Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late October
No digests this time, only one print publication, the long-surviving Interzone, in a more compact format. Instead, among the large amount of other material coming in for review in October, I’m finding more publications that have switched from print to some sort of electronic media. The pixels are on the wall.
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #105-106, October 2012
- Interzone, September-October 2012
- Strange Horizons, October 2012
- Electric Velocipede, Summer 2012
- Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2012
- Tor.com, October 2012
- Lightspeed, October 2012
- Black Gate, October 2012
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 105-106, October 2012
After four years, BCS has established itself as a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media. A fourth anniversary double issue starts out this month for a total of six October stories.
Issue #105 features stories of love.
“Three Little Foxes” by Richard Parks
A Lord Yamada story. Lord Noritomo wants to get rid of the fox spirits haunting his garden, but Yamada is more interested in the mystery behind their appearance than in exorcizing them.
As soon as the sun was well down and a glorious near-full moon was on the rise, the two fox spirits appeared from the direction of the north gate. They moved with stately grace to the flat rock and seated themselves. They didn’t set up the Go board, it was suddenly just there, and they began to play. The click of the stones on the board was clearly audible.
But the third sister spirit who joins them comes from inside the compound, where the faint sound of a flute can be heard.
A ghost story premised not on evil but melancholy and loss, and on love. It’s not Yamada’s ability to discern the spirits that reveals the nature of the mystery, but his way of seeing into human hearts. As always, the details of the setting in Heian Japan are rendered with an authenticity that greatly adds to the enjoyment of the tale. I do sort of wonder why the author uses “Lord” in some places and “sama” in others.
“Cursed Motives” by Marissa Lingen
The magical motivator that propels her ship has broken down, so young Imperial Princess Say is comfortably stranded on an island – although she would prefer to say she is shipwrecked. The two foreigners who appear in a lifeboat, on the other hand, are definitely castaways. Safy, being bored, takes an interest in them. As a member of the Imperial family, Safy has the ability to lay curses, although her relatives believe she doesn’t always think them through. But she means well, usually.
She never used serious curses against people she liked, and even if she had, she wouldn’t be stupid and use them against the crew, whom she needed if she ever wanted to eat anything but mangoes and crabs again.
An amusing fantasy that casts a new light on the nature of the curse. Safy is an engaging and clever character. I find it hard to believe, however, that the foreigner would so readily expose himself as an enemy and reveal his country’s hostile plans. Unless he were cursed.
“Luck Fish” by Peta Freestone
In Masozi’s village, it rains only once a year. There’s a myth for that.
The rain fish are a gift from the three moons. Before sun’s anger dried up the oceans, the three sisters of the night sky took the last fish eggs from the seabed. Worried for the people, the moons hid the roe under dry ground where their day brother would not find them.
Rain Day is a working holiday. The younger people run out with their baskets to scoop up the fish for drying as they emerge from the mud. The adult Builders hurry to make as many bricks as they can before the mud dries. Food and shelter for the upcoming year. Masozi is old enough to be named a Builder, which would mean he could marry Manyara, but his father refuses to name him.
There’s some interest to the fantasy premise, but society doesn’t convince and the young-love-triangle plot isn’t very original.
“Unsilenced” by Karalynn Lee
A complex web of stories, held together by love. There are four immortal mages. One, the Basilisk, once fell in love with a woman but did not want their child. She fled from him to the emperor, who took her as his consort to bind the Basilisk to his service. The Basilisk remained after her death in exchange for the eye with which the emperor held the last sight of her. The child, Veillen, the emperor ignored, but at his death she inherits his crown. Veillen fears the court, so she makes her own bargain with the Basilisk in exchange for a voice of command. Bargain follows bargain, as the characters, one by one, trade away what they most desire in exchange for the illusion of it.
She tried to call him back. Nothing emerged. She ran after him but tripped on a vine, and impatiently she knew the garden had withered away centuries ago, but it was still there, pulling at her ankle. She yanked herself free. The stones were made of glass; she could see through them and find him, but they remained opaque and she had to grope for the door and stumble forward. Her foot fell upon the ground with a splash. She stepped out of the puddle. Something was wrong. His name buried itself into her throat and she clawed at it, but the only sound was that of her hoarse, strained gasping.
