Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May

A lot of reading this time, including an SF anthology and the debut of a new ezine. I found good stories, particularly at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.


Publications Reviewed


Rocket Science, edited by Ian Sales

An SF anthology! There aren’t so many original anthologies around these days, or at least they don’t get sent to me. This one is a mid-length mix of nonfiction and stories, of which the editor declares that none contain the term “spaceship.” The theme seems to be the exploration and colonization of the Sol system; it’s a hard SF collection, with the editor emphasizing the science aspect: “It’s always been my belief that sf is too good to be seen as just adventure stories in outer space.” Some of these stories fulfill this goal.

There are seventeen of them, most of which hew closely to the theme – to the point of occasional redundancy. We see a lot of the International Space Station, a lot of Mars and the moon. The cast of characters is quite international; we frequently encounter Russians and Chinese, while Americans are relatively uncommon in this British production. One notable feature of the collection is an ongoing theme of persons whose dream is space travel, yet the reality of life off the Earth is typically described as dismal. Space is no utopia here, and despite what readers might expect, this is no volume of space boosterism; the themes, so familiar to US readers, of the libertarian space paradise and entrepreneurial triumphalism, are minimized.

Unlike the subject matter, the tone of the stories is varied, from tragic to humor. What I find in many of them are refreshing twists and departures from the predictable and formulaic outcomes US authors so often deliver. The shift in point of view in this anthology is welcome, and fans of space exploration stories would do well to seek it out.

“Tell Me a Story” by Leigh Kimmel

A bedtime story passed down through the generations, who don’t always appreciate it at the time. The Astronaut and the Man in the Moon is the story of myth confronted with reality, but reality itself changes with time.

As the Astronaut landed and emerged for his moonwalk, the lunar surface transformed from the dreamlike watercolour landscape to the sharp craters familiar from the Apollo photographs adorning the walls of Reggie’s room. And when the Astronaut encountered the Man in the Moon, the little house of moonbeams melted away into mist . . .

I like the idea of the fictional story, but there’s also a bit of fantasy in the obedient children who all seem to respect their parents.

“Fisher’s Gambit” by Stephen Gaskell

Fisher is a loser, scavenging out in the Kuiper Belt where the mineral riches are scattered and near-impossible to find, when he receives an offer. It seems that years ago a woman named Angweng Kerrala hijacked the Local Cluster Interstellar Space Observatory, and no one has been able to find it since. But Kerrala tells Fisher that she needs methane, which he can easily obtain, to supply her module, and she has the instruments capable of locating the treasure he can’t find on his own.

Spherical coordinates. The vid ended, the sim-flick jerking back into life. Fisher killed the flick, bloomed a local astronav holo. Damn. The coordinates did coincide with a Kuiper object. It was one he’d dismissed during his last wake-cycle, spectroscopy suggesting it was nothing more than frozen ammonia.

It sounds good. But there are things that sound too good to be true.

The concluding twist provides more than one revelation, perhaps not the one that readers were expecting. Because the editor makes such a point of scientific accuracy, I am moved to think that Fisher is zipping around the vast distances between Mars and the Kuiper Belt with suspicious speed.

“Final Orbit” by Nigel Brown

They’re dismantling the ISS, and Commander Billy Johnson knows his day is over.

Each module of the ISS was going to be detached from the other, until there was no longer the long proud structure that they’d so carefully put together over so many missions. A tearing apart, before being cast down to the flames of re-entry.

At which point, readers will confidently expect a crisis will call on his skill and experience, and so it comes to pass. But the crisis is not at all what one might predict.

The author expertly portrays the deteriorating, moldy old station and Billy’s grief at seeing the end of American hopes for space. The ubiquitous oversight of the internet plays a significant role as well. For all the story’s nationalism, it’s slightly disconcerting to see the Britishisms scattered through the text, coming from an American’s point of view.

“Incarnate” by Craig Pay

It’s possible now to reincarnate a soul recording into a replacement body. When the narrator and his wife lost their daughter, they reincarnated her, but the replacement was traumatized and killed herself, leaving a will forbidding another incarnation. But her mother insists on trying a third time and comes all the way to Titan, where the law allows such things.

