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October, 2008 : Review:

Short Fiction, October 2008

This month's reviews are dominated by the massive summer "bumper" issue of Postscripts from PS Publishing in Britain. It is hard to imagine there will be any other single publication this year with more high quality short SF fiction from premier authors. No one at all interested in speculative fiction at the shorter lengths should miss it.

Zines Reviewed

Postscripts 15

Postscripts #15

Postscripts, Summer 2008

Reading the 383 pages of this issue, I was struck by the thought that I might well be reading a vastly expanded Asimov's or F&SF, as so many of the same authors appear. Compared to, say, the more noir and edgy Interzone, I got little sense of Britishness from the stories. It seems that many of the best British SF authors are already publishing in the US zines, and many of the premier American short fiction authors are now crossing the pond to appear in British publications. This is an A-list Table of Contents, although the authors are more representative of the maturity of the genre, as opposed to the Hot Now Things. I found it strange that the editors start out with some of the weaker offerings, but things soon improve.

A Very Private Tour of a Very Public Museum by Scott Edelman

A future in which robots play an important role in the world, such that the robot narrator is being trained to become a curator of an important art museum. Then a robot messenger from space unexpectedly appears. At its command, robots worldwide immediately proceed to destroy all representations of machinery, which it considers blasphemous.

"Draw all the flesh you want," they said, "but you must not draw us. Sculpt all the flesh you need, but do not sculpt us."

The setting is strongly Asimovian, evoking the old theme of humans hating and fearing robots. But it is clear that this piece is a response to recent Muslim reaction to representations of the prophet Mohammed, such as the Danish cartoon controversy. I do have a problem with the logic, as it seems that, upon the arrival of the robotic messenger, all robots worldwide instantly hear the same message and act upon it immediately. All but the narrator who, seeing the robotic destruction, did not at first understand what was happening and why. Why should one robot, alone, fail to hear the message?

The Man Who Built Heaven by Keith Brooke

Noah Barakh is the man in charge of creating a virtual heaven, a consensus reality to which participating minds will be uploaded after death. This is a government project, and he is under the supervision of the woman he has always loved, the Electee Priscilla. In reality, they meet only in official meetings to discuss the project, but in Noah's dreams, they are conducting a passionate affair.

I dream of you. I always dream of you. I make sure that I do. I am the architect of Accord: I can run reality. I can run realities.

The SFnal premise is not an original one, and the conclusion comes as no surprise.

Atlantic Crossing by Garry Kilworth

Alternate history. The story of a great adventure at sea: Amerigo Vespucci's expedition to the East Indies, whereby he discovers the American continent. Never before had such a long trek been attempted, neither before or after humans first learned to walk on water. It is a journey of great risk, full of perils, but the prospects of reward are just as great, even for a humble raft-puller.

A tempest was of course to be dreaded. There were stories of rafts being washed clear of men, women and livestock. None could walk in such conditions, so if we found ourselves in the sea during a storm we drowned. There were safety ropes to cling to, to hook one's feet into, but waves are mighty beasts when unleashed with fury, and they will rip you from your anchor.

A seriously Neat Idea, thought through and well executed, despite the narrator's initial explanation of the absence of boats to an audience which woudn't be expecting them. I must say that I don't find the absence of boats really credible, and I do have to wonder, under the circumstances, why no one seems able to swim if a single misstep can lead to drowning. I also wonder what alteration in society led to the presence of women as raft-pullers alongside the men.

Thy Saffron Wings by Chris Roberson

More alternate history, an episode in Roberson's Celestial Empire series. A representative of the Chinese Empire comes to establish an embassy at the London Court of James I, and Sir Robert Anstruther, Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the king, has been ordered to meet him, because he speaks Italian and the foreigner also knows this language.

On the deck of the ship stood an imposing figure. Rotund, he was given to fat, with a softness to his features, but carried himself in such a way that suggested muscles might yet lurk beneath the curves. He had a wispy black beard and mustache, wearing robes of black silk embroidered with a peacock picked out in gold thread.

Rather than rejoicing in his opportunity to witness exotic wonders, Anstruther is full of resentment that he is missing out on beer and skittles with his companions. His shallow mind is occupied with the parochial squabbles of his own court and incurious about the wider world. It is only when Ambassador Tang displays his gifts to the king that Anstruther begins to realize how much the world he has known is about to change.

