Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April
Winter is over! This time featuring the Spring issue of Subterranean online magazine as well as F&SF.
- Subterranean, Spring 2014
- Kaleidotrope, Spring 2014
- F&SF, May/June 2014
Subterranean, Spring 2014
Seven stories in this quarter’s issue, none that seem to be of novella length.
“The Screams of Dragons” by Kelly Armstrong
As a child, Bobby’s life was cold and grey, except in his dreams of golden palaces. His grandmother believes that he’s a changeling and abuses him; his parents consider him the cause of dissention in the family, and his sister torments him. The only place he’s happy is on family visits to Cainsville, a town where people are rumored to have extraordinary powers. There, he’s treated as someone special and they tell him special stories about King Arthur, except not quite.
It was about another king, beset by three plagues. One was a race of people who could hear everything he said. The third was disappearing foodstuffs and impending starvation. The second was a terrible scream that turned out to be two dragons, fighting. And that was when he began to dream of the screams of dragons.
Finally Bobby learns that the dragons are inside him.
A depressing story. It’s clear that Bobby could indeed have been someone special, but the abuse in his childhood tipped the balance in the wrong direction. Readers may sympathize with what he does to his nasty grandmother, as self-defense, but the action apparently was the tipping point. The story raises the issue of personal responsibility. In a mundane setting, Bobby’s culpability and responsibility for his actions would be undeniable, despite extenuating circumstances. But here we have a situation where actual forces of good and evil contend for possession of a soul. This has to make a difference; a person possessed by a malign spirit isn’t in a mundane situation and can’t necessarily be said to have the same free will. Of course there’s plenty of blame to go around – beginning with the grandmother, who may have been right in her misgivings about Bobby, though for the wrong reasons. Yet I have to fault even more the people who did know what was happening and turned their backs on it until it was too late. It’s credible that his parents might have turned on him, but an entire town full of those who not only wished the best for him but had the power to know the truth? Not so much.
“Bus Fare” by Caitlín R Kiernan
A story in the author’s series about the character Dancy Flammarion, slayer of monsters as the servant of a seraphic figure who isn’t any help to her at all.
She glances over her shoulder, and she’s not at all surprised to find the angel looming behind the bench, looking over her and Maisie. The seraphim’s tattered muslin and silk robes are even blacker than the night, than the dark inside the deserted shop fronts. They flutter and flap in a fierce and holy wind that touches nothing else. The angel’s four ebony wings are spread wide, and it holds a burning sword high above its four shimmering kaleidoscope faces, both skeletal hands gripped tightly around the weapon’s silver hilt. It stares down at her, and makes a sound like thunder that surely isn’t thunder.
Now she’s come to a deserted town to wait at a bus stop, where she’s joined by a werewolf who’s heard of what she’s done. The werewolf, Maisie, has acquired a box holding objects with significance to Dancy, and she wants it back. So she proposes a riddle game.
Quite a bit of unexplained backstory here, particularly with the angel figure, and closure only in a limited sense, suggesting that Dancy’s troubles have only begun. But given all that, as an episode in the longer tale, the story actually works fairly well, though I wouldn’t call it an independent one.
“The Traveller and the Book” by Ian R MacLeod
Lost and thirsty in the desert, the traveller discovers half-buried in the sand a book with blank pages. His bleeding fingers trace the word WATER. At the end of the day, he comes across a well and drinks his fill. But still he has no food or shelter, and will soon die without them.
He picked up the book. Turned to the next blank page and nibbled at a fingertip until it began to bleed. Again he shaped the word WATER. Then he added FOOD. Nothing changed. The well remained, his belly ached, and now there was no shelter from the sun. Clutching the book, the traveller stumbled on.
This fable promises at first to be a close variation on a very familiar tale, but it takes a different twist, more about the power of the written word than wishes and promises.
“Hath No Fury” by Kat Howard
Myth. Characters by the truckload from myth, mostly Greek but also Other, thrown wholesale into New York, apparently because that’s where things go on these days. We begin with Medea, who took a notoriously bloody vengeance on Jason when he dumped her, then acquired immortality and invented [or redesigned] the Erinyes to carry on her vengeful mission. At which, readers familiar with this original tale may well go: huh? But Howard’s story tells us that its theme is the mutation of stories, so OK, this is a feature, not an error [except that the singular is not “Erinye”].