The characters’ lives have all been ruined, in different ways, by the same event. The author doesn’t seem to allow them the chance to recover. I find it hard to be sympathetic; they don’t try; they are irrevocably doomed. The theme of space travel is peripheral here, so that the story seems out of place, and the technology involved is not connected to any actual that science readers are going to recognize.

“Dancing on the Red Planet” by Berit Ellingsen

The first manned mission to Mars is an international one, but the Russians are in charge. So Vasilev, the commander, isn’t happy that the Europeans have decided to dance down the landing ramp to the sound of music.

“Why didn’t the Europeans tell me first?” Vasilev said. He disliked wasting talk and time on things it was too late to do anything about, but his colleagues’ omission of the music and dancing irked him. They had had more than seven months to let him know about the experiment slash PR stunt. Of course, the Americans were in on it too.

Complications ensue.

Good-hearted humor, genuinely uplifting. A happy story shouldn’t be so unusual in the field.

“Pathfinders” by Martin McGrath

The Mars outpost at Beacon Valley is no longer receiving signals from Earth, and the problem doesn’t seem to be on the Mars end. The other bases on Mars do not respond, either. The crew is divided, mostly along national lines, about what to do. Chen, an Italian Chinese, is caught in the middle.

Three days later, the three Americans and three Europeans left Mars Base to make for McMurdo. They’d decided amongst themselves that the radio communication changed nothing. They needed to know what was happening. There were some angry exchanges about the division of equipment and food but Chen kept to his room.

Something about this one, set on barren Mars with its winter rapidly coming on, reminds me of outposts on Earth’s polar regions – small groups trapped together in tight quarters with the prospect of eventually running out of life support if not resupplied. Each individual reacts differently under such circumstances, and that’s the story here.

“A Biosphere Ends” by Stephen Palmer

If the title isn’t enough, a sidebar at the beginning of the piece states clearly that the Aeolis Mensae habitat on Mars failed.

It was a closed system: a habitat, an ecosystem, a vast conglomeration of steel and plastic and green life and animal life. Six Koreans, two Chinese and a Scot were the crew of this Martian greenhouse.

They lasted two years.

The story is about the reasons, which makes it a scientific mystery. But there are other, political, complications. The text is a multiple narrative, alternating between the original inhabitants of the habitat and the expedition sent later to investigate what had happened to them, as well as the sidebar presenting a historical account of the investigation. It all adds up to a high level of reader interest, even though some things remain unexplained, and the investigative AI is inexplicable, being crippled in its function by nationalistic prejudices that I can’t credit.

“Slipping Sideways” by Carmelo Rafala

Leo is a physicist working with the Large Hadron Collider who retreats into seclusion after the death of his wife, who was having an affair with another man. Now he confronts her lover, Džemo, with the news that Rachel is “out there”. The Collider, he claims, has “created weak points in our universe, points where we can see into another reality, another universe. Physical movement across the planes must be possible. Somehow –”

The story is out of place in this collection, nothing about space here, just a very shopworn bit of quantum handwavium. The story has already happened by the time we get to it, and the narrator’s regrets are meaningless because we don’t know him.

“Conquistadors” by Iain Cairnes

Corporate warfare. Carmen Vasquez is the head of Mexico’s largest mining company, with a new project for exploiting the mineral resources of a near-Earth object by bringing into a stable orbit. But her project is not without opposition from such as

” . . . the astroenvironmental organisation GreenSpace — defending the unspoilt beauty of space from the clutches of corporate conquistadors like you.”

This is one ending I really don’t want to spoil. The issue, of course, is the ethical one – which side is going to turn out to be on the right, as the author calls it. The GreenSpace founder comes on as a clichéd blood-throwing enviro-activist, but Vasquez sure isn’t being very sensitive by naming her ship Pinta. In neither, of course, is there real character development, but the story is short and quick to the punch without it.

“Going, Boldly” by Helen Jackson

Frankie has a new job in a game studio, working on their new product, ExoPlanetfall. The project is actually a bit more than a game; it’s meant to prepare colonists for the real thing.

[Her friend] Olivia had also applied for a job at Wandering Star, but spoiled a great interview by answering”No”to a question she hadn’t expected: “Would you volunteer for a one-way interstellar voyage?”

But because Frankie said she would go, she’s now designing aliens and boldly going to Australia to observe kangaroos in action. And Ecuador. And . . .

A low-key tale about getting what you wish for.

