Like a perennial weed, the science fiction vs. fantasy argument has recently emerged again online, mobilizing partisans of each to come to its defense. As a nonpartisan, I tend to see more similarities than differences between the genres. Reading through all this nominal science fiction for review, I discover some element of the fantastic within almost every piece, no matter how bright the futuristic chrome on the surface is polished. Genre labels notwithstanding, it is all the work of the imagination, this stuff of ours.
Sci Fiction, December 2005
There is going to be a dark, empty place in the SF readers’ universe, from now on, but editor Ellen Datlow has packed as much story as possible into this last month’s selections for Sci Fiction, presenting Lucius Shepard’s novella as a single installment rather than serializing it over two or three weeks, and thereby making room for a couple of additional works.
December 7: The King of Where-I-Go by Howard Waldrop
It is the summer of 1954, the last summer in America when children’s lives were held hostage by the fear of polio, and Bubba’s sister catches the disease. He carries the burden of guilt into adulthood, convinced that her sickness was his fault, the consequence of a sibling quarrel he wishes he could undo. But Ethel grows up almost sound — except that it seems the polio has given her certain mental powers over time and space and of course, it is her brother she experiments on.
This is a deeply nostalgic, reminiscent story dedicated to the author’s own sister, which will make readers wonder how much is autobiographical. It is after all a form of time travel to recreate a season and a place with such intense detail that it seems possible for a reader to step into the setting, to once again be eight years old and full of wondrous possibilities.
December 14: The Emperor by Lucius Shepard
The pit was an expanding canyon system with five-hundred-foot-high walls that slumped into hills of talus. Scattered about were beaches of blue and red and green oxides, and banks of sulphur, their colors dimmed by the dense particulate haze that muddied the air. Here and there were silvery lakes of mercury and tungsten, edged with black foam, from which robotic spiders — skittering on mesh feet that barely disturbed the surface — extracted rare metals and then excreted squirts of indium, osmium, and such along the shore, there to be collected by larger machines.
This pit of hell is the vast Emperor strip mine, devouring the Alaskan wilderness, and McGlowrie is the mine’s emperor, in charge of its self-directing machinery. He is leading an expedition into the pit to replace the command-control AI. But there is sabotage, the transportation breaks down, and McGlowrie and his surviving crew are forced to try to find shelter in the mine, where they are menaced by roving Hunter-Killer machines. There, they have an unexpected encounter — a discovery that could save their lives, could perhaps change the lives of every human in the world, but only if McGlowrie can find a way to escape with it from the pit.
Shepard’s novella deals with a number of important issues — corporate exploitation, the rape of the environment, the burden of overpopulation — but at its heart is the imperative of survival that every self-aware entity feels, even if the entity is a self-aware machine. McGlowrie has to weigh his own chances for escape against the lives of his companions, and they against his, even as he begins to suspect that the AI is using him to ensure its own survival.
The Emperor mine is a fabulous, monstrous creation, quite Shepardesque in its depiction of the horrors industrialisation inflicts on the natural and human environments. McGlowrie is depicted as the sort of man who can survive in such environments and what they have made of him. The circumstances that he faces in this tale are dire, but unfortunately, they are also improbable. It simply makes no sense, apart from the demands of the plot, that the mine’s command-control unit would be located so far from its operational headquarters, in such a deadly location, that it could not be conveniently repaired. It makes no sense that the Hunter-Killer machines, intended to disassemble malfunctioning equipment, would be programmed to disassemble stray human employees as well. Nor is it credible that the repair crew would have no way to call for help — or for help to reach them. (Indeed, a security team does show up, but McGlowrie suspects their motives and the author does not follow this thread further. Still, they had no trouble getting there.) In consequence, the hazards that imperil McGlowrie seem artificial and unconvincing, a set-up by the author. The reader’s disbelief can only be suspended so far, unless it is overawed by Shepard’s fantastically-drawn setting.
December 21, 2005: Boz by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A short seasonal tale. Even a recluse seeking solitude in the emptiness of space can be touched by the spirit of Christmas.
Rusch evokes the name of Dickens to good effect (Boz was his early byline) but some readers may trip over the question that the author leaves lying in the middle of the plot: why did the computer lie about the Christmas music?
