My favorite issue from this reading period has to be the May F&SF, anchored by a strong novella from Ian MacLeod. Another recommendation for a zine reviewed for the first time in this column: Subterranean Magazine, the online edition.
- Asimov's, June 2007
- F&SF, May 2007
- F&SF, June 2007
- Interzone 209, April 2007
- Strange Horizons, March - April 2007
- Clarkesworld 7, April 2007
- Jim Baen's Universe #5, February 2007
- Subterranean, Winter 2007
- Helix SF #4, Spring 2007
- Talebones #34, Winter 2006
- Lone Star Stories 20, April 1 2007
- Shimmer, Winter 2007
Asimov's, June 2007
This issue may seem longer than it is because of the large number of stories, but most of these are rather short works. The mix is mostly science fiction.
Alien Archeology by Neal Asher
A new story set in Asher's Polity universe, where roams the ever-enigmatic gabbleduck. Previous tales in this series have revealed the gabbleducks to be the devolved sentients once known as the Atheter, who destroyed their own intelligence in order to evade the attention of the genocidal race called the Prador. Now, on a desert world once belonging to the Atheter, xeno-archeologist Rho Var Olssen discovers an Atheter artifact, a memstore that might hold the key to lost Atheter secrets. A vicious freelance hustler named Jael Feogril steals it and leaves Rho for dead, but before he was a xeno-archeologist, Rho was an assassin, and he vows to take revenge on Jael and retrieve the artifact. This task is complicated by the fact that Jael has acquired a live gabbleduck and intends to download the memstore into its brain, then sell the intelligent gabbleduck to the Prador. To accomplish this, she needs the assistance of a rogue AI, and there is only one both competent and ruthless enough to do the job. Rho follows Jael to the black planetoid where the AI has its lair, and so do the Prador, who would rather take the gabbleduck by force than pay for it. Mayhem ensues.
It happened almost too fast to follow. The golem spun, and in a spray of green the second-child slid in half along a diagonal cut straight through its body. The first-child's claw and half its armored visual turret and enclosing visor fell away. Its fluids fountained out as it fell forward, swung in its remaining claw and bore down. The golem collapsed, pinned to the floor under the claw containing the particle weapon. A turquoise explosion followed underneath the collapsing Prador, then oily flames belched out.
Asher delivers the action at a fast pace, fully loaded with all the neat skiffy tropes a reader could ask for– aliens, AIs, bodmods, heavy weapons and gizmos. Indeed, the actions comes so fast that a few possible plot inconsistencies flash past before they can be pinned down for closer examination. I doubt if most readers will mind too much, though.
Recommended, except for those readers highly sensitive to violence
News From the Front by Harry Turtledove
An alternate history in which the prevailing ethos of World War II– "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and "Don't You Know There's A War On"– is replaced by the attitudes more commonly displayed in the media today:
May 3, 1942— Washington Post
VEEP BREAKS RANKS WITH WHITE HOUSE
Demands Timetable for War
In the first public rift in the Roosevelt administration, Vice President Henry Wallace called on FDR to establish a timetable for victory. "If we can't win this war within eighteen months, we should pack it in," Wallace said, speaking in Des Moines yesterday. "It is causing too many casualties and disrupting the civilian economy."
Turtledove introduces his narrative with a disclaimer that it does not necessarily represent his own views with regard to the current administration and its conflicts. As a thought-experiment, it provides material to consider. It is a scenario, however, not a story.
Scrawl Daddy by Jack Skillingstead
A failed experiment discards its victims. The discovery of a portal leading from Beta Cygni to Earth creates a quandary, because the portal is one-way only. Earth has developed Tachyon Funnel Acceleration, but no human could survive the acceleration necessary to send a ship to the planet. A professor named Statama proposes a solution: use TFA to send cloned human zygotes gene-altered to age very rapidly; these would then return via the portal to Earth and report on what they have discovered.
TFA fired three Nursery Ships at one year intervals across the interstellar gulf and they were never heard from again. It was the ultimate blackop, the ultimate long shot. Statama had his moment in the sun but the sun was in full eclipse. All human cloning was illegal, and Statama's disposable variety would be even more so. He randomly named the "pure" originals: Barney Huff, Faye Rutherford, and Joe Null. These individuals, whose existence was forbidden by the same government that secretly sanctioned and financed their creation, were harvested and then dumped into the grinding mill of local welfare systems to be forgotten.
But on Earth, Joe Null dreams of being an old man in a place where there are many doors, unable to choose among them. He turns to graffiti, now known as Scrawl, to express his dreams.
The notion of the one-way portal is intriguing, but I found Statama's solution sufficiently improbable that my disbelief never did lift off the ground.
Studies in the Field by R. Neube
The narrator is a veteran "xenopologist" studying the creatures on one continent of the planet called Therov IV, in particular the pudgy sentients he calls doughboys. It is a hard environment, but the doughboys are well-adapted to it, and the narrator is not above stretching the ethical principle of nonintervention when he feels it appropriate.
The harsh arctic environment kept the nomadic doughboys in groups no larger than an extended clan. In this case, the magic number was thirty-eight. Too many. Last winter, the clan would have lost a dozen to starvation if I hadn't intervened. I had flown out to sea and bombarded the ocean with my craft's pulse cannon. The dead fish I'd skimmed off the surface afterwards sufficed to ward off the famine. Had my grad students survived their first year of field study, I would not have dared break the rules like that. My academic peers would have made me walk the career plank when I returned to the University of Deimos. Then again, maybe I would have done it anyway, damn the consequences.
Unfortunately, the doughboys are doomed, because there is another continent on Therov IV, where the dominants species is warlike and just becoming technologically advanced to the point of being able to cross the ocean.
The narrator's field notes combine scientific interest, dread, and some humor with a genuine affection for his alien subjects. Neube poses some interesting questions about the value of scientific objectivity as well as the ethics of intervention and its consequences.
Marrying In by Carrie Vaughn
In a future when the more desirable states restrict immigration, Alice is marrying in to Colorado. Because she loves Tom, she is willingly giving up her own home to move to his, but her new in-laws don't seem to appreciate this.
"Marrying in's practically the only way to get residency without paying the fees anymore," Connie said to Alice. "You're very lucky you met Tom." Yes, she was, she wasn't going to argue with that. But Tom's mother made it sound like she'd married him just to get into Colorado— not that she was only here because of Tom. She already missed the ocean. "I told him that would happen when he went to college out of state," Connie continued, inevitably. "I told him as soon as people found out he's from Colorado, the girls would swarm him trying to get in."
This very short piece is a nice study in family dynamics, though there is a bit too much infodumping by the contentious pack of in-laws as they quarrel.
Three Days of Rain by Holly Phillips
In a city where climate change has turned the lake to a dustbowl, a young man finds that life is still full of joy and promise.
Even the short bridge between Asuada and Orroco was built up, and in the evenings the street was a small fiesta, a promenade complete with music, paper flowers, colored lanterns, laughing girls, but now even the shady balconies were abandoned. These days the city's inhabitants withdrew into their rooms like bats into their caves, hiding from the sun. There was an odd, stubborn, nonsensical freedom to being one of the fools who walked abroad, dizzy and too dry to sweat, as if the heat of afternoon were a minor thing, trivial beside the important business of living.
Phillips' prose is lovely, making it easy for the reader to share Santiago's delight. But then, there seems to be no reason not to. For all that the city is dying of drought, for all the political tension over the issue of abandoning it, we see no hardship resulting from the situation. Santiago's aristocratic friends spend their days playing at fencing and cards; the taverns are full of beer and food; we see no desiccated bodies in the street, or people begging for water. Why should we not, then, rejoice with Santiago that life can still be good?
Tideline by Elizabeth Bear
Chalcedony is a derelict AI battle machine stranded on the beach after the war. She laboriously combs the tideline for sea glass, which she calls shipwreck beads, to craft bead skeins to memorialize the men and women of her dead platoon. She meets a child on the beach, a boy named Belvedere, and helps him survive. The two form a bond of mutual assistance, and Chalcedony tells him stories as she strings her beads, knowing that her power is starting to fade.
