Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late April

Here’s the latest F&SF, plus some more obscure publications, including a debut.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, May/June 2012

The best issue of the year, so far.

“Maze of Shadows” by Fred Chappell

Another tale of Falco the shadow thief. Master Astolfo has accepted the commission of a nobleman to guard his house with shadows in order to protect a mysterious treasure within. Falco and his fellow-apprentice Mutano have duly constructed a shadow maze, but a blind man sent to test it easily finds his way through. The chateau [pun, there?] also houses the cat that has Mutano’s voice, while he can only converse in cat – a situation that Mutano wants to remedy.

Sunbolt appeared from behind an arcade column directly across. He ambled slowly toward us, pausing now and again to display an attitude of nonchalance by sitting and washing his paws and ears and underbelly. This cat carried himself with a posture that proclaimed he knew his worth and held it considerable. If he were a man, he might play the role of a youngish sea captain with a ready and playful sword.

There’s a thing about series: if built around an ingenious and fascinating notion, such a premise can carry the first story a long way. But in the subsequent installments, we expect and require rather more. There is plenty of more in this one. The shadow trade figures prominently, the details sufficient and comprehensible for the purpose of the story without a lot of unnecessary backgrounding. The mannered narrative voice of Falco is engaging. There is also a neatly complex plot full of interwoven mysteries to keep readers involved. And some extraordinary cats.


“Liberty’s Daughter” by Naomi Kritzer

A libertarian dystopia, in which independent states have been established on man-made islands, subject only to their own rules. The population is mostly either citizens who have bought a share in the steading, or bonded workers. Teenager Beck Garrison was born on the steading and has a part-time as a Finder.

. . . let’s say you need something really specific, like a size six black bathing suit. There’s only a few stores and they might not have one in stock. But there’s probably someone on the seastead who’s got one, who’ll sell it for the right price, or trade it for the right thing. And that’s my job: finding that stuff, and then getting them what they want in exchange.

A bonded worker has the size eight sparkly sandals she needs, and in exchange she agrees to find what happened to the worker’s sister, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. This detective work, of course, leads Beck into trouble.

An interesting setting, which the author neither excuses nor demonizes. Beck makes for a resourceful young detective, which we can imagine to be her future profession. But there’s a lot we aren’t told, particularly concerning her father, who is somebody but we don’t know who. When he discovers what Beck has been up to – and he is quite well-informed – he tells her, “. . . you’ve demonstrated that you are stubborn, disobedient, and disrespectful.” Which he clearly sees as assets to be employed, rather than character flaws. But readers will know that Beck might have her own ideas. An appealing heroine.

“Asylum” by Albert E Cowdrey

This issue’s Cowdrey is a ghost story set in New Orleans, the author’s specialty. Willy is a loser who has always been obsessed with the afterlife. He figures, reasonably, that ghosts will have the answers he’s been looking for. So when he inherits a nice competence and foolishly imagines himself rich*, he finds a decrepit mansion that used to be an insane asylum, now haunted by the shades of its departed inmates.

“I think these folks spent the happiest part of their lives here in the nuthouse, where they were safe and taken care of and nobody told them they were out of their minds. An asylum originally meant a refuge, and that’s what it was for them. The masked ball was the high point, so year after year they come back to this room on this night, because this is where the ball was held.”

Willy has a great time at the ghost ball, so he moves in.

The story isn’t very original**, and neither scary nor crazy fun, as many of these tend to be, but rather wistful, its humor subdued.

* Willy is better off than the author thinks he is, though, as an inheritance in the US is not taxable to the beneficiary as income, but to the estate. That’s a pretty big oops.

** Aspects of the scenario greatly resemble that of the author’s “Greed”, from the previous issue of this zine.

“Taking the Low Road” by Pat MacEwen

Jeanne wants to leave behind her twin sister and their life as celebrities so strongly that she signs up to transit to a new colony via wormhole – not the safest choice.

The worm didn’t notice, of course. We were bits of debris, like the mineral content in some kind of quantum mechanical vitamin pill. What it needed the most, it got from ingesting the black hole, or rather the white hole it became in other nearby universes.

But Jeanne is dismayed to discover that Jeannette has followed her.

What’s interesting here is the wormhole travel, which is literally through the body of the hyperspace worm that literalizes the concept. The risks – typically 15% of travelers lost on a crossing – are so great that I can’t really credit people using this method of transit for routine travel. But the author describes them vividly. It’s annoying when the annoying sister shows up in the story, as a distraction from the wormy marvels.

“The Children’s Crusade” by Michael Alexander

A colonized world where humanity has devolved, becoming afflicted by illness and religion. Because the native foods are slowly toxic to humans, they have also developed a tradition of cannibalism; malefactors and suspicious strangers go into the pot, and “sharing the flesh” is as literal as it is sacramental. Because they have also developed a measure of telepathy, William sees something promising in the outwardly unprepossessing stranger who arrives in his town.