December 28, 2005: The Dope Fiend by Lavie Tidhar
Basing his story on historical accounts of the underworld drug scene in 1920s London, the author mixes in a multicultural melange of the supernatural, so that there are houngans, loas, golems, angels both light and dark, a Feng-Huang, and the narrator called Tzaddik, a disgraced Lamed Vovnik who seems to be immortal as well as a drug dealer — all in love with a ghost. The ghost is Billie Carleton, a Bright Young Thing who died some time ago of a drug overdose in which all her lovers were complicit. The demonic angel has devised a complicated plot (too complicated) using Billie’s ghost to entrap Tzaddik, who must draw upon his Kabbalistic knowledge to confront the threat.
The historical milieu is the real interest here, and the author’s addition of the supernatural elements rather distracts from it, crowding the story, as he seems to have succumbed to the urge to insert too much of his research into the text. I find myself at the end, not so much reflecting on Tidhar’s tale as wanting to read more of the actual history on which it was based.
Strange Horizons, December 2005
It was a short month for this weekly e-zine. Only three issues were posted for December, with a total of four stories.
December 5: Intelligent Design by Ellen Klages
An amusing revisionist creation myth, based on Haldane’s comment: “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” Klages gets extra points for God’s grandmother, Nanadeus.
December 12: Bone Women by Eliot Fintushel
Fintushel is a wild and crazy author, but there is also a deep vein of angst in much of his work. In this story, which is reminiscent of Woody Allen, we see both aspects as he relates the tale of his failed relationships with women and the suicide attempts they have led to. The piece is most notable for its unrestrained prose:
Hildy loved me bad. Pudding of a woman, the moons behind her cheaters waxed for the love of me. She bleated after me, udders wagging, tongue lolling, buttocks dimpling, attended by flies.
But narrator-Fintushel fails to love Hildy, his fleshy Bone Woman. In consequence, he is unable to bone women, left alone with his self-loathing, which seems to go beyond his sexual failures. As he tells it, “In the folk tale, Bone Woman offers herself to the young man, and if he won’t fuck her, he’s doomed forever.”
The piece is nominal fantasy, only thematically tied to the Inuit legend of the title, but this is some wild and crazy prose.
December 19, 2005: The Taste of Chicory at High Tide by Lisa Mantchev
This very short story is more metaphor than fantasy, as the personified goddess New Orleans calls up an old boyfriend, looking for sympathy after recent tragic events.
I found her sitting in a deserted café, adding packet after packet of sugar to her thick black espresso. Discarded pink wrappers littered the soggy ground around her stilettos. The beads around her neck clattered against the metal table. The hem of her short, wet skirt rode up on her thighs. There were circles under her eyes and defeat oozed from the sodden pockets of her raincoat.
Mantachev pushes her prose over the top to characterize the goddess: “Her eyes sucked my dick; her drawl punched me in the crotch.” Her boyfriend is not at first so readily identifiable, but at the end, readers will surely recognize him.
Goat by Jenn Reese
Reese brings her “Tales of the Chinese Zodiac” series to a conclusion with this story. The goat of the story is a wooden toy with lifeless painted eyes, but still, Yuhan falls in love with her. Yuhan seems prone to this sort of misdirected affection and it seems unlikely that he will learn any better in the years to come.
The twelve fables in this series do not form a single narrative. They showcase the range of Reese’s imagination, all strange in different ways, but usually revealing some aspect of human foolishness or wisdom. “Goat” is unfortunately one of the weakest, being entirely mundane, with none of the fantastic or fabulist charm of the best of the series. Like the goat, it seems lifeless and does not return the reader’s interest.
Asimov’s, February 2006
The fiction in this month’s issue is all science fiction, at least nominally.
Under the Graying Sea by Jonathan Sherwood
Tessa’s head snapped back in its cradle and her lips slid away from her teeth. The shock slapped the fog off the inside of her helmet and misted her face.
This is science fiction. Hard science fiction — the Real Stuff, not the so-called “hard SF” that’s nothing more than galactic adventures and thrilling space battles, in which a futuristic veneer overlays the fantastic core. Here, the wormhole is the only concession to unreality. Very rarely do we see this kind of fiction these days, and more rarely still do we see it done this well.
The story is not a complex one. Tessa’s destination is the remote ring of a star bridge in transit, a wormhole portal that, once in place, will enable travel from Earth to another world. She has piloted many of these missions, but this time she discovers that a nearby singularity has pulled the ring off-course, with potentially disastrous consequences. Now she must work against time to solve the problem by doing math. I am not the reviewer to check the author’s calculations, but Sherwood writes his physics with such authority that I feel no tremor of doubt threatening my suspended disbelief. Nor does he neglect the human element. As time inexorably runs out, the tension rises; readers can feel the sense of urgency driving Tessa’s desperate efforts.
