Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early September
Starting to attack the quarterly fiction deluge, looking over my back at the stuff I didn’t manage to cover last month, as it recedes into the calendar. I’m finding an adventitious theme of the survival of identity after death across several of these publications. It’s always interesting when that happens.
- Subterranean, Fall 2013
- Clarkesworld, September 2013
- Apex Magazine, September 2013
- Glitter and Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynn M Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Subterranean, Fall 2013
The fall issue features two novellas; it features Lewis Shiner and Ted Chiang. There is a strong theme of memory and its other side, precognition.
“Doctor Helios” by Lewis Shiner
Not SF, but a Cold War spy thriller in the mode of Bond. CIA agent York has come to Nasser’s Cairo to unsettle the regime by blowing up the under-construction Aswan dam. Even before he gets there, the opposition is on to him; some of his local contacts have already been eliminated. York is a pro, but he’s in unfamiliar territory, in over his head.
The Bondisms are obvious here: the intrepid action hero, the beautiful women, the pervasive Britishisms, the grotesque villain.
A mountain of a man in a blazing orange caftan rose from the far side of the table and extended a gigantic arm. He was at least six foot seven and three hundred pounds, built like a lineman in American football who had begun to go to seed. His head was shaved beneath a black fez, his eyes equally black.
Yet what Shiner is doing with these familiar elements is neither emulation nor parody but deconstruction. The romance, the glamorous surface sheen is missing. York [a nom de guerre] is a weary hero, short of sleep, with blisters on his feet. He’s competent in action; others are better. He’s captured by the enemy; he doesn’t make a daring or clever escape. But most significantly, this is a political and an ethical work, dark-shaded, more in the spirit of Le Carré than Fleming. [It’s noteworthy that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was first published in 1963, the year in which this story is set.]
In dozens of ways, the story places us in that Cold War year, but the language is particularly notable. In discussing religion, terms like “Moslem” and “Koran” are used, rather than the transliterations more common today. York is quick, parroting the agency line, to refer to various figures as “Reds” or “Commies”. Yet the author is clearly looking back at that setting from today’s point of view. When York’s contact in Cairo tells him,
“The thing is, Nasser’s no Commie. He throws them in jail every chance he gets. All he wants is a secular Arab state. And he’s right, too, by God. You want real trouble, put a religious nutcase in charge. I don’t care if he’s a Hindoo, Musulman, Jew, or Southern Baptist. You don’t want people in charge of armed forces who think they’re getting orders from God.”
We know he is talking to us, reminding us of the present consequences of the policies people like York were pursuing. It isn’t just that York realizes he’s in a dirty business; even that he sees he was on the wrong side, ethically. Shiner is telling us what York could not perceive at the time, that he was on the wrong side of history – the perspective of hindsight, from today.
There are other notes in this overall tone. The women characters are not femmes fatale but competent professionals or vulnerable innocents – real people, in other words, who suffer real harm from the situations that York inadvertently places them in. The author also brings in the issue of genital mutilation.
Aside from such matters, there’s a lot of just good story stuff here. The Egyptian setting is drawn in loving detail, from the presidential palace to the mobs in the souk. Given particular attention is the Aswan construction site, where the most striking scenes in the story are set.
In the pit, the clanging and roaring was a Pentecostal’s soundtrack of Hell. The sweetish, metallic stink of poorly combusted diesel blanketed the smells of sweat and cologne and burning rubber. The faces of the men around him looked like death masks, white powdery dust clinging to the sheen of perspiration. He tied his bandana over the lower half of his face as some of the other man had, and for a minute or two his breathing came more easily.
This is a love letter to Egypt, at least to the Egypt that was in 1963, and the Egypt that might have been.
“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang
A rather odd narrative here, that reads quite a bit like a nonfiction personal account, as the narrator seems to be directly addressing the readers across the third wall. We know it’s SF because he tells us he is evaluating a new device that can access and replay recorded events – in a world where most people [although not the narrator] have been recording their entire lives. It seems that the most common use of the device is trivial, to win “he said/she said” arguments. The narrator’s concerns are more deep; he worries about the erosion of the human capacity for memory.
