Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early February

Featuring the first regular issue of F&SF under the new editorial hand of C C Finlay. I use the issue as a springboard to discuss the state of science fiction and look at the science-fictional state of some smaller zines as well, which leads me to the following conclusion: science fiction is the literature of the new, the different, the not previously conceived. But too much published under the label is based on old, stale, shopworn ideas, reused. Again and again, I see stories with no original notions or original approaches to the standard tropes. There can be no sense of wonder when we’ve already seen the story before.


Publications Reviewed


F&SF, March/April 2015

I don’t think there were many readers of this zine who didn’t suspect the possibility last year when F&SF announced a forthcoming special issue guest-edited by Finlay. Even fewer, after a second Finlay issue was announced: the one we now have before us. But even before it came out, the announcement was made, the guard was changed, and the zine now has a new editor.

These transitions, of course, are rarely abrupt. The magazine has material already purchased, which will undoubtedly continue to appear throughout the year to come, in some admixture of old and new. But for now, this issue will serve as a foretaste of sort of fiction we’re likely to find here by sometime in 2016.

The signs are pretty good. There’s a lot of fiction here – twelve stories in a diverse mix fairly evenly divided among science fiction, fantasy, and both/neither, including the sort of thing I’ll stuff into a convenient portmanteau and call “slipstream”, although it’s usually soft fantasy. [I have more to say about science fiction at the end of the review.] The tone likewise ranges from depressing [Bao Shu] to lite horror [Kim] to several humorous pieces. In short, Finlay follows the zine’s long tradition by offering something for everyone. This, of course, means that not everyone will like every piece equally, but there’s enough stuff here that most people should find something. I particularly liked the Berger story, among others.

“What Has Passed Shall in a Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu, translated by Ken Liu

This is the showcase novella, the longest in the issue by far, translated from the Chinese. At which, reflecting on my recent column from mid January, I can only think: “What’s the Chinese term for steam engine?” Because it definitely seems to be the moment when the genre undergoes another transformative moment, this one internationalization, with Chinese translations predominating at the moment.

It’s an idea story, the idea being Time and its direction. We begin four years before the year of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which two small children witness with joy and wonder. They are Xie Baosheng, our narrator, and his lifelong love Qiqi. But first, Xie tells us he was born on a portentous day, when “some suggested the Earth was passing through the galactic plane; still others claimed that the universe was starting to collapse.” Readers should keep this in mind. It’s a time of prosperity and hope; Xie’s father makes a good living with computers; there are high-def screens where kids can play cool games. But then, slowly and inexorably, things fall apart. Readers may first get the idea when the SARS epidemic strikes. Or when Saddam drives the Americans out of Iraq. Or when the LCD screens are replaced by cathode ray tube monitors. History has started to run backwards.

Perhaps the most dominant impression here is how the condition of Chinese society [today], relative to what came before, is seen as fortunate; Xie looks back on his childhood as an idyllic time before events came to blight his life. Although he had times of relative prosperity, interspersed with years of loss, altogether it was a downward path through a succession of national catastrophes, most notably Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The title makes it clear that these conditions are a matter of perspective. But what we find here are people experiencing the events with the perspective of those who recall what seems to them to be the past, yet in many ways as if it were new to them. This is paradoxical.

By the time the story nears its end, readers will have long since realized what’s going on with time, but the author finally addresses it directly when Xie meets Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he has a philosophical discussion, as Xie seems to grasp the situation when he declares the world must be absurd.

“If the existence of the world has meaning, the world must advance, don’t you think? Otherwise what is the point of generation struggling after generation? The world appears to be a twisted shadow of some reality.”

While Sartre counters

Progress is not a constant. It is merely a temporary phase of this universe. I’m no scientist, but the physicists tell us that the universe expands and then collapses and then expands again, not unlike the cosmic cycles envisioned by your Daoist philosophers. Time could easily flow in another direction…or in one of countless directions. Perhaps events can be arranged in any of a number of different sequences, because time may choose from an infinite set of options.

Yet the events coming as they have seem to validate Xie’s belief that freedom and choice are meaningless. The course of the world seems predetermined, without much reference to cause and effect, which are upside down. To readers viewing from outside the timeline, what we also have here is a Cautionary Tale: what happened once might yet happen again; freedom can be gained, yet it also can be lost.

