Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late December

Wrapping up the year, although we’re already into the next one. Here’s the January/February issue of F&SF for 2012, and the Dell digests are even further along in the calendar date.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, Jan/Feb 2012

A large number of mid-length and shorter pieces, too many of which are silly.

“Small Towns” by Felicity Shoulders

After WWI, toymaker Jacques Jaillet’s town has been destroyed and most of his life with it. He constructs a model replica of the town as it used to be, but it is a dead thing until Fleur Perrot arrives. Fleur is the tiny daughter of a dressmaker whose mother kept her in seclusion for her safety, but after her death, Fleur is left on her own. A determined individual, she is happy at first to discover Jacques’ model town, but not so happy with his plans to keep her isolated there.

“I know nothing of the world because I have not been allowed to learn! I have been kept like a bird in a cage all my life, but I will not be kept any longer! I am a person, neither a doll nor a fairy!”

A warmhearted tale, highly improbable, but that doesn’t seem to matter very much, even though it resists being classed with the fairy tales.

“The Secret of the City of Gold” by Ron Goulart

A moldy bit of nostalgia, exhumed from the grave of the author’s series featuring detective Harry Challenge, were-jaguars, and a large cast from Central Farce Casting.

“You, sir,” shouted the belligerent Bowman, halting a few feet from Harry, “I intend to give a thorough thrashing. Since in my agitated and heartbroken state I came out without my horsewhip, I shall have to rely on my sturdy fists to teach you — “

Not amusing.

“Umbrella Men” by John D McDaid

It didn’t look powerful; it looked dusty. Dark-blue nylon, steel tip faintly mottled with rust acne, and an ornate handle of turned wood, its lacquer rubbed dull by years of use. It didn’t appear to be some mystical object; it looked, well, like an umbrella. [João] had been disappointed and said so.

The umbrella is the heritage of João’s family, and its magic is to bring peace. But the household is disturbed when a strange man appears, tracing the history of the umbrella that he believes to be behind a dark conspiracy.

A story of family and of human ties. The plot avoids predictable routes, and the characters are very appealing, especially the nascent SF writer João.

“Alien Land” by K D Wentworth

Solution to the housing crisis: aliens.

Apparently, the Kryi needed somewhere to live, so they just helped themselves. And when it came right down to it, many foreclosed-upon homeowners, already evicted, professed that they would just as soon aliens took over their property as see the bank get its grubby hands on their former home.

Mary-Christina and her neighbors are not at first so tolerant, but once they discover that the aliens can play Texas Hold-em, relations improve.

A sort of silly story. The narrative is confused. First the authorities try to arrest the aliens, then they don’t, then they do again. I also find it unconvincing that so many of the women in the neighborhood, who seem to have no children, live the existence of dullness typical of a stereotypical housewife, sipping sherry and playing cards because they have nothing else to do. The setting isn’t 1950.

“Mindbender” by Albert E Cowdrey

Brown works at the Agency, where his primary assignment is the pursuit of an assassin codenamed Mandrake, but he gets stuck with shepherding a Russian defector into the protection problem. Milo was supposed to read minds for the Russians, but the president thought he was getting too close into his own mind. Brown is pretty sure the Russians can’t find him in Moccasin Gap; Milo is pretty sure they can. But he gets along pretty well in Moccasin Gap.

On Sunday morning everything’s closed and there is nowhere else to go, so I go to Church of Rock-Ribbed Gospel. The singing is nice, they serve good food afterward, and when I tell them secret police are after me, they appoint themselves my protectors.

“Milo, you’re not supposed to be telling people the secret police are after you. You’re in hiding.”

“The guys at Eff-Ess-Beh already know they’re after me. So why shouldn’t church people know too?”

An entertaining light piece with a neat character in Milo.

“The Color Least Used by Nature” by Ted Kosmatka

The story of a man’s life, beginning at the end when men come to kill him, and leading to that point from the beginning. Kuwa’i is a skilled boatbuilder living on a fantasy Hawaiian island that is slowly in transition from the old ways to the new ones of the outsiders. He loves several women, and this has consequences. When he builds his last boat, it is coveted by the local administrator, and Kuwa’i doesn’t want to sell it to him.

