Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late March
Still digging my way out of the avalanche of fiction that fell at the beginning of March. I think I found most of the best stuff earlier in the month.
- Asimov’s, June 2013
- Analog, June 2013
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2013
- On Spec, Winter 2012/2013
- Tor.com, March 2013
Asimov’s, June 2013
Featuring a major novella by Robert Reed, with a smaller than usual number of shorter, weaker works.
“Precious Mental” by Robert Reed
A Great Ship story. Which is to say, a story about the lives of the sort of people who inhabit the ship, about immortality and the nature of sentience in the cosmos. When you live a hundred million years or so, you have a lot of time to consider such issues. Not that humans, so far, have lived so long, but it seems that eventually they will, as older races have. Yet there are mysteries still that none of them have been able to penetrate.
The key to immortality seems to be the indestructible bioceramic brain. There have been other improvements – nano/bio this and that – that allow bodies to be rebuilt from scratch after just about any level of destruction, but the brain is the heart of the matter. This isn’t solely a human development; the bioceramic brain seems to be common to all advanced sentient species in the galaxy, and its origin is unknown – rather like the origin of the Great Ship itself. Now, at this point in the series, Reed is tackling the issue head-on. Thus the story’s title.
So Pamir was once a middle-rank captain on the GS, until he made a mistake and had to change his identity. Under his new name, he rose in the ranks of the drive mechanics, in the course of which studies he once built a working Kajjas pulse engine – the propulsion system once used by an ancient, now mostly-vanished race. He has a sort of interest in the Kajjas, wondering how it is that such old civilizations always seem to decline at some point. There is one Kajjas survivor among the passengers with whom he has occasionally discussed such matters, but the alien is always enigmatic. Until he has Pamir shanghaied by a trio of human goons and transported to a derelict Kajjas ship. There, he reveals that over a hundred million years ago, his race sent out an expedition to discover the secret masters of the universe, the hidden source that propagated the knowledge of the bioceramic brain across the galaxy and, 2001-like, zapped semi-sentient creatures on distant worlds into intelligence. The fleet itself never returned but, once in a while, such a derelict has been found, and Tailor hopes now that this one might contain the long sought-for secret. As, in fact, it might. And just to up the stakes, there also may or may not be enemies seeking to take the secret for themselves.
“The ships appeared as individuals. I won’t explain how a person might know in advance where such a derelict will show itself, but there is a pattern and we have insights, and there have been some little successes in finding them before anyone else. The crews are always missing. Dead, we presume. But ‘missing’ is a larger, finer word. Empty ships return like raindrops, scattered and almost unnoticed, and their AIs are near death, and nothing is learned, and sometimes tragic events find the salvage teams that come out to meet these relics.”
Problem is, it won’t do them any good to discover the secret unless they can get the ship operating again. Which is supposed to be Pamir’s job. But he is almost as eager to learn the secret as Tailor.
Into a novella this long, Reed has plenty of room to put Neat Stuff. Like the alternate view of the infinite embraced by a colony that rejects immortality. Like the specs of an alien spaceship and its propulsion system. Like the meditations of a fugitive on the matter of personal identity. It’s all woven in one way or another into the central problem, as when an apparently unrelated phenomenon is said to be “the simplest number on top, in plain view: As inevitable as every result must be.” Even on a first pass, readers will see such a statement as Significant, even if the full implications aren’t obvious at the time.
The key character isn’t Pamir but the old Kajjas called Tailor, who actually reveals the nature of the secret even before we reach the derelict ship. [“I explained, but you chose not to hear me.”] But his utterances tend, at least on the surface to make little sense; he seems at times to be senile; he suggests this possibility himself.
Then Tailor touched his own head above the eyes. “And to learn the necessary talents now would require empty spaces inside my head, which means discarding some treasured memories. And how could I do such to pieces of my own self ?”
