Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-February
Mostly a John Joseph Adams column, featuring his ezine Lightspeed and an anthology co-edited by him. Also the February stories from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
- Lightspeed, February 2014
- The End is Nigh, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #140-141, February 2014
Lightspeed, February 2014
“Coma Kings” by Jessica Barber
Gaming story. First time she played Coma, Jenny did so well at the game she won her own rig. And one for her little sister, who turned out to be even better, with tragic consequences. “I love how you can do these things that fuck you over forever, that change your goddamn life, and not even care at the time, not even know.” The game is addictive and Annie was too young to start, so now she lies in bed, hardwired in and on life support.
But here’s the thing, and I know this makes me a fool, but deep down, I believed, somehow, that if I could just beat her everything would be all better. Believed, with that sort of secret inner ferocity of a fairy tale or a religion. I would win against her, like nobody ever had, and there would be a silent, eternal moment. And then her name would blip out of existence, and I’d pull off my rig and look over to where she was doing the same, prying her goggles away from her eyes and sliding the probe out from the back of her skull.
It’s not quite clear how Annie got to be the way she is, because, as their dysfunctional mother complains, it’s expensive. But that’s not really essential to the story, which is about Jenny’s relationship with her sister – rivalry, guilt, protectiveness. That’s how it is with sisters. It’s YA, but less limited than the usual.
“Harry and Marlowe and the Intrigues at the Aetherian Exhibition” by Carrie Vaughn
Another in this steampunk series about Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Maud* [aka Harry] and her undercover work defending the British Empire against German aggression [or so they put it] as both side attempt to exploit the advanced technology recovered from the aliens known as Aetherians. In previous installments, we’ve seen Harry engaged in derring-do with her companion Lieutenant Marlowe, but here there is only minimal action as Harry must act her role of royalty and pretend to be helpless and demure, fending off the matrimonial attentions of princes while yearning in vain for Marlowe.
The weight of backstory here is growing burdensome as it becomes clear this is in fact a serialization. In the absence of action, we are reduced to intrigue amidst the stifling atmosphere of the Victorian court, and there is a definite whiff of romance. Essentially, this piece is a sort of stepping stone in the plot, establishing a basis for further installments.
(*) Unless matters are arranged differently in this alternate history, Maud would not be, as the text has it, Maud, Princess of Wales but rather Princess Maud of Wales, a distinction which was not trivial in this milieu.
“None Owns the Air” by Ken Liu
In an imagined island kingdom that bears a slight resemblance to Japan of the Meiji restoration period, young engineering officer Kino gets caught up in palace politics and ends up as the aide to the new Secretary of the previously nonexistent air force, after he and his superior pretend to have been possessed by the gods with a message praising air power. Kino’s devout sister is happy that he has apparently found religion and drags him on a pilgrimage to Mount Kiji, where he notices something very odd about the sacred falcons there.
Kino had to bite his tongue as he listened to Lowi recount how the monk in charge of the hostel described Kino’s conversion to her, “I’ve never seen anything like it. The young master spends all day meditating at remote spots along Lake Dako, vowing to not journey up to the Temple until he has sufficiently purified himself. When he returns in the evenings, he spends all his time at the abbey, studying the scriptures and wisdom sutras left by generations of monks. I’ve never seen a pilgrim more dedicated or fervent. He says that he will not go into the presence of Lord Kiji until he has completely recovered his faith, and that is why he has requested an extended stay here.”
In fact, the scientifically-minded Kino is busy studying the falcons, which includes illicitly dissecting one, an act of sacrilege for which there are consequences.
I’ve noted previously that the works labeled fantasy and science fiction in this zine are often indistinguishable, and the story at hand, the most clearly sciencefictional, is listed inexplicably under Fantasy in the ToC of the current issue. Very odd. The sciencefictional aspect of the premise is a neat and imaginative one, and while the setting is rather generic, the religious details have some interest. It’s both a cynical and a tragic story. If this were actually a fantasy, if we were to believe that the gods here were real, then we might think Kino stands to be punished for his sacrilege. But for a moral tale, I think we have to ascribe his sin to ambition and deceit.
“So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” by Sunny Moraine
Actual fantasy – mermaids and witches. A metafictional retelling. The mermaid doesn’t accept the way her first bargain ended. She wants to make another. She was betrayed, and now she wants revenge.
