Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late December
And that’s it for the year.
My year-end summary of 2014’s best fiction will be posted soon.
- Lackington’s, Fall 2014
- Strange Horizons, December 2014
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #162-163, December 2014
- Tor.com, December 2014
- Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers
Lackington’s, Fall 2014
Subtitled: Institutions. The editor describes the collective tone of these four stories as morose and melancholic, fitting the oppressive nature of the institutions in which they are set. Morose and melancholic they are, but the institutional theme isn’t strong in all these pieces. Rather, I found the depressive tone of these stories were in reaction to great loss, generally mass death. Overall, however, I enjoyed them. Most were original in different ways, possessing a freshness – all but the last, which was awfully stale.
I’ll look at Lackington’s again.
“Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg
Peeling away the layers, what we find here is a story of friendship. The nameless protagonist has lost his memory, which he gradually regains over the course of the story. He wakes in a bare utilitarian space habitat where no one recognizes him, but tests reveal that he is an engineer, so he is assigned as such. While we wait through his recovery, the details of his past life are gradually revealed. As a child, his genius was recognized so that he was sent to Gebe, a world?/city? dedicated to knowledge and the arts. At some point, immortality was conferred on him in recognition of his achievements. But greed and jealousy brought war to Gebe, and all its beauty was destroyed.
He dreams of Gebe, a city once paved with reinforced cinnabar and etched with mazes, a city of soaring spun glass and masonry coffee shops – but now its beauty’s been erased, drowned in shrapnel, reformed and erased again under the perpetual red skies choked with toxic fumes.
The narrator has a sole friend, Kabede, another immortalized individual, with whom he disputed the future of Gebe. Kabede wished to prioritize the safety of the surviving population at the cost of their art. The grim utilitarian habitat where the narrator now finds himself clearly indicates that Kabede’s wishes prevailed. Kabede’s mind has now been fragmented among a hundred similar habitats, which converge at intervals, when the narrator can briefly visit the friend he once knew, only to have his memory wiped again before he wakes on a new habitat to begin the cycle over.
I can’t agree with the narrator that the outcome is a stalemate. The narrator has lost this game, or rather, given it up for his friend. The outcome is Kabede’s vision realized, and for the narrator’s vision, there is no hope. Kabede has ensured the safety of the people of Gebe by ensuring that they will never possess or create anything of value, nothing that enemies might covet. From this, we realize the magnitude of what the narrator has sacrificed. It is indeed a melancholy outcome, yet the story considers that the narrator values his friendship above his own vision.
Thing is, I can’t help thinking other alternatives existed, that the story never really explored. What of the immortals, who would seem to be beings of some power? Why didn’t they come to the aid of Gebe or its people, who were so valuable? Why was it left on its own without aid? The situation appears contrived, or at the least unexplained, and I’m not buying the memory-wiping aspect, which seems to exist only for the convenience of the author’s narrative, one of those that opens from the point of view of a character who knows nothing of the situation he is in, which readers gradually discover as the character does. These openings can be confusing at first, and this one isn’t helped by the author’s decision to mix up the personal pronouns, which adds to the initial unclarity.
“More Embers than Feathers Filled the Firmament” by Penny Stirling
The solitary surviving wagtail shares her sad history of the ill-fated war that doomed her kind. It seems that the king of the wolves had a great taste for waterfowl, and he devoured so many that the birds became desperate. In response, a solitary siskin assassin struck, but the lupines wreaked terrible vengeance.
An original and uncommon tale, with the emphasis on the prose, alliterative and allusive, reminiscent of Norse literature.
While wolf’s wife wailed away weeping, wishing she were sleeping a sad dreaming sleep, slips away the slayer siskin in success, sky-sailing to the ice-land Spheniscidae Sea.
This is not a hero-tale, filled with brave and glorious deeds. It’s a genocide. The birds were overmatched from the outset of the war they had not sought, and none came to their aid. The wagtail’s song is a dirge. There is more than a hint of melancholy humor here, but behind it is a figure of grief and bereavement, burdened with loss. “I linger in life feeling the graveness of my duty to eulogize all the lost . . .” Between her own digressions and the interruptions of her audience, we miss much of the tale, but perhaps the scope of the tragedy would otherwise be overwhelming.
“The Harbour Bears” by Trevor Shikaze
A brief tale of self-realization. Something is killing and dismembering the homeless people down by the harbour. Readers might think of the perpetrators as werewolves, but the title suggests otherwise. Luke, looking down on the harbour from his high window, doesn’t think of much, until a homeless woman suggests he stop taking his pills, and he wakes to reality.