The same thread she worked over and over with her grabs and fine manipulators— the duty of the living to remember the fallen with honor— was played out in the war stories she still told him. She'd finished with fiction and history and now she related him her own experiences. She told him about Emma Percy rescuing that kid up near Savannah, and how Private Michaels was shot drawing fire for Sergeant Kay Patterson when the battle robots were decoyed out of position in a skirmish near Seattle.
This is a well-told and heartwarming story, though I find it a bit fanciful and improbable that a boy named Belvedere would meet a battle tank who knows the tales of the Round Table.
Don't Stop by James Patrick Kelly
Lisa sees dead people. She has seen them almost all her life.
When six-year-old Lisa came home from the hospital after the car crash that killed her father, she told her mother about the weird boy in gray sweats and black Keds nobody else could see. He was following her around, sometimes even into the bathroom. Annette Schoonover would smile and pretend to believe in Crispin for her daughter's sake. He must be Lisa's guardian angel, her mother said, sent by God to watch over her now that Daddy was in heaven. It was the best explanation her mother could come up with.
I suspect many readers will agree with me that Crispin is actually her father's ghost, haunting her. Lisa's life has been pretty much a mess, on account of the ghosts. The only really good thing in it is running; Lisa is a runner, just as her mother was, but her mother's life wasn't so great, either. Oh, and there's Matt, who says he loves her, even though he doesn't believe in Crispin. This all makes for an interesting situation, but it lacks tension, as there is never really any question what Lisa should do.
F&SF, May 2007
A superior issue, leading off with an excellent novella by Ian MacLeod and a particularly strong cast of supporting stories.
The Master Miller's Tale by Ian R. MacLeod
A tale of the alternate industrial revolution, set in the same history as the author's masterwork, The Light Ages. We begin in a world where the old traditions hold, where the old guilds preserve the secrets of their trades in weighty books of spells. Nathan Windhover grows up in the windmill on Burlish Hill to become a master miller, as his father was before him. So attuned he is to his craft that he can taste in every loaf of bread the particular wind that drove the mill to grind the grain. Yet even while he prospers, there is change coming, and the old ways are doomed to pass away.
These were good times across the rich farmlands of Lincolnshire. The big cities of the Midlands were spreading, sucking in labor under their blanket of smoke, and that labor— along with the growing middle classes who drew their profit from it, and the higher guildsmen who speculated in shares, bonds and leases— needed to be fed. Borne in on endless carts, and then increasingly drawn along rails by machines powered by that same heat and steam that drove those burgeoning industries, came supplies of every kind, not least of which was flour for cakes, biscuits, and bread.
Sometimes, although it seemed less often than in the times of Nathan's childhood, the wind-seller still came to Burlish Hill. In rare hot, windless times, the shimmer of something— at first it could have been nothing more than a mirage twirl of dust— would emerge from the valley, and Nathan wondered as he watched where else this man traveled, and what he did on other, less closed-in days. He always bought a few examples of the wind-seller's produce, although in truth he barely needed them, for he made sure that he made efficient use of all the winds that the sky carried to him, and had little need for such old-fashioned methods of enchantment. The world was changing, just as Fiona Smith had once said it would. Magic was being pumped out from the ground beneath northern cities. You could buy oils and new bearings that were infused with it, which was commonly called aether, and which spilled dark hues in daylight, and shone spectrally in the dark. Nathan was happy enough to use the stuff— at least, if it was for the good of his trade. He knew, or surmised, that the hill itself had once been the source of the power that drove the mill's spells, but perhaps that had been wearing thin, and what else could you do but breathe and work through the seasons that time brought to you, and sing, and wait, and smile, and hope for the best?
MacLeod's work does not fit into any of the pre-drilled genre slots. We might call it alternate historical science fantasy with a steampunk flavor– or sui generis. There is a sense of inevitability about the events, for despite how much this society has altered, everything changes in much the same way as it did in our own timeline, whether the instrument is called electricity or aether. The story, however, is the effect of such changes upon the people who must live through them, and MacLeod tells it well. Readers who have previously read his larger work in this setting will certainly recognize the events taking place; readers who are new to this milieu should be glad of this introduction.
Telefunken Remix by A.A. Attanasio
Mistakes were made. Sentient creatures evolved on Earth, but by the time the monitors were aware of the fact, neglected humanity had already been extinct for two million years. To atone, the Contexture built Hevinside and populated it with [in part] clones of long-dead humans. Their existence is an idyllic one, but some among the humans have a sense of duty toward their extinct ancestors, who lived and died without such advantages as they now enjoy. Noel proposes to switch places with his doppel, his genetic twin from the past, but Leon turns out to be far more different than Noel had imagined, and mistakes, once again, are made.
This is a complex and imaginative future, informed by the latest speculation in physics [branes] and adorned by remarkably intelligent puns– Noel, dwelling in a sentient tree, enters the wash bole for his morning ablutions. At the end, however, the eternal ties of love win out over all.
Kaleidoscope by K.D. Wentworth
Ally takes early retirement and plans to enjoy her garden, but she becomes caught in a trap seemingly designed by Schrödinger, where events seem to split, and two or more different outcomes may be true at the same time. One day, she saves the life of a stray dog, but at the same time it runs away and is killed by a car.
Both scenes played in her mind like dueling movie trailers. She remembered the boys' beaming faces when they hugged their retrieved companion and their tears as their mother picked up the pointer's carcass.
It wasn't one or the other. Somehow, it was both.
Wentworth effectively portrays Ally's increasing confusion and frustration with this situation, but since we have no idea how it came about, it is hard to see how her solution works.
The Tamarisk Hunter by Paolo Bacigalupi
Yet another dystopian future from arch-pessimist Bacigalupi.
When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about how "hot" it was. It didn't really matter how "hot" it was. The problem wasn't lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn't touch it.
Of course the guardies patrol the river to make sure nobody does touch the water, until the towns all dry up and die. But Lolo the water tick doesn't give up; he gets a government contract to clear tamarisk trees from the riverbanks, at $2.88 a day plus water rights, because a big tamarisk can suck up 73,000 gallons of water a year. Except that now the government is starting to enclose the rivers, turning them into big pipelines, and Lolo's services as a tamarisk hunter won't be wanted anymore.
The editorial blurb informs us that this story was written in response to a call for fiction depicting ways for people to live sustainably in the American West, but instead it is a Cautionary Tale of global warming and the power of political clout to shape our futures. It is the characters who make this tale come alive, however, not the message.
The Great White Bed by Don Webb
A horror story, although this only becomes clear at the end. The narrator, at age thirteen, spends the summer living with his grandfather, who is in the early stages of dementia. Somehow, the old man gets hold of a book possessed by some kind of power, which seems in a mysterious manner to restore his mind. But of course there is a price.
This piece is quite short, but it effectively evokes the long, hot days of a childhood summer in the past, the heat that makes it so hard to sleep, and even harder to wake up from. The climax comes abruptly, without much buildup.
F&SF, June 2007
A particularly wide variety of stories this time, but science fiction dominates.
First was the Word by Sheila Finch
A prequel to Finch's long-running Lingster series, in which we learn how the corps of Xenolinguists originally came to be. It seems that a linguist named Jamal Lenana has written a doctoral dissertation in which he proposes a universal basis for understanding even non-human language. This dissertation is not well-received by the linguistic establishment, which denies him his degree, but the military finds a use for it when a possibly-alien possibly-construct individual suddenly shows up, unable to speak any human language. Jamal immediately finds his theory totally useless in the face of a maybe-actual alien, and while he makes great progress teaching the alien English, he learns not a word of any alien language. Nonetheless, the possibility of aliens being now well-established, it is clear that steps need to be taken to learn how to speak to them.
Given that this story is supposed to establish the science of xenolinguistics, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the theory behind it, and more of Jamal's ideas, whether they worked or not.
Elegy by Mélanie Fazi, translated by Christopher Priest
A monologue spoken by a mother whose young twins were stolen away two years ago, as she believes, by the tree on the hilltop. The loss has driven her husband to drink and her, perhaps, to madness.