While Time can be a science-fictional topic, pace Sartre, we don’t have a scientific treatment of it here. Nor is the story actually alternate history, although there are affinities. This is fantasy, albeit not a work of absurdity; we seem to be meant to take these events literally and seriously, as more than just a metaphor. But this is hard to do. It’s not a Benjamin Button situation where life moves from old age to infancy, much less a Time’s Arrow. Rather, the opposite. The Mao, the Chiang, the other versions of these historical characters live in what we must conceive of as the normal direction, just as Xie and the story’s other characters do, while the events through which they live are retrograde, and the circumstances which impel them to act aren’t there. Just as it’s implausible that, if economic hardship made production of flatscreen monitors impossible, people would start to construct cathode ray tubes and, later, abandon them, as well. This sequence of events presumes the knowledge is lost, the memory, yet in the story, memory is the most valuable thing people retain. In short, I don’t think the idea really works, not as a premise to be taken literally.

Nonetheless, it works to provoke some worthwhile thoughts. The real problem with the work lies elsewhere. Xie is an Everyman character, in the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the joys and tragedies of his life, we see the history of the Chinese people in the 20th century. But if his portrayal is broad, it’s thereby shallow. Xie doesn’t come fully to life. His one great passion is for Qiqi; otherwise, he has moderate revolutionary tendencies and a certain personal honesty, but for the most part he exists to be caught in the currents of history and carried passively upstream. The result is a narrative that’s flat and a storyline that’s pretty dull going, outside of figuring out the retrograde course of events, which is the real interest.

“A Residence for Friendless Ladies” by Alice Sola Kim

This one begins with strong suggestions of sexuality politics, but in fact it’s old-fashioned horror. Our narrator, self-identifying as a male, was born into a particularly curvaceous female body. When his boarding school took note of the effects of hormones he was dropping, they informed his parents, who planned to send him to a punitive institution. His only refuge is with his grandmother at her eponymous home, a place halfway between residence and reformatory, where he’s forced into skirts and makeup, and taken off testosterone. But the really bad thing, even worse than his body getting its period again, is the house itself, which swallows people.

My door doesn’t lock. Other doors do but not mine. My feet are braced; I push against the door with my whole weight. The knob shudders. I press harder and my hands begin to slip against the door. I look down. Something is seeping out of the wood. It dampens, grows tacky and icky and begins to give off a smell that is underground and personal and all too familiar and finally my feet slide too far and I fall on the floor and flail back up to run to my bathroom, where I puke all over the sink.

Neat icky horror-stuff there. The ending suggests a positive outcome for the narrator, but I note that we don’t follow him through and thus never learn the outcome. Ambiguity is definitely the proper concluding note for this sort of piece.

“The Mantis Tattoo” by Paul M Berger

The sciences here are paleontology and anthropology, with certain beliefs reported by anthropology literalized, so that we have to believe in the guardian animal spirits and the magical spells they teach their peoples. Mantis is real, and so is Fanged Lion. We’re perhaps fifty thousand years ago, somewhere in Africa or Eurasia, when there were several contemporaneous species of homo roaming the land. Our hero is a young fellow named Nudur, just coming to the manhood age of being claimed by some totemic animal. Nudur isn’t regarded as promising by his tribe; he’s not a good hunter, and he makes up for this by cheating and lying. But these traits are just the ones to attract the trickster spirit Mantis, who speaks to him from the body of a dead porcupine.

“Hear me, boy,” it says in human speech. “The Fathers of Man are returning. Seek them.” Its cleft lips flap around its great orange incisors to form the words. “Seek them and guide them to their rightful land.”

And since this apparition was witnessed by others, Nudur can’t get out of his destiny. Mantis is not only the guardian of his tribe, but all the Human Beings.

Everyone knows by heart the story of that great bet, and how Fanged Lion in his arrogance mocked the challenge of little Mantis to all the world, and thus ensured his own exile when Mantis bested him through cunning rather than strength. Fanged Lion was shamed, and the Fathers are long gone. Now there are only a handful of scattered tribes of Human Beings, hunting alone and nearly starving on the wide plains.

Now, with a tattoo of Mantis on his face, he has set off to find the Fathers of Man, who have indeed returned, calling themselves the People, and Nudur’s folk the Ones Who Stayed Behind. The People are larger, stronger, and better hunters of large game, nor are they stupid. Further, their spirit guardian, Fanged Lion, is an enemy of Mantis. It soon becomes clear that they intend to take over the land of the Human Beings, with or without leaving any of them alive. This is clearly a job for Mantis, or at least someone as tricky as him.

