Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August

A couple of slick zines along with the online usuals. A lot of myth, a lot of gods. The Good Story award, again, goes to Yoon Ha Lee and Clarkesworld.


Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld, August 2011

One of the best things about this ezine is that it showcases the fiction of Yoon Ha Lee.

“Conservation of Shadows” by Yoon Ha Lee

A reworking of the Sumerian myth of Inanna’s visit to the underworld, narrated by her dark sister/rival as she descends through the gates of hell. A lot of writers retell myths, but few of them bring so much new to the old stories. Lee integrates tropes of science fiction into the traditional elements to create something wonderfully fresh and yet deeply ancient.

If you came to the feast, you would soon sate yourself with warm food. You would watch as dancers clad in feathers reenacted the descent of your first self, or the eighth, or the forty-ninth. How many gates do you think your sad, brave clones survived? Do not worry. You are different, you are special, more clever and greater of heart. I will make sure you reach the barley cakes brimming with dark honey.


“The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan, trans by Ken Liu

In a future China, the narrator suffers burnout working for a “proper, globalized business”, and is sent to the ancient city of Lijiang for rehab, away from time. Lijiang has been entirely modernized to the point that nothing there is real any longer, which depresses him. He meets a girl and discovers the actual nature of his affliction, that he is another victim of the manipulation of time.

In every square, time flows faster or slower. The people below throng like a nest of ants controlled by an invisible hand, divide into a few groups, are stuffed into the different squares: time flies past the laborer, the poor, the “third world”; time crawls for the rich, the idle, the “developed world”; time stays still for those in charge, the idols, the gods…

The familiar dystopian tale about workers burned out in a corporate system is given an explicitly Chinese flavor here, reflecting a nation caught in a rapid and ruthless process of modernization.


Interzone #235, July-August 2011

Featuring stories showing the impact of war on the human spirit, not so much of rayguns or battle rivets.

“Insha’Allah” by Mathew Cook

A story of faith. Aliens are making war on a world colonized by Pashtun Muslims, and the Concordance has sent advanced forces to assist in the defense. Shaomi’s husband was killed in a bombardment and she now lives as a ritual washer of bodies in his parents’ village, instead of working as a nurse in the city. She believes that God has sent her there to fill a need, but the village is dominated by a group of rigidly intolerant mullahs who perpetrate the oppression of women. When a badly-wounded female pilot is brought to her, Shaomi knows she has to protect her from the mullahs.

I tend to be unsympathetic to religion, and especially when it is as misogynistic as we see it here, but the strength of Shaomi’s character and her faith go a long way to win me over even if I can’t share it, or her optimism.

I will believe, because you are God’s instrument, and the E’k are no match for God. You will wipe them from the skies, and after you do the goodness in men’s hearts will be restored.

The setting is modeled closely – too much so – on Taliban Afghanistan. The author makes an error when he states that “Sharia replaced the older, gentler interpretation of God’s laws”; Sharia is the law itself, not a particular interpretation of it.

“For Love’s Delirium Haunts the Fractured Mind” by Mercurio D Rivera

The Wergen species suffers from an irrational and excessive admiration for humans, who find them revolting; they tolerate the presence of the Wergen in order to obtain their advanced technology. In their adoration for humans, the Wergen have made themselves willing slaves. Moreover, they are increasingly unwilling to take mates of their own kind; the survival of the species is threatened. Now certain dissident Wergen have developed a drug that inhibits the attraction, but they are using it as a tool of terrorism. Joriander, who has struggled for years to obtain a position close to humans, is placed in a compromised position.

The author has done other stories with this improbable premise, which I have never been able to accept, although the scenes of Wergen humiliating themselves for a human audience are queasily effective. But this is a Wergen problem, not something to be solved by blowing up humans.

“The Walrus and the Icebreaker” by Jon Wallace

A dark, dark dystopia, which unfortunately brings out the IZ impulse to print on a black page. The world has used up its oil, except for the possibility of some pockets in the Arctic. Lewis is assigned to a combination icebreaker/oil rig with orders to return with a hold full of oil or not at all. But other forces covet the same prize, and Lewis’s side is losing the war. Her secret weapon is Jorgen the walrus, the product of a lab, as presumably walrus no longer survive in the wild. Jorgen is trained to carry a torpedo, and Lewis continually assures him [herself], You are going to make a noble sacrifice. But there is no nobility in this war, only despair.

