Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

A heavy load of digests, all rather disappointing.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, Mar/Apr 2012

I’ve been waiting for another issue of this zine as good as last year’s superior September/October. This isn’t it, though the Beagle story is a fine one.

“Electrica” by Sean McMullen

This one begins as alternate history, in which code expert Lieutenant Michael Fletcher is sent to evaluate a new electric signaling device invented by an eccentric and indebted gentleman with a lascivious wife. The device is highly promising, and Fletcher judges that it has the potential to win the war.

There was a soft buzz, and a length of blue spark appeared between the brass spikes. It reminded me of lightning seen at a great distance. There was another, briefer, spark, and they continued until I had counted thirty-two sparks. I felt my pulse quicken when I realized that nothing connected the boxes.

Matters are looking good until the story takes a sharp and disappointing turn into a particularly lame fantasy, whereupon my interest crashes and burns, never to recover. Although the narrative is ostensibly a letter written by the protagonist, it is unconvincing as an example of earth 19th century diction. The editorial blurb informs us that the author is currently writing a novel featuring these characters. I hope he sticks to Fletcher’s mathematical/military adventures and skips the other stuff.

“Twenty-Two and You” by Michael Blumlein

Ellen has a happy marriage with Everett, and they’re both looking forward to a large family.

Having kids was etched so deeply in her. It had been there, inside, for as long as she could remember, inseparable from who she was. Womanhood meant many things, and one of them was motherhood. This seemed only natural. Most of her friends, both married and unmarried, felt the same. Getting pregnant, giving birth, raising a family: let the wild rumpus begin! It was nature’s gift and plan.

But Ellen has a troublesome family history that shows up when she has her genome tested; pregnancy will certainly trigger the cancer. Gene therapy can prevent this, but the doctor warns her that the results are unpredictable; there may be side effects.

A story about choice, about the necessity in life, when making choices, to confront the fact that outcomes can never be certain, even when science steps in. The doctor’s story at the end is moving. I have, however, a couple of quibbles. First, in a future where gene scanning is so commonplace, I can’t credit this couple getting married without both of them being tested; this would certainly be a crucial part of premarital preparation. Second, I don’t believe that any woman can know for certain, as Ellen claims, how she will react to motherhood once she gives birth and hormonal changes take place. The author frames the matter as one of memory, but I don’t think it’s that at all.

“Greed” by Albert E Cowdrey

This issue’s Cowdrey is one of his regional humorous pieces. It seems that Vern’s eccentric Uncle Ishmael, having made his fortune, built himself a castle in Bonaparte, MS, where Vern, having failed to make his own fortune, came to work as caretaker. The ungrateful old lizard didn’t leave his fortune to Vern in his will, but he did continue his stipend as caretaker, so that Vern’s life wasn’t really so bad – not that Vern would agree. Then he gets a call from an old frat buddy who, having made his fortune illegally, is on the run from the Feds. Could Vern put him up for a while?

Average Cowdrey. There isn’t as much of the local color as usual in these, but the voice is sprightly and the plot sufficiently twisty to be entertaining.

“Gnarly Times at Nana’ite Beach” by K J Kabza

Beachpunk? Surferpunk? Dusty seems more interested in impressing girls than catching a wave.

Dusty glanced casually at the sand by his feet and transmitted a few commands to it with the thoughts of his cyberneurons. In a fraction of a second, the polarization changed, the network oscillations of the sand’s binding nanoparticles moved away from random, and the sand aligned into a bright screen displaying ocean data at his feet. The girls would see all that junk, about salinity and temperature currents, and know he was a serious surfer for sure.

Unfortunately, Dusty is as inept on his board as he is with the girls. But his status as a loser is so well-known that the great Zhaoping Ho’s decides he’s the perfect candidate to test-surf his latest attempt to hack the Smart sand in the surf.

The girls in this one are wearing lot less than Annette Funicello ever did, but the scene is much the same.

“Olfert Dapper’s Day” by Peter S Beagle

Dr Dapper, of no real medical degree, is forced to flee to the New World when his various frauds are revealed to the authorities of Utrecht. In the wilderness, among the comfortless Puritans, he has no alternative but to pose as a medical practitioner.