There have been a number of stories concerning the meeting of modern humans and their predecessor species, a particularly favorite trope of mine. I’m not surprised to find that Berger has done it well; his story “Subduction” was my favorite F&SF piece from 2014, from the first Finlay-edited issue. This one combines the best of two genres: a neat trickster story from the folklore tradition, and paleontological speculation about the way modern humans might have prevailed in a contest between the species. I’m only sorry that I do have one quibble: it’s clear that so much time has passed since the two peoples last encountered each other, there’s no way they would be speaking the same language. Even so,


“Things Worth Knowing” by Jay O’Connell

Dystopian SF. Corporations have militarized, and schools, such as they are, are securitized, with the staff authorized to use deadly force. Stanley is nominally a teacher but actually a proctor/security guard. The few kids in the public school system, from the projects, come to the building for testing in the subjects they’ve picked up privately, but mainly for the free lunch, while Stanley keeps order. Then there is Joel, officially in eighth grade but working at a grad-school level. Stanley is immediately alarmed. The corporations are going to get hold of those scores and start a recruiting war, which in this situation involves heavy weaponry and taking the kid’s mother hostage.

He used his mobile to seal and electrify the security shutters. As they clanked down, a girl in a headscarf lying on the front steps, a sixth grade dropout by the name of Sarafina, popped her head up and met Stanley’s eye. She visited her younger sister for recess. She looked terrified but was as yet unbloodied. But ricocheting bullets didn’t discriminate between those on U.S. government property and those in the South Bronx Enterprise Zone.

The story of a man caught in a failing bureaucracy who finds something to care about, something to fight for. Stanley is a believable and realistically-done character in a world not too extremely distorted for credibility.

“La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley

Here is 100% fantasy action at an illicit tourney fought in 17th-century France. By no means are all the participants human. There are faery lords, talking mushrooms, and a lord of Hell himself, come to harvest souls with his swords. And there is our heroine La Héron, an outsized duelist of considerable skill but no second, which the rules demand. Fortunately, the local convent holds an unwilling inmate who regularly escapes to get into alley brawls. Sister Louise-Alexandrine eagerly accepts the position of second, and the games are on.

The duelists bowed and assumed their positions atop the butter-colored walls, surrounded on both sides by the waters of the storm-brought lake twenty feet below them. Herlechin was twice as tall as La Héron remembered. He wielded two longswords in the German fashion, neither blade as long or as swift as La Héron’s, but heavy, dangerous-looking affairs nonetheless. She could see no eyes in the black pits of his demon’s face, yet somewhere in their depths, La Héron sensed damnation.

Fun stuff. The demonic side, of course, cheats, but I can’t say the others don’t, either.

“This Is the Way the Universe Ends: with a Bang” by Brian Dolton

A cosmological mystery. As the universe runs out, ninety-two entities remain. In order of age, Titus is the seventh. The entities are divided into three parties: the Faction of the Inevitable, awaiting and accepting ultimate death; the Conclave of Those Who Will Pass Through, into the new universe born from the old; the Cabal, which plans to end the old universe and accelerate the process of forming a new. Titus is a member of the Conclave who happens on a machine object that suddenly launches an attack on her.

The attacker does not show itself. Ghost structures burst from underspace, filaments and vortices that whirl against Titus, attempting to tear her apart. She responds immediately. Attack is unprecedented, almost unthinkable. Titus therefore, in an instant, creates sentient subcomponents for which attack is not only thinkable, but purposeful. Attack, and also of course defense. She is not, after all, immortal. Anything and everything can be destroyed. In a near-dead universe, the Ninety-Two know this all too well.

Titus survives to face a more difficult task, figuring out what motivated the attacker and what its ultimate plan had been.

A rule of mysteries demands that a clue to the solution of the problem be present near the beginning where alert readers could spot it, but the placement of the clue should be such that most readers only realize this after the secret has been revealed. According to this criterion, the story is a success. Even readers who do identify the figure behind the attack are less likely to figure out the full complexity of the plot. Titus, who occupies the detective role, does it as an amateur, unaccustomed to the violence that plunges her suddenly into both self-defense and investigation. In the end, she also displays insight and courage – a worthy protagonist.

“Last Transaction” by Nik Constantine

This one opens as one of those future stories when computer programs obstruct justice, told in computer messages.

Personal financial accounts accessed. Current account balance: -25037.6 credits. Select an option to repeat this balance in yuan, rupees, yen, or the US denomination of the now-defunct United States. Be advised: Federated Colony Credit Union will cease providing American currency services on August 15, 2136 as per —

Normally, these stories go on to wrap the hapless citizen victim in a growing web of bureaucratic snares, in the mode of tragicomedy. Here, however, is something else. Our victim has unusual resources and ingenuity, knows how to fight back. Cleverly done, a SFnal cliché neatly inverted.