I don't know how Benjamin failed to see the two masks set in the bark. Two faces drawn in the higher part of the trunk, just below the nodes of your main branches, as if carved from the same wood. They can be seen, though. The features are coarse: just eyes, nose, mouth. Neither lips, nor hair, nor eyebrows. But they seem a natural part of the whole, as if they have always been there. Two oval growths on the trunk, back to back. Admit that you did it on purpose! Two years that they turn their backs on each other, like the two faces of Janus. You did this deliberately, to separate them. It is all part of the irony of the thing: they are together, but they cannot see each other.
The narrative is perhaps too prolonged and repetitive, as if to lull the reader into such a stupor that certain shocking revelations may be missed.
An Eye for an Eye by Charles Coleman Finley
It's a bodmod world, and if a guy can have an eyeball implanted in his anus, it's no surprise to learn that he's given away his family jewels to his ex-girlfriend, and now she won't give them back. So the guy, Beckett, comes to the narrator, who's a burglar for hire, which is as good a way as any for a Have-not to screw the Haves, and he does the job. But complications arise, because the Haves are not to be trusted.
Alarms go off as soon as it hits the cash drawer. The money is fake. Counterfeit. The lady in the food window is old as my grandmother, and she's staring at me with that old lady mixture of disappointment and contempt while the tire spikes pop up in front and back of my car.
I lean my head forward against the steering wheel to wait for the private cops to show up. I'm hoping they take a while so I can figure out how to get even with Beckett.
What follows is a trail of revenge, double-cross and gross-out that fully lives up to the promise of the opening scenes.
Wizard's Six by Alex Irvine
Paulus is a mercenary on a mission for the wizards' guild: to hunt down a rogue apprentice named Myros before he can complete his power by collecting the native magic of six children. Paulus must also kill the children in order to destroy the wizard. This is a task that causes him pangs of conscience, but not enough to stop him.
The apprentice had spent enough time in the Agate Tower to know that there would be pursuit. He was moving fast and had four months' head start; Paulus moved faster, riding through nights and spring storms, fording spring-swollen rivers, asking quiet questions over bottles in public houses along the only road over the mountains. He killed the first of the apprentice's collection on a farm between a bend in the road and a ripple of foothills: a small boy with a dirty face and a stick in his hand.
Yes, mister, a man passed by here in the winter.
Yes, mister, he had a ring over his glove. I was feeding the pig, and he told me I was a likely boy. Are you looking for him?
Can I see your sword?
They weren't supposed to choose children, Paulus was thinking as he rode on. Even apart from the cultural sanction, children's magic was powerful but unpredictable, tricky to harness. No wonder the guild was after this one.
Paulus has his own secrets, which he has paid much to forget, but the closer he comes to Myros, the more children he has to kill, the closer to the surface the old memories come.
The focus is on Paulus as a character, yet even at the end I find him distant and hard to comprehend. The tale he tells of his forgotten past is improbable, and may not be entirely true. Central to his story is the incident when he killed the dragon, yet it is not quite clear why he chose to have that particular memory forgotten. Nor is it clear that the threat posed by Myros is so great that it justifies so many deaths [or why the wizards gave him such a great head start]. The story's real moment of truth comes when Paulus finally confronts the wizard.
"For this you made me kill children," Paulus said.
"I made you do nothing," Myros said.
Then why, Paulus?
Sweet Trap by Matthew Hughes
Henghis Hapthorn solves a case. The famed discriminator is hired to find a missing husband, whose wife believes he was kidnapped. At first, Hapthorn suspects that Chup Choweri may have merely abandoned his wife, as many husbands do, but it appears that she is correct. Not only did Chup's disappearance take place right after he had looked at a used spaceship for sale at a very attractive price, this same ship has been connected with other, previous disappearances. The ship, in short, was a sweet trap designed to lure the unwary. The question is: why?
Many prospective buyers had leaped to reply to the ship's integrator each time the attractive offer had been made. My assistant had to identify each of them, then discover each's whereabouts by following the tracks left by subsequent activity on the connectivity. Some of the subjects, wishing to maintain their privacy, used shut-outs and shifties to block or sideslip just such attempts to delineate their activities. So the business took most of a minute.
The detective story at the core of this account could stand alone, but as it is taken from Hughes' recent Hapthorn novel, it comes with introduction and postscript tying these events to those of the larger work. This material will doubtless be welcomed by Hapthorn fans, but will likely prove confusing to those coming new to this recurring character.
Lázaro y Antonio by Marta Randall
Lázaro wasn't born the way he is now, and there are moments when he remembers things. When he sees a slip of paper with a sequence of numbers written down, he remembers briefly that he was once a Fibs, a starship's navigator.
How it works
I don't know exactly, I'm no Fibs and neither are you. But it starts where you are, that's the zero and grows square to square, from (zero) where you are to (one) to (zero+one) to (one+one) to (two+one) to (three+two) to (five+three) to (eight+five) and on out forever, in growing strides to the reaches of the universe, and every right-angle step is a dimension from zero (here) where you start to (here+up+down) to (here+up+down+backwards+forwards) to (here+up+down+backwards+forwards+time), dancing through the dimensions and the Fibs dances each step, hands and mind and body moving to the rhythm of phi and the Fibs makes a turn and the boxes follow and the dimensions follow into the other there that is the Continuum, like launching the ship out through the pit of your guts, like sex only better because you're it and you're you and you're the ship and the boxes and the dance and the Continuum and when you're not the dance you're waiting for the dance like you wait for a breath or a heartbeat or anything else that keeps you alive because you're a Fibonacci Dancer. You're a Fibs.
Lázaro's brother Antonio takes care of him now that he's trapped back home in the spaceport slum with his mind slowly eroding. One day when Lázaro has a brief moment of remembering what he used to be, he meets a spaceship captain who claims to know what happened to the ship and cargo from his last flight. She makes a deal with Antonio: she can supply enough of the embargoed drug that will bring back Lázaro's wiped memory, then he'll be able to tell her where the smuggled cargo can be found. It seems at first like a good deal all around, for everyone.
This is a fine, poignant story that may remind readers of the classic "Flowers for Algernon," and not unworthy to stand beside it.
Interzone #209, April 2007
This 25th anniversary issue brings out some of IZ's biggest fictional guns, which makes for a rather mixed reading experience. There is on the one hand the excitement of finding several of the most influential British SF authors gathered here in one place. Yet there is also the usual problem for readers who may not be familiar with the work of these authors, on which some the pieces here are based. There is an overall dystopian tone.
The Whenever at the City's Heart by Hal Duncan
This is the issue's showpiece, a The Book of All Hours story, set in the fictional universe of Duncan's massive duology, of which the second part, Ink, has recently been published. Here, it is the Watch Tower where events are centered,
… the ticks and talk of turning gears and sproinging springs, the whirl of mirrored cogs and jam of hammer-and-bell that should be knelling, telling time in rhyme and reason, chimes and seasons… but is not. The pendulum that stretched down the whole height of the watchtower, hung on wire as thin as a dimension, snicks and cocks and rocks this way and that still, it seems it's marking off one second to midnight, one long second to midnight, one drawn out and stretched second to midnight, time and time again.
Duncan metaphorically describes this tale, one of a set of four, as smaller structures built around the central cathedral of the duology, in the shadow of which it lies. For readers unfamiliar with the two novels, much [e.g., bitmites, Cant] will necessarily go unexplained. Yet there is no more explanation in the larger work, and the resulting sense of strangeness somehow seems right, for we see that we are in a world that can never be fully mapped or explicated; it is too protean, too vast. The plot is a single incident with manifold ramifications; the characters are more archetypes than persons. What we have here is a showpiece of the author's prose, in all its alliterative, onomatopoeic, Joycean excess.
Winter by Jamie Barras
An alternate history. Shortly after WWII, the Winter plague struck the world: a virus, said perhaps to be of extraterrestrial origin, greatly enhanced the mental abilities of its survivors. These persons, known as Wintermen, were considered both an opportunity and a threat by the British government; eventually they rebelled and escaped to space, to seek out the origins of the virus. This story is told in alternating sections from the point of view of Dr. Manfred Christian, who in the 1950s was part of the team of scientists trying to crack the Winter virus, and in 1998 is living in retirement on Io when the Wintermen return to the solar system and the Security Service calls on his help.
