Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early December 2015
Trying to close out the old year, and on comes the new one with January issues of the digests, beginning with a double from Analog.
Analog, January/February 2016
Featuring a novella from Wil McCarthy. If the zine can find more like this one, we could look forward to a good year.
“Wyatt Earp 2.0” by Wil McCarthy
Wyatt wakes from the certainty of his death to discover he’s been duplicated up in a mining town on Mars. Now why would they do that?
And just like that, the whole thing clicks into place. The look in Clady’s eyes is one Wyatt has seen many times, on the faces of mayors and sheriffs, judges and coach line managers, barkeeps and, yes, mining company officials. He sighs, already weary with the thought; this man wants his town cleaned up. Or his shipments protected, or claim jumpers faced down, or some such.
He does, after all, have the experience, and some things don’t much change. Like hijackers after the gold [or whatever] shipments.
While there’s satisfactory action here, the main story is Wyatt’s difficulty integrating into a society hundreds of years in his own future, although in most respects he does quite well. What’s troublesome is the knowledge that he’s been edited—his mind and his memories. This somewhat eases his integration [and makes it less difficult for readers to swallow], but it also leaves him with profound existential uncertainty. He isn’t who he was, who he thinks he remembers being.
There are so many rough edges inside of Wyatt Earp 2.0, so many poorly stitched seams that he’s just now starting to notice. Or is that true for the nonfaxborn as well? Has it always been? He doesn’t know. He has no way to know.
Yet for all this, he exhibits a great deal of self-confidence when it comes to dealing with the issues that prompted his resurrection on Mars. The author handles this balance pretty convincingly.
“We Will Wake Among the Gods, Among the Stars” by Caroline M Yoachim and Tina Connolly
Here’s a too-familiar scenario: human spacecraft crash on alien planet; population devolves and spaceship captains are eventually worshipped as gods of a reactionary religion. Do we really need to read this story Yet Again? Especially with the heavy-handed characterization whereby all the males we see in the viewpoint society are credulous dupes of religion, bigoted, intolerant and sexist; while the women are scientifically open-minded.
“The Heat of Passion” by Grey Rollins
A murder. A single witness, now hiding from the authorities for a reason not his fault.
The nearest light had been too far away to shed useful light on the scene of the crime and in any event had been behind the attacker, meaning that no one could have seen the man’s face. No one but Ian.
Because Ian could see heat.
And that very ability was his damnation, because it was illegal.
Which makes this police-procedural science fiction. It’s neatly done, with the infodump, while longer than it needs to be and not so credible, brisk and soon over with, letting readers get back to the story before the tension is all punctured.
“An Industrial Growth” by David L Clements
We come to a desert of North America to get backgrounding on how the place got that way, which Mary blames on the megawealthy who uploaded themselves to virtual enclaves and left the rest of the population to cope with the mess they’d made of the world, including runaway nanoblooms, one of which took Mary’s friend. Now she’s reluctantly returned to assist in trying to put down a new and more advanced bloom. She doesn’t know why her presence has specifically been requested, and she’s not at all happy at the prospect of working with the pair of uploads in artificial bodies who requested her for reasons they won’t reveal. This nanobloom is even more advanced, intelligent, and has set nasty traps.
Peter raised an aerosol can he’d brought with him and sprayed a cloud of fluid at the gate, until the whole area was covered. The nanowire immediately became visible as a fine grey fuzz, indistinct but hanging in the air like stationary smoke. Then the solvents in the spray went to work, dissolving the diamondstrong, molecularly sharp wire. In moments, the way ahead was clear, the sticky remnants of the dissolving nanowire forming puddles on the ground.
While the story has action and a great deal of tension, the focus is on the political, which to Mary is the personal. The resolution depends on whether she turns out to be justified in her prejudice against the uploaded. But understanding this prejudice depends on the background, which we know only second-hand, so that it lacks immediacy.
