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Publisher: Bluejack

August, 2008 : Review:

July 2008 Short Fiction

Notable issues this time around are the Spring Weird Tales and the Spring issue of Paradox, as well as the August Realms of Fantasy.

Zines Reviewed

F&SF, September 2008

F&SF, September 2008

The star of this issue comes from Carolyn Ives Gilman.

Pump 6 by Paolo Bacigalupi

In the world of the marching morons, Alvarez is one of the few remaining people who actually know how to think—an ability that most of the morons running the world fail to appreciate. His job is a crucial one, although he is the only person who seems to recognize its importance: to keep the huge pumps operating in New York's sewer system. When Pump 6 fails, he discovers that no one knows how to fix it and that there are no replacement parts available.

Bacigalupi is surely SF's Prince of Dystopia, and this one gives us an unsettling look at another future we really don't want to live in.

Summer in New York is one of my least favorite times. The heat sits down between the buildings, choking everything, and the air just... stops. You smell everything. Plastics melting into hot concrete, garbage burning, old urine that effervesces into the air when someone throws water into the gutter; just the plain smell of so many people living all packed together. Like all the skyscrapers are sweating alcoholics after a binge, standing there exhausted and oozing with the evidence of everything they've been up to. It drives my asthma nuts. Some days, I take three hits off the inhaler just to get to work.

As much as I admire the grimness of vision, I'm not sure Bacigalupi's world is quite internally consistent. It implies a collapse that should have been more decades in the making, or else a major apocalypse that no one seems to have noticed. It wasn't all that many years ago that Alvarez was learning to read in school, so that the seemingly near-universal illiteracy is hard to explain. In many places, people are still making things, even inventing things, which suggests that a pool of people with brains must remain, somewhere. Perhaps we might hope that Alvarez finds them one day.

Search Continues for Elderly Man by Laura Kasischke

Mr. Rentz finds an unwelcome pair of visitors at his front door.

I supposed this boy was supposed to be some hallucinated version of me. I supposed that dog was supposed to be my dog, way back when, and here was Death at my door, beckoning me outside 'to play,' and I was supposed to step out there and follow the boy into the field, and maybe later he'd get me to take his hand, and we'd find ourselves back at my mother's table with a big ham at the center and all my dead relatives would be shiny-eyed and happy to see me, and in a startling epiphanic moment of ambivalence and ecstasy I'd suddenly understand that the boy, who was me, was dead. But I'd never had a dog.

Mr. Rentz has good reason to be suspicious of this visitor. He is not a nice man. He has not lived a good life. He cannot expect to be headed for a good place.

This very short nominal fantasy is planted in well-broken ground, and in the end is another screed about the evil consequences of child abuse.

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Humans are colonizing the ice-covered water world of Ben, terraforming one of its seas in a collective effort they call the Great Work. The result is a culture, as one character puts it, "based on passive aggression" and self-effacement. Osaji loves the floating life beneath the ice, but she has become by default her senile grandmother's full-time caretaker, trapped in the situation and desperate for a way out. She even, guiltily, considers emigrating from Ben and abandoning Mota to her sister's care. Then a seismic upheaval flings her into an uncharted ocean in the unlikely company of Mota and a bad-tempered offworld spacer named Scrappin' Jack—the antithesis of a Bennite personality.

The tale follows the familiar pattern of an outward and an inward journey. In this case, it is the outward journey that is by far the most interesting. One can feel for Osaji's plight, but her personality is so stunted and undeveloped by her society that it can't compete for reader attention with the aquatic scenery of Ben.

A chain of seafloor vents snaked along the valley floor, glowing in places with reddish rock-heat. Downstream, black smokers belched out a filthy brew loaded with minerals from deep under the planet's gravity-tortured crust. Tall chimneys encased the older vents. Everywhere the seafloor was covered with thick, mucky vegetation feeding on the dissolved nutrients: fields of tubeworms, blind white crabs, brine shrimp, clams, eels, seagrass, tiny translucent fish. The carefully nurtured ecosystem had been transported from faraway Earth to this watery planet of Ben. To Osaji, the slimy brown jungle looked like the richest crop, the most fertile field, a welcoming abundance of life.

Now this is a world! This is description! And the unexplored outer ocean holds yet more exotic wonders. The arks in which the Bennites live and travel are also wonderful inventions, self-contained bubble habitats that drift on the currents.

In its way, Divernon was alive, like a giant cell: a lipid membrane full of organelles designed to feed on the dissolved salts and carbon dioxide of the sea, and process them into amino acids and hydrocarbons to release again. It was part of the metabolic chain that would slowly, over the centuries, turn Ben's sea into a living ocean. The ark was a giant fertilizer, a life-creator, an indispensable part of the Great Work. But out here there was no Great Work. Isolated from its fellows, Divernon was a lost soul.

I have to suspect that the Mundane SF people would approve this story for its superior worldbuilding, as, except for the minor niggling detail of how the colonists got to Ben in the first place, it takes place wholly on the stage of the scientifically-plausible. And it is, as the mundane manifesto prescribes, quite fully imagined and detailed, in richly evocative prose.


Picnic on Pentecost by Rand B. Lee

A closely-bonded group of four explorers find themselves off-course, orbiting a strange planet. Three of them descend to explore the surface, but this is world subject to radiation storms every thirteen years. Elizabeth, the narrator, is the only survivor, but the radiation has greatly altered her. We eventually discover that a race of aliens inhabits this planet and lures other space travelers there to be assimilated.

Thirteen. The planet has gone through the blue night, and the yellow-green-brown-bruisy morning, and the golden afternoon, and green sunset hits as blue slides over the horizon again. During those years of isolation, I observed myself doing odd things. My new body scampered and capered and ate the mica, and what I excreted was soft and moldable in the glare of One and Two. I myself felt no heat; mirrored, I reflected much of it away, and I suspect my nerve endings were so changed I cannot feel infrared anyway.

This is essentially a space fantasy, in which the author uses imagery to suggest what cannot be literally described. Thus Elizabeth names the world Pentecost, for the transforming tongues of flame that fall from heaven onto her. This is not the sort of story for asking, How did this happen? How could this happen? The question here is, Just what is happening? The answer is in Elizabeth's reaction—one part rejoicing in her new state of being, the other remembering and mourning her lost humanity.

"Shed that Guilt! Double your Productivity Overnight!" by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn

Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia: Operators are Standing By!

Salad for Two by Robert Reed

Gillian is a teenaged checkout clerk at the grocery. Jason Popper is a regular customer who seems to take a particular interest in her—a very wealthy customer whose work in artificial intelligence will soon transform the world. When Gillian leaves for college, Jason gives her a parting gift and a valuable stock tip. After the first generation of AI Thinkers become available, Gillian can afford to have one implanted and goes on to lead a long and fulfilling life, but she always cherishes the memory of Jason Popper's gift. Until one day she decides to pay him a visit and makes an unsettling discovery.

This is a story about the reliability of memory and the events we build our lives around. Memory, in a real way, is self. The reader, in this case, sees her life through Gillian's memories, and may find the revelation as disappointing as she did—as I did. There seems to be something wrong about interfering in such a way with another person's memories, with her mind.

Run! Run! by Jim Aikin

The narrator reminisces about the days when the unicorns grazed in the south paddock of her father's farm, before her sister betrayed them to the Church authorities and broke their father's heart. A short, poignant tale.

