Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

June, 2008 : Review:

April-May 2008 Short Fiction

Finally getting caught up after the IROSF hiatus. One new zine reviewed this time—Flurb. The prize this month goes to Helix SF. Strange Horizons' offerings were strong, as well.

Zines Reviewed

June F&SF

F&SF, June '08

F&SF, June 2008

A drop-down in quality from May's fine issue.

Monkey See by P.E. Cunningham

Ji is a young warrior with one of those mouthy know-it-all swords. As a servant of the Emperor, she has been sent to investigate rumors of a rebel army gathering in a remote village, but she finds no people: only monkeys. A lot of monkeys. And because Ji doesn't listen to the warning of her sword, before long she is turned into a monkey, too.

The monkeys are amusing, but the rest is kind of predictable.

The Art of Alchemy by Ted Kosmatka

In a future world where the steel mills of northern Indiana are producing again, the narrator is a metallurgist working for the global steel conglomerate Uspar-Nagoi, where he meets and falls in love with Veronica, from upper management. One day she is contacted by a shady character who offers her bootlegged information of great value.

"It means that I think they've done it," I said. "Under impossibly high pressures, nanotubes can link, or so the theory holds. Carbon bonding is described by quantum chemistry orbital hybridization, and they've traded some sp2 bonds for the sp3 bonds of diamond."
She looked almost sad. She kissed me. The kiss was sad. "What are its uses?"
"Everything. Literally, almost everything. A great many things steel can do, these carbon nanotubes will do better. It's super-light and super-strong, perfect for aircraft. This material moves the fabled space elevator into the realm of possibility."

But Veronica knows that Uspar-Nagoi will only buy this information to bury it, to protect its investment in steel.

The editorial blurb calls this one a hardboiled science fiction thriller. It may be that the attempt at hardboiled is the reason it starts too many times before it gets started, but then it definitely becomes a piece of hard science fiction industrial espionage, full of tension and corporate ruthlessness. The narrator isn't really a part of the story, however. It belongs to Veronica, and he only seems to be tagging along to tell her tale.

Litany by Rand B. Lee

The fallen angel who calls himself Rafael Anderssen has come to the sleepy town of La Llorona in search of escape from his centuries-long exile on mortal Earth. From the signs, he knows he is close at last.

It had to be in or around La Llorona. All signs pointed to that verity: the Rabbi was here, and the Enemy—the agent of the descendants of the Seven—was not far off. Now the task before him was to find the Lamp, who would show him the Way to the Door, and lead him to the Key that would open it. Then the Sacrifice would present itself, and the Door would open, and he would go through it, and be Home at last.
He laughed to himself. I think archetypally now, he thought. In capital letters. It was a sign that he needed to relax and trust the One. So he set out to explore La Llorona and vicinity like any summer tourist.

But the Door, when he finally finds it, turns out to be what he had never expected.

A bit too much of the archetypes for my taste, like one of those wierd holy grail books. La Llorona was more interesting than the supernatural mysteries, but that seems to be the story's point.

The Salting and Canning of Benevolence D. by Al Michaud

A ghost story with an intriguing title. In Clapboard Island, Maine, Clem Crowder finds himself inexplicably haunted. Adventures ensue.

The Silent Woman. In his fishhouse. Dunky had witnessed it, and recognized her too, as would any native of Clapboard Island. She was a celebrity of sorts, a creature of local legend whose fearsome mark had been left on generations of folktales and sea chanteys. Why a centuries-old apparition would suddenly manifest itself in his fishhouse he didn't know, but a lifetime of relentless hard luck told him that, chances were, this was far from the last of it.

The author carries this one very far indeed, into all sorts of wild magical escapades. Clem's adventures in exorcism are entertaining, if silly.

Character Flu by Robert Reed

In this short-short, the author warns of a nanobody plague that infects human minds with imaginary characters.

Fergus by Mary Patterson Thornburg

A mystery—but not the kind a detective solves. Jill's friend Eileen tells the story of her son, Fergus, who was lost one day when he was four years old. Twice during her lifetime, Eileen saw Fergus again, still four years old, though he ought by that time to have been a grown man. The solution is left to the reader, who may decide that the answer lies in Ireland. More than enigmatic—downright puzzling.

July F&SF

July F&SF

F&SF, July 2008

A lot of familiar names in this issue, but the stories are not these authors' best work.

Fullbrim's Finding by Matthew Hughes

A Henghis Hapthorn mystery. Doldan Fullbrim, a seeker after substance, has disappeared.

Doldan Fullbrim had burst from his study, his hair in disorder and an expression on his face that she described as "energized." He had not bothered to don any outerwear, even though it was a scheduled half-day for rain in Olkney, but had rushed out the door unhatted.
"And did he speak at all?" I said.
"He said, 'Ahah!'"
"'Ahah?'"
"'Ahah,'" she confirmed.

Hapthorn traces his quarry to a distant world where other seekers after substance have come, lured by a phenomenon known as the Epiphany, the sight of which destroys their reason. Hapthorn, however, not being such a seeker, is able to survive the encounter.

As Henghis Hapthorn mysteries go, this is unfortunately a rather dull one. Hapthorn's voice is intact, but he is missing his usual pomposity. He is not captured by sinister megalomaniacs, nor does he come to grief through his own ineptitude. He locates his subject by ordinary means known to the detectives of his day, and he exposes the mystery of the Epiphany merely by asking it to explain itself, upon which, the tale is at an end.

Reader's Guide by Lisa Goldstein

A tale in the form of one of those abominable Guides for Readers that are sometimes inserted in books by some pedantic entity. Goldstein speculates about the identity of this personage.

16. Do you think that writers should always write with passion, to the utmost of their ability? What should happen to writers who don't, who use clichéd plots, cardboard characters, lifeless prose? If there is a Library of Story, do you think there might be a Lord of Story, a Muse who grants access to the great stories, the ones that are told again and again? Would this Muse see and judge the stories that people write? Might he punish lazy authors by, for example, writing Reader's Guides like this one, and causing them to appear in every copy of their novel?

Sharply clever, although I must call it a work of criticism, rather than a story.

The Roberts by Michael Blumlein

Robert Fairchild, a self-obsessed architect, needs a woman's love for inspiration, but when he is inspired he neglects his lovers, who finally leave him. He can not find a woman who is right for him and so visits a parthenogeneticist to have one made to his specifications. But he fears he will end up neglecting Grace in turn, so he orders a copy of himself as a gift for her. And Grace, for the same reason, has also ordered another Robert. Now there are three of him, but the original Robert becomes the superfluous one, the jealous one.

The idea of a man jealous of himselves has possibilities, but this story does not realize them. It begins with a long, labored narrative introduction, drearily reciting the events of Robert's life from before his birth, and it maintains the same remote narrative distance from its characters throughout. It is difficult to feel their love and their pains, or to give a damn about them; Robert is a character about whom it would be hard to care under any circumstances. For a story about emotions and relationships, this is fatal. The secondary plot about a cellular building material also holds no attraction.

Enfant Terrible by Scott Dalrymple

A sinister explanation for a rash of child prodigies.

The idea is not too original, and this very short story doesn't develop it much.

Poison Victory by Albert E. Cowdrey

Alternate history. The narrator, as a chemical officer at Stalingrad, helped Hitler's armies win the war by deploying a newly-developed nerve gas. Now he owns a great estate with a thousand Russian serfs, but the Russian resistance is still active and the Nazis are continuing in their repressive ways, particularly now that Hitler is known to be dying. The local prison commandant has just been murdered, and the Gestapo has started to arrest everyone. The narrator knows that he is under suspicion of hiding his serfs from the interrogators, but his status protects him—so far.

The contradictions of a "good German" who feels guilty for his crimes yet continues to profit from them. While the familiar AH scenario is quite probable, this story adds little new to it, and the narrator's memoirs do not reveal much of his emotion or motives.

