Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-December 2015
In the previous column I looked at the first print digests of 2016, now it’s time for the last month’s ezines of 2015. This December is dominated by the Lightspeed consortium, with another Destroys issue in addition to the regular publications.
- Lightspeed, December 2015
- Fantasy Magazine, December 2015
- Clarkesworld, December 2015
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies #188-189, December 2015
- Strange Horizons, December 2015
- GigaNotoSaurus, December 2015
Lightspeed, December 2015
A strong issue. This zine is stepping up its game.
“Tomorrow When We See the Sun” by A Merc Rustad
This is either a far-far future or an entirely different universe ruled by seven quasi-gods calling themselves Suns, who once warred on each other.
as a measure of good faith upon the signing of the peace treaty between the Seven Sun Lords, each god decommissioned and executed one thousand of their most powerful warships. Each ship and its pilot self-destructed within an uninhabited system of choice and were granted honor in the eyes of the Seven Suns.
Some of the pilots, however, were not eager for such an honor and fled. The Suns have hunted down these wolflords, one by one, and executed them, extirpating all memory of them. The executioner is a cyborg organism called Mere, a prisoner to this function whose own memories have been wiped and wiped again. Between executions, it is kept in stasis. Now, with the last wolflord gone, it’s not clear what will become of it. Then comes one she who claims to be its creator and informs it that she made it from the fragments of her enemies. Adventures and disclosures ensue, but not all is disclosed.
This is an exotic setting, highly mannered, decadent and cruel, where the denizens compose poems at moments of great significance. It’s clearly well over the “indistinguishable from magic” line that makes it fantasy. There is no indication that any of the characters are or have ever been human. I like Mere’s diction, that of a being prohibited from using the first person in speech, leaving it with such locutions as, “What awaits this it?” A lot of mystery still remains at the conclusion of this story, suggesting more to come.
“Tea Time” by Rachel Swirsky
A revisitation of the world down the rabbit hole, full of nonsensical meditations, largely concerning Time and its stoppage, the tea hour grown infinite while the hare and hatter prolong their timeless tryst. A sample of the narration:
You may think that it’s fair to conclude that since the hatter loves his hare, it’s clear that the hare loves his hatter.
You are mistaken. It’s not the same thing a bit!
You might as well say that dressing a wound is the same as wounding a dress.
You might as well say that to like whom you tup is the same as to tup whom you like.
You might as well say that the heart knows what it wants so therefore it wants what it knows.
Fun stuff, quite in the Carrollian spirit, on a poignant minor note.
“Ex Libris Noctis” by Jay Lake
This is a nightmare that most readers should recognize: Beatrice’s father has died and she’s trying to go to his burial, but she is thwarted and diverted at every step, disintegrating as she goes. We know she’s in a dream, because at one point she finds herself flying, rising over the traffic that obstructs her way. She then finds herself in a library full of old books, the eponymous books of night “in various colors and textures of cordovan and calfskin. Some were marked with gold-stamped lettering, others with numbers or arcane symbols of perhaps alchemic or astrological provenance.” These prove to be the section headings of the story: the Ptolemaic planets, with relevant quotations taken from such sources as Chaucer and Shakespeare, as Beatrice cycles through the memories of her life with her father.
While I generally don’t like to speculate about the personal lives of authors, it’s impossible as a reader not to see the shadow of death, the endless night, falling over this story from the late Jay Lake. While depressing, it rewards rereading, unpacking the symbolism and allusions. [If Beatrice’s father is Lear, then which daughter is she?] The sense of nightmare, the surreal logic of dream, is quite powerful.
“Beneath the Silent Stars” by Aidan Doyle
Jean-Paul is a verifier for the human intelligence service, on a mission to discover why, fifty-five years ago, the rogue warship Mariposa X destroyed the hyperspace gate linking human space with the rest of galactic civilization. Since then, the ship has guarded the ruins of the gate and attacked any other ships that approached it, but now it’s sent a message that it wants to speak specifically to Jean-Paul, whose father was a verifier onboard the ship when it last crossed through the gate.
This is a story of truth and trust. Mariposa X trusts no one and nothing; it destroys Jean-Paul’s own ship after he and his partner have crossed to it; it insists they remove the smartsuits that they’ve worn continuously since early childhood, making them trust their bare flesh to the elements. Now Jean-Paul has to face the fact that there are some unverifiable truths, such as the message given him by the ship. A lot of issues in that. I wish the story had dug into them at more depth and length.
