Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early December

Good issues from Clarkesworld and F&SF this time.


Publications Reviewed



Clarkesworld, December 2014

CW goes out for the year on a pretty strong note. Four stories here, three quite short and one long, that I like best.

“Now Dress Me in My Finest Suit and Lay Me in My Casket” by M Bennardo

Patty, facing possible death as crew of a spacecraft, remembers an early encounter with it, when she helped her grandfather dress for the night in his casket and screwed down the lid. This, the old man claimed, would help him become accustomed to the inevitable, to “gentle, friendly death”, when it came. It didn’t work, then.

I thought of the morning I found my grandfather’s dead body. I unscrewed the casket and lifted the lid, uncovering that horrible expression on his face, his twisted mouth and bruised forehead, his wide popping eyes, the blood under his fingernails and the scratches along his face.

This is a story of people helping each other face death, and perhaps easing their way to it. It’s also a story, although it doesn’t use the word, of heroism, of people who face death, not as inevitable but out of duty, in the face of their fear. The author has evoked these characters with deft efficiency, even those we never see.

I do wonder why her grandfather insisted on having the coffin lid screwed down.

“No Vera There” by Dominica Phetteplace

Our narrator Vera is an incomplete download of the original Vera, who seems to be lost or dead. She has fallen into the hands of hackers who are trying to get her to reveal a password belonging to the original by plying her with nonsensical quizzes formulated in 2014 terms with which she is unfamiliar.

What type of Sudoku puzzle are you?
You are a black belt puzzle. You are practically unsolvable.

What type of heart do you have?
A red hot heart. It tastes like cinnamon.

Vera is finally rescued by a company of other Vera downloads, who consider her the most incomplete and deficient of them. She is renamed #201. Her only ability is inventing quizzes.

This is a sort of list story, presenting several dozen of these quizzes that readers are apparently supposed to regard as meaningful in some way, or even imbued with a profundity that may not be apparent to readers, as it isn’t to me, but seems to have a feelgood effect, which seems to be the main point.

“Fatima’s Wound” by Kali Wallace

Sometimes I encounter a story that defeats me; this seems to be one of them. It’s a two-centered story, the one superimposed symbolically over the other. Fatima is a woman who has lived a long, long life, several times more than the normal human span, at least in today’s terms. As a child, she fought for existence in the mining tunnels dug into the moon of a rich, decadent world, becoming fixated by the fatal wound in the chest of a boy who fell attempting to climb to freedom. In her turn, she escaped.

Even then she had a bloody black wound hidden where her heart should be, and with every day it grew larger, and colder, and heavier, spreading through her veins until she was nothing but a vessel of darkness.

This suggests that Fatima is a creature of evil, yet in other aspects she appears saintly. She claims that in her life she has done two things of note: one an act of destruction, the other of creation. Which implies two distinct acts, but there only seems to be evidence of one, the act that destroyed the moon on which she was born and brought to life the phenomenon, perhaps a black hole, in space that she calls a wound: “Object, anomaly, portal. All those and more. Explosion. Gateway.” Except that she also says the object was created by the decadent civilization on the planet that remains, lifeless in ruins, which she perhaps destroyed, perhaps in a revolution, although she claims they destroyed themselves. How – we don’t know.

Fatima now lives on a space station/prison somewhere in the system of this planet, for a long, long time a member of an order of counselors there, now the head of the order. She has, for a long time, been sending prisoners in pods into the anomaly, where they may or may not die. She has called for the worst of humanity to be sent to her there, and she has sent a long line of murderers and genocides on this journey. How she has the power to do this – we don’t know. But at one point, a point that seems relatively recent, something began to emerge from the anomaly, something sinister and menacing. Now, everyone on the station has left, joining the line of pods headed for destruction in the wound, rather than confront whatever is coming for them from it. Only Fatima remains, waiting.

