The year-end issue of F&SF, another good one. Also a couple of anthologies. I keep looking for new original anthologies, hoping to find fiction of high quality; overall, I’m not finding a whole lot of it this time.
There was a time, not too long ago, when readers of this zine could expect with just about every issue a story by either Robert Reed or Albert E Cowdrey. Lately, for whatever reason, there seems to be at least one Cowdrey story in every issue, while the Reeds have diminished in frequency. This is unfortunate, as of the two, Reed is far the better author; some of the best pieces to appear recently in the zine have been under his byline. But now, besides the obligatory Cowdrey, we have a new Reed novella to appreciate. Most of the shorter works are well worth reading. A pretty good issue.
“Katabasis” by Robert Reed
Set in the author’s posthuman “Great Ship” universe. Inside the vast body of the ship, high-gravity beings once built a wheel-shaped habitat that is now used by tourists as a test of endurance. The high-gravity environment is so arduous that beings like humans can hardly bear their own weight, so they must employ porters to carry their food and water – and their bodies if they fail during the attempt. Katabasis works as a porter; she is a survivor of the arduous journey her own people once took to reach the ship. When the human named Varid offers to hire her for the trek, she turns him down, suspecting “a fragile will and a foolish nature”. But circumstances change when the other porters in the group are killed in a landslide, leaving the humans to press on with only Katabasis to support them. It isn’t enough, even for the effectively immortal inhabitants of the ship.
Every injury could be healed, but there were costs. Heat and the rapid weaving of tissue and bone required high levels of fuel, and they were already limited in the food they carried. If the humans avoided stumbling, they would eventually reach the final kilometer with a last meal in their guts. But the descending trails were never easy, and the food shares had to be cut again. Missing calories forced injured bodies to cheat with the healing. Mass was lost, fat burned, and organs minimized before precious muscle was stolen. The humans shrank. Proportions changed, saving what was necessary to walk while stripping away what didn’t matter today. But even the most careful manipulations caused strength to fade and bones weaken, and the shriveled, half-starved bodies defended themselves with extreme caution, measuring each step twice before making the attempt.
The title here is important. Katabasis is not the name the character was born with; she took it on the ship. It means “the descent”, and it evokes not only the last half of the trek and the descent into hell, but also the epic journey of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand.
Historical Exegesis: Xenophon’s account of the long march is known as the Anabasis, or the ascent. When ten thousand Greek mercenaries marched upcountry into Babylonia, it was indeed an ascent. But their long retreat after the battle was lost was in fact a katabasis, a descent in both geographic and moral terms. Yet history has always viewed it as a heroic triumph of human will.
The trek here is also meant as a test of the will, but the accident makes it a greater test than originally anticipated. Such extreme circumstances often expose the true character of individuals. So Katabasis learns why Varid is the way he is, and readers learn how Katabasis originally came to the ship. The contrast between their stories is significant. The journey can’t really be called a test of human will, because none of the characters are truly human, not as we are. But Katabasis, of a completely different species, is in a way closest to the human condition when we see her on her own homeworld, where her people undertook their journey as a matter of survival. Katabasis, then, was mortal; the passengers on the ship no longer suffer under that handicap. It makes a real difference when you know that, no matter what extremes you suffer, you’re going to be retrieved afterwards. Varid has come as close to death as anyone on the ship and has been so changed by it that Katabasis regards him as no longer human. Mortality and loss make a bond between them. And that, I believe, is the real lesson of the story: if you have to live forever, you may need someone else with you on the journey.
The Great Ship is essentially a stage where different adventures can be set. Some characters may recur, as they do here, but knowledge of the previous stories is by no means required to enjoy the present one. What makes it different from other stages is time. The voyage is near-infinite in duration. Lifespans are measured in millennia. And as the author reminds us, death in this universe is no longer a permanent consideration. Xenophon was a student of Socrates, who would say that all humans are mortal. Reed makes us ask what, then, are the passengers on the Great Ship?
“High Stakes” by Naomi Kritzer
Following Beck’s previous adventures on the ultra-libertarian archipelago where her father has taken her, she considers the fact that she can’t trust him, knowing now that he lied about her mother being dead. So she’s a bit suspicious when he gets her a job working for a reality show that’s setting up contests among bond-workers – claiming that no one is going to get killed in the games.
Buying bond-worker contracts was a lot like negotiating for Scotch or vanilla-scented bath bubbles or whatever, back when I was Finding — tracking down odd items that people wanted to purchase or trade for. The trick was to shrug and act like it was all the same to me whether the person sold or not. If they balked at my “final offer” (which was always ten percent lower than the budget Janet had given me for each contract), I’d tell them I’d have to clear it with Janet, and warn them that if I could find someone cheaper before my meeting with her, we’d probably lose interest. They all caved, because when it came right down to it, from a bond-broker’s perspective all these people were basically widgets, and the TV studio was offering really good money.