This of course is deceptive, even if true. Yet we have no access as readers to Tailor’s mind, thus we have Pamir from whose point of view to observe events. Pamir the stubborn skeptic, with his two identities and the conflict between them, should probably be more interesting than he is. But even the goons, so young that none have lived even a thousand years, have their essential roles to play. This is a well-crafted piece. Elements that might at first seem extraneous, aren’t.
Toward the conclusion, the author turns as enigmatic as the ancient alien. Which is the trouble with ultimate cosmic secrets. We can talk around and about them, we might glimpse them darkly, yet we can never see and know and comprehend them clearly in our limited words, only in images and metaphors and hints. Still, at the end, Reed has turned our heads in a certain direction that Pamir had so long denied, and shone a certain shadow onto our thoughts.
Megasettings like the Great Ship are designed to put stories in. It’s the stories that matter. This one isn’t my favorite of the loosely-related GS stories [that would be last year’s “Eater-of-Bone”, which takes place entirely outside the ship itself.] But it drives most directly at the heart of the central problem of the setting, which makes it a must-read for any reader with an interest in this distant posthuman future.
“The Fountain” by G David Nordley
The hive-queen has come to Earth on an urgent embassy to the human empress – one of which we seem to have acquired, and an immortal one at that, along with an impertinent adolescent crown princess. The hive-queen persists in her mission despite the impertinence and the painful oppression of the local gravity. The fate of an entire intelligent race at the hands of aggressors is at stake; a great deal is being asked of humanity on their behalf. Unfortunately, among humanity are xenophobes and politicians.
There’s an uneasy mix of serious and humor here that makes it hard for me to take the piece as seriously as intended. The serious question is the place of humanity in the galactic community. The hive-queen has come in hope because of human history, represented by the eponymous fountain.
Ignoring the oppressive high pressure, a fountain in the palace courtyard gushed water upward many times our own four segment height—two meters in local measure— then fell down in curtains blown to our left by a slight breeze. It was a memorial; once before, human beings had gone to the stars to right a wrong, and not all had returned. That had been a tragedy—but it meant our mission was not without hope.
But the more intimate question is the immortal human empress’s succession problem. No one wants the job, which is why she tolerates the obnoxious offspring. I still can’t credit the total lack of decorum displayed during a state banquet. I suppose part of my problem with the story is an unfortunate comparison with the Reed, in which similar problems are dealt with in a more serious manner. The Heinlein references seem out of place, meant for today’s readers, not the characters in the story.
“Skylight” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Skye was dumped on the Assassins Guild when she was ten. She took up the training for want of anything else to do, but she’s not good at it. The training is done in simulation, and Skye doesn’t pass. She doesn’t want to kill people. Which makes the administration quite interested in her. Mostly, the story is talking about that. And talking. But not convincing.
“Hypervigilant” by Eric Del Carlo
People are going amok in hospitals these days. This happens a lot, ever since the biochemical terrorist attack that changed everything. It also created the empaths, like Bob, known officially as a Vigil, presently stationed in the hospital to prevent attacks before they happen. He thinks he’s spotted one:
She was short-haired, dark-haired, face narrow but not pinched. Her bared shoulders appeared strong and tensed. She wore sunglasses, big hoopy things, tinted not opaque. She carried a handbag, and she walked with a purpose.
Fury, my receptors told me. Fury, fury, fury. But—
But there’s something wrong. He’s not reading her right. Sometimes Vigils make mistakes.
A potentially interesting scenario, but slighted in too many ways, with a cursory backstory in particular.
“A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard” by Megan Arkenberg
Isaya comes from a dysfunctional family, most of all her father.
I knew that in his eyes I was despicable. Instead of Hippolyta, he’d accidentally married Aphrodite; and his child, instead of an Athena, was some sort of bear-clumsy, swollen Callisto. Stupid and tedious as a sponge.
He said she’d never find anyone who loved her. He was wrong.
There’s other stuff here: wine, Mars, racial stereotypes, Biblical allusions. But mostly emotions, which are universal. The story would be essentially the same without all that, although it’s enriched by it, but not without love.