To say that this piece is enigmatic is understatement. I don’t believe we can know what happened, I don’t believe we can know what is happening. The force involved is an enigma. The minds of the characters are enigmas. The universe in which this all takes place is an enigma. I can’t say whether it does or doesn’t make sense, as to determine this, it would first be necessary to see what’s been going on. It might make a perfect sense, just one that isn’t revealed to readers; I certainly can’t find much sense in it. There is imagery here that readers might well appreciate, but it’s too full of obscurity to give real satisfaction.

“The Magician and LaPlace’s Demon” by Tom Crosshill

Let’s start with the demon. The French philosopher postulated this as a theoretical explanation for a universe of perfect physical determinism.

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

In LaPlace’s Leibnizian worldview, this omniscient entity would be God, but here it is an artificial intelligence, the story’s narrator. The AI doesn’t only accumulate data and analysis it, it acts; it makes changes; it deliberately creates the best of all possible worlds, according to its own programmed directives. And here is the contradiction at the story’s heart: in the AI’s deterministic universe, it is the entity the most unfree.

The problem begins when the AI discovers the existence of magic, while investigating certain events that didn’t go as it had planned. Magic here is a unique and fascinating concept. It operates in some ways like a quantum effect on the macro level, in that its operations can’t be observed. Thus its existence remains unprovable; an improbable series of coin flips might actually be a coincidence. Says the magician who is the AI’s foe, “Natural law can only be violated when no one’s watching closely enough to prove it’s being violated.”

There is no factor internal to our universe which determines the flip of the coin, the magician wrote. There is no mechanism internal to the universe for generating true randomness, because there is no such thing as true randomness. There is only choice. And we magicians are the choosers.

The AI, at first, it doesn’t believe the magician. But if the magician is correct, if the existence of magic makes the universe indeterminate, it’s a situation totally contrary to the AI’s programming. Thus begins a duel that lasts millennia, until two near-omnipotent entities meet in a final face-off to determine the nature of the universe. Because not only is the AI incapable of enduring the existence of magic, the magic can’t function in the world of perfect surveillance and observation that the AI requires. But the AI’s ambition is the greater because it seems that the amount of magic in the world is finite; the destruction of one magician empowers another. If it could manage to destroy all the magicians, it might, conceivably, capture all the magic for itself.

This is the sort of speculative fiction I really like, based not only on the notions of physics but philosophy. The author has carefully balanced his dilemma, pitting his forces against each other, two entities playing a very, very long game. I like the small things, such as the term “sleeve” used for the bodies of humans the AI has coopted; I like the large things, particularly the nature of magic. And I especially like the insights into the issue of freedom and determinism. I only wish the author had resisted the temptation to pound in one last, redundant nail with the last line.


F&SF, January/February 2015

This zine continues to sound the same familiar note coming into the new year, with most of the wordage coming from the regular regulars. Fortunately, these have largely produced good stuff this time, so that the familiar note is a pleasing one. Unreviewed is another installment in Kritzer’s “Seastead” serial.

“Prisoner of Pandarius” by Matthew Hughes

A Raffalon story. Hughes protagonists tend to be either competents or fools, but Raffalon the thief, while quite competent in his profession, tends to make the occasional foolish mistake from the consequences of which he must attempt to extricate himself. Also, he’s prone to bad luck. So he finds himself in the position in which the story opens, having lost a contractual dispute being adjudicated by the masters of The Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors – i.e. the thieves and their fences. As Raffalon notes, these two sides of the profession do not always have their interests in common, but this time something really fishy seems to be going on. The fix was in.

The five masters consulted each other in whispers. Raffalon strained to hear, but could only deduce that the panel had split, two to three, and that the minority disagreed vehemently. Finally, the senior member called an end to the deliberations and delivered judgment, saying, “Circumstances above and beyond the defendant’s control interposed themselves between the agreement of terms and the delivery. We therefore find for Bodlemeyer.”

