Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-May

A pair of digests, one a double.


Publications Reviewed


Analog, July/August 2012

Plenty of good reads in this double issue with double novellas, definitely the best issue of the year so far.

“Nightfall on the Peak of Eternal Light” by Richard A Lovett & William Gleason

Drew Zeigler – not his real name — has come to the moon to start a new life under a witness protection program after betraying his mob family. But his handlers, who disapprove of his choice, have only given him enough money to reach his destination, not to live there. And Loonies don’t tolerate freeloaders. Thus the problem he knows about is gainful employment, which he finds at a solar generating station on the peak, the only place on the moon in almost continual sunlight. But the problem he doesn’t know about is the hitman on his tail.

“Eventually, I knew I’d start helping make the money more directly. In my family, it’s what you do. So when the Feds got a handle on a couple of killings . . . that was my second way out. And this time I made it stick.”

There’s a good tense action thriller here as the hitman tracks Drew and the cops track the hitman, all played out under believable lunar conditions, with a really neat trick at the end. A fun read once it gets going, but I only wish the authors hadn’t spent so much time, particularly at the beginning, with the personal backgrounds of Drew and the Raz the cop – repeating the details of the college track career of one and the failed marriage of the other, far too often for reader interest. Because I don’t think readers really care all that much, despite the authors’ effort, about these characters finding familial fulfillment. We want more of the well-done lunar chase and the [neat trick] stuff.

“Conquest of the Air” by Rob Chilson

First contact. Among the People of Ocean-the-World, there have always been those who dreamed of swimming the air. But reports of bright air bubbles rising above a remote bay have given urgency to the quest – and funding. Shellshaper the Bright Dreamer is going to see his dreams come true.

Bright and Airswimmer supervised a joyful procession of Association members in moving their headquarters from their gloomy deep building to a spacious hangar at the port. The younger members flashed through their new quarters and rammed each other’s sides, glorying in the acceptance as much as in the space and light.

But the expedition turns military when surveillance concludes that the airbubbles appear to be air boats created by landwalkers – intelligent landwalkers – with an advanced technology. It’s possible that the Bright Adventure‘s voyage might end up killing the dream of airswimming instead of fulfilling it.

In the alternating narrative, we have Chanarong Chalmers as the supervisor of mining operations in the heavy-metals-rich Bonanza system, pressured by the corporate heads of JohnCo to produce on an impossible schedule. Now the discovery of the fishfolk means the entire mining expedition is illegal. A treaty is imperative, as soon as possible. But of course nothing is so simple.

A well-worked-out contact story. The “fishfolk” technology is imaginative and ingenious, and, happily, the characters aren’t the usual stock heroes and villains that populate so many oversimplified tales of this sort. The outcome is by no means predictable.


“Sam Below Par” by Ben Bova

A Sam Gunn story. Chou is a golf course designer who got on the wrong side of his politically powerful mother-in-law.

My parents disowned me. My contracts for new golf courses disappeared. I was alone, friendless, on my way to jail, when Sam whisked me to the Moon.

There to design a golf course so Sam can sponsor a tournament for the biggest stars in the game, then cheat by using an advanced model of spacesuit.

Shopworn formula, lame plot, creaking humor. Should have been put out to pasture sometime around 1958.

“The Mutant Stag at Horn Creek” by Sarah K Castle

Before radioactivity closed the Grand Canyon, back when Sue was a young ranger, she saw a freak of nature at Horn Creek, a stag with a weird, contorted rack and – Sue wasn’t quite sure she hadn’t imagined it – fangs. Now nearing retirement, she gets to take one last patrol, and she knows whom she wants to take it with, her niece Katy, whom she hopes will take her place. But Katy hasn’t come to see her aunt, she’s come on a quest for “killer content” to post online.

I hoped we would talk, maybe straighten out the morning’s misunderstandings, but I couldn’t bring myself to start the conversation. I sure as hell kept my eyes open. I didn’t expect to see the old stag himself, but I was alert for clues as to what had changed down here that might’ve made him what he’d been.

What I like is the setting, written with close authority, and the notion of species adaptation to changing conditions – albeit over-accelerated, even with the presence of radiation. The characters are well-drawn, particularly Katy, who gave me a strong urge to throw her down the canyon.