Karai, then, is a modern Erinys, once a young woman abused and murdered, now an avenging demigod whose mission is revenge on the killers of such women as she had been, a figure, channeling Achilles, personifying rage.
The feeling of wings ripping through my skin and into the air. Of snakes crawling inside my flesh. Of the way my heart would feel when it ceased to beat and became heavy, became a scale to weigh the sins of others.
As such, she becomes a good friend of Medea, who runs the entire revenge operation. But Medea, while immortal, is not invulnerable. She falls under the influence of a curse, and the curse begins to affect the entire city [very Greek, that]. Karai decides to rescue her mentor from the labyrinth in which her enemy has imprisoned her.
OK, myth was never static, even after it got to be written down. The Greeks certainly revised these stories all the time to suit their own purposes, and there was a great deal of variation on Medea’s story, back then. So altering it for modern purposes isn’t heresy. This is a very modern version, with Karai epitomizing the very modern notion of women taking revenge on the men who murder women; she’s a Fury for our times. And when the oracle speaks of Medea’s mask, Karai correctly interprets this as a lipstick.
But while revisionism may be all very well, I’m still not buying the depiction of Medea as a figure on the white-hat team of superheroes, with all the fault going to Jason, her evil, serial-killer nemesis. I also have misgivings about the repurposing of the Erinyes, which may stem from the English translation as “Furies”. While the original material was vague, it does seem clear enough that they weren’t about vengeance but guilt, and this was a matter not of justice but impiety. For the Greeks, parricide was not simply murder but an offense against the gods, and it was for this particular crime that the Erinyes were dispatched, not to rip out the perpetrator’s heart but to curse him with madness. To kill a woman then was of no particular account, unless it was done on the altar of a goddess, in which case the offended divinity herself took care of the matter. I do note, however, that if there were also an Erinys with the mission of avenging the deaths of women at the hands of another, jealous, woman, Medea might be her first target. Innocent, she isn’t.
I doubt if such misgivings will bother most readers too much. But the story also seems overloaded with portent. Medea seems to have taken over the Delphic attribute of bees, along with so much else. There are also various Fates and Norns filling the landscape, spinning out threads and uttering Pronouncements. The name Karai, too, may have something to do with threads, and she strings out one into the labyrinth, reprising the role of Ariadne. Yet with all that, when she wants prophetic guidance, she resorts to Odin. Odin? And Baba Yaga, running a cosmetic counter? It’s not just that this scene is overcrowded [Jason seems to have taken on the identity of Daedalus as well] but it’s disconcerting to find so many figures whose classical form was distinctly malevolent, now going benignly about their affairs. Instead, the sole villain of the piece is Jason, now stripped of heroism. Given all this, I find the piece largely a muddle.
“One Dove” by Stephen Gallagher
Sebastian Becker is an investigator with the Lunacy Commission when he discovers a mystery that intrigues him, a patient at Bethlem asylum who committed suicide after he received an anonymous letter containing only a pressed flower and a lock of hair.
Sachs had been a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. His story—of a handwritten note that had sent him to find her shoes and coat, neatly folded by the river—had not rung true. He said he could not locate the note, though he swore it had been lying on the kitchen table when he left the house. Its contents were burned into his memory, he said. He insisted that her stated intention was take her own life. He’d raced out in the hope of preventing this. He could quote her words, but he could not produce them. Or her.
Sebastian sets out to find the woman, convinced she is the key to the mystery.
Nicely done period piece set in the early 20th century, straight historical mystery fiction with no admixture of the fantastic. The story is notable for its exposure of the degree to which concern for appearances and propriety so often outweighed the cause of common humanity.
“The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” by Chaz Brenchley
Another highly class conscious setting, populated by “quality and commons”, but despite the Victorian tone, the story takes place on Mars, albeit a Mars subject to Her Britannic Majesty. There is an indigenous species here, canal-dwellers the humans call merlins [because they are the Martians, and a patriotic, imperialist lot they are], with whom there is a firm yet uneasy peace, based largely on the fact that it’s the merlins who pilot the craft the humans travel on through the aether. Sir John violated the Charter between the species and paid the ultimate price, but to most of the Martians, he was a hero, and his funeral has all the trappings of a state affair, albeit a technically illicit one.
