Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

A whole lot of zines sprouting in the summer heat, but very few stories I could consider recommending, and quite a few stinkers. Best of the lot is On Spec.


Publications Reviewed


Clarkesworld, July 2012

Not enthusiastic about this month’s selection of soft SF, which is getting a lot too soft for my taste, edging uncomfortably close in some cases to romance. The Stanton story is the most interesting, the least squishy.

“Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn

Post-apocalypse. After the Fall, only a few generations ago, people are now gathered in craft-based households. Stella is a young weaver who comes to a more prosperous household after her own fails from drought. There she finds a bond with another young woman whose real passion is astronomy. Andi has a telescope from the days before the Fall and spends her nights making observations, a non-productive activity in the mind of her father, who is obsessed with survival.

“We have enough as it is, more than enough. Wanting more, it’s asking for trouble. Getting greedy is what brought the disasters in the first place. It’s too much.”

Stella finds herself caught in the middle

The setting is the kind of preindustrial utopia that I don’t find realistic. It’s run on consensus as a kind of craftsperson’s paradise, with no sign of real dissent, crime, banditry, or other forms of pathology that have always afflicted human society.

“The Switch” by Sarah Stanton

The authorities of Beijing have demolished the old courtyard districts and hidden the squalor with holograms.

We don’t see the demolition, the shaky buildings, the squalor. There are clear skies every day even though it hurts to breathe. We are a city of flickering images, of fantasy, of fraud, and nobody objects because nobody sees anything to object to. There are stars above us at night. Who cares where they come from?

But the facade can be used to hide other things. The narrator is a dissident housepainter who works with a small group that restores the old houses, concealing them behind the holograms. Yao Lang, their leader, has dreams of restoring the Forbidden City, but the authorities discover his activities and arrest him.

There’s a strong message here about covering up unsavory reality, and the way people can be conditioned to prefer the false facade, not caring to look behind it. I have to wonder, however, how these dissidents managed to support their activity, since they seem to lack paying jobs.

“Iron Ladies, Iron Tigers” by Sunny Moraine

Vita has left her lover to take part in an unexplained experimental spacetime journey, which has encountered some sort of glitch, leaving her alone with her AI in some spacetime unknown.

As far as CERA can determine, re-emergence into normal space has occurred. There are a number of equipment malfunctions. Most of the sensor array appears to be offline. The primary Q-drives are offline. The differential sail is online and can be deployed if needed. Life support is online.

Stranded in nowhere/nowhen, she turns her thoughts to her lover.

This one doesn’t do much for me, particularly the suggestion that Vita has traveled a billion years just to remember a love affair, or to find a reality in which it was better. There’s nothing about the purpose of this futile experiment, or Vita’s reasons for taking part. She’s learning nothing she couldn’t have discovered by staying home and watching TV.


On Spec, Spring 2012

The eight stories in this issue of the little Canadian printzine offer quite a variety of fiction.

“A Little Space Music” by Edward Willett

Humor. It seems that a species of slimy giant slugs have decided that Broadway musicals are the True Religion, so they have raptured away the casts of every show they could locate. Professor Peter Peak was fortunate enough to avoid this fate, leaving him to take up the career of a con man. Being wanted by the law, he had little choice when he was shanghaied by the captain of the XX Mendel and impressed into directing a version of The Sound of Music, played by giant slugs.

“You’re ready,” I told them. “You’re good. I had my doubts going in, especially with such a short rehearsal time, but you’ve all done a terrific job, and I’m proud of you all. “And if Rogers and Hammerstein were here –” And not busy spinning in their graves – “they’d be proud of you, too.”

Funny stuff, but rather too silly for my taste.

“Long Leap” by Derek Künsken

SF. A colony ship has an unexpected encounter with a black hole and is thrown off-course, with their only choice being to land on the metal core of a planet orbiting around a pulsar. This puts an unexpected burden on Robert, whose dissociative disorder has left him in confinement and studying to be the ship’s astronomer, a position which no one ever expected them to need. The planet turns out to be a very strange place indeed.

