Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-March

Belatedly, the review of the new British futurezine Arc, thanks to a friend who helped me overcome Technical Difficulties. Also the winter issue of Subterranean Online, which didn’t disappoint my expectations of finding some good stories therein. The award, however, goes to “Scry” in BCS.

I am also announcing a change that publishers wishing to send material for review should note at the bottom of this column.


Publications Reviewed


Arc #1

Future, present and past. Arc, the inaugural issue’s editorial informs us, is about the future, imagined through past and present and beyond. The ezine’s format is firmly in the present, optimized for today’s current technology – e-readers and tablets. I, however, positioned at the rear guard of the trailing edge, have had to try to read it on the technology of the past, and I must say it was a frustrating task.

Arc is a British publication, and it’s thus not surprising to find mostly [entirely?] British and Commonwealth resident authors here. Nor is it really very surprising when the editorial suggests that a British mindset might be best at imagining the future – a least it doesn’t surprise those of us who have been for some time comparing the respective output of British and US SF.

The table of contents features a compelling lineup, although many of these Big Names have contributed essays and other nonfiction, not stories. In fact, I get the impression that the nonfiction is the primary mission of the zine. But Stephen Baxter, M John Harrison, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Alistair Reynolds are certainly a strong draw, and there is also an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, which, as both excerpt and sequel to a book I haven’t read, I have not reviewed.

Now the publicity surrounding this debut set up certain expectations, and I was anticipating stories with strong futurist sensibilities. So it was rather disappointing not to find them. The futures here are standard ones that SF readers are already quite familiar with; novelty and originality don’t seem to be a priority. Not at all what I’d expected or wanted from this source.

“A Journey to Amasia” by Stephen Baxter

It seems that the AIs are taking over the human world and draining its resources without solving humanity’s problems. The Vatican has reconstituted a reluctant Officer Philmus from virtual retirement in information space to deal with the problem. She isn’t impressed with what she finds in this future.

“I remember dreams of the singularity. When human and machine would merge in a cybernetic infinity. Not this crabby enclosure.”

They have a key: an enigmatic word: Amasia, which turns out to be the name of the future supercontinent to be formed when the Pacific closes. The Vatican fears the AIs plan to fight a destructive and resource-draining war over the territory as it coalesces.

Interesting that this zine’s first fictional vision of the future is mostly spent in looking pastwards – although the editorial did suggest that this might be the case. Philmus is retrieved from the past, and from the author’s past stories; the AIs were formed in the story’s past; and much of the story is spent data-mining the past. The premise, AIs turning away from humanity, is likewise taken from past science fiction. Furthermore, once the action gets underway, Philmus’s long climb down through the past turns out to be a dead alley; the plot reboots, and the reader is left with a strong sense of annoyance that she has just wasted a lot of time, to no real effect. Only at the conclusion, when the real secret of Amasia is finally revealed, is there something novel and definitely futurian.

I first became familiar with Baxter from his far-future space war tales — fine, cracking adventures that gave off an almost blinding light of futurity. He has since moved in other directions, but I must admit that when I saw his name on the masthead of this future-oriented zine, I might be in for something that shiny. Not so, which rather epitomizes this zine.

“In Autotelia” by M John Harrison

The narrator takes a journey by train from a perhaps-future London to Elsewhere, which is named Autotelia. The name means something on the order of self-sufficiency, and it may once have been an independent piece of spacetime, now connected to the narrator’s milieu by a transitional zone that may or may not be a sort of quantum tunnel.

The world will be more or less the same when you come out of the other end. You can, at least, expect something to be there. The last thing I see is a boy standing in a glorious waste of flowers at the end of some gardens to wave at the train. This is such an old-fashioned gesture, I catch my breath. To wave at a train because it is a train is a vanished body language on our side of things: generous, unguarded, agonizingly naive. On our side, children don’t wave at trains; they throw things.

Tourists from the narrator’s side of the zone seem to visit freely in Autotelia; Autotelians collect artifacts from “our side,” but aren’t allowed to cross over without an intrusive physical exam conducted by the narrator, who turns out to be a medical bureaucrat.