Asimov's, September 2008

Asimov's, September 2008

A whole lot of stories in this normal-sized issue.

In the Age of the Quiet Sun by William Barton

When a man is a hundred years old, he's got a lot of life behind him. The man called Zed, perhaps, more than many others. At any rate, in the opening pages while his ship crawls across space, he maunders on about it all. Readers of this zine may be familiar with part of the story, as it was related in the author's "A Rocket into Interplanetary Space," in which the narrator and his partner [whose name seems to have changed from Willy to Willie] double-handedly set Earth on the road to real space exploration. But he has since suffered setbacks, with the Feds confiscating his company and sending him to prison. Now, however, he is free, shot full of desexualizing "space drugs," and out in the asteroids again, where at once he fortuitously [and not very credibly] discovers an alien spacecraft. Suddenly, he's in the game again, with the secret of an alien spacedrive as leverage.

This one is awfully backstory-heavy, and I'm not sure the reader who comes new to this story is going to be patient enough to sit through it. While the reader who does remember the earlier story may well wonder impatiently, What the hell happened between the hopeful then and now? How and why? "Rocket" was all optimism, all "this is how it might really have been, if only." The current story is more fantastic, more wishful thinking, more dumb luck/auctorial intervention. This is more like the pulp sci-fi stories that narrator and author were reading in 1960, that boy who is always at the heart of this tale, no matter what name he is wearing now.

Midnight Blue by Will McIntosh

A novel premise: one day, all over Earth, alien charms appeared. They consist of two colored spheres with a staff to join them; when a person makes the connection, that person absorbs the power residing in the sphere—flight, or music, or athletic skill. But that was decades ago. Jeff's grandfather and mother absorbed a lot of charms in those early days, but now they are almost impossible to find in the wild, and very expensive to buy. Only the rich have them now. Until Jeff discovers a sphere from the rarest charm of all: Midnight Blue. It is, as far as is known, unique, and no one knows what power it confers.

This is a Neat Idea, and the ending comes with some satisfactory schadenfreude.

The Ice War by Stephen Baxter

The editorial blurb suggests that this one is alternate history, but it is in fact historical SF, an 18th-century version of War of the Worlds, with ice monsters invading Earth from a passing comet. One of the cometary fragments crashes near a barn where ne'er-do-well Jack Hobbes has taken refuge from an outraged father; he soon joins the flood of refugees on the road, where he encounters the distinguished trio of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Isaac Newton his own self, on a mission from the Crown to confront the ice monsters, but which threatens to founder in the shoals of Philosophical Dispute.

Defoe laughed at him. "So you dance in your thinking like a maiden at a gavotte, Swift. If they are chaotic they cannot be from heaven; if Newton proves they are from heaven, they cannot be chaotic—despite the evidence of your eyes. Well, if they are so superior as all that, you had better hope that they treat us better than you English in Ireland treat the natives there."

The parallels to H. G. Wells make this story rather less than original, and while the historical setting adds interest, the author's language did not do all that it could have to evoke it. The ice monsters themselves, named Phoebeans by the 18th-century pundits, are fascinating creations, but I found the Philosophical Disputes the most interesting aspect of this historical fiction, and the glimpses they provide into this century's minds.

Soldier of the Singularity by Robert R Chase

Young is a combat psychiatrist whose patients are humans injured in battle with the robotic force called the Singularity. Now Young finds in his office a disarmed robot called 5CSigma.10059 that claims it has been sent to take his orders, but what the robot really needs is healing. How does a psychiatrist heal a robot?

This is one of those stories that are really just a leadup to the sort of revelation that people would call a spoiler if discussed in a review, although to some readers the revelation will become apparent earlier in the narrative, as it is quite similar to the plot of a certain TV series that I cannot mention as it would perhaps suggest the nature of the revelation and thus be considered such a spoiler. However, I can say that the events behind the Singularity and the war, and thus the revelation, seem quite improbable.

Horse Racing by Mary Rosenblum

In a secret suite upstairs from a seedy sex club in Thailand, an Auction is going on. A consortium of the truly rich and powerful are bidding on human lives. Readers will think at first that it is a sex auction, but it is revealed as something quite different, which, again, I will not be able to discuss due to the spoiler thing. The horse racing, however, is a metaphor for it.

It's a talky story, more idea than story; the narrator spends most of the text explaining the setup, and the other elements of a story are minimal-to-nonexistent.

Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone by Ian Creasy

Death has been cyberized, and Susannah's critical, overbearing mother is planning to take full advantage of the opportunity for eternal electronic nagging. As soon as she dies, she will be downloaded, then installed in Susannah's house.

I already ordered the Exogram 5000, and it'll be delivered to your house next week. There's a dedicated comlink to my electronic brain, and all the projection equipment is in a self-contained unit with its own power-supply. I'm not having people switching me on and off like a radio." She paused and wheezed for breath before continuing. "The substations go on each floor of the house, and the remote units cover the garden. It has multi-presence so I can babysit anywhere simultaneously. You'll need to patch me into the house network, so I can make myself useful by switching things off when you're asleep and whatnot.

Oh-oh! How can Susannah escape?

This one raises questions. Readers will have to wonder, with Susannah, whether her impulse is as selfish as she knows her mother would declare, or if she is only protecting herself and her own children. Do the dead have rights over the living, or is it the other way around? I like the title, even though Susannah doesn't.

Slug Hell by Steven Utley

Another in this author's series about scientific excursions to an alternate Silurian Age. This very short piece gives us Silver, who studies halophilic organisms that live in the vast, empty salt flat called Slug Hell, but comes at intervals to the base camp where "he soaks up water, color, sound, conversation," as necessary to human life.

The author alternates narrative voices between Silver's first-person out on the salt flats, and the third-person of Silver back at the base camp, reconnecting with humanity, recalling the words of his grandfather: "Anywhere we find ourselves, we upright apes cannot do without beauty, even if we must carry it around inside our big ape heads." Lovely descriptions of the creatures of the salt flats, lovely scraps of the human conversations to cherish when he is alone again.


Usurpers by Derek Zumsteg

A high school cross-country race. King—poor, black, driven by obsessive ambition—against the knock-offs, the gene dopers, the rich white kids whose parents took them to China for modifications. No one but King knows that he will win this race. King never doubts it. King rules.

As I write this, the Tour de France is underway and three riders have already been thrown off the course for doping. I am reminded of the drugs, the dirty tricks on the road, and the physical cost. Some things don't change very much at all, and Zumsteg's descriptions of the race are strongly authentic. But I have a hard time believing that in a world so little removed from today's, such easily-detected gene modifications would be allowed in any competition. And if it is so, I wonder how that change came about.

Analog, September 2008

Despite the continuation of the Palmer serial, there is plenty of room left for short fiction in this issue.

The Last Temptation of Katerina Savitskaya by H. G. Stratman

We are on Eden, which is really a Mars terraformed not by humans but by mysterious aliens. The aliens have allowed a single pair of humans to reside there for undisclosed reasons of their own. This is frustrating to the humans, who spend the first half of the story boring the reader by telling each other so. They are Russian Katerina, shapely and devout, and American Martin, who loves Katerina but is still an ass. The aliens lure them inside a pyramid, where they are both subjected to various tests, but it is only to Katerina that they make the offer of godlike powers—we do not know why, but it is clear that they are the serpent in the garden. Katerina repeatedly rejects this temptation, so the aliens turn to Martin.

