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  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
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  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

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Publisher: Bluejack

March, 2005 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, March 2005

I promised to mix things up a little bit, bring in some coverage that gets beyond the usual suspects. This month the bonus feature is Chiaroscuro, also known as ChiZine. Those interested in seeing other venues touched on now and then should let me know in the forums, or by email. For print publications including collections and anthologies, review copies may be sent to our Review Copy Address with the usual caveat: there's no guarantee that any or all materials will actually get coverage.

I read a ton of stuff this month, so let's jump straight into the coverage. Let me know what you think of the new format.

The Reviews

Asimov's

Asimov's: March

Asimov's (March)

The cover this month illustrates Esther M. Friesner's The Fraud -- as I am sure Raphael knew when he painted it in 1505. The issue is absolutely jam-packed with fiction -- there's almost nothing else in here. A few poems, a Di Filippo's book review column, and a few pages of editorial stuff from editor Williams and regular Robert Silverberg. The rest is fiction. My kind of issue!

Tk'tk'tk by David D. Levine

The fascination with aliens will never diminish, perhaps because there is no limit to the human imagination, and perhaps because every 'other' is, to some degree, alien.

Levine's aliens are rather buglike, although more in the Naked Lunch (film version) than the Ridley Scott franchise. These bugs, however, have a scent-based language, a complicated numerology apparently based on prime numbers (as is their currency), and -- to outsiders like Walker -- almost impenetrable protocols of politeness. There is a sort of old-fashioned Orientalness to these aliens, which makes it fitting that Walker would be an old-fashioned travelling salesman.

The American trope of the travelling salesman, down on his luck and desperate to make a sale is time-honored. Worse for him, Walker comes from a family of salesman. He has the examples of his father and grandfather to look up to, and, indeed, he carries his grandfather's own briefcase. But he is out of money, and it doesn't look like he's going to be able to sell anything to these bugs. Partly because he doesn't seem to have anything they want to buy, and partly -- he fears -- because he's just not the salesman his ancestors were.

Naturally, things go from bad to worse. He pawns some of his personal items to buy time, but the world seems against him: his hotel bill is quickly mounting beyond his ability to pay, he is robbed, and the food is repulsive.

It looks like he's going to return home, defeated, penniless, and without even his grandfather's carrying case. But when Walker cracks the alien code, so to speak, it transforms more than just his mission. Levine brings in Eastern spiritual elements to give the story an added dimension: understanding the other as the key to understanding the self.

Bright Red Star by Bud Sparhawk

Sparhawk takes a different look at aliens. Here the aliens are not 'crackable.' They are incomprehensible, powerful, and bent on the destruction of humanity. There is no 'why' -- or none that humans have deciphered. They do things that we would consider evil: wiring the brains of captured prisoners up to their battle networks to use human patterns to crack human defenses, for example. But we don't know what these aliens are, what they want. We don't even know if they are living things.

In fact, these aliens appear to be close kin to the alien ship that was part of Sparhawk's Clay's Pride in Analog last year, although his website doesn't place the two in the same imaginary universe. (It seems as though this story predated the Analog piece in its writing, if not its publication.)

Aliens as inimical, human-devouring enemies has been a staple from Lovecraft on. The notion that there are forces beyond humanity's ability to understand, a true challenge to our king-of-the-hill status here on Earth, has tremendous power for any storyteller. One need only think of Terminator (ok, we made those 'aliens'), Alien, and more recent novels such as Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools.

Sparhawk declares that Bright Red Star is his attempt "to get inside the heads of someone who answers to a higher morality but sacrifices something very human in the process." In fact, the moral dilemma in this story is really only for the reader: such are the choices the characters confront, there are really no options for any of them. Although this is ultimately about the incomprehensible aliens, the immediate conflict is human-on-human as special ops forces try to clear a planet about to come under alien control of those who evaded evacuation -- they can't let any more human minds fall into the "hands" of the aliens. But, you gradually realize, this is not a rescue mission.

If you thought a loss of civil liberties was a high price to pay for "security," Sparhawk seems to say, you ain't seen nothing yet. Fortunately, however, this is not a direct interpretation of current events: it is good, scary science fiction.

Asimov's, March 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Fraud

Esther M. Friesner

nvlt

Victorian rationalism, Saki-esque shenanigans, and a unicorn. "Having unburdened himself of this unwieldy bulk of verbiage, he shook his head."

The Dodo Factory

Lori Selke

nvlt

A specialist in non-improved turkeys helps with a bring-back-the-dodo genome project. He's less enthusiastic, however, when marketing decides to spice up the dodo with designer colors.

Green Shift

Mary Rosenblum

nvlt

Rosenblum mixes triads, orbital politics, and genetic experimentation.

The Card

Gene Wolfe

short

A man with a troubled past glimpses a better life in an alternate world and can't forgive himself. Narration by an acquaintance, related to the reader by a friend of the acquaintance.

Tk'tk'tk

David D. Levine

short

A travelling salesman to buglike aliens. (Full Review.)

The Wave-Function Collapse

Steven Utley

short

New in the Silurian Tales saga: a man back in time learns that in the future his wife has died. Surely, he thinks, with time travel and all, it can be prevented.

The Devil You Don't

Matthew Hughes

short

Time traveller begs Winston Churchill to take the initiative against Hitler, and gets a surprising reception.

Organs R Us

R. Neube

short

An organ harvester ends up in West Virginia, helping a bankrupt county with a discredited sheriff solve a serial killer case.

Bright Red Star

Bud Sparhawk

short

Special Ops in the war against aliens. (Full Review.)

Analog

Analog: March

Analog (March)

Analog readers will find few surprises in this issue: Williamson's serial is ongoing, and offerings from regulars such as Tourtellotte and Frederick deliver the goods. Stories such as Alphabet Angels stretch the concept of hard science fiction to the breaking point. More in the realm of hard science fantasy, I'd say.

Dark Peril by James C. Glass.

Perhaps it is wrong to expect every story in Analog to live up to the "hard science fiction" sub-genre, but Dark Peril certainly does so.