Analog, June 2013
Three quarters of the way through the Lerner serial, plus five shorter works. The best issue of this magazine I’ve read since the changeover of editors.
“A Cup of Dirt” by Mark Niemann-Ross
As a gardener, I like this editorial epigraph: Dirt is what you track into the space station. Soil is what you grow things in. People on the station aren’t happy with the quality of the tomatoes grown in the hydroponics lab. Enzo’s girlfriend in Tuscany knows how to grow real tomatoes, but to emulate her success, he needs dirt. That stuff the station regs consider “nasty stuff with no purpose; its presence led to component failures.” Clearly, this is going to be a space-problem story. As with most such, complications ensue.
An entertaining read.
“In the Green” by K S Patterson
Luna and her family live on a terraformed world, a place that seems highly insulated from inconvenient discomforts. Electronic emissions repel inconvenient creatures. The problem is, Luna’s brother Ben, who also has difficulties in communication, is hypersensitive to electronic emissions. He’s always trying to leave the safe Green Zone where they disturb him, and by now is getting rather too large and strong for her to control.
Another story about family love. Luna and her grandmother unreservedly love Ben and spend a lot of time trying to help him learn and communicate. An accident helps him learn something on his own and help Luna But this one is way beyond warmhearted, way too sentimental for my taste.
“Wavefronts of History and Memory” by David D Levine
In a far, posthumanish future, Kell is a radioarchaeologist who seems to spend most her time embodied as her ship, not her birth flesh. Years ago, however, she explored this same region with her now-estranged lover, and now the electronic traces of their earlier presence are interfering with her current research.
The radioartifacts of the Late Telegraphic were indistinct, weak, and drowned in noise even when they originated; today they are smeared across the outermost surface—the bottom, in radioarchaeologists’ upside-down traditional terminology—of a sphere nine thousand years in radius that expands further each day. Torn by dust clouds, punctured by stars, and dispersed by nebulae, most of this enormous spherical surface is useless; the areas of good seeing are rare and eagerly sought.
Readers, noting Kell’s profound ignorance about the real circumstances of her subject matter, WWII Japan, might suspect the story to culminate with a shocking historical revelation. But Levine is more subtle. As the revelation hovers silently in readers’ minds, he employs its ghostly presence to reflect a more personal revelation about self-knowledge. There is added irony, that, rejected and alone, Kell has become less the person her lover deserted, more what she wanted her to be.
“Hydroponics 101” by Maggie Clark
An unusual penal system designed for violent offenders: each convict, like Farmer, is sealed into a clear sphere in which a telepathic tree grows from nanites, reacting to his thoughts and emotions which, in most other cases, remain violent.
In the first panel, a man stood neck-deep in blackened water, sticks of MudderTree strewn hopelessly about him—each dissolving every time he reached for one. In the second, the MudderTree bore the crude, misshapen figure of a woman, which its owner seemed recklessly intent upon even as the long black nettles along its limbs scored deep into pre-existing wounds across his back. In the third there was no sign of life within the water; just a man’s body in a state of extreme decomposition—
Farmer’s tree, however, has thrived, which presents a problem for the authorities, who haven’t figured a way to deal with the eventuality of their program’s success.
An intriguing concept, in which the prisoners are punished by their own thoughts. Although ill-conceived by authorities who design a system for rehabilitation without considering the possibility of it working. A cautionary tale against making assumptions about rehabilitation and redemption.
“Out in the Dark” by Linda Nagata
Police procedural, another in the author’s “Nahiku West” series in which citizens are drafted into the police to enforce draconian laws against human enhancement – in this case, against two copies of one citizen existing at the same time. Zeke Choy has been sent to Sato Station to check into possible malfeasance in the creation of a maybe-false identity for a woman now known as Shay Antigo.
