Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early June

I take a look at The New Yorker‘s science fiction issue and recommend it.


Publications Reviewed


New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012

Not only has the NYer put out a science fiction issue – its first – it’s a double issue, and SF all the way through, beginning with a very skiffy cover that represents sci-fi crashing the staid literary world. This is certainly a noteworthy event. The zine has gone all-out, with a majority of the features and criticism being SF-related in some way. Even the little “Spots” drawings are skiffy. (There are relatively few cartoons, though. I wonder if this has significance.) There is also a section titled “Sci Fi” (I wonder if the use of this term has significance) in which a half-dozen of the field’s luminaries describe their personal introduction to the genre (Atwood taking yet another opportunity to demean it). All this stuff should be of great interest to SF readers.

However, my mission here is with the fiction, and the issue offers an astonishing four original works, most of substantial length. I don’t know if this is unprecedented (there is usually only a single story) but it certainly has significance. This being The New Yorker, they are rather literary works of science fiction set on near-contemporary Earth, with an edgy sensibility. In short, New Yorker stories. But indisputably science fiction nonetheless.

“The Republic of Empathy” by Sam Lipsyte

We start with William, who notices Leon and Fresko fighting on the roof of another building, when Leon is pushed off and is killed. Except they don’t know at the time that it’s Leon and Fresko, just two guys. William seems to be a typical denizen of contemporary fiction, having trouble with his wife over her claim to want another baby, but the narrative soon turns into absurdityland – or is-it-really-a-dream. Following William are five other sections from the points of view of others connected to the incident, circling around at the end to William again, in a way. The title comes from a remark by one character, but in fact empathy is notably lacking here. Most of the characters seem to spend their lives pushing others away (literally in the case of Leon), and the person most concerned with the fate of others seems not to be a person at all.

Apparently the author did not intend to write a science fiction story; many SF tropes have become such common currency in today’s world as to be perfectly mainstream, such as the alien Greys mentioned at one point. But I have a hard time believing that he could have maintained this unawareness by the time he got to the self-aware drone, which is pure mainline science fiction. But whether or not it was committed as SF aforethought, SF the story is, and I doubt if readers of genre zines would blink very hard to turn the page and find it there. Does it make a lot of sense? No, not really. It’s a series of character sketches set around a common incident. But SF stories sometimes do that, too.

“My Internet” by Jonathan Lethem

A secret history of the other Internet, the exclusive, private one with no more than a hundred users, that was created in the earliest days of online activity. The diction has a faintly archaic sensibility, a curmudgeonly, reactionary tone suggesting slower, better days. The story reflects on the profound ways that the Internet has changed our lives, bringing us into potential contact with the entire world’s population. The notion of a retreat from it all – from “the anonymity and masquerade and the lemming-like migratory waves of popular hatred” – is strongly seductive.

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

This one is notable for its format, which has been described as composed of tweets. (The magazine has been tweeting the issue serially.) But this is misleading, as the text doesn’t employ the style of tweets, the typical abbreviations; the form of its sentences is entirely conventional. And this sort of thing has been done before, even before there were tweets, although not often at this extended length. What we have in the messages are a series of instructions from the narrator to herself, on the execution of her mission. Their shortness evokes immediacy, brief notes-to-self in the middle of operations.

Determine whether your Designated Mate seeks physical intimacy; if not, feign the wish for a nap.

Your pretense of sleep will allow him to feel that he is alone.

Curling up under bedclothes, even those belonging to an enemy subject, may be soothing.

You’re more likely to hear his handset vibrate if your eyes are closed.

As readers readily discover, the narrator is a spy, equipped with implants, sent to seduce a powerful and dangerous man. While her messages are ostensibly Field Instructions, they serve primarily as an expression of the emotional distress her mission is costing her, and a means of reassurance in the midst of it.

It’s a fairly long piece for the format, but it engages reader attention thoroughly, perhaps less as an action thriller than for the narrator’s sharp insights on the uses of sex in espionage and other forms of social competition. This is very much a woman’s story. But the title supplies an ominous note, being the name of the recording device in an aircraft, to be retrieved after a crash so that the authorities can determine where the mission went wrong when there are no living witnesses.