“Little Girls in Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce

We open with this scene in the museum:

there were three twisted human skeletons posed in elegant and writhen shapes. The first skeleton curled like the inner parts of a rose, twisting at the ribcage and wrapping her arms with the twist in a frozen hug; the femurs and tibias of each leg were crossed and lifted over the head. Another bent backward with her skull near her pelvis and her left hand reaching its thin, knobby finger bones toward the glass. The skeleton on the far right was from a slightly earlier time than the other two. Her right femur pointed downward, as if she were kneeling, and the other leg stuck arrow-straight out to her left. She bent sideways at the waist, arm slung over her head to grip the arch of the outstretched foot. The left arm had once been used for balance but now dangled uselessly. They hung together, shellacked in the display, suspended lifeless and lifelike by fishing wire.

Even in life, these women were known as bone knots, created by makers who tied their bodies into these contorted positions until the muscles frozen into place, after which they were sold as conversation pieces to the rich. We follow the life of one bone knot until she ends up in the museum, reduced to her osteal essence; it isn’t the life of happy admiration that she had bargained for. In an alternating timeline, a little girl viewing the skeletons in the museum longs to have such beauty.

A fable of the ways women have distorted themselves, and been distorted, to fit unnatural images of beauty. Readers may think first of foot-binding, but there are plenty of other examples to be found today. The stubborn little girl, however, strikes me as overkill. I can’t help thinking that most of the so-called beauty of the living bone knots would have disappeared with their flesh, their hair, their gorgeous garments. Catching dust in a display case, they only seem sad.

“A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell” by Jonathan L Howard

The narrator is a bartender in an interdimensional establishment called “Helix”, which suggests it’s a twisty place. Today, he is afflicted with a series of time travelers.

The man sighs and looks at me, and I know he is going to favor me with a confidence. “Would you believe me,” he says, “would you believe me if I said I was a time traveler?”

So it wasn’t a confidence after all. We get all sorts in here and several of them are time travelers. “Really, sir?” I says, and I says it with sincerity because there is nothing to be insincere about.

Comedy of paradoxical manners, absurdly whimsical, with the strength in the narrative voice.

“How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion” by Jenn Reese

Instructions and suggestions for alien infiltrators:

Here is what to do: go stand in a candle aisle at a large market until you can identify the following scents: pine, cinnamon, pumpkin pie, and “winter.” (Do not let the last one alarm you; winters on this planet last months, not years.)

The shortest piece in the issue uses aliens as a metaphor for the Outsider attempting to fit into a society; as actual aliens, they barely take shape.

“A User’s Guide to Increments of Time” by Kat Howard

Chronomancy: time magic. A pair of former lovers war on each other by stealing each other’s time. It wasn’t always that way.

They wished so much for extra time together that it came to them almost unbidden: Siobhan’s hands moving in horological patterns as she slept, and scattering the dust and grit forgotten on the floor; Finn’s unwatch whirring in reverse, even though he had not set it spinning.

Beautiful images and metaphors here, a story less about time than love turned destructive in hate.


“Bilingual” by Henry Lien

A largely fact-based piece. A young Japanese-American girl is upset by the exploitation of dophins in a marine park, particularly after learning how some of them are captured in the course of dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. She decides to fight back, using that universal medium of the young, Twitter.

Akari Yamaguchi retweeted
Ann Cho @DianFoxxey Dec 21
OMG watched The Cove tonight. Cant sleep. Sound of those dolphin squeals and squeaks in my head all night. Been crying all night.

Akari Yamaguchi @DolphinMemeGirl Dec 21
.@DianFoxxey Squeals and pulsed squeaks mean distress. THEY ARE SCREAMS. Hey DM me if u need to talk, k? Hugs.

Readers will note that the piece is set in 2014, and it seems largely probable for that time, her scheme being carried on entirely with then-current technology. Seatopia security [the SS] is portrayed a bit excessively as heavies, but then these are meant to be teenage girls tweeting.

Postscript: Science Fiction

There has been discussion recently about the state of science fiction, particularly Hard SF – whether it is being displaced by fantasy or slipstream or simply dying out, through reader indifference or author distraction. Thus I was interested to see the number of stories here that could fall under the SF label.

