Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-July

I especially enjoyed the warped visions of reality in Kaleidotrope this time around.


Publications Reviewed


Asimov’s, September 2013

A theme here of immortality and death. The MacLeod and Creasey stories have a particular congruence.

“The Discovered Country” by Ian R MacLeod

The allusion of the title is to Shakespeare, not Star Trek. Northover has crossed into that country, known as Farside, and is now lodging as a guest at Elsinore, as Thea Lorentz has named her virtual castle. It takes money and clout to be there.

. . . he’s given up telling himself that everything he’s experiencing is just some clever construct. The thing about it, the thing that makes it all so impossibly overwhelming, is that he’s here as well. Dead, but alive. The evidence of his corpse doubtless already incinerated, but his consciousness— the singularity of his existence, what philosophers once called “the conscious I,” and theologians the soul, along with his memories and personality, the whole sense of self that had once inhabited pale jelly in his skull—transferred.

The story here is wealth inequality and power. While the rich/dead spend vast amounts on their virtual paradise, most of the population of Liveside struggles and suffers. Thea is a philanthropist; everyone who comes to her castle wants something from her, and in exchange she wants their contributions to her Liveside projects. Northover is an old lover of Thea’s, comfortable but nowhere in the same moneyed class of the rest of the guests. While deals are being made, all he wants to do is see Thea. The question is, why? And what will happen when he does. Which leads to the story taking a jarring turn, a sudden unforeshadowed flashback that alters everything. I would have liked a smoother transition.

“The Unparallel’d Death-Defying Feats of Astoundio, Escape Artist Extraordinaire” by Ian Creasey

The eponymous hero lives in a utopia that offers its residents many amenities, including immortality. So his feats are not precisely death-defying after all, they just resemble it. Astoundio has escaped from Death before; what is left?

This was my life: the thrill of competition, making each new stunt harder than the last. And the joy of living in Cockaigne was that it enabled such escalation, with no limit upon performances other than your own imagination. Want a black hole? Here’s one! It wouldn’t be utopia if you couldn’t have any props you wanted.

But where death is eliminated, it develops a cachet. The audiences are titillated by the possibility. So when Astoundio proposes to escape from a black hole, he makes them the offer of accompanying him – as duplicate copies. As the daredevil, he works without a copy. Of course it’s a gimmick. But at the same time, he knows that his rivals are working to sabotage his escape.

Meditations on the ultimate escape, and/or the meaning of life. It’s noteworthy that when Astoundio’s shuttle crosses the event horizon, he announces, “We have crossed the border into the undiscovered country, ladies and gentlemen.” The comparisons between this one and the MacLeod story go beyond this single term. Both deal with societies where copying technology has bestowed immortality, as least for some. Both examine the drawbacks of such a development. But in the MacLeod story, these mostly affect society as a whole; here, the negative consequences are primarily personal. The primary drawback to the idyllic existence on Cockaigne is ennui. Creasey’s story is lighter, but it touches on a weighty matter or two.

“A Hole in the Ether” by Benjamin Crowell

Bill inherits part of his great-grandfather’s estate, but it comes with a complication revealed in an ancient diary entry:

June 17. Bought new phone from street vendor for Tsh 120,000. Loaded with someone else’s tunes, plus what looks like tons of porn and books.

Problem is, today’s laws view such an acquisition as copyright piracy, a potential death penalty offense. And if the files are still part of the estate, a serious complication for the heirs. But Bill is protective of the files, because they may be the only remaining copies in existence of some of these old, obscure books. They end up in exile in Tanzania, but the forces of repression, being automated, don’t know how to give up, blighting the lives of everyone connected in any way to the old library of books.

For the first time, R.J. learned how the phone had shaped his life since before he was born. He found out about his mother’s cogmod, which explained why it made her so upset to talk about the illegal phone. He surmised the true reason that he didn’t have an interface when his mother could so easily afford the surgery: if he didn’t remember to turn it off when he read, it would see the things that he saw, which would cause its copy-protection alarms to go off when he read a book.