The convergence of all things suffused him with a kind of dread different from all the other dreads he’d suffered in his life. This was the shifting and shapeless dread of one who fears he’ll live to see the far shore of what he cannot imagine: that time hanging out there in front of them all when there would be no boat, and no walking trees to replace it, and no Rebecca bringing them coconuts of cool milk — and [his son] on this island without love and without prospects.

A poignant piece about humanity and cultural displacement, only nominally a fantasy by virtue of the walking trees, called the best wood for building boats; after the arrival of the Kuhiki the trees have thrown themselves off the cliffs, except where the islanders have tied them in place.


“The Comfort of Strangers” by Alexander Jablokov

The narrator is an interspecies prostitute, specializing in aliens without access to mates of their own species. It’s an expensive profession, but highly remunerative.

One by one, I clean out and monitor the status of my various sex organs and orifices. By their nature, such things invite infection, as well as suffering simple wear and tear. My own original-issue genitals are down there somewhere, unused for years. Humans never come out this far. Sometimes I pretend to myself that I have forgotten which kind they are, since my biological gender is of no significance in these encounters.

The actual story, beneath the series of bizarre encounters, is very thin. While the narrator claims that actual gender is of no significance, it’s notable that the clients are all male, while the role the prostitute plays is invariably the female. This says something, but it’s not something about aliens.

“Maxwell’s Demon” by Ken Liu

WWII. Takako is forced by the Americans to go to Japan as a spy, and forced by the Japanese to assist in the war effort by enslaving the spirits of the dead to work as Maxwellian demons, as her family was originally from Okinawa and she has learned the local skill of talking to spirits.

You will teach your spirits to power this engine, to separate the hot molecules from the cold. When you succeed, we will have a limitless supply of energy, spontaneously generated out of air. We will be able to build submarines that require no diesel and never need to surface, airplanes that never run out of fuel and never need to land. Powered by the dead, we will bathe New York and San Francisco in a sea of fire, and we will bomb Washington back into the swamp from which it rose.

The physics experiments actually play no really important role in this story, which is about war and intolerance. The setup, unfortunately, is too contrived to be convincing. What is convincing, because it is real, is the bureaucratic web that traps Takako in the internment camp. The story tells us she is loyal to America, but we see no reason here why she should be.

“Scrap Dragon” by Naomi Kritzer

A revisionist account of a dragon-slaying, frequently interrupted.

One afternoon Heather took her book and her lunch, called for her dog (whose name was Bear), and went to sit by a wooded lake not too far from her house.
The dog had better not die in this story.
The dog’s not going to die. Not in the story, anyway.

A little of this sort of thing can be amusing, but it can easily be carried too far, as the author does here, as if she doesn’t trust the actual story hiding behind all the verbiage. Which, although slight, works perfectly well. Which it wouldn’t have, if it started out to be a volcano instead of a dragon, so we can’t tell what the narrator was thinking.

“In the Trenches” by Michael Alexander

WWI. Hans is a soldier on the German side, near the starving end of the action, when Gamlin the kobold emerges from the trench. He thinks the humans are crazy and Hans doesn’t disagree. The kobold takes him far underground where he finds a French soldier, and they immediately make a truce between each other. They can understand each other, but they can’t understand the kobolds, who can’t understand them.

We’ve been watching this sort of thing forever, it seems. Every time we come up for a look it gets crazier. Back when you just stood in rows and used those gun things to shoot each other. Now you line Frenchies up in one ditch, Prussians in another ditch —

An unusual viewpoint on the horrors of war and on being human. The tone is light, but the horrors are genuinely dark. The combination works.

“Canto MCML” by Lewis Shiner

The privileged few who can afford it get to live in a gated community where they can pretend it’s 1950. A brief glimpse at dystopia.


Asimov’s, February 2012

Featuring a good novella by Robert Reed.

“Murder Born” by Robert Reed

The author’s blurb states that this one had its origin in the notion of justifying public executions, but of course Reed doesn’t just leave it at that. The premise is actually the weakest aspect of the story. It seems that scientist inadvertently invented a new painless method of execution, which has the side effect of bringing all a murderer’s victims back to life. Suddenly the death penalty is popular. Too popular, as safeguards protecting defendants are eroded in the zeal to retrieve victims.