Their lamps pierced a dark world of hollow, oddly-textured hills. Underfoot and as far as they could see, a carpet of shining needles stabbed starward. Some rose only millimeters. Others stood taller than they did, with perpendicular branchings shooting straight out from thick central poles.

They find the volatile elements they need to renew their journey, but Robert suspects there is something critical about the place that they don’t understand.

SF this hard is something I’d expect to see in some other venue, so it’s an agreeable surprise to find it here. While the physics involved isn’t an area in which I’m expert, the author presents his very neat idea so convincingly that I really want it to be right. The character of Robert is also convincing. It’s interesting to see him hover on the edge of a gratuitous act of murder, just because he knows there is nothing that keeps him from it, and the way his urges fade under the pressure of a pressing scientific concern. The conclusion strikes the perfect note.


“The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings” by Regan Wolfrom

Historical fantasy. The last days of the doomed Norse settlement on Greenland. The author attributes their fate to the intolerant influence of Christianity, which makes the settlers hostile to the native skraelings and their way of life, more suitable for the cooling climate. They are equally hostile to the sole surviving practitioner of a Norse form of magic, considering it witchcraft. One young man, Sveinn, attempts to learn the spellcraft to help his people survive, but Thialfarr is too old, and time is running out on them.

The author makes a case for the essential unity of different shamanist practices, contrasting it with intolerance. Although little is known about the Norse form of magic, the account here seems to fit the available evidence.

“Carter Hall and the Motley Lions” by Marissa Lingen

Humor, a series involving legendary characters such as Carter Hall, Tam Lin and Janet. They are members of a hockey team, whose occupational hazards involve losing teeth, so it’s not so surprising when one of them finds fifty dollars in his locker, left by the Tooth Fairy.

Dude was maybe six foot five in his stocking feet, broad-shouldered and big-bellied. Maybe ten years older than me, tops. He looked like he was from around here, battered warm boots and all. I must have looked as skeptical as I felt, because he said, “I know, I know. You were expecting someone with wings, maybe little lilacs and dandelions.”

And that’s just part of the strangeness. It’s neat fantasy stuff, making an odd kind of magical sense, but there’s definitely something missing for readers not familiar with the previous stories in the series.

“Hoodoo Boy” by Kim Despins

Dark fantasy. Alain is the son of the Hoodoo woman, which makes the story’s tagline: Sometimes being the Hoodoo woman’s son means . . . In this case, it means he has to deliver something from his mother to Mrs Abshire, who seems to be a kind of hoodoo woman herself, involved with certain Powers. And on Halloween.

Alain knows his mom gave Mrs Abshire what she wanted, not because of the new appliances, but because of the smell in the house. He asked Donny if he smelled it, but Donny only slug-bugged him in the shoulder for the neighbor’s VW. Alain couldn’t not smell it. The pungent odour of dirt. Cemetery dirt.

Dark goings-on here, with Alain bringing in a strong conclusion. But it raises questions. If Mrs Abshire is as powerful as the story suggests, what did she need Alain’s mother for? And why did Alain’s mother send her son on such a dangerous errand? Was she trying to get rid of him?

“A Taste of Time” by Scott Overton

When Gabby was young, the entire town of Manqueville was destroyed in a fire and never rebuilt; the ground has been overgrown by wild blueberries.

The low bushes were at home throughout the rocky expanses of northern Ontario. But they had a special fondness for burned-out clearings, where forest fires left behind acidic soil and shade-free spaces. They’d laid siege to Manqueville and then consummated their victory in its ashes.

Gabby, out of personal guilt, has remained in the area, running a small shop and growing old, while avoiding the blueberries. Now a neighbor has a granddaughter visiting for the summer, and the child loves to pick the berries. But something about them makes Amanda know things she shouldn’t know, about the past.

A strong sense of place, a bit on the sentimental side. It doesn’t seem possible that Gabby could afford to keep perishables and fresh supplies in stock when she seems to have no customers left.

“There’s Nothing to Fear” by Dave Cherniak

A spectre comes for a sleeping child at night. The one unusual thing about this vignette is the way the spectre answers her victim in rhyme.

“Is somebody there? . . . Please don’t come near.”

“Calm yourself child. There’s nothing to fear.”

