Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June

Giving the palm to Subterranean this time.


Publications Reviewed


Subterranean Online, Spring 2012

One thing I appreciate about this site is the longer fiction that they often publish. In the current issue, there is a novella by Lake and a long novelette by Kiernan, both of which will reward the reader in different ways.

“The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future” by Jay Lake

This long novella is part of the author’s Sunspin series of space opera novels and stories, of which several have previously been published in various short fiction venues. What may immediately strike the reader here is the close resemblance to Iain M Banks’ Culture series, with its autonomous, somewhat smartassed shipminds and their eccentric names. There is a resemblance in the plot, as well, that deals with the covering and uncovering of secrets and plots, but this one is a more linear and straightforward narrative than Banks typically serves up.

We begin with a weight of backstory, the eponymous history, which is divided into before and after the Mistake [why it was given this name is unclear]. About a thousand years ago, aliens attacked human civilization with an EMP weapon that eradicated most of its technology and actually eliminated the species on some worlds. Surviving humans regrouped and restored what they could, recreating alternative technology to replace some systems, like the then-standard stardrive. This alternative technology gave rise to the shipminds that now control a great deal of the human imperium. Thus the shipminds owe their existence to the Mistake.

One factor making humanity’s revival possible was a small number of enhanced individuals then known as Howard Immortals. Those Howards who survived the Mistake and still live have been given the title of Before. The Before Michaela Cannon is determined to discover the origin of the Mistake, and is now commanding an expedition on the Third Rectification to seek out evidence in distant places. But between the Before and the shipmind there is a degree of mistrust.

Captains, after all, did not command the starships. They knew their own minds and commanded themselves. Captains commanded the crews aboard the ships. Expedition commanders such as herself were of far more ambiguous value, and arguably, superfluous.

Cannon is by now two thousand years old and sometimes gets stuck in her past, causing her to dwell at excessive length on persons and events from prior in the series. This is a problem for the story and may vex readers who have no idea who all these people are. I find it a good rule that when one of the other characters has to tell the author that he’s being boring, the readers will share this opinion. But by the time I reached the end of this account of secrets and plots, I was well into a state of engagement – to the point that I had just about ceased making Banks comparisons and noting the significant number of typographical errors in the text. It becomes a cracking good read. The narrative is mostly from Cannon’s point of view, but alternates with brief sections from the shipmind’s. It’s obvious from a fairly early point that the shipmind is keeping a secret; that Cannon knows this; that the shipmind knows she knows it. The question eventually becomes, how far are both of them willing to go – one to keep the secret, the other to discover it? The author keeps cranking up the tension to the very last word, and the resolution is by no means predictable. It is in fact a cliffhanger that will only be fully resolved in the first novel of the series (if then), and, far from being irritated by this, I find myself wanting to seek it out.


“Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” by Hal Duncan

A werewolf and his boy. They’re part of a secret agency that hunts vampires. The wolf’s handler is also his lover, which, he insists frequently, makes them a strong team. If both of them play their assigned roles.

I have a fondness for any story that punctures the pernicious image of the lace-cuffed vampire, as this one does with a vengeance.

This is a fucking parasite, a tapeworm from the bowels of humanity, a leech with limbs and a face. Spitting, thoughtless, ravenous loathing.

But despite strong language, it’s light dark fantasy, not dwelling at depth on the internal conflict between the human and animal sides of the werewolf nature but the “good dog/bad dog” relationship with the handler.

“Random Thoughts Before a Fatal Crash” by Caitlín R Kiernan

Albert Perrault is an American painter in Paris whose work has been inspired by the dark side of legend and myth. But instead of completing his current project, he’s been lately hanging around the cemeteries, chasing boy prostitutes, and falling into a hallucinatory madness.

The dome of Heaven whirled above me, condemning kaleidoscope that knows my every transgression because it looks on every night and, in daylight, passes notes with the perfidious sun. Back here we come to stars. Plenty of gods et goddesses are stars: Helios, Hyperion, Ra, the seven Vedic Adityas. The dome wheeled above me without wings, though I feared those absent wings that would beat with no earthly thunder in the vacuum. Beating, they would be soundless as the dead.