Just in time to see the Rainmaker explode. Just in time to see a molten orange wound flare up on its hull, a flare in the twilight. A hot wind flows over my face. I smile. Heat and light are at a premium. You take them where you can.

A very bleak scenario, dark and cold, reminding me of the trapped German forces facing the Russians at Stalingrad – except holding out less hope. The only real option for anyone here is death, so that a mutinous crewman willingly steps off the gangplank into the icy sea. The characters’ sacrifice will in the end be for nothing, and they know it, and so does the reader. We can only hope the walrus might somehow survive.

“Eleven Minutes” by Gareth L Powell

Gary and Carl are a couple of losers at JPL, operating a remote rover on Mars and carping at each other during the long minutes of boredom between sending of a command and the machine’s response. Gary nags Carl about his weight, which has nothing to do with the story’s revelation, and Carl is reading SF about alternate realities, which does.

A very short piece with a strangely neat punch at the conclusion, but the neatness is overcome by distaste with Gary’s obsession with the rolls of fat at Carl’s neck.

“Of Dawn” by Al Robertson

A contemporary fantasy, unusual for this zine, which usually features SFnal futures. Also the longest and most ambitious piece in the issue. When Sarah and Peter were children, they both had a life-changing experience watching a documentary on music and landscape featuring the work of a musician named Kingfisher, who was inspired by an old village called Parr Hinton on the Salisbury plain. Sarah became an unsuccessful violinist; Peter an accomplished poet, before he was killed in the Iraq war. Following her brother’s death, Sarah becomes haunted by the image of a flayed man, somehow related to Parr Hinton and both Kingfisher’s and Peter’s work, of which she seems to have become the heir. Her story is finding the courage to face this symbol of her brother’s death.

The author has packed a lot into this many-layered work, beginning in the first paragraph with a description of Peter’s death, enemy fire “flaying the life from him” — an unexpected image that calls for the reader’s attention. It is followed by the red man of a traffic signal, until we realize we are seeing the flayed man who begins to haunt Sarah, and who was identified by Kingfisher with the satyr Marsyas, punished by Apollo for his hubris in challenging the god’s mastery of music.

An image so striking, so prominent in the text, naturally calls to the reader to uncover its significance. Peter’s poems suggest that “the angel satyr” was “at once leading him into knowledge and foreshadowing his own future.” OK the foreshadowing part we can see, but what is this knowledge? Later, Sarah gains an insight:

Marsyas the satyr – a god of fluid, improvised music, skinned by Apollo for challenging him – had become for both Peter and Kingfisher an image of openness betrayed; of the many ways that the world carved away at its own finest, most lively products. Both men had been to war, and – in their different ways – seen such threshing at first hand.

Which is all very well, and we also see that the village of Parr Hinton, that meant so much to both artists, was itself occupied and destroyed by the military during WWII. Except that we also know that Kingfisher was influenced by the place well before his experiences in the trenches of WWI, and it doesn’t seem that Peter had seen combat by the time he wrote his own verses. Something isn’t right.

Significance, it seems, is not as important an element here as is presence. The flayed man is part of the landscape of Parr Hinton, its genius loci, and what Kingfisher had meticulously documented was the evidence of this presence as it had been expressed throughout centuries in song and dance [the red ribbons of Morris dancers in the Kingfisher documentary evoke strips of skin flayed from a man’s body].

This understanding, however, raises other questions, mainly: What is the Phrygian satyr Marsyas doing in Britain’s Stonehenge country? Moreover, the figure of the story does not seem to fit the image of Marsyas the satyr as we know him from the myth. The flayed man here is a strongly benevolent figure, at least to those he chooses; indeed, he’s a sort of Christ figure. There is nothing of a phallic element, the primary mark of a satyr, or the hubris that doomed Marsyas. It’s as if the author supposed that being flayed is a marker of satyrness, when it is only incidental to a single individual. I have to conclude that the figure is not Marsyas at all, but some other divine personage, and that Kingfisher, in those days of classical education, misidentified him with the satyr of Greek myth.

This conclusion may be satisfactory in itself, but it does nothing to explain the problem: why a flayed man [god] is the central presence of the story. If he is not Marsyas, as I think he can not be, then who, and why? Myth offers us a number of other flayed god possibilities [Nuckelavee, Xipe Totec], but these seem even more unlikely. At the conclusion, Sarah is satisfied by the figure’s explanation, but I can’t be. I want to know the real story of this flayed god, and the author seems determined to withhold it.

I think this is a deliberate choice. In the story, Kingfisher’s work was apparently notorious for its inclusion of as many possible variations of the folksongs he collected, which were to be performed at random, at the roll of the dice and the cut of cards. Peter’s poems were fragmented, broken, full of “subtle, ambiguous references”. It’s at this point that I find myself wanting to hear this music, so important to the story, and to read a verse or two of the poems. The first may not be possible [except that hypertext now makes it so], but in the case of the second, I really wish the author had given it a try, aside from the single line we see.


Realms of Fantasy, August 2011

The theme of this issue is gods and their associates.

“Collateral Damage” by Kate Riedel

There’s a time warp out in the back pasture. Robert rode into it while coming back from the Civil War and came out in the 1950s, as teenaged Penny disappeared. Now Penny is back, to the dismay of her embittered sister Martha, who long ago married Robert and gave up all her dreams of travel – not that anyone actually forced her to. Martha is the narrator and a strongly disagreeable character, obsessed with her numerous resentments. She blames Penny for disappearing and leaving her their parents’ only remaining child. She blames Robert for marrying her, and now she blames him for the promise he made her parents to take care of Penny if she should ever return, and for saving enough money to do this, even while telling Martha he couldn’t afford to take her to Paris. If Martha had been George Bailey, she would have taken off to Europe and left the Building and Loan to go to hell.

It seems that the author would like readers to have some sympathy for this selfish woman, but she won’t get it from me. The author has done her work too well for that, so that I can’t help thinking it’s a shame to waste the time warp on her, when Robert’s story and Penny’s would have been much more interesting. But we only see them through Martha’s bitter and unsympathetic eyes.

“Isabella’s Garden” by Naomi Kritzer

A story of fertility, which has its goddesses. The narrator had a lot of trouble getting pregnant, but now she finally has her daughter Isabella and doesn’t appreciate it when her intrusive neighbor gives the child hints about a baby sister. The narrator can’t even grow zucchini, but Isabella turns out to have a very green thumb. The weirdness starts when she plants a jelly bean.

Although not really original, this is charming and despite the child character, not cloying. Pleasant, low-key humor. I like the turnip revenge.

“Leap of Faith” by Alan Smale

Alternate Sodom. Levi is God’s Engineer, whose work takes him for long periods on the road and into the Vasty Deeps. This doesn’t help his marriage or his relationship with his willful daughters. But now he has greater problems in the form of two not-really-angels to whom he has offered the sanctuary of his house. The townspeople of Shadom are jealous and demand that he yield them up. But the failure is God’s. This creation, one of His earliest attempts, is flawed and scheduled for destruction.

Now, from on high, Levi could see the flaws in this version of Creation; the fudges and cracks, the paint-overs. He remembered working on some of them himself.

God could do better. Perhaps He already had. It was an odd thought.

An interesting theological premise, with all time and all creation coexisting simultaneously, and angels and demons able to move from one to another. This explains the anachronistic language throughout the text, that would otherwise be quite annoying: “Levi, in your heart you must already know. God has already left the building.”

“Snake in the Grass” by W R Thompson

Deal with the devil. At the death of his father, Larabie attempts to come to terms with the fact that the old man was right to call him a loser, and the devil shows up. He seems to have elaborate plans for Larabie, starting with him planting an apple tree in the garden of his new house, but in fact, the devil’s plans have more to do with his own father.

“To listen to him, you’d have thought the nephilim were perfect. Not even the angels could measure up to them, and because the nephilim long ago passed from existence, I have no chance to outperform them.

Not a typical DWD story, as in this case, Larabie does nothing to extricate himself from the contract. Humorous and entertaining.

“The Progress of Solstice and Chance” by Richard Bowes

Family life among the gods. Solstice is the daughter of Summer and Winter.

What Solstice liked best about her childhood was not the palm trees and blue waters of her mother’s palace or her father’s castle of ice and snow. It was the journey that started at the end of each summer and the Divine Progress through harvest time and into winter.

Winter leaves his wife and returns to his first love, Lady Death. Grandfather Cronus dies. The older gods have become indifferent to the mortals who worship them, and eventually the mortals find other, but not better things to do.

Nice short bit of fabulism.


GigaNotoSaurus, August 2011

This ezine was originally meant to be a showcase for longer works, but I don’t recall reading many novellas here lately, and the current one doesn’t even pass the word limits of the short story.

