Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early April

Starting with the second of TTA Press’s new novella series, I also have some little magazines and the first-of-the-month Clarkesworld. Sadly, I also note that the promising ezine Eclipse Online has fallen victim to the Night Shade collapse.


Publications Reviewed


“Spin” by Nina Allan

Unraveling and reweaving the Arachne myth. We begin with the setting, which is Greece, though not the Greece we know today. There are diesel-burning buses and iPads, but also conquering Carthaginians. And the city of Athena itself seems to have been replaced by an atoll – whether the work of Carthaginians or Poseidon, we don’t know. Many people believe that catastrophic shifts in time are connected to the work of sibyls, prophets who not only foresee future events but are also alleged to produce “involuntary time amendment, a spontaneous unraveling of history that could theoretically result in the deaths of millions.” For this reason, such seers, once highly revered, have been proscribed under penalty of death.

Layla Vargas is our Arachne. Her mother had been drowned as a sibyl at a time before Layla can remember, although she insists she had simply been a gifted poet, the innocent victim of superstition. Layla doesn’t believe in sibyls. She herself was a prodigy, skilled at needlework and weaving at a very early age, but she stubbornly refuses to attribute her gift to any supernatural cause, although it’s obvious to everyone but her that it must have come from the god, and that the god will eventually come for her payment. The seeds of the tragedy have already been planted.

The god in the original legend was Athena, who presides over such crafts as weaving. Most of the historical sibyls were also weavers – Layla visits a museum where some of their masterpieces are still displayed. But the author has introduced theological complications. The god traditionally presiding over the activity of sibyls, which is basically to say oracles, isn’t Athena but Apollo. And the work of poets, such as Layla’s mother, is specifically sacred to Apollo.

By merging the attributes of Athena with Apollo, Allan has made a significant alteration to the original myths. It becomes an even more profound change when prophecy in this case includes more than the power to predict the future, but to alter it. I can’t help having misgivings about this. The notion of changing the future fundamentally contradicts the spirit of the Greek mythos. Paradoxically, the text suggests a link between this chimerical Athena and a more primordial group of divinities, whose care also involves matters of spinning, measuring and cutting thread: the Fates, whose decrees even Zeus cannot defy. Layla, in defying Athena, is in a peculiar position with regard to fate. She can’t change the future, she insists, because the future doesn’t yet exist. She is a weaver, not a sibyl, no matter what the god says. Yet she also defies the concept of predetermination, which is fate itself.

As the story opens, Layla is embarking by bus upon her coming-of-age journey to the city, where her skill has won her a job. On the bus, she encounters a strange old woman.

The old woman was as ugly as she remembered, ugly in a way that had little to do with vanished youth or beauty but in an outlandish, almost spectacular way that could only be described as a displeasure to the eye, the repulsive visual anomaly that might be recognised in a stonefish or wolverine.

Her eyes though were lovely, and so unusual in their violet coloration that Layla found herself wishing she had brought her watercolour box with her, so that she could make an attempt at mixing the colour herself for later use. The beauty of those eyes in that desiccated face formed a contrast that was somehow indecent. It was as if the eyes belonged to someone else entirely, a lovely young woman who was being held prisoner in the body of the monstrous hag.

This old woman reappears later, claiming a tie with Layla’s mother. Of course we know who she is. We were expecting her to show up. Even Layla has to tacitly admit who she is. But she refuses to say the god’s name.

This is more than simple stubborn skepticism. If there’s a single lesson running through the Greek myths and the tragedies inspired by them, it has to be: Don’t Piss Off the Gods. The Olympians were a vengeful bunch. Often, as in the original myth of Arachne, the mistake of the mortal was to challenge the god, to claim an equal or greater skill. This isn’t Layla’s sin. Layla’s sin is to refuse the god. As Layla sees it, if the gods are real, if her talent and her mother’s talent are only their gifts, this diminishes their value.

It would mean that everything she ever did, everything she had ever done, was predetermined. That she was not an artist, but an empty vessel, a convenient channel of communication between her own world and a realm she herself could merely glimpse through the panoramas.

The god, however, is not to be so easily denied. She sets a tempting trap, with a bait she knows Layla won’t be able to resist.

