Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-August

Featuring a really fine issue of F&SF, with the Good Story Award to Andy Duncan. The current issue of Shimmer is also particularly worth reading.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, Sept/Oct 2012

A lot of shorter stories this time, eleven in all, no novellas. But that’s OK, because of the lead-off hit by Andy Duncan, which is followed by a string of other worthwhile stories. September always was a good month for this ‘zine.

“Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan

Old Buck Nelson claims he doesn’t want to be bothered by reporters, even pretty girl reporters, sniffing around after the stories he used to tell about the alien who took him up to Mars and Venus and the dog he brought back with him. No one cares anymore, no one believes him. But now they’re making a movie and people are interested.

Some folks, I had heard, remembered only long afterward they’d been kidnapped by spacemen, a “retrieved memory” they called it, like finding a ball on the roof in the fall that went up there in the spring. Those folks needed a doctor to jog them, but this reporter had jogged me. All that happy talk had loosened something inside me, and things I hadn’t thought about in years were welling up like a flash flood, like a sickness. If I was going to be memory-sick, I wanted powerfully to do it alone, as if alone was something new and urgent, and not what I did ever day.

A really strong character, a narrative voice with strong authenticity, a strongly-realized setting. And a perfect ending to it all.


“The Sheriff” by Chet Arthur

Young Jimson is clairvoyant, which the employees of his mother’s hotel accept, thinking that “the Lord owed him something, after granting him less sense than He gave to a goat.” Now he predicts that the sheriff is going to die, “hit by lightning from above.” So it comes to pass, except that the hit comes from a sniper from the Lazy Eight ranch, a known nest of lawlessness. Enter the new sheriff, determined to restore order with the aid of Jimson, whose special gifts prove useful.

Another good one, highly entertaining, with a lively narrative and dialogue.

“12:03 PM” by Richard A Lupoff

As the editorial blurb explains, a sequel to a series of classic status. Myron Castleman has been having problems with time. For a long time.

Most often he just lived the hour starting shortly after noon, then when he reached one o’clock he’d simply snap back, like a rubber band that a playful kid had first stretched, then released. He didn’t know how long he’d lived that way. How many times had he lived — relived — the hour from 12:01 to 1:00 o’clock, only to find himself standing on the same midtown street corner at exactly 12:01 P.M.?

He has managed to solve this particular problem, but the solution only creates complications. Finally, however, he begins to get an answer. Only the beginning of one.

Interesting and clever. The author manages to move into the present storyline smoothly, without excessive backgrounding, which doesn’t seem to be needed. Neatly done.

“The Goddess” by Albert E Cowdrey

This issue’s official Cowdrey takes place in antebellum Mississippi, weaving a rather improbable but intriguing tale of the goddess Kali. Two dark-skinned young men meet in London on the same mission – to bring home the technology of the British cloth-weaving factories. Justin Lamarck is the mulatto son of a wealthy planter who worships the goddess Progress, while Ganesh Srinavasan is a devotee of Kali. Justin comes to appreciate the wisdom and power of the four-armed goddess and brings Ganesh home with him, where Ganesh becomes the plantation’s estate manager after Justin’s father falls ill. All is well until Justin falls for a predatory young woman who takes Kali as one of the powers of her own ouanga religion, in which the sacrifice of chickens is also a feature.

While the course of events might seem unlikely, the image of Kali as a goddess of vodoun is inspired. Readers may also notice that Ganesh is named for the Hindu god who removes obstacles, which is quite appropriate. The narrative voice is omniscient and distant from these events, commenting on them from some future point of view, which produces a few slightly jarring moments.

“Arc” by Ken Liu

Lena is the oldest woman who has ever lived, the first to obtain eternal youth after her husband invented the rejuvenation process, and now the first to give it all up. She tells the story of her life, which wasn’t always a happy one, and her decision now to end it naturally. The story asks the question, What makes life worth living? and answers it, Love. One character says,

“It’s not true that a life without death is a life without change,” she said. “You will fall in love and you will fall out of love. In every affair and marriage, every friendship and random encounter, there is an arc, a beginning, an end, a lifetime, and a death. If loss is what you seek, all you have to do is wait.”