First thing: there is no really Hard SF. That is, stories in which a scientific premise is central and rigorously developed. The closest piece to it is “This is the Way the Universe Ends . . .” in which cosmology is central; the setting is the universe nearing its end, and the storyline is driven by the urgency of the situation. The text also includes a lot of skiffy terms to give it a science-fictional flavor: “condensate cloud”, “quantum-state conversions”, “twisted strings”, “hyperdense matter”. But the setting puts us into the “sufficiently advanced technology” condition, in which the characters are entities so far beyond our comprehension that it’s impossible to tell if they are rigorously developed or not, if the pivotal concept is scientifically plausible. SF it definitely is, though, and I’m glad to see it here.

“Things Worth Knowing” is also unequivocally science fiction, set in a conceivable future and concerned with the ways changes in society will affect some of the individuals living there. But there is no specific science at its core; the technology is only minimally advanced from that of today. Likewise, “Last Transaction” is clearly science fiction based on computer technology extrapolated from trends today, but the main interest is the effect of ubiquitous computer control on individuals, not in any real advances in the technology itself.

In short three good examples of what real science fiction can be. After them, I find a couple of stories that are nominally SF, using common SFnal tropes. These are the sorts of stories that typically appear under the SF tag in today’s magazines. Time travel is a common theme in speculative fiction, broadly conceived, but it’s not often developed with scientific rigor. This is also true in “A Small Diversion . . .” which is mostly concerned with paradoxes. The setting, however, is fantastic in skiffy guise; when Jesus is a character, I can tell this isn’t strictly science fiction, although I put in on the SF side of the genre divide. Even more so, “How to Masquerade . . .” employs the notion of aliens, which, again, is a speculative trope commonly considered SF but rarely developed scientifically; here, they are essentially metaphorical, which places the piece into slipstream territory. Finally there is “Bilingual”, which has a SFnal tone but no real speculative content.

Readers shouldn’t suppose that I object in any way to the latter set of stories. I was quite amused by the Howard time travel piece. Indeed, in a zine like F&SF, which is premised on diversity of genre, these kinds of stories belong as well as any of the other kinds. But in a genre environment where actual science fiction appears to be an endangered species, I’m happy to find three real specimens here, and I hope the editor keeps it up.



Clarkesworld, February 2015

I was brought to misgiving when I read the editorial content of this issue, including a piece in praise of YA fiction. CW is a venue where I expect to find sophisticated adult fiction, literary SF in particular. And the fiction here doesn’t really allay my misgivings.

“The Last Surviving Gondola Widow” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A fantasy alternate history, set perhaps in some version of our late 1919, after the Civil War, which, as in our timeline, the South lost, despite their magically-engineered Gondola* fleet, womanned by female engineers with a strong, specific bond to their own craft, so that they were called Gondola Wives. Many people here have some type of magical gift; Lou’s is mental coercion, which she puts to good effect as a Pinkerton agent [to the extent that Pinkerton agents in this timeline are up to good]. It seems that some time after the war, the South had assembled a new Gondola fleet and sent it to attack Chicago; the consequences were catastrophic, both to the fleet and the city, when fire-magic set the Gondolas aflame. Most of their engineers died in the fires; some escaped. Lou’s dedicated task has been their capture.

We’d caught dozens of Gondola widows in the aftermath of the day the Gondolas died. Gondolas, married to their female engineers, responded to the engineer’s voice and the touch of her hand. First the voice. Then the Gondola would locate its engineer—its wife—and fly toward her.

What Regalese and I did was gather up the remaining pieces of the Gondolas and take them to potential widows. The pieces would respond to the voice, and float to the engineer, identifying her as a Gondola wife/widow.

Now she and her partner believe they have discovered one surviving engineer, but identification, so much later, now presents problems.

An ingenious, if complex premise, but the heart of the story lies in Lou’s self-doubt when it comes to the execution of her plan to cause her target to betray herself. Readers may find it of interest that part of this story is based on historical fact, the crash of the Wingfoot Express dirigible in 1919. As in the story, the flaming blimp fell into the skylight of a bank building, with great loss of life, if not quite so great as portrayed here.

[*] A gondola, as the text makes clear, involves a spherical balloon, not an elongated dirigible, as the illustration would have it.

“Indelible” by Gwendolyn Clare

It seems that a group of refugee aliens with a morphing ability have come to Earth seeking asylum but finding intolerance. Most are crowded into a ghetto, but one young female was taken in by Cheng’s family, where the two girls become as close as sisters, until they are betrayed. Now Cheng is searching among the Shurkar in hopes of finding some of her sister’s kin.

