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May, 2004 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, May 2004

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.

The Reviews

Analog, June, 2004

Analog: June, 2004

Analog (June)

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: Issue #12

Andromeda Spaceways: Issue #12

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.

Asimov's: June

Asimov's: June

Asimov's (June)

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.

F&SF: June

F&SF: June

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.

F&SF: July

F&SF: July

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, June 2004

Realms: June, 2004

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.

SciFiction, April 2004

SciFiction: April, 2004

SciFiction (April)

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.

Copyright © 2004, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


May 21, 15:50 by John Frost
Comments on this month's coverage of short fiction.
May 21, 17:56 by Chris Dodson
On Baxter's "PeriAndry's Quest" (Analog, June) -- Totally agree with you. Baxter's always been one of my favorites, and that was one of his very best. In fact, that was one of the best Analog stories in a long, long time (seems like they always come along right as I start to think about dropping my subscription.)

On the June Asimov's: I actually thought that was one of the better covers I've seen lately. *shrug* My pick of that issue was Asher's "The Veteran," with the Kress and Chase stories falling very close behind.

On the June F&SF: Agree with you on Attanasio's "Zero's Twin." I've noticed that SF and romance usually don't mix very well, but that story is truly an exception to the rule. Haldeman's "Faces" was also pretty good, but I thought it read too much like a Joe Haldeman's Greatest Hits collection (throw the military, homosexuality, and musings on love into a blender, mix well, and serve.)
May 21, 18:22 by Thomas Reeves
My tastes and bluejack's are rarely in line. I think the majority of us at the Asimov's board thought the June cover was either good or in least very striking. Cut out the demon and I don't think there is much to complain about. The woman in the fedora looking at her monitor is wonderfully well done. The demon is even not bad after I read the story, but I think it would've been better off to look like a kind of gargoyle sitting ominously on top a file case. The robot dog should have been what she was facing, but left rather bland to show it's deemphasis. Or I'm nitpicking, but still it was a great cover and as I believe he saw the Asimov's discussion that "everyone agrees June's cover is bad" is just silly.

And yet in a surprse turn around I agree with his appraisal of the fiction. The two stories he picked were the ones I singled out as best. He also liked that Attanasio story that I liked, which is a kind of poetry. This is rather odd, usually our fiction tastes are remarkably different.
May 21, 19:42 by Bluejack
And yet in a surprse turn around I agree with his appraisal of the fiction. The two stories he picked were the ones I singled out as best. He also liked that Attanasio story that I liked, which is a kind of poetry. This is rather odd, usually our fiction tastes are remarkably different.

Maybe your taste is improving.
May 21, 19:58 by Thomas Reeves
Or yours is:)
May 22, 08:58 by Mike Bailey
Some thoughts on the SCIFICTION reviews (reposted from ):

Flight Risk by Marc Laidlaw

Laidlaw appears to be one of those authors who handles many of the components of story writing quite effectively.

Laidlaw opens well, in my opinion, drawing the reader into the story from the very first sentence.
"They brought Foster to the boy by a route of back alleys and parking garages, shifting him from car to car several times, until eventually, although he'd thought he knew the city very well, he found himself uncertain of his whereabouts."
How could anyone not read the story after that opening? We have to know what happens next! Even the structure of the sentence is great, with all the commas giving a sense of constant turning and pausing as Foster is shuffled around.

Laidlaw establishes a strong and consistent tone in “Flight Risk,” foreshadowing the dark nature of the tale with lines like, “There was just enough warmth in the air to carry a threat of the sourness and rot waiting beneath the ice.”

Amid voices “thick with menace,” forlorn and abandoned buildings, grime, and rusted playground equipment that “put the tang of cold metal in [Foster’s] mouth,” Laidlaw expertly builds tension and mystery. Who is the mysterious boy? What could the abductors want with him? Even worse, what will the lad’s final fate be? Great stuff! Laidlaw avoids open threat and violence, instead allowing our own imaginations to supply possible horrors.

I did not realize until about halfway through the story how very appropriate the title was to the tale. I did not catch on until the playground scene. I thought that was a clever choice of title, although it does not seem to have the foreboding tone of the rest of the story.

Foster’s study of the colony of flies in the dead bird filled me with a fascinated revulsion (if such a thing can be said to exist), further foreshadowing death and fear. More tension and believable dialog continue to build tension until a well-arranged climax.