Beck is getting into serious subversion of the system now, growing up. And we’re seeing more of the darker side of the system, and the degree to which Beck’s father is involved with it. However the sense of fun is diminished, and I hope the author doesn’t get carried too much further in the direction of polemic. The reaction of the TV producer is a bit too easy, although I do like her way of standing down the system. There’s no doubt that readers familiar with the previous story are going to have a better time with this one, although it’s still a good read. I’m expecting subsequent installments of this series to be more grim as the character takes on the system full-time.
“The Problem of the Elusive Cracksman” by Ron Goulart
Another Harry Challenge story, more heavy-handed farce in this fantasy faux-Sherlockian series, although it’s marginally less unreadable than the previous, which is to say, I got through it. The heroic detective doesn’t actually solve his cases so much as wait for the mystery to be revealed by magical companions.
“Heaventide” by K J Kabza
Daybreak-Under-Clouds has always wanted to Travel as the young men do, but the Council refuses to allow it.
The worst of it was that Grandma was right. Daybreak had only been a woman for a year, and while her body continually ached for consort with men — their big hands, their broad shoulders, their full desire hot alongside hers — in every other womanly art, she was an embarrassing failure.
The lands to the east, south and north are forbidden to her, while on the west lies the ocean. So Daybreak builds a boat, with the help of her lover.
This seems at first to be a conventional story of gender identity, within a different but human culture. However, it quickly becomes evident that these people are not human, belonging instead to an exogamous, matriarchal species in which the sex of children is indeterminate until puberty. Young men who Travel don’t seem to return home, while the women carry on the family line. And it’s noteworthy that when a stranger sees Daybreak naked, he assumes she is a young man. So while it’s clear that we can’t judge her culture in human terms, it raises the interesting question of how we might think about gender identity in nonhuman – alien – terms. Aside from such issues, I particularly like the descriptions of the sea and its creatures.
“Claim Blame” by Alan Dean Foster
A Mad Amos Malone Tall Tale. A couple of miners ask the mountain man’s help in their dispute with a band of gnomes who claim their claim, with a deed registered in Asgard.
He looked back at the chieftain and his assembled prickly tribe. They were just itching for a fight. You could smell it. Nor were they put off by Malone’s size. Such a reaction was to be expected, he knew, of folk who spent their considerable lives underground while hewing their way through solid rock. Rising from his crouch he turned and headed in the direction of his mount. Equally anxious, the two miners followed close on his heels, clinging to him like remoras to a shark.
Another piece of over-the-top humor in this series that I rather enjoy, despite the bad jokes, ethnic clichés, and a concluding pun.
“Application” by Lewis Shiner
Short-short-short. Fallen on hard times, Sam is filling out job applications online when he gets a reply from his old computer. After you traded me in, they shipped me off to Bangalore and attached me to a 2.7-million node network here.
Bitter, biting humor, too close to home for much laughing at.
“Breathe” by Steven Popkes
“Anything can be stolen if you know how,” Will tells us. In other words, “the ability to take a quality from someone else by magical means.” This vampiric ability is something passed down in his family from their nasty old father. His brother has always taken as much as he pleases, but all Will steals is breath, and only when his asthma gets the best of him. Now a matured Brandon is a doctor and newly concerned with the ethics of the situation.
A really nice story about family and the blurred line between right and wrong. Popkes has the prose skill to carry this off well, keeping the touch light and never moralistic.
“The Ladies in Waiting” by Albert E Cowdrey
Another Jimmy and Morrie story. The boys investigate a haunted B&B in Mississippi, where the denizens are the usually colorful Cowdreyesque characters.
“Right now we got no paying guests,” she explained, “so [the colonel] kind of goes back to nature. When I tell him not to do it, he just says his ancestors have spent the last two hundred years sitting out here in their drawers, and he’s not about to break the tradition.”
I’m not that fond of Jimmy and Morrie, but it’s the local characters and dialogue, as usual, that makes for a good Cowdrey story. Belle Quitman is a fine specimen, full of family lore that provides the key to the ghostly mystery. There’s a nice warmhearted conclusion.
“If the Stars Reverse Their Courses, if the Rivers Run Back from the Sea” by Alter S Reiss
War and revolution has come and gone from Limien, leaving a new government and a lot of ruins. Now Andier has come to one of the old villas to make a journey to confront the past.
