Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

A batch of the usual monthly and bimonthly zines. Lightspeed has overall good work this time.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, May/June 2013

Starting out with the Stewart novella, I began to think this could be one of F&SF’s superior issues. Alas, not so. Several of the novelettes make for good reading [notably the Reed, Lee and Bailey], but there’s too much lackluster at the shorter lengths, and the obligatory Cowdrey is a real stinker.

“Wormwood is Also a Star” by Andy Stewart

In an alternate, fantastic post-Chernobyl, when strange things have happened, most notably the appearance of “the area sometimes called the bubble, the enclave, the anomaly, as it’s known; the Angel’s Tear to those few who actually live or work within its borders”, where radiation does not pass. And within the bubble, eight orphaned children who had been quarantined in the infirmary for lice, abandoned when the rest evacuated, then found miraculously transformed – angels of the Tear, the Witch Children, with strong psychic powers that strongly interest the authorities.

The kids were told they might fall sick and die, but that didn’t happen. They tested negative for exposure, even though the lice had fallen dead from their heads. The lice gauged almost a sievert of exposure.

Recently, though, the children have begun to kill themselves. Mitka, a reporter, is now their link to the world outside, their protector against those who want to exploit them. Also the lover of the oldest, Vitaly. Her exposés have caused trouble – with the authorities, with her powerful father, with her husband.

A tale of corruption, in which it seems that politics can be more toxic than radiation. Mitka, named for her father, a powerful general who is now Deputy Minister of Defense, is trapped at the center of web of deceit he has spun with lies, blackmail and murder. Vitaly is an innocent caught up in it when the authorities both fear his psychic abilities and want to exploit them. Everyone else has guilty secrets they don’t want exposed. In such a milieu, a true miracle can’t be allowed to endure. It’s a murder mystery, a ghost story: depressing work, with a bitter consolation.


“Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much” by Robert Reed

Bradley’s grandfather was a pioneer of Transcendence. As he explained to the then-eight-year-old, “My new mind will think wondrous fancy original thoughts, and maybe some of my ideas will make life better for all of you. Though that’s not why I’m doing this. I’ve already done plenty for everybody, in my family and beyond.” Problem is, that new hundred-year lifespan is subjective; in objective time, the brain burns out in about a week. But what a week. And that’s just the beginning. Things change. Just about everything changes. And Bradley has misgivings about the whole thing from the beginning.

Each slice of this countryside was as splendid as most of its neighbors, and every time one more person Transcended, another ex-peasant from the wilderness could move into a magical city, buy an empty apartment for cheap, and settle into a robot-aided existence free of dust and dreariness.

The transition to a virtual posthuman condition isn’t a novel premise, but Reed provides interest in the form of Bradley’s large and quarrelsome family, which reacts to the altered state of the world in different ways. He also gives us a concluding conundrum to solve.

“Changes” by Rand B Lee

In a world where probability storms keep altering the landscape, Brother Whitsun tries to keep things as stable as he can, which is the task the Fair Dealers have appointed themselves in the face of the change.

The greatest mysteries of all were why only the Fair Dealers, and a few others in whom the wealfires had chosen to lodge, appeared immune from being Changed by the squalls; and where people, animals, plants, and land went when the squalls erased them from Creation. Not erased, Whitsun thought firmly. Displaced. For sometimes the wealfire retrieved things that had disappeared, and sometimes they came back on their own.

Here is a Travelogue of Wonders. It’s a long story, so there are plenty of wonders, good and bad. We meet some intelligent mutant dogs, we may briefly meet God, we cross a bridge. Whitsun does some minor miracles, and nothing much changes on the larger scale, which is to say, it isn’t going to stop changing. Whitsun speculates about the nature and cause of the phenomena; he comes down on the God side of the argument, but we learn nothing conclusive. It begins inexplicable, and so it ends. Rather underwhelming for all the length.

“The Woman in the Moon” by Albert E Cowdrey

In a future Chicago that actually has winters again, Professor Threefoot lectures his son-in-law with a tale from his own unpromising past as an adjunct who luckily got in on the ground floor of Selenite Studies.

