Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-December
And here are the digests, all three of them at the same time.
F&SF, Jan/Feb 2014
Starting out the new year pretty well, good reading, although no individual stories are clearly outstanding.
“In Her Eyes” by Seth Chambers
Alex encounters a strange woman in the Field Museum* where he is a curator; she is unattractive except for her striking eyes, but something about her appeals to him. Song turns out to be a Polymath Adept, a shapechanger. As their relationship grows, she tries on successively sexy forms to please him, as she claims, but the constant across all of them is her eyes. Song is also kind of screwed up and secretive about personal matters. Alex loves her, but it isn’t always easy. She is constantly testing him.
“It can only be you,” I said. “The way you talk. Your filthy mouth. Only you, Song, only you would act this way. You want to know what I think of when I think of you? I think of you as an unknown quantity. Anything is possible with you. I never know your limits. Just when I think you’re one way, I find out you’re completely different. I always want to fuck you but I also want to protect you, hold you, love you, plumb your depths.”
Eventually Song’s inner secrets surface, with explosive results.
This is essentially a love story, a sad one if not entirely tragic. It’s also a story of personal identity and how closely this might be related to physical form. The author’s treatment of the polymorphing process is detailed and pretty gross. As Song says, in comparison, werewolves have it easy.
*The author almost lost me on the first page, when his curator claims that the Field’s Brontosaurus has become a Diplodocus. The famous specimen has indeed been reconfigured and renamed, but to Apatosaurus.
“The New Cambrian” by Andy Stewart
An expedition to Europa, one-way: forty-eight scientists at the station, mostly married couples. Now forty-seven after the first death, a woman with whom Ty was having an affair, a woman pregnant with his child, to whom he refers, in a monumental case of denial, as Dr Schneider instead of by her first name, Gemma.
A name only to be kept on the lips and never in the mind. Dr. Schneider and Gemma are two different entities. Dr. Schneider is an idea. I built a well just for her — a her-shaped well — so that she wouldn’t be inadvertently conjured in the unexpected times: the dinner table, when asking Ana to pass the peas, or when making love.
Dr Schneider had made one of the first discoveries of a Europan organism, a luminescent creature she called a quadlobite. Now, after her death, Ty inexplicably vomits up a living specimen. Distracted by guilt, he obsesses about keeping the creature alive and returning it to its habitat.
This is a character study, and Ty is quite a character, not in the admirable sense. He cheats on his wife, who seems unusually understanding. He tried to convince his lover to abort their child. He apparently cheated during the selection process for the expedition by failing to disclose his fear of deep, dark water – which is to say, Europa. He mocks a colleague with a speech impediment. He’s now crumbling under the pressure of well-deserved guilt, projecting his now-dead unborn child onto the alien organism that inexplicably and symbolically appears in his stomach. As Ty is the narrator, we can admire the author’s portrayal of his disintegration, but it also eventually raises the too-often-raised question: How is he telling his story?
“The Man Who Hanged Three Times” by C C Finlay
Can’t help thinking this title should read “who was hanged”. The man is Jeremiah Pritchard, a failed gold prospector, “a pig of a man if there ever was one, big-bodied and fat, with skin so pink and soft you were afraid it’d melt like butter in the sun, and a nose that lay more or less flat against his face from being broken so many times.” Yet the narrator claims that Pritchard was innocent of the murder of his woman, as the condemned man himself declared on the gallows, invoking the justice of God. Who seems to have been listening, as the gallows trap refuses to open. The narrator, it transpires, has reason to know the truth.
There’s something about the Western setting that brings out the fantastic, and this one doesn’t fail. The prose is properly empurpled, the plot twists satisfactorily, and the ending may leave readers blinking with surprise. Also the “how is he telling this story?” question is given grounds for a reasonable explanation.
“The Via Panisperna Boys in ‘Operation Harmony'” by Claudio Chellemi and Paul Di Filippo
An alternate history. Any unexplained disappearance of a subatomic physicist in 1938 Italy has to be regarded as potentially foul play, yet the case of Ettore Majorana has never been decisively solved. “The Via Panisperna Boys” was a name that Enrico Fermi’s disciples called each other, among whom Majorana was one of the most promising.
In this version, there is no mystery. Fermi’s entire group left Italy by one means or another to assemble under the aegis of the US government at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, where they developed the Harmonic Cannon, a mind-altering peace ray.
Fermi whisked a tarpaulin off a hulking device, and Majorana was transfixed. The enormous gun rested on a swivel base. Its multi-lobed reaction chamber featured numerous valves, dials, rheostats, slider controls, and warty tubing, while its bulbous barrel was wrapped in coils and radiator fins.
