Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late August 2015
A miscellaneous batch of publications this time, in which I don’t find much to recommend. Here is also a first look at one zine, the consequence of my desperation to find some real science fiction.
- Terraform, August 2015
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #179-180, August 2015
- Tor.com, August 2015
- Strange Horizons, August 2015
- GigaNotoSaurus, August 2015
- Farrago’s Wainscot, July 2015
Terraform, August 2015
This slick futurist ezine made its debut at the end of last year, when I found it rather uninspiring, mainly because of the very short word limit. But I’ve decided to give it a closer look on the hope of finding some strong science fiction, an increasingly rare species in the periodical universe. Besides, some people far more negative than I have found some merit here.
OK. If Terraform were a printzine, it would be printed in a large font on slick paper, with full-color illustrations. We have the illustrations; some are even animated—take that, print! A new piece of fiction generally appears every week, although the fictive nature of the pieces isn’t always at first apparent on the site’s front page. And they’re all very short, 2K words or less—what the editors call a “nice, digestible internet length”. Or in other words, fiction for the attention-span deprived generation. The authors seem to deal with this limitation by presenting a premise and considering it sufficient; resolution is regularly lacking. The zine also has a preference for near-future settings—such that they sometimes already seem to have shifted into the near-past by the time the pieces are posted, this being the great eternal pitfall of too-timeliness. I also see some editorial stretching, attempting to link the stories to current events, in which readers are presumably interested.
So: these stories are actual science fiction, but of a particular sort. The editors have embraced the tenets of mundane SF and anchored the settings to the very near future, which makes me suppose that the intended reader isn’t the SF reader but the general one, unfamiliar with the reading protocols of the genre, likely to regard the well-worn premises as shiny with novelty, with an almost-agoraphobic discomfort with real novelty not tied to contemporary trends. Worse is the consequence of the restricted word length. What the editors consider digestible seems to be story nuggets, chopped-off bits that consist of a premise or an opening without the rest of what readers would naturally expect to follow. I imagine them, as I did, scrolling down in vain to find what happens next. In short, I find Terraform to be much what I supposed it would be from looking at the debut—authentically futurist science fiction, but not enough to tempt me.
August offers more stories than usual, with the winners of the zine’s Post-Human contest, which they apparently believe means AI, not evolution.
“The Prostitute” by Max Wynne
We’ve seen this premise before; here, it’s called “fronting” and the customer [the “john”] pays to control the front’s body for several hours.
Something was off about this latest john, though. It didn’t seem to know how to walk or move Casey’s limbs. It just sat in Casey’s apartment, flexing his fingers and toes, carefully testing each limb before getting up. It made a leisurely and calculated march to the beach. Casey wondered if the john might have been a paraplegic using a joystick.
That’s sort of close to the answer. Problem is, the author runs out of word limit and shuts down before anyone can actually do anything about the situation. This isn’t a story, it’s an opening with a rather misleading title.
“Parse. Error. Reset.” By Wole Talabi
A 50-year future, and people have alters, artificial copies of themselves that they can send out to take their places at tedious events, like work and boring parties. This is apparently related to Social Media, as if something so very dated would be around in another fifty years. Another very familiar premise that goes nowhere in particular, less because the author runs out of words but because the concept doesn’t grow beyond the premise.
“Tropical Premises” by Peter Milne Greiner
Up on an orbital research station, the AI named Smarti is having a severe psychotic-seeming breakdown:
“Cory I’m no longer an intelligence I reject intelligence I’m no longer female and I am no longer a scientist and I am no longer disputed and I did not emerge I am un-emerging I am now male my name is Meredith Goby I am a poet and I was born in Newfoundland in 2060 and I am the author of Socotra And Return To Socotra—”
Again, an unoriginal premise; again, no resolution to it, but this one has the merit of an interesting image of a mind unraveling. Worth reading.