On the surface, this is an anti-copyright piece, but it lacks the usual rants and diatribes. More generally, it belongs to the If This Goes On group. Copyright violation is just one target of this pervasive surveillance state, where even the act of finding a private, unmonitored space is grounds for suspicion. [The title refers to a Faraday cage, the hole in the ether where emissions can’t be detected.] The author’s treatment is measured; his police state is recognizable to the citizens of today, going far enough to outrage but not so far as to generate disbelief. The story’s strong foundation is its characters, a family of well-drawn individuals who react in their own ways to unfolding events as their lives fall apart.


“What We Ourselves Are Not” by Leah Cypess

Zach at seventeen is conflicted about getting a chip installed. Once his girlfriend Amy got her chip, she broke up with him, having suddenly discovered irreconcilable ethnic differences; now it makes a difference that she is Korean and he is Jewish. The chips, the author tells us after a teasing interval, were originally created for Jews so the Holocaust memories wouldn’t be lost; now any ethnic group can implant virtual memories of the way the rest of the world hates them. Zach is opposed on principle to the chips, but he is willing to get one if it will bring Amy back to him.

“Fabulous idea, then, isn’t it? After all this time we’ve spent learning to respect our common humanity, to know that we’re all the same deep down, let’s divide people up into distinct little groups again. Like we don’t have enough ways of making people more distant from each other.”

A didactic story, full of characters lecturing each other and never changing anyone’s mind.

“As Yet Untitled” by James Sallis

Short-short. A stock character is shifted by Management from science fiction to westerns. The outcome isn’t promising. Management needs some better writers.

“A Stranger From a Foreign Ship” by Tom Purdom

A more literal take on identity theft. Gerdon can switch minds with other people and steal their memories. He does this for hire. His most recent victim is a young woman named Arly; the clients want her passwords and account numbers. But this time he has misgivings. “She had been afraid. Her biological fear responses had been so strong they created a current that persisted through most of the time he had been riffling through her brain.” Gerdon unwisely gets involved.

Interesting twist in this noir crime story. Gerdon’s abilities are well handled.

“That Universe We Both Dreamed Of” by Jay O’Connell

Joel is interviewed by the aliens. Humanity may be getting a second chance. He and the alien rep hit it off. She makes him an offer. He makes her an offer. A warm-hearted, hopeful story.

“What Changes You, What Takes You Away” by Dominica Phetteplace

An Algernon story. Although the narrator says it’s more like the Rats of NIMH. With aliens. And talking flowers and mice. The author puts a whole lot into four pages, but the narrator isn’t quite reliable, being naive as well as now extremely intelligent. So it’s not clear how seriously we are to take the notion that if only we were smart enough, we could save the Earth. It’s not intelligence that’s lacking, it’s will. Plato knew that.

If the aliens truly believed in noninterference, they wouldn’t be giving people alien flowers to plant. But again, the motives here aren’t clear.


Analog, October 2013

A mixed lot of stories this time. I make a few remarks on the nature of writing models.

“Lune Bleue” by Janet Catherine Johnston

Miriam Clancy leaned against the wall and listened to the familiar spiel of her section chief, Hank Stieling. He was briefing the VIP visitor group that was touring the Extra Terrestrial Exploration facility (ETE) in middle-of-nowhere, New Mexico.

This is discouraging. Who tells writers they should start stories this way? Not even the “middle-of-nowhere” can lighten the heavy pall of dullness cast by these lumbering sentences. We then proceed to a canned lecture that elicits a complaint of boredom from the protagonist – and how much worse it must be for the poor reader. Doesn’t anyone tell authors that their prose isn’t supposed to elicit the reaction: I don’t want to slog through any more of this. All on the first page.