Memory is the real theme here, even more than truth. We know that memory is both a pliable and a creative process, not a matter of passive recording. When it comes to objective truth, memory cannot be relied on. But the narrator has misgivings about interfering with the process.
Our memories are private autobiographies, and that afternoon with my grandmother features prominently in mine because of the feelings associated with it. What if video footage revealed that my grandmother’s smile was in fact perfunctory, that she was actually frustrated because her sewing wasn’t going well? What’s important to me about that memory is the happiness I associated with it, and I wouldn’t want that jeopardized.
Interleaved with this account is another, set in colonialist Africa, about a young boy who learns the art of writing from the local missionary, earning the misgivings of the members of his tribe, who don’t see the use in it. But the issue touches more important matters, such as the nature of truth.
“Our language has two words for what in your language is called ‘true.’ There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough. In a dispute the principals say what they consider right; they speak mimi. The witnesses, however, are sworn to say precisely what happened; they speak vough. When Sabe has heard what happened can he decide what action is mimi for everyone. But it’s not lying if the principals don’t speak vough, as long as they speak mimi.”
Jijingi finds himself at odds with his tribal elders when he consults a written record that contradicts the recollection that they have decided to be right.
In both cases, the characters must come to a decision, to accept the new technology or to reject it in favor of personal memory. For the narrator, the moment of truth – in all senses – comes when he tests the recording of particular event crucial to the fraught relationship he has always had with his daughter, crucial to his understanding of himself. For this individual, the consequences become intensely personal. But the story also addresses the larger questions about change to society. Jijingi’s tribal elders are wise, as they see the inevitability of change and try to channel it to best serve their people and their traditions; Jijingi is encouraged to learn writing so that accounts will be written by a hand sympathetic to their ways and views. Yet we can see from the position of hindsight that their customs will not be preserved unaltered. Looking forward from a future yet unknown, we can’t yet say whether technological change will ultimately be a positive one. There are things we know we will lose, things we will undoubtedly gain. If there is a real negative, it is the fact that it won’t be possible to return to the state of innocence and retrieve what will have been lost, if we ever decide we need it.
“Hook Agonistides” by Jay Lake and Seanan McGuire
It seems that a few hundred years ago, belligerent aliens attacked and destroyed Earth, saving only a few hundred customers of a theme park, along with one animatronic Enhanced Entertainer in the form of Captain Jas Hook. Now Jas is the default leader of the guest descendants, now laboring as slaves in the infrastructure of the alien station, the teacher who reminds them all of the world they lost and the world that is to come, Neverland. Jas was never sure that was such a good idea.
But the first guests, the ones who remembered Earth, had been clear with him as they aged: their children needed hope, and that hope needed to be vague enough to last generations.
These guests were his crew, his Lost Boys and Girls. All of them, all hundreds of years worth. His memory was peculiar, but he had no difficulty recalling generations of grubby, youthful faces.
Things begin to change, however, when a young woman announces that she is expecting a virgin birth, that her child will be named Pan, and that she will lead them all to Neverland. Pan turns out to be highly precocious, knowing things that no one else on the station ever has, except for Jas. The guests begin to take her as their prophet, and Jas is ignored as irrelevant. He finds himself with nothing more to do but reminisce about his days in the theme park and obsess over the mystery: where did Pan obtain her information?
The title is the best thing about this piece, and the premise is promising. Captain Hook as a benevolent hero is a neat notion, but of course Jas is not actually a pirate captain but a robot programmed to place the welfare of the park’s guests first. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery is a weak one, lacking both probability and credibility, and raising more questions than it answers, most notably, how the information was conveyed to Pan and her mother without anyone else knowing, and how a very young child could have kept such a secret. Indeed, I can’t see any reason why the secret should have been kept from Jas at all, in the first place. And it only makes sense if we assume that the managers of the theme park originally programmed all their robots to take sole charge of a large group of humans when abducted by aliens, an improbable piece of foresight.
This problem results in a lengthy stretch of dullness during the second part of the story, once Pan has established her religious control over the population. Jas wanders the station in a state of irrelevance, having long conversations with certain elder guests but never really addressing the real problem. It’s all diversion and, worse, comes off as padding, as do the repeated quotations from the theme park’s instructions, which become redundant. A revelation such as we have here is supposed to make readers say: Oh yeah! Wow! Of course! But this one mostly produces: Huh?