Humor is a subtle art. This author has produced some clever stuff in the past, particularly some effective regional humor. The current work, however, is clumsy and heavy-handed farce, larded with ridiculous names and cast in leaden prose:

“To strengthen my professional standing, I’d joined the Society for the History of Industrial Technology, despite its unfortunate acronym, which provided my colleagues with an endless array of coarse jokes at my expense. I’d barely started on Chapter Two when I learned via the Society’s Journal that a work on exactly the same subject, even with the same title, was soon to be published! The author was a plagiarizing bitch named Marsha Minor Hoots of whom I’d never heard, and such was the excitement among the six or seven scholars who’d read her draft that everyone in the Society was anticipating a masterpiece.”

I’m suspecting that I might have been Tuckerized, but a venerable Tilton College does in fact exist, albeit a preparatory institution.

“The Bluehole” by Dale Bailey

The summer of ’82, Jeremy’s cursed Golden Age.

That was the summer I turned thirteen, the summer I smoked pot for the first time, the summer I fell in love with movies and science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll. That was the summer of the Bluehole, and whatever it was that plied its opaque, fathomless depths. That was the summer Jimmy moved into the house across the street. I think I was half in love with him from the start.

The Bluehole is a local lake, reputed to have no bottom, reputed to be the lair of monsters. Jimmy scoffs at the rumors. He is ill-advised to do so.

Bitter, well crafted nostalgia. Jeremy is the sort of boy who gets called “faggot” whether or not he is gay, which in this case he is, but which more often means “twerp” or “loser”, which also fit. If he was doomed the day his mother suddenly died the year before, as if she could have saved him, he recalls the summer with Jimmy as brief, bright gleam of lost possibility. The nature of the Bluehole – the thing in the Bluehole – is really irrelevant. Jimmy could have died in any mundane way, as kids high on stolen pot often do, and it would have been the same. The tragedy – not so much Jimmy’s death as Jeremy’s life – feels depressingly inevitable.

“Canticle of the Beasts” by Bruce McAllister

Nominally a sequel to the author’s excellent “Blue Fire” about a sainted child Pope in a world cursed by vampires. Emilio, with Pope Bonifacio and Caterina, all incarnations of holy personages, is on a quest for the holy water that will defeat the Drinkers. Pursued by the soldiers of the Doge, for whatever purpose we do not know, they find sanctuary in the grotto of St Francis.

A work that seems like a fragment, with people we do not know coming momentarily together for a purpose we are told is significant, although it comes to no conclusion, except in some promised future. What the narrator is telling us is that holiness exists, saints exist, and they are acting on Earth. But he doesn’t really give us a story. Too bad.

“By the Light of the Electronic Moon” by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart

The narrator has a drink or two with his friend Trafalgar Medrano, self-described smuggler to the stars, who spins a [tall] tale about his adventure with the gorgeous maybe-women who rule Veroboar and didn’t approve of his activities on his previous trip.

“I had to land on Veroboar, which isn’t very far away, to have a single induction screen checked, and I took the opportunity to sell the surplus.” He lit another cigarette. “They were comic books. Don’t make that face — if it hadn’t been for the comic books, I wouldn’t have had to shave my mustache.”

One of those stories in which setting makes the difference. It would have been one thing, a rather clichéd thing in fact, if this one took place in a spaceport bar full of warty aliens, but instead we’re in a sedate and secluded sort of bar/coffee shop with a retro sensibility, where people read the newspaper and sip sherry and don’t seem to travel off the Earth – except for Trafalgar, whose ridiculous story is may be a lie. The narrator, however, seems to believe him.

This seems to be related or part of the author’s novel featuring the character Trafalgar. I think I would prefer something featuring the Burgundy bar and Marcos the waiter.

“Directions for Crossing Troll Bridge” by Alexandra Duncan

Short humorous list conflating troll with sphinx.

“The Mood Room” by Paul DiFilippo

A rather far-fetched and slightly risqué reminiscence based on a factoid that any gynecologist knows.

“Doing Emily” by Joe Haldeman

It seems that M I T has developed a simulation transfer program in which English professors, say, can download authors. Tomlinson, testosterone-overloaded after doing Hemingway, decides to switch to Emily Dickinson for his next session. Perhaps because of the alcohol, things do not go well.

This one is obviously informed by the Dickinson poem “Much Madness is divinest Sense”, but otherwise the scenario doesn’t make a whole lot of it.

“Systems of Romance” by Ted White

A future when certain people are afforded life extension treatments. The narrator, an immortalized musician and composer, hooks up with the genius and prodigy Cecilia-B, who’s currently into studying musicians. The collaboration is more satisfactory than the love affair, but it goes bad when he realizes she’s actually an immortality groupie.

