Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

Featuring a couple of new online offerings, as well as some of the usual first-of-the-month ezines. The Good Story award goes, as often before, to Clarkesworld.


Publications Reviewed


Jabberwocky #6, July 2011

Something not quite new. This used to be an annual anthology series from Prime’s Sean Wallace and Erzebet Yellowboy, with elegant covers evoking Aubrey Beardsly’s Yellow Book. It has now morphed into a monthly ezine presenting two works of fiction and two of verse in each issue. The numbering carries over from the previous version, and the look of the covers is quite different, if this has any significance.

The zine’s website suggests that the contents will be “lyrical, whimsical, mythical”, which I’m not quite sure how to distinguish from the fiction of Prime’s Fantasy Magazine. There is a theme of witches and dark sacrifice for this initial month.

“A Mother Goes Between” by Rose Lemberg

Darja has mated with a wolverine god and borne its child, which her husband rather naturally resents, casting them out into the snow. Likewise the wolverine will not accept the child, which he had told her to abort. Her daughter’s only friend is the wolverine’s blind shaman pup, who tells her:

I’m not that blind. I see the spirits in all things. Inside the burning of the snow I see the pine needles, and inside them the ancestors of sap. The night churns out spirits to inhabit stars. Inside my sister I see myself.

But the baby’s only hope of salvation is in the sacrifice of the pup.

This one is supposed to be about parenthood – “what a mother feels”, “what a father feels”. But I have no sympathy for Darja, who is pure selfishness. When did she feel what a wife feels? I see no justification for her original act which resulted in a child who belongs in neither world, and only abhorrence for a person who would kill one child to save another. Why not sacrifice her child to heal the wolverine pup?

“A Plague of Souls” by D Elizabeth Wasden

The narrator’s mother teaches her to be a soul-eater, a kind of psychic vampire. Her mother’s soul is only the first she swallows.

I draw them to me. I call out to them with my love and my hunger, and I allow them inside me, between my breasts. My thirst is so great that I barely taste them as I swallow them. My mother bids me to practice the art and to not indulge in feeling, but I lick my lips.

Now she has come to an island where the ruler has turned against the gods and wants her to swallow a god’s soul.

Much of this story lies behind the surface so that we can sense it only vaguely. The narrator begins on a ship – a strong reminder here of Dracula’s voyage to England – but we don’t see her embark. She herself seems unsure of the reason she has come. The result is intriguing if not enlightening.


Journal of Unlikely Entomology, May 2011

When I first saw a notice of this new zine, I sat up straight because I misread it as “etymology”, a subject of great fascination to me. But, no, it’s bugs. Or more accurately, arthropodia. Well, I like faux-academia, and the introduction holds a promise of wry humor, fairly well fulfilled.

Although the quality is uneven, I can recommend this one. There are six original stories and one reprint by Simon Kewin. All are short. More often than not, the arthropodia are not literally present but used metaphorically to make some statement about the human condition. This is the sort of narrow thematic concept that used to be done as an anthology, but these are different times. The publishers plan on semi-annual issues.

“Arachne” by J M McDermott

Rachel is a student performance artist whose art is weaving. She is in love with Nicole, a student painter with a low opinion of Rachel’s eclectic art. The students exhibit at a café where someone, rarely, buys their work. When it is Nicole’s turn, she does a slow striptease in paint, gradually painting herself out of existence.

It was awful, but it was also the greatest painting I had ever seen. Nicole’s final painting was genuinely, unequivocally amazing, like a nude Mona Lisa, or a Guernica with a woman’s smooth lines and curves instead of protoplasmic war.

Their professor thinks it was worth it for Nicole to have immortalized herself in art, but Rachel begins to weave her back into existence.

So we learn that entomology is likely to be metaphorical in this journal. It is a story not exactly about love, but longing unrequited. And about the presence of people in their creations.

“Love in the Absence of Mosquitoes” by Mari Ness

Love and art again. This is a world with pod families, multiple marriages that seem to be contracted and uncontracted with casual ease. Andrea’s newest wife Vani informs her that this is because humans used pheromone treatment to disrupt the mating of mosquitoes, with unintended consequences. What we find here is marriage in the absence of love. Thus Andrea, the central character, keeps seeking what her various marriages can’t seem to give her, what she doesn’t understand that she is missing [although Vani does].

“I still sleep alone,” she added, and it was true: even with a wife and a husband she was sometimes left alone in her own bed. She claimed to others that she cherished these moments, which let her read and dream, but the truth was she hated it; she missed the warmth of another person. It was not entirely why she had proposed to Vani, of course — a fruitless line of thought. She would stop thinking it.