According to the editorial blurb, this is Sherwood’s first fiction sale. Science fiction now seems a bit less moribund.
Change of Life by Kat Meltzer
Readers may well wonder how much the author’s name had to do with the genesis of this story, in which women of a certain age begin to develop into cats. She makes it seem an attractive alternative, but the reaction of the rest of society is not quite convincing, even if readers buy into the premise.
Are You There? by Jack Skillingstead
Parapolice detective Brian Deatry has problems with personal relationships, face to face. It’s easier for him to connect with people remotely, through this future’s version of the ‘net. Then he comes into possession of a responsive memory module, the interactive recording of a dead woman’s personality and memories. The module helps him find a serial killer, but Deatry is compelled to keep activating her, even after the case is closed, to maintain his contact with a person who can never demand more from him.
While Deatry’s world is not the same as our own — a dystopian future version — his problem is quite familiar, as we can see people around us retreating from the real to the virtual worlds. Skillingstead has given us a Cautionary Tale.
The Hastillian Weed by Ian Creasey
The Hastillian blackweed is the ultimate alien invasive weed. Xenophobes blame the Hastillians for allowing it to spread on Earth, but the weed is adjusting to the situation better than some of the members of the Hastillian embassy, who find life on Earth to be difficult. This short story argues, rather too preachily, for universal understanding and tolerance — not to be extended to the weed. But then, a weed is only a plant that is growing where someone else does not wish it to grow.
Unbending Eye by Jim Grimsley
Roger Dennis died several years ago, but the narrator has just met him in a bar, where Dennis relates how an experimental medical process has brought him back to life. Dennis was the experiment’s only success, and as the researchers attempted to understand why, they have killed and revived him over and over again.
At first, readers might suspect that this is a vampire story, and indeed Dennis, suspended between life and death, is a sort of revenant. Grimsley uses a flat, unaffected voice, which emphasizes Dennis’s distance from ordinary, living humanity. An understated nightmare.
Kin by Bruce McAllister
A human boy approaches an alien assassin for help and the alien responds. McAllister’s narration hints at much that he does not tell — not even the alien’s name. His restraint works effectively here, for I wanted to know more.
Teen Angel by R. Garcia y Robinson
This novelette has the feel of a sequel, as a great deal seems to have happened to Dierdre before the story opens. As a child, she was captured by slavers to become the sex slave of their captain, who values her resourcefulness as much as her beauty. But now, Navy cruisers are closing in on the slavers and the captain plans to use Dierdre to save himself while the Navy turns its attention on his fleet. Dierdre’s only chance to escape is to be more resourceful than her master supposes she is.
There is plenty of plot-action here, but few surprises and little tension. It is hard to worry about Dierdre or share her fears — we know she’ll come through just fine.
Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2006
The highlight of the February issue is certainly the concluding installment of Terry Bisson’s serialized novella. The other stories are a mix of SFs.
Planet of Mystery by Terry Bisson
Commander Hall expected to put the first manned Venus lander down on a dry lake bed. He didn’t expect the lake to be full of water — how could there be liquid water when the surface temperature of Venus is 500 degrees Celsius? But as the lander sinks beneath the waves, Hall and his engineer Chang discover that the atmosphere of Venus is exactly like Earth’s. When they are captured by Chinese-speaking amazons riding centaurs, he becomes convinced that he is hallucinating the entire experience — perhaps his mind is denying that he died during the crash-landing. He clings desperately to his only sure contact with reality, the radio link to the orbiter’s pilot, who agrees that he must be hallucinating. Things only get stranger as they are taken to the castle of Sha-Nee-La, the Amazon Queen, where they find a lost robot probe which has acquired self-awareness during its eleven years marooned on Venus
None of the characters can be considered reliable guides to the truth. Hall does not trust his own eyes, but he trusts Chang and Robbie even less. The engineer is besotted with Sha-Nee-La, while the robot worships Chang, who originally programmed it. Even Collins, the pilot, lies to Earth about the flying saucer. Yes, the flying saucer. It has to be real, because they have escaped from Venus on it, but everyone agrees that no one would believe them. And if the saucer has disappeared, then maybe it was never real in the first place. And the same for the alien spaceship.
Bisson teases his readers, like flashing a laser pointer in front of a cat to see it pounce on what isn’t really there. Now it’s here; now it’s gone. Did we just imagine it? Or did we create it in the act of imagining? And what if it was never there at all — now? Does that mean it was never there — then? Or maybe it was all a dream. Bisson leaves us wondering, but entertained.