The narrative is indirect, leaving the reader to piece together the clues as to what has been going on– in both past and "present". Yet the author's hints are insufficient, for Christian has a deep secret he is not revealing to us, so that it comes as a Revelation [aka, infodump] at the end. The backstory here is a fascinating one, of a humanity altered profoundly by the techniques of viral information transfer, yet the author's manner of telling robs it of much of its interest.
The Good Detective by M. John Harrison
Certainly an anniversary issue of IZ had to have something by Harrison. The narrator is the eponymous detective, a specialist in missing persons. Not the ordinary ones, the ones too easy to find. He seeks out the ones who go missing from their own lives, there and not-there at the same time.
Some of them you track down. Others you don't, and often that's the best thing. Because what are you going to do? Corner them in the loading bay behind a supermarket in Dalston? Chase them down a muddy path in Stoke Newington cemetery, calling out in a language they can't remember? Back them up against themselves until there's nowhere left to run and whatever dissatisfaction drove them inwards, whatever fire they're full of, bursts out of the neck and sleeves of their crap old raincoat and they go up in front of you like a bundle of dry sticks? I've seen that happen, believe me it's not worth it.
This short piece goes beyond ambiguity to enigmatic, as if glimpsed indistinctly through a fog, so that it might be psychological metaphor or some fantastic transformation, where a man slowly turns invisible or steps out of his own flesh, leaving only a husk behind.
Big Cat by Gwyneth Jones
This is a case when a reader's unfamiliarity with the author's background works against the story, although it is not likely there are many readers of IZ unfamiliar with Jones' Bold As Love series. The difficulty does not lie so much in the dystopian, climate-altered setting, where rock stars rule and certain Old Powers have risen again, but in the characters, with whom the story assumes we are already well-acquainted. It seems that there are wolves running free on Bodmin Moor, wolves that rock-ruler Sage regards as his own personal totem creatures, and now one of them has been killed by a very large wild cat. This seems to be a problem, yet there is even a greater problem when the body of the wolf seems to have disappeared. Sage is suspicious– it is not quite clear why, and the problem of the wolf seems to become little more than an excuse for Sage and Fiorinda to confront crippled Eval in his exile, and for them all to confront the Old Powers and their representatives. Which is all very well for readers already familiar with the background of these characters, but for readers new to Jones' work, to whom Sage, Fiorinda and Eval are unknown, it is a story that comes closer to falling on its face in the Bodmin mud instead of standing on its own.
The Sledge-Maker's Daughter by Alastair Reynolds
This tale's setting seems at first to suggest a traditional fantasy, but it soon becomes clear that it is post apocalyptic. The advanced society of the past destroyed itself in warfare, but knowledge of these times has faded into legend, valuable skydrift only rarely now falls to earth, and the ice age is finally starting to thaw. This leaves Kathrin's father, the sledge-maker, without enough work to make a living; Kathrin tries to help by running errands for Widow Grayling, who is feared by some as a witch, though she is menaced on her way to the widow's house by a local bully who tries to extort sex from her. This time Widow Grayling has a surprise gift for Kathrin, for while she is not a witch, she possesses powers from a different source altogether.
Of all the pieces in this issue, this one is alone in having a conventional story structure and plot. This makes the ending somewhat predictable, following the widow's revelation, although the scene where Kathrin tests her new powers, and herself, is a strong one.
Tears for Godzilla by Daniel Kaysen
An author of horror novels, with more imagination than savoir-faire, is overwhelmed by his own fictional scenarios when he finally finds himself going for coffee with the woman he has had a crush on for a decade. An attack by Godzilla is easier for him to handle than the terror of having to make small talk while waiting in line at the coffee shop.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Edward Morris
This novella is not included in the print edition of the zine but is available online in a PDF version from the publisher's website: http://www.ttapress.com/Journey.pdf
How Howard Hughes and a cast of thousands drill down through the Earth's crust from the bottom of the Marianas Trench to reach the Mohorovicic boundary.
It is possible to have too much fun with alternate history for a story's good. An author is tempted to populate his tale with iconic characters out of our popular culture, to drop a few names into improbable roles for effect. Here, Morris has not just dropped a few names on the reader, he has dumped the whole load, including Jacques Cousteau, Rod Sterling, Hunter S. Thompson, and Isaac Asimov as Agent 008; the text is full of hyperlinks to the roles of these characters in our own timeline. There are some very repetitive scenes describing the drilling process and equipment, which might be of interest to the science fiction reader, but instead of the SFnal adventure this might have been, the author's primary purpose is satire, political satire directed at the environmental issues and bugbears of our own time, played by figures from fifty years ago. At the end we have Hughes, escaping from his own demons into the depths:
I have penetrated between the great teats of Gaia. Down here at the bottom of Challenger Deep, you can feel every drop of seven miles of water pressing in on you. Down here, the human eye can no longer distinguish color, only shadow and light. You forget that there was a sky, or that the sky is anything but this fluid, motile blackness and unbelievable pressure. Without this Inversuit, I'd pop out there. Or in here. Without a whole battery of lights out there, though, you'd literally be turning your head to see what ate you.
It's a cathedral silence, an uncomfortable one, closing in on you, and…
Oh, God. Jerry… Jerry! There are germs! Jerry–
But overall, Morris has let his name-dumping stand in for story.
Strange Horizons, March— April 2007
Only three stories from SH (online) in March, as the Stiles is split into two installments [and yes, I still wish they wouldn't do that].
Raindogs and Dustpuppets by Chris Gauthier
Gauthier has a charming notion in the raindogs— dreams of rain, as he calls them, ephemeral and fragile. They appear with the weather, born from the rain— dog-shaped holes in the rain the narrator calls them— and they bond to humans, just as real dogs do. The story here is that someone has had the idea to stage raindog races, but of course, human nature being what it is, some bastard always has to spoil and corrupt it.
While I enjoyed the idea of the raindogs, my inner nitpicker can't help pointing out that the races, as organized as they seem to be, are improbably unspontaneous for an event that can not be reliably predicted. I also suspect a rainstorm is not really the best environment for a dustpuppet, as it would be quickly washed away.
The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by Paula R. Stiles
They sometimes call Tam a cannibal because when he was very young his mother sacrificed her own life and body for him. Afterwards, as an orphan, he was abused by an uncaring institution and still has difficulty forming human bonds, but he copes by preferring to work in space, alone. Until he finds an abandoned child in the disposal and discovers he doesn't want to turn her over to the same sort of authorities who once neglected him.
The title comes from the Book of Revelations, in which the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. This is a nice bit of symbolism, inverted by the notion of a child who devoured his mother. But the story hinges upon a bureaucracy that seems to have no way to report a lost child, which, in a place where tourists visit, is less than believable. Nor do I think Tam has given sufficient consideration to the possibility that the child has been lost, not discarded, so that she might have a family trying to find her.
Harvest by Joanne Merriam
The aliens have shown up. The government reacts stupidly, as is its wont. The aliens don't care. Certain people disappear, abducted by the aliens. It is possible that they were originally sent by the aliens to be raised as humans, and are now being collected. One of these is the narrator's lover, Brenda, who was fascinated by the aliens the moment they first appeared. The narrator doesn't care so much about the aliens, but she misses Brenda; it is Brenda who was real to her.
Merriam's tale is more absurd than sentimental, expressing the very alienness of the situation, and the way people will try to rationalize what they can not comprehend, or to deny it altogether, when that fails.
What the Thunder Said by Lavie Tidhar
The setting here suggests Resnick's Kirinyaga, with a futurized Africa, an aging medicine man, and a sacred mountain. In this case, the mountain is Mulanje, in Malawi, accursed by a weapon deployed in a past war that haunts the mountain as a vampiric storm. Which makes this story, despite its SFnal trappings, a dark fantasy.
The sangoma who now calls himself Mr Nine is approached by a young woman, a tourist, to help her companion, who was stricken after climbing the forbidden mountain. Mr Nine knows that the boy's soul was taken by the vampiric storm, the very reason that the mountain is forbidden, yet he feels compelled to help. He climbs the mountain to ask the storm to release the soul. Yet as readers of fairy tales know, such requests always require a price that is sometimes more than the suppliant wants to pay.