A sometime collaborator, Cascor the sorcerer, suggests to Raffalon that the usual presiding master may have been called away on false pretenses, to be replaced by one on the side of the defendant. In exchange for information on this point, Raffalon agrees, against his usual practice, to purloin an item for the sorcerer, which leads to further enlightenment. Unfortunately, Raffalon then has one of his foolish moments.

As usual, entertaining stuff from Hughes. In addition to the distinctive narrative voice and the intricate plotting, each of these stories tends to offer some new insight into the working of this world – in this case, Raffalon’s guild, but also the existence of other, related institutions, like The Tenacious and Terrible Guild of Vindicators.

“Lightning Jack’s Last Ride” by Dale Bailey

The recording of the famous gasoline hijacker’s fatal crash has become the stuff of legend.

But this time things had gone wrong. They’d taken out the driver and cut the tanker free of the convoy all right, but as the eighteen-wheeler swerved across the lanes, it clipped Lola Bridger’s Spyder. She went spinning back into traffic where a tanker crushed her like a bug and jackknifed in the middle of the highway. The next fish in line slammed it side-on, igniting an explosion so big that it must have singed God’s beard. A heartbeat later, the swingman rolled his own rig, reducing Joe Hauser’s Gilead to a greasy stain on the pavement. Lightning Jack dropped the hammer, and that Dragon leapt forward like a rabid Doberman fixing to break its chain. Four and a half minutes later, it struck the crash barrier on I-20. That fire burned hot and clean.

Gus, however, knows the real story. As a mechanic, he had known Jack from his early days on the waning NASCAR circuit. Then, as Gus’s audience certainly doesn’t need to be told, came succession, insurrection, and civil war, when petroleum became so scarce and valuable the New Feds started to escort the tanker convoys. When Jack saw his opportunity.

The story establishes Jack as a celebrity outlaw in the mode of the James gang or Bonnie and Clyde. Even to his gang, he was a figure set apart. Jack’s motive was simple – he wanted to drive, hard and fast. The description of the action here is exciting, but the story glosses over the moral dimension. How many people had to die so Jack could get his thrills? Like their outlaw predecessors, Jack’s gang were killers, murderers, and Gus’s remorse over this seems perfunctory. His real regret seems to have been his ultimate disloyalty to the gang, to Jack and his lover Lola. I can’t really feel sorry for him.

“Portrait of a Witch” by Albert E Cowdrey

The Obligatory Cowdrey this time is one of the good ones, horror in the sort of setting where the occult flourishes – this time an obscure Caribbean island with salutary weather and tax laws. Albert’s profession is estate manager for the rich and crooked, in which capacity he has been entrapped by an FBI agent who likes to keep him on a string. Thus he finds himself in the employ of Lord Pye, a wealthy Brit whom the locals regard as a benevolent landlord and employer. Not so his wife Lady Faye, a notorious termagant and talented photographer. She it is whom the FBI has in its sights, because she has left a trail of unexplained deaths behind her. On the island, Albert begins to realize a connection between certain of her photographic portraits of individuals who often turned up inexplicably dead.

The keynote of every image was desperation. One labeled The Black Flower showed a young woman whose outthrust lips seemed to be uttering the word Non! as she saw some dreadful but unavoidable fate approaching. Another showed a laborer on the Port Royal docks, his face shimmering with beads of pearly sweat, his white eyes glaring at the onlooker with the dumb agony of a dying bull.

The problem is: there is no real evidence linking portraits and deaths. Also the influence of Lord Pye over the press and constabulary.

This is a mystery where the author has played it straight, eschewing humor. The horror is genuine, revealed in the photographed faces of the victims, as well as in the presence of a trio of Komodo Dragons which readers know, like the legendary gun on the wall, will be deployed at some point in the story.

“Farewell Blues” by Bud Webster

Jazzmen in the Jazz Age. Our narrator Juney must be pretty old by now, because he remembers the events that occurred in Bayou Cane, when he, Jake, and a couple of other musicians played a gig at LeBlanc’s roadhouse. Jake was the kind of musician, as people say, who can play to wake the dead, but in this case, the saying is literal. It’s not that the dead themselves caused too much trouble.

