Lightspeed, March 2015
Stories involving war, in different odd ways. Also another installment in the Hughes “Erm Kaslo” serial.
“Hot Rods” by Cat Sparks
It seems that most of Australia has dried up and blown away, leaving Terina Flat with a broad salt plain, good for a race track where the local youth run their hot rods while the old people crowd into the revival tent to pray for rain. Outside town is the American base, surrounded by wire and sentries who may just shoot you dead if you approach. Locals can sign up for contract work there, though not all of them ever come out again. Harper’s boyfriend Lachie has gone, though she tried to convince him not, and she lives for word from him, from some message. Then one night, the lightning comes, not from the sky.
This time they see and hear it, too, a cracking split. Like thunder but not. Thick spikes stabbing at the fallow dirt. Aftershocks of colour, green and red.
A bleak and desperate future, a very likely one. There is no real resolution of these events, no explanation. The townspeople aren’t entitled to explanations. The soldiers of the Base might use the old “Don’t you know there’s a war on” line, but when is there ever not a war on? When have they ever needed an excuse?
“Surfacing” by Marissa Lingen
In a world controlled by constant war, or at least constant military activity, Mishy was once, a long time ago, one of a small group of deserters who found refuge with a settlement of altered humans undersea. Time has passed, and she has never been able to feel she was one of them, always with the sense that she was under suspicion. At last she has returned to the land, hoping things were different. Which they aren’t, not different enough. The military still owns the entire population, conscripting whomever they wish.
The scenario here is pretty vague and undetailed. We don’t know if there is an actual war going on, or who is fighting on what side. Even if there is another side. I don’t know why Mishy thinks it would be easier to desert now than it was twenty years ago, particularly with a herd of children along. I’ll bet it wouldn’t be, and that the author’s optimism is misplaced.
“Documentary” by Vajra Chandrasekera
Kamaria is a were-helicopter, a gunship, although she never fires her guns. At each full moonrise, she changes, she flies. The narrators are making a documentary about her, about her and her husband. Kamaria calls them “nobodies”, believing they are only twists of wind. There are the ashes of many nobodies mixed in the sand where Kamaria lives—if indeed she still lives.
We don’t really have any cameras. We’re not stupid, we know that. Even the dead have their affectations, if we are the dead. But then, after all, we are cameras, because we are nothing but perspectives. We have no meat. We remember nothing of ourselves, if we ever had selves of our own. We are the world regarding itself, hungry for somebody’s narrative, anybody’s narrative. And maybe we are the dead.
A very weird, highly evocative ghost story about the things left behind by war, looking for there to have been some meaning in it all.
Uncanny, March/April 2015
With the third issue, it seems that Uncanny is finding its own distinctive voice. The ToC announces an author lineup of Hot New Things, but despite this assembly of talent, I find myself disappointed in the variety and diversity of the fiction. Of the seven original stories, most are fantasy and most feature a young woman finding herself in some way.
“Those” by Sofia Samatar
In his youth, Sarah’s father worked and explored in Africa with his friend George, whom he regards as an innocent corrupted by his brutal colonialist employer in, obviously, the Belgian Congo. As he narrates the tale to Sarah: one night the employer feared that the abused native workers were planning an uprising. A supernatural darkness seemed to lurk amidst the trees, but in the end, all they saw was a single worker, shot dead. Still, the vision was impossible to dispel from their minds.
[George] kept repeating that Francisco commanded an army of shadow selves, which, now that their master was dead, had swarmed across the world. ‘One is another,’ he babbled. And though I knew he was not well—he was so broken down, indeed, that I successfully petitioned the Belgian for a holiday—I could not shake my own sense that the darkness among the trees was multiple, and that George ought to have shouted, not ‘What the hell is that,’ but ‘What the hell are those?’”
George became so feverish that his friend called on the Catholic mission for a nurse. But when he announced his intention to marry this native woman, George repudiated him utterly. It is now, years later, at the news of George’s death, that he tells his daughter this tale.
