Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late February

End of the shortest month with a double issue of Asimov’s, a single of Analog, and a rare original anthology, which takes best of show this time. A Good Story award to “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer”, and there are several other good stories in Clockwork Phoenix 4.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, April/May 2013

With a double issue, readers usually anticipate a novella or two; this time, the Alan Wall novelette is almost long enough to count for a second.

“The Other Gun” by Neal Asher

From the author’s Polity universe, a setting filled with war and genocidal aliens. The backstory is complex. Tuppence, a highly-cyborged bioweapon designer with lots of built-in weaponry, including one that he has yet to deploy, is an involuntary agent of a powerful alien being he knows the Client, at genocidal war with the genocidal prador.

A bioweapon capable of annihilating every prador it came into contact with was perfectly feasible, but getting it into contact with enough of them wasn’t so easy. Though the prador fought under one king to destroy the Polity, they were often physically isolated. The father-captains remained aboard their ships, only coming into physical contact with their own kin. Many prador wore atmosphere sealed armor perpetually, while others had been surgically transplanted into the aseptic interiors of their war machines. A plague would not spread and, to be effective, would have to be delivered across millions of targets.

Tuppence’s current mission is to acquire this delivery system, but the quest seems increasingly futile as he slaughters his way from one bunch of bandits to another without turning it up. There is a reason for this.

High-key action adventure, full of mayhem and treachery, at heart a mystery centered on the other gun, which readers will be waiting for Tuppence to use. His bioengineered saurianmorph companion Harriet also plays a key role. A whole lot of the text is backstory, which puts a brake on the action, but the momentum builds so strongly it’s not slowed down too much.

“Writing in the Margins” by Joel Richards

There’s a very familiar story formula in which a character faces both a professional and a personal problem; the insight gained in solving the first provides a key to solving the other. Here, we have homicide detective Tim Marchese, whose job has changed since it recently became possible to access and record events from past lives. Society has witnessed a subsequent decline in the fear of death – and a rise in the murder and suicide rates. He now finds a cold case reopened by unexpected evidence from the victim of a vicious killing, now a traumatized seven year old girl reborn with clear memories of the murderer. Tim’s personal problem involves his wife, an athlete left a paraplegic by a shooting. Tim fears she may decide to commit suicide.

It’s the reborn victim’s therapist who reopens the case, leading to a fairly routine apprehension of the killer. The therapist also helps the Marcheses with their marital problems, which involves too much psychological lecturing. In both cases, it’s all excessively pat.

“Julian of Earth” by Colin P Davies

The colony of Niselle V is a poor one, hampered by the ever-encroaching jungle. Several decades ago, they fought a war of independence against imperial Earth, in which a single imperial soldier was stranded in the jungle, fighting a long-lost war. Tarn has acquired a certain fame as the child who was briefly captured by this Julian; he has made it the basis of his livelihood as a guide for offworld tourists. The problem is, he made most of the story up at the time when he was lost in the jungle, although a relic he found there is genuine.

Leaving the path, Tarn scrambled up a slippery incline and leaned over the object. It was silver metal and resembled a belt or bag buckle. He turned it over in his hand, rubbed it with his thumb. It was fine quality and had just one simple pattern at the center—two circles, one large and one small, close together, but not touching. The meaning eluded him.

Now comes a wealthy offworlder, claiming to be a descendant of Julian, who plans to make a documentary about him and wants Tarn to guide her into the jungle. And Tarn decides he wants to know what really happened.

A story of lies and truth. Clearly based on the story of Japanese WWII holdouts such as Lt Hiroo Onoda, but it takes a story path of its own.