I didn't actually haul out my scientific calculator to see if Glass got his gravitational calculations correct -- indeed, he's probably a lot more qualified to do that math than I am, as the man has seventy-five papers on molecular biophysics and superconductivity under his belt. The point is, this is the kind of story that engages that kind of response in readers. This is fiction that is about science: real science, known science. Its exotic astronomical phenomena are by nature somewhat speculative, so whether this story could happen remains an open question.

Aboard a generation ship to Eridani Blue, a side trip to inspect a gravitational anomaly almost ends up in catastrophe when the anomaly turns out to be far more anomalous -- and far more dangerous -- than the scientists imagine.

This is the stuff of exciting, well-informed adventure for those readers who like their space ships shaken and their singularities stirred.

Analog, March 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Stonehenge Gate (pt II)

Jack Williamson

Serial

Williamson's Stargate-like pulpish ramble rambles on.

Acts of Conscience

Shane Tourtellotte

Novelette

Tourtellotte continues his series on the science, ethics, and social consequences of "mental overlay" technology.

Alphabet Angels

Ekaterina Sedia & David Bartell

Short Story

One minor genetic change and a school of fish develop an emergent sentience. With telepathy. And good spelling.

Dark Peril

James C. Glass

Short Story

A scientific side trip to investigate a gravitational anomaly during an interstellar passenger run... (Full Review.)

General Tso's Chicken

Carl Frederick

Short Story

Hilarity and mayhem ensue when ill-behaved young geniuses nick a plaque off the chinese space station, but that's only the start of Commander Hendrix' woes.

Copernican Principle

Robert Scherrer

Prob. Zero

A study in the mis-use of logic.

Analog

Analog: April

Analog (April)

Nothing in this issue demanded full treatment. Jack Williamson's Stonehenge Gate finishes up much as it started: hurtling through momentous events, and past wild alien landscapes, and darting among immense mysteries. Williamson sketches both stories and characters with quick strokes, a style I find hard to enjoy. The editing is pretty sloppy in the final installation as well.

Some non-fiction features include an article on artificial photosynthesis (ie., chemical solar power) by Stephen L. Gillett, Ph.D., and "Analog Computing" -- a statistical analysis of Analog's 75 year history.

One quick elaboration on Brian Plante's story, last in the chart below: I didn't put the time in to figure out whether he got the math right, but combining the twin paradox with ansible communication is definitely a recipe for a relativistic headache. It certainly feels like he was thorough in his research on this one. Ultimately, however, it's just a cute little time-travel story. Unless you are in the mood for a real brain-teaser, it's best to skim most of the discussion of how near-lightspeed travel, time dilation, and instantaneous communication would all work out in (theoretical) practice.

Analog, April 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Stonehenge Gate

Jack Williamson

serial

The breakneck pace resumes to a conclusion, with a return to the extended video-game quality of the first episode.

Company Secrets

Kyle Kirkland

nvlt

Smart, rich, sexy women, corporate intrigue, mind control. Unconvincing characters & story.

Her World Exploded

David L. Burkhead

short

Smart, rich, sexy woman, mysterious exploding planets, insurance problems. Unconvincing characters & story.

Reinventing Carl Hobbs

James C. Glass

short

Smart, rich, sexy woman, a transparent stalker, an error prone AI: but at least this one has a twist!

Standards of Success

John G. Henry

short

Cute little satire in which NASA directs a human landing on Mars with the same glacial caution as they do with robotic landers.

Letters of Transit

Brian Plante

short

Ok: mix near-light speed travel with instantaneous non-relativistic communication and you get? Time travel. A cute, brain-bending correspondence.

Black Gate (7)

In just seven issues, Black Gate has established itself as the High Fantasy venue for the short form. Or shorter form, as High Fantasy does tend to run longer than other genres. It's a beautiful, perfect-bound volume on good paper. More booklike than either glossy magazines or pulpy digests, Black Gate is always a pleasure to hand and eye. Although it comes out only quarterly, a yearful of these thick tomes has a substantial prominence on any shelf. In this space I will only discuss the fiction, but Black Gate comes with a number of additional features, columns, and reviews.

Leather Doll by Mark Sumner

Technically this is science fiction, but I'm not complaining. It's an absolutely riveting story, certainly a Best-Of caliber work, and I am retroactively adding it to my Best-Of 2004 list. I believe this story would be best enjoyed without knowing a thing about it, so -- while I won't give the ending away -- please consider the rest of this discussion to include spoilers.

While tending Applegate's cattle, Meyer is drawn by one who has learned to whistle. These cattle are being raised for leather, but this one heifer was born out of season. Her leather won't be any good anyway. And Meyer is all alone out there. After accidentally committing one of the worst crimes -- speaking in the presence of cattle -- Meyer's road to perdition is gradual and inevitable. Soon he has her living in his sod hut, dressed up in clothes. And, to his astonishment, she shows most uncattlelike signs: she learns to light the lamp, she begins to mouth some words. She peruses his books with a fascination that suggests she may understand something of them.

Sumner handles the gradual dispensation of understanding with enormous skill: these cattle are human. Or at least, they are shaped like humans. The locals, Meyer and Applegate and so forth, do not for a moment entertain the thought that the cattle could really be human, they just happen to have the same form. Local laws and customs are so deeply ingrained it would be unthinkable. So, the reader must understand Meyer's attraction to the "cow" as being both a natural biological phenomenon, and also the indicator of a disturbed individual. Sumner handles Meyer's deterioration very skillfully: from the reader's perspective, seeing the girl as human, Meyer is brutal -- a rapist. And yet, his gradual awakening to her intelligent spirit offers him some hope, while deepening the mystery of this human-cattle relationship. From his perspective, he treats her well: he feeds her better than the other cattle, he shelters her. He even risks his life to save her from the slaughterhouse at the end of the season.

The reader gradually understands that this is an intersteller expedition gone wrong. The colony ship crashed, and the community is teetering on the brink of destruction. Artificial intelligences made the decision to "de-humanize" some of the humans as the only way supply the community with certain organic products, leather being just one of the uses, that would be necessary for survival. These decisions, wildly offensive to the reader, are an absolutely beautiful expression of how machines might think. Imagine it as a bypass to Asimov's three laws: "But this is not a human."

