Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August

I finally made it past the road construction to my post office box, where I found a stash of little printzines waiting. Online, a lot of Genevieve Valentine.


Publications Reviewed


Fantasy Magazine, August 2011

Fairy tales without magic and westerns with.

“The World is Cruel, My Daughter” by Cory Skerry

Variation on the Rapunzel story. In this one, the witch lives with her daughter in the tower, attempting to keep her innocent and safe from the evils of the world. This trick never works.

I’d selected each book with the intention of keeping her life beautiful. But in choosing only the sweetest tales, I’d in advertently given her the idea that the world was a beautiful place, one she perhaps would be permitted to explore.

In the world of fairy tales, the evil of the “witch” is often assumed without evidence, and it’s common for these variations to turn the moral sandglass over to show us events from another point of view: the innocence of the original villain, the wickedness of the supposed innocent. Although the narrator never uses the word, we have no trouble believing that she may have been falsely named a witch, that evil was done to her. What we can’t believe is that this justifies the evil she has done to others, to innocents, beginning with craftsman whose services she couldn’t afford. She asks for reader sympathy that she doesn’t deserve. This is a tale more tragic than the original, but the attempt to humanize the witch makes it actually less appealing.

“Crossroads” by Laura Anne Gilman

This one roused the cranky pedant in the second sentence, which reads that a man was being “hung” instead of, correctly, hanged. Fortunately, the situation is too fascinating: a fantasy Old West where two magicians are dueling at a crossroads, one in black and the other on the gallows already hanged but not precisely dead – “the loop still slack around his neck, his body dangling in mid-air.” And John the lawman coming along and deciding against his better judgment that he needs to get involved.

The story is entirely contained in this single scene, a duel transformed into a triangle, a contest of power and will among a dead man, the man who has killed him and means to take his power, and the stranger who interferes. Nothing else intrudes. We know nothing more of these three, not even of John, from whose point of view the story is told and who seems to be the sort of character who continues from one story to the next. The cranky pedant is rarely so effectively mollified.



Lightspeed, August 2011

Both original stories this time out suffer from premises too improbable to accept; the first suffers from more than that.

“Defenders” by Will McIntosh

Alien invasion. When the attack came, humans built giant AI battlebots to combat the enemy – something like the sorcerer’s apprentice crossed with the Berserkers.

By necessity, they’d been designed to be powerful enough to fight off the Luyten, and intelligent enough to plan and execute the war without any human intervention. Once the war was over, though, what do you do with seventeen million A.I.s who are stronger and smarter than you? You give them what they want—Australia—and you hope they’re satisfied.

Now, decades later, the Defenders want to renew contact. Lila, traumatized by her experiences during the invasion, is one of the ambassadors sent to Australia to meet with the Defenders. They discover that the Defenders are not in fact satisfied with Australia. They have also enslaved the surviving Luyten and have been breeding them. Now Lila needs to see if she can overcome her aversion to the aliens, now possibly the lesser evil.

This one reads just like the first chapter of a novel, and that’s not a Good Thing when there’s no second chapter to come. I tried scrolling down further, I tried looking for a “Part One of Two”, but no. At the height of the tension, we’re abruptly cut off without even a “The End”. Moreover, the more we see of the situation, the less it makes sense. That humans could have somehow accomplished the construction of the AI machines so quickly, when the Luyten apparently fought unmechanized, by ripping off limbs; wasn’t conventional weaponry sufficient? That the telepathic Luyten could have done all this ripping while fully conscious of their victims’ pain, while later so empathetic. Nope. Not buying any of it, which may be just as well, since there’s no resolution.

“The Nearest Thing” by Genevieve Valentine

Mason is a coding genius and socially impaired. He works/is owned by a corporation that makes personalized “memorial dolls”, robotic duplicates of individuals with artificial pseudo-personalities. He has been shifted to a development team led by Paul, a guy who seems to be all buzzwords and charisma and no substance; the project is to develop an AI, “the nearest thing” to human. Paul also has on his team a woman he calls a consultant but seems to be his lover. Nadia makes Mason uneasy; there is something wrong with her.

Paul brings Nadia to the first brainstorming meeting for the Vestige project. He introduces her to Mason and the two guys from Marketing (“Just Nadia, don’t worry about it”), and they’re ten minutes into the meeting before Mason realizes she had never said a word.