I appreciated the ending, since it seemed unlikely to me from the beginning that the doctor would be allowed to leave alive, and especially after the playground incident. I felt it was consistent with the dark tone to imply the final punishment to come, and while an amateur writer might have been tempted to save the doctor, Laidlaw does not flinch from delivering a bit of harshness to balance the bit of victory.

As an aside, since I always like to dig for a meaning in a short story, if I had to guess at Laidlaw’s theme, I might say that he was trying to showcase the parental instinct. Even though the doctor was not a biological parent, I would make a guess that the theme was related to the notion that a parent is likely to sacrifice the parent’s own life for their child, or something similar. Also, there seemed to me to be an undertone that indicated the doctor was paying for his own past sins by making a final sacrifice.

With a strong open, strong finish, consistent tone, and a narrative filled with plenty of good dialog and eyeball kicks, Laidlaw delivers a successful story in “Flight Risk.”

-Now that I see bluejack's note about how fitting the name Foster is for the doctor, I am even more convinced about the parental theme.

May 22, 09:05 by Mike Bailey
MORE thoughts on the SCIFICTION reviews (reposted from ):

Elizabeth Bear’s “This Tragic Glass.”

I don’t think I could get away with the lush writing in Elizabeth Bear’s “This Tragic Glass.” I’d be afraid someone would accuse me of dabbling in purple prose. Some of Bear’s sentences are so lush that my eyeballs are still aching from the kicks they received during the reading. But the important thing is, in my opinion, Bear succeeds in pulling off sentences that surround the reader with images, but still manage not to suffocate us.

The first paragraph is a perfect example of this balancing act, as well as a shining example of how to capture a reader from the first line of the story.
The light gleamed pewter under gracious, bowering trees; a liver-chestnut gelding stamped one white hoof on the road. His rider stood in his stirrups to see through wreaths of mist, shrugging to settle a slashed black doublet which violated several sumptuary laws. Two breaths steamed as horse and man surveyed the broad lawn of scythe-cut grass that bulwarked the manor house where they had spent the night and much of the day before.

It is interesting to me that SCIFICTION readers seem to see subject matter coming in clumps. Ellen previously noted buying groups of ghost stories; for a while there were some stories about mental illnesses or conditions; and now we seem to be seeing a lot of academic references. But the role of academia in “Tragic Glass” differs from recent tales enough to be fresh (to me, at least). I believe Bear’s intended theme had more to do with the fight against social pressures that try to force us to be what we are not, where Severna Park’s recent academic tale, “The Three Unknowns,” seemed to me to be more of a cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance, or of reward structures that encourage bad behavior.

Bear is not heavy-handed with the theme, and it might take some careful looking to find what I think is the main delivery of the lesson, when Satyavati offers counsel to the displaced Kit.
You are what you are," … "Someone will have to appreciate that."
But perhaps Saty needs to take her own advice (see below).

One aspect of the story seemed unclear to me: There is, in my opinion, some subtext that points to sexual tension between Saty and Kit, and I am unsure what contribution Bear intended that tension to make to the “single effect,” especially since it seems to contradict with Saty’s earlier behaviors. Saty had seemed repulsed by casual interpersonal contact (with male Baldassare and female Haverson) and had related a sexual harassment incident involving another woman. Based on Saty’s past and her reactions, I had no idea what her gender preference was (and she seemed rather neuter, to tell the truth). I’m curious to hear what others thought of that aspect, and what contribution they thought it made, if any.

I also loved the dialog in "Tragic Glass," but I'll leave that subject open for another intrepid review poster.

In all, as Ellen had anticipated, I did like this new story, and I shall endeavour to write half as well, and be pleased if I succeed in doing so. (Forgive me, I had to try to be archaic in at least one spot in the review.) ;-)

-Elizabeth Bear's response:

As a writer, I'm a firm believer that 50% of any story belongs to the reader and what he brings to it. As long as I've built something that will give him (forgive my non-gender-neutral pronounage) satisfaction when he'd brought his own interpretation in, I'm pretty happy.

That said, however, I will confess that I was thinking of this as a love story when I wrote it. But I wanted to write a very different sort of love story from the one that's traditional to American culture, in that I wanted to divorce it from our usual assumptions about love, sexuality, gender roles, and romantic partnership. And since so many elements in the story deal with the fallacy of categories, as it were, it seemed natural to set the Satya outside of the categories as well as Kit. So she was intended to be a bit neuter and spooky, as you saw her.