“Why Barnaby Isn’t Aboard the ISS Today” by Gary Cuba

Barnaby has been a stand-by astronaut for some time when he gets The Call. It seems that a case of flu has laid the A Team out and he’s been tapped for the next tour of the ISS.

Barney stared blankly at the sizzling steaks in front of him, temporarily at a loss for words. This was the culmination of all his dreams, the single goal that had driven him since he had been a young boy: to become an astronaut! “Thank you, sir. Thanks more than I can say. It’s, it’s something that I—”

Unfortunately for Barney, working as an astronaut takes more than dreams.

The author is conversant with the many ways things can go wrong in 0-gravity, unfortunately for Barney. Humor on the edge of farce, with a lot of bodily-function stuff.

“Not Because They Are Easy” by Sam S Kepfield

An alternate history of the space race, beginning with a mega hoax when the Soviets report a manned landing on the moon in 1969. The implications turn out to be far-reaching.

Readers might mistake this, with its documentary style, for one of the anthology’s nonfiction pieces, complete with copious footnotes, except that most readers of this anthology are likely to be well aware of the actual history of space exploration, which should clue them in from the beginning. The story has a moral:

The whole thing was a big political show, from beginning to right now. The damned politicians, I don’t care whose side they’re on, they can’t let well enough alone. . . . the money [for space programs] always comes with strings. With shortsighted idiots who only care about braying their greatness to the public, rather than making true progress.

“The Taking of ISOA 2083” by C J Paget

Xilou is a neut cloned for battle, a deserter, a fugitive, a mother; Emily was cloned from Xil, but for love. The marginal colony where they have taken refuge is failing, but Xil and a few confederates have another plan to hijack a comet.

While we’ve been bleeding into this worthless moon the smart money’s been on comets. The ice shields you from cosmic radiation and provides minerals, hydrocarbons, drinking water, oxygen, hydrogen, and reaction-mass. A couple of radioisotope heaters jammed into the surface will give you an effective steam rocket. You want faster: install a fission reactor.

Of course this is piracy; ISOA 2083 already belongs to others. Xil thinks she can take it without anyone getting hurt and give the comet/ship back to its owners once they have reached their destination. Readers will immediately suspect that things will turn out differently. But what Xil finds on the comet is a lot more dire than even a war neut had expected.

A chilling scenario, in no small part because so much is made of ice, which the author uses in a lot of ingenious ways as the fundamental material of his universe. It’s a place out of the edges of survival, where war at least gives people like Xil a living; when it’s over, they become superfluous. Edgy stuff.

“The Brave Little Cockroach Goes to Mars” by Simon McCaffery

Racing the Chinese to Mars, the NASA mission is plagued by software glitches and something else: the eponymous insect.

We stopped trying to kill him once the shock wore off. Besides, who packs a can of Raid on a sixty-million-mile-plus voyage to a sterile planet? Archy became a pet, a fitting mascot for the mission.

But the astronauts are also afflicted by something far more serious.

Not humor, but a space medical mystery. It should have been a short-and-sweet, but the author is fond of digressions.

“The Sea of Maternity” by Deborah Walker

Sheila has a bad day on the moon, but she would have had a bad day anywhere. All she wants is to be alone and do biochemistry, but the inconvenience of people get in the way: her daughter, her ex, her current, her friends – all irritations. Predictably, she gets a reality check to drag her out of her selfishness. I don’t much care; she doesn’t really improve on conversion, and the scientific surprise is too convenient.

“The New Tenant” by Dr Philip Edward Kaldon

NASA decides to sell the ISS; Sally and her business partners buy it. Someone has to occupy the place, and Sally is elected. It’s a kind of vacation at first, but then comes tragedy.

Here she was, marooned in Low Earth Orbit on an aging space station, working for a company which had just lost nearly half its founding members and had no working heavy-lift capacity at the moment.

So she copes.

A very low-key account of events that are really routine, given that spaceflight is becoming routine.

“Dreaming at Baikonur” by Sean Martin

Back to the Soviet space program, in the person of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. The Soviet side of the space race is definitely more interesting, more dramatic and tragic than the American, and Korolev, the Chief Designer and veteran of the Gulag, is often regarded as the central figure. This historical account of the fulfillment of his dream focuses on the humble pencil as a metaphor. A moving story, although one likely to be already familiar to the collection’s readers.