The narrator is Shawn, a photographer famous for his photo of a massacre victim before she was killed. His daughter has recently been murdered, and his vicious ex-wife is obsessed with executing the killer and getting Kaylee back. But things aren’t so simple, and Shawn recognizes that the case against her teenage boyfriend is flawed.

They didn’t find a second suspect because there weren’t any candidates. They didn’t find blood splatters because the boy disposed of his clothes and washed his body. The detectives didn’t think it was unusual that an adolescent male without any criminal record might stab his girlfriend to death, and dumping her body and the murder scene into a stretch of deep water was the most reasonable thing in the world. And while they never found the murder weapon, they reminded the jury that there was more than twenty miles of ground between the sandpit and home, and that knife could hide anywhere.

Technically, it’s a murder mystery, with a powerful and unforgettable ethical issue at its heart. It’s the characters who make it real: Shawn with his doubts, vengeful Lauren, and the perjured witness with his own terrible secret. But the descriptions of Shawn’s photos of the victims make it even more.


“Hive Mind Man” by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn

Diane suspects that Jeff is a loser who can’t hold down a job, but he’s also a good lover so she reluctantly lets him move in, along with his smartphone and his crazy cyberschemes.

“I sold my Goob Doll options yesterday, and I used the profit to upgrade my access rights in the data cloud. I’ve got a cloud-based virtual growbox where I can raise my own simmie-bots. Little programs that live in the net and act just like people. I’m gonna grow more simmies than anyone’s ever seen.”

But unscrupulous entrepreneurs see Jeff an easy mark for exploitation.

People tend to regard this sort of thing as science fiction, but in fact it’s fantasy – made-up stuff. The editorial blurb calls it “gonzo”, which fits this light entertainment. Jeff and Diane are a fairly likeable pair of characters, but overall it’s something we’ve seen often before.

“The Voodoo Project” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

In a dystopian future, Rebekah Zahedi was recruited by the Company in the eighth grade and now knows that it won’t be long until her unwelcome retirement. The future is what she does, what she sees, but there are some futures opaque to her.

She used to wonder if her glimpses into the future were real or imagined. Then she tested those glimpses—or rather, the Company did—and whatever she saw, whatever she did not act upon, whatever she did not actively try to change— came about.

A short, hard punch.

“Observations on a Clock” by D Thomas Minton

Somewhere, far from Earth, a clock is running down in the dark, observed only by the monk Chevalier. When the clock runs down, the Revelation will appear, and Chevalier’s job is to beam it to Earth, to humanity waiting for salvation. But he is not entirely alone, for inside his mind [we know not why] are a voice of doubt and a voice of faith, competing for him.

A story of faith and temptation. Readers will probably be reminded of the little devils and angels that sit on characters’ shoulders, although we have no way of knowing which of the MEMs in Chevalier’s mind is right about the clock. A dark and depressing vision, with readers left to guess at the answer.

“The People of Pele” by Ken Liu

A one-way trip, a race to claim distant planets as the nations that sent the colony ships descend into war and nationalist xenophobia. At first, the colonists regard the time dilation that separates them from their families on Earth as a personal tragedy. But things change among the people of Pele.

It’s rather disappointing to see Liu wasting so much of this short piece explaining the non-mysteries of time dilation and suspended animation. The piece is cursory and quite unoriginal.

“Going Home” by Bruce McAllister and Barry Malzberg

A science-fiction writer story. With the Singularity fast overtaking humanity, Mitch wants to spend his last days reviving the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Those were the days, Bob—imaginary stories, yes, but more real than reality to the heart—and if we can find no value in them still, there is no value in us—as dreamers, storytellers, listeners, or human beings—for a human who cannot choose the dreams he lives by, the stories that tell him who he is, no longer has a heart . . . and is no longer human, despite some Singular circuitry that may claim otherwise.

Take-off from the Matrix movies. Pretty lame.