That’s about it.

“Troll Blood” by Peter Dickinson

Mari’s Norwegian family has a legend that there is troll blood in their ancestry, which sometimes comes out in one of the descendants, as it did in Mari. She eventually chooses Old Norse as her field of study, and finally works as the assistant to an elderly professor attempting to recreate an old fragmentary manuscript that seems to tell the same story of her family’s legend, in its original form.

The more she learnt, the stronger her feeling became that the book somehow “spoke” to her. She never saw the object itself. That was in a library attached to Yale University. Doctor Tharlsen had studied it there several times over the years, but at home had to work from facsimiles. Confronted even with these ghosts of the real thing Mari felt an excited reverence, while at the same time being appalled by the difficulties it presented.

If some crafty Tilton-hunter were setting a snare, there could be no better bait than a piece like this. Old manuscripts. Old Norse. Beowulf. Even for those readers not so predisposed to love manuscript neep, the story of the troll and the bargain works well, for a story of a troll. I’m not quite so smitten by the biology and the verse, but it’s still another win for this issue.

“Father Juniper’s Journey to the North” by Grania Davis

Based on historical events from the life of the missionary Father Juniper Serra in San Diego, California, this account is from the pen of a mission scribe who writes of the conflict between Juniper and the satanic trickster god Coyote. While the scribe’s words have nothing but praise for the old priest, readers may suspect irony.

The Indians had been lured into the adobe mission compounds with corn and meat and cloth, and with instruction in the use of metal tools. Later they and their children were taught simple Latin prayers and hymns. When they were properly blessed and baptized by the padres’ own hands, their salvation was complete. Then they were expected to live and work as devout Christian Indians, diligently cultivating the mission gardens and plantations, making adobe bricks, and learning the skills and ways of civilization for the glory of God.

A rather rambling account, wandering back and forth past the point, which strangely adds to the sense of authenticity, from the pen of a rather inept storyteller.

“Give Up” by Richard Butner

Jim buys himself a birthday present, a backyard simulated Everest to climb. It’s an awfully realistic sim. Maybe too realistic.

He started toward the mess tent, past a pile of spent oxygen bottles. A light breeze blew, smelling faintly of rot. Colorful prayer flags flapped in sunshine. A large rock spun under his foot and he almost turned his ankle. He resolved to be more careful.

A powerful story of obsession. The exact nature of the simulation is made ambiguous, so we can’t be sure whether Jim’s virtual experiences are subjectively real or hallucinatory – and just what does that mean – or overtly fantastic.

“Diary from Deimos” by Michael Alexander

Being the Journal of Doris Chestnut
With Personal Observations
The War of Terran Aggression against
The Martian Secession

Wherein the author constructs many parallels, in a broadly satirical vein, with a previous war of secession and liberation of servile beings. Alas, evoking the diary of Mary Chesnut is ill-advised, as this account suffers in comparison to Mrs Chesnut’s prose. But the Asimovian evocation in the last line goes a way to make up for this.

“Where the Summer Dwells” by Lynda E Rucker

Charlotte is taking a nostalgia road trip back to the south with her friends – Georgia in August, a car with no air conditioning. But these aren’t the friends she wants to be with, not the friends she lost, back in high school.

A really powerful sense of place, with shadows of strangeness around its edges.

A field stretched to the left of them, its grasses yellowing and dying in the summer drought; to the right, the ground dipped and fell away into already dead forest blanketed by kudzu. When the kudzu covers something it leaves the shape behind and takes the thing itself down into the underworld, said Vic’s voice in her head.


“Theobroma Valentine” by Rand B Lee

Tularoo is doing a psychiatric residency on Theobroma.