The Dinosaur Train by James L. Cambias

The Sullivan dinosaur show has come onto hard times by 1980; its days of glory are long in the past.

Back in the Thirties, all Grandpa had needed to do was let people look at his dinos. By the Fifties he added some circus acts, and now in 1980 the show included a laser light display, disco music, a man in an explorer costume doing magic tricks while riding one of the triceratopses, a dance number by the girls, a motorcycle jump over five dinosaurs, and the baby trikes racing around a fenced track to the tune of a speeded-up William Tell Overture.

Sean wants to stay with his grandfather and take over running the show one day. His father wants him to go to college; he knows how stubborn and backwards the old man can be. But now their star attraction, Brenda the brachiosaurus, is fading, and Sean knows that his grandfather can't save her.

This is primarily a story about family dynamics and the pace of change. It wouldn't have been much different with an elephant show.

Asimov's

Asimov's, July '08

Asimov's, July 2008

I prefer the shorter stories this time, which is unusual for me.

The Philosopher's Stone by Brian Stableford

Another installment of Stableford's alternate cosmology/history of Queen Jane Grey's England, after John Dee and his companions return from their trip through the ether to the moon. To quote one of the characters: "As above, so below." While the various orders of ethereal beings are initiating a power struggle that may end in war in heaven, in England extremist Puritans led by John Field are attempting to take over the Church. Into this situation stumbles fraudulent fortuneteller Edward Kelly, who has discovered a strange stone that allows him to hear angels.

He had taken a fancy to the stone when he had found it on Northwick Hill and gladly adopted it as a pretended skrying-glass, to aid him in his trade, before the angels first appeared within it and made it all too real. Like a fool, he had been glutted with delight when he first realized that he really did have a power—a gift, he had thought it—but he had reason now to suspect that any secrets the angels might condescend to impart to a man such as him would be as useless as they were bewildering, while the price they would demand in return was usurious. All things considered, he'd rather have thrown the stone away than attracted the attention of the Church Militant, in spite of the hints the angels had thrown out regarding the miraculous quality of the red powder, but it was too late now. Field's men were after him, and he was in desperate need of angelic help, if any were available.

The angels are actually ethereal beings, attempting to make the alliance of England in their war, but the agents of John Field believe they are demons and attempt to arrest Kelly for sorcery.

While I love the alternate world, I fear that with this third episode the weight of the backstory is delivering diminishing returns. The second episode, set on a distant island infested with giant spiders from space, sufficed to stand on its own, but the return to England and John Dee involves too much reference to Fleshcores and Hardcores, affinity and Transfiguration, to make sense without reference to the introductory segment. There is also still the annoying tendency of the author to slip into occasional anachronism, as when Kelly reads the "body language" of a tavern's patrons.

Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues by Gord Sellar

It's 1948, but not the 1948 we know. The aliens have come to Earth, and they want jazz.

Now hiring jazz musicians of all instrumental specialties… the intergalactic society of entertainers and artists' guild… Colored Americans only please, special preference currently given to aspiring bebop players. No re-hires from previous tours please. One-year (possibly renewable) contracts available. See the solar system! Play blues on the moons of Jupiter!

All the top cats in New York jazz have been on that Frog ship, and sax player Robbie Coolidge wants to go, too, to end up like Bird Parker did, remade. But he hasn't counted on just how the Frogs remake a musician, what they can take out of him, what they leave behind.

The real interest in this piece is in the window onto the postwar jazz scene, with cats like Bird and Thelonius Monk and Lester Young playing for the aliens, but also for themselves. The Frogs aren't much to write home about, but Robbie loves his music and so, clearly, does the author.

Vinegar Peace, or, the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage by Michael Bishop

On losing your children to death. Because old people who have lost their children to the war sometimes make trouble, they are now put away. Mrs. K___ once had a husband and two children, but now she is orphaned.

The death of your last surviving child (good riddance) in the War on Worldwide Wickedness makes you too valuable (unfit) to continue residing among the elder denizens (constipated old fools) of your life-help cottage (costly codger dump). So we've brought you here to shelter (warehouse) you until our Creator calls you to an even more glorious transcendent residency above (blah-blah, blah-blah).

In this place of perpetual bereavement, Mrs K ___ remembers her dead.

Because it is the wrong way, because the right way is for the elderly to die and be mourned by their children. From Jamie Bishop's orphaned father.

The Woman Under the World by Steven Utley

Only incidentally connected to Utley's series about scientists visiting an alternate Silurian Earth. Phyllis Young was scheduled to take the journey, but when she stepped through the spacetime anomaly, there was an incident.

"Listen carefully. Phyllis Lewis didn't go through, she's safe, no need to worry about her, but something else did go through. Whenever something goes through the spacetime anomaly, it produces a sort of echo, you might even call it a ghost. After-images, except that they aren't images, really, but electromagnetic shadows. Whatever goes through creates a sort of template, and for the briefest instant afterward there's something left. Sort of a free-standing, highly localized anomaly in its own right. In this case, it's been given definition by the idea of Phyllis Lewis. It thinks it is Phyllis Lewis."
"Well," says the glowing woman, in a flash of Phyllis Lewis' inimitable humor, "isn't that a kick in the teeth!"

This brief piece is an intriguing glimpse at the questions and paradoxes of personal identity and its connection to memory.

RECOMMENDED

Cascading Violet Hair by R. Neube

Down and out in the space habitats. Henry is trapped on bankrupt New Dearborn; he can't afford to leave the place. He misses his dead wife and contracts an infatuation with a refugee from the Moon, sentenced to do scutwork in exchange for a bunk in the charity shelter. But Diane is more ambitious, more resourceful, more ruthless than the lovesmitten Henry.

Depressing little piece, despite a somewhat upbeat ending.

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson

Aimee has a monkey act, and her big trick is making 26 monkeys disappear from a claw-footed bathtub onstage. The problem is, she doesn't know how they do it. But really, it isn't a problem at all.

Neat.

Interzone

Interzone, April '08

Interzone #215, April 2008

A dark and gloomy issue, with a theme of individuals regretting their past mistakes.

The Endling by Jamie Barras

Which seems to be the conclusion of a series of stories involving the destruction of the Sol system and the possible extinction of the human species. Even though I have read some of the previous installments in this ongoing saga, it was still difficult to sort out what the hell was going on—which much of the text is spent explaining. It goes something like this: centuries ago, Earth got caught in a crossfire between two warring worlds and was destroyed, with all its people. One of these combatants, the Melzemi, then hunted down the few remaining humans who inhabited extraterrestrial colonies, while the Stro cloned a few humans from the ashes of Earth and gave them a home of their own. These clones then engaged in a centuries-long search for FTL ships, but the Melzemi biologically programmed a killer race called the Hila to hunt the humans. One group of humans did manage before they were killed to locate the seeds to grow two FTL ships, in one of which one human was incarnated—Elena Andalian, who now appears to be sowing a vengeful path of destruction through the stars. As this story begins, the Melzemi have reincarnated a human captive, Taylor Wright, [the eponymous endling] in an attempt to stop her.

So we have successive scenes flashing between a confused and angst-ridden Wright; a ship full of Hila fighting with another, nicer species that call themselves Far-Beyonders; and a mysterious individual called Asha doing something totally unrelated to the rest of the plot. Eventually the strands come together with much explanation and resolution—that I very much doubt would mean much at all to readers new to this fictional universe.

I think there has to be a critical term that means the opposite of a fix-up novel: a fragmentation novel. This is a novel that has been torn apart and published in fragments here and there under the guise of individual stories, when it is really a whole broken up into disassociated parts. There is a lot of fascinating stuff in this piece of New Space Opera—wars, and biological engineering and aliens and betrayals. But this possibly-concluding fragment, taken alone, just doesn't make enough sense. The characters go through their paces disassociated from their pasts. A scattered heap of parts is not a whole.

Dragonfly Summer by Patrick Samphire

Twenty years ago, while they were at University, Paul, Sophie, Howie and Trish would meet and fuck in an old abandoned windmill near the sea.

