Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-February
Looking at the Dell digests plus some of the regular zines that publish throughout the month, with remarks on the rigor of fantasy as well as continuing my comments on science fiction begun in the previous column.
- Lightspeed, February 2015
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #166-167, February 2015
- Strange Horizons, February 2015
- The Dark, February 2015
- Asimov’s, March 2015
- Analog, April 2015
Lightspeed, February 2015
Featuring stories with titles that begin with “And”. And there’s no problem identifying which of the pieces here are science fiction.
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
The first time she meets Rack, Rhye’s fresh out of the army and fresh back from one of the meat-grinders the humans pay her kind to fight in. The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned. The recruitment agents pluck her off the streets when she’s twelve and send her to a training camp and she’s good with linguistics and better at killing, so they keep her hands busy until she’s twenty-five and then they spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum.
OK, we get that this is hardcore, but does it make sense? After thirteen years, Rhye ought to be a valuable, experienced player with a lot of killing years left in her, so why dump her on the street to make trouble–except for the author’s convenience? For that matter, who makes child cyborgs and dumps them out on the streets to fend? Anyway, there is Rhye out on the streets, where she meets Rack and reluctantly falls in love. Rack is a cyber-cyborg who wears clean white shirts to engage in criminal activity, but when he messes with the wrong outfit they blow out his synthetic brains and Rhye is left to retrieve both the stolen information and the cyber-core of his real self. Adventure and mayhem ensue, culminating in self-realization.
The interest here is in the cyberpunkish adventure and Rhye’s gritty language that stands for characterization, but I keep being distracted by the number of things that just don’t seem to make sense. For another example, if Rhye is so hardcore and the Ganymede gang is merely human, I’m surprised she has such a hard time handling them. The names, also, are a bit too cute.
“Red Planet” by Caroline M Yoachim
An oft-used title, but the allusion seems to be not to any other work in particular but color vision. Tara is a biology student who has apparently been blind since birth; she gets along quite well in life and lab, except for the problem of color, which is inexplicable to her. Tara wants to study xenobiology on Mars [where microorganisms exist] where her lover Kiki is going, but the place is run
by a bunch of ableist jerks who didn’t want to make accommodations for her disability. According to them, the medical requirements were for her safety and comfort, but it was really the same bullshit she’d dealt with all her life. No one wanted to believe that a blind girl could be a scientist, especially a biologist . . .
Then out of nowhere comes her professor with an offer to take part in a retinal implant experiment that would allow her to fulfill her dream of Mars and be with Kiki there. As much as she doesn’t like the idea, the incentive is too great.
This one is definitely science fiction. Retinal implants have already been in development for some time, but here with a novel technological twist. And it could have been good science fiction if the author had taken more time to develop Tara as a real individual struggling with the problems of adapting to vision, rather than a two-dimensional poster for an anti-ableist screed, as is clear when Tara resents the implication that the surgery would “fix her”. I find the character unconvincing, from her undisclosed diagnosis to the contradiction between her resentment of her professor’s condescension and her claim that she could get a lab job anywhere on Earth. She does seem to like the idea of experiencing colors, but I find it odd that she never seems to want to see her lover’s face, when she shuts her eyes on a video call.
“And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea” by Maria Dahvana Headley
An extended metaphor of liquidity. Too extended. A paragraph of this stuff is all very well, but not for page after page.
I met you, love of mine, at the end of centuries spent alone. My body has been every decorative lily pool in Japan, and every waterfall in Africa. My body’s been the Amazon, full of snakes, thigh-deep wading for explorers, and the Mississippi and her floodplains, spilling out across miles, looping and twisting to surprise the houses. My body was the last moments of the Aral sea, the final drops drunk by a camel and carried away. When you found me in that fish tank, I was too lonely to travel.
So as we can tell, the narrator is an immortal aquatic shape-changing entity with a propensity for falling in love with humans, which never works out well and leaves her depressed. The man who pulled her out of the fish tank was likewise a depressive personality. On the beach below his house there is an annual festival, kind of like a potlatch, where whoever sacrifices the most is swept out to sea. The narrator’s lover, despite her pleas, went down and got swept, and now she remains alone in his house, mourning.