Beginning as a story of court intrigue, it grows in scope to embrace divinity. The costs of learning what is truly valuable are tragic, because some things can’t be recovered or compensated for. Throughout the text are embedded shorter legendary tales that add greatly to reader enjoyment and enlightenment. What we see are myths in the making.
Issue # 106 deals in magical, murderous revenge.
“A Song of Blackness” by Nancy Fulda
Gaerwin lives consumed by hate of Javon Pahadoran, who killed his grandfather and stole his lands and title, condemning their family to poverty and sickness. Gaerwin and his sister the witch decide to kill the Pahadoran heiress in revenge and in hope of regaining what was lost.
[His wife] Jeene didn’t understand. How could she; she wasn’t a Mosvin. Three generations of unrequited injustice didn’t scream in her blood. Assassination is an ugly word, but not any uglier than betrayal, butchery, and perfidy. What was one girl’s life weighed against the pent-up suffering of three generations?
Readers will suspect this doesn’t end well, no matter what the outcome. Thus the conclusion is not only cursory but obvious.
“Hold a Candle to the Devil” by Nicole M Taylor
How to run a business under difficult circumstances. As the successor to Miss Em, Florence’s job is to care for the girls in the brothel. When Alice is mutilated by a customer who carves his name into her belly, Florence fixes him, as Miss Em taught her to do.
The infection was raging, already black in some spots, mostly green in others. The edges of the letters were so swollen and red that it was nearly unreadable. Nearly. Florence touched her fingertip to the point of the “A;” Alice jolted underneath her. Florence pulled her finger away, shiny with rot.
A sequel, following the career of Florence, a memorable character you wouldn’t want to cross. There’s some nasty black magic here, with care taken in its working.
Interzone, September-October 2012
The issue came late and altered, in a new, smaller format, although still glossy and otherwise much the same. Four of the six stories are deeply depressing, and as often happens these days, one is outright fantasy. The best is the Tidhar.
“Wonder” by Debbie Urbanski
In a dystopian world, Daniel used to live in what seems to have been a dysfunctional commune, before his mother took him away to a no more functional life in a town where the blue aliens have also settled. Daniel misses his old home, his father, the songs they used to sing there, but Daniel’s memory of the place is unclear and probably faulty. His mother doesn’t sing to him anymore, she sings to some guy he doesn’t know. He tries to befriend a blue girl but is thwarted by xenophobia. His mother tells him that the dead care about him, but Daniel can’t see or touch the dead.
This is a story of alienation. The blues are alienated from wherever they came from and, like them, Daniel is alienated from his family, from the town he lives in, from the world he lives in. It’s an opaque story. We see the world entirely from Daniel’s point of view, which allows us only dim glimpses, distorted by his fears and confusion. Profoundly, pointlessly depressing.
“The Message” by Ken Liu
James Bell has spent his life on an obsessive quest to document and comprehend the ruins of alien worlds now targeted for terraforming. It has now been disrupted by the presence of the teenaged daughter he hasn’t seen since infancy, since leaving his wife. Maggie is conflicted – on the one hand hostile to the father who deserted them, on the other, wanting to take a role in his work and earn his approval. The site they are now investigating presents as an enigma:
The alien city was a perfect circle about ten kilometers in diameter. From the air, the buildings – cubes around the edge of the city, cones, pyramids, tetradedra in the middle – were forbidding spikes. Ring-shaped streets divided the city into concentric sections.
The same message is inscribed on all the structures, repeated over and over – an obvious challenge that Maggie would like to solve as much as she wants to learn the reason behind her parents’ breakup.
A tragic story based on the failure of communication. I’m reminded of the probes that humans have sent out from Earth carrying greetings in terms that the creators based on data they assumed to be universal: mathematics and physics. But of course it’s also a story of family relationships. The failure of James, Maggie and their AI to decipher the message is reflected in the failure of communication that doomed James’ marriage and now threatens his relationship with Maggie. The tragedy is that what happens is unnecessary, and based on both failures. The problem I have with all this is that James’ ship has overflown the site, observed it from the air, the very perspective that the creators of the message, who seem to have a very human outlook, intended. It might be understandable that James and Maggie might have missed the meaning, although the authors signals it loudly, but the AI? That has to be one really dim AI.
