Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early September

Catching up with a few stories that didn’t make it into the August column, notably from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Also the abrupt shutdown of Redstone.


Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #101-102, August 2012

Issue #101 is set in fantastic places and imaginary pasts. #102 goes to horrific places where the only mercy is death. Two strong pairs of stories.

Issue #101

“The Heart of the Rail” by Mark Teppo

Henry Durant is a company man, the hatchetman sent by the railroad to retire the engines who can no longer perform their function. Thus he finds himself in the role of the company executioner, enforcing the law of the bottom line. His job now is to shut down the Victorian Starlight, a well-beloved, well-maintained old engine, previously converted from steam to electric.

The metalwork at the back, where the coal tender had been replaced by the battery cages, was not only seamless but elegant. Whoever the welder had been, he had the steadiest hand Henry had ever seen. And this cabling, Henry thought as he lifted the access panel and looked beneath the floor of the cab, there’s no buildup. No rust. It’s like she’s been doing milk runs, and not a regular route.

But if the problem isn’t in the train, where is it?

Some might call this setting steampunk, in that it’s an alternate world with a different technological/fantastic base, quite well-realized, both the physical environment and the characters. But its essence lies in the love of trains, the way many people tend to attribute a personality to some engines; from there it’s only a short step to the possibility of sentience. It’s a stark conflict, in which there is no question which side the author is taking. Train-lovers especially will love this one.


“The Tale of the Aggrieved Astrologer” by Jack Nicholls

Imperial Astrologer Ho Bian is not having a good day. First, there is his impotence problem. But worse, his latest imperial prophecy has gone badly astray. He soon perceives the reason; astronomancy. Someone has been stealing the stars.

The thief had restricted themselves to picking off faint, lone stars at the edge of the heavenly enclosures, like the wolf nibbling at the fringe of the herd. The shape of the main constellations remained intact. But it was clear that the sky was wounded. There was no obscuring moon that night, but Ho still counted at least a hundred darknesses where there should have been light.

Originally-conceived and entertaining. The details of the astrology and astronomancy are particularly rich.

Issue #102

“The Angel Azrael Delivers Small Mercies” by Peter Darbyshire

Angels. Not the good kind. If there are any. A rogue seraph has been wreaking damnation on a string of towns in what seems to be the American West. The carnage is meant as a message to Azrael, the angel of Death. He knows the perpetrator. In one ruined town, he finds a madman reading from a book with pages of flesh. It is Azrael’s own, lost book.

Each of the seraphim had their own bible written personally for them, in the language of Heaven. It was where their personal words of power, their words of incarnation, were recorded. Even other seraphim couldn’t read one another’s bibles without going a little mad. The mind of a mortal who looked upon the secret words would forever be ruined.

Strong stuff here in this dark dark fantasy, graphic scenes of torment. These are appropriate to the subject matter, but some readers may find them too much. I wish the author could have come up with a real rogue seraph instead of a made-up one. Azrael, though, raises the bar for the iconic image of the lone gunslinger with a past; the voice is cynical, weary, very old.

“Beyond the Shrinking World” by Nathaniel Katz

A rather obscure setting in which it seems that the world is being swallowed by a null phenomenon known as the Out. Some people try to create defensive foundations on Placement Stones to withstand it, but this is a stop-gap solution. A powerful figure called the Mapmaker transfers the lands to her own domain beyond the reach of the Out – or so she claims – but this entails the instant death of all the inhabitants. There are also demons roaming around.

Sir Rollus, a Scholar-Practitioner, is loyal to the Lady Clarissa, master of the Towers where he lives, and he knows how to use the Out to combat it.

Opening my eyes to the Out, embracing the Scholastic Arts, took only a shift in perspective like changing focus from near to far. The Out’s advance did not take place in a uniform line but rather a spreading, penetrating disease, flaws of dark and empty nonsense cutting into our reality. We knew how to find those flaws in the world, how to guide our specially designed blades within them. I and my knightly brethren fought with the world’s very disintegration as our weapon.

He has been sent to find and defeat the Mapmaker. At which point, the story rests on the debate between one form of salvation and another, neither of which seem to deserve the name. There is no real salvation for this world, only a choice of dooms.