The title, suggesting Kazantzakis' masterpiece, and the epigraph from Goethe are promising signs, but alas, false ones. This story is so message-heavy and overloaded with symbol that it glows in the dark. Worse, it is badly written and clichéd; we know that Martin has succumbed to temptation because he "sneers" and "smirks." If there is a subgenre of Christian SF, I fear that I now know what it looks like.

Once in a Blue Moon by William Gleason

VR gaming is big business, and Brody Bridges works as a casino manager on the moon after being blinded by a computer glitch when he was a promising pro. Now comes an offer from a pretty mad-seeming scientist to get him back into the game. So Brody gets the new implants and starts to try out the new system, but at once things go wrong. There are phantoms in the game matrix, and they may have come from an alternate universe. Brody finds himself trapped there, under fire, while the scientists argue incomprehensibly whether he can be safely extricated.

The gaming action scenes are lively here, but the physics is pure Handwavium; the scientific explanations don't even try to make sense, as we can see when none of the characters can begin to understand them. Nor am I quite able to credit that the entire government would be mobilized by what is, in effect, a computer malf in a casino.

The Fourth Thing by Stephen L. Burns

Noelle is awakened by an alien voice, informing her that the world is about to be destroyed but she will be saved, and can bring three things with her. What will she choose?

Improbable, but an intriguing question.

Forever Mommy by David Grace

On his seventh birthday, like everyone else, Jimmy gets an Advisor implanted near his ear, to nag him into social responsibility.

Don't argue with your mother, Jimmy's Advisor warned him.

"We'll stop at the market and I'll get a nice crunchy apple. That will be my treat. Okay?"

Answer your mother, Jimmy.

"Yes, mom," he agreed in a sullen voice. For now the Advisor let it slide.

But Jimmy is a smart kid. Jimmy figures out the Advisor doesn't know everything.

This is not the first Analog story to warn against creeping electronic BigBrotherization. I only wish it were as easy to resist in real life as it is in fiction.

Invasion of the Pattern Snatchers by David W. Goldman

Roald Vic is a spy. A century ago, the expansionist Affiliated Planets had infected the recently-rediscovered colony world of Nieuw Vlanderen with a biological agent meant to cause its depopulation. Inexplicably, however, the world's population has failed to crash, and Vik has been sent to discover the reason. But the local authorities turn out to be several steps ahead of him in the biology department.

This one is based on a Neat Idea. An idea so neat, in fact, that I remained fascinated by it even while the local authority explained matters to Vic at a length that usually makes me impatient and irritable.


Strange Horizons, July 2008

Strange Horizons, July 2008

A bit more SF than usual this month.

Jimmy's Roadside Café by Ramsey Shehadeh

After the world ended, Jimmy set up a roadside café in the median of I-95, just north of the Fallston exit.

This apocalypse was plague. Now almost everyone is dead, but a very few people, like Jimmy, seem to be immune. Some of these survivors stop at Jimmy's café, which is not a destination but a waystation. And for those who need it, a cemetery.

We can only imagine what it would be like to live through the death of everything. Many postapocalyptic scenarios assume the survivors would revert to the "war of all against all," but Shehadeh proposes a gentler, benevolent alternative.

Marsh Gods by Ann Leckie

Voud has a problem. She is worried about the neighbor she suspects of murdering her father and brothers and plotting to take over her family's land. She takes her problem to the local god, but its response is less than satisfactory. The gods of this time and place are limited in their power and reluctant to exercise it imprudently.

"Gods with enough power to make unlikely things happen are free to make pronouncements about the future," the crane said, just the slightest bit pedantic. "If I happened to be wrong, I would have said something untrue, and that could be disastrous for me. Think hard about your next two questions. There's no hurry. You know I won't lie—I can't without injuring myself."

Voud finds that she is mostly on her own to solve her problem. But long in the past there were more powerful gods, and some of these still exist, without the inhibitions of the local deities.

It's interesting to consider, in stories like this one, how gods came about. They seem to have been in the beginning no more than local spirits, limited in their powers, much like Voud's crane god, trading favors for sacrifices. Only later, when philosophers became involved, did notions like omnipotence creep in. And perhaps it's just as well, because gods with the power to break the rules can be trouble, as Voud and her marsh god learn.

The Magician's House by Meghan McCarron

A teenaged girl in a world almost our own begins as an apprentice to a local magician. She discovers she has a real talent for earth magic. But the magic appears to be linked to sex, and she is not sure if the magician is helping her or exploiting her. It is probably both.

While magic is central to much fantasy fiction, it is interesting to note how authors mean greatly different things by "magic." In this case, it derives from the traditions of wicca or neopaganism, centered on the elements and the year cycle. It is much more of a religion than that sort of stuff they do at Hogwarts, and McCarron effectively captures this aspect.

Time blurred completely. I spent days spreading dirt on my shoulder, my thigh, my cheek. Every grain of dirt worked into my skin, mingling with it, transforming me. The circle joined hands and rotated around the fire. I had the earth woman's clay hand in my left, and a wet, icy hand in my right. The air women blew counter-clockwise, driving the circle; they floated in the air and pulled the fire and water women with them. But the earth woman and I had stone feet, and we kept the circle bound to the frozen ground.


Called Out to Snow Crease Farm by Constance Cooper

Margit is a newly-graduated veterinarian, assigned to a bleak and hardscrabble world where the settlers have learned to cultivate the native species, which outsiders to this region call "illbeasts." Her training has not prepared her for this aspect of her new job, and it is unsettling to see the settlers with lichen growing on their faces, just like the native species. But Margit means to do her job as best she can and overcome her initial revulsion.

Margit laid her hand on the creature's back. It felt like the cut straw at the end of a bale. The spadejaw swung its eyeless head ponderously to face her. Its lower jaw extended grotesquely into a wide platter of tooth that did resemble a spade, and Margit could see how the leading edge had been worn down by years of scraping its nourishment off rock. The heat-sensitive pits on its temples were smooth gray membranes, wider than eyes but blank as flat stones, shielded in craters of ridged bone. They did not move as eyes did, but Margit guessed that in the dimness of the stall, the creature could sense her thermal patterns far better than she herself could see.

"Easy, girl," she said. The spadejaw whoofed and stood still.

The worldbuilding here is well-conceived and executed. However, into her interesting setting the author hasn't put much of a story—only the conventional sequence of challenge, resolution, moral.

Fantasy Magazine, July 2008

Fantasy Magazine, July 2008

This ezine has undergone a redesign, which seems to be a common compulsion with those persons who run websites, although I can rarely notice much difference. There still seems to be a new story up every Monday.

FM this summer seems to have a particular fascination with gods and god-like beings, and their relationships with mortals.

The Lodger at Wintertide by E. Catharine Tobler

In a silent village where the entire population is deaf and mute, the children wait for Silversack to arrive every year at Wintertide with his sack full of gifts in answer to "their seasonal hopes written in careful letters, bound with ribbons." But Silversack is only a man, who does not want to be turned into a legend. His name is Camden Druce, and he has a different reason for returning every year to the village, to Sibley, the caretaker of the village nursery. He is the first speaking person that Sibley has ever encountered, and she has wished ever since for a voice of her own, not realizing how it would change everything.