At which point, my waning interest totally evaporated. Really lame premise, disappointing.
“Out of the Deep” by Albert E Cowdrey
The Gulf Coast in 1954 wore an idyllic face when Pete was a boy vacationing with his friend Mac.
I would be a grown man before I heard of Machabé, or knew Sand Island as anything but a barrier to storms, too far away to swim to, too flat even to see clearly — a mere distant line, a darkening of the horizon mists. So I lived my boyhood one eternal day at a time, and for a while everything stayed the same.
Things changed, Pete fell on hard times. Then one day he unexpectedly hears from Mac, inviting him to Sand Island, and by the way, does he have a gun? Mac is rich, he plans to get richer, and local mobsters object to his plans. Also on his side is Yma, his cook and mistress, with her personal demon who takes the form of a shark. Mayhem ensues.
This is the setting where the author is most at home, but this time the local color fades in the face of the force of nature, because this is the hurricane coast, which no work of man can withstand, no matter how evil and badass it thinks it is. Uncharacteristically for Cowdrey, there is little humor here, excepting a few noirish comments from Pete, who is there to do a job, no more, until he encounters Machabé the shark. A pretty well-told tale overall, except for some of Mac’s dialogue, written in terms the way no one ever actually talks.
“The Museum of Error” by Oliver Buckram
Pete the Petrified Cat has been stolen from the museum, and Herbert Linden, Assistant Curator for Military History, has been assigned by the Director to retrieve him. Errors ensue, a comedy thereof. There is, for example, the desiccator pistol.
Irina the Unforgiving had deployed them in battle. To the relief of her team of scientist-serfs, the desiccators had worked perfectly, shrinking enemy infantry into prune-like lumps. Her victory appeared total until a summer rainstorm drenched the battlefield, rehydrating the enemy troops. They fell upon Irina’s army from behind, slaughtering them without mercy.
Very silly stuff here. Buckram has been more clever than this, but it still has some amusement value if you like this sort of humor.
“The Story-Teller” by Bruce Jay Friedman
A writer story. Dowling, a retired English teacher, has apparently died on the operating table – or something like. He finds himself in an odd sort of afterlife presided over by a man named Hump, who informs him that this place, whatever it is, has never had any stories and now feels the need of them. Dowling has been selected to fill the void. But the task proves not as easy as he at first supposed.
It began to dawn on him that it was no easy matter to construct a simple compelling gather-round-the-campfire tale. One that wasn’t tricked up and had a clean narrative that had the reader/listener wondering what was going to happen next. One that would have the Hump crowd hanging on every word.
This one concludes with a classic writer story twist. But the lesson I’d take from it is that Dowling would have been better off studying short fiction instead of novels.
“The Lion Wedding” by Moira Crone
The nameless protagonist meets a retired lion – so he refers to himself. They fall in love and have a passionate affair until she gets the idea in her head that they should get married. Bad idea, he tells her. So does her mother. They are right, because she wants to change him to what he is not, and that never works. But she is obviously one of those aging women desperate to catch a husband, any husband, and work on the details afterwards.
There’s a touch of the surreal here, as we are left to imagine the retired lion, and what, exactly, he is. The narrator speaks of his “wide-set, golden eyes” and red mane, but we get no clear picture of the whole man.
“For All of Us Down Here” by Alex Irvine
Much of the population seems to have left their bodies behind to join the Singularity, and the world, where Skeet lives, is falling apart.
Gramps gets to thinking about the world before the Sing, and he starts feeling like he was everyone, like he knew everything. At least that’s how he talks. Maybe that’s because before the Sing, there was always someone around who knew anything you might need to know and you could talk to that person and buy the thing they knew. Not anymore.
Once in a while, for some reason, a Singular retrieves his body and comes back. People think this means trouble, and Skeet finds out they’re right.
Basic premise is familiar, but the story is new. I like the way Irvine makes use of variations on “singular”. Skeet seems to be a teenager whose parents left him about a dozen years ago, when Gramps took him in. But there are things about them that he doesn’t know, although it seems everyone else in town does, and readers will come to suspect. Nice narrative technique there.
“We Don’t Mean to Be” by Robert Reed
Kind, is what they don’t mean to be. “We” being the victors in the long war, and the kindness, or lack of it, for their finally-defeated enemy. An old, old story that everyone will recognize. Except it isn’t. Neatly twisted short-short.
Asimov’s, February 2014
I find the Künsken story to be particularly interesting.