The Cathedral of Universal Biodiversity by Gary W. Shockley
The Cathedral had started out a pagoda of twenty-seven levels seeded with as many sentient cores. Given cultural, architectural, and aesthetic agendas and bequeathed a votive freedom, each level had expanded and mutated as it saw fit. Thirty-four years later, when the generous reserves of energy and raw materials had run out, the Cathedral stood complete, filling its protective dome, embracing a tremendous wealth of environments, weathers, and terrains at every elevation and more resembling a complex biosphere than it did any mere architectural marvel.
Here Theosophilus Meredith Blanchant, the sole seer of the Church of Prolific Life, does his work, filling the dome with the figures he creates in his meditations on the diversity of life in the universe. “His message was simple, his faith unwavering: Life was matter’s guiding principle, its profound response to entropy, an opportunistic impulse finding release throughout the cosmos.” Yet as the years and centuries pass and humanity’s thousands of probes continue to find no other forms of life anywhere in the universe, the Church’s faithful have lost faith; its resources have dwindled. One day, Theo discovers that a wealthy aristocrat has purchased half the dome and moved in. Now, the Contessa’s noisy parties are constantly intruding on the tranquility of his meditations.
Theo’s visions are marvels, a great deal more interesting than the Contessa and her revelers. The cover illustration can only hint at the glory and diversity of his creations. It is a shame they were never real, while the Contessa unfortunately is.
The Long and the Short and the Tall by John Morressy
Morressy’s tales of the wizard Kedrigern have been appearing in F&SF since before forever — a regular anomaly for this magazine, in which the fantasy otherwise rarely extends to such stock elements as wizards, magic and dwarves. This time, someone has stolen the dwarf king’s magic belt, and he hires Kedrigern to recover it. No surprises here.
thirteen o’clock by David Gerrold
Some readers may not find this story easy to get through, as Gerrold employs a stream-of-consciousness narration:
thirteen o’clock on a thirsty night, dry and windy after midnight, all the boys have paired up, disappeared into the desert, coupling darkly on the sand, have another beer, there’s no place else to go except ride the hog and the hot air roars into your eyes at seventy miles per hour, getting too old for this shit, fucking boring, bored with fucking, bored with chasing fucking, bored with waking up alone, and even more bored waking up with any one else, and even beer can’t cure that, fuck me
The story goes on in this way for some time while nothing in particular seems to happen, except that at some times — something happens — and the narrator spends the story, and most of his life, trying to discover what it might be. The question is — can the readers believe him?
Boon by Madeleine E Robins
The elves have moved into the neighborhood, and now it’s impossible to find Pampers on the store shelves. Mia thinks the elves are a pain. She has to work for a living, to take care of her baby. But she learns that not all denizens of Elfland are created equal and she might have more in common with some of them than she had supposed.
An antidote to the “elves are so kewell” brand of fantasy.
Parsifal (Prix Fixe) by James L Cambias
Ann is resentful that her husband’s pretentious friend Cecil has horned in on their vacation in Southern France. Cecil is boring them with his vast store of trivia about the Holy Grail when they stop for lunch at a small restaurant where they are served a meal of gastronomic wonder and Ann makes an interesting discovery in the kitchen. Cambias, clearly, must be a food writer in his other life; this is one of the best meals I have read.
Analog, March 2006
This issue features the conclusion of the serialized Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder, but since I have not seen the earliest installments, I must leave it unreviewed. This being Analog, the rest of the stories are all science fiction.
The Little White Nerves Went Last by John Barnes
Another in Barnes’ “Springer” series set in the Thousand Cultures, this novella necessarily involves a lot of backstory concerning the conflict between humans and the “aintellects” (AIs) that serve them. It is mostly the story of Shan, Giraut Leones’ superior in the OSP, who has been at the forefront of humanity’s repression of the aintellects, particularly in the use of an interrogation technique known as “destructive deconstruction”. Now the aintellect resistance has captured Giraut and Shan to learn the reason behind Shan’s hostility to their kind. In recent stories in this series, Giraut has come to regret his previous callous treatment of aintellects; now it is for Shan to come to terms with the question of their personhood. The stakes are high, for without cooperation and trust between the two forms of intelligence, it will be impossible to defeat the enemy that is threatening the human worlds.
The editorial note in the previous issue suggests that this novella may be the climax of this part of Barnes’ series, but the conclusion suggests that there may be more to come, with the Thousand Cultures facing a threat from outside.