This piece epitomizes the reasons I don’t look forward to a lot more YA among my reading. The story is heavily sentimental and simplistic, with all the Shurkar we encounter wise and tolerant, while all the humans the opposite.

“The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill” by Kelly Robson

We find Jessica in an unusually dire situation, trying to get home by hitchhiking after being murdered by a serial killer and revived by parasitic aliens.

Jessica slumped against the inside of the truck door. The girl behind the wheel and the other one squished between them on the bench seat kept stealing glances at her. Jessica ignored them, just like she tried to ignore the itchy pull and tug deep inside her, under her belly button, where the aliens were trying to knit her guts back together.

The killer had cut her up pretty good, but the aliens – telepathic bacterial types – keep putting her back together, even when she dies, because they need a live host. Jessica increasingly distrusts them, knowing enough about parasitic infections to suspect they might be controlling her behavior, as when they insist she shouldn’t go to a hospital.

This YA has a lot more interest going for it. Jessica had enough problems before she was murdered – family and school – and her current situation just makes things worse. She’s a self-reliant character, as she must be with no one else to rely on. The question is whether she can rely on or trust the aliens who are keeping her alive and [they claim] healing her. The story is set, for some reason that isn’t clear, on the eve of 9/11. If I were to guess, I’d say that the author is suggesting a parallel between Jessica’s situation and the passengers of Flight 93, but that’s only a guess. More clear is her concern of the disaster that might ensue if the aliens do happen to be malignant and spread to the general population. But I’m not sure how strongly Jessica’s distrust of them is grounded.

I have to wonder whether the title was inspired by the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a favorite.

“Meshed” by Rich Larson

A future in which everything seems subservient to marketing. At least, so it is in Victor’s life. He’s a recruiting agent for Nike, sweating hard to sign a brilliant young basketball talent from Senegal, but Oxford Diallo refuses to go along with the demand to have neural mesh installed, for marketing reasons. [As Victor’s boss puts it: “How the fuck are we supposed to market him without a mesh?”] Oxford has good reasons for his distrust. The neural net was originally military tech, and his grandfather was a soldier; Oxford made him a promise.

“It means a soldier cannot break ranks or desert,” [the father] says. “A soldier cannot turn down an order to execute six prisoners taking up too much space in the convoy. Someone else, someone far away, will pull their finger to pull the trigger.” He sloshes wine into his glass and tops mine off, gesturing with his other hand. “A soldier cannot be interrogated, because someone far away will lock their jaws shut, or, if the interrogation is very painful, unplug their brainstem.”

This is the only science fiction piece in the issue, but the heart of the story is more its characters than the technology. All three – Oxford, his ailing father, and Victor – are fully formed humans, each with his own version of integrity, pride, and shame. The final scene is just heartbreaking.

I find it a bit odd that the author references an actual company instead of the more usual practice of an invented one, like, say, “Nibok”.




On Spec, Fall 2014

A belated issue of this little zine, one of the last to still appear in print, although an editorial mention of a funding shortfall may presage change. The six stories here are mostly soft SF, pretty mediocre and unoriginal overall.

“Chance Encounters” by Janet K Nicolson

A dog story. What Chance encounters are the aliens responsible for cattle mutilations in the area, which is of great professional interest to him, Chance being a cattle herding dog. Most of the story involves Chance’s relationship with his pack, who think he’s imagining the strange scent he detects, and with his pack leader George, the rancher. I don’t believe the alien’s claim of innocence; I think he’s putting something over on Chance.

“A Primer on the Ins and Outs of Building Bliss” by Brent Knowles

Levi is involved in a project meant to culminate in the creation of a new afterlife, a notion that raises far more questions than the story addresses. Since Levi and his professor aren’t gods, I assume that the project is a simulation, just as the current phase is a simulation of life, with the variable being faith in a life to come. The problem is that all his variations on faith aren’t working. His subject, a simulation he calls Carol, keeps ending up in suicidal despair.

The problem here is crediting the premise. Why would anyone fund a project to create a simulated afterlife? [And if it’s not simulated, that makes the credibility problem worse.] It makes more sense, although not a lot, to consider it simply as a psychological simulation, even if detached from real life. The only possible aspect I find of any interest is the Cartesian problem of the subjectivity of experience, as the professor says of Carol: “She’s real enough . . . in her own world.” Which of course makes us wonder if he and Levi are likewise simulations in some higher order project, ad infinitum. But that’s a path the story doesn’t seem to take.

