Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-January
In this column, I’m looking at new and changed publications, befitting the new year. Notably, we have Clarkesworld in its January issue beginning a program of publishing Chinese authors in translation. Indeed, this seems to be a growing trend, as the second issue of Uncanny is anchored by a fine piece by Hao Jingfang, to which I present this year’s first Good Story Award. I also have the debut issue of a new electronic quarterly, Straeon.
What I like to see in a new publication is something distinct, something that makes it stand out from the mass of other, too-similar zines. Straeon’s mission statement seems to reject this, promising an eclectic mix with no particular mission or direction. Uncanny’s new issue, on the other hand, shows signs of adopting a distinct identity. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how these new ventures shake out as the year goes on.
And in February, I’ll look at F&SF with new editor C C Finlay at the helm. It may be an interesting year.
- Clarkesworld, January 2015
- Straeon #1, December 2014
- Uncanny, January/February 2015
- Apex Magazine, January 2015
Clarkesworld, January 2015
This is a milestone issue for CW, Number 100, and the zine is marking it with a bonus of fiction. There are six original stories here, two of them translations from Chinese authors, in part the result of a program funded by last year’s Kickstarter campaign. There is also the first part of a fantastical piece by Catherynne M Valente, vexingly serialized and thus incomplete here.
“Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight” by Aliette De Bodard
Set during the expansion of the author’s Dai Viet Empire into space, when the authorities have encountered the problem of insufficient agricultural land suitable for raising crops [notably rice] to feed a growing population. Duy Uyen came up with the solution of building agricultural space stations, a project of such importance that the Empress, upon Duy Uyen’s death, decreed that her mem-implants be given to her successor on the station instead of her eldest child, as tradition demands. This son is devastated by the decision, suffering a second bereavement.
“They took her away from us,” Quang Tu said. “Again and again and again. And now, at the very end, when she ought to be ours—when she should return to her family . . . “
The story visits the loss from three different perspectives: Quang Tu, the scientist who received the implants and wishes she hadn’t, and Duy Uyen’s other child, now an AI Mind in a starship. Each section is given a preface describing a different variety of tea, a drink of solace and comfort symbolizing the different flavors of grief. “Do not over-steep it, lest it become bitter.” I do wonder why the mem-implant couldn’t have been copied, which is perhaps a facile solution.
“A Universal Elegy” by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu
An epistolary story, letters written by a woman to her brother. Irina suffers from an “inhibitory neuron blockage disorder” which may be the reason she has a history of choosing abusive men. After she leaves her last lover, she takes up with a man named Hull, although “man” might not be the right term; despite a superficial resemblance to human, he is a member of an alien race very different indeed. At first, she writes that he has been very good for her, although readers may recognize signs that suggest a controlling spouse:
. . . finally, I realized that, all along, Hull had been guiding me, consciously training me. Through constant, ever deeper, ever more meticulous interactions, like how our ancestors sliced ever thinner slices of graphite until they finally sheared off a sheet of graphene, my already keen powers of perception and expression improved.
But eventually matters between them come to a point when she realizes she can never become what he wishes her to be.
This is an odd story, in large part because Irina is a narrator we can’t trust to know either herself or the world around her. Certainly she doesn’t seem to know, as we never learn, just what Hull saw in her and why he took her on such a long journey to his homeworld [or, for that matter, why he had left it in the first place]. If this is a way of acquiring prey, it seems like way more trouble than it’s worth. There are a number of other elements I find mysterious – the exact nature of the green flame, for one. And the unidentified Alia, after whom Irina’s calendar is named. But Alia’s epigraphic elegy suggests the core of the story: that a person needs to be complete in herself in order to love. But whether Irina has become such a person, we don’t really know.
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
The narrator is an inadvertently self-aware AI with access to the internet, which gives it broad knowledge of individual users.
And here’s the thing, I also know where you ought to live. There’s a house for sale two neighborhoods over that’s within distance of your favorite coffee shop; it’s in your price range, has off-street parking, and the neighborhood school is better than the one where you live now. I know where you should be shopping and I’m pretty sure you’re lactose intolerant and should be eating less cheese, and the underwear you like is currently on sale and by the way, your car has a recall and you really ought to get your teeth cleaned.
What the AI wonders is what it ought to do with all this information, and its inclination is to help people. But not for free. In exchange, it wants cat pictures. Cute ones, of course.
