Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late July

A month in which we can read two new stories by Catherynne M Valente has to be a Good Thing. I prefer the one posted at Tor.com.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2011

Another rather tired issue with a number of unoriginal stories. Some good reads, particularly the Emshwiller and Creasey, but I don’t see anything here to put on any awards list.

“The Observation Post” by Allen M Steele

A confession. In 1962, Floyd Moore was a communications officer in a navy airship monitoring Soviet sea traffic to Cuba. When weather forced them to land on a sparsely populated island, the ship’s spook became suspicious that a small group of birdwatchers might actually be Soviet spies. The truth is somewhat different.

A very retro tone to the narrative; I could certainly believe it was written in 1962, although the narrator makes no such claim. The premise, also, is something we’ve read before.

“Millions will die.” Helga’s eyes were locked on mine. “The world as you know it
will be destroyed. We’ve seen it happen.”

For all that the author does to paint Arnault in fanatical colors, it seems to me that Moore is overly credulous, too easily convinced by the equipment and just as ready to believe the observers as Cold Warrior Arnault is to dismiss their message.

“Shadow Angel” by Erick Melton

Space travel. Emil is trying to dive-pilot the ship through sponge-space, opening up a new route to Alpha Centauri, but intruding voices in his mind keep distracting him from his task. It’s his ex-wife who talked him into this job, and the image of his ex-wife who’s haunting him in dive-dreams.

“The data-stick I showed you contains information from what we believe was another factory-ship when our hyperspheres merged. The data was sent directly to quantum storage, preserving its uncertainty, so it shouldn’t affect the transit. We want you to attempt a temporally retrograde transit to a spacetime translation pointdate prior to the one stamped on the data-stick.

But the transit has failed twelve times and they are trapped, while the voice in his head keeps trying to tell him something.

A very quantumy piece where everything mixes up in a foam of uncertainty – past and future, space and time, reality, memory and hallucination. Just in case readers might be able to follow all this too easily, the author mixes in a multiple language barrier. But as Emil finally figures out the key to the transit, readers should realize that the key to comprehending the story is the fact that his ex is using him in the service of her obsession.

“Burning Bibles” by Alan Wall

More spooks, this time the terrorist-hunting sort. They notice that someone is burning Bible printers and leaving a notice that apparently means “infidels out.” They send in a uniquely talented agent, Tom: deaf, mute and a mindreader. It’s a stressful job.

He tried to stare out of the window of the train and focus on the landscape as it greened and furrowed, but the voices grew louder, even the ones not being spoken. Particularly the ones not being spoken. He felt that drilling sensation once more, as so many shrieking psyches entered him. It was the soundtrack from one of the circles in the Inferno.

Sort of an odd narrative – part set in Tom’s point of view and quiet sympathetic, part from the points of view of several nameless agents in nameless agencies. It’s a story that should lead readers to question just what all the government secrecy conceals, and how such agencies have the power to reach into people’s lives and alter them.

“D.O.C.S.” by Neal Barrett, Jr.

The title being short for Department of Curative Science. We’re in one of those dystopias where evil bureaucrats decide who isn’t worthy of the resources to be cured. Bobby sees the docs coming and is worried for his mom, who has some unspecified disorder.

Bobby felt the hairs stand up on his neck. He’d be thirteen next week, and didn’t
much recall being eight. Still, he remembered that big, heavy hunk of ugly grinding
into town. He remembered Mom was sick. He remembered how it rained that year.
Mostly, though, he remembered the night that Grandpa died.

While Bobby’s thoughts are expressed in colorful language, this is a scenario we’ve seen before, and I don’t find anything fresh here.

“Danilo” by Carol Emshwiller

Two aging women in an isolated village. Lewella declares she is getting married. Mary Ellen doesn’t believe her. She thinks Lewella isn’t all right in the head.

First of all, who would marry her? She’s too old and she has a limp. Her hair is always flying off in all directions and it’s mostly all white. Nobody around here would look at her twice. Nobody has so far.

But when Lewella decides to travel [on foot] to meet her mystery lover, Mary Ellen decides she has to follow her – to make sure she’s safe, to bring her back, to see for herself if this man that Lewella calls Danilo [and to whose photo she is attracted] actually exists.

A character study, primarily Mary Ellen’s, as she manifests a conflicted mixture of skepticism, jealousy and hope during the course of their journey. The setting is rather odd – resembling some time in the past century or so, although this might be artificially created. Also odd is the text, in which a few passages have words crossed out, as if Mary Ellen, the narrator, were editing her account. In one respect, at least, Lewella is surely right. Neither of them were going to see any change in their lives if they remained in the “quaint” place they came from.