Wasting Time by Grey Rollins
A science-fictional mystery. Things are behaving oddly in Christopher Arken’s office in the physics department. His spider plant is dehydrated and the water in his pitcher keeps disappearing. Then, the wall collapses. Of course, Arken discovers what is going on, but in this, he has an unfair advantage over the reader, who does not know what kind of experiment Mark Wellington is doing down in the basement.
The story drags in the middle, as the author insists on taking a lengthy, unnecessary tour of the physics building, but once we finally get to the basement, the mystery is too easily solved.
The Skeekit-Woogle Test by Carl Frederick
Kendrick, a data miner for the Bureau of Disease Control, has always believed he is unimaginative. Now he is attempting to prove that synesthesia is a communicable disease, for if so, it would be a way for him to contract an imagination. Or so he believes in this improbable tale.
Wildlife by Henry Melton
Greg Hammersmith is a noted nature photographer whose latest project is a series of the lunar landscape. It has taken him months to set up the shots and he wants them to be perfect. So, he is upset to discover that a stray lunar robot is making tracks across the pristine scenery he had intended to photograph.
This piece is notable for being an example of “pure” science fiction without a single fantastic element. When dealing with the human presence on the moon and the effects this has on the lunar environment, we are squarely in the realm of reality and fact. Even here, in the magazine of “science fiction and fact,”, such works are not often found. It is notable that the heart of this story does not rest on some arcane principle of physics, but in the nature of art.
Playhouse by Larry Niven
An accident turns the Draco Tavern into a temporary nursery for an assorted variety of alien children, several of them deadly to the others. Pretty stale stuff.
Interzone no. 201, December 2005
Interzone blurbs itself as “tomorrow’s science fiction,” and I am not inclined to disagree. The stories in this issue somehow seem to come from a newer future than most of the SF being produced for other venues, a future further out on the borders of the imagination. Besides the shorter work reviewed here, there is also the first half of a novella by Richard Calder.
Harsh Oases by Paul Di Filippo
For the last century, the human population has been using gene-spliced chimeras to do their scutwork. But these are about to be superseded by a more advanced and less self-aware form of pseudolife. In fact, the splices are threatened with extinction, as the basal humans no longer wish to share their world with their inferior creations. But the splice resistance has devised a plan to preserve their kind, a new generation. The egg containing Swee’pea (aka the Teleological Ark) is placed in the able hands of the philosopher Thomas Equinas (ouch). It will be his task to raise him to maturity, but the human supremacists have sent a spliced assassin to track him down and destroy him.
To say that this is a story about whether Swee’pea will escape the Manticore would be to miss the point. The plot device allows Di Filippo to follow his characters at a rapid pace from one fantastic habitat to the next, compressing so much imaginative detail into each scene that he seems to be using a narrative zip drive.
Inside his diamond armor, Swee’pea cavorted through the boiling rockmelt. His senses were fed a steady stream of info-enhanced data on the world beyond his armor, through neural hookups. To Swee’pea’s eyes, he was plunging through a well-lit, fiery, color-stratified ocean. Crucial temperature data — it would not do to descend too deep, where his diamond skin would melt — registered continuously on his naked epidermis. His ears were filled with the seismic song of the massive volcano, rumbling up from deep below, chthonic chants.
A tale with enough energy to zap the most moribund sensawunda back to life.
Sheila by Lauren McLaughlin
More of the entities that humans create to serve them— in this case, artificial computer intelligences. These AIs possess a degree of freedom,
But freedom, as the meat know all too well, is dangerous. Freedom leads inexorably to Sheila, the way cars and roads lead to traffic.
You could say the meat are playing with fire by creating us, or that they’re driven by a Thanatotic instinct toward their own destruction. Or you could say, as Sheila is fond of saying, that the meat are trapped in a faulty culturebox, headed — via second day air no doubt — to a self-inflicted demise. A shruggable enough fate were it not for the fact that we, being consigned to their machines, are along for the ride.
The story is a series of vignettes rather than a plotted narrative. Edwards and Valentin are “safe” AIs chatting with each other about Sheila, worried that someone might be spying on them — either Sheila herself or the International Committee for Internet Security. The SheilaGod-L forum debates the nature of Sheila and the interpretation of her cryptic messages, each poster unaware of the real identity of every other. And Sheila herself spies on the spies, guards her own freedom from the ICIS and considers the conundrum of AIs who seem to become more human while humans attempt to emulate AIs. McLaughlin doesn’t tell us exactly where all this evolution is headed, but she makes it seem like it will be an interesting ride.