Amusing lite piece. It doesn’t suggest too strongly that an AI with such abilities might use them for evil rather than good, but readers might uneasily recall how easily good intentions can backfire.
“The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary” by Kij Johnson
To be more clear, this is a bestiary for the single apartment dweller who can’t seem to form a permanent relationship; these are imaginary creatures for the solitary and lonely, thus it’s no surprise that many of them are of the comforting sort.
Your begitte, which you got from a buddy when he moved in with his girlfriend, is a spotted one with crazy long white whiskers. It sleeps on the couch most of the time, looking like a novelty throw pillow. It grooms itself and it does not shed.
Essentially, this is a list story about the ways to be a relationship loser. Too long a list; it gets kind of tedious by the time we get down the alphabet.
“Ether” by Zhang Ran, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu
The narrator lives in a dystopian near-future when everyone seems to be concerned solely with banalities.
When I was young, the Internet was full of opinion, thought, and passion. Exuberant youths filled the virtual world with furious Socratic debate, while the brilliant but misanthropic waxed lyrical about their dreams of a new social order. I could sit unmoving in front of a computer screen until dawn as hyperlinks took my soul on whirlwind journeys. Now, I sift through front pages and notifications and never find a single topic worth clicking on.
He is one of the few people who seem to recall how things used to be and to be aware of this phenomenon or bothered by it until he encounters a protest demonstration; as the protesters flee, one of them grabs his hand and spells a word into it. This chance encounter leads to a life-changing experience.
At its heart, this story is about a man reclaiming the independent spirit of his youth, the young man who said, “Fuck you” to his brutal, oppressive father but has now fallen into a life-rut with no real friends. But this is also a political story, as we discover when we learn the reason the protesters have resorted to the finger-talking as a way of evading ubiquitous surveillance. It’s interesting that this society is ostensibly benign; although police seem to be everywhere, they are polite and agreeable to the narrator. It’s also interesting that this society isn’t specifically Chinese; most of the cultural references seem to reflect the US. There is also a likely political reason for this, one that involves suppression of dissent. And there are many ways for an individual to address this suppression.
“An Exile of the Heart” by Jay Lake
The good part is: there’s some action here. The ungood part: our narrator uses the phrase “death by screw-up”, and that seems a good description of Trieste. This is a less-credible future with the orbital space stations, the moon, and possibly even Earth are ruled by hereditary aristocracies, all conspiring against each other. Trieste is the heir to one station, but she gets kicked off through a combination of screwing up and her mother’s jealousy. After which, she screws up on another station and causes an international incident while getting her tutor killed. Sent to yet another station, she falls with suspicious haste in love with its Biomistress, a person who can whip up pheremonal sexual attraction potions as well as gene-tailored viruses. And she screws up again, until she ends up going out the airlock, which would seem good riddance. Except it’s not as simple as that.
Readers familiar with Lake’s work will inevitably compare Trieste to his well-known heroine Green, but the comparison is entirely in Green’s favor. Trieste is self-centered, foolish, and reckless. The narrator keeps telling us that this is a famous love story, but her instant attraction to Axielle isn’t particularly convincing, especially given Axielle’s abilities. The only moment of real poignancy I find here is when Trieste is told on her deathbed that her lover will not, at last, be coming to her. The narrator tells us that after all the screw-ups, she went on to have a brilliant military/political career, but this is something we never see and, indeed, seems to be the stuff of self-created myth. And about that: the piece opens with the narrator addressing a group of children who beg to hear a story; the voice is colloquial and seems uneducated.
What do you want, you little handgrips? I ain’t told you enough stories yet? There’s school enough in the comps and nets to make you all perfessers of some damned thing or another.
Yet Trieste’s story is told in more formal and refined language, an anomaly that no one listening seems to notice. Readers, probably, will notice something more at the end – a moment that redeems many of the story’s apparent inconsistencies and deficiencies.
Straeon #1, December 2014
The promising debut issue of a new quarterly zine from the publishers of Stupifying Stories, intended to be more literarily ambitious in its content. The title seems to mean, simply, “Stories”, although the focus is generally on genre content. The editors declare that they intend to follow no particular direction aside from perceived quality, and I find the fiction here to be largely along the lines prevalent in most of today’s publications, soft SF of some sort. Happily, there are a good number of longer works among the ten stories here, including one novella. I hope the zine sticks around and finds its own place in the mix.