Happily, this episode in the series stands well on its own, as the wonders of the Celestial Empire are as strange to the English as they would be to a reader unacquainted with the prior events in this alternate history. Anstruther is a well-chosen guide, as his misinformation about the East is an excellent foil for the truth as Tang reveals it. Allusions to such familiar characters as Leonardo help to ground this alternate version in the history that readers will recognize.


Variant by Steven Utley

Another series, this one Utley's alternate Silurian universe, where scientists travel through a matter transmitter to study the primitive landscape. In this episode, one scientist's wife is convinced that it is not her husband who has returned from the matter transmission, but some Thing that has replaced him during the transit, a flawed copy. It seems likely that the wife is not quite of sound mind. Indeed, she considers this possibility.

Perhaps not. In which case, where is my husband, Thing? To what hellhole has he been sent so that you can take his place? You are a good copy, but now I see that you are not a perfect one. But perhaps it is just me. Perhaps I have this all backwards. Perhaps I am the one who's not in the right world.

I have admired several of the works in this series, but this one adds nothing new. The issues with the matter transmitter have been addressed in at least two previous Silurian stories, and this one is the least original.

Shad's Mess by Alex Irvine

Another matter transmitter story. Shad is the technician operating the compiler on Bradenton Station when sixteen missionaries from Copernicus are supposed to come through, but the compiler stopped compiling in the middle of the process. The results are not pleasant.

The filters in his exchange system didn't quite eliminate the abattoir smell. Good thing this happened before lunch, Shad thought. He'd tossed his cookies in a suit before, and that was the one thing in the world more revolting than a morning spent shoveling out compiler berths.

Shad starts shoveling the remains down the recycling chute until the station's lawyer stops him. It seems that the missionaries bury their dead, and now they are going to sue for desecration of their remains. To make matters even worse, the Entropy Gremlin has crawled out of the compiler and is now taking up residence in Shad's apartment, offering advice. Eventually he's desperate enough that he takes it.

Entertaining, if gross.

Under the Shadow of Jonah by Jack Dann

Historical fantasy. Renaissance Florence already has enough problems with the firebrand preacher Savonarola rousing the populace to a hellfire zeal, but things become much worse when an alien artifact appears in the sky over the city. Lucian Heliogabalus, a scholar with a shady past, is captured by the artifact, which sucks out his soul. He is then returned to Earth, where he finds himself under a compulsion to inhale the souls of everyone he encounters, only to transmit them up to the aliens. The philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who can see things that ordinary mortals can not, is the only person who might be able to stop him.

"I had a dream, an intuition last night. I dreamed that the Black Reaper was walking the streets of Florence again. I also dreamed of his companion, the hag Lachesis, who is thought to follow after him, weaving her tapestry of death. Only in this dream the hag had taken the dark, celestial form of the cloud that lingered over the city, and her black thread extended from the cloud that was her form to the Black Reaper like an umbilicus."

Vivid and imaginative, recreating the historical setting and weaving the fantastic into it on terms that the denizens of Florence would have understood.


The Eye of Vann by Matthew Hughes

A Luff Imbry story. Our narrative thief receives a commission from the head of the Most Supreme High Enunciant of the Vannian cult, to retrieve the Eye of Vann, stolen from their temple. Imbrey knows the collector who has it, having dealt with him in the past, and he regards the task of breaking into Meagh's livestone mansion as a challenge worthy of his skills.

He wore an elision suit, a one-piece garment that covered him from toes to crown and could deflect light, the most common inquisitive energies and all but the most corrosive chemicals. In a slit pocket over a well padded hip was a pressurized vial of concentrated pheromone that had come from one of the least successful livestone architects in a provincial city on Hoff.

Another entertaining tale from Hughes' ever-fascinating Majestrum universe. Stories featuring the Luff Imbry character tend to be less mannered and more straightforward than some of the others.

Juggernaut by Ray Bradbury

Roscoe Hammond is moving his house and turning the event into a party.

"Arnie," Roscoe cried, "what are you doing at midnight? We're trucking the damned house two miles uphill. Going to paint it all kinds of Hindu Bombay colors. You ever see those juggernaut films? The big icons? They roll through the streets, all different colors, and the wheels, Jesus, five feet round, like circular rainbows, with legs and feet and big mascara eyes."

And what a party it is!

As the editorial blurb acknowledges, this short piece is not SF, although it is fantastic in the mundane sense.