Peter leaned his head back, letting the rain settle on his face, then pulled the skinbag slung from his shoulder around to the front and put the spout to his lips, drinking deeply. He capped it, belched, wiped his mouth, leaned to one side, and farted; all in all, a class act. I kept an eye on him as I whittled, figuring anything that ugly was a potential threat.

Peter turns out to be much more than he seems, which is probably protective coloration.

While the scenario is not at all original [I’m having to say that a lot], the well-developed characters carry the story, and the messianic tone of the opening turns out to be quite fitting. It’s odd that we see no women or girls here, although they seem to exist. It’s an interesting question whether the cannibalism contributes to the declining birth rate or helps the population by supplying necessary nutrients, but the author is wisely more concerned with his story than such speculation.

“Necrosis” by Dale Bailey

Set in the days when gentlemen of leisure congregated in their clubs. The members begin to notice that one of their number has developed a disagreeable odor.

Westfall claimed it had started in the late fall. He’d run into Condon Christmas shopping — we usually trade small gifts among ourselves — and had detected a faint unpleasant smell around the man. But the rest of us disagreed: the scent could have been nothing but some poorly chosen cologne, and besides, in the thronged department store in late November, the smell, which even Westfall admitted was subtle and brief, might have belonged to someone else altogether, brushing past in the crowded aisle where they stood conversing.

A weird tale in the classic mode, with a mannered narrative and atmosphere suitable to the previous century. The mystery is at first a subtle matter, but the author briefly opens a door into horror at the end, then closes it on the readers, who are left to wonder and dread – along with a certain amount to frustration, not knowing what has actually happened.

“Typhoid Jack” by Andy Stewart

An android twist on the police state, the germ police are in charge, and privacy is almost nonexistent. This is where the narrator comes in.

People need to piss away a day now and then. Need an excuse to be lazy, or to give it less than the 120 percent. People need a day off work. That’s a harder thing to come by since the Farmers started running things. A new level of productivity was required of society when they came on board. Most of the time that’s a good thing. Not all the time, though.

So Jack is a germ peddler, and it pays the big bucks. But there’s something suspicious about his latest client, and the enforcers know it.

The scenario is improbable in this moral tale about individual freedom/responsibility and the public good.

“City League” by Matthew Corradi

A world in which memories are routinely bought and sold, which has generated a big business in verifying them. The narrator, a memory verifier, is also a baseball fan, with a large collection of classic baseball mems. So he’s bothered when a mem that he’s checking out conflicts with his own memory of the details of a historic perfect game that he actually attended as a kid. Or so he remembers.

That baseball mem, however, and the perfect game, and “Two-Ply” Frye, they all bothered me on the ride home down the C-rail to my little apartment in Allen Park, and they bothered me late into the night as I ate my frozen pizza and followed the Tigers on my wall beam.

This one begins as if it will be concerned with the corruptibility of information in the digital age. But it soon takes a turn towards the personal, a devastatingly emotional story of a father and son.

“Grand Tour” by Chris Willrich

Now that she is eighteen, I-Chen is about to embark on her Grand Tour, and she doesn’t wanna.

Dad tried to lay a comforting hand on her aching head, exactly as if she were twelve years old and this was her Bat Mitzvah, not her Grand Tour. She ignored him, stalked aboard the flyer, and threw her backpack as far from the cockpit as she could get. The backpack beeped it was fine. That made her want to throw it again. Wordlessly, Dad sat at the controls. She wanted him to come back here so she could yell at him to leave her alone.

Pretty standard kid stuff. It doesn’t make much sense to me that an entire extended family will interrupt their lives and careers and take off to vacation in the stars for a dozen years objective, every time one of their kids hits age eighteen – just to give her some space to grow up. It should be the kids going.


Tor.com, April 2012

One short story amidst the tie-ins.

“On 20468 Petercook” by Andy Duncan

A very silly spacewalk. George and Stanley have a boring job, tending the solar sail on the surface of “minor planet 20468”. They have little to do but play video games and natter interminably, employing locutions like “old tosh” that are already archaic today. Even on the rare occasion that they have a task to perform, they aren’t very good at it.

“From my vantage point, there seems to be a red light on your screen, appearing and disappearing with some rapidity. Were I asked to describe it, I might be so bold as to say it is flashing.”

The title, of course, reveals the story’s inspiration, as well as the illustration. I can’t help also suspecting that Stanley is named for one of an even older pair of comics.