“What Doctor Ivanovich Saw” by Ian Tregellis
Set in the author’s alternate history series in which Nazi Germany attempted to harness the power of psychic adepts as weapons of war. Now we find the Germans defeated and their research taken over by the Soviets, along with certain of their subjects, most notably the clairvoyant Gretel. Ivanovich is the current Soviet expert on Gretel’s abilities; he is researching their vulnerability to EMP and the possibility of using a Faraday cage to disrupt the pulses. But Ivanovich has fallen into a depression on learning of the death of his third and last son in the war against Japan, and he wonders why Gretel hadn’t told him this would happen – as if it were possible to do anything to prevent it. Matters take an abrupt turn when the Red Army captures a secret Japanese research base that reveals they not only are familiar with the psychic research, they are more advanced in many respects than the Soviets. And why didn’t Gretel predict this discovery?
This story is firmly set at a major genre junction. Not only is it alternate history, it’s strong science fiction. But in many ways, it’s most strongly horror – not the horror of mutants with weird psychic abilities, but the all-too-human horror of the evil regimes that exploit them. The totalitarian regimes of the setting seem to be, if possible, even more ruthlessly evil than their historical versions. The author understands that sometimes these are more effectively shown on the personal scale, rather than the monumental.
The messenger was punished for his compassion. Delivering the notice directly to Ivanovich, rather than to the general’s office, earned him a stint working to assist Comrade Lysenko’s special troops. (Sometimes the men and women with wires under their skin needed live targets upon which to practice. Such was life in Sarov.) Thus Ivanovich had to listen for ten minutes to the overseer of Arzamas-16 railing about the messenger’s insubordination before learning that his last remaining son, Dmitrii, was dead.
The story also touches on the paradoxes of omniscience, which Gretel’s clairvoyance effectively amounts to, as the entire future seems to be known to her. But if Gretel sees an assassin aiming in her direction and takes another path to avoid it, has she seen her own predetermined future, or has she altered it? Does she sift through possible futures to find the one she wants, or is the path fixed and thus knowable? These questions center around the character we really only know through the eyes of others, thus making them even more intriguing. We have no idea, in this context, of the limits of Gretel’s possibilities.
Clarkesworld, September 2013
“Mar Pacifico” by Greg Mellor
Post-apocalypse. Being in this case a plague of nanites known as algeron, that have filled the seas and absorbed most of the life on the planet. Erin has escaped and her daughter Kelly, but her mother was absorbed and now occasionally rises out of the ocean in black algeron simulacrum, calling for them. And Kelly heeds the call, while Erin desperately tries to keep her from it.
I doubted that I would ever hear the untainted sound of the Pacific again. The ocean had given me comfort all my life, a sense of permanency that used to fill me with hope. But now all I could do was listen for hope in the songs of the dead. And the more I listened the more I could hear a strange cadence emerge from the algeron that hinted at plans and far reaching intentions.
A tale of mystical optimism, wishful thinking in the face of annihilation. Some nicely-done scenes, particularly in the use of colors, but I find the message too rose-colored.
“The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly
Zoe was a science fiction author, her husband a famous astronaut, Kirk Anderson. They met at a convention and fell in love. She calls him Andy, but her friends joke about Captain Kirk. Now Andy is suffering from dementia, brought on by exposure to radiation in space, a problem he didn’t happen to mention to Zoe. Spaceways, his bosses, have devised a solution –
It’s just a cognitive prosthesis, la-la. A life experience database, la-la-la. An AI mediated memory enhancement that may help restore your loved one’s mental competence la-la-la-dee-da. I’ve browsed all the sites, Andy.
Zoe isn’t buying it. The thing that’s talking to her, it’s not Andy.
The romance of space vs the romance of a marriage; in Zoe’s marriage, space won, and she doesn’t forgive it – or him. She reminds Andy that he once told her, “Space will kill you any which way it can.” But when the call came, he went anyway, knowing the risk, the likely outcome. He left her for space, as if it were another woman. It’s significant that Zoe is an SF author, part of the factor that created the romance. And now she sees what the actual fulfillment of the dream has wrought: death and failure and disappointment, but not the death of the romance.
