Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early August

Starting out with several printzines that arrived too late in July to review, plus the usual first of the month ezines. Overall, if it were a contest, I’d give the award to the printzines this time.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2012

Some good stories by Reed and Bailey.

“Unearthed” by William Preston

In 1925, the narrator is doing an anthropological study of the traditional stories of a displaced Andean tribe now working in a remote mine when there is a tunnel collapse. Most of the men are brought up alive but suffering from oddly displaced symptoms that seem more hysterical than physical.

Still more men emerged from the depths, aided by their fellows and family members. No two suffered the same, yet not a one of them appeared hurt in any evident way. The weeping and screaming, though seemingly causeless, still was weeping and screaming, and others wept and moaned in sympathy. The women took command, pushing people out, giving instructions.

With the engineer and supervisor dead, she telegraphs for help, which arrives in the form of the owner’s son, a very unusually accomplished young man. Together, they go down into the mine to discover the cause of both collapse and symptoms, and encounter a Wonder.

OK, the tale of encountering a Wonder in the depths of the Earth is a classic SFnal trope. But readers familiar with classic SFnal tropes are going to realize there is something else going on here, something and someone familiar. And therein lies a problem for readers who don’t recognize this iconic figure, who comes across as pretty weird without that recognition. There are two stories going on here. The narrator’s is focused on stories and traditions, written and oral; it’s the story of the ways in which legends can be born and grow. The other story is about that legend itself, offering another way of looking at the legendary figure and fitting events into the storyline that readers familiar with the tradition will be able to appreciate where others won’t. Without that familiarity, a lot of this story may seem pretty lame, but some readers who do recognize the character are likely to ask, “Why write another story about him?”

I have to take issue with one other point, not in the story itself but the editorial blurb that characterizes the narrator as a “smart, resourceful woman” as if she were the strong and independent heroine of a contemporary feminist account. So it’s surprising to find instead that she’s more of a fainting vine clinging to the heroic male, typical of female characters in fiction a century ago. I can’t really fathom why the editor decided to make that remark.

“Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous” by Dale Bailey

Time travel tourism. The Braunmillers have foolishly mortgaged their future on a trip to an expensive resort in the Cretaceous. Gwen wants to see dinosaurs and thinks the trip will save their failing marriage. But as Peter recognizes, the problems between them aren’t the product of where they are, and Gwen’s obvious attraction to their ubermale guide doesn’t help.

A well-done story with a killer conclusion. The foolishness of the Braunmillers will make readers want to beat them over the head with brickbats, and the scenes that show how exposure to extreme peril can rouse intense sexual impulses are particularly effective. Then there are the dinosaurs.

The tiny mammals in the treetops had fallen silent; the insects that moments ago had whickered in the air around them disappeared. The forest held its breath. Something big—something dangerous—was on the move. She could sense it: a charged stillness in the air, a tension in the blood.

My only quibble is the roars and screams of the dinosaurs – too much of the movies, unsupported by the biology.

“Noumenon” by Robert Reed

In a far future, the explorer Mere goes on a centuries-long journey and discovers a Wonder that she calls “the triumph of the abstract over the flesh, ideas and memes stripped away from their mortal bonds.” Although not from metaphor, without which some ideas cannot be grasped by those still mortally bound.

Reed always has a unique way to tell a story, avoiding the rutted path. Here are characters not quite human yet refreshingly individual, living in worlds different yet familiar, encountering discoveries impossible to fully comprehend, let alone describe in words. At the end, it all comes together in a satisfying way. I can only think that few writers would have been able to pull that trick off and make a story of it.

“Star Soup” by Chris Willrich

A fable. A failed and dwindled Terran colony gets a visitor from home. Stories are told. Cobwebs are swept away. Pretty obvious, and didactic.

“The Last Islander” by Matthew Johnson

The island home of Saufatu’s people has been submerged and the population resettled, but he has made a virtual recreation. One day it has an unexpected visitor, who turns out to be a little bit more than the usual tourist. Saufatu sees a chance to upgrade the islands and hopes the work will reconnect his niece to her heritage.

“This is where I grew up,” Saufatu said. “It’s the southernmost island of the biggest atoll. All the islands in this group ring around Te Namo—that’s the lagoon, there— the swimming’s good here, on both sides, and there’s reef snorkeling too.”

The plot is fairly standard, but the scenario is well-realized, not only the virtual islands but even more important the lives of the displaced islanders in a world they weren’t born to.