It seems to be an idyllic, perhaps even utopian world that humans have created as they eradicate the mosquitoes, but it is a world without passion – for better or worse.


“So Speaketh the Trauma Gods” by John Medaille

The students of Ronald Reagan Middle School have been transformed into hive creatures through the medium of a repulsively repetitive song about buttocks. As two of their former teachers hide in the ceiling crawlspace, they dismember the adults and select a queen, who is soon laying eggs.

“Parthenogenesis,” said Mr. Haskel. “All female, clonal, asexual reproduction. Consider the Komodo Dragon. I predict that within three months this school will be overrun with a brood of little Amanda Schnells. Haploid. Diploid.”

In this absurd scenario we have not horror but black humor, generated by the hidden teachers as they contemplate the metamorphosis of their erstwhile students.

“Plague of Locusts” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

The last human on Earth tells the children about the day the aliens invaded.

She raised a hand to still the children before any of them could challenge her. “Your people, you were invading. You ate my mother.”

A slight piece, and the aliens cannot be considered insects in any meaningful sense.

“They Wait” by Steve Barber

Insect revenge fantasy. Very short. Actual insects. Unoriginal horror, though nicely icky:

It’s dark and it’s dank and it stinks of soap scum and chemicals. Dead, rotting skin and bits of legs, carapaces and feelers float in the liquid caught in the elbow trap. There they wait.

“The Cowboy, the Horse, and the Scorpion” by Nathaniel Lee

Scorpion. Arthropod. Non-metaphorical. Dark humor. Vincent isn’t actually a cowboy. He was once, in the Old West, a bandit and is now a sort of immortal operative against the sort of the things that come out of pits, such as his long-dead old buddy Eli, emerging for a bit of revenge.

Vincent displayed his badge, pinned inside his jacket. The metal glowed like the moon, even in the near complete darkness. The words inscribed on it shifted and flowed, never the same from the moment to moment. “Deputized, you might say. Been doin’ it a while now, and it’s given me a new perspective on a lot of things.”

Horse isn’t really a horse, either. The scorpion, on the other hand, is actually a scorpion that Vincent takes a liking to on their trip, thinking that he can get it to change its ways. Unmentioned in the title are demons and infernal pits and magic six-shooters. Quite a bit of fun.


Clarkesworld #58, July 2011

Two fine stories about the overthrow of humanity.

“Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika” by Gord Sellar

The robots overthrow humanity and create their own world. Very little of the human world remains. Been done before? Oh, yes. But so elegantly? Less often. The title is taken from a work by Erik Satie, and we witness its last, mechanical, performance.

The upper piano is loaded with a paper roll, and — utterly still and unmoved by the beat, except for its frenetically dancing keys — it fills the air with sounds, with the music of the creatures now long gone, their bloodstains fading from the walls of the cities of the world. The paper roll feeds down into the mouth of the lower piano, to be torn to shreds and spat out as confetti.

There is also a robotic composition that I know I could not play, requiring, for one thing, too many fingers. This story is a true multimedia work, including an audio file of the piece. One day, if this goes on, I may need speakers for my computer.


“Frozen Voice” by An Owomoyela

Alien invasion. After the Hlerig have taken over the world, they adopt the surviving humans as wards.

They’ve made us wrestle sounds slippery as fish or burly as bears through our throats. They’ve made us stumble through conversations, even human-to-human, that we can hardly say. We can’t pronounce our names. They named me Ulrhegmk, which in Hlerig means little mountain thing.

But Rhianna clings to her human name and human languages, while her parents engage in the salvage of books, which the Hlerig hate and fear as frozen, or dead voices.

This is a story of being conquered, the various ways in which an occupied population can accommodate or resist their conquerors. The author avoids polemic and oversimplification; it is primarily a story of human relationships and what each of us is willing to risk.


GigaNotoSaurus, July 2011

“The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow

We see only enough of this world to be able to tell that things have Gone On from our current situation. Most birds are extinct, but it is possible to graft bird DNA into humans to make them behave, in some respects, like birds. So Josiah, every fall, feels the inexorable urge to migrate south with the other five members of his Sponsor’s company. They ride on bicycles and deliver performances at certain stops.

People scream and clap their hands. Keith uses Theo’s shoulders to launch himself up higher. Theo watches him, then does the same with me, his weight pushing off me as he twists into the air. We are birds and we are magnificent. We get lost in the movement that goes on and on, ebbs and flows, reinvents itself and repeats. Garoo-a-a-a. We end by sweeping our wings along the ground.

