Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-September

Another mix of print and online sources. I’m seeing a lot of anthologies coming in for review these days.


Publications Reviewed


Panverse Three, edited by Dario Ciriello

The third in a small press anthology series of novellas, this one all SF, according to the editor; I call one of them not. I’m always happy to encourage more outlets for work at this length, particularly one so friendly to alternate history. It’s good to see the series is continuing. There are, as usual, five stories in about 275 pages. There is a variety of imaginative settings. If some of the stories are flawed, it is in more interesting ways than most.

“Orion Rising” by Jason Stoddard

Alternate history in which Freeman Dyson’s Orion project of nuclear-propelled spacecraft become a reality, so that humanity went out as far as Saturn and settled colonies on Mars. This has not proved to be the fulfillment of the old sciencefictional vision; in an extension of Cold War hostilities, the Mars colonies used their nukes to attack each other. Earth’s International Unity government in response has turned its back on space and forbidden all commerce with the colonies, fearing nuclear attack. Now Mars is near death from radiation and starvation, but its leaders refuse to give up the old dream. Because they won’t, Michael Hughes has hijacked a ship and come alone to ask for help. His presence creates a sensation, but not in a good way.

They played long documentaries about the Space War. They showed footage of the Russian leader and of Ted, both yelling at each other over grainy black and white video links. They showed the launch of Baikonur that started it all, heaving up from the ground. It was like the end of the world in reverse. They showed transmissions from Baikonur, from crew balding in the radioactive hell, from crew with open sores, from crew with eyes broad and darty, as if afraid to look past the next minutes of their lives. They showed simulations of what it must have been like in New Moscow when the bomb hit.

And no one, on Mars or Earth, can forget that the ship Michael left in orbit still contains several thousand nuclear bombs.

An oddly pastwards-looking work, informed so strongly by the Cold War mentality that readers might think it was discovered in some dust-covered truck of that era. Michael Hughes is certainly the man who fell to Earth. The author, I have to assume, intends all this satirically, floating out such an array of SF clichés in order to see them go bang when he punctures them. This is definitely the case with the romance of space travel, that bedrock article of SFnal faith. We see that space will not be the setting of utopias, particularly not libertarian paradises. The pioneers of space will not naturally be the best and brightest of humanity. Yet Michael Hughes, his father’s true son, can’t quite give up that old seductive dream. There is also irony, at least, in the fact that the leader of Earth, which has embraced nonviolence to the point that most people are required to take !!!drugs!!!, reacts to fragile Michael by punching him in the nose.

But it’s hard to see the satire in some other aspects of this work. For one thing, satire is supposed to be funny. This story isn’t. The ending certainly contains nothing of it. Is the author committing satire when he makes his Russians all shoe-banging clones of Khrushchev? Or by populating both worlds with the kind of people who pop off a nuke every time they’re peeved at the neighbors? No, I have to conclude that Stoddard is creating a straight version of a 1963 sciencefictional future, set at a time that is still in our own past. And, as such, readers will expect it to make sense. But we see here an Earth that is, rationally, terrified of the nuclear-armed Martians, so much so that they are willing to [almost] abandon nationalism. Yet, irrationally, they have not only done nothing to defend themselves from this threat, they have dismantled the defenses they once possessed, leaving themselves totally vulnerable. Michael Hughes can pilot a ship loaded with nukes into Earth orbit and they do nothing to stop him – because they can’t. This doesn’t make any sense, and even in satire, things have to make sense before they don’t.

“Junction 5” by Gavin Salisbury

Humans have settled a world where former inhabitants once built a global network of tracks, above which glided sentient trains. Some humans revived the trains and now travel on them perpetually, keeping ahead of the sunset, as they believe darkness will destroy their souls. They only pause briefly in the Junctions where settled people live, for trade. Kerr, an heir to the leadership of the train Tarsus, is betrayed by his brother and cast out at Junction 5, where he takes refuge among the witches, who have purposes of their own.