“To Save Man” by H G Stratmann

The title evokes the Damon Knight classic and represents about the same state of SFnal advancement. The benevolent Zyrans approach humanity to save it from themselves, but encounter human paranoia. Fifty years ago, it might have seemed advanced and daring, but now the references to anal probes and boobs are only lame.

“The Song of Uullioll” by Gray Rinehart

Uullioll has an uncommon love for the sun, although his companions in the pod deplore his obsession.

“It brightens all, no matter where we are in our migrations. It brightens above the icy cold where we eat, where the big crabs crawl on the hard below. And it brightens above the warm stills where the girls become mothers. I like the bright hot. It floats above the dry-clear we breathe; how can you not like it?”

“I think the bright hot has already burned your brain, Uullioll.”

Interesting juxtaposition of this one with the Chilson novella, both featuring aquatic beings who crave to reach the land, comparing the terms they use for common phenomena. But Uullioll definitely appears to be a cetacean, and cetaceans don’t spawn like fish. An irritating error in an otherwise likeable simple tale.

“The North Revena Ladies Literary Society” by Catherine Shaffer

After leaving the CIA to have kids, Beth is stir-crazy enough to join the local ladies book club. She doesn’t expect a drive-by shooting linked to a secretive terrorist organization that she recognizes from an operation years ago.

Beth leaned on the bumper of a police cruiser, looking cool but trying to get her legs
to stop shaking. “Automatic rifle,” she said, “an AK-47, by the sound.”

“Right,” said the officer. “Your name?”

“Beth Pratchett.”


“606 Westbrooke Avenue,” she said.



A whole lot of action thriller and SFnal conspiracy packed surprisingly into a short piece. Nicely sketched characterization, with a slyly humorous tone.


“Red Rover, Red Rover” by Howard V Hendrix

Dogs, sentient and speaking. The narrator is a rich old man, and Cogzie is his indulgence. As is moving to Mars, where the enhancers he puts in the dog food gives Cogzie vivid, lucid dreams of dying: “I had been cursed to nine lives’ worth of bad luck, by a black cat avatar of the ancient Egyptian cat-goddess Bastid—according to my dream, anyway.” And the recurring phrase: “Fortunately, the only casualty was a dog.”

A strange tale that, unfortunately, takes too long to settle into its voice, beginning with hokey bad jokes. But there is a haunting quality to the dreams, and the effect they have on both man and dog.

“Zeitgeist, Inc” by Carl Frederick

Conradin is having vague second thoughts about the venture capitalists,

wondering if it had been the right thing to do, taking the VC money—and along with it, a company president of their choosing—Helen Lee . . . who had just called him dear. He smiled thinking about it, but then frowned. He, who had founded the company, had been relegated to CTO, Chief Technical Officer.

Conradin seems to be more than a bit thick. Or is it differently-brained. He should definitely listen more to his dog.

Another contrast, between this talking-dog story and the Hendrix. That one is poignant, this, humorous. But it’s not a very funny humor, because Conradin’s mental density just isn’t funny, while not realistic enough to be poignant.


Asimov’s, July 2012

Twice as many hits as misses this time.

“Old Paint” by Megan Lindholm

Hit. Times are hard when Sadie is young, and her mother has to struggle to get by and raise her and her brother Ben. Among the things they don’t have is a car, until her mother’s grandfather dies and leaves him his old reproduction woodie. Suddenly the kids see a new side of their mother and realize that she once had a grandfather who loved her and programmed the car to recognize her.

I was still surprised when she slid in behind the wheel and put the key in a slot-thing and turned it. The vehicle had an anti-theft box on the steering column. She hesitated, and then put her forefinger on the sensor. “Hello, Suzanne,” the car said in a rich, brown voice. “How are you today?”

“Just fine,” she said quietly. “Just fine.”

A heartwarming story about family. Sadie, the narrator, is mostly an observer of the evolving relationship between Suzanne and rebellious Ben, and between Suzanne and Old Paint, as surrogate for her grandfather. It’s the story of children who learn their parent is human, and once was young. (As I read this story, the state of Nevada had just licensed driverless cars.)

“Alive and Well, a Long Way from Anywhere” by Allen M Steele

Miss. Part of the author’s Near Space series. Paul Lauderdale is the media rep and spokesman for Jerry Stone, a reclusive Howard Hughes-like space entrepreneur who has taken up residence alone on a remote asteroid. “Let’s just say that I’m sick of people and I want to get away for a while. I’m rich enough that I can do whatever I want, and that’s what I want to do.” And that’s it. He does. And why anyone is supposed to care, I can’t say. Stone is not an interesting character because the author excludes the information about him that might be of interest. Lauderdale isn’t. And the narrative relies excessively on the recitation of details from the other works in the series that will be redundant to those familiar with it and boring to those who aren’t.