The depiction of this event puts me in mind of the fashionable historical epic paintings of that era commemorating heroic deaths – sanitized spectacle, stilted in expression, and heavy in symbolism. Here, too, is spectacle, yet ultimately a lie, although the sentiments of the participants are very real.
The second barge carried the coffin beneath its pall of red, and the six men who would bear it home. Six troopers, drawn by lot—Cobb had heard—when every man in barracks stepped up to volunteer.
By the look of the fortunate six, every man in barracks had lent a hand to be sure they would not disgrace the regiment. From the plumes on their shakos to the pipeclay on their belts to the blacking on their boots, they gleamed and dazzled.
We see the occasion through the eyes of the head gravedigger, Cobb, a patriotic Martian like the rest of the spectators, and one who has labored the night long to prepare the cemetery and tomb to honor the hero’s remains. Unlike the rest, however, Cobb and his spade are summoned into the tomb itself, where he learns the shocking truth about Sir John’s death.
Here, the guiding principle is outward Form. Things must be done in the right way, regardless of the consequences. Officials who attend the funeral do so unofficially, without wearing their chains of office. The choirboy who thrills the spectators with a patriotic anthem instead of the assigned hymn can count on being thrashed. And a man who has been hanged cannot, despite his patriotism, have his coffin draped in the Imperial flag.
But it’s only when we get inside the secrecy of the tomb that we learn exactly how Sir John had violated the Charter and the reason it was necessary to appease the merlins by hanging him. This is a story of imperialism, set in a version of the same Empire on which the sun of Earth was said never to set. While Cobb is aghast at the magnitude of Sir John’s sacrifice for the Empire, a sacrifice that will likely never be recognized, readers will just as likely be appalled by the reason for it, by the ruthlessness of the imperialist drive to take other worlds as their own.
What seems to be unexplained here is how the settlers originally arrived on Mars if all the aetherships are merlin-sailed. The indigenes don’t like humans, don’t want them on their world, don’t approve of their ways, and seem to adhere only reluctantly to the terms of their Charter with them, so it seems unlikely that they would have willingly brought these interlopers to their world – not to mention that there was no communication with them until well after the humans had settled. This isn’t a small matter; it’s crucial to the plot and our understanding of the setting, a serious stumbling block to fully appreciating the story.
“The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” by Aliette de Bodard
The weakened and decadent Empire is under assault by rebel forces, falling back world by world. Now the war has reached the Sixth Planet, where Thien Bao’s mother and relatives don’t tell her the truth about their prospects for survival, and she doesn’t tell them about her dreams of a mindship, powerful and deadly, that calls her “little sister”.
When the child named Thien Bao was born on the Sixth Planet, there were signs—a room filled with the smell of machine-oil, and iridescent reflections on the walls, tantalising characters from a long lost language. Had the birth-master not been desperately busy trying to staunch the mother’s unexpected bleeding, and calm down the distraught father, she would have noticed them.
Part of the author’s long and detailed future history that encompasses empires and mindships, among much else. This piece is essentially a Destiny; it’s obvious from the outset what’s going to happen, and it duly happens, without much agency on the part of Thien Bao. What she does here is begin to acquire understanding of the circumstances she finds herself in, and, without full understanding, she makes a wish. That makes this a Be Careful What You Wish For story as well as a coming of age. But primarily, it’s a condemnation of war, as bitter as the title. We don’t see, in this piece, the right or wrong of the rebels’ cause, but from Thien Bao’s point of view, in the target zone, the real enemy is the war, dragged out unceasingly for its own sake, out of inertia and incompetence on the part of authorities who seem entirely unmindful of the human cost. The story wishes a plague on both their houses and grants that wish, but there’s not a lot of movement in it.
