Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-December

Getting into the new year’s first issues of F&SF and Subterranean. Also some of the December ezines and the fall issue of On Spec.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, Jan/Feb 2013

A middling-good issue with some good stories.

“Watching the Cow” by Alex Irvine

The narrator’s kids are playing a VR game when they suddenly declare they can’t see. The same thing has happened at the same time to two million other kids. Oddly, the kids aren’t much bothered by this. It’s as if they have some other form of perception that compensates. When the narrator asks his sister the coder what the problem might be, she admits she inadvertently caused it by making a modification to the game’s code. But it looks like she is the only person who can undo what she has done. Except that the FBI doesn’t seem to be very understanding of this.

I’m not really quite convinced by the premise, but the story works fairly well regardless. At the heart is a father’s concern for his kids and the way parents cope with the changes that the future will inevitably bring them. Which is, not always too well.

When I came home from visiting Ariel I felt like the secret we now shared was a million-ton weight on my conscience, and it only got heavier when I was making dinner and bumped into Bart, who was standing between the stove and the fridge. “Come on, kid,” I said, annoyed in that everyday way that you get annoyed with little kids who get underfoot. “How come you’re always right there when I’m trying to make dinner?” I’d said the same thing to him and his sister a thousand times.

“Devil or Angel” by Matthew Hughes

Part of the author’s “Hell” series. This is a hybrid version of the afterlife, a sort of way station on the road to reincarnation. Jordan is a nice guy, particularly for the head of a record company. So when he’s killed in an airplane crash caused by his E*ville rock star, he’s surprised to be consigned to the wrong side – a mistake occasioned by accidental contact with his star. Worse, he had just met the woman whom he knows to be The One, and is now separated from her. Jordan demands an appeal of his case, but the bureaucracy of Hell doesn’t admit to mistakes. They have, however, made a big one in underestimating the tenacity of E*ville.

Beyond it, Jason can just see the dark waters of the great river. As he watches, a shadow-auraed figure, squirming and struggling, is brought to the portal. The soul reaches up and grasps the lintel of the doorway, fighting his eviction. Jason can hear him roaring and cursing. He recognizes the distinctive voice that he has heard so often in the recording studio.

This is fun. Total nonsense, of course, and a certain amount of gorpiness, as there is so much True Love involved, but sufficiently clever not to cloy.

“The Blue Celeb” by Desmond Warzel

Bill and Joe have a barbershop in Harlem, on a street where you don’t see many cars. So the robins-egg blue Chevy Celebrity parked in front stands out. No one knows where it came from and, most oddly, the VIN and license numbers don’t exist in the system. Then mysterious accidents start to happen to bad people in the neighborhood. And not-so-bad people.

Yeah, I know. Why’d I bother presenting myself as a veteran, a responsible businessman, and a charitable person — a proverbial pillar of the community — only to start going on about a devil-car? Because that’s four people who sat in that Celebrity, and four people dead. To me, that goes beyond coincidence; but even if it didn’t, would you take the chance?

Here’s an entertaining story thanks to the narrative voice and the well-done characters with their constant banter, but it deals thoughtfully with serious matters of morality and the notion that somebody cares about it all. Here’s a newer writer to watch.


“Ten Lights and Ten Darks” by Judith Moffett

Mike is assigned to do a feature on the “animal communicators” who claim to be able to speak psychically with pets, living and departed. Being more than skeptical, he doesn’t like the notion, but his boss is the boss. A friend of his has a dog with problems, so he comes along on the visit. Things don’t go quite as he had expected, and the situation turns into more than just a story assignment.

My perspective had been slipping all that day between credulity and its opposite, and now again, at that moment, my common sense revolted against what I’d just finished saying. At that moment the thought that interspecies telepathy might be possible — that I was actually considering it as a possible thing — seemed so preposterous that, without Charlie’s vivid interest in the subject, and my own increasingly vivid interest in Charlie, I would have dumped the whole screwy mess in a landfill.

A heartwarming story about credulity and open minds when dealing with phenomena that don’t seem rational.

“Night Train to Paris” by David Gerrold

The narrator is a science fiction author, whom we may think we know, traveling in Italy. On the train to Paris, the man with whom he is sharing his compartment says that this train has a history of passengers going missing. A mystery no one has been able to solve.
When the narrator asks why he is not afraid, if he knows this, he replies.

“I’ll tell you my secret. I stay up all night, talking.” He jabbed his finger in my direction. “I find someone to talk with, someone like you who deserves to live. I stay up all night, I keep him up all night, too. We talk and talk, all night long. We drink and we talk.”