“Farmer” by Joe M McDermott
Urban variety, vertical. It’s a lot of work, and Eric talks to God a lot, asking for help. There are lots of regulations in this future, growing has to be hyperorganic, and no kind of spray is considered permissible by the regulators. But the farm is clean, they work hard to make it that way, so Eric is offended when one of his customers says her mother has contracted a superbug and she thinks it must have come from the farm. Offended and afraid. If the health authorities trace the disease to the farm, they’ll close it down, leave them with nothing. Eric insists they’re clean but knows that if the inspectors look close enough, there’s something to find—not a superbug, but illicit things that make it easier to grow.
God, I just wish, at the end of the night, I didn’t feel so afraid. Crops fail easy. Squash bugs wipe out a whole vine in a day. Tomatoes drop for no reason at all, sometimes. Radishes don’t grow fat. Fish die young and float to the surface, and nothing’s ever easy. I’m scared to lose a crop. I’m scared it won’t sell.
I feel for you, Eric. I know the squash bugs. I know the rats [with the furry tails]. I know the trouble keeping bees. I also know that you don’t use Bt [not BT] on aphids, only on caterpillars, and dumping the unused stuff is a big No-No; even if it doesn’t grow superbugs, you’ll end up with Bt-resistant caterpillars.
A timely story, when the news today regularly reports the recall of some crop or other because of contamination. And growing “naturally” is the hardest work of all, as the story makes clear. The ending comes as a bit of a surprise, flipping the situation onto its head.
“Rocket Surgery” by Effie Seiberg
Sentient weapons. Cute, tail-waggy intelligent bombs that start to ask what becomes of them after they explode. Readers will already be quite sure that no good can come of this premise, even before they meet the Evile General, who puts me in mind of Doctor Strangelove. Indeed, despite all the nano-wetware, the scenario has a WWII sensibility, with low-ranking teams of “gals” doing the programming and testing of the bomb. There’s also this jocular approach to infodumpfery:
Oh, your viewers need more background? Okay, I’ll back up a bit. Lemme tell ya, kids today don’t know their history. Even locked up in here for the past ten years, I can tell. No education. Good thing you’re getting the real story out.
“Saving the World” by James Gunn
A talky story about reading science fiction, because the narrator is expounding a theory, one that involves “the science fiction sentence”.
Science fiction, I thought, appealed to the most recent brain evolution, the prefrontal lobes, where the reasoning power of the human mind was developed by the need to gauge distances and trajectories and evaluate dangers from afar after the creatures that became human had to adjust to life in the savannahs.
And a theory, of course, must be tested.
An idea story, of course. But for all its future-forward-looking, the author is fixed on the science fiction past, assuming students of the future will be turned on by the sentences of such hoary ancients as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. We might as well start building rocket ships with bus bars running down their length.
“The Persistence of Memory” by Rachel L Bowden
Employing such a title is an audacious act, and I don’t think this one measures up to it. It’s a short piece, and the first half is taken up with the details of schoolboy Lee’s life among the mean guys at school, as his nerdy friend Ben shows him the remains of an unusual creature in the schoolyard. In the paragraphs remaining, Lee’s experience unfocuses and refocuses until readers understand what’s gone on, although they may well not care.
“Theories of Mind” by Conor Powers-Smith
Aliens. Peter is a novice diplomat who’s spent/wasted much of his life studying the chelkey. Now, on arrival at the chelkey mining world where he’s been assigned, all he feels is discouraged. The chelkies are impossible to understand and equally unable to understand humans, although Peter can’t stop trying to break through, especially when his ignorance and impetuosity gets him arrested, along with his new boss.
Here’s another idea story, although the author mixes in a sufficient leavening of action to make things move along. The main question is intelligence: how can a species with such minimal intelligence [in human terms] have managed to evolve a strategy for survival?
It’s automatic. Instinctive. If a chelkey could step back and see himself as an individual, and realize he was capable of switching identities simply by changing his actions, then you’re right, he’d be unstoppable. His genes would spread like wildfire, and the species would tilt in that direction. But consciousness could never evolve in a single generation. It didn’t with us, and it couldn’t with them. Long before a series of mutations capable of causing that kind of fundamental shift can come together, the chelkies stamp them out. Not consciously, but effectively.
