitarians have taken over the US, and everywhere Jesus is being merchandised. Drew/Gary is one of the Fundies who object to the commercialization of religion, resorting to terrorism to sweep the corporate moneychangers out of the temple.

I think this is supposed to be funny, but if so, it falls very flat. The premise is too heavy-handed either for humor or interest.

“The Hanged Poet” by Jeffry Lyman

Retired against his will and sent into honorable exile, General Veritas is riding south, alone, when he comes across the hanged woman.

She was a young woman, small, pale-skinned as all northlanders were, and long dead. A weathered shift of gray wool hung down from her shoulders. Her hands had been bound behind her back, and her bare feet dangled at the height of his chest. The toes the dogs had not worried over were black with frost.

Then she speaks to him. The ensuing conversation becomes a process of stripping off lies and revealing the truth. Veritas, despite his name [which he claims he chose ignorant of its meaning], is a man in profound denial. He wants to hear the poem for which the woman was hanged, but she insists he must first tell her the first poem that changed his life.

This premise caught my interest right away, and held it. Layer after layer of revelation, the backstory becomes more interesting, fuller of significance. The author has done an audacious thing: making a poem the center of his work, declaring the power of the poem to alter human affairs, he is challenging himself to produce that poem. Some authors evade this challenge, but Lyman comes through. It is not a great poem – the central image is repeated too often – but that was not the claim the poet made for it. It was a poem that changed things, creating a single image of great significance in the religious culture of the story. And the conversation with the poet has profoundly changed the general.


“Into the West” by Eric James Stone

With its references to black holes and event horizons, this one assumes the language of science fiction, but it can only be understood as fantasy. Something has happened in the east of the US. Despite the characters’ theories, none of them really knows what, or why. As the story opens, they are fleeing from it across the country in the California Zephyr, fearing the moment when the train will run out of fuel and the anomaly catches up with them, freezing them in time. Eventually they realize that the event is geostationary, and it is the rotation of the Earth that makes it seem to pursue them. At any rate, they must keep moving westward, never stopping, if they wish to remain free of it.

It’s a kind of neat idea, and I only wish it made more sense. It’s one thing if you’re a passenger on a train moving west, but when you have to get out and walk – there are moments in a human life when remaining in motion just isn’t possible. And if it’s the Earth’s rotation “dragging the partially collapsed local spacetime in an eastward direction”, would they not just have to keep moving west but moving west at a sufficient rate to avoid being overcome? I am also not convinced that the anomaly would cause the winds to move backwards. Still, I’m glad that the author didn’t take up a lot more time using numbers and stuff trying to convince me; it would have been a less interesting, less readable story.

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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