If she were sea foam, she thinks—and perhaps this is after and perhaps it is before or perhaps it is both things simultaneously—she could become the rain and patter down onto his windowpanes, trickle down the glass and watch him inside in his bright warmth. Or in a storm she could come to him riding, or walking, or anywhere unsheltered, and cut down through the air to strike his cheeks. She could fling herself at him and run down his body like sweat, down his face like tears.
The language is evocative, but as the excerpt suggests, the time sequence here is not entirely clear – purposefully so. It is a cruel story. Love, of course, is the cruelest thing, but the mermaid comes in a close second. The problem is, she doesn’t seem to gain anything in her revenge. The trophy she takes from the prince, she gives to the sea. There is no going back for her, but where she is going now, she doesn’t seem to know.
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
The world of publishing is changing rapidly, although it’s too early to know for sure whether this presages an apocalypse of the written word. I doubt that several years ago I would have looked at such a volume as this, a self-published anthology. On the other hand, several years ago, it was much less likely that such a volume would even exist, put together by a professional editor and a best-selling, self-published author, with prominent authors listed in the ToC. But as the tides rise and fall, so must we float on them.
So here is the first volume in an anthology trilogy titled “The Apocalypse Triptych”, the subject matter of which should be obvious. There are twenty-one stories featuring a variety of apocalyptic scenarios – environmental, astronomical, epidemic, eschatological. In most, the focus is on the human beings caught up in the world-ending events, as opposed to the details of the events themselves. Few if any of these scenarios are particularly original. There are some good stories here, but I fear they are in the minority. Most just sit there in the median rank without rising to the level of outstanding.
Typically, an anthology editor will place the volume’s best pieces as the opening and closing works. Instead, the editors here seem to have led from weakness, leaving the stronger stories to come later in the book – a strategy I can’t recommend, as readers are likely to become discouraged at the prospect of finding worthwhile fiction. It’s in there, but it may take a long while to find.
“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman
Abraham is a con man working the End Times racket. A Sign that things are going to go wrong comes when his ex dumps his unwelcome ten-year-old son on him and takes off. At first, it’s not so bad, until the kid starts asking questions.
“We’ll go to heaven with the rest of the righteous people,” I said. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
“You don’t even know me. How do you know I’m righteous?”
The kid gets faith and turns the flock into survivalists, while Father Abraham waits to take off with the cash.
Cynical as this is, there is some true stuff here about the nature and uses of faith. It’s not the strong story I would have chosen to kick off the volume, though.
“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich
Apocalypse by aliens, who claim, without explanation, that they plan to vaporize Earth and transfer the consciousness of every human to another world.
There, on Planet X, humanity would find themselves in fresh bodies – remade vessels. These reincarnations would live eternally in a world of infinite luxury.
The narrator has been drafted as an enforcer for project X; the reason for this is cause for much speculation, some of it doubting that there are actually aliens at all.
Even more cynical, a commentary on human nature more than on alien duplicity.
“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders
As a kid, Rock Manning’s father threw him off the roof to turn him into a stuntman, and Rock grew up devoted to creating video mayhem, while all around them, actual mayhem proliferates.
Some people said the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen didn’t exist, but how else did you explain the state we were in?
Cynical and nihilistic, with an echo of 1984 and a touch of gonzo.
“The Gods Will Not Be Chained” by Ken Liu
When Maddy’s father was alive, her mastery of his old laptop was her greatest joy, but now she’s at a new school, cyberbullied by the mean girls.
She had stopped using social networking sites because of the constant stream of mockery—when she deleted any of their comments, it only made them redouble their efforts. If she tried to block anyone, she thought it might also make them think they got to her, might appear as an admission of weakness. She had no choice but to endure.
Then help comes from a mysterious source, messages in an iconic language that Maddy and her father had used for private communications when he was alive.
Not cynical. The apocalypse here is only a possible one. Powerful forces have been unleashed, but it’s not clear exactly what they will do. It’s neat, however, to see the emoji glyphs in the text.
“Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr
The asteroid is going to hit North America, and everyone is scrambling desperately to get out. Em and Lynn, having waited forever for same-sex marriage to be legal in Texas instead of going to some civilized state, continue to dither and delay while they try to figure out their way of escaping the imminent impact. Finally they set a date, but by then the emergency government cancels all weddings to keep people from gaming the Expatriation Lottery.
This premise is just too absurd and contrived for words, as the characters take forever to come up with the answer that readers will have telling them from the outset. Get married already! Stop procrastinating! Sheesh!
“Removal Order” by Tananarive Due
Epidemic – seems more on the scale of calamity than apocalypse, but that distinction doesn’t matter much from the inside. Nayima hasn’t obeyed the evacuation order so that she can remain home to care for her dying grandmother. But the authorities are going from neighborhood to neighborhood, burning everything down to kill the contagion. There isn’t a lot of time left.
The details are clear and sharp-edged here.
Nayima retrieved her jug of boiled water, dipped her sponge in it, and gently washed Gram between her legs, water running in streams down the wrinkled crevices of her thighs. Washed Gram’s downy, thin patch of pubic hair. Checked her for signs of skin irritation from urine, and was thankful to find none.
I’m a bit dubious that the authorities wouldn’t have evacuated an elderly sick woman, but I’m inclined to trust the author on this, as everything else here has been well thought through. The tone is grim; the story takes a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of hard choices. The first of the better stories in this volume.
“System Reset” by Tobias S Buckell
Charlie is a skip tracer, now trying to start over after a previous job went bad. His sidekick Toto comes up with a wanted poster for a hacker/ terrorist, with a fat reward. Problem is, on the way to the money, their prize starts talking.
“It’s time to reboot,” Haswell says. “Time to put in a clean operating system. No more patches. No trying to get old buggy code to work. A fresh upgrade. Everything has to be wiped out for it to work properly. Now that I know you all are getting close, it’s time to hurry and press the power switch.”
And he means more than code.
Interesting in a number of ways. The setting is a police state essentially our own. Charlie and Toto come from the underclass, and Charlie in particular finds some sympathy for what Haswell is saying. We can see the way he’s tempted. It’s only that Haswell’s means are too extreme.
“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford
The 1910 Halley’s Comet hysteria. Darwin is working as a page at a Seattle luxury hotel while guests gather on the roof to view the comet’s passing, after alarmist rumors have been spread.
A few of the more intrepid guests wore gas masks atop their heads like party hats, while many of the older ladies veiled themselves in birdcage lace and toted comet umbrellas to fend off any errant dust and soot drifting down from the sky.
An unusual setting here, an interesting glimpse at a moment in history, particularly the social structure at the end of the Gilded Age, dominated by extreme wealth inequality. Darwin is a part-Chinese indentured servant who considers himself more lucky than the immigrants digging in the mud flats. Yet with the end of the world possibly at hand, the classes are united in fearful anticipation, as the author vividly demonstrates. There is a strong suggestion to readers that this world is indeed about to fall apart with the advent of WWI, all unknown to the characters gathered here. But there are also hints that this may not be exactly the world of our own history, despite the close resemblance in many of the details.
“BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H Winters
God is calling humanity home. Everyone hears the voice, everyone knows the day is nigh, almost everyone is ready. But Annabel has a secret: her daughter Pea is deaf; she can’t hear God’s voice. Annabel has heard God’s voice, though. He tells her, BRING HER TO ME. That’s all Annabel needs to know. Others, however, have doubts, including Pea.
This one opens with Annabel wearing a frock. I mean, a frock. Hard to get over that. The apocalypse is apparently supposed to be something like a Passover service with raw meat and green kool-aid on the table. Some think that everyone will die, others that they will be raptured. God hasn’t been quite clear on this. At one point, Pea’s father mentions the sacrifice of Abraham. Maybe it’s all a test. Or maybe it’s Someone Else’s voice. The ending comes on an ominous note, but it’s hard to get there from a premise that is really pretty silly.
“In the Air” by Hugh Howey
It seems that the government has seeded the world’s population with miniature bombs set to go off simultaneously – except for a few chosen survivors, with whom John and his family are supposed to be included.
He and his family should be outside Atlanta with the others, not on the side of the road in Iowa. They should be crowding underground with everyone else, the selected few, the survivors.
But John knows too much, knows not to trust them.
The text interleaves the present scenes with different moments in John’s past, as he weighs his alternatives, wherein we learn that he’s the kind of guy who does targeted assassinations by drone; his task in the bunker would be that of enforcer. What we don’t learn is what the government has in mind by depopulating the Earth. It’s one thing, if an apocalypse is inevitable, for the self-important to make plans to save themselves and damn the rest, but quite another to cause the apocalypse on the grounds that someone else might do it first. What they have to gain isn’t clear. Or how they pulled it off. This is a premise that just doesn’t make sense.
“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet
Neta’s stint on the moon is just about up when their base learns of an imminent collision with a rogue planet. Of the seven of them, only three have a chance to escape in the emergency shuttle; the remaining four must wait to die.
A slight work, with rational people facing the end in mostly rational ways. We have to approve of them. Yet we don’t really know them, despite the moments of Neta’s backstory. They remain admirable strangers to whom we bid goodbye.
“Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh
Johnny’s father celebrated his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by going into debt to buy a drive-in theater.
It was past time to put him in a home, but Johnny just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was having such a ball, running his drive-in. It was killing Johnny, though, getting home at one in the morning, then his alarm going off at six.
Even before everyone started staying home because of the virus, the drive-in was losing money every night. Then the virus hits their town, they’re shut down by quarantine, and he and Kelly across the street start taking care of the sick so they don’t die of starvation.
A very sad story – moving and human, about real people in believable circumstances.
“Houses without Air” by Megan Arkenberg
The world is running out of oxygen, and people have already been evacuated from some regions. Farrah has been moved into Beth’s apartment. As the clock runs down, they both try to leave something special behind: Beth, her project for immersive alternate reality [ie, uploading people to computers] while Farrah makes a mess in the apartment, planning an artistic memorial, the eponymous airless habitats, made from aquariums.
The story focuses entirely, not on the apocalypse itself but the reaction of the two characters to the impending end and their growing closeness to each other. The author is working a metaphor of matches. Each short section of the text is numbered: “The First Match”, etc, to recall the tale of The Little Matchgirl, igniting her small stock in a vain attempt to keep from freezing [the characters deny this connection, but readers won’t believe them; the matches symbolize the story]. Farrah also uses the matches to burn out the vestiges of oxygen in her sealed habitats. “It is a race to see which is consumed first: the oxygen or the match.”
“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack McDevitt
Maryam’s thirtieth birthday celebration is marred by the news that a younger colleague in physics is going to receive a prestigious award. She begins to think she will never make her mark on her field, so she takes up a secondary task, hunting for comets, and actually finds one to put her name on. But, of course, it turns out to be more than just a comet.
As the title suggests, the story’s focus is on the way we live with the knowledge of impending doom – in this case, twenty years out. Priorities change. Maryam’s name will be known as long as humanity exists, but it makes no difference anymore.
Oddly, the brown dwarf had retreated into the darkness of my mind, and I was aware mostly of how fortunate I’d been over my lifetime, and how I appreciated having that night with my family.
Of perhaps greater interest is the ethical dilemma that engages the characters when the authorities attempt to keep the impending disaster a secret, not to take from people “the right to live normal lives.” Which most people consider a bunch of hooey.
The author appends a final paragraph to the story, perhaps as an illustration of the change in everyone’s priorities, but I would have preferred it without.
“Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen Are Going to Come Riding Through” by Nancy Kress
The narrator, whom we know only as Ms Drucker, is the hardworking single mother of two daughters who wants the best for them both, although the two girls are very different: fractious Sophie, always in trouble, and passive Carrie. What Drucker begins to realize as Carrie goes to school, that Carrie isn’t the only one who never fights back. She connects the fact with a massive volcanic eruption when she was pregnant. There were rumors, even then.
Some people said that the weird chemicals didn’t come from Earth, so they must’ve been put deep inside by aliens. I wouldn’t of paid no more attention to this idea than to the others, except it was on the news that some scientists agreed that the chemicals weren’t like any we had on Earth. They were brand new here. They blew all over the world and got into everything. Everybody breathed them in. They were found in breast milk.
The SFnal premise is similar to that of 2001, with aliens attempting to make fundamental alterations to humanity. But Drucker is convinced that, if so, the aliens made a big mistake. Not all the children were affected, and the passivity of the altered children brings out the bully in unaffected ones. It’s notable that Drucker’s character is that of a disadvantaged person who speaks ungrammatically and whose appearance makes the other parents in the school take a second, suspicious look at her. Yet she is both a caring and intelligent parent, who sees the scope of the problem when others do not.
“Spores” by Seanan McGuire
Megan works in biotech. “It was my job to make sure the big brains didn’t destroy the world in their rush toward a hardier, easier to grow a peach, or an apple that didn’t rot quite so quickly after it had been picked.” This makes her generally suspicious, as does her OCT, and particularly so when the bowl of fruit her wife brought home fresh just the day before has already been ruined by a rapidly-growing mold. But even her natural suspicion doesn’t prepare her for the worst.
This one seems to be a Cautionary Tale about bioengineered foods, but its heart is a story of family, the urge to protect our own. Unfortunately, this element sets up an irritation. The family here is based on a same-sex marriage. This is not exactly a novelty, not in the world we live in and certainly not in speculative fiction. Yet the author has to keep jumping up and pointing, over and over, Look! A same-sex marriage! When, you know, we can see this for ourselves. We can tell, really, when we see a female character refer to her wife. Let’s have some confidence in readers’ discernment.
I’m also not buying the proposition that, when the lab knew it was battling an infestation resistant to treatment, they would let any of their product out into the world, let alone sneak it into peoples’ kitchens. There are protocols for this sort of thing. Corporations may cut some corners on these, but what the story describe goes way beyond that.
“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Maberry
The narrator opens with a lengthy lecture about dealing with messed-up kids, which is his business. He sort of gives away the story in it.
I’m talking about a runaway who found what he or she has been looking for. Even if it’s a cult. Even if it’s a group whose nature or goals or tenets you object to with every fiber of your being. When you find a kid who ran away and found himself . . . what the fuck are you supposed to do then?
His case is that of an eighteen-year-old girl [ie, legally an adult] who joined a cult that believes a rogue planet is going to destroy Earth but save the True Believers. She also is going to inherit a trust fund that her parents think she will donate to the cult; they want to control her money. In other words, the job is dubious from the outset. Then we get more lecture.
This might have worked better if the author hadn’t spoiled his own story and overdone the lecturing.
“Agent Unknown” by David Wellington
Whitman is a field agent for the CDC, investigating a report of carriers of a new zombie-like disease. The subjects are violent, aphasiac, with glowing red eyes. They bite. There are more. And more. And while Whitman is out chasing them down, the CDC is back in the lab doing autopsies. Which makes me wonder, with sufficient dead subjects available for this purpose, why they felt it necessary to euthanize one, except to make the point that these are times for drastic measures.
As an apocalypse-by-plague, the premise is satisfactory. As a story, it’s not. As soon as the CDC guy announces the nature and extent of the problem to the president, it ends. We get the idea – this is going to be the end of the human race. OK, but that’s not a story in itself.
“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather
Insecure, overweight Effie meets Michael at a church meeting, and they hit it off, sharing similar views in opposition to speciesism. Effie is vegan; Michael seems to be, as well. But he turns out to be part of a cult that is something rather different.
“Just as consuming Christ is sacred, so consuming ourselves is a symbolic act that brings us closer to the god living in all of us—sacrificing a part of ourselves to atone for our sins, eating a small part of ourselves to atone for our share in mankind’s sins.”
The author attempts the point that cannibalism is a perennial response to overpopulation, but this trend doesn’t seem to be catching on in sufficient numbers to represent an apocalypse or anything close to it.
“Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi
In a world where global climate change has led to desertification and a wave of refugees out of Texas, photographer Timo tries to help his friend Lucy land a real story. Competition is tough.
“There ain’t no virgins, and there ain’t no clean stories,” he’d tried to explain to Lucy. “There’s just angles on the same-ass stories. Scoops come from being in the right place at the right time, and that’s all just dumb luck.
But now he has a tip, and it’s a good one: a dead Texan, part-eaten by dogs, caught on the border fence, strangled by his own prayer beads, left as an offering to Santa Muerte. And the vigilantes behind the deed, righteous in defense of their own.
No better chance for a prime apocalypse story than Bacigalupi, master of dystopia. He makes us feel the heat, the sweat, the decomposing scent of desperation. Desperation is everyone here, except that it comes in different forms. My favorite piece here.
“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan
The setting is obscure. Tom tells us he lives in an American colony, but it seems to be in Michigan, so whatever a colony means here is unclear. I’m not sure we need to know, because it’s an energy-shortage apocalypse in the making, with a police state dystopia, and on top like a cherry, an asteroid is about to hit the place. But the real evil is human. Tom’s [adoptive?] parents left him behind when they escaped, maybe because he’s gay, and the girl he thinks he loves is a skank. Who he really loves is his little sister, and he correctly suspects his parents don’t.
All this is set in a far-future frame when Tom’s account of these events has apparently been preserved in a museum, probably in the exhibit for human depravity. The fact that the story focuses on some of the good people, the ones who love, doesn’t really change that.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #140-141, February 2014
A good month’s worth of fiction. Both issues, all four stories, deal in different ways with themes of war.
“The Face in the Window” by Brian McClellan
Taniel describes himself as “not some foppish noble’s son”, but you wouldn’t know it from the story’s introduction to him. Still, besides a student, foppish or no, he is also a powder mage, which means gunpowder, which makes him a soldier. His father had sent him abroad to keep him out of trouble, but at the first hint of war abroad, he signs up. He has a real motivation, though. The enemy had murdered his mother. But the enemy also has powerful sorcerers.