At the bottom of the stair was a small stone room, with a single line cut into the floor. That line looped and swirled, turning into all the constellations of the zodiac, linked together by the galaxy snake, with pits to mark the important stars. There was also a corpse. It was wearing the uniform of a captain, and it had been there a long time; five years. It was as dry and as light as a bundle of twigs. Not just a captain. It was wearing the uniform of the Captain of Limien. So far, so good. I kicked it out of the way, sat down where it had rested, and uncorked the bottle of Coteri.
A well-done setting, an interesting premise. The author spins a deeply melancholy web of nostalgia over the scene.
“Waiting for a Me Like You” by Chris Willrich
Parallel worlds, connected by flipgates. Bob Mendez is a transdimensional fixer who has been employed more than once by the clients who are interviewing him now. But there’s a big catch.
The sort of story with a twist best not revealed ahead of time. Cleverly sinister. A bit much on the explanations, though. For all that happens, we don’t really get to know Bob at all.
Magic, edited by Jonathan Oliver
Subtitle: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane.
The British, at least, are still doing some original anthologies. Here are fifteen stories on the subject of doing magic. Overall, the book is dark fantasy, as the practitioners of magic tend to use it for illicit purposes and sometimes rely on dark powers to carry out their projects. If the collection has a thematic ancestor, it might be “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
“The Wrong Fairy” by Audrey Niffenegger
Billed as the flagship story of the collection, an ambiguous fantasy based on historical fact. Charles Altamont Doyle was an inferior painter and an alcoholic who was eventually committed to an asylum by his son, the doctor and soon-to-be famous author. There he has visitations from a being whom he takes to be an emissary of the Fairy Queen, inviting him to her realm, with the promise of drink, to paint her children. But what he finds is not what he had expected.
He gathered up his painting things and she gave him another fir branch. Then she compressed him until he was seven inches tall and she put him in her pocket. He felt marsupial, but it was much more comfortable than going along on foot. They rushed through Paddington and across the meadow. The lady opened a hole in the ground and they made their way through narrow caves. She stopped, took him out of her pocket and said, “Now you have to walk.”
A sharp disappointment for readers who have liked this author’s work. The visions of the future that Doyle is shown in the story are as much a fictional cliché as Doyle’s fairy paintings were. Nor is it clear what purpose is supposed to be served by reimagining them in the hackneyed form of 19th century fairy images. Then of course we know that Doyle was highly delusional, so that these encounters are likely to have been hallucinations; the story is only ambiguously fantastic. Worse, it’s not about magic in the sense of the anthology, as it isn’t at all clear that Doyle’s paintings are actually a form of magic-working.
The interest here is really external to the text, as readers are reminded that Arthur Conan Doyle himself had a strong interest in fairy lore, as well as the actual Charles’ fairy paintings, which were generally quite bad. These factual elements could have formed the core of a good story. This one isn’t it.
“If I Die, Kill My Cat” by Sarah Lotz
Rachel is in one of those crews who come out and clean up after messy deaths. The current scene has the usual products of decomposition but also an overlooked discovery: the deceased’s passport with a note inside: “If I Die, Kill My Cat.” Of course, she doesn’t. She takes it in, despite the note, the warning of her sister the witch doctor, and the belated information that the late owner was a druid.
I yanked it open, yelping as something shot out towards me. I retreated, looked down and into the eyes of a small black cat. It mewled at me. It was super cute, but also super thin, the ridges of its spine and ribs clearly visible under its coat.
This light dark fantasy is definitely about practicing magic. The black cat, naturally, plays an important role. The premise is reasonable, if one accepts the element of magic. It’s overall of the “fun read” sort, carried by the narrator’s rather wise-ass voice.
“Shuffle” by Will Hill
Card tricks. As a teenager, the nameless narrator and his friends summon a demon for fun. This isn’t a good idea. Now the narrator carries the demon inside him and wins at casinos. This, it seems, is to draw its prey with the scent of the winnings.
I can’t explain why I win. The thing inside me might be able to, but I don’t let it out. I never let it out, not voluntarily. I bet and double and split and I win and win and win and it waits and waits and waits.
If there’s something interesting here, it’s the question of why the demon allows the narrator to lose all his winnings in acts of expiation. This implies a degree of free will that seems inconsistent with the rest of the premise.
“Domestic Magic” by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
Felix’s mother is a witch, which translates in his view to “crazy lady.” Felix would like a normal mother.
He was the good kid, which was kind of sickening but it was easier than doing stuff that made his mother cry and chant and cook weird stuff in the slow-cooker that stank up whatever crappy apartment or homeless shelter they were living in at the moment.
His sister Margaret is the troublesome kid, but since his mother won’t look out for her, Felix feels that it’s his responsibility.