I stare along the lines disappearing to the east horizon, the source of all trains since we resurrected them all those orbits ago. Tarsus seems like a tiny parcel of life now, packaged and restricted. I still love the train as I would my surrogate father, but I am emptied of feeling for the people who ride him.

Some interesting world-building, although I wonder a bit about the acceleration of the trains and suspect that all the superstition about the light has its origin in the fact that they run on solar energy. But this isn’t the sort of SF that goes into such matters, or into the history of the original people who created them. The story belongs to Kerr as he comes to terms with his exile, confronting the falsity of both his family and his lifelong beliefs, though perhaps too trusting in his allies of convenience. Unfortunately, Kerr is lacking as a protagonist. In the end, he has only one true friend, the train, and that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu

As the title suggests, this is only minimally a work of fiction; it takes the form of a nonfictional narrative, cutting back and forth among different voices. The protagonists are a Chinese-American historian and a Japanese-American physicist, although we don’t hear the historian’s voice; he is the documentary’s posthumous subject. His story is a tragic one, a man whose well-intended obsession destroys him. Evan Wei’s life was changed when he saw a documentary about the Japanese occupation of China in WWII and the activities of the notorious Unit 731 where prisoners were tortured in the name of medical research. He had not previously known about this unit, and this fact first ended history for him, in the sense that he could no longer trust himself as a historian. The problem is, neither can I. Because, while I don’t call myself a historian, I certainly know about the atrocities in question and can’t credit that any historian whose field is Japanese history [albeit a different era] would not. This, at a time close to our own, in which children of the perpetrators and victims are still alive.

Wei is determined that these events become more widely acknowledged, and his wife, the physicist Akemi Kirino, provides a solution in the discovery of a quantum-entangled pair of particles, one that travels away at the speed of light while the other remains. By measuring the remaining particle, scientists can assess the information carried on the one further away, created in the past. In short, to view the past. OK, this is quantum handwavium that readers are supposed to accept as the story’s premise, but the problem is in the analogy used to establish it.

In other words, it is as though we have found a way to place a telescope as far away from the Earth, and as far back in time, as we like. If you want, you can look back on the day you were married, your first kiss, the moment you were born. But for each moment in the past, we get only one chance to look.

From this, the author tells us, each moment in the past, once recreated, is “gone forever” and can only be viewed once. And here is where the fragile thread suspending my disbelief snaps. Because, as the author later admits, one distant observer with a telescope definitely does not erase the event being observed. Any number of more distant observers can see the event again and again. This is the trouble with narrative handwavium – once readers take their eyes from the distraction and start to question the premise, it can all fall apart. And the “gone forever” premise is central to the story. It prevents the replication and thus the validation of the eyewitness testimony the process allows. It lays the groundwork for Evan being accused of “stealing and erasing” history.

Now, I’d have to say that I might be the ideal reader for any story about the epistemology of history. This one is full of the kind of stuff I gobble up with a spoon, largely revolving around the primary questions of historical truth and ethics: the subjectivity of perception, the unreliability of witness testimony, the place of narrative, the politicization of history, of denial, and the issue of whether history can be owned. Evan Wei’s quest was bound from the beginning to be tragic, because we know that too many people, even when confronted with incontrovertible facts, will persist in a contrary belief to which they are emotionally attached. [i.e., the world is full of fatheads. Even before politics gets involved.] In other words, I don’t believe the story really needed the history-erasing premise that kept tripping me up. While the documentary style is admittedly dull – as talking heads tend to be – this may still have been the best way for the author to make the points that he needed to make, even if it diminished its storyness.

“Martyrs” by Don D’Ammassa

Pennington is a guide on the planet Ochre whose clients are scientists studying the place, currently McNabb, who is attempting to discover the reason for the native Ochrans’ disappearance before the arrival of humans.

Pennington had been favorably impressed for the first half day, at which point she had realized that her part of the conversation was intended to be a succession of endorsements of McNabb’s opinions. The fact that she probably knew as much or more about the Ochran ruins than he was not a factor in their intercourse. Once she recognized that she was to be an echo rather than a sounding board, she slipped into that role easily. She’d worked with fools before. Their money was just as good as that of wiser men.