It’s noteworthy that the element of Andy’s cognitive augment in the story is science fiction. Science fiction, even without the admixture of the fantastic that we most commonly see in the genre [that we could see in Zoe’s own work] covers a broad field. Yet the default image of SF always seems to come back to space, and typically in the romantic mode. Kelly deconstructs that here.
“One Flesh” by Mark Bourne and Elizabeth Bourne
One of those stories where two ongoing threads alternate, both leaving the reader to wonder what’s going on. We’re in a future when biological and neurological advances have greatly extended life, although this doesn’t seem to amount to immortality. There is also ongoing exploration of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which turns out to hold intelligent life. The lab that Ras and Jen work for has captured[?] a flying organism for study. In the first thread, we find Jen inhabiting a flyer’s body, accessing its memories and communicating with the other lifeforms she encounters. But there’s a catch. In the meantime, back at the lab, Ras learns what has happened to both her and him.
It’s a story of love, two people who can’t live without each other. It’s also a story of immortality. In both threads, individuals have to deal with the loss of their selves after death, attempts to preserve their memories and minds.
“Your own published texts say that every memory, emotion, thought, and scrap of self identity can be reduced to a color-coded model. Well, you’ve been rebuilt pretty much from scratch. Are you still you? And if not, who are you?”
Ras believes he is no longer himself, yet his love for Jen is still the center of his life. Is he the best judge of such a matter?
The story is an emotional one, centering on loss. Yet there is a whole lot of other stuff here, potentially fascinating stuff, that gives me the feeling this is either part of a larger work or that it ought to be. The exploration of Jupiter. The effects of the Shoemaker-Levy9 comet impact. The origin of the flyers. All this is hinted at at several points before the story returns again to the mutual loss of the central characters. I’m sorry there wasn’t more of it.
Apex Magazine, September 2013
Science fiction themes here this month, along with some drawbacks.
“Someone Like You” by Margaret Ronald
Seema and Athéne are among the principals developing the tilism device that sends observers to alternate realities and back.
The capsule isn’t much to look at — only the inclusion of the monitoring equipment keeps it from resembling a latrine — but the tilism effect makes up for it. So long as it’s still moored in infinite-fold reality, the capsule is a blur, millions of minuscule differences shivering across its skin. As I followed into the chamber, the capsule resolved into one single image, the setup just slightly askew from what it had been this morning.
Sometimes back, unless there is a tether break. The observers who return are usually very slightly altered from the originals who stepped into the capsule in the first place, but these differences are generally insignificant. Not so with a tether break, which is why they have developed a reelback process. This time, Athéne has suffered a tether break, and the difference between the two versions of her is profound. In Seema’s reality, they are estranged lovers; this new Athéne is eagerly grateful for the chance to make a fresh start. She doesn’t want to go back.
An interesting twist on the infinite-realities problem and the observer effect. I can’t really figure, however, what practical use the device is. I also have a hard time getting past wondering about the term “tilism”. What does it mean? A magical talisman? Why choose that name? Am I just being dense? [It wouldn’t be the first time.] I wish the author had provided a hint so I wouldn’t be stuck on this aspect of the text instead of what it’s essentially about, flawed relationships and the possibilities of a do-over, and the enduring aspects of a personality.
“Turning the Whisper” by Anaea Lay
Pavi was sometimes called a machine-whisperer, a human who could create consciousness in a machine.
There have been twelve. Twelve failures. They could grow and shape the machine they had, but couldn’t make a new one. Everywhere they looked for a new consciousness, they found the one they already knew, waiting for them.
Machines were her true love, but not the Aydan-machine, which is too large, too all-encompassing, all-engulfing. She creates Mike to be independent of it, to fly her alone into space. Because she can. But Pavi, unlike the machine, is mortal. So they make a deal with the Aydan-machine – Pavi to retain some semblance of life, Mike not to be alone.
A thought-provoking work. There is a point when the characters are discussing tests of sentience, greatly advanced from the crudeness of the Turing test. Mike realizes that the Aydan-machine’s action may be self-administering its own version of a test for sentience, out of doubt. But it could also be that the machine is administering the test to Pavi. Otherwise, some crucial moments remain rather obscure and unclear.
