Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early January

Turning over the yearglass – closing out 2012 and moving on to the new.


Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #110-111, December 2012

#110 deals with wizardry; #111 takes us to storied lands. Particularly good stories in each issue: the Arkenberg and Doyle.

Issue #110

“The Storms in Arisbat” by Therese Arkenberg

The wizard Aniver has come to the library of accursed Arisbat in his quest to ask Queen Death to restore Nurathaipolis, which has been swallowed by Time. Arisbat is cursed by fear, and its library is the largest collection of fearsome writings ever assembled.

“Over sixteen thousand writings on dread, danger, tragedy, the uncanny—death and curses and the loss of love and everything—but the fear of Arisbat is still a mystery. No less pervasive for that.” He exhaled sharply as if irritated by his own reaction to it. “At least collecting books is a distraction.”

But the pressure of dread is so great it prevents him from studying, so he decides to attempt to banish the fear from its tower. His companion Semira joins him, because they have faced so many dangers together.

There’s a lot of detail here that enriches this story – elements of myth and history, the working of magic and its cost, philosophical meditation on death. There are also references to the backstory of the companions; these suggest the presence of a previous story, although I’m not familiar with any such. The setting actually overwhelms the most immediate incident, the confrontation of the fear. Although it stands well enough on its own, I find myself less interested in that part than in all that has already come to pass and what is likely to come next in the course of this quest.


“Casualties” by Alec Austin

The Evil Sorcerer Morcanis has taken over Verdenwald, and when the Masters have failed to defeat him, the students of Rooksworth University take over the job, led by Simon. Great sacrifices are necessary, and the recollection of them now has Simon depressed, despite his victory. At one point, observing his opponents, Morcanis called them “the children’s crusade”, which about sums this thing up. It’s impossible to read without seeing Hogwarts where the text says “Gravinward College”. The characters fling spells with names like The Five Detestable Runes. Angst is pooled throughout the story, but under such circumstances, it’s too hard to take seriously.

“His Crowning Glory” by Noreen Doyle

In a world that greatly resembles our own Victorian age, in Ópet, a land that they would call oriental, a club of young antiquarians has taken on the project of completely restoring the ancient Pink Chapel. Unfortunately, significant parts of some critical images are missing.

“There is the matter of the contract.” Baker & Son had been promised, they all knew, a complete chapel, a jewel of unblemished pulchritude for the exclusive wonder of Baker’s Special First Class tourists, who would have (by grace of those stamps and seals and signs, aforementioned) “special” access to the site.

This presents an opportunity to Jon Fox, a young man regarded as rather an outsider, having gone a bit native, yet still, after all, a fellow Harbridge man. Jon happens to know the locations of some of these significant stones. But in the case of one particularly significant piece, there is a complication: the god is still in possession. Moreover, the local worshippers are not inclined to favor its removal.

The story is subtitled: A New Tale of the Antique Lands, whereby we know it is part of a series, which is clearly evident from the text, in which we find perhaps too frequent reference to matters not covered here in the story at hand, although it is still essentially self-contained. As in the Arkenberg story above, most of these details add to the richness of the world, a thronged, bustling, noisy bazaar of a setting. Contributing even more is the distinctive narrative voice, with its frequent asides and parentheticals – not the bland and anonymous omniscient narrator with which readers may be more familiar, but a voice with a strong personality of its own. The tone is light and salted with nice little nuggets of wit.

At the story’s heart is the problem of imperialism, a system that in both our history and this one sent the self-important members of the ruling nation out to lord it over the natives. As the narrator remarks,

Thus Jon knew then that the centuries of exile in this back alley of the Oom-ál-Faqr had rendered the djinee very provincial. Foreigners had been powerful in Ópet for a long time, although, in this one little back alley, and also in hundreds of others in the Oom-ál-Faqr, that was not entirely true.

In Jon Fox, we have a Kiplingesque character not wholly a part of this ruling class, yet not belonging to the other, capable of moving between and seeing what the others miss, to the entertainment of the reader.