There is no magic in this story, yet its setting is strongly fantastic, an idyllic world where towns have names like Goldleaf and Silverwood, where squalor, crime and cruelty do not seem to be known, where wishes really do come true. It is very pretty, but it is not real.

Marry the Sun by Rachel Swirsky

Another take on the subject of wedding the gods, this one quite a bit lighter than "His One True Bride" from two weeks previously in this zine, reviewed last month. Bridget is a scientist, studying sunspots, finding herself with no life apart from her work. She meets a matchmaker who sets her up with Helios, the sun god, single since the loss of his first family in a chariot accident. But there are compatibility problems.

This piece is not really humor, despite the moments of levity, and there are interesting bits of speculation concerning the reasons that gods are attracted to mortals, and vice versa.

"It's the beauty of mortal women. Sure, they're unique, like snowflakes are unique, but who catches a snowflake to marvel over geodesic ice crystals? That's missing the point of snowflakes."

"Which is?"

"All the power and loveliness of the snow birthing this intricate, astonishing thing that's gone in an instant." Apollo winked at the brunette by the piano. "And they melt on your tongue, too."

I like that bit, but I did find it irritating that the gods were all from the Greek pantheon, yet the bride was named Bridget. This may not bother too many other readers, however.

Practicing Perfection by Cathy Freeze

Amber so much loved the sight of the angels flying to their wars, so perfect, that she let them turn her into a giant, to be closer to them. When a wounded angel falls to Earth, the giants take them home and tend them until they are healed. Angels never speak, but Amber has found one that speaks; he tells Amber that he has a name, he tells her that angels aren't really perfect, that they were once as human as she was. But this is a truth that they—the unseen they who rule over all—don't want known, a truth that the other giants don't want to accept.

There is much here that is strangely imaginative, in a disturbing way. The joints of Amber and the other giants are held together with colored ribbons—

Sliding it through her calf-bone's end like a thread through a needle, she snuggled the calf-bone into the worn socket in her giant's knee and threaded the ribbon through the hole cut, there, before tying them together with a neat, wide bow.

The giants never eat or drink, and the bones of the angels have been made hollow, and the vines on the wall catch and hold the fallen angels so they do not come to more harm—so that they cannot escape.


Watermark by Michael Greenhut

Dear Father:
If you are reading this, Dariael murdered me.

This is quite an opening hook. Reading on, we spend some time learning that Etinaye is a threadkeeper, the threads being parallel timelines, and what this entails. Etinaye's letters from her future contain the instructions for altering the events that will have led to her sister's drowning her out of jealousy. The question at the end is—are the consequences worth it? It seems that the threads of time are easily tangled.

There is an author showcase section at this site that discusses the origin of this tale, a tale that has been oft retold, so that I suspect many readers will recognize it from the harp that plays itself. But it is also an episode or outtake from the author's novel, in which, apparently, the notion of the threadkeepers is developed, which in the end alters the original, simpler murder tale quite a bit. It does, however, rather overburden this rather short tale with a weight of details from outside it.

Sweetwater by Lilah Wild

In the fairy tales, saving some creature often confers a gift in return. Shawna, reclusive and oversensitive, rescues a minnow one day. In return, a water goddess in the form of a mermaid gives her the freedom of the marshlands and swamps.

The water beckoned like a ragged bathtub. Sharp sticks, the teeth of tiny creatures, but it felt so good. She immersed her whole foot. Could she touch the bottom? Snakes! Snapping turtles! Her leg descended anyway. Soft and smooth, safe as a cup of tea. She leaned forward, stepped in with her other foot. Mud oozed softly between her toes.

But there is a catch. The water will only be her refuge as long as she does not speak to other humans. But then, Shawna never spoke much to other humans to begin with.

I thought this one was going to be a kind of cross between The Fisherman's Wife and The Little Mermaid, with Shawna and the mermaid trading places. Instead, it turns out to be a rather conventional therapy/catharsis session with concluding epiphany. Kind of a letdown for such a promising scenario.

Masks of War by J. Kathleen Cheney

White-haired Mrs. Winters is a painter who now works making tin masks to conceal the traumatic facial deformities suffered by soldiers during WWI. But there is something special about her masks.

The sergeant stared at the mirror. Beneath the spectacles affixing the mask to his face, the painted features looked surprisingly life-like. From where he stood a few feet behind the sergeant, Lieutenant Grey watched the reflection in the glass as the young man's fingers reached up to stroke his new face, touching metal cheeks and the carefully glued-on mustache that matched his brown hair.

This story is based on real events and makes good use of them. What Cheney creates by adding the element of the fantastic is a genuine miracle of healing and human feeling.

Clarkesworld, July 2008

Clarkesworld 22, July 2008

One conventional fantasy and one surreal one for this month. I prefer the surreal one, which seems to be a territory this ezine is staking out.

When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald

Title and concept taken from a Kipling poem, A Smugglers' Song.

If you wake at Midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Laura lives in the Hollow, where the Gentlemen regularly ride by. They leave gifts, sometimes, and they ensure that the Hollow is a good place to live, but they take, as well. They took Laura's brother from her mother, and now she fears they are coming to take one of her own, in turn. That is the old bargain, that the people of the Hollow have never broken, and never directly speak of.

This story long pre-dates Kipling. It is the Fairy Rade, with all of its associated lore and ballads, including the abduction of children by the fairies. I can't help thinking, in this case, that most of the work here was done by Kipling, with Ronald bringing relatively little new to it. And the one original aspect that she does bring, the matter of the bargain, doesn't quite seem to work, as I am not sure why her offer is not considered acceptable. But then, we have never explicitly read the terms of the contract and don't know precisely how they can be violated.

The Glory of the World by Sergey Gerasimov

Cross the Temptation of Christ with a job audition, and if that isn't weird enough, hold it in a very surreal setting.

A security guard with such a muscular neck that the muscles dangled below his shoulders slept at some distance. A dog, extremely lean and long, romped on a leash staying aloof. The pet was so attenuated by hunger that you had to have a really trained eye to distinguish it from the leash. It licked off its sweat reducing the environmental pollution. Very far away three moneychangers, small end evil like avian flu viruses, played cards for curtseys with a coal-miner. A buffoon played the pipe and sold doves.

Crazy and cynical, this one examines the downside of the Savior business, which isn't what it used to be. It's a cruel world, and if it ever had any glory, it's long gone. The story cuts off abruptly at the end, rather like a body hitting the pavement.


Realms of Fantasy, August 2008

Realms of Fantasy, August 2008

I don't always get a copy of this printzine for review, and after reading this issue, I wish I did, particularly if there is more work by Liz Williams.

Spiderhorse by Liz Williams

The narrator knows that if she refuses to breathe at birth, the Wild Hunt will come and carry her away with them. This is her desire, for she does not want a life of flesh, "lumpy and clotted." But once she is among the Hunt, she conceives a new desire, to ride Sleipnir, Wotan's eight-legged horse. It is a perilous thing, however, to mess with Wotan.

Williams carves this one from the deepest, darkest taproot of the myth.

I rode at the end of the Hunt, on something brown with a coat that was the texture of moss. It tried to bite me in the leg, but it only did that once. It did not seem to enjoy sky-riding—I don't know where they found it, but Holda, one of the women who helped me braid my hair, said that it had come from the bottom of a lake. I could believe this easily enough. Sometimes it seemed to shift underneath me, turning from horse to otter, and then to a mass that stank of waterweed and smelled of mud.