Olfert Dapper was most often the only resort of people who had fallen down cliffs, abruptly removed hands or legs while cutting firewood, contracted a disease of which he knew neither the name, the cause, nor the treatment, or come off second-best in some encounter with a bear or a panther. Even had he actually possessed a medical degree, it would likely have proved worse than useless, faced with the dangers and mysteries of Sagadahock.

Yet despite himself, he finds wonders and miracles in the wilderness.

A fine and moving fantasy. The author’s voice is quite engaging and his protagonist undergoes a memorable metamorphosis.


“Repairmen” by Tim Sullivan

Lorna is distraught after the suicide of her lover, when his friend Edmond shows up to explain something and ask a favor. It seems that they are not what they appear to be.

“It’s the source of a dark-energy leak that must be repaired both here and up-brane, because of entanglement. We widen the break and slip through to do our work. If we succeed in sealing it, potential trouble is averted and we go on looking for other breaks.”

Quantumish SF. Not a really original scenario. It should be Lorna’s story, but we know her too little.

“One Year of Fame” by Robert Reed

A long-retired writer is living bucolically in a farming town where robots have taken over all the work of farming, when a UPS delivery robot recognizes him as the author of his works. Word spreads, and sentient robots begin to appear in great numbers, just to be in the presence of the Great Man. The writer and the town aren’t quite sure what to do about this invasion.

People were still people. They slept as they always slept and woke at the usual hours, and some days proved memorable while most passed without ceremony. Food and jokes didn’t change quickly. The same favored thoughts ran through the same heads again and again and again. That was what it meant to be human — in German Bluff, and everywhere else, too.

But inside the normalcy, machines appeared.

Reed is a writer of such skill that a rather commonplace premise like this one appears fresh when it comes from him, told in an uncommonplace voice.

“The Tortoise Grows Elate” by Stephen Utley

Another in the author’s series about scientists time-traveling to the Paleozoic Era, in which we can only conclude that scientists must be the most obnoxious species. The narrator certainly has this opinion of her colleagues, and the reader, thereby, doesn’t conceive a very elevated opinion of her. Ostensibly, such as it is, the story is concerned with unlikely fallings in love.

Centipede Sam said, “Have you ever seen scorpions mate? The difference between those two and scorpions is just a matter of degree. Scorpions have more primitive wiring and plumbing.”

I don’t see what the author might see in his protagonist, or what he supposed readers would see in her. But being a dyke does not confer license to be a bitch.

“The Queen and the Cambion” by Richard Bowes

The life-long relationship of Queen Victoria and the wizard Merlin, who in an ill-advised moment once agreed to answer the summons of any monarch of Britain. Sort of far-fetched and not really moving, as it seems intended to be.

“Demiurge” by Geoffrey Landis

The wish-fulfillment fantasies of fantasy fans. “Especially, the ones who are desperately unhappy with the world the way it is, and long for another reality that lies beyond this tedious gray world.” Landis taps into something primal in the fantasy reader, something that has probably lived in most of us, at least briefly. The story, likewise, is brief.

“The Man Who Murdered Mozart” by Robert Walton and Barry N Malzberg

The man is Beasley, failed musician, ambitious plotter, whose grandiose plans rest on the temporal kidnapping of the dying Mozart in a manner not made clear. He gathers accomplices and henchpersons and they enter the past, while the authors provide a running commentary that is the real point of this piece.

Watch him contend. Let us witness his contention. Here he is, enormous in his desperation and hate, grasping Mozart, Richards at his side clutching the other foot. There they are, struggling;

So that what we have here is a metafiction, a meditation on matters temporal, paradoxical, historical. There may or may not be a point to it.

Remember: it is an explanatory age, an expository time. The need for detail in narrative was a product of its formal origin earlier in Mozart’s century.

“Perfect Day” by C S Friedman

When brainware apps take over. Stanley has a bad malware problem today.

“I think I have a virus,” Stanley said. “I’ll deal with it at work.”

“Is it the nudie virt?” his naked fourteen year old brother demanded.

Timely humor, if not really very funny.


Asimov’s, April/May 2012

A two-novella double issue. The one I like is the novelette from Rick Wilber.

