Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-September

A Good Story award this time, for the Molly Gloss piece in Strange Horizons.

I also have a few remarks on the matter of character namelessness.


Publications Reviewed


Subterranean, Fall 2012

Four lengthy stories in this issue, of which one, by Nnedi Okorafor, I have already reviewed in part when the part previously appeared. The rest all spend much of their time on the dark side.

“Game” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Set in northern India, 1950. The narrator, not named, is called Shikari, which means a big game hunter. He has been called back to Naini Tal out of retirement to hunt the man-eating tiger menacing the village. He has a certain sympathy for the tigers, and some regret for his past career. He was here long ago with his mentor, when he was killed by a tigress. The villagers claim the tiger stalking them now is an evil spirit. “The shaitan welcomes you home.” But he knows it is actually a vengeful ghost, not a devil.

There’s a lot of haunting going on here, but the ghosts are not the ones we might suppose.

Some part of my mind was certain the tiger would fling open the door and stand upright before me, her belly still stained with undrunk milk, the toothmarks of the cubs she’d lost. I kicked the door open.

The author does a good job of misleading reader expectations and twisting the plot to confound them as well as slowly revealing the guilty secrets of the hunter’s life and character. It’s the character at the center of the piece, and to know him as “hunter” says a great deal – yet not really enough.

The framing of this piece, as pages from the hunter’s journal, provides a context in which it could be reasonable that the journal’s writer is given no name – although we might expect to find it written on the flyleaf. But at one point, he quotes from a letter sent him from the village, begging his return, and the salutation reads: Dearest Gentleman. I have to wonder how the missive was delivered with such an address. The deliberate omission strongly suggests that it is the author’s intention, for whatever reason, to withhold the hunter’s actual name. “Shakiri” can be a useful substitute for review purposes, but it’s not really the same thing. I also find it interesting that the hunter does give us the name of his mentor: Henry, and the taxidermist accompanying him on the current journey is called only K_____ , a usage that was no longer common by 1950. These different naming conventions imply a mystery to which no solution seems to be given.


“Two-Stone Tom’s Big T.O.E.” by Brian Lumley

This being Thomas Fotherington Wright, a theoretical physicist who fancies himself the second coming of Einstein, hence the nickname. He is currently planning to demonstrate the nature of the space/time continuum by shifting an object backwards in time. The demonstration is scheduled to take place today at 6 am, and Adam Tempest is late, too late to take part. Just as he pulls into the parking garage,

for no more than a second or two there was this visual distortion, a sort of physical wrenching which Tempest not only saw but felt, experienced within himself—a drunken twisting and weird lengthening of the way ahead into an indeterminate if not infinite distance—like sitting in a barber’s chair looking down an apparently endless chain of mirrors.

It seems that Two-Stone Tom has really screwed things up. Tempest’s immediate task is to try to get out of the spatio-temporal madhouse maze that the garage has become. If he can.

Interesting to see some pretty hard SF from Lumley, whom we know best for his horror. But this, too, is horror, the horror of spacetime gone amok. Until the conclusion, of which the less said, the better, except that it brings the circle back to primal SF. A cross-genre entertainment.

“When the Shadows are Hungry and Cold (a Milestone Story)” by Kealan Patrick Burke

Horror here, part of the author’s series set in the eponymous town of Milestone, a place that wants things its own way. So there are way too many accidents on the road, more than Deputy Sheriff Bryce Carrington can credit to natural causes.

Otherwise, he’d have to start thinking about invisible barriers around the town that chose who got in and who got out, and that made no sense at all. So if the front of those wrecks made it seem as if they’d run right into a brick wall at sixty miles an hour, well, then it was probably just one hell of a big deer, like [Sheriff Dale Underwood] said.

This time, the victim turns out to be a woman in a hospital gown, deranged, looking quite like a witch, who keeps screaming, “Take your child” before she snatches Bryce’s service gun and blows out her own brains. When Bryce’s wife miscarries that same night as he is with another woman for comfort, it seems to have been a curse, that the woman was a witch, after all.