Fantasy Magazine, December 2015: Queers Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue
Every once in a while, this zine comes out from beneath the corporate umbrella and takes a few moments alone in the sun, as here in this latest iteration of the Destroys! series. There are four original stories. The list of authors is quite promising, and they deliver. Guest editor Barzak has put together a superior issue in this series, definitely the best of them I’ve seen.
The stories are varied, from a contemporary setting to the wildly fantastic. Some but not all the stories deal with queer subject matter.
“The Lady’s Maid” by Carlea Holl-Jensen
While this one seems to take inspiration from the Blood Countess Báthory, I’m also reminded of the 18th-century custom whereby the towering artificial powdered hairstyles of female courtiers were known as “heads”. Here, the heads worn by the lady have been severed from the bodies of beautiful young girls. She keeps them in jeweled glass cabinets and selects a different one to wear every day, assisted by her lady’s maid, who cares for the heads as well as performing all intimate functions for her, besides the duties normally assigned to housemaids and cooks, because the lady’s domain has fallen on hard times. The two of them are now quite alone in the decaying palace, which leads the maid into perverse thoughts.
From this vantage point, standing above her, the little maid has a clear view of the lady’s severed neck. Ordinarily, she tries not to look at it—somehow it is more intimate even than the lady’s naked body—but today she finds herself transfixed by the sight.
Fantasy erotica, of the sort where it doesn’t matter if the details make no realistic sense and the severed heads generate only minimal chills. I like the way the heads watch the goings-on from their cabinets with a distinct lascivious interest.
“The Lily and the Horn” by Catherynne M Valente
When the Lady Cassava opens this tale with a line like “war is a dinner party” we can assume the setting will be a highly mannered one, and so it is, but in a unique and unexpected way, because here, wars are settled literally at the table, in tournaments of survival where all the food has been poisoned by the skilled lady hostess.
This is how I serve my husband’s ambitions and mine: with the points of my vermilion sleeves, stitched with thread of white and violet and tiny milkstones with hearts of green ice. With the net of gold and chalcathinite crystals catching up my hair, jewels from our own stingy mountains, so blue they seem to burn. With the great black pots of the kitchens below my feet, sizzling and hissing like a heart about to burst.
Long ago, a legendary queen put an end to the carnage of conventional armed warfare and instituted new traditions. Now, all girls of good family attend a boarding school where they learn the craft secrets of the poisoner, becoming either Lilies, who employ the poisons, or Horns, who specialize in the antidotes. During those school years, Cassava, a student Lily, developed a strong attachment to Yew, a Horn, but both knew their fates were to marry, bear children, and use their skills to serve their lords in distant lands. Their only chance to see each other again now is if they are engaged in the conduct of culinary war.
The premise is intriguing in many ways, not least in the fact that it has shifted war from the domain of men into that of women, powerful chatelaines like Cassava, the Lily of her House. In comparing the death toll from armed warfare and war by poison, it’s hard to argue in principle against this system. Yet the will of lovers can be as powerful of that of kings, and there are ominous notes in the conclusion, the author having shifted smoothly from the well-mannered banquet hall to the prospect of corpse-strewn battlefields.
“Kaiju maximus®: ‘So Various, So Beautiful, So New’” by Kai Ashante Wilson
A provoking title, which suggests the promotional material for a game module in which a superhero battles monsters of various sizes. In case we might miss this, here and there in the text are apparent outtakes or excerpts:
At the RITUAL BENISON before each boss-fight, a hero will temporarily advance +1000 XP for every point of comeliness their spouse possesses. But the hero must ensure that his or her spouse always has food, water and rest enough to maintain this attribute. And superheroes must consider the welfare of their children as well, for the sword and the wings can only . . .
For the most part, however, the narrative comes from within the events—from the mortal point of view of the superhero’s spouse and father of her children. In order to receive the “ritual benison” just before the fight, the hero has to bring her family along on a lengthy trek across country, with the burden of childcare falling on the father. Here we see the mundane details the game scenario leaves out: the sprained ankle, the whining children, bathing them in the frigid water of a mountain spring. The hero may be off battling monsters; the father’s battle is to be a good parent and at the same time to serve his spouse in her mission. Does he let the children have the promised chocolate? Does he coax them into giving her a willing kiss before battle? And does he wonder what will happen when the children’s powers surpass his own and he’s no longer so young and good-looking?
The narrative seems to be addressed to an anonymous “you” overlooking the scene—the reader? The gamer? The characters seem to be placeholders with no real names of their own, although the father calls his children “buddy” and “pumpkin”. The only exception is a daughter now dead, whom we must presume can no longer be played, perhaps killed in an earlier session of the game. The father mourns her, regrets his failure to protect her from her mother’s ambition.
