Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early July

Everything electronic, leading off with an electronic anthology of novellas.


Publications Reviewed


Lonely Souls, edited by Gordon Van Gelder

As the editorial introduction explains, this is an anthology of four novellas that the editor wanted to publish but which didn’t, for one reason or another but probably involving space, fit into an issue of F&SF. As one who would like to encourage the publication of more novellas, I approve this decision. These are substantial stories in length and varying greatly in subject matter, both fantasy and science fiction.

The title announces the theme, which is odd because according to the introduction, the collection of these stories was quite adventitious. Nonetheless, a theme there is, and a stronger, more fully-realized one than in many anthologies purposefully constructed with a theme in mind. This is its greatest strength, the different portraits of socially isolated characters. Also interesting, in all of the four stories there is an assassin or professional killer, a career choice apparently not good for the soul. Some find redemption, others hell.

“Goliath of Gath” by Jan Lars Jensen

An imagined biography of the Philistine champion. I’ll call it historical fantasy, although the fantastic element is very tenuous, the notion that Goliath and his brothers are a remnant population of the Anakim, a race of giants destroyed by the Hebrews on entering the land of Canaan; they are sometimes identified with the Nephilim, but here are human enough to intermarry with women of the Philistines, since they seem to have none of their own. According to the story, they have now been reduced to a single family, the five sons of one father. Goliath is the youngest, humiliated as a boy for his small stature, mocked as a “tiny giant”. But in the fullness of time he grows and finally must decide what his place will be within his family and the world of the Philistines to which they belong.

Philistia is surrounded by potential enemies, foremost among whom are the Hebrews, but they have a formidable advantage that they guard strictly: iron. From the description, it would seem to be a deposit of meteoric iron, and one of Goliath’s brothers is a smith with the knowledge of working it. The Philistines get a new king who begins to build up an army armed with iron weapons. Goliath is persuaded to join up when he witnesses the slaughter of war. If, rather than both armies meeting in combat, the battle becomes a duel between two chosen champions, there will be less bloodshed. Or so the reasoning goes. And with Goliath as the champion, the Philistines always win.

He was the symbol, so his pace became the speed of their advance and the rhythm of its drummers, the stride of a giant delivered by drumbeat to the farthest surrounding hills. Approaching confrontation, the army became a wedge and he became its tip.

We know, of course, how the story will end, and the author begins there before taking up the story in Goliath’s childhood and following it back to the conclusion. While there are several explicit scenes of war, it’s a psychological story, not action/adventure. In fact, it can be quite dull in spots. The central question is always: Who is Goliath? Why does he fight? What we learn is that the giant is at heart almost pacifist, yet willing to kill when he believes it will do good. As a young man before becoming a warrior, he kills one of his own brothers, described as a monster, who supplies children for sacrifice in the temple of Dagon. The death stops the sacrifices, and though Goliath is ashamed of what he did, the rest of Gath seems to know and approve. Later, he develops qualities of leadership, even heroism, yet he usually stands alone, the lonely soul of the book’s title.

For all the focus on the person, his narrative voice is surprisingly remote. It’s hard to engage or sympathize much with Goliath. I wonder if this is a device used by the author to suggest his isolation. From the biblical accounts, we might get an impression that Philistia is a land crawling with giant warriors, but here we see the Anakim as a dying race, and one reason may be their difficulty interacting with other people, even of their own kind, within their own family. Goliath’s brothers are all solitary, each in their own way, except for one who marries – a Philistine, there being apparently no Anakim women. While Goliath does make one loyal friend, it takes him years. Perhaps this is why such formidable beings were so easily vanquished by the Hebrews, if they were incapable of uniting against a common enemy. In the end, we find Goliath standing alone, more vulnerable than he knows, about to die for a people to whom he never really belongs. We should feel more grief than we do.