This one raises more problems than it addresses. The narrator tells us that Cecilia-B’s superficial looks masked her real talents, but at the same time he makes it clear that her talents have already made her renowned. And who’s in charge of the immortality program, and why would someone of Cecilia-B’s obvious talent not be considered eligible?


Apex Magazine, April 2013

Love, lust and other attractions.

“Dawn and the Maiden” by Sofia Samatar

The downside of serving a goddess. The Lady’s serving maid loves her gatekeeper. They sacrifice their most precious gifts so she will bless their love, but greater affairs are already in train, that probably have something to do with the three recently-arrived Norn-like strangers. Maybe. The narrator’s lover takes it personally.

Strong overtones of myth in this enigmatic prose poem:

My love is a river. My love is a brink. My love is the brink of an underground river. My love’s arms ripple like rivers in the moonlight when he unlocks the garden gate.

Not even the narrator knows much about the goddess, although she does say, “What is known is that her speaking makes the world.” And, presumably, can unmake it. Or even, perhaps, remake it. The narrator, awaiting dawn, will soon learn the answer, but readers will have to wonder.

“Build-A-Dolly” by Ken Liu

The sorrows of programmed love. Very short piece with painful ending and an unoriginal premise.

“The Lure of Devouring Light” by Michael Griffin

An unusually long piece for this zine. Lia is a cellist at a school in Oregon that has invited the notorious János Mészáros as a visiting master musician. Now the school fears he is going to miss the performance meant to be the highlight of his tenure – a well-founded fear, given his propensities for alcohol, drugs and illicit sex with minors, as well as blood drinking. Readers will suspect that when Lia calls him a monster, the term is more than metaphorical.

“The needs other people have, that is not my needs.” Mészáros approaches. “I need to devour. You know it, Lia. I devour you.” He stands over her, mouth a thin black line, the merest trace of a smile. “You gave me yourself to devour.”

Lia, who was once his lover, is now trapped between revulsion and unwilling lust for his mastery of the music.

Powerful darkness here, compelling demonic figures and damnation.



Lightspeed, April 2013

I’m finding better stories from this zine more often, both SF and fantasy. This time I’m liking the Howey and the Lay.

“Deus ex Arca” by Desirina Boskovich

Here’s an SF classic: an alien box suddenly and mysteriously appears in the farmers’ market. Only seven-year-old Jackson can touch it with impunity.

Where there had been Miss Amelia, there was now something else, and that something else was a column of celery, measuring approximately five feet and five inches, its limpid green fronds rustling gently in the breeze.

The box sat beside it.

The next day, soldiers come for the box. And for Jackson. Years later, they let him go. The box follows him. Wherever the box is, the fabric of reality disintegrates around it.

This one would be tragic if not for the regular interjections of absurd humor. I think it would be better with more tragic and less absurdity. As it is, Jackson’s life is ruined by the box, he loses his family and everything he loves; many others suffer likewise. This deserves being taken more seriously.

“Deep Blood Kettle” by Hugh Howey

Aliens have aimed a meteor at Earth in an act of extortion, and the world’s authorities can’t seem to make up their minds to agree. The narrator’s troglodyte father doesn’t believe in aliens or dinosaurs, or anything he can’t see with his own two eyes. He figures the rock will burn up like shooting stars always do. But the narrator has ideas of his own, born in part from the lessons taught by his father, who’s busy oiling his gun in anticipation of invaders.

Which was why we used the plow. It was why we throw the dirt up into the air. We make all things die in the soil so when we put in our own seed, that’s all the life there is. And where the ground is reddest, that deep blood kettle, the corn reaches up so high you think it might leave us behind. And that’s what the rock will do, plow us under. It weren’t going to be like that movie at all.

A bloody-minded view of the struggle for existence, the survival of the meanest. The narrator’s father is an intense character, totally wrong-headed in an indomitable way. The son is wiser, and the fact that he thinks for himself in spite of the old man says a great deal.


“A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain” by Karin Tidbeck

Apprentice doesn’t find her life in the Documentary Theatre Troupe very fulfilling. She never gets to play fulfilling roles.

There are too many meta levels, too much self-referencing. Why would you set up a play about setting up a play? And the casting is always the same. Apprentice never gets to play the actor who does Rosella, or King Vallonius, or the Pedestrian; she has to be boring old Vivi, and Vivi’s grey tedium is sinking into her bones.