The Best of Both Worlds by Brian Stableford

Edward Grayling is a young man in Victorian England whose fiancée has recently died. In his grief, he takes long walks on the moors, and there he encounters a mysterious young woman, alone.

Her coat was long, and bulky enough to conceal the precise contours of her body, her walking-boots sturdy. Her bonnet was as black as her coat, and so was the hair tucked up within it. Her complexion was pale—which made her eyebrows stand out remarkably—and her eyes were grey, completing the strange impression that she was a figure drawn in monochrome, a charcoal sketch rather than a portrait in oils.

Grayling undertakes to see her safely home across the moors, but when he loses his own way, his companion reveals that she is not what she seems. She introduces him into her own world, which is probably not at all what readers will be expecting.

This secret world is quite fantastic in the SFnal sense, although I do have to wonder if there is not some dark secret being kept from Grayling until it is too late, on the principle that it seems too good to be true. Although the narrative is a bit talky, it does a fine job of evoking a talkier era, and the Sensawunda quotient is high.

State Secret by Eric Brown

Some secrets are more secret than others. If I reviewed this one, they'd have to kill me. The premise is not new, but it is done rather dramatically this time.

Test Subject by James Lovegrove

A dialogue, conducted remotely, between an incarcerated serial killer (or so it is alleged) and the scientist attempting to discover his secret abilities. Chilton Mead is an ethically-challenged facility in which researchers attempt to warp language to military ends. Jeremy Krzykwa is imprisoned there because he is suspected of using mind-control powers to convince nine people to kill themselves in various extreme ways. Now he is being interrogated by the ruthless Dr Yao, but it is questionable who really has the upper hand in the exchange.

You aren't at all concerned that any breakthroughs and discoveries you make at Chilton Mead will be used for hostile ends. It doesn't trouble you that your brilliant mind is being plundered ruthlessly in order to create weapons and cause destruction. You don't need to compartmentalise that away because it just doesn't impinge on you. You have no heart. No conscience. You have no real interface with the outside world. And that's why you remain defiantly, frigidly single and why this method of talking with me, via computer, is perfect for you. Not only does it protect you from my alleged mind-controlling powers, it insulates you from the disagreeable business of actually having to look me in the eye and perceive me as a person.

This is another series, one with which I am not familiar. Krzykwa is an interesting character, and it is his half of the dialogue that holds up the story. Given the author's admitted fascination with language games, I suspect that "Krzykwa" is not the character's original name.

Let Their People Go: The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson

Political farce. The Rapture has come, and on the airplane First Class is now almost empty with discarded clothing neatly folded on the seats, while Economy is largely untouched.

"Somebody must have peeked through the curtain and saw the empty seats in First. Now they're all demanding upgrades."

"Has anyone disappeared back there?" asked Amy.

"I wish!" said Ayessha. "Only the two Air Marshals. I went to wake them up, and their seats were empty. Nothing but two jump suits, neatly folded, and a couple of Glocks."

And the Antichrist is now in charge at the UN. The question for those left behind is: What Next? A small group of misfit characters see opportunities.

When the first page features an Israeli general named Blitz Krieg, readers should be clued in that this is not exactly subtle humor.

The Men Who Live in Trees by Kelly Barnhill

After a failed scholarly career, Tamino Ailare was sent by the Emperor to study the mysteries of the Molaru, the Men Who Live in Trees. Tamino loved the Molaru and betrayed them, and for this betrayal they killed him. Since his death, his daughter Carmina has been raised for sale in marriage by her aunt, who hates her. The aunt and her prospective mother-in-law, as wicked as any stepmothers in fairy tales, scheme to plunder Carmina's inheritance. But Carmina is her father's child, the child of his true love.

When Carmina Ailare was born, her father laid her in a green cradle. Patterns of vine, leaf, and heavy blossom twined along the curved edge, and twisted their runners into the cavity where the babe slept. When the cradle rocked, the leaves seemed to blow in an effortless wind. And when one looked closely, it sometimes appeared as though a pair of green eyes gazed back—unblinking, flickering, and gone.

A beautifully-written imaginative piece of secondary world folklore.


Eagle Song by Stephen Baxter

For thousands of years, someone on the planet Altair has been using a laser to send a signal to Earth. First, in the Mesolithic age; later, in the iron age; later yet in the medieval age. Each time it appears it inspires wonder, and people attempt to decipher the secret of the message.