Analog, March 2012

Less short fiction as the Sawyer serialization continues, but it’s a good selection.

“The Ediacarian Machine” by Craig DeLancey

Steve has just been tossed out of the microrobot company he founded when an old palaeontologist friend shows up with a proposition. It seems that Karen has found a functioning machine embedded in 550-million year old Precambrian rock.

It looked like a flattened nose cone, sleek and smooth, about fifty centimeters long, and sticking about ten centimeters up out of the rock. I bent over and stared. Pale gold lines traced complex patterns on the surface. The patterns reminded me of a silicon chip, except that the lines crossed back and forth at every angle.

What she wants from Steve are his microrobots, to explore the object.

A very classic skiffy scenario. It has robotics, alien wonders, mysteries to be solved, exploratory adventures, and cosmic scope. It has ethical issues to be worked out. No one is an idiot or a villain, even when they don’t agree. Fans should really like it. While critics who live in misspelled houses should be wary of throwing orthographic stones, I think the term is actually “Ediacaran”.


“Upon Their Backs” by Kyle Kirkland

The title lends itself to unfortunate double-entendres of which the author cannot have been unaware. It seems that an exploring anthropologist has made the interesting discovery of eight human bodies in some kind of suspended animation. Then two of these bodies walk out of the hospital and disappear, which results in a government security expert being called in. He is intrigued by the theories of one of the scientists studying the bodies, that they may be vessels for some alien force.

The six remaining hibernators rested in their cocoons, appearing lifeless except for the tell-tale LEDs that announced their torpid vital signs. The young scientists and technicians had moved closer to Poe Weffle, afraid of missing a single word of what he said. The older ones had distanced themselves, as if worried that Poe’s heresies were contagious.

Here we have a mystery to which the solution can only be tentative. In comparison with the DeLancey story above, there is less adventure, more neepery. But beneath it is a Cautionary Tale about the intrusive reach of security agencies into all aspects of normal life, a paranoid world of lies and secrets with which the narrator has become disgusted. [I note that by the end of both stories, the government has taken over the scene.] Given this fact, however, I can’t really believe in the decision they make at the story’s conclusion.

“Mother’s Tattoos” by Richard A Lovett

“In the days . . . when your skin was your own and anything it said was yours.” Those days are past, but the narrator still remembers how he loved his mother’s classy tattoos when he was a child. Now, nanospam can write ads on your skin with nothing you can do about it. Except to join Homeland Services and get implants that make your skin flash warnings when it detects suspicious scents or sounds or statements. The narrator does it for the money and tries to impress his mother with it; the narrator is a slow learner.

It’s a story of values, true and false. And a society that lacks them, all superficiality. There are good bits, like the first line, but I don’t think the story threads come together to make a unitary whole.

“Ernesto” by Alec Nevala-Lee

A Hemingway story, set in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway the skeptic investigates stories of miraculous cures, accompanied by stigmata, at the tomb of St John of the Cross. But political considerations always have to come first.

“The Segovia offensive needs to take place,” Ernesto said slowly. “If we don’t recapture Segovia, Franco will push north until he reaches Bilbao, which will cut the Loyalists in half. If that happens, the war is lost. And if I write about this shrine, it will only complicate the situation.”

A story of cynicism and realpolitick, with a nice bit of speculative historical medical detective work. It gains ironic force for modern readers who know how this war turned out, how many sacrifices were in vain.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, December 2011

A good month for this ezine, with three biweekly issues. #83 has a pair of stories dealing with wartime atrocities; #84 is concerned with the price of magical power; the stories in #85 test the loyalty of killers.

“The Gardens of Landler Abbey” by Megan Arkenberg

It begins like a comedy of manners, but it is no such thing. Dr Grey is formerly a professor of medicine, now being introduced into aristocratic society by his patron. The Abbey is a near neighbor of the patron, with its famous gardens lying in neglect. Society is now titillated to learn that the Abbey’s owner, Lady Landler, has returned from her long absence and begun restoration. But what everyone avoids mentioning is the fact that there has been a war in which atrocities were committed on both sides. In Lady Landler’s gardens, it is not possible to ignore what took place.