In any case, the combination of (1) skip-lane proximity, (2) water-air availability, (3) chocolate, and (4) all those Theobroman crazies makes the system the perfect location for an orbiting multispecies psych hospital. Now all the spams on the skip route come here to get despammed, as do the Theobroman colonists, of course. Hence my presence in Deloria’s colorful little VR scenario.

Things haven’t been going well. Her patients keep dismembering her in the simulation sessions. Turns out, they’re cacao addicts.

Sort of a mystery, but it gets solved without Tuli doing much to help. The story is part of a series, so we get a lot of angst about the character’s career choice. Worse, it’s a series full of aliens with crazy-looking names, that the author feels the need to stop and describe, although there’s no real need for aliens in the story except for it being part of the series. Kind of a dud, but I suppose the issue is allowed one of those.


Solaris Rising 1.5, edited by Ian Whates

Which is to say a sort of half-sized volume of this anthology series, an electronic-only version. Why, I’m not really sure, although the editor calls it an appetizer for the upcoming SR 2, which is as good a reason as any. The subject matter is science fiction, broadly conceived, and the authors predominately British as well as prominent. There’s a considerable variety in both the stories and their quality, but I consider at least half these to be worthy of a reader’s attention.

“What Did Tessimond Tell You?” by Adam Roberts

Just a few weeks before the presentation that will win them the Nobel for Physics, Niu Jian tells Ana he is quitting the team, having just spoken to Tessimond.

“He told me about the expansion of the universe,” said Niu Jian.

“More specifically, he put the increase in the rate of expansion of the universe in… uh, uh, context. After he did that, I realised that I had to quit the team and go to Mecca.”

Not only Niu Jian; Prévert has likewise spoken to Tessimond. And finally Sleight. They all go off to do the sort of thing that people do when they know they’re running out of time.

Real science fiction, of the conceptual sort. The general nature of Tessimond’s revelation is obvious from the beginning, and the author takes a while to get around to the specific revelation, but it makes for a good depiction of irascible Ana and her reaction to the events falling out around her.

“Two Sisters in Exile” by Aliette de Bodard

There has been an accident, and with Nam fire killing a sentient ship of the Northerners. Fearing retribution from the stronger empire, Nam captain Dong Huong has towed The Two Sisters in Exile back home. The Northerners are hocked; so much unlike the Nam, their ships don’t die.

Four centuries old. Her descendants, more numerous than the leaves of a tree, the birds in the sky, the grains of rice in a bowl. A life, held sacred; more valuable than jade or gold. Dong Huong watched the graceful ballet in the sky; the ceremony, perfectly poised, with its measured poetry and recitations from long-dead scholars; and, abruptly, she knew the answer she’d take back to her people.

A powerful tale, the more so for its brevity. Two cultures with a single origin have grown so far apart they cannot understand each other. And we know, although the characters do not, what needless tragedy will result. Reader unfamiliar with de Bodard’s series may see the sentient ships with elaborate names and think of Iain M Banks, but this setting has little else in common with the Culture.


“Another Apocalypse” by Gareth L Powell

Napoleon Jones realizes he should never have come back.

In his absence, Vilca had gone from a small-time gang boss to de facto ruler of Nuevo Cordoba’s favelas; and he wanted the money Napoleon owed him; money that should have part-financed another random jump into the unknown, but went instead to supporting an extended stay on Strauli, a crossroads world eight light years in the wrong direction.

In the meantime, Katherine Abdulov has arrived in orbit around Nuevo Cordoba on a mission to save the population from a contagion spreading rapidly across human space. By coincidence, she was once acquainted there with a rogue named Napoleon Jones.

This one starts out as an entertaining action adventure, then turns into something unlikely and unsatisfying, relying far too much on coincidence, and Abdulov’s actions carried out with suspicious ease.

“The Second Civil War” by Mike Resnick

Alternate history. The Confederacy successfully secedes after Lincoln is killed at the battle of Bull Run. History carries on along an altered path, of which we have here an account. Not a story.