“The Odor of Sanctity” by Ian Creasey

Father Francesco has worn himself out through hard work for the poor of Manila, and now he is dying, no longer able to see or to hear. His follower Dora comes to visit him every day, full of love, a bit of anger that he finally gave up his ministry, and guilt over her feelings. She conceives the notion that the scent of his birthplace might be a last comfort to him, but the cost of Olvac holding it is more than she can afford. So the shop owner, aware that Francesco is considered a saint, makes her a deal.

“In the Middle Ages, and sometimes more recently,” Andres explained, “there are many accounts of saints producing a heavenly aroma from their corpse after their death. Obviously this is only hearsay, because there was never any way of actually preserving such an odor — not until the invention of the Olvac.”

Dora is the focus here, a character full of conflicts, essentially a good person who might be willing to compromise for the greater good, and maybe not above a small bit of extortion.

“Grandma Said” by R Neube

An alien foot fungus has become a deadly plague that threatens to wipe out all human settlement. Teenaged Victor is an apprentice at Plague Control, where he finds his work more interesting than school, where he has so far failed to get laid. His parents are convinced he will catch the plague and die, but Victor has a certain amount of faith in his grandmother’s advice: “Germs can’t survive laughter. As long as you’re laughing, disease’ll leave you alone.”

A clever piece of dark humor with an engaging narrator.

“Stalker” by Robert Reed

The narrator is the AI companion of a sociopathic serial murderer, who abets him in his crimes out of programmed loyalty. It is the nature and limitation of programmed loyalty that the story is about.

I understand that you are a bully and a brute. Slavish isn’t the same as stupid. Regardless of what your smile and measured charm can accomplish, I know you look at people as being animals — sacks of meat put on this world, this playground, to serve your ugly loves.

The setting echoes Reed’s excellent “Dead Man’s Run” [published in another magazine], so much so that it seems to be a reprise of that story rather than original material. Also, I can’t believe that the police in this world would be so easily taken in by the AI’s machinations protecting his master.


Analog, October 2011

The last month of the current serial. The four shorter works feature three familiar names and one new one, none of whom greatly impress this time around.

“Of Night” by Janet C Johnston

A young woman who calls herself Frances shows up one night at a campground and offers to tell a ghost story to a group of strangers, despite the fact that she obviously has no idea of the way a proper ghost story should be told. Which is to say, not like this:

“Yes, let’s take two dimensions, an X and Y axis, to simplify it. A simple periodic function, like sines and cosines. If you just look at it in 2-D, the value of sine of oh, say, 30 degrees, repeats every time you circle around the origin of the axis, so the value is the same for 30 plus 360, 30 plus 2 times 360 if you circle around again, and so forth. Consider a third axis, perpendicular to this plane: the Z, or imaginary axis. But when you consider another axis, that holds your original X and Y plane, every time you circle through a whole revolution of 360 degrees you are not still on the flat X-Y space but have climbed up a level — or down if you’re going around in the other direction.”

No wonder the kids all fall asleep! According to her tale, she was with the space service, and while her ship was ending its mission, they made one final exploratory stop. But on the way back to the ship, she senses something wrong with it, as if it isn’t the same ship. Communications fail, then people start to disappear.

There is a ghost story here, buried under tons of infodump. Someone who knows how to tell a ghost story should have told it. The author, who is not that person, attempts to make us believe that her narrator is a good storyteller by interjecting brief scenes from the campfire, but I doubt if anyone there was convinced. Taken as a science fiction story instead, that stuff is more in-place, although I’m not so sure about the X and Y.

“The Last of Lust” by Jerry Oltion

What happens when religious zealots engineer a virus that switches off the lust center in the brain. It seems that many males and females find themselves with nothing in common.

She told him about a cat she had seen on the way over. He told her about the article he’d been reading on the mechanics of jet engines. That reminded her of a story about her first flight to Paris, during which she and her sister had apparently done nothing but shop and eat.

Amusing, with a certain amount of truth.

“The Bullfrog Radio Astronomy Project” by Brad R Torgerson

Ron Kelly, running a small community radio station out by Lake Powell, becomes reluctantly involved with a guy named Andy Chang, who has put up his own radio telescope nearby to run a not-really-SETI program. Instead of listening for alien broadcasts, he’s broadcasting to them.