He’s also become obsessed with Gévaudan, a town once stalked by a wolfish monster, but in his wanderings through Paris, he keeps encountering mysterious figures who warn him that he will never go there.

Readers should recognize Perrault’s name as that of the fairytale compiler, and this Perrault has dug more deeply into the darkness of those old stories, into the monstrousness at their heart. Instead of quoting Sartre, he perhaps should have heeded Nietzsche’s warning that he who gazes at monsters may become one. But the fantastic element here is ambiguous at most; it seems more likely that Perrault is simply demented, that instead of a monster he is essentially just a disagreeable individual whose relationships with other people have never been able to overcome his self-centeredness. But if he is mad, it’s a madness made glorious by Kiernan’s prose. And it’s worth heeding Perrault’s warning that critics always get things wrong.


“HERE and THERE” by Neal Barrett, Jr

The downside of heaven. More than one downside to the place, in fact. Not all it’s been cracked up to be. Awfully silly, in fact.


Asimov’s, August 2012

A good issue. Lots of stories set in space.

“Weep for Day” by Indrapramit Das

A premise that holds out the promise of an interesting science fiction story: a tidal-locked planet where the sun never appears to shift position in the sky and places are named for their apparent time of day in terms of light or darkness. Instead, it turns out to be too-obvious metaphor for human expansion and demonization of indigenous races that resist colonization. The species on the light side of the world, that calls itself human, has evolved with extreme speed and begun the conquest of the dark regions. Valyzia is a child raised to fear the dark and its denizens, called Nightmares. But a journey to the annexed territory and the sight of a captive Nightmare produces an epiphany.

It would be dramatic and untruthful to say that my fear of darkness receded the moment I set eyes on the creature. But something changed in me. There, looking at this hunched and shivering thing under the smoky blaze of the flares its armored jailers held to reveal it to its captor’s guests, I saw that a phantom flayed was just another animal.

It’s all an unfortunately predictable moral tale. We’ve read this one before, and the details of the world and people don’t make it sufficiently original to be interesting.

“Heaven’s Touch” by Jason Sanford

Heaven’s Touch is a sungrazing comet in an orbit that poses an eventual threat to Earth, so that NASA had installed a blipper to divert it.

While Heaven’s Touch easily missed Earth this go around, its close approach to the sun would change its orbit. When it comes back around twenty years from now there’s a high chance of a devastating impact. NASA designed the blipper to explode at the comet’s closest approach around the sun, changing its orbital path by a few millimeters. While that wouldn’t matter much in the short term, over the next two decades the effect would grow until the comet missed Earth by a safe distance.

But on a private mission to the comet, Parda, seized by a religious fervor for martyrdom, and crashes their ship into the blipper, leaving Dusty stranded with Prada’s sabotaging AI proxy as a companion – a gift Dusty doesn’t much appreciate, as martyrdom doesn’t appeal to her. But the AI has the same sense of destiny as its original, and control of Dusty’s spacesuit, as well.

Here, now, is the real stuff, hard science fiction in a space setting. While Dusty’s urgent task is survival, her immediate problem is coping with the AI, which is determined to thwart any attempt to shift the comet’s orbit away from Earth’s. A lot of tension here, with a lot of science-fictional ingenuity deployed. But its heart is a human story of friendship and betrayal.


“Joining the High Flyers” by Ian Creasey

A sequel to the author’s previous story about physically enhanced humans in sport. Delroy used to be an Olympic champion sprinter; now his body is smaller, lighter, and winged in order to enter a new form of competition, one without restricting rules.

He was also attracted to endeavors that took longer than a few seconds to complete. This ascent would require several hours, and it was only the prelude to joining the long-running campaign in the sky, where the competition for prestige was brutal and eternal.