“Needlepoint” by Priya Sharma
Dark fantasy. As a young woman, Agnes was the favorite handmaiden of the queen and beloved by the younger prince. But now her prince is the king and she serves the new queen, a cruel woman who practices poisoning and deceit. Now a expedition has returned to court with treasure from exotic lands, and among the explorers is a man whom Agnes finds attractive. But the court is a treacherous place.
There are perils for the careless and the uninitiated. Racks, spikes and chains in the dungeons below. Many people who’d contrive to send you there.
It’s clear from the beginning that things will not go well for Agnes. The queen is the epitome [cliché] of the wicked villainess.
“Beyond the Light Cone” by C W Johnson
Hard SF. Marla used to be a policewoman, and her weakness was her son, who grew into a sociopath. Marla took responsibility for his crimes and was sentenced to exile on a tachship outside the light cone – a really neat SFnal notion.
Beyond the light cone we listen to ripples in the fabric of spacetime, messages carried by gravity waves. We pick up data around one star, travel to another, and retransmit them. A kind of interstellar post, if you like, only the postal carriers are all murderers trapped in faster-then-light purgatory.
But Marla can’t help yearning for news of her son, which gets her involved in a very dangerous conspiracy.
A story of the way love can make us foolish and vulnerable. Marla’s life has been one of self-deception, until it’s too late. That’s the depressing part. The interesting part is the tachship premise, once we figure out what’s going on with it.
“The Remembered” by Karl Bunker
A fable of alien love. These are aquatic creatures, at the verge of the conquest of the hazardous world of land and air. Not unexpectedly, the story illustrates the universality of love. While not physically, these people are emotionally identical to humans.
The narrative is entirely from an alien [to Sam and Sarah, which are of course not their actual names] point of view, a didactic one.
Because this was an intelligent species, they couldn’t be mindlessly driven by instinct, so the formation of pair-bonding between couples wasn’t a blind, rigid, instinctually-driven thing. Rather it was something motivated by more diffuse sensations within the minds of the bonded pair . . .
This doesn’t diminish the emotional impact of the story, but it’s a constant reminder that the real point of view here is human.
“Strigoi” by Lavie Tidhar
A Central Station story. The strigoi or Shambleau is a kind of mind vampire who preys on other people’s memory through their mind nodes. “No one is born Shambleau.” The affliction is spread in the classic vampiric mode by a fanged bite [which I’m not sure this makes sense] and is normally limited to the spaceways. Carmel, a young runaway, was infected on a cargo ship and has been a space tramp ever since. Now she has come to Earth, to Central Station, to look for a man she once met on Mars, a man with a parasite that blocks her from feeding.
He was as exotic to her as she must have seemed to him, she studied him the old-fashioned way, with fingers, tongue, with taste and smell. They explored each other, fashioning maps. But he could not ease her hunger.
The Central Station universe is a wonderfully rich setting, home to an amazingly various population of peoples, religions, gods, poets, artists, technology, and always, the Conversation of minds. It would seem that Tidhar, a wanderer of the far places of Earth, has created Central Station as a place of homecoming for all the wanderers of the far places of space. He notes that its Israeli location is one of the longest-inhabited places on the planet. As the poet Bashō, who wrote in asteroid pidgin of his love for a Shambleau, declared:
Sip blong spes
Planet Es Hemia!
Ea blong hem i no semak
Ol narafala ples
[Ship of space
Earth it is!
Its air is unlike
That of any other place]
Carmel is a compelling character, naive and vulnerable despite what she has become, far too young. She doesn’t really understand what has compelled her to come to Central Station, to Earth, she fears discovery and exposure. But her name is not a shortened spelling for a candy but a placename in Israel; Carmel, whether she knows it or not, is coming home.
With all this abundance of Neat Stuff, I’m not really eager to quibble. But. Those fangs. And more important, an awful overuse of coincidence. For all the size and concentration of humanity that Carmel encounters on the station, who is the first person she encounters but a relative of the former lover she’s come to find. And on first stepping out of the station into the city, she not only runs again into the same woman but also the lover himself. Way too convenient, that.
Lightspeed, October 2012
This issue takes it up a notch with a couple of challenging stories.
