Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 11/21/17
Not One of Us 10/17
Omni Winter ’17
Global Dystopias, Junot Díaz, ed. (Boston Review) November 2017.
Infinity Wars, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris) October 2017.
Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (Tor.com Publishing) September 2017.
F&SF’s November/December issue features “Stillborne“, a significant and, as always, enjoyable entry in Marc Laidlaw‘s Spar/Gorlen series. The two join a caravan to a town where the Philosopher Moths are scheduled for their seven-yearly mating swarm. There they encounter Gorlen’s long-past lover, Plenth, whom Gorlen taught to play the eduldamer. Their reunion occasions some flashbacks that throw light on Gorlen’s history – and that of the gargoyle Spar. In the present day, they unravel a mystery entangling the Moths and a very popular local drink, as well as dealing with the complications of Plenth’s strange pregnancy. It’s good solid work, illuminating much, and, I suspect, laying the groundwork for a fuller resolution to this fine series.
New name J.R. Dawson‘s “Marley and Marley” is nice work, an original time travel story. (Time travel is a repeated theme this month.) Marley is a 12-year-old orphan, and the state has assigned her a guardian – her older self, who is made to travel back in time to care for herself. Marley is a rebellious child – as she already knows, of course – and is determined not turn out like – herself. It’s cute, but in the end honest and affecting. “Whatever Comes After Calcutta” by David Erik Nelson is really scary horror. One day Lyle is shot by his wife after he discovers her in bed with another man. He survives, and decides to follow them to some place near Calcutta (Ohio). On the way, he happens across a crazy group of cultists trying to hang a woman they are convinced is a witch. So Lyle does the right thing and stops them…. All this is blackly funny, and then Nelson pulls the other one, and the story takes a dark (if still horrifically funny) turn.
Greg Egan is back again in the November-December Asimov’s, with “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine“. This follows a man who loses his job to an AI – and who begins to suspect the AI’s were programmed using his skills. His wife is a nurse, and she supports them while he looks hopelessly for a job, and encounters others in the same boat, including a conspiracy nut who claims to have evidence that the AIs have taken over everything. That’s crazy, of course, but his wife loses her job as well, and teachers…. The story quietly works its way to a subtle conclusion that resonates with today’s economy, and also reflects on what makes human lives worthwhile.
Nick Wolven‘s “Confessions of a Con Girl” is a scary piece about Sophie, who has flunked out of college due to negative peer scoring on social media. Sophie’s errors include making friends with the wrong people, telling the truth about an orbital trip with future leaders, etc. – she’s a smart girl, but is she the right kind of smart? While the story invites us to sympathize with Sophie, and I think we should, it doesn’t offer a pat narrative affirming her, instead letting us understand how things got to the place they have gotten in this future.
In Analog, I was really impressed by S.L. Huang‘s “Time Travel Is Only for the Poor“, which takes a familiar idea – using time travel to escape the present, combined with investing your money and letting compound interest make you rich (which really would not work, by the way) – and turns it very effectively on its head. In this near future, time travel is the solution to the homeless problem – ship them to the future to get them off the present’s hands. The catch is, the law requires they have money to “invest,” and Orson has escaped that fate by never having any money – until he makes a mistake. But he is fortunate enough to attract the attention of a crusading lawyer. This strong central idea is married to well-done characters who are treated honestly. I also liked Kenneth Schneyer‘s “Keepsakes“. The title refers to personality recordings that their owners can call up and converse with, to help them remember their past. One question is – does this interaction change the Keepsakes? Another question: what if a Keepsake remembers something the later person doesn’t? And what if that memory hints at a crime? The protagonists are Doru and Afzal, who were lovers long ago, before Doru broke things off. Doru’s an expert on Keepsake technology, while Afzal is a lawyer whose latest case involves a young woman whose Keepsake suggests her father may have killed her mother. There is a legal story here – can Keepsakes be witnesses? – but also an involving personal story, about Doru and Afzal and their history – and their Keepsakes.
The standout in the December Lightspeed is “You Will Never Know What Opens” by Mari Ness, a portal fantasy about a house with many doors to many worlds. It’s told in second person – in this case appropriately – for what would you do if you lived in a house with doors to other worlds? And no guarantee how pleasant any world might be?
November’s Clarkesworld has a nice novelette from Sue Burke, “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” A game featuring robots battling on Mars somehow inspires the idea of actually sending battle robots there to stage a fight. All this leads to a space race with four robots getting to Mars, but who really wins the resulting battle – and what’s the definition of “winning”? There’s a bit of “it would be pretty to think so” about the whole thing, but it was still enjoyable.
Adam-Troy Castro & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro give us another of their Chinese-flavored morality tales in the November 21st issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “The Mouth of the Oyster” tells of a fortunate couple who fall victim to a terrible plague that leaves the husband blind and his wife somewhat crippled. Their love is, if anything, intensified by this, and so is their commercial success. Then a magician offers his product, eyes that can restore sight to the husband, but only one facet of sight: he might ask for beauty, or the ability to see deceit, or anything he can think of. But will the effect of this special sight be an unmixed blessing?
I was fortunate to hear C.S.E. Cooney tease the first half of “Though She Be But Little” at Boskone last year, but I had to wait until the September/October Uncanny to find out how it ends. This is Cooney at her strangest, set in a world suddenly and weirdly altered, with a silver sky and stuffed animals named Captious and Bumptious and a parrot named George Sand – and Emma Anne, who must confront the dangerous Loping Man. It is weirder than I can describe, really, and funny without being quite funny at the core, and quite something. This issue also has Vina Jie-Min Prasad‘s “Fandom for Robots“, a quite delightful story of a 1950s robot (called Computron, natch!) writing fan fiction about an anime called Hyperdimension Warp Record. Prasad pulls it off with a perfect deadpan delivery, which makes Computron, as it were, come alive – and which captures the fan fiction culture right on the nose.