“The Last Judgment” by James Patrick Kelly

A mystery, set in the universe of the author’s acclaimed “Men are Trouble” – a future world in which the aliens called devils have disappeared all the human men. Fay Hardaway is a private detective tasked to retrieve the Hieronymus Bosch painting stolen by her elderly client’s granddaughter. She wants both of them back. But of course things are more complicated; it’s a novella.

The thing about SF mysteries is that the macguffin is usually just the excuse for the protagonist to go around exposing the world. We see a lot of Fay’s hardshell attitude – she hates devils, hates their bots, protectively loves her wife and child.

I told myself then that I was done being scared. I was a PI; I washed my face with battery acid and picked my teeth with ten penny nails. I was mean as cancer. So why did I scuttle around the Chief’s desk and sit in her chair?

But mostly we see a world that’s still, after more than forty years, suffering from the disappearance of the human males.

The author’s blurb suggests that this premise has generated controversy, and I’m not surprised. It’s impossible to read it without mentally setting it side-by-side with Russ’s Whileaway, and Russ’s version is far more convincing. As stated by the character of sex-altering surgeon Dr Haddad,

Instead all it proves is that they’re aliens who got biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles all mixed up. When they disappeared the men, our species began to generate new men. I’m just helping those people become who they already are.

In other words, human nature abhors a penis vacuum. But how would this occur? What biochemical processes would be at work to increase the number of girls who take on transgender identities? And given that they did, why would these transmen adopt the specific male cultural signifiers of men gone for two generations? Why baggy pants and tanker boots instead of, say, togas, gourd penis sheaths or other typical male attire from other places and times?

I can’t suppose that Kelly is unaware of Russ’s work; this piece would then appear to be an explicit rejection of it. The author, with Dr Haddad, seems to be telling us that the world without men is broken and the only way to fix it is to recreate them. It would seem that Fay would fit into Russ’s all-female world where for generations women have gotten along quite well, thank you very much, without men. Fay has a wife and child but rejects Dr Haddad’s insistence that she is really a “man.” But Fay is troubled; she is an alcoholic. Is this simply because she grew up neglected in the “crazy times” after the disappearance, or is it sign that she is denying her maleness? Does she drink to compensate for her missing penis? Is this what Kelly is suggesting? If so, I’m not buying it. It makes sense that woman, seeing their male lifemates disappear, would be traumatized. It makes a lot less sense that their granddaughters would miss what they have never known, and I sure don’t buy the premise that women born into a world without penises would be suiciding for the want of them, all of forty years later.

“Living in the Eighties” by David Ira Cleary

Time travel. Bob the loser wants to go back to 1986 for the music. And in defense of his choice if not his taste,

Our lives have soundtracks, the songs that played when we first had sex or first got drunk or first met our Deadhead roommate in the college dorm, and it is by these soundtracks that men can gauge the signal events of our histories. That’s how I argued to her that men come to know one another.

What he really wants is to see his old girlfriend Gretchen, to prevent her suicide. Gretchen didn’t believe in time travel. Gretchen was too good for him, and he ruined her life. But changing these things involves a lot of complications.

Dark humor, done to a pervasive soundtrack of punk music, through which knowledgeable readers may be able to track the shifts in time better than I can. The rest of us will have to go by the politicians. There’s also Bob’s sidekick Clayton, a luddite punk rocker going forward in time to try to find gene therapy for his diabetes, a revenge plot, and a lot of other craziness. It’s all quite entertaining, but it tends to obscure the fact that Gretchen’s life really was a tragedy, and not so funny at all.

“Something Real” by Rick Wilber

Multiple alternate histories of Moe Berg, major league baseball player and US spy. Now the thing is, Berg really was a US spy in WWII, so the problem is in sorting out the different timelines, in at least one of which Heisenberg is leading the Germans to successfully construct an atomic bomb. In our own timeline, one of Berg’s assignments involved Heisenberg’s assassination, if he did turn out to be close to developing the bomb [which he wasn’t]. Here, things are different and keep changing. The author provides lots of historical details and hints about the different timelines, but for Moe’s sake, there is also a period-perfect gorgeous dame.

She stared at him, dead serious. “Problem is, Moe, there are a lot of pages in those newspapers, and different things are happening on different pages. It’s all on the same day, it’s all the news that’s fit to print, you know? But certain things have to go in a certain order, Moe, or I won’t be able to help.”