“Schools of Clay” by Derek Künsken
One of the neatest, most skiffy premises I’ve seen in some time. Metallic quasi-robotic organisms have evolved a society resembling terrestrial social insects, complete with castes. The hives of skates inhabit a cloud of asteroids surrounding a pulsar. A new queen and her mate begin their colony on a fresh asteroid, producing a new generation of princes, drones, workers, and most precious, the next generation of princesses. The queen also produces the radioactive souls that are given to the highest castes; no skate without a soul can join the migration when the princesses are ready to launch. Any skate left behind will be devoured by the packs of predators that follow the migration. But the hive no longer functions for the common good. Princes and their courtiers oppress the workers and exploit the labor, expropriating their gains for themselves. Among the workers, revolution is brewing, and Diviya, a worker promoted to low-level functionary with a soul, becomes one of its leaders as the time for migration, and the predators, grow near.
These workers scratched and scrubbed the regolith each day for nuggets of gasses to launch princesses and their suitors into the future. They had more right to their words than Diviya had to his. They deserved to migrate. As the speeches went on, workers gave Diviya gentle double-knocks of approval with the tips of their fins.
A lot to like here. The skates as organisms are well-conceived, but the key to the story is their evolutionary strategy, selecting flight over fight. The skates use the mass of a nearby black hole in a slingshot maneuver to accelerate away from their pursuers. The story suggests this is a form a time travel, but it’s actually a way of using time dilation to buy time for the new colonies to reach maturity before the predators return.
I like Diviya as a character, caught between the spirit of solidarity with the workers and the urging of his soul, a kind of memory chip that constantly nags him to place the interests of the hive foremost, which the soul interprets as betraying the interests of the workers; it regards Diviya as a monstrous traitor. Diviya possesses a unique understanding of the situation, realizing that a violent uprising against the higher castes will do the workers no real good now, with their enemies at hand. “As long as all the workers are wiped out every generation, the workers of the next must restart the struggle as if it were the first time. We must be in solidarity with the brothers of tomorrow whose clay has not yet been fired.” What ensues is vividly-done action as the struggle for survival plays out in deep space, species against species and individual against individual.
“The Long Happy Death of Oxford Brown” by Jason K Chapman
Oxford, at age 73 [which if you ask me is WAY too young for this] is anticipating his upcoming demise, after which he expects to be reunited with his wife Emily in AftrLyf’s system. To him, it’s simple: “‘I die. You put my brain in a blender, plug it
into the network, and I get to see me wife again. Right?'” But when the event transpires, things are not quite as he had expected.
Nice enough low-key piece. I like the phrase, “have your own death to live.”
“Steppin’ Razor” by Maurice Broaddus
Alternate history with steampunk flavor, although the time is the late 20th century. The Albion Empire is facing colonial rebellion on all fronts, and Jamaica has long been independent, if not free from occasional bombardment from Albion’s airships [the steampunk part]. The Maroons have become the local aristocracy, ruling over a miscellany of escaped slaves and fugitives from other parts of the empire, but the real power is held by the colonel. Our protagonist is Desmond, who serves a high-ranking Maroon family as bodyguard, but his real interest is in killing the colonel and/or finding out what he’s up to. The latter proves to be the more interesting choice, as Desmond learns that the colonel has cloned Haile Selassi, the Messiah figure of the Rastafarians, in order to use him for his own purposes. The clone is now pre-teen boy, and everyone who learns of his existence now wants to use him as well; some consider him too dangerous to be alive.
I find this lacking in focus. There’s a lot of local color, and the undergrowth of the story is crawling with secretive groups, few of whom seem to have motives clear to the reader, other than opposing the colonel. We are treated to lectures on the early history of Jamaica’s revolution and heroes, but there is less emphasis on Rastafarian traditions, which are more central to the plot device. So it’s good that Desmond has found a cause, but he seems to be jumping from the frying pan literally into the fire, and I’m not confident in his chances for success, as he will certainly find multiple agents on his trail.
“Ball and Chain” by Maggie Shen King
China’s new laws for Advanced Families promote polyandry, with resulting complications for matchmaking and courtship. At their matchmaking session, Wei-guo is hot for Meiling but doesn’t care for her first two husbands. His own two fathers are interfering. He has high hopes when Meiling agrees to a private meeting, but it doesn’t go at all as expected. Lightly humorous piece that explores the potential pitfalls of new types of relationships when complicated by old ones.
“Last Day at the Ice Man Café” by M Bennardo
Ulno spent ten or twelve thousand years frozen in a glacier in Montana, and hasn’t quite found his way in today’s world. He hasn’t quite gotten in together with Janice, either, although she keeps trying. A sad story with a promising premise. The characters try to hold out hope, but readers won’t be buying it – as the characters really aren’t, if they tell themselves the truth.