“The Demands of Ghosts” by Eric Carl Wolf

My favorite of the stories here. Under a sort of witness protection program, a forcibly retired hit man finds himself stuck on Toom, a featureless world of grassland and imported cattle. “I had come to feel like no one, like a ghost of myself, and that part of me wished I’d died rather than live on as a ghost on Toom.” After a year of pretty much isolation with nothing to do but read and write, he acquires the interest of Una. They talk about their respective criminal pasts, a thing not much done on Toom. He ceases feeling like a ghost.

“Hit man” had been my identity, even to the point, I realized, that “hit man” came before my name, even for me. I was the hit man. Best not to have a name at all if you’re a hit man. Living on Toom, this was gone. No wonder I’d been feeling like a ghost! Una, though, had spoken to something else in me. She had not been telling her story—the story which shaped her identity—to a hit man. She’d been telling it to me, to a man whose identity was up for grabs, a man interested in stories, a desperate man, possibly desperate enough to love.

The core story here is Una’s, a woman whose prolonged life has undergone profound changes, which all began when she fell in love with a man who brought her only trouble in the end. We don’t really know what she sees at first in the nameless narrator, except that he appears to be a man trying to redefine himself. What she – what we – learns of his past is cursory. What matters is what he will become. I’m not sure this entirely works. There’s a lot that goes into a man becoming a professional killer, a lot of qualities that the profession requires. None of these are evident in the man we find on Toom. More than the ghost of a killer, he seems to be a blank slate, almost as if his brain had been wiped when he took his new identity. Certainly both of these people are lonely souls, coming together for a time.

Normally, when I say that a story is “talky”, this isn’t altogether a good thing. Here we have a story that’s almost all talk; the narrator talks to us about the frustrations of his life on Toom, then he and Una exchange the stories of their lives in extended dialogue. And it’s all quite fascinating. That’s effective writing. The world Toom is another matter; I can’t credit the monoenvironment at all, but in the end it doesn’t seem particularly important in the story. I do wonder if the name was chosen as a way of suggesting a place for dialogue.


“One Day at the Zoo” by Rand B Lee

It seems that a plague caused genetic damage to many of the survivors so that some of their children were born with telekinetic abilities. Eulie was one of these. Unfortunately, her mother, a former POW, went barking mad and abducted her from her father, a government geneticist.

I hadn’t tried to call Daddy before because Mama had told me when she’d abducted me that he was planning to kill her and me for experiments, because I was different due to her having had the plague when she was a little girl, when her brain and ovaries were still maturing. That’s why she’d taken me, she said, and changed our names, and moved every six months, so he couldn’t find us and take us back to the BHE lab. When you live with a crazy person twenty-four hours a day, it’s hard sometimes to know what’s true and what isn’t.

After years of abuse, Eulie’s mother tried to kill her by throwing her into the bear pit at the zoo, after which she bonded with the doctors and workers in the hospital. For the most part, this is a story about a child coming to terms with her abilities and learning how to trust others.

Eulie as an abducted child is a very lonely soul, and while we never come to know her mother, it’s clear that she is, too. Eulie is also a tough and resourceful kid, and her survival in captivity makes for an interesting story, even when told in the child narrative voice, which avoids excessive cuteness here. Afterwards, there’s a lot of stress as it seems the forces of Homeland Security threaten to subject her to the same kinds of experiments her mother feared, or that Mama will escape, find her and take her back. But this tension deflates slowly in an atmosphere of general benevolence and goodwill, which is nice but not very exciting. The author seems to want to make up for this excess of niceness at the end, but at this point the conclusion becomes rushed.

“Final Kill” by Chris De Vito

SF Noir. For some shades of noir that are blood-red. The Constitutional Freedom Colony has lost subject fifteen F from their clandestine genetics labs. Passian is an agent/assassin assigned to retrieve the valuable specimen, but his boss has unwisely decided not to play the trade straight, resulting in complications for Passian and everyone else involved. His orders were to kill fifteen-F, aka Lydian, but she immediately regenerates every mortal wound. What’s more, everyone around her does the same, becoming effectively immortal. Complications ensue.