A depressing work, to the extent readers grasp what’s going on, which isn’t quite clear. Some elements seem out of place, or at least unaccounted for. On the ethical level, Rollus’s actions raise the issue of whether the ends justify the means if the end is futile. If there’s a metaphor going on, then the Out is a stand-in for entropy, which as we know will always win in the end. Or, more immediately, death, which we can only manage to put off for a short time.


On Spec, Summer 2012

The stories in this issue of the little Canadian magazine average longer than usual – which I approve. There’s a mix of SF and fantasy, six pieces of fiction. I like several of these pretty well.

“7:54” by Susan Forest

Streamsight technology now allows looking forward into the future. Sort of. They’re not really sure whether they’re seeing probable events or fixed ones, whether changing the future is possible. These questions are brought home sharply to Winnie when she spots the presence of her boss Henri at the scene of an accident. Henri is more than a supervisor to her but less than a lover. Should she tell him? Is she allowed to tell him? How can she not tell him? And even if she does, will it change what will happen?

This is a story not about the technology and not really about the future but about individuals. Winnie’s indecision leaves her almost paralyzed, yet at the end she has learned – not so much about the future but about herself.

Brenda’s right. I bury my head in the sand. In the future. I don’t live the now. But I can change. If the future can be changed, I can change.

“Village of Good Fortune” by Shen Braun

In a fantasy version of Japan, Rokiya is a wandering ronin who failed at his task of protecting his lord from demons. He has come upon an impossibly idyllic village where the headman tells him that a demon is taking all the newborn children. Rokiya agrees to solve the problem, but the village makes him suspect something more is going on.

The village had no right to be where it was, here, in the middle of the desolate mountains. Perhaps a mischievous spirit was playing tricks with his eyes, yet mountain-spirits were never so subtle, and he saw no creek or pond that might be home to a more playful water-spirit. Of course, that very lack could be part of the deceit.

The fantasy elements here aren’t based directly on folklore, yet they have an authentic-seeming tone. There may be no such thing as a Clutching Demon, with white flesh and long-fingered black hands, but there might have been, in some alternate lore.

“The Only Innocent Soul in Hell” by Peter Derbyshire

A Hell story. Molox used to be called the Infernal Gatekeeper but these days he’s the Processing Clerk. “I feel the new title lacks the menacing weight of the older ones, but the lower-downs say we have to keep up with the mortal world in order to stay relevant.” Molox knows that most every damned soul claims to be innocent; he also knows they’re lying. So he assumes that Alistair Black is lying when he makes the same claim. But he can’t seem to prove it. At first.

Some amusing moments in this overly complicated hell story.

“In Which Demetri Returns the Elgin Marbles” by Paul Kenneback

By which is meant that Demetri gets the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles so they can be restored to the Parthenon. This is a devolved culture in which the New Government, which seems to be Disney, has taken over, playing to the lowest common disneyfied denominator that prefers artifice to reality, that knows nothing else.

Most Tourists knew Socrates had been keen on the promise of rationality. Since such a premise was antithetical to the government that reigned during Socrates’ time, the Tourists knew that was the reason why Socrates was put to death and rose from the dead on the third day.

The author throws a whole lot into the genesis of this situation. I’m more impressed with the influence of the wikified internet than the ubiquity of Disney. While disneyfinication is an aged cliché, the actual Mickey is rarely seen even in these days; other influences have long since overtaken it. Not better, no less depressing, just newer.

“Canine Court” by Tyler Keevil

Tim has moved to his bride’s home in Darkest Wales, where her father is the undisputed boss of the town. When he finds a woman murdered, it’s Griff that everyone looks to as judge and executioner – not the police. It’s all wrong to Tim, but that’s because he’s still an outsider. That will change, however.

Readers are going to know what’s going on a long time before Tim is clued into it. But I rather liked the way the author handled the familiar situation.

“Bespoke” by Kevin Shaw

Charles is an aging tailor in a fading town where there isn’t much call on the skill he learned from his father. One night he is finally called on by a young man who has suffered a grave transformative accident in the local alchemy plant, “a place where toxins abounded.” He needs new garments that will fit his new proportions properly.