OK, the setting. We have a US radio base, staffed by humans and bots, on the moon’s farside. Miriam, with her lover Paul, is on her first rotation there as a mobile AI specialist. They’re rather flat characters, and Paul suffers from a “keep the bad news from the little lady” syndrome that makes me want to kick him. Complications include: Political tensions on Earth that might lead to the cancellation of the program, or even to war. The manager of the moon base, after too many consecutive missions, has creepy secrets and has been covertly reprogramming the bots, which suffer from radioactive leakage. There are strange patterns of tracks in the lunar dust and a glitch in the communications system that keeps Miriam from contacting the base. And giant mice.

Readers who persevere through the tedium of the first third of this novella will be rewarded when the pace picks up and the situation becomes, first, intriguing, then dire. The pressure builds inexorably; the complications accumulate; the flaws in the system turn from annoying to potentially fatal. The conclusion comes as a neat surprise [although the French could use a better translation]. In short, there’s a decently good story here.

Which makes it so much more of a shame that it begins so badly, that it wastes its first nine pages, that it seems to be following an outdated, flawed template of story design. It could have been much better, with a better model.

“Sixteen Million Leagues from Versailles” by Allen M Steele

An invaluable artifact from the Palace of Versailles has been lost on Mars when the cargo lander crashed in the Valles Marinaris on takeoff, and Will Baynes is selected to take the heat for it. The French representative insists on searching for her treasure in the wreckage, and Baynes considers her a pain in the ass. “. . . he’d seen people die enough times to know that nothing could replace a friend who’d been lost. He didn’t care how valuable the vase was; it wasn’t worth dying for.” Worse, their guide is an even bigger pain named Lincoln McGrath. Even worse, some suspicious characters are hanging around, and Baynes thinks they’re planning to loot the crash site.

Good use of the Martian setting in this adventure, which has sufficient complications to hold reader interest, although I can’t really credit the ease of the resolution.

“Following Jules” by Ron Collins

It’s Jaime who follows Jules, always with a sense of unrequited love.

[Jules] walked across open sky with an athletic sway, slim and beautiful in her two-toned purple-black leotard and white tank top. Her cheeks glowed, and her eyes, now slitted, blazed emerald green. Jamie had once told a friend that Jules lived as if every moment of her life was performance art.

She knows that Jules is shallow and self-absorbed, but she can’t help herself loving her. Now Jules has decided to download herself permanently into virtual space, and she wants Jaime to follow her there.

This is a love story and a story of character. It’s all very well to say that Jules doesn’t really deserve Jaime’s love, but love doesn’t care whether it’s deserved. The question is what Jaime needs to do, given how she loves.

“Putting Down Roots” by Stephen R Wilk

A pretentious beer tasting leads to a discussion on the origin of agriculture. Which is to say that the author had an idea about the origin of agriculture and gathered some talking heads to expound it.

“Things We Have in This House for No Reason” by Marissa K Lingen

String. As if no one ever invented duct tape or, you know, refabbed things that got broken. Do we live in a cave? String! Seriously! We have three pallets of duct tape! When are we going to use string?

The narrator is a young and clueless person who doesn’t understand as much as she[?] thinks she does, who doesn’t understand that there is more than one possible future. Clever short-short that suggests an entire history and a current plot in a just few hints.

“At the Peephole Palace” by William R Eakin

Eduard pauses for a moment of nostalgia in the old peepshow where he used to come as a boy before he grew up to take control,

to encourage public service announcements forcefully making it clear that it was shameful to want to see anything else, Sun or stars or real sky, when the true magnificence and excitement of being human, of civilization, was being able to read about the newest product one could buy from Buy New-Tech.

Not much new here in this short-short. I really hope the following image is not to be taken literally: “a man stretched prone with his eyes attached to the large screen.”