With this gradual understanding, Meyer's actions become far more transgressive than some cowpoke doing some extracurricular poking. If humanity were restored to the cattle, the society would be wildly destabilized, the survival put at risk.

So, in the end, when one of the AI/Robotic "Proctors" comes for Meyer, he has nothing to lose. Does the girl, however, who has gradually emerged as more and more of a character through the story, understand the danger that she may be in? Or does she just realize the danger Meyer might be in? After all, from her perspective, she has been held captive and raped repeatedly.

I do not usually open Black Gate expecting to find masterpieces of contemporary science fiction, but I think this gem may be exactly that!

Amnesty by Todd McAulty

It's a little hard to know what to make of this story. It begins in a flippant tone, and a thread of light humor runs through the whole thing. Two of the primary characters cavort among ghouls, shades, demons, and the like, wise-cracking and carrying on like the lighter scenes in Shawn of the Dead. On the other hand, this story takes place in Hell. An old-fashioned Hell involving fire, torture, and intrigue. Many of the images in the story are downright creepy.

There are places where these two modes rub awkwardly, and not every scene works. One ongoing thread was an interaction between a scientist named Starshak and a demon named Asmogar, in which Asmogar attempts to shake Starshak's faith in human intelligence. Occasionally there's a chuckle, but trying to work the philosophical angle doesn't help the rest of McAulty's story -- it's definitely not his strength here.

Despite it all, McAulty pulls off this Frankenstein of styles and stories by taking the time to get beyond the superficial characteristics of his central characters. The first ten pages of this long piece are pretty rocky, but once the story establishes its momentum, there's no looking back. It's a wild romp, both humorous and horrific, across the very landscape of Tartarus.

Supported by minor characters including the terrifying (yet strangely compelling) Karla, whose eyelids are sewn shut but nonetheless never misses a thing, and Evil Ed, a damned Artificial Intelligence (in robot form) who has no idea what he's doing in Hell, this story picks up momentum and becomes a real page-turner by the end.

By the last page, my biggest objection is that the story doesn't so much finish as merely stop. I am sure there's more in the works somewhere, and I look forward to finding it.

Black Gate, Fall 2004 (#7): Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Poison Well

Judith Berman

14,000 (est)

A young adept, talented but unwise, and his less powerful but more seasoned mentor tackle a magical mystery.

Amnesty

Todd McAulty

24,000 (est)

It would all be a lot easier if Hell marked the fire exits more clearly. (Full Review.)

Luck of the Gods

Holly Phillips

5,000 (est)

Luck is a dangerous commodity: far more dangerous it seems than the ancestral ghosts.

Point of the Knife

Don Bassingthwaite

9,500 (est)

?

Tumithak of the Towers of Fire

Charles R. Tanner

12,500 (est)

This is the third and final installment of a story originally published in the thirties and forties. A "Black Gate Fantasy Classic."

Leather Doll

Mark Sumner

9,000 (est)

A cattleman with a "thing" for one of his cows. But who wouldn't? Such nice long hair, such a lovely whistle. And she likes to read his books. (Full Review.)

Chi Zine

Chiaroscuro: Jan-Feb

Chiaroscuro (January-March, 2005)

Chiaroscuro -- or ChiZine as it is affectionately known -- has a dark and lovely presentation... if you have the Macromedia Flash plugin. Which most people do, these days. If you don't, skip it and go straight to the fiction. Among the more professional publishers on the web, ChiZine is highly regarded for its dark fantasy. This issue more or less fits that description: every story has at least a dark element, which is to say: elements of death (or undeath), a less-than-cheerful ending. Least dark is When Shiva Burns, if only because it seems to offer some hope for improvement in the next generation. As for the darkest, well, I have yet to meet the writer who can hold a candle to K. Z. Perry when it comes to darkness. Or, I guess that should be a shadow.

Five Rivers of Mourning by K. Z. Perry

Complex, multi-layered, multi-textured, this story (like many of Perry's works) takes the good old theme of Motherhood... and explores its darkest, scariest, most disturbing corners. Here Perry explores the uneasy relationship of a Mother to her young children as they reach that age where they become their own creatures. In the piece, a mother of quintuplets struggles to survive, to support both herself and her babies. From the first paragraphs which relate a news item about a mother who abandons her child, Perry hints at the direction of this grim view of a troubled mother. But things are not what they seem.

The children, you see, are not at all ordinary: they are the result of an encounter with a merman. They are, to use a technical term, spawn.

On the night they were conceived, the merman promised to come back for them. But this mother is a troubled child herself. She was abandoned by her own parents, and there are hints of other troubles with her foster parents. The children are obviously too much for her, but she will not abandon them. Emphasis on will not.

With the charming support of a convenience store clerk (who may also be something other than he seems), this mother does what she must to get by, even as she protects her children from their nature -- and from their destiny.

Eventually, however, the Mother's obsessive control wavers, and the results are... dark. This is not "dark fantasy" of the sort where sexy vampires mouth pretentions and flirt with unnamed dangers. This is insightful and moving tragedy, fantasy of a much higher order than most fiction that passes for horror, either on the web or in print. Perry's raw honesty is refreshingly difficult, and delightfully ambiguous in a world where -- of all things -- motherhood ends up cast in black and white.

Chiaroscuro, January-March 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Under the Bridge

Hannah Wolf Bowen

2,815

[online] A troll bridge, a toll bridge. But this troll is here because he chose to be. One day, instead of paying, a crosser tries to befriend the troll, instead.

When Shiva Burns

Linda DeMeulemeester

1,293

[online] A wedding gift to a young bride: the ultimate power of destruction over (seemingly inevitable) male abuse.

The Instrument

Sandra McDonald

1,308

[online] An Iraqi corpse, calling itself the Instrument of God, uses American tools to organize a new oppposition to the American presence. This varies between philosophically murky and simply surreal.