Action here, as if to make up for the minimal activity in the book’s other pieces. Problem is, it’s not really fun, nor is there any emotional engagement with the story. While Passian is socially isolated, he has no soul. Just about every character is some sort of sociopath or pervert, with a strong emphasis on sexual pathology. It’s a soul-killing sort of society. Lydian, the twelve-year-old girl, might have been an exception, but about the time we begin to see her as a person instead of a trading card, she mutates into a death goddess and loses all personality.

The author has been busily inventive, not just in the vivid descriptions of action but the ubiquitous body-mods. A lot of kicks to the eyeball.

His external lungs and air bladders are inflated to enormous size, and pink slits open in the wet and swollen organs. The openings contain tough fibrous cords, up to fifteen centimeters in length, which vibrate, driving and shaping the air being squeezed from the bladders. A viscous oily fluid discharges from thin folds in the slits.

Many of these mods are sexual in nature, as well. We get the point, this is a decadent milieu. But despite all the giant artificial phalloi, there’s no erotic charge here, because we see so few real people, the kind with souls. Everyone is plastic, with interchangeable, indestructible parts. I contrast this with the Jay Lake novella reviewed last month, which deals with similar matters. There, we feel every slice of the scalpel; the descriptions of mutilation make the flesh creep. There, also, we can feel profoundly for its doomed character. Here, there’s a moral neuropathy that blocks feeling. People are repeatedly tortured to death. Yawn. They come back for another round. Meh. An Acme safe drops on the coyote. And reset.

The theme is death and immortality, which proves here to be a mixed blessing. Assassins find themselves unemployable. The drug business crashes. Religion raises its monstrous head, in one of the few scenes that show the effect of immortality on ordinary people, that suggests ordinary people actually exist [if ordinary people go around with the skull of their dead child hanging on their belt]. Problem is, the premise isn’t believable. Not really believable that any amount of genetic manipulation would produce a single immortal, but entirely unbelievable that the effect would be contagious, on indirect contact.

At the end, the author decides that we’ve had enough fun and are ready for a dose of profundity, as if the characters turn out to have souls, after all. But it’s all talk. The numbness hasn’t worn off, the situation has red-shifted even further from credibility, and eternity is either Hell or paradise, it doesn’t seem to much matter.

Tor.com, June 2013

Catching up to last month’s original fiction. I’m often not sure what this website is up to, since it always has a lot of content, but lately it’s involved posting a whole lot of fiction, most of it novel excerpts. Amid it, I found five original, independent stories that made for some good reading on their own.

“The Too-Clever Fox” by Leigh Bardugo

Koja the fox was the runt of his litter and ugly besides, but he is gifted with a clever tongue. When, as frequently happens, trouble finds him and “a lesser creature might have” given up, Koja manages to talk himself free. Then the hunter Lev Jurek arrives in his woods and before long the black bear Ivan Gostov is missing.

Koja’s blood chilled at the sight of his fallen friend’s hide, spread so casually over the polished slats of the floor. Ivan Gostov’s fur shone clean and glossy as it never had in life and for some reason, this struck Koja as a very sad thing. A lesser creature might have let his grief get the best of him. He might have taken to the hills and high places, thinking it wise to outrun death rather than try to outsmart it.

But of course he decided instead to defeat the hunter, recognizing his one weakness, his sister.

This is the way to do a tie-in story. Although it takes place in the world of the author’s novel series, it’s a complete and winning folktale in its own right, an animal story that reads like an extended fable. Because of the title, readers will be expecting that the fox may one day be too clever for his own good, but the twist when it comes does not disappoint.

“A Window or a Small Box” by Jedediah Berry

Jim and Laura, lost and on the run in a weirdly mutated world. All they want is to get home for their wedding, and a fortune teller has told them their way lies through a window. Or a small box. But they’re being pursued.

A half dozen goons, rubbery in their pinstripe suits, slid like jellyfish from vents in the ceiling, through the windows, from under the jukebox. They shifted in their shiny black shoes, ankles wobbling as they solidified.