Another thing I find odd, using a trope very common in fantasy and myth, is the suggestion of superweapons from a past Golden Age. So often we read of enchanted swords, forged or blessed by the gods, superior to any such weapons made in the time of the story, suggesting a regress of skill. Here, we have a super mindship apparently made at the height of the Empire, apparently capable of obliterating entire fleets of lesser, contemporary mindships. It makes me wonder – even if we assume that the technology of the Empire has regressed, what about the rebels, who seem to have warcraft sufficiently advanced to route the imperial fleets? And if our one special mindship is so invincibly powerful, why were its ship siblings, whom we must assume to have been of equal potency, so readily defeated? There are no gods here to ascribe enchantments to, only a supership and superchild, born for each other for reasons we never know. With gods, it would make more sense.
F&SF, May/June 2014
A lot of serials/shared universes in this issue, including another installment in Naomi Kritzer’s popular “Seastead” story, featuring the spunky young Bec, not reviewed.
“Bartleby the Scavenger” by Katie Boyer
Inspired by a student error in the title of the classic Melville story. In a near future, an apocalyptic event has sent the narrator as a refugee from immolated Birmingham AL to a nearby affluent suburb he calls Brook [which seems to be Mountain Brook], where he proves to have enough practical skills to keep from being expelled from the nascent fortress-statelet, in which a young woman now known as Madame Mayor is beginning to consolidate her despotic power. Boss, as he becomes known, runs crews of scavengers who bring back valuable salvage from the city’s ruins, and one day the man Bartleby becomes part of his crew. At first, he’s a hard worker, then something about him oddly alters.
For a second I thought he hadn’t heard me. He just sat there. Smiling to himself and twirling that strand of weed he must have found growing in a crack. Acted for all the world like I’d just offered him a beer at a barbecue and he’d said “no” because he already had one. So I called again. This time I knew he could hear me. Said it loud enough to make myself jump.
“I’m good, man,” he answered, with just enough volume to be clear. Stretched that half-smile into a grin.
In a case like this, readers are likely to be interested in the comparison between the story and its original model. We can find a number of parallels in the plot, in which the title characters develop a fatal passivity that exasperates the narrators to the point of betrayal. There are also conscious similarities in some of the secondary characters, including their strange nicknames, such as boys named Ginger. But I find the points of contrast more significant.
Perhaps the most obvious differences lie in the settings. Melville’s 19th-century world seems to have ample resources for the care of a person like Bartleby, a remarkably benevolent prison system with an almshouse as backup. Boyer’s world is very different, full of immediate hazards, both in the scavenging process where raiders are a regular menace, and in the enclave where the dictatorial ruler is actively looking to cull the marginally productive. Unfortunately, there is nothing unique or particularly interesting about this dystopia and its evil mayor, which weakens the story.
The character of the two Bartlebys offers another sharp contrast. Melville’s scrivener is an almost spectral figure, who slips like smoke though the comprehension of the narrator and readers alike. This is a lost soul, whom we recognize as already beyond hope, without the will to live; indeed, he seems to inhabit a place already beyond life – one of Melville’s not-quite-supernatural characters. Boyer’s man has a very different affect.
Damned if he didn’t look like he’d been plucked up from cool sheets and sent off with a kiss from someone who loved him. Like he’d just floated down from the sky on a white puffy cloud. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he was strong. Good arms and big hands. Skin the color of cocoa powder and close-cropped hair that would shine like honey when the sun got on it. Light brown, almost gold eyes, like a lot of mixed-race people have. He never did talk much, but no matter what happened to him or around him, he always had at least half a grin on his face.
His “I’m good, man” suggests a cloud of figurative ganja, a Dude’s habitual careless oblivion, floating high beyond care. It’s nothing like the scrivener’s repressed “I would prefer not to”, his shrinking away from life behind a concealing screen; Melville’s Bartleby is not at all “good”.
But the primary focus has to be on the two narrators, the central figures in both stories. The otherworldly Bartlebys could almost be angels sent to test these men, and both must be found wanting – although moreso in the case of Boyer’s Boss. If Bartleby is conceived as a Christ figure, the narrators are his Judases, his betrayers. In Melville’s story, however, the lawyer’s betrayal is more passive. In fact, part of Bartleby’s supernatural presence in both stories is the effect he has on his superiors, who become oddly incapable of successfully confronting him. But even to the end, the lawyer is attempting to help his former clerk, an impulse contrary to his previous self-concern. We might conclude that although he fails to save Bartleby, he succeeds to an extent in saving himself.
