Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early November

A sizable batch of first-of-the-month ezines and one small press printzine. After a bit of a drought, I bring out the Good Story award again, this time for Catherynne M Valente’s piece in Apex, a good issue of this zine.


Publications Reviewed


Apex Magazine, November 2011

In which we find former editor Valente as a fiction contributor, along with Elizabeth Bear. A good start for new editor Lynne M Thomas, and I must say I greatly prefer things this way. Now, a teensy bit of attention to proofreading…

“The Leavings of the Wolf” by Elizabeth Bear

Readers familiar with the pertinent myth will know the divine name that goes with this title, although Dagmar is a researcher of crows, which suggests a different god.

She had been to Stockholm, to Malmö where her grandfather had been born. She’d met her Swedish cousins and eaten lingonberries outside of an Ikea. She knew enough of the myths of her ancestors to find the idea of Thought and Memory accompanying her ritual expurgation of the self-inflicted sin of marrying the wrong man…


She is also in the aftermath of a nasty divorce, but foolishly will not cut off her ring, although it seems that it might totally cut off the circulation to her finger. Instead, she tries to reduce by running, until the day she has an Encounter.

Less an ambiguous fantasy than a brief intrusion of the supernatural into a mundane life, although it’s quite a while coming. Sharp narrative voice. Good mythic values. Wise things are said about the nature of sacrifice.

“The Bread We Eat in Dreams” by Catherynne M Valente

In a sea of long grass and tiny yellow blueberry flowers some ways off of Route 1, just about halfway between Cobscook Bay and Passamaquoddy Bay, the town of Sauve-Majeure puts up its back against the Bald Moose Mountains. It’s not a big place—looks a little like some big, old cannon shot a load of houses and half-finished streets at the foothills and left them where they fell.

Now, that’s description! From the first sentence, readers know where they are and that they’re in good writerly hands. It seems that Sauve-Majeure is the residence of a demon exiled from Hell, who currently goes by the name of Agnes. She had once been the baker of Hell and resumed that occupation on Earth, raising up the village around her for the sake of companionship.

Beautifully written, wonderfully conceived, and the penultimate line rings with truth.



Clarkesworld, November 2011

Two very optimistic futures and part II of a serial.

“A Militant Peace” by David Klecha and Tobias S Buckell

A new non-violent way of war. It seems that the UN has had enough of North Korea’s oppression of its own people and decides to stage an intervention, sponsored by some of the world’s biggest consumer corporations. The Vietnamese military is assigned the lead role, but Sergeant Mai is dubious about the strict requirement of nonviolence, even to save lives. Her advanced armor is enough to keep her safe, but she can’t help hearing the distant sound of gunshots as civilians are killed to prevent them from reaching the safety of the UN post.

This whole scenario works way too well, depending on super-advanced technology that works way too well. It’s not that the authors are not taken in by their own invention; their sympathies are largely with Mai, who understands that there are times when violence is going to be necessary. But this is a war where the scorecard is all PR, and where vital equipment is delayed because the advertising rights haven’t yet been worked out. I still think the operation is too competent to be quite credible, a battle plan that survives contact with the enemy for way too long.

“The Smell of Orange Groves” by Lavie Tidhar

In a future Tel Aviv, a city of peace and prosperity, Boris Aaron Chong has returned home to see his father, who is suffering from the effects of a family curse. His grandfather Weiwei had made a deal with an artificial intelligence [I think] whereby his family will always remember him – whether they want to or not. They will also remember each other, across the generations. But in the case of Vlad, the memory has overgrown his own mind.

Memory like a cancer growing. Boris was a doctor, he had seen Weiwei Bridge for himself — that strange semi-organic growth that wove itself into the Chongs’ cerebral cortex and into the grey matter of their brains, interfacing with their nodes, growing, strange delicate spirals of alien matter, an evolved technology, forbidden, Other.

This is a story of memory, natural and artificial. Boris is awash in memories – his own, his father’s, relatives he has never met, and a city of the past that died long before any of them were alive, with the scent of orange groves and sand and the sea. But the story is all memory, which is to say, it is all backstory, and the author piles it on, one layer after the other, until the now is buried. There is just too much.