In essence, then, this is a story of love. But it’s also a good example of what I call “soft fantasy”. We have to accept the narrator literally as the fantastic thing she tells us she is, as opposed to a mere metaphor or ambiguous reference, but the fantastic isn’t really at the center of the story; it’s not what the story is about. What it’s about are the very mundane human emotions of love and despair.
“Things You Can Buy for a Penny” by Will Kaufman
“Don’t go down to the well,” said Theo to his son. So, of course, Tim went to the well. He was thirteen, and his father told him not to. There was no magic to it.
Of course there is magic in the well, and the stories passed on from one generation to the next, about the wet gentleman who lives in the well and will grant a wish if you throw a penny down to him. And how the gentleman is very tricky, so you have to be careful what you wish for, which should never be what he offers you. Tim knows all these stories, and now so do the readers.
I like this narrative. Although the tale is simple, there’s wit and freshness in the telling, as well as a neat twist at the end. The material resembles that of fairy tales, also the sort of folktale involving deals with tricky gentlemen, and readers of fantasy are well aware that wells are often inhabited. Tim is the sort of character who, in fairy tales, might also be named Simpleton.
It’s also a good example of the sort of story that isn’t soft fantasy, the magic being not only unambiguous but central to the tale; how the characters deal with the magic is what the story is about.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #166-167, February 2015
For readers in search of hard fantasy, this zine would be a most logical place to look. The works here usually feature some overt fantastic element essential to the story: either magic, or a secondary world, or some other unambiguous element contrary to our reality.
Issue #166 deals with revolutions; #167 with journeys.
“The Wizard’s House” by Stephen Case
A direct prequel to the author’s previous work about a wizard confronting a malevolent new god and his priests. In this one, we learn how the boy Diogenes came to the wizard’s secret floating house to become his servant in exchange for saving his father’s life.
I must say that I wish this one had come first in publication order, as it does in chronological. It makes “The Unborn God” a great deal easier to understand, as time is much less out of place here. And I wonder now if the story will continue to be told in backwards order, to relate the earlier events of the war in the sky, from which weapons rained onto the ground during the battles—a compelling image.
About the wars during his great-grandfather’s time, when all the barons had fleets of airships and the emperor’s thunderheads could launch broadsides that would level an entire town. There were cities up there—maybe entire flying countries, if you believed what some said. But they all had fallen.
Now we learn that Diogenes had gone to Swords Creek against his father’s orders and taken the sword that glowed blue when pointed toward the wizard’s house, which made all the subsequent events possible. But only readers who have read the previous installment in this tale will understand the significance of what is to come. If you haven’t, read this one first.
As for the fantasy level, the abundance of fantastic elements here is so great that without them there would just be a couple of boys standing at a creekside.
“The King in the Cathedral” by Rich Larson
It seems that an Evil Magical Usurper called the Illusionist has killed the incumbent king, taken over as ruler, and exiled the king’s half-brother/rightful heir to a vast desert, where he inhabits a deserted cathedral along with a robotic companion/guard that he has named Otto. To wile away the days and years, they play games, which Otto usually wins, automatons being good at that sort of thing. Supplies are regularly teleported in. One day, a female companion is teleported in–a piece of irony, as Fawkes’ preferred companionship is not female. Eris, however, has other plans for him. Rebellion is brewing. But her plans interest Fawkes no more than her female companionship.
“My brother’s supporters didn’t want me then, and they don’t need me now. I’d be useless in any sort of rebellion. A figurehead at best.” Fawkes found he was using his wheedling voice. “Don’t you understand why I won’t go back to that?”
The tone here is fairly light, with touches of humor, beginning with the contrast between the legends that have arisen around Fawkes and the reality, which is that his imprisonment is actually pretty comfortable, suggesting that the Illusionist may not be quite as Evil as his opponents believe. Fawkes is, in fact, as Eris accuses him, rather too comfortable, although his alternatives are limited.
There are fewer fantastic elements here, but the one factor we perceive is essential: there is no way in or out of the desert without magical intervention. It would take six months to cross it on foot, without the ability to carry sufficient supplies for survival. This would seem to excuse Fawkes’ passivity, even if he were inclined to action. It also makes the conclusion less convincing, even when clever, and the fantasy rather less rigorous.