Five Rivers of Mourning

K. Z. Perry

3,326

[online] A deeply disturbing story of mer-people. (Full Review.)

F&SF

F&SF: March

F&SF (March, 2005)

The cover illustrates The Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch, which is only one of the stories I failed to understand this month. Perhaps my faculties are deteriorating, or perhaps F&SF is just too sophisticated for this poor reader, but there were decisions and events at the heart of this story, and also I Live With You, and also at the climax of Late Show that I simply failed to grasp. Hopefully other readers will fare better.

The stuff I could understand was perfectly enjoyable: fun romps from Albert E. Cowdrey, Esther M. Friesner, and Al Michaud's laugh-out-loud Ayuh, Clawdius. But given the fact that the editors deemed it important enough to warrant cover art, I took a deeper look than usual at...

The Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch

What do you get when you cross the Mall of America with the Great Wall of China? Naturally, a massive barrier built of some futuristic super-material to separate the Canadians from the United States. And what do you do with such a wall? You hang paintings on it. The nation's biggest gallery. I don't think Disch is trying to make sense here, although he does cobble together some unpersuasive explanations for the wall. A wall is such a heavy symbol (Pink Floyd, etc.), surely it has some deep metaphorical import.

Ten months out of the year, Lester sells building materials. The other two months he sets up shop in North Dakota, along a lonely stretch of Wall and paints. He sells his paintings, but only rarely. His family thinks he's nuts, but they are largely absent in the story itself. He loves the great plains, the big sky. He is in perpetual wonder at the appearance of the Northern Lights. He contemplates the ineffable, indescribable essence of beauty.

One day a young wanderer named Gulliver drives up to Lester in the night. Gulliver: surely this is significant. What satirical essence does this portend?

After a slow start, Gulliver and Lester get talking. Lester shares with Gulliver some deep secret, but Disch does not admit the reader into the dream. It has something to do with art, but nothing specific is made manifest. Gulliver encourages him to do it. And Lester disappears.

In disappearing; in leaving most of his paintings behind, Lester becomes a (very) minor celebrity, and his paintings gain some value. The end.

I read this story three times, and scrutinized the decisive paragraphs several more beyond that. At no time, however, could I figure out what, on Earth, the point of this story was. If it's a "follow your dream" story, then it is undertaken in such an oblique manner as to offer no inspiration whatsoever. If there is some more profound interpretation, some epiphany encoded in these scattershot symbols, I could not fathom it.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Amulet

Albert E. Cowdrey

nvlt

A wild trip through the history of Europe with one of New Orleans' more colorful junk merchants.

Ayuh, Clawdius

Al Michaud

nvlt

Clem Crowd-ah is back in a tale as wild as anything Maine has seen yet. Texans! Occultists! Giant Lop-stahs!

Love and the Wayward Troll

Charles Coleman Finlay

nvlt

Maggot is back in a tale as... well, actually, this one's not so wild. Troll-raised Maggot is trying to make it as human, with inconclusive results. Chapter N of an N+Y chaptered novel.

The Wall of America

Thomas M. Disch

short

A wall between America and Canada? (Full Review.)

I Live with You

Carol Emshwiller

short

Shy, ghostly people undertake fumbling, barely-there encounters.

Late Show

Gary W. Shockley

short

If we were visited by an Alien from a distant star, of course he would appear on Letterman. But what if that were his only purpose in coming to Earth?

The Beau and the Beast

Esther M.Friesner

short

AKA "Bride of Cthulu." An amusing nineteenth century correspondence.

F&SF

F&SF: April

F&SF (April, 2005)

The cover illustration is for M. Rickert's very strong story, The Harrowing. Also of note in this issue: Kathy Maio performs an interesting analysis comparing The Incredibles with Polar Express -- an analysis which gets to the heart of both film-making and storytelling.

The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet by Paul Di Filippo

The living relationship between author and character, and in particular the wayward behavior of characters who take on more reality than reality, is by no means a new idea, either in fantastic or more literary circles. Nonetheless, Di Filippo's Sally Strumpet is a fresh piece. It has all the feel of his Plumage from Pegasus column: absurdity, wonder, and cynical, insightful views into the world of publishing.

The narrator of this tale is an author who spent years and years getting nowhere. Working in publishing, and working away at his writing, aiming for the literary masterpiece that would define his life, and justify his passion. But, in the end, he found himself more inspired by his so-so life and failed relationships to craft The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet, which is a Brigit Jones kind of thing.

The book takes off, he's rolling in money, and eventually Hollywood takes an interest. The only thing is, to preserve his good name, he published the book under the pseudonym of, well, Sally Strumpet. The book was marketed as a quasi-fiction, a sexy woman struggling through a real life of imperfect men and imperfect choices, thinly veiled in the fiction for the entertainment and perhaps edification of the reading public.

So, when the publisher needs to send the author on a media tour they have a little problem: come clean & risk losing their audience? Or find themselves a Sally Strumpet? You hardly need ask what course of action is chosen.

But the author doesn't care for any of the candidates. They fail to meet his inner vision. Not, you understand, that he cares that much: this was just written for the money, of course. But even so, he just can't bring himself to betray his inner vision. At least not at first.

Sally, the real Sally Strumpet from his very own imagination, walks through the door and applies for her job. And, being the character herself, she's very, very good at it. She's in love with our narrator of course, and at first he finds himself cautiously smitten with her as well. But she knows him too well, she has nothing to surprise him. Eventually, her familiarity grows tiresome. Only then does he learn how dangerous betraying your own imagination can be.

Di Filippo creates a delightful and memorable story, but his insights along the way into the life, the hopes, the despair of the writer are quite real. His vision of the publishing world, although delivering the sorts of stereotypes one might find of the newspaper world in a Spider Man comic book, are nonetheless as plausible as they are amusing. Best of all, the story ends with a beautiful, perfect counter-twist: the creator turning the tables back on his wayward creation. Or planning to, anyway.

Domovoi by M.K. Hobson

A Domovoi is a Russian hearth-spirit. She is the spirit of a house, and may be moved only by carrying the embers of the heart from one house to another.