I had all these questions, you see, but I'm afraid I was short on answers, somewhat.

-My reply:

Thanks for the clarification of what you were intending while you wrote "Tragic Glass". The love story aspect of your story was subtle (and most-decidedly non-categorical) enough to slip by me, and I appreciate your comments.

The theme I fixated on had more to do with the fight against social pressures that try to force us to be what we are not, which seems closely related to your "fallacy of categories" ideas. In that light, the non-traditional love story does seem to me to contribute nicely to that theme. Kit and Satya would seem to be in the wrong age category, the wrong sex category, and the wrong racial category (according to today's dominant cultural attitudes). Hey, they are even in the wrong temporal category! If their fledgling love worked out, they would certainly triumph over all manner of social pressure!
May 22, 09:07 by Mike Bailey
Another aside:

Laidlaw apparently felt the good doctor Foster had a chance of surviving at the end of "Flight Risk." His response to my review was:

You're a careful reader. It sounds as if I'd stacked any more cups on the pile, it all would have fallen over.
Maybe I'm more naive than Dr. Foster, but I actually thought he'd come out of it okay. I'm glad I didn't stick around to find out if I was wrong.
May 23, 23:06 by Ellen Datlow
I'll support Marc's hope that Dr. Foster has a chance of surviving.
May 24, 09:57 by Bluejack
Hey, Mike,

Thanks for your extensive thoughts -- and interviews -- on
these stories. Quite insightful. What did you think of the
other two stories at SciFiction in April?

In light of Jay's article about authorial intent...

Maybe I'm more naive than Dr. Foster, but I actually thought he'd come out of it okay. I'm glad I didn't stick around to find out if I was wrong.

I think this came across. I was left feeling that the
Doctor was going to be in trouble, but I didn't have the
sense from the earlier actions of the captors that he
would actually be killed. Of course, the whole relationship
was shrouded in a certain mystery. Why was he there in the
first place? I mean, Foster in particular: why him?
So, I came away hopeful.
May 25, 14:41 by Lois Tilton
Other stories I am not going to dwell on include "The Gladiator's War: A Dialog" by Lois Tilton ...

May 25, 17:30 by Bluejack
Sorry, Lois! I really did like it. Here are my notes:

summary Two old warriors converse; one is Roman, interviewing the other for his history of the Spartacan uprising. The other, a gladiator, trusted confidant, betrayer, and finally, loyal friend again to the legendary Spartacus. All this, an alternate history in which the Triumvirate is knocked off, one by one, and the Republic saved.

thoughts thorough research; magnificent irony: on both the crisis of the Republic and the genre of alternate history. Dozois has always been a sucker for Roman history. Tilton really does deliver the goods in this one. Rich portrayal of the late Republic.

Probs? expect one has to be fairly well versed in the facts of history to twig on the speculative elements here. The demise of Crassus, Marius, Caesar, and Pompeius, however are all the richer for a smidgeon of actual history. Moreover, Tilton pegs Republican sensibilities, early Imperial military capabilities, and a number of cultural tensions between the various classes of Roman citizenry, between Gaulic and Roman traditions (military and otherwise), and between East and West. What about Octavius? How can the true genius of the age be absent? Was this too early for him? What will happen when he comes along? Editor's introduction suggests this may be part of a series... there may be hope for a Republican Octavius yet.
May 25, 21:00 by Lois Tilton
I didn't really expect that every reader would be able to recognize Crassus, Marius, Sulla, etc. But I did suppose that crucifying Caesar might have given most of them the most important hint. Those who read it, at least. But not everyone loves AH. [tho Bluejack certainly seems to]

Octavius? I don't think so. Without a Caesar, could there ever be an Octavius?

May 25, 22:15 by Camden
I got most of the history, or enough that what I didn't get it I could fill in with context. Granted I had a Roman history class not that long ago, but it was just a semester.

Kind of depressing. My interest is mostly Medieval China, I imagine anything altering that history would baffle people totally. (I'd like to think not, as China still exists and is a major power, but I think my only hope there would be to get my sister to translate such tales into Japanese and try to sell them there for me. Hmmm)
May 26, 22:57 by Bluejack
Octavius? I don't think so. Without a Caesar, could there ever be an Octavius?

You don't think so? The most brilliant political thinker in the history of the Western world? (IMHO) I think he would make a name for himself somewhere -- and in a Republic there would be plenty of opportunity to do so. I picture him as the leader of a brash New Wave, exposing the hypcrisy behind Cicero's oratory and -- somehow -- transforming Rome. The Republic was not structured to administer an Empire, so some crisis or another would have given a genius like Octavius the opportunity to influence events.