In a way, this is a love triangle. Mason and Paul are complete opposites, and it becomes a question of whether Mason can realize he is in love with Nadia. There is also an espionage element, as readers wonder if both Mason and Paul can keep their secrets from the corporation or rat one another out, and whether they can protect Nadia from the corporation once her secret is discovered, as it must be when the project goes public and people realize she was the prototype. The problem is that making a true AI – “a self-sustaining critical-thinking initiative no other developer has tried—and no consumer base has ever seen” – is supposed to be ground-breakingly innovative, yet somehow Paul has managed Nadia before the project has even begun. If Nadia is something that he can pick up on the black market, there must already be a lot of AIs around, given the obvious markets for such a product. The premise is thus self-contradictory, as if it harbors a worm of disbelief at the heart of its code.


Strange Horizons, August 2011

Contemporary-seeming settings in the two original stories this month, the first a two-parter.

“The Rugged Track” by Liz Argall

Fantasy roller derby. Back in the day, Lady Push Comes to Shove and Fierce Fairy were the queens of the sport, but well before that, Lady Shove was a man and Fierce his best friend or perhaps lover – the story not being clear on that point. But Shove wanted to be a lady and bear a daughter, so she made the change, either with or without the fairy’s magic – the story being equivocal on that point. The change, however, came with a price, and by the time Princess Bite is grown and skating on a team of her own [the Kill’n Kittens], her mother is near the point of death from a degenerative disease. Bite decides to seek out Fierce Fairy, who has been retired on an island of desolation ever since Shove’s transformation, and ask her to unmake the change, even if it will result in her own unmaking as well.

Princess Bite’s heart rattled as if filled with blown ball bearings, as she skated out into the world to find Fierce Fairy. She swore by the sky above, the speed in her skates, and the rugged track before her that she would save her mother, no matter the cost.

This is, or ought to be, a love story. Part of it is about the love of the sport and the love of the skaters for each other, the love and mutual sacrifice of mother and daughter, and the love/resentment of the spurned fairy [and here we might think of the curse on Sleeping Beauty, although it isn’t really the same thing]. So the emotional level ought to be high. But the narrative voice doesn’t quite seem to take itself seriously, and with the character names also impossible to take seriously, the tone of farce is too strong. I have this notion that when a single story takes up two story-slots, it has the obligation to be twice as good. This one isn’t.

“Souvenir” by Genevieve Valentine

Murder mystery. Claudia is a touch telepath who works for the police, specializing in the souvenirs left behind on bodies of crime victims. Being a touch brings unsettling contact with other peoples’ minds.

Ben fights it. Every time she touched him there was an undercurrent of desolation that lingered like a signature cologne. It’s why he doesn’t do suicides. Every touch knows their tipping point.

Now there is a murder case in which no souvenir can be found, which suggests that the killer was a touch who has the ability to erase souvenirs. Claudia’s friend Ben immediately becomes obsessed with the hope of living in a world where souvenirs don’t exist.

Touch telepathy is something we’ve seen before, but Valentine has made it into a particularly dreadful curse, something that makes life too great a burden to endure. Problem is, the angst of the situation doesn’t really come through. A reader can see the effect on the touches, but not really comprehend how the touch has caused it.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, August 2011

Five complete works of short fiction, one of these part of an ongoing short-short series listed as “Tales for the Young and Unafraid”. The stories are generally backwards-looking, as if the zine were trying to revive some earlier, more innocent age.

“Under the Shield” by Stephen Kotowych

Alternate history, with espionage and murder. It seems that the Tunguska event in 1908 Siberia was caused not by a meteoroid strike but by electrical pioneer Nicola Tesla, testing what he called a teleforce beam, which did not work as intended. Governments, however, considered that he had produced a death ray, and the US refused Russia’s demand for extradition, not wanting to let such a weapon out of its hands. The result was war declared against the US by the allied Great Powers, but Tesla’s beam proved to be successful as a defensive shield, leaving the Russians with no other resort but terrorist attacks, such as flooding the NY subway with chlorine gas. Peter Trevelyn of the alternate FBI is sent to investigate the latest attack and discovers a troubling murder at the scene, of a young woman who had been working for Tesla at his top-secret labs. Authorities at the highest level demand answers, and suspicion falls on the expatriate Russian community, of which Peter, with a name change from Pytor, is a member.