The authors do an excellent job showing Felix’s frustration with his mother and sister. It’s entertaining yet depressing, as we realize that such dynamics also play out in real-life cases of mental illness, drugs, homelessness.
“Cad Coddeu” by Liz Williams
The narrator is mad and lost in the woods, where he finds himself caught in a conflict between two of the Changing – the deer girl and the oak-man trying to capture her.
He spoke their names, the secret ogham names that I had come to know through their own whispering: fearn, duir, nuin, tinne. He spoke to the male trees only, the chieftain trees, calling them up, and where they had stood, wood-warriors stood in their place. Holly men, straight as their spears, sharp toothed; alder men, with needfire flickering around their wet skins; rowan men whose hair was tipped with blood.
Really neat fantastic setting based on druidic lore frames the classically simple story, one that has taken many, many shapes in its long life. While I quite like this piece, its world and the manner of its magic, it doesn’t really fit into the anthology, where the other stories have more or less contemporary settings.
“Party Tricks” by Dan Abnett
Politics – British variety. There has been a scandal in the government and a clean sweep is required. The leaders of the party have chosen their man, but at the last minute, Rakely’s name is brought up. Everyone scoffs at first, but suddenly Rakely seems to be the obvious choice. Except for Hardiman, until Hardiman is felled by a sudden stroke. By which time, readers know pretty well what’s going on, and if not, the author makes it clear:
I also remember a cartoon appearing in the FT around that time, one by Pax, which showed a triumphant Rakely dressed as Aleister bloody Crowley or something, sacrificing a buxom virgin in Parliament Square in exchange for Faustian advancement.
In the background, there was Forster as an alley cat, sniffing around some bins marked ‘Cabinet scraps’.
Sly and twisty. The author nails the language of political discourse. This story epitomizes the sort of thing the anthology is supposed to be about, people doing magic to their intended advantage.
“First and Last and Always” by Thana Niveau
Tamsin has a massive unrequited crush on Nicky.
She knew she was supposed to be too old to believe in fairy tales, but she couldn’t help it; she was a romantic. She wanted to believe that wishes came true, that love conquered all. Most of all she wanted to believe that there were magic spells that worked.
That is to say, love spells. Readers know, of course, that no good can come of this.
There’s a YA tone and no real surprise to this tale of being careful what you wish for.
“The Art of Escapology” by Alison Littlewood
Tommy really wants to go to the circus, and he wants his Dad to take him. Dad, however, is deficient in the sense of wonder. Then the magician conjures the spirit of Houdini to possess him.
His father walked around the straitjacket. He stood behind it and reached out both arms as if he was going to dive into it, but instead he waited while the cloaked man removed the garment from the chain and started to strap him in.
Unfortunately, Houdini doesn’t depart.
A dark story, in which some mild family dysfunction sets the scene for tragedy to come. Seems to me that denial turns out to be a great deal of the problem. It also makes me wonder, if one accepts that a spirit of the dead can possess the body of a living person, whether that spirit is bound to that person. Whether, in other words, the magician has given away his great asset, and why he wouldn’t want to retrieve it.
“The Baby” by Christopher Fowler
Sasha has a crush on a failing rock musician and makes it with him after the performance. Which is to say, she is raped. She falls into the hands of a witch who tells her she’ll take care of the problem, but things go wrong.
She found it in the corner, black and shiny with dried blood; an upright foetus with a bulbous delicate head and tadpole eyes, a mouth that would have been comical, so wide and gummy, but it just looked unfinished and unready to be born. She had arrested its development but the magic had allowed it to live on.
Classic horror. Sasha is a character who earns her fate not through ill-doing but sheer stupidity, doubled.
“Do As Thou Wilt” by Storm Constantine
It took Leah a long time to get over her affair with Brett Lyle, a man she has come to think of as a psychic vampire. Then she learns from a friend that Lyle is still victimizing other women. Leah used to be a practitioner of witchcraft; she believes Lyle possesses a malign power. Since the affair, her faith in her magic has died.
“If you must look at it in terms of magic, let’s just say he was a test I failed. And much as I would like to see him gunned down in cold blood, never mind be given a civilised, chastening lesson in self-awareness and responsibility, it’s unethical to try and influence another’s will.”
Then comes an opportunity.
A highly feminist work, and a rather pedantic one. Leah is attempting to balance the impulses to revenge and punishment with a sense of justice. She turns out to be a very strong worker of magic, which makes me skeptical that a witch so ostensibly strong could be so powerless as she had been. I don’t find the scenario really convincing.
“Bottom Line” by Lou Morgan
Magic runs in Donnie’s family, but it comes with a price.