This one is an ethical story, a matter of conflicting values. The world of the flyers – of the Enhanced – is raw competition, red in tooth and claw, where little is not allowed, and there seems to be no real enforcement of any rules. Delroy is appalled when he first encounters the reality of this milieu, as well he ought to be, in my own view of the ethics involved. But that is just the question the author is posing.

“The Bernoulli War” by Gord Sellar

Here is tooth and claw with a vengeance – and advanced modifications – in a far, far future inhabited by warring systems of machine intelligence, a battle between competing models of fitness.

The one thing anyone knew for certain was that the fate of machine intelligence lay in the hands of whoever eventually triumphed. The fate of all thought lay in the final confrontation sometime in the deep future, after all of the millions that had happened and would happen in the millennia since the last biological organism had gone the way of the vacuum tube.

But while biological organisms are only an ancestral memory, that memory has been retained for the sake of its utility.

The model here is game theory, and the concept of marginal utility; on one level, you could call it a conflict between models of free will and determinism in a universe of uncertainty. With character names like !pHEnteRMinE4^g3mksYnaPSeS, this one makes for challenging reading, but, as often is the case, the key lies in the residue of humanity present in these far distant descendants of human creations. Conceptually engaging.


“Beautiful Boys” by Theodora Goss

The narrator is a scientist doing a study on the subject population, which she believes to be members of an alien species that produces only males and depends on the females of the host world to reproduce.

You can see them on Sunday afternoons, in places like Knoxville, Tennessee or Flagstaff, Arizona, playing pool or with their elbows on the bar, drinking a beer before they head out into the dusty sunlight and get into their pickups, onto their motorcycles. Some of them have dogs. Some of their dogs wear bandannas around their necks. Some of them, before they leave, put a quarter into the jukebox and dance slowly with the waitresses, the pretty one and then the other one.

The author has accurately described this population in a way that readers should immediately recognize, as well as her reaction to them. The term she uses to designate them, however, may have for many a very different connotation.

“View Through the Window” by Ted Reynolds

Pei Li, disabled in an accident, is nearly immobilized in a low-g ward of the station’s hospital with little to do but look out the window and watch the traffic go by. There’s plenty of it to occupy her interest.

The local ferry between the various working, shopping, and living complexes was in continual operation, its crossbeams and struts jutting in all directions, spacesuited figures magnetized to any convenient surface—not at all like a groundling’s image of a spaceship. The Null-g buggy, a smaller but even more thrown-together version of the ferry, headed out to the N-g labs and back every four hours, and Pei Li always looked bemusedly at the two figures that were not spacesuited.

Then she is forced to become more than an impotent spectator.

A story of prejudice and rushing to judgment, but the main action belongs to the orbital space setting.

“Starsong” by Aliette de Bodard

Part of the author’s future alternate history series with rival Mexica and Xuyan empires. Axatl is the child of a mixed marriage, ashamed of it, of her Xuyan mother who retains her Chinese heritage. Worse, her best friend turns on her and joins the bullying.

Axatl knows what she is; she knows that she’ll always have to fight to fit in; that, if there is no easy path for a Mexica like him, the path for her will be even harder. Far easier to be a ship, to follow the starsong from galaxy to galaxy, to listen to the secret beat of the universe—to hang cocooned in darkness as in the womb, away from mockeries and jokes.

Taken by itself, the story effectively shows the pain of a person who doesn’t fit into a bigoted society. To readers familiar with the series, its place in the continuity is clear, but it also feels rather too familiar, a trip across ground traveled before.

“Stamps” by Bruce McAllister

The Arcturians came clandestinely to Earth to divert the world from nuclear annihilation, but members of the delegation had time for personal pursuits. Thus T’Phu^Bleem^ developed an interest in postage stamps.

What truly caught his attention, however, was how colorful the stamps were, when they might have been simple and drab and served the same purpose—namely, the prepaying of transportation delivery costs. Instead, each had a face of a historical or otherwise culturally important human being (real or imagined), or a famous edifice, or technological achievement, or grand landscape, or aesthetically pleasing animal worthy of collective pride.