The prose uses such neat terms as “insombration” and breaks at times into pyrotechnic description laden with similes:
Abruptly, some twenty kiloms down the valley, a bright volcanic arm —a hand of fire—thrust up from the earth and made a credible grab for the moon, incandescent fingers raking across the sky.
Brilliance snatched aside the black of night as though it were a flimsy curtain, the truth behind it high noon. They cried out, throwing up a hand or both as the dark cold valley was relit to midday green. The gushing white blaze spewed comets as a geyser does waterdroplets, these fiery blue offshoots waning yellow-orange-red as they fell to earth, as the sourcefire itself discolored: now dimming to ochre and yet still painful to see, even squinting through their fingers; now dimmer still, ruddy-black as the glowing crumbs of their own little campfire; now going out.
The text gives sufficient hints [kiloms, a mothership] that the scenario is meant to be an earthly far-future, but I agree with the editor that this is a work fantastic. Its heart, however, is with the love of a family that exists only to be exploited for entertainment.
“The Duchess and the Ghost” by Richard Bowes
A coming-out/coming-of-age story set in the past of our own world. Way back in 1961, at the age of eighteen, “Tony” jumped off the train taking him back from college to his disapproving parents and headed for the Village. “My one glance back had showed me a face staring with shock and horror from a train window.” Tony was very lucky for a young man who essentially had no life skills besides being a boy, which he was quickly outgrowing—lucky in his patrons/protectors/mentors. But he was haunted by the ghost of the boy he had been on the train.
Death is a primary force in this memoir, and the concern of many characters is how they will be remembered once they’re gone. The Duchess is certainly a memorable character, one of several mentors who set Tony on his path to adulthood and freedom from his ghosts. I must say that Tony certainly got the better of the Doorman in their bargain.
Clarkesworld, December 2015
The maximum length of the stories here has grown, a development I always applaud.
“Yuanyuan’s Bubbles” by Liu Cixin, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan
In a drought-ridden world, Yuanyuan has always found joy in soap bubbles, “the gorgeous apparitions of water drifting through the air.” As she grew older and manifested scientific ability, this interest only became more pronounced. Her ambition: “big—biiiig—bubbles!” As a scientific entrepreneur, she does pioneering work in super-surfactants. Yuanyuan achieves her own dream, but she’s sad for her father, whose dream of a new city in the empty western territory has been eroded by drought and desertification.
A warm and positive story, mixing true science fiction with a buoyant sense of beauty.
Yuanyuan opened her eyes. She really did see a river of moons in the night sky! The countless moons were the reflections in countless massive bubbles. Unlike the real moon, they were all crescents, some curving up and some curving down, all of them so translucent and jewel-like that the real moon seemed plain in comparison. Only by its unchanging location could it be distinguished from the mighty current of moons crossing the sky.
“Union” by Tamsyn Muir
The setting, a town named Franckton, may not be in the outback of Australia or New Zealand, but it certainly seems to be the outback of somewhere, a hardscrabble frontier settlement ruled and exploited by a distant government with little understanding of the crofters’ needs. What they need are wives—entities that can bear children and do mindless tasks, not marriage partners; these wives are artificial constructs of vegetable origin, but the current batch is made of lichen, not like the last, satisfactory batch of poppy-wives.
When the news had broken that the Ministry was awarding them wives, the relief was so great in Franckton that it was more pain than pleasure. They’d spent the last fifty years incubating on Governmental loan and mortgaging over half the harvest each time. A lot of beers got sunk during all the frantic budgeting that came subsequently. The staunchest Union crofters forgot to do anything but tab up how many generations it would take before all they’d be paying for was the foetal scan.
Then mold starts to infest the crops. Simeon, the local hothead, blames the Ministry and talks insurrection.
It’s a strange setting, and we don’t get a lot of explanation for why things are this way. It’s noteworthy that while there are male and female crofters, none of them are married to each other and the women don’t seem able to bear children in the old biological way. In fact, this seems to be true of other mammalian species, such as the goats. The twenty wives are distributed without regard to the sex of the recipients, and it’s possible that they may not be meant to survive the process of giving birth, however this is accomplished.
The real story is in the ethos of the Franckton crofters, a hardworking bunch who really do seem to be getting a raw deal from the Ministry. They keep reminding each other that they have their pride, their dignity, don’t want to be made a laughingstock—although we might well wonder who there is to laugh at them. But they’re tough and resilient; they’ll get through this, we can be sure.