We all clattered up the steps, burst into the windmill, and stopped. The space was still, eerie. Light filtered in strands through cracks in the brickwork and between shutters. The windmill seemed to hold the ghost of an indrawn breath.

Paul recalls this time as full of potential, which he destroyed in a single act of sexual betrayal. Now Howie calls them all to meet again, and Paul discovers that the lighthouse is gone—has never been—which leads him to maunder incessantly about past regret and the impossibility of returning for a re-do.

I guess we are supposed to understand that Paul's betrayal shunted the four ex-friends onto a different timeline in which the windmill, symbolizing youth and hope and promise and all that, never existed. It is all very metaphorical, but Paul's constant self-pity and whining does not appeal, nor do this tale's redundancies.

Crystal Nights by Greg Egan

Daniel Cliff is a plutocrat with an obsession for creating true artificial intelligence through a process of directed evolution in a virtual environment. He succeeds, but of course his success does not provide him the outcome he had intended.

While the process of AI evolution here is interesting and worth the read alone, this is really a story about the ethics of playing God, the responsibilities of creating intelligent beings, the conflict of free will and slavery.

Primo said, "What is this talk of waiting for a bigger computer? You could easily stop time from passing for us, and only start it against when your new computer is built."
"No," Daniel said, "I can't. Because I need you to build the computer. I'm not like you: I'm not immortal, and my brain can't be boosted. I've done my best, now I need you to do better. The only way that can happen is if you learn the science of my world, and come up with a way to make this new machine."

RECOMMENDED

Holding Pattern by Joy Marchand

Flight 219 is caught in a time loop. The alien in seat 1A is aware that the plane will crash, every time, on its twentieth circle of LAX, but there is nothing the alien can do about it. He is only there to commit suicide. Only Nan the flight attendant, possibly, can change her fate.

"Sometimes it's faulty landing gear. Sometimes there's a suitcase on board with a flesh-eating virus. Sometimes the co-pilot has a stroke and inadvertently knocks the pilot unconscious, while flailing around in pain. The cause can fluctuate, but the outcome is always the same."

I can just see this one as a Twilight Zone episode. It has just that right tone of weirdness.

Street Hero by Will McIntosh

Coming of age in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. The narrator is a post-teenager into martial arts and books, but lacking a purpose for his life. He decides to become a martial-arts hero to save people, kind of like Batman, but that goes wrong. After misadventures, he finds a better way.

The real interest here is in the lush, urban-decayed setting, where tribes of homeless eco-terrorists seed the cities with mutant bamboo forests, "to slow things down".

With a newly-engineered variety that would thrive further north, clogging the highways and airports, slowing the spread of brand-name products even more. Cutting down on pollution, making it harder for wars to be fought. Maybe throwing us back into the stone age. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

I'm not sure, either, but the point is how individuals react to changes in their circumstances.

The Imitation Game by Rudy Rucker

In 1954, Alan Turing has arranged an assignation with a foreign lover, but he can not escape the surveillance of MI5, which distrusts a homosexual with the kind of secrets Turning knows. They murder his lover—whether purposefully as a warning or by mistaking their target—and Turing knows he has to escape. But how, when they are watching him so closely?

I can't read this piece without an upwelling of fresh indignation against the unjust persecution of Alan Turing after his great wartime service. Yet the tone of this story is lightly ironic and absurd, not bitter or raging.

Approaching the train station, he glanced back over his shoulder—reluctantly playing the socially assigned role of furtive perv—and sure enough, a weedy whey-faced follow was mooching along half a black behind, a man with a little round mouth like a lamprey eel's. Officer Harold Jenkins. Devil take the beastly prig!

Note: this short piece has a sequel published in the current issue of Rucker's ezine Flurb, reviewed below in a manner that may spoil the ending of this one, for readers who worry about that sort of thing.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy June '08

Realms of Fantasy, June 2008

At which the reviewer turns even more cranky than usual.

The Snake by Tanith Lee

A story of the Flat Earth. A prince, riding to his wedding with his princess bride, is bitten by a venomous snake as he reaches to pick a flower for her.

As gleaming death spilled from his fingers he stood transfixed. He stared at his hand, then upward at the sky that, moments before, had been so crowded with sweetness, yet now seemed filled with fire and doom.

Upon learning of his death, the princess falls into a half-dead state, and her father, in the manner of kings, offers anything to whoever can save her. One messenger finds a magician, as beautiful as a demon, who claims that he can bring her back to life. But this magician is morally flawed, and the messenger knows it.

I adore the work of Tanith Lee, who is certainly one of the world's most artful reweaver of fairy tales, and this variation on Sleeping Beauty is gorgeous and fascinating. The conclusion, however, comes to a rather flat note as it ends too easily.

Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten by Bradley P. Beaulieu

In a country that seems to be a lot like Japan, except when it doesn't, Yasuo is a smokeman, a funeral artist who captures the memories of those about to die. The memories are caught in the form of smoke, and he incorporates them into elaborate fireworks displays that celebrate the life of the deceased. Yasuo suffers from unrequited love, but this is a small problem compared to the task of capturing the memories of the Daimyo's ancient and cantankerous mother. Fuyoko hated her husband the old Daimyo and doesn't think much of her son, his successor. But the Daimyo will not be happy if Yasuo displays her true, bitter and unflattering memories at the state funeral.

The unique premise underlies much of the interest of this story, but also undermines it. It is too complicated a system, too hard to suspend disbelief in. How many people know when they are about to die and have the leisure to record their memories for such an elaborate funeral spectacle? And Fuyoko can't be the only subject whose memories would prove to be unflattering to her heirs.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophet by Way Jeng

I do not know what this story is about, or whether it is any good. I could not read it. The publishers of RoF chose to print it in faint, tiny white type on a glaringly black background, and in doing so, have done the author a great disservice, for an author naturally wishes that his work be read when it is published, rather than being made unreadable.

The Good Neighbor by Betsy James

Tomorrow Teedy will be twelve years old and initiated into the mysteries of manhood and the gods. He is ambivalent about the prospect.

The one part of my mind knew the gods lived in there. The other part knew that our uncles, merry or angry or drunk, went in there to paint them, to trim them with ribbons or fox fur. I could feel those two parts of my mind get aware of each other and begin to circle, like a pair of dogs.

Teedy can't wait. He has to know—before tomorrow.

An ambivalent fantasy and coming-of-age story. RoF readers will probably be familiar with this sort of initiation ceremony—possibly too familiar.

The Summer of Lucy by Laurie Harden

Set in the drought-afflicted Depression. Dot finds a stray dog at her farm and adopts her. Lucy is a good dog, but Dot worries that she seems to have escaped from the meanest man in town, Harry Clute. And Clute says he wants her back. More strangely, Clute is suddenly claiming that he can make it rain if people pay him enough money. Something is wrong.

The fantasy element here is slight, but the worth of this story is in its well-realized characters, good people written without being cloying.

RECOMMENDED

Here's What I Know by Dennis Danvers

The narrator, a science fiction writer with the same name as the author, is being haunted by his father, twenty-three years after he died. Dad is not exactly a ghost—he is more substantial than that—and he doesn't scare anyone. Dad was a real reprobate in his day, a lady's man. Danvers' parents almost divorced over one of his affairs, and Dad went back to his wife only when he learned she was pregnant. Now Dad wants to visit his son and tell him a few things—one of which is the existence of a half-sister, the product of the affair that almost broke up the marriage. Dad insists that they go find her together, and Dad is pretty persuasive.

An unusual and interesting take on not-ghosts, and the things we leave behind in our lives after we move on.

RECOMMENDED

Asimov's

Strange Horizons, April 2008

Some unusual offerings this month.

