Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late September 2015

Featuring a science fiction anthology, of which I haven’t seen so many recently.

Publications Reviewed


Twelve Tomorrows, edited by Bruce Sterling

It’s become clear to me in the last couple of years that the future of actual science fiction must lie with dedicated anthologies. So I was a bit concerned when the current year approached its end and I’d still seen no such anthologies arrive in my inbox. But The MIT Technology Review has come through at last with a new annual volume of this future-tech fiction collection—albeit the first I’ve seen. As the title clearly suggests, it’s a particular sort of science fiction, the futurist sort, most of the dozen pieces being set in the near future Earth and connected to some sort of technological advance.

One problem with futurism, with tomorrow, is that it lies in such close proximity to the present, so we may find the stories in such settings are actually about today and addressed to today’s readers. I found this to be the case with a number of the works collected here, along with an excess of explication, i.e. infodumpfery. The lesson being imparted seems to be that tomorrow will be much like today, only more so. There will be social media.

There’s variety of tone in the twelve stories, from grim dystopia to surreal humor. One piece is set in the ancient past; I found it quite enjoyable, but my favorite story here is the Ned Beauman, set in a near-future Mexico. I note that in the recent past, the future was typically envisioned as belonging to Asia; as the editor points out, Mexico, or some other Latin American country, looks like a good choice for a successor. In this, at least, the volume is predictive.

“Boxes” by Nick Harkaway

A future when individuals can sign up for a monitoring service that incorporates small amount of organic matter from the subjects in Boxes linked to a computer system. The Boxes are designed to preserve brain function and memory, making them especially popular with people like Tanya and Teddy Sobel, who have top-tier coverage. A very devoted couple, Tanya and Teddy, and she’s devastated when Teddy dies despite all the Boxes can do but issue a failure signal. Then the company comes and takes his Boxes away.

This first piece is fairly typical of those in the volume. At its heart is a portrayal of the enduring love of a married couple. A technological advance is central to the plot, but alas, the narrator spends much too long explaining this advance.

. . . these days there was flesh, and then additionally there was some flesh grown especially for you and kept in Boxes, and the magic that these things made together. That was all … albeit, it was a rather extended and annotated sort of all.

And to whom is this explanation addressed? Surely everyone in this future would already be familiar with the technology; they don’t need to be told all about a device that’s probably sitting in their home. It’s like reading a contemporary story in which a character turns on the TV, at which the narrator interrupts to lecture us on the technology of light-emitting diodes and fiber-optic cable. I do have to wonder why the system needs multiple Boxes per person; surely one would suffice, and it could probably do without capitalization, as well.

“Life’s a Game” by Charles Stross

It’s hard not to suspect this one is referencing this year’s Gamergate controversy.

You’re not Muslim? Seriously, it’s your biometrics? You’re afraid they’ll doxx you if you expose your hands or face. That’s why you’re dressed so medieval?

Opening, we find the obnoxious narrator MacDonald, a game developer, being interrogated, suspected of a crime. He protests he only makes stuff to help people have fun, but he goes off on irrelevant tangents a lot, including lecturing his lawyer on recent political events [i.e., lecturing the reader of today]. It’s pretty tedious until he finally gets down to the subject, which proves to be a social media game in which an algorithm searches for members’ affinity groups: their clans, their tribes, their peeps, their homies, their virtual poses.

We went deep tribal on the players’ media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity.

The program works—too well.

More than any other piece in this collection, this one is about today—the present more than the future. But once past all the infodump, the idea turns out to be quite a neat one, and indeed fun.

“All the Childhood You Can Afford” by Daniel Suarez

The change shown here is more social than tech-driven. It seems that people can’t afford the expense of raising children in this future, so they freeze an embryo or two along with a sum of money in trust that will, if well-invested, eventually grow to the point where it can provide for the child’s support and allow it to be born. Gavin’s investments had grown slowly, so he could afford an economy-class childhood. And he’s continually made poor life choices, as his life counselor keeps reminding him.