He could feel its pull, its attraction, its suffocating charm. Found himself drowning in it, in that mesh of interlinked minds, nirvana-cloud, ghost-catcher, dream-catcher. He had opened within himself; he had offered himself to the storm.
He drifted amidst the multitude of ghosts; here, in the heart of the storm, there was no noise, no flashes of lightning, no rolls of thunder cracking like a whip. His essence, his mind, embedded in the tiny engines that swarmed in the air, that fed and formed and were the storm… it was seduced. Drawn like a mosquito to an electric blue light.
This story's beauty is in its African setting, and in the updating of the sangoma tradition of communication with ancestors. But while Tidhar effectively evokes the wonder of the vampire bomb, he does not quite convince me to suspend my disbelief in such a thing as a device of science fiction rather than sorcery– as a thing possible. Nor am I sure what Mr Nine thought he could accomplish by confronting the storm as he did, knowing well what it was. The text is marred by an extraneous, intrusive scene from an outside point of view, and at one point the author says that "no one could even remember the wars", when it is clear in the story that they are remembered quite well, as everyone from Malawi knows why it is dangerous to climb the accursed mountain.
Painted by Becca de La Rosa
Once, Loretta posed as a model for an artist.
And later, a long time later, the faceless man invited her to his show. Women came and went in thin black heels and waiters offered Loretta tiny salmon sandwiches on cocktail sticks, but she did not want food, the way paintings do not want food. Loretta stared at the painting of herself. Painted Loretta had scorch-marks on her legs and her eyes were pockets full of sand. Her wrists were roof-slates where the wind came in. Loretta and Painted Loretta watched each other for a long time, until the waiters told her politely that the exhibition was over, the museum was closing, and would she like them to call a taxi? No, Loretta said, and left.
Now Loretta haunts the art museum, planning to liberate the figures from their paint and marble and clay.
This piece, with its fractured, dissociated images, is interesting as a psychological portrait of a mind very far gone from reality. It is not, even ambiguously, a fantasy; if the author has intended this, the reader– this reader, at least– rejects the possibility. This sort of ambiguity is a common trope of non-genre fantasy: to posit that the creations of an imagination might actually be real, but also, with equal likelihood, only figments or dreams. The paradoxical conclusion is that the fantastic has a more solid ontological status than the delusional. Here, however, we are very clearly in the world of the delusional, not the fantastic, and it is only the presence of this piece in a publication where fantasy is the default that would suggest otherwise. The venue, in short, has added something to the story beyond what the reader might take from the text itself.
How the Mermaid Lost her Song by Mark Teppo
A detective story, with marvels.
When the medical examiner opened the corpse's chest, he found the body cavity filled with sea water. Two small sea turtles, their shells still soft like the fingernails of a baby, were floating in the briny solution. The lungs were stuffed with starfish, and a squid, colored a sickly maroon, was wrapped around the heart.
The medical inspector knows this is no ordinary drowning, and that it will require no ordinary inspector from Scotland Yard to solve the mystery. But a single look at the mermaid's black eye explains it all.
This very short piece rises above the mermaid cliché not only with the addition of Scotland Yard but the wondrous description of the corpse, with the small squid clinging determinedly to its heart.
Ferryman's Reprieve by Kate Bachus
There has been a change of management, and Charon has been replaced by a new ferryman, carrying his passengers across a wider gulf to a more up-to-date destination. The judges gave Abraham a choice– to drive the ferry or to ride it, though he suspects he will one day be a passenger like all the rest, because his sins were grave. Until then, the only voices he hears belongs to the doomed on their last journey, and he is their last chance to tell their story. But then comes a man who wants to hear Abraham's story.
Bachus is a bit coy in telling this tale, referring to the ferry's destination only as Home, which leaves the setting in an ambiguous limbo between a SFnal prison system and an updated version of Hell, which may be more than just a metaphor.
Clarkesworld Issue #7 , April 2007
A grim month for fiction at Clarkesworld (online), with one dark fantasy and one all-too-mundane horror, hinting of SF.
The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer
When sickness came to Grommin, the villagers blamed the local witch and drove her into the forest. There, the witch summoned vengeance, and it arrived in the form of a creature from Elsewhere that was not a bear.
The Third Bear came to the forest in mid-summer, and soon most anyone who used the forest trail, day or night, disappeared, carried off to the creature's lair. By the time even large convoys had traveled through, they would discover two or three of their number missing. A straggling horseman, his mount cantering along, just bloodstains and bits of skin sticking to the saddle. A cobbler gone but for a shredded, bloodied hat. A few of the richest villagers hired mercenaries as guards, but when even the strongest men died, silent and alone, the convoys dried up.
With winter coming on, the villagers find themselves besieged, victims as much of their own fear as of the creature they know is not really a bear, a creature that is arranging their skulls within its cave to form a pattern that seems to have a purpose.
The ring of heads lined every flat space in the cave, painted blue and green and yellow and red and white and black. Even in the extremity of his situation, Horley could not deny that there was something beautiful about the pattern.
The narrator seems somewhat detached from these events, yet intimately familiar with them– with the stench of the creature's breath and the strength of its heartbeat and the wonder of the man who beholds it, even while pissing himself in his fear. The creature is entirely alien, beyond the realm of human morality, yet its presence outside Grommin is that of an angel of retribution come to smite the villagers for their folly and weakness, impossible to propitiate. There is something in the strangeness and mystery, the tone of this tale that almost made me think it could have been written by Gene Wolfe, with rather a higher quotient of gore.
The First Female President by Michael de Kler
An abused spouse reflects on her situation: the rules for surviving and her dreams for escape– somehow, some day. This is a story of a woman's ability to create hope even out of her abuse.
The strength of this very short story is psychological, the intensity and clarity with which the author depicts the warped thought processes of the abuser– so almost-reasonable, so familiar, so chilling because we know de Kler isn't really making this man up.
He says the rules are there to protect me. It's when rules aren't followed that people get hurt. Without them, you wouldn't know why you're being punished.
Jim Baen's Universe #5, February 2007
A disappointing issue of this e-zine (available online to subscribers), after a promising start last year. The fast-paced military action stories have disappeared, and in their place are too many pieces that seem to want to do anything else but be a story. The most entertaining fiction turns out to be found in some of the lightweight, humorous tales, but even some of those were simply silly. If there isn't more Gene Wolfe, I want the battle-bots back, at least.
War Stories by Elizabeth Bear
A rather uncharacteristic work from this author– hard-bitten and grim. The narrator is a soldier, a lifer, who relates incidents from two stages in her life: the first when she is young and saves a child during a firefight; the second when she has retired and moves in with her onetime lover to help him care for his dying wife and their daughters. It is a story of losing things she has never had, will never have, like children of her own. Perhaps because she will not allow herself to believe she deserves them.
A Stranger in Paradise by Edward M. Lerner
In this familiar future, humans have gone out to colonize space in slow generation ships; their civilization has failed, then risen again to invent an FTL drive. The narrator and his wife are part of the corps sent out to search for possible surviving colonies. They discover one such colony thriving, sort of, on a world where the biochemistry does not seem capable of supporting terrestrial life. The wife, the biologist, lands on the planet to check it out, while the husband remains on the relict slowboat to shake down its computers for the information to explain the mystery of how the colonists survived.
This is a typical SF "problem story" in which a mystery is presented and the author dribbles out the answer one bit at a time, interleaving these infodumps with scenes purportedly of human interest. It takes a really intriguing mystery and a really clever solution to make such a scenario anything but dull, and I fear that Lerner has fallen short. His two-person exploration crew is too improbable, clearly chosen only for the convenience of the author's plot. Even more improbable: no colony so extremely concerned for the ecological integrity of the world they are about to settle would ever take to the surface such a creature as the domestic cat.
Demonstration Day by Ian Creasey
This tale being farce, it is no problem that its setting at an inventors' convention, where the narrator is a vendor of gremlin traps, is quite absurd.
"Remember Hogg?" said Vanzetti. "Clever fellow— invented the Practical Angel Trap. I remember the demo as if it were only last year: never been so moved in my life. We all warned him of the consequences if he fiddled with the apparatus, but he just had to see what happened if he reversed the polarity. Next thing he knew, a swarm of demons carried him off to Hell. That's no way for a scientist to go."