The author has previously written of Israel’s cities’ past and future, but I have never seen him deal quite so directly with the situation, which, in this timeline, is barely remembered. Somehow, it has all been made right, and Jews, Arabs and Chinese coexist in crowded harmony on the city’s beaches. Of this part of the backstory, we are told very little. It’s an act of optimistic faith.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, November 2011

Four pieces of non-serialized short fiction here. I do wish this zine would put a ToC on its home page.

“Under the Surface” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Edona’s family has power over the elements; hers is water. This comes in handy when a tsunami strikes the coast.

In the last lick of water across my feet I felt something strange, something shocking, a shake, a startlement in the worldnet that was ocean. Something distant, something huge —

Like many of the author’s stories, this one is about family. And love. It’s rather cursory, however, and seems as if it might be part of a series about this extended magical clan, in which the background is further explored.

“Nanoparticle Jive” by Tomas L Martin

In a cyberfuture, Brendan is trying hard to climb the ranks of success, both as a physics student and a DJ. Everything depends on rep, which can rise and sink in seconds; only tagging along with Rachel gets Brendan’s rep barely high enough to get him into a trendy club where he might get his music played. But Rachel and physics don’t mix. An upbeat Lesson Story.

“Walks Before Greatness” by Kate Marshall

In an isolated village that lives under the protection of a flesh-devouring tree, twins were born. Ainara had the unmistakable signs of one born to greatness.

I might have hated her. The tales our grandmothers told were full of brothers who turned axe or club or flint-tipped arrow against one another, or sisters who laid ears flat to the ground to hear the serpents speak of poison. My sister was great, and I was only the one who walked before her.

But Tanith is in fact a powerful singer who can communicate with the great tree. All is well between them until a strange man comes to the village, where strangers never come.

An interesting setting, particularly for its conflicting views of twins and the rivalry between them.

“Counterclockwise” by Alethea Kontis

Alternate history in which the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot split the universe into three. One Halloween, when the gates among the universes are open, a man comes to Edith from the Tertiary Universe and tells her she is his lifelong love. From that time, their affair begins.

“I don’t want to spend every year not knowing,” said Edith. “And when it happens, I don’t want you to waste most of that day searching for me.” He failed to suppress a smirk, and she paused. “But you already know this. You already know that I’ve asked, and you’ve answered, and now you’re just teasing me.”

Edith is originally content to have their love intermittently, living past each other in time, but Edward wants to alter the universes and the future so they can live it together.

The only really adult story in the issue. I really like the Guy Fawkes/Samhain conjunction, but the main storyline is all too similar to Niffenegger’s masterpiece to give it high points for originality.


Abyss & Apex, 4th quarter 2011

Issue posted belatedly due to computer problems. I’m not very impressed by this batch of fiction.

“The Old Factory Award” by Grey Freeman

Once a year the abandoned factory is opened for the annual awards ceremony honoring archetypes of scent. This year, Coffee wins.

I find this one flawed. The author seems to be straining too hard with his prose, resulting in odd and jarring word choices. “infirm of modern purpose” – What does that mean? And the initial description of the factory makes it appear long-deserted, “derelict.”

It has few windows left. Those lower down have scabbed over in rough rectangles of vibrant red brick, newer than their neighbours. Those that remain are high beyond reach, their panes empty or filled with crooked holes.

This does not seem to be a building that is cleaned and refurbished anew every year. It’s a building that’s been standing empty for so many years that kids throw rocks at the windows to hear the glass break.

“Keeping Tabs” by Kenneth Schneyer

Dorothy, a waitress leading a hard life, manages with difficulty to scrape up enough money to buy a Tab on her favorite actress, a couple of hours at a time to live in her mind.

The ones who were just breaking in and the soap actors and such, they all got Tabs, because they had to. It was really good for advertising, you know? The soap stars get only part-time Tabs, only a few hours a day, and they get to choose when they’re going to be Tabbed, which means they can get as much privacy as they need.

But it isn’t so.

