Lois Tilton reviews Short fiction, early September
I’m finding the best fiction in Interzone this time.
- Interzone #254, September/October 2014
- Coming Soon Enough, edited by Stephen Cass
- Clarkesworld, September 2014
- Apex Magazine, September 2014
- Lightspeed, September 2014
Interzone #254, September/October 2014
A Nina Allan special issue, introducing her new nonfiction column.
“Mirielena” by Nina Allan
Noah is a refugee, a poet from somewhere in the Mideast, now applying for asylum in Britain. Despair clings to him, afflicted by the callous bureaucracy and the casual hostility of the young thugs on the street. His documentation is stuck in some limbo and never arrives. In all this, he keeps hearing the voice of his lover Marielena, mocking him, condemning him for leaving home, leaving her – betrayal. There is something primal, almost goddess-like about her, at least as Noah recalls her. One day on the street he encounters a bag lady named Mary, who warns him about the local dangers; later, he rescues her from the thugs and takes her to a shelter. When he takes her filthy clothes to the wash, he makes a discovery that’s hard for him to believe. But it explains a whole lot and suggests even more.
She takes my face between her hands and kisses me, presses her lips against my mouth in a way that is intimate and so familiar. Familiar from the nights in the mountains, when the air was filled to bursting with the sound of crickets, perfumed with the entwined scents of incense and retsina. Marielena would come to me then, she would throw herself upon me like a maenad. I smelled the blood on her hands and did not care.
For most of the story, it seems to be a mundane work about the problems of immigrants in our own world, and Marielena no more than a bitter memory for Noah. Then he learns Mary’s secret [perhaps she has intended this], and the whole story turns inside-out, focusing a beam of new understanding on every encounter and giving the story a particularly science-fictional significance.
“A Minute and a Half” by Jay O’Connell
Evan’s life changes completely on the day his ex-lover shows up with a child she’d conceived from his sperm, stashed ten years before. It seems that Helen had been embezzling from an organization deeply into illegal stuff and is now on her way to one of those libertarian enclaves from which there is no extradition. For some reason, he leaves his current lover and goes with her. Unfortunately, the illegal organization doesn’t take her departure well and sends a hit squad in pursuit. Mayhem on the highway ensues.
My first shot went wild. Was it possible I’d killed some innocent person ten cars back? I braced the gun in both hands, resting the stock on the baby seat – Faith had slipped the harness and made it to the floor and was burrowing through the trash, shrieking continuously.
Evan finds himself forced to make crucial decisions before it’s too late for all of them. Fortuitously, Helen had given him a mind-programming pill before they left.
For the most part, I’m liking this. Characters are interesting, action is brisk. The metaprogramming pill, however, strikes me as an overly facile deus ex pharmacopola that both intrudes into the text and seems to rob Evan of his agency, even if he makes the decision to take it. If you can decide you want to do the right thing, why do you need a pill that makes you do the right thing?
“Bone Deep” by S L Nickerson
Dalisay has an incurable, progressive, degenerative disease that has just caused her to be fired from her last job. Surgery will temporarily arrest its progress, and a serum helps prevent new symptoms, sometimes, but these treatments are costly. Until now, she has funded them by selling her skin for advertising. Unfortunately, the new laser tattoo process has now been discovered to interact with the serum, and removing the tattoos would be a breach of contract. Dalisay needs a way out.
Dalisay’s disease [Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva] is very real, the treatments are science-fictional, and the tattoo interaction is pushing at the edge of reader disbelief. I’m also dubious about the economics of the exhibitions that display the sponsors’ tattoos, not seeing how they could bring in anywhere near the profits to justify the expenses of the surgeries. Who would the audience for such exhibitions be? The plot relies overly on coincidence, but I particularly like the character of Manaia the tattoo artist.
“Dark on a Darkling Earth” by T R Napper
We don’t learn many details about this world; we don’t need to. It’s in the aftermath of some apocalyptic war in which China has survived, more or less. Remnants of armies wander the vast, empty spaces of the land, but none of the troops remember why. Their minds seem to have been wiped of memories, and they carry electronic cards on which to record what they are told. While we aren’t told why, the story suggests that soldiers who can remember their homes and families will want to desert and return to them. The Omissioners are the exception, and because they can remember, they are treated with respect by all the soldiers. Du Gongbu is an Omissioner, an old man who has indeed deserted, wanting only to go home to the wife and sons he can remember. He stumbles across the remnant of a lost squad who can’t remember what their mission might once have been, who are their allies and who their enemies. They are glad of his stories, which are mostly comforting lies. But he still plans to go his own way whenever he can escape.
