First... apologies: no Asimov's or Analog this month. I missed the paper editions somehow, and only remembered I could still get the digital editions from Fictionwise at a point too late for this article. I'll incorporate those issues into next month's article, along with the January, and probably February issues as well. (It helps that Analog will be a Jan/Feb double issue!)
Secondly... don't miss next month's issue: I will offer special coverage of the Best Short Stories of 2004. With proof!
And third: well, there is no third. On with the show...
Strange Horizons (October-November)
Perhaps my favorite first line this month was: "As soon as I realized that the rapacious, rot-sucking revenant would not stop till I was dead, I changed my phone number." This from Into Something Rich and Strange by Barth Anderson. It takes a bloody long time, however, for this story to get back to that opening. The reader must first suffer a very long happy-gay-witches-in-love opening in which the narrator, a purported seventy-year-old master of the arts acts and sounds like Harry Potter on his first date. Great first line, but maybe too great: maybe no story could live up to that promise.
So, what do you do if your boyfriend's ex is a goddess? I mean, a literal, three-thousand year old goddess? What if you're meeting her for the first time? And you: well, it's your first time in a limo, much less a higher plane! Stephanie Burgis tackles this relevant question in: Some Girlfriends Can. Burgis pushes this Buffy-style evaluation of idealization all the way: the Goddess doesn't just sit there being beautiful, she looks into your eyes, and sees you: your mediocrity, your fantasies, your deepest ambitions. The ending, however, doesn't quite do justice to the situation: although the narrator finds some resolution to her plight, there is no resolution at all in the realm of the idealized figures—or the boyfriend who hasn't quite let go of the dream.
For a truly wild ride, try Prisoners of Uqbaristan by Chris Nakashima-Brown, in which characters "search the televisual archives ... for unexploded infobombs," all part of the GWOT—Global War on Terror. The story is a high fusion of academic jargon, post-modern political jesting, and a thin stir-in of Strossian technosavvy. Throw in media in-jokes from Welcome Back Kotter to Teletubbies to Star Trek, and it's quite a brew. Which is not to say that it all works: the multitude of references, and recursive realities-within-realities moments only barely mask the fact that there's really not much story here. Still, it's a fun ride. My favorite moment was, after a long, dense series of progressively weirder combinations of politics and media, someone takes a moment to admire a photograph of Governor Schwarzenegger on the wall. And for a moment the whole thing bounces off the wackiness filter before you realize, wait, that's reality! Wait, is it really true? Is anything true anymore? Which, in a beautiful, small way makes the point that the larger themes don't quite accomplish.
My favorite story in the October-November window of Strange Horizons is The Great Old Pumpkin by John Aegard, which you'll have to take with a grain of salt, because I have been known to play strategy games on John Aegard's living room table. This is the first time I have ever read any of his fiction, however, and it was a delightful surprise! In this story, which came out on or about Halloween, Aegard concocts a strange and unwholesome brew of Charles Schultz and H.P. Lovecraft. It takes true genius to make bring these two literary traditions together in a way that works. To do so, Aegard tells of Linus' quest to prove the reality of the Great Pumpkin, but his references to both sources begin obliquely. Somewhere in the first half of the story, the scope and nature of Aegard's story begins to dawn, and suddenly what were cryptic lines become revealed as hilarious alternate views on what, for many of a certain age and background, will be familiar material. Not to mention clever turns of phrase: an earlier draught of this review got bogged down in quotes but I had to stop myself and encourage people to go to the source instead. Given the premise, I suppose there's no need to state that Linus finds the presence of the Great Pumpkin to be more than sanity can bear, however I won't ruin the marvellous punch line. In short: for that readership familiar with both authors, this story will be pure pleasure. For anyone else... you're on your own.