And there’s never an audience, although Nestor insists she just can’t see them. But in his heart, Nestor too would like an audience.

Nice fabulist piece about stories, with meta levels.

“The Visitation” by Anaea Lay

It seems that on October 31, 2013, everyone on Earth had a vision, known afterwards as the Visitation. It affected most people profoundly, but the musician Manuel Black scooped the world with a song about the experience.

I saw them both. They were death, two-faced and beautiful. They wanted me. Oh god, they wanted me and I couldn’t bear it. I ran. I don’t even know how but I ran and they let me go.

I wish they hadn’t.

Black becomes a prophet. The narrator becomes a follower. It’s interesting that while the narrator, like everyone else, saw the original Visitation, we never learn anything about this immediate experience. For the narrator, the true experience was the secondary, mediated through the prophet Black, who becomes, in effect, the living manifestation of the phenomenon. The narrator’s regret at missing the second Visitation is the regret of not being there with Black at the crucial moment more than the regret of missing the experience itself. This piece says a lot about the way the human mind processes the experience of the ultimate, like using dark goggles so we won’t be blinded, like focusing on the shadow because the brightness itself is unendurable.


Strange Horizons, April 2013

Not too excited by this month’s selections.

“The Lucia Bird” by Ryan Simko

A society has settled a group of islands on a colonized world, where they keep a set of traditions, restricting themselves to technology two thousand years old, resulting in an idyllic life. Or so they claim, but in fact, they have already succumbed to new ways, allowing the platinum beneath their ocean to be mined and refined into an essential ingredient in war; it happens to be slowly killing them. The narrator, corrupted by education, is aware of the irony as her beloved grandfather speaks his official last words exhorting the people to maintain the old traditions.

The ritual is old and formulaic. The idea is that one should pass on his accumulated wisdom before death, but there is little variation in the words that are recorded. The dying tell you to be kind, to remember that family is important, to honor the traditions. They say what people expect to hear, and my grandfather is no different.

Because fiction needs symbols to illustrate its point, we also have the Lucia Bird, symbolizing the innocence of the original settlers, now dying though they refuse to see it. Although there’s a perfunctory element to the story, it raises interesting points about the fate of people who attempt to retain a way of life in the face of political and economic coercion.

“Road Test” by Lane Robins

Urban fantasy. Vey has claimed this small city and its streets and doesn’t like seeing the strange city runner show up to make a play for it.

Carlos took her hand and that first contact between them struck like lightning, warm skin heating up fast. The fluorescent bulbs flickered then went out with a strong electrical scent. Thin, acrid plumes of smoke spilled downward, wreathing the room. Tyler ran for the fire extinguisher.

A car chase ensues, a race for power.

I’m generally unfond of urban fantasy in its current incarnation, with its ass-kicking heroines and romantic/sex appeal. All of which we have here, in prose overly-studded with similes like a hardcase detective story. The city-running premise has interest and could have generated some good car chase excitement, but here the moralistic overtone dampens the action. Vey is a responsible city runner, Carlos is a user. Also an asshole. Naturally, Our Heroine is turned on. Naturally, everything proceeds along the well-worn plot highway.

“The Siren” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Jen’s mother has been seduced by a siren, and now the siren is luring Jen. She isn’t quite sure what to think about this. Because, you know, who wants to get it on with a siren when you’ve seen her kissing your own mother? On the other hand, when Mina sings,

Jen couldn’t help herself; she put her hands to Mina’s face, put her lips to the red streaks where the salt had rubbed Mina’s skin raw. She kissed that skin. She licked the salt from her own lips and felt connected through the burn of salt in her throat. She knew then, just as suddenly as she had known the song, what Mina was.

A story of loss. Mina has lost what she once was, along with her wings, although not, it seems, her song. Sam has lost her husband, Jen’s father; they’re now living without much purpose in a too-large, too empty house. But Mina, in her loss, will lose them all.

I like the seductive descriptions of drowning. But I have to wonder what Mina had been before she lost her wings and her home. Luring people to drown is, after all, what a siren does.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #118-119, April 2013

#118 features women and love; #119 metes out revenge against evil overlords. None really outstanding, although the Sriduangkaew comes closest.


