Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-October
No more Christmas stories in December issues, no Halloween stories for October.
- F&SF, Nov/Dec 2011
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #79, October 2011
- Realms of Fantasy, October 2011
- Strange Horizons, October 2011
- Fantasy Magazine, October 2011
- Lightspeed, October 2011
- Apex Magazine, October 2011
- Three-lobed Burning Eye, September 2011
F&SF, Nov/Dec 2011
The stories this time are all longer ones. Even the single “short story” comes close to crossing over the arbitrary line.
“Quartet and Triptych” by Matthew Hughes
A Luff Imbry story, reprinted from a source of sufficient obscurity that I don’t mind reviewing it here. In the far-future Archonate, the thief has decided it would be profitable to secure a group of rare and valuable alien figures, believed to be hidden in a maze on the grounds of a defunct family of aristocracy. The maze being full of deadly traps, he arranges to obtain the life mask of one of the deceased aristocrats, charged with her essence, in the belief that she will be able to negotiate the maze for him. But the essence in the mask has its own interests and demands, in exchange for which she offers an even greater treasure at the heart of the maze. At much greater risk.
For a moment, the vision of a contemplarium cell wavered back into his mind. Then it crashed into shards as a new image broke through: Imbry presiding over a roomful of connoisseurs, the wealthiest collectors from a hundred grand foundational worlds, up and down The Spray. And superimposed on the sight of the bidders, the imagined sounds of their voices, offering numbers in the millions of millions. Enough to buy…anything. Indeed, everything a Luff Imbry could ever want.
After which, things get complicated.
Readers familiar with Hughes’ work will know pretty well what kind of entertainment they’re getting here: the eccentric characters, the highly mannered prose, the intricate plot. It’s been a while since the zine printed one of these, and I suspect readers may have been missing them.
“The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Coming of age story. Thorn’s mother has dragged her from world to world, from one rotten boyfriend to the next. Now living in the theocratic city Glory to God, Thorn has reached the age of adolescent rebellion, which she expresses by wearing the veil of the religious extremists. But when they burn her school, she finds a new teacher in an old exile with many treasures and many secrets. As a mark of his faith in her maturity and responsibility, the Magister gives her an ice owl to care for, a creature that has to be kept frozen until it is ready to mate, which it never will as it is the last of its species. But Thorn keeps probing into his secrets until she discovers a link between them.
Some stories are about characters, some about plot, and some about setting. This is a character story; Thorn is an engaging adolescent protagonist, although the real center of the tale is the Magister and the tragic past that Thorn is driven to uncover. Yet the setting exerts a strong appeal of its own. There is a whole lot of Neat Stuff, such as the butterfly wing portrait. The butterflies from which it was made are now also extinct; this is a story of extinction and the tragedy of survivors clinging to the dead past. The “iron city” Glory of God, that exists in perpetual sundown, is so fascinating it’s hard not to want to know more of it, to know why the world rings like a bell.
The sound started so low it could only be heard by the bones; but as the moments passed the metal city itself began to ring in sympathetic harmony, till the sound resolved into a note — The Note, priests said, sung by the heart of God to set creation going.
But we never do learn, it’s simply the place where the characters happen to be at the moment. A bit distracting, a bit too much of a good thing.
“Under Glass” by Tim Sullivan
Bob Krovance was an eccentric who collected old posters, birds, and bottled souls. After he died of psittacosis, the narrator, chosen as executor of his estate, dutifully followed the terms of the will, found homes for the birds and delivered the souls to their designated recipients, Bob’s own soul was willed to the narrator.
Whether he could hear me or not, I was sure he would have approved. Somehow this experience made me appreciate belief in the supernatural in a way that reading about it never could. Bob had followed his own spiritual dictates and now I was kneeling at the altar he’d built out of discs, paper, bird doo, and glass.
This is a story of friendship and the duty we owe to our friends. It comes to no real conclusion or closure, despite much discussion on the issue by the characters, except that the narrator is definitely convinced that the souls in the bottles are real. But why did Bob want his own soul to be kept in a mason jar? And what should the narrator do with it now? We might compare the souls to Bob’s tropical birds – some people would believe they should be set free, but in fact most of them can’t survive outside their cages.