“Monstro” by Junot Díaz

Apocalypse. A new plague breaks out on Haiti. “The index case was only four years old, and by the time his uncle brought him in his arm looked like an enormous pustule, so huge it had turned the boy into an appendage of the arm.” The authorities at first downplay the risk, because it only seems to affect the sick and poor, and they’re all only Haitians, after all. The narrator witnesses these events from the comparative safety of the Dominican Republic, where he’s spending his summer break hanging with the rich and privileged youth of the island, going along with their self-indulgencies. But while he fiddles, the critical mass of crisis is growing, unseen until it may be too late.

This one is overtly science fiction. The narrative voice is loaded with future-trendy jargon in both English and Spanish. It’s set in a near-future world in which “Medicine was cheaper, too, with the flying territory in Haina, its Chinese factories pumping out pharma like it was romo, growing organ sheets by the mile”. The plague, La Negura, doesn’t seem to be natural; it affects human behavior in an ominous way; it may even be of alien origin, although the author doesn’t go into such details. There’s a neat medical-mystery thriller going on. The conclusion leaves the scope of the apocalypse undefined as well as the narrator’s fate, rather frustratingly. Readers may wonder, “And then? And then?” The narrator clearly seems to be telling his story from some older and wiser perspective, but that’s all we know.


Interzone #240, May-June 2012

I can’t recall seeing this much fantasy in an issue of IZ. Maybe they should do more of it, because these stories are good.

“Beasts” by Elizabeth Bourne

Reworking the material of several of the classic fairytales together in the setting of the late French Revolution. Nanon was once an ardent revolutionary, but her family has been reduced to eating beet and grass soup when her father plucks a crimson rose from a bush that doesn’t belong to him. It is a strange rose; it bleeds where its stem has been cut. Such a rose cannot be taken with impunity. When a faceless minion comes to their door demanding retribution, Nanon declares herself the guilty one to save her family. Along with her young son, she is taken to a seemingly-deserted chateau. Its master, of course, is a beast, the victim of an enchantment. The roses, too, are enchanted.

One of these escaped the wall, enticing her papa. If she could reach the boundary, she could climb over. Nanon stepped into the roses. Their thick stems, loaded with thorns, writhed to prevent her.

Readers will recognize the various fairytales from which the author has created her story, but they may be surprised if they assume they know where it must be going. It is a situation too complicated to be set right by a kiss. The revolutionary setting takes the story out of fairytaleland and into a real world. Nor are the characters the stock figures of the tales. Nanon in particular is a daughter of the revolution, determined to survive, protect her son, and make sense of the circumstances of her imprisonment, even if it is magic. “The Republic taught the world ran on logic. Nanon believed in logic.” Reworkings of fairytales are a commonplace in the genre. It takes something special to make one stand out. This one does.


“The Indignity of Rain” by Lavie Tidhar

His foster mother has always told the boy called Kranki that if he comes to Central Station, his father will one day return from space. This is a lie, but it happens, in a way, although Boris Chang is more his creator than his father.

“You had no parent,” the man told him. “You were labbed, right here, hacked together out of public property genomes and bits of black market nodes.”

Readers familiar with the author’s “The Smell of Orange Groves” will probably recognize that remark. The story here is a sort of excerpt from that larger, more complete one, a retread, a scene retold from a different point of view. Boris Chong has returned, but we never knew him before he left. He’s only “this stranger who had once been someone that the someone she had been once loved.” Fragmentary.

“Seeking Captain Random” by Vylar Kaftan

Alice’s friend Darren always tries to see the significance in his dreams, and lately a guy has been showing up there who doesn’t belong. “Like he’s a guest star. Someone wandering from dream to dream. Captain Random.” But the captain’s presence may not only be confined to dreams, even if Alice the skeptic doesn’t believe it.

This fantasy tale is essentially a story of friendship, of people needing each other. The dream bit is a bit weak; the strength of Alice’s connection to Darren is not.

