Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late January

Lackluster issues from both Dell digests this time. The Good Story award to McCarron’s “Swift, Brutal Retaliation” from Tor.com.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, March 2012

Not a very inspiring issue this month.

“The Way of the Needle” by Derek Künsken

After the supernova reduces the planet to its core, life of a sort goes on.

An atmosphere of carbon dioxide had congealed around the little metallic world, producing oceans of iron and nickel carbonyl, dotted with thickets of steel that needles fanned to catch the microwaves. On the largest islands, the growth of the needles had been coaxed into towers, pedestals, and martial walls. Prickly metal creatures held together by strong magnetic fields scuttled in these towns and forts, on eight articulated legs of steel quills.

Our protagonist is Mok, a warrior assassin in disguise as a lowly swarmer, conflicted between his mission and the affront to his honor, rank and status.

This is essentially a story about learning a lesson, as Mok discovers the meaning of friendship and the fact that honor may be more difficult than he had assumed. The alien aspects of the beings portrayed are well-done [spines raised to catch microwaves from the pulsar], but they are in essence human. It’s a human story, in the spirit of martial arts tales.

“The Pass” by Benjamin Crowell

Post-something. The locals call it the Wig-out, but we don’t know why. If the stories are to be believed, it seems the large pink growths are some kind of organic computing device through which the minds of humans are transferred to something called the Cloud. I’m not inclined to believe it.

The iris gradually started to open, the orifice widened a little, and her father’s head began to sink into the goop underneath. The hand fell to one side, and his face slackened. People had always told her it looked like going to sleep, but it didn’t. It happened faster than falling asleep, and his eyes stayed open. It was more like the way an animal would sometimes just turn wooden after finding an arrow through its heart.

The remaining humans have devolved, both technologically and morally. Chinchy is a skilled hunter, but she suspects that her woodcraft won’t be of much use in the virtual environment of the Cloud.

A depressing, sinister world. The Cloud tentacles grow infiltrate everywhere until it’s likely that eventually they will take over much of the world’s livable space. Human life is nasty, brutish and short. The author is ambiguous on this point, but I strongly suspect the Cloud to be a lie, a vast scam meant to eliminate the human race.

“Golva’s Ascent” by Tom Purdom

The author has been revisiting an old story, perhaps with a view to a fix-up novel. This one is a direct sequel to the original, in which humans have established a colony on a world where two intelligent species live – the tree-dwellers enslaving the cat-like species that may actually be more intelligent. One of the humans has earlier left the colony to live among the natives and try to make peace between them. Now a young and adventurous itiji named Golva, who has learned human language from him, climbs to the human-occupied plateau out of curiosity and is captured and tortured by the brutal leader.

He had felt adventurous and daring when he had slipped away from his friends and kin. He had launched a hunting song at the sun when he had looked down on the forest from the edge of the great plateau. No itiji had ever stood where he was standing.

Now he just felt lonely.

And afraid.

And very young.

There’s a bit much of the noble native/evil human thing going on here, with the usual sympathetic human added. The revelations of the itiji mind and language have interest, but again this mostly serves to illustrate the superiority of the itiji species. This has all been done before.

“Nanny’s Day” by Leah Cypess

Parenting wars. It seems that the courts have decided custody of children should go to the party the child is most attached to, regardless of biological ties [“bioist” is now a pejorative.] Sometimes, this is the child’s nanny, and some nannies have sued for custody. Thus working mothers like Margaret know not to keep the same nanny too long. But Margaret has procrastinated, and now she finds her young son demanding to live with Steph instead of her. She fears she has become the victim of a conspiracy meant to set up a test case to promote the rights of nannies over mothers. But it’s not quite like that.

I found this scenario a bit hard to credit, rather contrived.

“Mrs Hatcher’s Evaluation” by James Van Pelt

The enemy reveals his nefarious goal at the outset. One teaching position has to go.

“Hatcher’s the worst. She ignores the lesson plan template we instituted last year. She doesn’t write her objectives on the board for the students to see, and I’ve sat in her class. Lecture from the tardy bell to the dismissal bell. She’s a dinosaur.

Vice Principle Salas has been selected as the hit man, but he discovers that Mrs Hatcher is not an ordinary teacher, whose methods can’t be reduced to the “best practices” on the template.

Putting down educational bureaucracy. The fantastic element is underplayed, but definitely present.

“Patagonia” by Joel Richards

The narrator is hiking in Tierra del Fuego when he and his guide stop to warm up in a local tavern. There he encounters a very old Yamana tribesman who claims he has known him before.