These are questions that I find of great intrinsic interest and, thus, the story, despite its stretching credibility. Although I must say that I’m not sure I’d credit Peter with all that much intelligence, as he seems incapable of just shutting up and listening to the guy who knows what he’s dealing with.
“Nature’s Eldest Law” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
On a survey expedition to a distant planet, Santiago is the odd man out in the crew, and it’s worth considering the reasons. His crewmates have always noted his analytical mind. But it may be his over-use of sims, resulting in neurological damage that has manifested, apparently, in a sudden case of synesthesia while out in the field, possibly related to his mysterious discovery of a new lifeform: plants emitting an electromagnetic field that has a stimulating effect on human minds. While Santiago is isolated for neuro-detox, his crewmates are installing the alien plants everywhere on the ship and talking about “communion” among themselves, mediated by the EM fields. Santiago’s skepticism isn’t well-received, particularly by his lover, now cold and rejecting.
This is a science fiction story about the human brain/mind. The crew studies the phenomenon closely and intensively, but because it’s themselves, they can’t discern the problem that seems obvious to Santiago from outside. It’s also science fiction horror, although subtly done, with the actual conclusion withheld and left for readers to infer. Even as events seem to play out in the most apparently reasonable way, I can nonetheless hear the ominous movie-music starting to play in the back of my head, but it’s subliminal. I also note that the narrative doesn’t tell us what the “eldest law” happens to be, leaving this, too, as an exercise for the reader.
“Woundings” by George Zebrowski
After vague eons, most of humanity has ascended from Earth, with only a primitive remnant populations remaining on the worn-out old orb, but some parts of humanity still want to preserve the place, to prevent additional harm, so the narrator is part of a task force seeking out the harmful burning of fossil fuels, which still continues. Yet at the same time, he’s doubtful of his mission.
. . . this man’s figure seemed to say to me that we did not know how to make new worlds and new bodies, and, failing that, we should return to a wounded nature’s arms. Human failure belonged here on Earth, and we should not take it with us.
Here’s another idea story, this one quite unmixed with interesting action. Indeed, the author seems to be cramming as many of the great unresolvable ideas into the very few pages of the piece, with no real resolution to any of them, only a pervasively melancholy tone of futility.
Asimov’s, January 2016
And a novella for this issue, as well. Overall, the least satisfying of the month’s digests.
“Einstein’s Shadow” by Allen M Steele
The narrator, American private dick Sonny Egan, has through unusual circumstances been assigned as a bodyguard to Albert Einstein as he defects to the US aboard the flying amphibious ocean liner Valkyrie, a luxury aircraft modeled on the speculative Airliner #4 designed by Norman Bel Geddes in our own timeline. Sonny is rightly concerned to have Einstein traveling on this German vessel, despite the Gestapo’s assurance that his defection would be considered good riddance. But the Nazis aren’t the only threat he has to face onboard.
An espionage thriller, a period piece in an alternate history. The plot rests on two revelations, both of which should easily be spotted early on by readers, especially those familiar with the details of Einstein’s life and work.
“Atheism and Flight” by Dominica Phetteplace
Bos, at first, wasn’t taking the amputation of his arm very well.
I wished I were handsome and heroic like Lt. Col. Eric Stuart Marshall. He lost his arm protecting Christians in Nigeria. If I were like him, I might get my arm back. He did, after several months of stem cell therapy. It cost twenty million dollars, but the government paid for it, eager to make the war seem worth it.
I don’t have twenty million dollars, so I’m going to be one-armed for the rest of my life. And everyone who looks at me will know I am both crippled and poor.
But then his arm starts growing back all on its own, so he starts making preparations to jump across Spirit Canyon, like his spiritual hero, the charlatan guru Wang Lee.
Light absurdity, a bit amusing with everyone taking different tracks towards enlightenment, but I didn’t find much enlightenment in it, only talk about enlightenment.