The image of Sleipnir as spiderish is new to me. This entire tale is cold and ruthless, reminding us of how it was in those day to fear the night and the passage of the gods.


A Letter to Nancy by Carrie Vaughn

Molly is a nursing volunteer in WWII, and she sometimes writes letters for the wounded soldiers. "Private Andrews sat at the end of a bench, staring at nothing." She tries to raise his spirits by writing a letter for him, though she realizes that his sweetheart, Nancy, doesn't really exist. But it can help just to write the letter, and maybe even to send it.

A short and rather slight piece about the value of hope and wishful thinking, on the sentimental side.

The Restroom Murders by Peni R. Griffin

How rumors can come true, even impossible ones. The bank is a horrible place to work, with nasty supervisors and arbitrary rules. The temps have it worst, and they particularly resent that the nearest restroom is always locked. One day, Kathy invents a story to explain this—that a serial killer had once used that restroom to murder her victims.

"They did remodel." Kathy leaned into the center of the table, and every other head at the table leaned in, too. "Refinished the walls, replaced the countertops, stalls, commodes, everything. But the blood kept coming back."

This is a lot of gruesome fun at the expense of officious bureaucracy, as the rumors take on a life of their own and multiply, while the reaction of the supervisors keeps making the situation worse. Anyone who's ever worked in a place like this will love this story.


Daughter of Bótù by Eugie Foster

Chinese shape-changer fable. An-ying is a direct descendant of the immortal Jade Rabbit, and also a devout Buddhist. As a rabbit, her life is hard; the foxes have killed many in their family, there is drought, and her mother and grandmother are in danger of starvation. When Bótù answers her prayer, she discovers herself in human form and soon marries a rich human husband. She conceals her rabbit nature, but her husband's vicious stepmother has a secret of her own, and she will destroy An-ying and her child if she can.

Folklore enthusiasts will be reminded of the Japanese kitsune legends. It seems that Foster is following the tradition that the fox spirits derive originally from China. This fable has a very traditional feel, though I think it may be an original story, as I am not familiar with any traditional tales that it closely resembles.

Light of a Thousand Suns by James Van Pelt

Trellis is a security guard for the Lynwood Mall, a guy who likes his work when it involves helping people. One day he notices that an old trailer has been parked for a while at the edge of the mall's parking lot. He intends to check it out, but somehow the idea always slips out of his mind before he can do anything. But then he notices people lined up there and going inside, one by one, and he can finally concentrate hard enough to carry through and investigate. What he finds there is a shock—a group of people working to save the world from nuclear disaster, by very drastic magical means. And his nightmares confirm what they say.

This is a political work. When the hooded man says, "We're running late," it evokes the Doomsday clock, ticking closer and closer to the ultimate deadline. It is not a one-sided, heavily polemical story; the people in the trailer express their misgivings about what they are doing. But these actions are grounded in many myths of sacrifice, and I think there is no doubt that the author agrees that they are regretfully necessary, and justifiable.

"Yes, I suppose we are [monsters]. It's hard to live with. I won't have to for long. There's a bomb with my name written on it in my future."

It is up to the readers to decide whether they concur, whether they could accept that the ends could justify such extreme means.

Somebody Desperately Needed to Be Neil Gaiman by Way Jeng

The narrator's wife orders him to read a book to their daughter at bedtime, and hands him Coraline. Wendy loves the story and the narrator is happy that she loves it. He reads her more Neil Gaiman stories, but after a while he can find no more that are suitable for children. Other books, from other authors, just don't do it for Wendy. The narrator is desperate and mindful that Neil Gaiman once advised his readers how to trade their unsatisfactory dad for two goldfish, so he decides to write his own Neil Gaiman stories for his daughter. It's harder than he thought it would be.

While not in its own right a fantasy, this is a clever idea and heartwarming without being too sentimental. The narrator's wife is a bitch, and her presence kept me from liking this tale as much as I might have.

Ours to Fight For by Jim C. Hines

The elves of Europe have declared war on the humans of America. Or so the American propaganda tells us—we have no access to the other side of the story. The humans turn on the local elves and drive them into enclaves. Peggy suspects that her son Will may be associating with the local Klan, using Klan magic, and she fears he will help them lynch their young elf neighbor, Vicki Johnson.

This one is heavy-handedly polemical. The author employs the propaganda slogans and parallels to WWII to forward his point, but piling on the Klan adds far too much weight to the Message.

Weird Tales, March/April 2008

Weird Tales 349, March/April 2008

I believe this is the first issue of this zine I have read that was produced entirely by the new management. I had misgivings when the change was first reported, not so much that I greatly prefer the "old fantasy," but that there are already so many venues for the new, while there was only one Weird Tales. Still, the most important thing is that there be good fantasy, and I can now say that in this respect the new WT does not disappoint.

The Heart of Ice by Tanith Lee

Nothing could be more calculated to assuage the misgivings of the lovers of the old WT than leading off with Tanith Lee. This one is not a fairy tale, but it strongly suggests the figure of the Snow Queen from Anderson's story. Nirsen is a young man, friendless and outcast, driven from his home into the winter forest, where he expects to freeze to death. But there is something attractive about the forest, so clean and white, compared to the smudge and dirt of the town.

Over his very head arched the first deep ranks of the trees, the ash and birch with thick foliage of white snow, and the tall pines and firs beyond, crystallized. Glass beads and pipes and strands of ice had spun all the trees together too. The forest hung now inside the web of some giant ice-spider.

It is the domain of the Ice Maiden, heartless and frozen, where she takes him in to her palace of ice and changes his life forever.

While the central figure may recall Anderson's tale, his moralism is entirely and refreshingly absent. Lee's Ice Maiden is not evil nor good. She is an elemental force, incomprehensible to Nirsen, who will never know why she saved him, but who loves her nonetheless. The descriptions are gorgeous, the ending wistful.


Creature by Ramsey Shehadeh

Creature is a sort of benevolent blob who befriends a Little Girl in the doomed postapocalyptic city. His original plan was to heal the people and make them love him, but instead he saves a single person who loves him anyway.

This is more of a Moral Tale than a fable, and not much else.

The Yellow Dressing Gown by Sarah Monette

Michael Overton, Parrington Museum curator specializing in eighteenth-century textiles, is an obsessive. One object of his obsession is the yellow dressing gown famously worn by the artist Ephraim Catesby, whose works, as his syphilitic dementia overcame him, had become increasingly degenerate. Overton triumphs, discovering both the actual dressing gown and a self-portrait of the artist wearing it—a painting long believed to have been destroyed, and for good reason.

I do not know if I can explain how reprehensibly ugly that dressing gown was. It was yellow brocade, a vile, acidic, mustard yellow, faced with white satin. The combination reminded me strongly of drainage from an infected wound.

Monette is one of the Hot Now Things of the new fantasy, but this piece is note-perfect in recreating the classic tone of the old WT, with a dark secret unearthed that leads from obsession to madness and doom. Immediately upon reading it, my misgivings about the new editorial team began to dissipate.