“Walk the Dinosaur” by Jayme Allen

In which we learn that velociraptors aren’t successful on the job front. As if we had supposed otherwise. Very silly.

“Sunchild Blues” by Al Onia

A generation ship, populated by the descendants of humans who had separated themselves from their self-destructive species in hopes of a transcendent evolution – any form of transcendence will do. Instead, they recreated self-destructive behavior in the form of religion. In the meantime, the ship is failing. Solana, who turns out to be highly transcendent, with a complete suite of psychic abilities, keeps the ship running and her father’s life extended as long as she can, but time is running out.

A lot of clichés here, the worst being the fathead Theocratic Council and Solana’s inexplicable near-godhood.

“Downtime” by Melanie Marttila

A research institute succeeds in creating an AI robot, but the creators inexplicably restrict its development and concentrate on giving it a sexual identity, which even the robot knows it doesn’t need. There’s also a clichéd villainous villain, who all but twirls his mustachios.

“A Little Leavening” by Allan Weiss

In the tradition of Ashkenazi folklore. Eliezer the wizard is under a curse, incurred long ago as punishment for his sin of asking too many questions and the “poking around in mysteries that were none of his business.” Now he wanders the Earth, bound to give his aid to whomever asks it. This, unfortunately, leaves him stuck in a peasant village with a multitude of tasks to be done, which means he won’t be able to reach the place of the seder in time for Passover.

Amusing tale in which Eliezer learns a lesson and may have his curse lifted, or maybe not. I don’t like the idea of cursing someone for seeking knowledge, however.



Perihelion, January 2015

In the course of my recent ongoing search for rigorous science fiction, this zine was recommended to me. It uses a publishing model I don’t particularly like: posting material through the month in lieu of in an issue. Thus, while the masthead declares it “updated” January 12, readers who use these columns to find potential award material should be aware that most of these pieces would have actually been posted in 2014.

The eleven stories here are all SF of some sort – some nominal, some soft, few exceedingly rigorous. The quality is quite uneven, and only a few have much originality, either in the premise or the treatment of it. There’s stuff here that I liked, but this zine isn’t the answer to the Hard SF problem.

“Joy Ride” by Jude-Marie Green

Our narrator is a semi-retired career criminal, now on the planet Emerald because it has no extradition treaties. Emerald is rich in “petrochemical-like” compounds and due to become host to a cracking plant which has been assembled in orbit and soon to be dropped onsite, with possible seismic consequences. He’s been offered a job he can’t refuse, to hijack one of the plant’s airships and engage in a bit of smuggling at the drop site. But when he enters the ship, he finds the usual teenage girl stowed away. The action that ensues is considered high excitement on Emerald, but this is a place where nothing ever happens.

I like the pre-fab cracking plant, a genuinely science-fictional concept, but the smuggling plot is overly contrived and low on sense, while the teenage girl is a longstanding cliché.

“Barnegat Inn” by Brian Biswas

A young couple looking for a night’s lodging come to one of a mysterious old inn, where their host regales them with his theories of alien intelligence and time travel. Later, in the middle of the night, the young man overhears a strange conversation, which so scars him that he has refrained from telling this story until the present, when he is so old it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

While the subject matter – aliens and time travel – is traditionally associated with SF, this is actually a sort of weird tale in the mode of that bygone zine, complete with spooky mysterious fog. To the extent that this is SF, it’s the sort of sufficiently advanced stuff that’s indistinguishable from magic. But I see nothing here that should have put the narrator into such a mortal fright.

“Captain Quasar and the Kolarii Kidnappers” by Milo James Fowler

Our Hero, despite a groin injury to which the author makes excessive reference, mediates a dispute between human colonists and an alien species that shares a moon with them, each claiming that the other has kidnapped their children.

Quasar raised his tanned, chiseled chin and narrowed his heroic gaze. “Those children don’t belong to you. You stole them from the human settlers in Zeta Colony 6, and we’re here in loco parentis to take them home. All twelve of them. No child left behind.”

Very silly, as the title would indicate.

“Geiter” by Michael Hodges

Geiter being an allegedly man-eating bear, which our protagonist Carnold has agreed to hunt down, rather in the manner of a dragon-slayer, although this seems to be the Old West. Carnold is ill-prepared as a bear-slayer, facing the monster with only a revolver in his hand, but Geiter turns out to be no ordinary bear.

This is 99% Western, 1% love story, with a dash of robotics to give it a thin claim to SF-hood.