“For as long as I could, I pretended ignorance. All through the war and all the years after, I told myself it was medical services the military needed. Then nine months ago, when I was still working for the University, I found a sheaf of old documents ready for the rubbish heap. Recognizing the names of several students, I picked it up. They had been awarded medals of honor for ‘obtaining valuable intelligence’ from the enemy.”

A horror story in two ways: an ambiguous ghost story and one about the horrors of war. The opening scenes with their vapid aristocratic twits have given me considerable pause, for at first I found the tone quite jarring in contrast to the rest of the subject matter. But upon further consideration, I think the scenes work by distancing the setting from a contemporary one, for the moral issues with which the story deals are very much contemporary, and it presents us with a foolish mask that fits certain contemporary figures very well indeed.


“Princess Courage” by Nadia Bulkin

A young king, ruler of an empire that believes itself destined to expand, claims a rich forest as the newest part of his domain. He considers himself a benevolent ruler and means no harm to the forest’s indigenes, but of course his conquest does them harm and they fight back. He enters into a long and odd relationship with a young girl of an indigenous tribe, foolishly hoping that she will eventually understand him.

This one gives a sense of reliving Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, if Caesar were a captive of fate instead of its captain. It’s less subtle than the previous, which emphasizes the responsibility of individuals for their actions. Here, the author seems to be suggesting that events take their predestined path regardless of the wishes of individuals, who are helpless to change it. But the scenario is pretty unoriginal.

“Heartless” by Peadar Ó Guilín

Here, we have a city where humans are transformed into “witches” and caged to generate magical power for their owners, who squander it in vain and foolish schemes that require more and more witch-power, as witches fade and expire.

A hundred people filled the square below or swooped, laughing, through the air on cushions. Others rode about the edges on the backs of unicorns. The crowd had caught themselves a vagabond and families fought to get at the poor man and claim him for themselves.

The demand for more witches has grown out of control, to the point where families are enslaving their own members. Only Malern seems to recognize the obvious fact that this trend is insupportable.

Which is the problem with the story, despite its striking premise. The problem is altogether too obvious. The torture scene that opens it is also gratuitous.

“The God Thieves” by Derek Künsken

A sort of alternate history in which Christianity [the god that won’t fight] has been mostly superseded by the use of ancient gods as weapons of war between the great commercial powers.

Genoa stole the secrets of domesticating the gods from the Venetians. The Venetians stole from Genoa. Always chasing. Always fleeing. Always hunting up new gods with which to destroy each other.

Mateo is one of Genoa’s top agents, but he is also a Christian who yearns for salvation, all the while knowing that his job imperils his soul. He is now being sent to Venice to steal the plans for the Enlil engine, with his own soul augmented by a dragon’s, a powerful weapon of magic itself.

A lot of neat stuff in this scenario. I particularly like the soul-weighing scale. The story is a clear analogy for the perils of arms wars. While there is sufficient magical-agent action, the real emphasis here is on the religious issues, the struggle for personal salvation and the peril of the soul.

“The Death of Roach” by Spencer Ellsworth

Roach comes from a line of semi-divine assassins, trained since childhood to kill. The author makes their ruthlessness clear.

[My mother] made her way back to my father. He ordered her death, and he held her as they cut her open. She died apologizing for her failure.

Roach, however, is flawed by a tendency to mercy.

Roach’s confession is a lengthy one, but the point behind all the killings and cruelties never becomes clear. Without understanding the issues, it’s impossible to understand when mercy is misplaced.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” by Seth Dickinson

Treasons, treacheries and tests in a world where the ruling Throne never trusts its subjects or its agents. Baru Cormorant was an agent of the Throne when she raised rebellion in Pyre, to smoke out disloyalty there. But she is still surrounded by spies, and there is always another test.

Here, the shape of the intrigue is clear. Baru’s wound, which has blinded one side of her, allows her to survive in a world of lies and distrust. The symbolism is perhaps overly obvious, but still effective.

It goes on and on, and after a moment Baru finds it too much to take. She turns her chair to the left, so that the duchess Tain Hu falls away into nothingness, and the howl of her laughter reaches Baru only as an echo.