Other stories in Strange Horizons for this period include: Echo, Sonar by Kate Bachus, which seems an odd choice for the magazine: military sci-fi (although undersea, no combat), with a heavy dose of hero-worship; Walking Hibernation by Joanne Merriam, about were-bears—but I'm afraid my patience with the lycanthropy as thematic material for the contemporary human condition has worn thin; and speaking of personal failings: I couldn't even finish You Can Walk on the Moon if the Mood's Right by Bill Kte'pi. Moody, relationship stuff. Another one I failed to get was David J. Schwartz's The New Year's Party or Dancing on Sleipner's Bones. As far as I could tell, it's about a round-the-world New Year's Eve party in which the International Date Line fireworks consist of end-of-the-world nukes. Beyond that, I can't say. Finally, in the wrap-up of stuff that really didn't work for me, android time travellers (or 'enhanced' humans, ala Kage Baker's Company series) take a bad time jump and end up whoring for time-travel parts in some rotten backwater of America, while putting off their own incipient lesbian relationship in Time's Swell by Victoria Somogyi and Kathleen Chamberlain. Despite the genre premise, this felt like more moody relationship stuff. I am sure moody relationship stuff has it's genre fans just like anything else, and my apologies to all of you.
In mid-October, SciFiction finally dropped the jump page between the Table of Contents and the actual story. Good move from a user interface perspective, but it gives me less material on which to base my "cover" illustration. Unless I can find another source around the site, I may have to go with a standard logo or something. Which is utterly beside the point. How about the fiction?
For much of Terry Bison's Super 8, I thought he was composing a Boomer allegory: friends from the sixties are drawn back together by a common nightmare, causing them to reflect on the different ways life has taken them, and in which they have failed the dreams of their youth. And this may even be that story: but Bison gives it something else, something more individual, more personal, and also more hopeful, more forgiving than that. Is it a ghost story? Is it horror? Is it magic? Magic realism? Hard to say: but it's the kind of story that hooks you with the first nightmare, lands more hooks in with mystery, wraps you up in some very believable characters, tosses in a dash of love story, and doesn't disappoint in the end. Very, very nice stuff.
One of my earliest influences were stories by James P. Blaylock: quirky, fun characters—misfits inept, naive, and foolish—who in their innocence tackle powerful villains, and in all their foolish innocence triumph. Blaylock's more recent work has been different, and Hula Ville is an example of this period. The writing itself is more notable for descriptions of desert scenery than for fun or frolic. There are Blaylockian misfits here, but they are weathered. Tired. The innocence has been worn down. They feel that their time has passed. As for the story itself, it is about a man who has a dim memory of being blessed by an angel, a real physical angel, or something like it. Later in life, he finds an opportunity to prove this moment to himself, to prove the magic in his history. But either he goes about it the wrong way, or it was never meant to be: he loses his proof, and his life proceeds without any promise or hope of joy. Not that I demand Hollywood-happy endings, but all things considered, I believe I prefer the earlier Blaylock.
In Changing the Guard, Matthew Claxton tells of two revolutions, each of which occur on a floating palace held aloft by dirigible and balloons over a land that sounds like Tibet. Revolutions undertaken with Flash Gordon heat rays, among other post-steam-punk weapons. The fun old-fashioned futurism of the setting doesn't really have anything to do with the story, but it is fun. (And makes me wonder if it was originally written for that dirigible anthology everyone was writing for earlier this year.) The story demonstrates the cycle in which revolutions against tyranny in turn become tyrannies. It's tempting to look at this with an eye toward the shocking stories that came out of Abu Ghraib: some evil inherent in a place that corrupts the well-intentioned liberator. But in all likelihood, Claxton wrote this prior to the news of that particular national shame. So: entertaining, and not just fluff—but the pacing feels a little off: the end draws out longer than seems necessary, and the parallels between old revolution and new don't mesh in quite the artistic manner one might wish.
A. M. Dellamonica offers Ruby, in the Storm, a quiet story of human-alien relations in a near future Canada: the interactions are played out along standard lines in which alien-hating conservatives are portrayed as racist villains, and alien-loving liberals are the heroes. Dellamonica lays the groundwork for the possibility of real complexity, but this is not a story that opts for complexity.