“Now, I won’t say this never happened before, but not in my life, and old folks just won’t talk about it. Not from fear of the dead, no; them folks are their family. But, well, it’s an omen, and maybe folks are a tad uncomfortable about they great-aunt walking ’round after she been buried forty year. Dead folks should rest themself, and they never come back wit’out a reason.”

And the reason was Jake, who didn’t really belong in this world but in the Dream Place, where he was more than a musician; he was music itself, and it needs him back. But more than that, his presence was causing other things to stir in the waking world, and they were what woke the dead and sent them back to defend the living.

The dark fantasy is enriched by its Cajun country setting, and further by a couple of characters a lot older than they should be, one who takes Jake by the ear and gives it a good twist for not keeping a civil tongue in his head when speaking to his elders and betters. It’s never really clear why Jake likes it so well on this side of the dream; he says they won’t understand, and we never do. Nor is it every really clear what’s with Juney and his horn that makes him able to see what other mortals can’t. It’s still a good tale.

“Telling Stories to the Sky” by Eleanor Arnason

In a city “long since gone and forgotten”, a beggar girl loved to listen to the storytellers and make up tales of her own, but storytelling was a profession reserved to men, so she decided to tell her stories to the sky.

Because the plateau was windy, kite flying was a favorite sport. Swallow wrote her best story on a kite and flew it in the fields outside the city. Up and up it went, until the string broke and the kite soared free.

Maybe it would land somewhere, and people would read the story, Swallow thought. Maybe they would marvel at its excellence.

In fact the kite reached the court of the North Wind, who liked her story and wanted to hear more from her. Swallow’s life then took an interesting turn.

One name I always look forward to is Arnason’s. Her narrative voice is unique and brings new life and perspective to even the simplest tales, as it does here.


“Out of the Jar” by Eric Schwitzgebel

Says the narrator: “We are God’s ants, shaken in a jar.” This sounds ominous. God, it turns out, is a bored teenaged boy, and the world is an illegal simulation on his computer. Creative absurdity here. And theodicy.

“History’s Best Places to Kiss” by Nik Houser

A couple go back in time to forestall their marriage and save themselves from their current acrimonious divorce proceedings. Absurdity predictably happens.

“The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner” by Alex Baxter

Pirate horror. Every since his lover’s death at the hands of the Royal Navy, Captain Reeve has lived first for vengeance, second for gold. But everything changes when a beggar draws some strange symbols in the blood of a man Reeve has killed. His cabin boy, our narrator Daniel, refuses to look upon it. The symbols “curdle his brain.”

Reeve stared a moment more at the parchment, then folded it away inside his jacket. “I think this is the kind of thing that should not be looked upon too long under the mantle of night, eh, Daniel?”

“I would rather not look upon it at all, sir, even under a blazing sun,” I said.

But Reeve is already trapped. He comes to the belief that the symbols, drawn by the vagrant on paper, form a map, and he is determined to follow it to whatever dark place it leads to.

This is old-fashioned, classic horror, driven by madness and obsession. Daniel is our Ishmael, escaped alone to tell the tale, but not unscathed.

“The Man from X” by Gregor Hartmann

As Franden enters the customs line on the planet Zephyr, readers are already well aware that he is up to some kind of scam. Unfortunately, the interrogator is wise to his scheme of passing off dead authors’ work as his own in order to qualify for an Artist visa, immune to taxation and entrance fees. Broadly conceived, this is a writer story, good-hearted but not the most clever.

“The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life” by Francis Marion Soty

A tale from the Arabian Nights. Or rather, a fragment of such a tale, broken off at a moment frustrating to readers. Retold tales are of course a staple in the genre, but this author seems unclear on the handling of the material. In the Scheherazade tales, the lack of closure was precisely the point; the stories ended on cliffhangers to keep the king’s interest and earn the teller another night of life.