“They That Have Wings” by Evangeline Walton
An unpublished story of WWII discovered among the late author’s papers. After the defeat of British forces on Crete, three survivors flee into the desolate mountains of Crete. They find refuge with an old woman and her granddaughter, who are shunned by the Cretan peasants as witches, and the narrator is concerned that the young pilot and the girl are falling in love. But there is much worse that he needs to worry about.
The prose is rather stiff and stale, written as a series of diary entries by one of the soldiers, who, for some reason, sees alarming activities that ought to have him fleeing into the night, writes it all down, yet inexplicably tells himself it was only a dream. I can only conclude that there are times when a revered author’s unpublished work should remain that way.
“Object Three” by James L Cambias
There are Objects in space. The first-discovered, largest, has been a mystery to sapient species for a long, long time.
Beneath a layer of meteoric dust, the Object was made of a metallic-looking blue substance harder than any drill, impervious to any chemical agent, and apparently a perfect superconductor of heat. Even the most powerful lasers couldn’t affect it. A millionth of a gram of antimatter just rested lightly on the surface, and when the antimatter was detonated with a puff of gas, the flash left no mark. The surface was smooth except for a half-meter hole at one end, a rounded triangular depression with five smaller holes in it.
Eventually two other Objects were discovered, and the third appears as if it would fit perfectly into the depression in the first. Now a group of thieves has located the lost third Object and plans to steal it, each for their own purpose: profit, religion, knowledge.
A plotty crime thriller that ends in a satisfactory amount of action and treachery. But I can’t buy the proposition that no one would have already done the obvious thing with the third Object, as soon as it was discovered. The temptation would have been too great.
“How Peter Met Pan” by Albert E Cowdrey
The inevitable Cowdrey story. Global warming has turned the lower Mississippi valley into an inland sea, where University of Alberta students Tim and Pete have come backpacking during vacation. But there are a lot of drowned towns under the water, and a lot of ghosts and other things that go bump and bite — if you believe the tall tales of the locals, at least. Not much of a point to this one, that rests somewhere in between dark humor and horror, doing neither satisfactorily. Pete isn’t much of a character, and there isn’t much sympathizing with his plight.
“The Klepsydra A Chapter from A Faunary of Recondite Beings” by Michaela Roessner
Faux academia. Dr Maeve Paideuein is a linguist who becomes intrigued with the etymology of the term “klepsydra”, the common water clock of antiquity, wondering why it derives from the Greek root meaning “thief”. Some years later, she is invited to work on a trove of ancient manuscripts newly discovered at the site of Alexandria, where she discovers the fantastic creature for which the clock was named, as well as explaining other wonders of the ancient world.
This is the kind of fanciful apocryphal account I usually eat up, complete of course with footnotes, citations, and quoted verse. Alas, the worm of disbelief begins to burrow on the very first page, as the supposed Greek linguist tells us:
The latter part of the word, “sydra,” made perfect sense. It comes from the Greek hydros, for water. We see this root in such words as hydra (a small, water-dwelling polyp) and fire hydrant.
Well, no. The term “sydra” makes no sense at all. “Klepsydra”, a common word in Greek that any student of the language should know, doesn’t break down to “klep” and “sydra”, but to “kle[ps]” [with the letter psi] and “ydra”. I can have no confidence in a Greek linguist unfamiliar with this term and this orthography, so that what should be delightful is instead dubious.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #79, October 2011
The ezine celebrates its third birthday with Issue #79, featuring a double dose of fiction: four original stories with themes involving truth and justice.
“The Tiger’s Turn” by Richard Parks
A Lord Yamada detective story. Yamada goes to an imperial estate to investigate sinister doings after the death of its longtime steward. The deputies sent to take his place have all met with mysterious ends, and suspicion has fallen on a nearby rich and powerful monastery, which seems to want the estate for its own.