Strange Horizons, May 2012

I liked all this month’s stories, which were quite different from one another.

“Bright Lights” by Robert Reed

An alien abducts some human kids from a survival class. Sure, how many times has that one been done? But it’s all in the doing, and Reed’s doing puts a different hue on the story. You can always get the attention of kids if you say “shit.”


“Beside Calais” by Samantha Henderson

Organic flying machines graze and soar on the cliffs of Calais, where the École Aéronautique languishes, mostly empty. But war is coming. The herds of feral flying beasts will be culled to make room for new, more powerful and tractable breeds, and something wild and wonderful will be lost forever. Ian is expected to put sentiment aside for the sake of the war effort.

WWI epitomized the obscenity of war, and this one evokes the eve of those events, when innocence and beauty were slated for sacrifice. The French names of the flying beasts – éole, blériot, avion— recall the romantic facade of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The locals should be happy with the business the work of the Corps would bring. The mines were failing and fewer rich tourists came. The burgeoning war would be profitable, and no one had to think yet of the death from the sky that a race of flying beasts bred for war would bring.

Uniquely memorable.


“Tiger Stripes” by Nghi Vo

A widow’s only son is killed by a tiger.

Thanh ignored the tiger, who sat with all four feet underneath him like a statue in a temple, but no temple statue had ever had a muzzle so red. He rose to four feet, as if he meant to leave, and then he pressed his belly to the ground as if he meant to pounce. Finally he sat back down, staring at her with his round face tilted to one side.

The tiger feels respect for the old woman who shows no fear of him, and shame for taking her son, so he comes with a funeral offering. After a while, he takes the place of Thanh’s son.

The characters in this fable are nicely drawn and offer a fresh point of view. In a world where soldiers come regularly to take the village’s sons, they still believe that tigers can speak and carp might turn into dragons. “It had been known to happen.”


Lightspeed, May 2012

This ezine continues to add more content – reprints and novel excerpts – to the original short fiction, which becomes rather harder to find among all the other material. I prefer the science fiction stories this time.

“Nightside on Callisto” by Linda Nagata

Jayne is a retired soldier who has spent her career defending the orbital Shell Cities against a menace known as the Red. The new colony on Callisto is supposed to be too far from Earth for the Red to reach, but whoever supposed this appears to have been wrong. The enemy has infiltrated and sabotaged their mechs to attack them. One of the four members of the outpost has already been killed.

A second mech appeared, and immediately hopped down through the hole, dropping into the bedchamber with dreamlike lethargy. It was still falling when a six-inch jet of tightly focused blue flame spat from a torch gripped in its mechanical arm. Jayne fell back as it landed in the blast crater. Its telescoping legs flexed to absorb the impact, and then flexed again as it launched itself at her.

Their problem is to disable the mechs without destroying them, which would render their outpost useless.

Nice scenario, nice icy setting, with unusual protagonists in the expedition’s four, tough, elderly [expendable] women. Tense action and an ingenious solution.


“The Cross-Time Accountants Fail to Kill Hitler Because Chuck Berry Does the Twist” by C C Finlay

Mabel is an auditor for the CTA, and like all auditors, she knows that going into the past will reverse her age. The agency puts restrictions in place to prevent this.

Going Button-down was selfish. It meant putting yourself before humanity. It was the worst thing a cross-time accountant could do. But it was something every auditor thought about in those dark hours of the soul. That’s why they banned you from taking any more trips when you reached a certain age or a certain number of trips. Mabel had timed it so that her age and trip limit would hit on the same day.

Mabel is selfish. Things are bad in her own time. The word “extinction” is being used. Mabel wants to live a better life in a better time, she wants to see her idol, Chuck Berry, and all the agency’s attempts at changing history have failed. “It was her life, after all, and her choice wouldn’t make any difference to the future or the past, not now.”

The title suggests humor, but that’s not what this is about. It’s a story loaded with irony about individual responsibility and the unknowable consequences of acts. Also an interesting look at an alternate Chuck Berry.

“The Children of Hamelin” by Dale Bailey

This time, all the children in the world have disappeared.

No one witnessed it. No one saw it happen—not even in the daylit regions of the world. In that moment—for just that moment—parents stepped out of the room, they dropped their children’s hands, they didn’t glance in the rearview mirror. Teachers turned to their desks. Security cameras went black. One moment our children were here. The next moment they were gone.