Ryan is a real-estate developer. He takes the old and worn down and turns it into shopping centers, condominiums, and so forth. Ryan, meet Domovoi. Domovoi, Ryan.

There's a fascinating conflict here, one in which the author's purpose seems almost as conflicted as the characters. One sort of wants to dislike Ryan. After all, who can be enthusiastic about banal shopping malls, or cookie-cutter condominiums? Who can be excited about the transformation of our nation from honest wood, brick, and stone to the veneers of wealth and luxury that prop up our illusion of prosperity?

But Hobson is not moralizing, or at least not on such an obvious level.

The destructive clash at the center of Domovoi is between Ryan and Winnie, that's Winnie the spirit of "Windsor Machine Works." The factory is closed, and in an advanced state of decay. When we meet Winnie, she's not exactly charming us with her antique authenticity. Ryan determines to make something new and wonderful out of the Machine Works, and doesn't care of he kills Winnie in the process -- once he gradually understands what she is.

Now, there are signs that Ryan is the embodiment of the soulless developer, most notably his empty-headed fiancee: beautiful but utterly pointless. On the other hand, his goal is not money. Describing his most recent project, the conversion of an abandoned flour mill into a place of "quaint little shops," we learn: "The proprietors of these little shops will make good money. Ryan will make nothing. His net profit on the deal is a satisfyingly round figure. Zero." Again, contemplating a project some of his regular crew are working on, Ryan observes: "The building they are working on has no life, no spark. He longs for the thrill of performing surgery on a kicking patient, not slogging through the dissection of a corpse."

In my initial reading, this made me inclined to like Ryan, although one must ask the question: what sort of surgery does he like to perform? His personal objective is described: "The real satisfaction comes from the knowledge that he has made his buildings clean and pure, burned the filth of ages from their bones, scoured them of the unseen impurities time breeds."

Despite all this, Hobson lavishes attention on the details of transient beauty: symbols of wealth from luxury cars to titanium cell-phones, and, of course, the lovely and empty girl-friend. What are we to make of this Ryan?

In the remodel of the Windsor Machine Works, we see Winnie slowly sickening as Ryan's vision for the factory comes to fruition. At the end of the remodel, of particular significance, we find that Winnie has become indistinguishable from the vapid fiancee. It seems as though, in this conflict, Hobson sees no choice between mortal decay and superficial beauty.

The reader knows from the outset that, in the end, Winnie is victorious. But the image of Ryan lounging around on a stained mattress drinking vodka from the bottle with a grotesquely obese woman is hardly the uplifting healthy resolution to this architectural dialectic one might hope for.

Conclusion? Compelling, but ultimately unsatisfying. I wanted a synthesis of the best of the two, not mere victory.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet

Paul Di Filippo

nvlt

A best-selling author has a fictional character turn the tables on him. In real life.

The Gospel of Nate

Michael Libling

nvlt

The technology of past-life regressions has opened the doors of history: but what do you do if your girlfriend was Jesus?

Domovoi

M. K. Hobson

short

The spirit of a factory transforms the life of a real-estate developer. (Full Review.)

The Secret of the Scarab

Ron Goulart

short

The Victorian-era diction turns out to be more elusive than the villain, vanishing and reappearing like the beautiful girl in a magic show.

Black Deer

Claudia O'Keefe

short

A cryptic walk down memory lane.

A Friendly Little Oasis

Harvey Jacobs

short

A not-as-unlikely-as-you-might-imagine look at small town life as seen from a big city vampire.

Finding Sajessarian

Matthew Hughes

short

Henghis Hapthorn should have known better. The job was just too easy. It's a good thing he has a demon in his pocket.

The Harrowing

M. Rickert

short

In Catholic mythology, the weekend between Jesus' death and resurrection, He spent in Hell. He freed the dead from Satan's power. It is often assumed that these dead accompanied him to heaven. You know what happens when you assume.

Interzone

Interzone: Jan-Feb

Interzone (January-February, 2005)

Interzone seems comfortable in its new incarnation. Mind you: I did not know it well prior to the new regime, but I recall the look was quite different. These days, Interzone has a lush quality to it, much like The 3rd Alternative, but -- of course -- science fictional rather than darkly fantastic. In addition to top-quality fiction, Interzone hosts the always interesting "Ansible Link" column by David Langford and, in this issue, a reasonably interesting interview with China Miéville. It's a little disappointing to see Miéville interviewed by someone of such similar political and aesthetic sensibilities. I'm not saying that Rosanne Rabinowitz comes off as fan-girl or sycophant, but Miéville is such a powerful and educated intellect, I think it's more fun to watch him sparring than agreeing. Nonetheless, the interview gives some insight into the ideas and purposes behind Iron Council.

Lost Things Saved in Boxes by Deirdre Ruane

This story is noted as the 2004 winner of the James White Award, and one can see why: an enjoyable premise plus compelling characters make for a good tale. Premise: there is a place where all things that are lost can be, to the right person, for the right trade, found. To gain entrance to this place, one must bring something that has been lost (by someone else). It's a barter system. There's no guarantee that you will be able to find that which you have lost, and the cataloging system is primitive. Lost things are, as the title declares, saved in boxes. In rooms labelled A-Z. I, for example, contains lost Innocences. L, lost Languages. But more mundane things are present as well, which is why Sophie is there looking for a lost watch, and Lisa is on hand, desperately hoping to turn up the lost disc containing her thesis. As for Tim, he's trading in a lost umbrella, and hoping for something very much more valuable in return.

The text primarily focusses on Sophie, who discovers during the course of the story that her trade-in, someone's journal found in the park, may have held far more importance for her than the watch she is ostensibly looking for.

The premise, obviously, holds the potential for a virtual infinity of stories, and it is perhaps a little unfortunate that Ruane chooses jokey images as often as more intriguing things. The talking dodo feels a little out of place; the lost Highway seems like a lot of work for a gratuitous smirk. Fortunately, Sophie's story is a compelling one, as honest love stories usually are.