He came to believe that the stamps presented a key to understanding the human species and, in a way, he was right.

Very human and quite charming.


Analog, September 2012

After the much better August issue, this one is a disappointment. The fiction is not only generally lackluster, it’s scant. Although the ToC lists four novelettes, all but the Aiken are far on the short side of the category, if not over it.

“Done That, Never Been There” by Brad Aiken

A murder mystery. Roger Bennett is a neurosurgeon who does robotic surgery by remote, and his operation on a patient on the moon has made him famous, which has brought him unwelcome attention, including from an assassin. If someone is willing to kill him just to wipe the record of that particular surgery, he wants to know why, particularly since his patient was recently killed. Sleuthing ensues, by remote.

I like the title. The murder plot is intricate and rather too much contrived, and I could have done without the romantic subplot.

“Elmira, 1895” by Michael F Flynn

Historical SF. A visit by Kipling to Twain, in which marvels are discussed. The story is taken in large part from writings of the day, notably newspaper reports of mysterious airship sightings [although the author has advanced the time by a year or so, which would make this an alternate history] and from Kipling’s account of an earlier visit to the senior writer. The interest here is in the contrast between the two men – one looking forward to the future with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism, the other on the side of skepticism, for which we are given a very science-fictional reason. I would certainly recommend it if more of the prose were the author’s own.

Although the ToC lists it as a novelette, the author calls it a short story.

“The Voices” by Alec Nevala-Lee

January has volunteered for a dubious study on auditory hallucinations, which she has experienced for most of her life, as did her grandmother before her. While the reader knows from the beginning these are the voices of some actual presence, January claims to be suffering from schizophrenia and is hopeful for the cure the study is promising.

“Because we’re effectively eavesdropping on the voices themselves, we can monitor not only their severity, but their content. We’re essentially hearing what the voices are saying, which obviously affects the patient a great deal. It brings objectivity to the process for the first time.”

This prospect alarms the voices, who warn her against the scientists doing the study.

The problem here is with January’s denial, when she engages in lengthy conversations with the unseen presence, takes their detailed advice and even calls one of them by name. If she has a delusion, it’s the unfounded notion that she’s delusional. The reader knows better and will have a hard time crediting this character.

“Rent in Space” by Susan Forest

Willy is suffering from a spate of failure that finally results in his driving a cab, when a shimmer void appears over his coffee table.

Spherical. Ish. Opaque, if that was a word that could be used for something that did not seem to exist as a solid object. Maybe a foot in diameter? It was hard to look at, hard to judge. He wafted air toward his nose. No smell. No heat. It exuded nothing. It neither wavered nor moved when he opened the window and turned on the fan.

No one is interested except the guy from the nuclear waste disposal outfit, who says it’s probably a rent in the space-time continuum. Willy gets a bad feeling about this, but he doesn’t know how bad.

An entertaining scam.

“Mythunderstanding” by Carl Frederick

Not an original title. It seems there is an interplanetary church of Johnny Appleseed, otherwise known as the Appelonians, who travel to distant worlds and plant apples. From which point, the story becomes even more ridiculous.

“The Long View” by Jerry Oltion

Billionaire David has the money to send himself to the Moon, so he does. The idea is to raise morale on a screwed-up Earth by leaving a time capsule summarizing human achievements, but David’s expedition isn’t without glitches itself.

It happened in slow motion, like a train wreck underwater, but it was just as relentless. The cart bounced over rocks, spewing oxygen tanks behind it but not tipping over until it had picked up sufficient speed for that not to matter anymore.

But in an unexpected and totally unbelievable coincidence, he finds something better.

Oltion, of course, does a good job with the details of moon landing and walking, but the rest is pure wishfulthinkium.


Tor.com, June 2012

Two novel tie-ins and one original story by the manic team of Rucker and Sterling.