A fascinating and thought-provoking scenario, bringing to mind such diverse events in our own timeline as the initiation of WWI, the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Department of Homeland Security, and the birth of the atomic age. It’s a story of conflicted loyalties and the eternal threat of totalitarianism in the name of security, as well as a murder mystery. This is all good stuff. The scenario, however, is complicated and takes the author a while to set it up; the result is dense and over-compacted. I could definitely see it expanded into a cracking good novel, with all its elements given room to fully work themselves out.

“What Happened at Blessing Creek” by Naomi Kritzer

Set in a fantasy Old West, somewhat reminiscent of Card’s Alvin Maker series, where the Reverend uses his magical power to bless and protect the settlers’ new town.

[Hattie] could smell the magic on the Reverend. I could hear it humming when he said the last words of the nightly blessing that kept out trouble — dragons, wolves, fevers, Indians.

But the Indians have magic of their own, magic strong enough to control the dragons. Their magician tells Hattie that her people don’t belong on the land, that they should turn around and go back. Hattie’s father and the other men laugh at the idea, even after the Reverend is killed, because they now have Hattie’s power to protect them.

A very hard lesson learned in this dark YA fantasy. Hattie is an interesting character who faces a difficult choice, but the rest of the scenario is morally too black and white.

“Second Chances Made of Glass and Wood” by Michael T Banker

Animated dolls. Nattly’s Papa practices the art of soul transfer. He captures the souls of dying clients and implants them into wooden dolls. Nattly, dying at birth, has known no other existence than that of a doll. Now she is conflicted – she is jealous of some of the new doll bodies, better than her old one, and would like another transfer; at the same time, she sees that Papa is wearing himself out and wishes that he would stop the practice altogether.

“Papa, I don’t think I can hold on any longer.” I’m all floaty and can’t feel my fingers. There’s a stretching inside me, a pulling away. “I need to be transferred. Right now, probably.” The sense of urgency won’t come, though. I feel like I’m fading. Dripping away. Anyway, didn’t I just tell him not to do any more transfers? That’s right, he should stop.

Unusual look at death and immortality, as well as self-sacrifice and maturity. The revived souls come to life in bodies much smaller than their own, children again, who need to relearn basic skills, except that they don’t grow. The tone here is closer to Pinocchio than cyberpunk.

“Old Flat Foot” by Ross Willard

Robot cops. The neighborhood is decaying, falling into petty crime, and the old patrol units are scheduled to be scrapped. Unit 27 feels regret at the waste and decides to make a difference.

For twenty years I have operated well below my factory specifications. Tonight I push myself to my limits. There is much work to do, and I need to complete as much of it as I can without being noticed.

A very familiar tale, but still some good lines: “Sometimes malfunctioning is the right thing to do.”

“The Floating Statue” by David Lubar

The narrator finds a small sculpture in his uncle’s attic.

It was a statue of a man laughing, and it was so ugly it was wonderful. The guy had his mouth wide open and he had these huge buck teeth. His smile was so big that his eyes were squished into nothing much more than slits. He had one hand raised like he was about to slap his knee. And he had wings. They were tiny wings, folded flat against his back, so small I didn’t notice them at first.

There is also an inscription on the base: “Rise with laughter.” The narrator soon discovers what this means.

A potentially neat idea for this short-short, but mostly wasted on a bunch of booger jokes.


Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #27, August 2011

Nine pieces of short fantastic fiction in sixty pages of small type, along with a few poems and other stuff. Unusual and imaginative, with a distinct literary tone and a lot of characters on the far edge of sanity, if not beyond.

“The Wolves of St Etienne” by A D Jameson

The wolves, having been driven by humans out of their traditional haunts, have moved into the city of St Etienne and are now promoting tourism there.

The wolves ate anyone who came to St Etienne. After eating the person they put that person’s skin on and went out into the human towns wearing it, taking that person’s place in society, telling all how they’d loved their time in St Etienne.

It was Lewis’s wife who had wanted to vacation in St Etienne. Now he is the only one of his family still alive. The wolves like to keep a few humans around for their games.

We observe Lewis’s torment through the dry, distancing narrative; the wolves’ faux kindness is more cruel than outright physical torture, and the surrealism adds uncertainty to the situation. Strongly yet subtly nightmarish.