Naturally, one hopes Lisa gets what she is looking for, and rather hopes that Tim doesn't; but these two threads do not demand any revelatory resolution, nor do they receive them. It is Sophie's story, and her decision to retrieve not the watch she lost, but rather to attempt to restore something more important to someone more desperately in need that brings the story to a successful conclusion.

Winning Mars by Jason Stoddard

Stoddard posits an all-too-plausible television show, in which contestants fly to Mars, land in diverse areas, and race toward some common objective, performing various required tasks along the way in order to win a large monetary prize. The purpose behind all of this? Ratings.

Television is losing the ratings wars to other media. In a desperate bid to remain relevant, execs revive the "reality tv" concept -- and the spirit of interplanetary travel at the same time. Making use of second-hand Russian equipment and other less-than-reputable sources, it turns out that corporate greed really pushes human achievement to levels that overly cautious government agencies cannot. Of course, second-hand Russian equipment and less-than-reputable contractors do have their drawbacks. As do recruiting contestants for this dodgy "mission" from prisons.

And, naturally, once the idea catches hold, other media outlets are more than ready to up the ante.

This is a frightening, and yet oddly inspiring story; grim, cynical, and -- at least to those who dream of interplanetary adventure -- strangely enticing. Stoddard manages to depict a variety of characters from the scheming executives to the scheming contestants quite believably, even though the premise stretches credulity just a little. Still, this is more than a satire, this is a full-bodied adventure, and it left me hungry for the sequel. Just like any good season of television should.

Interzone, January-February 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Winning Mars

Jason Stoddard

16,000 est.

Interplanetary colonization and Fear Factor. Why hasn't Network TV already done this? (Full Review.)

Ducks in Water

Neal Blaikie

3,500 est.

A being at the end of time, sifting the universe for memories of life.

The Emperor of Gondwanaland

Paul Di Filippo

6,000 est.

Di Filippo puts a new twist on the familiar theme of waking up in a fantasy world by introducing MMPOGs.

Lost Things Saved in Boxes

Deirdre Ruane

3,750 est.

There's a place where everything lost can be found, and I mean everything: lost umbrellas, sure, but lost love and lost innocence as well. (Full Review.)

The Face of America

David Ira Cleary

4,000 est.

Great bulbous eyes are growing on the surface of America. Things aren't much better in the skies.

Totems

Will McIntosh

8,500 est.

A cellist loses her alien lover's soul, and must rely on unreliable help to recover him.

Realms of Fantasy (February, 2005)

In case you were wondering, yes, that's Elric on the cover, and no, there's no Moorcock fiction in this isue. It's a painting by Matt Stewart, part of the featured art section of the magazine, along with some other very fine art from the Duirwaigh Gallery. Realms is more generally known for its chain-mail vixens on the cover. Perhaps since there are a couple of stories with sexually explicit scenes they opted for a more austere cover by way of balance.

Crab Apple by Patrick Samphire

Samphire creates an intriguing contemporary fairy tale around an ordinary boy, a wild girl, a crab apple, and a dad dying of cancer. There are two stories here, each gently dancing around the other. In the first, Samphire handles a child's reactions to the serious illness of his only remaining parent with extraordinary finesse. The boy narrator knows what is happening. He presents the events and the facts in that very blank, emotionless way that a boy will who doesn't know what to do, or what to feel.

Mirroring his father's fight with cancer is a fantastic tale of a wild, almost feral girl who is gradually succumbing to a local crab-apple spirit: a true creature of fairy in that he is not exactly evil, but certainly not well-intentioned. He is beyond morality; he is a force of nature. Like, say, disease is.

The boy wants to help the girl, but she doesn't seem to want help; and anyway, what can he do? In his interactions and struggles with the crab-apple spirit, we see the boy's unspoken feelings about his father dramatized. And in the resolution of one story, one may look for the conclusion of the other.

Samphire really does a beautiful job with this short piece.

The Good Doctor by Melissa Lee Shaw

After a few paragraphs, one has the distinct impression that while he may be excellent at his work and a savior to the small native American village in Bolivia, this doctor is not exactly good. Over the course of the story it becomes increasingly clear that the doctor who has saved the town from the ravages of disease and untreated injury exacts a high price. He's a vampire, you see, and he must feed.

Vampirism is not actually the first thought that sprang to mind while reading the story, but nor is it a surprise revelation at the end of the story. That he's a predator is clear from his first appearance, which Shaw handles in a very skillful manner. A few well-chosen words, never overdone, and the sense of menace is powerful. At first, I entertained the thought that he might be an evil robot (what can I say? I was looking for a speculative element). Then I wondered whether he was simply a pedophile... it was the children that were coming home from the clinic dazed and moody.

Whether parasite or predator, vampires make an excellent device for exploring toxic relationships. The initial ambiguity regarding this doctor's nature helps nurture the climate of interdependant and unequal evils at work in the town: for if the doctor preys on the children, the townsfolk are unwilling to stand against him. The environment is brought to the boiling point when a gringa and her daughter come to pay a visit on the doctor. Suspicious from the outset, these two encounter unusual difficulties before finally forcing the doctor to show his hand, and the villagers to make their choice.

Through the highly conflicted character of the doctor's assistant, Shaw explores the full complexity inherent in the village. The assistant wants to be a good man, but he knows better than any what the price is for the doctor's beneficence: and the more terrible cost still that would fall upon them if the town turns against the doctor. Shaw carefully turns up the forces tearing at him, his heart, his wife, his family, and his village, until it seems like there is no way out. But, as with the Shining Wire Warren in Watership Down, one cannot help but think that those who accept such a gruesome deal with the enemy deserve their fate.

Realms of Fantasy, February 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Returning My Sister's Face

Eugie Foster

5,000 (est.)

Samurai ghost story

All Fish and Dracula

Liz Williams

2,750 (est.)

Goth girls aren't the only hazard on the night of Samhain

Fir Na Tine

Sandra McDonald

7,000 (est.)

Flying too close to the flame will... get you really good orgasms. Oh yeah: and burnt.

Crab Apple

Patrick Samphire

4,500 (est.)

Don't eat it. It's bad for you. (Full Review.)