“Spindles” by L B Gale
A surreal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. Evelyn Jane is trapped in a recurring nightmare that begins when she gets an adult-sized bed to replace the one of her childhood, when her father promises her a story and kisses her goodnight. The next day, she finds that things start disappearing. Small things, at first, like smells and words. Then her dog, then her parents. Then everyone else. And it all happens over and over again. To escape, she has to find the key that will break the cycle and let her out of the trap.
Perhaps she had to give birth to the book in the bed. Wait, that made no sense. Yes it did. Sleep sense. The sleep was coming. “She was only a little girl.” Birth the book, give it birthlife, afterbirth life.
This one is heavily loaded with symbolism, as the original fairytale is one of the most symbol-loaded of such tales. It’s about girls growing into womanhood, the tension between the desire to remain a child and the imperative to leave childhood behind. Sexual awakening is boiling up in the symbolism of blood, and beds, and sharp pricking objects, and kisses. Parents take on the roles of king and prince, of evil fairy and good. Mostly, there’s ambiguity. Is this perhaps all a nightmarish dream? Might could be, but the author isn’t saying.
“The Suicide’s Guide to the Absinthe of Perdition” by Megan Arkenberg
In Hell, aka Pandemonium, where everyone is an alcoholic but no one can get drunk, and there is only one literary classic, reissued in different editions. Also from time to time fallen angels hit the pavement, which distresses the narrator, who once witnessed the fatal fall of his best friend.
You can see where their delicate kohl-and-carmine faces have been reassembled, the stitches as white and clumsy as the scars on my wrists. The demon-doctors in Pandemonium do their best, but there are always pieces missing or mismatched, jigsaw edges that don’t quite fit in a forehead or a jawline or a yellow-gloved hand. It is a very long way to fall. Death would be kinder, the crematorium finishing the work of a nine-day plunge, but how can you euthanize an angel?
But that’s hell for you, or perhaps this is just the narrator’s version.
This is the kind of stuff I really tend to fall for, exquisitely mannered, a setting staged by Wilde and illustrated by Beardsley.
“Bear and Shiftless” by Benjamin Parzybok
Post alien invasion, Bear and Roger are taking care of business, raiding old food stores in alien territory, selling it from the back of their armored car. Bear is a kindly character who doesn’t take it badly when a kid recruited as an alien spy stabs him in the back. The aliens are tracing them through the kid’s transponder, and Bear tries to disable it.
I needed this. Only in his rescue could I exact a little revenge, only in the saving of a life could I screw them a little.
A lot of action, but this is primarily a piece about the futility of making any sense of life, realizing there’s nothing to it but survival. A pretty depressing revelation, but one that does make sense, under the circumstances.
“Flowing Unimpeded to the Enlightenment” by Robert Reed
There’s this fellow named Kartar who collects and profits from ideas, memes [in the original sense, as the story makes clear: that “ideas have lives of their own and how humans aren’t important except as carriers of memes that are retained by nature only if they’re valuable, and thrown away if they’re not.”] Some people claim that he steals ideas, but Kartar denies this. Ideas aren’t property.
“‘Ideas are mutable and graceful and slick,’” Dominick begins to quote.
Then half of the audience helps finish the famous line. “‘And knowledge is happiest when it flows unimpeded to the Enlightenment.’”
Currently, he’s pursuing the idea of alien-inhabited worlds in the galaxy. But Kartar’s idea collection relies on technology; stripped of it, he seems not to be as smart as his reputation suggests.
An eccentric, obscure story, the point of which may be fully understood only by the author, although the rest of us are free to form our own understandings of it. My own understanding might be that understanding ideas is more than accumulating them. Or perhaps that some ideas may generate their own reality. But I’m sure that other readers will come up with their own.
Strange Horizons, October 2012
It’s fund drive time again at SH, and this year the committee is sweetening the pot with bonus material. Up to the point of this writing, the bonus fiction consists of the first installment of a Ken Liu story. I’ll check back next month to see if anything complete has materialized. In the meantime, there’s another two-parter and a Central Station story by Lavie Tidhar.
“In the Library of Souls” by Jennifer Mason-Black
On the death of her mother, Carreth was sent to the Cor to arrange for the rites, and there she discovered the books, each one holding and documenting an individual soul.