Many in the field credit Ursula K. Le Guin with having created Social-Science-Fiction: alien anthropology, far future gender studies, and the like. A new and exciting representative of this category is We Have Always Spoken Panglish by Suzette Haden Elgin. Linguistics and politics intertwine with a mysterious alien culture, and Elgin hits all the notes just right: her linguistics is plausible; her politics is all too believable; but she is at her best when working that science fiction gold-mine, the mystery of alien contact. The fact that the mystery is not the usual "They smile when they're angry" sort of misunderstanding simply adds to the tension: in this case the natives of a far flung planet appear to have no native language! They take pride in the fact that their native, ancient, historical tongue is Panglish, the galactic standard worked out according to regular rules in the 2350s, just a few hundred years prior to the narrative. While trying to keep the bureaucrat back on Earth happy, Dr. Alyssa Miche, a field linguist for the U.S. Corps of Linguists, tries to figure out what happened to the native tongue. It is with some loss of tension that the Earthly bureaucrat give Miche total freedom to pursue the mystery in the middle of the story, but even so Elgin crafts a tale that is both touching in its own right and a worthy tribute to the languages that are dying here on Earth.
Another in Emshwiller's flying beasts series, All of Us Can Almost... is the title of the story that continues: "... fly." It's again about the large eagle-like birds, this time at a stage in their species' lifetime in which they have lost the power of flight due to their size. Perhaps an allegory for our super-sized nation?
Q by John Grant begins as near-future science fiction in a Homeland Security nightmare of fascist America. Through a long series of infodumps and internal monologues, however, it follows a sequence of speculative philosophical revelations concerning the fundamental nature of the universe, sentient life, and the nature of God (or whatever transcendent entity dreamed up humanity).
Soho Goblin by Kim Newman is ornamented by a great number of increasingly distracting footnotes; some clever; some obvious; most present presumably to explicate British slang. In fact, my experience of this text felt a bit more like perusing a dictionary of cockney idioms than actually reading a story. Once you make it past the first forty footnotes or so, the story really does kick in, and it's a doozy: a wild romp of psychic investigation into supernatural goings-on in the red-light district of London's Soho.
In a parallel universe where it was dragons, not dinosaurs—dragons with hearts fashioned from gold and platinum—the preserved remains of the extinct creatures are worth a fortune. Robert Reed's The Dragons of Summer Gulch jumps into this world as a prospector finds what may be, perhaps, the best preserved specimen in history. Seven beautiful dragon eggs: and, as everyone knows, dragon eggs last forever under ground; and the hatchlings grow loyal to those who raise them. A pleasant cross between an old rob-the-train Western and good dragon fantasy ensues.
Gary W. Shockley takes Heloise and Abelard into the Nineteenth century. The Victorian era seems to have staying power as a setting for science fiction: perhaps we look back at the dawn of the industrial age with a certain fascination for the cusp. Of Imaginary Ships and Miniscule Matter recounts the story of an American (Harold) in Paris. He comes with documented reports of a UFO—in an era when flying objects of any sort are a rarity, an adventure, an experiment. It is at this very cusp that our American, who is himself at a cusp between traditional science and the fashionable occultism of the day, meets a strong-willed Parisian woman (Adeline) engaged in the practice of hard science (to such a degree as her gender permits). Despite a great disparity in their thinking, these two find themselves fascinated with each other, a fact the lady's Uncle—a famed scientist in the Newtonian tradition—regards with deep suspicion. As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to a dialog between Harold and Adeline, which mirrors the old-vs.-new thinking of the original Heloise-and-Abelard love story, but more particularly expresses the border between an older generation battening down the last hatches in a Newtonian-complete physics and a the younger generation dissatisfied with the prospect of certainty, uneasy with the philosophical holes that remain. In the end, Harold must duel (oratory is the chosen weapon) the Uncle for Adeline's hand, but even as he gropes uncertainly towards Twentieth Century ideas, he is demolished by the weight of existing tradition. Given the source material, one surely cannot expect a happy Hollywood ending to this story. However, if Shockley is faithfully following the original history, there should be at least a few sequels to this particular text. After all, it was only when they were divided that the greatest intellectual correspondence, and the most chaste love story of Western history was to take place.
Realms of Fantasy (December, 2004)
No embarrassing cover this month, but isn't Frodo old news, at this point? Some very fine fiction this month.
As for The Cardinal's Cats by Cherith Baldry: I guess there are always going to be fans of cat stories, as judging by the whole industry built around cat mysteries. Why not cat fantasy as well? I quite enjoy the company of felines, don't get me wrong, but I found the feline protagonists of this story to be somewhat contrived and not particularly cat-like. In fact, if they had been children, the story might not have been much different. But I have no doubt whatsoever that there are plenty of readers who will enjoy the story: as they say on the science fiction newsgroups: CAAOT. (Cats Are Always On Topic.)