In contrast, Boss’s betrayal is an active one, and done for the lowest of motives, to save his own ass [as opposed to his soul]. In Melville’s version, readers are likely to sympathize somewhat with the lawyer, to think there was nothing else he could have reasonably done, no way he could have saved a figure who had essentially given up on life [or whose uncompromising position was meant to test the narrator]. Boyer’s Boss has no such excuse, which he recognizes himself in his confession. Damningly, his subordinates insist that Bartleby would have been spared if Boss hadn’t changed his story at the last moment. He might have told himself, “I didn’t have a choice”, but that would be a lie.
Here is where the distinction between the two stories becomes most acute. Boyer’s piece is primarily dystopian; her concern is with the setting and its effect on the residents, exemplified by Boss. In another setting, under less pressure – in a setting like the lawyer’s office, the story wouldn’t have been the same, if there were a story at all. Here, again, while Boss is a victim of this regime, he has also been an active contributor to it; he bears the greatest share of guilt for his Bartleby’s fate. But the primary conflict is not so much between Boss and Bartleby but between Boss and the regime, between him and the mayor who rules and corrupts it. Thus we see that the Melville story is personal and psychological, while Boyer’s is political and moral and in the end less subtle, less enigmatic. Melville’s story leaves us mystified; Boyer’s leaves us depressed by what it reveals of human nature.
“The End of the Silk Road” by David D Levine
A classic hardboiled detective story set in a universe where the old visions of our solar system’s planets are real. In this 1936, Mike Drayton, an aging PI, gets an offer he can’t refuse, so he returns to Venus in the swanky class of a propeller-driven spaceliner. The job is ostensibly to investigate an aboriginal Venusian drug dealer, but the deal is complicated by the fact that his shifty employer happens to be married to the woman he has always loved.
I stared at the ceiling fan all night, thinking and sweltering instead of sleeping, but by the time Venus’s lame excuse for dawn rolled around, at least I’d made up my mind. I’d come here to do a job…I would do the job, take as much of Grossman’s money as I could, and get out.
Of course it isn’t that simple or easy.
This one couldn’t be more different from the author’s Old Mars story. It’s a period piece with a period character, a 1936 private dick on a 1936 version of Venus, all swampy and populated by native frogoids. There are gats and dames and fedoras, as well as Venusian silkworms and mold bombs. There are also, interestingly, sinister Germans with colonies on Venus much as there were in Africa in our own version of history. This being the case, there are no surprises here, and the story itself feels stale; the interest is that of recognition.
“Rooksnight” by Mark Laidlaw
Another installment in the author’s road trip with Gorlen the bard and Spar the gargoyle. This time, they find themselves in the middle of a conflict between a parliament of strangely acquisitive and vengeful rooks and a band of treasure-plundering knights.
A quivering blob of whitish gel showered from the trees as one of the rooks relieved itself directly above Glaustus Apf. He ducked but failed to avoid the cloacal burst entirely; and there was an odd sound when it struck him, as something ponged against his pate, then bounced to earth. He gasped and plucked it up, holding it out to the firelight, heedless of the slimy blotch that matted his thinning hair.
The knights abduct Gorlen to force Spar to assist them in their quest, and they find themselves in a particularly deadly stronghold full of ingenious traps.
Entertaining fantasy with a good measure of grue and an unobtrusive note of reflection. The story makes good use of the propensity of the titular birds to hoard shiny stuff.
“The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong
Somewhere in the Mekong delta, Lily is a teenage girl who works with her father on a trawler, where the most prized catch is mermaid. Mermaids, she insists, are just fish – nasty, dangerous fish.
Most of the mermaids tangled in the nets are pale, with silvery tails and lithe bodies. This one is dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant.
When she was a motherless child, her father told Lily and her sisters a story about their mother being a fish, which they took to be a mermaid, but Lily has always supposed she simply deserted the family in a very human way. Then, one day in the hold, she discovers that the male crewmembers, including her father, are raping the fish, particularly the one that can talk.