“The Transdimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province” by Sarah Pinsker
The title suggests a silly story; it isn’t. Yona and Oliver were both photojournalists before he intervened to stop an assault on his subject and was killed. Shortly afterwards, Yona takes an assignment to photograph a mysterious group of people in South Africa, a tribe of Semitic descent with the power to translocate; to an observer’s eyes, they disappear and reappear instantly. They also seem to have empathic powers; one of their leaders immediately discerns Yona’s bereavement and leads a chant that she recognizes as a version of the Kaddish. Yona faces a personal decision.
Yona thought about her options: documenting what she saw, or documenting what people expected to see. She wondered what Oliver would have done. The loss hit her again, fresh and bright and blooming. She wondered how long it had taken him to decide to put down his camera and become part of the story. He couldn’t have had much time to make up his mind. An instant.
The tribe is definitely equestrian and pretty clearly transdimensional. “Rabbi” seems to be an anachronism. As is fitting for a story about photographers, much of the text consists of descriptions of photographs. A thought-provoking work.
“Ask Citizen Etiquette” by Marissa Lingen
Advice column for the future. Very short. The situations are silly but the advice is sound.
Analog, March 2014
Continuing the current serial, with a novelette and a handful of shorts, most involving expeditions into space.
“Life Flight” by Brad R Torgersen
This one starts out with a kid narrator’s journal, which is one strike against it in the first inning, what with sticking tongues out and all.
Papa was proud of me when he went to sleep. I’m one of the only boys picked to stay awake—because I’m smart and can do math.
Fortunately, he grows older within a page or so. So we see we’re on a coldsleep flight to Delta Pavonis with a rotating skeleton crew awake on duty. The kids are on 10-year shifts for training, or so is the sensible plan, but the narrator turns out to be unstable in stasis, thus doomed to live out his lifespan on the 80-year trip. Thus the coming-of-age story turns into an aging story, following a man through the good and the bad of his entire lifespan while never learning his name. I’m not buying it that, since this stasis instability is a known complication, all colonists weren’t checked for it before takeoff.
“Rubik’s Chromosomes” by Megan Chaudhuri
Tecca is a freelance geneticist whose fees barely pay her office rent, so she only has the free crippleware version of the standard sequence scanning software. This proves to be an advantage, as it forces her to examine the nucleotides individually, so that she can sometimes see what the software might have missed. In this case, she’s been hired to give a second opinion on a DNA design for a Saud couple’s children, and she’s horrified to see that it reserves intellectual excellence for male offspring. But then she looks more deeply.
A clever trick here, exposing not only a cultural prejudice but Tecca’s own prejudice against the members of that culture. The Cube and the mouse are there mostly for metaphorical value.
“Not for Sissies” by Jerry Oltion
Does anyone still say “sissies” anymore? We’re in a near future when a convenient suicide drug has been invented. Greg, with prostate cancer at age forty-five, as decided to pop the pill because he keeps dreaming of the condition getting worse. His husband Nathan begs him not to go and is devastated when he does, angry at Greg for abandoning him. To get back at him, and the society in which death has become a norm, he decides to become healthy and live as long as he can.
“That’s everyone’s answer to adversity nowadays, isn’t it? At the first sign of trouble, just check out! What about the virtue of struggling to succeed? What about developing character? What about perseverance?”
Pretty much a polemic, although not entirely without art, as the final paragraph demonstrates. The most interesting part is the way that medicine in this future has forgotten how to heal serious and complex problems.
“The Teacher’s Gamble” by Stephen L Burns
Very short. An interstellar visitor with benevolent plans comes to Earth and faces a dilemma. The visitor is pretty talky. I suppose they must get like that, alone for so many thousands of years hopping from star to star.
“The Avalon Missions” by David Brin
A race for the stars, with unexpected consequences. Very very short bite of irony.
“We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You” by Maggie Clark
I have to say that I found this account of a doomed rescue expedition to Mars essentially unreadable, in large part because of the heavy, unbroken columns of print. Paragraph and line breaks are the reader’s friends. We have a journalist interviewing the four women on the way to Mars, making it unclear whether they should be regarded more as comfort women or heroes or martyrs — to what, is also unclear. But this narrator crowds the text with such a density of digressions, irrelevancies, and other verbal excrescences that it’s hard to find the story in there amidst it all — if there actually is a story. If there is, it’s not about the Mars base and its problems, about which we learn almost nothing. It’s not about the four female rescuers, who stonewall the narrator to various degrees that we don’t come to know or understand them, and the little we do see is buried in narrative verbiage. It’s not about the journalist narrator, himself buried in his own blathering. If we ask, what is this piece about, the best I can come up with is: How not to do an interview.