“The Girl in the Park” by Robert Reed

Hit. The narrator’s elderly father, suffering from short-term memory loss, repeatedly relates a recurring dream from his days as a young father when he saw a young girl in the park, dressed like a hooker and obviously headed for trouble. He remembers wanting to stop her, but failing; regret has always haunted him. He keeps asking his son if he can find out what ever happened to the girl.

This is a story about guilt – the old man’s lingering guilt and his son’s, as well as the guilt of everyone who let the world go to hell – and attempting to expiate it. Despite the horrors it uncovers, the story is ultimately hopeful. Maybe people can learn better. In the meantime, however, families still have to deal with the burden of failing minds, which Reed portrays with painful immediacy.

“I didn’t sleep last night.”

I wait.

“Did you hear me?”

“You dreamed about that girl in the park again.”

He looks at me. “Have I told you about her?”

“Once or twice.”

“Kill Switch” by Benjamin Crowell

Hit. A genemod world where Jo is a jazz sax player modded for music, who meets a girl who has a lot in common with him, including a glitch in their mods that brings the music on too strong; they share the same drug to dampen it. Pretty soon they’re thinking about a baby, but the mods they want for the baby are expensive, so they accept a deal to move to North Dakota and augment its failing population. North Dakota turns out to be a different kind of place.

The rows [of crops] swept past, always converging to a vanishing point somewhere near the rising sun. Diagonals flickered in and out of the geometry, sliding over each other. Jo had a wistful feeling that if he hadn’t been back on full meds, his brain could have made the flickers into a beautiful rhythm, like the sound from a distant orchestra of guiros and washboards.

Not really about sex-flipping or gene modification, but a story about a relationship beginning to fray as both partners realize their incompatibility in a new environment. Jo really comes alive as a character, a person beginning to discover his real self and finding he’s a better person than he supposed.


“Zip” by Steven Utley

Miss. More time traveling scientists from this author, but in this instance Something Goes Wrong, they know not what. It doesn’t seem that they can go home again so they argue about what they should do.

Do we just hang in space, until everything in the universe contracts into the infinitesimal point of beginning? Do we go into that point ourselves, and come back out, or go on through, or what?

Really unoriginal premise and a bunch of guys arguing unoriginally about cosmology and time while admitting they don’t really know what’s going on.

“Bird Walks in New England” by Michael Blumlein

Hit. The story of a marriage. There is a single, possibly ambiguous, SFnal element, but the main thing is the wife’s voice – an eccentric one that expresses its joys and pains in metaphorical terms.

An eagle mates for life, and I believe that I was born an eagle. But I was taught and raised to be a rail. A yellow rail, a shy, retiring and secretive bird of reeds and deep grasses. When I came out of my shell, I was reborn an eagle, and an eagle is faithful to her companion. An eagle loves her mate, but she lives to spread her wings and fly.

The oddness of the narrative voice is a bit much in the opening paragraphs, but the story is a heartfelt one, ringing true.

“Long Night on Redrock” by Felicity Shoulders

Peder and Lise are vigilant against strangers coming around near harvest time to steal their crop. A suspicious-looking outworlder has been hanging around, but while they’re guarding the field, he abducts their kids. Worse, he takes them into a prohibited zone where hallucinations and ghosts come out of the ground. Lise and Peder are ex-military; they have a lot of ghosts. But that can’t stop them from going after their kids.

Peder clawed emergency water and food packs out of the closet upstairs; then a low, squat shelter that would withstand a few more notches of sandstorm than most, some thin blankets. He could just see Lise, half-hidden by the doorway, performing the swift, efficient series of movements he had imagined her rehearsing, in their first years home, every time a tile fell or a lost critter hit the window, every time her body tensed in the shelter of his long arms: two steps to the wall, one long swipe to uncover the safe, press-two-three-thumb, 2-4-7 code, the door wide, the rifle out. One for him too.

As an action story, it works pretty well, but I find the premise of the haunted sector less than convincing, and the moral is moralish. Neither a real hit or a miss, but somewhere in between. Although it’s listed in the ToC as a short story, it seems to be the longest piece in the issue.

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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