This is both a coming-of-age story and a rape culture story, which theme is augmented by Lily’s sisters being sexually abused in school. Lily’s coming of age is a bitter one of betrayal and revenge, in which she learns she can’t trust the father who was never all that trustworthy to begin with, and even to mistrust her own identity. It’s notable that Lily has never been able to like mermaid flesh, considered a great delicacy, because of repressed feelings of cannibalism. But that leaves the matter of the mermaids for readers to wonder about. Stories of mermaids in the Mekong are not unheard-of, with the most common suspect being the river dolphin, or perhaps the dugong. Lily also refers to mermaids as resembling the huge river catfish, the least likely candidate for sentience. The fishermen also make a point about the saltwater mermaids being a different species than the river mermaids; the one that talks is definitely a saltwater mermaid. From the description above, we have to conclude that this one in particular, and perhaps all of them, are entirely creatures of the fantastic imagination rather than endangered species of our own world.
“White Curtain” by Pavel Amnuel, translated by Anatoly Belilovsky
Dima and Oleg were both physicists working on the theory of branching realities, although Oleg managed to take their work beyond the theoretical. They often disputed whether the number of branching realities is infinite or limited. At the time, they both loved Irina; she chose Dima. Now she has died, and Dima comes to Oleg, begging him to find a reality in which she still exists. He tells him it isn’t possible.
“When Ira died, the Alumni Association ran an obituary the same day. I tried, right there and then. God, Dima, I leaped from branch to branch like a neurotic monkey, sliced more realities than I had ever allowed myself before – and, after that, never again.”
While based on a theoretical foundation that makes it near-hard SF, this is a tragic short story of love, strongly flavored with irony. Dima was right about the branches of reality, and his own theory dooms him.
“Presidential Cryptotrivia” by Oliver Buckram
Secret-historical tidbits, until now unrevealed. eg:
President by day, scientist by night, he experimented with electricity in an attempt to reanimate corpses. After he achieved partial success using a kite during a thunderstorm, angry villagers burned down the White House. All records of his presidency were destroyed.
Pretty silly stuff, offering some brief moments of amusement.
“The Memory Cage” by Tim Sullivan
Quantum entanglement has now allowed Jim to confront his dead father and his anger at his suicide shortly after Jim’s brother was killed in Vietnam. Both Jim and his father hold him responsible for filling his sons’ heads with patriotic lies that encouraged Jerry to sign up. His father’s own war was a never-ending horror, but he thought it wrong to talk about it.
An eighteen-year-old boy, on the opposite side of the world from all he knew, had just killed a group of other boys whose faces he never saw, consigning them to a twisted-metal funeral pyre in the Sahara from the business end of a gigantic cannon. I don’t know how to feel about it. Good, I guess.
The story is a mix of Jim’s hostile self-pity and a lot of maundering about the perpetual evil of war, which seems to be as far from being solved in the future as it was in WWII. Jim is a disagreeable character, and the fact that he recognizes this doesn’t make him more sympathetic, doesn’t make the ending warmhearted as it’s apparently supposed to be.
“The Shadow in the Corner” by Jonathan Andrew Sheen
Quantum entanglement again. At Miskatonic University, Professor Arnold Boatwright foolishly uses it to investigate the sort of phenomenon that had driven many of his famous predecessors mad, foolishly supposing that progress has dispelled the old nightmares. Alas, not so.
Scientists elsewhere dismiss the work done by past researchers from Miskatonic as insanity, fantasy, and fraud. We live in the shadow of the madness too many faced; we’re neither so sanguine nor facile. But time has moved on, and science and our understanding of the world have moved on, and just as the energies unimaginable to Danforth were available to us with a simple bureaucratic request, so too did we interpret the descriptions of “Elder Gods” and eldritch things as the mere primitive attempt of a mind to frame a physics and energies so alien to our own as to be governed by different laws, different physics and math and gravity.
The more things change, the more they remain the same in this only slightly updated eldritch tale. The interest is in the Lovecraftian minutia that recapitulate themselves here. Still, I have to consider it an idiot plot. For a longtime resident of Arkham, intimate with its history, to so blithely disregard all the warnings surrounding him – that’s just stoopid.