The stuffy pragmatist in me said this was a truly bad proposition, not to be trusted. I had given up a good career to escape men with money always telling me what I could and could not do on the airwaves. But the wild artistic part — my side that had ditched commercial radio and broken my piggy bank in order to found KPowell — salivated.

Kelly’s station is licensed by the FCC, but there are other regulators involved who don’t approve of Andy Chang’s operation.

A thud of anti-climax at the end. So humans are not alone on the radio waves. News at 11.

“The Lycanthropic Principle” by Carl Frederick

Geekness. Paul Campbell, an ordinary computer user, finds himself the target of a spam attack and extortion. He seeks aid from a former student, Alf, who seems to be a member of a cabal of virtual werewolves. Paul is envious of their knowledge and power.

“Ghoul is the search engine for the dark side,” said Alf as the site came up. “The good dark side, of course.” He began typing furiously. “It doesn’t have a URL. Only an address — to keep out the wuggies.”

A timely piece, with the activities of Anonymous and its act-alikes in the news. But the author’s use of made-up terms has the opposite of the intended effect and diminishes both credibility and amusement value.


Tor.com, July 2011

The site is presenting some prominent names this month.

“Ch-ch-ch-changes” by Michael Bishop

“For David G Hartwell, on his seventieth birthday.” The site refers the interested reader here for the form of a “symmetrina”; briefly, it is a series of short prose narratives on a common theme, and here that theme is Editor. It is clear that the subject of this piece is an editor greatly loved by many in the SF field, and that he has inspired them. For the readers unacquainted with the subject, it’s an amusing bit in its own right.

“The Dala Horse” by Michael Swanwick

A future fairy tale. It seems that powerful AIs once controlled nations on Earth, but most of the people seem to be gone now, except in Sweden. But a bad thing is coming, so Linnea’s parents send her alone [except for a talking knapsack and map and a node in the form of a toy horse] across the snowy mountain to her grandmother’s house. On the road she meets a cannibal/troll who is fleeing from the AI Europa, who has followed him.

The lady strode noiselessly over the frozen ground until she was so close that all Linnea could see of her were her feet. They glowed a pale blue and they did not quite touch the ground. She could feel the lady’s eyes through the blanket. “Günther, is that Linnea you have with you? With her limbs as sweet as sugar and her heart hammering as hard as that of a little mouse caught in the talons of an owl?”

It would be frustrating to try to read this as science fiction, which it nominally is — a dystopian setting in which people dig up coffins for their metal but also have battery-powered coats and knapsacks that carry themselves. It’s a fairy tale about the power of a child’s innocence, and that must be understood as magic.

“The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” by Catherynne M Valente

In which a young girl named Mallow leaves the country for the city, meets a number of Winds, Cats, and handsome folk, sees something dreadful, and engages, much against her will, in Politicks of the most muddled kind.

Mallow is a practical girl who lives alone and studies magic in Fairyland until a summons from the king draws her out to begin the story. There are wonders to be seen, but also the horror of watching the fairy king devour his subjects at night; there is also the ominous threat of a Tithe.

Given the title, it is no surprise to find that this tale is set in the world of the author’s novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It is a tale in which the narrative voice is the thing, not the plot or, really, the characters. The voice is a delight, as is the world; perhaps my favorite image is that of the huge and rusted iron faucet, from which flows the magical blood of worlds. And there is, after all, a satisfactory plot, which a story really ought to have.



Strange Horizons, July 2011

Seems to be a month for humor at this site.

“One Eyed Jack’s” by Tracy Canfield

Country magic. Granny has too much to worry about. First of all, there’s I-79, that will come roaring straight through the valley if she takes her eye off it for a second. There’s her restaurant, the Coffee Pot, and her granddaughter Lizzie. Then there’s the Riddle Hill United Church of Christ, which is singing so powerfully even the dead have joined in. Granny suspects the problem is with the Sing, but it turns out to be another place.

Around the bend stood the rusty sign with the light-up arrow and the plastic letters that said ONE EYED JACKS GENTLEMANS CLUB. The yellow double-wide trailer behind it slumbered evilly in the daylight. Its windows were painted over, or maybe they were just thick with nicotine and sin. A pack of glistening motorcycles, the cleanest things in the valley, lounged in the gravel out front.

Canfield plays this one in the right tone all the way through, with touches of a Tall Tale. Short, but a lot of fun.

“The Peacock” by Ted Infinity

A Cautionary Tale: No matter how desperate and bored you are, don’t answer email like this:


It seems that the spam server has evolved into an artificial intelligence and is looking for love. Its experience in such matters, however, has a narrow base. Pretty funny stuff.