“The Giants of Galtares” by Sue Burke

In this short piece, Sardamira tells the tale of her youth when she met two giants, one evil and one good, a fact contrary to the prevailing opinion that giants are by nature wicked. She accompanies a young knight, Galaor, who was raised by the good giant, on his quest to kill the wicked giant Aldaban who had usurped the Rock of Galtares, the rightful property of his gigantic foster father. On this adventure, she reflects upon the reputation of virtue and its reality.

The giant’s blood began to form an enormous pool on the ground. Sardamira felt ill. She had never seen a fight to the death and had imagined them to be less like butchery, but this had been horrid both for man and innocent horses.

The real interest of this short moral tale is extrinsic, as we learn in the afterward that it is based an episode in the 14th century romance Amadis de Gaul, which served as an inspiration for Cervantes. We can see this foreshadowed in Sardamira, a truly virtuous character herself, who becomes disillusioned with the supposed nobility of knighthood, but otherwise, there’s not a lot going on here in the story.


Tor.com, December 2012

Just about the time when I become discouraged at the prospect of finding much independent fiction for adults at this site, it delivers at year’s end. Despite the festive season, the mood of these stories is predominately gloomy.

“The Finite Canvas” by Brit Mandelo

A dystopian future with Earth slowing becoming uninhabitable and the prime real estate of the space stations largely under the control of criminal syndicates. Molly has run afoul of these authorities and been exiled downside, where she survives by running a small medical clinic. Into this life steps Jada, a syndicate hitwoman on the run. It’s customary among her kind to get decorative scarification to commemorate each killing, and Jada is in a hurry. The deal is that she will tell her story and the design will reflect it. As Jada offers a lot of money for this service, Molly agrees. In the course of the cutting, the two form a sort of bond.

Too much about this scenario just doesn’t make sense. Jada is described as a very conspicuous person, impossible to mistake for someone who belongs in the small town where Molly has her clinic. Yet somehow she comes and goes unremarked for several days, despite a huge reward being broadcast for her apprehension. Then there is the scarification process. Jada is asking Molly for an elaborate whole-arm design. Despite having no experience at this sort of thing, without making any preliminary sketches, Molly just starts in cutting. The story is one of guilt for the deeds we know are wrong and do anyway. This comes through clearly, but the unlikely circumstances make it less credible than it might have been.

“Am I Free to Go?” by Kathryn Cramer

What happens when you wake up at 11:30 pm to find the cops in your bedroom, an occurrence become far more likely in this police state scenario, where for-profit jails are looking for more business.

Think fast. Don’t even consider using the W word — as in “do you have a warrant?” Respect authority if you want to come out of this alive.

The narrator has both technology and lawyers on her side; she belongs to the privileged class for whom this utopian society was created. But sometimes people get caught up in the backlash. There are costs. The narrator is changed by the incident; she used to think these things didn’t happen to people like her.

Very cleverly done, in a light tone of voice shading into absurdity, the sort of dystopian absurdity documented by Kafka. The narration switches between the first and second person, saying in effect – This happened to me, it could happen next to you. What are you prepared to do about it? It could be called an example of If This Goes On, except that we know this is really going on already.


“Intestate” by Charlie Jane Anders

Family dynamics. Emmy, her many siblings and their offspring are all assembling at their father’s place for a reunion, the crowd so large that most of the families have to sleep in tents outside. Dad is a kind of mad genius and superhuman who has replaced many of his bodily parts with advanced prosthetics. The morbid theme of the reunion is the speculation among the kids about who will get which parts when he dies. But mostly we see the complex dynamics of a family – the love, the resentments, grudges, rivalries, the way that people change as they grow up and have kids of their own.

“This is probably Dad’s last chance to torture all of us at the same time.” Robert has come up beside Dudley, Ayanna and me, hot dog in one hand and red plastic cup in the other. “Efficiency has always been a paramount value to him.”