Attempting to discover a future here is frustrating. “Our side” seems to be much like London present, except perhaps more so. The Autotelian side, while not part of our world’s past, has the sense of a mid-20th-century Mitteleuropa with unsettling hints of a brutal history and a whiff of Kafka. Behind a cheery gemütlicheit we find the locals collecting Stalin and Hitler icons, in seeming admiration. I would sooner call it an alternate history than a future one, but it doesn’t really seem to be either.

I eventually decided to abandon this quest and take this enigmatic story on its own terms, which are more satisfactory. The focus belongs on the narrator, not the setting, and if elements of the background are missing, it’s because they are not the narrator’s current concern. It’s a deeply psychological story of perceiving the Other and self-perception, objectification and being objectified. The narrator frowns at the Autotelian Hitler fixation, but can’t see herself.


“Topsight” by Hannu Rajaniemi

A wake. Kuovi’s friend Bibi has apparently drowned, and her friends have scattered her ashes on the water. Now they have gathered her soul – which seems to be seawater – and gathered to commemorate her. This all makes Kuovi uncomfortable – we don’t know why. Then she discovers where Bibi’s soul actually resides.

While this one is definitely set in a future, it’s a very familiar one in many respects, and particularly in the ubiquitous use of smartphones and similar devices, which all run apps – a term out of the present. “Topside” is an app that Bibi used extensively; through it, Kuovi discovers a lot about who her friend was. The reader, however, is mostly left out of this discovery. We don’t get to know Bibi, and the main reason is that we don’t get to know Kuovi. We don’t really get to know the app, either.

“The Water Thief” by Alastair Reynolds

A dystopian future. The narrator supports herself and her daughter in the refugee camp by working odd virtual jobs, hoping to acquire the proficiency credits to enable her move someplace better, although we readers suspect this will never happen.

My virching rig isn’t much. I have the eye, my lenses, my earphones and my T-shirt. All cheap, second-hand. I position the eye, balancing it on a shoebox until its purple pupil blinks readiness. I slip in the earphones. The T-shirt is ultramarine, with a Chinese slogan and some happy splashing dolphins. Too tight for a grown woman but the accelerometers and postural sensors still function.

Then, in an emergency, she finds herself having to make a moral decision that might mean a man’s life and the end of her hopes.

Another familiar future.


Subterranean, Winter 2012

I’d been looking forward for a while to see the latest quarterly issue completely posted at the Subterranean site. The stories seem to have been going up at a slower rate than previously, and by the time this column appears it will be spring. I always expect to find some good fiction here, and so I did this time. There are nine pieces of fiction, most either dark fantasy or humor. Naturally, I prefer the darker visions, but the wide range in tone will probably provide something for most tastes.

“Water Can’t Be Nervous” by Jonathan Carroll

An intriguing title. This one starts as if it were going to be a story about stories, but it turns out to be about failed relationships. A man’s most recent lover had given him a gift before she left him – a pair of hand puppets, a man and a woman. He uses them to recreate scenes from his past relationships, taking both roles, both points of view. At some point, it seems that he can use them to understand how things have always gone wrong, but instead he becomes convinced that all his relationships are doomed to go that way.

One night when he couldn’t sleep, he even sat silently on the couch in the living room at three in the morning wearing the puppets on his hands. They kept him company until he went back to bed.

I could definitely see this piece in The New Yorker. The prose is moving, and the ending particularly so, working off the title. Aside from a faint suggestion that there is something uncanny about the puppets, everything seems mundane. Except. Until. Near the end of the story, the author inserts a jarring twist, with a very un-mundane and even sinister tone, suggesting that the protagonist possesses a sort of wizardly power. Which is all very well, except that it also suggests that, with this power, he has moved his former lovers out of his home.

When the renovations were complete, he would say the necessary incantation and suddenly the woman would be living in her dream home, her memories of him and their relationship having faded into many months ago.

Yet it’s clear earlier in the text that his most recent lover was the one who knowingly left him, giving him the puppets as a parting gift, and clearly remembers her recent departure. The text supplies a possible reason for this, but it’s a subtle story, worth the re-reading to discover it.

“The Least of the Deadly Arts” by Kat Howard

Noir the Shadow Scholar is not interested in Death’s poetry, but she finds herself infatuated with Death himself upon a chance meeting. But their touch, their dance, has unexpected consequences, which Noir discovers when she attempts to enter the school laboratories, into which the dead are not allowed admittance.