“Adware” by Suzanne Palmer

Olympia is sick of her worthless husband, who’s let adware infect their toddler while he was supposed to be caretaking.

Jake was now thrashing in my arms. “I wanna new Neptune wagon!” He began to wail. “I want six-wheel drive and passenger-side gel bags to keep me safe!”

This is maliciously funny. The degree of ad saturation isn’t at all credible; it’s not supposed to be, of course, but it’s not sufficiently absurd to make it work as well as it should.


Analog, October 2012

I particularly like the Nagata story in this issue, also the Flynn, the longest in this batch of shortish pieces.

“The Liars” by Juliette Wade

Aliens. Adrian and Qing have stopped over on Poik-Paradise on the way to their latest diplomatic posting. The Poik are revoltingly cute.

And they’d all been totally corrupted by the Paradise Company. Enormous dark sunglasses perched on their sharp snouts; their striped tails emerged from beneath lavender and orange uniforms, and they exaggerated their height with platform shoes.

Adrian and Qing are naturally angry at the Paradise Company exploitation of the natives, but they also find a mystery in their guide, whom the other Poiks all call a Liar, a social scapegoat. Meaning well and ignorant, they naturally precipitate a crisis.

A complicated scenario, one of those in which an artificial language barrier keeps everyone from understanding what’s actually going on so that the author can solve a contrived mystery. Buried beneath, the characters are flattened to cardboard dimensions. I’m also not buying it that secretive activities so important to the Poik culture are being conveniently carried on in the tourist resort or that tourists could so readily distinguish the individual natives, who are wearing sunglasses. A lot of facile thinking here.

“Nahiku West” by Linda Nagata

“Sometimes, it’s a crime not to die.” Now there’s an intriguing hook for a mystery! In the orbital colonies of the Commonwealth many kinds of bodily and mental enhancements are illegal and Zeke Choy is the officer assigned to investigate such crimes, a position to which he was drafted.

Technically, I could have refused to join, but then my home city of Haskins would have been assessed a huge fine—and the city council would have tried to pass the debt on to me. So I consoled myself with the knowledge that I would be working on the cutting edge of molecular research and, swallowing my misgivings, I swore to uphold the laws of the Commonwealth, however arcane and asinine they might be.

One day an accident reveals an illegal enhancement that saves a citizen’s life, but Choy belatedly discovers that it wasn’t an accident at all, but “murder by the court.” Then someone informs on his enhanced lover, threatening her life. But his investigation into the conspiracy is thwarted by the magistrate’s bureaucracy.

A complex mystery, with an intricate plot not artificially contrived but arising logically out of an oppressive but plausible legal system, which is revealed to readers over the course of the series of crises and the investigation. Choy’s personality comes through clearly. Well conceived and well executed.


“The Journeyman: On the Short-Grass Prairie” by Michael F Flynn

The opening salvo in a proposed series featuring the character Teodorj sunna Nagaragan the Ironhand, whom we first see in flight across the prairie, tracked by his enemies the Clan Serpentine. Bold and resourceful is he, as the author informs us in distinctive prose.

He had scattered caltrops made of thornbrush to warn of unwelcome guests, as a cautious fugitive might do; but he had spread them half a league to the south, so that any who stepped on them would think he had gone toward Mud River, seeking sanctuary with the boman of Luviness, who was a distant cousin by marriage to his father. The best false trail is one a prudent man would choose.

Readers will figure this is one of two likely scenarios – a devolved postapocalypse Earth or some colony world gone to seed. So it is, but the real interest is in the different cultures of the prairiemen and hillmen, strong and distinct characters. There is also the way their language has diverted, with the prairiemen’s sprach improbably combining such phrases as “on the lam” and “would fain.” Flynn likes to set puzzles for readers, and there are plenty of language puzzles here.

“Ambidextrose” by Jay Werkheiser

On a world where the molecules are wrong-handed for safe human consumption, a colony thrives on an island where they grow Earth crops. Making an exploration trip to the mainland, their shuttle crashes and Davis is the sole survivor. He finds himself saved by a human woman living in the wilderness, surviving on the exobiotic food. A mystery. But the mainlanders have grown pretty paranoid about the islanders and fear discovery. “If they don’t know we live here, that’s even more reason to make sure he never gets back to tell them about us.”

An interesting scenario but a bit didactic, and the story wraps up just before it really gets started.