“Spider God and the Periodic Table” by Alan Wall

We begin with more homicide, of the arcane sort, as Joe Banks discovers upon his transfer to the Special Inquiry Unit. In this case, it’s a bioscientist found mysteriously dead with a kind of filigree stitched into his head, which turns out, on examination, to be a substance unknown so far to science. And then things get complicated, then way beyond complicated. The author, conveniently, presents Joe and the rest of us with the solution, involving spiders and string theory, but not the periodic table, which is a red herring. Or rather, his agent the sexy pathologist does the explaining, Joe being way too slow for that kind of stuff. [Not quite sure why we need Joe here, actually. But the author gives us that, too.] Stuff like this:

“So are you saying these little gossamer graphite messages are some sort of modern scripture then, like those embroidered pillows in the old days that said, ‘God Is love’? Is that really the idea? Signs of something to come? Those burns on the hands of the Curies you were on about; or Leonardo’s drawing of a helicopter. Signatures of a world we can’t yet fathom. A demonstration of causes we haven’t yet found a space for in our minds. And it’s managed to monster up your standard model while it was about it.”

Highly creative, imaginative, intelligent speculation that makes no real sense whatsoever. Never mind. Just hold on and follow the thread.

“Warlord” by Tom Purdom

Another installment in this author’s serial about humans involved in interspecies war on another planet. Continuing the same story.

“Through Your Eyes” by Linda Nagata

Some things are still the same: the government is shoving war down everyone’s throats, and young people are still hooked up with smartphones or, as in Shelley’s case, implants. He gets a firsthand look at the first when he joins an antiwar flashmob and learns that his assumed class privilege goes only so far.

And just like that I have a close-up view of the pavement. There’s a knee between my shoulder blades, and my arms are on the verge of leaving their sockets. The only reason I’m not screaming is because I need air to do that and I’ve lost whatever I had in my lungs. Someone goes through my pockets. All they find is the business card Elliot gave me. “He’s one of them,” a low voice announces.

A fairly realistic Cautionary Tale about the imminent erosion of liberties. Be afraid.

“Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker

Winged Amy is competing in a race across Africa when she crash-lands somewhere in rural Nigeria.

My wings had folded in tight during my tumble, and at the speed I was falling I’d rip my sternum open if I tried to open them too much. So I went easy, feathering open slowly. I turned into the wind, trying to translate my downward momentum into forward. I furled out more and more, listening to the fibers that held my chest together go snap, snap, snap.

She also breaks lots of bones, but that’s OK, because she has healing nanos and pain blockers. The local people are awed by the presence of a person who reminds them of an angel. Amy knows that their generous hospitality comes with a cost, and she realizes for the first time what disparity of wealth really means.

A lot of truth here. Descriptions and characters are particularly well-done.

“The Wall” by Naomi Kritzer

In 1989 Meghan gets a visit from her future self, who pressures her to go to Germany for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meg isn’t entirely honest about her reasons. But that doesn’t mean she’s entirely wrong, despite being totally unethical. A surprisingly mature and well considered take on this trope.

“Distant Like the Stars” by Leah Cypess

A universe in which Doors provide instant teleportation between worlds. But there’s a catch. Only a few persons seem to have the innate ability to initially open a Door. Sylvana is one of them; she’s been doing it since she was five years old. But perversely, the more Doors there are and the farther she can go, the more she feels trapped in the same place. So she has moved to a world where the authorities are anti-Door and have pledged that none will ever be installed there. Until they change their minds.

I can’t really buy the psychological premise here, that the presence of Doors could make Sylvana so filled with existential angst, simply because “there was no such thing as a distant land, or a distant anything. Not when every single place in the world was only a few steps away.” The more she goes on about it, the less sympathy I can muster. The author does, however, give us an unexpectedly positive solution to this non-problem.

“The Oracle” by Ken Liu

Penn Claverly is a pre-criminal, has been one since he was sixteen. Now he lives in a halfway house, waiting for the moment when he kills, as his vision revealed. The visions produced by the Oracle have never been wrong.

A brief, predictable piece about allowing predictions to be self-fulfilling. A lot of talking.


Analog, May 2013

Continuing the Lerner serial, with one additional novelette and four short stories, all in the zine’s usual tradition.

“Not Close Enough” by Martin L Shoemaker

The remote robotic Mars landing program isn’t popular among the international astronaut corps of NASA, who are all avid to set foot themselves on the planet.