“Madonna” by Bruce McAllister
In 2010 the author published a story, “Blue Fire”, about a child Pope in a Rome overrun by vampires. I praised it highly for its use of theological speculation, faith, and miracles. Since then, there have been sequels, each of which I have liked less than the original. Here, we have il Papino Bonifacio with his sidekick Emilo, the Emissary of La Compassione, on the road attempting to evade the soldiers sent by the vampires to apprehend them. Coming to Siena, they meet the next member of their miraculous band, an incarnation of the Madonna who can foretell the future.
. . . something changed in the room. In the corner of my eye Caterina was not a girl. Though it was impossible, there was a woman in Caterina’s place, one wearing something in her hair, her hair as bright as daylight. When I jerked my gaze back to the doorway, however, it was Caterina again, her back to us as she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
What we have here is a sequel problem, exacerbated by the fact that the original story was published five years ago, and in a different publication. Without this background, the piece is quite confusing and ultimately unfulfilling. Readers unfamiliar with the previous material don’t really know who these people are, where they are going or why. We see no vampires, and there is only cursory reference to their pursuit, so we have no sense of real urgency or peril, and at the end the quest moves on to, perhaps, some conclusion or closure, of which there is no guarantee. I have the unfortunate sense that I’m reading a version of “The Bremen Town Musicians”, with each stop on the road adding another member to the troupe. That’s not a good thing.
“Y Brenin” by C Allegra Hawksmoor
In a Celtic sort of land, a fraternal civil war has left the territory in ruins, the people starving. When the Red King had his brother imprisoned, his loyal [lover] knight freed him, and they escaped to the eponymous stronghold of the north. Now, on a bloody battlefield the knight has defeated Red but can’t bring himself to kill him, knowing that the south is a desolate as the north. Instead, they begin a long and difficult slog across country, Ser Mercer hoping that the brothers can make peace and save the country. This is a long shot, as the Red King taunts him.
“My brother might forgive you if you beg and grovel at his feet for long enough, but it will all taste like ashes in your mouth. You know that you’ve failed him by refusing to carry out his order on that battlefield, and you shall always know it. It will haunt you in the dark quiet of the night between now and the day that you die.”
A pretty soft fantasy here, with no overt fantastic elements [occasionally, elements appear that suggest the fantastic but turn out not] besides the secondary world vaguely [in language at least] based on the Celtic. Given the presence of knights and their usual accoutrements, the model would appear to be more medieval, however. But the characters, particularly Mercer, don’t behave much like medieval actors, or indeed the rulers of older Celtic kingdoms, who were rarely inclined to give up a claim to a throne for the good of the starving commoners. Scenes like pulling the mired horse out of the bog are realistic; the political is not. The conclusion has the sensibility of today, not the times in which it seems to be set.
Strange Horizons, February 2015
When readers think of this zine, they may likely consider it a source for slipstream fiction, for soft fantasy and SF. But this is not always the case. The three original stories for the month are all fantasy, but like the Three Bears’ beds, they come in hard, soft and intermediate—”just right” being a matter for the reader to decide.
“The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací” by Benjamin Parzybok
The ticket taker is Eduardo, who has come to this Mayan town seeking inspiration to write but instead is stuck in the ticket booth [how he got this job is unclear, but some of the locals find it odd]. Being an obsessive type, he’s taking to counting the ticket stubs of the tourists who go in to view the cenote and the ones who come out. The numbers don’t add up. He becomes convinced that some of the tourists are disappearing into the cenote, but no one else seems to think there is a problem. “They are long gone, Angelita said. They’ve traveled far from here already. Don’t worry about them.”
This dark tale is certainly hard fantasy, with the supernatural secret of the cenote at the center of the story. Readers should be aware that the ancient Mayans used to employ the cenotes for human sacrifice, and the author has added another folkloric element. The twist at the end is effective and well foreshadowed, but the text might be overly long.
“Traveling Mercies” by Rachael K Jones
A very short piece about a traveler never coming home but invited into the homes of friends on his journey. Nothing fantastic explicitly happens in this soft fantasy, but the author makes it clear what the traveler is, borrowing a bit from folklore on this subject yet leaving other elements for readers to guess at.
“Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies” by Kate Heartfield
When Daphne and Tom were kids, best friends, they liked to visit the old Fort Garry museum, where the smith once told them that the smithy fire had been burning since 1815, as protection against the smith’s wife. “She came here first, tried to claim this place and all the souls in it, but he followed her from across the ocean. As long as he has this fire and red iron in it, she’ll never have dominion here.” As teenagers, they both got jobs there as reenactors; Tom became the new smith, while Daphne was one of the housewives. But as she worked pouring tallow into candle molds, a rhyme came into her head. Soon more rhymes came, and with them, a sort of moral authority over the other workers at the fort, until Tom the smith saw what she was doing.
A fairly unambiguous tale of possession and witchcraft with a strong historical base.
The Dark, February 2015
All dark fantasy here, of varying degrees of rigor. I like the Russo.
“Bearskin” by Angela Slatter
Torben is a young orphan boy recently and miserably apprenticed to a rather brutal hunter. One day, by mistake, he kills a bear cub.
There is a noise outside, closer than it should be. Something has stalked him, gotten into proximity, and he all oblivious. To one side it shuffles and snuffles . . . his finger tightens on the trigger of the crossbow . . . whoever or whatever is there moves nearer . . . Torben’s finger twitches and the bolt is released, punching through the withy screen. A thud, then a brief sigh-sob, then the sound of a small body falling to the snowy ground.
But this is a world where not all bears are entirely bears.
In this YA dark fantasy, the shape-changing is central to the story. The author spends too much time on Torben’s backstory, drumming up sympathy for him, yet reveals not enough of it to have bothered.
“In the Dreams Full of Sleep, Beakless Birds Can Fly” by Patricia Russo
“It is always when children are dying that the women who speak to spirits come.” Actually, the woman tells Zobei and Rin, it’s that they can hear the spirits, and they listen to them. The spirits have told her about their child, their third child to die, born with what we would call a congenital defect. The woman gives them a very hard choice.
They went into the garden. Rin cried when they buried the child, and then he returned to the kitchen and drank all the strong drink in the house. Zobei did not. She did not cry; neither did she drink. She sat in the garden all night. The woman who spoke to spirits sat with her for an hour or so, and then said she had other places to go, other people to see.
A story of uncertainty, very weird. It’s notable that the story leaves readers in that state, without revealing the outcome, breaking instead into a metafictional conclusion. This makes it an ambiguous fantasy, suspended in doubt. With one outcome, it would definitely be a hard fantasy; with the other, we would still never know. The woman made no absolute promise, only offering the possibility of hope. An unusual tale with a strong, realistic sense of grief.
“Welcome to Argentia” by Sandra McDonald
The haunted history of a peninsula on the coast of Newfoundland, where a large US naval base was built during WWII.
Once the area supported twenty thousand personnel. Now only a quarter of that remain. Some of the sailors and their wives weren’t even born when Argentia and Marquise were demolished, or when the construction battalions began destroying the peat bogs to build the runways.
The land, it seems, resented the assault of the bulldozers and took its revenge.
An odd, quasi-factual tale that I find unconvincing. If the land had vengeance every time it was assaulted, the entire world would be overrun with ghosts. Why should Argentia be so special? And why take out its wrath on the ghosts of those that never did it such harm? I like this best as a story of landscape, but I think it means to be more than that.
“A Spoke in Fortune’s Wheel” by Brooke Wonders
A very weird, contorted twist on the Rumpelstiltskin tale, beginning with the birth of some very unusual children.
Every child born in the year of our prince’s ascension to the throne came into the world possessed of a supernatural and supremely useful limb. The blacksmith’s son had a pair of tongs for a left hand. The baker’s son had a rolling pin for a chin. Sarasponda, daughter of the village tailor, carried a spinning wheel on her shoulders in place of her head
Sarasponda spins well, but not well enough to please the prince, because no teacher has yet come from her body to instruct her. Yet when he does, Rumpelstiltskin his own self, she isn’t happy with his advice or with the price he demands for it.
The images of the village children are particularly absurd, yet the story treats them as normal people, particularly Sarasponda, a good-hearted young woman who only means well. The whole thing is still too contrived for me to take seriously, however, and it’s definitely not to be taken as humor.
Asimov’s, March 2015
A particularly good issue featuring a long police-procedural novella, part of a series, and for once I don’t mind. Aside from this, the rest of the fiction is softer SF shading into fantasy.
“Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Part of the author’s “Retrieval Artist” series, but readers can pretend it isn’t, because this one can be read as if it were an entirely independent police-procedural set in a dome on the moon. Rusch has a sure hand with this kind of material, and it’s skillfully done. The story opens with our detective interrogating the owner of the recycling/composting waste disposal operation where a body has been found in one of the crates. Immediately, I’m fascinated by the process, just skiffy enough to be novel but still familiar. It seems this isn’t the first such body to be discovered in the company’s waste stream, and of course Detective DeRicci is interested in the possible ways they could have gotten into the crates.
“The pieces would have to be small to get past our weight and size restrictions. Forgive me for being graphic, but no full arms or legs or torsos or heads. Maybe fingers and toes. We have nanoprobes on these things, looking for human DNA. But the probes are coating the lining of the crates. If someone buried a finger in the middle of some rotting lettuce, we might miss it.”
It’s after the victim is identified that things begin to get really complicated.
It’s clear at the outside that the detective is our primary character, but the waste disposal operator definitely holds his own throughout the entire first scene. The story’s point of view continues to move from one person to another as the investigation proceeds, all for their own reasons contributing to our understanding of the situation. DeRicci isn’t the only one with an interest in solving this crime, and some of the people she considers incompetent or corrupt are actually ahead of her. Readers are going to find some surprises here, even if they are already familiar with some of this material. I was pretty well able to read it as if I weren’t, and I enjoyed the experience quite a bit. This is one case where being part of a series hasn’t hurt the story.
Note to copyeditor: It’s livor mortis. Spellchecker disease strikes again.
“Pareidolia” by Kathleen Bartholomew & Kage Baker
A posthumous collaboration set in the late Baker’s Company world of immortal time travelers “making sure the right history happens”, for some definitions of “right” that mean “profitable to the Company”. And thus of course part of a series. This one has a particularly lite, humorous tone, but where it goes wrong is in wasting the entire first part of the text by slapping infodumpfish paint down on the sets in the background, making sure readers know “Here we are back in history!” Things don’t really get down to the story business until our agent Joseph gets a sudden unexplained assignment to confiscate the work of a particular Byzantine ikon painter and expunge the technique from his memory. Turns out that any normal person looking into the eyes of these ikons is likely to pop a stroke and drop over dead, or some similar drastic reaction.
That ball of multicolored fire in Christ’s hand; an aspect of his divinity? The Holy Ghost? Hell, maybe it was a magic mushroom. But the flames caught the eye of the beholder, and at once started to actually writhe; the pupils of his elongated eyes did the same thing, in their separate settings. And when I wrenched my own eyes away and looked out at the wall beside me—Christ’s face and burning eyes leaped out at me from every constellation of cracks in the plaster.
It’s this phenomenon that gives rise to the story’s title, which doesn’t strike me as quite accurate, nor do I credit the notion that it could be produced by knowledge of the techniques of Egyptian portrait painting. What I do like is the psychological verisimilitude with which Joseph engages with the period’s extreme religiosity; he could well be taken, in that time and place, to be an angel.
“Twelve and Tag” by Gregory Norman Bossert
The title refers to a bar game, the sort of initiatory activity that brings new members of a ship’s crew into full fellowship. The Tethys, an icebreaker on Europa, now has two new crewmembers.
“It’s not just ice that breaks,” Cheung said, “doing what we do.” His fingers mimed something snapping. “It’s equipment, people, whole ships sometimes. Got to know each other.”
“Gotta trust,” Nava said.
So it’s time for Adra and Zandt to prove themselves. Each is supposed to tell two stories: the worst or stupidest thing they have ever done, one true and one false; after, the crew guesses which is which. But these stories are all worse and worse than worse, with abusive families, betrayal, addiction. It’s harrowing stuff, but also hard to imagine that people seeking to prove trustworthiness in such a milieu would so expose themselves with these confessions.
“Tuesdays” by Suzanne Palmer
A UFO shows up in the parking lot of a decrepit diner, and the cops come out to conduct a routine investigation. They take notes.
There weren’t blinky lights, like in the movies,” Fredricks says, “but it was big. Really fucking big.”
Paulson holds up his pad so the truck driver can see he’s already written down “BIG,” and underlined it twice. “I’ve got ‘big,’ ” he says. “Can you describe anything else about it, sir?”