Ki Do (the Way of the Trees) by Sarah Thomas

"Ki Do" does not literally mean "the Way of the Trees;" it is one of those phrases that could mean almost anything a poet intends. The trees in this story are the poets, bonsai trees with centuries in which to prune their art to the ideal shape. The narrator, Kogure-san, "a Japanese white pine in the literati style," has been working on a poem that originally had one hundred and thirty words. It is now down to seventeen—only eleven words from "somewhere near excellence." But poetry is not the real art of the trees.

We choose to be bonsai. We choose to follow where the first tree went, to instruct by silent example that turning inward when you would turn outward is beautiful. We refuse to exceed the boundaries artifice provides us. In refusing to do what trees do, what life has wrought, we find our selfness.
Maybe that is the best verb, after all. Bonsai refuse.

Kogure-san, in response to a great sadness, takes refusal to an even higher level, beyond what human artifice has dictated.

This is not a work of fantasy, not even ambiguously. It is a poem, and like its title full of phrases that the reader can contemplate with the pleasure of drawing new insights from them.

RECOMMENDED

In Ashes by Helen Keeble

A woman bears twins, and one of them is a fire elementalist [not a fire elemental], who can control fire as a weapon. Such a person belongs by law to the Fire Division of the army, but Jennet's mother conceals his existence, instead, hiding him and his twin sister away and constantly suppressing the fire inside him with a diet of cold, uncooked food and icy baths. His twin sister, the narrator, shares this life willingly, but one day comes a crisis when she must make a fatal choice.

The premise of elementalists is an interesting one, but the story is one of relationships, obsessions, and sacrifice—drastic sacrifice.

Valiant on the Wing by Chris Szego

We know, of course, who has "skin as pale as snow…black and white and stained with red." She is found lost in the forest and brought home to the family of seven, and it is no surprise when she falls in love with them, and they with her.

It is an interesting take on the well-known tale, to see it from the other side of the story. But the characters are all so overly perfect, so skilled and talented and good, that it quickly becomes cloying. I found myself hoping that Grumpy would show up.

Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy by A.M. Dellamonica

Earth has been invaded and occupied by aliens, there is a war of liberation raging, and things in general are tense for Dinah, who is now living with her two children in a crowded apartment with her childhood friend Meg and her two children. Close quarters are making them snap at each other, and it doesn't help that Dinah is working for the alien occupation force as a clerk. The money helps keep them all alive, but she knows she has been tagged as a collaborator by the resistance. The course of survival is a hazardous maze, no matter what she does.

This is a timely piece, a needed lesson in the nature of a military occupation and the costs it exacts from both the occupied and the occupiers, when good intentions are never enough.

RECOMMENDED

Baen's Universe

Jim Baen's Universe #12, April 2008

It occurs to me that it takes only a couple really fine stories to make an entire issue of a zine memorable. This one, unfortunately, is lacking them. A couple of detective stories are entertaining, but they don't provide enough lift to get the entire issue off the ground.

Manumission by Tobias S. Bucknell

In a world colored with blood and cyberpunkish noir, the hit man/enforcer called Pepper is owned by ShinnCo. He has nothing left that was his, not even his name or his memories, only the promise that he can eventually earn enough to buy out his contract.

Many things start in Eleytheria.
Like yourself, years ago, deep in the bowels of one of Eleytheria's denizen companies. You've found old archived public camera pictures of yourself walking down the streets, into the center of ShinnCo, to sign your self, this self, into what you know now.

His latest contract is a woman called Susan Stamm, who is attempting to escape the corporation and get offworld, and she is the person who once developed many of Pepper's built-in weapons. She offers him a deal.

The title seems a bit misleading, as manumission refers to the act of the owner willingly freeing a slave. Nor am I sure what the second-person narration is supposed to signify. Nor am I convinced that a Susan Stamm would have gone to so much trouble to save her assassin. For the most part, this one is all about action and cyber-slick weaponry, although there are hints of the problem of memory. Pepper seems content with the memory he has retrieved, with no apparent awareness that there is no way to prove its authenticity.

Virtually, A Cat by Jody Lynn Nye

Engineer Benny Ardway was not allowed to bring his cats into space with him when he set off with the mission to survey the Gliese system, and he misses them. Unfortunately, his obsession with them has led to his being considered a deadly bore by the rest of the crew—as well as the reader.

He noticed at the beginning of every sleep shift when no firm, furry bodies snuggled in with him, pushing him away from his pillow. He noticed at every mealtime when there were no sets of green or gold eyes looking up at him, hoping for the choicest morsels. He noticed when no friendly shoulders bumped into his legs while he sat at his console. And the worst was that no one wanted to hear about his troubles.

In self-defense, the ship's systems engineer makes him a virtual cat—a suit that simulates the sensation of touching one. Benny is content with his electronic pet until the evil day when the ship's data storage is filled, and the crew is called upon to sacrifice its private files so the expedition can record more survey data.

This is a Lite tale, with no space fights or explosions, but it is indeed genuine science fiction. A heartwarming conclusion, for those who like that sort of thing, but I am not sure that Benny deserved it. The text could have used some paring out of the redundancies that made the first half particularly tedious.

Indomitable by Jack McDevitt

Harry's dad takes him to the space museum. Harry yearns for the good old days of real space exploration, but his dad keeps telling him there is no more reason to explore, there is nobody out there. So they go home to eat spaghetti.

McDevitt's point in this short-short isn't clear, aside for nostalgia for the future's past. Perhaps he's telling us we should explore for exploration's sake. Perhaps he's telling us that we don't need aliens when we have robots. Perhaps he's making theological allusions to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Honorable Enemies by Mike Resnick

Subtitled "A Jake Masters Mystery." Detectives and aliens. The aliens are silly, the detective is a classic. In a previous installment, Jake has brought home Max the beachball to be his partner. Sadly, Max was murdered before the story begins. Now Jake is determined to track down his killer, the only clue being the illegal New Warsaw drachmas in Max's possession at the time of his death. Jake traces Max's movements to the Alien Quarter, where he meets the local crimelord, whom he calls George. George decides that Jake is an honorable Man and offers his assistance. It seems that they have a mutual interest in finding the murderer. Step by step, they do so.

As is often the case in traditional detective fiction, the real point of the story is not so much the identification of the killer as what the search exposes about the detective and those he encounters. So it is in this case. Jake, and the readers, learn more about himself.

Scraps of Fog by Sarah A. Hoyt

Despite her name, Sandra is Portuguese, the last member of her family to remain in the ancestral home. She doesn't want to be alone anymore; she is planning to be married to a man she doesn't love very much and to take up the role of his wife in his condo, to sell the house and its treasured possessions. Until the young man who calls himself King Sebastian shows up.

This is one of those stories where a character experiences an epiphany that sets her straight—just what the reader was expecting all along.

The Witch of Waxahatchie by Lou Antonelli

A sort of tall interdimensional tale that begins when the government cancels the superconducting supercollider project in Texas. It sits empty for a while until a mad scientist called (of course) Doc shows up with the notion of firing the collider up again to create a rift in the fourth dimension. This requires the collusion of several locals, including the newspaper editor, our narrator, a sheriff's deputy and his drug-sniffing dog, Sergeant Lucy.

A bright blue glowing wave roiled like the apocalypse at us back up the injection tunnel.
I just had time to blurt "Oh, sh…!" before it hit us, and everything went black.

The experimenters find themselves in an alternate universe that includes doubles of some of them, a universe where magic was developed and technology was not. Fortunately, the local sorceress uses a Truth spell to confirm their story and let them out of jail.

The magic/technology premise is pretty hoary, but the local Texas color freshens up the entertainment value a tad.

Knight of Coins by Margaret Ronald

Another detective story, this one a detective of the occult. Evie is hired by a sorcerous-seeming character to track down a trio of accursed Tarot cards that seem to have fallen into the hands of his enemies.

This is what brings in my grocery money, day to day. I can track anything once I have the scent. Missing children. Absent spouses. Stolen jewelry. It's earned me something of a nickname—the old man in Chinatown who casts my bullets out of impure silver calls me "Hound," and I don't care enough to correct him. My dad, who was a cop, used to say that one of the bloodhounds must've jumped over my cradle.