The 58th (!) issue of Not One of Us offers the usual mix of strong poetry and atmospheric fiction, usually fantasy, often a bit dark. I liked “Pigeon-Bone Soup” by perennial Not One of Us contributor Patricia Russo, best: a woman is hired to clean a long-empty house in her working-class neighborhood, and she finds something unexpected: a goddess. Should she free her? Of course – and the consequences are, sweetly, not what we might expect.
The really exciting news in the magazine field is the long-anticipated Omni revival, with Ellen Datlow returning as fiction editor. The first issue has a time travel theme, for both the non-fiction and the fiction.
Rich Larson‘s “Verweile Doch (But Linger)” is a fine story about a man who can freeze time. Cesar has used this ability throughout it adolescence and early adult years to help him come up with neat comebacks or to steal money, but he is tortured by his failure to save his mother from an accident – and, it becomes clear, to have real relationships with two other women: his sister, and a high school crush. Solid work. But the prize story is “Sidewalks” by Maureen McHugh, which is a variation on one of my personal favorite time travel tropes, and which is grounded, as we expect from McHugh, in absolutely real characters. Rosni Gupta is a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County, and her latest case is a woman who speaks nothing but gibberish. Rosni assume she is perhaps autistic, but on meeting her she realizes that is not the case, and soon learns what the gibberish really is. I’ll leave the secret for the reader to discover – not that it’s particularly a new notion – but the implications are powerful.
McHugh doesn’t publish enough for my taste these days, so it’s exciting this month to see two of her stories, the other in the Global Dystopias special issue of the Boston Review, guest edited by Junot Díaz. “Cannibal Acts” is a quiet depiction of a small community in Alaska trying to survive after an engineered plague, and the decision of the narrator to join with those willing to eat one of their fellows who has died. No particular epiphanies are to be had here, nor anything much heroic, just an honest look at people at the likely end of the human world. The real wow story this issue, however, is from Charlie Jane Anders. “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” concerns Rachel, who has been confined in an institution to cure her particular personal problem, as the state sees it – her belief that she is a woman, though she was born a boy. Her childhood friend Jeffrey is a functionary at this particular institution. And the method of “cure” is particularly horrific – not that her situation isn’t horrific no matter how the state wished to treat her. Anders has always had the ability to present truly agonizing situations with a superficially comic surface, which only makes the realization of the horror beneath more affecting – and never more so, I think, than in this story.
As ever, the latest of Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity series of original anthologies is essential reading. Infinity Wars concerns future war, obviously enough, with a noticeable focus on what might be called the “grunt” point of view. The two best stories came from Dominica Phetteplace and from Peter Watts. Phetteplace’s “Oracle” is a blackly comic story about Rita, who is a whiz at predictive software, which she uses to make a lot of money in sales. But what she really wants is a Nobel Peace Prize – so when the government comes calling, wanting to use her software to help them sell war to the public, she can’t say no – but what does this have to do with peace? Maybe her software has the answer? (Will we like it, though?) Watts, in “ZeroS“, posits a technology that turns soldiers into non-conscious actors – for it turns out the unconscious has spooky abilities. Those are pretty scary for the humans who end up sort of “riding” their unconscious – especially when they learn what their “zombie” selves are capable of. For an extra fillip of spookiness, the story is told from the POV of a soldier who actually died, and who has been resurrected by this particular technology – at an increasingly horrible price.
Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie is set in an isolated star system, centuries in the future. Duke is their mostly ceremonial President, and one day he has a crisis to deal with: a probe from the Bureau of Colonization has appeared. We learn the backstory slowly – this system is inhabited mostly by genetically modified humans who fled Earth and its restrictive laws. Since then Earth has colonized most of the useful systems, but the Bureau is apparently still after the refugees, and especially their long-lived founder, Isabel Potter. If this probe is from the BOC, is it time to flee again? Duke, a normal human and a later arrival, leads the evacuation effort, then waits for the BOC’s reaction… and in so doing is forced to evaluate a story much different from the one he has always believed. This is pretty remarkable work from a writer who really deserves a much wider profile.
“Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”, Charlie Jane Anders (Global Dystopias)
“Though She Be But Little”, C. S. E. Cooney (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Marley and Marley”, J.R. Dawson (F&SF 11-12/17)
“The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”, Greg Egan (Asimov’s 11-12/17)
“Time Travel Is Only for the Poor”, S.L. Huang (Analog 11-12/17)
Acadie, Dave Hutchinson (Tor.com Publishing 9/17)
“Stillborne”, Marc Laidlaw (F&SF 11-12/17)
“Sidewalks”, Maureen McHugh (Omni Winter ’17)
“Whatever Comes After Calcutta”, David Erik Nelson (F&SF 11-12/17)
“You Will Never Know What Opens”, Mari Ness (Lightspeed 12/17)
“Oracle”, Dominica Phetteplace (Infinity Wars)
“Fandom for Robots”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Keepsakes”, Kenneth Schneyer (Analog 11-12/17)
“ZeroS”, Peter Watts (Infinity Wars)
“Confessions of a Con Girl”, Nick Wolven (Asimov’s 11-12/17)
Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.
This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.