This year, a new man has replaced one who died on the last migration, and the rest of the company knows he is a plant from the Sponsor, meant to spy on them. For no real reason other than the author’s plot, retired members of the group receive only a meager pension, but those who die on the migration are entitled to a substantial sum for their heirs.

I find this scenario potentially interesting but too contrived. I find it odd that the migrators are on bikes instead of flying on some sort of ultralight machine. I also think it would make more sense if the group were emulating only a single species of migratory birds, such as the sandhill cranes, which do have a sort of dance [albeit a mating dance, while Josiah makes it clear that there is no mating on their migration]. Nor am I convinced that this enterprise is so lucrative for the billionaire Sponsor as the story implies. And the ending only makes me wonder: Just who is telling this story, and how? But the author really lost me early on when she has Josiah rebuke Theo by telling him that birds are “quiet when they fly.” I suggest she open her ears one day in the fall when the cranes are overhead.


Abyss & Apex, 3rd quarter 2011

A distinctly depressing tone to the stories here this time, along with a rather uniform failure to achieve credibility.

“Death, Rebirth. An Heir, a Karakuri” by J M Sidorova

The setting is a retro-future Japan with retro-feudal lords and near-human androids, some employed by the wealthy as sex objects. It seems that one daimyo had wanted his favorite karakuri concubine to be buried next to him – which is to say, laid under a blanket of “burial lily” that rapidly decomposes flesh. The kamakuri was supposed to have been deactivated, but now it seems that she is missing, either stolen or under her own power, and the gardener responsible for the crypt has been murdered. Sandra, an expert in the biochemistry of scents that makes her a sort of human bloodhound or “private nose”, is engaged to locate it. Unfortunately, Sandra has a phobic reaction to near-human androids.

Lots of neat stuff here, primarily the biochemistry.

The lily smell was not a lily smell. Wrong esters. The ones she read came from a rare Oregonian white earthworm, Driloleirus americanus, a giant of its kind which was famous for smelling like a lily when disturbed. And there was an awful lot of a Botrytis fungus around here, the worst fungal disease found on lilies, except that the lilies she saw did not look diseased.

Also interesting is the theory of the “uncanny valley” of human reaction to near-human robots, although I think it fits into this story perhaps too well. I also find Sandra’s friend Tony altogether too convenient to the plot, which he gives away early on by telling her a story about another daimyo, his kamakuri and his son – a factor which changes this one from SF to fantasy. As a straight SF mystery it would have been better.

“Maria’s Crossroads” by Richard Marsden

In 15th-century Italy, Maria lives in a small village haunted from sunset to sunrise by a deadly monster known as the Goat. She is betrothed to the blacksmith’s son, a fine young man, but she is not attracted to the prospect of a domestic life; she wants to see the wide world that her father had known in his career as a soldier. When a company of English mercenaries comes into town and agrees to take on the Goat, Maria runs after them in a manner that I am entirely unable to credit.

“The Windfarmer’s Guest” by Lucas Ahlsen

Post-apocalypse. The Earth’s vegetation has died and turned to dust, except for plants grown in enclosed terrariums. Much of this activity is controlled by the Agora Foundation, which also runs the windfarms that produce electricity. Charles runs one of their windfarms, which supplies electricity to a nearby village of dusters, who don’t seem to appreciate this. He also harbors an illegal child, whom the Agora Foundation would harm if they knew. When a journeying salvage engineer arrives at the windhouse, Charles tries to convince him to take the child away with him, even though there seems to be no place she will be accepted. But as they argue about this, the dusters from the village attack.

Charles is a comprehensible character with whom readers can sympathize. The dusters in the village are another matter. It doesn’t make sense that they would try to destroy their only source of electricity, and I’m not sure why they were attacking the engineer.

“They don’t trust the Agora Foundation. They heard all the rumors about places we ‘liberated’ and ‘converted.’ They spook like a pack of wild animals when I come into town for supplies. I dodged a few bullets from them during my time in the Dust, but they know better than to pick a real fight with me. I shoot back.”

And the Mechanist is even more of an enigma – a person who is clearly no longer under Agora’s control, although he pretends to be. Nor is it clear at all what Agora is really up to, or what they have against humanity. With all these factors not making much sense, the story lacks enough of it to work.

“Holes” by Rajan Khanna

The Unusual Circumstances division of MI5 has a secret device that opens portals between worlds. The consequences of this are so appalling that they locked it away. But a MP named Wembley has now stolen it, with predictable appalling consequences.