A neat little horror tale.

“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” by Ken Liu

An alternate history. The narrator was once one of the Diggers who carved out the tunnel during the 1930s, linking Tokyo, Shanghai and Seattle. Now, in 1961, he has retired to Midpoint City, no longer able to tolerate life aboveground. Although the tunnel is home, there is much about the construction that he doesn’t like to remember. In the text, his story alternates with more official accounts.

Before the Western powers could decide on a plan to contain and encircle Japan’s “Peaceful Ascent,” however, the Great Depression struck. The brilliant Emperor Hirohito seized the opportunity and suggested to President Herbert Hoover his vision of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel as the solution to the worldwide economic crisis.

A thought-provoking work. It’s easy to embrace the notion of changes that mean no WWII, no Nazis, no Rape of Nanking, no nuclear weapons. But not all consequences of such change would be welcomed.

I also can’t help thinking, particularly given the tunnel’s route along the Pacific Rim, that by our timeline, the concept of plate tectonics had only just been accepted.

“This is How You Disappear” by Dale Bailey

A man slips into depression and fades from the world.

Entire weeks — months maybe, it’s hard to say — pass in the space of a breath; a single afternoon at the office spins out to the precipice of eternity. The fifteen-minute commute between your office and the house stretches into an hour; sometimes you arrive mere minutes after you left.

One of the most depressing things I’ve ever read. The fantasy element is a light metaphorical overlay, but the core is very real.

“A Haunting in Love City” by Albert E Cowdrey

Of course there’s a Cowdrey story – another Jimmy and Morrie, this time set in Love City Texas, where the air is thick with bad dialect and the local real estate boom is being held back by a haunted house. Morrie quickly divines the source of the problem.

He had an eerie look on his face, one he got only now and then, a thousand-yard stare that went right through the encumbrances of conventional reality into another world that he alone could see. The candlelight made him look even spookier, standing there with his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed, talking in a low, hypnotic monotone like a medium in deep trance. This performance never failed to creep Jimmy out, but worse than the creepiness was the knowledge that what Morrie saw in his oracular mode always turned out to be true.

Another loss on this series, making it 1 to 2. There are a few good descriptions, but the dialect cancels that out, and the ghost story is uninteresting and not well developed.

“Among Us” by Robert Reed

The nameless narrator works for a nameless agency that tracks people who seem in almost all ways to be human, except for a neurological implant and some non-terrestrial intestinal flora. The neurological implant was only discovered in one case, after the subject died. The agency, having additional funding, is attempting closer surveillance, which involves some activities that the narrator begins to find unethical.

I told him the story, simple and quick. Two minutes of impossibilities and then he got out and I followed. He stopped on the front porch, listening as if every word ached, and after another five minutes of crazy, a dark brown sedan pulled past the house. Neither of us knew the vehicle, and we watched it slow down, two male faces paying strict attention to us until we went inside.

A disturbingly strange story with an enigmatic turn at the ending that sets the whole thing upside-down. But mostly unsettling as a reminder of the loss of privacy in our surveillance society, under the control of persons whose views on ends and means can by no means be trusted.



Subterranean, Winter 2013

First issue of the year is a Walter Jon Williams special, with one new and one reprint novella.

“The Boolean Gate” by Walter Jon Williams

Sam Clemens in his bitter old age visits his friend Nikola Tesla and is struck by the scientist’s power of invention, that sometimes seems to come on him as if in a fit or spell.

Sam settled himself into a straight-backed wooden chair, turned to his patient, and received a shock. Tesla’s face was drawn and strained, as if some other face entirely was trying to break through the skin into the world. Tesla’s eyes stared into his, the green irises lit as if by electricity, the expression strangely cunning and feral.

This one is 99% historical fact, although readers unfamiliar with the career of Tesla may think it’s the stuff of science fiction. Tesla was a science fiction writer’s dream made flesh, with also a bit of the mad scientist in the mix. His ideas encompassed the electrification of the entire earth and the atmosphere, including wireless communication. His transmission tower at Wardenclyffe would have been transformative, if Tesla had been able to finance it. But the story really belongs to Sam Clemens, who was in fact Tesla’s friend. This was near the end of his life, the misanthropic years when he was writing The Mysterious Stranger and contemplating human depravity as well as grieving over the imminent death of his beloved wife, who represented to him the better part of humanity. There are also poignant moments when he sees that the pace of progress is leaving him behind and wondering what kind of world his descendants will inherit. And here the story shifts into speculative mode, where he considers whether humankind deserves to inherit at all.