Yes, Octavius.
May 27, 08:24 by Lois Tilton
I'm often struck by the parallel but separate development of the Chinese and Greek/Roman military systems. The temptation, forex, to have Alexander reach China - but I manage to resist it.
May 28, 08:21 by Lois Tilton
Re: Octavius. I should better have said, he will remain Octavius, he will never be Augustus.

No matter his genius, w/o Julius Caesar as his patron, Octavius would have no political base, no connections to power and wealth.

His life would be an entirely different story.
May 28, 14:17 by Camden
From what I remember, I agree.
Jun 1, 19:13 by Mike Bailey

To answer your question: What did you think of the
other two stories at SciFiction in April?

I thought "Sin's Doorway" by Manly Wade Wellman was a great story. I felt it showed some of the plot simplicity of earlier fantasy stories while still effectively creating atmosphere, mood, etc. Sometimes more modern writing seems to trip over itself, and this story was refreshing to me.

"On Display Among the Lesser" by Carol Emshwiller was also enjoyable. Emshwiller does a good job of getting the reader to identify with the raptors and the meerkats by placing human characteristics in the interactions. Most of us can easily see humans caging and brutalizing animals, so even though meerkats are doing it to the raptors, we can identify with the situation. Same with the raptors. We can empathize with the captives. The sense of art, culture, even down to the meerkat desire to "own" the raptors; it all felt right to me instead of outlandish. That, in my opinion, is a sign of good writing. Of course there were plenty of good eyeball kicks and dialog as well, but lessons in human nature rank highly with me.
Jun 2, 10:09 by Bluejack
Ah, I haven't read the reprints. Only so many hours in the day, and all that. The other one I read was Elvis in the Attic, which I thought was charming and nicely written, but it didn't quite grip me.

One problem I have these days is that if my first encounter with a story isn't quite the right time and place for that story, I don't necessarily have the leisure to come back and give it another shot later. Some of my responses, then, are colored by factors beyond the author's control. For the stories I review in IROSF I do make sure I give them a second reading, although that be no means guarantees I will catch everything important. Alas.
Jun 2, 16:04 by Mike Bailey
I'm not so sure that "Elvis in the Attic" was intended to be gripping, especially since the story never tries to take itself too seriously. I think of its effect as more lingering than gripping. My very brief take on it is:

*Elvis in the Attic – Catherine M. Morrison

Tangent has an interesting take on this story. The reviewer, published author Eugie Foster, writes here ( that the plight of Kenny's Elvis can be compared to that of any misplaced wildlife. I hadn’t thought of that. But I did feel that the story succeeded in being quirky, funny, and moving at the same time, which, in my opinion, is almost impossible to do. I am still imagining a forlorn Elvis tied to a doorknob with a bit of string, mumbling his old tunes while I try to decide what to do with him. And this is weeks after reading the story. A job well done by Morrison.

*Morrison's response:
I found the Tangent interpretation interesting, too - certainly nothing I had intended.
Jun 2, 22:07 by Lois Tilton
The Emshwiller story is fascinating reading next to her June story about the Gliders.
Jun 3, 08:35 by Ellen Datlow
I bought "Gliders" after the earlier story but according to Carol it's the prequal to "On Display Among the Lesser." Not sure it makes a difference though.
Jun 3, 11:21 by Bluejack
*Morrison's response:
I found the Tangent interpretation interesting, too - certainly nothing I had intended.

Nice tie in to Jay's article!
Jun 3, 18:04 by Mike Bailey
Lois, I agree that the "Display" and "Gliders" stories by Emshwiller work well together.

I just finished posting my response to "Gliders" on Ellen's BB. Here it is, if you're interested.

*start repost*
“Gliders Though They Be” by Carol Emshwiller seems to continue in the universe of “On Display Among the Lesser. In fact, the unnamed protagonist might be a member of the Lesser tribe that captured a raptor and forced it to dance for them in her previous story. (Are we sure these are meerkats? Ellen said they were, but I did not know meerkats had feathers or nubs…)

I enjoy the way Emshwiller discusses vanity and envy in both stories. Instead of merely changing the characters from vain and envious humans to similarly twisted animals, Emshwiller has written the animals with a unique voice and culture. I feel this makes her stories in this particular universe more effective; the reader is lured into exploring the unique culture of the animals, wonders at the differences between the intelligent critters and our own mundane creatures, and the lessons about human pride and envy are slipped deftly into the mix.