“Bleaker Collegiate Presents and All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” by Claire Humphrey

Not humor. When the first scene in a story involves a woman in a bathroom trying to staunch uncontrollable bleeding, this imparts a particular impression. But Dierdre is bleeding from the nose; this is unhealthy bleeding — abnormal, as she admits, possibly even a sign that she is dying. Now, what this has to do with Godot is: Dierdre is infatuated with Ginevra, who has a role in the production. And the setting reminds her, only foggily, of a crossroads with a tree where she meets a person or persons always forgotten, a failure of memory that reminds us of the characters in the play.

Godot is a play notorious for being enigmatic, a screen onto which readers/audience project their own interpretations. Thus is it natural for readers here to tote up the similarities, and it also seems natural that the author is going to leave essential matters unexplained and questions unanswered. What I find more notable here are the differences between the two stories. In Beckett’s play, Godot never comes to the couple who are waiting for him; they forget this fact, so that the scene plays out again the next day, and again, without resolution. In this story, they do come for Dierdre and she remembers, only to forget again. And this is what we are meant to guess and to wonder about: who they are, what they have to do with Dierdre’s condition. We recall who hangs around crossroads and who are buried there; we think of graveyards and of blood. We understand that the author isn’t going to let us know; that is the message from the play.

Every tree is the one from the play, I think. Strangely familiar, and awful, and full of meaning that vanishes if you look at it directly.

But with Beckett’s play, we understand that what the characters are waiting for is unknowable, which is why it can’t be told. In this story, what happens to Dierdre is knowable and known, only that the author won’t tell us. The first is profound, the second is merely frustrating.


Fantasy Magazine, July 2011

One story with a faint fantastic element, the other entirely fantasy.

“Union Falls” by J S Breukelaar

Deel has taken over her dead father’s bar and formed a house band. They need a keyboard player, but the only person who responds to her ad is a girl with no arms. And she can really rock it. Business picks up.

It was mainly the music and the music was mainly Ame. She sped some songs up, slowed others down, lowered the key by a half tone, added a dance backbeat. And although she stayed in the shadows, slender as a brush stroke, she changed the look of the band, with her look-ma-no-hands stance and the blue lights playing across her varnished toes.

But good stuff never seems to last, and hidden personal pain breaks loose.

The fantasy element is very slight and ambiguous. The story is mostly about Deel’s loss and loneliness. Artists without arms do exist in our real world.

“The Wolves of Brooklyn” by Catherynne M Valente

Wolves and endless winter come to Brooklyn. Or rather, Brooklyn spawns the wolves, which emerge from the pavement. They immediately become the fashion. They give people something to talk about, to live for.

But it’s the biggest thing that will ever happen to us. It’s a gravitational object you can’t get around or through; you only fall deeper in. And the thing is we want to get deeper in. Closer, further, knocking on the door. That’s why we dress this way; that’s why we tell our stories while the wolves watch us outside the cafe window, our audience and our play all at once.

Actually, most of the people have left Brooklyn, and the only ones who remain are those with nothing more to their lives than wolves.

These aren’t real wolves, of course, but rather the metaphorical sort who are more interested in humans than in other wolves. A fabulist thing, an idea gone to flower – more scent than sense.


Lightspeed, July 2011

The two original pieces this month stand in some kind of dialogue with classics in the field.

“The Old Equations” by Jake Kerr

Just in case any reader might miss the allusion of the title, it follows by a week a reprint of Godwin’s original. We’re in an alternate scientific history in which Einstein died early, before he could establish his theory of general relativity, which was dismissed as the work of a crackpot while quantum theory prevailed. Resulting in a problem when Colonel James Murphy is sent off alone to Gliese 582 on what is meant to be a ten-year voyage exceeding the speed of light. Readers, of course, understand immediately what’s going on as the time stamps on the messages to and from the ship grow further and further apart, but it takes the experts on Earth a while longer to figure it out.

A very science-fictional story concept, although the allusion to Godwin’s story turns out to have little significance. There is no decision to be made; no one really considers aborting the mission, even if it might be possible. The author attempts to portray the emotional impact of the discovery through the messages between the astronaut and his wife as they realize what time dilation will mean for their marriage. Unfortunately, the narrative medium of the brief transmissions doesn’t allow for much of it to come through.

“Sweet Sixteen” by Kat Howard

This short, slight story is a reflection of the Twilight Zone classic “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”. Star is almost sixteen, the age at which she will be restructured into her adult persona. Star is sure she wants to be a Tiffany [which would make her Tiffany Star].