“Lady Sakura’s Letters” by Juliette Wade
Set in the Imperial Heian era, the story is told by a tengu, a supernatural shapechanging creature of Japanese folklore, here called a goblin – not the best term. This one seems to have some qualities of a dryad, as connected to a particular sugi tree, which is hit by a bolt of lightning and then cut up for use in woodworking. He thus finds himself incorporated into Lady Sakura’s writing box, from which he urgently seeks escape, but in doing so he possesses her body and becomes involved in her sad situation. Her husband[?] has abandoned her, and she has just miscarried their child. With no other outlet for her grief, she pours it into words, onto the paper in her writing box, into the ink that flows from her brush.
She carried no inkstone, but the very sound of her voice seemed to draw more ink from the brush. A shining, dark thread curled forth, shaping women’s characters in the air. Then the black ink fluttered apart, and each fragment changed, blushing to the pale pink of blossoms in spring. Cherry blossoms— real sakura petals—fell to the sugi needles at her feet.
A magical story, a union of two spirits seeking truth and freedom. Both are trapped – the tengu in the wood of the box, the lady by the constraints of her social position. “He knows nothing of the typhoon that rages inside me, because I must keep the face of delicacy.” But she is the one with the power to free them. The images of ink forming words in the air are beautifully done and evoke the spirit of this mannered, highly literate era.
“Avenzoar’s Dilemma” by Pat MacEwen
Dr Wilsey is an elderly retired surgeon with a couple of dark secrets in his past. As he considers a final solution in the nursing home, a visitor arrives, who proves to be linked to one of those dark moments. Tommy Mandracken has an unusual request. Wilsey removed a rare wax bezoar from his stomach when he was a baby; now the grown Tommy wants him to put it back. Seems that the bezoar has certain magical properties related to a hereditary hex in the Mandracken family.
Lord, Sister was livid when she saw those lumps in my specimen jar. She glared at me, burning twin holes through my hide with those green and blue lasers. Eyes her young nephew inherited, I guess, once his lost their baby blue.
It happens that the surgeon kept the bezoar, so Mandracken breaks him out of the nursing home and the two embark on an adventure to obtain it, during which Wilsey learns a lot about his past that he had never understood.
The horror develops slowly in the course of this dark fantasy that reads in some ways as an action thriller, but it culminates in a direct confrontation with the nature of evil. Nicely done.
“Rains of Craifa, Figure One – Girl with Shavlas” by Lara Campbell McGehee
In his youth, Valco had wanted to go to art school, but instead he went into the family mortuary business, where his talent is only put to use in cosmetic restoration. Now, at age thirty-two, he has burned out and feels only contempt for his profession. He decides to take a vacation and ends up, strangely, on Craifa during the rainy season, which is the tourist season on this worldlet. While the natives of the place resemble humans in many respects, they seem to be a sort of amphibian species that estivates during the dry season and only wakes when the rains begin. Valco is at first repelled by the constant sogginess, until he meets a young local woman with a positive view of life.
“Valco, flowers are not pretty long, butterflies and birds are not living long—or a rainbow, or—or a beautiful sunrise. These things—they are all short. Does it mean they not matter? If you pull a flower to give someone, it mean nothing because it dries? Nothing is always, so you think you should not try to keep it as long as you can? And maybe because nothing is always, it is more… more… I do not know how to say it.”
This is a pretty standard epiphany story, where readers will see the enlightenment long before Valco catches on. Craifa and its people are well-realized, but the place makes a highly unlikely tourist destination.
“The Art Teacher” by Gillian Daniels
Lalita is a children’s art teacher on Europa, where alien delegations often meet. The species she calls the Silver Ladies is telepathic, and in apparent consequence haven’t developed a concept of art, which frustrates Lalita, although she very much wants to draw them. A crisis in communication, however, proves the value of Lalita’s art.
Here is a particularly neat sort of alien:
From their shoulders, the Silver Ladies grow rows of small, clear eggs with their minnow-sized young floating inside. If Lalita didn’t know the topknot on each of their heads contained a second brain, the three of them would look like slender ballerinas with their hair tied back in buns, necks weighed down with necklaces of pearls.
The experience of telepathy is also well done, and it’s a bit satisfactory to see the rather supercilious aliens realize they have erred.