“I beg your pardon, porter. But I am demonstrably corporeal, and thus, unlikely to be dead.” Noir was tired, and out of sorts, but she had been studying death for years. She felt certain she would have noticed if she had died.

The city Nyx seems to be devoted to Death and all things associated with death. Ghosts direct some of the important institutions, and recreational options seem to center around a choice of funerals, or viewing the relics of the notable deceased. While not entirely original, it is a well realized setting. But most notable here is the poetry, Death’s lost sestina, which the author not only creates in its entirety, but in two versions. Many authors would not even have made the attempt. The sestina is a love poem in both versions, one addressing a lover unknown, the other known. The story, of course, is a love story, a poignant one and melancholy, appropriate to the nature of these lovers.


“Treasure Island” by Mike Resnick

A “Lucifer Jones” story, continuing the reprobate’s misadventures. The Rev is rowing his way to Australia when he happens on an island where a band of pirates is searching for the treasure hidden by their leader, who happens, in the coincident way of this series, to be Jones’ regular nemesis Erich von Horst.

“Oh, I’m sure you plan on finding the treasure and making off with it yourself,” he said. “But if they catch you, they’ll cut you to pieces, and besides, I was watching when they sank your boat. You’ll need their ship to leave the island, and you can’t handle it alone.”

Readers who like this series will probably like this installment, the Rev’s lively narrative voice and the usual twisty plot.

“Three Lilies and Three Leopards (and a Participation Ribbon in Science)” by Tad Williams

Metafictional humor. The Crossover Division of the Department of Fictional Universes has made an error, and shoe store manager Pogo Cashman is now in Poul Anderson’s Matter of France, expected to be a hero. When he has already missed lunch. To say that Pogo is unsuitable as a fantasy hero would be understatement, but he has his own resources.

The bony faces of the harpies had reminded him of a certain kind of senior-citizen customer that always drove him crazy – the kind that just couldn’t be satisfied, that always had one more question, one more stupid little complaint.

The humor here will be best appreciated by those readers familiar with the references to the fantasy classics, as well as 1970’s TV series, the era from which, for some reason, Pogo originally hails. I would have liked to see less redundancy at the beginning.

“The Drunken Moon” by Joe R Lansdale

Horror vignette about a familiar neighborhood monster. The title image is striking:

He was not the moon, but I thought he was when I would see him in the dark, coming down the road by our house, wearing dark clothes, his pale face floating above his collar. He was always drunk and staggering and singing to the sky, his lunar face splitting open to reveal the crater of his mouth; a dark hole that led to nowhere.

The actual events are left to the reader’s imagination.

“Seeräuber” by Maria Dahvana Headley

The title comes from Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” and the tale begins with one of the dried and decorated chimerae made by sailors and often called “Jenny Hanivers,” which the sailors claim to be the remains of mermaids or sirens. But this Jenny is something else, something alive, drunk in her jar of preserving alcohol, thirsty for the sea where she was born, and for revenge.

The Jenny didn’t need all the flesh she’d come into the world with. The Jenny had what she needed to survive. But she, newly conscious, newly made into something other than what she’d been, dreamed of the sailor’s head floating, jaw agape, and eels eating his eyes.

Readers will be expecting horror, a series of murders trailing the Jenny through the human world, but the story undergoes a marvelous sea-change at the end into something very different, darkly wondrous, and beautiful in its own way. I like the dog.


“The Way the Red Clown Hunts You” by Terry Dowling

Evil clowns. On a visit with friends to a carnival, Dan happens upon a red harlequin clown, juggling.

It was a frozen moment for Dan, this glimpse of a classic carnival figure working at its craft. And, with the balls still a dazzling blur, to ensure that such a memory would stay a lifetime, the head turned and looked straight out at him. Straight out, both eyes (there had to be eyes!), the full spread of the terrible grin.

Definitely counts as horror, a subtle version, with the enigmatically sinister figure of the clown and the trap of the mirror maze where it haunts Dan – a childish exhibit turned into a classic house of horror. The conclusion, however, doesn’t rise to the expectations created by the rising tension up to that point.