The Good Doctor

Melissa Lee Shaw

10,000 (est.)

What do you do when the savior of your town also feeds on it?(Full Review.)

Peas and Carrots

Michael Canfield

3,750 (est.)

A minor character in a minor play upstages the leads... and turns the tables on reality.

SciFiction (January-February, 2005)

Generally dark stuff this month over at Scifiction. Dark and also challenging. Matricide, Jane, and A Man of Light do not yield themselves easily to the prying mind of the reader. Work is required. Even The Five Cigars of Abu Ali, which seems like a simple yarn of Djinn, ends up in narrative terrain that lies outside the straightforward structure of the tale. Probably, then, it is no coincidence that I most enjoyed M. K. Hobson's unpretentious story about a marketing consultant (soulless, is there any other kind?) and a chinese buffet that caters to the dead. That said, I'd like to speak a little more about Jeffrey Ford's story.

A Man of Light by Jeffrey Ford

Both grim and challenging, A Man of Light is also intriguing. Ostensibly, this story is constructed as an interview. Where we are -- and when we are -- remains vague. There's a certain historical feel to the piece, as though it might take place in the world of Spider-man comic books where newspaper editors chew fat cigars, fret over the front page, and brow-beat their younger reporters. But at the heart of the story is this illusionist, "A Man of Light." Utilizing a supernatural control over the effects of light, it seems he can spin any dream from the look of blushing youth on an octogenarian to the appearance of divine blessing on a battlefield. Almost supernatural, at any rate: he offers a seemingly physical explanation for all his tricks. It's all just an extension of what the masters of painting always knew: the manipulation of hue and shade to give the illusion of dimension, life, flesh, reality. Or, say, invisibility.

But the interview does not proceed according to the young reporter's schedule. Larchcroft (this "Man of Light") has a story to tell, and tell it he will. As it unfolds, the young man (August) and his wife (May) turn out to be essential characters in it, although they know nothing of it. Story and dream blur, past and present become intertwined, and the whole narrative takes on a recursive quality that suggests the illusions extend beyond mere light and shadow, but even to the reality of what is transpiring in the lines we are reading.

Reading this, one is struck by the close attention to detail. Every word seems directed toward Ford's purpose. The butler steps in to the room where the reporter waits. "Mr. Larchcroft will now speak to you," he sayd. To you, not with you. And that is what happens. Or consider this sentence, one of the first descriptions of Larchcroft: "The eyes were dark, encircled in shadows cast by a prominent brow at the center of which was set a diamond-shaped green jewel the size of a thumbnail." The dark eyes, the encircling shadows: these are no spurious details. These are purposeful words, clues to the nature of Larchcroft's power. Words resonant with implication, almost certainly intended to echo one of Jesus' more cryptic statements: "But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:23)

As the story unfolds, an account or perhaps a confession as to how Larchcroft came to possess such extraordinary powers over the workings of light, the premonition that there is evil at work grows stronger, but the nature and purpose of that evil remain obscure. The purpose of the interview, however, remains the most obscure of all: why should this great magician -- or scientist, or whatever he is -- select a poor young reporter, still wet behind the ears, for the singular honor of his first public interview? Why select August as the means by which to tell of the strange and unwholesome origins of his power? And most of all, why does a young man, so very much like August himself, play a central role in this story?

The story itself is surreal in the technical sense: dreams comprise a central role, for it is the question of light -- and in particular the light we see during dream, that leads Larchcroft toward his objective. Surreal, strange, but compelling. We want to know, is Larchcroft simply creepy because of all that he has seen? Is he strange because he has transcended ordinary perceptions of light? Or has something more sinister transpired? Naturally all is made clear in due course, although when I say 'clear' I mean it only in the very darkest way.

SciFiction, January-February 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

The Five Cigars of Abu Ali

Eric Shaller

11,180

(1.19) [Online] A college friend brings two sleazy women and the unlikely story of a djinn to the home of a dull suburban man. Results are inconclusive.

A Man of Light

Jeffrey Ford

8,526

(1.26) [Online] To know the truth about the light, you must ask the darkness. It is a willing teacher. All it asks is the occasional sacrifice. (A Man of Light.)

Matricide

Lucy Sussex

6,513

(2.2) [Online] A creepy doll (one of Ms. Datlow's hobbies as well) lies at the center of this somewhat confusing conflux of life, love, and possessiveness.

Hell Notes

M. K. Hobson

7,537

(2.9) [Online] A marketing consultant discovers that the dead are hungry, and they pay in hard cash. Hot hard cash.

Jane

Marc Laidlaw

4,648

(2.16) [Online] A compelling but mysterious story -- fantasy? -- in which the evils of the city catch up with a rural family that thought they had escaped it long ago.

Strange Horizons (January-February, 2005)

Strange Horizons always offers a mixed bag of stuff from the vivid and polished to experiments in style and structure. This month brings a little bit of everything from the decidedly experimental A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story to the overtly science fictional Homestay. Huntswoman covers the gender studies bases, while Jenn Reese's very entertaining Stories of the Chinese Zodiac makes another appearance.

Shard of Glass by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The shard of glass is a lens. It is a lens within which one can see history, memories, refracted darkly into the present. If one is careful, one can engage those phantoms. Obviously, a thing of power.

Leah's mother, a stylish and confident African-American woman, stole it from her lover, a powerful white politician who, not coincidentally, may be the deciding vote in the Senate against the Civil Rights Act. This shard, then, is also a lens into the hypocrisy of race relations in the 60's era South.

On the run from this powerful family, the two travel to Europe, Japan, India, Africa. At each stop, the family gets more dangerous, and more desperate to recover their prized possession, the source of their power. It is only when Leah decides to use the shard against her father and his family that the tide changes; but whether that is for good or ill is left to the reader to decide.

The final sentence, I hesitate to report, feels like a big cop-out. Fortunately, this is by no means the most important sentence in the story, and is more a quick resolution to the speculative elements than an actual ending. The real conclusion takes place in the final paragraphs and works as a powerful resolution to a complex enmity/love affair. Since the strength of the story lies in the view into these complex characters, these people conflicted about their own hearts and their own identities, the resolution to this tension works beautifully. With respect to the emotional core of the story, the shard of glass is little more than a mcguffin, and I imagine the story would only have improved by eliminating it altogether. Of course, then it wouldn't have been a fantasy story at all.