The books all looked the same. Cream-colored leather bindings, uncreased spines just a little wider than I might comfortably grasp, a single white ribbon tied around each. No titles. No numbers. Nothing but shelf after shelf of sameness.
Only after a person’s death does the color of the book change. New books appear on the shelves as people are born. But if the book is destroyed, burned, the soul dies as well. Carreth has become the head of the Cor when a great flood comes and she and her assistants work to save the books by moving them to the tower. But when the waters come, some books are drowned. Are those people dead? Should they try to preserve the books or consign them to the fire?
The library with its books is a Neat Idea, well-described, and one that provokes interesting speculation. There is no concept here of gods or an afterlife, although the souls whose books remain unburned after death are supposed to be trapped, unfreed. The conclusion, with its strong echoes of the ebb of Noah’s flood, is inspirational. I can’t so easily get into the story of the heart-deprived Carreth herself.
“The Lord of Discarded Things” by Lavie Tidhar
In a far-future Jaffa, Ibrahim is head of the alte-zachen men, the junk dealers.
He had always been there. Will always be. The once and future king of the discarded. Rumour had it he was Other-cousin to the Oracle on the hill, for Ibrahim, too, was Joined, his thumb a golden prosthetic, an Other bonded into his node, human and digital minds commingled. No one knew the name of the Other. Perhaps both were called Ibrahim.
One day he finds a discarded baby in a shoe box and through his node he recognizes him as another vat-grown messiah. Messiahs are trouble. Ibrahim brings him home and raises him in the junkyard as his own son. But he knows that one day the messiah part of him will manifest itself; he doesn’t know exactly how; he doesn’t want to know.
I comment at some length on this setting above in the Interzone review. This one is mostly setting, as the author tills a great heap of historical-zachen into the text, on which the story seed is planted. But it’s barely a sprout of a story and we don’t know what it will grow into, perhaps in some large, sprawling future novel.
Electric Velocipede #24, Summer 2012
The electronic version of this well-respected little zine continues its tradition of offering some unexpected fiction and pushing at the genre boundaries.
“Cutting” by Ken Liu
The monks of Temple of Xu spend their days excising words from their holy Book. “As they prune away the excess to reveal the book beneath the book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.” What remains of the text is a kind of poem. This very brief fiction, too, is a kind of prose poem on the subject of the fallibility of human memory and human judgment. Unusual and inspired although not actually fantastic.
“Night’s Slow Poison” by Ann Leckie
Science fiction. The planet Ghaon is protected from enemies by an enigmatic phenomenon in space.
The Crawl is not detectable by sight, nor by any scanner yet devised. It is, however, ineluctably there. Its outer boundary is littered with the wrecks of ships whose captains disbelieved the warnings. Sometimes these are whole ships, with no sign of damage except their aimless drift. Some are collections of fragments, shining eerily in the light of
the warning beacons placed at intervals along the limits of the Crawl.
Still, the Ghaons are suspicious of spies aboard their ships, attempting to discover the secrets of crossing the Crawl. Inarakhat Kels is a Watchman, a security agent on the freighter Jewel of Athat whose job is to safeguard the route. But the crossing is tedious, and Kels is too much reminded of the youthful disgrace that led him to his current position.
A well-crafted story. Kels is a compelling character full of inner secrets and yearnings, obsessed with his past and what it might have been. The masked, status-driven Ghaonish culture is a fertile setting that readers might expect to spawn further tales.
“The Mezzo” by Eli Effinger-Weintraub
In a dystopian alternate history controlled by a nanny state, mezzo-soprano Honoria Fisher yearns for retirement to the forbidden comforts of vice. This is the sort of piece that begins with an idea and ends there, without generating an actual story. The setting is steampunkish, as evidenced by autonoma where a straight SF story would have robots; I get the feeling that this is done for the sake of fashion and not because the story actually calls for it.
“Under the Tree” by Tania Hershman
Mum keeps taking food out to the garden where her son is sitting under the tree and won’t move. This is what they call enabling, but that would be too realistic for this piece, which is not about solving the problem but embracing it, aiming for absurdity and falling short into banality.
“Heaven Under Earth” by Aliette de Bodard
For reasons that aren’t clear, New Zhongguan seems to have an acute shortage of women, so that boys who don’t show promise are transformed into pseudo-women, capable of bearing children for their husbands.