“The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Another in the author’s reworkings of Chinese myth, here the story of Xihe the sun goddess. As Xihe herself points out, her personal story has been overshadowed by another, from a time when she was much older. She is young, as the world is young and newly-made, when she first encounters the god Dijun, then without status and connection at the heavenly court, but ambitious*. She is attracted to his beauty and feels a bond because they are both gods of fire. But if she had been older and wiser, she would have seen the warning signs.

This is the sort of story I like to like, where the author takes myth and makes it her own. And Sriduangkaew’s prose is well-suited to the material:

Before the end there would be love-songs to a passion so fierce that the offspring of my body turned into suns; tales of our courtship a wildfire that scorched the world.

The early history of the goddess is not worked out in the traditional material, allowing the author great scope for invention, of which she takes good advantage, particularly in the matter of the white crane and the birth of the black crows. Rather than a love-song, it becomes a tale of jealousy and animosity, in which the husband destroys what his wife best loves, out of spite. But amidst it all, there are too many moments when the facade of the setting cracks to expose a contemporary agenda, the illusion of the fantastic fades, and suspension of disbelief slips. I would have liked it much better but for that.

[*] Interestingly, in this version, Dijun is not [yet?] the emperor.

“Blood, Stone, Water” by A J Fitzwater

On a world with three moons, there is a society that resembles Earth’s Polynesia, where people travel great distances between their islands by canoe. It’s not quite clear whether these are human or humaniform aliens, as their reproductive processes are not the same as our own: while males exist but seem rare, females can also share seed and generate children [the author is not explicit about this process]. For this purpose, as well as trade and cultural exchange, there is a regular gathering at the rising of the Stone Moon, when the fertility cycle peaks; one maiden is also chosen there as a sacrifice. Tau and Nhia are on this journey, Nhia being a Stone Maiden competing for the honor of being the sacrifice, Tau to do the paddling.

The interest here is in the worldbuilding; the story itself is rather too leisurely a journey. While it’s not a romance, it has some of the qualities of the genre, mainly a sense of inevitability. It’s obvious from the beginning that Tau loves Nhia, and readers will confidently expect them to get it together by the end, after surmounting the obligatory obstacles the author places in their path, primarily Tau’s abyssal self-esteem. There is no real sense of impending tragedy, the possibility of Nhia being chosen for the sacrifice being discussed but not strongly felt. A love story, though one strangely short on passion.

[A digression on exogamy: This is a beneficial practice for relatively small and isolated populations on islands, as we have here – increasing genetic diversity and avoiding the consequences of inbreeding. If we have a population with females simultaneously reaching the peak of a fertile cycle at some clearly-determined point, something like the gathering makes consummate sense. The story suggests that both Tau and Nhia, if she survives, are expected to return pregnant, and not from each other. But Tau is rather averse to this, which raises the question, as the story does, why she was chosen to go to the gathering. The question the story doesn’t raise is how much tolerance there is for individual preference. Is Tau risking sanctions if she refuses all potential seed partners at the gathering? Are Tau and Nhia risking sanctions for choosing each other, which they could have done perfectly well at home rather than wasting the opportunity for exogamy at the gathering? This is an obstacle to their mating that the story could but does not exploit.]


“The Barber and the Count” by Michael Haynes

The count has caused the death of the barber’s elder daughter, and any impulse to revenge must take into account his younger, a hostage to his good behavior. To taunt him, the count unwisely begins to patronize his shop. A short and simple piece, with a conclusion that won’t surprise readers. The barber displays admirable control, under the circumstances.

“The Mermaid Caper” by Rich Larson

Crane and Gilchrist are out for revenge against the brutal Baron Cassius, whose weakness is his menagerie of exotic creatures. Their bait is the most exotic of all.

The shroud had been cast off, and inside the tank was the sylph of a thousand sea-tales. Her skin was ghostly pale, and her hair floated in tendrils around an exquisite face. Silver-gray scales sprouted at her navel, her hips, then thickened into a finned tail. The mermaid had dozed in the dark but now came awake, eyes opening jet black. Her tail flexed and rasped against the glass.

Well-done characters, and none of the faux-hardboiled diction that readers might expect from the title. This one and the previous have a common fault: their plots come off too well, too easily. In particular, their victims behave as the plans require. The authors have both ignored the well-known dictum that plots don’t survive contact with the enemy; the enemies are too cooperative; and the Larson villain especially goes too far over the top for effect.

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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