Leah Bobet's Sonnets Made of Wood is a rather grim piece. She centers the story on selkie mythology: mermaids on land giving up their pelagic powers. In this case, however, the mermaid had adopts dry land of her own volition, only to find herself kidnapped back to sea. The actual story is slight, just enough characterization to give a mild sense of tragedy. The purpose of the text, however, seems to be to document the ills perpetrated by males against females. To my relief, these diatribes are balanced by the actions and feelings of the characters involved: even the narrator adopts a "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" attitude. Nonetheless, if you are looking for sunny stories with happy endings, you will want to skip this one.
Despite the generic fantasy setting, The Chamber of Forgetting by Sarah Prineas slowly won me over. This is particularly impressive because, in addition to the cookie-cutter pseudo-medieval world, the story uses magic in that annoyingly scientific manner that turns Clarke's law upside down. In fact, Kings, guards named Benedic, wizards and nuns aside, this whole thing reads like science fiction. But it is redeemed: for it is good science fiction! Before the story starts, Matt was an assassin—one of the best. But he was captured, tortured, and then used as an experiment in the wizard's Chamber of Forgetting. His memories and personality wiped clean, he lives out his time in solitary confinement until the day when the King decides there may be a use for him. This leads quickly to philosophical questions of identity: is he the same man as before his personality was erased? What is the legal status of the crimes committed before his memory wipe? What are society's responsibilities to Matt?
What makes the story compelling is the sense of Matt slowly reconnecting with who he was, the sense of incipient danger as Matt is pulled by different tensions: a new awareness of innocence and beauty; the faint lingering of pride (and muscle memory) in his forgotten craft of killing; the knowledge that the kingdom he once served will destroy him for failing, and that the kingdom that owns him now will destroy him for coming so close to success. Sadly, Prineas does not find a particularly gratifying resolution to these tensions, opting for a rather quiet, and disheartening resolution. Still, this story worked far better than it had any right to, and remains one of the more interesting stories in the issue.
No issue of Realms is complete without at least one retelling from folk traditions. In this issue, it is The Wild Man by Caitlin Matthews, drawn from the Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Celtic stories from Wales. Matthews combines a well-informed sense of British history in the tradition of Mary Stewart with this dark tale, and the result is convincing, although a little too heavily laden with artifacts of good scholarship to be quite compelling.
A few months ago, I had an opportunity to read Joe Murphy's The Secret of Making Brains when he sent it through the crit group of which I am a member. It is even more exciting to see this fascinating and funny story in print. One particularly interesting aspect of the experience is to see the ways in which he changed the text, either in response to, or in spite of the various criticisms leveled at the earlier draught. Suffice it to say that the version you should have in your hand is even better than the draught that impressed most of us earlier this year...
"The secret of making brains is to use good quality glass." Thus we are introduced to a family that takes the standard trope of the quirky, eccentric family to new heights. Grampser always lies. Daddy always tells the truth. Cousins are mean. Relations are dumb. All, or almost all, appear to be mechanical. And they live by themselves in the New Mexico desert.
All is based on some mysterious fusion of magic and mechanics that is entirely inscrutable, but the last thing you'll be asking for is an explanation: it's too weird, too wonderful, too much fun for anything as mundane as an explanation. When a naive young scientist wanders into their private wonderland, a flesh and blood scientist, you understand, a real man from our ordinary America—there is a palpable sense of danger: certainly for him, but possibly for the community as well. In any case, it is a sure thing that young Sprokly is going to have an interesting birthday. Or two.
I guess you'd call Talent by Laura Anne Gilman a ghost story. It's short, cute, a little predictable. The narrator is a jaded old pool hall junky; his place a tired old pool hall. One day a talent comes in, a young girl, and the shambling old ghost of an operator, Eddie—who was once The Greatest—watches her play just a little too intently. He's not after her body, of course, but her youth. Her talent. For all that it's just two pages long, this story is at least as much tone as it is plot; but the been-there done-that weariness of the voice is not original enough to be compelling, and the story not surprising enough to delight. Overall, this feels more like a technical exercise than entertainment.