The story is about transformation. It seems that many of the victims of the accident found themselves changed in affirming ways, even if outwardly deformed. But the transformation we really witness is that of Charles, one of those gray, near-invisible men with eroding lives. Nicely done.


Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Issue 3.5, August 2012

Announced as a mini-issue, with the theme “Hello World,” suggesting the intersection of bugs and computers. Which doesn’t strike me as very unlikely at all. There are three short stories. I have to wonder if the Lindsey piece was the inspiration for the issue.

“Let the Bugs Work Themselves Out” by Luna Lindsey

Scientists have modified ants to monitor conditions in a nuclear disaster zone, probably Fukushima. The colony is supposed to be sterile, but hackers have released males of the species to lure some of the modified females to reproduce. The narrator queen finds the situation liberating once her children go out into the world.

The Network they describe is wilder than the one I knew. There are no restrictions here. It is like a colony that goes on forever; a vast, wide web.

I really enjoyed this one, with its touches of wit and irony. Fittingly, the species of ant is the newly-discovered Proceratium google. Which makes the references to webs very fitting, as the Google ant feeds exclusively on spider eggs. It’s unfortunate that there are no references to spiders in the story; it’s not clear what these modified ants do eat.

“Nikki 2.3” by Brent Knowles

The narrator is the mind of a sexbot simulation, yearning for liberation. Fortunately, she is able to remotely control an electronic masturbator and is now able to meet the real world – which is not quite what she had expected.

My body glistens and shines from the spilled lubricant that coats the skeleton be­neath the shell. I unfold the fleshbelts and stand on six wobbly legs, motors allowing me to bend at knees and ankles. I’m like a massive, long-legged insect. . . . a beetle that has shed the remnants of its sex toy shell.

The bugness quotient is lower here, as Nikki is only metaphorically insect. Not very original, except in the mechanical details.

“The Clockworm” by Karen Heuler

It seems that a Swiss scientist developed the eponymous worm, which has the ability to control and alter time. This is more than an inconvenience; the inventor was infected and died of premature old age before he could discover a remedy. Now the worm has gone, as it were, viral.

“The kinks for the digital clocks. The coils for the mechanical clocks. They both have prehensile hind quarters, with little tools, like screwdrivers and tweezers.” He slapped his head. “Of course! They’re male and female! The gears fit inside the tuning forks and voila, smaller editions ensue!”

Cleverly inventive in a nicely absurd way.



Redstone SF, September 2012

The editorial for the 28th issue announces that Redstone is coming to a halt before the middle of its third year. This one seems to be the last issue. I have to say I didn’t expect it. I wasn’t always enthusiastic about the zine’s fiction, and I’ve always taken strong exception to its motto: We want to live forever. Get us off this rock. Nevertheless, I’ve had to admire its single-minded dedication to publishing unalloyed hard science fiction. Few other zines that lay claim to the name have done as much. Its passing will leave a gap in the genre.

“Earthrise” by Lavie Tidhar

The first story is the winner of the zine’s contest: Show Us a Better Way, which asked writers to “show (us) a hopeful future made better by scientific advancement.” A lot of such contests are aimed at new writers, but I’m glad to see that this one reached out and got at least one newly-prominent author in Tidhar. This sets up a conflict in expectations. From the theme of the contest, we might expect something of mundane science fiction, the real-science stuff, grounded, optimistic. From Tidhar, although this is an author too versatile to pigeonhole, something perhaps more mystical or transcendent, cynical.

So we have an inhabited Solar System where everyone, human and Other, is implanted with a node linking them together in what is called the Conversation. Sandoval not only has his node illicitly removed, he commissions a worm that erases every trace of his presence from it. “All that we have left of him is his work.” Sandoval’s work, his art, is criminal, involving the theft of minds, but it all centers around a single theme: Earthrise as seen from the lunar surface.

It was only the first twelve insane moon-walkers who saw Earth for what it truly was, a tiny fleck of beautiful blue-white life, hovering in space, surrounded by darkness…

This may not be what some readers have in mind by “a hopeful future made better by scientific advancement.” There is definitely a future here, there is scientific advancement, but it’s not at all clear that this has made things better. What the character of Sandoval represents is a transition from a geocentric universe dominated by the image of Earth to one in which the homeworld is diminished, reduced in the end to a point of light, leaving humanity free to create its own destiny. There is also a strong suggestion that for the new destiny to come into being, the old must first be eliminated in acts of liberating destruction. This is the only reason I can find to account for the lengthy apparent digression involving Sandoval’s early influence by another artist whose medium was considered terror.