With the recent publication of Clemens’ autobiography, we see authors beginning to mine this rich lode of material. Williams is particularly well suited to the task, as he has used his knowledge of the period to good effect in previous works. The story is in large part a colorful panorama of the Gilded Age at its height, and no one better than Mark Twain as a guide through it – as we can see, he knew everyone, and everyone knew him. But readers, looking back with the perspective of history, know that Clemens’ pessimism was prophetic; the age was drawing closer to the abyss. He died before the onset of the Great War that brought horrors beyond even what his darkest imagination had spawned. But it isn’t hard to suppose how the warring powers would have employed Tesla’s super weapons, as Clemens warned the inventor, had he been able to raise sufficient funding to develop them. The story also strongly suggests that we live now in the world that Tesla might have created – did create in part. The story asks readers to imagine how Sam Clemens, whose publications span three centuries, might have seen such wonders.


“Raptors” by Conrad Williams

Eddie tells us about his time with Dervla, an erotic tension between them that is rarely consummated. We know from the beginning that there’s something about her – Dervla is turned on by blood. Once, he takes her to photograph hawking, and the sight of the feeding raptors also turns her on.

Maybe being around raptors all day kept you at in some state of arousal. All that aggression, that naked hunger. All that wildness. It couldn’t fail to transfer, surely, at some level.

We know what Dervla is. The question is how it will play out between them.

The first half of this piece is quite erotically charged, at blood heat; by the end it has all gone off, with a miasma of decay hanging over the story. This is all effectively done. But at the juncture, the author is not content with the metaphor he’s established. He over literalizes and pushes it into the reader’s face, as if we couldn’t otherwise grasp it. We could have done without it, really.

“Hard Silver” by Steven R Boyett

The author isn’t naming the former lawman and the Indian, but we know who they are. When they find the dying miner beaten and tarred after being driven out of Agville, they know they have to put things right. Agville isn’t a right place.

Agville was a shapeless clump at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. One dirt street bordered by two plank walkways and a scatter of dwellings and wellbuilt stores all made from new lumber, and all of it gone to seed. At the far end of town he could see a small whitewashed church and a large whitepainted house with a gabled roof and a swing on a broad veranda. Half a dozen other buildings had been halted mid construction and lay exposed as if some calamity had sent their builders running. Brittle tumbleweeds fetched up against a musty stable. Crows pecked through dry dog turds in the street and on the walkways. Just another stillborn town abandoned after someone’s paydirt played out.

Nicely-done Western horror, and I like the rather flattened dialogue. The nature of the mystery is immediately apparent from the clues, and the silver bullets make the connection obvious, once we think of it. Though nothing explains why the miner was driven out of town and not killed outright. But the author’s decision to be coy about the names only focuses a reader’s attention on the names. So it becomes irritating when the text keeps calling the lawman “Barstow”, the false name he’s taken from the dead miner. We know he’s not Barstow, we know who he is. Also, the text names the general store proprietor before he’s been introduced. This name business is all a distraction; it’s not what readers should be concerned with at this point in the action.


Eclipse Online, December 2012

This new ezine is getting off to a good start. Readers should be sure to check it out.

“Invisible Men” by Christopher Barzak

What we have here is Wells’ classic tale, but told by a different voice: Millie, the put-upon maid at the Coach and Horses inn, where the Invisible Man takes refuge. In fact, this is Millie’s story, aptly so, because servants like her were the real invisible ones in their world. As the Invisible Man tempts her,

“Exactly, Millie. You’re already an unseen, of sorts, aren’t you? And what good does it do you? If you were truly invisible, though, you could do what you can’t now. You could take a greater payment for the work you do. You could damage those who regularly abuse your services.”

But Millie is smarter than her employer gives her credit for. Knowing that the inn’s invisible guest might be listening, she replies to all inquiries, “I don’t see nothing. And nothing sees me.”

Barzak follows the Wells plot outline and deftly incorporates some of the text. But by making the story Millie’s, he creates an original work in dialogue with his source, and with its own message. Well done.


“The Memcordist” by Lavie Tidhar

The Life of Pym. His mother had the system even installed before his birth, and all his life has been recorded, with the number of followers rising and falling – never really popular even at peak moments. For Mother, it is sufficient.

One of Mother’s friends asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and he said, “A spaceship captain –” thinking of Joy – and Mother gave her false laugh and ruffled his hair and said, “Pym already is what he is. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” and she gathered him in her arms and said, “He’s Pym.”

For Pym, what eventually becomes important is a woman he once loved and lost, leaving behind the scent of basil.