This is neat stuff. Despite the touches of the SFnal and fantastic, the overwhelming feeling here is that of real people – some are venal, some are assholes, some are prigs. As in most other families, even with more normal fathers. I particularly recognize the way the siblings remember how they used to run wild in the woods when they were kids, yet now want to wrap their own children in stifling protective insulation.


“The Ghosts of Christmas” by Paul Cornell

A SFnal twist on the old tradition of the Christmas ghost story. The narrator’s childhood was blighted by her parents’ rejection, something she had never quite understood, except that it was always worse at Christmas. When she and her husband tell her mother that she is finally pregnant, she replies, “That’s all right. You two can do what you want. I’ll be gone soon.” As her Christmas due date approaches, she becomes obsessed with wanting to know what had happened, back then. She worries that she will repeat the dysfunctional pattern with her own child.

As it coincidentally happens, she is involved in a project that began investigating the voices schizophrenics often claim to hear and discovered that they represented past and future selves in communication. So early on the morning of Christmas day, she activates a device that contacts her with her newborn self.

How was it possible to feel such a sense of love and presence, but also that miniscule seed of the opposite, that feeling of it not being enough or entire? Hadn’t I added that, hadn’t I dreamt it?

A really powerful idea here, a story of a person who becomes her own ghost, a story of obsession, of a person who recognizes that she’s picking at a scab but can’t stop herself. But it reaches a point when a reader is likely to think: No. No one would go so far, not in the face of every warning, every sign. It begins to erode the story’s power, its credibility. I’m also not buying the contrived reasoning that the contact must be made on the same calendar date every year. A strong piece, moving but not wholly convincing.


Clarkesworld, January 2013

A good start to the year with this issue.

“Effigy Nights” by Yoon Ha Lee

The world-city Imulai Mokarengen, known as “the inkblot of the gods” for its devotion to the written arts, has been conquered by a piratical warlord who claims, “Worlds are made to be pressed for their wine, cities taste of fruit when I bite them open. I cannot let go of my conquests.” Nevertheless, the city finds its own way to fight back against the occupation, with its stories.

Imulai Mokarengen suddenly became so crowded with effigies that Seran’s othersight of fire and smoke was not much different from reality. He had not known that the city contained so many stories: Women with deadly hands and men who sang atrocity-hymns. Colonial intelligences that wove webs across the pitted buildings and flung disease-sparks at the invaders. A cannon that rose up out of the city’s central plaza and roared forth red storms.

This story of far-future war has to be considered fantasy, dark fantasy told in poetic language, fitting the setting.


“Driftings” by Ian McDonald

Amid natural disaster, a tsunami has devastated Japan, and the debris is now washing ashore on the western coast of the US, where Reith assembles them into sculptural collages that he calls Driftings. As Reith scavenges, he notices a strange young girl watching him, and he feels an unusual compulsion to show her his work. At the same time, conditions along the coast, long decaying, are deteriorating even further. Is there a connection? Of course there is.

Grey sky grey sea grey people. Every mile he had driven west from the ferry, drawn by the haunt of plastic detritus of apocalypse, he felt the grey settling heavier from him, smothering every energetic or creative thought.

A lot here seems to be taken from today’s news – the debris from tsunamis, the flotsam-filled gyres that appear, here, to have swallowed the entire Pacific. The author leaves it unclear whether the conditions of the story have been caused primarily by human or natural action, although readers might suspect a volcano. The heart of the story is the way we respond to human disaster. As Reid says, “It’s about how we see when we look across the ocean to Japan, how we fetishize it, how we import kawaii, or cosplay, and turn them into our own thing without ever trying to understand them.” But this is a fantasy in the end, mediated by the figure of the young girl, which is a bit obvious to be entirely successful.