AH fans and WWII buffs are going to love this one for the details, baseball fans for Moe Berg, and for everyone, there’s a can’t-miss Very Neat Idea at the end.


“Bonding with Morry” by Tom Purdom

Morry gives in on getting a robot, but he insists it’s a thing, not a person. He’s not interested in any emotional bonding, he’s just gotten to the age where he needs some help. Clank is just what he needs, but everyone keeps insisting he get more. This is a sort of debate on sentimentalizing machines, with a deliberately ambiguous conclusion.

“Sexy Robot Mom” by Sandra McDonald

Another take on robots, this one following the author’s previous piece with sexy cowboy robots, although the sexiness factor doesn’t really come much into play. Alina is a gestation/lactation surrogate, and she is just newly implanted when something happens and she goes into stasis mode. When she wakes, it is thirty years later and climate change has frozen the world. A woman has dug her out of the ice but won’t tell her why or where they are going, but Alina’s programming requires her to seek out the parents of her fetus, even though after all this time, they are most likely dead.

The premise is just too far-fetched in every respect. The scenario isn’t meant to be absurd, but it is, and not in a good way.

“Sensitive, Compartmented” by Gray Rinehart

Military SF. Holly is the subject of a future top-secret project, implanted with a device that allows her to pick up the thoughts of others – with no way to turn them off but surrounding herself with a Faraday cage.

She felt their minds like things alive, crawling inside her and digesting her self the way cheese maggots digest and ferment casu marzu; the other minds left her with a residue of mixed emotion that sometimes took hours to dissipate.

Her missions involve being flown over enemy territory, probing targeted minds. But this time, the enemy is waiting for her.

A pretty tense thriller, with Holly in dire straits; it’s by no means clear that she will be able to reach safety. The plot is only marred by the portrayal of her Russian captors as so undisciplined and superstitious as to believe her a witch.

“Souvenirs” by Ian Creasey

Kendra is a souvenir peddler at the Beamish port, struggling to support her two daughters, when an alien shows up and buys her most expensive item, paying with a large-denomination bill. Which turns out to be counterfeit. Kendra immediately marches off in pursuit of justice.

What’s striking here is the fact that Beamish’s justice system actually works. Kendra’s complaint isn’t swallowed by corruption; officials take her case seriously, if not as high priority, and she’s not automatically kicked out into the street, despite being obviously poor. Which is what usually happens in stories of this sort and makes Creasey’s rather refreshing.

“Greener” by Josh Roseman

Sex and marriage in the not-so-far future. Scott doesn’t renew his contract with Naomi, but he discovers he can’t live without her. Except for a few minor alterations, this could be the story of a divorced couple today.

“Riding Red Ted and Breathing Fire” by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator disregards the normal safety rules for riding his new heighthwrick.

They said I should practice with my beast before setting out, but I’m an athlete in peak form, as all soldiers should always be.

Readers will confidently expect that this pompous ass will meet a fittingly bad end, but Emshwiller always subverts the obvious expectations. Unusually humorous for this author.


Analog, May 2012

Except for the final installment of the serial, the issue mostly comes down to a novella from Daniel Hatch, from which I had higher expectations.

“Ordinary Life” by Daniel Hatch

Alaska at the end of the Age of Oil, as everything changes over to hydrogen power. Tom is a bush pilot who grows concerned when four of his girlfriends disappear at about the same time. Denise is an environmental activist unloved by the loggers. Mary is a waitress who has a secret that Tom is unaware of. Erin is a nature photographer. Annie is a newspaperwoman. While worried about all of them, he takes a job to fly a man named Shaw across the border – without benefit of official approval. In fact, with strong evidence of official disapproval. Tom finds himself with Shaw in a federal detention camp and realizes that this is what happened to his friends.

“The problem is that this has been going on for thirty years,” Dr. Jones said. “One of those dirty secrets that the government kept hidden. After 9/11 they made up a list of eight million or so people that they wanted to pick up if things started to get shaky. Professors, newspaper reporters, students, people who read newspapers.”

So much good stuff here, for the most part a love letter to flying the Alaskan coast.