Commonwealth law is strict, punishment is severe, and the unfortunate reality is that cops hold the power of life and death over the citizens of their watch. Some cops are judicious, but others take advantage of their power.
While the story here is self-contained from the point of view of a reader new to the setting, readers familiar with the prequel will notice significant change on the part of the narrator. Commonwealth law is profoundly unfair in many ways, and the drafted police are foremost among those who suffer from this. Indeed, the strongest aspect of the prior story was the way it showed how the police are trapped within the system. Zeke Choy has become a lot more cop since the first story – a cop sent to investigate other cops. He’s more zealous, more concerned with law than justice. What’s happened to him? We don’t know. But in this self-contained story, we wouldn’t even see the question.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2013
Not the best month for this fantasy ezine. Issue #116 gives us coming of age stories; #117, tales of war.
“A Family for Drakes” by Margaret Ronald
As in dragons, not ducks. A warlord has been using sorcerous firedrakes to burn the region’s towns, and twelve-year-old Netta is one of the refugees trying to reach safety, along with a young boy she is caring for. Because the author wants us to sympathize with Netta, there is also a meanspirited official among the refugees who tries to keep anyone from aiding her; we know that she’s plucky when she prevails despite him. But she does befriend a newcomer among them, a smith strong enough to ignore petty officialdom. Vigil has a secret. And the firedrakes keep following the band of refugees from one town to the next, burning.
The only potentially interesting aspect of this YA lies in Vigil’s secret, which we aren’t really shown, as the author is too concerned with her concentration on Netta, for whom I don’t care in proportion to the author’s emotional manipulation. Some of the anachronistic language [“clout”, “scam”] is jarring.
“Bakemono or, The Thing That Changes” by A B Treadwell
The thing about reading historical fantasy is sorting the history from the fantasy. Here, as readers may at first suppose, there’s a hard historical core in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 16th century invasion of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria, which might have been the setting of this story; the tribal Manchurians practiced shamanism and were considered barbarians by both the Koreans and the Japanese. But the fictional chronology doesn’t match these events, and Katsuro the narrator tells us the invasion had reached the Lena River, in Russia. So what we have here is an alternate history with little or no actual fantastic content.
Thus all we can really know of Katsuro’s father is that he is a Japanese general whom his hostile wife considers uncouth. She longs for the sophisticated floating world of Imperial Edo, and particularly its kabuki theatre, while her husband considers such amusements decadent. Trapped in a military camp surrounded by hostile barbarians, she subversively teaches her son about the world to which she wants to return. While he loves the tales of the bakemono, legendary shapechangers, he has also absorbed the spirit of his father’s brutal imperialism.
The shock of what they were doing held me in place. Learning any language besides Japanese was not just forbidden in school. It was an act of treason against the Empire.
This begins to change after a tribal girl with reputed shamanistic powers is captured by his father.
Given the title, readers might suppose that the shaman girl will transform into a wolf and escape, but unsurprisingly it’s Katsuro who transforms – which is just as well, as at the beginning of the story, he’s awfully intolerable. Now there’s nothing unusual or unlikely in any of this, or in the notion that Katsuro’s father plans to give him the girl as his sex slave. But the setting is an alternate history that still hews pretty closely to the version we know, in which I can’t buy the notion that an occupying 17th century Japanese warlord would place hinin – considered subhuman barbarians – in the same schools to be educated alongside the sons of the nobility and warriors. Particularly not girls. There’s alternative and there’s unbelievable.
“Armistice Day” by Marissa Lingen
A neat premise: a nameless federation, facing defeat in war, uses its magic to conjure up fighters ex nihilo, in a manner that rather reminds me of Saruman’s orcs, although these nameless fighters are on the smaller side. In consequence, they win the war, then find themselves facing the question of what to do with the orcoids now that they no longer need them as fighters. The nameless orcoid narrator and some of her troops are given the job of cooks at the university, but nothing can totally eliminate human prejudice against their kind.