The second man was old. His face was brown and creased. He had been outdoors all his life. His people, he said, had considered their canoes their home, carrying fire with them wherever they paddled, though he and his father and his father before him had given up canoes and lived in a fixed abode.

The narrator has never before been to this region of the world. In this life.

A nicely atmospheric, subtle fantasy. Although the author tosses in some medical stuff about memory, the narrator knows that what has happened will always be a mystery, and thus full of possibilities.



Analog, April 2012

I’m not as pleased with this issue as I was the previous one.

“The Most Invasive Species” by Susan Forest

Cultural relativism. The title made me wary that this might turn out to be a polemic, along with the first scene in which planetary colonist Amanda welcomes the new settlement doctor, Karen, who is shocked by the colonists’ lax attitudes towards planetary contamination.

“There’s no half-way. The only way to keep this planet untouched is for no human colonization at all. That’s not what the Alliance is about.” I pulled the wheel around and brought the rover up the bank. “We’re the most invasive animal there is.”

The planet has sentient natives who are on good terms with the humans, but newcomer Karen is concerned about what seems like a culture of child abuse among them. Then one of the males kills his mate by accident, and Karen decides to foster the orphans, with tragic consequences.

So it’s not a polemic; the story ends in the moral ambiguity of the well-meaning but ignorant. But I doubt there are any readers who won’t be able to see what’s really going on with the nomad children, and that the colonists, seeing the reaction of the nomad adults, don’t bother to ask them the reason or listen when they hear it. The author has too obviously set this one up.

“Ecce Signum” by Craig DeLancey

Part of the author’s series about the Marrion children, genetically engineered to care about saving the world. Now their mentor, David Ressar, has been assassinated, and Janet knows she is the next target in the line of succession; she suspects the involvement of her sister Virginia. The assassins have been surgically adapted for their task, which means corporate funds are behind them.

The real interest here is in the future world that the Marrion project, in part, has brought about. Everyone now communicates through a telepathy chip, to the point that use of the spoken word has eroded.

[The train car] would have been eerie, in my youth. The Metro-North trains were never silent then. People talked to each other, people shouted into phones, people listened to music and the tinny beats leaked from their headphones, some people sang or shouted. But now it was always quiet. Everyone had a teep chip. They talked, or called, or listened to music inside their skulls. Every person carried his own world everywhere with him.

It’s not clear to me exactly how this is supposed to make the world a better place, and in general readers unfamiliar with this series may find the premise hard to grasp. There’s a bit much of the fairytale Good Daughter/Bad Daughter scenario; Virginia was doomed from birth by the author.

“A Delicate Balance” by Kevin J Anderson

On a failing planetary colony, there is no margin.

“A new life comes, an old life must go. It’s the way of the colony, the only way we can maintain the delicate balance.”

So when Birenda discovers her unplanned pregnancy, she and her aging father both know that he will be the one who has to make room for the new child. But Birenda has another plan.

This begins as a serious, though very shopworn, scenario. But the author turns out not to be serious about it, using the entire situation, complete with shopworn infodump, to set up a twist ending. I can’t be sure whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or humorously, but in either case, it shouldn’t be. It’s just dumb.

“You Say You Want a Revolution” by Jerry Oltion

On their way to Ceres, where revolution has spread, a bunch of carpetbaggers and scalawags meet an alien being in the ship’s lounge, who tells them how the revolution actually started. It’s a story of moral relativism, retaliation and pre-emptive attack, as the aliens turn human behavior against them. Unfortunately, while it qualifies as a Neat Idea, it falls rather flat as a story; the idea is all there is.

“Follow-up” by Stephen L Burns

Sissy is a combat surgeon who has volunteered to test the new, automated systems that can repair or replicate almost every organ damaged in modern combat. She’s enthusiastic about the process, despite some personal misgivings.

“In some ways I’ve already been replaced. I haven’t picked up a scalpel or laid a suture since I got here. All my training in standard surgical tools and their use is being rendered outdated and superfluous.”

But beneath the medical miracles, something is wrong.

The horror exposed here is subtle, almost entirely masked by the cheerful and optimistic chatter of the surgeon and her superior officer. Appalling in slow motion.


Tor.com, January 2012

As I turn in this column, there is only one piece of short fiction posted at the site for January.

“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” by Meghan McCarron

Family dysfunction. Eighth-grade Ian’s long dying has exacerbated the fractures in his family’s flawed dynamics, and it quickly becomes clear to his younger sisters that things aren’t going to get better now that he’s gone. Instead, they begin to see the apparition of their brother, who seems to be asking for their help. But they have misunderstood what Ian wants.