“Be careful with it,” my granddad said. “It’s a gift, and it’s a curse. No, don’t laugh. I mean that. You see, you can do anything you want with it: anything. The world’s yours. But magic… it eats you up from the inside. It’ll take another bite out of you every time you try it until there’s nothing left of you but a shell. And once you start…”
Donnie, naturally, doesn’t listen. He ends up working for a gangster, and the gangster thinks he owns him.
The premise is interesting, but the story, while promising, doesn’t come to that much in the end.
“Mailerdaemon” by Sophia McDougall
Computer magic by email. Grace, aka LadyJinglyJones, is cursed by unemployment and recurring nightmares. Her online friend Seven Magpies offers to introduce her to a friend, sortof, who can help.
Mr Levanter-Sleet is a nine-foot skeleton-demon with a body made of the shadows of plague-pit bones and corpse-candles for eyes and teeth like someone’s playing pick-up sticks with meat saws and steel sabres.
Mr Levanter-Sleet doesn’t like nightmares. The problem is, he doesn’t like guys, either. And Grace finally meets a guy.
Very neat. Fresh and original. I like the way the author handles online relationships, the way people migrate from one network to the next, friends who have never met in RL. Grace’s troubles in RL are convincing, as is the witchcraft, when she finally gets around to believing in it. And I love the ending.
“Buttons” by Gail Z Martin
Cassie is an antique dealer and a psychic.
It’s the back room that keeps us in business. We exist to find the dangerous magical items that make their way onto the market and remove them before anyone gets hurt. Most of the time, we succeed, but there have been a few notable exceptions, like that quake back in 1886 that leveled most of the city. Oops.
At which I wonder – how does this laudable activity pay? It doesn’t sound like business to me. But there seems to be some kind of underground society that may fund it. At any rate, Cassie specializes in buttons, and today she’s sorting through the stuff that came in from a hoarder’s estate, when she picks up a bad vibe.
This one annoys. Cassie and her associate solve the mystery with unlikely ease. The prose is full of awkwardisms: we’re told more than once that “Spookies” are items carrying a malevolent residue, and once is more than we need to be told by Cassie about her “strawberry-blonde hair.” I’m not too familiar with this author, but I get the sense that the story is part of a series.
“Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files
Bill, stuck penniless in Europe, has taken up burglary and now plans to rob the woman oddly named Sessilie after banging her in a bar – a telling comment on the male libido, as even in the midst of the act, he really dislikes Sessilie. By which time the author has thrown out sufficient hints that readers are quite aware it’s Sessilie who’s the predator in the case, not clueless Bill.
Sessilie’s constant smile skewed a bit to the left, those horrifying nails making a slithery noise on the banister as she dragged them along its curve.
Predictable outcome, and while the details have some interest, they come out in an excess of blathering between the characters, who’ve been telling each other the same things for a very long time.
“Dumb Lucy” by Robert Shearman
“The Great Zinkiewicz” and his not-daughter Lucy are conjurers traveling through a countryside that has no use for what they offer because these are dark times.
No one could guess why the demons and angels were at war. But it wasn’t about us. They didn’t care about us. And wherever they met in battle a blackness would descend, and it would engulf everything, and nothing could escape it, and it was spreading across the land.
Because of the blackness, sometimes “real” magic creeps into the conjuring act, but the consequences can be dire.
A well-done post-apocalyptic dark fantasy in which much is left mysteriously unexplained.
After, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
The subtitle, Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, serves as the description of this collection for the 12-and-over reader. It also figures in the editorial introduction, in which the distinction between the post-apocalyptic and the dystopian is briefly examined, with the editors coming down on the side of inclusiveness, although the title strongly suggests the post. Of course many post-apocalyptic societies will develop into dystopias.
While original anthologies for adults have become an increasingly endangered species in the current US publishing environment, there seems to be room under the YA label. This one appeared promising; the list of authors certainly contains author names that signal good reading. Unfortunately, the YA-ness dilutes the interest of the stories from even the best writers. While there is a fairly wide variety in the settings, the stories themselves tend to suffer from sameness. The characters are all adolescents, someone having decided that teenagers only want to read about people their own age. In many cases, the authors have used the apocalypse as a convenient way to eliminate everyone else, leaving the teenagers to make the best of circumstances on their own.
“The Segment” by Genevieve Valentine
Dystopia. The news is scripted [the motto: Let Those Who Would Be Fooled, Be Fooled], Poppy is auditioning for a big role as a child soldier. But another actor is jealous, and Poppy is sure she’s planning to sabotage her opportunity.
This one is clearly on the dystopian side of the divide, if a divide exists, under the classic subheading: If This Goes On. Besides the faux news, there is a sharp class divide, and the child actors come from the disposable ranks of the Lowers, their contracts in a way worse than slavery. The situation is less grim than it might be, as the first-person narration tells the reader that Poppy has escaped the worst outcome.