Not the sort of story from which readers ought to expect a lot of sense, besides the metaphorical, which reflects the economic inequality prevalent today.
“Fertility Tree” by Reclo Etino Vibal
The time has come for Halimuyak to go to the fertility tree and conceive a daughter. Unfortunately, she gives birth to a son, and the tribe will be cursed if he remains on their island. The conclusion is remarkably unoriginal, despite the vegetative fertilization processes.
Strange Horizons, December 2014
I prefer the shorter two of this month’s offerings.
“Kenneth: A User’s Manual” by Sam J Miller
The creator/s [?] of Virtual Kenneth aren’t pleased with some aspects of the manufacturer’s instruction and have issued this manual in correction – with which the manufacturer is likely not pleased. It’s not really clear exactly what Virtual Kenneth is. A software program? A robot? We’re told that the manufacturer has an entire line of virtual boys, of which Kenneth is the most popular model, but the creators are aggrieved that the product has sacrificed their truth of him for the sake of sales. Bitterness here:
We, the creators, who cling to that privilege as we cling to the use of the Royal We as a euphemism for one man chasing glimpses of a long-dead boy in a long-dead world. Or The Manufacturer as a gentler way of saying Greedy Capitalist Fuck Who Doesn’t Care Who He Hurts.
The point being that it doesn’t really matter exactly what Virtual Kenneth is, because his reality is a cherished memory given some sort of immortality by those who loved him for what he was. This is a love story, the portrait of a character, and only in the most nominal way a science fiction story.
“The Dying Embers” by Inkeri Kontro
There is a delight in novelty, in the freshness of a new voice and a new point of view. Lately, a number of stories from Finland have appeared in my purview, and being new to me, have afforded this kind of delight. But the appeal isn’t entirely in novelty. I’ve read many stories narrated by sentient houses and buildings, but never before by a sauna. I like the sauna. He has neared the end of his useful life and touched a number of human lives, but has never felt his love requited quite as he would have liked. And he has an admirable sense of responsibility to his children, despite their shortcomings.
“I thought he would take more after me,” she said, and I could not understand what she meant. Ahava was in his core his mother’s image, but she would look only at the surface. She could not look at the child without bursting into tears. She only lasted a month.
From an interestingly novel point of view, the reminiscent story of a life lived – not all joy and not all sadness.
“Nkásht íí” by Darcie Little Badger
A dual-narrator story, told by a pair of girlfriends who have a disturbing encounter with ghosts. Although the primary narrator is Josie, Annie’s remarks are the more portentous, as they open the story with words passed down by her great-grandmother:
A ghost is a terrible thing.
Someday we will all be terrible things.
The two girls have set themselves up as listeners, an occupation much needed in an indifferent world, but questionably remunerative. They’re paid, they say, only in karma, which raises the unanswered question of how they pay rent and bus fare. One day a man comes to them with a story of his daughter’s death. As he tells it, his wife was killed in a car accident that gravely injured him, but as he tried to reach his young daughter, an “owl woman” took her from the car and carried her to the river, where she drowned her. The bereaved man wants closure, wants someone to believe him, wants to understand. Annie thinks she may know what actually happened, and the girlfriends set out to explore the scene of the accident, where they find terrible things, of which perhaps the most terrible is that they stem from love.
There is folk tradition at the heart of this tale; Annie is an Apache, and Josie from some other Native American heritage, but it’s Annie who sees things others cannot. The traditions, the ghosts, the girls’ encounters with the place below, this is all good stuff. In many ways, it’s Annie’s story, told by Josie, but unfortunately, we have to sit through Josie’s dull account of her own prosaic family troubles, beginning back in junior high school. If these events did more to illuminate her relationship with Annie, with the essence at the heart of Annie, it would be one thing. But they don’t. Despite all the mundane details that distract from the ghost story, very little of either girl is revealed here, but it’s Annie of whom I need to see more.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #162-163, December 2014
The stories in issue #162 deal with transformation and feature loyal servants. In #163, the characters are pursued by malevolent beings who turn out to be not what they first appeared.
“The House of Gold and Steel” by Marissa Lingen
Kaisa is taken from the almshouse to serve as the sickroom attendant in a wealthy house where the daughter Aneta has a transmutation talent; unfortunately the magic has gone wrong in her so that she exists in a coma while her greedy mother uses her ability to transmute base objects into gold, and even sells her powers to others.
After a few months, she even began to allow me to be present, to hold things and in minor, unobtrusive ways assist when she used Miss Aneta’s transmutation powers. I began to see where all the golden decorative objects and steel automated devices around the house had come from, and how the Mistress could afford to hire more servants and purchase more luxuries all the time.