This is a character study, and for a small diner there are a lot of characters, seeming to be more than there actually are because part of the text refers to them by first name while the cop notes go by surname; this takes a bit of matching-up. The UFO is only what brings them, briefly, together. Well-done soft SF, with wit and humor.
For readers who discover that their copy of the zine is missing the story’s first page through one of those production errors that cause editors’ hair to fall out, especially when it’s the issue’s cover story, a link has been made available.
“Military Secrets” by Kit Reed
A cruelly disturbing story of children whose fathers have been declared missing in wars, placed into a state of limbo by the possibility, however remote, that they might still be alive.
If John Paul Jones had a wife and kids that he left behind to fight for whatever; if he never came back, they’re probably sitting up there in the dark somewhere near the front of our bus. Waiting.
The scenario, however strongly felt, fails to convince.
“Holding the Ghosts” by Gwendolyn Clare
Certain babies are now born with a condition that leaves them in a state of permanent catatonia, but science has found a way not to waste them, by imprinting the body’s brain with the memories and personalities of the selected dead. This, of course, is expensive, so the rentals are temporary. Baby Martinez has been imprinted with the ghosts of Abby, Chantal and now Maxine, but the process has had unexpected side effects.
Some days, a veil of déjà vu settled over her and stayed for hours, as if she’d lived every moment of the trip before. Other times, it felt as if there were traces of something unfamiliar smudged across her thoughts.
According to the text, the ghost memories have been altered so that they recognize the body as their own, but surely the people who rent the bodies can see the difference. I wonder how they can accept the strange body in the place of their loved ones. Complicating this problem is the matter of the body’s growth and aging. Baby Martinez has held the ghosts of a college student, a 50-something wife, and a middle-aged engineer. What age is this body, and what was it doing before its first implant? How did it grow from infancy? I don’t think this premise was sufficiently thought-through, and the conclusion is too predictable for it to matter.
Analog, April 2015
This zine likes to claim its place as a source of Hard SF, and here I find three pretty sound examples. The Zimring and Wood pieces are both plausible human futures, while the Wheeler has some fine examples of comet-harvesting. It does enter the realm of the unexplained near the end of the story, but since it’s not possible, from the scant details given, to determine whether these violate known science, I put it onto the SF side of the reckoning. Of the other stories, there’s a lot of humor, particularly stuff featuring silly aliens, which I count as fantasy.
“The Eighth Iteration” by Bond Elam
Yet another argument against humans trying to colonize alien worlds, but in this case the problem is explicitly in human genes. Here we have a small [seems too small for survivable genetic diversity] population attempting to survive in a domed settlement surrounded by hostile alien animals. Our Hero Jake, with his token female sidekick, gets into a fight with the self-appointed dictator and his cronies. They escape into the forest, followed by a guardian bot, where the Truth is Revealed.
It’s never a good idea when a story opens with sneering villains threatening Our Hero. The premise actually becomes more interesting once the bot starts talking and we discover the remains of previous settlements. But then we get too much talking, instead of the protagonists working out the problems for themselves. Still, the bot is the most interesting character. Yet while it tells us that Jake and Lucas Martel represent the same problem, both being leader types, all we see of Jake is the Good Guy and Martel the ruthless dictator; if the story wants to claim they’re equivalent, it’s not doing a good job convincing us.
There’s also a problem of women, Margaret being the equivalent of Smurfette here. Otherwise, all the characters we see are men. While men have their uses, the survival of a species isn’t one of them. Since there’s no sign here that the colonists can forego pregnancy in growing their population, they would need a substantial female majority, not just a single love interest for the chosen protagonist. Anyway, this world already belongs to the sentient native birds. If the idea is that human DNA is fatally flawed, let’s keep it off other species’ worlds instead of planting colonial seeds of destruction. The author doesn’t seem to have really examined his own premise. SF in general hasn’t.
“Dancing in the Dark” by Ramona Louise Wheeler
Comet hunters. The first thing we notice is the captain referring to her cometary prize as a beast, as a female.
Her core was enormous, massive, and dense. She was rich. A shroud of water enclosed her, enough water for a lake, enough water to run as a wild river through the canyons of home. We had been out on this run in the cold dark for only a month. I sat a moment longer, lost in the vision of our wonderful monster.