“Deer in the Garden” by Michael Alexander

Wallingford is an activist for freedom against the near-future security state, which considers him a terrorist [although the story doesn’t use the word.] He’s been caught. He and the interrogator lecture each other.

“Are you aware of how the freedom to maneuver in life has been squeezed? Big Brother is watching, except he’s a computer farm. Do you like spending your time always looking over your shoulder?”

This is a pretty short piece, of which about half is tedious blathering. Strip all that out and what remains is a nice sketch of a technothriller, a story with plot and action in which the political issues would be implied by the activities of the characters, not force-fed to readers like geese for the fattening. If Analog has a besetting sin, it’s this excessive fondness for sermonizing at the readers.

“Reboots and Saddles” by Carl Frederick

Despite his new engineering degree, Kevin is reduced to working for the summer at his uncle’s dude ranch as a “junior riding technician.” Only cybersaddles allowed.

Rising from the horse’s saddle where the pommel should have been, was what looked like bicycle handlebars. And in front of them rested a cylindrical plastic cowling. The horse reins disappeared into the cowling, leaving the rider free to grip the handlebars.

As a rider, Kevin considers the saddles an abomination, but as an engineer, he has a guilty appreciation for them. Until the saddles are hacked.

Unusual humorous premise.

“Nothing but Vacuum” by Edward McDermott

SF problem story. Crash landing on the moon, with complications.

“The trouble is that we’re in a crater, with no line of sight to the Earth. That means that they can’t see where we landed, and we haven’t received any radio transmissions either.”

The classic SFnal form, relying on a character’s technological ingenuity to solve the problem and survive. This one is pretty sketchy.

“The End in Eden” by Steven Utley

A scientific survey ship coming back from the Silurian discovers a crewmember smuggling spores back to the present day. Morrow and Sal, agents from the US Customs Service, are finally getting something to do. Which is to say, argue with officers from Naval Criminal Investigation over jurisdiction.

“I should have hardly need to remind you that your own Uniform Code of Military Justice states clearly that upon arrival in United States territory a naval unit is subject to customs inspection by federal authorities. The naval unit in this instance is this ship and its personnel. For all practical purposes our patch of Paleozoic real estate is United States territory.”

This one is almost entirely argumentative blathering and infodumpfery. The author places a Customs agent onboard his vessel, then has his Naval officers astonished that the agent would exercise his proper function. And if crime in the Paleozoic weren’t already expected, why have such legal authorities onboard in the first place?


Interzone, July-August 2012

Good reading in this issue, rather more fantastic than futuristic.

“Steamgothic” by Sean McMullen

What might appear at first to be an alternate history turns out to be a near future in which steampunk, goth and other retro fashion predominates in the social scene. Leon Chandler specializes in restoring old steam machines to working order. He receives a surprise visit from a wealthy young woman, Louise Penderan, whose barn contains a wrecked steam-powered flying machine from 1852, which killed her ancestor when he attempted to fly it. She wants to know if it could be restored to working order, if it could have flown.

“Possibly, not definitely. Until the engine is restored and tested, we won’t know if it’s powerful enough to be useful. The Aeronaute may be a failed experiment, even if it’s genuine.”

The story itself is a meticulous and clever restoration, as the author makes a strong case for the technology being of its time and sufficiently practicable to work. This is definitely SFnal steampunk, not AH. But then there is the conclusion, which changes everything. The author has prepared the ground for this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise, but I can’t say that I really buy either the notion or the rationale.

“Ship’s Brother” by Aliette de Bodard

Part of the author’s shipmind series, which has never clicked for me, but this heartbreaking story of sibling rivalry works. The narrator foolishly brings her young son to the ship where she is about to give birth to the part-human Mind that will meld with it. Such childbirth is more than normally painful and hazardous; the boy is traumatized by what he witnesses and has, ever since, resented his sister the ship.

You stared upwards, as if you could see her, guess at the mass of optics and flesh plugged into the ship, and before either of us could stop you, you spun and ran out of the ship, making small, convulsive noises that I knew were tears.

It’s a tragic story of family and family ties, written in the 2nd person to the son by the mother, in the knowledge that she will be dead by the time he comes to read it. I can’t help agreeing that she’s right to blame herself, however. A promising life ruined by her mistake.