“The Boy Who Loved Death” by Hal Duncan
A variation on the Columbine killings, trenchcoat and all. I find it unsatisfactory overall, first being quite a bit overwritten:
Once, once upon a time, down a pathway of tarmac black as space and dotted with white stones like stars, night sky bound into banal functionality for trudging hollow-hearted to an identikit bungalow’s door…
And more importantly because we see no evidence of the boy actually loving Death. We see that Death has come to him, has “eaten that heart from the inside out” and left a hollow child, but we don’t see the heart offered to him, out of love. And how can a child without a heart be said to love?
Glitter and Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynn M Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
An anthology set in the world of glitzy partying, of “roller rinks, nightclubs, glam aliens, party monsters, drugs, sex, glitter, and debauchery “, as the editors claim in the introduction. Few scenes could be less to my taste. However, these editors have a good track records and the ToC they’ve assembled is full of noteworthy authors, so I gave it a read.
Now there’s a thing about anthologies and their guidelines. Some authors take these as a pattern. Others take it for inspiration. These are usually the best stories. But when there are too many stories that take the guidelines as a pattern, they tend to blur into an all-too-similarity. Too many nightclubs. Too many disco balls. Way too much glitter. Even too much sex. By the time I finished these twenty stories, I was beginning to develop a strong aversion to nightclubs, with a subvocalized prayer to the gods of readers: “Please, not another one.” For this reason, I was greatly pleased with the Samatar piece, which plays the scene as the cliché it can so readily become.
There’s also a really annoying too many gratuitous references to rollerskates, for no other reason I can tell except that they must have been mentioned in the guidelines. What there isn’t, despite the title, is much actual mayhem, not even in the roller derby stories, in which real violence is not really a common event. There were quite a few individual stories here that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the experience of the anthology as a whole, and these almost always were the ones that took the theme in a different direction, that used it as a springboard to something different and original.
“Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” by Christopher Barzak
Ah, one of my favorite fairytales, the twelve dancing princesses. In this case, while their native setting isn’t clear, the princesses appear to visit our general own time period, and the youngest, the narrator, adopts the diction of today. “What happens underground, stays underground.”
This is a rather uninspired version, unfortunately. While the princess declares that
The river that flows by the underground castle flows through all the worlds in all the times that exist in the universe. I cast the bottle into it and watch my story bob as it floats its way into eternity. And then I turn, called by the music in the castle to return to it.
The clubs that she describes at rather too much length seem mostly to be contemporary with our own era – a failure of imagination.
“Apex Jump” by David J Schwartz
One of the stories that makes real use of the rollerskate part of the theme, with roller derby in space. The Douglas County Rollergirls, being hard up for cash, accept one of those offers too good to be true, for a bout with an outfit called the Stellar Swarm Rollergirls. The name is literally descriptive.
The truth is I’m freaking out, not with fear, but with excitement. I probably should be scared, but I’m in outer space! I’m a space traveler; we all are. Neil Armstrong hasn’t got shit on us. Well, except for the part where he and Buzz and Michael Collins did at least some of the driving. Any one of us could take him on skates, though.
The odds, however, do not favor Douglas County.
An upbeat, warmhearted bout, a fun read. The author has clearly spent some time amongst the rollergirls, who do indeed go by noms de sport such as Lewd-a-Fisk, Joan Deere, Spermicidal Tendencies and the narrator with the auspicious name of Huggernaut.
“With Her Hundred Miles to Hell” by Kat Howard
Hades as an exclusive dance club where patrons go to live in dreams. But, it being Hell, the dreams aren’t always benign.
Aside from the Furies who kept the riffraff out, Hades was invitation only, the invitations small red pips of a pomegranate, made from glass, the name of the club etched onto them. Invitations were coveted: everyone, it seemed wanted to go to Hell.
Morain works there; she dreams the dreams that the patrons experience during their night.
Really nice imagery here, and a good use of myth.
“Star Dancer” by Jennifer Pelland
1984. Sex, drugs, and punk. Her brain fueled by Ecstasy at a party, Cass isn’t quite sure she’s seeing what she’s seeing when the bellydancer performs.