While it was indeed a seat of piety and learning, Enryaku-ji was also interested in its position and status and, yes, power and influence at Court and with the other temples, which is why so many of them had taken up arms in the past. In other words, the monks remained men, no matter how much they sought to distance themselves from the world, and wealth was useful to any man.
There is not a lot of action here, mostly explanations of the situation by Yamada, whose gift is seeing what most people would miss. The truth is discovered and justice is partially done; Yamada is pragmatic on such points. As usual in this series, there is a supernatural involvement, this time involving a most dangerous creature indeed.
“The Calendar of Saints” by Kat Howard
An alternate version of history in which the Church now honors the “scientific saints” such as Galileo and declares that scientific law is divine truth. It also upholds a version of trial by combat, in which fighters such as Jeanne take vows as Sacred Blades to establish the truth though blood.
The Arbiter reminds those watching that by the grace of God and Her holy saints, my victory will confirm the truth of Laurelle’s claim to chastity. Should my opponent prevail, his victory will give divine imprimatur to the bragging of Count Gregorio. When directed to do so, I kneel, holding my sword before me like a cross, as the Arbiter invokes God’s justice and mercy and asks that the light of truth shine down in judgment.
Jeanne is thrust into a moral dilemma when her oath requires her to defend a charge made by some members of the Church that certain conclusions of science contradict God’s law.
The descriptions of the saints are well done, but the aspect of this one that really interests me is the fact that ultimately the beliefs of Jeanne’s Church rest on an irreconcilable contradiction over the nature of truth. Divine truth and scientific truth cannot be the same thing. Divine truth, if it existed, must be absolute and immutable. Trial by combat, as Jeanne practices it, would be a direct expression of the divine will. Scientific truth, on the other hand, is empirical and contingent. Scientific dispute is indeed settled on the fields of lab and university, but its conclusions must be subject to alteration as new evidence is discovered. If scientific laws were divine truth, advancement in science would be heretical. Jeanne’s dedication to the truth is admirable, but impossible. The notion of scientific truth that she wants to champion would be the death of science itself. I like it when stories raise such issues, even indirectly.
“A Spoonful of Salt” by Nicole M Taylor
The night Naomi’s husband is drowned at sea, an apparition in his form appears and impregnates her, then disappears, leaving only a small pile of salt behind. The child, Mala, grows up odd and uncanny, shunned by the rest of the island, even though they aren’t aware of her ability to read their minds. When a researcher comes to the island, collecting stories, Mala offers to tell him all the secrets she has gathered.
She uncovered her neighbors, all their little sins and triumphs. She delighted in secrets, in sacreds, and Dr. Benjamin delighted in her. When she spoke, Mala lit up like a candle in a windstorm; she flickered and bent and danced and seemed to inhabit all the shapes of her stories. Mala, she was a thing to see.
Here are two stories: Naomi’s and Mala’s, and they don’t quite form a whole. Mala’s story is quite independent of Naomi’s, just as Mala has grown up independent of her mother. How she has obtained her power and what it had to do with her posthumous conception is kept from us, but we see how central it is to her life. Naomi, on the other hand, is said by the narrator to be dependent on Mala, as a reminder of her father, as a companion. We don’t see this, though, don’t see them together until the final scenes, when it’s too late.
“The Judge’s Right Hand” by J S Bangs
A horrific world where everyone is publicly judged and branded for their sins, even children as young as four years old. Henry Dodge is a sinner, already many times branded, but now he faces the death penalty for killing Jacob Finley and running off with his wife. It’s been years now, but there is no escaping Judgment forever.
“The Judge will hear you confess all of your sins,” the Bailiff says. “If he gives you justice, he will show you his left hand and you will be branded for your sins. But if he gives you mercy, he will show you his right hand and you will go away unblemished.”
This is a lie. The Judge’s right hand is bound behind his back by an iron chain, and he don’t give mercy to nobody.
Henry knows he deserves his punishment, but he doesn’t want to see his woman and child suffer for his sin.
The title says that it’s is a story about mercy, but I call it horror. Even if mercy is possible, the idea of living in such a world seems much too close to hell.
Realms of Fantasy, October 2011
Overall, a weaker issue than usual, although this isn’t the fault of the first three pieces.
“The Man Who Made No Mistakes” by Scott William Carter
Michael Palmer makes no mistakes because he can always back up in time and erase them, which he calls “switchbacking.” He first discovered the ability when an intruder attacked his mother; he later used it to obtain an education and wealth, which didn’t result in happiness, after he failed to save his mother from dying of AIDS. Then he meets a girl with whom he knows he could be happy, until he discovers one more thing his ability can’t alter – the color of his skin.
If she wouldn’t have said anything, that probably would have been it, I never would have seen her again and I would have hunkered down in front of my big screen television and drank away my sorrows until the memory of her was just a blur. But she had to say one more thing. She had to say one more thing that cut me right to the core.
“There’s just some things we can’t change, Michael,” she said. “No matter how much we want to, there’s just some things we can’t change.”
The longest and darkest piece in the issue reminds me a lot of the Steinmetz story reviewed earlier this month, but it is far more serious. Michael, despite his assurance that he can’t make a mistake, is gravely conflicted about the consequences of an act he knows he shouldn’t have committed. Thus he has come to church to offer his confession. The narrative switches between his own account and the point of view of the priest who reluctantly listens to it, which makes for a slow opening. The author leaves the resolution of the interesting moral dilemma to the readers.
“Sweeping the Hearthstone” by Betsy James
Corrie is an orphan who is hired as barmaid at a roadhouse where there is a very, very old hearthstone that attracts her strangely. Corrie undergoes a sexual awakening.
I liked men. Or boys, however you call them: those beings who smell so different and so good, who have deep voices and broad shoulders and cocks. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted from them, but I wanted it with my whole body. More than my body. I wanted it deep as the earth under that hearthstone, that had been there thousands of years rich and dark and wordless. Sometimes I’d lie on my belly on the stone knowing that if I wanted enough, if I just longed, I could draw whatever-it-was to me from sheer longing.
There is a good-hearted humor here that makes the story a pleasant read, largely owing to the character of the roadhouse owner who becomes Corrie’s protector and friend. Corrie’s sexual confusion is well-done, yet I have misgivings: she is young, and I wonder if she’s acting under some supernatural coercion.
“Second Childhood” by Jerry Oltion
Mazie’s mother unexpectedly shows up for a visit.
That wouldn’t have been a problem ten years ago, but ten years was about how long Mazie’s mom had been dead. Yet here she stood, looking as real as ever. Maybe more so, since she was naked as the day she was born.
Oltion’s stories always offer a fresh and original point of view. Here, he gives us a strongly heartwarming account of family ties, without a trace of mawkishness.
“Return to Paraiso” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
A repressive government has forcibly relocated the villagers from the shore to a mountain where they are unable to carry on their tradition of fishing. Those who object are labeled subversives. The young woman named Esme is arrested and jailed, but since Esme seems to be a goddess, this doesn’t work out well for her oppressors.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a point here. Once Esme’s power is established, the conclusion is anticlimactic.
“Barbie Marries the Jolly Fat Baker” by Nick DiChario
Life among the dolls. Paladin resents the fact that Princess Barbie prefers the obviously unworthy [because fat] baker to himself, so he sets out into the world to discover what it means to be a doll. The ironic tone, the scatological and sexual innuendo, don’t make this any less silly.
Strange Horizons, October 2011
A superior month, well-done stories with wit and originality.
“Destiny, with a Blackberry Sauce” by David J Schwartz
Written as a series of sketches, the narrator relates how he has attempted to escape a troublesome destiny that keeps trying to foist itself either on him or his twin brother, who prefer hunting and fishing. Destiny keeps sending them messengers, but they don’t seem to know which brother is the one meant.
To be honest I didn’t listen for long before I shot it clean out of the tree — my first kill. It was a good-sized mourning dove, and it made for a decent roast. A couple of weeks later Mel came home with one, which was how I found out that they talk to him too. They show up every so often, sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes not for months at a time. We call them destiny doves. Turns out destiny tastes great with a blackberry sauce…
This one takes on a wholesale lot of shopworn fairytale tropes, puncturing them with an irreverent flourish and an ironic flavor.
“The Fourth Board” by D J Muir
A future mixing SF and fantasy. Jinli has foresight, the power to see the future, so she knows that today the Tyrant will come for a visit to his old friend her father’s teahouse, that they will play a board game, and that he will ask her for a prediction. But beyond that moment, she cannot see.
Only this afternoon is a storm of fragments which fly like snowflakes in a blizzard, a broken whiteout time. She can hear, see, smell, touch nothing. And when she thinks of tomorrow, she sees fractured images, as though each shard of a broken screen were playing a different vid, and she hears shattered soundtracks screech like sirens. There will be a tomorrow; but for the first time, what tomorrow will be she cannot say.
But Jinli can see in different ways. She is observant, aware of the spy devices set by the Tyrant’s security, aware of the invisible guards watching, and very much aware of the blocking device that interferes with her power. Which means that someone does not want the Tyrant to be warned. How, then, can she warn him without warning his enemies?
A polished setting crafted of finely-cut prose, a subtle plot where the game is the metaphor for real political intrigue.
“Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel” by Shaenon K Garrity
Subtitled: With apologies to Jorge Luis Borgos
Specifically, the branch library in Dublin, Ohio,
where roughly 72% of books are Moby-Dick. Our library contains, within in its stacks, every edition of Moby-Dick that ever has been or will be or could be published. So does the main Library, of course, but at our branch the probability of coming across one of them is much higher.
Unfortunately, the city council of Dublin has voted to cut off the library’s funding. Bev and Carol, the librarians, do what they can to save it.
Infinities and bibliophilia, who could want more? Cleverly done.
Fantasy Magazine, October 2011
A pair of tales that begin, at least, in contemporary settings.
“The Secret Beach” by Tim Pratt
The narrator, a gone-to-seed loser, happens upon a portal to a secret beach in a secret universe.
I sank to my knees in the warm sand and stared at the grand expanse of tumbling waves, and thought if this was a coma or some profound electrochemical misfiring in my brain, then so be it: It was the most beautiful way to go I could imagine.
But the way of magic, of fantasy and fairy tales, is that nothing just happens. Things are meant to happen, as the man who was there before him explains; the narrator was meant to come there in aid of the other man’s quest.
A story of destiny and of the ones who aren’t chosen. It raises the question whether destiny is something we need to deserve, because the narrator doesn’t seem very deserving. Yet despite his being an unlikely object of sympathy, there was a time when his life was opening out, not closing in; he has or had a heart where this beach now occupies a cherished place. For an interesting juxtaposition of viewpoints on destiny, readers might place this one alongside the David Schwartz story from Strange Horizons, reviewed above.
“Unnatural Disaster” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Jaclyn Tadero, traumatized by a shooting in Chicago, has taken refuge as police chief in a small town on the Oregon coast, where she believes the locals all hate her for ignoring their superstitions. One of which is the existence of a sea creature that snatches people off the beach during storms and upheavals. Now a tsunami is threatening the coast, and Tadero is trying to keep idiots and tourists off the beach, when she stumbles onto something with tentacles.
All she saw were shapes, and the odd luminescence that the ocean always had, even though that was muted because of the cloud cover. The radio crackled and she put it away, not wanting to deal with anyone’s ridicule, not yet.
But one of the idiots is the local coroner, determined to get a specimen.
Angst-burdened character confronts crisis, achieves closure. Too much angst, too much closure, complete with repetitive codas.
Lightspeed, October 2011
Two stories of future war’s consequences for the human body.
“Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro
Rebecca’s husband Bob is home from the war. That is, all that remains of him, which is his pair of hands, linked to his downloaded mind. Bob’s hands also have PTSD. Rebecca and Bob were in love with each other. Can their marriage survive?