“1 Day in Time City” by David Ira Cleary

A surreal setting in which people travel back and forth in age as they move up and down the city. Uppies drive vast Land Yachts that run over the more fragile vehicles used by Downsters. Joey and his fellow bike boys have heard that the latest model of the Ghengis Khar is designed with retractable blades to shred bike tires. His mission: steal the model to keep it out of production. A wild chase ensues.

This is crazy stuff, a lot of fun. It’s not at all clear just how the system works, but the social commentary comes through quite clear indeed. The security guard who gives chase to Joey is

a chunky guy in a white pony-tail who’s wearing an earring and a garish red tie. Dressed like a Downster but acting like an Uppie. Probably a bounder, a guy unhappy with his social class.

“Railroad Angel” by Gareth L Powell

Beat icon Neal Cassady has a Final Encounter. Another homage to the character.

“Invocation of the Lurker” by C J Paget

Winner of the 2011 James White Award competition. Tara has inadvertently committed a dreadful crime and been thrown out of the earthly paradise of immortalized humans and virtual cybergods. She wants back in. She’s come to the underclass to summon the cyber equivalent of a demon or loa to bargain for readmission.

Another one of those stories in which the author muddies the waters with half-comprehensible prose and cyberpunkish glitz so that readers will wonder what’s going on.

“Girl, most of them are the leftovers of virts that went howler and tried to self-abort. Virts go howler because they can’t take the cruelty of the world, the madness. Virts see too deep, they see the stuff we meat-minds close our eyes to. You build them too crystal-pure, and they shatter. Lurkers come from the bits that didn’t want to go, the bits t hat could handle the world, maybe even liked it.”

What the author leaves out is giving Tara an actual personality, other than privileged selfishness. The real story has happened well before this account of the aftermath begins.


Clarkesworld, August 2012

Dark, disturbing visions in this issue, with a theme of breeding children. Editor Clarke has a real gift for grouping these stories.

“Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson

The mantis women, believing that their husbands crave death at their hands, develop cruel deadly arts.

The Strength of Weight: Removing his wings, she leads him into the paths of ants.

Memorably disturbing, squicky, crossing well over the border into sadism, as being art rather than instinct. Only an audacious author would have attempted such a work; wisely, Johnson kept it short. But I can’t help noting that while the male and female mantises communicate, not directly on this crucial point; is there informed consent?


“Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar

Opening on a family drive to the beach, which comes into focus as a postapocalypse scenario just as the family is revealed as dysfunctional in the usual way of families, with testy fathers snapping at wives from behind the wheel.

“Fine, you can think that. Think what you want. But don’t tell me the detour’s not long, or give me any other information you don’t actually have, okay?”

We gradually discover the nature of the apocalypse and the fact that the adorable daughter isn’t as human as she at first seems. What this one turns into is a variation on the fairly changeling tale. But it doesn’t change the fact that the heart of the story is the very human one of the family under stress – which may well have been the origin of the changeling legend in the first place.

“Fade to White” by Catherynne M Valente

It’s important to be clear what’s going on here in this retro dystopian vision of the 1950s, where President McCarthy is waging permanent nuclear war against the Commies. This is metafiction, not the author’s vision of how it would have actually been but her vision of how satirical sci-fi of that era would have presented this scenario. Thus the hokey scripts for the ads on TV:

The soldier, a nice-looking guy but not too nice-looking, we don’t want to send the wrong message, says: There’s nothing like a fresh swig of Brotherhood [beer] after spending a hot Nevada day eye to eye with a Russkie border guard. The secret is in the thorium-boosted hops and New Barley fresh from Alaska, crisp iodine-treated spring water and just a dash of good old fashioned patriotism.

So we have Martin and Sylvie preparing for their entrance into adulthood, the ritual that will determine their entire futures. Martin wants nothing more than to be a Husband, one of the few fertile males who will father the nation’s children. Sylvie doesn’t particularly want to be a mother but supposes correctly that she has no say in the matter. Valente is commenting here, not only on the spirit of a past era but also on a long list of past SF classics. Readers may see echoes of Wilhelm’s “The Funeral” and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale among many others. The trouble is that, aside from the meta, the story isn’t very interesting on the surface level, as a story, precisely because it says nothing new and is riddled with the fake clichés of sci-fi yore.