Shahrazad got up from the floor and started doing a killer shimmy as she danced in a circle around the room. She stopped directly in front of me, planted her navel inches from my nose and started undulating on top of that shimmy. That’s when I realized that she wasn’t actually wearing glitter. That was her skin.
Shaz turns out to be the best sex she’s ever had, and her being a refugee from an alien planet is mostly incidental until the Air Force shows up and confiscates Cass’s stash, demanding that she take them to her alien.
Fun. Plenty of glitter here, but the rollerdome is not really part of the scene.
“Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane” by Cat Rambo
In 1982, Arturo and his friend Anna lead lives of not-quite-desperation, but Anna has a secret unrequited craving for disco. “‘Sometimes,’ said softly, maybe to me, maybe to herself, ‘you want to be someone else.'” So Arturo, like a good friend, takes her dancing. The place is a gay/lesbian bar, which is Arturo’s secret, but it isn’t about sex.
It was about being part of the glittering crowd, feeling tribe members all around you, caught up by the music, moving any way they could. Mostly men on the dance floor, but the women danced too. Here, everyone was just another body jostling close to yours.
Anna gets a job at the bar and thrives in the new milieu, which makes Arturo kind of jealous. He isn’t sure about all the magic stuff she’s suddenly into.
As the title suggests, this one is a lesbian variation on the selkie story. It’s about love, the unrequited kind. The conclusion makes some wise and insightful remarks. A little hard, though, to believe that Anna could be quite so naive as she seems, or perhaps just dense.
“Sooner Than Gold” by Cory Skerry
The narrator is a thief, a pickpocket, a cheat, a drunk, and general no-good who made the mistake of stealing the wrong object from the wrong person. Now he is enslaved by an enchantment to steal on command.
It’s a violet chain so thin it looks like I could break it with my fingers, glossy and iridescent like niobium. It burns where it enters my skin, a pain so bright and cruel it took me a week to learn to sleep again.
His current assignment puts him in way over his head, stealing from a demonic watchdog that may be a match for his master. But he would do anything to get rid of the violet chain.
A lot of neat magic stuff here, with a strong edge of cruelty. It’s a milieu that exerts a fascination, and I can imagine a lot of stories set there. One of the few stories in the collection where the mayhem overwhelms the glitter, although that’s present also.
“Subterraneans” by William Shunn and Laura Chavoen
1984 again. Caroline and Shirley go to a new club, where Shirley encounters a guy who does something to her. The something makes her come on to Caroline, which pisses Caroline off, because it’s not that way with them. So Shirley insists on going back to the place to find out how to do the thing herself, to get into people’s head.
And suddenly she’s standing at the top of the stairs, looking at the fat, beer-swilling girl on that sofa over there, trying to figure out if she knows her. When the realization hits that that’s her, she turns away in disgust—and exhilaration.
Shirley becomes addicted to the club, to the power over the other people she gets there. Then she takes it too far.
A revenge fantasy, not really satisfactory because it’s Shirley at fault here. There’s another perfunctory roller rink scene.
“The Minotaur Girls” by Tansy Rayner Roberts
The Minotaur is an exclusive skate club, for the glitter of which the teenage girls yearn, usually in vain. Those who get in are never seen by their former friends again. But Tess is lucky. Or maybe not so lucky.
Sometimes when the light fell on them, they didn’t look gorgeous at all. They looked like monsters. Their eyes glowed and their limbs undulated. Their sprayed hair became flowing lion manes, their lipsticked mouths became beaks, and there were snakes coiling everywhere, from their scalps to their pubes.
A YA tale about the perils of yearning for popularity. Coolness is a disco ball.
“Unable to Reach You” by Alan deNiro
Another one where mayhem predominates over glitter. We have Julian, who tries to do good in the world by running a website where people can post the phone numbers of spam callers. It’s a minor effort, but it’s all his. Until people start reporting his own phone number. Someone is spoofing it, to make people hate him. Julian finally traces the number to a website:
There is a large and blurry profile picture pic, although it couldn’t have been an actual unadulterated photo, of a woman with blue spiky hair and sunglasses and wide wings tucked behind her. The wings are lathery and brown, with tiny feathers along the edges. The expression on her face is one of knowing a secret that’s horrible and also kind of funny.