Kaisa feels sorry for Aneta and finally begins to learn how to channel her power. She thinks the sickness in her magic might be cured or at least ameliorated, but this is the last thing the mother wants, to lose her hold over her daughter.
An overly positive piece, in which Kaisa’s rather far-fetched scheme to save Aneta isn’t very likely.
“Goatskin” by K C Norton
Shanzi is a goatskin girl, which means she is a shapechanger. She is sold to be the servant of the beautiful lady Uduru, who has a power of her own, to bring the rain. Shanzi likes her mistress and is pleased with her situation. When evildoers abduct Uduru, she uses her transformative powers to save her. But in doing so, she learns more about what she might become, herself.
Shanzi is a well-done character with strongly-held opinions of her own. I like the descriptions of her transformation: “When I unwound myself, I was a puff adder—big and sharp-toothed and poisonous, the safest things to be when you’re a girl on her own. I slid off sideways in the earth, so as not to startle the buffalo.” It’s interesting that she accepts her slavery as the natural order of things, although she is not particularly obedient. But she also sees how that order can work to her advantage, along with her power. This is no epiphany or transformation, it’s just Shanzi being herself.
“Alloy Point” by Sam J Miller
Here we have a city of gold and steel – or more generally, Lustrous and Base metals, which by law may never be alloyed, nor may the workers of one contact those of the other. Except that, for surveillance purposes, all functional base metals must contain a thread of the lustrous, which seems contradictory to me. Ashley and Gabriel have defied the rules to have an affair, and, sure enough, they are detected by a monstrous metalman enforcer. Ashley runs to draw it after her, hoping to save Gabriel, but she can feel the presence of the metalman always behind her through the rails. Readers might wonder, what rails? Train rails? No trains go by during the course of the story. Where are the rails going? Is this where Ashley is going? And why follow the rails when she knows the metalman will just follow them?
This piece is an example of the common story failure to think the setting through, a typical monocultural, oppressive dystopia that makes no sense in realistic terms, as opposed to a metaphor for class distinctions. Why would an entire city population be based on the properties of metal? What use is the prohibition against alloying the metals? The author wants this setting so he can put his story into it, but a setting has to make sense on its own terms [or else be clearly absurd], and this one doesn’t. The worth in it comes when Ashley confronts the metalman and realizes what it really is and how it was created.
She could see how it had been assembled; could trace the human form inside that blasphemy of metal bristles and blades. It was naked—no human clothing could ever fit such a jagged and monstrous silhouette, although shreds of filthy rags still shivered in the wind at the base of some spikes. She saw the iron rods added over time to stretch bone and muscle, giving it longer arms and an extended spine that formed an impressive hunchback and would surely have had it standing well over seven feet tall if it ever stood up straight.
This idea has potential, but it needed more work.
“Until the Moss Has Reached Our Lips” by Matt Jones
Here’s a strangely fantastic setting, an island apparently inhabited by a small clan, that has been invaded by inhuman [or so they seem] creatures called Kaparan, who infiltrate themselves into the very material of the island itself. “They turned the elements against us. They let us waste away.” At last the elders died, but the Kaparan attempted to convert the younger members of the clan to their own ways. However, they didn’t count on Pirro, who refuses assimilation. To escape the island, he has the youngsters dig up the coffins of their dead elders and use these to float away on a stormtide. The elders, he insists, will guide and protect them at sea.
I do not know how long we wait, but I can tell when the water comes, when the flooding starts. I feel the waves crash up against the coffins and then we are all moving. I imagine us a fleet of varnished wood carving over the tree tops and over the sand until we are cresting toward the sky, scraping at dark clouds, pushed up higher and higher into the echo and crack of thunder, the splintering of wood. I feel as if the waves we are riding might carry us above the storm, like we might wash ashore on some airy beach and struggle across fine-grained sand only to find the very bodies once beneath us singing and dancing under the shade of trees, welcoming us home back into the light.
And then things get really weird. The story is enigmatic but fascinating. Who and what the Kaparan are is never really clear; they might even be gods. The youngsters might or might not be dead. But death, here, is clearly not the end of things at all. Or so the Kaparan say, but who knows if they can be believed?
Tor.com, December 2014
“Skin in the Game” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
The setting is a fantastic South Philly inhabited by zombies, vivos and ghosts, not quite literally. The zombies are addicts, the ghosts are homeless, but there are plenty of actual witches around, as well as literal monsters. Jimena is both a witch and a monster, the respective inheritance of her mother and father, but above all a cop whose beat is Zombie City. Now disemboweled corpses are starting to appear there, and she recognizes the handiwork as one of her own kind – the heritage of her father, that she has tried to repress all her life.