The parents have all gone into perpetual mourning, and no one, apparently, has had any more, which I find more than odd – quite wrong and anti-credible.

“Mother of all Russiya” by Melanie Rawn

Historical fiction set in Kyiv, 946. With her husband killed by the Drevlianians, Olga is left as regent for her young son, but she fears that the enemy will force her to marry one of their own warriors and take the Grand Principality of Kyivan Rus. This, she is determined to prevent, and she has the aid of an advisor adept in magic and the ways of deceit.

“So I must do as they will not expect, Cheng. That is what you mean, yes? They will come as conquerors, and as men guilty of murder, to claim their prize—me.” She choked to say the words, but knew they must be said. “And I am compelled to welcome them as honored and honorable guests.”

Mostly a retelling of the traditional account, in which Olga didn’t require magic to carry out her revenge. The author seems to regard Olga as heroic and admirable, although she still comes across as bad-tempered and vengeful. I wonder if this is meant to be irony, commentary on the sanctification of a woman who was a mass murderer many times over.


Tor.com, May 2012

I never know what to expect when I visit this site. Sometimes most of the fiction selections turn out to be excerpts, outtakes or tie-ins to some longer work. Other times, like this month, I find some really good stories. It keeps me coming back.

“At the Foot of the Lighthouse” by Erin Hoffman

The WWII internment of the Japanese-Americans. Amy [not Aki] and her family are being sent to a camp in Arizona, and all their possessions must be disposed of – anything associated with the enemy country being burned. But Amy herself is burning, and she can’t control it as her grandmother has always told her she must.

My skin burns first. It starts low, under the water, but then it’s rushing up into my face, down to my hands. I thrash in the water, trying to shake it out, but there’s nowhere for it to go. My palms, under the water, are red as ripe tomatoes, strawberry red, blood red.

The story is meant to evoke indignation. The author does not leave this to chance, as she studs her narrative with quotations from US officials that prove the racist motivation of the treatment of the Japanese. Nor does she miss any opportunity to repeat the assertion that the internees remained loyal to the US. But that’s all pretty old and shopworn, not sufficient in itself for a story, and in particular for an SF story, so we have the other thing. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that members of Amy’s family have inherited the capability to produce nuclear fission under conditions of emotional distress. More than that, we have Robert Oppenheimer telling her the ability is vital to the war effort. Huh? What are they planning to do – drop little girls out of bombers over Hiroshima? To prove their patriotism? It’s really an understatement to say this makes no sense, and all for chain-jerking effect.

“About Fairies” by Pat Murphy

Jennifer works for a toy company developing a Twinkle Fairy doll. At home, she seems to have a fairy mirror. And she finds elfshot near her train stop.

Dirty little fairies, crouching in the litter by the stream, chipping stone into knives, strapping blades onto spear handles made of pencils and pens that commuters had dropped. My kind of fairy.

And some say that dying is going to be with the fairies.

The elements of this tale fit perfectly into place to make a satisfying whole. Jennifer is a wise and insightful character, and she convinces me that her take on fairies is sound. And on death.


“Dress Your Marines in White” by Emily Laybourne

Biological warfare. Scientists at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases have developed a substance called MORS and obtained permission to test it on human subjects. These are obtained from Fort Leavenworth’s prison population – which readers will recognize as a gross ethical breach. But the scientist running the test is well beyond ethical concerns. Her focus is on getting MORS into production, and nothing is going to stop her.

“We’ll have them strapped down, on those black padded testing beds, so they can’t move. Let’s put the subjects in white, too. It will look good against the dark padding.”

Now her assistant, James Cutlass, is trying to make himself finish the test report, which requires remembering what he witnessed.

A story of moral cowardice, those who shut their eyes to evil or fail to stand up against it, who go along. James is a weak character, the subject of his family’s contempt, which makes the point rather less effectively than a stronger person would have, but stronger characters in the story also quash their doubts and go along, enabling atrocity. While I don’t normally comment on the illustrations, the one for this piece certainly sets up readers for a harrowing experience. I do wonder, however, why the subjects are all marines instead of members of some of the other armed services.