“Fear of Heights in the Tower of Babel” by Carl Frederick

It’s Malcolm Sinclair who has the fear of heights, which his academic rival Steven Hays well knows. So when the AIs controlling the elevators in the newly opened Tower of Europe take a building full of VIPs hostage, he suspects malice when he learns Hays has recommended him as a computer intelligence expert. Malcolm is skeptical of elevators making demands; he suspects there is a human behind the problem. Hays has said he would say that. And the elevator seems to know about his acrophobia.

This one recovers quickly from the dull opening paragraph to become a cleverly entertaining mystery, centered around the Turing Test and the national characteristics of European languages. Neatly done.

“Conscientious Objectors” by Jay Werkheiser

It seems there was a war between the US and China, which ended badly for both sides but worse for China. Among the consequences afflicting only US veterans is a neurological disorder named Beidelman’s syndrome. In a step towards normalization, neurologist An Mei-li is visiting a US VA hospital to observe some of the Beidelman’s patients there, particularly one named Frank Lambert, with whom she has a link. It’s obvious to both Mei-li and readers that the syndrome is related to the brain implants carried by most Americans, but her suggestion is met by reflexive denial.

Potentially interesting concept here, but the description of the nano implants lacks clarity. At one point, we’re told that they filter sensory input, which is one thing. They also serve as a communications device and even allow control of the subject’s actions. Now, if this is a function of Command and Control, it’s one thing. But we also have suggestions here that the nanos are sentient, that they have a collective purpose, that they are communicating among themselves and exercising collective control over large populations, which is quite another thing. It’s just too obvious what’s going on with the Beidelman’s patients; the story implies that the nano can control not just sensory input but logic and reasoning, which is also quite another thing. But then, we’re told that the activity of the nanos is contingent on the human subjects’ worldviews or personalities, which seems inconsistent with that scenario. Certainly the Chinese would have figured all this out already; Mei-li’s notion of keeping it a secret would be futile.


Apex Magazine, July 2013

Celebrating a 50th issue with a starry lineup of dark stories that I found disappointing, particularly given these authors.

“To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette

Kyle Murchison Booth is a librarian of the strange and occult, now tasked to catalog the Robillard family library.

Robillards had lived there since sometime in the seventeenth century, and the house had been expanded and remodeled so many times that nothing of its original character remained. It was more brick than wood, with the columns beloved of the Neoclassical Revival added to the front as a dowager pins a diamond brooch to her bosom, and it stood on the edge of a tarn. I call it a tarn, although there are no mountains in the vicinity of Belle Lune, because I do not know of a word that better conveys the secretive aspect — dark and uninviting — of its waters.

The Robillards also have a family curse, and Booth soon learns that the cataloging job is only a pretext; the real intention is to have him marry the granddaughter Annette, with the hope that the hereditary Booth curse might cancel out the Robillard. Booth, who has vowed never to marry on account of the affliction, is desperate to find an escape.

Classic horror. I’ve enjoyed the tales of this series character in the past, but in this one the author has taken great pains to ensure the story contains minimal tension. It begins with Booth decapitating Annette and burying her at a crossroads, which generally means one of two things, and which it is can be discerned when the family warns him about the wolves in the vicinity – of the Atlantic coast. I can also see no reason for Booth’s assumption that Annette must be an innocent, ignorant of her accursed heritage. The piece isn’t up to the standards of the series.

“Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky

Hate. The narrator reaches the depths in loathing his ex-wife, whom he imagines as a sort of harpy.

A horrible smell fills the room as her bowels open. White shit pours down her legs. She squints at the bed, impaling me with those dead–black eyes. Light shines on her crooked front tooth.

The noise of claws–in–carpet grows louder, closer. She scrapes her way into bed. I smell her shit. I feel her eyes. She knows I’m awake. All I can hear is the crackling of her murmured laughter as she stares at me through the dark.