“Thought and Memory” by Catherine Knutsson

Odin loses his raven Memory and ends up in an Alzheimer’s ward. Fimbulwinter threatens if he can’t be found. The fate of the world rests on the kindness of an overworked practical nurse.

Creative use of the Norse materials, as the author makes clear in her epigraph:

Every morning, the two ravens Huginn and Muninn are loosed and fly over Midgard; I always fear that Thought may not wing his way home, but my fear for Memory is greater.

– the Sayings of Grimnir

One of those ideas that seems so obvious once you’ve seen someone else do it.


Jabberwocky #11, June 2012

This small press ezine continues its new monthly schedule. There are, as usual, two poems and two short stories, of which the Russo is the more interesting.

“Untimely” by Sandi Leibowitz

A young wife comes to the local wisewoman, pregnant with a child not her husband’s, who had been absent when it was conceived. Her wish is not to abort the child but to keep it from having been conceived.

Of all the things that people come to ask me for, it’s the unquickenings I hate the worst. Women such as me don’t do what we do to take life away, but to make it come. We are in love with life, with all green, quick and lovely things. Like the life before me, that of Mistress Margriete, who loved two men and an unborn babe she could not bring to term without causing her own ruination.

Readers will immediately suspect that all will not go well, but that isn’t what the author has in mind. The story turns out to be cursory, and the most interesting thing is the old woman’s voice.

“Knots, Cracks, Trees, Hills” by Patricia Russo

An odd format to this one – two story threads linked together, which is appropriate because this is a story full of chains. According to myth, the trees once turned savage and could only be restrained by chains. There are still chains on some of the trees, and some others, ordinary shade trees or fruit trees, are tied with symbolic ribbon or string. To some, such as a disagreeable man named Brully [clearly, Bully], this is superstition. But others take the tale more seriously, and none more than the old woman who sits every day on the street and bends metal into chains.

The old tales, those she will tell, to any city dweller or any visitor, who asks, or even just stops to look on with curiosity as she bends and twists and braids her lengths of metal, thick metal, old metal, rusted metal, bright metal: all of it scrap, all of it gathered from worksites and trash dumps and the interiors of abandoned buildings, unless the fruit vendor misses his guess.

The two threads run into each other, each narrative running on in lengthy paragraphs without a break, until the other begins again. The only real character is the fruit vendor who befriends the old woman. She is mostly enigma; Brully and his friend [why anyone would be his friend is unclear] remain unexplained. The story itself is largely enigma as well. What does it mean that the world is six-sided, with a crack running through it? Is it only a figment of a game? We have no way to know if the old stories are real, or what the consequences will be if they are. We can only see that we are meant by the author to sympathize with one side and despise the other. Intriguing but unresolved.


GigaNotoSaurus, July 2012

“The Navigator and the Sky” by Ian McHugh

The god Sky lusts for the singer Kio Lea, but her family is determined to protect her. She will be safe on the mainland, the domain of the Earth, but this is a longer journey than anyone has made in the lifetime of her aging grandfather, Tapa O. He knows that he is too old to return from it, but no one else has the necessary navigation skill.

“Come back to me,” she said.

He wanted to promise, couldn’t, and so remained silent, watching the motion of her hands, turning, smacking, pressing [the dough].

“I don’t want to grow old alone,” she added.

He laughed, briefly. At length, he said, “I will try.”

Here’s a quest with epic scope, transformational magic, and a battling cast of gods that evokes reminders of the Olympians, although less dysfunctional. The characters, both human and divine, have minimal depth and complexity. There are memorable moments, such as the loss of the stars, but in general, the high cost borne by others for the sake of one woman seems to be slighted, shrugged off. Kio Lea’s father and husband sacrifice themselves to allow her escape; she mentions, once, that she misses them.


Redstone SF, July 2012

Characters in difficult situations they can’t seem to get out of.

“Skin Deep” by Vylar Kaftan

The military has developed sentient body armor to protect its soldiers, but the armor has taken over. The human soldiers inside are desperate to escape, but the Skins have their own priorities.