Strange Horizons, January-February 2005: Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Huntswoman

Merrie Haskell

3,348

(1.24) [online] Snow White & the Seven Dwarves & Sleeping Beauty & domestic feminist metaphor.

Homestay

Tim Jones

2,968

(1.31) [online] Aliens? Post humans? Cyberpunk matrix dwellers? Who are these beautiful winged men and women who care so little for life?

A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story

Douglas Lain

4,683

(2.7) [online] I can't say I'm much of a one for coffee cup stories. Nor is it much of an invasion. And the author's habit of stepping through the fourth wall is off-putting.

Shard of Glass

Alaya Dawn Johnson

9,312

(2.14, 2.21) [online] A young girl and her mother are on the run from... well, it's complicated. (Full Review.)

Rooster

Jenn Reese

489

(2.21) [online] If you dream that a giant Rooster is angry with humanity, ask yourself: do you really want to be the one to start the war against roosters?

Talebones (#29)

Talebones describes itself as "A Magazine of Science Fiction & Dark Fantasy," but this issue is has very little on the dark side. Kay Kenyon's piece certainly counts, and possibly Stella Evans' story, although I have to confess I'm not sure I understood the latter.

The Bravest of Us Touched the Sky by Carry Vaughn

Vaughn's story of a haunted plane is a particularly memorable piece. To a certain degree, this reads like family history. In the intro, the editors inform us that her father, an Air Force pilot, helped with the technical details. Beyond that, however, there is a real love for the culture of flying, as well as a fiercely independent portrayal of the female pilots during WWII -- the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

Of course, it's also a science fiction story: two female pilots are ordered to shuttle a B-26 from Corpus Christie to Wright Field. The B-26 is tough to fly under any conditions, but this one is... 'experimental.' In fact, it comes with its own mad-scientist backseat-driver. (A snivelling and annoying figure in every regard.)

Turns out the Army has been doing experiments in human-machine interface, and the last two flights this plane went on came down empty. The scientist is hoping the women won't be subject to whatever mysterious phenomenon affected the test pilots. What he isn't counting on is that women are as competent as men, as sensitive to the machine.

Although some of the characters are a trifle annoying, Vaughn handles the dynamics well: the friendship -- and eventually the struggle -- between the two women flying the plane is subtle, and the main character's feelings about what transpires are fascinating to read.

Among the haunting elements of the story is the 'what might have been' of the ending. What would have happened had the main character chosen differently? It's a difficult, lingering image that serves to reinforce both the mystery behind the ghost story and the conflicted personality of the heroine.

Talebones, Winter 2004 (#29): Summary Table

Title

Auth

Length

Summary

Jesus Wrestles the Mob to Feed the Homeless

Tom Piccirilli

9,250 (est)

High-tech mafioso steer a course between the Yakuza and the Pope, but, as ever, family comes first.

The Acid Test

Kay Kenyon

2,500 (est)

"If aliens offered to take you on a tour of the galaxy, would you leave me?" A tip ladies: don't ask your sci-fi reading husband this question.

Night Shift

Louise Marley

2,000 (est)

"God, take me instead." File that under "Things nurses should not think."

The Dog Prince

Sarah Prineas

4,000 (est)

Even in a brutal stock-fantasy setting, "Eye for an eye" doesn't always work.

Knots

Craig English

2,750 (est)

Minor mutants of the X-Men sort deal with discrimination. It doesn't suck.

The Bravest of Us Touched the Sky

Carrie Vaughn

6,500 (est)

Early experiments in man-machine interface go awry when women take the controls. (Full Review.)

A Piece of the Sun

Stella Evans

2,000 (est)

Something about a bear.

Eliza's Quick Drying Polar White

T. Rex

1,300 (est)

Meditating imponderables reveals a reality as beyond our grasp as ours is beyond that of a cricket... a very funny short piece.


Copyright © 2005, 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.

COMMENTS!

Feb 28, 19:31 by Bluejack
Let's talk about short fiction!

(The original reviews are here.)
Mar 9, 07:23 by Abizer Nasir
I like the new summary table idea - makes it easy to dip in and remember the review. Useful, as I don't get my issues of F&SF in the UK till a couple of months after you do.

Not a whinge, just an observation.
Mar 9, 10:44 by Bluejack
Thanks, Abizer. I think I'll try to stick with this format for a while. Personally, I have a terrible memory... so being able to quickly reference a story and find a hook to dredge my recollection out of the murky depths of my own mind is useful to me, too.
Mar 19, 15:40 by ghostpost
can we make requestss? I gots a favorite magazine I'd ike to see reviewed.
Mar 19, 15:40 by ghostposts
Sorry. Dyslexia kicked in.
Mar 19, 15:57 by Bluejack
Whats the mag?
Mar 19, 18:01 by ghostposts
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It's my favorite sci fi/fantasy. I can send you a few issues.
Mar 19, 19:20 by Bluejack
Oh, I review ASIM. Check older issues in the archives. I didn't have a copy in March to review, but I have one now. Review should appear in the April issue.
Mar 19, 21:15 by ghostposts
great! *rushes off to archives*
Mar 22, 10:14 by twosheds
Thanks for reviewing Black Gate; it's one of my favorites.

About "Shard of Glass," I think it was one of the best I've read so far on S.H. Maybe because it was a two parter, there was much more character and plot development. I wasn't put off by the ending at all.

I also read and liked "The Good Doctor" in RoF. It's creepy, but there's an element of truth in the story. Some people I met once worked in Bolivia for the Peace Corp. in the 80's. There was some sort of cult in the country-side whose members believed you could gain the abilities (strengths) of other people by drinking their blood. Evidently, there were a lot of German immigrants to Bolivia many years ago. When my friends were there, the bodies of blond-headed children, the descendants of the immigrants, started showing up drained of blood. Eek!

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