That was how Bennie had ended up as Commander on this particular mission: he was the most senior astronaut who had been willing to swallow his pride and endorse TOR. And the Flight Director had trusted Bennie to ride herd over a bunch of eager young explorers who would continue to argue against TOR. Or do more than argue.

Inevitably, one of the crew breaks for it and attempts a manned landing, which fails. The bureaucrats blame Bennie, but it turns out that he’s the only one on the orbiter who isn’t cobbling up a manned lander.

An awfully gung-ho piece of space idealism. I don’t consider the total collapse of discipline credible.

“Sentinel Chickens” by David W Goldman

Jack, with his new doctorate in epidemiology, finds the job market not as he had supposed. He ends up feeding the sentinel chickens for a rural county health department, with the promise of his boss, “if this is the year that our chickens detect Eastern equine encephalitis finally arriving in the Pacific Northwest, we’ll make sure that yours is the name in all the news interviews.” In the meantime, they have a nice chat about epidemics and anal probes.

An idea story, but a clever one.

“Enjoy the Fishing” by Walter F Cuirle

In a prosperous interplanetary civilization, the narrator is a purchasing agent for the megarich. In this case, his client wants him to check out a private island for sale on a reportedly unspoiled wilderness world, so the narrator goes to sample the fishing. Which is great. Until.

I went over the bow and across the rocks and into the woods, where I ran until I couldn’t see water, and I huddled with my arms around my knees and my back against a tree and I shook and I shook and I shook.

An idealistic and probably not practical method of introducing invasive species into an ecosystem. A very short piece.

“Prometheus” by H G Stratmann

About a half million years ago, intelligent cetaceans make contact with land-dwelling hominins. The cetaceans are eager to tame the primates and employ them to study the use of fire in the “unwet” atmosphere.

I’ve seen a lot of variation on this premise lately, and this one didn’t seem to offer much new – which, along with the annoying apostrophes in all the names, was at first unpromising. But the author came to a different conclusion than many such stories. I only wish he’d left it at that and omitted the postscript, just in case readers proved too dense to get the point.

“Geospermia” by Patty Jensen

Wendy, a terraforming engineer, has come to Mars to visit her brother, the potato farmer. At first, she’s impressed by the rampant growth she sees.

Here was Earth life infecting and slowly taking over a number of worlds. We found species that were suited to the harsh conditions, and they grew and thrived millions of miles from home. Geospermia in action.

But on closer examination, the vegetation turns out to be invasive bamboo, not potatoes, and her brother turns out to be missing. The usual ideological argument ensues over the environmental issues.


Clockwork Phoenix 4, edited by Mike Allen

Very happy to see a rare original anthology. The first three volumes of this collection “of the beautiful and strange” appeared without my seeing a copy, so I’m starting here fresh with number four, a renewal of sorts through Kickstarter. There are eighteen pieces of fantastic fiction, many of them at a good length, in about 250 pp. A couple can be called science fiction, but the editor, like me, places little weight on the distinction. The tone ranges from dark to heartwarming and simple. The overall quality is high, although, unusually, the opening and closing stories are among the weakest. Several of the pieces are quite challenging. Readers will do well to pick up a copy.

“Our Lady of the Thylacines” by Yves Menard

The girl has always lived in a sort of Edenic garden overseen by the Lady, who has been bringing her up from infancy. Now it’s time for her to leave.

The author is deliberately enigmatic here, requiring much conjecture from readers, who are sent through a series of abrupt mental shifts along with the young point-of-view character. At first, the Lady seems to be a kind of goddess of animals, presiding benignly over an idyllic peaceable kingdom. Then we shift from fantasy to SF, when it seems that she is a sort of AI, presiding over a almost as idyllic zoological garden full of recreated species, after some sort of terrestrial extinction event. And then the idyllic mask drops off as she claims she is only a slave powerless to resist the will of her alien masters. But it also seems clear that she is lying, at least to the girl. If extinct creatures can be recreated once, they can certainly be recreated again; they are not necessarily, as she keeps saying, “the last.”