Strange Horizons, December 2011

Only two stories, the longer being split.

“Penelope Napolitano and the Butterflies” by Aliya Whiteley

Penelope is borne away by butterflies to get a lesson from her mother in the nature of true love. Which would have been perfectly possible without the butterflies. I like the prose style and the story of the digestive biscuits, but the rest is too much and too slight.

“Ash and Dust” by Jennifer Mason-Black

The two-parter. Dystopian SF. Earth is dead and dry, and the remaining population is gathered into refugee camps, waiting to be sent to offworld colonies. But no more ships are taking off, and it’s said that the colonies are refusing to take in any more people.

The land has grown sullen, angry. The soil holds nothing, just blows in dense clouds that choke travelers when the wind picks up speed over the great emptiness. We were not meant to be here long. A month, maybe two, they said at first, when the fires burned and the colonies opened their doors wide for the final exodus from Earth. Then, three months, six. Then they stopped talking time at all, just directions and rules and reminders not to forget the laws of a civilized society.

The narrator is a midwife who serves the population of women as best as she can, there being almost no one left but women and their children, who apparently keep being born despite the absence of men.

A dreary piece that tries to generate hope where none belongs, and an oddly optimistic sense of shared humanity where the humanity we knew would more likely be preying on each other. The narrator speaks of a trade in breast milk, which suggests a lot of pregnancy despite the shortage of men, yet the real shortage is apparently of water, without which there is no milk. Overall, not pleasant to read and not a payoff sufficient to make it worthwhile.


Fantasy Magazine, December 2011

The last issue; hereafter to be folded into the new publisher’s SF zine Lightspeed.

“Her Lover’s Golden Hair” by Nike Sulway

Lily has died, and her lover comes back alone to their country house with Lily’s plaited hair to grieve.

They used to sit on the step at night, lights out, wine glasses warming in their hands, watching the possums and bush turkeys scramble through the underbrush. The trees, wound in vines, whispered to each other of comfort: of long, strangling embraces. The mountain bulked beneath them. The red soil fed the trees that threw down leaves to rot beneath their feet. The sky was so clear they believed they could see to the end of seasons, the limits of time, watch the stars burn out and die and fall into their open hearts.

The fantastic element in this story of grief is ambiguous; the transformations seem symbolic, not actual. It’s dense with emotion, but instead of climbing up from it, sinks.

“Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage” by Seanan McGuire

The title of a Harry Potter book and scenario out of a children’s D&D game.

“You could return to your world of origin at any time, leaving us to our fate, and yet you choose time and again to stay and fight for our survival.” The spider straightened until the largest of its eyes were on a level with Crystal’s own. “You are not the first to come from your world to Otherways, but you are far and away the bravest.”

This must, we assume, be irony. But not really. I’m rather sorry to see the zine go out on such a note, when it began so differently.


Lightspeed, December 2011

Cosmology and clones.

“The Sighted Watchmaker” by Vylar Kaftan

Directed panspermia. The creation of the Makers, now disappeared, is now a creator, seeding a planet in hopes of generating intelligent life. As this is a lengthy process, he has a lot of time for teleological speculation.

Umos had millennia to think of what to say. He must be ready. He’d give the awli more than the Makers had given him—he’d give them answers. He would practice until he was satisfied.

Less SF than theological fiction. I like the title, but the narrative is rather dull, one character talking to himself.

“The Parting Glass” by Andrew Penn Romine

Jake gets an offer of new employment from his old boss, from whom he was cloned. They didn’t part on good terms.

I stagger from my squeaky stool, the frayed myomers in my back groaning with the weight of my armored skeleton. I’ve never wanted to see Santiago again unless it was to kill him. In what passes for dreams during my sleep cycles, I’ve already done that a thousand times. Bastard has it coming for the things he did to Mama and me. But there’s no way around it: I’m falling apart. I can get a new body or kill Santiago with the particle beam emitter concealed in my right arm.

But the old man is crazy, full of religion, and what he wants from Jake is more than just a job.

Here is the setup for something potentially interesting, but it rushes at the conclusion and thus doesn’t offer real satisfaction to the reader.

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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