“The Hedon-Ex Anomaly” by Jessy Randall

An unlikely method of adolescent control. If I understand this correctly, one student in the building is assigned to emit rays that put most of the classmates to sleep, except that some of them begin instead to spin uncontrollably. The selected student wears a helmet that he can’t remove except on remote command, when the decibel level exceeds a designated point. The narrator, a seventh-grade girl, happens to be trapped into this dervish state with a boy in her class, and they are overcome by intensive feelings of euphoria that leads to more.

When they knocked a while later we had dust all over our clothes and we must have looked like crazy people. I don’t even know what we looked like. Happy, probably. Probably disheveled and maybe older than thirteen suddenly.

I’m not sure just what point this is supposed to convey, except that authorities will go to extremes in order to control this population, but I’m not sure what kind of society would tolerate an anomaly that induces seventh graders to have an uncontrollable urge for sex. I do like the narrator’s voice, pretending to be scientific and objective in making her report.

“Thou Earth, Thou” by K M Ferebee

An incompatible couple. Mason is a city person, but he was aware that Dunbar was unhappy there, unhappy confined indoors, so he agreed to their move to the suburbs, where Dunbar fell in love with the garden at one particular house.

And, Mason was forced to admit, there was something pleasantly domestic about looking out the kitchen window and seeing his partner rooting in the sun-drenched greenery.

But there is something unnatural about Dunbar’s obsession with the garden, about the strange bones he digs up there, and Mason becomes more and more uncomfortable with living at the house.

The atmosphere of love between these two people is particularly well drawn; a sense of quiet but strong emotion pervades the setting, only slowly overcome by understated horror.

“Elvis in Bloom” by Karen Hueler

It seems that tiny Elvis seeds, packaged in plastic, are spreading across the world.

In a month or so they began to wiggle, and they got a dreamy kind of accent. In two months they began to sing and let their hair grow long and asked for soft foods and were undeniably drawn to glitter.

Highly absurd but also depressing, as the Elvises spend most of their lives just eating and growing and swelling up with new seeds. There’s an unsettling message here, about the way mass adulation can create its own object with its existence independent of the original.

“A Sackful of Ramps” by M K Hobson

Another variation on the Rapunzel story, this time from the point of view of the girl’s parents. Lita is batshit crazy and also pregnant, full of extreme obsessions and phobias, many of which center around the old woman next door.

No, Lita’s got it in her head that she’s got to have ramps from Edna Gothel’s kitchen garden or she’s going to die.

Toby knows that Lita is crazy, but she is the most beautiful thing he will ever have, even if she has a phobia about water and won’t wash. So he’ll go ask Edna Gothel for the ramps, but she is not a nice woman at all.

An appalling tale of dysfunctional, obsessive love.

“The Mismeasure of Me and How I Saved the World” by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator, not the sort in whom we can have great confidence, is a woman who claims she has been trying to find herself, a quest that takes on new urgency when she is attracted to a man. “I want to present him with the real me.” [Actually, it seems that she wants to present him with some false but more interesting version of herself.] Attempting to find herself in a vision, she sees or dreams an image:

a city all made out of red rock with domes and towers and fortifications, but I wasn’t sure it is was really a city or just an odd formation of cliff full of holes that looked like doors and windows.

There seem to be people flying around this city, and the narrator, convinced she is dreaming, attempts to fly to it. Instead, she falls off a cliff and is taken by a crow-like man back to his home in the city, all the time convinced she is dreaming yet unable to wake up.

A hallucinatory tale about being who someone else might want you to be. The narrator seems not to be able to find herself until she has someone else to be someone for. Or so she seems to believe. The low-key humor in the narrative voice, that seems to belong more to the author than the narrator, makes this an enjoyable, if perplexing read.

“Music Box” by David Rowinski

Patrick once found a magic music box and gave it to Janice for her birthday. Now, sneaking into her house with his idiot friend John to retrieve his stuff after the breakup, he is dismayed to see that John has picked up the music box as well. Patrick rediscovers in it all that was good about his relationship with Janice.

This isn’t an ambiguous fantasy. The magic in the music box is real and enchanting, capable of creating a river at his feet or filling his car with birds.

Birds perched atop the rear view mirror, upon the cup holder, along the back of the seat in vivid hues of red, green, blue, and orange. Recovered, the bird in his hand took flight, landing on the steering wheel. It promptly crapped on the column.