“Morrigan in Shadow” by Seth Dickinson
A sequel to the author’s previous story about the main character, the combat pilot Laporte, and it really can’t properly be read in isolation from it. Indeed, this second story completes the first, but it also incorporates a whole lot of recapitulation, which I believe will only be confusing to readers unfamiliar with the material. Briefly, we have an inner, isolationist, pacifist Federation and an outer Alliance that finds itself menaced by an inhuman Nemesis. The Federation rejects a defensive alliance with the Alliance, whereupon the Alliance conquers it in a space war that sees some Federation warriors, like Laporte, become monsters who love killing. Rejecting surrender, Laporte leads a mutiny to carry on the fight.
The story makes much of Laporte’s monsterhood.
She can be the necessary monster. She could call down genocide on the Alliance and save her beloved home. If she believes the Federation is the only hope for a compassionate, peaceful, loving future, then, logically, she should be willing to kill for it. If she has a button that says ‘kill ten billion civilians, gain utopia,’ she should press it.
In fact, to use a familiar line, Laporte is “just following orders”, not initiating the atrocities she commits. She’s a tool, albeit a willing one, of the strategists. This is a very plotty piece, full of conspiracies, tricks, feints, double-crosses. Involved in these are a number of characters, allies and antagonists who are no more than names, flat game pieces that Laporte has to figure into her plans. This, along with the fragmented nature of the narrative, might make it hard for some readers to follow, and it also flattens Laporte as a character, reducing her to little more than her monsterhood. The author seems to be attempting to make her sympathetic with her single positive tie to her former commander and lover Simms, but this tie was formed mostly in the earlier story.
Certainly the piece is disturbing. The characters may tell themselves they’re making hard moral choices, but it’s difficult not to see all of them as reprehensible, every side quite willing to exploit and sacrifice the others for the sake of self-preservation. The Federation, with all its high claims of moral superiority, comes off as most hypocritical in this respect [the other sides at least make no such claims]. If the ultimate goal is the salvation of the human species, I have to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. I see no triumph here, no reason for congratulations.
“When We Die on Mars” by Cassandra Khaw
Anna tells us: “We know why we are there, each and every last one of us: to make Mars habitable, hospitable, an asylum for our children so they won’t have to die choking on the poison of their inheritance.” Although most of the group doesn’t actually have children. Of course the alternative is dying on Earth; the difference is in the separation from ties of family and affection.
A sentimental piece with a too-obvious conclusion.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #188-189, December 2015
Issue #188 features memories; the protagonists of issue #189, a mannered set of stories, are skilled killers.
“Eyes Beyond the Fire” by Nick Scorza
Lys, a former mercenary, is now sailing into exile, banished from the court where she was until recently a favorite. After she runs out of booze and emerges from her cabin, she senses a wrongness about the ship; for one thing, it’s not headed in the right direction.
This is a straightforward sword-and-sorcery action tale, with Lys fighting an Evil on the ship. The author attempts to meld this with her remembered backstory, but the seams aren’t very watertight.
“The Rest Will Blur Together” by John Wheeler
Melika has the gift of seeing into other minds and removing specific memories. The problem is that the memories then reside in her mind, where they become indistinguishable from her own; if she hadn’t written it down, she wouldn’t be able to identify herself. One day comes a client who wants to lose a memory related to a large, ill-gotten treasure. But another party wants that memory and isn’t prepared to be denied, despite Melika’s promise of confidentiality.
Events here are muddled and confused, as it’s unclear just what Melika is trying to accomplish.
“A Killer of Dead Men” by David Tallerman
Otranto is an assassin in the city of Cold Harbour, where assassination is the foremost profession. He’s been engaged to kill a wealthy stranger, and he carries out the assignment with his usual skill.
From his concealment, Otranto considered the scene he’d left and decided that it was satisfactory. The ideal assassination looked like an accident, yet an accident that could never have occurred. Like the melodramatic seascapes that hung in the merchant halls, it mirrored reality even while exceeding it. Vixara might have been thrown from his horse, fallen badly, broken his neck. But he hadn’t—and they would know.
Except that it seems the target isn’t dead, and the Masters of Otranto’s guild are displeased.
An action tale, skillfully done. The stranger Vixara and his entire entourage have an unusual appearance that aids in the rumors they are demons or the undead, unkillable. Otranto needs to determine the truth and fulfill his assignment, if possible, to redeem his reputation.
“So Strange the Trees” by James Lecky
The city of PameGlorias has an abundance of duelists and jealous gods. Gunter Alquen is a presiding officer in the Place of Blades; Parasheeva is a goddess whose sworn Blossoms are forbidden to the sight of any man. But in an accidental moment, for the first time in his life, Gunter has seen the face of love, and it seems to be reciprocated, as far as the language of flowers can say.