Effectively shows the creepiness of this situation, the sick fascination that so many people have with “celebrities”. It becomes a bit dreary reading Dorothy’s uninformed point of view, however.

“Silvergrass Mirror” by Amanda M Hayes

Eisle is an herbalist, successful at her trade, who becomes curious when she notices an unusual number of people out in the swamp searching for silvergrass. She goes to the wizard-Lord’s tower to do some research in the library.

Silvergrass… the alchemical index referred to it without hinting at its purpose. Unconfirmed, it said. Old papers speak of this, but we have never seen a sample. And, A pretty story of dubious provenance, the Judeny study scoffed, but Eisle knew the Judeny and had seen for herself plenty of things it denied.

It seems that the wizard himself wants the silvergrass to make a magic mirror that will let him communicate with his distant betrothed; a wizard is supposed to remain close within his tower and domain, and this wizard is a young man in love.

A love story with magic and monsters. The opening scenes, unfortunately, are confusing and disorienting.

“Random Fire” by Van Aaron Hughes

Temporal paradox. The narrator is a physicist who had just made a major breakthrough, showing that the same particle can simultaneously [???] occupy the same space at different times.

My version uses an electron gun with tiny variations in the firing sequence, variations independent of the magnetic field or the electron’s topology or spin or string rotation, which creates a random element as to when the gun fires. The key was randomizing the gun just the right way so the wave function controls when, not where, the particle fires. In essence, I’m conducting a double-slit experiment with the slits offset in time rather than space.

At the same time, he is distracted by becoming a new father for the first time.

This one does a neat thing I’ve never seen done exactly this way before, that could only be done in hypertext, a medium generally overrated. The story itself isn’t overly well done, but the neat thing is so neat I might almost overlook the fact.

“Hungry” by Ryan J Southworth

Every forty years, at the conjunction of the two moons, a horde of ravenous demons hatches and attempts to devour all the food in the kingdom. Humans mobilize to guard the supplies and fight them off, to survive so they can rebuild again. Queen Adalira has lived through this time before, and now she is weary with old age; nonetheless, her devoted people hurry her to safety, where she wonders if life is worth it.

The subplot about the queen’s slave ties in nicely at the end.

“Of Earth” by Sandra McDonald

The narrator takes his wife to the human-races. It’s not clear how nonhuman the rulers are. Nothing original in this very short piece.

“Rock ’em Sock ’em” by Jaelithe Ingold

Sibling rivalry as the kids make their golems fight each other. Meh.


GigaNotoSaurus, November 2011

A nice long story this time, that I read as YA.

“Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Steinmetz

The kraut [or is it kimchee?] is the specialty of the Denahue family space station, a cash crop made from their own hydroponically-grown cabbages. Lizzie, a lonely child, is happy when Themba’s ship is disabled near the station and she can make a friend. She doesn’t understand what it means that Themba is a hostage to the Gineer, until war comes and the station is caught in the middle. Lizzie becomes the station medic, tending to troops of both sides alike, while supplies run low and desperation grows.

The Gineer soldiers shouted at her because this God-damned dry waste of a station had no alcohol to buy. The Web yelled because where had the Angel of Sauerkraut Station been when Ghalyela took a bullet to the head?

There are a lot of cold equations here, and hard choices: a Cautionary Tale about the idiocy of wars. But primarily it’s a coming-of-age story, and a positive one.


Redstone Science Fiction, November 2011

Two stories with reasonably interesting ideas, but I have problems with the prose of the first.

“Passive Resistance” by David Tallerman

Action thriller. Alec is a prominent pacifist, suddenly forced to face the threat of assassins on his own, after the loss of his bodyguard. The action stuff works well enough, after the author first puts it on hold for a long and unnecessary discussion of Alec’s mental implant. But not only does he tell his character to “get orientated,” he also describes him as “disorientated.” Wrong and bad and unacceptable.

“On the Sabbath Day Be Ye Cleansed” by Amanda C Davis

An unlikely dystopia. It seems that we’re on a colony set up for a group of people to lead trouble-free lives – this apparently being their own choice. Once a week, their memories are Purged [cleansed is the better word] and they start over fresh. Then the Purge mechanism breaks down and they are forced to confront reality.