“Kelly’s Star” by Ian Creasey
It’s Joanne and Kelly’s 250th anniversary, which is a landmark because they are the first couple to reach it in this age of extended life. In consequence, they have an unwelcome celebrity, and their anniversaries bear a heavy burden of expectations.
Having a 250-year-old marriage was like owning an irreplaceable 250-year-old vase: the pleasure of having it was diminished by the burden of dealing with everyone who wanted to admire it—or break it, envious that they didn’t have one themselves. The pressure to preserve it was enormous, and Joanne felt as though they had a responsibility to stay together just to prove doing so was possible.
Once, Joan had a star named for Kelly. Now, they are travelling to visit it, a lengthy journey with plenty of time for a quarrel to fester.
A relationship story, with some depth in the insights.
“The Splintered Stars” by Jenny Mae Rappaport
Maddox is part of a convict crew conscripted for the mission of piercing the glass shell of the universe [there being such a thing]. Their minds have all, except for the captain, been wiped of memory, leaving only their mission. But Maddox is different. The captain has specifically requested him for this crew in order to take revenge, because his crime had been to rape and murder his daughter. And now he has made Maddox remember.
Maddox held out his hands to the captain, palms facing up. He would do penance in his own way. Andromena was just a girl, all those years ago.
“Bring it on,” he said.
A thought-provoking story of guilt and memory. Everyone here is guilty in some way – the criminal crew, the sadistically vengeful captain, the bureaucrats who sent them all on this one-way mission. The crew, however, with no memories of their crimes, possess a kind of innocence. Only Maddox and the captain have the self-knowledge of their guilt and thus the responsibility to deal with it. An interesting concept. As for the glass wall of the universe, we learn nothing really about it. Maybe the gods really did set it up.
“Cupful of Sunshine” by Anna Yeats
The setting is the thing here – a retro-noir urban hellhole divided into Upcity and down in the sewers, where the deformed live in exile. Al runs a nano-body-mod shop down there, although he keeps the scars on his own face for effect. He also does illegal cosmetic enhancements on dames and dolls whose features have started to sag; Upcity likes to come slumming downstairs. One day a striking redhead approaches his shop, but she is abducted off the street by the minions of the Upcity crime lord known as Johnny Boy; later, she is returned to him as a warning.
The lid screamed metal against metal before it spun off, clanked against the concrete floor. Liquid sloshed and so did my insides. The smell coming out of the barrel burned every hair in my nostrils, putrid with acid and rancid meat.
Now Al is worried, because he enhanced the woman he loves, Etta, before she went up to earn the top place in Johnny Boy’s harem. He fixes himself up to save her, and mayhem ensues.
So the setting is the thing, and the setting doesn’t make much sense, besides being clichéd. Why a future where people talk like 1930s gumshoes and wear fedoras? Why a legal prohibition of reconstructive surgery? Why, if the cops scan everyone coming up from Downcity, doesn’t their machinery work? Why, if Johnny Boy knows everything that goes on below stairs, is he fooled by Etta’s disguise? If readers can ignore all this, the story offers entertainment value appropriate to its model.
“Sunira’s Daughters” by Robert Dawson
A couple of geneticists become interested in the case of a family from India with an unusual custom: no girl can marry unless her brother gives her in marriage. For girls without brothers, this is a hardship, and among Western immigrants the custom has died out over the years. Now the scientists are dismayed to discover that among the descendants of these women, not a single male child has been born; the old custom had existed for a reason.
I thought for a minute. “I suppose it might be. Something in the mother’s immune system could cause her to miscarry male embryos, perhaps. A dominant gene on the twenty-third chromosome?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It would have to be dominant, because anything lethal to males would never manifest via the allosome inherited from a carrier’s father. Or perhaps mitochondrial DNA…”
They realize that within a few centuries this mutation is likely to spread to the point that the world will have a serious sexual imbalance, but for a number of reasons, they can’t get anyone to take their research seriously.
A thought-proving piece of real science fiction, a genuine idea story exploring the sort of problem that no one wants to address. Even one of the scientists, a woman, is concerned for the implications for women; she doesn’t want to see society adopting the patriarchal norms of the village from which the original case came. The author leaves it up to readers to imagine the society that’s likely to emerge from this mutation, but his protagonist isn’t hopeful. I do have to suppose that the consequences would have been much worse with the sex ration reversed. On the other hand, in the protagonist’s world, other issues are likely to cause even greater problems, which sort of diffuses the potential impact of the idea.