Total primal fear seized me – the darkness, the endless darkness inside this Skin, like a pit I couldn’t claw out of. Buried alive forever. Sweat oozed from my pores. Bastard sensed my distress and alerted instantly.

Here’s a neat idea, but the author hasn’t figured out anywhere to go with it.

“We Can Remember It For You Retail” by Mary E Lowd

A riff on the old P K Dick classic, with targeted advertising. Dylan has just seen the latest Total Recall movie with Charlene, but he’s too broke to afford the memory rights, which makes for a difficult discussion of the film. Things go downhill from there.

“Even if I couldn’t remember the movie – if all I could remember was sitting next to you in the theater – I wouldn’t want to give that up.” She shrugged. “I guess you would.”

This is a kind of dystopian dark humor. We could feel sorrier for Dylan’s plight if he weren’t such an ass.


Apex Magazine #38, July 2012

Horror – light and dark. A couple of the stories are awfully sketchy.

“The Silk Merchant” by Ken Liu

Sanu despises his father, a merchant who ruined his entire family in a futile quest for the legendary shimmer silk. But, dying, he reveals that the silk isn’t just a chimera.

My fingers seemed to close around a bit of water, a bit of smoke. It felt insubstantial, yet luxurious, like stroking the skin of a pretty girl. I lifted it to the firelight, and light and shadow flickered through it like liquid gold.

So Sanu sets out on the same quest to the island of Arecima, where he discovers the curse of the silk.

I could really see this one in the pages of a pulp horror zine from a century ago, which is not really a Good Thing. The character lacks motivation and the ending comes with a pretty hokey horrific revelation.

“Ironheart” by Alec Austin

Things have gotten so bad in the war that they’re reduced to recycling body parts.

Kade handled triage as Marya prepped the dead for reanimation: Black tags for the freshest bodies, brown tags for those that had swollen and gone ripe, and green tags for bits too putrefied for standard use. Red tags were for live retrievals, but they hadn’t seen one of those for over a month.

Kade himself is reanimated, with a necropotence engine in place of his heart. He has nightmares of them cutting it out, but he was dead at the time, as Marya reminds him. Dead men aren’t supposed to dream. Sometimes he dreams of his little sister, but the real nightmare is what she has become.

Dark, dark, dark fantasy, mostly done for effect, an exercise in seeing how far over the top the author can go. The connections to actual human warfare are tenuous, but there are moments where a shadow of reality breaks through, and these are what makes the story. Children today are still kidnapped and sent into battle.

“Coyote Gets His Own Back” by Sarah Monette

Bad Things start to happen on the ranch after Luther shoots and kills the coyote bitch.

It was that coyote bitch, grinning at me the way they do, with her chest torn open and her fur stiff and black with dried blood, and a light in her eyes that was as cold and hard as the rattle of a rattlesnake. There were two pups sitting beside her, so skinny you could count every rib they had, with the same light in their eyes, and while I watched, a third scrambled out to join them, still licking the heifer’s dead blood off its dead muzzle.

The narrative voice relating this vignette is a strong one, but the story is minimal. More may not be needed, but it would have been appreciated.


Kaleidotrope, Summer 2012

Ten short stories in this online quarterly, many quite short and surreal. I didn’t care at all for most of them, although a couple are entertaining.

“Plurality” by Samuel Mae

Stranded for fifteen years in a derelict spacecraft, the four crewmembers have somehow fused.

It was not always like this. We know. We remember, in snippets, vaguely. But that was so long ago. What matters is that we are here now and we are together — we, us, plural. No other way exists.

Now, unwillingly rescued and separated, they are forced to readjust to a singular existence.

The narrative of this very short piece is not straightforward but an often-confused internal conversation between one of the crew and the others – and himself. It’s hard to take the situation seriously on any literal level. Had the characters been, say, clones, it might have made some sense. But literal sense isn’t the point here, and the story is too short and unoriginal to be interesting.

“Children of the Earth” by Ben Godby

The narrator, whose name is not Jack, is on a mission to Gallatia, attempting to persuade the Gallatians to move to Earth. The Gallatians aren’t buying it. It may be that they’re bitter over the ten thousand years of war fought to keep wormhole technology a monopoly of Earth. The narrator prefers to get stoned and thus falls into bad company, from which no good can come.