The buzz at this year's con is the mysterious disappearance of Rankin, which our narrator is anxious to solve, because some of the inventors suspect Rankin's demise may have been caused by defective equipment he sold him last year. In the end, reversing the polarity saves the day again.
Readers fond of silliness and absurdity may like this one.
I Could've Done Better by Gregory Benford and David Brin
Alec is hanging around in the bar, killing time before he has to go home to his wife, when a couple of hot babes come in to make him an offer from their beleaguered future.
"Oh, I get it now. You've come back in time to ask me for genetic samples?"
The blonde put her hand on my thigh, a pleasant warm pressure, and rather more alarming than I expected. Her smile broadened.
"Yes, but more than that, we need your help."
"No fighting aliens in the future? Shucks."
A small corner of me felt strangely disappointed. I kind of hankered after that.
"We would not risk your life. But you can save humanity, Alec. If you are willing to accept a most difficult, onerous but ultimately rewarding task."
This one would have been properly filed under "Be Careful What You Wish For," except that Alec never actually wished to become Pharaoh and consort with a harem full of beautiful women. As the story was set up, he wasn't really given a choice, but neither did he develop much as a character, with the authors playing this one more for laughs.
Marklord Pete by Wil McCarthy
Pete is a trademark heir. His secretary Muffy isn't in the economic class to make her a likely marriage prospect, but she isn't going to let that stop her. Unfortunately, this is a diatribe disguised as a story, so that instead of just falling in love, Pete and Muffy endure lectures on the Evils of Intellectual Property Law as they try to track down and sue an infringer.
The Spiral Road by Louise Marley
Another colony world. Deserted by the spacecraft that once tied it to interstellar civilization, the city of Callis on the dry lowland plain is in a slow decline. Another group of colonists has moved up to the highlands, where they are thriving, growing such native plants as the pursil vine, that can treat fever and cure wounds. Once, the two centers traded peacefully, but now the Callistans are making war on Alhasa, and in consequence their supply of pursil leaves has run out, to the distress of the doctors treating sick children. It is left to ghosts and blind visionaries to break the impasse.
This lesson of the foolishness and futility of war is rather too obvious. I liked the description of the chanting monks, but was jolted out of the mood by "the steep slopes of the plateau."
Rebel the First by Edd Vick
A Tall Tale, good ol' boy style. It seems that Rebel opened himself a box of Cracker Jacks, and down there at the bottom was the prize: a big old gold ring. And a little slip of paper with it saying he was now the new Pope.
Things happened pretty fast after that. We were all tuckered out from the trip, but Carlino, he up and dragged us out to this balcony overlooking the front yard. And boy was it full of people, let me tell you. They put up a yell when they saw us, just like as if we were football heroes, and I looked to see if they were going to do the wave. But then a chimney nearby let out this plume of white smoke, and they gave a yell that put the first one to shame. Just as they're letting up, Carlino he sneaked up behind me and put a mile-high pope-hat on my head, and that made 'em bust out all over again.
But Pope Rebel, having been raised by his daddy the Baptist minister, isn't quite what the Vatican had in mind.
Silly, but fun. This seems to be part of a series, but the tale stands quite firmly on its own.
Pawn's Gambit by Carol Hightshoe
A variation on the Sleeping Beauty tale. This time, the evil witch turns out to be a well-meaning feminist who has her own plans for the future Queen. Too much Message, too little story.
Storm Warning by Robert Cruze
Lee and Maddy Kurchowsky run a smelting operation out on the solar corona. The work is dangerous, but no totally automated process has yet been developed to produce the highest-quality solar steel, so someone has to be there on the spot, and Lee has a reputation for higher quality than the big corporate smelters can produce. Suddenly, the alarm goes off: a big solar flare is predicted, and they have only minutes to get into their escape craft and evacuate. The Kurchowskys survive after a harrowing flight, but their smelter is probably ruined, the insurance may not cover their losses, and Lee doesn't want to take his family back to the sun again.
This was starting to look like a nice, tense future techno-thriller, rather standardized but sufficiently packed with Neat Stuff to hold reader interest. Then, with challenges rising up on all sides to confront the Kurchowskys, the author steps in and hands them a birthday cake, wrapped up with red ribbon. No, that's not how these things are supposed to work. The author's job is set to the challenges for the protagonists, but the characters are supposed to solve them for themselves. Cruze blows up a pretty good balloon of plot expectations, then lets all the air out. Disappointing.
Old Folks' Home by John Kratman
Here's a good idea– a retirement home in space, where the gravity is easy on old folks' joints and hearts. Bobby Cullivan's son runs the place, but Bobby is in charge whenever Joey has to go down to Earth for the gravity treatment. He realizes that the guys who say they've come to repair the station's impact shield are scammers, but before he can stop them, they've stolen the shield and are hauling it off. Well, Bobby isn't going to let them get away with it, so he shoots a grapple out to their tug and hangs on for the ride. What he finds, however, is a surprise.
A light piece of story, on the heartwarming side.
The Goblin Hunter by Jeff Stehman
Adham the goblin hunter is good at what he does because he understands how goblins think. It's simple enough: goblins are fatally perverse.
"If you tie them up, you're telling the goblins that they can't take the horses, so they will. If you let them stand free, goblins usually leave them alone. Likewise, be prepared to unpack your saddlebags every night so nothing is hidden. That includes the quicksilver. We'll set it in a pile of loose gear when we camp and leave some other things to distract the goblins."
But even Adham sometimes makes a mistake, and goblins are also dangerous. An amusing and imaginative tale.
Subterranean, Winter 2007
Subterranean Press is a publisher of horror/dark fantasy, and it also produces a magazine. What I have here seems to be the online edition of that magazine's fifth issue. The online version seems to be set up as a teaser, as it posts its contents on a piecemeal basis, dividing the longer works into chapters for this purpose. I suppose the intent is for people to purchase the print edition, instead.
Besides nonfiction content, this issue offers four vignettes [not reviewed here to avoid the spoilers that get so many people tied up in knots] and two much longer pieces– a novella and a long novelette. Readers fond of the dark genre may want to pick up a copy.
Vacancy by Lucius Shepard
Cliff Coria's life has been a vacant one, empty of purpose, empty of meaningful relationships. He is now working as a used-car salesman across the street from a run-down motel where the NO on the NO VACANCY sign doesn't seem to work right. With a lot of spare time to watch the place, he notices that whenever customers go into bungalow Number Eleven, they never seem to come out again, and the VACANCY sign loses its NO. Cliff discovers that that motel is owned by a Malaysian family, relatives of a woman with whom he once had an affair during his career as a B-movie actor– a woman whom he unknowingly infected with an STD. In fact, the family's daughter claims to be that woman reincarnated, and it seems that they bought the motel just to take vengeance on him. For she has unusual powers, and ominous things are starting to happen in Cliff's life.
This is a typical Shepard horror fantasy, exotic and sensual, with a dark mystery at its heart. He spins out a complicated plot that ends in a hallucinatory epiphany.
Cliff feels pain, not an awful pain, but pain like he's never felt before, as if an organ of which he has been unaware, a special organ tucked away beneath the tightly packed fruits of heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and intestines, insulated by their flesh, has been opened and is spilling its substance. It's not a stabbing pain, neither an ache nor a twinge, not the raw pain that comes from a open wound or a burning such as eventuates from an ulcer; but though comparably mild, not yet severe enough to combat his arousal, it's the worst pain he has known. A sick, emptying feeling is the closest he can come to articulating it, but not even that says it. He understands now that this is no movie and that something vital is leaking out, being drawn from his body in surges, in trickles and sudden gushes, conjured forth by blue fingers that tease, tempt, and coax.
Shepard cores out his victim and leaves him hollow, while the reader knows there can only be worse yet to come.
The Surgeon's Tale by Jeff VanderMeer and Cat Rambo
Here is a fine dark fantasy that might have been published in the glory years of Weird Tales. It is in fact a variation on that venerable classic, The Monkey's Paw. The narrator's world is one in which a little magic still lingers and surgeons learn spells along with the use of the knife. His parents are Preservationists, who distill their products from the sea, but being young, he resents sharing their life and goes instead to medical school. There he fells into bad company, and when he hears rumors of ancient spells that could bring the dead to life, he becomes determined to attempt this feat, as a way of showing that he can do more than his parents. He and a friend steal a woman's body from the medical school.