We don’t know how this all works, because the narrator doesn’t. So it’s hard to tell whether the state of cleanliness he yearns for is more physical or psychological, how much is sin and how much is bodily secretions. But there is the heart of the story, that makes it original and interesting.

The edge of a playing card sliced my finger. A miniscule tear of blood welled up. The prick of pain and dot of red made me aware of my skin, what was happening to me, and I felt this: the foulness of skin-oils. The grease of my hair. The sick cottony sour-coating of my mouth.


Kaleidotrope, Fall 2011

The last print edition of this little zine, which will now shift to electronic publication as so many others have done. There are many short pieces of prose in about 90 pp, as well as verse. Though I am not enthusiastic about the shorter length, many of the stories offer images that make a strong impression – surreal, fantastic, imaginative. Worth reading.

“The Flowering Cage” by Forrest Aguirre

The narrator tells us that martyrdom was common in that place and time, so it took a particularly striking piece of self-abuse to get attention. This was the man in the cage.

The cage was ill-fitting, and this was appropriate. Else what kind of sacrifice would it be to wear it? All who saw it agreed that it could fit no other way. True, the arms and legs protruded out, free from constraint. But the man’s conical head, hunched back, and groin pressed up uncomfortably against the bars, giving his trunk a strange fetal appearance.

The flowers, though, were not part of the cage but of the penitent, eventually, as he returned to the village, covering every bit of his body.

A memorable piece of grotesque fabulism.

“Great Clerks of Necromancy” by Paul Abbamondi

Unwanted, the magician corpses were pushed up onto the beach. The tide roared with each body. Three, five, nine—no, at least fifteen-plus. All in their tuxes still. Foamy surf outlined their flaccid forms, and overhead friends and foes cried out, warning all of Atlantic County to stay away: death, death, a touch, a vanish.

The birds try to warn the humans of the danger, but no one listens to birds.

Briefly tantalizing. Readers may wonder about the magicians, but the birds don’t know.

“The Crocus and the Clock Tower” by S L Nickerson

A surreal voyage across a sea of blueberries and flowers, where the narrator refuses to settle on land despite the temptations that he meets.

Because the island was upside-down I had to crane my neck up to get in a good look at it. The black sands of the beaches hissed in the blue-red light, enclosing both palm forests and smoldering volcanoes. Their peaks pointed down at us like stalactites and the smoke blew into the waters, sizzling.

One of the longer and weirder stories here, a really fantastic voyage across a sea of illusions.


“Godfrey’s Zoo” by Daniel LeMoal

Jimmy’s boss sends him to get the rent from his wacked-out nephew, where Jimmy discovers, among escaped tarantulas, that Godfrey also has a human brain in a vat. The brain isn’t happy in Godfrey’s apartment.

“It’s my brain, I’ll do what I want with it,” Godfrey said, administering one final shove. This was enough to dislodge the ant farm, which resided several shelves up from the brain. A deluge of ants and soil poured down on the brain’s casing. The agitated insects swarmed over the glass orb with riotous intensity; the brain suddenly looked as though it was being broadcast on an ancient television set. A hostile, ambient hum filled the room.

Nominally SF, a gonzoid rush of craziness with disturbing overtones that make it a pretty dark comic fantasy.

“The Printer Repairman” by Josh Pearce

The repairman cuts up and reassembles the original typewritten manuscript of Gibson’s Neuromancer to reveal its hidden secrets. Nonsensical, in a compelling way.

“Haphazarding the Future” by K R Hager

A dystopian society in which Michelle confronts the fact that her son would become a Drainer instead of a Contributor. Fairly standard stuff, but well-written.

“Too Close to the Sun” by Eirik Gumney

Icarus keeps trying. A modern encounter, an intimate one. I regard it as tragic, to be trapped in an eternal loop of failure, but the characters don’t seem to see it that way.