It seems such a long time ago, when he was still a boy and still dreaming of being head of his own household, fantasizing over how many spouses he’d be allowed to take—long before he failed the exams, long before knives and needles cut into his flesh, before regulators moulded him into something else.
Liang Pao is his husband’s First Spouse and pregnant with his second child when Husband brings a Fourth Spouse into the household – an actual female. But Qin Daiyu is not content, and her discontent infects Liang Pao.
A very odd culture here, a mix of past and future, one that will leave readers curious as to how it came about. To the sensibility of today, Liang Pao’s household life seems repressed, restrictive. We sympathize automatically with Qin Daiyu’s yearning for freedom. The story challenges us – can we understand and accept a life, a sexuality, on such different terms?
“For They Heard the First Sound and Trembled” by Jessica Breheny
One of those stories with too many capitalized words, in this case related to a dominant religion.
The Wordless are Cleansed who are purified of all words except the Word through a secret process called Elimination. They live inside the temple and are holy above all others, coming out for processions once a day to collect alms from the Pilgrims before
leading them into the temple.
It’s also a class-based society in which the lower orders labor to clean the temple but never set foot inside, lest they hear the Word and turn to dust – a myth clearly meant to enforce class privilege. But there are some, like Francine’s lover Fitz, who doubt this and write heretical slogans on the temple’s glass walls, that she has to clean the next day. Fitz wants her to sneak into the temple and learn the Word.
An unlikely scenario, even for a religion. It’s interesting that the city’s primary building material seems to be glass, although we never see any glassworks. This is the problem with so many of these societies – the absence of an economic base. There are some nicely-done phrases and verses, and a harmonic secret. It makes me imagine the anti-Word that would crack all the glass and turn it to dust, but that’s not in the story.
“The Lotus Eaters” by Michelle Muenzler
In a ruined world, people live in ruined buildings to hide from the spiders and eat lotus petals to forget it all. Tony has gone out and not returned, so the narrator goes out to find him, despite the order from Tony not to leave the room because it isn’t safe outside. Tony was right.
Then the moon breaks free and light bathes the streets again, just in time to shine across the hundreds of silvery strands crossing the side street we are rushing into. Enough time for me to windmill my arms, teeter, and slip backwards onto the wet pavement.
Except from the spiders, a pretty routine, though well-described scenario. We never learn where the lotus comes from or how people pay for it. There’s a suggestion that Tony is a pimp, but no suggestion that anyone comes to their room for business.
“To Dive into a Godling, Where Life Begins” by Jacques Barcia
Cosmic fishing for singularities in the Primordial Ocean, after the unmaking of the world. It’s a hazardous expedition in search of treasure and/or the ultimate knowledge, depending on who the hunter is. Guido, the harpooner, isn’t sure they should be there at all, but he’s only following orders.
In the cabin, electricity sparkles in pale blue as the golden weapon reaches its full power. The proto-universe drags the Megalodon closer. Something’s taking form on the singularity’s surface. Something’s taking form on Guido’s tongue. But before the mule can spit it out, and before the enemy attempts any movement, the sailor forces his eyes open and blasts the energy harpoon.
The death cry of millions of stillborn souls shoots him back.
Vastly imaginative, bizarre, flirting at the edges of comprehensibility. A wild ride, the sort of fiction I’ve come to expect from EV.
“The Leaf” by Erik T Johnson
All the trees and fruit are rotting in Gideon’s family apple orchard. His father claims it’s a curse. That sounds about right. Things are surreal in the place that some call the Bronx, some Brookridge, some Grahamsblat. Most of the denizens seem to be more or less insane. No one can leave or, if they do, they never return.
A few years back, Salamander’s father was struck by a triangle-wheeled cart full of experimental blue pumpkins, donkey-driven by the destitute inventor Lester Treat. The cart was rather slow and didn’t crush Mr. Mander. But on the point of reviving he swallowed some blue pumpkin seeds. His skin turned a purplish-pink and he fell into a deep sleep.
Gideon sees a leaf that seems to bear a message for him, if only he can figure it out.
Nothing of this weirdness is really explained or resolved, and it’s not at all clear at the end that Gideon has changed the craziness of his world for anything that makes more sense. It’s more a funhouse experience than a house of horrors.
