What makes a short story work? Among writers, this is a question with more answers than there are practitioners. To lump all texts of under 20,000 words into a single category and then force-rank them is an exercise in absurdity. The broad categories that our genre uses to separate by length— the short story, the novelette, the novella—offer little clarity on the matter. Short gems, humorous romps, psychological studies, brilliant scientific speculations, intriguing historical prophecies, exquisitely crafted fantasies, wildly imaginative rule-breakers, interstitial fusions of form and content, traditional tales... this list has no end. Trying to compare these stories to one another is often like comparing apples to oysters.
Alas, we must do the best we can.
- Analog (June)
- Andromeda Spaceways (#12)
- Asimov's (June)
- F&SF (June)
- F&SF (July)
- Johnny Beansprout by Esther M. Friesner
- Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession by George Guthridge
- Realms of Fantasy
- SciFiction (April)
- Strange Horizons (April)
The cover story is "Time Ablaze," by Michael A. Burstein, a sort of primer for those new to time travel stories. Also in this issue: "On the Tip of my Tongue" by Grey Rollins (aliens & detectives & sequels, oh my!), "Greetings from Kudesh" by J.T. Sharrah (aliens & religion), "Blu 97-032D" by Alexis Glynn Latner (aliens & orbital trajectories), and "Caretaker" by Richard A. Lovett (asteroids, but no aliens). I don't have anything against alien stories, exactly, so let's chalk it up to coincidence that the two stories I found most interesting do not contain aliens—although both contain some otherworldly humans.
"The Bistro of Alternate Realities" by Kevin J. Anderson
If you're going to hop among alternate realities for a living, odds are pretty good you're going to meet yourself. Possibly quite a number of yourselves. After all, if the realities are close, then there are going to be quite a number of you hopping around. The Heathers are doing archaeological research. They shift to different universes, check the net for archaeological finds that haven't been discovered at home. It's a living. They also meet up at a cafe, compare notes. Between the lot of them, they have tried a number of different life choices. But for one Heather, life by committee is growing just a little tiresome.
It's been a long time since I saw the film Heathers, but I have to wonder if there isn't some influence here. These Heathers are gossipy, catty, and engaged in various different one-upmanship contests.
It's always a pleasure when someone takes some threadbare trope of the genre, and still manages to work it for new material. "The Bistro of Alternate Realities" does just this. However, it's not just the weekly meeting of the many Heathers that makes this story work: it's the dynamic between the Heathers themselves: their close-but-not-identical love affairs, their subtle variations of personality, all make for both good story and good concept. Anderson's conclusion, however, may leave some readers at least a little annoyed: quite intentionally, driven directly from the nature of his primary Heather, he refuses to resolve any of the main questions. All the Heathers have nicknames, and it is no accident that the narrating Heather is known as 'indecisive Heather.' The decision this Heather finally makes just happens to infuriatingly deprive the reader of gossip. Doggone it!
"PeriAndry's Quest" by Stephen Baxter
At his father's funeral, PeriAndry encounters Lora, a serving girl, an Attic girl. His siblings mock him, but it doesn't matter: he's in love. He's too well-bred for Lora, of course, but the worst of it is: she'll be grown, and even dead before he's twenty. That's the way it is with Attic girls.
Baxter takes the theory of high-gravity physics and makes a world around it. Not an ordinary world, not a possible world, exactly, and yet the whole thing works. As though they live on the cusp of a black hole's event horizon, the characters in this story age more quickly with altitude (thus the problem of the "Attic" girls), while the river pours over the rim of the Shelf into "The Lowland itself, stretching to a red-shifted horizon... a mass of deep red, deeper than blood, the light of slow time."
Poetic, an engaging story of love, treachery, family intrigue, coming-of-age, and... natural selection? The servants in the attic, living their brief flit-past lives do have one advantage: they evolve more quickly.
This is an odd story, the tone more infused with imagery from fantasy than science fiction, and yet based upon rock-solid science (well, as long as you don't bring tidal forces into the picture). Odd (and I wonder if it will be more likely to lose both science fiction and fantasy fans than unite them), but to my reading, both beautiful and original.