“Our Human” by Adam-Troy Castro

At its onset, Barath’s expedition to capture the beast Magrison consisted of one Human Being, one Riirgaan, one Tchi, and Barath himself, who was a Kurth. All were hated outcasts from their respective homeworlds, with nothing in common but their monstrousness in the eyes of their peoples, and their common greed for the bounty on the head of the even greater [human] monster they sought.

After an arduous journey, Barath learns of a village of the Trivid people where his quarry may have taken refuge. The villagers refuse to give up their aged and senile guest, regardless of his crime. He is “our human”.

This one seems to be intended as a moral tale in the tragic mode, driven home by the force of irony. The question is: What is a monster? To the Trivids, the word for monster is “human”. There are moments here of effective moral horror, as when Barath learns the nature of his guide’s crime. The problem is that the tragic mask keeps slipping to expose the comic, and this makes it hard to take the moral tale seriously. Too many weird alien names can do that, and particularly obvious Tuckerizations.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #94-96, May 2012

A three-Thursday month.

“To Go Home to Leal” by Susan Forest

Kaul works the docks of Discort for low wages that he brings home to his bitter, drunken father Dagh, a failed thief who has already paid the price of one hand for his crimes. Dagh speaks often of the home town that he left as a young man, but he can’t return there as a known thief. Then the old man is caught again with stolen goods.

Each day, Dagh sat in the street with his two stumps laid out in front of him and a hat at his feet, raving on about Leal and the good life and Hauken’s farm. The rains of winter turned cold and flurries of snow came. Dagh began to cough and become thin like so many who lived in the alleys behind the quay.

Until Kaul finds a way to bring his father back home to Leal – a very dangerous and overly complicated way.

I found the ending unexpected, though oddly right, which may not be what the author had in mind. Quibbles: I got an anachronistic irk from the opening, where the narrator speaks of Kaul’s sweater. And I do wonder about the extreme stigma placed on a missing hand, when there are so many legitimate ways that hands can be lost. How could a soldier keep from being taken for a thief? This, unlike the sweater, is a central plot point in the story, and a bothersome one.

“A Marble for the Drowning River” by Ann Chatham

A rather different narrative strategy, telling the story by a young boy who likes to visit the drowned girl in the river and sometimes bring her gifts. One day another girl shows up, looking for her sister and carrying a seemingly dead man in her boat. Magic is invoked, and we learn that the narrator is no mere observer of these events.

The drowned girl was floating there in the middle of a clear pool just under the surface of the water, as still as if she’d been fresh drowned, except it was her what was glowing as bright and pale as summer sky.

I like the freshness of the voice, the way the elements are revealed, and the clear imagery. Magic well-done.


“The Governess and the Lobster” by Margaret Ronald

Another in the author’s series about a world with sentient automata. This one is in epistolary form, letters between Rosalie Syme, newly-hired as governess to the too-creative Cromwell children, and her mentor. Her job is not easy.

Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but it seems that the late Edgar Cromwell was one of those people who, after amassing a family, don’t really seem to know what to do with it. Under his wife’s supervision, all was well, but judging by some remarks from Natalya and Eutropius, his attitude was always one of benign neglect. Neglect remains neglect, though.

But her real problem is with her mission of founding a school in the city of Harkuma, where automata seem to be the dominant citizens.

Light amusement in the mannered voice, and although there are many references to other works, this one stands quite well as an independent tale.

“Shades of Amber” by Marie Croke

In a world where people seem to speak in colors, Amm’s younger brother Cerrune is born with extraordinary vibrancy that suggests a great destiny among the tribe, the future successor to their leader, the Black Veil.

Her brother’s colors swirled with strong cries of fear and confusion across his tiny wet body. He glowed in shades of cyan and cerulean. Of bright sea and cloudless skies. He shone through the dullness that surrounded him so strongly that Amm flinched away, breathless at his beauty.

The premise is strikingly original, but the story is the familiar one of power, and how it changes people.

“The Magic of Dark and Hollow Places” by Adam Calloway

Chernyl has the Parchment Plague. His skin has turned to paper, his blood to ink. Whatever he writes with it comes to pass.

He bit his thumb. Thick red blood oozed up, black in the still night. The Inked Man wrote “wings” on his naked thigh and tore that piece of skin off. He rolled the paper through and around his fingers, looking at it, his thumb healed. He would never understand.