This one takes place in Tidhar’s Central Station universe, crowded as always with people and wonders. His settings are never boring, but sometimes it’s hard to find the story amongst it all. Not this time, however. It’s not quite clear how common it is in this future to be fixed up as a memcordist, but Pym is definitely not unique and apparently not really very successful at it – not that he really wants to be, despite his mother’s ambitions. His story is poignant, told in flash back-and-forwards, often letting readers know what Pym does not.


Lightspeed, December 2012

At the beginning of this year, editor/publisher Adams merged Fantasy Magazine into his SF ezine Lightspeed. More recently, he debuted the new horrorzine Nightmare. Now, having read the December issues of both, I must declare that I can’t discern the logic behind this division.

The Lightspeed half of Lightspeed presents two stories of science fiction. But the fantasy stories are not just dark, they’re the sort of “urban fantasy” that’s normally shelved with horror. [In fact, they aren’t actually individual stories but two excerpts from the same were-coyote novel – as such, not reviewed here.] Between Nightmare and the ex-Fantasy half of Lightspeed, I can find no real distinction of subject matter. It would have seemed more logical to me to have folded Fantasy into Nightmare, or perhaps the converse, to have one science fiction zine and one for dark fantasy, instead of the present arrangement.


“Dreams in Dust” by D Thomas Minton

A dry future in which water is the primary medium of value and humans have been genetically modified to produce uric acid instead of urine, reducing their water requirement. Keraf is crossing the desert Atlantic basin with the plans for a deep drilling machine when his sled is wrecked. When he meets a small enclave, he has to convince them that his plans are worth expending some of their water.

A slight work that contains a single memorable scene when a small boy pisses onto the sand.

“The Perfect Match” by Ken Liu

A deviously dystopian future in which almost everyone has subscribed to Centillion, with its ubiquitous “helper” Tilly, who always knows what’s best.

After work, Tilly guided Sai to the flower shop—of course Tilly had a coupon—and then, on the way to the restaurant, she filled Sai in on his date, Ellen: educational background, ShareAll profile, reviews by previous boyfriends/girlfriends, interests, likes, dislikes, and of course, pictures—dozens of photos recognized and gathered by Tilly from around the Net.

Naturally, there is a not-really-hidden agenda to all this helpfulness. An If This Goes On scenario tied closely to contemporary trends. A bit lecturey.


Nightmare Magazine, December 2012

“Foul Weather” by Daniel H Wilson

“Foul weather breeds foul deeds,” the narrator’s mother used to say. He is a meteorologist, a man who loves storms, in general. But on Flight 7126, a storm brings darkness into the souls of the people on the plane.

The man behind me began murmuring to himself. Strange talk about green waters and dead branches and gates. Right away, I got this image in my head of how he might look with his throat slit. Head cocked to the side, tongue straining as he tried to gulp pressurized air. Blinking my eyes, I tried to shake the vision out of my brain. But the darkness of the storm had settled in.

The descriptions of the storm are vivid, as are the descriptions of the passengers and crew, transformed as the storm fills the cabin. If only the author had left it at that instead of proffering an explanation that transforms dark mystery into banality.

“Chop Shop” by J B Park

As he cuts into her thigh, she wants to say something, some small word of gratitude, but her tongue is gone and so she keeps quiet—utters not even a mumble as he continues his work. The scalpel shaves off small slivers of flesh and the sensation is electrifying, little jolts that flash through the drug-haze, and when it’s all over she stares down with dull curiosity at her legs, flayed to the bone. There is a detachment there in which she luxuriates.

This flaying is virtual; the man is experienced at it; the encounter is everything she has desired. But after several more sessions, the novelty fades. The story is about craving something that must always fall short of total fulfillment. The horror lies in what she craves, while readers wonder uneasily how many people won’t be willing to leave it in the virtual. Or is it that the virtual promotes such cravings? Vivid images may disturb some.


Strange Horizons, December 2012

Liking the two-part story.

“America Thief” by Alter S Reiss

Among the gangsters in 1923 New York [a timely subject – most of these characters will be familiar to viewers of a certain popular HBO series]. Benny is a wizard, to the sorrow of his father the rabbi. Ubergangster Arnold Rothstein wants Benny to investigate a kid who seems to be paying off his feckless father’s debt with gold that he produces by alchemical means. If so, the kid and his father’s debt are worth something. Benny is given to understand that he has no choice in this matter.

Also interesting was a big Lincoln that slowed down as I finished sniffing my bill. Siegel was in the back seat, but he didn’t call me over or anything; just gave me a smile, and then the car drove on. Two days I had been working, and already they were impatient. Impatient with guns.