The cover illustrates Jack Cady's Fog. Most followers of the short fiction scene will know that Jack Cady died in January, and his last stories have been trickling out in various magazines over the course of the year.
Fog leads off the issue... and it's about death. In the Fog that hangs forever thick on that part of the river, the dead move, especially at night. Fog is a good image for the in-between-ness of ghostly beings; neither light nor dark; neither rain nor shine; cold, neutral, colorless; in the fog is anyone really alive? Is anyone really dead? As for the river, it has no name. Something smaller than the Mississippi or Ohio, but still a functional river; a river that people use to travel, to transport.
Cady implies that in this place of fog there are some who have passed on, and yet linger; and there are some who have not yet passed. But everyone's life seems to be over. Those who are not yet ghosts wailing in the dark, are simply waiting for their turn. And then there's something else that prowls the fog; something darker still; something longer lived than the memory of a life.
In this limbo-like setting there is a preacher, and a professor, and a half-caste daughter, and there is something evil feeding hatred into the village. Despite a well-painted setting, and a solid story, I found it very hard to pay attention to this story. As though lost in some fog of my own, I kept drifting away from the text, plodding in circles around the same paragraph only to realize I'd gained no ground. The characters blurred, all silhouette shape and no expression to them. I tackled this story twice, and twice I lost my way.
Immediately after this grim piece, Sydney J. Van Scyoc brings us a rich, colorful, and delicate story about new life. Virgin Wings dives deeply into complex social situations. Didra is a "tight-laced unbeliever"—a woman who has abandoned the faith of her upbringing without ever fully relinquishing its hold upon her soul. Her partner is Topa, a young woman who is just beginning to come awake to life. The tensions between these two, and between Didra and the community she has left, and between Didra and the hedonistic mainstream she has not been able to embrace drive an invigorating, nuanced story.
Didra is a very compelling character: those of us with too much of Freud's superego running the show will identify with her dark, disapproving glare. We will also identify with her paralysis in the face of conflict.
There is also some commentary on extremism and religion in the text, but it feels secondary to the psychological forces that drive the main character.
In entirely different vein, now turn to The Bad Hamburger: light-hearted techno-thriller with geeks in the driver's seat by Matthew Jarpe and Jonathan Andrew Sheen. Not sure if you caught Jake 2.0, which made a brief appearance on network television last year, but this story has about the same dash of slapstick and prime-time-cop-show drama that Jake did. Fortunately, the geek-savvy is better than network television. Not quite Charlie Stross, Jarpe and Sheen hit very few wrong notes while portraying the geek culture, and I don't think they overwhelm readers with technical jargon. The plot revolves around a new junkie-drug for AIs: meat riding. They get addicted to embodiment, and in particular the darker corners of the human emotional spectrum. Some experiences, however, prove too much for AIs to handle—and someone out there, possibly a German (thus the punnish title), has found a way to give AIs the ride of their life—leaving them flatlined for ever: even their backups are scrambled. (Ok, there's no good explanation for this. You can't have everything.)
Other stories in this issue include Walter and the Wonderful Watch by John Morressy: a cute little snippet of a tale (the editors describe it as having an election year sting, but surely this election year could have sustained a little more sting than this!); Christmas in the Catskills by Michael Libling, a nicely dark Christmas story with an interesting, if not very intelligible old-world mythology behind it; and Albert E. Cowdrey's The Name of the Sphinx. I guess every author feels compelled to take on second person narrative at some point or another; this is Cowdrey's go at it. The narrative ultimately justifies the device, but it there are enough unconvincing moments along the way that I'd rather he had left it for another occasion.
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Oct - Nov)
Andromeda Spaceways may or may not be Australia's PULPIEST Speculative Fiction Magazine (they certainly claim they are). But they certainly manage to pack a lot between their covers. Short, light, fun stuff seems to be the hallmark of ASIM, and despite the fact that each issue has a different Editor-in-Chief, this seems to be a remarkably consistent theme.