“Came into this world with not a thought in their minds but what we gave them, and within a year they think they’ve a right to call themselves civilized and tell us how they like to do things and make up traditions just from scratch and then ask us to accept them. Well, don’t blame me if they turn on you.”
While I find the orcoid premise interesting, the treatment of it is a pretty standard tale of bigotry, as well as civilian fear of the killers among them that many veterans of our own nations’ conflicts can attest. The story suffers from moral oversimplification, with all the human characters at the extremes of the tolerance scale, white hats and black. And I find the author’s insistence on avoiding names quite irritating.
“Blood Remembers” by Alec Austin
A world afflicted by religious wars that seem to be going on from one generation to the next. Now Anton, prince of the Downlanders, is determined at all costs to stop “the biblioclast and anti-Pope Immaculate XII” from eradicating the monasteries and their books, which he considers evidence of heresy. Anton and his troops are frustrated at the sight of every new column of smoke as libraries burn. But their promised support has failed to arrive, and Anton correctly suspects treachery.
“We haven’t got a Downlander army,” Galloway snapped. “We have five hundred poachers, a thousand green boys, and as many veterans of the Third Carcanian War. We have fifty horsemen, all of them Mogvar exiles. Even with the hundred halberdiers of my guard, that’s not nearly enough.” He paused. “We need the Kunst cavalry, Anton. Without them, Immaculate is going to scatter us like chaff.”
Many of the Downlanders, particularly Anton, possess a kind of ancestral memory that allows them, among other things, to recreate the text of burned books. Their motto is Blood Lives/Blood Remembers. Anton’s blood also has other potent properties, some of which suggest the reasons why Immaculate suspects them of heresy, although his wife calls it “applied scholarship”.
There are strong suggestions here of Pope Innocent III’s Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars [perfecti], a operation infamous for the alleged command, “Kill them all, God will know his own.” On the other hand, the Cathars were relatively peaceful, which Anton and the Downlanders definitely are not. If Anton is determined to defeat Immaculate at all costs, those costs are potentially apocalyptic and rightly horrify even some of his supporters, as well likely horrifying quite a few readers. This is precisely what makes the work interesting, because readers are going to have to wonder whether Anton is a hero or a fanatic, whether the means he is willing to deploy are worth even the rewards of victory. It’s an audacious challenge from the author.
Still, there’s a lot of backstory that isn’t fully deployed. We first meet Anton as perhaps a soldier; then he seems to be a captain or maybe a commander. Soon, he’s revealed to be a prince, and finally, a sorcerer of power sufficient to cast the entire world into the hands of the devil. [And what about those demonic black wings his wife seems to sprout?] It makes me wonder why he was so desperate about the Kunst cavalry; he obviously didn’t really need them. This is a lot for the reader to keep up with, coming so quickly, revelation after revelation. There’s much strong material here, and I think the story would have benefited from greater length to unfurl it.
On Spec, Winter 2012/2013
A fine issue of this little Canadian zine, still coming out in a print edition. Although the cover says “science fiction”, only one of the seven stories could in any way be considered SF. The prevailing tone is dark, with several variations on classic horror tropes.
“Ten Things I Know About Jesus” by Steven Popkes
Jesus lives a quiet, retired life in Higbee, Missouri, along with his adopted teenaged ward, the narrator, who knows things about him that the rest of the world doesn’t.
#6: Jesus doesn’t go to church
I asked him about churches once. He said he’d lived too long to go to church. He said he had nothing to do with them. After all, they were invented long after he’d left that whole business behind him.
Jesus seems like a nice, private kind of guy. A good guardian, a good friend.
An appealing, unsentimental story from Popkes, probably the shortest in the issue, gets it off to a strong start.