GigaNotoSaurus, August 2012

“Deus Absconditus” by J M Sidorova

We’re on an island inhabited by two separate populations, wizards and normals, here called Tommies. The Tommies are not human; the wizards seem to be. The wizards claim that they created the Tommies. Some Tommy subversives are beginning to doubt this. And some wizard subversives are concerned that the wizards are running out of the power source they originally brought with them to the island. Change seems inevitable.

The title suggests that the story’s main theme is creation vs evolution, an issue that the characters frequently debate.

“You don’t have to envision that your prototype was slapped out of clay and animated by an infusion of divine breath, to think you were created. Heck, you could even fantasize that your god or gods died through the act of creation of you, and that you are now left to carry the torch, and to become god to something else…”

The notion is interesting but not deeply developed here. The opening is slow, with awkward shifts in the narrative voice. It’s not a good sign when the narrator tells readers he needs to stop and explain what he just said. Better to start over and say it again, better.


Redstone Science Fiction, August 2012

A couple of short stories set in space.

“The Man Who . . .” by Simon Petrie

Out at the edge of the system hunting for comets, Trace wakes from sleep shift to discover that “Brontornis III is currently ass-frontwards and partway through a protracted i-drive braking burn.” Sylv has taken it upon herself to slow down for a look at Pluto’s moon Erebus, which seems to be displaced. Sylv is always on the hunt for signs of ET, while her brother is more concerned with fulfilling their onerous contract for ice. But Sylv seems to be more crafty than Trace had given her credit for.

A short bit of real science fiction, emphasis on the political/economic difficulties of settling the solar system. The author drags out the dispute between the characters to make more of a mystery than the actual situation warrants.

“The Dorsal Wake” by Danielle D M Gembala

This one, in contrast, is short on explanation. I gather that humans have screwed up Earth and are now working for the whales. The whales are not benevolent employers; they don’t give a damn about humans. The Dorsal Wake, carrying Orca embryos in cryosuspension, is holed and forced to crash-land on Titan, where the Base is not hurrying to their rescue if there is no way to save the embryos.

“If necessary, the research vessel Kelp Dancer can reach you in two weeks to pick up the cargo, but it cannot carry standard humans. As usual, your pay will be docked for the cost of mounting the rescue, and for damage to the ship or cargo.”

The scenario is interesting once the narrator gets around to it, instead of seething about her dislike for the rest of the crew.


Jabberwocky #12, July 2012

A pair of stories about fairies stealing children. Both pieces seem to pay more attention to their prose than their story.

“Stolen Child” by Nicole M Taylor

Glorianne’s parents have given up under the burden of too many children and left it all to the eldest. Glorianne, who has trouble providing food for her siblings, resents the loaf of bread her mother leaves on the doorstep for the fairy – the only bread she ever bakes.

The setting is a problem. It seems to be 19th century America, but this isn’t the homeland of fairies. And it’s not clear why Rosalie felt it so important to leave the bread or what she thought she would gain from it, or lose from neglecting it. Certainly, the fairy hasn’t done the family any favors, which is the usual way that bargain works.

“Erlking” by David Mohan

A sort of fairytale mash-up, with the Erlking taking the place of the child-transforming witch who may have originated with Circe, also the raging giant.

Soon, I hear the boom of a voice. Erlking. He sounds like thunder in the mountains, or the burst of a melting river. The words he utters blur together. I can hear only rage and hunger.

The narrator seeks out the stolen children to liberate them, using the classic triad of magic items. Usually these are a gift from some benevolent fairy source, but this doesn’t seem to be the case 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.

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

  • August 9, 2012 at 5:27 am

    I highly enjoyed the novella “Unearted” by William Preston and I hope people buy Asimov’s to read it.
    The narrator is is a smart, resourceful woman as the editorial blurb correctly notes. The following extract is from the story, where the narrator is giving a message to a soldier, said message being translated into Spanish by the character Little Boss:

    “.I said, “I’m not like anyone else.”
    “soy como nadie”
    “I can … become like stone.”
    Now his hand became a fist, and the other man watched it. “Puedo llegar a ser como piedra.”
    “You saw what I did to you guns and to this man”
    “Vos vio que hice con las armas y a este hombre.” He indicated the dead soldier.
    “You must never come here again.”
    “Nunca vuelva jamas.
    “If you come again, the stone avenger will destroy you!”
    His gave shifted toward me, but retreated before he met my eyes “Si vos vuelva otra vev, el vengador de piedra vos destruira!”
    “Go tell your people!”
    “Vaya y digale a su pueblo!”

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