Fireside Magazine, Spring 2012

Debut issue. The zine’s slogan is “Many genres. No limits. Just good stories.” Laudable ambitions, which the Liu and Buckell stories fulfill fairly well. The stories tend to be quite short.

“To the Moon” by Ken Liu

Not space travel. Wenchao leaves China with his young daughter in hopes of a better life in the US, if he can qualify for asylum. He’s assigned to a young attorney struggling with her growing disillusion with the system. She tells him that she wants to hear his story and wants it to be the truth, but what she really wants is for it to conform to the rules. At the same time, Wenchao is telling his daughter another version of the story, how he climbed the pagoda tree with her until they reached the moon.

The Moon seemed close from the ground but it kept on receding as we progressed up the tree. We had to climb through clouds, through flocks of wild starlings and sparrows, through wind and rain that threatened to tear us from the tree, until finally, we were at the very tip of the tallest swaying branch, and then, just as the Moon passed right overhead, I reached up and hoisted us onto it.

A thought-provoking look at the different ways a story can tell the truth. The fantastic element is only metaphorical.

“Emerald Lakes” by Chuck Wendig

A series story. Atlanta Burns is locked up in the psych ward after she shot her stepfather’s balls off, with some justification. Survival in the psych ward takes strategic originality.

Perhaps this might be more meaningful to those already familiar with the character. No genre content.

“Temperance” by Christie Yant

Finding himself by mistake in the town of Temperance, ruled by the militant foes of alcohol, alcoholic Anthony sees a ghostly vision that thrusts him into a tragic future. We only get a fragment of the story, however.

“Press Enter to Execute” by Tobias S Buckell

When the internet goes bad. Or rather, worse. Mayhew is a paid killer, hired to kill spammers, whereby he is known as “the spam assassin.” He’s a big net star.

The support for my missions was always put together by crowds of unconnected people who would never realize they were helping participate in a crime. In the old days they would be “accessories” in one way or another.

Then things go wrong, and he finally learns who has hired him. Maybe.

A particularly clever, entertaining idea of the “If This Goes On” sort. I only wish the ending weren’t one of the “how is he telling this story?” sort.


Bull Spec #7, Spring 2012

I thought at first glance that the current issue of this small press slickzine was a more substantial one, with six original stories. However, these are all quite short pieces, often to their disadvantage – sketchy, vignettes more than fully-realized stories. The nonfiction is given a lot more space.

“The Gearaffe Who Didn’t Tick” by D K Thompson

In the ruins of a world that might once have been colonized by humans, robotic automatons scavenge a ruined spaceship for oil. Timid young Annabelle is afraid of the darkness inside the ship; there are voices in the darkness, although none of the other gearaffes seem to hear them. The coalyote, however, suggests that perhaps the darkness is just as afraid of her.

A children’s story, charming and imaginative, although it might take a special child to appreciate some of the wordplay. We never learn how the automatons can be said to be born, or why Annabelle is different, but these details seem inconsequential.

“Complications of the Flesh” by Jason Erik Lundberg

Drug dealing in Southeast Asia. The nameless narrator is in trouble, drug dealing in Southeast Asia, screwing his partner’s girlfriend. At least, that is one scene, but it alternates with another in which he is imprisoned with a violent woman who may also be the girlfriend – this all may be a drug-induced hallucination. Except that it’s really something else.

I ask if you know who I am.

“Yes. I have always known.”

Who am I?

“It is unimportant in this place.”

The reader is left to figure all this out, which is not so difficult in itself, but quite without context in reality, whatever that may be.

“Inseparables’ War” by Stephanie Ricker

Twin brothers share a telepathic bond, which proves the salvation of Bobby when he is drafted into the Vietnam War. Quite sketchy.

“Fish Eyes” by Natania Barron

In a village of fishermen, the nets are put away in autumn and not brought out again until spring [this is two seasons, not one, as the text states]. Brodd’s father has told him this again and again, but now his father is away at war, and armed raids have left them with nothing to eat. In desperation, Brod takes a fish to feed his family and learns why he is not supposed to be there. He learns more than the reader does, however. The piece is horror, the story of crossing the boundary of the forbidden. Often in such tales, it is the very inexplicability of the secret that constitutes the horror, but in this case, the weirdness is such that the effect is diminished. We don’t know enough, and it’s unsatisfying.

“Friday Nite at the A&W” by J P Trostle

Essentially, the Jetsons.

“When Dreams Wake” by Jason K Chapman

Sarah has been brought to an alien place to nurse a sick and possibly dying alien who speaks in enigmas and riddles. Gradually she learns something of the nature of reality in this place, which is the dream that the alien dreams.

A fine story, with well-done imagery:

Yesterday was as sharp as honed steel, as were the days before that, but her memories of life before coming to care for him were puffs of smoke silhouetted against a blazing sunrise.


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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