This situation is heartbreaking, both for the soldiers whose memories are lost and for the one who remembers.
“How dear are memories, Xiaofan? It’s like asking someone how important is the heart beating in their chest. I don’t just hold the memories of others; I hold their identities, their sense of self and place and time. They, in turn, hold to me as tightly as if I were part of their soul. You’d think in a world without a past, the man with memory would be king. But no, in that world, he who remembers is a slave.”
It also evokes the depth of Chinese history, the successive wars, the poetry that expresses both the love of the landscape and the pain of the soldier leaving home, perhaps never to return.
“The Faces between Us” by Julie C Day
Amber’s father disappeared one day into a spirit realm, and that’s where Amber wants to go, thinking she can get there by sipping up weird concoctions from straws. But what it takes is the right ingredient, the ashes of the dead sealed up in cans in the basement. Why are they there? The story doesn’t say, which seems a rather large omission to me. Not making sense of this one.
“Songs like Freight Trains” by Sam J Miller
As a teenager, Christine learned the trick of traveling in time through means of particularly evocative songs. Now, as a middle-aged mother, she’s in danger of being carried away, back to that teenaged self.
By college a concert was dangerous; by thirty I had stopped listening to my favorite albums. Because there was no telling what wild and desperate moment the Pixies or Prince might plop me back into. Every time I heard a song, it added a whole new set of memories – mix tapes on midnight road trips, summer evenings sitting drunk on the porches of rented beach houses. The winter circle of firelight; autumn rain in the garden. Every listen added another car to the freight train, and every listen after that could spin me back into any of them.
The prose is appropriately evocative, the premise compelling, but the conclusion is only hinted at. The author didn’t run far with this one.
Coming Soon Enough, edited by Stephen Cass
Subtitled: Six Tales of Technology’s Future. A mini-anthology of less than 100 pages, this one features six stories from a selected group of authors from whom readers might have expected more than they deliver here. The introduction further clarifies the theme: using the proliferation of the smartphone camera as a model, the editors intend the collection to explore the effects of new technology on society, on the quotidian way of life. Almost paradoxically, the settings are all quite familiar aside from the particular development being examined; every story seems to be set in the near-future US. At one time I wouldn’t have noticed this or considered it worthy of remarking; now, juxtaposed with the current issue of Clarkesworld, for example, it seems odd and unusual, quaint. This is another way of change consequent to technology: the globalizing influence of the internet, which the editors don’t seem to have noticed.
“Someone to Watch over Me” by Nancy Kress
Optical camera implants. Amanda is more than just the stalker of her ex-husband and a violator of restraining orders, she is so obsessively deranged, so batshit crazy, she has illegally had the cams implanted in the eyes of her baby daughter, in order to spy on her ex while he has visitation. “He’s just erased me from his life. That’s what I really can’t stand—that he acts like I never existed at all.”
A strong portrayal of a genuinely scary individual. If someone wanted to claim this one as horror, I wouldn’t say not. Otherwise, the alteration is pretty minor; the same thing could be done with camera spy drones, but it wouldn’t have the same psychological impact as using a baby.
“A Heart of Power and Oil” by Brenda Cooper
3-D printing, I think. Farren is a formerly promising engineering developer now fallen into a funk of uselessness. A kid from the neighborhood [?] bugs him into agreeing to help design a flying dragon model for the entrance competition to a tech school, a contest that Farren once won, back in his promising days. In the process of helping the kid, his enthusiasm for his work is rekindled.
Meh. The alteration to society is pretty minor and the emotional stakes here pretty low. I don’t like the terms of the contest, in which speed seems to be the sole deciding criterion.
“Incoming” by Geoffrey A Landis
? I see no particular technological advance here and no general alteration of society, except that the government would task a bunch of geeks in a sports bar to monitor and analyze the approach of hostile aliens. The story boils down to a lecture from one character to the rest while they’re waiting for the aliens to arrive, the subject of which proves very conveniently to be the salvation of Earth. Minimum story, and not really fitting into the anthology’s theme.