We took her down to the sargassum bed and we laid her there, floating, tethered by one foot using some rope. I knew that cove. I'd swum in it since I was a child. People hardly ever came there. The sargassum was trapped; the tide only went out in the spring, when the path of the currents changed. The combination of the salt water, the preservatives I'd applied to her, and the natural properties of the sargassum would sustain her as she made her slow way back to life.
Except for the sutures, she looked as if she were asleep, still with that slight smile, floating on the thick sargassum, glowing from the emerald tincture that would keep the small crabs and other scavengers from her. She looked otherworldly and beautiful.
The woman does not come back to life– except for one of her arms. It begins to haunt the narrator, and it will not be denied.
The authors' prose, rich with the scents of the sea, evokes a world that almost seems to be our own past nineteenth century, with less of the weird than VanderMeer's Ambergris.
Helix SF #4, Spring 2007
This is definitely the best issue yet of this e-zine, which is shifting its emphasis away from censored material.
The Hoplite by Robert Reed
Hoplite remembers that he once served in Alexander's army [one of the elite Macedonian spearmen would more likely have been called a hypaspist, not a hoplite, but that would have made for a less catchy title] but now he has been reincarnated from his salvaged DNA to be part of a small, elite military force in the far future, fighting to subdue rebels on other worlds for a king they have never seen.
"These are rich, rich times, my friend." The Glacier Man has a handsome face decorated with the same kinds of artful tattoos that were discovered on his battered, mummified body. With a wide smile, he claimed, "We fight for people who want nothing to do with combat. Which is only reasonable. No nation would willingly defend itself with soft, fat, and very spoiled citizens."
Their invincibility lies largely in their physical augmentation and armor. But on this mission, Hoplite finds himself forced to fight for his life unarmored against a very determined and desperate enemy. At the same time, he begins to come to terms with the evidence that everything he has believed about himself may be a lie.
This is thoughtful military SF along the lines of Gene Wolfe's classic "The HORARS of War," in which entities created to fight and die must confront the mystery of their identity and the eternal question of soldiers: why do we continue to fight?
Gherem by Mike Allen and Charles Saplak
There are striking similarities between this piece and the Reed, above: both feature soldiers who discover they have been living a lie, fighting for kings they have never seen. Gherem was a serf, conscripted for the war against his king. Now he has been conscripted again on the battlefield by a witch with broken legs who needs someone to carry her home with a captured magical artifact that will save the kingdom. From the beginning, we know [and Gherem, more slowly, comes to suspect] that something is not right, that the witch must have placed him under some kind of spell to compel him, to keep him moving without rest for so long. But what is interesting in this story is Gherem, who has come to value life differently after the experience of war.
The moon had risen, and the stars were now drops of dew on the cobweb of night. They were glowing eyes of distant gods! They were flames around which lost souls danced!
Why had he never looked at these stars with Trelinna and Jad? Were these not the same stars which whirled over his mean little hut on the moors of Lord Treblas? Oh, when he returned home, things would be so different.
While he knows the witch controls him, he still has a measure of free will; when she orders him to kill an enemy soldier, he lets the man live. Scenes like this make the ending, when it comes, more poignant.
Gherem's answers to the questions are not the same as Hoplite's. The one willingly embraces the life of a soldier, even the lie; the other rejects it utterly as a waste, wanting only to return to his home and family. But when he finally recognizes the truth, he is able to accept it, and gains a final triumph.
Pretty Little Thing by Sara Genge
A young woman stalks a psychopathic murderer by using herself as bait. But she ends up with two stalkers following her instead of the one she intends to trap.
This piece is told from the alternating points of view of all the characters. The thought processes of the psychopath and the obsessive are both interesting, but I can't help thinking the story would have worked more effectively without the woman's point of view, explaining her scheme.
A Matter of Muskets by Berry Kercheval
A rather long-winded account, in the long-winded style of Dumas, of the reason the musketeers are requisitioning new firearms.
Rounding a small hill we came upon a most curious sight. It appeared to be nothing so much as a giant cigare, perhaps 30 or 40 feet in length and eight or ten in height, sitting in a small field. As we approached, we saw that it was not so much sitting on the earth as hovering a few inches above it.
Suddenly a door or hatch opened in its side. This door was hinged at the bottom, and as it swung down toward the earth it formed a kind of ramp to afford entrance to the interior of the remarkable object.
What happens next should be obvious to the modern reader, though unexpected by the King's Musketeers. The amusement here is in the faux-Dumas narrative and the cognitive dissonance of a 17th-century take on a 20th-century phenomenon.
Vamp in the Middle by James Killus
The narrator used to be a member of a garage band that was going nowhere until Francie answered their ad for a girl singer. Suddenly, they were hot. And it was good, better than good. So good that Ricky knew something had to be wrong.
But what I was really scared about was Francie, and the way she looked when that spotlight hit her and the crowd hushed down and she began to sing. Like she was feeding on something. Something sweet and habit forming. Something like junk, but a whole lot stronger.
Francie, of course, is a kind of vampire, though her nature is never clearly explained. And of course the ending of such stories is bound to be tragic. Addiction always is.
Mercytanks by Jennifer Pelland
It is the far future, and humanity has spread across the galaxy and transcended just about everything, including their bodies. A long, long time ago, a few humans had set out on colony ships into an empty universe, but now, when they are about to arrive at their destination, they will encounter a society advanced beyond their comprehension, already there before them. Tanjel is one of the agents assigned to meet the ship, to evaluate the fitness for assimilation of the primitive passengers. Those who fail will be disembodied and consigned to the mercytanks, where they will lead a totally virtual existence, unaware that their experiences are not real. No one as primitive as these newcomers has ever been successfully assimilated, though Tanjel hopes to save at least the youngest of the travelers from the tanks. But for the board of HumaniCo, these newcomers are only a source of novel entertainment. And Tanjel can't stop suspecting that there is something else wrong, something they aren't telling her.
Pelland offers some interesting fodder for speculation about the philosophical mind-body problem, recalling the "malign deceiver" who caused Descartes to believe that nothing he perceived was real. There are a number of points where the reader begins to wonder– could this be so? Does this make sense? But if it is all really a lie, we will never know.
Shelf Life by Pras Stillman
Life on Eve's Paradise isn't really the feminist paradise that was advertised. Cotton finds himself discriminated against after his sex-change operation, his wife Lucinda isn't speaking to him, and his deceased mother-in-law speaks entirely too much. He wants to have children, but space is too short on the asteroid colony. On Mars, there is room. On Mars, he could have children. Looking for a way to emigrate, Cotton finds himself involved with a pack of Martian supremacists, implicated in their crimes and a victim of blackmail.
This is a lightly-told tale that points out a number of universal human failings, with a ending where things turn out almost right, after all.
Talebones #34, Winter 2006
This small printzine was recently close to its demise, but was reprieved by reader enthusiasm at the last minute– and they ought to be pleased by the results in this latest, somewhat belated issue. The selection is quite inclusive, even sometimes wandering outside genre boundaries.
His Master's Voice by Mark Rigney
A deal-with-the-devil story. I have to wonder if the author was tempted to call it "Devil Sings the Blues." Musicologist Alan Lomax encounters the devil at a crossroads, but he doesn't want his soul, he wants his field recordings. If the songs of the oppressed and downtrodden Negroes of the South become better-known, this might lead to racial harmony and brotherhood, which isn't what Old Scratch has in mind. When Alan refuses, the devil puts the fear on the people.
It was the same everywhere he went. One person after another turned their back. Old women rocking on bowed, collapsing porches shook their heads in mute refusal; young children playing marbles in the middle of dust-strewn streets fled at this approach. White folks kept their distance, too– as they generally did, once they realized that Alan's main interests were on "the nigger side of town"– but now even neutral parties at gas stations and shops, people and places he had no interest in recording, made it clear with lowered brims and firmly turned back that they preferred that he just move on.