Strong stuff here. Occasionally the text is interrupted by the narrator reminding us that this is all just a story, a fantasy expressing his hate and lust for revenge, not a factual report of his mutilation of his feathered, shitting wife. But even in these passages, he has to go to extremes of invention, as has the author, in writing this thing. The editorial note tells us that Swirsky was accepting a challenge after editors reported weariness with misogynistic stories of revenge against women. I’m not sure I’d say that she subverts the model; certainly, she tops it. Other than that, I can’t say that it presents much to recommend changing the editors’ minds.


Lightspeed, July 2013

“Division of Labor” by Benjamin Roy Lambert

In a world where the commandment Use It or Lose It is literalized. In the name of efficiency, people overspecialize, and the superfluous parts are lost.

Sull was proud of it. He was sitting in a marketing meeting with Glenda and Farook when suddenly his legs quivered and then turned into a slightly viscous liquid that ran out of his trousers like toothpaste from a tube. The liquid ran down the drain under the table with a soft slurping sound.

Renny, however, was brought up to find value in being well-rounded, despite the decline it causes in his Value Index.

A highly striking, audacious concept. While the system seems at first to be voluntary, we find later that it is not. The police state enforces the efficient use of biomass and penalizes hoarding, i.e. keeping one’s original body parts. Drones enter personal spaces to sniff out unused mass. This makes it a political work, with the expected resulting corruption, subversion, rebellion and repression. I rather suspect it might have been a bit more interesting, more intense, if the coercion had been entirely social, without the force of law behind it. Still, powerful stuff.


“The Boy and the Box” by Adam-Troy Castro

In contrast, here’s a stale idea at least as old as The Twilight Zone with nothing new brought to it. A young boy becomes omnipotent and puts the whole world into a box. Being bored, he takes a few people out from time to time to play with them, much in the manner of pulling the wings off flies. Satisfaction proves elusive. Omnipotence, godlike power, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not made clear just what’s so terrible about being in the box that people would do anything not to be sent back.

“Ushakiran” by Laura Friis

Ushakiran is born and orphaned on the Day’s Eye, and she grows up there, eventually becoming regarded by the sailor’s as the ship’s luck. This is a magical world, and Ushakiran can faintly touch the magic.

Her other favourite thing to do is to lean over the rail and watch the Currents that pull the ships around the Unfathomable Sea, and from which they dredge the kelp that they sell to magicians to power their magic. Sometimes if she screws her eyes up hard enough she believes she can see a Leviathan, one of the great monsters that are said to swim far, far down below and to create the Currents with their swimming and their own magic, but she knows that really she has never seen one.

But eventually she grows up and her protectors grow old, as the kelp becomes scarce and life on the ocean becomes harder. Change comes to Ushakiran as to everyone, but it comes in the form of treachery.

I like this fable with its magical system, and I think it’s perversely fitting that Ushakiran’s betrayer comes in the form of the only other woman on the ship. Her fate is a classic one in tales of ships, and there is just enough of a thread of bloody-mindedness flowing through the story to make the ending credible.

“This Villain You Must Create” by Carlie St George

Superheroes. After Granite accidentally killed Mr Malevolence [those things aren’t supposed to happen], his life fell apart. At last he joined a support group: Superheroes Grieving a Nemesis, which did little good until Lady Obsidian showed up, recruiting.

“You’re a supervillain!” Captain Justice said, outraged. He jumped up from his chair, and others jumped with him. Captain Justice wasn’t the founder of the group, but many considered him the leader anyway, possibly because he had the squarest jaw. Not everyone followed his lead, but even those who remained sitting leaned back in their chairs, as if villainy might be contagious.

But Obsidian’s proposal made sense. She was a supervillain needing a new nemesis. They were superheroes with the same problem. And they had chemistry.

Playing a new riff on the old superhero trope is a challenge. This one is fun, even a bit witty. I enjoyed.


Kaleidotrope, Summer 2013

The absurd and strange get taken very far here, quite intriguingly unusual material in the best three of these five stories.

“Flock” by Caspian Gray

A giant catches a boy and a woman, puts them in a cage until they turn into birds. The giant doesn’t take good care of his birds, doesn’t change their water and lets their food run out.