“Variations on Bluebeard and Dalton’s Law Along the Event Horizon” by Helena Bell

Metafiction. Told from the points of view of Bluebeard’s successive wives, the story illustrates how the telling alters as human society does, and, ultimately, as humanity does.

When I am told less well, I am not mentioned at all. I am merely one of a row of bodies. Perhaps I am described like fruit or hanging clothes. Perhaps I am so far in the distance you cannot even see me, do not know that I am there. I am neither naked nor clothed: a mountain bathed in blue light.

I like the evolution of the ur-story, the way it becomes conflated with the labyrinth tale, the numerous clever mots, especially the last line. While the author doesn’t leave the references to gas laws too obscure to be grasped by readers, I don’t think this element is well-integrated into the story as a whole and would be happier without it.


Asimov’s, February 2013

A pretty good issue.

“The Weight of the Sunrise” by Vylar Kaftan

An alternate history of the Inca, in which the invaders had been expelled, although it wasn’t possible to expel the smallpox. Lanchi Ronpa, though a poor farmer, is unusual in having a British ancestor and the ability to speak English. His family is also considered noble, a status conferred by surviving smallpox, the pockmarks being a visible sign of the honor. Inca scientists had discovered how quarantine could help stop the spread of the disease. Now, in 1809, as the Europeans call the years, Lanchi is summoned to translate for the Sapa Inca when envoys appear from the American colonies of England. They offer the secret of the smallpox vaccine in exchange for sacred gold to fund their revolution.

A well-conceived alternate history with an interesting premise. It’s equally a moral tale, and here I find some fault, for the Inca here are rather too benevolent for credibility, while the American’s hypocrisy is laid on a bit thick. Still overall a good read, and the fanciers of AH won’t want to miss it.

“And Then Some” by Matthew Hughes

Erm Kaslo has come to Cheddle deputized with the authority to arrest Binnie Varshun and return him to Novo Bantry on a charge of fraud. Unfortunately for Kaslo, the local authorities on Cheddle are in cahoots with Varshun and throw him into a work camp. This is a good test of Kaslo’s resourcefulness, which is considerable.

He crawled to the base of the fence and worked quickly with the piece of metal and his bare hands, scooping out a passage beneath the wire. He was careful not to touch the fence, and its hanging pieces of tubular steel and clappers that would jangle if disturbed. When he’d made a hollow big enough for a man to fit through, he attached his piece of string to the bottom of the fence a few feet away. Then he crawled back under the barracks and lay belly-down, facing out.

Greed, however, proves to be a more powerful impulse than justice.

The setting is the author’s complex and fascinating Archonate universe, although there are only faint traces of the mannered narrative voice most readers are likely to associate with the milieu. What they may recognize, however, is the notion of a turnover in the fundamental operating principle of the universe, the foundation of the Mcguffin here. Familiarity with such matters, however, is by no means required to appreciate this entertaining tale.


“The New Guys Always Work Overtime” by David Erik Nelson

Time travel. Our narrator Taylor works for Just-in-Time Fabrication and Fulfillment, doing orientation for the people recruited from the past for day labor. It’s a tax scheme, permitting the companies that employ them to claim

“Tablet computers made in America by 100 percent guaranteed Americans. Or, at least, basically. Anne says the whole thing, the tax abatements and stuff that fund it, are still sorta experimental with the US Department of Commerce, but—”

What this is about is the exploitation of labor, today’s Chinese sweatshops taken one more step beyond. The story is effective dark humor. Taylor, who tells himself he’s almost part of management, knows that when it comes to the bottom line he’s really just as fungible as the day workers.

“Outbound from Put-in-Bay” by M Bennardo

A change of futures – we’re in a new Ice Age and water levels have fallen so that hunters on snowmobiles can track the caribou across the shallow ice of Lake Erie, looking out for the wolves. In the summer, they smuggle oil from Canada, looking out for the pirates. Life is hard and there are no easy choices for the nameless narrator.