The Talion Moth by John Kirk

Harry Talion is an adept in the arts of Tibetan sorcery, and he has been summoned by a farmer's widow to liberate the soul of her recently-deceased husband. But the farmer had sold his soul to a demon, and Talion has come to confront the demon and force it to reveal the fate of his father's soul, lost in the form of a moth.

Marvelously exotic stuff, hideous and gruesome and fascinating.

[The demon] dropped to his hands and knees and shed his skin in long, wet strips that peeled and fell with a sucking sound. He was a demon of the class called gshin-rje, with the body of a giant snow leopard, more than ten feet long from shoulders to mottled tail. Briefly, the demon's head kept the shape of a leopard's, spots converging like a black stain over its face. Then its snout and forehead bloated and its tongue stabbed the air as its jaw bones repeatedly cracked and fixed. Its head become the head of a dragon, with skin like burlap and two rows of sharp, conical teeth.

I don't know if the rites and traditions described here are authentic, but for once, I don't care. The willing suspension of pedantry. There seems to be a lot of unseen backstory to this one, like the story of the father's soul, so that I suspect there may be other works in which Talion's history is developed. Certainly he is an intriguing character, of whom more stories ought to be told, if they are told like this one.


Detours on the Way to Nothing by Rachel Swirsky

The narrator is on a quest for self-dissolution, part of a cult who believe "there is no way to lose the trappings of self so completely as to become someone else's desire." On this night, she becomes the desire of a young man whose fantasy is a feathered woman. She becomes such a bird-woman, she summons the young man to her, she then waits for someone else's desire to touch her.

This one begins as if it were in the second person, but it is really the narrator addressing the person whose desire she will fulfill. I am not at all convinced that this particular path is the best possible way to self-dissolution, but the author makes a good case in the last line.

Black Petals by Michael Moorcock

An Elric story. Elric is on a quest to the deserted city of Soom in search of a legendary flower, the Black Anemonë, reputed to be able to cure his inherent weakness so that he will no longer have to rely on the power of his accursed sword. The plant is said to bloom only once in a century, and the jungles surrounding Soom are full of cannibal dwarves. The reality turns out to be even worse.

Somehow, they survived yet another day and a night until at last Dyvim Mar stood up in the boat to point at something the colour of dried blood stretching out into the water. Clearly of sentient manufacture, it had the appearance of a ruined mole, of worn, red sandstone with rusted iron rings still set into slabs casting black shadows on thick, unpleasant water.

If this had not been an Elric story by Michael Moorcock, I would have called it a pretty good but unexceptional sword-and-sorcery novella, with a series hero whose complicated, angst-ridden backstory tends to slow up the pace of the narrative. But the thing is, it is an Elric story, and this sets up certain expectations. The original Elric stories were subversive. This one is conventional, even formulaic. The reader knows exactly which characters are wearing red shirts from the moment they step into the plot, and probably has a pretty accurate suspicion how it will end. This is in large part because the original Elric series altered the conventions of the genre for all time, and in part because the readers already know how Elric's story has ended; there is little space for great surprises. Still, one might have hoped for a small surprise. I also find it odd that someone would summon a dragon and then not employ it to escape from danger.

Paradox, Spring 2008

Featuring a novella that is not only the longest piece this zine has ever printed, but also surely one of the most odd. I was somewhat surprised, although pleased, to see it here, as I thought Paradox had turned more to straight historical fiction.

Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate by David Erik Nelson

Alternate-historical science fiction.* It is 1874, after the Long Civil War, won by the Union with the assistance of Chinese-produced clockwork soldiers. Now a company of the discharged and disarmed clockies have shown up in Lost Creek, Utah, where they produce a civilian generation of themselves and become a tolerable nuisance around town. Until the drunken ne'er-do-well Dickie Tucker decides to teach them some human tricks. Including the art of copulation, for which the clockies soon develop considerable enthusiasm, as related by the tale's narrator, Dr. Kawazoe, a fugitive Japanese physician posing as a veterinarian.

I finally got my own eye-full while strolling through the public park. Passing the band-stand, I happened to glance [at] a pair of clockies tucked behind the raised platform. One was lying atop the other in a posture reversed to the first, so that they might nuzzle at each other's crotch. As had become the fashion in recent days, these clockies had arrayed themselves with a strange assortment of accouterments, the one having secured a lacy doily to his metal cranium with a chip of lodestone, the other having clipped a pair of long rope braids behind where her ears would be, so that they draped down like an Indian maiden's.

This is dark comedy, wonderfully absurd, riotously bawdy, populated by a full set of fantastically flawed characters, such as Two-Ton Sadie the madam, who helps Davie demonstrate the art of copulation, and "Rabbi" Emet Kohen, who ministers to a congregation of Hebrew Zunis. Yet it is also a poignant tale of wanting to belong, wanting to be counted as a human among humans, which Kawazoe knows he will never be, even while the townspeople will always make use of his services.

*Most alternate history posits a point of departure from our timeline that might actually have taken place, but in some cases the departure is caused by some sciencefictional development, such as the introduction of Kalashnikovs or military androids into the US Civil War. This is distinguished from historical science fiction in which no departure from the historical timeline is shown. In the case of this story, the author ends on a metafictional note, in which his narrator speaks of "the persistent feeling that we were living in some false future," which I think misses the point of alternate history, in which all possible timestreams are equally possible, equally true, and there is no diverting them after the fact.

RECOMMENDED, nonetheless

Strange Fruit by A. C. Wise

A plantation slavery story. When slaveowner Charles got no satisfaction from his wife, he was easily seduced by the strange charm of the slave girl, Ceri.

He marveled at her the first time they made love and every time after that. Her skin was like velvet beneath his wondering fingers. Her body was responsive and soft, unlike Amelia's, which lay still beneath him, head turned and eyes closed as if she could hardly bear the sin of contact marriage thrust upon her.

But when Ceri informs him that she is pregnant, he rejects it, and Ceri takes revenge by cutting her own child from her belly and cursing Charles with her dying breath. The curse is potent. The next day, the trees on Charles' plantation bloom with hanged black bodies, phantoms that cannot be removed.

This is an odd story for such a setting, for Charles is essentially a sympathetic character—weak, but not evil or cruel. Wise is asking readers to accept, as some may not, that Ceri's relationship with Charles is indeed seduction and not rape. It is a tale of personal redemption and love, rather than a political story.

The Deaths of Christopher Marlowe by Marie Brennan

The historical record shows that playwright Christopher Marlowe was knifed to death in Deptford. There has always been speculation as to the reason, and this very short piece presents three possible scenarios. What it does not really do, however, is tell a story. It tells the readers nothing that they could have not already known, brings nothing original to the facts, and it far too short to tell us anything interesting about Marlowe.

Señor Hedor by Nick Wolven

In the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, four fugitive Republican soldiers flee defeat, attempting to reach safety in France. On the way, they find a deserted monastery where they hope to find provisions. But the monastery is not quite deserted; someone with a machine gun is there, and the four find themselves trapped in a room inside the monastery, a room where a corpse is already resident. Because Juan, a superstitious peasant, is inclined to hysteria because of the corpse, the others name the dead man Señor Hedor—Señor Stinky. As the days pass with no sign that the machine gunner has left, they attempt to hold up their spirits by using the corpse as a distraction from the desperation of their situation, to help them forget that they, too, might soon share his condition.