Here the author has stripped away two layers of framing and conflated them, so all we have is the merchant with his evil wife, a witch transformed for her sins to a gazelle, who has to tell his story save his life from a jinni he has angered. This focuses reader interest on the merchant. Like the jinni, we want to know how his wife was turned into a gazelle and what happens to her; we want this to make sense. This begins by wondering why the merchant has travelled so far with the gazelle into the forest to kill her, as is his stated intent. In the original tale, we know why the man with the gazelle is there – because that’s where the story is. But that won’t do here, absent the frame. We also want to know, perhaps more urgently, what happens after the jinni absolves the merchant. Does he kill the gazelle or not? If not, what happens to her?

The story, after all, is titled after the gazelle, which does not, despite the title, beg for her life. The spell on her prevents speech or gestures; all she can do is look pitiful with her large gazelle eyes. Is this enough to sway the merchant to spare her, given that he has described her killing as a sacred duty, to which the jinni has agreed? In the original tale we don’t hear these questions because the teller has intrigued the listener with hints of another story, but that excuse doesn’t apply here. This tale comes to an end, and it ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the outcome unknown. That won’t do.

Lightspeed, December 2014

This zine goes out on not such a strong note. The pieces tend to place more emphasis on narrative style than story.

“A Lie You Give, and Thus I Take” by Damien Angelica Walters

This piece opens with the claim that it isn’t a fairy tale. It’s a meta fairy tale. The narrator, who seems to be an adult woman, finds herself trapped in a pastry house by a man who feeds her nothing but confectionary. Occasionally, she notices that he has big, sharp teeth. But rather than fattening, the more she eats, the more she wastes away, until she finally asserts herself instead of counting on a man. The message is pretty obvious.

The narrative is written in the second person, addressing the man, and full of sugar metaphors and arch expressions. I find it tediously unvarying.

The first lie is pretty and spirals from your mouth like candyfloss; sweet, so sweet, and I’m melting under your tongue. Baby, baby, baby, you say, and I gobble it up, unaware that every word you say comes with a candy thermometer and you’ve made me your latest caramel bonbon.

“The Drawstring Detective” by Nik Houser

Char, hoping to find her missing ring, comes home from the antique store with an old-fashioned tin detective figure who speaks when you pull his drawstring. The detective’s paint job is flaking and his attitudes outdated [Barbie scandalizes him] but he’s discerning enough to know that her man Brad is a loser and a scumbag. I find some charm in the narrative but this revelation is obvious.

“As you are too old to play with figures of action such as myself as a means of simple diversion, I can only assume that you’ve purchased me to help you find something. I see by the band of pale flesh on your finger that you have lost your wedding ring.”

“Pay Phobetor” by Shale Nelson

The perils of malware, updated.

Please do not be alarmed. I am here to help. I will restore full access to your MindPlant and all associated files and apps as soon as you deliver a ransom of 300 bitcoins. Think “Phobetor Virus” and “pay now” to access payment options.

The more things change, these stories don’t change much.

“Wake-Rider” by Vandana Singh

Having read this one immediately after the previous, I wasn’t at first sure it wasn’t another parody, but it’s not, being instead a kind of after-the-fact account of an incident in the protagonist’s past, whereby readers are aware from the beginning that she later achieved some sort of fame and thus didn’t die during the events underway but was instead successful. This tends to undercut any plot tension. Leli is on her first mission for the revolution against the Euphoria Corporocracy, which afflicts planetary populations with a nanoplague that leaves them docile producers and consumers [and suggests the possibility of parody to readers]. Her task is salvage of a derelict revolutionary ship to retrieve remains that might hold a key to defeating the nanoplague, but corporate salvagers are on a competing mission.

Remarkably unoriginal stuff.