Strong stuff here, by which I mean disturbing images and also powerful ones. This one stands in a long antiwar tradition featuring maimed survivors, such as Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye: [Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg. Ye’ll have to be put with a bowl out to beg.] It raises hard questions: whether it might be less cruel to allow such grossly damaged individuals to die, and the effect on both the victims and the families now responsible for them. This is primarily Rebecca’s story, the wife who unhappily finds herself with what remains of the man she married, the man she loved. Most of us know that the soldier who comes home is often not the same person who went away to war. Is it possible to continue to love this different person? And what of the marriages in which the love had already died?
Of course the premise is also absurd, which is an audacious choice for the author and one that requires keeping to a very narrow path between pathos and farce, because this is a story meant to be taken seriously, a story that asks the reader to face serious questions, and the risk is that it will fall flat on its face by tripping over a single false note. The author strikes that unfortunate farcical note in the second paragraph, when he refers to a soldier of whom “only a strip of skin and muscle remained: A section of her thigh, about the size and shape of a cigarette pack, returned to her parents in a box and now living in their upstairs room, where it made a living proofreading articles on the internet.” The story does manage to recover, however, and later, in a scene at a veterans’ support group, we see the veterans making macabre jokes about their condition,
when the man who was just a strip of face said that he’d met a guy, back in the hospital, who had turned out to be nothing but an asshole. The wife of the torso said that she’d met one guy who was a real dick.
But this is a true note, the sort of macabre humor that people in such situations may employ to make it possible to bear what might otherwise be unbearable, when it’s necessary for social reasons to lie and pretend they’re OK, when they’re not OK at all. Overall, a strong statement against the obscenity of war.
“Against Eternity” by David Farland
The second-person future tense narrative gives this short piece much of its interest. The narrator holds out hope of overcoming aging and death, although some might say it’s at the cost of selling your soul to the military for cyborgization – a devil’s bargain.
They won’t need much of you, of course: Only five pounds of brain matter. It will be cut away from the rest of your body, and your husk will be discarded—the sagging flesh, the brittle bones, that bladder that no longer functions well anyway.
The narrator thinks differently, but I find his scheme way overly optimistic, a dream of immortality rather than a possibility. If something like these developments ever did come to pass, I suspect the outcome would be much less happy.
Apex Magazine, October 2011
Some lengthy titles to the stories here this time, but title length doesn’t mean much.
“I Am Thinking of You in the Spaces Between” by Shira Lipkin
A love letter. The writer, known as Sarah Walker, was the victim of an experiment gone wrong, that left her and her fellows with the ability to move between parallel worlds – an ability that the government decided to exploit. But Sarah has found her true love, and as she moves from world to world, she can’t help looking for the local versions of him.
I fall a little in love every time. And every time, I end up back in your apartment, back in your bed, my hair falling all around a different you, your hands with their calluses in the wrong places, your missing scars.
Romance readers should like this weeper, but it’s a bit much for me.
“To the Mistress of the Labyrinth Give Honey” by Heather McDougal
The narrator is a sort of succubus, addressing the sleeper as she invades the twisted architecture of his dreams, where she uncovers the secrets of a sexual psychopath. They both get off on it. Apparently the reader is invited to do so, too. This is fantasy more in the sense of porn than genre.
Three-lobed Burning Eye, September 2011
Latest issue of this zine with a very irregular schedule that seems to come out, more often than not, around the autumnal solstice. There are six stories, three also available in audio versions. Given the motto: “Stories monsters like to read”, I had expected more horror, but most of these tales are more weird and obscure than scary.
“The Far Bank” by Bret Tallman
David Bell makes a deal with someone not quite the devil to cross over the river into the land of the dead, where he knows he will find his eleven-year-old son.
“Danny must have seen his killer’s face and heard his voice, maybe even knows his name. I’m going to return to the living, find the man who took my son and kill him.”
His quest doesn’t go altogether well. It’s classic horror, full of guilt and retribution. Although Bell comes to a resolution at the end, the land of the dead is definitely not finished with him. Nicely done.