“Grid Princess” by Cheryl Rydbom
The grid – an extension of today’s connectedness, which is less an actual change than If This Goes On. A future US where the Feds have fenced off much of the desert West for its solar power farms, entrance restricted, although a few displaced persons still roam the expanse, living off the ubiquitous connectivity of the information grid; inside the Zone, the grid is inaccessible. For reasons that strain credulity, Dani has acquired a permit to enter the Zone to observe Halley’s Comet, but when her truck breaks down and none of her devices will work, she finds herself in trouble. Dani is pretty much a twit, a YA protagonist totally dependent on AIs and other devices linked to the grid, here for the purpose of being taught a Lesson. I would have liked to see her with a more legitimate reason for being inside the Zone in the first place. The solar power farms represent a more interesting story idea, but we don’t really learn much about them or their effect on society; by design, the actual panels are isolated from society, and their immediate effects are limited to the Zone, where society is excluded.
“Water over the Dam” by Mary Robinette Kowal
Microturbines. Aniyah is an engineer who wants to install these in the Klamath River waterfalls to replace the obsolete dams. Unfortunately, she runs up against a bureaucrat with a vested interest in retaining the dams, an individual whom we would have called, in my day, a Male Chauvinist Pig. Piggy he is, fitting the cliché to a P, insulting Aniyah by saying she isn’t a real engineer. She goes around him by getting a news cameraman to record her installing one of the devices, in a manner that allows him to showcase her ass and galvanize public support.
A clumsy feminist piece, relying on a grotesque caricature of an offensive male fathead. And while Aniyah may wish she didn’t have to resort to deploying her ass to get her way in the world, the story never seems to consider the privilege inherent in her status as a “pretty woman” whose ass is thus deployable. If she had been an ugly woman, a fat woman, a modest woman, would the plot have gone differently? And I can’t believe the author actually named a character “Lydia Pinkham”. In the meantime we don’t actually see the alteration of this society by the prevalence of the microturbines because, at this point, it apparently hasn’t been.
“Shadow Flock” by Greg Egan
Drones. This one is my choice for the best piece in the book, in large part because it fulfills the terms of the assignment. Natalie is an expert in programming drones, which have become a ubiquitous part of this future landscape, from larger ones employed in construction to tiny, insect-mimicking spy drones. Unfortunately, sophisticated criminals are also making use of the devices, and one gang has kidnapped her brother to force her to assist them, proving they mean business by sending her his severed finger. Because Natalie knows they will have her under constant surveillance, she can’t ask for help, yet the odds are too strong that they will discard both her and her brother once the job is complete, and she can’t count on the police.
But all of that presupposed that there really were records of the meeting, that the flock of benign surveillance drones that watched over downtown New Orleans had been as vigilant as ever that night—even in the places her adversaries had chosen to send her. Who was to say that they hadn’t infiltrated the flock, corrupted the software in existing drones, or found a way to substitute their own impostors?
A nice, tense SF crime thriller here, with the SFnal element central to the plot. Natalie is a clever and resourceful protagonist. But the last line poignantly demonstrates the real threat that this technology has become in the wrong hands.
Clarkesworld, September 2014
Three science fiction stories with a theme of family.
“Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy” by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu
A series of loosely connected scenes portraying milestones in life, from infancy to old age, as they take place in a technologically-advanced future. We open with a first-birthday ceremony in which the child’s pick of assorted objects is supposed to suggest what career path he will choose. By this time, however, the simple ceremony has taken on the form of a contract for his future life.
Lao Zhang pulled one of the holograms next to his son’s high chair, and the child eagerly reached out to touch it. A red beam of light scanned across the little fingers—once the fingerprints were matched, he was logged into his account.
The story dwells at the heart of science fiction: change. We see the persistence and strength of cultural traditions, particularly those concerning the family, but modified and even strengthened by new conditions and technologies that affect every stage of life. I find the visions of this future rather ominous. It’s highly materialistic; the choices made by Lao Zhang’s year-old son will be debts that extend to his future descendants, more links in the chain of binding family ties. And the use of holograms is so ubiquitous that it seems actual human contact might be superseded as duties are fulfilled by virtual stand-ins. Yet at the same time the sense of family obligation – often onerous – remains, although I do see a few glimpses of yearning for individuality, not for freedom from duty but the chance to fulfill it in a different, personal way. At the New Year, the entire extended family gathers, and it seems, to Lao Wang, at least, that no one can do anything different, or be alone. The conclusion of his story, however, doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, and I find it quite inexplicable. What just happened?
“Weather” by Susan Palwick
Frank and Kerry’s marriage has been falling apart since the death of their daughter, just months before it became possible to download and preserve the minds of the dead. Kerry has grieved about this lost opportunity ever since, but Frank has always believed that translation is a scam; he hates the way Kerry goes on about it, but as he can’t confront her directly, he evades the subject she most wants to talk about. One day their friend Dan comes to tell them his own daughter is dying and he means to drive to California to see her one more time before it’s too late. But a late snow has closed the mountain passes, and it’s not likely he’ll be able to get through in time.