While annoying, McNabb actually has a good idea, investigating the cave system near an abandoned settlement, which turn out to be full of artificial chambers. Despite herself, Pennington is interested. But the cavern system is dangerous, with fumes and steam vents.

A nice combination of alien evolutionary theory and claustrophobic spelunking adventure, although the text sometimes gets kind of talky. Ochre’s desert is a harsh environment where the native species have evolved an evolutionary strategy in which males compete to be devoured by the females they mate with and newly hatched females devour each other until only the strongest remains. McNabb, and perhaps the author, mistake the strategy for altruism, an issue he debates at length with Pennington, and it turns out to have practical significance. Neat ending.

“Dust to Dust” by Tochi Onyebuchi

A slightly alternate Prague, as Soviet control over Eastern Europe crumbles. Radovan Novotny is a police inspector whose investigation of a series of murders leads him to suspect the alchemist Damek Vojak. At every crime scene, he has a vision of Vojak, watching him. Vojak has been attempting to revive the dead.

“The first [step] was the understanding of the elements that composed an object, its molecules, its atoms, all of that. . . . The second step was deconstruction, the breaking of those bonds. And the final step is reconstruction into something new, rebirth. A renaissance. But he was always thinking of the chemicals that compose us. He failed to see the components of mind, body, and soul.”

His creations are capable of burning people to ash with his touch. But he has a larger purpose that Rado slowly pieces together from the ashes, as the political situation in Eastern Europe is also going up in flames.

This is historical fantasy. Damek Vojak is a sorcerer, a necromancer, which puts the story over the line that science fiction does not cross. It’s also an alternative history of the fall of the Soviet bloc. As a person who grew up when the Soviet Union was a fact of life, it’s hard for me to believe now that it’s only been gone for two decades. Not everyone regretted its passing. Characters in this story are seeing their entire way of life swept away, wondering what will come next, what will their lives be like. There are quite a lot of characters passing in and out of the story, and it’s not entirely clear who some of them are and what role they play in the events; it makes the story confusing at several points. The author plays with their names, altering those of historical figures. We see a novelist named Kundera, but he is Franz, not Milan; a Milan appears, but he is someone else. Other than the names, the events appear to follow the pattern of our own timeline, but here, there is another force behind them. That makes it a secret history.



Redstone Science Fiction, September 2011

Featuring a pair of new writers with their first sales. Two promising debuts.

“The Jenny” by Cheryl Rydbom

Winner of the zine’s “Identity Crisis” contest. The narrator has come to the city to make her mark as an artist but finds herself working as a waitress in Mo’s Diner, her every move scripted by an AI. Smile brightly and say, “I’ll be right back with those drinks.” You have thirty seconds to fill the order. All the waitresses at Mo’s are Jennys. A holoprojection makes their appearance identical and they are not allowed to deviate from or anticipate the AI’s instructions.

The first-person narration works well here, as we only know the protagonist as “Jenny” until the last line of the story. It’s interesting to see the tiny ways in which she manages to assert her own identity without crossing the lines set by the AI. For a dystopian setting, this one comes to a pretty heartwarming conclusion.

“The Day the Pod Landed” by Jeff Cross

Sofia doesn’t want to stay in the village and take over the work running her mother’s coffee plantation. She dreams of power marketing.

A sound of thunder breaks her concentration. A huge shape tears through the clouds. It is a market expansion pod, an expeditionary unit from one of the great northern conglomerates. Flames flare as engines slow its descent, searing the surrounding forest. The pod lands. Sofia’s heart begins to race. Perhaps she does not need to leave the plantation after all. The life she wants may have found her.

After defeating the army unit, the pod unfolds with factories, stores and offices. Sofia gets an executive position there and begins to plan her assault on the head office. An audaciously cynical view of corporate exploitation. The absurdity lays bare some nasty underlying truths.


Apex Magazine, September 2011

Stories of resurrection and revenants.