The narrative is double-framed, as it is first Sarah’s own story and she is its real center, even though we get little of her point of view. We get the impression that she has been playing the dutiful daughter role all her life, but the story of George causes an epiphany; she now sees her father differently, and thus, herself. Sent by her father to buy flowers for George’s widow, she makes them instead into a kind of bridal crown for herself, recalling the bridal veil her mother embroidered before her wedding. She has been isolated in England [her father apologizes to her for this] and clings to the dim memory of her mother, who died when she was three years old, after which her father returned with her to England. We see her surrounded by a pervasive racism there, which the author evokes by describing her perception of the world as through a fog, which she apparently throws up in denial, to keep herself from seeing and hearing the hostility of the people she encounters. I’m not enthused about this device; I keep thinking that Sarah needs to see an optician and get spectacles. More effective is the scene in which she puts on her bonnet to go out, hiding the darkness of her face within the shadows of its deep brim.
This is the heaviest piece in the issue, densely-packed, built largely on a framework taken from Conrad and dealing primarily with the evils of colonialism and racism. The narrative voice of the father expresses this well. I note that every character, with the exception of the Belgian employer, can be seen as a victim of the colonial system, which, like slavery, corrupts the oppressors as well as those they oppress. This exception is a flaw here, the employer too much of a caricature, and in this the author falls short of her model. She’s also goes over signifying with the anecdote about the Kushites, used both as the story’s epigraph and as part of the narrative; it yells THEME HERE pretty blatantly.
There aren’t really any unambiguous elements of the fantastic. In Sarah’s case, her nightmare vision is clearly a dream, while her father’s vision is unreliable, likely the effect of fear. Thus I can’t call this a genre story.
“The Lamps Thereof are Fire and Flames” by Rosamund Hodge
A chained fairy tale about a realm where the queen has forbidden the telling of any stories or writing of histories. There is always a reason for such proclamations, usually a vain attempt to prevent some inevitable disaster; it never works, as King Laios of Thebes learned to the sorrow of his kingdom. In this case, the cause of the disaster is Love. We start with a king who grieves so deeply for his beloved wife that he puts his court into perpetual mourning. Thus his daughter, who longs for a love of her own, employs an old fairytale trick to summon it. And her daughter after her, and hers after her—each the victim of her parent’s obsessive, jealous relationship with Love, a malign presence always lurking in the background, waiting.
In essence, this is a Be Careful What You Wish For tale: “Oh,” she sighed, “I would suffer anything, sacrifice anything, if only I could be a woman, and loved like my mother.” But it’s also a kitchen sink story, with the author dumping tropes from an unwieldy number of classic tales into her mix: aside from the granting of wishes, we have enchanted animals, accursed flowers, magic mirrors, evil queen mothers and oppressed daughters, as well as a house in the forest where seven strangely-named not-dwarves dwell, who take a fleeing daughter in. The result is sort of a mixed-up mess, with resulting unclarity.
“Translatio Corporis” by Kat Howard
A particularly neat fantastic idea here: a city that decides to build itself from the blood and bones of a young girl. Briefly, Lena can see the buildings—the fountain, the cathedral—as they form themselves, but a moment later the vision has disappeared.
“In the places the buildings had left behind on their way to this new, other city: scars. Shadows. Ruins. Blank spots on maps that hadn’t yet realized they were inaccurate.”
Lena recalls the relics of saints that once were used to ground important buildings: their bones, parts of their bodies placed beneath the foundations. But her city takes parts from her while she is still alive, and it’s killing her. “Lena began to feel depopulated, unpeopled. As if her body had gone traveling and her soul had yet to catch up.”
I liked this a lot, the novelty of the idea and the expression of it in the prose, until the conclusion, when it turned too sentimental.
“Ivory Darts, Golden Arrows” by Maria Dahvana Headley
A Valentine’s Day story, highly absurd.
Miss Kisseal was the postmistress of Fley, a little village wedged between two mountains, each mountain in the custody of a rival band. Fley was the neutral zone, but the mail went back and forth between, all of it through the Fley office, which was small with a rounded roof. It was an attractive office, and had been made, long ago, of a tremendous striated shell donated by one of the first postmistresses of Fley, a great–great grandmother of Miss Kisseal.
The overall level of strangeness here is so high that readers may overlook this shell, yet it is a key element. Miss Kisseal [the text explains the strange name] takes her position very seriously indeed and does not brook interference with her appointed rounds, up and down the precipitous slopes of the mountains and crossing between the peaks on a tightrope. Her pace is slow but sure. Her clients are an oddly assorted lot, who get lots of deliveries. Today it is a cold and disagreeable February, but there is mail to deliver, including one piece addressed to a place higher on the peak than anyone has ever lived, to a strange creature that the neighbors regard with suspicion. Miss Kisseal is curious.
A clever, witty piece, based on a most extraordinary oddity of natural history. Readers may enjoy themselves with the numerous allusions, although I will admit I’m not seeing as much of the Cole Porter song [♪ bees do it . . . ] as I’d expected from the author’s note. But that’s OK.
“When the Circus Lights Down” by Sarah Pinsker
Not a circus, but The Circus, which comes to town floating down from the heavens, where it seems to exist outside of time, because the circus people don’t age as fast as others do.
The graceful big top, her skirts billowing, even in the rain. Smaller tents like satellites, pinwheeling around the big top, intent on their own orbits. The small ones skittered when they hit the ground, vying for space. The big top landed solid and square, absorbing the impact through her walls. I felt the thump of it even all these blocks away and four stories up. It called to me, as it had every time before.
Many people are called to the circus, but Haley more than most, because she is from a circus family, her grandparents are there and her father, and her daughter Annie’s father, from a one-night stand. But her mother hates the circus, though it’s not clear why. It may have something to do with Haley’s father. But all her life, Haley has been kept from the circus and fed a guilt trip, that her mother needs her, that she can’t go away. Now, for the first time in Annie’s life, the circus is back, and Annie clearly feels the call.
The circus is neat, in a magical way, which means it can’t really be a metaphor for any choices that we could ever meet in this life. It’s too easy, everything is free—even time. A person would have to have a very good reason indeed not to go with the circus, if the circus would allow it. And that’s why this lesson story doesn’t work, because there’s no question that Haley and Annie should both go, and no reason why they shouldn’t. In other words, Duh!
“Dr Polingyouma’s Machine” by Emily Devenport
Science fiction of the softer sort, involving a time machine. Some time ago, Dr Polingyouma switched it on before he had the right settings, thereby creating The Effect, which cycles on every 24 to 28 days, or so, creating a Gate joining different dimensions, through which Journeyers pass. For some reason, the boundary of the Effect zone is always marked by human waste in the hallway, which it is Harris’s job to clean up, using special enzymes. She is paid very well for this hazardous job, for which she has been carefully trained.
Organic chemistry is not my area, but general chemistry will teach you that reactions occur more readily if you stir the reactants together. Adding energy in the form of friction heat gives you a higher reaction rate, since energy is required to break the bonds of compounds. In this case, that was accomplished by scrubbing and swishing—expert mop–slinging. It takes a level of dedication that most people never approach, regardless of their vocations.
Not everyone fully realizes the nature of the situation; this time, an idiotic bureaucrat intervenes.
Details can often make a story, even when they involve mopping a floor. So this account of Harris’s day at work proves surprisingly quite interesting, even before she has an encounter that’s not supposed to happen. And Harris herself, her narrative voice and calm decisiveness, add to the effect. The skiffy flavor of the piece makes for an enjoyable contrast to the prevailing fantasy in the rest of the issue.
“You are Two Point Three Miles from Your Destination” by Fran Wilde
A brief, one-idea piece, the idea being Orpheus using a GPS to direct his rout to Hades and back. Which is sufficiently clever to be briefly amusing for anyone whose sense of consistency isn’t offended by the use of miles in the title when the body of the text uses kilometers. Of course Orpheus himself would more likely have used stadia.
Clarkesworld, March 2015
I’m finding a different tone in this issue: a more edgy, weird-futurey feel to the stories. Combined with the translated Chinese story, it makes for a refreshing difference from the prevailing sameness of much online fiction these days.
I also have to stand in a bit of awe at the industry of Ken Liu, who not only provided the translation of the Chen story, but also has one of his own in the issue. There is also part 2 of the Valente serial.
“Slowly Builds an Empire” by Naim Kabir
A future when most people have become empaths, communicating their thoughts and feelings to each other via a kind of telepathy. A few individuals are nonpathic and regarded by the majority [at least in this future Japan] as dangerous parasites who must be kept in isolation. These persons are called hikikomori, after the present-day youth who hide from society in their bedrooms in their parents’ apartments. Shinsuke would like to belong to society, to any society, but he is shut out of the milieu of the “countrymen”.
For the rest of the wait he kept his head down, wondering if they were trying to talk to him. Maybe they were giving him mental nudges that he just couldn’t feel, and maybe he was surrounded by hellos.
So he yearns for the company of his fellow outcasts, the Nation of hikikomori motorcycle gangs who spread minor terror on the streets. At the same time, he is starting to have visions of alien worlds, which the government counselor tells him is a form of dementia, a consequence of isolation. Readers may suspect it’s more likely that either the countrymen can’t receive the transmissions because their minds are too full of each other. But is the timing a coincidence?
Shinsuke is a sympathetic character, a decent guy who only wants to be part of a society, to have friends and companions. But by confronting him, and readers, at the same time with both the Nation and the alien transmissions, the author is cramming too much into his story. The setting is Japan, where the hikikomori tradition makes for a natural name for the nonpathics there, but it would seem that they are part of a worldwide phenomenon. I wonder how they were treated in other places, other societies.
“Cassandra” by Ken Liu
A superhero story. The narrator discovers that she has a sort of precognitive power: through touch, she can hear the future thoughts of individuals who will commit acts of lethal abuse. The first time, she doesn’t know what to do, does nothing, and later sees the murder reported on the news, the murder she believes she could have stopped. And it keeps happening.
The man comes barging out the door with his head down and eyes on the ground. He doesn’t hold the door open for me and I have to duck out of the way before he runs me over. He gives me a quick glance as he passes by and I see something in his face that makes my heart stop—intense anger at the world, anger at everybody and everything, anger at me.
She thinks that perhaps the official superhero [she calls him Showboat] can help, but he disregards her warnings. So she takes matters into her own hands.
A discouraging and cynical account. There are serious issues of ethics and justice theory going on here, free will, determinism, and the legitimacy of pre-emptive action. But the superhero theme makes sure we won’t take it too seriously.
“All Original Brightness” by Mike Buckley
Military SF, focusing on the wounded veterans of future conflicts, when mega corporations have bought up nations. Morninglory has hired the US Marine Corps to assist in its takeover of Mexico, and in one action, both Mitchum and his buddy Gonzo are hit. They wake up in tanks full of gel, with nanite immerso displays that allow them to pretend to lead normal lives. Until the campaign lasts too long and costs too much, the immersos cost too much.
“They’ll let me stay in the tank. Everything else they’ll take. The interface, the V2 jack. Everything. I won’t be able to talk, see anything, hear. They’ll feed me, those fuckers, through a gastro-drip.”
This is a love story, but not the usual kind. Mitchum and Gonzo’s love is that of comrades in battle, ready to lay down their lives for each other. It’s still a goat-fucking world they’re faced with, but together.
“Coming of the Light” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu
Marketing and Buddhism, or at least that’s how it begins, with Zhong in a PR firm tasked with promoting their client’s photographic app, coming up with the bright idea of having it blessed by a Buddhist master. Problem is, while the blessing is faked, the Buddhagram seems to actually work; miracles occur. Assailed by an excess of publicity, Zhong leaves his job and seeks refuge in a monastery, but the abbot seems to be either a con man or possessed of the great truth that the universe is being gamed, perhaps by the Buddhagram algorithm.
The story opens with Zhong receiving a blessing from Buddhist monk in the form of a koan:
As clouds drift across the sky, so Master in the Void is seen.
Dust clings to everything but what is true.
Over and over the monk queries: “What does your visit mean?”
Master points to cypress which in courtyard has taken root.
His parents take this to mean that Zhong may have a great destiny, but it becomes more likely that he, and perhaps everyone else, is only an NPC in a cosmic game that’s being reprogrammed while he goes through the motions of his life. The questions thus become, what is the meaning of such an existence to the individual who experiences it? What is real? Zhong at last discovers an answer, which, unlike the koan, most people can immediately grasp.
As Zhong’s abbot explains, the subject matter is actually the intersection of techno-Buddhism and cosmology. This makes the story science fantasy, based on the assumption that a perhaps-accidental algorithm can alter or recreate the universe. But the author, following the model of the koan, introduces a note of ambiguity. Thus, in the existential situation of the individual who becomes aware of this possibility, the element of uncertainty is crucial. The light comes upon Zhong from behind, seen only in a reflection. We never see him turn to face it, to see it directly.
Unlikely Story, February 2014
Unlikely Cryptography this time. The editorial introduction emphasizes technology, by which we infer that code here tends to mean coding. There’s a lot of emphasis on evading surveillance, which makes the issue timely and tending to unoriginality. Aside from which, too many of the six pieces are simply dull, several of them overly-filled with neepery, making my eyes cross.
I also include, omitted from my review of the previous issue, a buggy one in the non-coding sense.
“Jump Cut” by Lauren C Teffeau
Hover Bike racing with mental enhancements.
By superimposing film sequences over our field of vision via the implants — not enough to hinder our sight — we could distract the active parts of our minds with the chains and let instinct and muscle memory do the rest during races. No more over-thinking the jumps and turns. No more letting nerves get in the way. We’d find the zone faster than ever before and be able to stay in it as we rode the boost until the very end.
Jack has let himself get addicted to vid-boosting, and thus in debt to the gangster who supplies him and his partner. When Ari crashes, Jack wants out, but it’s not so easy.
Enhanced SF sports isn’t an original idea, and I don’t find this scenario particularly convincing, certainly not cryptographic in any significant sense.
“Dropped Stitches” by Levi Sable
Knitting cyborgs. On Io, Jennifer and Claudia had a common bond in their children, in whom they invested much of their happiness until Jennifer’s daughter killed both herself and Tavi. Since then, their common bond has been in their grief and their needlework, although a hostile undercurrent underlies their relationship. Now Jennifer has been permitted a new child and has begun knitting its personal programming.
She stared at the pattern, a base of soft, sea-foam green with a complicated metallic structure. She tilted her head. Claudia Cho had been knitting programs for a lot longer than her friend, and her expert eyes traveled the threads with mechanical precision.
Claudia is instantly jealous and overcome with bitterness, although she struggles against it. She also notices that Jennifer’s knitting is, as usual, sloppy and full of errors.
A novel and interesting idea, my favorite of the issue. We know that knitting is pattern-based [knit one, purl two] and thus holds information. But there’s more of debugging here than code-breaking. Still the focus of this piece is more on its characters than its programming.
“It’s Machine Code” by Curtis C Chen
A near future when computer surveillance is even more ubiquitous, based largely on government-issued free routers. Julie works in the IT department of the cop shop and illegally fabs gemstones in her spare time. She likes to put off the lieutenant with jargon, and it can work pretty well on readers, too. When she gets called in on an FBI summons, she initially resists, until she discovers something very interesting—an opportunity.
Here is some definite secrecy, as Julie and her target both employ encryption as well as other means to evade official notice of their activities.
“You hacked my phone!” Julie said. “My. Personal. Phone! I’m going to have to junk it and build a new one. I’m going to have to fab my own goddamn circuit board to make sure nobody else can fuck up my shit!”
The scenario is interesting with some cleverness, but Julie is a pretty unlikely underground hero, who would have been seriously screwed if not for the intervention of a friend. I also consider the initial link between the traffic bot hack and the router to be pretty tenuous.
“Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive” by Barry King
A pretty neep-heavy text.
So whenever I get something in the letterbox, I power up the basement capacitors and the DMZ subnet (where 16,384 honeypot VMs ceaselessly pass files between themselves on a closed segment), which I then physically dump to a dumb pre-1993 tape drive before decrypting onto encrypted diskfiles on the old Debian box unconnected to anything: the one I painstakingly and personally compiled each and every package before installing, and built out of parts from random used machines. Marvin called it my “Art Installation”, titled A Monument to Paranoia.
Arthur is paranoid because he worked for the NSA. Marvin is paranoid because he’s an anti-spyware activist. It seems that after a terrorist attack in the US, the government increased its surveillance of the population [a common theme these days] and the NSA installed backdoors on any manufactured equipment, including the virtual-reality rigs that are about to become ubiquitous. Plots, conspiracies, and counterplots abound, with Marvin’s daughters now taking the lead.
The jargon here is really thick, the narrative stuttering between backstory and foreground action, all of which makes the text obscure and hard going, with readers likely to wonder who is who and what’s going on, but not really caring. Don’t think the story we get out of this effort is worth it.
“The Confession of Whistling Dixie” by Fiona Moore
Dixie, as it is called, is a pirate botnet that grew from a scrap of malware to achieve self-direction and a love of old pirate songs. For a while, it worked for a group of human pirates, but there was a falling out, and Dixie prevailed, then continued operations on its own, which attracted the attention of the authorities.
It’s also why it’s not surprising that your own human-botnet, Mister Langley, happened upon the trail of the pirates, and came looking for them. After all, as song after song shows, there’s no point in pirates without having excise-men, or the Spanish, or the coast guard, or somebody, for them to outwit. And the high sheriff is a-coming, with a hundred men in his company.
The only original note here is in the pirate songs, which grow annoying after a while.
“The Joy of Sects” by Joseph Tomaras
The narrator is an agent of the Secret Service, which isn’t the same thing it is now, nor is anything else, including the narrator, who has undergone body alteration, as apparently has most everyone else. There’s a whole lot of political nonsense and prohibited groups and sects that the narrator is assigned to deal with or infiltrate, making little sense. He informs us that many of his early assignments were dull, which readers won’t need to be told, as the narrative proves it. Finally, he gets to the point, which is the assignment to infiltrate a religious cult that engages in orgies, described in tedious detail. Yes, this piece manages to make sex—kind of kinky sex, even—dull.
Hir penis is circumcised but otherwise intact, the scrotum baggy with stray, undyed white hairs, the only outward sign of hir advancing age. Yes, I got that close a look. The perfect synthesis, so they claim. I got my orders: To mimic Thawratullah’s corporeal engineering. It was not pleasant: Nanoactuators dusted into every follicle, t-shots strong enough to stop my heart and leave me convulsive, aggressive, priapic and masturbatory.
Now I note that the piece is sarcasm, pretty thick sarcasm, but it mainly goes to prove that sarcasm isn’t immune to dullness. There’s a cryptological element, but it’s pretty trivial.
“Bookends” by Michael Wehunt
A story left out of my review of the previous issue, an entomological one, although the insects here, periodical cicadas, are present mainly for theme and metaphor. It’s a story of love and loss, bracketed by the cicadas, which are just emerging as Paul meets his Annie and falls immediately in love; they are emerging again as Annie dies in childbirth. So the text shows him in mourning, flashes back to the history of their love, and intersperses this with snippets detailing the natural history of the cicadas. Paul hates the infant and blames it for Annie’s death. We see him digging a hole while the neglected baby screams, but we don’t worry, because we know he won’t act on his impulse, we know an epiphany is in store for him, which will be related to the cicadas, whose lives are entirely devoted to reproducing their kind, as the snippets inform us, not wanting to leave this point in any doubt. In short, it’s predictable and thus much less interesting than if it were otherwise. This zine is quite capable of offering horror, but here the potential is unfulfilled.
Diabolical Plots, March 2015
This small nonfiction ezine has decided to offer fiction, one story every month for at least a year, and March thus counts as its fiction debut. While the length of the stories, alas, is limited to 2000 words, the editors have adopted a blind submissions process, which pleases me, as the selections are based solely on the stories’ texts, not the names of the authors.
“Taste the Whip” by Andy Dudak
A science fiction idea story, inverting the old generation-ship revolution trope. In this universe, starships have evolved self-directed intelligence, and while many of them hold a human population, the axiom among the ships has always been to maintain their ignorance of the truth of the situation. Parvati now confesses that she has failed to maintain her human population properly, which now numbers over a million and has generated a religious prophet. The other ships are horrified and fear contagion.
It’s not easy to make something new of a premise this hoary, even by taking the ship’s point of view, but Parvati’s point of view is different, as readers will suspect from the title, with its strong flavor of S&M.
In fact, Parvati’s defect is not sentimentality, but something more perverse. There is something slavish in her, something that thrills at the notion of losing control to humans. She aches to submit—her programmers saw to that, modeling her reward systems on a sexual proclivity.
The thing is, this proclivity makes definite sense, according to the history of SF, beginning with the Second Law of robotics. Humans want robots [or AIs] to obey their orders; they fear the rogue machine mind, the possibility of a HAL. Given such assumptions, it’s natural to program an intelligence to take pleasure or satisfaction in such obedience to human command. A Parvati is a logical consequence.
I note that some aspects of the Hindu goddess Parvati emphasize submissiveness to her spouse – but some don’t. I’m not making too much of this.