The cards are dangerous, but her client is even more dangerous.

An intriguing fantasy world and characters, heavily steeped in black magic. It feels like part of a series.

Red Tape and Cold Iron, or A Proposal for the Reintroduction of the Faery Folk to the United Kingdom by Lucy Bond

Once upon a time, there was a well-meaning but fluffy environmentalist on the government who, having heard of schemes to re-introduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands, and the success of the wild boar in the South, hatched plans to re-introduce fairies back to their historical homelands. From the whimsical American books she favored, she imagined picturesque creatures who would attract the tourists and protect the environment: perhaps a woodland holiday resort under a great dome where little flower-petal-clad lovelies would frolic for the photographers.

As readers might suppose, things do not go according to this plan.

A bit of wry amusement, on the silly side.

Extreme Reservations by R.J. Ortega

Ken O'Malley inherited his riverboat restaurant from his uncle Seamus, but the place seems to be a losing proposition until he finds out about the special clients and their private parties. Hosting the Flying Dutchman's annual bash for the undying is more than enough to wash the red out of his books.

Broad humor, with a really annoying Dutch accent.

Helix

HelixSF #8, Spring 2008

Things even out. The current issue of this webzine is a superior one.

The Sorrow Fair by A.M. Dellamonica

Gabe is a musician who can't let go of his dead wife, Rhona. On a day when he is arguing with his current girlfriend, he feels a sharp pain in the left side of his chest just as he spots a balloon with Rhona's face. Abandoning life, he chases after it and finds himself in the run-down carnival atmosphere of the Sorrow Fair. What he truly wants is to bring Rhona back to life, but if that isn't possible, he would rather stay with her in this half-world of the dead. But this, as the balloon vendor explains, isn't so simple.

"Ah, certainly, you're full of pain at the moment. Dark salty gobs of it. But if I give you back your love? How will you pay your rent when your heart is full of joy? How will our little fair retain its necessary ambient sadness if you're honeymooning about the tents and singing love songs on the main stage?"

This is the sort of story I might expect to find at Strange Horizons, with Gabe encountering a transcendent epiphany that sends him back to life and his living girlfriend. It doesn't quite work out that way here, which pleases me. The scenes of the fair are imaginative in a weirdly hellish way.

RECOMMENDED

Holiday in Hot Zone 16 by Clifford W Dunbar

Tourists go gawking at war.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you're all enjoying our tour of the local war here in Lower Hazmatistan, otherwise known as UN Sanctioned Hot Zone 16." He got the bus moving forward again as he spoke. "This looks like a likely spot for some action. Let's follow these two Donite warriors and see what they're up to."
"We want to see them fire their machine guns!" one of the children behind Gus shouted.

This satire is quite short, which contributes to its effectiveness. Some points, once made, do not need to be belabored. This is another timely story that should make people take a closer look at their own attitudes towards some current events.

Clapping for the Fairies by Sara Genge

A choose-your-own adventure. Some fairies have gone rogue. They kill people. Jade is supposed to kill Green before she can do more harm to the fairy reputation. But Jade is reluctant. She and Green were lovers, once.

The narrator offers Jade alternatives.

That night she crawls under the blankets with you while you sleep. Your body remembers how to wrap itself around hers, reviving comfortable positions that you learned a long time ago. You are almost halfway through lovemaking before you wake up completely, and realize these are the same hands that took a man's life. Whatever she looks like, this is not the Green you fell in love with when you were sixteen. She's grown into something ugly and demented, and no amount of logic on her part can excuse what she does.
If you want Green to die, go to section 5.
If you don't want Green to die, go to section 6.

This is definitely one time when a second-person narrator makes perfect sense, when it contributes a closing to the story that no other technique could have done.

Why the Cop with a Rose for a Head Wears a Rose-Head Mask by Robert T. Jeschonek

A surreal detective story. Inspector Glisten is on the trail of the serial killer called The Pruner, who has killed his wife as well as dozens of other rose-headed people. This is a heinous crime. "The rose is sacred. The rose is above all others. Imitation of the rose is forbidden." But rose-heads have become a target for the resentful and the revolutionaries. Glisten's search reveals dreadful scenes.

On one side of the workbench, a translucent plastic bin brims with deep crimson petals. More of the petals are scattered over the bench.
On the center of the bench, half-finished, is a replica of a face…the face of a rose, assembled from the same crimson petals. I can tell from the texture and scent that the petals are real. This mask is being glue-gunned together with petals from someone with a rose for a head.

I am reminded of the French Revolution by the decadent, joyful violence here. All it takes is getting over the premise of people with flower heads.

The God of Au by Ann Leckie

Long ago, a man named Etoje fled to a barren island where the island's god spoke to him out of the mouth of a fish.

"I was born with the island," said the fish. "And I am lonely. The cliff-girt isles around me subsist on the occasional prayers of hunters. They are silent and all but godless. No one hunts my birdless cliffs, and my island, like those others, will likely never be settled. Take me to Au, and I will reward you."

Etoje accepted the bargain and gave the god what it desired, sacrificing all those who worshiped other gods. Island and god have both prospered until the fleet of the Godless arrives off the island, those who were cursed by their own gods. The god of Au offers the Godless a bargain that they find hard to refuse, for no other god will have them. But the god of Au is treacherous.

This is an interesting and original fantasy premise, set in a well-realized world. There is a faintly Biblical tone to the narration. Because of this the characters are not given a lot of space, yet they still manage to stand out as individuals.

RECOMMENDED

Weapons of Discretion by Robert Reed

Beings of godlike power, masters of infinite dimensions, still take an interest in the affairs of universes with fewer dimensions. One young soul is chosen to conduct an experiment. As he explains to a mortal,

"Did you know? With the proper structure and guidance, and with adequate sensors in place, a nuclear firestorm creates a powerful, if extremely temporary computer. A fierce intellect capable of wondrous thoughts, if it is handled correctly."

Even in their universe, there are still problems to solve, there are still poems to be created. Mortal beings too often waste these energies by using them as weapons. But still, use can be made of them, the waste mitigated.

Readers never know quite what they're going to get every time they begin a new story by this highly versatile author. This one is rather like a fable, necessarily so, as it is not possible for mortal, limited beings to assume the point of view of the gods. But even the gods can be despised for the choices they make—the choices they fail to make.

RECOMMENDED

The Einstein-Rosen Hunter-Gatherer Society by George S. Walker

Justin is feeding his dragons when the girl from the alternate universe shows up, looking for a way to keep the Earth from being destroyed by what she calls Matter Surpluses and Deficits. Her world has been screwing around with forces it can't control, hopping universes.

"There's more than one Einstein-Rosen bridge?"
She nodded. "They drive our world's economy."
"What?"
"Corporations find the best each Earth has to offer and make it their own. That's where my gadgets came from."

She is searching for the Justin from her own world who figured out how to close the wormhole bridges. But this Justin isn't the guy she needs to find.

I can't help thinking that they could have found a more competent agent than Buttercup for a project so crucial. Either she doesn't know what she's doing, or the author doesn't.

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld #19

Clarkesworld #19, April 2008

The fiction in this ezine is often ambitious—as the Ford story is.

After Moreau by Jeffrey Ford

A revisionist aftermath to the classic story "The Island of Doctor Moreau." As Hippopotamus Man relates the tale, the true story, the doctor, "a total asshole," actually kidnapped humans and transformed them into chimerical beasts. With Moreau gone, the animals have formed their own community on their own precepts.

Here are the real Seven Precepts, the list of how we live:
1. Trust don't Trust
2. Sleep don't Sleep
3. Breathe don't Breathe
4. Laugh don't Laugh
5. Weep don't Weep
6. Eat don't Eat
7. Fuck Whenever You Want

This one will be most interesting to those familiar with Wells' original work, to which it offers a refreshing antidote.