I took off to the south over the harbor and came around Douglas Island at a thousand feet, just above the haze layer and among some low-hanging clouds. The sun painted the water gold and caught the gauzy edges of the clouds. I dropped down to a few hundred feet, just high enough to see the tops of the trees whisking by on my left and touched down for a landing that was only slightly bumpy.

The story opens slowly with a lot of flying around, interleaved with hints about Shaw and his alien friend, about whom little is actually delivered. Tension builds as we realize something ominous is going on, with the disappearances. Then . . . thud. Onto the pages falls a thick turgid lump of stale political conspiracy theory, decades old by the time of the story, and we realize that it is all premised on a rant about the recent banking crisis. And, dammit, this is science fiction. It’s supposed to be about the future. Not the obsessions of twenty years ago. I might also suggest that the author take another look at his proposed nation of refuge, since nothing else seems to have changed. A lot promised here, including the alien, but something else is delivered.

“But It Won’t Set You Free” by Tracy Canfield

Kim and Harvinder are torturing aliens for science, trying to determine if this species is sentient. It is, and their specimen is resentful.

The alien yanked its foreleg free from the twisted strap and flipped a half-meter serrated claw out from a groove in its flesh. It slashed at Harvinder and sent him crashing backwards into the lab bench.

The two errant xenologists scramble to protect their jobs as complications multiply. Humor, of the sort in which idiots pay for their idiocy.

“Lobstersaurus” by Eric James Stone

More aliens.

The only predator that poses a significant danger for colonists is Species C-3506, a well-armored hexapod ranging up to five meters in height and up to nine meters in length, and massing up to twelve metric tons.

Esperanza’s father has killed a large specimen, but there is a complication. A baby lobstersaurus is emerging from the carcass of its parent. It is the cutest thing Esperanza has ever seen. A fairly typical examination of alien biosystems, predictably sentimental.


Tor.com, February 2012

Two YAs, two series installments. Three female authors, three female protagonists.

“Uncle Flower’s Homecoming Waltz” by Marissa K Lingen

A story about coming of age in an age of war. [Orphaned?] Zal, at age twelve, is beginning to have adult dreams, which in her case means dreams of the future. The authorities covet this information for the war effort – a desperate and sinister affair that doesn’t directly touch those at home. But Zal’s uncle has been to the war and is now coming home, and Zal is excited for him to see that she has grown up in the years of his absence.

I wanted to say something about how I could [wear an old dress], Uncle Flower wouldn’t mind, he loved me whatever I wore and whatever I did, but when I opened my mouth, what came out was, “The scientist called Murphy didn’t come back because she couldn’t find her dog.”

Uncle Flower, however, wants to preserve her innocence, at least for a while.

The author leaves a lot of information undisclosed. Where are Zal’s parents? Why do people have these dreams? What is the war about? This leaves what we do know standing out in contrast: the war is evil, and the authorities will not hesitate to use Zal, regardless of the harm it might do her. We see that Zal is aware of these facts, that she is making a mature decision. What we can’t know for certain is whether it’s the right decision, but that’s the way decision-making works, whether we can dream the future or not.

“Among the Silvering Herd” by Alyx Dellamonica

As I began this one, I had the ominous feeling that it might turn out to be a romance, as the protagonist is rather obsessed with her new first mate’s looks. Gale is a sort of troubleshooter, and she needs her assistant to be clever and subtle, not a sex magnet. The island of Redcap is in debt to a stronger power, the currency being the valuable magical horns of the local stags.

Gale wondered if Parrish was following this: Agate was explaining why, for decades, Redcap had been voting with Sylvanna on contentious issues within the Fleet Convene. Now they were out of debt, the Sylvanners didn’t want to give up a puppet.

After the awkward and confusing opening, dwelling too much on sex and backstory, the story turns into a nice piece of intrigue. I like the stag-lore. Apparently, however, it is part of a series, and thus the extraneous and distracting information from the immediate tale at hand.

“Mother, Crone, Maiden” by Cat Hellisen

Prequel to the author’s YA novel. Ilven comes from a family of seers, and at age sixteen her marriage has been arranged. But she yearns instead for her best friend’s older married brother, so she looks for a future in which he can be hers.

Unoriginal, uninteresting tale about a foolish girl. Can’t say it bodes well for the novel.

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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