So we wonder, is this only figurative language, a whaling metaphor, in which case the scenario is righteously Hard SF? Or are comets here something more biological than we now assume? The characters, however, are wondering if they’re capable of capturing their dark beast with their current student crew. Which our captain doesn’t doubt in the least—confident as she is in her long experience, and in love with her quest as well as her partner. Turns out, the question they need to ask is, where are all these comets coming from? The answer is something far more wondrous.
So turns out it’s all here—sensawunda, real SF, and figurative language. And a better, optimistic view of human nature and colonization. But one noncritical scene, meant to punch up the love story, was cursory, over almost before it happened.
“Daily Teds” by Ron Collins
Ted begins this account by refusing to take his writing instructor’s advice, thus proving that he should have listened to it. Besides, his major is physics. Then he cuts to the chase by telling us about the Gamma Box and its strange results.
I was fairly sure it had to do with photons and their zero-mass property interacting (or not) with the guidance section of the experiment. If this interaction was at the root, my idea required an injection of energy to counteract the force of gravity on the Gamma Box—energy that I couldn’t explain, but I figured that could all come later.
Way too much later, in fact, if he’s correct.
This is a humorous piece of faux-SF, employing Hard SF jargon for absurd effect. I’m reminded of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if those brooms had really gotten out of hand.
“Transfer Point” by Barry N Malzberg & Bill Pronzini
Luna has long been the immigration checkpoint for aliens traveling to Earth, and our narrator is the equivalent of a TSA agent there. He has always liked his job and is therefore devastated to be told that the entire facility is scheduled to be closed and relocated to Mars. It doesn’t make sense, and that’s not the only thing that seems wrong today.
Humor with lots of aliens.
“Partible” by K J Zimring
As a former seminarian, the narrator has never experienced carnal knowledge of women, although he was attracted to a particular woman while doing anthropology work on Kiribati. Thus it’s a shock when he receives a notice from Immigration, informing him he may have a son.
A kid had come through SeaTac, originating in the Pacific islands and connecting through the Philippines. The passport was fake, but he claimed an American father, named me, and the allegation had to be evaluated. I was to present myself for an interview at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center on May 5 at 1:30 P.M. Lawyer optional.
The story is expectedly heartwarming, also real SF. The anthropological notion of partible fatherhood is an interesting bonus, although not biologically applicable here.
“Down Please: The Only Recorded Adventure of Lars Fouton, Captain’s Lift Operator on the Starship Magnificent” by Adam-Troy Castro
From which title, readers will immediately and correctly conclude that the piece is humor. The premise is absurd: Ensign Fouton has apparently spent decades of his career as an elevator operator, being promoted only to the same position on this capital ship, where the elevator goes only between the VIP deck below to the bridge above. Except that the captain never uses it, other than on the rare occasions when he must escort a VIP onto the ship, such as the alien general who now takes an interest in Fouton’s position, finding it, as it is, absurd.
The story is indeed humorous and comes reliably to a conclusive twist and punchline; readers should be amused. But even an absurd premise has to exhibit consistency within its self-defined limits. We are given the distinct impression that Fouton’s existence is confined entirely to the isolation of the elevator, but this is not only impossible, the text informs us that he goes off-duty, where he would supposedly have the opportunity to socialize with the rest of the crew; indeed, he claims that he is considered a likeable person. These inconsistencies aren’t essential to the storyline at all, so it’s unfortunate that they are present.
“The Last Days of Dogger City” by Mjke Wood
Global climate change is now freezing the world. Dogger City was meant to be an offshore metropolis, originally built on abandoned oil rigs, but after a series of disasters, the ice has started to crush it and emergency evacuation has been called. But Laura’s son Josh is missing and she won’t leave without him.
The steps she had just descended were now almost vertical. The central highway sloped upward. The city, or this part of it, had moved by twenty degrees. Time was running out. Laura stood, and, hobbling at first, she began to run off the pain. Uphill.
This SF action story opens with the sound of structural collapse, as Laura tries to collect her family and get them off. Only later are we told what “off” means here, where these people are, and why, and why it is failing. For a short piece, that means a lot of interruption to the action, added to which is a load of emotional manipulation as we learn how Laura has already lost one child on this place allegedly safe for children but manifestly not.