A surreal setting, rather nightmarish except that everyone in this world is friendly and welcoming, except for the goons. Maybe even the goons. The ending hits just the right note.


“A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill” by Elizabeth Knox

Back in 1953, when governments thought it was a good idea to drown perfectly good valleys, the Department of Public Works wants to acquire Zarene Valley, inhabited by a reclusive clan that refuses all contact. Fortuitously, or perhaps not, an aerial photograph reveals the presence of a previously unknown house above the valley, where Teal believes the owner to live. After a difficult climb, he and Barnes, the lawyer, reach the place near sundown and accept the owner’s invitation to spend the night. Barnes has a nightmare and insists Zarene has attacked him, while Teal has a seemingly more tranquil dream:

He was swimming. The past was the water he was pushing behind him. Silky, green water—like the Pitt River the first time he’s seen it.

In the morning, Barnes has disappeared.

Old-fashioned horror. I’m reminded of Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula, except that Harker was invited and expected, while Teal and Barnes are definitely neither. Ghislane Zarene is a nicely ominous character, clearly monstrous in some way that’s not quite familiar. There’s also an unspecificity about the setting, which seems at times to be postwar Britain, but may well be some imaginary country. This creates a foggy atmosphere suited to the unpleasant events of the story.

“Porn and Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom” by Michaela Morrissette

“Tim was a slime mold, and he worked at Wal-Mart.” Right. The story’s introduction tells us we’re in a future when animals have benevolently taken over the world, including revived human institutions. Tim has a pet human named Mimi, whom he treats with loving care, but as humans alone retain bisexual reproduction, Mimi has begun to exhibit symptoms of this tendency, to his distress.

In the train on the way to work, though, compunction struck him. Poor Mimi, who couldn’t be blamed for anything. He, Tim, was a thoughtless tyrant. Not only did he hold her natural human urges, the very things that endeared her to him, against her; but he was failing to provide her with a stimulating environment. Probably she wouldn’t be constantly coupling in the yard with Yoyo and every other vagrant in heat if she had the things that would keep her amused, a toy car and a swimming pool and new, unheard-of flavors of ice cream.

Of course the nitpickers among us will want to point out that slime molds are not unambiguously classified within the animal kingdom, but that would be missing the point. As would wondering why the animals come in male and female when they are all asexual, and what masculinity means in a slime mold, anyway, or why Tim is so squeamish about sex when the rest of his world doesn’t share his hangup. That’s the thing about absurdity, everything gets to not make any sense, even if you think it actually should. But we can ask if the absurdity is making some sort of point, and here the point is evolution, red and tooth and claw, engorged in genitalia. We know this because the story’s afterward tells us so. The stuff in the middle is thus revealed to be a Cautionary Tale, warning us to avoid the decadent ease of sentient slime molds with sex hangups, lest we end up working in Wal-Mart.

“Burning Girls” by Veronica Schanoes

At home in Poland, Deborah wasn’t to be a dressmaker, as her sister was. She apprenticed with her bubbe in witchcraft, but it was a pious witchcraft to help women, based on the Torah and other sacred writings that weren’t supposed to be the province of girls. She also learned to combat demons, but the demons come with her and her sister on the boat to America when the rest of her family is killed in a pogrom.

How did it find us? I thought frantically. I knew it had been spying on us in Bialystok, or how could it have known to tell Bubbe that we were in danger, but how could it have followed us to this New World? Ruthie said America was free of those old fears, but she was wrong.

A synergistic mix of Yiddish folklore, fairytale, and the history of factory girls in America. It’s a women’s story, with some traditional figures translated to female. The characters are well-done; the conclusion packs a strong blow. But there is a gross stumble in the scene where the demon’s name is invoked, a misstep that causes the story to descend into farce. I really really wish the author hadn’t done this, or that the editor had stepped in with better judgment. The story deserved better.