“This Strange Way of Dying” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

When Georgina was a child, she made a promise with Death to give her grandmother seven more years of life. But the promise turns out to be marriage, and Georgina doesn’t want to marry Death. Her life, however, in the stifling atmosphere of upper-class Mexico a century ago, doesn’t offer a very attractive alternative.

But now that the idea of old age had taken hold of her, now that she could picture herself in wedding and baptismal and anniversary pictures, grey-haired with time stamped on her face, suddenly she wasn’t afraid of death. She wasn’t afraid of death for the first time in years: she was afraid of life. Or at least, the life she was able to neatly see, the cards laid out with no surprises.

The bride of Death is a very ancient tale, which the author explicitly and effectively invokes. This Death is an attractive one, who likes ragtime music and dancing, but the author introduces a twist in the middle that doesn’t quite make sense; Death doesn’t seem to take Yes for an answer. The setting gives it special interest, both social and historical; in the end, it is a love story.


Redstone SF, August 2011

A superior issue of this science fiction ezine.

“Vaporware” by Mishell Baker

A dysfunctional family. Sixteen years ago, Max and Emma had to choose from eight embryos fertilized in vitro. Max wanted the daughter he named Natalie, but Emma rejected her because of a small statistical chance of leukemia. Now their fifteen year old daughter Kestrel is a monster of hostility in the center of a failing marriage.

Kestrel took the five steps necessary to get within spitting distance, then launched a glob of half-chewed pulp onto the floor at his feet.  Then she turned and walked out, apple in hand.

But Max has illicitly kept the simulations of his other seven daughters and now thinks he has recognized Natalie.

A variation on the cautionary tale: Be careful what you wish for. The author did well in her portrayal of Max, a man who only wants a little love from the women he loves, despite them.

“Evoë! Evoë!” by Robert Pritchard

Set in a world resembling some future of the ancient Mediterranean past. There have been gruesome murders in the Taurine City that the authorities there have been unable to solve, so they have sent for a watcher, the narrator, who is told by his superiors that the crimes are the work of a heretical sect that denies all actions are part of a whole. This sect possesses a powerful ancient machine and is led by a man named Lord Zagreus. The watcher’s real task is to destroy the machine. But when he arrives, he is taken for Zagreus himself.

Causation and destiny loop and reloop in this fabulist mythic mystery. Given that the title is the cry of the mainads and Zagreus is another name for Dionysos, it’s no surprise when people are torn apart. But the myth has to be played out, the god sacrificed and reborn. Puzzling and tantalizing.

I turned [the card] over: the Mirrors.  A youth sat between parallel mirrors making an infinity of reflections.  The illustration was cunningly designed so we could not tell whether the young man faced us, showing his true face, or away, so we saw only the multiplying reflections.



Apex, August 2011

Two stories of children’s friendship.

“The Whispered Thing” by Zach Lynott

The narrator relates a story from his days as an English teacher in Japan, where one small girl spent as much time as possible whispering into a deep hole in the playground sand. The other children bullied Mizuki, as children will do to any potential victim who seems different. The child rarely spoke aloud, but her calligraphy, both in English and Japanese, was outstanding. Perhaps because of this, she was befriended by the alpha girl in the class, and friendship pulled her away from her hole. The monster in the depths didn’t like being deserted. But the author isn’t content to leave this about an angry monster in a hole, or bullying, or even the psychic power of a tormented child. He wants to make it a story about the power of words.

I spotted the contents of Mizuki’s open backpack scattered across the shattered floor. Each piece of paper was unmarred by writing. The words they had contained were absent, having flowed back to the whispered thing to consume all oppressors: the ultimate culmination of anger, and loneliness.

These inexplicable elements don’t really add anything significant to the underlying events, despite the author’s declarations; I think they distract, instead, and give the text an unbecoming pretentiousness. This is a story about a little girl who never heard of James Joyce and who just needed a friend.

“The Tiger Hunt” by Rabbit Seagraves

Two young friends are enjoying themselves hunting imaginary tigers in the back yard when an actual [sort of] tiger strikes. The narrator’s friend kills it, and her mother gives her the skin, which she keeps under her bed because her own mother doesn’t like it in the house. At first, the two girls enjoy wearing the skin and playing tiger, but the narrator’s friend slowly grows up and away from her.

Imaginatively warped. There is a sort of naive charm to this surreal second-person narrative, but it is not entirely innocent. I begin to wonder who the tiger was in the first place.

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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