One nice technique that Emshwiller uses to make her world seem real is using physical communication among her characters. Many authors forget that communication is 70% nonverbal, and by describing the physical communication that takes place in her story, Emshwiller gives her characters a sense of solidity, as well as offering insights into culture. A few examples:
I puff up so as to look even larger, though I lose some of my shine that way….
I hum a tune I know is theirs…
With my own, I'd chitter or some such, but I don't know what works with them. And I don't want to spark any jealousy among their males or attract attention to myself. But I do clack my teeth a few times…
I flatten my fur to give it more glow. I enter boldly…
I step around them, working my way closer, patting shoulders as I pass the others…
She raises her head as though to bare her throat to me. A good sign…
She shakes her shoulders and spreads her wings a little bit as though to show them off.
I shake, too, and hope my vest still hides my nubs. I say, "Glorious." I show my front teeth…

I also really enjoyed Emshwiller’s opening. Besides having a unique feel to the sentences (since it is written in critter voice), there is clever use of alliteration and pauses.
They live, as we do, by the shadows, by the warmth of stones on sunny days, by fissures in rocks. They scramble, skulk, and skitter—as we do. They die, as we do, by the sky, by the trees. Live by black brush, prickly poppies. Die by the drop and dive and skim of the masters from the air.
The opening reminded me of the great opening in “The Wages of Syntax,” by Ray Vukcevich (available in the SCIFICTION archives), which also started with a great voice making some sinister plans.

The horror of what the protagonist had done to the young fledglings was balanced by the epiphany experienced at the end, when the infiltrator thinks, “The only way any of us, we or they, ever really fly, is like this.”
I wondered if Emshwiller was sneaking in a message about death at the end, something like: All our human vanities and desires are meaningless at the end, when we face death, and we realize too late that everything was an unimportant illusion, a pale imitation of the purity beyond. She may not have been trying to sneak that in. I think her main theme was about the fruitlessness of vanity and envy, but the death message certainly puts everything else into perspective.

I can’t say too many times how enjoyable the story was because of the voice. What a great voice, and she was so consistent with it! Very good job, in my opinion.
*end repost
Jun 10, 18:03 by Mike Bailey
Another example of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience...

Emshwiller's response to my review from Ellen's BB:
...I like that you liked the opening. I worked so hard on that. About the "meanings..." Pride and envy and such, I never think about such things. I'm just deep inside my characters and have no thoughts about a message...ever. Messages just seem to happen now and then. Yesterday I read a section in a Coetzee book...end of ELIZABETH CASTELLO... that says as I feel. She says...more or less..."I am a writer, I have no beliefs.... I have beliefs but do not believe in them.... I am a secretary...." Anyway I thought Yay when I read that. I only have the beliefs that the story needs at the time I write the story. I hate the idea of messages....
Jun 11, 17:18 by chance
bluejack wrote:

*Morrison's response:
I found the Tangent interpretation interesting, too - certainly nothing I had intended.

Nice tie in to Jay's article!

*g* well as far as I am concerned I wrote a magic realism story. Imagine my shock when I found out it was SF.

Jun 11, 17:19 by Anonymous
hmmm - screwed the tags up - the new text i wrote was:

*g* well as far as I am concerned I wrote a magic realism story. Imagine my shock when I found out it was SF.
Jun 11, 19:49 by Mike Bailey
Tell me about it, chance.....

In juxtaposition, I write a SF story, and it turns out to be magic realism! Guess we never know what's coming from our crazy brains... Or what those wacky readers (each other) will think we really meant...

Good job on this one, and good luck with the next tale!
Jun 12, 08:36 by Bluejack

Another bug there. The software is supposed to close
all open tags. I'll have to look into why it isn't.
Jun 14, 00:38 by Camden
When is the June issue expected to come up?
Jun 14, 10:23 by John Frost
On the 21st (Always the 21st) -- so, a week from today.
Jun 19, 13:39 by Bluejack
Nicholas Whyte has a nice discussion of the this year's Hugo nominees on his website. Check it out. I must admit that I am dismayed by some of the mediocre stuff that made it into final voting, as well as some of the real gems that didn't get close. It looks like Analog readers are particularly well-organized at getting their favorites into the balloting.

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