“Let There Be” by J D DeLuzio
On a world with two sentient species, the diurnal Corboran who seem humanish but aren’t, and the nocturnal Ghyel. If “Ghyel” sounds like “ghoul”, this is intentional, because one of the functions of the nighttime race is to consume the dead. Lem’s house has a Ghyel living upstairs, who’s interested in his work as an inventor. When his newborn child dies, he invites the Ghyel to take it to the funeral ceremony, before it will be consumed. This is how it’s supposed to be, sanctioned by religion. Funeral rites take place at sundown, the boundary established by the Creator between the two worlds. But things may soon change.
A thoughtful look at an alien world where some things turn out to be much like our own. Despite the dark fantasy tone, the story’s material is science fiction.
“Sharali” by Gaie Sebold
On a world where greedy plutocrats are rushing full-tilt into industrialization, the young painter Charentin deplores the impending sale of the local woods for factory expansion. His senior partner Jasketh insists that he paint lucrative portraits of the industrialists, but Charentin is enthralled by the ethereal beauty of a courtesan.
He works faster than he ever has, glancing from canvas to Sharali, from the Sharali on the chaise in her cream satin and her scarlet slippers, to the elegant ghost of her emerging under his racing fingers.
The denouement isn’t surprising, but it’s well done and satisfying.
“Palimpsest” by Kevin Cockle
Mike is a calligrapher with a special gift. He learned this craft from his uncle.
“It’s the alphabet that matters, kiddo. Think of it as druids hiding in plain sight; they folded their secrets into our language with these letters. Snuck in on the back of the Uncial, curled themselves into the whorls of Roman capitals, then kind of just slipped sideways when no one was looking.”
One day Mike meets a woman he once know in high school, a woman who didn’t recall him at all. He wants her. He rewrites her life so he can have her. But of course there are consequences.
This is an adult look at the perils and unintended consequences of using power. No marching broomsticks here, a more subtle wrongness.
“Ghost Ride” by Leslie Claire Walker
Another variation on the classic ride to hell theme – in this case, an old station wagon instead of the usual boat or train or chariot. Mack is the driver. Mack is dead, himself, but he volunteered for this job instead of having to decide which direction he should take; the car goes both ways. There are a lot of rules the driver has to follow, many of which make no real sense, but given who the management is, this is no surprise. Mack has unfinished business, in his case, trying to find his dead wife, a recent suicide. Sometimes suicides get lost. In the meantime, he picks up his passengers and takes them where they’re destined to go.
Orange hair flecked with blood hung heavy on either side of the woman’s freckled porcelain face. She wore a denim jumper, a white tee, and black plastic flip-flops. Her child wore a diaper and a little purple bow in the shock of blonde curls on her head.
A worthy variation to add to the canon, a proper sort of closure.
“One Shoe Highway” by Kim Neville
Tiffany has had it with her asshole boyfriend, so she gets out of the car and starts walking before it registers that she’s now alone on One Shoe Highway, a stretch of road outside town that got its name from all the missing girls that never turned up again, except for a single shoe left behind. Tiffany thinks of walking home, back to Carl’s place, then she turns in the other direction, making sure her old sneakers are well tied.
Because I walked and walked, and even though I wasn’t more than a couple miles from town, I never got there. I should’ve been scared, but I wasn’t. In fact, the longer I walked, the lighter I felt. At first I kept looking ahead for the lights of the truck stop, but after a while I found myself hoping I wouldn’t see them.
A neat variation on a classic urban legend, with a strong feminist theme.
“The Devil’s Eyes” by David Gordon Buresh
The demon child. Colm O’Reilly’s birth was attended with bad omens, including his mother’s death, and he grew into a bad man. The narrator, Johnny, is no angel himself. He met Colm on the docks before WWI, and ran into him later when he was bootlegging liquor from Canada. But between then, in the war, Colm had become something else. Problem is, because Johnny has Indian blood, Colm assumes there’s some kind of bond between them, a connection Johnny no way wants.
A typical horror story with a well-done atmosphere. But I’m dubious about the author’s information. Although the usage is attested, the term “Krauts” suggests WWII more strongly than the war in which Colm took part, and I’m really not buying it that his outfit could have dug spent bullets out of the enemy for reloading in the field. When you can’t trust that an author knows what he’s writing about, it’s hard to appreciate the rest.