Kaleidotrope, Autumn 2012
Nine short to very short stories in the current issue of this eclectic little zine, now online as a quarterly. There’s a definite descent in tone from the light to the dark, all the way down to the bottom.
“I Am a Being Under Enchantment” by Patricia Russo
Twist on the fairytale. Valeria has her own problems. She doesn’t have time for someone else’s.
This thing in front of her now, something like a diseased boar, with most of its hair fallen out and its skin covered with seeping purple-black lesions, red piggy eyes and tusks — for god’s sake, tusks — she didn’t need.
A pity party ensues, although Valeria has to admit the boar thing is the worse off of the two of them. It’s a tongue-in-cheek study in contrast between the optimist and the pessimist. Also a bit frustrating not to know just why the being was enchanted and whether he’s lying about it being for no good reason.
“Someone is Eating America’s Chess Masters” by Mary A Turzillo
Someone being the saurosapiens alien hanging around Washington Square. Weisskopf manages to escape just as the saurian is about to pop him down his throat after winning the match.
“You’re lucky,” said his mother when he called her later that night. “Don’t you watch the news? These alien guys, they eat people all the time.”
Weisskopf’s only chance is to beat the alien, but with every grand master he eats, the saurian’s game gets stronger.
The humor here is quite a bit more manic than in the first story.
“A Time Before” by Vincent Pendergrass
Something has broken time. The narrator, who has probably forgotten his name along with much else, is trapped in a loop beside a drowned town where broken watches wash ashore.
Dropping to my knees on the wet pebble beach I break up the tangle of muck to expose the treasure within — a Casio with a shattered face, its hands pointing to three and eleven, the time all watches show. Into the bucket it goes, to join the others there. A Nautica, its back cover missing, insides choked with mud. A Rolex with one band still attached. A fake, but a good fake.
He sells them to tourists who come to the site, but the woman who also comes there is different in some unexplained way.
A depressing and enigmatic scenario. The narrative is in the 2nd person, addressing the woman. The narrator claims there are no more people in the world – his world – yet people arrive to buy the watches as souvenirs. At one point he claims to be young, then old. It’s the fictional equivalent of living in a Dali painting.
“Rule 88” by Andrew Kaye
Hunting on Rogmautha takes a lot of rules, resulting in a joke, not a story. A pretty lame joke.
“The Unwinding House” by Jared Millet
Time is broken again, but in this case it was a bomb. Tachyons are Aaron’s field of research, which is why the army called him in with his boss, Dr Danson, to the house standing alone in the middle of the blast crater. It seems that the house is generating a tachyon field as it moves backwards in time.
The basement was an oven. Aaron held his breath as best he could and swept his [flamethrower] nozzle left and right, absorbing the blaze. It cleared slowly at first, then quicker as he moved forward. Ash swirled and reshaped itself into shelves, benches, a stool. Glass unshattered into gallon-size bottles scattered across the room. Smoke billowed into a stack of chopped wood.
Some neat twisty uses of causation paradox here in this skiffy story of a quantum time bomb, but the implications are grim.
“No Woman, No Plaything” by Lisa Shapter
Exploratory Corps Magistrate Resada stops at Planet 11811 for a brief courtesy visit and senses that something is definitely wrong. The colony founder whose name is God is a tipoff. But whatever disturbs him doesn’t compare to what passes for normality among the Corps, where women are forbidden in farspace and thus men are altered to bear children. Either this is all some irony far too deep and subtle for me to grasp or the story just doesn’t make any sense. I lean towards the latter explanation.
“Hostile Universe” by K Eason
A team of janissaries is sent down to a hazardous world to investigate a crash site where survivors are unlikely but remote readings suggest the presence of life. There are persistent vague rumors of indigenes. Sergeant Mercx isn’t happy about this.
Jenner wouldn’t believe it. He had an answer in mind already, had indigene fever-bright in his eyes. And he’d take that down to the troops; when they dropped, she’d have a team distracted, looking for aliens and chattering what if instead of minding what was.
A lot going on here: science fiction, horror, a mystery, and primarily military SF. The tension is palpable. But the heart of the story is Marcx, weighing the mission and her responsibility to the troops under her command. Classic stuff.