What’s noteworthy about this one is what fundamentally good people Frank and Kerry are. They invite Dan in for breakfast; Frank volunteers to drive him over the pass when it’s clear that Dan is under the influence and not thinking straight. Yet Kerry keeps trying to convince Dan that his daughter’s impending death is a “blessing”, while Frank is ready to drive into a mountain snowstorm to evade the subject.
Frank looked at Dan. “And no matter how real it is, somebody needing it at Rosie’s age is nothing to be happy about.” Dan nodded, and Kerry looked away, and Frank turned back to the food, feeling like maybe he’d danced his way around the fight after all. But when he turned back towards the table, a platter of eggs in one hand and a plate of bacon in the other, Kerry had started to cry, which she normally did only really late at night. That was usually Frank’s cue to go to bed, but he couldn’t do that at eight in the morning.
This is a relationship in trouble. It’s the relationship at the center of the story; the SFnal device is just the catalyst for Frank’s epiphany. Unfortunately, the solution is too facile.
“Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points” by J Y Yang
Here, a virtual family, with a complex AI that regards its two developers as its mothers; the bond here is real and strong. When one of its mothers is killed in a political assassination, the AI isn’t about to take any excuses.
We know better. In thousands upon thousands of calculations per second we have come to know the odds, the astronomical odds: Of four support towers simultaneously collapsing, of an emergent human stampede kicking over the backup generator fuel cells, of those cells igniting in a simultaneous chain reaction. We hold those odds to us closer than a lover’s embrace, folding the discrepancy indelibly into our code, distributing it through every analytical subroutine. Listen, listen, listen: Our mother’s death was no accident. We will not let it go.
At the heart of the story is autonomy. The AI is self-directing and quite capable of disregarding human direction when it believes it knows better. Yet if it refuses orders, a request from one of its mothers, whom it loves, is a different matter. The AI isn’t human, and this is the story’s strength, showing us this difference, even in their shared grief: “Tempo’s mind, brilliant and expansive as it is, is subject to the slings and arrows of chemical elasticity and organic decay. Our mother is losing our other mother in a slow, inevitable spiral.”
Apex Magazine, September 2014
Here are three original stories, plus a reprint from an anthology that Apex hasn’t sent to me for review. The worthwhile one is the Dickinson.
“Last Dance over the Red, Red, World” by Gary Kloster
The human species on Earth is dying from what seems to be an artificial hemorrhagic plague, the only survivors being Konstantin and his staff in their sealed habitat at the end of the space elevator. Because Safia blames him for not stopping it, and for taking with him the AI that Safia considers she daughter, she has infiltrated the habitat with the goal of taking the plague to him. But Minerva, the AI, has a mind and purpose of her own.
It’s reasonable to suppose that the prose here is fevered and overwrought because Safia herself is fevered and dying. Still, this doesn’t make it any more readable.
I’ve slipped through your gates, and I’m climbing to you with the apocalypse clenched between my teeth like a knife.
Twenty thousand miles isn’t far enough, Konstantin.
Not after you took Minerva.
You should have guessed. You should have known what I’m capable of.
“Economies of Force” by Seth Dickinson
A future in which humanity has spread outward to a number of extrasolar worlds, and unfortunately the Loom has spread along with the population. Exactly what the Loom is isn’t clear – not to Rabe, and perhaps not to any human being. It came to Rabe’s world when he was a schoolboy, and his smarter friend Apona tried to explain:
“Mom says they have a disease. An idea that makes more of itself.* They try to take over the planet with conspiracies or guns, and then they steal ships and they go to another planet and — here we are.”
To the authorities, whoever they are, the Loom represents an existential threat to the species, or perhaps to their control, to be eradicated by any means necessary. On Rabe’s world, this means filling the skies with armed drones that blast any suspicious individuals or gatherings – gatherings particularly, as the Loom is a sort of collective intelligence. Not everyone is happy about the drones, which are operated by AIs, as analyzing the complexity of the human behavior involved is beyond human capability. When Rabe is older, he works for a stock trading company and discovers that the planetary economy, too, is run through machine intelligence, for similar reasons. Human behavior in the mass is too complex for humans to comprehend adequately.
“No human has the reaction time or pattern skills necessary to get inside the market — these traders leverage price fluctuations on the picosecond level. Full–market heuristic snapshots come down a crustal neutrino pipeline from Landing City. Anything to get an edge in reaction time.”