But as soon as he stares at the woman’s face, he seems to be transported to a kind of satanic club. Rather than disco balls, the patrons have cell phones that they dip in blood. Julian learns that the owner of the site is actually named Zukaratharakghnakhawgrynath, and its purpose is to help the Unspeakable Leviathan satiate its eternal hunger. Julian naively decides his purpose is to oppose this force. Mayhem ensues.
This surreal dark fantasy is like the woman in the photo – horrible and also kind of funny. In the course of various demonic rites, the plot twists and turns and swallows itself. Baroque and bizarre.
“Such and Such Said to So and So” by Maria Dahvana Headley
When Jimmy was young and innocent, he ran into Gloria, who dressed him up in her clothes and took him to Bee’s Jesus, where the drinks come alive. Gloria is really only there for the martini.
Gloria ran her finger around the edge of her glass like she was playing a symphony, and her drink unfolded out of it, elbow by elbow until a skinny guy in a white and silver pinstriped suit was sitting on the bar, looking straight into Gloria’s eyes, and grinning. Pinkie diamond. Earrings. Hair in a pompadour, face like James Dean.
Jimmy and Gloria get married and divorced, she disappears into the Bee, and he becomes a cop. But he can’t get over her, over the Bee. “The place was a problem I couldn’t stay away from. I kept trying to get out of town, but I ran out of gas every time.” Finally the policy gets a report of a body outside the Bee, and he has a legitimate excuse to go into the bar, which is otherwise one of those places that shifts around.
It starts as if it were a police procedural, but it’s really dark fantasy humor, perversely spoofing the other genre. The suggested mayhem dissolves in the light of day. Fun stuff.
“Revels in the Land of Ice” by Tim Pratt
OK, it’s ice skating for a change, but it still feels gratuitous. Crater plans to break into a derelict rink where he claims there is a breach that leads to the Other Place.
“Because it’s a great party, for one thing. The denizens of the Other Place get intoxicated by the connection to our world, I think. You can’t even really call it a party – it’s a revel. It’s primal. They’re area drugs you can’t imagine, things made for alien physiologies, but they have effects on humans you can’t believe.
Crater claims to be seventy years old, having stolen immortality by drinking alien wine. He invites Aerin, née Stephanie, to join him, to steal her own heart’s desire. But the next day, Crater falls into a sinkhole and disappears. So Aerin decides to break into the rink by herself, in his memory. Enchantment happens.
A tale that hews closely to the ancient rules governing the world below, the glamour and the ways of breaking it, the distortion of time, the attainment of one’s heart’s desire and the price to be paid. Older readers may wonder if Crater had ever been a judge. It would fit the story nicely.
“Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar
They go to a club, of course.
Pink Ice is an injection of noise and movement and beauty and youth. Boys and girls crowd in, waving lollipops in the air. They wear black boots and sparkly hairbands, black lipstick and sparkly eye shadow, black lace stockings, everything black and everything sparkly.
If we think all this is clichéd and unoriginal, that’s just the author’s point. Because we know, or we should know, what happened to Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, which should tell us what she really is, and where.
“Blood and Sequins” by Diana Rowland
Aging cops Pellini and Beaudreaux entering the Mardi Gras costume contest held, naturally, in a roller rink. Problem is, you lose points if you can’t skate in your costume. Actually, there are worse problems. This one does turn into a cop story. A nice change, despite the gratuitous rollerskates.
“Two-Minute Warning” by Vylar Kaftan
A game called dance kill, a mostly illegal version where players can actually be killed. Katy is out of her class, playing here despite her better judgment, to find her brother, who refuses ever to leave the game. But once Katy has experienced it, she knows she can never go back to the tame, legal version of the Game.
Both glitter and mayhem here.
All the shimmering suits thrummed to full power. Lasers cut the glittery air, like rainbow beams of sunlight through a dusty sky. Dance killers dove from platforms, angling themselves toward better positions, shooting rivers of energy.
But not a lot else. The situation is unoriginal, the resolution is weak and inconclusive. All we have here is the flash.