Worshippers come to him, hoping to acquire his condition, but he regards it as a curse since it has separated him from the woman he loves. Another darkly fantastic piece from the author’s papyrological imagination.

“Serkers and Sleep” by Kenneth Schneyer

When bitten by a serk, the serker develops extraordinary strength and cunning, but becomes too dangerous to be allowed to live.

“The late serker thinks that everyone he knows is determined to kill him, that they’ll succeed unless he kills them first. No sorcerer has ever been able to untie that knot in the mind, although we can see it.”

Once, a sorcerer deliberately became a serker to destroy an enemy army, but no one has known what become of him until Scuffer discovered he could read the mysterious book.

The author has joined the several parts of this one together into a story, but the seams show; it doesn’t quite make an organic whole.


Jabberwocky #10, May 2012

The editor says she is returning to a regular monthly schedule with this ezine. There are two short pieces of fiction and two poems, except that the de la Rose story is perhaps better described as a prose poem.

“Talbot’s Anatomy” by Becca de la Rosa

Caitriona Talbot, who claims to be an anatomist, and her journey through the pathways of a bear’s heart. A poetic work about love, full of strangely-wrought images and symbols, in which the literal could not be further away.

I believe in certain chemical properties of bears. That they can commune with the salts and minerals in the earth. That they have the ability to dissolve at will in moving water. Science has yet to prove the vulnerability of bears to fire. It is a subject of great academic debate as to whether they breathe air at all.

I think this may be the cover story.

“Flatland” by Adam Smith

The flatland outside the city gates is where Murak lives, but since the day as a boy when he saw the splendor of the Academy, he was determined to enter there.

It has always been there in the distance, visible. By day, agleam with sun or reflecting the grey surface of the clouds. By night, lit from below. Sometimes blue with alchemical glow. At others it is orange like a candle flame, ruddy and hellish as glowing embers, the pink of spring flowers.

Diligently, he masters alchemy on his own, but the Academy will not consider admitting a peasant boy.

Definitely prose, and nicely done. I’m reminded of golems.


Journal of Unlikely Entomology Issue 3, May 2012

The bugzine is back, with more creepycrawlies than ever in its first anniversary issue. The editors say that the theme is “loss”. There are seven very short pieces, most of which are vignettes rather than entire stories. These can be clever, well-crafted and entertaining, but it’s a little like a dinner with all appetizers and no entrée.

“My Day Came” by Conor Powers-Smith

The author swats at a fly in his bathroom, which pisses it off.

The fly — which is what I’m going to keep calling him; whatever else he might’ve been, he was definitely that — came to rest high up on one wall. He said, “That hurt, asshole.”

Then, in exchange for not killing him, the fly offers to grant him some wishes. A magic fly. But of course there’s a catch.

What is suspect is that the author had this idea, ran with it, then couldn’t find the goalposts. Or some such metaphor.

“War Beetles” by J M McDermott

Meridian is a soldier.

He had driven the mighty war beetles, had merged with their primitive minds, to tear down enemy cities, and he had poured death upon the enemy where his commanders had aimed the herd.

But now he has lost his beetle, and scavenging for food in the devastated countryside, he finds a little girl hiding in a cellar.

Another one with an unclosureish conclusion. Some readers might have suspected what was coming, but the author withholds essential information until the last moment, to keep this from happening. What’s good here is the portrayal of Meridian, essentially a good man who feels his obligation to the helpless.

“The Performance” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Actually, an interview with the theatre critic about the performance, and why it was the most memorable she had ever seen. Which had nothing, really, to do with the performance, but the circumstances. The critic now only likes to review musicals – “It keeps me happy. The songs, the costumes, the laughter. There’s no space for paper masks there.”

There is closure here. Finality, even. Not much else, though, only the suggestion of a story.

“The Familiar Buzz of Gone” by Cate Gardner

Emmett hasn’t done well mentally since he accidentally killed Jimmy when they were boys.

Jimmy hadn’t died when the rock hit him. He’d lain semi-conscious in a ditch while Emmett sat in his bedroom, headphones pressed to his ears, replacing a mechanical buzz for that of the flies, ignoring their whispered plans to feast when Jimmy became one of their dead.

This is horror, the horror of madness, creating not fear but revulsion.