“The Last Song You Hear” by David J Schow

Two old lovers reminisce about their life-long affair.

Move a grain of sand on the beach and it changes things on the other side of the planet. He got divorced. She remarried. They vectored on each other like orbitless moons, unpredictable, their collaboration resuming wherever it had been interrupted weeks or years before, always potent enough to render them giddy, spiked with just enough risk, fraught with impossibility, sufficiently potent to be infuriating, later.

A story of memory, what the mind holds closest. Sad and moving, in a low key. No fantastic content.

“Chicago Bang Bang” by C E Murphy

Urban fantasy set in the author’s Old Races series. This PI narrator is nameless on principle. Back in the days when women were dames and dolls, and gunsels used Tommy guns, a dame named Grey comes to him with a problem. Her vampire lover has become the target of a Chicago boss, whom she wants taken out.

This sort of scenario with fantasy city bosses, mainly derived from gaming, isn’t my thing. The narrator isn’t very bright; he’s brawn, not brains. Instead of reaching insight on his own, he constantly has to be clued in by someone else, which makes for an unsatisfactory PI protagonist. Much of the text is taken up by infodumpfery on vampire lore, in which van Helsing figures largely; that’s just derivative and lame.

What I did know was they’re too fast to take down easily, and they don’t stay down. That’s the shapeshifting: it heals all of us to some degree, but vampires are masters at it. Subtle changes, not the big wallop of going from man to monster. It keeps them alive through injuries that would take out a gargoyle or even a dragon.



Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 90-91, March 2012

It seems that it’s science-fantasy month at this ezine. I’m pleased to see the editor understands that, despite a setting on another planet with aliens, a story is just as much fantasy as one set on any other sort of imagined world, among imagined beings.

“The Mote-Dancer and the Firelife” by Chris Willrich

Aliens. I-Chen is the Mote Dancer, adept in the use of the Spinie Motes that facilitate telepathic communications and visions. Three years ago, her husband Nicolai was killed in a fight by a Spiny, but her vision of him is still with her.

Like someone had shoved a knife into my gut, and there it stayed. I could walk around, pretend to be okay, but I didn’t feel much except the blade. I couldn’t get rid of it and I couldn’t bleed.

She has now come to their world to exorcise her ghost, but she will first have to win the trust of the Spinies.

This one has the tone of a sequel, with somewhat vague references to past events partaken in by these characters, and I see that other stories in this universe have been written and sold, with this the first to be published. It may account for a certain flatness in the setting.

“Scry” by Anne Ivy

A woman scorned. Eyre Isri Esthe is an aristo and the most powerful scryer of her generation. She has faithfully served her husband Eyr Eth Lun, ruining her features with acid, the strongest medium for visions. But when Lun flees before the soldiers of the enemy Karnon Dae, he leaves her behind, assuming she would take her own life before surrendering. He assumes wrong.

She had never imagined that Lun lacked the courage—lacked the respect—to tell her the truth. She had never imagined that she—the greatest scryer of her generation—could be lied to and tricked by her own husband. It was so… common. So despicable.

A nice tale of conquest, revenge, and love. Esthe is a complex, well-realized character. I like the way the authors work along the fine line separating precognition from predestination, particularly the way they use the hazard of scrying one’s own death.


“The Book of Locked Doors” by Yoon Ha Lee

The Meroi have conquered Vayag’s homeland, and their Cloud Fortress now floats above the city that used to be Nyago-ot of the Seventy Temples. Vayag is a member of the resistance planning to attack the Cloud Fortress. She carries a book that holds her sister’s spirit, whispering deadly suggestions, but Vayag has never yet resorted to making use of the dead.

The book was bound in pale, crinkled leather and rough thread the color of massacres, and Suzuen Vayag carried it in an inner pocket of her coat as a matter of course. Her sister Kereyag had written it in gunfire and witchfire and hellpyre smoke, on the stray cold morning of her death. The least Vayag could do was keep it safe.

With its goddesses and spirits, this one is clearly unalloyed fantasy, and, as always with Lee’s work, the attraction is in the prose. Where it’s realistic is in the matter of the resistance and the moral dilemmas it creates, issues of ends and means. Vayag wants both to overthrow the occupation and to do it cleanly; this may not be possible.