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (June)
Light fare is often what makes Andromeda Spaceways such a pleasure to receive. In addition to "The Elves Hate You," discussed below, "If Anyone Should Ask" by Mark W. Tiedemann is an amusing tale of (attempted) alien abduction, "Logger" is a cute story of hunting the wild Cottonwood tree, "Galatea's" brings readers into a full-service, all-aliens-welcome brothel, and "Sister Supernova" calls to mind the Restaurant at the End of the Universe for a bartender's competition. This issue's editor was Edwina Harvey, and she seems to have a taste for fun! Interestingly, I thought most of the humor worked better than the more serious efforts, and humor in science fiction is frequently a dismal failure. Most of the serious stuff ("Y-Knot" by Bevan McGuinness, "Choices" by Sue Bursztynski, "The Girl With The Four-Dimensional Head," by Colin P Davies, and "Changes" by Stephen Dedman) have their merits, but what really stood out from the crowd for me were:
"Fairytale" by Dirk Flinthart
Perhaps strongest in this issue is "Fairytale"—a story that is not light fare at all.
Martin Pymble has caught—and killed—a fairy. He is an ordinary man, an accountant. Among his ordinary hobbies is collecting insects. He even has some modest contributions to the field. On vacation in Ireland, however, he finds in his killing jar no bug, but a tiny, beautiful, dead fairy.
Flinthart offers a short, sharp variation on Coleridge's person from Porlock. Briefly, tantalizingly, Pymble finds himself in the presence of mystery, beauty, purpose... but all elude him. The vision, Flinthart hints, destroys him.
"The Elves Hate You" by Matthew Bey
What happens when an elf comes into a bar wearing the same shirt as Vlad the Grater (so-named because he once executed an entire village with a cheese grater)? Mayhem, my friends.
This is hilarious stuff. Satire of the genre—not mean satire— funny satire.
Just about every sentence in this story is killer, but here are a few (more a random sampler than a "best of" because in a story like this it's impossible to pick the best):
——"You're right. That bitch is wearing my shirt... I practically invented throat-ruffles."
——The elf moved his hands in graceful circles. "We are all part of the cycle of nature. The green things of the world link us together. We are all brothers of this planet."
Vlad sneered. "I wish there were some Navajo here so they could kick your ass."
——The elves stood as one... "There is a saying in my language: Ta mére est une salope."
"Yeah? Well, Fabio just called. He wants his hair back."
——Francois brandished a silver sword, a tangle of spectral runes dancing along the blade....
Vlad smirked and pulled a twelve-gauge from his trenchcoat. "Leave it to an elf to bring a knife to a gunfight."
... All this, plus some marvellous slapstick and a simply wonderful ending, particularly if you have strong feelings about unicorns.
Everyone I have spoken with agrees: this may be the worst cover ever to besmirch the cover of Asimov's. It's an illustration for James Patrick Kelly's "Men are Trouble"—a noir detective story of a future in which aliens rule the Earth, apparently enforcing only one rule: No Men Allowed. It's a fine tale, although perhaps not Kelly's best. Other stories I am not going to dwell on include "The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" by Lois Tilton (a very well researched alternate history that will be most interesting to students of ancient Rome—I don't think anyone else will pick up on the 'alternate' part); "The Veteran" by Neal Asher (a bleak story with a cyberpunk soul and a post-human motif); "Turing Test" by Robert R. Chase (conceptually interesting: artificial intelligences apply test a live human to determine if she's human-enough at heart to join them); and Ruth Berman's "The Buried Sword" (Hippogriffs, golems, and faerie in the time of Charlemagne).
"My Mother, Dancing" by Nancy Kress
A case could be made for the proposition that science fiction is gradually generating its own language. Consider the first sentence of this story:
"They had agreed, laughing, on a form of the millennium contact, what Micah called "human standard," although Kabil had insisted on keeping hirs konfol and Dev had not dissolved hirs crest, which waved three inches above hirs and hummed."
To the non-genre reader, such a sentence might well appear completely impenetrable—either nonsense, or a form of Joycian cryptography designed to challenge a new generation of academics. The science fiction reader, however, will grunt: "Post human. Gender neutral. Which millennium?" and keep reading. In a sense it's a shame, because this story really ought to find a larger audience.