“Phos” by Anne Michaud

Unoriginal horror. Strange insects have invaded. An idiot who claims to be a scientist captures one to study. The opening is confusing due to poor grasp of grammar.

“Pronouncement” by Jacob Edwards

Alien murder case, complicated by linguistic confusion. Amusing.

“Space Out of Time” by Kimberly Todd Wade

The effects of prolonged space travel fade into the surreal.

“The Soft March” by Chris Gauthier

In a remote village, a local tradition involves the music made by nests of gup beetles.

Local musicians would play the nests when the big party was going on. They’d wave a cloth between the nest and the sun and play for the townspeople as they marched by. Nobody’s done that for ages, though.

There is also an ongoing procession called the Soft March, which is connected to the music of the gups, and Liz is a sound engineer working with an artist trying to combine these sounds into an album of traditional music. Misunderstanding threatens the project. A very strange scenario, and I can’t quite see this album selling many copies.

“Best Taste” by Joseph Robert

Ed Delgato falls hard for the ramen girl, despite her sinister keepers.

Three Fingers jabs a yellowed index finger at the tip of his own nose, freezing Ed. He lowers the hand from his nose and offers its palm. Pinky stump swaying, the other fingers curl into a claw.

Drug deals, murder, demons and supernatural cockroach swarms follow. Ed is undeterred, being unable to recognize when deterrence is the better course. Bizarre horror, more revolting than chilling.

“Walrus and Blue Dream” by Kyle Hemmings

The Kore myth updated with modern body-image problems, and Hades shifted to the frozen Arctic. A bit overly-topical.

“The One Thousand, One Hundred, and Eleven Gates to Faerie” by Simon Kewin

When Daniel was four years old, his sister told a fairy that Daniel was the bravest warrior in all the human lands. The fairy apparently believed her. Over the years there were other encounters, for good and for ill.

“You’ve changed since we last met here.”
“Yeah. I grew up.”
“Last time you smiled more.”
Daniel snorted in laughter.
“Yeah, well, and you were beautiful. Now you’re a fucking wreck.”

A bit of narrative edge keeps this one from being as mawkish as some readers might suppose.

“Raising the Drowned” by Daniel W Davis

By the time David comes as a missionary to the village, he has already lost most of his faith in religion and only wants to help the strange inhabitants and understand them. The villagers have an annual Ceremony, and he is privileged to witness it.

I was not frightened; far from it, I felt empowered. I had just witnessed a genuine miracle, I was certain of it. The only problem was, the miracle was performed not by the God I worshipped and cherished, but by whatever deity these villagers prayed to.

The setting is some time in the 19th century, which allows the narrator to speak of “white men” such as himself, but his voice does not really reflect that time, and the text contains unfortunate anachronisms.

“The Butterfly Husband and Wife” by Julie A Rosenthal

A couple of holy men debate an arcane point of doctrine which has been troubling one of them: a married couple had engaged a shapeshifter to transform them into another form but now worries that they have sinned. At first, they believed they were angels in paradise, except that the angel population was highly promiscuous. Their confessor determined that in fact they had been butterflies in a garden. But what about the sin? It’s a knotty conundrum, the sort in which these holy men delight.

“If I’d forgotten absolutely everything about being a man, and my whole mind existed only as a female butterfly’s, then I could have—well, you know—with all those males. No sin!”

Delightful in all ways: the setting (not quite our own), the characters, and the details of their debate. And the final resolution, quite perfect.


“The Head in the Goatskin Bag” by Jenny Blackford

Humorous feminist variation on the Andromeda myth. But kind of predictable.

“Genevieve” by Richard D Findlay

Cyberporn. Genevieve is a sex simulation in her creator’s virtual reality; her creator’s rival hacks into her, and in consequence she becomes self-aware. Unoriginal stuff.

“The Night it Snowed Octopuses” by Christoph Bahnsen

The narrator’s “only long-term relationship is with the sea”, her only friends are the sea lions. When she is struck by a recklessly-driven speedboat, an experimental procedure regenerates her severed arm. But there is a catch. Twin is an awfully convenient subject for this experiment. Flashbacks to her childhood don’t add anything to the story.

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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