“Dragonfly Miscalculations” by Steven L Peck

The narrator is apparently the creator of a project that releases robotic dragonflies to eradicate pests like the tsetse. Unfortunately, its hunting patterns are not as specific as some might wish.

This one is SF, perhaps the shortest piece in the issue, and it says a lot in the last line.

“Skitterings in Corners” by Juliet Kemp

Alisha’s girlfriend is testing a VR program that allows people to hitchhike on the minds of other beings – animals. But Alisha has become worried. “I didn’t know what had happened, but I remembered a housemate at college who’d looked like that once when he took too much acid.” Another one that could be called SF horror.

“Drift” by Amanda C Davis

The narrator’s son tells her that the snow is made of bugs. Naturally, she doesn’t believe him. A complete story in conventional terms, and the ending comes as no surprise, but competently done.


Fantasy Short Stories, Issue 1

Debuting a new electronic zine from the publisher of Alt Hist, who claims that it will provide readers with “proper fantasy.” By which is meant “tales of magic, dragons and sword-play.” I can only applaud his intention to “wave garlic maces in the face of all urban vampires”, but intentions aren’t everything.

There are five pieces of fiction, all from authors with whom I am not familiar. I am often happily pleased to discover fine new writers, or writers new to me, but this is not one of those times. The stories range in quality from adequate to awful, and it’s clear that some of these authors are just not ready for professional publication.

“The Dying Elf” by Mike Pielaet-Strayer

The human conquest of the magic races has concluded on the battlefield.

Already, crows had begun to amass. Whirling patches of black. Drawing nearer. Like flies. It was the stench that attracted them, Oberon knew. The raw, sour stench of battle. Of meat starting to decay. Of stiffening limbs and spilled blood and loose excrement. Shit and decay. It rose with the steam, the stench, journeying to the churning sky, drawing the crows and the flies.

We have seen this scene before. Oberon the human swordsman is weary of slaughter, but there is one more elf left to dispatch. No real plot here, just the usual aftermath-of-battle scene and a non-explicit ending left for the reader to conclude. And overwritten prose, including far too much use of the term “steam.”

“The Empty Dark” by C L Holland

Leveri is a wizard who, with his companion Korix, is traveling from world to world on a quest. Then Korix is disappeared, as seems to be common in the current world, and Leveri’s duty is to try to find him.

The ink swirled and spread in feathery clouds, until the water was black. Leveri pushed his blond curls back from his face as he leant over the bowl. The air grew cooler, touched with the scent of damp earth and stone. The darkness in the bowl felt less empty and Leveri had the odd feeling there was a wall, one that Korix couldn’t see but knew was there all the same.

Rather typical S&S. While most of the narrative involves a magical duel, the story is one of obligation, loyalty and the discovery of friendship.

“Demon Stone” by Jack Scholl

The protagonist is named King Dagr Brightsword, which doesn’t bode well. It seems that he has an evil half-brother, a sorcerer who wants his brother’s heritage and is holding Dagr’s wife hostage. Encounters with evil ensue.

The thing had a snout like a bear’s, lips in a snarl. The top of its head had hair made of green and red banded serpents that hissed like demons. Their fangs dripped with venom. Its back legs were like a lion’s, its front arms like a baboon’s except with large twelve inch claws, and long spider leg like digits.

This story is just bad. Badly conceived and badly written. I can’t imagine why the editor considered it publishable.

“The Pivot” by Noeleen Kavanagh

I am the Peasant Lord and I speak with the king’s voice. The common people believe that I am their mouth, the channel through which they can reach the king. Others mutter that I am unnatural, tainted, touched. But they dare not say it to the king or to me. I laugh to myself. They would fear me more if they knew that their mutterings were true.

Intriguing opening. Caill passes judgments in the name of the king, because they were bound together by tragedy as young boys. His judgments often go against the lords, and there is a reason for this.

Nicely-done story with an uncommon and convincing premise.

“Sparrows Falling” by Gretchen Tessmer

A powerful sorcerer has decided to turn to the path of evil, and his lady discovers that she cannot stop him. This vignette concludes with a poignant image, but there isn’t much else to it, and it wastes too much opening space with the maids in front of the lady’s locked door. The author’s choice of names is unfortunate: Lord Craven. Grendl Castle. It makes it hard to take the story seriously.

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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