This is a story of character. Bryce Carrington is a weak character, a flawed character, haunted by events from his childhood. Milestone isn’t responsible for what he is, but it’s probably Milestone’s doing that he’s there. While the genre is definitely horror, the tone is more depressing than frightening. The author’s voice is strong and distinctive, full of the secrets not fully revealed to his doomed characters.


Strange Horizons, September 2012

Another month featuring the serialization of a longer story, and for once I think it’s entirely worth it. The shorter story is also quite fine. One of the best months ever for SH.

“The Grinnell Method” by Molly Gloss

In spring of 1943, ornithologist Barbara Kenny sets up camp at Leadbetter Point for another season of studying the sea birds there. An intense, destructive gale blows through, and she finds many birds dead of a cause she can’t identify. And more mysterious, an anomalous black cloud appears in the sky, into which birds sometimes fly and seem to disappear.

Overnight, as blood will clot in a wound, the clouds thickened and hardened, and in the morning what remained was a black flaw stretching out of sight to the north and south, a long, shifting vein of darkness, glossy and depthless.

The title refers to a method of making field observations. While this is a story about a working scientist, the sciencefictional element, or more likely the fantastic element, is ambiguous. Kenny herself makes this point, noting that she had several times seen apparitions of her dead brother, but there were mundane explanations for these sightings. When the characters speculate about the anomalies following the storm, they suppose these might have been caused by some sort of weapons deployed in the war – which was my own first thought.

The greatest excellence here is the setting. The author describes the landscape with a meticulous authority that firmly grounds the story, telling us that this is a real place and Gloss knows it well.

On the ocean side, the point was a world of shifting low dunes and tufted beach grass; on the bay side a rich estuarine marsh of pickleweed and arrowgrass, drowned and emptied twice each day by surging eight-foot tides. The whole of the point was a resting place for thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds during the spring and fall migrations, summer nesting grounds for plovers and snipes, and winter home to black brants and canvasbacks.

It is also a perfect background for the character who is the story’s heart. Kenny has spent her life in determined practice of her science(*), a career inspired by her brother, who met an early death at sea. It hasn’t been easy, particularly for a woman, and an early feminism is one of the story’s main threads: “Universities are willing to educate women, but not employ them.” She has a scrupulous dedication to objectivity, a refusal to admit unfounded assumptions that confronts a phenomenon defying rational explanation and calling to her on a deeply personal level.

A note about point of view: The story is told in the third person, primarily from Barbara Kenny’s point of view. Throughout most of the text, the character is referred to only as “She.” She is alone in the wild, where a name isn’t necessary. But when she goes to town to pick up her mail and engage with others, the author readily supplies her name, which gives more grounding and reality to the character. Characters are people, and people have names. I’ve lately been irritated by the number of stories with nameless characters, especially narrators. This coyness of identification seems often to be a fashionable artifice whereby some authors deliberately pass over occasions in the text where a person would naturally supply a name. I’m happy to see that Gloss doesn’t employ this conceit; where Kenny’s name is called for, she provides an introduction. It’s the polite thing to do.

(*)The author’s authority slips sadly in this respect, when she fails to capitalize the genus in scientific nomenclature.


“The Fourth Exam” by Dorothy Yarros

Bureaucracy. The setting is an alternate future version of one of history’s most complex and pervasive bureaucracies, the system of imperial China, in which performance on the official state examinations determined ministerial careers. Here, messages sent from the provinces must be accompanied by the answers to authentication questions, which only officials who had the proficiency to pass the fourth exam could possibly answer – knowledge that is kept as a state secret. The intended result is to minimize such communications. But one official in the capital recognizes that something has changed; there are too many messages, and they have been sent through unauthorized routes.

They pin a map on the wall. One of the assistants shades the provinces that have had significant increases in correspondence in the last decade with a piece of charcoal. It takes two hours before they have gotten through all the files and another hour before they have made the necessary calculations; when they have finished Li looks at the map and is shocked at how many of the provinces have been blackened. There are white tendrils branching out from the central city, but surrounded everywhere by shaded areas: the empire looks like a piece of coral adrift in a dark sea.