Brigid forced herself to go to the closet, find a dustpan and broom, and sweep up every last grain of salt. Seeing her ghost brother was terrifying, but having her father find salt all over the floor was equally scary, if not more so. Once the floor was clean, her terror surged back and she sprinted up the stairs.

Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappy families are very much alike indeed, and as McCarron mercilessly exposes the miserable relationships among the members of this very unhappy family, readers will cringe in recognition.



Intergalactic Medicine Show, January 2012

Six short stories, plus an excerpt from publisher Card’s recent novel. The prevailing tone is humor, although some of it is slightly dark.

“Remains of the Witch” by Tony Pi

Oz revisionism, from the point of view of the flying monkeys – or rather, Remue, a flying money taken as a protégée by the witch of the West and schooled in human manners for the sake of a bet.

“I’d make her cheeky but proper, droll but prim. North would have to concede that even a winged monkey could play the part of a lady. At tea, my creation will mock North with highborn words, while the fairy must bite her tongue and entertain her.”

But before the tea party could take place, West was dissolved, and Remue, not wishing to waste the magic, sopped up and saved all the green-tinged water she could. Which proves to be a mistake.

A neat idea, quite Ozzish in tone. Fans should like it.

“Arkmind” by Niall Francis McMahon

When a cosmic apocalypse destroys Earth, a small number of arks were sent to different planets, in hope of saving the race [or at least the English part of it.] Besides the genetic material, there were originally three adult humans aboard the ship [I’m not sure why], who eventually died of old age. A very long time later, as the ark approaches its destination, the ship’s AI suddenly achieves sentience and begins to have misgivings about its mission; it seeks guidance from the only source it can find.

The story is an homage to the human race, which Arkmind eventually learns to understand and love. The author contrives rather improbable circumstances to bring this overly heartwarming conclusion about.

“Contaminant Source Removed” by K G Jewell

When wizardry goes wrong. Marco gets a book of spells at his aunt’s garage sale.

“That was your Uncle Joe’s favorite. It was a gag gift from a college roommate when he got his first job offer on Wall Street. When folks asked him what he did, he’d point to that book and say ‘financial wizardry’ and then chuckle like it was the best joke ever.” She added, “You take it. He’d have loved for someone else to enjoy it.”

“Enjoy” would be the wrong word. For Marco. Readers may enjoy this humor along the “wizard’s apprentice” line.

“The Lair of the Twelve Princesses” by Amanda C Davis

Double twist on the fairy tale, with the penniless mercenary soldier being a female. With a companion imp who grants wishes. But Bay doesn’t want to waste the wishes on anything less urgent than saving her life, so she tries to solve the mystery of the worn-out slippers on her own, to the frustration of the imp.

“You’re so predictable!” he cried. “Just three wishes between me and freedom! I could give you anything. I could fix your leg, I could build you a prince to wed, I could invent for you a kingdom! And here you are wasting your time scuttling after whatever dregs you can pull in through your own mortal power. Wealth, land, fame, strength, the whole green world — just pick three!”

A clever idea, and darker than the original, which, nevertheless, I prefer to this version, where wonder is replaced by a murderous conspiracy.

“Story with Pictures and Conversation” by Brontops Baruq, translated by Christopher Kastensmidt

Winner of the Hydra contest for Brazilian SF, sponsored in part by this zine and in part by the translator, who is, oddly, not named in the title. A very short holocaust piece, purporting to be a notebook with sketches, the work of a young child, described by the discoverer.

(Drawing of aerial combat. Observe the mixture of artifacts from different eras, like Volkswagen Beetles, Ford Mavericks, biplanes, MiGs, Barracudas, Anemoids, and Stingrays. The possession of non-licensed archaic items is illegal according to Federal Law 7.901/09, and regulated by Decrees 272 and 4002 of the Secretary of Sanitary Affairs and Cultural Archeological Maintenance.)

The interest is in the contrast between the childish entries and the pedantic descriptions and notes, revealing the identity of their author.

“Somewhere on a Flattened Earth” by David Lubar

Very short piece narrated by a child who is appalled that his teacher is telling him the world isn’t flat, as his parents have taught him. What we don’t discover is why he has been sent to such a school, which such parents are normally unlikely to do.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies, #86-87 January 2012

I like the Gilman piece this month and think this author is showing promise.

“Calibrated Allies” by Marissa Lingen

Revolution. In a world where members of a black-skinned race are held as slaves, Okori is freed by his master and sent to the city to learn how to maintain automata, which the climate on his island tends to rust and corrupt. At this he is successful, yet at the same time he notices that people in the city are restive under the emperor’s high taxes. He joins a group of rebels and becomes involved with their plans.