When humanity crosses the void between the stars, it is at first dismayed to find itself alone in the universe. Not just the sole sentience, but the sole life form of any sort. And then, humanity takes this as a sign from God—the physical processes of life are so well understood that life is not the miracle: its uniqueness is. So, they seed the galaxy with life.
And all is joy, and happiness until a return mission to Seedling 140, at the turn of the third Millennium.
This one leaps straight onto my list of award candidates for 2004. If you haven't read it; if you don't have the June Asimov's sitting around awaiting your attention—it would behoove you to take the extra measure to seek this one out.
This is an beautiful and heartbreaking story, one of the most important stories I have read in some time.
"Fallow Earth" by Paul Melko
When a Volkswagon Beetle comes screaming out of the sky, things change for Cilly and her brother Nick. Cilly is a tough, bright girl with a subscription to Discover. Nick however... Nick's highest pleasure is collecting stones of the right shape for skipping on water—although he does not actually use the stones.
Back to the Beetle: Cilly picks up on the fact that it's an alien spaceship, piloted by a disguised extra-terrestrial with some ulterior motive. She's not only brighter than her mentally handicapped brother, she's brighter than everyone else in town, too.
In fact, it seems probable that she's brighter than the alien, who has come crashing to Earth with the desperate message.
Melko infuses this tale with gentle humor and a good heart. I didn't quite buy the premise, but his handling of the voice of the piece, and the engaging characterization of Cilly make this one linger in memory.
"Steep Silence" by Lena DeTar
Composed as a deathbed letter to her family, "Steep Silence" recounts a solo expedition on the part of a geologist, naturalist, and scholar as she tracks the final movements of a famous predecessor: one Shira Ghibli. Filled with the vastness of solitude, and the eerie poetry of Ghibli, and a fascinating scholarly mystery, the narrator finds her position in the broken wilderness of a dampening Mars to be increasingly precarious.
This is a compelling and convincing story: DeTar captures the strange psychology of solitude, and the language of academia, all while providing a vision of Mars as richly physical as anything by Robinson. Mystery, madness, and danger all come together in a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.
Fantasy & Science Fiction (June)
From bad covers to good: if I were rating covers, I would pick this as one of my favorite of the year. It illustrates "Faces" by Joe Haldeman, which doesn't quite live up to the mystery the painting evokes. Charles Coleman Finlay brings back Kuikin and Vertir in "After the Gaud Chrysalis"—but it doesn't have quite the same fun level as "For Want of a Nail" did. In "The Zombie Prince" by Kit Reed you would think that a Zombie Prince would know better than to mess with a woman named 'Graver'. "By the Light of the Day" by Arthur Porges tells of a terrible trial for the Tormentor-in-Chief. Ray Vukcevich imagines "Glinky"—a very strange monster to say the least, in a very strange world-or-worlds. Vukcevich's was a fascinating story, but it left me stumped for anything to say. These two, however...
"A Little Learning" by Matthew Hughes
When I told a friend who also happens to read a lot of short science fiction that this was the funniest story I read all month, he looked at me and said, "You are a very strange man."
So be it.
Guth Bandar has just been bested by Didrick Gabbris. The two students are competing to complete what seems like a hands-on final exam in multiverse hopping. Stranded in a slow-time universe, Bandar is almost certainly going to come limping home with a last place finish. He will be sent back to his quotidian merchant family. Anything, he thinks, is better than that. When Bandar diverges from the route specified by the examination, however, he finds that some things might be considerably worse.
Originally printed in Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, "A Little Learning" is an knock-you-down hilarious romp. Actually about a Noösphere, not a multiverse, it turns out. The opposite of Zelazny's Amber, it is the consequence, rather than the cause of the "real world"—the distillation of all human experience.
When Bandar ventures off course, his predicaments proceed from bad to worse. The "little learning" mentioned in the title refers to his semi-proficient use of the magic that enables those from the real world to manipulate their surroundings in the noösphere: different kinds of invisibilities for different circumstances, and—much to this reader's amusement—the ability to make certain bodily modifications.