Non-Latino folk have magic too. I sense it when I go to the Ukrainian neighborhood to buy pierogies, or when I pick up an order in Chinatown. Sometimes I even feel it reaching out to me from my father’s people if I get roped into working the St. Patrick’s Day parade which, thankfully, isn’t often.
It’s an awful lot of magic for one place. The setting is lively and vibrant, even the grimmer aspects, which have a noirish tone from the cop work. And the monsters are interesting, not-vampires called Nedders [from “adder”] for their origin as snakes. The resolution, however, came as pretty facile. If the Nedders were so easily overcome, I’m not sure why people waited to confront them. And it doesn’t make sense that they committed the killings to smoke out Jimena, when it turns out they knew all along who and what she was, and could have taken her at any time.
“Father Christmas: A Wonder Tale of the North” by Charles Vess
A fairytale version of the origin of Father Christmas. He was once a young hunter who led a normal human life, until one evening he saw a beautiful young woman riding “on the broad back of a great snow bear through a cascade of soft moonlight.” Unfortunately, she was the daughter of the King and Queen of the trolls, but Nikolas was not deterred. He wooed and won her, and the birth of a son completed their happiness until the troll Queen interfered and lured the boy away. Nessa confronted her mother and demanded the child back, but unfortunately, as she returned with him, she was caught by the sun and turned to stone. She left Nikolas with twelve magic stones, which he used to animate twelve wooden daughters that he carved. Again, the family lived happily until the troll Queen again abducted her grandson, as well as the twelve stones, returning Nikolas’s daughters to wood. But he still was undeterred, even when imprisoned.
In that chamber of eternal darkness, on that great root, he carved all the bright memories of his time on earth. And there too he carved all of his hopes and dreams for the future that lay ahead. Those hopes were what nourished his mind and his heart and his body through the long, long years he spent there in that darkness.
A nice seasonal tale. I note that while there are no explicit Christian references here, there is plenty of symbolic imagery, beginning of course with the birth of a baby boy. The story makes use of the potent number twelve, and Nikolas rides through the world on the back of a giant enchanted elk. We can easily see how these elements might mutate into something slightly different, which is what stories do, and I’m sure readers will be making associations of their own. While at the end there might be references to gifts, the heart of this one is the strength of family love.
Some readers may wonder why Nikolas could find the troll home so readily at first, but not later, after Nessa was dead. But locations of this sort tend to be shifty.
“A Long Spoon” by Jonathan L Howard
The necromancer Johannes Cabal finds himself in need of assistance and summons it from Hell.
The choice had been forced upon him by circumstance. If he summoned some common or garden demon, it might feel beholden to report his business to Satan; that would never do. He and Satan were not entirely sympathetic to one another these days. If Satan maintained a Christmas card list—which is not as unlikely as it seems—then Cabal was surely off it.
Her name is Zarenyia, and Cabal would describe her as “really rather beautiful”, if he overlooked the arachnid aspects of her appearance. Cabal’s difficulty had begun when he attempted unsuccessfully to contact the soul of an ancient sorcerer, Luan Da, who reacted by making attempts on his life. After negotiating an amicable agreement with his spider-devil, they are off together into the demonic Abyss, where adventures await.
Much fun, much wit. This piece is part of a series, but enjoying it requires no previous familiarity with the previous tales.
Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers
A novella subtitled: An Anubis Gates story
In a fantastic 19th-century era London, Jacky, wearing a fake mustache, is searching for the monster who murdered her poet fiancé, whose ghost she keeps with her by means of ashes from his pipe in a vial around her neck. She encounters another young woman, Harriet, who is attempting to exorcize a ghost of her own, the Indian husband who wants her to commit “sattee”. Harriet’s attempts fail as her ghost sets her on fire, and when Jacky goes to her aid the two ghosts collide, attracting swarms of other spirits and those who hunt them. In desperation, they seek the aid of Nobody, who lives on a barge in the river, but Nobody has an agenda of his own.
I find it interesting that this could be considered a rather typical contemporary urban fantasy tale, save for the setting in a quasi-historical city. I emphasize the “quasi”, as there is very little of the actual historical London here, save for a few topographical landmarks; it’s a landscape that should be familiar to the author’s readers but quite navigable for those new to it. There’s a lot of interesting ghost lore, which seems to be the original creation of the author. I’m particularly taken by the use of a hopscotch course for the purpose of exorcism.
Of the two protagonists, Harriet seems to belong entirely to this story, while Jacky enters it and leaves it with her adventures incomplete. At this point, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Jacky, whose obsession with vengeance bodes ill for her. Harriet offers her good advice, to which Jacky should have listened.