“Bloodcloth” by Ray Cluley

This seems to be set on some world not Earth, a place humans don’t belong. Life there is hard, largely because, for reasons not entirely clear, they are required to pay a regular tribute of blood. In each home hangs a bloodcloth that absorbs the life fluid from each person who touches it.

The curtain was pale at the moment, except for a fading pink near the middle where Father had wiped his hands. It was still creased and bunched a little in that area, but mostly it hung straight and heavy, its faint meaty smell barely noticeable.

Young Tanya is fascinated by the bloodcloth and the fact that sometimes old or sick people let it drain their whole life away. She is a witness to the stress it causes in her family, where everyone is always sick and weak.

Dark fantasy, a strongly disturbing image of a community [world?] enthralled to an alien force. The background is left mostly unexplained by the protagonist too young to know all the details, such as who is in charge and what retribution would come if people did not give their blood; it’s pretty clear that there would be retribution. This is a population enslaved and in fear. The story is about the ways in which they cope, or fail to cope, with it. There are strong suggestions, enhanced by the illustration, of a connection with the bleeding of menstruation and childbirth – more matters that Tanya doesn’t quite understand. The bloodcloth might serve as a metaphor for all sorts of life-draining situations, but it’s memorable enough on its own.


“A Body Without Fur” by Tracie Welser

Human explorers on an alien world. The story opens with one of the humans killed by a dangerous native beast, but the narrative then turns to the more prosaic matter of native-human interaction and mutual understanding, only coming back slowly and indirectly to the killing, so that it’s revealed to be a mystery. It’s one of those stories where the natives hold foolish, hairless humans in contempt for their inferior alien ways.

“You are always talking with your eyes on the words, instead of your ears, Louis,” the Storyartist says with a chuckle like a hoot. “Is that the meaning of your name, word collector?”

That bit of misanthropy reveals the cultural narrowness of the author, whose characters are mostly of western origin; in many human cultures, names do have specific meanings of importance, but there are no such persons on this expedition. For the most part, the story is that overly-familiar one, until the mystery element adds a bit of interest at the end.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, May 2012

I apparently missed this issue when it was first posted.

“Sally Tincakes” by Brad Torgersen

Cazetti Raceway has an outsized mascot:

She was brunette, with dark eyes, 100 meters high, and stacked like a pin-up model. The red thermal paint of her bikini had begun to flake after decades spent broiling in the lunar sunlight, but her smile never wavered.

Cazetti is the top track on the lunar racing circuit, but the veterans say the place is cursed. Sally doesn’t like female drivers. Her crew boss lost his own daughter on the track and doesn’t really want Jane to follow her. But Jane has come here to win.

A pretty standard racing story.

“Blank Faces” by M K Hutchins

An alternate gold rush in a very mean frontier town where stealing seems to be the local sport even when not driven by desperate necessity.

Brothel, apothecary, and the main general store? They’ve got a sniper on their roof to shoot anyone who runs out suspicious-like — two dead miners this week alone.

When the narrator is desperate, he knows he can count on Miss Annie not to kick him out of her general store. What he doesn’t know is why, why she should be nice to people when she gets nothing out of it.

A dark, unsettling tale about the corruption of the soul. There is some fantastic content in the setting, but it has negligible effect on the story.

“The Snake King Sells Out” by Rahul Kanakia

Perry abdicates, gives up what he’d spent so much time achieving, to return to naked pink humanity.

The spines running down his back snapped off at their hilts. He collected them in a bucket. The interlocking horns emanating in a tangle from his forehead and scalp had been the largest rack in Oakland’s Scaletown, where the money that the scale-dealers would pay for a few inches of horn was often the only thing standing preventing a snake from starving.

For a while, he successfully passes as human but finds this life is unfulfilling as well.

A neat, original premise, plus a light touch of social commentary on the integration of “persons of altered physiognomy” and other outsiders.

“Paper Airplanes into the Void” by Terra LeMay

The end of the world – not temporally but geographically.

It was like staring out a fogged window. There was nothing to see. No bottom to it as far as anybody knew, no far side, nothing but an endless expanse of . . . nothingness.