“After the Cure” by Carrie Ryan
Post the zombie epidemic. Vail has, in theory, been cured, and has now been released into a world prejudiced against her kind. But like many others once infected, she still feels sensations of illicit hunger.
When we hunted we were sleek and beautiful in our unity, calling to each other as we ran, no such thing as an obstacle in the night.
In our own sick way, we all meant something to one another. Each one lost, indistinguishable, to the pack.
Sometimes she thinks it would be better if they all had been killed instead of cured. Much of the uninfected population agrees. But one boy doesn’t.
Definitely on the Post side. This one does a fine job of getting into the mentality of a monster and the regret of an ex-monster. There’s some well-wound tension, as it’s clear that Vail is going to face a moment of decision, but we aren’t sure until the end what direction she will take.
“Valedictorian” by N K Jemisin
Essentially Post. It seems that some kind of artificial intelligence took over/merged with much of humanity to create a posthuman race. Unaltered humans began and lost a war against them; now they live behind the wall that was meant as their defense. Each community, however, is required to pay an annual tribute of 10% of their least promising youth, plus the single most promising, the valedictorian. This has resulted in a society based on determined mediocrity. Zinhle, however, is determined to be the best, no matter where it takes her.
These facts are essentially background, revealed only near the end of the story. Until that point, readers are left trying to figure out what’s been going on, while the foreground is focused on Zinhle as she sets herself apart from the rest of her world and suffers the consequences of isolation and hostility. It’s interesting, once she learns what the real situation is, to watch her shift mentally between “we” and “they”.
But the real panic hits as she imagines the world filled with nameless, faceless dark hordes, closing in, threatening by their mere existence. There is a pie chart somewhere which is mostly “them” and only a sliver of “us”, and the “us” is about to be popped like a zit.
What readers won’t find, though, is a lot of tension, as Zinhle’s decision is never really in doubt.
“Visiting Nelson” by Katherine Langrish
Post global warming, with London flooded and decayed, Charlie and his brother Billie take the skiff out to Saint Paul’s, where Nelson is buried.
Nelson is two things. One is a statchoo a mile or two to the west. He’s bin there forever, far as I know. Once there woulda bin buildings and stuff all around him; now he’s right on the edge of the tide, a stone man balancing on a stone column fifty metres high, leaning on a sword and staring out over the river.
For Charlie, Nelson is an oracle, and this pilgrimage is a quest for an answer, because Charlie wants to leave London and the drug gang he belongs to, but it would be too dangerous to take Billie.
Most notable here is the degraded dialect, illustrating the depths to which civilization has fallen. Except that the author also equips Charlie with a “cell” that makes calls and strikes an anachronistic note.
“All I Know of Freedom” by Carol Emshwiller
Not yet Post. There seems to be some global warming going on, and a group of cultists have proclaimed the imminent end of the world. They’ve built a space ship and are heading off to another world with as many young girls as they can gather, to populate it. Bee, ignorant of the world, takes this as good fortune, as she is running away from the people who brought her illegally into the country as a slave. The problem is, as she was running away she found a sick dog, and it’s become her best friend. But there’s no room for dogs on the trip.
Readers familiar with this author may find the narrative voice uncharacteristically conventional.
“The Other Elder” by Beth Revis
Dystopia. On a generation ship, an Elder is cloned [or so it seems] from each age cohort and brought up to eventually govern as the Eldest. The narrator is the youngest of this line and becomes the Elder at an early age, when he learns the history that led to this system, in which individuality and passions are suppressed.
I am a product of the man in white, not the woman in red. I am from the side that won, the controlled, even march across the ship to press the passionate, angry, fighting people against the walls until their blood stained the metal the same red as the shirts they wore.
And he isn’t really sure that the right side won.
There’s a nice subtle twist here. Most of the story is told in the youngest Elder’s voice, but at the conclusion it turns to the third person, leaving readers to consider the story’s title and wonder at the Eldest’s identity. This is one case where it’s quite important that the characters are known only as “Elder.”
“The Great Game at the End of the World” by Matthew Kressel
Post alien invasion.
The school was destroyed. Crooked rebar poked from steaming piles of shattered stone. Small fires burned. Trapped kids cried, their voices muffled by tons of concrete. The sky shined with an endless spray of stars, a sky like you’d see in the deepest, darkest woods. But that didn’t make sense because the sun was up and glowing, bright as noon, giving everything long, strange shadows that shook like rattlesnake tails.