“The Baby Eaters” by Ian McHugh
Aliens. The sort of story that opens with detailed descriptions of the aliens’ appearance, which usually isn’t much germane to the story and makes for tedious reading. And alien names that resonate rather like those of ancient Assyrian kings. Here, the narrator comes to negotiate trade with an overbearing species and encounters cultural dissonance. It’s the different viewpoints and behaviors that constitute the interest here, but I note that these aren’t actually all that different despite the narrator’s revulsion; human cultures are known to have had similar practices. This is a problem with aliens in SF, they all too often are modeled on some aspect of humanity that just feels alien to the author. Imagining is hard.
“Chasing Ivory” by Ted Kosmatka
A future in which reintroduced, cloned mammoths have survived when the elephants in which they were gestated have not. Someone with a gun is following the herd, but the author doesn’t succeed in generating tension about her motives. Otherwise a fruitful idea.
“White Dust” by Nathan Hillstrom
Margery’s current assignment is called “ethically nuanced”, which is bureaucratese for “war crime”, as she sacrifices iterated copies of a volunteer soldier on her own side to complete an unspecified mission for the sake of her own advancement. But the copies don’t always appreciate their sacrifice.
She took a deep breath and pressed her hands to her temples. “Sam, I don’t get it. You’re willing to die for our country. You know you’re being copied for a critical mission.” She squinted at him. “Nothing is a surprise here. I don’t get your problem—I honestly don’t.”
This is a cynical piece centered on the idea of identity. The white dust is a strong image, but I can’t say I buy the reaction of Margery’s own copy.
“Conscience” by Robert R Chase
In a not-too-far future war, Constanza is a pilot given the mission of transporting a mysterious passenger to and from a battle zone.
She was never told the nature of his missions or the amount, if any, of their success. Being a soldier, she should not have cared. Being a human being, she could not help but wonder. Her resources were limited. Iverson would not tell her if he knew, and he probably did not know. She had not seen the old man since that initial meeting. Nobody she talked to had any idea who he might be.
But Constanza can see the news reports and connect up the dots.
The issues here are highly contemporary, straight from recent news, which makes it quite clear that actions such as Constanza takes are anathema to the military, which takes the most drastic steps in order to prevent them. If the air force had thought she needed a conscience, they would have issued her one.
“The Singing Bowl” by Genevieve Williams
An ethnomusicologist and aliens. Gis singing has become the latest rage among humans, who flock to their homeworld as tourists, less than welcome by the natives. The ethnomusicologist is no different.
Very cynical stuff, conveying a truth, but the story is too brief and unoriginal.
F&SF, January/February 2016
The feature for the issue is the collection of three short stories commissioned to reflect the cover art: fine works by Irvine and Benford, plus a reprint from Mary Robinette Kowal. Otherwise, no novellas or really long stories this time, just a whole lot of shorter pieces. A good, entertaining issue with plenty of reading enjoyment.
“Number Nine Moon” by Alex Irvine
They’re pulling out of Mars, and Marco, Steuby and Bridget are doing a little last-minute illicit scavenging.
Nineteen years of work, people devoting their lives to establishing a human foothold on Mars, and now it was up in smoke because Earth was pulling the plug. It was sad, the way people were withdrawing. Steuby always wanted to think of human civilization like it was an eagle, but maybe it was more like a turtle. Now it was pulling its head in. Someday maybe it would start peering out again, but all this stuff on Mars would be junk by then. Everything would have to start over.
At least, that was the plan, before their lander fell into a sinkhole, leaving us with a good old-fashioned hard-SF problem story, which warms my heart to see.
The Martian moon Phobos has been in the news recently; the story’s title refers to the shape of its large impact crater, observed from certain angles. I have no comment on the chemistry or phsyics, but the author discusses these matters with sufficient authority not to rouse my skepticism. What we have here are engaging characters with engaging voices that lighten a tragic and perilous situation. Steuby keeps talking to the dead Marco, which helps him believe he and Bridget might actually make it out alive; her sarcasm undoubtedly serves the same function.
“Vortex” by Gregory Benford
Julia and Victor are old Mars hands from the First Expedition who stayed on to see changing ways, with robots now doing most of the work—”the 3Ds — dull, dirty, dangerous.” But there’s still a need occasionally for human expertise, as the new Chinese expedition calls upon the veterans when they encounter trouble with Mat, the microbial lifeform that carpets caves below the Martian surface; areas are dying off, and the Chinese feel they may have done something to cause it.