At the end, Athena is remarkably lenient. Perhaps she’s mellowed with age over the millennia. Layla’s fate is both fitting and fulfilling. The concluding lines of the story are as strongly orgasmic as anything I’ve read.

We have, after all, known essentially where this one was going. The story is in how she gets there. Thus the mythological elements, while quite interesting in its own right, are not the critical element. The story is Layla’s journey, from the moment she leaves her childhood until she confronts her god. And this is why we have novellas, to let stories unroll at their own pace, to give us Layla’s long journey by bus with her embroidery hoop across the Peloponnese, the encounter with the old woman, the drink from a spring of mountain-cold water, the African hotel clerk in Corinth. Journeys mean something in a story like this one. They shouldn’t be rushed. They should be full of places, of encounters: With the young man afflicted with a curse. A fascinating epic poem on which Layla bases her newest work. The masterpieces of ancient sibyls, catching dust in the museum. Spiders weaving in the sunlight, busy at their work. The details so clear, so well-chosen to make a story.



Clarkesworld, April 2013

Three very different original stories, of which I prefer the Wallace. Also an April Fool’s special reprint from Kij Johnson, which should leave readers needing to take a shower under hot running degreaser.

“Annex ” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

A far future rendered by the author in rapid-fire eyeball kicks.

On the walls, flowers fought and devoured each other, mouth-tipped stamens tessellating in choral fury. Onstage a dancer moved in simpatico, mercury limbs shimmering silver, a body of animated liquid.

Esithu is a plural person with multiply androgynous bodies. Their homeworld, Samutthewi, has been recently and almost nonviolently absorbed into the Costeya Hegemony, a transition which doesn’t seem to overly disturb most of the residents. But a chance-met woman lures Esithu into a long-term scheme of resistance, subverting data and public memory. Lykesca is the heart of the rebellion; for Esithu, the real challenge seems to be the technological.

The heart of the story is in the evolving relationship between the two. Unfortunately, the author has chosen to distract readers with a lot of unoriginal Lookit! We’re in the Future! stuff that I find more irritating than interesting, especially Esithu’s plural pronouns. We see a great deal of the characters’ extensive body modifications, which is peripherally pertinent to the story’s theme of modifying data but otherwise seems extraneous. And for all the futurisms, we still have the population receiving its information from a “net”. Of course we don’t know exactly what a net happens to be at the time, but the phrase “go viral” certainly dates the piece to the current decade and subverts the author’s futurism.

“No Portraits on the Sky” by Kali Wallace

Rather than annoying and off-putting, here we find an opening that draws us into the setting and thence the story.

Everybody in the forest knew the sky was falling. They muttered and fussed when scraps ripped free and fluttered down, draped over gardens and saplings and pods, left brown patches of crisp leaves and dead moss behind. Some days it was worse than others, a soft white rain, and spiders scurried to devour what they could before it did too much damage.

We learn eventually that the forest is part of a world-sized artificial habitat, now slowly disintegrating. Skywardens no longer attempt to make repairs; many of them have fallen from above, and now there are no new wardens. Rela’s daughter had joined the skywardens and is now missing, leaving Rela lost in grief. One day she finds a strange man falling from the sky, badly injured, not a skywarden, brown where the forest dwellers are green.

This is a story of mortality. The forest dwellers believe they don’t die. The old and sick are wrapped up by their highly utilitarian spiders to be healed, the cocoons hanging in the trees where they often remain for generations, waiting with cheerful, colorful faces painted on their shrouds. But the world itself is dying – not just the sky falling but the giant trees where they live, rotting away from the roots. Only Rela, despondent over her daughter’s loss, seems to realize this, and that most of the sleepers will probably never revive.

The setting fascinates and intrigues – the photosynthesizing posthumans, the ubiquitous modified spiders [arachnophobes beware], the hints of the world beyond the sky. Overall, it’s a depressing piece, with a conclusion that comes as a shocking surprise as Rela comes to embrace the unwelcome truth.


“Melt with You” by Emily C Skaftun

An absurdist look at reincarnation and immortality. It seems that humanity has been suddenly transformed into lawn ornaments, as well as birds and bugs and other apparently random stuff. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that the garden gnomes have undergone the opposite process and become not only sentient and mobile, but possessed by a spirit of militant religion. They are now marching across the landscape, burning and destroying anything with a soul in the name of Jesus and the apocalypse, although it’s not quite clear if they actually have anything to gain from it.