This issue is no exception, as evidenced by the opening Letter From the Editors by Allan Price (not to be confused with the Editorial, which actually is from the editors). This amusing letter rejects some poor author's submission—but accepts the cover letter for publication! Wait... a work of fiction that purports to be a letter from the editors accepting a cover letter from some fictional author for publication, itself to be disguised as a work of fiction? I think that's too much self-referentiality for my poor little head to bear. Good thing it's only one page long.
Perhaps it's because I live in Seattle, but my favorite of the issue was Arabica Beans by Edo Mor. Mind you, Mor posits a coffee shop in town that I have never been to, and while that doesn't mean it can't exist, I am sorry to report that the Tudaarub al-Hubb Cafe simply isn't. The story ends in this wonderful, tardis-like coffee shop where a hole-in-the-wall storefront opens into a large space with a turquoise dome and a lion-headed fountain. The patrons sit on cushions and Persian rugs. And they drink exquisite, complex coffee. The story ends here, but it does not begin here. It begins in a Mexican chicken farm where a minor djinn recounts his exploits to... well, to the chickens. It's complicated. It involves disputes with Efreeti, young lovers, and a daring escape into a coffee bean. The story begins with a delightful tone: Mor manages several very convincing—and amusing—voices, very smooth pacing, and a compelling (if not terribly surprising) narrative arc. Good stuff!
Less light, but equally strong, was the story immediately preceding this: The Alchemical Automaton Blues. At first this seems like a fairly straightforward genrification of suburban domestic life: the ogres next door don't treat their golem humanely, and it is a difficult situation for the more sensitive narrator. He's not really equipped to take on ogres all by himself, but the faun from the Bureau of Alchemical Automaton Services doesn't seem like he's going to be much help. Although I connected with the story, I had a hunch that the substitution of stock fantasy types wasn't going to add much to this one. Ian McHugh proved my hunch wrong however: the ending, while not upbeat, was surprising and managed to integrate the fantastic elements into the plot. Indeed, this is a strong, moving story.
ASIM is an Australian publication. Occasionally, it even reads like an Australian publication. This issue has a couple of real zingers. First is from Antony Searle: a delightful high-tech tribute to A. B. "Banjo" Patterson: Clancy of the Buffer Overflow, an update of Patterson's classic. But that's poetry, not fiction. Richard Pitchforth does Aussie sci-fi proud with Heavy Metal, in which First Contact is made between a powerful alien race and "Cranky" Shepherd, washed up scrap metal dealer, and frequent patron of the pub at the Betoota Hotel. Pitchforth hits some delightful notes, combining a wry sense of humor in the narrative voice with Cranky's more colorful approach. For example, after Cranky takes a few ineffectual pot-shots at the aliens, comes this observation:
Cranky licked his lips and wondered if he should perhaps forget the rum a while. Just stick to beer for maybe a week or two. "God damn them." Despite the invitation, God remained resolutely neutral in the confrontation. At least, He manifested no support worth anything to Cranky.
Meeting of Hoon and Highly Intelligent Alien does not exactly proceed according to anyone's expectations however, and the result is still more amusement. This is the sort of story you will want to share around to your friends who may not particularly care for sci-fi, but will enjoy a good laugh, particularly if they are familiar with Australia.
In passing, I will just mention the other fine fiction to grace these pages: The Surly Bonds of Earth by Dave Luckett, another ghost story in the recent tradition of scientific analysis of the paranormal; The Beating of Butterfly Wings by Brandon Alspaugh, a very short alternate history, based on the dubious premise that Einstein was the necessary and sufficient cause of atomic weapons, in which the famous scientist pursues more fruitful lines of research; Are You Ready For the End of the World? by Danny Adams, about an unpleasant young man who happily dooms humanity to destruction; A Calling On Song by Mark Rigney, which recounts the life history of a man called into another world, a naive, primitive place: although he brings ample weaponry and resources to recreate civilization, he finds it less satisfying than he hoped; Giving it up for the Seraphim by Paul E. Martens, in which some very mean spirited aliens attempt to plunder earth of its family heirlooms; Absolution by Barbara Robson, which is another in the seemingly endless science fiction uses of religious people as scheming villains; and Reality 2.0 by Ian Creasey, a hilarious little piece in the style of an Analog "Probability Zero" column, in which Microsoft releases "its long-awaited upgrade to mathematics," which delivers such user-interface improvements as rounding the value of pi to exactly 3.14, and eliminating the need for such confusing bits as differential equations and the square root of negative one. The slogan? "Now you can divide by zero!"