“The Sale of Midsummer” by Joan Aiken

Journalists visit an English village reputed to exist for only three days a year, at the season for which it is named. The locals all have a different explanation of the origin of this legend, but certain elements recur in them all. Not a particularly original premise, and the twist at the end not unexpected.

“The Malanesian” by Sarah Harris Wallman

Non-fantastic story about the maid who works for a rather clueless suburban couple. It’s fun to see the two seemingly disconnected threads come together and also to count the malapropisms that should have given Tanga away to more discerning employers.


On Spec #84, Spring 2011

Eight short stories in just over a hundred pages, along with other material of the usual sort. Most of these pieces are some sort of fantasy, even when nominally science fiction. Subgenre notwithstanding, there is a strong thematic resemblance among many of them, to the point that it isn’t a Good Thing to read so many works concerned with the errors of the characters’ pasts and the subsequent remorse/reformation/retribution/lesson learned. This zine has been better in the past.

“The Guardians” by Kate Riedel

As an adolescent, orphaned Jeannie happens on a path that leads to a hidden house where she discovers that Mellie lives – a girl her own age who has everything a girl could possibly want, pony included, except a friend. Jeannie and Mellie become the fastest of friends, except that Jeannie has to go to school and Mellie can’t leave her home where she seems to live alone except for Lisette, her governess. As adulthood looms, Mellie gives Jeannie a magic ring.

“We’re best friends,” Mellie said solemnly as she gave it to me, “We share everything. Wear this always, and if I’m ever in need, this ring will tell you.”

When Jeannie asks what would happen if she were ever in need, her friend laughs the question off. But in fact, it only underscores the profound inequality in their relationship, in which the sharing goes mostly one-way.

Most of this is told as a flashback from the first scene, so that we know from the beginning that Jeannie will end up with the custody of Mellie’s child; the question is how this happens. In the course of the telling, secret mysteries are revealed and Jeannie declares at the end that she doesn’t consider herself to have been shortchanged, let alone damned, as another character suggests. I’m not sure that everyone would agree, but it’s an intriguing question. The best story in the issue.

“Skipping Stones Until Nightfall” by Stacy Sinclair

Helen is in the hospital dying, and either the resentful ghost of her son is keeping vigil by her bedside or her guilt is making her hallucinate his presence. She believes her cancer is punishment for Will’s death. As she waits for the end, she recalls the scenes of happiness from earlier days, at their home on the lake, where he died.

This ambiguous fantasy is unconvincing because no reasonable reader would convict Helen. She may feel all the guilt in the world, but we know better.

“The Birds of Floor Number Forty-Seven” by Matthew Marinet

Post-apocalypse. The narrator is an orphaned child living alone with her dying grandmother; she snares birds for their meat, to eat and to trade. Grandma has a maybe-magic gold ring that summons a courting pair of maybe-imaginary/maybe-magic mourning doves, the poetic spirits of her marriage. This is a story of finding charitable kindness in the most unlikely place, but I see no charm in these birds; the female is mean and materialistic, and I would like to put her into a pie.

“No, Charlie, I do not want your heart. Come back when you have something beautiful to offer me.”

“Of Diamonds and Facets” by Bruce Taylor

Edward, escaping from his dysfunctional marriage to the beach, finds a magic diamond ring; each facet shows him either a scene from his happy youth or his unhappy present. This is supposed to be a warning that he should change his ways. Too unoriginal.

“Happy Elephants” by Robert P Switzer

Aliens who look like elephants come to Earth to urge humans to be happy. They tell people to “Make better choices.” Most humans are too dysfunctional to do this. A hopeless bunch. Another unoriginal story on the same unoriginal theme.

“Walled Gardens” by Angela Dorsey

It seems that humans have wiped out the plague of zombies except for a few zombie children. For some reason that makes no sense at all, a scientist is conducting an experiment in which a zombie child is locked into a garden. The garden cures the zombie child. This is mostly a story of the growing bond of real affection between one of the scientist’s assistants and the child, and as such, it works if readers can accept the premise.

“Broken” by Steven M Saus

The narrator discovers a fairy in the bedroom of his badly impaired son, preparing to switch him for a changeling. Now he has a choice. Readers will see this one coming from the beginning.

“Harry’s Mermaid” by Steve Vernon

Three aging losers, escaping from their pasts into the bottle, hang out at the harbor. One of them casts a line deeper than usual and brings up a something that isn’t a mermaid but rather a horrific version of a siren, luring them with regrets for their past mistakes.

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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