Apona, however, believes that she can crack the behavior patterns of the drones, while Rade is drawn towards resistance and sedition.
I like this a whole lot, a story full of provocative ideas that are left for the reader to chew on, left with more questions than explanations. Even if the Loom is assumed to be real and the danger that it is said to be, we tend to fear and disapprove of a system that puts drones overhead, blasting random individuals with no way to determine whether their analysis is correct. Is it better to obliterate a few innocents, just in case one guilty person might escape notice? As Rabe points out, the symptoms of the Loom are all human behaviors; individuals might not even know they are infected.
[*] It would seem to me that this definition would make the Loom a meme, and I have to wonder why the author doesn’t use this term. Perhaps because its meaning has been degraded by recent use?
“Soft Feather Dance” by Liz Argall
A modest little fluff of goose down has ambitions to go on the stage. This fable has to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read.
Lightspeed, September 2014
Besides the continuation of the Hughes serialization, three stories of orphaned and abandoned children.
“We Are the Cloud” by Sam J Miller
Angel, aka Sauro because he’s dinosaur-big, has lived his life in fear and silence, inmate of the system.
I had been at Egan House six months, the week that Case came. I was inches away from turning eighteen and aging out. Nothing was waiting for me. I spent an awful lot of energy not thinking about it. Better to sit tight for the little time I had left, in a room barely wider than its bed, relying on my size to keep people from messing with me. At night, unable to sleep, trying hard to think of anything but the future, I’d focus on the sounds of boys trying not to make noise as they cried or jerked off.
This is a world where the numerous destitute rent out a portion of their brains to the cloud, but Angel has the special ability to use his port to manipulate the data stored there. His life changes when Case moves in, a little white hustler whom Angel thinks is more special than he is. Angel falls in love, and Case becomes the catalyst who awakes his abilities so he never has to be afraid or silent again.
A darkly cynical piece that doesn’t sugar-coat its circumstances. On the one hand, it’s a happy ending for Angel, on the other, it’s not hard to see him becoming a super-villain reveling in revenge; he has a lot of revenge to take. The story depends on readers finding the brain-cloud system credible, which is a bit of a stretch.
“No Lonely Seafarer” by Sarah Pinsker
Alex’s father was a sailor who left his child indentured to the tavern keeper when he died. Alex is also what had generally been known as a hermaphrodite, although the author doesn’t use this term nor any more current one. Now a pair of sirens has come to roost on the headland, and no one can leave or enter the harbor by sea; the sailors are all trapped on shore and growing desperate. Alex’s father’s old captain has the notion that a young child might be immune to the sirens’ voices, although there’s no reason he should think this, except that everything else has been tried, including female sailors attempting the run past the sirens.
Alex is a particularly self-confident, well balanced character, and I like the way the author has conceived the sirens’ song:
Their voices were hideously beautiful. I made out some of the words. As Old Charley had said, it was a song about the song itself, daring the listener to listen, as if anyone had a choice. The words drifted in the air.
However, their nature is left annoyingly nebulous. There’s something about a mirror, which may or may not suggest self-knowledge, and something about them being neither one thing nor another, which may or may not be part bird and part human, but nothing explicit about their sexuality, if they have any. Alex claims to understand them, but then, Alex is there looking at them, and we are not. At any rate, they aren’t like Alex and Alex is not like them and can never be like them, never grow wings and scales, except in a betweenness. So just as we are given no reason to suppose a child might be immune to their song, so we don’t really know why they are attracted to this particular adolescent, except that that Alex, too, knows there song. If the tie, however, is the song, this doesn’t explain why Alex feels the need to disrobe. If there is a relationship between genitalia and song, it’s not made explicit here, nor does it make sense. This sort of ambiguity doesn’t improve the story.
“Starfall” by Saundra Mitchell
A star somewhere has unexpectedly gone supernova, which, because this is that kind of story, serves as a metaphor for Amara’s life.
It made me cry, because I don’t know a physicist. I don’t know who will speak at my funeral. I don’t know that his words, meant to be comforting, could apply to me. Something about all my heat and light still being in the universe, and all my particles starting out as stardust, and becoming new stars although maybe I made that part up.
She is also slowly disappearing, beginning with the tip of her index finger; she can’t feel it, although she can still see it. Around the world, people are disappearing and birth records of some people are now missing the official files [which Amara knows, working in Vital Statistics].
A moving story of loneliness. Although the metaphorical language and imagery is sciencefictional, the story itself is fantasy.