You will rarely encounter so many laugh-out-loud (and yet, perfectly polite) euphemisms for a penis.
Bandar's centerpiece, his wonderment may help him out of one misadventure, but like all his efforts to beat Didrick Gabbris to the prize, it only complicates his circumstances. With an unbeatable plot, an engaging character, and a confident mastery of language, you might think Hughes would be content. But wait, there's more: while Bandar considers the various denizens of the noösphere to be ephemeral, fictional creations—mere idiomatic beings— they do not see themselves that way at all. So, when Bandar finds him face to face with a Principal of an Allegorical frame, he is forced to try to explain things in a way that even, well, Satan can understand.
"Zero's Twin" by A. A. Attanasio
A mathematician working on the qubit and quantum computing comes into contact with a dream woman—a fantastically strange, wonderfully impossible paradox of a phantasm; a being as strange as any of his mathematics bridging the paradoxes between zero and infinity. If she's real, what is reality? She claims to be his (not The) creator; and also his creation. If time is space, then there is no change, no rule of cause and effect. And all he has left of her is a coffee mug that—in defiance of every law of thermodynamics (and, accordingly, of time)—never cools down.
In one sense, this is the very purest form of science fiction: fiction that is driven (thematically, spiritually, and narratively) by science. Fiction inspired by science. Fiction that pushes the outer boundaries of science. And yet, it is also poetry. It is literature. A literature lost upon the poor sots who don't understand mathematics, a poetry aiming at the fertile ground where human nature and the very limits of human intellect intersect.
Mind you, it's also rather mundane. It's an imperfect, somewhat melodramatic take on lost love and the impossibilities of intuitive relativity. Still, I like to see Leibnitz's monad make a come-back now and then.
Fantasy & Science Fiction (July)
Unusual for F&SF—indeed, unusual for any of the professional digests— a theme issue with every story participating! The theme: American stories. The cover is for "Stuck Inside of Mobile" by R. Garcia y Robertson, a fine account of the Confederate Navy, and, in particular, its submarine division. James Stoddard compiles an oral history from the distant future that looks back on the mighty deeds of George Washington, Apollo Leven, and other great figures of American history. Daryl Gregory offers a challenging, and haunting story of adolescence, imagination, and abuse in "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy." Albert E. Cowdrey continues to explore new terrain in "A Balance of Terrors" and John Morressy considers the accelerating pace of life in "A Life in the Day of Eb and Flo: An American Epic." Two stories that really got me thinking were:
"Johnny Beansprout" by Esther M. Friesner
Friesner begins with voice: "Aint nothing so warms the soul of the righteous as a burning book."
This story is told by the head of a family of cannibals, bemoaning their gradually restricted access to the promised "Pursuit of Happiness."
So... an adopted young cannibal with the ironic name of Bean turns out to be death to the flesh-eaters; but not in the visceral way that their own justice would make probable. They raised him. They fed him well. But now; Johnny Beansprout is transforming from red-meat redneck into—shock, horror— a average vegetarian.
This is Americana by the extent to which it captures the fundamental belief in radical freedom: that local, community mores trump any kind of imposed national morality. The full resentments against commonly accepted laws (ie., those absurd rules against cannibalism) are expressed in the eloquent voice of the believer—without detracting one iota from the absurdity of the whole.
It would seem likely that Friesner is exploring the extremes to which freedom can be assumed, but it feels a little less... political... than that. It feels like Friesner's just having fun at the expense of some Appalachian yokels.
"Nine Whispered Opinions Regarding the Alaskan Secession" by George Guthridge
Alaska is considering joining the "Union of Arctic States"— including Siberia (or at least some of the Russian provinces therein), Yukan, Nunavut, and probably Greenland. Guthridge reveals something of the Alaskan psyche in this sequence of nine anecdotes.
Obviously highly structured, Guthridge reveals at the conclusion of this story exactly what constraints he was writing to: nine sections of 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 7, 5, 3, and one hundred words each, beginning with first person, second person, and third person, then rolling back at the end.
More interesting than this academic exercise, however, is the insight into the Alaskan psyche that Guthridge purports to offer. I say "purports" because in any "Nine Whispered Opinions" I would expect some dispute, some difference. But although Guthridge conceives an interesting diversity of characters and situations, they seem unified in contempt for those who live outside the Arctic Circle.