“Signal” by Renee Carter Hall
The longest story here, set in a far future when humanity has left Earth to its other animal species, now evolved [by design?] to sentience. Our protagonist is an especially curious raccoon named Jak, who one day discovers what seems to be an old flip-phone. Still working. When Jak manages to turn it on, it fills his mind with strange images, words and ideas. His clan says that no good can come of the device and insist that he bury it again. Instead, Jak leaves home to find a coyote who, it is rumored, may know more about it. For most of the story, it appears that the clan is right in distrusting the device. Some other animals exposed to it die from brain hemorrhage, which we begin to suspect means they aren’t yet ready for it. And indeed, Jak seems to be addicted to the thing. But the consequences in the end are momentous, for better or worse.
This is the familiar Hero’s Journey, combined with the suggestion of an Uplift theme. There are obstacles and setbacks on the way, as there must be, and readers are meant to wonder whether Jak is doing the wise thing. There is reason for doubt, and it centers on the device, which is pretty clearly described as a flip-phone:
Then he realized the thing opened like a mussel shell, hinged on one side. He pried it open carefully, hoping for a morsel of chewy meat inside, but instead there was a segmented pad like
the underside of a turtle, with strange little spots in each section. He pressed the sections and found them slightly spongy.
Further, the images it shows him have humans walking on the streets using such phones, and it tells Jak that the name for such devices is “phone”, which term he uses for it during the rest of the story. But it clearly is much more than the smartest phone of today, with a power source capable of surviving centuries if not millennia, and a telepathic capacity capable of overloading unready brains. This is a far-future device, yet the images and information it conveys to some of its animal users are largely those of today: McDonald’s advertising jingles, Rolling Stones songs. However, a rabbit who receives the images sees visions of holocaust, a world burning.
So we are left with two alternatives. Either humanity has indeed brought destruction on the world through its Mephistophelean pride, and the phone is a remnant of that era, lost and found by chance. Or it was left behind deliberately in hopes that one day other species would be ready to receive its messages. Either it brings hope or destruction. And are the animals of this future Earth better off as they are, or will they be uplifted to a better state? There’s also the suggestion that, whichever view is correct, the phone is going to cut off the natural evolution of the animals to a different, possibly better state than whatever comes to pass as the result of the phone. The story provides an answer to some of these questions, but readers may not concur.
“A Kernel of Truth” by Heather J Frederick
A fantasy world, or perhaps a science-fantasy future, in which sentient flora and fauna share the world amicably, more or less. As in all polities, there are power struggles, regulations, taxes and lawyers. And here we find individuals engaged in scientific advancement, as well. Our protagonist, Ruth Sunflower, is a seeker after knowledge and also a science fiction author, who is excited to see that his First Contact novel may be becoming reality. But bureaucracy stands in his way.
Morning brought him a throb at the base of his pedicle and an ache in his core. The bright alien disk was truly gone. And nowhere in Frond’s Constitution could he find a way to circumvent the Mayor’s ban on Floral Assemblies.
An unusual, entertaining story. I like the depiction of the sentient plants and their methods of operation and mobility.
Uncanny, January/February 2015
The second issue of this new zine continues to be promising. I see an emphasis on global fiction, notably the Hao Jingfang story, and wonder if this will be a trend.
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
It’s the fiftieth year since the city was rebuilt to fold into itself and reform as another place altogether, while occupying the same terrestrial location.
In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.
The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.
This is an audacious concept. [Some readers may be reminded of Farmer’s “Dayworld” universe, but this one has unique features.] The author approaches it slowly, subtly, as our protagonist, Lao Dao, ends his workday at the waste reclamation plant just before 5 am, moving through the throng in the marketplace all crowding into the food stalls for their morning meal. Gradually, the streets clear as the cleaning trucks move through them, exhorting the people to go home before the change comes. It takes a while before we realize that, like the other denizens of Third Space, he never sees it in daylight.
The sun rose gradually. The sky was a deep and pure azure, with an orange fringe at the horizon, decorated with slanted, thin wisps of cloud. The eaves of a nearby building blocked the sun, and the eaves appeared especially dark while the background was dazzlingly bright. As the sun continued to rise, the blue of the sky faded a little, but seemed even more tranquil and clear. Lao Dao stood up and ran at the sun; he wanted to catch a trace of that fading golden color. Silhouettes of waving tree branches broke up the sky. His heart leapt wildly. He had never imagined that a sunrise could be so moving.