All in all, one of the best issues yet!
The 3rd Alternative (Autumn, 2004)
The 3rd Alternative ... haven't seen one of these in a while. One can imagine that taking on the established and esteemed Interzone has pushed Andy's resources a bit. Here it is, though, in all its usual beauty. Glossy cover with catchy design and evocative substance, tasteful, intriguing, and a little creepy. It's one of those paintings that makes you wish it were an illustration for something in particular. Which it's not. Sometimes TTA manages to connect the cover with some story in some thematic way or another, but this one stands alone. And guess what: it's a substitute. Their original cover fell through! You know the team has depth when even the defensive replacement slams a home run.
About the fiction: the editorial promises more of what TTA does best: the stuff that aims down the horror line. With Interzone in their stable, they can split the slushpile between technology and magic and let the weird fall where it may.
But, about the fiction. Let's start with Monsters, by Nina Allan. That's where the magazine starts, and who are we to argue? Nine sets a creepy tone, using—at least in part—interesting tense choices to establish the mood: "In less than an hour, it would have started to get dark." Would have? Why wouldn't it? What 'when' is referenced here? The question is left unasked, and unanswered. Most other questions are also left unanswered: is this a murder story? or something occult? Or is it just science fiction about VR addiction & overload? Ultimately, the piece seems to meander its creepy way to an inconclusive conclusion. There's nice stuff along the way, but if it's got its own soul, I missed it.
Joe Hill's The Black Phone has no such ambiguity. A boy is abducted by a pedophile, a very, very sick man. Supernatural forces come to the boy's aid, spirits of the pervert's previous victims.
Speaking of evil, If I Should Wake Before I Die by Mike O'Driscoll takes on the subject through the eyes of dangerous sociopath who was, himself, a neglected and abused child. The story aims for more ambiguous terrain, but the introduction of a character named Grace pushes the story dangerously close to the simple realm of Allegory.
Father Gregori's Relic by Susan Fry is a take on pride—and wrong vocation. A monk seeks to bring back a great relic, a trophy from the Holy Land that will make his monastery the envy of all the West. What better relic than a real live Angel? Ms. Fry does not let her naive young monk off easily.
In A Resurrection Artist, Christopher Barzak works through some feelings of despair. There is a man who cannot die. As soon as he dies, he comes right back to life. He makes a show of it; or he has done so 8 times. He feels the futility of life, and the pointless illusion of a reality that doesn't admit true extermination, and he arranges a Resurrection from which he doubts even he can return. But not for any ordinary vicarious thrill-seeker will he perform his greatest show; and nor for the enrichment of his manipulative sister either. It's an interesting premise, but—and perhaps this is in keeping with the author's thematic material—it does not have a very satisfying ending. It ends like life ends, abruptly and without any explanation, rather than with a narrative resolution.
Perhaps this speaks more to my taste than to any inherent merit, but I found the most interesting story of this issue to be the least "dark"—Jay Lake's Daddy's Caliban. Henry and Cameron are brothers; or perhaps two sides to the same boy. One sleeps by the furnace and eats leftovers; the other in a soft bed and goes to school. They live in a land that's mostly myth. A small industrial pocket of ordinary, modern life in a wide expanse of virgin forest. There's a river that none may cross, and a crumbling tower on the other side that none may visit. These are people who came from some wild past in their own lifetime—men on horses, carrying spears, banners flying. Characters take on a significance that resonates like rich symbolism; but the symbols are glyphic, non-obvious. If one tries to read this like some modern-day Grimm's tale, however, the conclusion seems startling: that it is the daily grind, the paycheck-to-paycheck rat race, the industrial park belching black smoke that is the land of promise, rather than any age of heroes or be-one-with-nature simple past. So, while I may not have understood this story as Lake intended it to be read, I still found it the most intriguing and compelling of the pieces in this issue. Perhaps that's simply because the character of Henry and his gollum-like alter-ego were more interesting than any of the perverts, monsters, fools, or victims that populate the other stories in this TTA.