“Charlotte” by Sarah Lotz

After Ellen’s watchdog dies under suspicious circumstances, her daughter Zelda fears for her safety out there alone on the farm, so she shows up with a giant cybernetic watchspider. Charlotte does her job.

[Ellen] holds her breath, hears nothing for several minutes but the usual night sounds, the chirp of the crickets, the cottage settling after a hot day. Just as she’s convinced herself that the intruder must have fled – foiled by the burglar bars – an inhuman shriek slices through the air followed by the clump and skid of running footsteps.

Ellen’s a pretty strong character, once she gets over a slight irrational phobia.

“The Gift” by Phillip Vine

Joe, a failed writer, has become involved with the Organisation. Now, in his hospital bed, he receives a message from them: “If you do not come for us, we will surely come for you.” But the old man in the bed next to him offers salvation, a bargain. A gift, that he will pass on in turn.

I must admit that this one is rather difficult to fully decode, as it seems that sometimes the narrator is an author and sometimes that he’s a character in his own – or someone else’s – book. Or maybe I’m over-parsing. Or maybe the story is unclear.

“It” by Tanith Lee

A horror story, or so it seems. The Interference, aka the IT virus, has rapidly taken over all computers in the world and spread to other electronic devices.

By the fourth day of the nuisance, too, IT was appearing in many and various other intrusive situations. No model of TV was exempt from constant interruptions which, although they did not entirely block viewing for a solid five to six hours, manifesting
for a minute at a time or less, still recurred continuously, amounting in some cases to over thirty appearances in any given hour, both by day and during the night.

The Interference turns out, after extensive analysis, to be a Message.

What we actually have here is tongue-in-cheek humor, an effect enhanced by the pseudo-gravity of the narrative. Readers won’t really get the entire point, however, unless they read the editor’s introduction.

“A New Arrival at the House of Love” by Paul Cornell

All Metal has made a house. He thinks it may be kind of wonderful, but others, uninvited, have come and disapproved. Everything has gone wrong.

It wasn’t that great, now he gazed at it, three architectural styles: gothic; Edwardian and Tudor, on top of each other, with the textures murmuring scarily up and down the whole thing, and the colours sitting on top of it in shared vision, making the whole thing gaze like a side work of art. But still, he’d have liked to have had Emma enter it and love it.

A surreal, sort of virtual fantasy, pervaded by a strong sense of synesthesia, in which happy-face balloons coexist with characters from Austen novels on a very different sort of plane. But what it is at heart is a love story, and things turn out, not as expected but more or less as desired.

“A Palazzo in the Stars” by Paul Di Filippo

Artist Frank Duveneck is attempting to shake off depression in 1877 Venice when he encounters an elderly man who introduces himself as the Duke of Fossombrone and attempts to engage Frank to sketch his expedition to the Moon. Frank agrees, largely because of his fascination with the duke’s daughter Restitutia, who claims to have seen visions of the angelic lunar beings that the duke wishes him to capture on paper.

Had any painter ever been presented with such magnificent vistas before? These incredible and colorful pastures of the heavens, strewn with stars and planets and planetesimals and polychromatic nebulae as thick as daisies, made the subject matter of the vaunted Hudson River School look like a ditch full of rainwater. Not even Thomas Cole had ever achieved such grandeur.

A truly fantastic voyage in the mode of the 19th century scientific romance. This account is faithful to its time and technology; the image of an entire palazzo rising from its foundations into space is audacious, successfully illustrating the chasm between the sensibility of those times and our own.


Intergalactic Medicine Show, July 2012

Posted belatedly. More action in this issue than usual, but the last four stories are cursory.

“The Butcher of Londinium” by J Deery Wray

An alternate history in which the New Roman Empire still sentences criminals to the area to be killed by wild beasts. Caro Carvetti, aka the Butcher of Londinium, was so sentenced as a serial killer, but his skill as a surgeon wins him a reprieve. Things are going well until the husband of one of his victims arrives as a gladiator, bent on revenge.