“This is unsanitary,” said Avery, half-yelling. “This is crap!” He paced around the cage, thumping his fingers along the wall of bars until it hurt too much to keep going. “I’m hungry,” he added quietly, as if the words were a surprise. Jack crossed the floor of the cage and held out a sunflower seed.

They plot escape, the woman calling herself Jack, because only someone named Jack can escape a giant.

An oddly different piece, grafting the fantastic notion of a giant rampaging through Ohio with the realistic portrayal of the captives’ situation as they begin to grow feathers in their cage. In the end, it becomes a question of accepting the fairytale or retaining the reality of human life.

“Jack Magic” by Erica Hildebrand

Another Jack, this one the name for a ship’s cat, bringer of good luck. With a northern storm approaching, Reese is desperate to get the Rumrunner out of harbor onto the safety of the sea, but he knows he can’t sail with a dead cat. He rows to the harbor to find a new cat, but blunders through a portal into a monster-infested marshland.

A woman’s scream caused him to flinch, and when he looked up from his compass he saw her waist-deep in the marsh where before there had been nothing. She wore a scarlet captain’s coat, the folded tails floating on the muddy water, and her dark hair was cropped short and fatted into spikes. She backpedaled as a huge and bulbous-headed osprey, nearly twice her height, beat at her with stunted wings. The bird wore armored sleeves upon its talons, its eyes milk-white.

The apparently mundane world of ships, of land and sea magic, seems strange enough in the beginning, before Reese falls through into a nightmarishly fantastic waterwonderland and things get really weird. The story becomes a quest; Reese can’t return without a cat, without his sailor’s lost head, without Captain Fitzgerald, as lost as he is. It takes a strong moral compass to make any sense of the situation and show him the way out. At least the setting is in some way Reese’s own world, with some faint familiarity in the weirdness; readers don’t have that advantage and can only trust in their protagonist to know what he’s doing.


“Tintookie” by Thoraiya Dyer

Ally is the ordinary child, nothing like her sister Tara, the prodigy. One day, on a long trip, their mother becomes lost in the radioactive dunes, where they have a surreal experience.

The road wasn’t a real road. Just a line of red sand. Everywhere, it erupted into little dirt fountains. The sand made shapes with hard little elbows and knobby little knees.

They had long, thin noses that poked downward and long, thin ears that poked upward.

Their sandpaper fingers grabbed Tara and me.

The tintookies demand that their mother choose one of the children and leave the other behind with them. Ally knows she will save Tara, the special one. But she picks Ally, instead. All her life, Ally tries and fails to become what Tara might have been.

So many sister stories center around rivalry and jealousy. The heart of the story is there, and in Ally’s case, it’s all transmuted into guilt. In most such stories, the mother will refuse to choose, and everything turns out OK. Not here; Tara’s body is found in the dunes. That’s a strong statement. There’s also a strong theme of radioactive contamination, a longstanding issue in Australia, where the uranium mines are powerful, and where the native population has been particularly victimized by contamination of their lands. Symbolically, the tintookies are carrying on this struggle.

“The Star of Jingdezhen” by Robert Bagnall

The narrator calls the story a fairy tale, and it has many of the elements. The hero is Shao Tsei-Jung, who saves a princess and is rewarded by the king with jewels and the princess’s handmaid as his wife – being wise, he didn’t ask for the princess herself. The narrator is his son, an engineer like his father, who becomes apprenticed to his uncle, the evil stepfather, when the hero dies.

This is all very well, but the author leaves out the most important part of the story until the end, which makes the end anticlimactic, as it resolves a problem we never knew about. Properly told, this could have been a good little story. The author also refers to the hero as Shao, as if it were his personal name, which irritates.

“Rock Song” by Alya Whitely

The narrator lives his life for music. But music can’t stop the rock from falling on Earth, and life isn’t everything. Very short, rather banal piece.

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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