Chuck is wearing a straw hat and army fatigues that are stained with garbage because he is homeless and sleeps beneath garbage bags. His pension affords him fine scotch, kind bud, and military-grade shaped high explosives. He refuses to be beholden to the man. When he holds out that shoebox filled with these items and surrounded with this philosophy like a dimly palpable aura, he looks like a cartoon character.

This is crazy-absurd stuff, quite funny in a depressing sort of way.

“Extended Periods of Absence” by James Bloomer

Very brief vignette uses SF tropes as metaphor. A man escapes his wife’s nagging into brief mental excursions.

She blinked and in a micro-second I was pulled to the far future, to spend a month fighting off the Alerion invasion of the solar system, a long bloody war where mankind stared into the abyss of annihilation.

“Chasing Horizons” by Eric Landreneau

Fantasy-world gypsies encounter the crash site of a flying ship and salvage one survivor from it. Cultural dissonance ensues.

“Our wages is freedom. The rest we figure as we go.”

The foreigner shook his head in disbelief. He came from a much more structured society. “Seems a reckless life.”

“Well, we have yet to crash into any mountain.”

The survivor turns out to be a diplomat headed to the capital of Markul to propose an alliance against the common enemy of their two peoples. He pays the gypsies to take him to his destination, but they have their own priorities, particularly the crafty Agyp, who has seen more of the world than the rest of his band.

This one has a lot more story than most of the offerings here – a complete secondary world, engaging characters, and an actual plot. It’s pure genre.

“Junk” by R D Kimball

A junkie entertainer needs a very weird fix. Seems more hallucinogenic than fantastic, but it’s hard to be sure.

“Sent” by Joshua Pabon

Josie’s father works in museum acquisition, although sometimes she thinks it’s actually the mafia. He seems to have connections. This one turns out to be horror, but it’s not strongly connected with the rest of the story. I think it should have been set in Chicago, where they don’t want nobody sent.

“A Dancer for Aonou” by Eliza Hirsch

An audition. In a highly improbable rite, a Dancer and a Keeper do a bloody pas de deux, but the ultimate role of a Dancer is at the side of the Mother. Now there is a new Mother who needs a new Dancer, and Felai is determined that her own Dancer will be the one, therefore she does everything to insult the new Mother’s representative.

An awfully contrived premise that doesn’t make sense.

“The Sleeping Beauty Symphony” by Django Mathijsen

Gustav is a musician has retreated after a breakdown to a remote island off Germany’s northern coast.

“Mainlanders have nicknamed our island the ‘Sleeping beauty of the sea’. Sleeping beauties are alluring like roses, but they have treacherous thorns as well.”

When Felina comes there on a backpacking trip they hit it off. “She was different from other people I’ve known. She was a glacier on fire: untamed temperament and raven hair from the Venezuelan wilderness combined with cold common sense and piercing blue eyes from the Swiss mountain tops.” But she suffers from traumatic flashbacks and needs to travel in order to escape them, while Gustav fears to leave the sanctuary of the island. When she says she is leaving, he betrays her in a devastating way.

The prose in this piece is mostly fine, unfortunately marred by a tendency to overwriting. The impact of the ending is made more effective by Gustav’s denial. Mostly, though, I think I really want to move to this island!

“The Mechanic” by Eliza Victoria

Margaret left her childhood home for the city, where she eventually became a mechanic in a robot brothel, despite the hate crimes perpetrated against such institutions. Her best friend there was Lloyd, the receptionist, but when Lloyd was murdered, his lover had a robotic substitute made. To Margaret, it’s just like Lloyd, but his lover can tell the difference. Now Margaret, home for a visit, finds an unexpected problem with a substitute, which threatens to change everything.

There are some good scenes here, particularly at Margaret’s parents’ house, but somehow the emotional impact of the concluding revelation doesn’t come through as it should. The author goes a bit far in reminding readers that her story is set in the Philippines.

“Sloth” by Don Jolly

Rick’s father loses his job.