What’s going on is something devious and clever, and the discovery is a delight. It’s also a Cautionary Tale about the danger of bureaucracy sinking under its own weight.



Lightspeed, September 2012

Four works of fantasy, some nominally science fiction.

“Monsters, Finders, Shifters” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

In a world where human children are often born as monsters, some people have the ability to discern their shape in the womb and some have the ability to shift them to human shape. Otherwise, they are sent to the Shadows, whatever they are. Bertram develops both the ability to find and to shape, to do things that shifts are not supposed to be able to do. When a desperate friend asks him to help save her child, he changes her even without the necessary training. Now he wants to learn enough to shift her right, but his powers are beyond what his teachers understand.

The baby’s skin was dead and gray. I reached for its ability to shift at my urging, and found only a few colors it could be. I nudged it toward the brownish pink of living skin. For that to happen, it needed to be breathing and have blood running through it. I asked for these things to happen.

The author’s description of the magic-working makes this YA interesting, but the resolution doesn’t so much as solve the problems as pass the buck. Too easy.

“The Seven Samovars” by Peter Sursi

The title suggests humor, but the samovars are the very serious heart of Erzebet’s coffee shop.

Two are silver, three are brass, one is white and blue porcelain, and the one in the center is enameled, painted black with red and pink flowers. I’m pleasantly surprised the samovars are in use, though they don’t look electric. When I walked in yesterday I’d thought they were only decorative.

The narrator, nameless of course, has answered the Help Wanted ad at the shop, but she never expected to be serving the kind of potions brewed in Erzebet’s samovars.

This one is charming and full of homely bits of wisdom to accompany the coffee and tea. Also pastries.

“My Wife Hates Time Travel” by Adam-Troy Castro

Humor. Future versions of themselves keep popping into the lives of the narrator and his wife to inform them that they will one day invent time travel. This seems to be an urgent matter to them, so that they never leave the present-day couple alone to live their lives in peace.

We’d lie in bed at night, drawing close in what might or might not have developed into lovemaking, only to hear the telltale pop of displaced air and see the dazzling glow of arriving time travelers, and have some future version of my wife say, “No, not tonight, trust us, tonight’s a bad idea,” while some future version of myself contributed, “Don’t listen to her, she’s lying.”

This short piece is funny in a frenetically absurd way, but there can be no doubt that it’s also a heartfelt love letter from the author to his wife.

“Sun Dogs” by Brooke Bolander

Laika the space dog on her fatal voyage.

There’s a rubber bag strapped to her hind end, a net of harnesses holding her tightly in place, and a feeling of floating that never disappears no matter how many times she scrabbles at the floor for purchase. It makes her dizzy and sick. Beneath the straps her skin itches, so warm and close it feels like it might split open. She cannot turn around or even circle to make a proper bed.

When desperation takes over, Laika receives a visitation.

The title is obviously a play on words and a piece of wishful thinking, the temptation of believing that angels will intervene at the last moment and save us, save the innocent creature, despite our knowing what actually took place. It’s a question whether creatures like dogs have similar beliefs. The story is an exercise in moving into the mind of a dog, wondering what it thinks, what it feels in extremis. It also addresses the ethical issue of the uses we make of animals, who have no way of knowing why such torment is being inflicted on them. This is a stronger message than the dog angels, which dilute it with the fantasy of kindness.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #103-104, September 2012

The first issue offers grim dystopian settings and flawed stories; the second offers adventure and quest, and better stories.

Issue #103

“When Averly Fell from the Sky” by Dean Wells

Steampunk horror. In Great Albion, where people have to wear goggles to protect their eyes from the coal soot, the master artificer Faversham is dying of the coal lung, but his concern is for the family he will soon leave behind. Barnaby Drum, slaved to the mines in childhood, is now posing as the pederast who was once his master. A road accident places Barnaby in Faversham’s power.