Some of the small critters paused then, a painted stone squirrel looking between factions much like a live one would have. It occurred to me, not for the first time, what a tacky neighborhood this had been. Even with some of the lawn art broken beyond repair, we were quite the menagerie.

An effective illustration of the fact that absurdity isn’t necessarily funny. Not only do we have a reminder of the senseless religious wars that humanity seems addicted to, the story presents a very dismal look at the nature of the immortal soul, trapped forever in a body that can’t be destroyed. The author suggests that all we would have under such circumstances is love, but it’s not a very cheering consolation.


Shimmer #16, Winter 2013

I usually like this little magazine, but the current issue disappoints. There are thirteen stories, most quite short, most with minimal substance to them. Reading the issue is like trying to fill up on hors d’oeuvres; at some point, you start to hunger for the oeuvre. The quality of the stories varies greatly; quite a few are unoriginal, banal, or just slight. The ones I consider most worth reading are by Ginoza, Gardner, Jablonsky, and Bennardo.

“Ordinary Souls” by K M Szpara

Black sorcery. Callum wants a special spell to celebrate his anniversary with Ethan. He wants it to be a special night for them. But this being sorcery, there’s a price. The twist in this love story makes a pretty effective surprise, and it ends affectingly. The sex scenes have a level of explicitness that isn’t seen so often in the genre.

“Goodbye Mildred” by Charlie Bookout

Another love story, darker than above. The narrator reminisces about the youth he shared with his wife, long, long ago.

Sitting in this rotten swing has got me to thinking about your daddy again. The man spared no expense for his little girl, and it’s a fine house he built for us. The only thing holding it together these days is termite shit, but that doesn’t trouble me. Not a lick. Not on a night like this. Gone for the year are the fitful showers of June. This is back porch weather.

Very short, leaving several questions unanswered, like what the hell these people are and why they’re engaged in mayhem.

“Opposable Thumbs” by Greg Leunig

EV91 knows he isn’t an animal because he has opposable thumbs, which makes readers think he must be some kind of animal. EV91 is the narrator, so the story is written in the kind of diction employed by such characters.

After the man with the red tie called me an animal I asked the technicians when they came if I was an animal and they said Why do you ask and I told them about the man with the red tie. They said Don’t worry about things like that and I said I have opposable thumbs so how can I be an animal and they said Don’t worry about things like that and I said Okay.

This is a “What’s going on?” story, in which we’re supposed to wonder just what EV91 is, and eventually the story tells us. And we’re not really surprised at all, because we’ve seen this one before.

“Word and Flesh” by Dennis Y Ginoza

A bandit discovers a foundling infant beside the corpse of its mother.

The bandit squats beside the girl. He pushes her arm away and sees the child cradled to her bosom. Its skin is white, its hair is the color of raw ivory. Against the umber skin of its mother, the child seems almost to shimmer.

The man tries to remember something he once heard, some word in a foreign tongue. A church word.

The church “in the latter days of this perishing world” isn’t the same one we now know, and the word is “oblacion”. They call the child “the Word made Flesh” and bring him up as a holy object, raised in the darkness to keep his skin soft and white. He is fed until he can barely stand unaided, preparing him for his destined apotheosis.

A striking and unsettling premise, raising issue of faith and free will. A certain well-crafted squickiness here.

“The Revelation of Morgan Stern” by Christie Yant

Apocalypse. Literally.

We didn’t see the worst of it until after the sun went down, when furious angels filled the sky—from where, I don’t know—and with them, the screams that broke the silence.

I wonder if you’re safe. I wonder how far they can fly.

The angels keep carrying off any survivors they find, so there aren’t many people left on Earth besides the narrator, who addresses this account to her [?] lover/friend, as she sets off to find him[?]. But she carries a burden, because she’s afraid it may all be her fault.

The apocalypse idea is neat. The narrator’s explanation for it isn’t convincing.