"All roads lead to Nome," Guthridge proclaims, "And also away." Intended as a joke, but it feels more like a heartfelt rallying cry.
Realms of Fantasy (June)
Realms covers do not illustrate any particular story, but rather they seem to epitomize the fantasies of teenage boys. This one by Matt Hughes is actually nicer in the original. As for the contents: "Singing Innocence and Experience" by Sonya Taaffe is a bit different for a unicorn story, but a unicorn story nonetheless. "The Archer" by Ian Donald Keeling also includes its fair share of sex and love. David Levine gets meta on us with "Charlie the Purple Giraffe was Acting Strangely"—a story told by cartoon characters unaware of their role as fictional beings, at least until Charlie gets weird. Liz Williams' "On Windhover Down" is creepy, to say the least. In "Stalking the Leopard," Tanith Lee takes a fairly predictable story about meeting Death, but infuses it with beauty, mystery, and wonder all the same. Here are two more:
"Tiny Bells" by Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers is renowned for his tiny gems, and this is no exception.
Like many of his tales, this seems to take place in an age of myth, informed by Chinese wisdom (if not immediately derived from Chinese folk tales). In this case, the Emperor's armies come through a village on their way to war. It is a trial to the villagers, but not disastrous. The return, however...
In just a couple of pages, Rogers manages to evoke many sides of the "us/them" fallacy: its causes, its effects, and the illusion of it all.
"Country Life" by Karen D. Fishler
Fishler's narrator is an ambitious young bureaucrat from Paris who is out in the country to get his career started. He is an officious fellow, a tax collector. His mission: to collect for the King what is due him by the local nobility.
The problem? The local nobility do not seem inclined to comply. In fact, they do not seem human!
What begins as a traditional horror story, with events more likely to transpire in Transylvania than the bucolic French countryside, gets gradually stranger and less predictable. Fishler handles it beautifully throughout, giving the tiresome tax collector both more and less personality than he seems to start with, and revealing unexpected reserves of humanity on the part of the monsters.
The conclusion, although it feels just a tad manipulative, is moving nonetheless.
In addition to the two stories below, SciFiction published a moving story of love and freedom by Carol Emshwiller: "On Display Among the Lesser" and an sharply written bit of humor by Catherine M. Morrison: "Elvis in the Attic."
"This Tragic Glass" by Elizabeth Bear
There are some problems with this tale. Are we really to believe that in 2117 the world will have time travel, but will still be trying to perfect the Gender Genie? Must we accept that an important historical figure (Christopher Marlowe) will be snatched out of the past at enormous expense simply to verify a grad student's statistical analysis of language use and gender?
Fortunately, these are mere minor matters, swiftly skimmed and soon forgotten. Bear has a powerful story to tell, and if not all of the premises are to your liking, focus on the intriguing characters, Bear's exquisite use of Elizabethan language, and her brilliant handling of some difficult scenes.
History: Christopher Marlowe was not just a playwright at the time of William Shakespeare, he was also involved in the world of London intrigues. It was a time of high conflict: a police state of religious and intellectual oppression built on a corps of informers, secret police, and death squads. That's fact. Fiction largely concerns itself with the foibles of the Royalty and the question of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays.
Bear doesn't flinch from history. She weaves two threads: one from the past and one from the future, both destined to intersect. Christopher Marlowe on the day of his untimely death, and Satyavati Brahmaputra, computer scientist. Brahmaputra has what she believes to be incontrovertible evidence that Marlowe's plays were, in fact, written by a woman.
What better way to validate her theory—and her technology—than to snatch Marlowe out of the past at the very moment of his death? Of course, that means getting old professor Keats on board. I do mean old: Keats is the John Keats, himself a beneficiary of the "Poet Emeritus" time-travel program.
This may all sound rather silly, but Bear handles it well, letting the full scope of her imagination wash over the reader in carefully measured doses, letting one mystery lead into another, until—voila—we are seeing the twenty-second century through Marlowe's somewhat bewildered eyes.