Chunks of towns and cities are floating in space. Russell and his sister Jenna have survived, but the most of the people are translucent and mindless. To save Jenna’s mind, Russ starts a baseball game with the aliens, filling out his lineup with the mindless dead that Jenna calls Kens and Barbies.
A story about the need to find meaning somehow, when everything seems meaningless. And of course taking care of your little sister, no matter how much of a pain she can be. The scenario is interestingly dire, leavened with the absurdity of the various aliens, who seem to be as trapped as the humans.
“Reunion” by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Post dystopia. A dictatorship took over the country and took away many of the children. Isabella’s younger sister Maria was taken, adopted by a general, lived a luxurious life believing these were her parents. Isabella at home had to work in the fields. Now the regime has fallen and the children returned to their parents. The reunion doesn’t go well.
“Pay no attention to Isabella,” Mama said to the girl. “She was always jealous of you. You were far prettier, the prettiest girl in the village. And even though you were two years younger, you were smarter as well. Now you have a fine education, lessons from a governess. Isabella can’t even sign her own name.”
Unusually dark. There’s horrific stuff here – jealousy, betrayal, murder, torture — but the real horror is in the way family members can turn on each other. The author goes overboard in her description of some of the atrocities committed by the regime. This is one YA piece where no real form of salvation comes in the end.
“Blood Drive” by Jeffrey Ford
Dystopia. Some politicians decided to allow [require?] carrying guns in school, so all the members of the senior class are packing. This is not a Good Thing.
McKenzie Batkin wasn’t paying attention and turned the safety off instead of on before she started spinning her antique colt. The sound of the shot was so sudden, we all jumped, and then silence followed by the smell of gun smoke. The bullet went through her boot and took off the tip of her middle toe.
Essentially a satirical polemic. It has its amusingly bloody moments, but the political commentary is heavy-handed.
“Reality Girl” by Richard Bowes
Dystopian Post. The usual global warming/UV/toxic air and water. Diving boys jump into the river for coins to amuse the tourists, but their life expectancy isn’t long. The world is short of boys.
The tourists applauded but this is how they always do it, throwing each one a little further away, watching kids risk skin and eyes in water full of everything from turds to nuclear waste, seeing if their nerve will fail, hoping for the thrill of seeing one go under and not come up.
The streets are violent. Real has a “thing in her head” that allows her into other minds. She and her partner Dare use this to their advantage. One day an important movie producer wants to use Real in his upcoming production of gang warfare and diving boys in New York. But reality overtakes art.
The names contribute to the romanticization of kid gangs, which reminds me a lot of the worlds of comics and anime. The story is unfocused. It makes no sense that the movie company would know anything about Real [which has nothing to do with her secret] and want to base a film on her.
“Hw th’Irth Wint Wrong by Hapless Joey @ homeskool.guv” by Gregory Maguire
Post. Global cooling for a change. The title suggests the nature of the prose. Joey possesses a certain insight into the situation, although his grasp of the workings of the SuperCollider is shaky. Still, he is considered a superior student.
Back then th’Irth wuz pirfect an men had jobs an cash and womin had soft yello hair an didnt need so many cotes. Thay culdn feel the cold I gess. It wuz a time of heros an moving stars on th’Irth. Grandid livd then so did Big Ant. So did my parints. Th’Irth wen I git born wuz still paradize only nobuddy new it wuz.
Some neat dark irony in the conclusion. But it’s not clear how the generation of Joey’s parents and grandparents became so degraded so quickly, when they had lived back in the days of heroes and education on Irth.
“Rust with Wings” by Steven Gould
Plague-of-Bugs, the metal eating variety. Jeremy’s family is trying to escape ahead of the bugs. They don’t make it before the bugs eat the car. Then they realize that everything metal is now a target, especially electronics, like Dad’s pacemaker.
Jeremy curled in on himself, arms crossed. He remembered the body from the road, the one the vultures had been stripping and he wondered if this is how the man had died. Had the bugs drilled through his head going for his crowns? Did he have a pacemaker or an artificial knee or hip? For a terrible instant Jeremy visualized his father laying face up in the sun, the bugs crawling over him.
This story uses the same post apocalyptic setting as other stories in the author’s series about these bugs, but this one is set in the early days of the infestation, thus being Apocalypse rather than Post. The premise is genuinely frightening and the threat to the family seems quite real. It’s interesting to see the personal dynamics alter, the habitual parent and kid roles being dropped in the face of the imperatives of survival. Jeremy and his sister exhibit realistic ingenuity and resilience without romanticization.
“Faint Heart” by Sarah Rees Brennan
Post. A post-war society decides to eliminate the troublesome element, the young unmarried men. It institutes a Trial from which only one man will emerge alive, and only a few, considered of particular worth to society, are exempted. The prize is marriage to the Queen, an artificial construct of perfect beauty. But the current Queen-to-be is subversive and rebellious.