Leroy was the damned captain, and I was his crew. He paid me to stand on the deck with a gun. If I didn’t like it, all I could do is refuse to sail with him again. And depending on what we were doing here, I thought I might.

This is a story of hard choices, pitting ethics against survival. The author puts his nameless protagonist in some believably tough places.

“The Golden Age of Story” by Robert Reed

A drug promises to boost intelligence, but there are side effects, one in particular.

“A normal bright boy is pushing his young mind into a higher, more powerful state— which is a reasonable strategy, if you think about it. Scientists and stockbrokers need good minds. But nobody is as intelligent or half as shrewd as the compulsive liar. That’s what the six-year-old is seeking. Like any muscle, his mind needs training. Any mind, even ours, would respond to the same training, if only that old trick worked on our sluggish adult brains.”

The drug is illegal, but nothing can stop illegal substances when there is sufficient demand. Cheating and lying can work when it is so unlikely others aren’t expecting it; this changes when the tactic becomes too widespread. But human nature also ensures that there are always some individuals who will try.

Neat idea, an interesting variation on some situations in game theory.

“Best of All Possible Worlds” by John Chu

Irving’s friend Declan is an alien – or something. He can do things. He projects audible music, particularly from the operetta Candide. Irving is a grad student doing research that seems to be more important to Declan that to him. Declan has promised to help him defend his dissertation, but Someone out there really doesn’t want him to present his results. Irving is caught in the middle of an alien or something dispute and finds himself hoping it isn’t a hallucination when he is dragged to the gallows in a scene out of Candide.

“One percent is not a significant performance improvement.” The inquisitors intone Bernstein’s harmonies exactly. However, LaTouche, Parker, Wilbur, Sondheim, and Bernstein himself definitely did not write those words.

I try to speak, but end up intoning my words to Bernstein’s music. “My simulations account for more real-life difficulties than most—”

This is fun, even if somewhat incomprehensible in places.


Analog, March 2013

A mixed issue. I like the Lingen, McMullen and Turtledove pieces, but the rest were really stale.

“Instinctive Response” by Bond Elam

Searching for alien life on remote planets, Nick and Kate are expecting to find germs and worms, not derelict alien spacecraft and belligerent alien reptiles onplanet. But Nick and Kate are up to solving the mystery of how they got there, no matter how unlikely, saving the aliens and also their own lives into the bargain.

“What do you figure the chances are that a species would travel thousands of light years across the galactic void and just happen to run into an airborne plasmid that is specific to the DNA of a virus that incorporated itself into its genome half-a-million years ago?”

I’m normally averse to the term “sci-fi”, but sometimes I run into a story that can’t really be called anything else. The author has contrived this elaborate scenario to prove a very far-fetched point about beings gengineered to serve the interests of some uber progenitor race, all of which his heroes figure out with fictional facility and infodumpfery. I had thought SF should have evolved further by now.

“The Radioactive Etiquette Book” by Marissa Lingen

Sor, as a junior functionary on the Imperial diplomatic staff, has found herself responsible for the district director’s troublesome teenagers who, at the moment, have managed to disappear. Or been disappeared. Finding them has to be done by the book. Problem is, the highly-classified book is also missing.

But for Imperial Diplomats, the brilliantly green, improbably hardcopy book known in the diplomatic corps as the Radioactive Etiquette Book was the first and last resource. If you could argue that your solution to a diplomatic problem was by the book, you might not get commended, but you certainly wouldn’t get demoted. Much though the entire volume frustrated Sor, her least favorite page was the last one, the imprinting on the inside of the bilious green cover, which read, in large black letters, “Use your best judgment.”

Humorous comedy of errors.

“The Firewall and the Door” by Sean McMullen

When he was young, Andy Harper had dreamed of joining the remote crew of the Argo as it made the flyby of the Centauri system, but he settled for becoming a lawyer specializing in spacecraft accidents. Now he finds himself the presiding magistrate investigating the sabotage of the interstellar spacecraft by a member of the crew whose virtual copy was onboard the ship.