Tor.com, March 2013
“Terrain” by Genevieve Valentine
Six unmatched refugees of varying hues live contentedly on a homestead in Wyoming, even though no one seems to be having sex, until the Union Pacific comes through and means to get their land, by fair means or foul, by greed or by fear. One of the foul means involves putting pressure on the townspeople, who know their future prosperity will depend on the railroad. And of the six, none really matter but Elijah, the owner and, more importantly, the only white male. Eliminate Elijah, and the others will have no standing to resist by themselves.
So this is a story of bigotry against common humanity. It’s told from the point of view of Faye, a young Shoshone woman who has returned with her twin brother to the ancestral lands from which their people had already once been displaced – in effect by Elijah. Faye is a closed-off, fearful character; we don’t fully understand her. Faye, of all the six, would rather flee the conflict; she remains for her brother’s sake.
A lamp went on in the front room. It swallowed the lights of Green River, flooded the whole place like morning—the half-standing barn, the shadows of dogs in the bunkroom, the path to the cabin that was hers and Frank’s, their footsteps worn into the land.
But what about the steampunk? It says right in the editorial blurb that this is a “steampunk western”, and how else could it be considered a genre story? Well, that element is really peripheral to the real story; it could be cut away without leaving much of a wound. Seems that one of the refugees on the homestead has created a small fleet of steam-powered mechs that can make deliveries to mountainous terrain not even accessible by the Pony Express. They run a delivery service, hiring local boys to ride the mechanical “dogs”.
Why this doesn’t make sense: First, financially. We’re in Wyoming, where the population, and thus potential customers, is low. An operation like this could only survive with a regular customer base, as perhaps a large mine; there is no indication here of any such. And Elijah’s place is outside of town, so customers would first have a trip out there just to start any such message on its way. Faye mentions that sometimes the Pony Express drops off a delivery it can’t reach, but the pony riders, too, would have come to town, not way out to Elijah’s place.
Which points out another problem here: history. The author seems to have invoked the name of the Pony Express without considering the facts. The operation only ran for eighteen months between 1860 and 1861 – and it was a losing proposition financially. This was before the transcontinental railroads were even chartered; it would have been long gone by the time the Union Pacific was reaching Wyoming. Even before the railroad, the telegraph had ensured its demise. While steampunk is often considered an alternate history, I don’t think this can account for the historical discrepancy in the present case, which otherwise follows the recorded time and factlines too closely. So overall, the steam-dog element detracts rather than adds to the story, which didn’t need it.
“Border Dogs: A Seal Team 666 Adventure” by Weston Ochse
These days there seem to be two sorts of stories to be found at this site, and it’s pretty easy to distinguish them. Stories selected by the site’s own editors are generally independent; stories selected by outside book editors are generally connected to some other, longer work. In this case, it’s a promotional piece for the author’s novel, but it does stand independently as a work of fiction. Just not a very good one.
What we have here is a hybrid of paramilitary action/adventure and horror, based on the not very original premise of a team of SEALS tasked to combat supernatural threats to the homeland. In the current case, the Mexican Zetas have been breeding chupacabras and trading some of them to an outfit of American “patriots” ostensibly defending the border against undesirable elements. [To my mind, the Zetas are quite sufficient in themselves for horror without adding chupacabras, but that would be missing the point here.] At any rate, there is action aplenty, with lots of names of weapons being deployed to give the impression of authenticity. But I’m not much impressed with an outfit that deliberately sends one of its members to be beaten up and captured for no necessary purpose, given that any real, nonfictional set of bad guys would promptly have killed and disappeared him instead of sticking him in a cage next to the contraband chupacabra, where he can be later rescued. In short, this is clichéd action, which fits the clichéd characters and clichéd prose:
When they saw it in full form, they screamed.