Apex Magazine, December 2014

The issue opens on a silent note, with no editorial; indeed I see no editor named. Is this a transitional issue, anticipating new management for the upcoming year? I can only hope for improvement in the zine’s direction.

“Anthracite Weddings” by John Zaharick

This is a Message story, an expression of the author’s feelings about the plutocrats who run coal mines and otherwise exploit workers. Katherine’s family is loyal to the owners and doesn’t join in the strikes. Her father tells her she might be lucky enough to be chosen as a servant to the owner’s daughter. This is because there are evil spirits lurking around, and the narrator happens to resemble the daughter enough to be chosen as a bridesmaid, which is to say a decoy, in hopes of diverting the evil spirits away from the bride. The night before the wedding, the bride elopes with an unsuitable boy, but the mother insists on blaming the bridesmaids for failing to divert the spirits away from her daughter. In fact, Katherine has attracted the spirits, who haunt her incessantly, but no one believes her.

The main purpose of the piece seems to be exposing the mother of the bride as a vile and selfish person, based on her position in the ownership class. The ending is vengeful, including even innocent persons, but of course they are guilty as a class. Yet it’s the strikers who kill Katherine’s father, whom they see as a collaborator. The entire situation makes little sense. The piece is an example of the general rule that when writers attempt to employ fiction in the service of their favorite causes, it often works out badly.

“Keep Talking” by Marie Vibbert

Gerald has spent much of his life as a hostage to his autistic daughter Sarah, who spends her life in front of the computer, crunching data feeds from SETI. Now he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to Japan and do meaningful work, but Sarah refuses to move her computer screen from one dark room to another, and Gerald believes, with justification, that she can’t live on her own.

This is a tragic situation, despite all the characters getting what they most desire. As Gerald says, “There is no path that didn’t end in good-bye.” Of course, good-bye isn’t always and necessarily a bad thing; people grow, they take their own paths. The problem is that Gerald is probably right in believing that Sarah, while insisting on her own path, isn’t capable of taking it alone. Unfortunately, I can’t like her; she’s self-centered, hostile, and I have a strong impulse to give her a kick in the ass.

I suspect, however, that I don’t know enough about Sarah to judge her. As readers, we can only know Sarah through what the author tells us. But this isn’t Sarah’s story, it’s Gerald’s, and that’s why this is a tragedy. Despite Sarah’s behavior, whether or not I like it, Gerald loves her. And when we have children and love them, sacrifices are inevitable. Even when we don’t love them, when it’s a matter more of responsibility than love.

“Griefbunny” by Brooke Juliet Wonders

The title sums this one up. When Lola’s stepmother, mother to her little brother Theodore, takes off and leaves them alone, Theodore adopts the scraggly jackrabbit that enters their trailer and starts following him around. Which tells us this is no normal wild animal, even without the fact that it starts to grow at a very abnormal rate. While Lola is grateful to the rabbit for comforting her brother, who calls it a jackalope, she can’t help thinking there’s something wrong about it.

The nightmare had been too real. I’d grown antlers, was part girl, part mule deer. Running, running through the desert, with something terrible right behind me: a darkness wreathed in fire. When I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the darkness had Teddy between its flame–drenched teeth. It was shaking him like a dead pet. The antlers were so heavy they weighed me down; I ran slower and slower until the darkness consumed me.

The material here is out of a Tall Tale, but this isn’t one, rather a story of coping with loss. The ending is positive, as Lola’s fears and misgivings turn out to be unfounded, but I’m not sure they were very well founded in the first place, except for being unable to keep the giant rabbit fed.

“Henrietta’s Garden” by Rebecca Kaplan

This one is in large part the same story as the previous, with a more stylish narrative. Henrietta’s father dies, and she starts weeping flower petals at the funeral. She can’t stop. While she fears the flowers are symptoms of a physical disease, they are clearly manifestations of grief and, more generally, depression. It seems to be a story of depression acceptance, pictured as a happy ending, but I’m not won over.

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

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