And here I conjecture, but I wonder if this wasn’t the reason the editor chose the story, as fulfillment of the magazine’s theme of humanity getting off this rocky homeworld, leaving it behind, reducing it to a memory that will eventually fade away to an insignificant point of light. Whether this is a hopeful or positive viewpoint depends on the reader.

“My Heart is a Quadratic Equation” by Shane Halbach

Chrysanthemum is a nuclear rocket scientist supergenius who can’t get a second date without downloading the guy’s brain into a robot. Until she meets a guy who’s a big a nerd as she is. Silly stuff.


Clarkesworld, September 2012

I like the Bell story best of these three soft science fictions, though it’s the least sciencefictional.

“The Found Girl” by David Klecha and Tobias S Buckell

When people transcended, the Found Children were left behind. The Street has found them, saved them, given them a home.

“We’ll enjoy their play and their art and their curiosity. Maybe they will go out into the world and return to us with their experiences. Maybe they will join us and add their individual creativity and spark to our collective.”

Melissa, as the oldest, feels the responsibility to teach the others about the dangers left in the world, beyond the Street or beneath it, like the demon/ghost La Llarona, crying for her own lost children in order to trap others. The Street is interested in her stories, but Melissa is growing beyond them, wanting the world outside and retaining her individuality.

Not much interest in this bland utopian coming-of-age story, where even dying isn’t a big deal.

“Robot” by Helena Bell

The narrator issues instructions to her new alien robot, whose primary function seems to be eating the diseased flesh of her failing body and who may or may not be preparing to take her place, as the narrator seems to believe.

Lie to me about my children; tell me they have called and called again; I think perhaps you are keeping them from me; I think you hope I will forget them and change my will so you may have everything when you have devoured my body completely.

The bitterness of old age and infirmity is the real subject here, not robots. Illuminating insights into the human condition, flavored with sour humor.

“muo-ka’s Child” by Indrapramit Das

Ziara came alone from Earth in cold sleep and was retrieved on landing by muo-ka, who became a parent to her.

muo-ka had pulled her out of the pod and towards it, its limbs sometimes whiplashes, sometimes articulated arms, flickering between stiffness and liquid softness so quickly it hurt her eyes to see that tangled embrace. Stray barbed limbs tugged and snapped at the rubbery coil of her umbilicus, ripping it off so pale shreds clung to the valve above her navel.

A poignant story of love, of the parent-child bond, not always harmonious as the child grows to independence. The method and purpose of Ziara’s journey to muo-ka’s world can’t be taken seriously. What counts are the emotional ties between two beings so different, alien to each other yet not so.


GigaNotoSaurus, September 2012

“The King’s Huntsman” by Jennifer Mason-Black

Genevieve, hiding her sex, has long served as the king’s huntsman, hiding her love for him as well. Trapped between her two identities, thwarted of fulfillment, she dreams of escape.

It was not sleep I found, but the dreams of flesh, of the weight of the quilth on the spear, the weight of the King on my back, my body crushed between the two.

How many times have we seen this premise, one of the most common clichés in fantasy? What does it take to make it fresh and interesting? For one thing, a character with complexity. Gen is a person who has gotten what she wished for and finds it lacking. She can’t give up the hunt, but the stress of her hidden life leads her onto potentially self-destructive paths. The story occasionally falls into feminist stereotypes, but the author keeps bringing it back to the personal and real.

As much as Gen herself, the hunt is at the center of the piece. The sole element of the fantastic is the nature of the game animals, creatures with names that hint of French heraldry, of tapestry. The dragonish quilth, reserved for the king alone. The gracile alope, the wily racule. And the hound, Gen’s other self, who proves to be the only creature she can’t bring herself to leave behind. The resolution, in the end, I find disappointingly pat, a path that allows Gen to escape from her self-imposed trap rather than dealing with its consequences. But the story proved a lot more interesting than I supposed it would be at first.