Wembley’s face was no longer recognizable, hardly even face-like in its appearance. It had stretched over the skull, the mouth little more than a slit. One eye had drifted to the side of the skull, leaving the other one abandoned in its normal position, below a great outcropping of skull. Wembley’s hair and moustache were little more than fringes of color on the distorted visage.

Typical SF horror, with a lot of bits that don’t make much sense. Such as the claim that the Nazis could have created this device. Or that Wembley could have gotten the notion that it could somehow connect him with his dead wife. Which the author tries to tie to the protagonist’s dead twin sister. None of which I am buying for a moment.

“Black Horticulture” by David Tallerman

I like the term “hortimancy” better. The original Royal Hortimancer, Porfus Alambic, has surrounded the king’s palace with a deadly plant barrier, but he is getting old and needs a successor. The narrator, hybrid offspring of a gardener and a witch, believes he can fill the position, but the tryout could prove fatal, as it involves breaking into the palace. Somewhat entertaining, and at least the premise makes sense, but I am still not convinced that the horticultural defenses are as deadly as claimed. Enough to stop an intruder, perhaps, but not an invading army.


Apex Magazine #26, July 2011

Witches and Things and ghosts.

“The Neighborly Thing to Do” by T J Weyler

The nameless narrator [how much trouble can it be to work a name into the text?] is a little girl too young to cross the street alone in the new house in town. The neighbors call her family “black hippies” but they seem to be practitioners of Earth magic.

Our yard stayed lumpy ‘cause of the moles, but we also had rabbits and all kinds of songbirds, and blackberries and honeysuckle that grew in a tangle along the edges. We put our compost on the focal points and let our Earth decide what grew.

In town, they don’t fit in, and there are bad places, but all the children have been well brought up to be polite and neighborly, even under extreme circumstances. Because the bad places really are bad.

This one takes a rather unexpected turn into horror. The child narrator’s voice is done well.

“The Widow and the Xir” by Indrapramit Das

Sanih’s husband Namir has died and been reincarnated as a desert ghost.

She lit incense in the temple-tent, one stick for each of the three carved salt idols; the cat, holder of the embryonic spirit; the human, holder of the median spirit; and the xir, which looks like cat and human both but is neither, holder of the ghost spirit. By this trinity she said a final prayer for Namir’s journey onward.

But they still cling to the memories of each other. Namir follows the nomad village, and Sanih watches for a sight of him, although she warns her young son not to look. But the continued presence of the xir is dangerous to the village, and the elders are becoming impatient. It is time for both of them to move on.

A neat fantasy world and a strong story of love.



Redstone SF, July 2011

Only one original piece of fiction this time.

“The Memory Gatherer” by Morgan Dempsey

Post-apocalypse. Things are grim in the aftermath of the robot wars. Kera is a gifted scavenger and tinker, obsessed with a vengeful project of creating a cyber version of her abusive father from random memories of him.

It’s easy to determine a useless component, ruined by fire and buckshot, but when a component is whole and fried internally it’s harder to tell. Smell alone won’t help. Kera has memorized the differences in the vast sea of proprietary chips, and works with what she finds. There’s no time to wait for the right pieces. If she finds an AX526-multicore instead of a PrG-15cx, she must make do.

A depressing work, as the author makes it clear that Kera has no intention of moving on after she has completed this project. My main problem with it, a problem I have encountered before, is the assumption that a mind – a person’s inner self – can be recreated from the external observations of others. Indeed, it’s evident from the story her father was one thing to himself, another to his comrades, another to his children. Demanding that her construct justify his actions is absurd; Kera would get the same satisfaction by throwing darts at a stick drawing.

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.

4 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

  • July 9, 2011 at 10:07 am

    “Journal of Unlikely Entomology”? What were they thinking – Them!, Phase IV, The Hellstrom Chronicle, Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”, Fritz Leiber’s “Mysterious Doings at the Metropolitian Museum”, Edward Bryant’s “gi ANTS” … or were they simply tempted to name their magazine Locust Magazine and then aimed for something closer to the Worm Runners Digest?

  • Pingback:Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika : gordsellar.com

  • July 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Criticizing Philip Brewer’s “Watch Bees” (Asimov’s, August) on the gorund of a genuin economic law is a dangerous critical ploy. in SF, it is only legit in matters astronomical (“The Earth is turning the wrong way round in Ringworld”); in engineering faults, you run into the “Cold Equations” type of discussion that can easily last sixty years; but if readers start to expect any sort of economic plausibility in this kind of fiction,the whole genre might as well close up shop and declare bankruptcy.

  • Pingback:First Reviews | A.C. Wise

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