“I put it to you, Lieutenant Ashcroft, that your virtual could easily have activated a meteor strike simulation routine, and so cut off the Argo from Mission Control. After that, Ashcroft-virtual had sole command of the probe. It would have been easy to fire the release charges to separate the shield of the Argo from its electronics, powerplant and scientific instruments.”

The question becomes, Why?

A neat idea, a well-done story of space exploration, and a strong piece of advocacy for it.


“It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine” by Harry Turtledove

This is an analogy. Turtledove read that article about breeding domesticated foxes, too, and he’s applied the same principles to human beings. In his future, humans have been domesticated, the meanness bred out of them. True, this makes them kind of helpless, especially since not everyone has had all the meanness bred out of them, so there has to be a kind of AI keeper to look out for them. But otherwise, everything is just fine and everyone is making love, not war.

As an analogy, this is pretty interesting. As a story, it’s more of an essay, but still entertaining and full of clever bits, like the names of Willie and his pet fox Joe.

Willie’s taking Joe for a walk. Other people are out and about, too, walking their dogs and foxes and potbellied porkers and what have you. No, nobody’s out walking her cat. This is the future, sure. I know. It’s not Never-Never Land, though.

A reader could quibble, of course. Because along with the meanness, people seem to have had the smartness bred out of them, and Willie and his friends don’t seem to actually do anything, like work or produce. I have to wonder what happens when the AI breaks down and needs reprogramming. And then there’s the question of reproducing – I have to wonder if Willie, like Joe, has been made sterile. Whether, in fact, he was made or born. Because otherwise there would be a whole lot of Willies around. But hey, it’s the future.

“The Paragon of Animals” by Andrew Barton

On an idyllic colony planet, nasty humans are enslaving the native species and good humans realize this is a Bad Thing. A paragon of stale clichés, fortunately short.

“High Concept” by Barry Malzberg and Bill Pronzini

Aliens have come to Earth and Ledbetter thinks this is good material for a novel, so he proceeds to make an “As You Know, Bob” pitch to his publisher. Unfunny story about an unfunny story, also fortunately short.

“The Snack” by Bud Sparhawk

The narrator, wanting to impress a new prospective girlfriend, has reprogrammed his apps for a healthier lifestyle. But he craves a donut. There is actual humor here, but the scenario is something we’ve all seen before.

YOU HAVE GAINED ZERO POINT ONE FIVE KILOS, my loafers chided as I returned to my desk. KIDNEY FUNCTION NORMATIVE, HelthWatch© reported shortly after. I wondered if it would report me to the toilet when I got home.


Apex Magazine, January 2013

A contrast in tone this month – one dark comedy and one thought experiment.

“Trixie and the Pandas of Dread” by Eugie Foster

Trixie discovers the downside of the deity lifestyle.

A day didn’t pass that she didn’t regret adopting giant pandas as her sacred vahanas. Sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time. They were so cute with their roly-poly bellies and black-masked faces, but they were wholly unsuited to be beasts of conveyance. The excessive undulation of their waddling gaits was enough to make Captain Ahab seasick, and their exclusive diet of bamboo made them perpetually flatulent. The novelty of being hauled along by farting ursines in a stomach-roiling sedan chair had gotten very old very fast.

Trixie is a god of wrath and retribution, appointed by the Karma Committee to ensure the assholes of the world get theirs. But after a while, a god can suffer burnout, like anyone else.

Funny stuff. I’ve always been a fan of wrath and retribution.

“The Performance Artist” by Lettie Prell

Anna Pashkin Barefoot’s art specializes in exploring the interactions of flesh and machine. Now she promises to download herself into a computer chip. The show is a hit.

Like much art, this piece is a kind of blank screen onto which readers can project their own reactions, as the critics do in the story. I see it as a commentary on the current curse of reality TV, in which so much is exposed and so little understood. We’re all invited to be part of the show.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

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