“Fall from Grace” by David Tallerman
Famine and war. Sarah has been sent by a relief agency to make a report on a bad situation. But it’s worse than she could have imagined.
The idea that she’d go back, file a report, that aid would come and lives would be saved, was beginning to seem like a sick joke. Desperately trying to remain rational, she thought, even if only we can help a few, a dozen, one, and tried to believe it. She kept walking, with no idea of what she hoped to find.
Although there’s an element of the fantastic here, it’s implied rather than overt. The horror as described is unfortunately not even fictional; camps like the one Sarah finds are all too common in today’s world, in which relief agencies strive in futility to make a difference. The narrative, unfortunately, inserts too much lecture into the situation.
“Dead Merchandise” by Ferrett Steinmetz
Sheryl is on a mission of liberation. It appears to be too late. Neurologically-compelled buying has already destroyed civilization.
That was why she squeezed her eyes shut and moved forward, ignoring the hundreds of emaciated survivors who flattened themselves against the empty storefronts like worshippers. Worshoppers. The stores held only holograms, all the actual dresses long sold or stolen, but still the shoppers tapped their credit cards against the glass, whispering prayers to the ad-faeries: make me beautiful, let me forget.
This vision of a world destroyed by consumption is darkly absurd, but not as dark as the two previous. I would have moved it up a couple of slots in the ToC. Readers will recognize it as a commentary on the advertising culture, but I’m also reminded of the behavior of viruses that kill their hosts – not a successful strategy.
Tor.com, October 2012
This month we have the annual Steampunk Week and also a Ghost Week, doubtless in honor of the season. Sorting through the excerpts, outtakes and promotional material, I find two works of original and independent fiction.
“The Commonplace Book” by Jacob Clifton
In an alternate future with clockwork servants that thinks it’s Victorian England, even when it’s an imaginary borough of NYC, Lady Ada Babbage is distracted by annoying social obligations and suitors from her work on the quantum engine she has named the Commonplace Book.
Smaller than a child’s portion of dinner roast, the crystalline mind sat just behind a silver-glass window, humming and quirking and occasionally sparking as she worked. She fed it punch cards of greater and greater complexity until its computational powers surpassed even Adelaide’s ability to follow, and on into—possibly, she hoped and prayed—chaos computation itself.
A manic cross between steampunk and Jane Austen, resulting in what might well be called an Absurdity of Manners, if that is coining a critical term. History and literature are milked and curdled into mutant forms, giving us, as well as Ada, characters like Little Darcy, Max Willoughby, and Lucia Mapp [it’s not only Austen]. As well as a deconstruction of steampunk, the whole thing is a clever bit of fun, particularly for dedicated allusion-hunters.
“Too Fond” by Leanna Renee Hieber
In Victorian England, Eloise Brown crafts hair mourning ornaments that capture the interest of the handsome Mr McGill, who flatters her by his insistence that
Eloise’s success was due to her belief in the inherent magic of the process, her ardent confidence that captured bits of soul lived on inside her work. At her core, he claimed, she must be magical.
But Mr McGill, alas, is too fond of his bride to notice Eloise. Then tragedy strikes.
While unambiguously fantastic, this subtly chilling little ghost story hints that there is perhaps something to the name of sorceress that McGill bestows on Eloise, that perhaps her wishes might have had some unconscious effect on events.
Black Gate, October 2012
After a prolonged period of limbo, the publishers of this former slick printzine, like so many others, have announced a shift to online publication, posting a new piece of fiction once a week on the BG website. The problem immediately apparent is that the site was never designed for such a purpose, nor did the publishers see fit to redesign it, choosing instead to “jump right in, and figure it out as we go.” The result is that the stories are difficult to locate, buried like an afterthought amongst other material of a very miscellaneously bloggish sort. Nor is the distinction between original short fiction and excerpts apparent. The print BG displayed attention to matters of design, but this online version is a very haphazard, slipshod effort. Contrary to the editor’s claim, it is not at all like reading a copy of the print version, and not how an online magazine ought to present itself. To make things worse, the fiction is presented in variously colored type on an unreadable black background. I value my fading eyesight too much to embark on it.
I may take another look next year if the publishers ever figure it out. Not reviewed.
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