Clarkesworld, July 2013

The three stories here are all SF to different degrees, in different ways. Readers tend, I think, to compartmentalize and establish pigeonholes defining the different publications they frequent. This time, we have in the Moraine piece something I’d expect to see in Strange Horizons while the Tallerman seems that it would be perfectly at home in Analog. The Chandrasekera, though, is pure Clarkesworld.

“Pockets Full of Stones” by Vajra Chandrasekera

Dike’s grandfather Rais is light-years away on a colony ship, but Dike gets illicit transmissions from him on the relay station where she is stationed. In one message, he makes casual mention of first contact. But there’s a flicker in the image when he says it. It seems that Rais’ message has been hacked with malign intent. Or perhaps not really malign, but the consequences are the same.

Informational life. Ghosts. Like infectious ideas that echoed in our heads until we could not think of anything else, until we forgot how to move, how to beat our hearts, how to breathe. Did they know they were killing us? Did they even know we existed? That there was a whole plane of physical reality that lay beneath theirs?

This one is a marriage between hard SF and a story about family dysfunction. I’m not sure it’s such a solid match. The SF story is premised on the virtual interface that runs the station and its communications. The interface access is through VR glasses: no glasses, no controls of any kind. No backup, not even a spare pair of glasses. The setup is begging for disaster, which duly takes place, but I have a hard time crediting such a system in such circumstances in the first place. Nonetheless, it leaves Dike wedged into a particularly tight dilemma.

Of course we assume that none of this would be happening if it hadn’t been for Dike slipping Rais’ messages through the system, so that the story of their broken family is the background for the disaster. The story of Rais leaving his family for a distant colony is the story’s emotional heart, with both Rais and Dike as ghosts to each other, reaching but never able to touch. A lot of nice symbolism here, but unfortunately the background story becomes repetitive. Rais babbles on, unheard and unregarded like a plot device that has outlived its usefulness, as Dike comes to regret having reached out to him in the first place.

“I Tell Thee All, I Can No More” by Sunny Moraine

I always try to decide, in the case of second-person narrative, just who is talking to whom. In this case, it’s the narrator talking to, shall we say, “themselves.” In sex, we contain multitudes. In this case, the second alternates with longer sections in the first person, in which the narrator talks about being a self-described dronesexual, one of those who fuck drones. Which is to say, the drones fuck them; there is little reciprocation.

There was no singular point in time at which the drones started fucking us. We didn’t plan it, and maybe it wasn’t even a thing we consciously wanted until it started happening. Sometimes a supply creates a demand. [Sayes Law, that – LT]

These are, the text suggests, the sort of military drones that fire missiles and kill people. Which might lead to certain questions, like, How do they fit into the bedroom? But these are not the right questions to be asking of this work, which is not to be taken so literally. They aren’t literal drones, as the narrator tells us: “all drones are collections of every assumption we’ve ever made about them”.

The narrator’s dronesexing leads to emotional complications, though it’s hard to say exactly what they are, as the narrator isn’t telling exactly what their fights were all about. Which suggests that the problem lies in overthinking it all. But then, what sort of relationship doesn’t? Which is the point that the absurdity of the premise is making. For those who like stories about obsessing over relationships.

“Across the Terminator” by David Tallerman

On the moon, two scientific research stations, US and Chinese, have both been neglected by their respective governments once they had the flags set up. Now, because the US exploration robot has come home with a Lunar organism, they decide they need help.

[Hank] took one awkward step, then another, and wondered what the hell he was expecting. For two years, the US and Chinese astronautic teams had sat opposite each other, engaged in what had always seemed like the geopolitical equivalent of a staring contest. Would they vaporize him? Ignore him? Did they even know he was out here?

Collaboration becomes a real partnership and more, between the US base commander and his Chinese counterpart. But terrestrial politics intervene.

A rather gritty, utilitarian hard SF story, set at the intersection of science and politics. No romance here, although there is a germ of a love story, or literary stuff like metaphor and symbolism.

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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