"I think Señor Hedor will outlive us all." Leliu took up one of the chalices and put it in Señor Hedor's lap. "Here you are, Señor Hedor. If you ever get out of this chamber, drink to our memory!"

And the chalice seemed so apt sitting there, so jaunty, so true to Señor Hedor's legacy, that Alfonso, laughing, picked up a candlestick. "And while you're drinking, light a candle for us too, good sir!"

This story successfully accomplishes a number of things. It show us truths about war, and about the Spanish Civil War in particular. It reminds us of the tenuous division between life and death. It shows us interesting characters in a situation that brings out both the best and the worst in them in pleasing prose with striking imagery. And in the end it leaves us with a mystery.


Plastromancer by David Sakmyster

The Shang dynasty in Bronze Age China was known for its oracle bones, upon which the rulers relied for most important decisions. Heat was applied to certain bones of cattle or the plastrons of turtles, and the resulting cracks were interpreted as the will of heaven. During its waning years, the dynasty's rulers oppressed the conquered populations, and it was overthrown in a rebellion that established the long-ruling Chou dynasty.

In this tale, a prophecy has foretold that a child born from one conquered village will overthrow the Shang, and the rulers have taken drastic measures to keep this from happening, while at the same time attempting to obtain a more favorable oracle. Xian Li had once been the diviner for the village, but now she has been replaced with a plastromancer from the Shang, who sacrifices hundreds of turtles, attempting to produce the answer that the rulers want to hear.

I have a real problem with this piece, as it rests on the claim that the Shang diviner burns the turtles alive to obtain his oracles. It is Xian Li's horror at this torture that drives her to act. I cannot credit this premise. For one thing, the Shang rulers performed their own divination; they would not have relied on some diviner in a remote village. And as far as I am aware, the Shang oracles were always taken from bones and plastrons that were meticulously prepared in advance of the divination procedure; this process could not have been done on a living turtle. Furthermore, turtles don't have vocal cords, which makes me dubious that they could scream. It is possible that the author possesses information that I do not, but all these doubts stick sidewise in my suspension of disbelief and keep me from swallowing this tale.

Helix, Summer 2008

Helix SF, Summer 2008

This issue features an all-female lineup of fiction authors—apparently an unplanned phenomenon—by which I learn that Vylar Kaftan is a female. The offerings are not quite up to the high standards of the last couple of issues, but still presenting some pretty good stuff, and the Kaftan is particularly memorable.

The Bitrunners by Tina Connolly

Kid gangs on the moon.

Thing is, any gang's got to stay known. Else you have nega fuel, cause the size of your fuel's measured by what it's known you are liable to do. You get too known, you get extra sniffing from cop Station. So our skill is petty yoinking, and we make sure we're good enough to keep in grub and gear, but not so good that others want to take us down to the dust.

The narrator is an orphan from Mars, sent offworld by a probably-evil uncle, who hooks up with a Moonbase gang. The kids take advantage of their youth to engage in information smuggling, while using the "petty yoinking" as a cover. But now they have reached adolescence and their strategy will have to change. Besides, the narrator has an old score to settle on Mars.

This one falls within the cyberpunk tradition, with the emphasis on the punk, which is evoked largely by the use of invented slang [I rather like "dults"]. I have a number of problems with it. For one, the narrator maunders on at excessive and somewhat redundant length in the beginning before he gets around to the action. For another, I can't accept that the kids are quite as clever and successful, and the dults quite as doltish, as the author suggests—in particular the uncle, on whose obtuseness the success of the plot depends. There is a certain SF subgenre with which I have little patience, suggesting that abilities peak in the new world order at about age 12, and afterwards it is all a slow decline into senescence. The gang should enjoy their triumph while they can, for within a few months they will undoubtedly be deposed by clever six-year-olds.

Dead Silence by Leah Cypess

Shanna is a haunted child. She fears the ghosts that seem to surround her everywhere, and this fear has driven her into a silence that leads strangers to consider her autistic. Her mother, impatient and incapable of coping with her screaming fits, is beginning to hate her, and Shanna knows this. Now they are taking an island vacation, on which Shanna discovers the ghostless ocean.

The white froth, thick as it was, parted occasionally to give her a glimpse of the dark green water beneath. If she fell over... the thought made her shudder with sudden longing. People must have drowned in the sea, lots of people. But their deaths didn't last. The waves and currents tore them apart. The sea was empty of ghosts, empty of last memories. Empty. It was wonderful.

But Shanna finds on the island that there are worse things than ghosts.

A good ghost story, with strong characterization. The relationship among Shanna, her mother and her stepfather is all too real. And while at the conclusion Shanna learns how to cope with the ghosts, the revelation does not miraculously solve all the human problems.


Lusts of the Cat Queen: A Dash Manning Adventure by Melanie Fletcher

High camp space opera. The swishy hero of the Galactic Rangers saves the day, Yet Again.

This is an excellent example of the kind of stuff I really can't stand. Perhaps other readers may find it hilarious, but parodies of awful stuff are still awful. And this one is awful enough, even before Dash's sexual proclivities enter the picture. Given the entirely subjective nature of this sort of judgment, I will merely present a representative passage.

"You know the old saying—if you want a job done right, do it yourself," Captain Dash Manning said, striding into the lab. "Your henchmen never found the secret lock pick hidden in the buckle of my belt, and I'm pretty darn good at climbing out of lava tubes, evading piranha and dealing with maddened space weasels from the planet Orynx." A shiny flat device appeared in one hand. "Now unlock the Jensons, you twisted villain!"

The Mermaids' Tea Party by Samantha Henderson

Twelve-year-old Cassandra Willows is traveling to her father's plantation in the islands, when her ship is capsized by malevolent mermaids. The mermaids are malicious and bored; they wreck ships for entertainment and amuse themselves with the flotsam—and sometimes with the survivors.

The floating mermaid giggled as the blue-tailed one cursed—she'd dropped her saucer and the fragile porcelain shattered against the rocks, the elaborate gold and pink enamel alien against the black surface. It was an expensive set, better than the one Cassandra's mother kept for best. It probably belonged to one of the richer passengers that floated out amongst the wreckage. The mermaid poked at the fragments irritably, retaining her awkward grip on the cup, and some of the seawater slopped out. The red-haired mermaid smirked, holding her saucer on what passed for her knee in a horrible mockery of gentility, pinching the handle of the cup between two sharp-nailed fingers, one pinkie crooked out.

In desperation, Cassandra promises them a real tea party if they will supply her with one of the chests of tea from the sunken ship. Cassandra is left to wait for them on a desert island with one other inhabitant, a sailor who amuses the mermaids with pirate tales. Jack has been building a boat in which he hopes to escape, if they can evade the vigilance of the mermaids.

The author links the mermaids not only with the myth of the sirens, but with the shipwrecks in the region now known as the Bermuda triangle, as well as the history of slaving. But for the most part, this is an adventure story, as the plucky heroine quickly learns to discard the useless trappings of gentility in order to survive.

Break the Vessel by Vylar Kaftan

When a god is incarnated in a human body, he has human needs. Numa is the priest assigned to attend to one particular human need of Aki, the sun god incarnate.

Aki's oiled skin shines in the torchlight. I unwrap his white loincloth, set it aside, and kneel behind him. He grips the handholds and squats. I hold the lacquered ceramic pot underneath his anus. Today he is quick—a small piece, medium-brown in color, slightly soft, and very little urine. Strong in scent, but solid. Healthy.