“The Canal Barge Magician’s Number Nine Daughter” by Ian McHugh

Aghor the bargeman is a scary fellow, who intimidates most everyone he sees.

Aghor planted his feet wide to face the soldiers, ignoring the rain, his sleeveless vest exposing the black bramble tattoos coiled around his arms, fists on hips to pull back the vest and reveal the belt around his thick waist, made from the mummified foetuses and umbilicals of Behra’s sisters.

Because Behra is his ninth daughter, she is allowed to live, in chains, because of the magical power her blood gives him. Now a doll-sized golem has come onto the barge, involved in an intrigue into which he lures Aghor, with the promise of reward and taking revenge on an old enemy.

Adventure in a richly-imagined fantasy world, full of intrigue, cruelty, and magical combat. Most striking is terrifying figure of Aghor, a villain of consummate ruthlessness. Nothing subtle and postmodern here, just good old straightforward secondary-world dark fantasy action.

“On the Leitmotif of the Trickster Constellation in Northern Hemispheric Star Charts, Post-Apocalypse” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

A fascinating puzzle of a fiction. In a far, greatly decayed future, the Archivist named Wasp finds a rudimentary star chart in a bottle left by ghosts. She captures another ghost to tell her how to read it. Her account is interleaved with anthropological accounts of the figures from star charts and the legends they represent. The ultimate figure turns out to be the Archivist.

Do we then comprehend what’s going on? Not really. We learn that the Archivist is a kind of holy prisoner, and that she fought for the position. But not why, or why she now wants only to escape it.

After all, there was no other sword between the living and the ghosts than her; no other intercessor, no other keeper of the door. She could purge a poltergeist, send the shades of cradledeaths to quicken fallow wombs, tether a ghost in place with salt to ward a scraggled field against the tithing of the crows. And it was she who gleaned the shards of histories and pieced them, tipped voice like sips of water down the throat of a dead world.

We read some of the stories, but their interpretation is always ambiguous and leave us still mostly guessing about the nature of the world, except that it seems to be a hard, cruel place, with the population of ghosts far outnumbering that of the living. Among the other interests here is a recursive look at the craft of the folklorist and the interpretation of tales.


“Beach Bum and the Drowned Girl” by Richard Parks

A pair of archetypes meet on the beach – which of course is where drowned girls tend to wash up. Sometimes, when they are alone, they talk.

“Are we really less real? I think it means that we are real, more real than we know, and the stars are waiting for us. Some day, when the reasons we’re here don’t make sense anymore.”

A love story. Of the ephemeral sort. Imaginative and moving.

“Trap-Weed” by Gemma Files

After leaving his own kind, Ciaran the selkie finds himself weakened unto drowning, until pulled from the sea by a boatload of pirates with a sorcerous captain, his mate a shark enslaved in human form. Under a curse that keeps him from setting foot on land, the captain creates his own accursed kingdom on the sea.

A blot of a thing, literally engorged with flotsam from every prize it took and scuttled, hull gaping open maw-like at Captain Parry’s gesture to suck in whatever items he—or it?—most took a fancy to. Thus it increased in size, steadily, over the months I spent as just one more item of that literally damnable vessel’s cargo—sprouted fresh decks and hulling, masts and port-holes rabbit-breeding ’til the whole ship sat taller against the waves with a veritable totem-pole of figureheads to guide it, a corpse-fed trail of destruction left behind in its ever-widening wake.

A strong antidote to the romantic selkie fantasy, dark to the point of horror, delivering the lesson that, even if such a creature might look human, its soul remains the same.

“Icicle” by Yukimi Ogawa

Tusrara is half human, half snow spirit, but the human predominates despite the icicle in her chest, next to her heart. She leaves her mother to see the ocean and meets a boy and learns a secret that even the narrator admits to be obvious from the beginning. Overly simplified YA fantasy.