Bear sidesteps the impossible questions of time travel, focussing on the wonder of the imagined moment: a rough Elizabethan poet waking up in a futuristic hospital. Between this compelling moment, and the complex characters, Bear also manages to deliver some thought-provoking ideas on gender—although this leads to my most serious quarrel with the story: [Click here for spoilers.]
"Flight Risk" by Marc Laidlaw
Laidlaw names his main character well. Foster is a doctor, brought by bad men to a bad place where a boy is being held captive. Foster is to make sure the boy stays healthy... or at least doesn't croak before they can finish their business.
What the business is never becomes perfectly clear. What does become gradually clear is that the boy is no normal child. 'Rescued' from an orphanage in Belarus, the boy is accustomed to being mistreated. Foster grows increasingly attached to the child, acting as surrogate father while the deal, transacted off-text, makes its slow way forward.
In the end, Foster makes a difficult, dangerous choice even though it becomes increasingly evident that the boy is more than capable of handling himself.
And yet, it is a moving story, the consequences of the choice perhaps less significant than the making of it. The meaning, the implications, are all left open as the title becomes all too literal.
Strange Horizons (April)
The fiction at Strange Horizons was strange all right. Of course, whenever you see Ray Vukcevich in the table of contents, you know there's going to be at least some strangeness in store. Other stories were "Burn with Me Here" by Amy Hembree, which begins as a deal-with-the-devil story and ends as... something else. "Alone in the House of Mims" by Barth Anderson reads like the anxiety dream of a science fiction actor before his Twilight Zone tryouts.
"Why I Am Not Gorilla Girl" by Daniel Starr
A Clueless of the future: two teenage girls decide that to do their foreign countries report they will sneak off and go to the New Congo Republic rather than just read about it. They reprogram their AI chaperones, jump in their aircars, and, in a matter of moments, find themselves in the middle of a war between genocidal humans and endangered metagorillas. Perhaps it would just have been a cold dose of reality for the girls if they hadn't met Nkube, a human activist trying to protect the intellectually enhanced gorillas.
Note to self: Strange Horizons likes stories about intelligent animals.
Starr accomplishes something quite beautiful here: while the narrator is a simple, selfish, naive American girl, the story she narrates is far more complex. For her, the battle is between herself and her best friend Jane. She believes they are vying for the Nkube's love. But through her voice and her perceptions of events, Starr does an absolutely brilliant job of conveying the larger story. Most ingeniously, the narrator's misperceptions motivate her in ways that play havoc with the events she does not understand, guiding the narrative to its inevitable conclusion.
Inevitable? Well, we are reading Clueless here. We do not expect actual torture and murder to afflict our heroine. However, Starr carefully manipulates reader expectations, bringing in the best sort of twists at the end: the kind that seem obvious only in retrospect.
Aside from the craftsmanship of this story, there is also real emotional resonance here. Perhaps "subtle" is not quite the right word, but the interplay between the narrator's immature view of events and a more nuanced reading of those events works to create levels of narrative tension that Clueless never dreamed of.
A very satisfying story!
"Magic Makeup" by Ray Vukcevich
I first heard of Ray Vukcevich a few months ago when Jay Lake wrote an article on the man in this very venue. Suddenly I can't turn around without bumping into the man. Literally: I met him at a party a couple of weeks ago.
He seems like a perfectly pleasant fellow, which you might not realize from reading this story. For Halloween, Mike and Linda decide—with the help of Magic Makeup—to go as each other. The makeup doesn't just make each look like the other, however; it effects a more profound alteration.
Vukcevich is bound by no rules of physics, of literature, or of natural philosophy. The ending of this story is as only as mysterious and muddled as it has to be, given the shattering blow the plot deals to concepts of identity. It's the kind of ending where you think you know what happened, but are not sure what might happen next, and yet, what might happen next is entirely besides the point, because Vukcevich has given you so much more to think about.
Or, look it at this way: if you were to become your spouse, do you think you would like what you see? And what about secrets? Do you think you and your partner keep no secrets from each other?
Vukcevich handles the total blurring of identity sharply, with humor, and with devastating consequences for his characters. And all they wanted was a Halloween costume, too! Life can be so unfair.