Quite entertaining [although I think there are too many gangsters] with a narrative voice that hits the right notes. But the story also points out that there are prices to pay for magical gains, as well as sorrowing at the failings of humanity in an imperfect world.

“Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar

A very short prose poem.

She reads—not the book around her neck, which is small, only as long and as wide as her thumb, black cord threaded through a sewn leather spine, knotted shut.

Pretty words, romantic sentiments.


On Spec, Fall 2012

An apocalypse issue, including the winner of the zine’s apocalypse contest. There are seven short stories, plus a piece that presents a timeline of the end of history, done as boxed squibs at the bottom of the page. Most of the apocalypses are fantastic rather than science fictional.

“All Them Pretty Babies” by Camille Alexa

The award winner, a fairly standard mutagenic apocalypse, featuring Esmè, a child rejected because of her ugliness. Esmè now watches on the mountainside for the mutant babies dropped there by people from the city; she takes them home for her foster mother to raise. While the scenario is predictable, the diction is effective.

But Esmè can only think on them pretty little babies. All them pretty little babies what going to be left on that hillside, with no Esmè to find them soft little bundles, tell them how pretty they are. She think on this and she cry.

That is, except for a huge clunker when Esmè also thinks on them “genotoxic teratogens”. I think not.

“Destroyer” by Daniel LeMoal

An unpleasant world in which some people are born with the power of projectors, able to put ideas into other people’s heads. These tend to either be killed or exploited by the unscrupulous. Zimmer works for one of the most unscrupulous, salving his own faded scruples with projections about bunnies. They are put to the test when his boss sends him to dispose of what may be the most powerful projector ever born.

The nosebleed doesn’t stop. I spend the next hour driving through suburbia and swallowing my own blood. By the time I pull over in Amberton Heights, I have a raging headache; the man staring back at me in the rear-view mirror looks like he’s been shot in the head.

The twist here is a strong one.

“Frats and Cheers” by Karl Johanson

A standard “If Teh Stoopid Goes On” scenario.

“Hog-Killing Weather” by Timothy Gerwing

As the angels of death lay waste the country, Jenny keeps on running her diner, just as she always has. But some of her customers are feeling a sudden urge for a Texas-sized last meal. Jenny is a strongly-done character, keeping her head when all about her people are losing theirs. The story is sort of depressing. The angels of death are awfully judgmental.

“Knights Exemplar” by Al Onia

A Western apocalypse. The town of Dismal Reach has been afflicted by floods, blight and disease. Janssen as the sheriff knows there’s nothing he can do after the sandbags fail and the river breaks through. Then a stranger rides into town, obviously a gunslinger. He says he’s planning to wait there for some friends. The sheriff is suspicious.

“I don’t want another battle. You’re connected with the troubles here, and I aim to see you leave and take them with you.”

But as another fighter shows up, then another, the tension comes to a head.

There’s something about the Western setting that makes it perfect for scenarios like this one, the clash of opposing forces. I like the reinterpretation of the warriors.


“The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” by Douglas Smith

The son of Chaos and Order meets a mortal woman who possesses power over both. But his parents are threatened by her, willing to destroy the entire world along with her. All he can do is hold her in a time bubble that he resets over and over, to be with her.

He had faced this tableau more than a million times, but his breath still caught in his temporary and ephemeral body whenever he saw her. So beautiful. So doomed.

The descriptions here have cosmic sweep, but it’s really hard to make a sympathetic character out of the cosmic, or a god.

“Mesa at the Edge of the World” by Leslie Brown

It seems that a nuclear explosion released a vortex that now hovers over the edge and sucks up anyone who reaches it. People bent on suicide or other drastic measures arrive monthly at Terminal on one airship and head into the vortex on another. There is no turning back and no return, with one exception. Helen’s mother had been pregnant with her when she boarded the airship. Now she is part of the permanent settlement at Terminal, longing to get out. She gets her wish in an unexpected way.

I’m not sure the scenario quite makes sense, though it’s interesting, as is the twist in the plot.

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.

3 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-December

  • December 20, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Re “Hard Silver,” it seems disingenuous of you to ding the author for what is clearly an effort to avoid a lawsuit, as Karen Joy Fowler did with exactly the same characters in “The Faithful Companion at 40.”

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  • December 23, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    ASmith – I appreciate the problem, but there are different ways of dealing with it. Some ways of pointing away from a phenomenon only make us more aware of it. We know who the characters are, but we don’t always have to be thinking about who the characters are. This becomes a distraction from the story, which deserves to have us thinking about it, not that other matter.


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