“Lesser Creek: A Love Story, a Ghost Story” by A C Wise

A pair of ghosts make a bet. It’s a bet they’ve made before, in other summers.

She is sick to death of hunger and drowning. He is sick to death of treachery and spit-sealed deals. But they are what they have always been, and what they always will be.

A sad story, a depressing story. A cautionary tale for those who might have ambitions to be a ghost, or to love one. [I wonder if other readers will flash on Billie-Joe McAllister.]

“What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan

A dark tale of a revenant from Anglo-Saxon folklore. An ancestor of the narrator died and was buried uneventfully, but at the dark of the moon he rose from his grave. The people try everything they can think of to return him to the earth, to no avail.

Thin grew the sky-sickle and withered into black, and when darkest came the night, rose again the dréag to stand upon the ground.

This tale is notable for the author’s use of language derived from the Old English roots, including kennings that suggest the strongly poetic nature of this language.

“The Wanderer King” by Alisa Alering

Post apocalypse. Following some unexplained catastrophic event, the Wanderers and Fixers are killing each other and looting in the usual way when Chool and Pansy find the antler crown of the Wanderer King in a cellar – or at least Pansy says that’s what it is.

She says the King can lead us back to the top world, where things are right side up. She says we have to try it on, in case one of us is secretly the King.

Chool is from a Fixer family and Pansy from the Wanderers, but now they are all the other has in this wrong world.

A grim and cynical look at tribalist human nature. A fantasy despite the SFnal catastrophic setting.

“A Little of the Night (Ein Bisschen Nacht)” by Tanith Lee

During one of central Europe’s eternal wars, a young soldier named Corlan Von Antal has some strange experiences after killing a brutal superior and fleeing guiltily into the forest. He comes to a ruined schloss, where the motto is carved: Non omnis moriar – I shall not wholly die. Although Horace wrote these words to claim immortality for his verse, Corlan believes he has come to the abode of some kind of vampire. The ancient servants refuse to speak of their departed master, and there is a wolf roaming the halls.

This was when Corlan felt, he thought for the first, (but afterwards he was sure it was not for the first at all) a kind of seeping, leaching yet indescribable dread. Years after he would, to himself, compare all this to an abrupt loss of blood that for an instant made you lightheaded, and then sick, faint, leaden and ashen and barely conscious.

But the truth is more complex and even more horrifying. Years later, his followers still wonder at his secret, that he has never revealed.

A very dark fantasy that evokes, even more than vampires, the world of the Grimms. One of the great fairytale archetypes is the lone, wandering soldier, who is clearly a figure out of history as well as folklore. The stories of atrocity suggest the Thirty Years War, as do the roaming witch-hunters, yet Corlan’s revolver seems to place the tale as late as the 19th century – if, indeed, it belongs to any specific time that we know. It is the power of time itself that lies at the center, alongside the horror of the Void. A strongly evocative work.

“I Come from the Dark Universe” by Cat Rambo

On one of those space stations where many different species meet and mingle, Bo is the manager of the Little Teacup of the Soul brothel. Bo isn’t human or, in human genital terms, exactly male or female. Lacking appropriate partners, Bo remains celibate. The woman begging in the corridor isn’t human either, or anything else Bo recognizes. Bo falls for her anyway, inexplicably.

This SF piece is a story about loneliness. One of the sex workers calls Bo “the creature of stone”, but Bo just very good at hiding it. Loneliness is common to those who come to the brothel; what this story explores is the issue of exploiting others for the sake of one’s own sexual needs.

“Happy Hour at the Tooth and Claw” by Shira Lipkin

The universal transdimensional bar is a classic SFnal trope, and this is a humorous fantasy love story set there, as Zee the witch makes trouble by rubbing the realities together. Some clever amusing bits.

Jack is a cherub. Not a little Renaissance putti*, a for-real cherub. Here we only see his man head, but he tends four bars simultaneously, and in the others I’ve seen his other heads—ox, lion, eagle. He hides his wings in this bar, too, but sometimes he sheds through the veil between realities, and I’ve found silvery feathers trodden under peanut shells.