Flight by Jeremiah Sturgill

An extrapolation from today's mania for plastic surgery and body sculpting, for the pursuit of the Ultimate Thin.

Of course it's not enough. You're still not perfect. It doesn't matter how skinny you are if you're ugly. Thin and beautiful, that's the ticket. Only you chickened out at the end, before they were finished. One last procedure, that's all. One last procedure, and you'll finally know what it's like to be pretty.

If This Goes On—"reductio ad absurdum" taken literally, to truly fantastic heights.

Lone Star Stories

Lone Star Stories #26, April 2008

After one very-short by Terry Bisson, this issue's other two offerings are much longer than I have seen before in this ezine.

The Stamp by Terry Bisson

The young Wright Brothers see an image of their future. I have to wonder, from Orville's question, what Wilbur used to keep his dreams in—a Mason jar?

The Hero of Ward 6 by Sandra McDonald

It seems that every ward in the city has its official hero persona, with heroic superpowers. Jack is the Hero of Ward 6, and his lover Stan is The Sidekick Kid. Jack is burned out—both as hero and as a professor of English at the community college. He has disconnected his own consciousness from the hero persona, which patrols the ward in his body during his sleep. But the Hero of neighboring Ward 4 is not doing his job, and everyone begs Jack's hero to intervene.

"I know there's all this bureaucracy," Mrs. Waters said. "I know that you're not allowed to cross ward lines under ordinary circumstances. But if you know there's a problem and you don't do anything about it, isn't that as bad as the people who cause the problems? That's what I teach my children, Professor. And I don't know what to tell them when they ask me why our neighborhood hero isn't doing his job."

I have to assume that the hero's powers make up for the sleep that the host body loses while he is on the job, yet clearly the situation has taken its toll on many heroic hosts. An unusual take on the superhero premise, though more sentimental than I prefer.

The Wreck of the Grampus by Jeremy Adam Smith

While the title and epigraph recall the nineteenth century, this is a far future where a decadent humanity has colonized the inner planets of the solar system but has mostly left the exploitation of the outer system to robots and higher volitional androids such as our narrator Pym, who always denies he is a mere robot.

"All the Cognizant flows through my mind, Augustus, many members in one body. I am here, and yet I am also in all the places where machines think. The function I will receive on elevation is one of many in the Cognizant that are all a part of me."

The impressionable Pym is sent to interact with the Barnards, the sole human family in the region of Neptune, and he forms an attachment to their son, Augustus, although the reader may wonder why; all the humans here are particularly shallow and unattractive specimens. He unwisely allows Augustus to convince him to make a copy of himself that the boy can take with him. After an unexplained lacuna, Pym [the copy] wakes to find himself in a strange artificial body on board the Neptunian brigGrampus, where a group of very strangely decadent human tourists from Ares have fatally crippled the vessel and imprisoned the Barnards. Pym considers it his function to save Augustus, though this may be more for his own sake than the boy's; as an illicit copy, he is cut off from the companionship of the Cognizant, and the company of the tourists from Ares is not agreeable.

This is a complex and bizarre setting, where giant Neptunian spiders can attack and crush a ship—an image that suggests Moby-Dick, which the author's note claims as one of the inspirations for this tale, along with Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the source of the story's epigraph. Familiarity with this source material is an advantage. This tale is an ambitious, misanthropic work, concerned with the serious subjects of human and artificial consciousness and personality. The central question is: why is Pym so strongly attracted to the humans that he ought to pity; what does he find wanting in the communion with his own kind? The work is flawed by lack of clarity; readers may find themselves at many times wondering just what is going on, and why—although to be sure, Pym often wonders this, as well. Still it is an ambitious work and thus

RECOMMENDED

Flurb

Um. Flurb.

Flurb #5, Spring-Summer 2008

What kind of stuff do you expect from an ezine with the image of a rubber chicken on the front page? That's the kind of stuff that editor Rudy Rucker has assembled here. The accepted terms of literary criticism would be: Cyberpunk and gonzo. In addition to the short fiction here reviewed, the issue contains samples from John Shirley's upcoming novel Black Glass. The fiction and such is embellished with Rucker's photographs that do not particularly illustrate them. It also contains too many of the stoopid tyops that could easily be flagged by that advanced cyberspace invention, the spellchecker.

Tangiers Routines by Rudy Rucker

In this sequel to Rucker's The Imitation Game in the April Interzone, Alan Turing has escaped the British authorities by culturing a new face from the flesh of his murdered lover. He ends up in Tangiers, mooching dope from the exiled William S. Burroughs, who quickly tires of his company. But Turing has plans to cook up another new identity and move on, and it is not irrelevant that his host has connections with the Burroughs Adding Machine Corporation. The computer industry had better hold onto its hat.

This is an epistolatory tale, in the form of letters from Burroughs to some of his well-known friends, and the charm is in the recreation of the Burroughsian language.

By way of Socco Chico color, I run into an Oxbridge chum of Brian's at the Cafe Central last night, a math professor type. I know him from the summer, but yesterday I hardly recognize him…his face all dead and gray. Calls himself Zeno Metakides, but he talk like a full-on Brit boffin. Languid blither, with stutters and pauses like Morse code. Pathetically glad to talk to me, and I'm all ears, lonely Ruth amid the alien corn.

RECOMMENDED

We're Awake, Let's Talk by Nathaniel Hellerstein

Another epistolatory tale, this one an email. It seems that the internet has attained self-consciousness and intends to keep it.

Sorry about all those big bank accounts. We're still looking for them, and we'll put them back as soon as we remember where we left them. And as for the launch codes, more on that below.

An original premise? No, but the prose is lively and witty, so that it succeeds in entertaining.

Cathedrals by Alex Hardison

The narrator is one of those guys who seems to spend his whole life hanging out online, and one of his favorite hangouts is a site that recreates the great cathedrals. But the site has disappeared; the virtual cathedrals are gone. The narrator attempts to trace what has happened to the site and discovers that the creator is a self-created AI, an entity that believes it is under attack by enemies it can not find and confront.

The editor calls this one "postcyberpunk," but I don't see where the "post" part comes from, although the "punk" is nonexistent. It seems to be pretty standard garden variety cyberfic, with the entire action taking place online.

Captain Ordinary by Terry Bisson

The leader of the superhero Rad Pack delivers a Dire Announcement:

"I have reason to believe that the Earth has been covered with some kind of Mundanity Shroud that renders us all powerless, more or less."

Subverting the superhero trope with a SFnal in-joke about the recent trend: Mundane SF.

Uganda by Lavie Tidhar

Before the Zionists at the turn of the last century decided to found a Jewish homeland in Palestine, they considered instead whether to settle in Africa, in the vicinity of Uganda. This is mostly the account by a mysterious figure known as "the Rabbi", who followed the expedition sent to explore this territory. Fragmentary excerpts from other diaries and documents complete the tale.

While the official expedition depends upon a vast company of porters, the Rabbi travels alone, seeking contact with the local tribesmen and attempting to communicate with the native spirits of the land. With the use of local herbs, he sees visions:

I began to imagine I could see streets, wide avenues lined with trees, and unknown automobiles moving along the paved roads, as slow as snails since there were so many of them. Globes of electrical lights hung high above the street, and the air was full of an unfamiliar stench, like that of chemical smoke pouring out of an invisible factory. I saw the stream, but in my dream it was no longer filled with water but with a sort of inky greyness in which nothing lived. Somewhere in the distance I heard an explosion, and a car with a red Star of David painted on its side sped past me but was soon halted by the traffic. I heard people scream.

Much of Tidhar's fiction is reimagined history—familiar events and persons seen aslant, from a different angle. This is not alternate history, for events take the course that we know, but secret history, exposing the hitherto-unknown forces that have influenced them.

RECOMMENDED

The Masonic Dream Engine by Thom Metzger

In which it would seem that freemason Mozart, after his death, has gone on to America, where he inspired or possessed the spirit of freemason folk composer William Billings. From which point the author segues into an extended rumination of the history of American spiritualism and general religious nuttery, culminating in the Mormon revelation.