“Namasté Prime” by Grá Linnaea

Tether has come home to New Ishvara, a “designated party city” that incessantly assaults the senses at maximum volume – that Tether only augments with drugs.

He fingered sub-dermal keys on the sides of his thumbs to control micro doses of cyclo-xylamines and altered phenethylamine into his brain stem. Each tap an acrobatic adjustment, maintaining the thin and precarious balance of quantities of psychoactives, amphetamines and psychedelics prodding and burning his brain.

But Tether has been gone too long and is now out of the loop, doesn’t even know what side to take in some local dispute.

This piece brings home to me forcefully that cyberpunk is long dead, with a few residual fictive zombies shambling around the genre, gibbering in jargon and clichés. A poor case for its resurrection.

“Frank” by Betsy Phillips

Frank works for the doc. He’s the enforcer. If the girls run away, he hunts them down. But both he and all the girls are already dead and under doc’s control. And his real name isn’t Frank.

The girls with names drink the doc’s drink and they go in the ground. After three days, the doc pulls them out again. If they seem right to him, they get a number instead, and they get to work. If they don’t seem right, we put them down. That’s how it goes, for as long as I can remember.

Now there’s a girl who knows his name. How did that happen?

Nicely-done excursion into dreamworld and hallucination.


Strange Horizons, September 2011

All three original stories for this month could be called science fiction, and two of them can hardly be anything else. Quite a change from the fantasy-heavy issues of a few years ago.

“The Fountain and the Shoe Store” by Paul Steven Marin

The narrator is an architect whose creations contain powerful features. The Fountain [officially the Fountain of Pure Joy – he didn’t name it] gives anyone an hour of happiness. This is largely in expiation of the disasters caused by his previous project, the Park at the End of the World.

“Yes, the Park, but more specifically the ever-expanding sulfur pit that ate the entire city of Carson. Also the escaped demons and the seventy-four people those zombies put in the hospital. And the boy the hellhounds caught and—”

A story about the way things never work out exactly as you plan, and how you can’t really make up for your mistakes, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I call this one fantasy, not science fiction, because none of it is remotely credible. Except maybe the shoe store. Which probably won’t be credible once it’s actually built.

“Messengers from the Stars Will Come to Help Us Overcome the Obstacles That Hold Us Back from Achieving Our True Potential” by Grady Hendrix

Shannon was working in a titty bar and hating her life when she met Messenger. Now she is Voyager Sraosha, preparing for Upload.

Messenger was offering me the chance to be set free in a Universe containing true joy and infinite wonder. Earth was offering me fast food and men staring at my tits for money. That was no choice at all.

The problem is that Upload from the body looks a lot like death. Voyager Sraosha suddenly feels that she doesn’t want to die. This is Error, as she knows. But she starts to cry and can’t stop.

A look at the attraction of cults. A depressing work, presenting us with the option between death and regret.

“A Box of Thunder” by Lewis Shiner

In a dystopian future, Alex has retreated to his boyhood home in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he has prepared for a seige.

The city lay in a natural bowl, surrounded by hills, the houses crowded onto the steep slopes like giant sugar cubes, white and mustard yellow and pastel pink and green and blue. Higher up were the eight commercial-scale wind turbines, 2 megawatts each, that Alex had used to buy the loyalty of the locals and bind the community together. The turbines had cost him everything he’d inherited from his father, everything he’d worked a lifetime for, every dollar contributed by the investors who had followed him down from the States, every penny he’d borrowed knowing he would never pay it back.

Officially, Guanajuato is pacifist, with no weapons allowed. But Alex has accumulated a large arsenal to protect the town. And now, as was always inevitable, the time has come when they will need it.

This is a story of leadership, moral leadership. Alex’s leadership is based on the faith that the population has in him, which makes it odd that it has all been based on a lie. The author contrasts his methods with the sort of leadership based on force, to which the rest of the world has apparently descended. But readers should not expect a feelgood ending. The author makes it clear that things don’t work that way, aren’t that simple. At one point, Alex makes a moral decision, for moral reasons. Yet it may well have doomed everyone. The English text employs angular quotation marks in place of the sort commonly used in English; I found this distracting.