Every city, even the Shining Cities of the World’s Dusk, have their secret places, those squares and gardens where lovers may meet and talk far away from prying eyes, where affectionate words may be whispered and tokens exchanged. In PameGlorias it was St Labre’s Park, ten square miles of living grass and trees in the southern quarter of the city, kept verdant by Parasheeva’s Blossoms.
But the course of true love does not run straight here, as I’m sure readers will anticipate, because otherwise the story wouldn’t be so interesting.
Strange Horizons, December 2015
Some very short stories, and I like one of them, the shortest.
“Tigerskin” by Kurt Hunt
A little boy and a tiger—where have I seen that before? This one is a bit darker than Calvin, and more tied to the existence and problems of real tigers in the wild, as a threatened species. But both works reference the tiger as epitome of ferocity. The story is imaginative and whimsical, but it’s unclear why this tiger wanted to engulf a small boy in the first place.
“At Whatever Are Their Moons” by Sunny Moraine
A very unlikely tale. Cara, working in a government office, falls in love with the analytical engines cannibalized from the spaceships that brought the population to this world.
Not that they had eyes, not that they would care even if they did, with their minds of numbers and the analysis of numbers. But there in that warmth, sweating very slightly under her collar, running her hands over the parts and components, replacing the little beads, oiling the joints that needed oiling, tracing her fingertips over the woven tapestry of metal pathways, cleaning dust from the vents, it felt like loving care. Care of something that might one day recognize it.
Which is kind of deranged. Then Cara decides to build an airship, powered in some way by a homemade engine. Which seems unlikely. Then she takes the airship into the desert, where she suspects the crashed spacecraft might be. It’s a nice journey through an alien landscape, but Cara lost me long before takeoff.
There are references to brass and of course airships, but this isn’t enough to make the piece steampunk, if that was the intent.
“Telling the Bees” by T Kingfisher
“There was a girl who died every morning, and it would not have been a problem except that she kept bees.” Now, there’s an opening! It seems there may be a curse involved, an imprecisely worded curse. Readers are probably familiar with the common “sleep like death” and should have no trouble seeing how it might be confused with “death like sleep”. At any rate, the girl does die and doesn’t sleep. She descends to the underworld, of which we see only enough to be tantalized [but not himself], then wakes/revives. And the bees, first thing, must be told.
A very very brief piece, with a great evocative potential for unpacking. “Telling the bees” of a death in the house is a well-attested tradition, sometimes also draping the hives in mourning black, as in the Whittier poem:
‘Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!’
An endnote to the text informs us that the byline T Kingfisher is an alternate of Ursula Vernon, whose work for adults I much admire.
GigaNotoSaurus, December 2015
Happy to see a long novella at this venue, fulfilling its mission.
“Quarter Days” by Iona Sharma
Historical fantasy under the same premise of at least one previous story by this author, involving guilds of adepts in magic on whom Britain relies for much more than it should. This one is set in 1919, when damaged soldiers have come home from WWI, one of them Ned, who has burned out all his power on the battlefield, losing him his membership in the Salt guild—the ingrates. Before the war, Ned had been one of the designers of a safety signaling system for railways, meant to prevent collisions. Now, however, a disastrous collision has taken place and the authorities are looking for someone on whom to pin the blame. The primary point of view comes not from Ned himself but his partner Grace, who is caught up in doubts about the future of the guild and her own place in it.
There’s interest here in the magic system, which is thoroughly worked out, but primarily this is social commentary on the world of the early 20th century, focusing on its class and race issues. Grace and Ned come from very different backgrounds, her family originating in the Caribbean and his from the British ruling class. Despite this, their personal ties are strong. “Grace gave him the look she reserved for idiots and the classically educated”. An important part of the plot involves the 1919 race riots, when returning British workers felt their jobs were being threatened by immigrants.
The 1919 riots are not as well-known as the 1926 general strike, but many of the same social issues were at the root of both. The story provides insight into this aspect of history, which is both interesting and a real problem. The narrative makes it quite clear that magic has for a long time been central to the condition of the British nation. This is a profound change from our own timeline, and it ought to result in a greatly altered history—indeed, the piece should be an alternate history, yet for the most part, we find the same events taking place at the same locations and the same time as they did in our own mundane world. The most striking difference I find is in the use of a magic spell where our own history saw poison gas. But this is by no means enough. The author wants to explore the workings of a society that her own premise ought to have swept away; the fact that it remains so almost completely unaltered is a grave but common flaw in this sort of scenario.