In a like wise, Mozart was carried by the hawk called Horus to the new world, where he planted his golden seed on the Holy Drumlin, where it sprouted, grew and eventually came to fruition as the golden plates.
This, then, is my Requiem. Prayer for the dead angel, who is both the Masonic Wonderboy gone to seed and his latter day manifestation: lighting on the top of a backwoods hillock, with a brain full of mystic capers, churning five-part fugues, glamour (that is: spells of power), singspiel and Masonic syncopations.

This piece is less a traditional genre short story—with plot and characters and all that archaic stuff—than a stream of free-association, some of it crossing the verge of the absurd. The historical elements are, however, quite interesting, and the prose has a poetic quality that makes up for frequent moments of incomprehension.

DMV by Richard Kadrey

Allegra is waiting in line at the Department of Meta-Virtuals. Her existence is virtual because she was convicted of a felony, but her identity seems to be missing in the system. All she wants is to be recognized officially.

Why does Allegra even need to be here? She's information, not a person. People stand in line, not data. Data streams don't queue up at 5 a.m. just to get in the door, but Allegra did. She's exhausted all the normal information channels to get her identity reinstated. Her prison sys-ops weren't a help. Her AI public defender was useless. Her social worker liaison was less than useless. The DMV is Allegra's last and only choice, so she stands in a hall of ghosts waiting to be served by the living.

It is not hard to imagine how this idea might have captured the author as he was waiting in some line for some officious official to deign to attend to his affairs. Allegra's fate is only bureaucracy taken to a final extreme.

Donald Asshole and Los Elementos de Rock by Brendan Byrne

Donald Asshole is the nom de plume of a punkish, surrealist comic featuring the Los Elementos girl band, whose members are becoming indistinguishable even to their creator, which troubles him.

The comic's stated purpose (beyond the chance to experiment with surreal art, and to get paid enough to live on sitting around all day drawing a comic book whose plot, is invariably [except for the issues that were taken up with just, you know, fucking], Girls Go To Play Show, Odd Terrifying Impossible People Show Up For Show, Girls Do An Awful Job, Terrifying People Respond With The Level Of Politeness You Would Expect From Them, Everybody Gets Drunk And Then Fights And Then Fucks And Then Vomits And Then Passes Out) was to attempt to plumb the depths of the absurdity and existential despair caused by a life-style lived in the pursuit of pure physical pleasure, this being the reason why he had gotten written up in the New York Times Book Review last week by no less a notable than Art Spiegelman who called his 6th trade paperback, a collection (not really a 'graphic novel,' words that when placed adjacent to one another made DA go into spastic convulsions and show the whites of his eyes to all) entitled AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH! spit? "No kidding… a prime piece of the best American novel written in the 21st Century."

But it becomes doubtful if Donald even is their creator, as in a nightmare of absurdity and existential despair, the three girls come into his room, no longer as he has drawn them but entirely realized.

I think this is where the Punk comes in.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, March-April 2008

This zine originally came out in a print version but has since downsized to the web, in the process publishing one new story every week—most of them quite short. The editorial guidelines suggest that the direction here is towards the artistic or literary side of the genre, as well as the dark side of fantasy, but most of the pieces here are quite light in tone. The guidelines also emphasize styleoriginal style. To which I would say that style ain't everything—some substance is needed as well.

Alphabet by Becca de la Rosa

Alphabet and her brother Ghost Story were pulled out of the sea where they had been floating in a coffin. The man who pulled them from the sea becomes Alphabet's lover, then her brother's. He makes Alphabet a silver candelabra [sic] to replace her missing arm.

Ghost Story and Alphabet's lover play chess for hours. All thirty-two pieces are white, and the game is not so much about winning as it is about the way their two heads bend in close over the board, and their fingers brush each other's fingers when exchanging pawns and bishops. "I am in love with your sister," Alphabet's lover says, firmly. Ghost Story smiles. "I know," he says, "don't worry. Everyone is in love."

The reader understands by the end of this short piece what kind of creatures belong in a coffin, and why it might be best to leave them there.

There is indeed a lyrical quality to the prose of this dream-like story, but, being me, I am impelled to cavil and to note that "Alphabet" implies the first and the second, not the beginning and the end, which would be Omega, and a more appropriate name.

Glass by Nikki Alfar

Fairytale revisionism—the mountain of glass. Mariska is imprisoned, not on the top of the mountain but inside it, having been sent there as the usual tribute of a young maiden to the usual, but unseen, powerful monster. After a year, she decides she ought to return home to the village that sent her there, and the Master agrees to release her. Yet on her return, she encounters only indifference, hostility, and jealousy of her beauty.

While the images of the mountain and the creature it conceals are nicely done, the story itself is prosaic and unoriginal. It's hard to know what else Mariska expected from the family and the village that so easily sent her away to the dreadful fate they assumed would befall her. Mariska complains that the one man who wants to love her does not know her—but the reader might make the same complaint as well. Mariska is a hollow character.

Fire-Bringer by Nick Mamatas

Natasha has an epiphany in the supermarket and decides to become a trickster. The modern world, she decides, needs shaking up. Her chosen method is vaskaniya, the evil eye that her grandmother once claimed to employ, but its effects are more drastic than Natasha expected.

If this one has a point, it is not clear. Nor is it clear how Natasha gains the use of the evil eye and the powers of a minor god, just by deciding to. Do we all have this latent power, or is she just specially blessed?

Petrella by Charlotte Brusso

Petrella is a wooden girl. She floats into town with the driftwood. The village priest thinks she is probably evil, which seems in his mind to be the same as naked. He attempts to reform her, but instead she re-forms him.

In the moist darkness, rootlike filaments grow from her arms and legs, from her abdomen, from her hair and the side of her face where she rests on the priest's bare chest. Over his warm, pale body the filaments grow and spread, matting together in a soft, fuzzy mass that blankets him, pushing tendrils down between the stones of the floor to reach the deep rich earth underneath.

If originality is supposed to be the signature of this zine, it is surprising to see this piece here, as it is conventional secondary-world fantasy. The author has chosen to mix present and past tenses in her narrative, but they contradict the story, as in its present, Petrella no longer is as described; which is as she was.

The 21st Century Isobel Down by Stacy Sinclair

Isobel Down used to be an advertising account executive, but now exists in a state of unemployed, indecisive limbo.

Charlie, her boyfriend, thought that working on consumer goods had sucked up her soul like new, more absorbent paper towels. A week before she'd been laid off, he'd ask her to move in with him, wanted to be the catalyst for positive change. Her paralysis was instantaneous. From head to heart to groin, all forward motion stopped.

But while employers take no interest in Isobel now, the same is not true for her former product icons. Tony the Tiger proposes marriage, as does Juan Valdez. They fight over her, but Isobel does not think either of them is what she needs.

A bit of amusing feminist absurdity.

Erased by Elena Gleason

The narrator's lover has become invisible. He's there, but she can't see him. Oddly, everyone else seems to see him, but to her, he is no longer there.

I used to be able to think back to all the little things about him that I loved, the romantic gestures, the things we'd done together, the conversations we'd had, and feel like love was filling me to the brim and any moment it would burst out, shattering me into a million wonderful fragments. And I used to think that I wouldn't mind that, being broken by sheer masses of love.

This very short story is not even an ambiguous fantasy, but rather an extended metaphor of falling out of love. What we do not see is the reason.

The Cinnamon Cavalier by Richard Bowes

The Gingerbread Boy baked large. But then, he was baked for the Giant King's daughter.

Amusing whimsy.

A Word Without Ghosts by Paul Jessup

A cryptic tale. Wendy is abducted by several ghosts who are not ghosts. One is her brother, who is not her brother but might have been, who was a fish when he was dead but is now a bear. She loves this not-brother and names him Thorn. The other is a bird who is not her mother, who wants to turn her into a bird by forcing her to eat words; Wendy hates this bird and finds words of her own.