(*)That should be “putto” in the singular.

“Lilo Is” by Corinne Duyvis

After a love affair with Ramon the spider-demon, the narrator realizes that single motherhood is going to be very interesting.

Right now no one but me sees her arms. Ramon could hide and show his at will. Lilo doesn’t have that choice—she’s not all him, never all him—but that might change. She might trigger it without meaning to.

While it starts out promising weird humor, the tone soon grows serious as Lilo tries to understand her hybrid nature without a role model, Ramon the spider-demon being a real SOB who refuses the responsibility. A surprisingly real and sad story.

“Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Kenneth Schneyer

Descriptions of several of the artist’s paintings, in chronological order, along with the usually annoying sort of didactic discussion questions.

b. Most biographers agree that Latimer and Meszaros were already lovers by the time this work was completed. Is this apparent from the composition or technique? From the pose of the model? As you proceed through the exhibit, note similarities and differences between this and other portrayals of Meszaros over the next 34 years.

In this case, however, both the descriptions and questions serve as clues for the reader, because the piece is clearly a puzzle. Latimer’s paintings are more than they appear, involving the ability to see through time, and beyond death. There are a lot of clues, but they are often subtle ones, and I can’t assert that I managed to catch them all. A piece that rewards re-reading.


“Three Times” by Camille Alexa

A love story, told backwards. A spirit senses the existence of a soulmate and takes flesh to be with her, however briefly.

He does not think with human linearity. No human agenda colors his desire for closeness with the bright burning flame he’s crossed galaxies and bored through nebulae to be near. It doesn’t occur to him that he has been alone for an eternity, nor that he’ll be alone for another after her eyeblink’s eyeblink time is spent.

Zhee doesn’t really regret what happens, so neither should we.

“The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

In a posthuman cyberfuture, Sennyi is born with a life-limiting genetic flaw. After one of her crèche-siblings is mysteriously deleted from her memory, Sennyi decides to have her heart replaced by a godlike cyberneticist so that she and those who know her cannot suffer love; it might allow her to erase herself – as her sister has done? She intends the new heart to be a bird, but ends up instead with a chest full of cyberbees.

Before the bees she never experienced danger; before the bees her life was mapped out in front and behind, precisely plotted like a replicant’s verse. Each minute an update blip in public data streams, optimized for happiness.

A story way out there on the borders of comprehensibility, a deliberate choice of the author to illustrate the remoteness of this future when so much has changed, yet certain human impulses and needs remain the same, even when the characters have evolved well past the Ur-human condition. The story also engages with issues of memory, which in this future is identical with data: “to alter data is to alter memory” in a world where there is no offline.

There’s a whole lot of neat stuff here, colorfully imagined. Sennyi sweats and bleeds honey; AI carp mutate into dragons; the prayer beads of extinct monks hide cyberviral curses. It’s a complex fictional world, and the author leaves much of it as a challenge for readers, but it comes with rewards.

“The Old Woman With No Teeth” by Patricia Russo

The Old Woman is a mythical personage who doesn’t like it when storytellers stray from her own account of her tales. This is the tale, greatly corrected, of the time she decided she wanted children.

The Old Woman With No Teeth found that she longed for company in her mountain lair, and so came to the city. She had a look at a couple of orphanages and a school or two, and quickly came to the realization that children were more trouble than they were worth.

“That’s better. But I wouldn’t say I longed for anything.”

A warmly amusing tale of a curmudgeonly character, not that anyone should say she has a kind spot inside.

“The History of Soul 2065” by Barbara Krasnoff

A Passover tradition. When Rachel is seven, someone at the seder relates an anecdote:

“about a legend that there were originally only 600,000 souls in the universe. At some point after the creation, each soul broke into many pieces. Which means we are all actually made up of a piece of a soul, and when all the pieces of that soul find each other, part of the universe is healed and made whole.”

The people at the table decide they are all part of Soul 2065, to meet every year at the seder. A simple, heartwarming story of family and love.

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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