Boytwelve by Jessica Reisman
Virtue Kana is unable to escape her past. She carries it with her in her genes and now her manipulative brother has sent it after her in the person of her dead lover’s clone. She tests herself by taking the boy along on a hazardous expedition to mine a cache of valuable dust, knowing there is a possibility that she will be driven to kill him, knowing that this is the trap her brother has set for her.
Once he was close enough that she could really see him, Virtue stared. And stared. Something slow and red and ungovernable began to build under her skin. She held one hand tight on the Artace’s polished, curveform hull to keep from leaping down and beating the pulp out of him.
Reisman has created an exotic setting for her story, the artificial Coreyal Sea of Samjadsit Space Station, with its monstrous, deadly brakfish, with its strange, blue glowing dust. This deposit of dust has remained unharvested because it is located in the middle of the Brakfish spawning grounds, making for an engaging, action-filled tale.
Wax by Elizabeth Bear
The real interest here is the alternate history that Bear has created: the British Protectorate of North America, where the sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett has been assigned as Detective Crown Investigator. We see her at work, as a murder has been committed by some sort of monster, and she meticulously investigates the scene in the best manner of fictional detectives in all times and universes.
The principle of antipathy states that two substances which do not share an identity will not normally commingle. This tells me that the splashes of wax which we retrieved from the Carlsons’ house are magically identified with the candles they were using.
There are political implications to the case, a power struggle between the Crown and the Mayor of New Amsterdam, who has his own personal sorcerer. But besides her own skills, Garrett has powerful allies, including the enigmatic vampire Don Sebestien de Ulloa, also apparently a detective of the aristocratic amateur variety.
At least one sequel has already been written, to appear in the next issue, and fans of detective fiction, particularly fantasy detective fiction, should look forward to discovering a great deal more about this milieu. It can hardly be a coincidence that Bear has named her detective Garrett, evoking one of the best-known investigators in fantasy, Glen Cook’s Garrett, PI. But there seems to be more untold history and political intrigue behind the scenes of Bear’s creation, which is more mannered, in the mode of Dorothy Sayers, than the hardboiled police procedurals on which Cook has modeled his work. A promising introduction.
Lone Star Stories no. 12
This e-zine presents three very short works of fantasy, as well as three works of fantasy verse not reviewed here.
A Lock of Ra by Sandra McDonald
McDonald has attempted to graft an Egyptian myth and the Victorian custom of making ornamental items out of human hair onto a sentimental story of children with cancer, but the union seems forced. The setting is crowded with too many stock elements while the ending caves in under the weight of sentimentality.
I have to wonder if the author realizes that Victorian hair ornaments were most often made as mourning jewelry, in remembrance of the dead. This fact clashes uncomfortably with the story’s symbolism.
Maggie’s Christmas List by Pam McNew
Maggie, like many small children, finds the experience of sitting on Santa’s lap more scary than comforting. She has reason. McNew provides another look at the figure of the sinister old elf.
Scales by Samantha Henderson
May lives in the Swamplands, too lucky and too quick for the Snake-folk to catch her. But her little sister Sally-pher is slow and clumsy. Now May has to trust her own luck to win her sister back from them. There is freshness in this story, though its heart is an old one — from the deadly beauty of the Snake-folk to the smell of heated iron when the old black skillet is hung over the fire to repel them.
Realms of Fantasy, February, 2006
The February RoF seems to be a theme issue, as if all the stories were based on the fairy tale ending: "And they all lived miserably ever after, unless they died." Yet for the most part, these stories prove rewarding for the reader, if not the characters.
[Editors Note: We lost the cover scan for this month, and resorted to using the raw illustration from the artist, right. (Donato Giancola, © 2004.)]
Messages by Brett Alexander Savory
A cryptic version of Left Behind, which the author has perhaps made even less accessible by telling it backwards, starting at the end. It seems that God is sending encoded messages (we know not to whom) by taking over the minds of selected writers, and certain Sinister Organizations are employing agents to steal the resulting manuscripts and use them for some purpose the various point-of-view characters either do not know or will not reveal. We do get a glimpse of one message, sent just before God smites the world with lightning and a large number of people suddenly disappear:
This is not, and never has been, about you. Any of you.
This is not, and never has been, about good and bad.
This makes no sense to you, I know.
I have taken all who are worthy.
There will be no further messages.