Albedo One, Issue 40, 2011

The latest issue of this long-running Irish printzine hits 100 pp. There are twelve stories, covering most of the genre between SF and supernatural horror. Although the Kelly is a reprint, the original publication was so obscure that I agree with the editor in considering it effectively new to readers [particularly to me]. There were more scenes treating women as objects of either sex or violence than I would have preferred, and this led me to go counting author genders, a thing I rarely do, to discover that out of the dozen, only two are women. But some of the strongest scenes of misogyny come from one of these female authors. Go figure.

“Painting the Air” by James Patrick Kelly

A generically oriental setting in which djinn are a commonplace. Jaya is apprentice to an ancient master fan maker, but she longs to be released from her indenture and free to create her own masterpieces. Not a one of the masters parading in the Festival of Fans is under sixty years. Jaya gets her wish, but the consequences are not what she had expected.

A nicely-done cautionary tale about the ephemerality of fashion.

“The Dunce’s Castle” by Geoffrey Maloney

Gary is in some kind of hospital, if it really is a hospital, under interrogation concerning some clandestine events that took place in Pakistan. His hallucinations are such that he has no idea whether he is a boy in school, a man, or an elderly victim of dementia. Many of them involve the nurses:

three great stocky lasses with wide hips, and big bosoms bursting out of their immaculate white uniforms, and hard serious faces that looked as if they’d been painted on.

Strong echoes of The Prisoner here, nightmarish but less tasteful.

“The Drowner” by Peadar Ó Guilín

Muiris has been seized by a Drowner.

No amount of kicking will make a Drowner release its hold. No Biting, no thrashing. The creatures are known to swallow stones from the ocean floor and this allows them to pull you down and down further, just by hanging on.

But when he looks into the Drowner’s face, he recognizes a boy he once played with on the beach, a boy he might have loved.

A poignant piece about loneliness, with a twist.

“The Ghost Station” by Colin Harvey

Keith and his family move into an abandoned train station, despite the rumors that it is haunted. They should have heeded the warnings. Apparitions are popping up all over the place, whispering voices and wafting odors. Then he discovers that his stepson is actually communicating by email with a figure that calls himself The Centurion. Shortly afterwards, Peter’s computer electrocutes him.

It turns out to be SF, rather than a conventional ghost story. A fairly complex plot involving dysfunctional family relationships and revenge.

“Vanishing Tom’s Blues” by Robin Maginn

This one starts out as urban fantasy of the idyllic sort, in which street people possess a sort of magical aura and are treated as carriers of good luck by the other residents of Dublin. Tom, for example, can fly and manipulate fire. Then, overnight, it changes. The magic and love are gone.

[Tom’s] back ached and his mouth was dry and foul tasting. The bottom of his trousers smelled of piss where earlier a drunken man had relieved himself beside Tom. He rubbed his eyes, before he smelt that his hand had been lying in the puddle of piss. He spat on his hand to clean it.

An ambiguous fantasy. If Tom’s claims are true, he is a magical creature indeed, facing a darker and colder magic. Or it may be that he only symbolizes a better world, one of kindness and tolerance and charity, in contrast to the less pleasant world with which we are more familiar. The author leaves the answer literally up in the air.

“The Would-Be Adulterer” by Nigel Quinlan

Paul is part of the problem, a man building crappy tract housing out of greed, when he discovers that holes leaking shit are cropping up all over the landscape. He fantasizes having sex with a teenager he notices in a pub, he goes home to a family as repulsive as himself, while the shit continues to rise to the rooftops.

A rant. What the editorial blurb call “his little hate letter to the people who have made Ireland what it is today.” Which would seem to be: everyone. A dismal and distasteful vision that has no real point besides rantage.

“Thick Water” by Karen Heuler

Science fiction. A small group of human scientists have been dropped off on an unnamed planet where things are quite strange. The water in the ocean is so thick it can be walked on.