“Juggernaut” by Megan Arkenberg

Another story of occupation and resistance. The situation is complex – too much so. The Dragons of Tourkis are systematically conquering their planetary system, heading outward, world by world. Casimar Altan is a woman become so rich that she has purchased outright the furthest world, Juggernaut, now the last free world in the system. The Dragons want it, but their ethical system prohibits them from confiscating her property, although not from conquering it. Casimar’s problem is the resistance movement on Juggernaut, which opposes her possession of their world. She sends an envoy to attempt to dissuade them.

“Oh, Casimar doesn’t plan to negotiate with you. Nor will she issue an ultimatum. She simply wishes to tell you that the moment you slip her grasp, Tourkis will gather her armies against Juggernaut and crush you the same way she crushed Ergonath, Sarasvati, Banu, and Akshayavat.”

Aside from the complexity, this one suffers from its mode of telling in the voice of an insignificant player. The story is Casimar’s, but we only learn it at second and third hand, Casimar relating her life story to Levent and explaining the political situation. In consequence, we don’t come to know Casimar herself, don’t understand why she makes the decisions she does at the story’s end, which seem remarkably uninformed and foolish. Levent, the narrator, is a person of no significance except for the author’s need of a narrator. I also find the name “Juggernaut” remarkably ill-chosen as a name for both Casimar and her world. The Juggernaut is the Dragons, who might have been interesting, except that we only see them as stock sadistic villains. I think this was meant to be a moral tale of the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-preservation, but that has gotten quite lost.


Strange Horizons, March 2012

SH has a new fiction editor, which may mean a new tone to the stories in subsequent issues. This time, two fantasies, and an SFnal adventure.

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by Claire Humphrey

Two girls growing up together in their imaginary worlds. The narrator calls herself Faustine; the other, Rosa Mundi. But they are different. Rosa Mundi wants the otherworld with all her being. Just as strongly, Faustine wants Rosa Mundi. Then comes the evening when they walk widdershins around the sundial in the herb garden, and Rosa Mundi’s call is answered.

She came, indeed. I heard her horse stamp and breathe. I heard her stirrup chime. I felt her step on the earth. I kept my face turned down.

A variation on the Tam Lin legend, with a bargain and a price, which is always more than it seems at the time. The divergent fates of the two characters are well-developed. I could wish the narrator’s voice was not quite so overdramatic.

“My Dignity in Scars” by Cory Skerry

The nameless narrator appears to have inherited the affliction of demons from his father, a great adventurer whom the narrator rather resents for being famous and dead. The demons first appear beneath the skin and can kill the victim if not surgically excised. The narrator’s father died of his third demon.

It’s not solid enough yet to break through my skin, but as it explores the cage of my flesh, it now leaves bruises in its wake. It migrates around to my front, as if it enjoys forcing me to look at the dark bruise of its body, so much like the ugly, blurred tattoos the coastal folk stab into their skin.

While the demon element here is fantastic, it clearly serves as a metaphor for mundane curses such a recurring cancer. The story is about nameless narrator’s ways of facing his afflictions, his life with the constant knowledge that they will likely return, his relationships with the family affected by his curse, not excluding the dead father he never understood. The sense of metaphor is strengthened as we learn relatively little about the demons – their origin, their distribution, their actual nature – despite the vividness of the physical description.

“Things Greater than Love” by Kate Bachus

Humans on another planet are contacted by an alien species resembling dragons, who propose cooperation. One of them joins Sasha’s search and rescue team, that does dangerous stuff like winching injured tourists out of live volcanic calderas. Of course, the bureaucracy has established rules.

Don’t touch them, we’d been told. We don’t understand their social structure. We don’t know if it might be an insult. Implied: you don’t want to insult a creature that can rip your arms and legs off without much effort or thought.

Nicely-done action piece with a good rescue scene. The theme is something rather more than friendship but the term rarely used these days: comradeship. Bureaucracy is always a convenient villain, and so it is here, perhaps more stupid than usual.

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.

One thought on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-March

  • March 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

    Thank you for your review. I’m so glad you liked our story, especially the character of Esthe.


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