“Inside Hides the Monster” by Damien Walters Grintalis
Lygeia is a siren whose time has gone. Her song no longer attracts humans; they have more compelling music now, although to Lygeia it is cacophony: “filled with screeches and thumps, like angry gulls fighting over a clam.” But the siren is desperate.
I’m happy to discover that the siren doesn’t become a rock star, or would it be a pop star? I’ve already read that story too often.
“Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire
Roller Derby again, in the urban fantasy mode. Annie is a cryptozoologist, who job it is to be a watchdog for cryptids, which we normally think of as monsters, although they seem to have acquired legality. During a bout, a player is injured in a manner that arouses her suspicion.
One of the longest stories in the book. The urban fantasy setting, the large number of different supernatural creatures, isn’t to my taste, and I don’t care for the large cast of characters, most of whom have no real place in the plot; they seem to be there just because they’re friends of the author. I will also point out that, contrary to the narrator and her succubus cousin, roller derby girls are not all hot chicks, even if they like to dress that way. There are hot chicks, dumpy ones, and average-looking ones – in short, the usual distribution of hotness in any female population. At least the rollerskating here is central to the story and not gratuitous. But I’m not sure that having cryptids on the team isn’t cheating; I strongly suspect it is, every bit as much as the activity of the villainess.
“A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar
Emily is alone in Glasgow, far from home, cut off from friendship – which for her means more than having no lover. She hopes Anna might change that when Anna invites her to the cabaret, where she hears her lover Lynette Byrd sing. But Lynette is more than a singer, she is an exile from a different place, as is Anna’s other lover, Kel. Kel is unhappy in exile, far from home and cut off from what they love.
“Our world is the source of our power; when the way is open, we can shift our shapes, fly, find things that are hidden or missing, carry our lovers across the world in our arms if we choose. When the way is shut –” Lynette shrugged, “—there is a cost to open it.”
The decadent air of the cabaret is far from the overdone sameness of glittery clubs and disco balls. There is a freshness to the magic to the sacrifice that Emily learns to make, as well. A nice variation on the old fairyland exile story.
“Just Another Future Song” by Daryl Gregory
In the future, an elderly performer known here as Jones is waiting for his mind’s download, but the process has twice failed, probably because of dementia, and he is at risk of death. Within his mind, a struggle is waged with all the clarity and coherence of a terrifying dream.
The more he looked, the more he noticed the frayed connections, like bridges that had been sundered, and sections as dead as the ruins of Hunger City. He reached out toward as seam of black, picked at its edge . . .
Surreal, full of symbolism. Alas, a lot of this is lost on those who, like me, cannot identify the figure known as Jones. Allusions are like that. They depend so much on the reader catching on.
“The Electric Spanking of the War Babies” by Maurice Broaddus & Kyle S Johnson
In a war-torn, ruined city, mild-mannered mundane George Collins transforms on Thursday nights into Shakes Humphries when he laces on his turquoise skates at the Sugar Shack. Tonight, however, is something different, when he is attacked by one group of weirdos and abducted by another who claim to be funkateers from the Planet Funk, that he is actually Doctor Funkenstein, who will bring the mothership that takes them home. If only he believes and doesn’t listen to the enemy voices that whisper he needs to find a job and support his mama.
Crazy weird stuff, not to be taken seriously, as a story with the motto: “Free your mind . . . and your ass will follow.” The thing here is the music and the dance and the groove.
The bass line kicked through his soul. His feet took off with the groove, skating in a circle around the man. His skates never seemed to leave the ground, round and round he went. Shakes opened his mind, allowing more funk to wash into his soul. He watched it crash down in a great pink wave. A torrent of groove washed out the silt of Unfunkiness . . .
Which doesn’t really mean anything, but it feels good. Not sure we really need the roller skates here, but the story at least makes use of them.
“All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky
By which title we may suspect some deconstruction going on. Cinderella is angry. This is a rant.
Animators can come in with fake smiles and truckloads of bleach and Zip-a-Zee-Doo-Dah away the blood and eye-pecking birds. Post-modern lit grads in ironic T-shirts can tear you up and stitch you into Frankenstein’s femme fatale.
The narrator defies readers to find a meaning here in all this, but it might just be that eating stepsister pussy is better than balling with the prince.