It was irresistible. “Did you notice the variations?” Brute asked. “The variations of shade. How it runs from almond to cream? How you can watch the colors move?”

Gradually, they take off their hoods, their suits. They breathe the air. They pick up the water in their hands. Only Sibbets, behind the plexi window of the lab, refuses to come out.

A story of extreme planetary seduction, with drastic consequences. The thick water is pretty neat stuff. Readers are going to have to wonder – was Sibbets right, or were the others? The author isn’t saying.

“Charles and Alice” by Christopher Aylett

Charles Dodgson and his Alice: a story of obsessive love that endures past death. Charon has changed his operation and now runs a train station instead of a ferry stage – a classic genre trope, but he is a kindly conductor and there is nothing ominous about his train.

The piece is well-done, but I have to think that the author isn’t quite getting Alice’s point when she complains that because of Dodgson she remained “Alice in Wonderland” all her life, “forever stuck in the world of his creation, just as he wanted.” What else is this story but a continuation of that curse?

“Billy Pete” by Alex Jennings

Cliff is apparently a phony because his name is really Walter and he’s made up a lot of what he tells people. His lover Mareike has become dissatisfied and left him, but, as she happens to be a witch, she leaves behind a spirit named Billy Pete [which I suspect is really some other name]. He finally invokes Billy Pete to bring Mari back to him. Magic things then happen.

The narrator/author seems to be telling us that Cliff is an asshole; the problem is, we don’t seem him acting like one. He loved his grandmother. He tips the street band. It’s impossible to tell if Mari’s complaints about him are justifiable. It’s also pretty impossible to tell what’s going on at the end of the story. Is Mari gone? Is Mari Billy Pete? Is she/they some supernatural being? Cliff finally says, “I get the message!” “I know!” But he doesn’t impart the meaning of this epiphany to the reader, who is left blinking in the afterimages of confusion.

“Tick Tock Life” by Dom Turner

Charlie was killed in a fall when he was a child, but instead of just dying, he jumped into the nearest person’s body. He does it again and again, apparently facing a future of immortality. Then someone presses the reset button.

This one is horror, and although the author leaves Charlie suspended between possible alternatives, it’s horror either way.

“Bridges” by Nick Wood

Alternate history, in which the apartheid regime in South Africa has endured to our own day. Deventer is a neuropsychologist who does not support his nation’s racism, currently treating a young Bantu man who doesn’t really trust his white therapist. Deventer has invented a device he calls the Empathy Enhancer and thinks he might use it to bridge the gap between him and his patient. But the session doesn’t go as he’d planned, and now the authorities are showing a non-therapeutic interest in the device.

A story of self-discovery. Deventer is forced to confront his own hypocrisies, such as the fact that he figures there will be fewer repercussions from his experimenting with the device on a black patient. As Sibusiso puts it, “You’re mostly okay, doctor – a little more racist than you think, but a little less racist than I … worried.” Deventer is a credible character, a person who realizes that his journey has only just begun. Unfortunately, I don’t find the home-workshop development of the box to as credible, or the fact that, first time on a human patient, it worked so very well.

“Canis Lupus, Rosa Canina” by Judith Brown

Back in the day when Mexico was offering cash bounties for Apache scalps, Wolf was a scalp hunter who, like many others, found Mexican goat herders easier to harvest than actual Apaches. As Wolf and his companions head towards San Salvatore to cash in, something is following them – maybe or maybe not wolves.

The animal stopped and turned and looked at him. It was a wolf-bitch, with a raw wound across her head and amber eyes, watchful in their steady gaze. Wolf fell to his knees with the rifle clutched to his chest like the arms of a cross and howled. The animal turned away and followed the pack down onto the plain.

Overt horror, strong stuff, and more than a bit reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. There is some suggestion that Wolf might be a werewolf, but this seems not to be the case. Instead, we find a ghost from his past, which I find a rather extraneous element; this character seems to have enough to haunt him as the result of his present activities.

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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