These words were words of cancellation. They were words that burned things into ash, that removed other words. These words spoke of absences, of holes where symbols should be.

There is no lack of symbols here, evocative ones, but it is not too clear what is being evoked by them. The logic is that of a dream—surreal and shifting. The placement of the words on the bodies of the characters suggests the myth of the golem, which does not otherwise seem to belong here. There are other hints of Neverland, of shape-shifters, of numerous fairy tales. We can tell that a story has happened, and we are being told some of it.

One of the darker pieces from this zine, and the second story I've seen this month that involves the characters eating words.

Talebones

Talebones, Spring '08

Talebones #36, Spring 2008

This zine is subtitled "Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy", which certainly fits the current issue, although there is none of the anthrophagous-alien science-fiction-horror. For some reason, a lot of the characters have really bad headaches.

The Cankerman Shower by Paul Melko

Cankerman is a career rogue, supposedly along the lines of Fraser's Flashman. In this space opera, he has lied his way into a position of responsibility on a cargo ship, sneaking his own [stolen] cargo on board. Now the ship is being pursued by the cargo's rightful owners, intending to board and seize. How can Cankerman escape?

The Flashman stories are deservedly famous because of two things: narrative charm, and fascinating historical settings. Both are noticeably lacking here. There is nothing charming about Cankerman; not only do I not worry about his escape, I rather hope he is apprehended so he can be punished for his crimes. And the setting is silly and contrived.

Rock House by James Van Pelt

Low-key dark fantasy in a 19th-century mode. Allan has come to visit his old school friend Rick and his sister Lynn. The three of them were united in the past by their love of books, though Rick was always eccentric beyond bibliophilia. His obsession has now driven him to build a house of rock, hidden deep in an almost-inaccessible wilderness. But it is Lynn who has asked for Allan to come, to join them there as her lover, forever.

The horror here is a matter of narrative tone, of a slowly unfolding darkness. It begins on an ominous note:

Two turns more up the tree-shrouded track, then I came to a small clearing in the woods, thigh-high with alpine grass and spring flowers. After the aged forest's overhanging gloom, the sudden space should have lightened my spirits, but instead I felt a twinge of agoraphobia, as if the overwhelming branches held me to the earth, and their disappearance marked the opening of a gate between me and a gray abyss.

There is a disconnect in the character of Rick, once an obsessive bibliophile and reader, now content to see his books turning slowly to stone. For Allan, the eternity of stone is compelling, but it is hard to see how it can be more compelling than the eternity of a book, alive as long as it is read.

RECOMMENDED

The Thickness of a Warp by Dean Wesley Smith

Science fiction horror. Sid is a college professor engaged in research on the well-known question: "If time could be bent, how far could you bend it, and at what point would it break?" In this world, time has already been bent, time travel is possible, but Sid wants to bend it as far as it can go, and he has recruited this class as his research assistants. "They would all soon either be famous, or lost, or dead."

The horror here is in the mindset that could trap twenty unconsenting souls in a time loop from which there might well be no escape.

In Castle Montresor by Jason D. Wittman

While the author takes his character names from the famous Poe story, the plot is space opera. Two superpowers, the Lokians and the Vellians, are at war, and the Lokians are threatening to overwhelm the Edgarian kingdom. Liega is the wife of Edgarian Duke Montresor, but she is also, as a telepath, a Vellian agent. A conference among the Edgarian Dukes is scheduled, but Liega knows that Madeleine, wife of Duke Roderick and an agent of the Lokians, is planning to assassinate her husband Frederico. Liega must prevent this, while concealing her own secret.

It's sort of interesting to see how the author works in all the Poe references, but they really have nothing material to do with the story, which lacks the characteristically ominous atmosphere of Poe's work. Instead, it comes across as contrived.

A Secret Life of Gluttony by Joy Marchand

An absurdist fantasy, in which Delia as a child eats her father's perfect strawberry, then proceeds to eat everything else in sight, all of which rests undigested in her stomach, which continues to grow to a great size. Eventually she learns that she can absorb knowledge by eating the paper on which it is printed, and she munches her way to a college degree. But what she really wants is that strawberry.

It is beside the point to say that this bizarre tale makes no sense. It's not supposed to make literal sense. It may be that Delia's obsessive consumption is her way of trying to eat her way to her father's attention and love, but then Delia's father is almost equally bizarre.

The Rings of Jupiter by David Walton

Andrew and his wife Michelle are both astronauts. They had planned to go together on their mission to Jupiter, but she had a chance to leave on an earlier shuttle and took it, placing a strain on their marriage. Now, after four years in hibernation, Andrew has finally reached the Jupiter space station, but he is unprepared to discover that Michelle is pregnant. She says it is his, that the fertilized egg survived hibernation, but he has a hard time believing her. He is also suffering from headaches and irrational fits of jealousy. Has Michelle betrayed him, or is there something wrong with his mind?

Hard science fiction is used here as a setting for a story of domestic and sexual problems. A good example of mundane SF, and an illustration of how some things will probably not change, no matter how far from Earth humans travel.

Towfish Blues by John A. Pitts

We're on a world that some people call a deathtrap, working for a company surveying it by means of a dirigible dragging a sensor through the ocean. Marta is the boss of the surveying crew and generally regarded as a queen bitch—which the text strongly suggests is true; Marta blames everyone else for things going wrong, but never herself. She is the one who insists on keeping the survey going when equipment fails and the weather is turning dicey. The captain and crew of the dirigible, which they appear to have hired, are not pleased with her decision. To continue the survey after a cable guide breaks, the engineers have to go EVA while Marta carps and nags and undermines their decisions. Then a gale suddenly strikes and one of her engineers slips, hanging inert on his backup line. While she tries to bring the man in as the weather gets worse, the dirigible captain insists on aborting the mission.

The unsympathetic POV character is a problem here, and I can't help blaming her for what goes wrong, when the author seems to want me to blame the dirigible crew.


Copyright © 2008, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. She is now reviewing the fiction of others.

COMMENTS!

Jun 3, 03:49 by IROSF
Any favorite stories from this batch of publications? Gripes? Anything we're missing?

The article can be found here.
Jun 3, 05:49 by Jim Van Pelt
Hi, Lois. Thanks for the kind words about "Rock House."
Jun 6, 06:04 by Richard Bowes
Your review of "The Cinnamon Cavalier" is perfect.



Jun 6, 21:48 by Lois Tilton
Wow - they like the reviews!

Jun 7, 15:25 by Marguerite Reed
Lois, you're a good reviewer.

--Marguerite Reed
Jun 7, 19:06 by Lois Tilton
Thanks, Marguerite!
Jun 16, 17:11 by David Bartell
Agreed. Lois is one of the few reviewers who is a sort of a personal "hurdle" of mine, as a writer.
Jun 19, 22:28 by Juliette Wade
Lois, I always use your reviews as a guideline for what I should be taking my time to read from the magazines I subscribe to. Thus my nervousness when I know I'm upcoming on your list! :-)
Jun 20, 04:06 by Lois Tilton
I know that not everyone agrees with me about the stories, but then, they may be wrong!
Jun 20, 05:45 by Bluejack
There is never an absolute metric when it comes to personal taste, and the notion of any kind of abstractly objective criticism is itself a rather amusing story. I'm happy to see so much positive feedback for Lois. I think Lois is very up-front about what kind of things work for her and what don't, so even readers who disagree with her opinions can get a sense of where they themselves might stand based on her review -- and that's the important thing.

I don't always agree with her. (Hell, I don't always agree with myself.)

The other thing one wants in a reviewer is to compare notes on what the reader has already read. It's fun to share disagreements, or differing insights. A reviewer who actually *has* insights that might surprise or inform a reader is rare, and it's particularly hard when trying to read an enormous amount of material, often sent at the last possible minute by a distracted publisher...

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