Interesting AH premise. The author not only portrays his character as an alternate Jack the Ripper but goes a ways towards making him a sympathetic one.

“Riding the Signal” by Gary Kloster

Military SF. Alec is a merc working for a security company as a remote bot operator.

The Hole was fifty feet underground, hidden beneath an office building in the Albuquerque suburbs. A secure data site for a bank that had fallen in the Big Crunch thirty years before, Syracuse Securities had snapped it up on the sly. A hidden bunker from which to run its missions was a valuable asset. Syracuse didn’t have many friends besides its shareholders, and remote control mercenaries weren’t popular either. The Hole kept them secret and protected the source of the signal that connected them to their bots.

Except when an enemy infiltrates the Hole with a bot of his own.

A lot of action here, tension, betrayal, blood – the whole action package.

“Cloudsinger” by Jared Oliver Adams

Cloudsingers are storytellers who shape the clouds overhead to illustrate their tales. Case is one of the few who dare to use stormclouds, lightning.

The wind whispered over the bare skin of his chest as he closed his eyes and breathed in the coppery taste of the rain to come. In his mind’s eye, a picture of the clouds formed, and the wind he felt against him slowly resolved into light blue lines. With those lines he could pull the clouds where he wanted, could shape them. He tugged line after line and drew the clouds toward his hill.

But today’s story has an unusual conclusion. There’s a sense of epic here, in a very brief depiction.

“For Lenore” by Kenneth Kao

Someone keeps sending antimatter bombs. The narrator works to defuse them, but “These days, defusing the rift-bombs only seems to serve to make room for the newer, more advanced rift-bombs that continue to clamber into our reality.” But this is a teaser, a cheat, a false promise to lure readers expecting a thriller into something banal. Blah.

“Dark and Deep” by Holli Mintzer

The witches live out in the woods, away from human habitation.

There’s a reason Mama brought us out here, to the deep woods, back when we were small. She told me once that people don’t like having a witch-woman around, that she makes ordinary folk nervous.

But something has happened to Mama.

This one wants to be dark, but it’s too warm for that.

“The Flower of Memory” by Michael Haynes

An apocalypse scenario, global freezing. Not much story to it.


Apex Magazine, August 2012

Fairytale wonders in this issue, but dark ones. The stories are all very short.

“Waiting for Beauty” by Marie Brennan

A very brief scene from the castle of Beauty and the Beast, gone wrong. A portrait of love and denial. The tone is sad, but not really tragic, as we only have a glimpse at the situation, not the story of how it has come to pass.

“Murdered Sleep” by Kat Howard

A fantastic gathering, a masked ball of dreams, assembled on the occasion of the death of sleep. Invited are “Sleep’s abandoned children, all gathered home and called to their revels.” Some will not wake.

A dream in prose, successive scenes of wonder, like dreams, not really explicable but gorgeous to look upon, if also perilous.


“Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine

There’s an armless maiden in the woods behind the 2nd-person narrator’s house. The status of the maiden is not quite clear, whether alive or dead or something in-between. She’s been there for “as long as you can remember,” which suggests she must be getting on in years now, and her hair has grown “so long and loose that it’s grown into corded mats down her back. The knots at the bottom are so twisted and so thick they look, when she’s moving, like hands.” But the narrator seems to be the only person she’s spoken to.

This is a sort of metafiction, commenting on the variations of this rather improbable fairytale. But the figure of the maiden serves primarily here as a symbol of abused women and their place in society, which looks aside from them too often.


Shimmer #15

This little zine has gone digital and is now under the helm of a new editor, E Catherine Tobler. She’s done a good job. The issue has a really nice assortment of short fantastic tales, full of human feeling and some darkness of soul.

“The Undertaker’s Son” by Nicole M Taylor

Albert’s house is full of ghosts, the consequence of his father’s occupation. Albert has learned that they won’t hurt him. That doesn’t mean they can’t be a pain. But it’s different when his mother is killed by a passing car and shows up in her sewing room, looking for her earrings.

