Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-April

Featuring a special issue of Analog, plus its sister zine and a couple of online publications.


Publications Reviewed


Analog, June 2015

This issue marks a very notable milestone for the magazine: number one thousand, counting from the Astounding era. That’s venerable. That’s longevity. To mark the occasion, there are a number of commemorative essays, which, being nonfiction, I won’t review here, but which will doubtless be of interest to readers. As for the fiction, the ToC lists two novelettes, both among the best Hard SF I’ve seen from this zine. Both involve human contact with aliens, but these are well-done science-fictional aliens, not the silly kind with tentacles and snouts. Indeed, their presence is known primarily through inference, as the humans try to interpret the evidence for their existence. I’d like to see more pieces like these in the course of the next thousand issues.

The large number of short pieces, some very short, also include several dealing with aliens and/or war, but most aren’t particularly compelling.

“The Wormhole War” by Richard A Lovett

Forces on Earth are attempting to establish a wormhole link to a planet they call Gaia205c. On a day that Zeke happens to be in control, the wormhole explodes. Earth sends out more wormholes to find out what happened; they also explode, closer and closer to Earth. No one has any idea how to penetrate the mystery until after Zeke’s wife dies and he starts to spend more time in bars, where he explores a new notion of using the wormhole for time travel, taking advantage of the time dilation. Paradoxes ensue, whereupon Zeke and his colleagues realize that their wormholes aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood.

What do you do if entities unknown shoot multi-billion-dollar wormholes at you faster than you can get your own into their territory? Build more and fire them back even faster, the newly formed Planetary Defense Commission concluded. Going to Gaia 205c was now out of the question. The goal was to keep Gaia 205c from coming to Earth.

Genuine Hard SF, based on the hardest of the sciences, physics, married to military SF. The premise is a crucial one: what do you do if you inadvertently start a war against a power stronger than you are? One beneficial side effect is that Earth is forced to become truly united against a common danger. For Zeke, the central character, the situation is a tragedy. He can’t forget the days when wormholes meant exploration and new frontiers, not war and the threat of planetary destruction. While he becomes increasingly familiar with military strategy, he isn’t happy about what he’s becoming in the process.

I quite like the wormhole war, but I could have done without Zeke’s family problems, which aren’t really central to the story but are brought onstage at intervals, I assume to provide an unnecessary humanizing touch.

“The Audience” by Sean McMullen

Jander opens the story by informing us that he’s the sole survivor of a five-person exploration ship sent to survey Abyss, an extrasolar planet now in the Oort Cloud region. Thus we want to know both what happened and why he’s telling us. Upon reaching their goal, the crew’s priority is refueling for the return trip. Fortunately, the planet’s rings are full of ice. Upon examining a sample, they discover specimens that make it clear the system harbors some form of life, probably in a subsurface ocean on one of the planet’s icy moons, after the model of Europa. A team of three is sent to probe further, and they are detonating sounding charges when they abruptly disappear, their bodies replaced by an equal mass of ice. The survivors realize there is an alien civilization beneath the ice with teleportation ability. Then the bodies of the crew start to rematerialize in the ship, animated by the presence of an alien intelligence.

An auditory scan showed that his heart was beating and that he was taking breaths. His head turned back and forth, and his eyes focused on some nearby instruments. Things that did not understand eyes were looking through his eyes.

The two lifeforms are studying each other, the humans only directly, but the aliens through the minds of the reanimated crew. The humans become increasingly alarmed at the evidence of the Abyssans’ abilities, and the fact that they are obviously very interested in their visitors and their ship. Now, alone on the ship except for an alien zombie watching his every move, Jander is convinced that they might pose a threat to Earth.

A neat story idea, well executed. The problem posed to Jander isn’t entirely original, but his solution is novel and clever. The crew’s speculation on the nature of the aliens is interesting, as they note that to these ice-dwellers, humans must seem like beings living on the surface of a sun. And there’s irony as Jander complains early in the story that he has no opportunity to practice his skills of disaster recovery. I only wonder why, after he has taken such great pains to eliminate all evidence that might point the aliens in the direction of Earth, he takes the risk of transmitting the warning message that is this story.


“Very Long Conversations” by Gwendolyn Clare

More aliens. This one appears to be a sequel to a previous tale in which human exobiologist Becca goes to the planet Albedo and ends up adopting an Albedan child. Now she and two Albedans are with a human exploration party on a different world where the indigenes are extinct. Or so they assume, although I have no idea why. Communication ensues—indeed, it’s the story’s theme. Kind of dull.