The devil's transformation seems a bit too good to be true, if it is not a lie, but Rigney's song is a fine homage to Lomax and the tradition he helped preserve from the obscurity of time.
Crows by Carrie Vaughn
Tull discovers the body of his lord on the battlefield and remains to guard it, driving off the crows, dogs and human scavengers, until the King comes.
Because of the venue in which it appears, readers may be apt to try to read this story as a fantasy, to solve it as a mystery. Perhaps, Tull, too, is really dead. Perhaps the old woman who comes to rob the dead is really a witch or a ghoul or a vampire. The ending when it comes is more powerful for subverting these expectations. One quibble: when the body is dead, bleeding ceases.
Gepetto Kiln by Alan DeNiro
This one takes place out on the far edge of the future where science fiction and fantasy have long since become indistinguishable. The spaceship Yellowwood is an independent sentient, now under attack by a malevolent mobile planet that is remotely transforming the bodies of the crew into bone-spurred monsters. Only Fiona is unaffected, but rather than concentrating on escape as their pursuer draws closer, she is more concerned that Yellow seems to be lying to her about something, that perhaps the dream-swarm released by the enemy planet has damaged the ship.
This is a very imaginative piece, that probably will make more sense to readers who have already seen the earlier works in this story series, where some of the strange stuff was explained. Matters have in general here reached that point where we can not really say "this is highly improbable," even though it seems to be. In the end, however, it all comes down to that basic trans-human emotion: love.
But Who Shall Lead the Dance? by Marie Brennan
A brief encounter of elves with humankind, in which things do not go quite as expected. The legend of the dance of death is a widespread one, but the outcome here is unlikely and unexplained.
Memories of Moments, Bright as Falling Stars by Cat Rambo
Here is a science fictional setting where everyone's future seems determined by Exams, except that everyone uses mental augmentation, so that there doesn't really seem to be a point to the process. A pair of street kids stumble onto some illicit memory wire which might enable them to escape into better lives, except that they have acquired enemies.
This is a sort of cyberpunk lite, but I find myself again using the term "improbable," because things are too easy here– that Jonny and Grizz would just happen to find this memory right before the Exams, that they could install it in themselves so easily– and the entire setup of the society seems rather unlikely, not thoroughly Thought Through.
Eaglebane by Ryan Meyers
An amusing take on gremlins– the original, airplane-sabotaging variety– from a gremlin's point of view. Readers should note the reference to The Twilight Zone's famous episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Fermi Packet by Jason Stoddard
The author proffers this solution to the Fermi Paradox [if extraterrestrial life is as common as it ought to be, where are they?]: that they have all left their bodies and gone into cyberspace. In this tale, the aliens invade Earth, except that it is the virtual aliens attempting to conquer humanity's cyberverse. It is up to the composite cyber entity Gates/Torvalds to repel the invaders.
This one is fun, but I fear it comes close to the line where I find ethical problems in portraying actual, living, persons in fiction.
And Her Hand, the Stars by E. Catherine Tobler
Human settlers on an alien planet find themselves at war with the indigenous species, and the narrator is called upon to treat a wounded alien prisoner the army is trying to interrogate. A moving encounter with the alien body and mind.
Lone Star Stories 20, April 1 2007
Three fantasy stories, all available online, but one only nominally in genre.
The Black Hole in Auntie Sutra's Handbag by Samantha Henderson
We don't know how or why the black hole appeared in Auntie Sutra's handbag one day, but it comes in quite handy when Trudie Dawn's daddy tries to pressure her to marry John Darkling, in order to redeem certain bits of mortgaged property. Auntie Sutra knows why Darkling has such an interest in the match, and what will happen to Trudie Dawn if she agrees.
"And one day you'll go to bed and never get up. The mattress is so soft. The sheets are crisp and clean. The pillows are delicious. The morning light through the lace curtains, the sunset making the windows orange and pink, the patter of rain on the roof, the breeze in the willows: all so pretty, so relaxing. You'll sleep, and drowse, and think, briefly, of getting up, and drowse and sleep once more. Someone will feed you, someone will dress you, someone will brush your hair."
Auntie Sutra leaned back and her bright black eyes snapped. Trudie Dawn started, as if cold water had been dashed in her face.
"John Darkling will wax fat and strong on your power," said Auntie Sutra. "He'll keep you safe in his tower like the Darkling brides before you."
Unfortunately, one of the mortgaged bits is the land that is the source of the Summerville women's power. Fortunately, Trudie Dawn is studying Applied Mathematics and Algorithm Engineering, and thus knows the uses of a black hole.
An amusing piece of witchy folklore, and a twist on the deal-with-the-devil tale.
Xenochrony by Christopher East
Eddie used to play the bass before things happened and he hurt his wrist and got stuck in a bad marriage and a bad job. Then one day he gets a call from Mia– Mia, he can barely remember who she was, back in high school. But Mia remembers his playing and says she's heard him on the radio, and it's good, really good.
"Every time I tune that station in, I think of that. Like there's some guy in a basement studio, somewhere, maybe even in the neighborhood here, mixing these compositions and transmitting on some pathetic band nobody but I can tune in. But the music… he just pulls it out of the air, instrument by instrument. Just whatever appeals to him, whatever just… fits."
There isn't a clearly SFnal element to this one, which makes it more of a mundane tale of regret for lost hopes and wrong directions. Nor does it really resolve any of these issues, only illuminating them with a rather low-wattage epiphany.
When the Rain Comes by Josh Rountree
Angeline's body has always been cold enough to freeze water. Unable to live a normal life with this curse, she has joined the Wild West Show as a freak called the Ice Witch, while longing to be able to touch another human being. Then one day a strange old man offers her a way. I was not convinced, however, that the choice presented to Angeline was really a forced one, that she really had to make the sacrifice she did.
Shimmer, Winter 2007
The stories in this small quarterly zine are generally short and fantastic, the sort of stuff sometimes referred to as "interstitial."
Juana and the Dancing Bear by n. a. bourke
A fairy tale in which the Prince of Bears brings home his human bride. In this case, it is the princess who is transformed. It is not clear why the prince has decided to take on the role of a dancing bear, locked in a cage in smelly stables at night.
Duets by Philip J. Lees
Cyro Panteger, musical seducer, meets his match.
Tom Cofferwillow Comes Undone by Stephen L. Moss
In which Orgas Toadroper, gentleman swag, learns the dangers of strange spellbooks that appear suddenly on his desk. This one is told in a unique not-quite-right dialect that suggests these events might have taken place in yet another dimension, not our own nor the one from which the hapless Tom Cofferwillow was displaced.
As Arvid chantered on, something queer began a-fobbling Tom Cofferwillow as well. The skin of his mug grew darker, and his hands followed in kind. When his skin was as black as Arvid's own, it seemed to gurl itself into little bits, black specks that spiraled and swirled about one another across the broad curve of his grim. I realize they were flies. Tom was becoming a thing made of swirling flies and presently they seemed to tire of their kide formation and made to veer off, each on its own particular path.
Catch of the Day by Michael Livingston
Doctor William Harris has an encounter with a visiting alien while fishing. The plot here is not a new one, but there is charm in the telling as Harris natters on about fly-fishing– and natters on a bit too much about the aliens, which diminishes the charm somewhat.
Eagle-haunted Lake Sammamish by Cat Rambo
A couple buys a cheap plot of land that is later coveted by a malign corporation for the usual malign corporate purposes, but the development will doom the resident dryad. A sad tale, despite the light tone in which it is told.
Night Milling by Mike Driver
A tale of ghosts and revenge. When George Mason was a cop, he was shot by a couple of heartless murderers; later, he took a job as night watchman in an automated mill where the computer-controlled machinery runs itself. But there is more than machinery at work in the mill at night.
A rather conventional horror story, made confusing by the author's withholding of information until the final punch.
Dwell on Her Graciousness by Dario Ciriello
Science fiction travels into the territory of fantasy in a spacecraft that reaches the boundary of the universe. The universe is the domain of the Goddess, but Who is beyond that boundary?
The science-vs-religion conflict here is rather stale, but the cosmology and myth are interesting. I have trouble, however, with gods who can so easily forget the creation of a universe.
Sparrow and Egg by Amal El-Mohtar
A very short fable of the love between parent and child.