Not so fond of this one. There’s the infodump problem again, as Gavin explains in detail what no one in his world would need to be told, because he’s really talking to us. And the premise defies credibility. People who can’t afford to raise their own children are supposed to be able to endow an embryo with an amount large enough to maintain it for life. If they have the money for this, why not just have the kid in the first place? In case anyone hasn’t notice, the miracle of compound interest is low on steam these days, and this future doesn’t seem to have changed that. And childhood in the absence of parents obligated to provide support is a far more expensive proposition, as the children are constantly drained by parasitic for-profit caretakers and educators, beginning with the surrogate gestational mother. Makes no sense.

“The Lexicography of an Abusive but Divine Relationship with the World” by Ilona Gaynor

One of a couple pieces here that are primarily about the narrative, not the story, this one really isn’t lexicography, even fragmentarily, despite the introductory blurb. There are a few definitions, but it’s mostly a collage of images as the narrator contemplates the imminent evacuation of Earth, for no clear reason disclosed in the text. The setting is LA, which is as well-suited to absurdity as anywhere.

My car was suddenly but gracefully surrounded by a formation of black limousines. A motorcade changing its flocking direction, with my white Camaro centrally blocked in. As I waved down my window to confront them, I noticed, through the blackened windows, identical white poodles, attentively perched on each of the vehicle’s rear black leather seats. Their tongues lolled out and they were accompanied by men holding pistols.

I think the narrator has overestimated the amount of gold in the Earth’s crust by a considerable factor. This may be part of the absurdity, but you can’t take it with you, regardless. Stuff is heavy.

“The New Us” by Pepe Rojo

A surrealish dystopian future Mexico, the blighted border region near Tijuana, where a woman has rented out her body for medical experiments.

There are so many male hormones in her glandular implants that she may grow a beard, or a dick, as her auntie joked. Some medical investor must be missing those glandular implants; if she could dig them out, they’d be worth a lot.

She discovers that the clinic where they pay her is deserted, with a note suggesting that it’s been moved to La Jolla. If she can get there. If she’s still herself when she does.

Nightmarish and hallucinatory visions, only clear enough to show there’s no hope for the protagonist or, likely, anyone else in her circumstances.

“It Takes More Muscles to Frown” by Ned Beauman

A global future in which corporations steal from one another and their employees follow their example. Security corporations monitor every communication, and everyone is subject to random interrogation.

The software would see if my mouth was laughing but my eyes weren’t. It would see if I began to laugh but then the laugh died away when I realized how disturbingly accurate the joke was. It would see if I blanched at the joke and then forced a laugh slightly too late. It would see if I laughed at everything, even the lines that weren’t funny, to cover my panic. It would see if my face was tense with the effort to look natural. It would see if I made involuntary cringes of anxiety between my other expressions, even for only a thirtieth of a second.

The narrator is an American who nominally works in a trusted position for a Mexican oil corporation but in fact for the cartel, slipping them stolen confidential data. Both organizations, of course, conduct intensive security checks, but the cartel has the advantage of controlling his face. The narrator, it seems, was born with a diminished capacity for expressing emotions through his facial muscles. The cartel has given him an implanted prosthetic which allows him to breeze past the corporation’s lie detectors. But the cartel has remote control over the prosthetic; when its agents do their own check, they switch it off. This all works out quite well for the narrator, until it doesn’t.

This is a strong action plot based on a technological development that’s pretty intriguing. There’s a definite cyberpunkish tone to the narrative, with corporations, cartels, and security firms all dealing to the death over information and the profits it can generate—double, triple, multiple-crossing each other. Happily, the infodumps don’t overwhelm the story or slow down the action, which works up to a high pace at the end.


“Panama Cataclysm” by Fyodor Berezin

A fiction describing the destruction of a US aircraft carrier by a terrorist group deploying a backpack bomb. There aren’t really characters here, nor tension, as it opens with a metaphorical description of the carrier as a dying, beached whale, making it clear that the attack has been successful. The author seems fond of metaphors and familiar with this explosive material, but the piece is essentially procedural.

“Consolation” by John Kessel

Another terrorist attack in a world altered by global warming, with the lucky parts of the US joining Canada and the rest hung out to dry up and die. Esme is part of a group who wants to keep it that way by perpetrating a false-flag bombing to pin on the pro-immigration camp.

I didn’t need any more threadbare crackers with their rugged-individualist libertarian Jesus-spouting militia-loving nonsense to fuck up the new Northeast the way they had fucked up the old U.S. We’re Canadians now, on sufferance, and eager to prove our devotion to our new government. Canada has too many of its own problems to care what happens to some fools who hadn’t the sense to get out of Florida before it sank.

Esme is only one of the characters here, all taking part in the new global order in their own way, the bombing being of notably little consequence, as far as we can tell from this account, except that it doesn’t seem too likely that Esme will be throwing any more bombs. The story asks questions about the process of history and the role of individuals in changing its course—or futilely attempting to—whether people should concentrate on their own affairs or affiliate with general causes. It doesn’t answer them, and, indeed, suggests that giving answers, too, would be futile. But I note that all these characters, with whom it’s hard to establish any connection, are individuals with the luxury of choice. Problem is, I don’t much care what they choose. Refugees without options, I suspect, would feel and think quite differently.

“All-Natural Organic Microbes” by Annalee Newitz

Sandy Green is a once-idealistic journalist on a fading publication when she spots a potential Big Story, a phony doctor advertising a miracle fecal-transplant cure. She manages to score a grant to investigate it down in Mexico, where the product is made.

Maybe the Doc was reaching a massive audience with his dumbed down twaddle about miracle cures, but she would reach those people, too, and tell the truth about why there is never a simple cure, never a way to control the sprawling, fungible diversity of microbial ecosystems.

So Green reaches the Yucatan, finds some problematic stuff at the shit factory, discovers she has a conflict of interest, and takes a picture of an iguana to send her boyfriend. And before we find out what she’s going to do about any of it, the text breaks off. If the situation had been more interesting, it would have been more disappointing. Fecal transplant therapy is a matter of the present, not the future, so if this piece was ever going to come to a point, there would likely be no innovation in it. But we’ll never know.

“The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You” by Jo Lindsay Walton

Eledy’s mother never told her those things because this seems to be one of those futures when twelve-year-olds live out on their own without parents. Eledy runs the streets with her mates getting into trouble, tries to pin the murder of a friend on the perpetrator, and posts multiple reviews of a psychological assessment app to which she displays some addiction:

Without NeurodiversiME, you’d just have to say that Farah and Encarl and me are all depressed. Or if it was way back in the day— we’d be neurasthenics. Or even wayer back—before the day—what you might call “back in the night”—we’d be melancholics.

Pointless lives. I’m not buying it that Eledy is twelve, given the sophistication of her language. The story doesn’t make it clear whether these people represent an underclass or if their lives are typical of the society in this future, but the narrative is a barrier between characters and readers, not a connection.

[The author, for readers who may wonder, is not the Among Others Jo Walton, nor Chinese.]

“The Design Doyenne Defeats the Dullness” by Paola Antonelli

Substituting design for technology following the Great Dullness [i.e., today], in the “eternal human quest to make beauty out of necessity.” Laetitia’s goal is to make suicide stylish and appealing—”how graceful, generous, elegant, appreciated, and meaningful dying could be.” But she has rivals and enemies working to destroy her design.

While nominally set in 2060 and narrated from further in the future, this one gives the sense of being more distant from today than the rest of the tomorrows in the volume; it’s definitely not extrapolated from current trends, and there are plenty of Neat Ideas stirred into the text. The Mind Dust which augments communication certainly seems like a technological thing. Unfortunately, the batter into which these ideas are stirred is a dense infodump, studded with footnotes. Now, I’m fond of literary footnotes when they enhance the cleverness or interest of the text, but these are basically just additional dumpery. Among all this, Laetitia and her story seem incidental, only coming alive at the last moments for a pretty neat conclusion. If only there weren’t so much to wade through, getting to it.

“The Ancient Engineer” by Bruce Sterling

The title evokes the classic work by L Sprague De Camp. This isn’t the future but the past, or an alternate version of it.* Seems that sometime during the 2nd century, an astronomer named Apollodorus of Rhodes established an Institute of Techne in Furthest Moesia.

Techne had transformed the province with irrigated crops, military border walls, bathhouses, and the world’s longest, strongest bridge. Above all, like the heavens: calendar regulation!

Instrumental in this transformation was the military engineer Julius Glitius Atilius Verus, but with the death of the astronomer and the retirement of his employer the governor, Verus finds himself facing unemployment. His brother advises him to travel to the ancestral home of the Verus clan in Italian Augusta Taurinorum, and find himself a wife. And the governor gifts him with Apollodorus’s own Celestial Mechanism at his departure.

We suppose it may have been the Mechanism that the savant used for the calendar regulation whereby “the planting days, the harvest days, and the market days were synchronized. Great caravans of golden Moesian grain moved promptly to Imperial Rome.” Yet Verus tells us the device isn’t programmed with the Roman calendar. This sort of astronomical calculator is known today from the discovery of one model in a shipwreck off the island Antikythera, still in the process of excavation. The Romans were generally a superstitious lot, given to looking for omens in the flight of birds, the entrails of sacrifices, and the movement of celestial bodies. The notion that astronomy can divine the future, can predict the ascension and fall of emperors, caused both interest and foreboding among the authorities responsible for civil order. It’s not surprising that they might want to suppress knowledge of such a device. The text of the story suggests that the machine given to Verus might have been the last functional model, which by that time no one knew how to reproduce. The governor doubtless thought it best to put it into harmless hands, and no one seems more harmless, more hapless, than Verus.

[*] Readers may make the assumption that this history is an alternate timeline stemming from the founding of Apollodorus’s academy, the astronomer being a counterfactual character. But there’s no technology to be found here that wasn’t already in the recorded history. The irrigated crops, military border walls, and bathhouses were the normal products of Roman techne; Verus built roads, bridges, and aqueducts, but so did all Roman engineers. And the millworks that he discovers in operation when he arrives in Taurinorum, forging iron and grinding grain, were already at work in the empire. As for “the world’s longest, strongest bridge” across the Danube, it was built before Verus under the emperor Trajan by an architect named Apollodorus of Damascus—not our astronomer. The success that Verus finds in Taurinorum turns out to be not the consequence of alternate, advanced techne, but the application of methodical, resolute common sense in which the Celestial Mechanism plays no significant role, except that the superstitious Verus regards it as establishing his good fortune in the stars—astrology, not astronomy. So is humanity, full of contradictions.


Strange Horizons, September 2015

The word “disturbing” comes to mind a lot when reading this month’s stories.

“Glaciers Made You” by Gabby Reed

A weird mystery. Just before seventh grade, Bonnie got a sunburn, and in the normal way of such things, her skin started peeling. Not normal are the fragments of verse that appeared to be written in miniscule on the shreds, including references to the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Bonnie sees signs that these might be messages from her beloved dead father. She gets no signs of support from the rest of her family, her dismissive sister and cold, distant mother, who suggests, when Bonnie graduates from high school, that it’s time for her to move out. But she already has her plans made: to go to the mountains and find her father.

This is a disturbing ambiguous fantasy. As the story opens, it’s possible to believe something magical is happening with Bonnie, but as the years pass and the messages stop coming on her skin, as she takes more drastic steps to produce them, it becomes more evident that her need has been driving the phenomenon, growing up with her loss in loveless circumstances. She’s come to the point where she’ll see a sign in anything, like a happenstance elk just looking for a drink of water.

My wanting is so strong that I stagger. Ripples mar the mirror face of the mountain, shuddering it into a hundred peaks that stab at my ankles. I lean toward the animal with a yearning in my bones. It cannot be only a beast; I cannot stand on only a mountain.

Bonnie needs therapy, not elks.

“The World in Evening” by Jei D Marcade

Horror. When we see Harley washing blood off a bone saw, we’re not reassured by the fact that he’s a taxidermist. During the day. At night, behind a mask, he assumes his evil aspect, Rook. When his new neighbors let their “you know how she is” young sister wander around Harley’s house, we feel strong apprehension. But he and especially Rook can see what no one else can, that Mouse, too, becomes someone else after dark.

Rook swayed and smiled when Mouse tracked the movement, her eyes clear and sharp and trained on the lens of his mask, her hand plunged into the pocket of her sweatshirt. Gone was the heaviness from her limbs, the gloss of disinterest scrubbed from her face, as though the night had carved a new Mouse from her daylit torpor with the razor of the moon.

Strong tension here, an ominous atmosphere, and a satisfactory conclusion.


“Bodies Are the Strongest Conductors” by James Robert Herndon

No explanation for the phenomenon, but people seem to have turned supersensitive to some substances, like metals. Or so it is with Nicky, to whom metals are deadly toxic, who often can’t go to school when the level of metal rises in his blood. Today he’s home alone when Lumpy comes over and wants to come inside, which of course Nicky isn’t supposed to let him do. But Lumpy is the nearest thing Nicky has to a friend; although I’d say that Nicky would be better off without friends like Lumpy, he doesn’t seem to agree. Of course Lumpy’s brought over a box full of nasty, toxic stuff, including a whole sack full of pennies.

He raised the sack up over his head. When he dropped it from as high as he could hold it up, the smash made my nostrils buzz. There were teeth inside my teeth and they were having a tantrum and making my gums upset. Every breath I took pulled in more penny smells, coating the inside of my nose and the back of my throat. For a second I thought the coins were already inside me.

Apparently, we’re supposed to develop sympathy for Lumpy by the end. It’s not coming through. Leave it to Beaver references are too strong here.


Tor.com, September 2015

Not a good month at this site for original adult short fiction, of which I find only one piece.

“Please Undo This Hurt” by Seth Dickinson

Friendship and depression. The friends are Nico and Dominga, and their depression takes different forms. Nico’s is existential but hidden behind a façade, while Dominga walks around with her pain so open on her face that people look at her and ask if she’s all right. In contrast: Dominga’s depression is exacerbated when her boyfriend breaks up with her, but Nico breaks up with his girlfriend pre-emptively, because he knows he’ll somehow manage to hurt her if they stay together. Nico feels that he hurts everyone around him, and the only thing that keeps him from suicide is that this act inevitably hurts people. Instead, he wishes he could unmake himself, that he’d never been born.

The story is explicitly a riff on the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life, although as a fantasy, it’s ambiguous at most. The point of view is Dominga’s, whose problems seem to stem mostly from her job as an EMT, and the impossibility of saving everyone. “The problem is caring too much, caring so much you can’t ask for help because everyone else is already in so much pain.” But it’s not always quite clear when she’s dreaming or hallucinating; I have my doubts about the maggots. And I really wonder about the counselors with the pickled caterpillar, who may or may not be guardian angels.

I find rather too much of Dominga’s angst on display here and would like more insight into Nico, the more interesting character. But I do like their speculation on the topic of opting out of existence.

There might have been a billion good people, ten billion, a hundred, before us: and one by one they chose to go, to be unmade, a trickle at first, just the kindest, the ones most given to shoulder their neighbors’ burdens and ask nothing in exchange—but the world would get harder for the loss of each of them, and there’d be more reason then, more hurt to go around, so the rattle would become an avalanche.


GigaNotoSaurus, September 2015

“The Body Corporate” by Mark Pantoja

An interesting setting: humans have settled a world where the dominant lifeform is a predatory forest. Rather than terraforming it, these settlers have adapted themselves to the prevailing conditions and carved out a lifestyle that suits them. Unfortunately, the deed to the planet was held by investors, who sold out to a predatory corporation determined to wring all possible profit from it. The settlers resist, roaming the hilltops in armed bands that the Corporates call terrorists. All Ro wants to do is farm her homestead, a hard though satisfying life, but she’s caught between the two hostile forces when neighbors dump an unwelcome visitor on her—a wounded Corporate soldier—in hopes of earning a reward for the rescue.

Killing it wouldn’t stop the hill boys from stringing us up. Not bringing it to the boys first was a death sentence, especially for me. No way my brother Milio could let a traitorous sister live.

And if the Corporation knew we had it, killing it now would damn us all to generations of debt and servitude for destruction of stolen property. The only move we had was to cut a deal that would protect us. And for that, we needed it to keep breathing.

Ro and the Corporate, an artificially-bred entity of human origin, learn a great deal about each other and about this world, which of course means that readers do as well. But the most interesting thing here is the forest and the predacious creatures the settlers call trees, though the Corporate protests they’re not real trees at all. It’s a neat perilous ecosystem, but I do have to wonder how the native animal lifeforms, which apparent exist, manage to survive. It’s noteworthy that Ro clearly prefers the trees to the Corporation.

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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