This is Neat Skiffy Stuff.
All around, a complex seethe of radiance. On Earth, mats of bacteria luminesced when they grew thick enough — quorum sensing, a technical term. A lot of Earthside biologists thought that explained this phenomenon, too. But they had never stood in shadowy vaults like this — the thirteenth such large cavern found in over twenty years of exploration. To see the rich, textured ripples of luminosity that slowly worked across the ceiling and down the walls was to dwell in the presence of mystery. Just ahead, thin sheets of mat hung like drapes. Wisps of mist stirred when they passed by. Unlike scuba gear, their suits did not vent exhaled gases, so they would not poison this colony of oxygen-haters. During the first explorations she had done just that.
There’s also a lot of neat stuff about the human habitats, the necessary crucial details of surviving on an alien world. But what I primarily take away from it is a deeper layer of misanthropy, more evidence that humans are toxic to any world.
“The White Piano” by David Gerrold
Stories nested in stories. We begin with the narrator dreaming of his childhood, then flash back to that time, when his mother had just died, leaving him and a sister orphaned in the care of their loving grandmother. The boy thinks he sees her ghost, and in response the grandmother tells him an anecdote from her own childhood during WWII, when she had been evacuated to a large house in the country where a notable pianist had once lived. Grandma-the-child, who enjoyed her piano lessons, wanted to play her instrument, still in the house, which was forbidden.
“I think it’s not fair,” Grandma announced. “I want to play the piano.” Grandma was always very stubborn, even as a little girl. She said she once out-stubborned a cat, but that might have been another of her stories. But this time, however, she sat on the bench and folded her arms — and stuck out her lower lip. And that was always a sign of trouble.
A heartwarming piece, consolation for a loss. Grandma is a strong character, although I find it a bit odd to have her named only “Grandma” when she’s such a young girl.
“Telltale” by Matthew Hughes
A “Raffalon the Thief” story. Of the various series that the author places in his highly-populated Archonate universe, the Raffalon stories are among those that can be read most independently. Here, we have Raffalon engaging in his profession when he steps into a thaumaturgical trap that instantly transports him to a desolate region where he becomes caught in one of those forests that brings you back to your origin whatever direction you attempt to escape. In the forest is a cottage with a rather amnesiac young woman who sings and embroiders and demands one story after another. Fortunately for Raffalon, he is a raconteur with a large repertoire. Still, he needs to find the way out, as the pile of discarded clothing from previous storytellers is an ominous sign, suggesting the use of wizardry, as is the young woman’s limited memory.
“I recall no other men,” she said. “There has been only you, and you have always been here.”
Unusually for the series, this one takes us into fairytale land, where we can see traces of even more ancient tales. Although the plot involves a Scheherazade-like storytelling structure, we don’t get to hear Raffalon relate the tales to his listener. Typically, the thief’s solution to his problem is a clever one. Entertaining stuff.
“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” by Bennett North
“There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop.” It probably has something to do with the fact that Helena’s mother is a witch and possesses a magic that can raise the dead. Which is, as Helena knows quite well, is one of those ideas that never works out entirely well. But a child, Helena’s girlfriend’s little brother, has been lost in the woods and is probably dead. She wants to help.
“Javi, are you okay?” I inch forward, knowing he isn’t. When I touch his arm, his flesh is glacial. He turns his head blindly to me and I see more dirt caked on one side of his face. His eyes are opaque white. He’s been dead for days. The hypothermia must have got him the first night he went missing in the woods. My carrying the box around must have woken him.
YA horror with a strong twist that saves the story from being very, very stupid.
“Caspar D Luckinbill, What Are You Going to Do?” by Nick Wolven
The eponymous narrator has been targeted by mediaterrorism; he’s followed around by calls blaming him for atrocities he knows nothing about. He can’t escape them. His wife turns hostile; his boss suggests that the office would be better off without his presence.