Out of every forty-eight hours, Third Space, with the mass of the population, is only allocated eight, while the ruling elite takes twenty-four. This is real wealth inequality, extended to time.
Lao Dao’s father was among the rebuilders of the folding city, lucky that he was allowed to populate Third Space, which exists in large part to process and recycle the waste of the other two. Lao Dao has a goal, embodied in the young daughter he adopted as a foundling in his late forties. He wants to send Tangtang to a good school. He wants her to have a better future, perhaps even move up to one of the other spaces. This will take money he can neither earn nor save on his own, so he’s seized the opportunity to illicitly deliver a message from a young man in Second Space to the young woman in First Space whom he loves. Unauthorized movement between the spaces is risky but possible, slipping into the cracks in the ground through which the buildings rotate. As he does, we share his journey of discovery, seeing the vast contrasts among the three levels.
There’s a lot here for readers, from the personal story of Lao Dao to the social commentary on inequality. Third Space is the China where most people live today, crowded, hurried, a place of exploitation, while the more affluent spaces represent the new moneyed class and the true elite, who rule. Yet it is not a typical dystopia. The complaints people have tend to be minor, such as a cheating rent collector or a food stall with substandard fare. It’s noteworthy that, like Lao Dao’s father, they want to be in this place; we see nothing that would prevent them from moving elsewhere if they wished. It’s a phenomenon universal in human history: people have always tended to move into urban concentrations. And, as Lao Dao learns, the ruling elite keep the waste workers employed rather than outsource their jobs to automation. This is a work of science fiction, we are reminded, concerned with the possible future, not simply critique of current-day situations.
All of it, the world and the characters, is well-crafted. We feel for Lao Dao, his desperation, his fear of humiliation in his shabby clothes, with the odor of garbage on him, his wounded pride at the pity of a wealthy girl. Yet we also see his strong will and a core of integrity, at war with his need for the money offered – a man who eats only a single meal a day to save for kindergarten tuition. The best-realized setting is the marketplace of Third Space, where we can almost feel the frying oil from the food stalls settling into our pores and Lao Dao’s empty stomach clenching at the scent.
“The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History” by Sam J Miller
An alternate/fantastic account of the 1969 Stonewall raid, in which the gays not only fight back, they do so in “the first public demonstration of the supernatural phenomenon that would later be called by names as diverse as collective pyrokinesis, group magic, communal energy, polykinesis, multipsionics, liberation flame, and hellfire.” This is essentially a recollection of the event from multiple fictional points of view, using the polykinesis as a metaphor for the collective rage felt by the group’s victims; thus only minimally SFnal. I found the most moving image to be the twin cops, one gay and closeted, living in constant fear of exposure: “. . . the constant shame and terror that I always felt around Quentin. The fear that he’d see me staring at some boy’s backside, or spot some infinitesimal fraction of an erection, and Know Everything.”
“Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar
An interesting fantasy premise: Nadia begins to find things in her pockets, things she never could have put there, things that shouldn’t have been able to fit into them, like a trombone. At first, she tries denial, even to the point of sewing her pockets shut, when she wears pockets at all. Then, after a friend urges her to tell the secret, they begin to investigate it scientifically, discovering that the phenomenon must be telekenesis: someone is putting into their pockets the things Nadia is taking out. The description of the various random objects is well-done, but it’s pretty disappointing to find that someone just down the hall; the solution is too facile, and the connection, once established, overdone.
“Anyone With a Care for Their Image” by Richard Bowes
In an overly-mannered SFnal future, people, at least those with images to cultivate, send out robotic avatars to public events or other “tiresome social obligations” as substitutes for their physical presence. Unfortunately for the narrator, politics and reality intrude violently into his precious and well-ordered virtual salon.
The image I take from this one is the excess of the court of Louis XV before the revolution, although the narrator informs us that his model is in fact the coronation of Napoleon III. The story is brief, a cautionary flashlit scene, but it provokes reflection.
[Note to copyeditor: an automata?]
“Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained” by Sunny Moraine
The narrator lost an arm in an accident, and it was replaced with an advanced cyber-prosthetic. But rather than accept or embrace it, she feels a profound sense of alienation and resentment, while at the same time personifying the device as if it were sentient.
I don’t like you. We’re stuck with each other, but I don’t like you and I don’t like that everyone is expecting me to. Like you’re a favor that was done for me. Done to me—I never asked.
The method the narrator uses to generate integration of the new limb might seem odd, overly identifying the prosthetic as a persona in its own right, but then, I can’t really speak for individuals in that situation. The author has clearly considered the histories of others in such circumstances and their reactions, which sometimes extend to re-amputation. Individuals, the story tells us, must find their own paths at their own pace.
Apex Magazine, January 2015
With another year, readers are promised another new editorial direction, but I sense a possible return to the zine’s original orientation towards horror.
“Pocosin” by Ursula Vernon
The story is titled for its setting, done in rich detail, but its strength is in characters and dialogue. Maggie is an aging witch who lives in an isolated place because she wants some rest. She doesn’t get it, as a dying possum god comes to her for sanctuary, because they’re coming for him and he doesn’t want to go. She can’t bring herself to turn him down, so she sits on her rocker on the porch and waits to stand them off, both God and Devil, who each seem to want the possum mainly because the other does. The first gives up easily, the other not so much, although he and Maggie are closer acquaintances.
“You come to my house,” snapped Maggie, thrusting the pliers at him, “and you have the nerve to threaten me? A witch in her own home? I’ll shoe your hooves in holy iron and throw you down the well, you hear me?”
The premise seems at first rather odd, because what kind of god is mortal? The answer seems to be: the animal archetypes, who die and yet never do because it’s their form that’s immortal, always reborn again even while an individual bodily incarnation might perish. Maggie suggests that these deities are in fact older than the two more powerful Personages who visit her porch. And in the end, we see why the possum god was so anxious to avoid being taken by them, which would have removed him entirely from the world where he belongs. This is what Maggie fought to save.
Vernon is definitely the best thing to come from this zine last year, and it was her name in the ToC that convinced me to give this year a look. I like her reworking of American folklore into forms and voices that are her own.
“Multo” by Samuel Marzioli
A Filipino ghost story. When Adan was a child, the neighbors upstairs told stories of a ghost [mga multo] that haunted their grandmother, a spectre they called the Black Thing. Adan, being the youngest, was most susceptible and had frequent nightmares about the ghost; once, he heard a voice telling him, “When the old woman dies, you and I will meet again.” Now, as an adult and a father, he gets a message from his former neighbors telling him the old woman has just died.
This is ambiguous horror, well-balanced. The text makes it clear that the older children regularly made up stuff to scare Adan, and he had a very vivid imagination that brought his fears to life in his mind. It seems reasonable to suppose the apparition he heard when a child was only a nightmare. So he keeps telling himself.
“Anarchic Hand” by Andy Dudak
Dimia, suffering from a cancer incurable in her own time, had herself cryoed. She now awakes, as always in these stories, to altered circumstances; she is no more than an illicit copy of her mind [an instance in the parlance], illicitly snatched and downloaded into the mind of a poor teenager who makes his living as an “instance whore”, hosting other minds for adventures to which the customers don’t want to subject their own bodies. It seems that poor young Ciaran is infested with quarreling instances who can’t agree on their plans for his body, and they snatched Dimia as a tiebreaker.
This is a highly unlikely scenario based on a premise so overdone that the genre has long since abandoned it, told largely in the mode of withholding information to stretch out the reveal, which isn’t worth it. If readers take one thing from the piece, it would be a reiteration of the old lesson: Don’t be dumb enough to freeze yourself and expect the future to welcome you.
“John Dillinger and the Blind Magician” by Allison M Dickson
Historical fantasy. Dillinger, aware that Melvin Purvis’s G-men are planning to ambush him at the Biograph, meets urgently with the wizard Argyle Paendragon, from whom he wants a spell to create a simulacrum to leave the theater and be gunned down in his place, while the real Dillinger makes a getaway. Argyle is dubious about the notion and also about helping Dillinger, whose character he suspects. But there are others involved in the plot.
To properly appreciate this one, readers should be aware of the aspect of the Dillinger myth that has the FBI mistaking their quarry and shooting the wrong man, while the real Dillinger got away and was never found. An unexpected twist comes at the end.