“The Witch of Duva: A Ravkan Folk Tale” by Leigh Bardugo

This novel tie-in is a variation on the Hansel and Gretel tale, set in a forest where adolescent girls have sometimes been known to go missing. When famine comes and Nadya’s mother dies, the new stepmother makes it clear that Nadya isn’t wanted in her house any longer. Nadya is convinced that Karina is a witch, perhaps behind the mystery of the missing girls. When she sends her out alone into the forest, Nadya is certain she means her to die there. Instead, she finds an unexpected refuge.

At the far wall, a woman stood at a vast black cookstove that stretched the length of the room. Twenty different pots boiled atop it, some small and covered, some large and near to bubbling over. The oven beneath had two hinged iron doors that opened from the center and was so large that a man might have laid lengthwise in it. Or at least a child.

There is good use of fairytale witchcraft here, told in matter-of-fact prose. A well-realized Slavicized setting, that stands on its own, ending with a strong twist in the plot. This is how tie-ins ought to be done.

“A Spell of Vengeance” by D B Jackson

Tie-in to a novel series featuring the character Ethan Kaille, a spellcaster in an alternate colonial Boston where witchcraft happens to be illegal. Kaille is hired to protect two merchant smugglers from the revenge of a spellcasting sea captain who claims they cheated his father. And the captain may be the stronger conjurer.

The magical duel is sufficiently interesting to carry the tale, but it’s burdened with the residue of backstory, Kaille’s personal quest for freedom and redemption after a dark past, as well as his ambiguous legal position.

“Loco” by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Seems to be an untied original story. Gordo and Becka are besieged with the remains of the Loco project in their safe house. A bulldozer rampages outside, having already flattened the project director, Dr Waverly.

“He went soft. The steamroller attacked. And Waverly was like a gingerbread man under a rolling pin. A thirty-foot smear of smashed mathematical physicist. No blood, no bones. I used my hands to pry him off the lawn. I rolled him up like a tortilla and carried him into the garage.”

But Becka holds out hope that Waverly had actually morphed into a giant leech. Or more accurately, a subdimensional pregeometric assemblage. Which looks a lot like a giant leech. It’s no surprise if some people are confused on this point.

This is the sort of thing for which the term “gonzo” was intended – off-the-wall crazed humor based on wild unlikelihood, and a lot of fun, albeit slightly gross fun.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97-98, June 2012

Two interesting fantasy premises this month. Also part of a series that I have decided is too distasteful to read.

“One Ear Back” by Tina Connolly

A neat premise:

In this cold rocky land, the huldufólk leave strange imprints upon us, curses molding souls as a cup does water. My mother angered one of these hidden people—how, no longer matters. She was cursed to live as a cat until she did a good deed that had never yet been done.

But the cat was pregnant when the curse was laid, so it descended to her daughter Kisa, born as a kitten who could talk. She grew up as companion to the chieftain’s daughter Ingibjorg, a foolish, arrogant girl who deliberately angered the local giant and brought down disaster on everyone, including the mother cat, who died trying to save her. Alas, this was not a good deed that had never yet been done, so the burden of the curse descended to Kisa.

This one fits roughly into the fairytale category, with transformative curses, quests and tasks to be fulfilled. But the interest is in the character of the cat and how she reacts to her circumstances – what part of her is cat and what part is woman. The ending is not quite what one would automatically expect, but better.

“Lady Marmalade” by E Catherine Tobler

Which is not the character’s real name, nor is it Beth. She captures the past in jars – the pasts of others and her own. She also makes marmalades and jams that hold the flavors of the past, which she sells to customers at the carnival, her current home.

Fingers trace over soda-lime glass, milk glass; amber, cobalt, green. Ball blue, violet, clear, and black. Jewel tone marmalades press against the curves: lime, lemon, orange, quince, pomegranate. Colorless fogs, rivers, rains, and bogs. Sparrow hearts. A first blush, a last breath, countless in betweens.

But she also frequently leaves it to return to her own past, her own regrets, held in the jars she can’t break. During these excursions, we learn her true name and nature, but much remains obscure. The story is presented as a slow-motion strobing of incidents, full of allusions that mostly remain obscure.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

One thought on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late June

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *