Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early April
Featuring the June issues of the Dell digests, both with some enjoyable stuff. The real prize, though, is the April Clarkesworld. A Good Story award to both the Swanwick and Wallace pieces.
- Asimov’s, June 2014
- Analog, June 2014
- Clarkesworld, April 2014
- Apex Magazine, April 2014
Asimov’s, June 2014
A better issue than usual. Particularly liking the Palmer and Tidhar stories.
“Shatterdown” by Suzanne Palmer
Cjoi was a slave genetically modified to dive into the high pressure atmosphere of a gas giant and retrieve its treasures, and she is now the last survivor of her cohort; rescue turned out not to be salvation for any of them. The Protectorate forces that freed her have also been stationed to protect the planet Pahlati from poachers intent on its unique organic diamonds, now threatened with extinction from overharvesting. Among the would-be poachers is an embittered Cjoi, returned to her origins and working for her own purposes instead of the corporation.
She kept her sphere in the updraft of a high-pressure band, trailing just outside the uneasy junction between dusk and night. The blinding glare of the sun was behind her, ripping through the clouds below. Tiny traces of green and brown stained the edges of the upwell, the light catching, here and there, in the faint diamond sparkle that had earned Pahlati the nickname Shining Giant.
Here is hard science fiction done with skill and grace, the tech worked out thoroughly, the prose outstanding, action and tension in the plot. Also social commentary: Cjoi tells an audience that the enslaved divers were all girls, who were cheaper and more disposable. The narrative shifts between the present and the background of Cjoi’s enslavement before the action takes over completely. I would advise readers to rip the last page out of the magazine, so as not to ruin the fitting, heroic conclusion with the anticlimax grafted onto it in a moment of someone’s ill judgment. Without which,
“There Was No Sound of Thunder” by David Erik Nelson
Readers should recognize the reference in the title to the classic Bradbury story. Here, Taylor, who claims to work for the Feds but is actually from the future, is recruiting a small group of 1995 anarchists for his time travel project. Taylor reeks of phoniness and the characters all act repellently silly.
Taylor seemed unimpressed by having lost his good right arm. “Man,” he said, “I love the impact of that gag. It always kills.” Rob-o leaned forward so that he and Taylor could slap a high five, and then Rob-o spun on his heel, doing a giddy little schoolboy dance.
But an older, sadder version of Taylor shows up later and explains that attempts to better history through time travel are always counterproductive.
This piece might well be subtitled: The Lighter Side of Genocide. I’m not amused. Largely, it makes no sense, particularly the supposed FBI plot to divert terrorists into time travel. And in a historical timestream that has managed to quadruple the number of Hitler’s victims, it really makes no sense to suppose that a century later, exactly the same terrorist will show up in exactly the same place at exactly the same time in exactly the same truck. Stoopid.
“Murder in the Cathedral” by Lavie Tidhar
Set in the author’s nominally steampunk Bookman Histories series. Nominally, because Tidhar tends to employ such tropes as much to subvert them as embrace them. He must also have picked up a truckload of allusions at wholesale rates, because the story is loaded with them, beginning of course with the title. Enumerating them would be a game in itself.
We open with Orphan, our hero, crossing the channel [under the name of Homer Chapman] to France [via the symbolically-named ferry Charon] on a quest to recover his beloved Lucy from the dead. Onboard he meets a young H G Wells, traveling to what we recognize as a science fiction convention – in fact, a worldcon. But Orphan’s business also takes him to this world’s version of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame rose out of the Seine like a monstrosity, a mocking inversion of the grandeur of Les Lézards’s* Palace: it was made of the same strange, greenish metal, and in the brightness of the day it seemed to suck in the sunlight, casting awkward shadows where no shadows should have been. People milled on the island around the cathedral, but they had a different look to the crowds that busily moved on the left bank: these moved with jerky, unnatural motions, like bad imitations of the way an automaton might move, and their faces were vacant and hollow, like the patients of an asylum.
There, of course, is a murder victim, an automaton operating under the name of the author E T A Hoffmann, whom Orphan had met at the convention. At which point, the story turns itself into a classic mystery, with red herrings, false identities, and rival detectives proclaiming their rival theories of the murderer’s identity to the assembled audience of the convention.
A lot of esoteric fun here, a literary treasure hunt that fans of the 19th century genre will particularly enjoy. We have both authors and their characters rubbing elbows in the halls, it makes perfect sense for Le Prix Hugo to be awarded by a French organization, and readers will note that of the authors crowded into the con, all are European; America is not a factor in this version of genre history. Although the series background might seem daunting to readers unfamiliar with it, the details turn out not to matter too much as we follow Orphan through this relatively self-contained sidebar adventure/mystery, collecting allusions as Inspector Adler might accumulate clues.
(*) These would be the alien lizards who now rule what would have been the British Empire. They don’t directly play a role in this particular story.
“The Philosopher Duck” by Kara Dalkey
A near future when global warming/rising sea levels have continued to drown Bangladesh. Ravi’s family home is on a pier, but with a cyclone bearing down, he deploys an inflatable rescue sphere [a Neat Idea]. Just at the last moment, a duck flies inside with them, and Ravi’s son begs to let it remain. The bird proves to be a good example in the face of incipient panic, and possibly a divine incarnation.
“Look at the duck. See how comfortable he is? He is not afraid. He knows we will be safe. Watch the duck and you will be all right.”
A surprisingly positive piece, with a loving family and an ending quite like a fairy tale. But the author is realistic about human nature. Many of Ravi’s neighbors have sold their donated rescue spheres, and when helpful fishermen arrive, he reasonably fears they might be pirates.
“Ormonde and Chase” by Ian Creasey
Travis and Harriet grow and sell custom-bred plants with flowers in the image of people’s faces.
This early in spring, most of the plants hadn’t yet reached resemblance: the flower-buds were tiny blank faces, gradually developing features. Only the cyclamen—Harriet’s self-portrait— was in full bloom. Their pink flowers smiled in the sun, looking cheerier
than Harriet had done for some time.
The business has certain drawbacks; the product is too expensive for many people, customers are prone to dissatisfaction, and Harriet seems to have lost enthusiasm for the job. Then she gets the idea to develop noxious weeds in the image of politicians.
Essentially, this is a love story, a rather one-sided one, in which Travis is willing to court bankruptcy and lawsuits to keep Harriet happy. I’m not sure that this is going to work out in the long run.
“The Finges Clearing” by Sylvain Jouty, translated by Edward Gauvin
A short-short that’s all exposition, which means it rests primarily on idea – which means the idea had better be pretty damn good. Here, it’s the existence of about an acre in the middle of a woods that humans have never touched: truly virgin land. More, humans can not touch it.
The fact is utterly insignificant yet intolerable: for some inconceivable reason, which may be no more than inconceivable chance, human steps are without fail turned away from the Clearing (capitalization somehow suits it).
The narrator offers no real explanation for the phenomenon, nor for the method whereby it was proved to be real. It merely reveals a Wonder, along with a low-key sense of awe, inviting readers to reflect. I find it underwhelming, in large part because of the musty prose that leaves all the work of Wondering to the reader, providing no uplift of its own. The failure is less in the idea than its execution.
“The Turkey Raptor” by James Van Pelt
Leon has a generally bad attitude and particularly doesn’t like the feral cats in town, so he feeds them to the velociraptor he keeps in the shed behind the house.
Inside the shed, the cat hissed, a truly angry sound. A flurry of scrambling, rushing movement. Something thumped against the wood. Another hiss. Then, a cat-like screech, followed by a wet rending rip, as if someone tore a soaked telephone book in half. Finally, cracking and slurping.
Despite the high school bullying, this one is more strongly horror than YA in tone.
“Sidewalk at 12:10 P M” by Nancy Kress
Sarah, in the middle of her second century, is determined to send a message to her younger self at the moment that once seemed to be the worst of her life. Sarah was lucky, but she didn’t know it then. A story about perspective.
Analog, June 2014
Another better-than-usual issue. With reservations, I enjoyed both novelettes, and I like the Ballantyne story unreservedly.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael Flynn
Another installment in the author’s series featuring Teodorq sunna Nagarajan, aka the Ironhand, “cunning in all matters relating to stalking and ambush”, on his journey across the wilderness with his companion Sammi the hillman. They have now come upon the largest village he has ever seen, fully four hundred souls, with warriors armed and armored in iron – a formidable force that captures our journeymen for questioning. Like all the peoples on World, Cliffside Keep has its mortal enemies, and the westerners are recruited into their forces and trained in their sword tactics, which is fine with Teo, who envies the swords. But among them he finds a sworn enemy from the first installment.
This is purely action/entertainment, with only cursory reference to the larger question of the descent of humans on World from Terra – mostly in the various tribal customs and languages, known variously as lingo, sprok, or plavver. The story might well be subtitled: Fun with Linguistic Drift. Also entertaining is the dialogue of Sammi the hillman, who takes no pains to conceal his contempt for the others’ ways of war.
“There’s no hiding on a killing field, stupid hillman!” he gently informed Sammi. “How you plan to spring from ambush on an open meadow?”
“Easy,” Sammi replied. “Not fight in open meadow. Ambush best in dark, crowded place.”
It is clear, however, that this is only part of a longer, serialized piece, not an independent work.
“The Homecoming” by J T Sharrah
The backstory here is even more complicated, although not, as far as I’m aware, from some previous work. In the course of war between nations whose species isn’t clear, Tajok long ago betrayed his own side and then committed medical war crimes on prisoners of war.
Forgive and forget was not a Dokharan motto. The atrocities Tajok committed hadn’t been forgotten by his countrymen—definitely not. As for forgiving him . . . The Dokharans were very forgiving. They were for giving him a death sentence, and they were furious with the Izmirites for granting him asylum.
Baldwin, a journalist, is aware than a Dokharan named Tumanzu, once a subject of Tajok’s experiments, has sought him out, immediately after which the traitor was found dead – along with his colleague Escoli, the top photojournalist on the Herald’s news staff and also Tumanzu’s cousin. Baldwin sets out to find Escoli’s killer, who may or may not be connected to Tajok’s death, although he shortly seems to forget about her and concentrates on saving Tumanzu from the same fate. Investigations, schemes, assassinations, and revenge ensue.
The mysteries here are intricately twisted into an intriguing nest of plots, and Baldwin becomes an appealing protagonist – clever, insightful, with a light humorous touch in his dialogue. It would all be a very satisfactory mystery if it hadn’t opened like a coal chute dumping a heavy load of anthracite on the readers – a dense weight of backstory, worlds, races, species, histories, customs, religions, legalities, and confusing alien names. Tumanzu, for example, is introduced as a Bukkaran, but later referred to as a Dokharan, with no way to tell at the time how the terms are related. It’s way too much to take in at once, and may prove offputting to many readers who would otherwise find the story considerably more enjoyable.
“Field of Gravity” by Jay Werkheiser
Artificial gravity generators have changed American football. Markus is used to this. But something about a missed interception strikes him as wrong. He thinks the Giants’ receiver is cheating, somehow. The problem is proving it.
While it’s clear that fiddling with the gravity would have interesting effects on football plays, I can’t see this ever happening. The author employs the unfortunate device of informative infodumps.
“The Region of Jennifer” by Tony Ballantyne
Surreal-seeming SF. When the Steam Barons controlled Abraxas, it was dark and satanic, but outsiders ousted them and opened the place up. Most people appreciate the change, but Randy is more farsighted than most; he knows they sold the world to the Slavemakers, and this will prove to be no good in the long term. Randy has reengineered himself to be a garbage eater, for total self-sufficiency. “His skin was thick and leathery, so well insulated that he could sleep in the pools of cold water that filled the broken basements of the broken factories in the former industrial zone.” His childhood friend Jennifer, on the other hand, has been engineered to be perfect and to breed perfectly-chosen babies. Hers is a luxurious life, bankrolled by a former Baron, but Randy has come to warn her what it may come to in the end.
The exaggerated contrast between the two characters forcefully makes the story’s point. For the sake of freedom, Randy has chosen a life that smells like shit, which is highly nutritious. For the sake of luxury, Jennifer has chosen a life of enslavement. As her “father” says, “When someone can change your body, tell you what to look like, tell you what to wear, even tell you how to look, you’re their slave.” In a thousand years, her descendants will roll over and die on command for the Slavemakers, but Jennifer admits she doesn’t care. Because Randy does the caring for her, “It sort of relieves me of the responsibility. I can sit back and do what I want and hope that other people sort out the mess we’re in.”
It’s noteworthy that everyone here speaks the candid truth, no matter how shocking it might seem, because they all know that human nature will not be changed by knowing it, that most humans will invariably choose the short-term advantage, no matter the long-term consequences. This is a mordantly cynical view, a distorted and exaggerated mirror reflecting ourselves.
“Survivors” by Ron Collins
Hiram fled his dying home planet thousands of years ago. Since arriving on Earth, he has inhabited the bodies of successive humans, coming slowly to the realization that he must be the sole survivor of his kind. He isn’t a fan of humans.
It wasn’t Taylor’s fault. He was a human being. Their lives are too short, their connections too slight. They did not feel things as deeply or instinctively as Hiram could.
Then at last he encounters a female of his species, and she runs away from him.
A brief epiphany on the meaning of life and its fulfillment. There may be something to learn from humans, after all. Heartwarming, but I note that Hiram’s view of humans may be warped from the fact that he always seems inhabit the bodies of post-adolescent males.
“A Star to Steer By” by Jennifer R Povey
Ai Weiwei is a ship’s AI, her hull now wrecked after combat against Earth’s enemies.
She had lost her entire crew and she had limped back. A human who had lost their entire unit would not be sent right back into combat.
The admiral in charge of the salvage yard wants to offer the ship brains therapy before sending them out again in new hulls, but cost-cutting bureaucracy objects. It turns out in the end that the admiral’s concern may have made all the difference.
A story of duty. Also heartwarming, though pretty talky.
“Forgiveness” by Bud Sparhawk
A future when “Support the troops” seems to be a forgotten slogan and all veterans are presumed to be war criminals. There’s an Amnesty program that erases such memories, but people don’t trust the veterans, assuming that something criminal must remain in them. Vigilante groups exist to shoot them down, just in case. So Pete the sheriff argues to Mira the waitress, when she starts to fall for Tony. A lot of it is jealousy, Mira believes.
A dull story with labored, very repetitive dialogue that crosses the line into rant.
Clarkesworld, April 2014
An excellent issue, with a bonus April Fool’s story by Sean Williams.
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick
Alien invasion. The aliens are giant worm-like creatures, more advanced technologically than humanity. Hank is doing the night shift in the morgue, unreeling intestines, when his ex, who works for some spooky part of the government, shows up with a dead Worm specimen and tells him to start cutting. Following is interesting alien anatomy spiced with bitter ex-spousal recrimination.
There’s a nest of ganglia here, connected by a very short route to the brain matter. Now I’m cutting into the brain matter, and there’s a small black gland, oops I’ve nicked it. Whew. What a smell. Now I’m cutting behind it.” Behind the gland was a small white structure, square and hard meshwork, looking like a cross between an instrument chip and a square of Chex cereal.
Then, inexplicably, Hank pops the square into his mouth.
This one is worth it for the dissection stuff alone, a fascinating glimpse at alien anatomy and how it might inform a species’ mentality – totally speculative, of course, but then that’s the kind of fiction we do, even if perhaps overly analogous to terrestrial models. It’s also a story of memory, as the Worms turn out to have a collective consciousness based on consuming their predecessors. Thus we have a journey through Hank’s memories and how they made him who he is, culminating in the question, “Why are all your memories so ugly?” Through which, it becomes a very unlikely tale of hope.
“Water in Springtime” by Kali Wallace
Centuries after metal-armed invaders have been repulsed by deadly rust magic, blight is still spreading across the world, and Alis’s mother, a healer/ witch, is unable to halt or heal.
In places sharp blades of metal and chunks of broken rock jutted from the black soil, mere suggestions of what the iron skeletons had been before they fell: wolves with teeth like daggers, birds with too many wings and too long claws, hulking bulls with curved horns. They might have been monstrous once, malformed nightmares raging in battle, but now they were sorry old things caught in root cages and rotting away to dust.
Alis has always envied her mother’s magic, the swarm of blue sparks that materialize at her hands; now, on their journey, she begins to teach Alis water magic. She has a purpose, and secrets that will finally be revealed.
Here is one vivid image after another, evoking many different varieties on a wasted and blighted landscape becoming depopulated. I’d welcome seeing more of this world and its story. The primary story, however, is Alis’s coming of age, coming into her power and also learning the secret of herself. In the course of this journey of discovery, we don’t learn most of the secrets that don’t concern Alis in some way; her mother is a deeper, ancient being whom Alis, even now, only knows fragmentarily, as we only know fragments of this world’s history in its ruins. Even so, Alis has something to teach her mother.
“Autodidact” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
In a preface, we learn of a facility where “the corpses of conquered stars are nurtured into ships.” Although we later learn that stars may actually mean planets. Which would make a significant difference, practically. While we might suppose this means the formation of vast hulls from the raw material, on the order of a Dyson sphere, the concept of nurture suggests that these cosmic entities might have had consciousness of their own, which the shipmakers are now intent on turning to their own military purposes through a system analogous to a parent raising a child. While we do know for sure that there are AIs of a sort, identified with a ship if not identical to it, the rest is not entirely made clear. Nor it is at all clear that such an enterprise is at all possible in realistic terms. But realistic terms are not the point here. It’s all psychology, a war of minds.
The facility’s purpose is war, although the only sign of actual war in this universe, aside from hearsay, is the destruction of the world Mahakesi and the genocide of its people. Nirapha is one of the few Mahakesi survivors, a refugee living on a world where she is now applying for a license to have a child. A bureaucrat suggests that her application would be favorably regarded if she first volunteered for a term of ship-mind nurturing. On her arrival, she is told that she will be working in concert with a partner, her task to impart ethics and empathy to the ship – which, as the story resolves, would seem to have failed dramatically. She discovers quickly that she is only a junior partner in the process, with no independent access to Teferizen, the ship-mind. In fact, she realizes that she is being manipulated, used as a pawn in a game between the ship and her superior, whom she calls “the soldier”.
The ship-mind trope is a very old one in SF, often but not necessarily military, and it’s currently in danger of becoming overused. This one is considerably more sophisticated than, say, the Povey piece in Analog, above. Yet I find its basic premise is not considerably more original.
While it would seem at first that this is literary military SF, as the piece progresses, I realize that aside from certain strategic thinking, there is nothing really military here, only the psychological game: conflict between minds, but not actual combat. There is also a great deal of deceit, so that we find we can’t trust anything Nirapha is told or assumes. The narrative is unreliable. The “soldier”, for example, turns out to be an admiral to whom we have been earlier introduced – a factor that makes a considerable difference in the story once the author discloses it.
I also would have liked to see Nirapha, as the central character, cast in sharper relief. She is entirely opaque, her thoughts and emotions hidden, from readers as well as her enemies, even at moments when emotion ought to be foremost. This is especially striking in a disturbing scene of coercive sex, when her reactions are entirely masked. This emotional reticence is of course part of her character, yet it’s overly subtle, I suspect as a byproduct of the author’s decision to conceal things from readers. We see Nirapha apply for a child, but we don’t feel the hope of it slipping away. We see the action she finally decides to take, but we don’t feel the rage at betrayal, the despair, the hope — whatever must have led to it. In the end, when she finally casts off her passivity, it’s only to choose which side she will be a pawn for, and again we have to infer her final reaction from her silence. It’s an effective moment, that silence, in the subtle way of the story, leaving readers to imagine without evidence, as we have had to do all along, what she must be feeling at that moment – Nirapha trapped inside her opaque, impenetrable shell.
“The Cuckoo” by Sean Williams
April 1st, 2075, 9:15-9:23am
More than one thousand commuters traveling via d-mat arrive at their destinations wearing red clown noses; they weren’t wearing them when they left. The global matter-transmission network is rebooted, source of the glitch unknown. All the clown noses are destroyed except for three retained by private collectors.
As the phenomenon repeats itself every year, authorities try to stop it and academics increasingly speculate on the identity and nature of the perpetrator, now dubbed the Fool. As happens with these things, it takes on a life of its own.
The ending wraps up the point perfectly.
Apex Magazine, April 2014
Four original stories this time, in which the editor discerns a theme of Repair. To me, it seems more like the universe falling apart, the repair being secondary. I also note that to have a theme in a given issue is one thing, but this shouldn’t mean having four separate stories that seem to repeat each other. The classic notion of a theme is, after all, “variations on”. More variation would be better here.
“Perfect” by Haddayar Copley-Woods
Quinn, from earliest childhood, has hated everything – hate in the sense of contempt. Finally she reaches an epiphany: the equation.
She discovered with her newfound knowledge that she could now see the warp and weft of the universe: the shining strands that bound everything together. The patterns. The bright place where it was all tied together in a hopelessly simple knot.
Because we have physics and equations, readers might suppose this piece is science fiction. It is not, because an equation is not a magical spell. It would be absurd to suppose that Einstein could have recited E=mc2 and there would be light; this scenario is even more absurd.
“Steel Snowflakes in My Skull” by Tom Piccirilli
Set on the border between the surreal and the hallucination. The narrator, who claims to have died on several prior occasions, has just undergone brain surgery, in which his surgeon
explained how he was going to saw my skull apart and replace it with three titanium plates. The plates were tiny. They didn’t look like any version of the word plate that I ever imagined. They were pretty and delicate and had teeny little screws in them to be screwed into bone. I can picture him with a screwdriver giving a last twist.
Now the plates are sending signals to his brain. Their names are Gomez, Fester, and Lurch. Certain other patients can hear them, too.
From the symbols, readers should figure out pretty readily what’s going on here, and it doesn’t involve repairing the narrator, not in a corporeal sense. A twist on a very old journey.
“The Cultist’s Son” by Ferrett Steinmetz
Here, too, the protagonist seems to be sunk in hallucination, but it turns out to be PTSD from a traumatic childhood as the son of a truly hallucinatory mother who imagines herself a mother goddess. Derleth is fortunate to meet a true soul-mate, a woman who not only understands his trauma but helps him confront and overcome it. This is the one story in the issue that really does seriously address the theme of Repair.
There are genuinely horrific scenes here.
— the baby is dead on the ground, ants marching across its shriveled eyes. Derleth has been apologizing to the baby for hours now, heaving with dry tears, knowing a cup of water might have saved it. Mother has been on walkabout for ten days, and the cisterns are all empty. All his brothers are huddled under the tin shack, seeking coolness in hot shadows; all of them are dying.
The conclusion, the repairing, seems overly facile after all of this.
“Repairing the World” by John Chu
In this one, the insanity/absurdity is sciencefictional in a way, although the breaches in the fabric of reality also have a touch of the Lovecraftian. They are called intrusions here, and a corps of specialists has been trained to seal them off and dispose of any intrusive monsters that come through; the training is lengthy and arduous. Lila is a student sealer, attempting to develop a tape that will close off the breaches; Bridger is a linguist, trained to both communicate with the beings from beyond, and overcome them.
The savannah grew towards Lila. She worked her way back towards Bridger, careful not to touch the grass. On some other world, a piece of hardwood floor covered with iridescent tape intruded on a yellow savannah. She’d rather not join the floor on that one-way trip.
What no one seems to be trying to repair, however, is the social dysfunction of this society, in which ubiquitous police enforce a pervasive hierarchy prejudiced against all who don’t conform to a certain narrow norm – the wrong color, the wrong sex, the wrong origin, the wrong love object – that closely reflects the concerns of our own society.
The intrusions are well-imagined and described, but again I find the conclusion awfully optimistic.