The story provides some imaginative insights into the nature of ghosts as Albert has a number of different encounters with them. But the visitation of his mother is heartbreaking.

Once, when Albert was small, he had found a robin, just a baby, lying on the earth outside his nest. . . . It sat patient in his hands. Its bones felt like twigs, its feathers tickled his palms. Albert thought it felt like a ghost.

“What Fireworks” by Dustin Monk

The island that has no name – or too much name – is disintegrating, and the residents react with varying degrees of denial, until they disintegrate as well. This absurdist fable is largely a vehicle for the author’s often overblown prose.

This island of jeweled whalebone and corn husks; this island of floating vesicles of pulsating lights and flesh that lies northward of heaven, where the Lady of the Moon-as-Carapace belches hilarious alphabets at a corner bar all night; this island that flakes and crumbles and fades in milk-pale fog . . .

“Signal Jamming” by Oliver Buckram

The arch cybercriminal M Q Bukka has escaped from confinement on the prison ship Swift Justice and has hacked the ship’s communications, with amusing results:

Warden Hoffman, you miserable clown:

What made you think you could keep Bukka behind bars? Your ridiculous broken-down prison ship is no place for a man of his caliber. Certainly not with a loser like you in charge.

“Harrowing Emily” by Megan Arkenberg

Ever since Zoe’s girlfriend Emily died and came back from the dead, she’s been different. Strange. Zoe is afraid that she’s lost her.

She hasn’t touched me since she came back from Hell. Nothing more involved than a cold peck on the cheek. If she nudges me accidentally while we’re making the bed or while I’m pouring a bowl of cereal, she quickly apologizes and skitters out of the way.

Zoe needs to learn it’s not about here. It’s all about Emily.

A moving story, openly evoking the tale of Persephone. Gaia is in it, too. I particularly like the way god speaks to Zoe from the mouth of the crocus.

“The Bird Country” by K M Ferebee

Childer preys on teenage boys and buries them in his garden. As he inters the last one, an angel appears, silently watching him.

It stood by the tool shed. It did not descend in a cloud, nor announce itself with voices singing. But an angular light seemed to haunt it, a stray white echo of that early sun. It went barefoot. It wore a hooded sweatshirt and ragged jeans.

Really fine prose here. Childer comes fully to life as a person tangled in conflicts, his yearning for young boys so tenderly strong, so hard to resist.


“A Cellar of Terrible Things” by Mari Ness

Ghosts again, this time haunting a cellar where soldiers killed seventeen people. Neraka lives in the house because she has nowhere else to live, stores potatoes and turnips in the cellar, and tries to pretend the ghosts aren’t really there.

A more conventional image of ghosts than in the Taylor story above; these are more insubstantial, less sentient, trapped in the place where they were killed. But primarily this is a story of denial – an entire village denying its responsibility for the acts that occurred among them, concerned only with their own survival. That, perhaps, is the most terrible thing.

None of the villagers knew how to use weapons, how to fight soldiers. The seventeen ghosts, before they had become ghosts, had been strangers. Mostly strangers. And not entirely nice people, either, if even half the stories had been true. What did the ghosts expect?

Effectively done, although perhaps too long drawn out.

“Soulless in His Sight” by Milo James Fowler

Post apocalypse. Boy and Fatha are among the few people left alive, but Fatha is convinced that Boy was born without a soul, so he kills any man coming through town, trying to harvest one for him so Boy can go to Heaven when he dies. What Boy actually needs is a higher-powered brain, but Fatha doesn’t seem so well equipped in this area, either.

It’s always been Fatha and me and nobody else since Mama, and the ones who pass through don’t go no further. But I don’t tell Gwyn this; he wouldn’t understand, at least I don’t think he would.

Less overtly horrific than it initially seems, with an unexpected humane touch.

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

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

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

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