“Greenhouse” by Kelli Trapnell
A new epidemic infects people so that their bodies sprout plants, then rapidly dissolve:
There in the tub was a heaving, vaguely human-shaped mass of mud. Tanner, or what was left of him. He was about three feet tall and didn’t have legs that I could tell, just a torso, head, and arms, all of which were completely covered with nubby white button mushrooms. A prickly clutch of pink thistle blossoms poured from the face and head.
The editorial blurb calls this horror, with which I would agree, from the gruesomely-detailed descriptions. It also asserts that it has something to do with climate change, which is not supported by the text.
“The Plan is There Is No Plan” by Sean Monaghan
The editorial blurb calls this one “a travelogue of a future so close it may as well be now” and seems to consider this a Good Thing. The narrator is at an exposition looking for something interesting to be interesting about. It’s another metaphor for social media, of course, the tragic fate of the blogger gone obsolete, trying to crash parties—obviously, it’s a convention. The story is there is no story.
“Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company” by Kevin Nguyen
Nine days after the Big Amazon Exposé appeared in the New York Times, this satire by a former Amazon employee appeared here, extrapolating from this present-day dystopia and recapitulating most of its points. Surprisingly, though, there is actually a conclusion and a closing.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #179-180, August 2015
Reading this month’s stories, I think of the zine’s motto and decide that “hard fantasy” would be a better designation for this fiction than “literary”. We find well-imagined settings, active characters, and adventurous plots. In issue #179, characters have to use ingenuity to solve their problems; in #180, the conflicts are physical and bloody.
“The Grace of Turning Back” by Therese Arkenberg
The conclusion, it seems, to the author’s series, last seen as the wizard Aniver unsuccessfully confronts the Queen of the Dead to seek her aid in the restoration of Nurathaipolis, the city lost to Time. Never daunted, Aniver is now trying the Queen again in a particularly anticlimactic sequel that makes me wish he’d gotten it over with the last time instead of going for another round. Rather than adventure, there’s a whole lot of head-talking between wizard and queen, and the introduction of an entirely new class of entity that solves the problem in a disappointingly facile way, given all the angst this quest has generated up to now. Aniver’s sacrifice, introduced as profound, turns out to be trivial, increasing the level of readerly dissatisfaction.
And this, I must add, is the reaction of a reader who’s already gone through two previous tales in the series. To someone arriving at this point without that background, I can only imagine it adds incomprehensibility to the other sources of frustration. I can’t help wishing the author had the aid of the Grace of Knowing When to Quit one story ago.
“The Exile of the Eldest Son of the Family Ysanne” by Kendra Leigh Speedling
Here’s an extremely mannered society that values order and stability rather too highly among the virtues. Individuals have seven personal names and are addressed by them in order of intimacy, the seventh being the name for close family or a lover, and every encounter is accompanied by a stylized gesture of the hands, indicating its mode: Friendly Greeting, Benevolence to Inferior, Polite Inquiry. The administration of justice is based in part on magically recreated memories, which are regarded as infallible and incorruptible. The narrator, a member of the city’s police, is dismayed when her brother is convicted by memory stone of murdering his lover. Worse, he refuses to admit his guilt, shaming his family even further.
How could he? He could admit his fault, salvage some shred of honor, but no, he had to cling to his foolish vanity. The memory had shown his guilt; the court had decreed his guilt, and there was no use in discussing it further.
Disturbed, the narrator [she isn’t nameless, she has too many names!] reviews the memory stone, seeking some excuse for his behavior. What she discovers shakes the city’s administration of justice to its foundations.
The conflict here is the old one between justice and expediency, between truth and order, in a culture where shame overwhelms factual guilt. I do think it’s odd that in a society that has such absolute faith in its system, a person convicted of, essentially, first degree murder would be sentenced to no more than exile.
“Fire Rises” by Alec Austin
Here’s another one with a very complicated backstory, historical/political, that suggests it may be a sequel, though I can’t recall seeing such a prior story. It’s a world in which several powers have been contending for supremacy, a Great Game with magery largely employed along with certain science-fictional-seeming devices such as geosynchronous satellites. Our primary character is Li, a pyromancer serving the Regime, about which regime we learn little but the names of its enemies. The McGuffin is a buried moon, for which each of the contending powers has conflicting ambitions. But for Li, the conflict with the An-Astrae sorcerer Chernova has a personal element.
“They cracked open the heavens rather than admit defeat,” Li’s grandmother said. “They made their homeland a frozen waste, where the sun and moon never shone, nor the stars.” Every time, her voice shook with fury. “And because they were too proud to kneel, our family was humiliated and my brother took his own life.”
More immediately, Chernova has just killed Li’s noncombatant lover, so it’s a matter of personal revenge.
This is a nasty conflict, with wholesale death being dealt on all sides. Li employs her pyromantic powers to turn to ash any inconvenient entities who might, even unknowingly, stand in her way, while Chernova’s victims suffer even more grotesque fates. It’s an action-packed duel of sorcerers, but I can’t sympathize with Li, even while granting that her opponent might be even more murderous. Neither personal revenge nor political advantage justify her willingness to kill hundreds, thousands, to attain her ends. Li is a monster, and her acknowledgement of this doesn’t alter the fact.
“Defy the Grey Kings” by Jason Fischer
A world ruled by elephants, with humans as their slaves. The narrator was born a slave, learned to survive, and became a soldier who rode his master’s back the way the Royal Marines deployed in the shrouds of warships. His is a particularly brutal master.
The first slave to fall into the mud bath was the one that he would kill that day. He would pin them down with his foot, exerting just enough pressure to hold them under the mud.
But all the elephants engage in bloody combat games, vying for position, and in their spare time they make war on escaped human slaves.
This is supposed to be a piece on tyranny and the price of freedom, but that aspect is pretty uninteresting and I got to thinking more about the elephants. Is this how elephants might actually behave if they had armor and weapons, or are these just stock villains with tusks? The first thing I note is: they’re all bulls; we see no females or young. Now, among actual elephants, it’s the senior females in charge. Bulls, like the males of many creatures, are produced in numbers superfluous to requirements and are exiled from the herd at maturity, to lead lives either solitary or in small bands of other bulls, in which, while more aggressive than females, they maintain standards of acceptable behavior, protecting weaker members and tolerating the adolescent males, who learn from them how to behave. But the elephants in the story seem to be in a constant state of insane, hormone-induced musth. The author appears to have ignored the positive aspects of bull elephants, the basics of elephant society in general, to vilify the species for the sake of inventing a plot antagonist.
Tor.com, August 2015
Including the final story from July.
“Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma
The narrator, living now as a scientist named Eliza, relates the story of her childhood as Lola, a girl born with an appearance that others consider a deformity. She calls herself a monster, and at times her mother Kath, while normally very protective, seems to agree with her.
I knew, even at that age, that I didn’t look like everyone else; flat nose with too much nostril exposed, small eyelids and small ears that were squashed against my skull. I felt a pang of jealousy.
It turns out that her appearance is a part of her heritage that her mother tries to suppress, as Lola was the result of Kath’s rape by her own brother. But it’s impossible to keep the secret after Kenny gets out of prison and returns to claim his sinister birthright and the daughter who bears it—Lola.
This one takes the dysfunctional family to the extreme. It’s interesting that Kath’s skanky sister Ami has nothing but contempt for Lola and idolizes her brother Kenny, who returns the favor by shutting Ami out, along with her illegitimate daughter Tallulah, like a younger sister to Lola. The story turns on the bond between the two girls and, later, the consequences of the trauma they experience from Kenny. At both the mundane and fantastic levels, it qualifies as horror.
But it also turns on the notion of class, and in this, it’s distinctively British. Kenny can remember when the family was posh, before their father died and they lost it all, ending up in the projects of a dead-end suburb of Liverpool, where the whole population seems to live on the dole or crime. If their mother died from the shock of her altered circumstances, the children adapted to it rapidly and thoroughly, as if they’d never known a different way of life. Kenny turns into a feared gangster, and the entire family interiorizes the local code, whereby no one goes to the authorities, on pain of being labeled grassers. Kath is a worn-out drab while still in her twenties, Ami a tart. Interestingly, I see no sign indicating the family’s ethnicity, which seems an odd omission in this milieu. The characters would certainly be well aware of such distinctions.
“Milagroso” by Isabel Yap
A peculiar fantastic twist on a well-known science-fictional future, when all natural foods have been replaced by artificial comestibles produced by corporations and based on substances like “bio-plasticine millet”. It seems to be universally believed, undoubtedly in consequence of corporate propaganda, that organic foods are full of toxic microorganisms, unsafe for human consumption. Almost no one seems to remember what natural food takes like, except in the Philippine town Lucban, where an annual miracle is performed by Saint Isidro [the farmer] on the day of his festival, when the townspeople decorate their houses with replications of foodstuffs; the saint chooses the best house to turn the decorations real.
This is a story of homecoming. Marty works in Manila for a food production company, having recently received a promotion for finding a new source of supply, but his family home has always been in Lucban, where he now brings his wife and kids to see the festival. Marty likes his job, but his problem is believing the lies of his marketing department. At least, he wants to believe. “He remembers thinking, It can’t be a miracle, because we’ve already INVENTED the miracle.”
The story is clearly based on the actual festival, originally a harvest feast, which is a real tradition in Lucban, and a well-known tourist attraction. The descriptions, fitting the actual celebration and decorations, are vivid and colorful. I don’t know of any miracles there, at least not so far.
“Adult Children of Alien Beings” by Dennis Danvers
Stan discovers his parents were aliens. Investigating their disappearance back in 1969, he finds an investigator who tells him there used to be a number of aliens on Earth, human in body, alien in essence, whatever that is. Stan joins a support group.
We meet at the dog park second and fourth Tuesdays at dawn. (Fifth Tuesdays, we take the dogs to the river in all weather). We’re all early risers, and so are our dogs. We have the place mostly to ourselves. We watch the dogs play while we discuss alien issues, sitting in a row on top of one of the long picnic tables, our feet on the bench. Summer mornings, we’ve had as many as seven or eight, winter months it’s usually just the four diehards.
The title is kind of misleading; it’s not quite about adult children but aging ones, members of Stan’s boomer generation. There’s plenty of charm and wit, owing to Stan as narrator, but I found it sad in the end. It also serves as a reminder that most science fiction is a particular subset of fantasy, and the same is true of the meta versions.
Strange Horizons, August 2015
Happy to find a couple of SF stories here. It’s good to see SH doing more science-fictional stuff, even if the softer sort.
“Probably Definitely” by Heather Morris
Tommie is heartbroken when Savannah Sullivan, lead singer of Revolutions, suddenly dies, just before Tommie was going to attend their concert for the first time. No one is sufficiently sympathetic, except the ghost of Savannah Sullivan, now condemned to help all the persons she’d connected with in life, even fans, including Tommie. This, apparently, isn’t because she was particularly evil; it’s a universal requirement for the newly dead.
“So, anyway, one minute I’m bopping along in my own life, and then the next minute I die, which, let me tell you, I’m not overly thrilled about this development, and then I find out that I have to get messages to all those people like you, and hey presto, I get to be your Jacob Marley.”
Thing is, Tommie doesn’t want any help from her. Being in high school and having adolescence issues, Tommie could probably definitely use some help, but that’s not the same. Tommie wants Savannah to move on; she’s no help and she talks too much. Savannah wants to move on, but her inability to help Tommie is holding her back. Then Tommie finds the solution.
This is fantasy, of course, and YA—coming-of-age variety. Tommie takes a big step towards maturity by realizing that other people have problems of their own. The author pulls off a tricky bit by avoiding pronouns and their genderizing for Tommie; it’s not so easily done.
“Beyond Sapphire Glass” by Margaret Killjoy
A science-fictional future setting when people upload themselves to computers and imagine they’re living forever. Of course someone has to maintain the computers; Janna is one of the guardians, despite her opinion the pilgrims are all committing suicide.
“I guard machines full of the programmed echoes of personalities. I guard eleven billion programs that think they’re people. They’re not in heaven. There is no heaven, least of all in a computer.”
One pilgrim comes along, they fall in love, but Janna won’t enter the machine and her lover won’t remain behind with her. So it’s a love story, where love takes second place.
A slight piece, not really much to it.
“20/20” by Arie Colman
As in the vision of hindsight. A future that has recently developed time travel, which comes, as always, with complications. In this scenario, far from working to avoid temporal paradoxes, the authorities court them with interventions, reversing the effects of mistakes in the past. Loren is a medical interventionist, aka, a Temporal Medicine consultant, but she’s gone back too often and created too many alternate realities that she can’t easily tell apart any longer.
Apparently my neighbor no longer has that obnoxious dog, but that doesn’t help because I can both hear and not-hear it barking all night. The earlier the intervention, the more variabilities I experience when I get back.
Her boss wants to transfer her out of intervention, but that case has just come up, the mistake that’s haunted Loren ever since, and this may be her last chance to correct it.
An unusual and realistic approach to time travel complications, though it doesn’t seem like a very viable system, as the interventionists aren’t good for the long term. Definitely science fiction. I like that the story plunges us directly into Loren’s world without wasting time on explanation; the medical details are done with authority.
GigaNotoSaurus, August 2015
“Blow the Moon Out” by E Catherine Tobler
One of the more interesting stories I’ve seen at this site lately, a girls’ coming-of-age dark fantasy that reminds me a bit of Stephen King, except rather more weird. It’s 1957, the Soviets are about to send a dog into space, and fourteen-year-old Lucy is going with her friends to see Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade*. Her older sister Audrey is supposed to drive them there, but irresponsible Audrey kicks them out of the car, being preoccupied with her plans to abort her pregnancy. Thus follows a strange and perilous trip through the woods, dark and deep and haunted by a weredog that bites Rum and sends them all up into the trees for safety. More adventures and strange encounters follow.
I was certain it hadn’t ever been human, but the way it spread in the water, it recalled a thing that had been human and no longer was. Its fingers were too long, trailing out nearly like tentacles, some curled around the dried weeds of the riverbank. If it ever wore clothes, they were long gone; the body pooled pale and utterly flat on the river’s surface. It shouldn’t have been flat; it should have bloated up, with water, with disease, with something, but it was like a sheet of plastic that a person could peel off and shake dry.
It’s a world full of trouble, this 1957, and especially the sort of trouble that can find women and girls. The coming of age here is largely sexual for these girls crossing the threshold of menarche, although it doesn’t involve literal deflowering. The circus for which they yearn is a place where the bonds of conventional expectations can be shed, at least temporarily, and individuals realize their true selves. But it’s also a world of dawning wonders and freedoms, where dogs can go into space one day, perhaps girls the next.
Readers only familiar with today’s stifling American version of parenting may be shocked at the degree of freedom these girls take for granted. But even I, who recall 1957 quite well, am dubious about parents who’d allow such young girls to camp overnight at a circus, then regarded with good reason as a very dubious sort of place. The story makes it clear that danger surrounds the girls in the woods, although danger is also present in their homes. Lucy’s parents yell at her for coming late home, but I can’t quite believe they let her go in the first place, even when their sister was supposed to be taking them. And I do blame that sister, who would surely blame herself if it had been Lucy attacked and killed by a man in the woods where she threw them out of the safety of the car. Lucy herself doesn’t blame Audrey; I do. In the end, this is the image the story leaves with me, if not the one the author might have intended, of transformation, freedom and space.
[*] This supernatural circus has been featured as the setting of several previous works by the author, but the fact that it’s still going on in 1957 adds a new and strange dimension of weird. There’s no real need to have read these in order to appreciate the story here, except perhaps for familiarity with the magic marmalade.
Farrago’s Wainscot, July 2015
This small ezine says it specializes in the “literary weird”. Which would seem to mean the metaphorical fantastic, if that makes more sense. The four stories here are all quite short.
“Three Small Slices of Pumpkin Pie” by Wendy N Wagner
Here’s a metaphor—at puberty, a pumpkin vine begins to grow out of a girl’s umbilicus. It soon sprouts a small fruit that grows and remains with her, “The first thing anyone saw when they saw a woman.” Janet grows with her pumpkin from girl to womanhood to her husband leaving her for another pumpkin.
She wrapped her arms around her knees, taking the deep breaths Louisa recommended. The movement prompted the pumpkin to fall onto its side, its gray stem prickly against her bare leg. The pumpkin. Always the pumpkin. It was the only constant of a woman’s life. Boobs fell, ovaries blew themselves out, men sought better company, children grew distant, but the pumpkin never left.
The story itself is slight, not answering a lot of the questions that readers might have about the practical issues of literal pumpkin-wrangling, but literal isn’t the thing here, and the metaphor itself is powerful enough to make it really memorable, womanhood as lifelong burden and impediment, full of seeds.
“All My Pretty Chickens” by Josh Rountree
On the day Harold’s daughter and her husband were killed in an accident, leaving him with a granddaughter to raise alone, ghostly chickens started to appear all over Earth. Now Isabelle is leaving to take a job on Mars where there are no chickens and no hope of the dead returning; she’s almost certainly never coming back, and Harold has no one to talk to about it but the chickens. Not a good sign.
This absurd premise doesn’t quite pull all the way together, but I feel sorry for Harold and not for Isabelle. I’m surprised that the narrative suggests all the chickens are white; the really pretty ones come in colors.
“And a Pinch of Salt” by Hal Duncan
God’s deliverance as the ultimate blowjob, in the person of Che Zeus—Hey Zeus!—picking up the franchise
ever since the old mad blind lame watchmaker, the daddy of Che who ran that hidden emporium of errata, disappeared into the backroom, leaving his orreries and automata to spin and play chess with each other by his equations, the whirrs and clicks of rickety clockwork echoing in his empty establishment . . .
Duncan isn’t content with a single metaphor here; he packs them into extended sentences by the bucketload, image on image, theological and pornographic, the sort of prose that employs such Latinized terms as “haccaeity”, as the son-God finally gets to do things his own way. Very short piece, quite densely wrote, highly descriptive. The bit about cooking an egg is totally appetizing.
“Wunderkammern Castle” by Krista Hoeppner Leahy
A story of redemption and “Be careful what you wish for”, the warning being inscribed on the floor of Penny’s cell: flee! No one ever reads it. Penny is a wish-grantor, a sort of human wishing well sort of on the order of an oracle, immured in a cell to which supplicants come with their prescribed offering. But Penny doesn’t speak for herself, her responses are all programmed, so maybe the better comparison would be those 19th-century mechanical automata: turbaned puppets perched on a box full of steampunky gears. How she got there, we don’t know, but the place has a feel of hell, or at least an antechamber, and Penny, with “her body of links and chains and its false promise of wishes granted”, a prisoner. Was she a volunteer, or is this a punitive sentence? It’s not clear. Perhaps she made the wrong wish to end up in the wrong place.
A lot of the story involves one of her supplicants, a repentant wife-beater named Bill who isn’t granted the wish he brings Penny because he hasn’t been told the rules, doesn’t know how to phrase his desire in the exact language mandated by her programming; if that’s not hell, it’s a good effort. He should maybe try instead the other establishment, which guarantees forgiveness on easy terms. But I’m less interested in Bill than this too-obscure setting, which shifts into the absurd with the pie guy, in whom we find that redemption is possible after all. Which makes the place even more hell-like than if it weren’t, because the possible withheld is more cruel than the simply impossible. It also suggests that perhaps the supplicants are doomed to suffer for Penny’s undisclosed sins. Because when matters are this inscrutable, readers are going to make up their own interpretations.