There are people down there, and music wafting out of the void. But no one has ever gone down there and returned. Jared’s parents have never returned, and now he has returned to his birthplace in the town nearest the edge, bringing with him the unsent letters he had been writing to them all his life.

The setting and the image of the paper airplanes are striking, the story rather bland, with no surprises.

“Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man” by Scott C Mikula

Cetta is the assistant to her cranky uncle, helping him exhibit the automaton swordsman. But Madrigal has no respect for her ambition to perfect his creation.

I was just a tool. Just a pair of hands. Not worthy to know what the duke had to say. Not smart enough, in Madrigal’s eyes, to see the automaton’s flaws or how to mend them. Indignation like bitter venom ran in my veins.

Short and almost predictable.

“Calling the Train” by Jeff Stehman

A variation on the old “hell-bound train” theme. Sam is rushing to complete an urgent task when he’s killed by an alligator. He finds an old man with him, blowing the sound of a train whistle on a harmonica – calling the train. Sam wants to make a deal to let him remain on Earth and finish his job. Again, a striking central image, but short on the story. And, in this case, the character. We don’t have any idea why Sam should be damned.


Clarkesworld, June 2012

A good issue. The editorial mentions the fact that this zine publishes more female authors than male. This time, it’s three for three, and female protagonists in all cases.

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard

A story about cultural imperialism, a subjugation that a society imposes on itself out of a sense of inferiority. Longevity Station fought for political independence from the Galactics and achieved it, but its people still feel insecure in comparison to Galactic culture. Thus the use of immersers, which not only project an avatar that meets Galactic norms of attractiveness, but prompt/impose dominant norms of behavior and speech. Quy, who studied on Prime, knows that Galactics generally don’t wear immersers at home; it is the ex-colonists who feel they need them. Thus people like the woman now called Agnes, born Rong but married to a Galactic, can become dependent on the devices to the point of losing their selves.

You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-travelled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.

Quy’s own internal conflicts between the dominant culture and her native one add to the story’s effectiveness, as do her sister’s attempts to suborn the immerser technology to serve the interests of her station’s people. That’s the thing about a dominant culture: it can become impossible to entirely escape.

“If the Mountain Comes” by An Owomoyela


The riverbed had been parched for as long as I could remember, its dirt cracked and peeling like thick and brittle plates. You could throw them toward the bank, and watch them burst into plumes of dust. Our family drilled deep and sucked water from the earth, and it was enough to keep us wealthy, by our own, dusty standards of wealth.

Then comes a stranger who claims he can make the river flow again – which would put Lena’s father out of business. He doesn’t want to be put out of business, and he is a hard man. The story begins with an image of blood, and readers will suspect that more blood will flow before the issue is resolved. A story of power and its cost.

“You Were She Who Abode” by E Catherine Tobler

Cardee’s weakness as a soldier was the children in the streets. She couldn’t help trying to rescue them, even while knowing they could be part of a trap or part of the enemy. It almost got her killed, did get her traumatic brain damage, and now only an implant holds her memories and much of her self. But the implant traps her in the past, in flashbacks of the explosion. She remembers the enemy child but not her own daughter, now grown past the age that the implant recognizes.

But the only children she knows live in the streets. Rubble rats, sand kids, some used as weapons, others in need of rescue. This girl is whole and clean. A green bandage clings to her temple, but her feet are uninjured. Not bloody or cut and Cardee can’t process it. The girl pushes away. Those small feet thunder away.

A strongly poignant story of personal identity and the cost of war to individuals and their families. The confusion of the story reflects the fragmented state of Cardee’s mind. She is fortunate. She was loved and is still loved, she has someone to pull her out of the nightmare. Some do not.



Redstone SF, June 2012

Issue #25 of this hard SF ezine.

“Daddy’s Girl” by Amy Sundberg

Sibling rivalry. Delores never liked:

Her abusive father
The sister her father favored over her
The ice ship he left to her sister, leaving her nothing
The life as a spacer he forced her into.

After her sister’s recklessness cost her husband’s life, Delores has liked it all even less. Now, after straining the engines to reach their target comet, they discover an armed rival is there before them, and Magdalena insists on risking the lives of the crew rather than back down.