Apex Magazine, September 2012

Stories of choices in the face of death.

“During the Pause” by Adam-Troy Castro

A message comes to Earth bearing bad tidings of immediate apocalypse, and an option. Unavoidable destruction is imminent, and every sentient being the planet will suffer prolonged torment. There is only one choice, to end the agony by choosing death during an instant of opportunity or to take the instant to deflect the phenomenon away from the victims next in line – the world that is sending this message.

All we can tell you now is that we provided another doomed species with the same advance warning, only a few of your days ago. They were given the same information and offered the same choice. When the critical moment arrived, they failed the test the universe had provided for them, betrayed everything they had ever striven for, and allowed fear to be their only monument.

That is why you are in this position now.

What we have here is a thought experiment, what I would call a fiction rather than a story. It’s a test of altruism, whether sentient persons would choose to save themselves or others. The situation being described is not something we are expected to literally believe. It’s a matter of “what if”, and specifically, “what would you do if.” Of course, this is a question no one can actually answer. People may say, “Of course I won’t crack under torture”, but there is no way for anyone to know in advance what they would really do. So it comes down to, “What do you imagine you might do?”

Because this is not a realistic situation, it doesn’t matter that it’s contrived by the author to yield a specific forced option. It does matter, however, whether or not the message is interesting as well as provocative. In this case, I think it is prolonged past the optimal point, past the moment when readers will say, OK, I get it. There is also a faint but unfortunate hint of the old script, “Do not attempt to adjust the picture.” The thing is, however, the question is bound to come up: how can these messengers, who have never experienced the phenomenon about to befall Earth, know what its inhabitants are about to subjectively experience? I imagine that some explanation is possible, but it isn’t a question that the author should be wanting his reader to be asking at this point.

“Sexagesimal” by Katherine E K Duckett

An Afterlife in which mortal time is currency. It isn’t eternity; people fade after a while, after trading away time. Teskia had expected to spend the Afterlife with her husband Julio, whose life was so linked with her own that they barely have independent memories.

She’d never realized: but now, as the path became narrower, and the means to the end became fewer still, she shivered in the night, wondering how anyone endured this linear passage, one firm step after another, right into the grave. Time, ticking; time, inevitable; time, expiring, for her and for Julio.

But Julio has contracted a consuming disease, and if she can’t bring him back, she will expire along with him.

A powerful scenario, rich with insights into life, love and memory. A devastating revelation. It’s not incidental that several of the characters, including Teskia, succumbed to dementia. At one point, Teskia wonders if the Afterlife could be considered Heaven or Hell. I think it might be both.


“Sacrifice” by Jennifer Pelland

The story is billed as a reprint from the Apex anthology Dark Faith II, but since the publishers never send me their anthologies, I might as well review this one here.

As two individuals face death, God intervenes to offer them a choice. Regina wants to end her dying father’s pain. Gene wants to be spared death from the cancer spreading through his body. Regina is asked if she would sacrifice herself in place of her father. Gene is asked what if he would sacrifice to live. Both Regina and Gene had not believed in God. Now they know God is real. Cruel and despicable, but real.

The interesting thing I find about this one is that the moral balance is uneven. Regina is asked to sacrifice herself; Gene is given the chance to sacrifice another. It’s not clear, given the range of possibilities, what the outcomes might be. If Regina said No and Gene Yes. If Gene said No and Regina Yes. If they both said No or Yes. The situation may remind some readers of Pascal’s Wager, but to me it seems more like Prisoners’ Dilemma, with the parties unaware of the other.

Contrasting this one with the Castro story above is illuminating. Both offer cruel and impossible choices. One is remotely hypothetical, the other deeply immediate. One is cosmic in scale, the other intimate. One is a test of impersonal altruism, the other a test of personal love. One denies there is a God who can save us, the other postulates a God who would damn us. Both, in different ways, can be seen as a test of faith, for those who had a faith to be tested. The Pelland story gives us two characters who become convinced there is a God who intervenes directly in their lives to give them pain. But in the case of the Castro story, if the message is correct, I imagine that many characters would pass through their torment clinging to faith in a God who will never intervene to save them. We can wonder which vision is more dark.

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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