But this incarnation of Aki is a young man growing into maturity, and he has begun to have doubts that he is really the god. These thoughts frighten Numa, whose entire existence rests on the divinity of the one he ministers to.

The Helix editor reports that when he read this manuscript, his response was the only one possible: "Holy Shit!" Literally so. Many authors, addressing this subject, might have used it as grounds for low humor, but Kaftan is to be commended for a tone that is thoroughly reverent throughout, as it must be for anyone who takes seriously the incarnation of a god. Avi's excrement is indeed a holy substance for Numa. I do wonder, however, if this piece might have been inspired in part by the history of the Sun King Louis XVI, whose chamber pot was ceremonially borne by a noble of the court.

An Act of Conviction by Ruth Nestvold

Shawa is a changer, whose sex switches from male to female. Once, changers were persecuted but now they control the courts and serve as official assassins. Their targets are often the members of an alien race, possibly human, that her species holds as slaves. Offworlders of this race are condemned as terrorists, for stealing the slaves, and now Shawa is ordered to kill a terrorist collaborator to whom she has personal ties.

What we have here is a setup for the delivery of a Message through the media of irony and inversion. The persecuted become the persecutors, the slaves become liberators—haven't we seen this one before? What we don't really have is a story, or a character with any depth, of any interest. It is a matter of complete indifference what Shawna will decide to do.

The Kennel Club by Jennifer Pelland

The human males have all gone feral, retreating to the woods with their drums and leaving civilization to the women. But there is one thing that males are necessary for, and as Selene's mother keeps reminding her, biological clocks run down. So Selene goes out to catch a man.

An hour and a half later, the sun was setting and I was hiding under camouflage netting near the edge of the city park. I'd set out a lure of beer and chips, scattering both to make it look like they'd been accidentally abandoned by a group of picnickers. And to make the trap a little less blatantly obvious, I made sure to scatter some chocolate kisses and a couple of wine coolers as well.

This exercise in literalization is not too silly to be a fun read.

Aeon 14

Aeon 14

The editorial suggests that this issue's theme is dreams.

The March Wind by Davin Ireland

A bad dream. The end of the world is at hand, alien invaders rule the skies of Earth, and there doesn't really seem to be any good reason to keep living.

The nameless man sat down, dangled his feet in the boiling surf like a swimmer at a lido testing the temperature of the water. Then a large wave slapped the breakwater, throwing up a cloud of spray and causing the man to sneeze. He didn't waste any time after that. Pinching his nose shut, he plunged beneath the surface, emerging at a different spot a few seconds later. Portly or not, there was little wrong with his technique. He made admirable progress in the first five minutes, stroking swiftly and consistently out to sea before allowing the current to bear him away.

Vic Fenton is living to take care of the suicidal wife he doesn't love anymore, and Penny doesn't appreciate it. Vic sometimes wishes he could start time over again and get it right this time. One night Penny disappears, and in searching for her, Vic comes across some wreckage from an alien warcraft. He doesn't know it, but he has been given his second chance.

This is a nicely depressing piece about human relationships and the discovery that you can't just rewind them; human behavior isn't deterministic. I like the gloomy setting that casts a pall of hopelessness over most of the story, and the character of Vic is well-done. But the gizmo ex machina element isn't grafted quite firmly on to the rest of the plot and feels arbitrary; it turns this realistic SF piece into a wishful-thinking fantasy.

The Diesel Mnemonic by Ryan Neil Myers

A stolen dream. Sonnyboy has spent years searching truckstops for the Buyer, obsessed by the need to buy back the memory he sold him.

It's a memory, the kind that hides in the back of the mind until triggered by incidental sights and sounds: the rumble of a diesel engine, the blur of highway lines, the cacophony of overlapping radio stations, the smell of coffee and vinyl, the stretching of stiff muscles after half a day's nonstop ride. They all mean something to Sonnyboy, all point to something, to a hole in his life. It waits for him when he sleeps, and it swallows him when he drives.

And finally Sonnyboy has found him, but the Buyer doesn't want to cooperate.

This is essentially a deal-with-the-devil story, but as such it is lacking an essential element: the devil is supposed to be clever, and the trick is to outwit him. Sonnyboy's approach is more muscular, and I can't help thinking it shouldn't be so easy.

The Sweet Rocket by Jay Lake

Listen up, you little oxygen sinks. I'm fixin' to tell you a story about Grampy Pressure Hose and the Sweet Rocket. You'd better mind, you all, 'cause out here in the Deep Dark every minute of your life is another sixty seconds where it's easy to die. Father Jove might smile upon us all, but he ain't no kinder than hard vacuum, and his love is distant and stormy.

Yes, it's a tall tale from space, from the days when Grampy Pressure Hose was only a boy called Hosehead, left to monitor the boards on the bridge when the rest of the crew was working a to save the station in a crisis. A signal comes through, a ship's emergency signal, except that the station's AI can't detect what Hosehead clearly does. He goes out in his spacesuit to investigate, and there, indeed, just outside the station is a most improbable ship—a ship of dreams—that can't really be there.

The author calls this a fairy tale, and it is clearly a variation on the story of Hansel and Gretel. And though the narrator denies it, this fairy tale has a moral—to keep your helmet firmly in place.

Wild Among Hares by Sarah L. Edwards

A wild dream. The narrator is a wild woman, a person with a psychic bond to a wild creature—in her case, to hares. Normal people hate and fear the wild ones.

The people of my village had not harmed me, only cast me out, tiring of me finally. Tiring of the hare I always carried with me, of the long times I spent wandering, of the way I shied from touch and smothered in life stuffed and tied in a slant-frame house built of sod and flat stone slabs. The way I hungered for the sky, leaving all the earthrooted behind as I fled across prairie and plain.

But she cannot exist entirely in the wild, either, and from the hares, she has learned the secrets of giving birth, to allow her to work among humans as a midwife. In this capacity she finds a young, fearful wild woman about to give birth. The narrator knows she must help, even more than simply as a midwife.

This is an interesting premise, although I would like to know more about why the wild ones seem to be selectively mute. The reaction of the townspeople seems extreme, for no reason that I can see.

Hard Rain at the Fortean Café by Lavie Tidhar

A weird dream. A serial killer is murdering Marilyn Monroe clones. Amelia Earhart, abducted by the Gray aliens and returned, is trying to discover who and why—and who is making the clones. But at the crime scene, she encounters Joe Johnson, an agent of the Grays. Their interests do not quite converge.

He said, "Your job is to figure who's killing the Marilyns, right? And mine is to make sure people only read about stuff like this is in the National Enquirer or alt.conspiracy. That's the way it is."

This one is not played for laughs, but as a murder mystery—straight, even noir. Things have to be covered up. Things can't be known. People are abducted and reappear, but no one will believe them. People are cloned, but have to hide from discovery. If you have unsettling suspicions, you had better not mention them, or you might be sorry.


The Diadem by Mikal Trimm

A creepy dream. When Julia was little, her parents called her their Princess. But now she is sixteen, and they're still at it—worse than ever. It's embarrassing. Except—even if what they tell her is true, they are still acting creepy about it.

This very short piece plays effectively off the embarrassment that parents always cause their teenaged offspring, no matter how loving and well-intentioned.

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.


Aug 6, 04:42 by IROSF
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