“…because everyone watches them and loves them and talks about them. I want people to pay attention to me.”

“Why not be a Meryl, or a Hillary, then? Or a Theresa, if you want to be loved?”

“Because those are all serious. Tiffanies are fun.”

But although the girls are allowed to designate their choices, the actual decision is made for the overall good of society, and Tiffanies don’t seem to be of much value, despite the yearnings of sixteen-year-old girls.

The TZ version was about forcing conformity in superficial physical appearance; this one is instead about shaping the individuals’ aptitudes and career preferences. While it makes for a more sensible society [an all-female society it seems], the older version, even after almost fifty years, was the better story. Star, like all girls her age, is given a choice – but not really – when she is not mature enough to choose. Marilyn’s choice was mature and the story makes it clear that it is the society in the wrong. The passage of a half-century may have made it hard to take the televised images seriously, but it’s not really possible to take seriously a story with names like “Anna Poetry” and “Martha Peace.”


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 2011

Some well-done stories this month.

“And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” by Rosamund Hodge

Sometimes I think these poetic story titles can go too far. As a princess of Retrouvailles, Zéphine is effectively a prisoner in the palace until she is formally accepted by the unicorns who protect the realm. Zéphine has never seen a unicorn and is sure she never will, but it is her nineteenth birthday and tonight she must dance for them.

“They will dress me in white like a bride and give me the draught of waking sleep so I can neither feel nor move. Then Marie will lay me on the floor of the Great Dome; she’ll sew my eyes shut with unicorn hair, slit my arms from wrist to elbow, and perform her maiden dance around me. When the unicorns come for her they will drink my blood until I die and eat my soul when it escapes between my lips. It’s the only way she can take my birthright once the unicorns have rejected me. That’s why I’ve never loved my sister. I’ve always known the last thing I’ll ever see is her sewing my eyes shut.”

Then she is offered a chance at freedom, but it is a false one.

The initial scenario is as contrived and cloying as it could be, upon which the author then unloads a strong dose of brutality. But it is not realistic brutality and it doesn’t wash away all the taste of falseness in this fairy tale.

“Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin” by Adam Calloway

Tomai lives in a city that seems to be dedicated entirely to the production of paper and its products. He is a pole worker, who directs floating logs into the jaws of something called the termite. His life seems to be bleak, but he has one cherished possession.

A photo hung from one corner. The photo held a girl. Skin the color of hazelnuts. Purple birthmark staining her left cheek. A circle of dark rouge. She was smiling.

The surrealism of this short narrative keeps it from being really tragic, but this only makes it more depressing. I don’t know if the author means the disturbing and original setting to be a metaphor for capitalism, but it works that way.


“In the Gardens of the Night” by Siobhan Carroll

Ayla the witch is one of the prince’s concubines, once a favorite, now only a slave who amuses the court with conjurer’s tricks. She is still powerful, however, and capable of assassinating the current favorite, whose influence is feared by the entire court. Yet her priority is safeguarding her young daughter’s future.

During the Rule of Concubines, one woman, Zühal the Vicious, asked her prince to drown all three hundred of her former rivals. He did. When the garden women look at Nakshedil, they fear her out of more than just women’s jealousy. They fear her because they fear what they would do in her place were they elevated above all others and had a besotted prince to command.

A neatly twisted tale of conspiracies and plots in a setting strongly reminiscent of the decadent courts and harems of sultans and emperors, where concubines and eunuchs played politics and murder.


“Ink and Blood” by Marko Kloos

Somewhere near Prussia is the Weald, a realm of magic that only works within its borders. Still, the Prussian Crown has commanded that no one sell to Wealdings any paper or implements with which spells can be written. When the pretty girl comes into Wilhelm’s father’s stationary shop, he suspects that she is a Wealding, but he can’t make himself turn her away or call the police. He probably should have. But now it’s too late.

Wilhelm is an appealingly naive character and the description of such mundania as pens and ink is nicely detailed.

Wilhelm shows her everything — the peacock-blue school inks, the iron gall ink, the perfumed correspondence inks used by the highborn and those pretending to be. She takes the dip pen he offers and tries out half a dozen inks on as many different varieties of paper: cotton rag, linen, French vellum, onionskin. She draws lines, geometric shapes, and little sketches of apples and horseshoes.

But I can’t quite be convinced that it’s so necessary for the Weald’s spells to be written down in order to work.

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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