Light suddenly blinded Taniel, searing Dina’s face into his vision. He felt the grip on his shoulder disappear, and he fell back into the mud, arms flailing for purchase. His right arm sank through the murk and he thought he might be sucked down forever, before one fingertip touched something solid.
This piece seems to be an outtake of some sort from the author’s trilogy. Which almost always presents problems. In this case, they are problems of characterization. As the story proves, Taniel is not just some foppish noble’s son, he’s actually a well-trained soldier who manifests a strong dedication to his mission. So why did the author present him as a fop, as a wastrel student, as a petulant child requiring a chaperone to keep him out of trouble? I assume that these are elements of backstory that readers might find in the trilogy, but we’re not reading the trilogy here, we’re reading what is meant to be an independent story, and here, it’s confusing and inconsistent. Also, the character of the chaperone spends the first part of the story as if she’s going to turn out to be of importance, which turns out not to be the case. Aside from these issues, what we have here is a competent piece of military fantasy about a young soldier’s blooding.
“Atonement” by Alec Austin
Set in the aftermath of a long, bloody war. Under the leadership of General Turghar, Zrana and her troops had sacked the city of Dahar and left it full of vengeful spirits.
They’d called us the Hellhounds of Surnam, the Butchers of Bursa, and a hundred other epithets to make children wail and heroes grow faint. We’d fought Prince Zhar’s finest to a draw at Second Aktar and ended the line of the old kings at Kurqand. Depending on who you asked, we were the best soldiers in the world, or beasts in human form.
But now Turghar, after retiring to a Buddhist monastery, has entered the ruins of Dahar to purge the city of its ghosts, which the Queen fears would open up their homeland to invasion again. But perhaps the Queen is wrong.
The setting here is imaginary, but with a strong, effective historical flavor. We are clearly in territory resembling Central Asia, and Turghar’s campaign reminds me of the Mongol war of extirpation against the Khwarezmid Empire. Besides the obvious Buddhism, there are Zoroastrian influences. The theme is the evil of unquestioning obedience to orders, of letting this serve to justify the worst atrocities. Turghar and his soldiers have a lot to atone for, but it takes distance to allow them to see it.
“The Days When Papa Takes Me to War” by Rahul Kanakia
An audaciously imaginative, albeit incredible, premise. It seems that during WWII, Papa, a journalist whose first name is Ernest, was mortally wounded and crawled into a cave, where he was discovered by the largest ant queen in the world, who revived him, sort of, by infiltrating his body with worker ants, much in the manner of nanomachines. Then they mated, generating their daughter Olivia, the narrator, whom her mother intends to become queen of all humanity. The queen urges Papa to take Olivia out into the human world with him, so she can learn the songs with which to control his species. This doesn’t work out quite as planned. The queen’s understanding of humanity is flawed.
Papa is on his knees. He’s striped with thin black lines of ants. They are spilling from his eyes and ears and nose and from the eternally open wounds beneath his clothes. The blackness pools at his feet.
While the portrayal of Papa is pretty completely a caricature, this tragicomedy of errors is full of neat surprises, such as the revolutionary tendencies of the worker and soldier ants, who can only be kept in line by the constant controlling song of the queen. [This contradicts what we know of the behavior of ants, but it makes the story entertaining. We don’t expect realism here.] People who already suspecting that ants are plotting to take over the world won’t be reassured by this work.
“Pilgrims” by Ann Chatham
A story of sin, penitence and absolution in a quasi-Arthurian world. Magda, whom some consider a saint and some a sorceress, is on a penitential pilgrimage.
“I am not seeking the shrine of any saint who died in the God’s wars,” I told him, minding my feet so that I would not have to look up. “I seek the root of the Tree that the Lord cut down to end His war, that I may build a shrine at its heart, and burn an offering there.”
On her way, she buries the body of a man she finds killed by brigands, then later encounters a knight who, round-table-like, says he is under a geas to assist the first person he meets. She recognizes him as the man she has just buried; his geas is to repay his debt to her. But the connection between them is far deeper than she at first imagines.
I really like this setting, which has much of the Arthurian spirit yet a completely different theology than Christianity. On the one hand, I wish it were rather less obscure, on the other, I’m pleased that the author didn’t divert her attention from the story to give us a lengthy explanation. There is another subplot that evokes the crusades. The author has also introduced a metafictional element, as Magda remarks that she doesn’t want to end up in a romance, which is the proper term for the Arthurian cycle.