“The Binding of Memories” by Cate Gardner

A world where the memories of the recently-dead are sent aloft in balloons to, apparently, the Hereafter. At least the characters believe this. A couple of thieves are stealing these memory pages and keeping them in a book for their own future use. “Some days Arthur wished he were already dead so that he could get on with living other people’s lives.” But when they steal Aunt Prudence’s memories, Iris decides to take steps, and receives a long-delayed revelation.

A darkly amusing, imaginative bit of absurdity.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky

Bob dies over the weekend. They learn the news at the office on Monday.

We set about erasing Bob from the office. Jeremy, the IT kid, clears his password from the system; Cayla slides the Star Wars statuettes, R2D2 pencil sharpener, and framed picture with Mark Hamill into an empty office-paper box. Bob has no family, so there will be no awkward, somber-faced presentation of the box of junk at his front door. For this, we are thankful.

On Tuesday, he shows up for work as usual, except for being dead and showing it. But he improves as the week goes on. In fact, he’s an improved Bob. Only Cayla, the office holy roller, is convinced he must be a zombie.

A low-key, slightly absurd satire with an uneasily different point of view on life and the people we have to live it with.

“The Sky Whale” by Rebecca Emanuelsen

In Japan after the tsunami, when Hitomi’s father had drowned. They are taking the long train raid to visit Papa’s parents, when Hitomi sees a flying whale from the window.

The whale’s gray hide is stark as it emerges from the mist. It swoops down over the treetops like the curving edge of the waning moon, trailing twinkling stars on strings from its tail and fins. The stars wink an assortment of colors—lavender and teal, green and golden yellow— then follow the whale back into the fog as it turns around.

A poignant ambiguous fantasy about loss and acceptance. I like the image of the whales, but I tend to think they’re from Hitomi’s imagination. She’s a nice child.

“Tasting of the Sea” by A C Wise

Clockwork fantasy. The clockmaker builds new hearts for clockwork children whose own are broken. They come and leave, only Ana remains, never made whole, never to be made whole, despite his promise. “Once a broken heart is no longer in his hands, the clockmaker forgets its existence. Only she remembers.”

A story of love and giving, written in heightened imagery. The prose has charm, but the piece is too slight to allow readers to address potential moral problems it raises, like free will and coercion. I do weary of gears and wish this trend would pass away.

“Lighting the Candles” by Laura Hinkle

The unicorn, who seems actually to be some sort of vampire, hangs out in a bar where she picks up victims and befriends the bartender. Total staleness.

“Gemini in the House of Mars” by Nicole M Taylor

Clark’s wife has/had a twin sister, a dysfunctional relationship about six overwrought ways.

“The Haunted Jalopy Races” by M Bennardo

Joe and Sylvester drag racing over the love of Sadie Merriweather since 1938, when they were killed.

As the tale of the first fatal race was told and retold over the years, the events just naturally took on the cast that Sadie had long given them. Seemingly to reinforce the idea, Joe Jones appeared more handsome, brave, and angelic with every passing year, while Sylvester Sneep looked darker, grimmer, and uglier. Soon, it was impossible to believe any other version of events—nobody could imagine that a girl like Sadie could have encouraged the attentions of a skull-headed monster like the shiftless Sylvester Sneep.

A fine version of an American ghost classic, with a neat twist at the end.

“In Light of Recent Events, I Have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator” by Helena Bell

You built it out of old liquor boxes and camping equipment as a present to yourself on your 12th birthday. The day you become a man, your father said. Control panels out of dresser knobs, a porthole on the starboard bow covered with Saran Wrap. Your only shield for reentry: blue sheets smattered with tinfoil and duct tape at the seams to seal in the dark.

Kids playing around with their imaginations. Ambiguous SF that seems to be advocating credulousness.


Kaleidotrope, Spring 2013

Each issue of this little magazine tends to have its own tone. The six stories here are realistic for fantasy, dealing mostly with realistic characters and their emotional reactions to some kind of trauma. The prevailing tone is dark, the situations compelling, moving. The last two in particular compose a diptych of suffering.

“Ten Thousand Lives” by Bruce Holland Rogers

Dan has spent his lifetime wondering the world, and could ask for nothing else, almost.

When he left a place, any place, he was leaving behind the person he could have been had he stayed behind, gone native, learned the language. Every return home was a small wound. What mutilates a man, he read somewhere, is that he imagines ten thousand lives and lives only one.