An unusually satisfying ending, for readers with a vengeful spirit.

“The Cold Beyond the Pools” by Steven R Stewart

A community of an alien race is captured and enslaved by cruel enemies, until one of them has finally had enough. This vignette suffers from a number of very familiar problems that stem from the use of the first-person narrator. How can she know the motives of her enemies when they do not communicate? And how can she be telling this story?


GigaNotoSaurus, June 2012

“On Higher Ground” by Annie Bellet

Galactic extreme sports. Kayi has qualified for the Asgard event – the most extreme ski race in human history – thanks to the death of a competitor. Asgard has never been skied.

“I am Kayi Akki Akkikitok, called Kayii Tingiyok,” she whispered into the wind, introducing herself to this strange world and whatever spirits might lurk beneath the deep white. “I am here and you will not kill me.” She jammed her poles into the thick snow crust and raised her arms, her orange gloves catching the distant light of Shangri-la and flickering in the darkness.

Her ambition is simply, Don’t die. But others on the mountain are there to win, by any means money can buy.

Here is a race story that thrills with excitement and peril, a race against treachery as well as a towering mountain, avalanches and crevasses. I quite enjoyed the action, but couldn’t help wondering how a media event like this race, the participants all equipped with positioning devices and cameras, could ignore or cover up that very obvious level of chicanery.


Apex Magazine, June 2012

A particularly dark fantasy issue.

“Winter Scheming” by Brit Mandelo

Harvey likes her sex rough, but it always seems to go bad. Now, after the last traumatic time, just when she has found a new lover and is trying to start over, she is being stalked by the apparition of an owl.

She wasn’t satisfied, though by all rights, she should have been. She unclenched fists she’d made without realizing it and slid off the bed, heading for the shower. Standing under the spray and feeling the water on her fingers, it was hard not to remember. Damp hair wrapped hard in her fist, tender flesh under her fingers. The way it had felt.

A story of revenge and retribution. It takes an odd turn at the end, shifting point of view from the primary character. What makes it unconventional is the negative portrayal of a lesbian character from her own viewpoint, something we don’t see often in the fantastic genre.

“In the Dark” by Ian Nichols

Historical fantasy set in a Welsh mining village where the men sing coming up from the pit after their shift.

There might be something following, something that’s followed all the way from the mine, crawled up the pithead from the dark down the mine, trailed, sniffing the air for a tune, a lone tune, a lone singer, because it’s shy and hungry

Morgan is a young miner courting a girl, but when a flirtatious gypsy comes to the village, he sees her interest in him shift. The other miners see it, too. A darkness seeps into Morgan and readers will think they can predict what happens next.

The author makes good use of his language to evoke this time and place. A neat twist to the ending.

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.

5 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early June

  • June 7, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Re Clarkesworld: “The editorial mentions the fact that this zine publishes more female authors than male. This time, it’s three for three, and female protagonists in all cases.” I know that this observation was prompted by Clarke’s editorial, but having read An’s biography attached to the story, I’m not sure se would appreciate the use of the binary here.

    Re the New Yorker: “the issue offers an astonishing four original works, most of substantial length. I don’t know if this is unprecedented (there is usually only a single story) but it certainly has significance.” I believe that this is the annual fiction issue, which typically has several stories.

  • June 8, 2012 at 6:47 am

    Sarah – while I’ve seen other SF stories in the NYer, somehow I haven’t encountered their fiction issues before. Obviously, I need to get out more!

  • June 8, 2012 at 11:06 am

    They used to do one in the winter and one in the summer, but cut out the winter edition a few years ago. The last one I bought was the 2010 “20 under 40” issue, which had gotten a lot of buzz. They cheated a bit with that one too, since it turned out only a handful of the 20 were in the issue, and the rest were to be parceled out over the rest of the year. Talk about false advertising. If the name is on the cover of a magazine, I assume the author has a piece inside. This one was at least closer to as-advertised, though I enjoyed the essays more than the fiction.

  • June 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    And the piece by Bradbury, just before his death. I think a lot of people were rereading that this week.

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