“Discord in Paradise” by Leslie Lupien

Spletzer’s partner Celia is in a suicidal depression after the death of their son, for which she blames herself. She wants to die and join him in heaven. Spletzer, unwilling to lose her, arranges an illicit upload of both of them into a simulated reality in which Frederick is still alive, despite Celia’s religious objections. Up to this point, it seems to be a fairly standard scenario, and I’m angry with Spletzer for violating Celia’s rights and autonomy. Then the plot takes a strange and interesting turn, giving us a novel perspective on simulated reality. The text is pretty stiff, but I appreciate the attempt at originality.

“(225-50) Agnes” by Mark Ayling

Agnes being the asteroid about to collide with Earth, as the text has it in a clumsy expository opening. We then meet evil billionaire Joshua Randall, who won’t let anything stop him from taking one of the limited slots on the Ark leaving the planet. Told in a series of scenes arranged with no pretense to chronology.

“It’s a Long Road to the Sky Train” by Michael Andre-Driussi

Marika’s family has lived for generations in the Biodome, a tourist attraction where she plays roles from nursery rhymes, until the looters come and trash the place. Finding herself stranded outside, she becomes determined to undertake the long journey to the Sky Train, at Kilimanjaro, which will take her somewhere better, or so she believes

A post-apocalyptic journey story, in which we see Marika selling off parts of herself, while her inner core becomes stronger. An entertaining, if gruesome, read, with the imaginative characters that populate the absurdly dystopian setting, and of course Marika.

Marika handed the candle to Trash and took down the largest of the bags. To avoid losing anything of value, she emptied the bag into her Bo Peep bonnet. Out tumbled a human hand, five big toes, three eyes, and an ear. The hand was fresh, the others coated with a bluish silver slime.

“Not Her Kind” by Peter Wood

Alien invasion, the invaders being from Earth, up to their usual ways of taking over local space and resources. Diseases have decimated both sides, and the invaders have now been stranded, ash Earth refuses to bring them home, lest they bring alien contagion. Everyone has suffered loss, everyone is unhappy, everyone blames the other. Can they ever get along?

A sufficiently different twist on this scenario, the point of view from the aliens. Albeit with rather too much lecturing.

“Down Courthouse Wash” by Steven L Peck

Alien encounter – a science-fictional sort of aliens that the narrator encounters down in the dried-out wash, mistaking them at first for a heap of potatoes. He quickly discerns that they’re suffering from dehydration, and after giving them water, he induces them to follow him to his truck, then home to his bathtub. They get along pretty well, until authorities get involved – alas, a too-common cliché in the alien contact business.

When we walked into the room the creatures, frightened I suppose because I brought in another person, stood up to their full extended tripod height and let out their shrill whistle. She in turn screamed. Which caused the creatures to run into the bathroom. It was pandemonium.

I like this one pretty well, not only because the aliens are treated science-fictionally, but for the light, smooth narrative and the narrative voice. This author has gone a lot further towards mastery of the writing craft than some others here.

“Blink Twice” by Rebecca Birch

Steve’s wife isn’t happy with his time-traveling plans. In fact, she doesn’t like much of anything about his job.

I should’ve seen it coming, but I’d become a moth inevitably drawn to the hypnotizing flame of research and exploration, blindly assuming my Susan would someday understand. The screen door guarded the entrance to a house full of mementos and memories of a shared life, but it was nothing more than an abandoned shell without half its soul.

Of course the other way of looking at the situation is that Susan is a self-centered bitch. But Steve doesn’t agree, he flogs himself with guilt for their marriage breaking up before stepping into the unknown future.

Problem is, I tend to go with the bitch theory. Susan leaves Steve out of selfishness, resentment at not being the center of the universe. The story ends with a gush of excessive sentimentality.

“Salazar” by Sean Monaghan

Adventure in parallel worlds, here called “realslices”. Aura and Gideon work for an agency preventing disturbances of the slices by agents from a different one. Now Aura has been sent to bring in Gideon, who is reported having gone rogue, and indeed, she can tell that the reality she’s in has been greatly disturbed. But when she finds Gideon, things only get worse, until she’s trapped in a maze of paradox.

“You’re the real Gideon? The one I tracked.”
“That’s right.”
“And the other?”
“That’s me too. A real me, but not one you tracked. I have a feeling it was a reversal somewhere. It sounds too easy, but that Gideon is tracking another Aura. He found you instead.”

Twisty plot, plenty of action in a skiffy setting.

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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