The dystopian setting offers horror enough for most purposes.

At last we came to rest at the cottage of what had once been a small orchard overlooking the hellish factories below, its trees barren and leeched of all color. The cottage itself was in shambles, the orchard devoid of native fauna or birds of any kind; even the crows that stalked us from Priory Hull kept their distance, roosting in the dead trees, watching through cold industrial lenses instead of eyes but coming no closer.

It is only the beginning, here. There is madness, there is sexual exploitation of children, there are alien and mechanical monsters that possess bodies and minds. This is a mixed set of horrors that don’t really form a coherent whole, instead of a heap of excess. This is too bad, as the concluding verse suggests something more effective that the piece could have been.

“Bandit and the Seventy Raccoon War” by Don Allmon

The title suggests humor, but this is far from being the case. It’s the story of Jacsen, once known as Bandit, who was fathered by a raccoon spirit-king, although he’s in denial about this. His world, which resembles in some ways the American frontier, is one of witchcraft and war and witchcraft. The Imperial forces besieging Cesler Grange have brought up reinforcements, including a witch whose power comes from sacrificed animals, particularly raccoons.

How many centuries had the witch lived and finally, finally come upon his end of days? He was old and wasted thin. His eyes were rheumy and clouded and Jacsen wondered if he weren’t blind. But his cracked and wicked smile said he saw Jacsen just fine, and was pleased with what he saw.

A perplexing piece. The character of Jacsen is pretty clear, a sympathetic individual in a bad situation who saves a child from a murderous father – a circumstance that largely determines the plot. We learn that Jacsen is a clansman, but not what this means, and that he’s familiar with the ways of witches, perhaps even a witchhunter. Or maybe not; if so, he turns out to be a poor one. What’s hard to determine is why he’s come to Cesler Grange in the first place, what he meant to do there. Did he know the witch was going to arrive? There’s a suggestion, from the witch’s apprentice, that it was all a trap set for Jacsen, which makes it a pretty good trap if it could lure him over so many miles to a place where the witch hadn’t even arrived. Too much is left out of this story to really appreciate it.

Issue #104

“The Ascent of Unreason” by Marie Brennan

Part of the author’s series set in a strange location called Driftwood, where shredded worlds pile up like plastic trash in an ocean gyre. Just for fun, Tolyat conceives the notion of mapping the place. Last*, who may know more about Driftwood than anyone, tells him he’s crazy. But Tolyat has discovered a kind of antigravity device that will allow him to rise above Driftwood and see it as a whole.

His eye swept across the collage of realities, from the mostly-urban patchwork of the Shreds, through the Ring and outward to the Edge, where the newly-Drifted worlds were large enough to still have mountains and forests, deserts and seas. Their details faded, his eye not sharp enough to make them out, and then beyond those lands….

The dark, featureless expanse of the Mist. Out of which worlds came, convulsing in the throes of their doom, to finish dying in Driftwood.

This is pure adventure, celebrating the wonder that is Driftwood. It’s fun, which had been Tolyat’s idea in the first place, and it revives even the world-weary Last’s interest.

(*)As in, the last of his kind.

“Worth of Crows” by Seth Dickinson

The curse of eternal winter. Fire does not burn; it only feeds the dragon.

The winter is a dragon. She deduced this, in the libraries beneath her master’s tower, in the silent halls of the college archive. It is all a matter of thermodynamics.

The nameless protagonist is on a quest to slay the dragon. She has made a pact with Death; to keep warm, she feeds on the souls of creatures left dead from the cold. Death follows her as a companion, along with a fire wizard of the North who has come on the same quest.

The best story of the month, well conceived and well written. I like the thermodynamic aspect, I like the portrayal of Death. And the nameless character irritates me to the point where I have a hard time appreciating the story’s virtues. It reminds me that despite perfunctory references to parents and teachers, this is not a real person but a figure, a “character” as if in a game: the necromancer. That would at least have been better than what the author calls her, which is the demeaningly childish “the girl.”

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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