Savory's basic premise — that God is sending the messages before the Last Judgment — is not so hard to accept. The work of the Sinister Organizations, on the other hand, presents difficulties. How could they ever know which minds would be chosen by God to be the unwitting conduits of the messages? How could they possibly know that the messages were complete, if they killed the messengers? And it defies probability that one of their agents, Emma, would have a brother who happens to be a fugue writer. The story raises unsettling thoughts, but the author has blunted its impact by veiling it in too many layers of enigma.
Swansdown by Deborah Roggie
The old tale of the swan-maid usually turns out badly, and so it comes to pass in this variation. The wizard's young wife and her lover have stolen his magic swan skins and flown away. But Doura wishes to remain a swan, while Garan does not want to forget he is human. She flies north, while he finds work at a farm near the marsh, waiting for her return in the fall. There the farmer's spinster sister, Plumm, falls in love with Garan; she discovers his swan skin and convinces herself that he might turn to her if he could not return to being a swan. And the wizard, in the form of an osprey, has come hunting his wayward wife.
From these elements, a relentlessly optimistic author might be able to craft a happy ending, but fortunately Roggie takes the harder path. Doura and Garan have adopted the nature of another creature, and it has become a curse: she will never willingly give up the life of a swan, even if it is her death, and he will never be happy unless she can return to him as a human. A cautionary tale for anyone who might believe in the easy happy-ever-after solution to life's problems.
The Road's End by James Van Pelt
A traveler — we never learn his name, but it is well-known in his world — follows his road in a state of partial amnesia or fugue. He can not remember the beginning of his journey, he does not know his destination, he can not recall all his deeds. At last he comes to a familiar scene; it is the home he left, long ago. He finds his son a grown man, his wife an old woman; he realizes that he is himself an old man. He hangs up his sword, he takes up his sceptre, he joins his wife in their bed. But when she has fallen alseep, he rises to look out the window, where, "A full moon showed [sic] brightly on the well-swept walk from the archway entrance. Quartz or mica flecks in the stone caught the light so that the path looked more like a river than a road."
Van Pelt's tale is timelessly evocative: it is the homecoming of an Odysseus, still caught in Circe's spell.
Uncle Vernon's Lie by Patrick Samphire
Overly-fearful Benji has been sent to spend the summer with Uncle Vernon in his big, scary house. His dad has warned him, "Uncle Vernon will only tell you one lie in your whole life. Watch out for it." But things are not the same in Uncle Vernon's world, and Benji can't tell which is the real lie, and which might actually be true. When Uncle Vernon says that a river of stars flows over the house, Benji believes it is a lie, until he falls into the river and is almost swept away. Uncle Vernon explains,
The world's a frightening place. But it's also wonderful. You can't have one without the other. You just have to go poking into the corners to find the wonderful things. . . . The worst thing about growing up is that you stop believing things. A long time ago, I decided I would believe everything I could. That way, growing up wouldn't be so bad. Maybe I wouldn't have to grow up at all.
But there is a price to pay for not growing up, and both Benji and Uncle Vernon must face the truth by the end of the summer.
Samphire is drawing on a long tradition of secret gardens and hidden places in old houses, but there is novelty in his wonders, and enough bitterness that the tale does not cloy, even with a protagonist named Benji.
Dead Letters by Christopher Barzak
When Sarah Hartford was a young girl, she had an imaginary friend. Now Sarah has tragically died, and somehow the mention of her own name brings Alice to life, grown to adulthood. She begins writing to Sarah, "in the hopes that there may still be a chance for us to reconcile, to come together." But Sarah never answers her letters, Sarah's parents report her to the police as a stalker, and Alice passes through the stages of mourning until she must decide between attempting to relive Sarah's life and finding a life of her own.
Still, I cannot help but write in the hopes that somewhere my words are finding you. And maybe wherever you are, you are writing me too. Long letters, beautiful letters. Letters that one day I will find and read with great pleasure. Perhaps you are having adventures elsewhere, now that you're not here. Perhaps you've moved on to a place that I will only understand as being better at some later juncture in this life, this life you gave me. But still, at some intersection, my hope is for our words to cross each other, so that we will feel, if only for a moment, infinitely loved and happy. It is the least anyone deserves.
A heartfelt examination of the nature of friendship, both the good and the bad in it.
The Land of Reeds by Patrick Samphire
the dead talked among themselves with voices of sand and dust. Amenemhet did not wish to speak to the dead. A man who has been murdered wishes to speak to those still living, to lay testament before them, to give warning.
The kas of the dead are trapped among their tombs in the world of the living, fading away, for there is no longer a guide to the paths to the Land of Reeds since the day the conquerer Alexander usurped the throne of Egypt. Unlike the rest of the kas, Amenemhet had studied the Book of the Dead, and he might be able to find the paths again, to lead the rest of the dead to find the eternal life in the underworld where they belong, but he is obsessed with his murderer, who is still causing harm to his living family.