As if he had made it a wish, it was granted him.

Many authors attempt the short-short story; Rogers is a master of it. It’s hard to imagine words in his work that aren’t meant to be there. So when he writes that Dan read “somewhere” about imagining ten thousand lives, we suppose it might have been the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whose works Dan admired in Lisbon. Or perhaps it was written by some alternate Pessoa, in some other life. I admit that I’m not sufficiently familiar with this poet, but it does seem to be the sort of thing he might have written.

It’s interesting to note that Dan’s fate, while acceptable to him, would have been a tragedy in the life of many other persons. Inwardly, Dan remains who he has always been. Yet readers may wonder if he is, if he always was, a stranger to himself.

“The Mud Girl” by Michael John Grist

We seem to be in China, though it’s not quite clear whether this is yesterday, today or tomorrow. Maokai’s village was fortunate to possess a spring, where his father invested everything to build a spa. But party officials diverted all the water to the city and arrested Maokai’s father when he protested. Maokai fell into drink and depression, while his brother joined the party and became powerful. One day, a mud goddess appears to Maokai and pleads with him to set her free, which means defying the powers.

A discouraging story, with the lesson that not even the supernatural can defeat the party, that hope is a lie, and that you can’t drink self-respect.

“Journey to the Highlands of Papua: XII. The Upper Tagarree and the King of the Jews” by Regan Wolfrom

When whiteguy explorers bestrode the Earth, searching for fabled mountains of gold and bringing missionaries in exchange. Yalla and his fellows are extricated from difficulty with the natives by a self-declared tzadik gone native named Joshua Josephs, who decides to accompany them on their quest, despite being unhappy at their presence. Says Yalla, “Here was a Jewish holy man traveling with an expelled minister, a shell-shocked veteran and a second-rate gangster. It made me laugh.” But there is less laughter when they meet up with the cannibal wizard.

A period piece, action adventure, in which we might expect Johnny Weissmuller or Humphrey Bogart to show up in safari suits. When we learn that Josephs was originally named Yehoshua ben Yosef of Nazareth, the likelihood of finding moral ambiguity here seems low. But when it comes to the gold hunters, we have to sort out the pervasive colonialist racism of the age from their more personal qualities. In this, the character called Samby seems steeped in the darkest dye by adding anti-Semitism and a murderous disposition to his other charms. He seems tailor-made by the author for coming to a Bad End. The author, however, has other plans for our expectations.

I quite like the way the Wolfrom has captured the sensibility of the period, which will surely make readers steeped in today’s values cringe, as Yalla ties up his “boys” so they can’t escape from the cannibals and leave the expedition’s whiteguys with no one to haul their supplies. There’s some subversion going on here, and I always appreciate that.

“Scarlet Fever” by M Bennardo

Joe is home sick from work at the book bindery, and it’s hard to distinguish the nightmarish world of his dreams from some very weird happenings in reality – if it is reality. Like the phone ringing, the phone that isn’t even hooked up. It seems that it’s his future self calling him, a self that he’s encountered previously, without knowing who it was. Like when he was seven and shoved his five-year-old self into a mud puddle. Now he knows, but he doesn’t like it.

He was fouling up the balance. There he was, a guy of ninety-five years old and about to die. What did he want with lording it over me? Why couldn’t he just shut up? Whenever this happened before it had always been quick and silent. And that was enough. Just to know I am in charge of my own licks is enough. Just to know I’m smarter and stronger than I used to be is enough.

An unusual twist on the time paradox story, with a character so mean he can only think of tormenting himself.

“Rocky Mountain Ghosts” by Don Norum

The narrator died in a high school shooting, gunned down by a friend. The scene haunts him, over and over.

This is a topical piece, with political overtones. It isn’t the Columbine shooting, the details differ, but the similarities are many. The details, however, aren’t the real point here. This is a story of trauma, of a life cut short and a spirit that lingers, trapped by it.

“The Worst Part” by Hannah Lackoff

Another tale of trauma, when a boy goes with his friends for a weekend at a remote cabin. The rest of them turn into zombies. He manages to survive and return home, back to what passes for normality. A story of survivor guilt. We know it doesn’t have to be zombies.

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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