The beast howled, then charged, then fed.
Pablo and Rebecca Cruz never had a chance.
Readers have the chance to pass this one by.
“The Hanging Game” by Helen Marshall
It seems that Hanged Odin is alive and well in American logging country, under the name of Hangjaw. Now if you know Odin, you know he’s not the sort of god to take lightly, to invoke for trivial purposes, to cheat. But the local adolescents have been doing exactly that with a game in which they mock-hang each other, during which, the hanged one prophesies. The prophecy is always true; the hanging is not always mock.
The narrator is pretty clear that this isn’t something the kids just made up. The tradition has been passed down for generations. Which means that the adults must know it, and they must know the bears are sacred to Odin. Which means it would be pretty damn stupid of them to go around shooting the bears just to piss him off. But they do. And someone has to pay.
Problem is, it’s not really such a satisfactory story when someone acts stupidly for no apparent good reason and someone else has to pay. Just as the characters are misusing the power of the god they invite into their lives, the author seems to be misusing the potentially powerful premise by focusing more on the consequences than the cause. Skye’s problem lies with the bears. The hanging game is only the revelation.
“Running of the Bulls” by Harry Turtledove
Turtledove does Hemingway. Baek Jarns is part of the lost generation. He didn’t return home after the war. He also drinks a lot. With no particular reason not to, he goes with some friends to Astilia, to run with the bulls at Amblona. It doesn’t go well.
You may think we are holding a wake for Obert. More likely, we are holding a wake for ourselves, and for the parts of us that have died up till now. We have not finished the job, but we are on our way.
This is an interesting work, but its interest is almost entirely extrinsic. Readers who don’t grasp the Hemingway references are likely to think: So, OK, it’s a WWI metaphor with aliens. So what? But Turtledove isn’t the least bit coy about the story’s model. We’re supposed to get it. The names [eg, Baek Jarns = Jake Barnes] the settings [Amblona = Pamplona] and the plot are all lifted directly from The Sun Also Rises. Yet this raises the secondary question: So, OK, Turtledove is doing an obvious Hemingway pastiche. So what?
The answer lies not in the similarities between the story and its original model but in the differences, some of which are almost as obvious as the similarities. This, for one thing, is a short story, while Hemingway’s story is a novel. Thus we have to consider why Turtledove included some elements and eliminated others; why, for one thing, he decided to end his account where he did, with one character dead and the rest about to plunge into a new round of self-destructive behavior. We can see this as showing us that this generation is truly lost, truly dead to itself, beyond saving – a consequence, at least on the part of the narrator, of the war’s psychically fatal wound.
Another very obvious difference is the non-human identity of the characters – which extends to the bulls, as well. They are not mammals; this is not our world, yet, oddly, it contains some elements found here, such as rats. Their feelings, however, are entirely human. So why does Turtledove give his people snouts and tails and scales? Just to qualify it for genre publication? If so, I can’t consider it a good idea. To emphasize the commonality between the people and the bulls, whose killers are given their body parts as awards for a good fight? Maybe, though not very convincing. But it may be related to another notable distinction between this story and the Hemingway, the character here named Obert Ohn, originally Robert Cohn. Hemingway’s novel has been criticized for the anti-Semitism centered on this Jewish character. Obert Ohn, however, not being human, can’t be Jewish. To the extent the others despise him, it seems to be on account of his weakness in loving a woman who doesn’t love him, refusing to accept the fact that she never will. Obert Ohn may not be a sympathetic character, but he can be pitied. Even with a tail, which we’re inclined to forget, except when the author brings it up again.
This, of course, is only one possibly line of conjecture. Readers of these columns may have noticed that just about my highest term of approbation is “interesting”. The reason this is an interesting work is its potential for generating such critical speculation, largely because Hemingway’s book spawned so much critical analysis and different interpretations. But here’s where I have to observe the distinction between review and criticism and leave further lines of approach as an exercise for the reader.