“The Kroc War” by Ted Reynolds and William F Wu

War is mean and cruel and bad and inspires cynical stories.

“Strategies for Optimizing Your Mobile Advertising” by Brenta Blevins

Short-short variation on the mother’s eternal “You never call” theme. Supposed to be funny, I find it rather depressing, considering a world full of young people with no prospects, no future.

“The Odds” by Ron Collins

War is treacherous. Another cynical short-short, told strangely in the 2nd person, instructing the individual assigned to commit an act of betrayal at a peace conference between two species. We assume that one of these is likely human, that the person being addressed is the human, but there is no guarantee of this, since both species in question are perhaps equally warlike and treacherous. There is also no guarantee that the other side isn’t planning just the same sort of betrayal.

The narrative makes this somewhat intriguing, being mostly abstract speculation. The odds, it seems, favor the fact that such species will evolve. May the worst side win, as usual.

“The Empathy Vaccine” by C C Finlay

It isn’t, as the infodump makes tediously clear, a vaccine, but a gene therapy that eliminates the subject’s capacity for empathy. Our narrator, a prospective client, calls it “a performance-enhancing drug for corporate management”, which is to say for creating a psychopath. Alas, while the idea has some interest, the execution is clumsy and one of the worst cases of “how is he telling this story” that I’ve encountered.

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson

A millennium or so in the past, facing some crisis, Earth sent out a fleet of seedships to propagate human populations on different worlds. Now, in the ideal condition of a “liberal democratic state” and apparently full of misgivings, it has sent out a new mission:

Locate the seedship colonies, the frozen progeny scattered by a younger and more desperate Earth. Study these new humanities. And in the most extreme situations: remove existential threats to mankind.

That’s pretty arrogant, but the reality is even moreso. There are three members of the mission, one with a predisposition to kill entire populations, one to reject the idea, and Shinobu, our narrator, as the tiebreaker. They also have a template for the approved sort of society, one that fosters art and culture, and a list of social diseases including the “Duong-Watts malignant”. This is a theoretical society in which humans have been engineered to suppress their individual self-consciousness. On Mitanni, this seems to have happened. The society resembles a global ant hive*, with each individual working for the survival of the whole. Now the mission has to decide whether to destroy it.

This piece is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. The characters spend a great deal of time debating whether Mitanni does or does not qualify as a “Duong-Watts malignant”, a term pretty meaningless. It’s really monstrous to decide that a world’s population should be exterminated simply because it doesn’t meet a pre-existing template of acceptability. The real question ought to be instead whether the society constitutes a threat to other worlds or to humanity as a whole. The three judges assume that it does, because Mitanni is preparing its own seedships. But I don’t think this follows at all from the assumptions given. Mitanni reproduction is artificial, and as such is controlled, which means overpopulation is unlikely. Since their imperative is survival, they will produce only the number of new births to optimize success. So spreading beyond their own world is not an imperative. In short, I don’t think this scenario makes sense.

Worse, the three characters seem primarily concerned, not with their mission but each other, not hurting each other’s feelings. They apparently have a long history together, which the story fails to show us directly. There is a clear sense that they are inclined to commit massive genocide as an apology to one character who was overruled on the prior occasion and took it badly [although, again, this is something we never actually see]. I find this particularly monstrous.

[*] One character insists that Mitanni does not resemble the model of ants, but I believe she is wrong about ants.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser

A crewmember from a high-c spaceship likes to bullshit the locals in the bars while his ship is in port. Tall tales.



Asimov’s, June 2015

This issue features a quartet of longer novelettes; I prefer the shorter Naylor.

“The End of the War” by Django Wexler

Military SF, of course. As the spearpoint of this conflict in black space we have individual operators commanding mobcoms, which stands for something like “mobile command”. They go out alone for 120-day tours, fighting to take resources and deny them to the enemy by deploying hordes of mobile devices. Because the solitude can drive an operator crazy, most of them have illicit communication devices to chat with any other operators in range—on either side. This tends to make their encounters seem more like a nonlethal, convivial game, and they do seem to have more in common than with the other personnel on their own sides, primarily their support and their commanders, who keep extending their tours.

Every operator has been tempted, at some point. It would certainly be a lot easier if we could just trade off, instead of fighting it out every time. But command won’t have it, and it’s common knowledge that our mobcoms spy on us, upload our out battle records into the big iron back on the Ark. A little unauthorized communication is one thing, but throw a fight and there’d be hell to pay.

The milspeak jargon here can be a bit off-putting at first, but the author paces things deliberately, with a slow reveal of the dire situation the combatants have fought themselves into. Nothing remains but the war, winding down to the last resources of both sides. Their home worlds have long since been annihilated, their populations removed to ark ships where they breed the next generations of combatants. Their battles now are fought over the salvage of earlier generations of war ships, rich with resources that seem profligate to these combatants. The situation proves more grim than it seems at first, when readers will be reminded of gaming scenarios; this war, in the end, is no game.

“The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien

It’s a bit jarring to go directly from the grim scenario above to this comedy of manners, featuring characters with names like Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe. The setting resembles the Gilded Age, when fortunes were made from whaling and railroads, and the possessors thereof summered at Newport to vie among themselves in games of social status, such as competing to own the most unique garden and sit the closest to Mrs Vanderbilt.

Now I’m fond of a good comedy of manners, full of cleverness, wit, and allusions to Jane Austen. In this case, though, what we have is a parody, a social commentary on the uses of extravagant wealth that actually descends to tragedy. Nevertheless a parody in the form of a comedy of manners has to succeed as a comedy of manners, with a light, subtle touch. This one plods heavy-footed through the gardens of farce, trampling the foliage of wit underfoot.

The deck of the ship was alive with speculation until the clarion at the top of the pulley sounded, indicating that the passengers were ready to be retrieved. The pulley was cranked to draw the diving bell back up along the rails and onto the platform and the passengers were disgorged. All of Newport society saw Mrs. Howland-Thorpe weeping quietly onto her husband’s shoulder. She lifted her kerchief from her face to shake her fist and cry “Saboteuse!”

I have another objection, rather more science-fictional. The narrative repeats several times that “It could not be known” what disastrous effects the sea-roses would have on the marine environment. But of course it could have, should have been known, since these organisms were artificially bred by “enterprising botanists at Harvard University” over a period of time sufficient to observe their pernicious habits. As farce, this scenario isn’t really required to stand the test of scientific reason, but the text shouldn’t rub it in.

“Ghosts of the Savannah” by M Bennardo

Some time in the apparent Paleolithic*, the narrator and her sister/friend Sedu are members of a band of cursorial hunters in which the primary skill of a hunter is the ability to run [the gazelle being their primary prey]. These two young women are excellent runners and have earned their place in the band, but a certain male leader resents them for it; the narrator knows he wants to take Sedu to bear children for him and keep his house. But if she can’t continue to be a hunter, Sedu would rather die.

Sedu doesn’t crow or cheer as we return, but simply glows with satisfaction. Everyone can see how often she wears the blood splashes of the dead gazelle. Everyone can see when she is the one who has driven the killing blow.

The descriptions here are well and vividly detailed, but the story premise is one that readers may find overly-familiar. Moreover, there is no real fantastic or science-fictional element present; this is straight prehistorical fiction.

[*] The actual era of this setting seems to be the Olduwan, the earliest known period of tool making. The hominins of the story work flint, crudely, and have fire, though we don’t see how they make it. But they have no spears or projectile weapons. The characters in this story are not at all modern humans, possibly australopithecine or Homo habilis. This suggests they are not yet well adapted for running, which makes the female runners of the story significant in evolutionary terms. Unfortunately for their own personal desires, it means their species would benefit more from their bearing children to carry on this trait, rather than running after game, as they would prefer. Evolution is like that. I do question, however, their inability to survive by foraging and gathering, as hominins of this era most likely did, not yet being so efficient as hunters. It’s a perplexing situation.

“Our Lady of the Open Road” by Sarah Pinsker

Luce and her band are on the road in a future where the road is dying, driving in their restaurant-grease van from one gig to the next as they become fewer and farther between as the venues slowly disappear, along with the few remaining live bands. All entertainment now comes as holos.

Town after town, we saw the same thing. And of course most people didn’t see anything at all, puttering along on the self-driving highways, watching movies instead of looking out the windows, getting from point A to point B without stopping in between.

She does it for the music, for the live music and the few people who still come to see it, but it’s a dying way of life, as they get older and creakier, scrounge in dumpsters for food and sleep in the funk of the van, constantly looking out for cops who’ll harass them on general suspicion. Anything but sell out to the holo corporations.

This one is mainly atmosphere, a future when where everything is artificial but only a few people recognize it. I can’t say whether it’s a dystopia; we only see the backwaters of this society, where depopulation is underway. The focus, though, is on Luce. She meets aging people who tell her, “I used to have a band,” but she lives the grimy reality of that life, and it’s wearing her down. The offer of the holo corporations is starting to become tempting. The details of existence on the road are compelling; I felt strongly impelled to take a shower with degreaser after reading it.

“Mutability” by Ray Nayler

In a quiet café somewhere in the Mideast, Sebastian encounters a woman who shows him a very strange photograph: he and she together, perhaps four hundred years ago. Neither of them have any memory of each other.

He turned left and went down the embankment, turning details over in his mind and trying to remember things. Did he remember her? Now that he had seen the picture, it seemed as if he did, but he knew the way these false memories could be constructed by the mind: you would remember a moment, but in the memory, you would be looking into your own face, or looking down at yourself from above—which meant it couldn’t possibly be real. And they said that every time you remembered something, you subtly changed the memory to suit the present moment.

Or perhaps we change the present to suit the memory.

This is an elegant, elegiac tale, a subtle mystery of memory. The setting is sketched with a fine economy; we don’t know exactly where or when we are, but it’s clearly way past our own time. People are very long-lived, and some appear to be living with no visible present means of support. Things here don’t greatly change. The café has been there for decades, if not centuries, largely unaltered. The story makes us slightly curious about these matters, but the real concern is with the alterations we discern.


“The Muses of Shuyedan-18” by Indrapramit Das

Really neat aliens, very well imagined. Tani and Mi come across one of the creatures they call lifecastles just as it separates from the progenitor that budded it.

It wasn’t birth, it was a battle, full of lust and fury and what we might call blood, misting the air and falling upon us in a drizzle that glimmered on our faceplates as we watched. Strings of dark tissue stretched between the aliens like a cat’s cradle, scythes of cartilage emerging to snap them off. Steaming in the red light, Shuyedan pulled away and lay across the loamy ground, ultraviolet reflections storming across its fresh skin like lightning. A giant twisting to articulate itself, groaning to life. Its progenitor gasped flickering blood and shuddered away, its part done.

These creatures are artists, their own bodies their canvas. As the humans watch, crude images of their spacesuited selves appear on its integument. Later, overcome by the experience just witnessed, they have sex, and are surprised shortly afterwards to see images of their copulation forming a frieze across its carapace.

The naturalists I know would be disapproving of this scene, of humans imprinting a newborn creature, warping the expression of its art. Even Tani and Mi express some misgivings on this score. It’s a worthy subject for an SF story. Alas, this story veers away to consider the relationship between Tani and Mi, which is a lot less intriguing. Quarrels between lovers are a tedious commonplace in fiction; what is this worth, in comparison to really neat aliens? What effects did this imprinting experience have on Shuyedan, and did it contribute to its early death? The author doesn’t seem sufficiently concerned with these questions, and that saddens me.



Unlikely Story, April 2015

Another mini-issue, this one subtitled Unlikely Coulrophobia—which is to say clowns. Unfortunately, these pieces are all “flash fiction” [a term I have never liked], mostly too short for optimum impact. The five stories avoid most of the usual evil-clown clichés, but they tend to repeat some of the same themes among themselves.

“Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do” by Derek Manuel

This one starts out on a mundane note, so that readers may think: yes, indeed, this is good mundane advice for a mundane clown to emulate. But it gradually becomes clear that the clowns in question are not mundane at all. The slow reveal at work.

“Perfect Mime” by Sarah K McNeilly

A particularly creepy story in which the clown is the victim, a puppet being played by her masters. The plasticity of makeup obscuring the face beneath is used effectively to suggest the exploitation of women, but I find the scariest part the invisible ropes and belts that leave physical scars, unseen by the audience, which can’t hear her cry out from a mime’s silence.

“A Million Tiny Ropes” by Virginia M Mohlere

The ropes make up the net that the clowns hold to catch JennyAnne when she drops from the trapeze. A net can be safety and salvation, and it can be a trap, as this vignette illustrates.

“Everyone’s a Clown” by Caroline M Yoachim

When the narrator takes her daughter to the circus, she sees everyone’s face transformed into a clown’s. This, apparently, is how Amelia has always seen the world, the clown faces reflecting the inner reality of the individuals. While the visions are disturbing, particularly the cat, this is in essence a story of a mother attempting to do the best for her child in a difficult situation, even if she has to share it with her.

“Break the Face in the Jar by the Door” by Carlie St George

Another mother and daughter. The 2nd-person narrator, already afflicted with an emotionally abusive husband, now finds her young daughter afflicted with “coulrodermatism”, “that creepy clown disease”. It turns out that this is the child’s way of expressing her feelings about her oppressive home life.

This one repeats the themes of some of the previous pieces, which do it rather better.



Kaleidotrope, Spring 2015

Five stories, mostly fantasy, of rather medium quality at best. This zine will have to do better for me to keep reading.

“The Spine of Worlds” by Eric Rosenfield

After a harrowing youth in which he lost everyone he had, more than once, Hal discovered the Tower, full of multiple gates to the multiverse. Adventurers were constantly coming through the place on some quest or other, but Hal has realized that the goal of his own quest is the Tower itself, the only place in the multiverse where it’s safe. He’s lived there alone in contentment, scavenging, until the arrival of Aris, on her quest to regain her stolen shadow. For once, Hal helps an adventurer. Hal is falling in love.

In his years in the Tower he’d watched and listened, keeping to the shadows as the adventurers tromped through. He named the galleries and remembered what was said to be beyond each door. He’d never found an end to them — every time he thought he had, he discovered more uncharted space — but he didn’t think there was a living person who knew them better. If the Gnome King wouldn’t help her, and she didn’t know where to turn next, he could point her on the right path.

A nice, warmhearted little secondary world fantasy, in which I see two problems. First, it makes sense that the traumatized Hal would cling to a guarantee of safety, but just where is this guarantee? Who grants and enforces it? The place is a regular route of armed adventurers, who are often a ruthless bunch. If Aris was the first to put a knife to his throat, she probably wouldn’t be the last. Hal’s haven seems to be a delusion, or if not, the author hasn’t show us why. Secondly, this world is populated with generic fantasy figures [e.g. gnomes] and creatures of the author’s imagination. But one figure, Baba Yaga, is out of place here. She belongs to a specific folklore, a specific setting, which this isn’t.

“Monkey King, Faerie Queen” by Zen Cho

Here’s an intriguingly original idea: Monkey, the Chinese trickster god, finds himself in a foreign realm. Cultural dissonance ensues.

In foreign countries people don’t do things the way we do them. Instead of calling nice nice and not nice not nice, they like to say that what is bad is good and what is good is bad. So this benighted ragtag group of unreverenced lesser godlings were known as the Fair Folk, despite their pinched unpleasant faces. They were the Good Neighbors, even though they soured their human neighbors’ milk and stole the occasional baby. They were called the People of Peace, even though their favorite past-time was declaring war and perpetrating grotesque crimes upon each other.

Entertaining magical encounter, in which the Fae don’t come off well.

“Echoes of Life” by Jetse de Vries

Science fiction, sort of. Blaze has come to Europa to investigate the discovery of indigenous lifeforms and arbitrate between any native Europans and the human pressure for colonization. It would seem that the only real scientist on Europa is an eight year old named Jason, who’s discovered a creature he names the zeppelinfish. Jason also believes in Santa Claus, or rather the Dutch version, which prevails on this world’s small colony. Upon arrival on Europa, Blaze goes directly to Jason’s mother, apparently on account of her hotness, as no other reason is given. They immediately jump into the sack, leaving Jason to solve the mystery of Europan life, which he does with suspicious ease.

I’m not buying any of this, although I might be willing to buy the zeppelinfish under other circumstances, such as a different story.

“The Face of Atrocity” by Charles Ebert

Baba Yaga again, this time in an appropriate setting, a German military camp in occupied Russia during WWII. She is in league with the partisans and supplies Ivan with mushrooms to poison the Germans. This is a blow not struck without a cost.

Ivan eyed the witch with dread. In every tale he had ever heard with Baba Yaga in it, she made deals, offering to fix the hero’s troubles with the evil prince or stepmother, in exchange for something impossible or unspeakable. When the hero found himself unable to keep his side of the bargain, Baba Yaga would get upset and start loading firewood into her oven.

It seems that Baba Yaga is a Russian patriot, with a history of aiding the people against invaders. This doesn’t mean the witch is a nice person, and people associated too closely with her may absorb the taint. A cruel and vengeful tale, which is suited to this history. Unfortunately, the usual clichés and stereotypes abound.

“The Maquette” by Nicole M Taylor

A variation on the Pygmalion story, to the point that the sculpture, come to life, calls herself Galatea. It’s a moral tale about the futility of the quest for sterile perfection, in which we find no real surprises.

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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