The revolution is so easily accomplished, so relatively bloodless, that I have a hard time crediting it. I also note that if Okori, sitting in a tavern, was able to overhear the rebellious students, so would agents of the emperor; yet there are apparently none employed at spying on a population that is obviously restive. (Automata might be a good tool for this, but the emperor’s artificers don’t seem to have thought of it.) Apart from this being a secondary world, I see no reason not to classify the story as science fiction.

“The Lady of the Lake” by E Catherine Tobler

An odd melding of Japanese myth with something that sounds like Arthurian legend. But isn’t. For the most part, it’s a retelling of the myth of the storm god who battles an eight-headed dragon, retrieves a sacred sword, and saves a sacrificial maiden – all good, mythic stuff. The author stirs in material from other myths, related and unrelated, and narrates it all from an unexpected point of view. This sort of telling usually results in a story more interesting than a strict rewording of the original material. But here the results are stirred up to the point of losing coherence.

Characters are not who they seem to be and take different shapes, even different sexes. The narrator, under the [Chinese] name Min, originally claims to be what she calls a “Lady of the Lake,” which is no figure from Japanese legend that I am aware of. Further, she claims to be dead, a young girl strangled by her mother and transformed into a humaniform aquatic being with black skin, white eyes and a knife-edge mouth. This form, however, conceals others with different names, who are not ladies at all and have no mothers. I suspect that readers who don’t know this mythos will be confused, while those familiar with it will keep saying, “Wait, that’s not right!” When an author reworks original material to this extent, readers expect that the relationships will be made clear, the reasons explained. Here, that’s not happening. We find three apparently unrelated figures identified as the same person; such inventions and changes seem arbitrary, not grounded in the myth but uprooting it and leaving in its place a misshapen chimera.

“The Last Gorgon” by Rajan Khanna

The Minoan Empire survives into an age of steam, as do the descendants of the Gorgons, who have almost been hunted to extinction. Naima has regretfully killed one of the very last. But she has a reason.

For as we seek to change, to evolve, to transmute the world around us, the Gorgons seek to keep things as they were—in silent stasis. In stone.

It is the author who frames Naima’s deed as murder, not heroism, and thus it is up to the readers to decide if it was justified. I conclude it was not, and that Naima can’t really make up for what she has done. At one point the story seemed that it might be veering into steampunk, but it mostly avoided this.

“The Castle that Jack Built” by Emily Gilman

An intriguing opening! Jack was once the Master Builder who made a castle for the bears, then a scarecrow, then blown free by the wind, no longer quite a man, with fragmented memories.

He had heard rumors, when he was working for the bears, that their prince had fallen in love with a human girl, and that she had been the one to betray him. The prince, the young man who should have been a bear, was the reason why the castle must never fail, the reason why Jack must never speak.

A highly fantastic piece, rich with storyness and strong echoes of fairytale. Some readers may also hear echoes from Pullman’s series, but these are false.



Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, January 2012

Saladin Ahmed mentioned this ezine as a good source for, obviously, heroic fantasy, so I decided to give it a look. There are only two short stories, as well as a few pieces of verse. I like the stories well enough, but it’s not a lot of fiction for a whole quarter.

“The Goose and Cradle” by David Austin

In a city breaking under siege, a man sits in the tavern with a strategy game at his table, waiting for an opponent who might or might not arrive. Tonight, one sits down to a game, and in the course of the play, revelations are made.

I still hadn’t moved. To almost any eyes, I would have looked doomed. My forces were weaker, and split into several groups. Three of the groups were faced with opposing armies considerably stronger than themselves. The fourth army, the men I had left wedged between the lake and mountains, was faced with a containing force large enough to hold me off his flanks. Maybe [the servingwoman] wanted to watch me lose. My heart sank for a moment, that she would light up just because I might fail.

The story of a man’s life, spent in war. A nice bleak atmosphere. There is no fantastic element, no gods or heroes about to show up at the last moment to save the city. Only the effort to find the right choice at the right moment. And also a reminder that flesh-and-blood soldiers are less predictable than wooden game pieces.

“The Princess Trap” by Peter Darbyshire

Humor. Saleema was an orphaned sheepherder until a dragon shows up and eats all her sheep, then sets up to wait for knights to come and rescue the princess. Saleema objects that she isn’t a princess, but it seems there are none of the real kind left. And no real knights, either. But since it takes marriage to a princess to make a man king, they keep coming. And the dragon keeps talking.

Not too silly to be amusing.

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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