Paradox, Winter 2005-2006
As this magazine moves from a quarterly to a semiannual publishing schedule, it also seems to be shifting to more historical and alternate historical fiction, with less historical fantasy.
Anezka by Bruce Durham
A story of Hannibal's exile. As a slave, Anezka's point of view is limited; she has never heard of Hannibal until her master the king of Bythnia places her in charge of his new guest's household. In consequence, she only comes to know and respect Hannibal as a man, and he trusts her at the end to deliver his last message to his enemies.
Durham knows his history, but his story works best for the reader who, unlike Anezka, is also familiar with Hannibal's lifelong war with Rome, who knows in advance how Hannibal met his end and can appreciate the bitterness of his last days. Of course it is likely to find such readers among the subscribers to Paradox.
O, Pioneer by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
For many authors, alternate history is the literature of wishful thinking, a stage upon which they can recreate events as they wish they had been, to right the wrongs, cast down the tyrants and raise up the victims of history. So Bohnhoff has done by sending several shiploads of Chinese savants fleeing from Chingis Khan to find refuge in the lands across the ocean. [note to Paradox copyeditor: the direction of the American continent from China is not west.] In consequence, several hundred years later, when Admiral Colón arrives at what he believes to be the Indies, he encounters a vast united force with a level of technology greater than his own.
This general scenario is not original, and Bohnhoff's version takes wishful thinking to an unrealistic extreme. While there are some interesting moments of theological speculation among the Spaniards, her characterization of the noble, peaceful, tolerant, wise natives – virtuously ruled by women – goes overboard somewhere far beyond the borders of credibility.
Draw Thy Breath in Pain by Carrie Vaughn
A ghost story of a ghost story. Will Shakespeare is confronted with a stranger named Horatio who has a story he is under compulsion to tell: "There was a king who died, a prince whose throne was usurped." It is a compulsion laid on him by a ghost, and when Will agrees to write the play, he finds himself haunted in turn by the spirit of the prince who will not let him rest until he has told his story.
This is a compelling idea, but as Vaughn tells it, there is little tension. Of course Shakespeare can write the story, of course he did; we all know it. But the story behind that story belongs to the haunted Horatio, and Vaughn only hints at it.
Cassandra's Cargo by D.J. Cockburn
George Harding, His Britannic Majesty's agent, is rotting away at his post on the River Gambia in Africa, trying to wash away the pains of malaria and his new teeth with brandy and laudanum. He does not know that his new teeth once belonged to an African slave, but he has begun to have strangely vivid dreams in which he is a black man abducted into slavery. Now comes an opportunity: the Royal Navy has captured a French slaver, and the French captain is offering him five hundred guineas if he releases the ship. Five hundred guineas would pay off Harding's debts, allow him to return home.
Cockburn has a sound grasp of his setting and he presents a vivid picture of Harding's physical and moral decay, but at the end, his conclusion comes as no great surprise.
Forty Shades of Gray by Tom Welch
To Dermot O'Grady, the English will always be the enemy, and the enemy of his enemy must be his ally. Therefore he does not hesitate to take the mission of escorting a German agent into Belfast at the beginning of the second World War. However, seeing the ruthlessness of the German gives Dermot second thoughts.
There are unfortunately not enough shades of moral gray in this piece. Nazis [although Welch does not actually use the N-word] are always a great convenience to any author looking for the stark shade of black, but in fact the German, whom the author carefully keeps from displaying any human qualities, acts with no more ruthlessness than any other such agent would, sent behind enemy lines in time of war. Did Dermot not realize that people might be killed on such a mission? Did he not realize some of them might be people he knew? Such a scenario might have raised important moral questions, but by introducing the Nazi bugbear into the story, Welch's conclusion is entirely predictable.
Power Play by Jack Whyte
Romans again. It is certainly no coincidence that when authors want an example of overweening power, they often turn to Rome. Whyte's story is a dialogue between two men, the Roman magistrate Caius Tullius and Master Builder Solomon Levi. Their subject is the nature of power, and Levi argues that knowledge is the greatest source of power, the source of true freedom, opposed to the power bought by wealth. Whyte appears to be referring to the ancient secrets of the order now known as the Masons, who created the Temple of Solomon the Wise. However, the dialogue does not come to a convincing conclusion, and readers may find it is overly-long and tedious in making its point.