“The Cold Death of Papa November” by Sunny Moraine
A man whose wife is now dead of cancer led a mysterious existence while alive, in a job that had something to do with a shortwave radio that broadcasts in numerical code. Now, in his grief, he believes the radio will give him the message that she promised him before she died, and it comes, apparently, as geographical coordinates of a location somewhere in the east of the Kola Peninsula, a place notoriously contaminated by nuclear waste [except that the exact coordinates are of the town of Kanevka, which isn’t] – known, of course, to cause cancer. That’s as much sense as I make of this very obscure piece, not really fantastic unless you count the two-headed raven, which is a metaphorical sort of bird and perhaps not literally present.
“Hard Lesson” by Steven Saus
Science fiction. A long, involved backstory here, as centuries have passed, and many wars, since the insectoid aliens called Segarthi originally landed on Earth. It’s now just after the US Civil War, and the human widow of the last surviving Segarthi is only concerned with raising her hybrid son when another Segarthi ship lands and is immediately attacked by fanatical residents of the nearest town. This is unwise, as Segarthi magic is powerful. Now Sarai, who has also been invested with this magic by her mate, stands between two intolerant forces with the life of her son at stake.
Seems to be some kind of sequel or outtake from a longer work, a mix of SF and alternate history in which the long involvement of aliens somehow doesn’t alter the course of human events. The author has integrated the background pretty well into the current work, a grim piece that doesn’t hold out much hope for interspecies amity.
“The Burning One” by Miles Hurt
Iblesh is a loser, a young man who can do nothing right, an object of scorn for everyone in his tribe except for his grandmother. The tribe is migratory. Sometimes they settle for a time at an oasis where they make the sheets of paper from which they construct their houses, clothing and almost everything else. [We aren’t told what they make the paper from, but I assume it must be lichen, as nothing else seems to grow where they live.] When they follow the migration route of a birdlike reptile, they hunt. It is not uncommon for members of the tribe to collapse on the trek, and when this happens, a burning figure comes to consume the afflicted with fire. This happened to Iblesh’s parents, and the sight haunts his nightmares.
A depressing work. It seems to me that Iblesh would have done better if people had been more forthcoming about the reality of the tribe’s situation instead of making it a mystery. Secrets only lead to trouble.
“The Smile” by Nick Tramdack
A very strange backstory: long ago, the original city of Argitrav was catastrophically destroyed. Now, in Second Argitrav, the city’s currency is based on units of grief [calculated by an electronic device] as the population mourns the past event and wallows constantly in tragedy. The narrator is an outsider and a spy.
‘Exchange’ described my little side business just as it did my day job, speculating on the conversion rate between the Argitravian dole (eternally standardized at one good solid sob) and foreign guilders, nails, shogin, and GP.
He insinuates himself into the confidence of an attractive noblewoman, wife of the head of the Griever Party, who happens to be unable to grieve. He thinks he’s practicing extortion, but matters turn out to be more complicated.
The premise, of course, is absurd, and the narrator’s voice cynical, which provides some entertaining fantasy of manners for those who can suspend disbelief.
“The Last Doll War” by Wendy N Wagner
A post-apocalypse world. The [last surviving?] human dollmaker has animated his creations with a blue fluid that holds the memories of dead humanity, but he is now either dead or dying on lifesupport, so that the dolls have had to learn to repair themselves. Tabitha and Astaire were created as dancing dolls, but Astaire has rebelled against his creator and wants to destroy every doll.
More interesting than the dolls is the vast mausoleum where they live, lined with failed stasis chambers containing the remains of humanity.
Some were dark, their contents blessedly invisible. Others, lit like display windows, displayed their residents without shame. After all this time, however long it had been, most of the chambers contained only a slurry of digested goo, but there were others where it was possible to see entire body parts, even the occasional complete cadaver. The worst were the ones that still had faces.
Aside from this glance, we know little more about humanity’s fate and whatever poisoned the world’s atmosphere. It would be depressing if there were anyone left to care, besides dolls.
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