Kaleidotrope, Spring 2014
“Shadowboxing” by Andrew Miller
A hallucinatory voyage. Wally’s mission to study the black hole Silenus has run aground on system malfunctions. No rescue will be forthcoming. Things have gotten crazy onboard.
I killed Guillaume last night, but he’s alive again in time for breakfast. I find him smoking in the mess, talking in a low voice to Caroline. His ferret-like face shows none of the terror it wore several hours earlier, when I shoved him out of the Penumbra‘s airlock and into the vacuum of space.
Besides these crew members, there is also a hitchhiker from Sagittarius onboard. Unless there isn’t. They are planning a mutiny. Or sabotage. Wally visits several consultants on Earth to seek solutions, but they aren’t much help.
Dark comedy illustrating a mind cracking under the pressure of prolonged solitude and eventual death. There’s little pathos here, as Wally’s mission isn’t at all credible and the hallucinated events onboard his ship even less so – being obviously hallucinations. Crazy stuff.
“Sun-Touched” by LaShawn M Wanak
Entomological fantasy, but not the interestingly unlikely sort. We have two related subspecies [?] of insects here, seemingly social butterflies in a beehive structure. The doptera once served the papillons but now live separately, the doptera nocturnal and fearful of the sunlight, while the papillons have sunlight-glowing wings that blind and stun the doptera. In the doptera hive, all is not well. The current Queen has become obsessed with the papillons and ceased mating and egg-laying. The Princess wants to change things too, but isn’t sure what to do in the best interest of the hive.
Finding the mixed-language names a bit irksome. I also can’t help thinking that the backstory, the relationship between the two subspecies, would have been a more interesting tale.
“Tree, Fire, World” by Desirina Boskovich
A short fable of the last days of the last tree, valuable beyond price because of its rarity. A tale of supply and demand, and original sin. Last line is potent stuff.
“On the Appetite of a God” by Andy Dudek
A divine confession.
Humans constructed me, not the other way around. I don’t know how, but the need of your ancestors teased me out of the void. Those primordial scavengers wandered the virgin earth and were terrified, not to mention hungry. This somehow gave rise to a thinking entity with power over nature. Shamanic babbling nourished my infancy and the rise of agriculture fueled my adolescence. By then I was playing thousands of roles in hundreds of religions. Prayers vivified me, but offerings were better, and meat was better than fruit or grains. Better still was Spirit Money, though entirely symbolic. The best of course was human sacrifice. These not only nurtured me, but made me forget this yawning universe in which I’m the only one of my kind.
Unfortunately for the god, the rise of reason leads to a die-off of religion, until there is only one believer left, and no more sacrifices.
Cynically amusing, though not really novel.
“Braeberry Street” by Erin Stocks Rubin
The end of the world comes in a giant egg that materializes in the street of this rundown neighborhood full of rundown people. Jimmy knows it’s going to happen because the voices told him so; Jimmy hasn’t been taking his meds.
A bluish thing floats out of the open cavity of Mrs. McGregor’s skull and swims around the inside of the car until it finds the open window and darts out. Jimmy tries to pay attention to which direction it goes, but it dissolves into the air.
It’s one of them, he knows it. The voices. They were hiding in the egg. Maybe there’s one inside his skull, too, growing, festering, biding its time until the pressure is too much for him to bear. If he doesn’t claw his own face off, his skull will crack open like Mrs. McGregor’s.
Classic apocalypse horror.
“Rhyme in Seven Parts” by Berrien C Henderson
Short, numbered piece about the incursion of “Fey-folken” into a village. The rhyme is in the section headings. Of course, from the point of view of the bird-people, it may be the villagers and their farms doing the incurring into their native territory, but we only have the voices of the villagers here.
He wasn’t much more than a boy, barely a dusting of fuzz on his chin. He went chasing her word-glamour one day into a distant hollow. He came stumbling back across fields and hedges. Someone found him reclining against a tree trunk and staring far away and crying. No one really knows what happened. He rarely talked again — never of the incident itself — and he moved slowly the rest of his days.
Nice literary sort of piece about the encounter between Others.
One thought on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April”
Many thanks to Ms. Tilton for reading and reviewing my little tale.