The Court had created a monster, a fierce hybrid beast all the men who made their way through the maze had to fight, using the same science they had used to create their perfect queen, to their exact specifications. Sometimes Rosamond felt like she was the monster.
While set in a future, the scenario recreates the society of the past, greatly resembling the faux-medieval worlds typical of genre of fantasy. The theme here is social criticism – feminist, of course, but also condemning the sort of class system that privileges the rich and powerful, who exempt themselves from the rules that afflict the lower orders. There’s also a certain amount of deconstructing the traditional fairytale. While this is all very well, I suppose, the premise is fatally flawed; while exterminating the majority of young males every generation, the author makes no provision for the imbalance in the sexes that must naturally result and supposes that the population will somehow restore itself to provide a next generation. Not credible.
“The Easthound” by Nalo Hopkinson
. . . back when adults used to be just grown-up people suspicious of packs of schoolkids in their stores, not howling, sharp-toothed child-killers with dank, stringy fur and paws instead of hands. Ravenous monsters that grew and grew so quickly that you could watch it happen, if you were stupid enough to stick around. Their teeth, hair and claws lengthened, their bodies getting bigger and heavier minute by minute, until they could no longer eat quickly enough to keep up with the growth, and they weakened and died a few days after they’d sprouted.
One of them bit off Millie’s hand. The surviving kids are on their own, cold and hungry, eating as little as possible to hold back the change. Millie has developed the superstition that there is something called the easthound behind it all.
This one is definitely horror. The monster is ostensibly something like a cross between zombie and werewolf [the children play a word game called “loup-de-lou”], but the real horror is finding that the monster is something within yourself or within the person closest to you. The story also suggests the metaphor of adults as predators on children. The author uses the lyrics from “Black Betty” as an epigraph, but aside from the “child’s gone wild” line, I’m not quite sure why. It’s adulthood that goes wild here.
“Before” by Carolyn Dunn
Post-plague, bacterial warfare turning on its creators. Sela is kept captive to supply her blood to researchers who believe they can create a cure from it; apparently persons of Indian descent have immunity. She retains her sanity by cultivating memories of her family and tribal traditions.
They hide behind the lights, keeping their faces hidden from me. The illness that sets their blood on fire and bursting within their bodies is not inside of me. They think that by taking my blood from me that they will be healed. Their skin grows sallow, pale, colorless under the lights.
Unrealistic and mawkish.
“Fake Plastic Trees” by Caitlin R Kiernan
Post nano-tech accident, i.e., THE GOO that turned most of the world into plastic. The few survivors have found safe places to settle, but Cody was curious about what was on the other side of the bridge. Now she’s writing the account of what she found there, to help her cope with the truth.
There are still all the warning signs on the fence, the ones the military put there. But people don’t go there. I suspect it reminds them of stuff from THE BEFORE that they don’t want to be reminded of, like how this is the only place to live now. How there’s really nowhere else to ever go. Which might be why none of the olders had ever actually told me to stay away from the bridge.
More science-fictional than a lot of these scenarios, although the explanations are drawn out way too long. What’s interesting here is Cody, wondering why she persists in denial. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t make this clear.
“You Won’t Feel a Thing” by Garth Nix
Post alien invasion that disappeared everyone over age fourteen and rounded up the rest to turn them into other things. The Arkle was being turned into a ferret when he escaped. Now he lives in a sanctuary that used to be a drug farm, hoping the camouflage holds up against Overlord surveillance. Now The Arkle has a toothache, and he’s left it too long before he went to tell Doc.
“I’m going to have to cut out the tooth, and he’s practically all Ferret in the jaw. Those teeth have roots four inches long, and nerve clusters around the blood-sucking channels . . . which I only know about in theory, since I never—”
It seems like the most interesting stories here are set in pre-established worlds. This is a strangely alien one that offers a definite fascination. I don’t think it really needed the extended reference to events from the establishing novel, however.
“The Marker” by Cecil Castellucci
Post mutation plague, from genetic engineering. Geo has come of age to be an apprentice Pater, which means he travels from town to town seeding new babies and testing the DNA of those that are born, winnowing out all those who fail the test. But the rest of the Paters are ill. Towns are dying. Only Geo seems to be healthy. And Geo is asking questions.
Later as the town sleeps, I lay awake. I think about the babe in the town that we put down. I think about how if Minerve had been in the Way, she would have been put down, too. I think about the birds. I think about the husks. I think that this town has something more than the sequence, more than our code and that it must be saved.
Geo is a well-done character, with a love of the natural world that comes through the stilted language he uses.