I call the company IT department. They say the problem is with my CloudSpace provider. I call my CloudSpace provider. They say the problem is with my UbiKey account. I call my UbiKey account. They say it sounds like a criminal issue. The woman on the line gets nervous. She isn’t allowed to talk about criminal issues. There are people listening. There are secret agreements. It’s all very murky. It’s a government thing.
I call the government. They thank me for my interest. I call the police. They just laugh.
Dark absurdity. It’s tempting to want to blame Caspar for his plight, because he works in marketing. But he manages to achieve some transcendence, almost as good as revenge.
“Robot from the Future” by Terry Bisson
Readers aren’t likely to be surprised to find that this one is humor featuring a little kid. In the sortof-near future, robots come from the far future, looking for gas-o-line. Which, in the sortof-near future, has all been impounded. The youthful narrator has no idea how to get his hands on any, but his grandfather is more resourceful. Grandfather is reprehensible and says stuff like “No Shit”, which is the sort of thing a kid needs to counter the dogoodery of parents and school. Amusing stuff.
“Squidtown” by Leo Vladimirsky
Ten years ago, Johnny Muhammad and his father left to go fight the secessionist Islamic Republic of Texas. This proves to be a bad idea. Now he’s come home, but as Thomas Wolfe told us, you can’t do that. Home isn’t home anymore.
Along the docks, their decay frozen in time, the boats sink in a slow-motion collapse. Frame by frame, farther out in the water, fiberglass rots and antennas rust and radar housings gray with bird shit. My Squidtown is dying.
There’s a lot here we don’t see, what Johnny couldn’t see during his absence—the economic collapse, the rebuilding. His childhood friend Ana was there throughout it all, resents him for deserting her, but we get little of her viewpoint, her history. A lot of secrets lie in the background, waiting for the characters to face them, but it leaves readers largely in the dark.
“Touch Me All Over” by Betsy James
An unusual curse. Hilil was a skilled weaver, spinner, knotter until the day she picked up the glass knife from the midden. From that moment, nothing she touches will hold together.
I undid what I’d twined and began to fix it, but I couldn’t get the yarn, a slubby fine wool, to obey me. The end raveled. When I’d fixed that, the yarn broke. I tied a mending knot, pulled out one of my hair sticks, and used it to weave the ends back in. My hair came unbound, and the rest of my hair sticks fell out with a clatter.
Her clan is weavers; they can’t allow her to stay and ruin every piece of work they do. Covered only in a bearskin, she enters a perilous life of exile.
An interesting, original premise. But once Hilil is unraveled, the story doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with her, even though she’s a strong character with a saving sense of humor.
“The Visionaries” by Albert E Cowdrey
Another Jimmy and Morrie story. The ghostbusters get called in to deal with a haunted tree farm—40 acres of one, at least.
Milton was right when he said the Forty was peculiar. The smell of resin was normal and so was the faint, crooning rustle of a hot breeze in the treetops. Yet animal life was absent. No bird sang, no deer peeked at the intruders or bounded away with white tail flaunting. Jimmy began to wonder if the animals knew something he didn’t. After a few minutes, even garrulous Milton fell silent, then asked in cautious tones, as if fearful of being overheard, “Twitchy, ain’t it?”
Morrie, the true sensitive of the pair, feels it so bad he wants to return their retainer and flee back to Arizona. The problem is, he claims, is a prevision, not something bad that’s happened in the place but something that’s going to happen.
The author has dropped a lot of the silliness and exaggerated ethnic dialect of this series to let some genuine horror show through.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” by E Lily Yu
Julia’s friend Vivian is dying of cancer at age thirty-three. At the end of hope, Julia convinces herself that there’s a unicorn in Central Park and sets out to capture it with a rope braided from their combined hair, to see if it can cure her.
This is a story of pure wish, of wishing hard enough that it will make something happen. It’s a story full of tangled relationships, loves and not-so-loves, almost as if the dying person is a mirror in which people can see their true selves. But Vivian doesn’t want to be a mirror for others’ wishes, she wants her own life back while knowing it’s not going to happen, angry about it sometimes. The unicorn isn’t her wish. Perhaps others cling to her life harder than she does.