The tires had crunched their arrival twenty minutes ago, but still Rick’s father stayed in the cab, unmoving, an indefinable expression on his face. In the trees, birds answered their own questions with alien ululation. The wind was drowned by the humming of central air.

Soon Carl stops making any effort at all, his parents divorce, and Rick, always withdrawn, turns into even more of an asshole. When he goes to live with Carl, he discovers how far things have gone.

It’s hard at first to see this one as fantasy, rather than a mundane story of dysfunctional people fallen into drugs, hallucination or dream. But apparently the fantastic element is meant to be taken as real. I don’t really see the point, and I think it weakens the story considerably, which was better when it was simply mundane, squalid and depressing.


Alt Hist #4, 2012

The current issue of this semiannual historical fiction zine concentrates on WWII, including a pair of stories from one author. Now, few things are more likely to engage my interest, but this bunch of fiction made every effort to dissipate it, with a bunch of fragmentary efforts trying to pass as stories. I recall earlier issues of the zine being better, but it’s fallen below a professional standard.

“Restless” by Dylan Fox

In an alternate 1870, the British have developed a steam superweapon with which to conquer China.

The Engine was a terror. All it needed was a hundred or so men to keep its fires burning and keep it pointing in the right direction. It made any other weapon—artillery, cavalry, men, tactics, intelligence—superfluous. It was the Omega. When they’d tested it on the Yorkshire moors, not a field mouse, not a mongrel’s tick, not a lock of wool, not a blade grass had been left alive.

But aboard the British fleet is a Chinese saboteur.

The setting and premise hold out fascinating possibilities, but what we have here is a short episode in some much larger story, one that involves a character known as the Clockwork Ghost, who takes up about half the story. Except that she is a character not from this story, but another, that is probably unequivocal steampunk. A frustrating teaser.

“Kleine Menschen” by Eric Jackson

First of the WWII stories. Marie lives in the German countryside, hoping for her father to come home from the war, fearing the Allied bombers that fly overhead. One day on an errand, she goes into the barn and sees tiny people busy on some kind of mysterious task.

They ran about, and so fast. Not a single one looked up at her. They were bald and their skin was a pale blue. Their eyes: little black stones, and as shiny as their silvery jumpsuits. Each made a chirping sound, as if they were talking.

There is just no excuse for this. We are shown a mystery, the tension increases, and then – it stops, as if it were the first chapter of something larger. Get back to me when you’ve got the entire story.

“Feast of Faith” by Shane Rhinewald

The First Crusade. Simon of Provence was full of holy zeal when he took the cross, but he is long since disillusioned by the looting and pillaging of the Saracen cities, and his belly is empty. Some of the crusaders have resorted to cannibalism, but Simon turns away from such a sin. He questions God.

‘Test my faith like you did Job’s. What else is it you want?’ Simon said. ‘I have not turned my back on you but you have turned your back on me. I have slain the infidels in your name. I have given you everything. Restore me like you restored Job.’

He receives something he can take for an answer.

Here at least is a story with something that we can call a conclusion. It’s a conclusion strong in irony, as contemporary readers will reject Simon’s epiphany, as everything here suggests that the Crusades could by no means be the will of any benevolent deity. Thus it’s a bit disconcerting to encounter the bits of anachronistic language.

“Three Months of Summer” by Svetlana Kortchik

WWII again, the German occupation of the Ukraine. Katya and her brother Anton are befriended by a soldier from the occupation force, and Katya and Hans fall in love. Readers will be certain that no good can come of this, but this story surprises by its shallow sentimentality.

“The Stork” by George Piper

Seems to be the early 19th century on the American frontier, but it’s a weird one where a kid greets his father with, “Hi, Dad” and the milch cow seems to be a male. There is also a legendary horror, which makes no more sense than the rest of this.

“Battalion 202: A Blinded Falcon/ Into the Darkness” by Jonathan Doering

Alternate history: the Germans have invaded Britain. Churchill orders the formation of a resistance force. Two chapters from this apparent novel. In the second, teenage Christopher faces a hard initiation into the dirty business of war. I’m not sure I buy the rationale, but at least there’s a story here.

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.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

Leave a Reply

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