As the star resumed its flashing, each glare longer than the one preceding, the two of them went into the routine they had rehearsed, of hourglasses and counting and scratched numbers on parchment. It soon became apparent to Ibn Mazur that each successive glow lasted a little more than half as long again as its predecessor.

But as understanding increases, wonder is replaced by the desire to exploit the phenomenon, to turn it to military advantage.

According to the editorial blurb, this is Baxter's answer to the Fermi Paradox: The aliens do see us, but they don't care to meet what they see.

The Golden Octopus by Beth Bernobich

Set in Bernobich's steampunkish Éireann Empire alternate history. When Áine was a young girl, she witnessed a demonstration by a scientist who claimed to be inventing a time machine. After she ascends the Éireann throne, she recalls him and funds his research, then takes him as her lover.

Even in my bed, in the midst of kissing me, he could not refrain from speaking about his research. "There must be a way," he murmured, as he ran his fingertips along my hip. His hands were cool and raised a trail of goose bumps; the rest of him was like a winter's fire.

"A way for what?" I asked when he did not continue.

"To send a person ahead in time, like a courier to the future."

But the breaking of time is a perilous undertaking, with consequences that can be dire.

Disclaimer: I workshopped a draft of this story, which revisits the events of the author's "A Flight of Numbers, Fantastique Strange," from a different point of view. While this subsequent work makes more clear a number of the events of the previous one, it is not possible to fully appreciate this one without familiarity with the earlier story.

Professor Fluvius's Palace of Many Waters by Paul Di Filippo

The professor has come to nineteenth-century Boston in the pursuit of his grand design to bring universal cleansing to the human race. He constructs a magnificent public bathhouse and staffs it with a group of lovely young women he calls his naiads.

I could picture the water jetting from the bronze heads of dolphins, the flickering gas lights reflected off the pools, the cakes of fragrant soaps embossed with the Palace's trademark conch shell, the long-handled brushes and plump sponges, the naked human bodies in all their equally agreeable shades of flesh and states of leanness and corpulence. The imagined scene delighted me. The conception of so many happy people sporting like otters or seals in a pristine liquid environment seemed utterly Edenic to me. I was more convinced than ever that Professor Fluvius's Palace of Many Waters was a force for beauty and goodness in this often shabby and cruel world.

But it soon becomes clear to the naiad called Charlene that the professor has more sinister plans for his palace.

It is clearly revealed to the reader that something supernatural is going on here. From an environmentalist's perspective, it might well seem that the professor has the right idea. But this is not a political screed; it is for the most part light entertainment with a mythic base and a definite sensuality.

Six Foot Easy by Robert Reed

A dialogue between a sales android and the man who intends to torture her to death. The narrator is clearly a mental case, and the android understands, being an expert in human psychology, that he was once traumatized by someone or something that she resembles in her physical perfection.

Once again, I looked her up and down. Six foot easy and golden blond, with legs longer than most and a face borrowed from an actress who was something nearly thirty years ago. The clothes perfectly matched expectations for the modern professional. No bright or showy colors. Seams neat without being severe. The perfectly fitted shirt and waistcoat and trousers, none of which could be wrinkled or torn or easily dirtied. The long hair rarely needed a comb.

He has now become a sort of serial android killer, and she is his latest capture. But the android is designed to sell, and sell she does, even under these circumstances.

This is a disturbing work in several ways. First, because of the narrator's insane obsession. Second, because of the future world the android describes, in which human life can be cheaply manufactured as she has been. The android claims that she can not lie, but this could be a lie; she could have invented the scenario just to take advantage of the narrator's peculiar insecurities, to make the sale–an android Sheherazad, desperate to postpone her execution. The narrator seems to be convinced, but I can't say the same, and that is the third disturbing thing. I see little profit in a world that manufactures humans beyond the point where there is no more room for them on Earth. And I find this scenario too far disconnected from the situation with the obsessed narrator and his android captive. I'm not sold on it.

Skinhorse Goes to Mars by Jay Lake

H. sap has screwed up, big time. With only three habitable planets in the system, they have managed to kill them all, and now the species hangs on in space, slowly becoming extinct.

Earth we killed one slice at a time, screwing up the carbon balance and warming the oceans and sucking out the florasphere in the name of property rights. Only good side to that debacle was enough H. sap gattaca in high orbit and beyond when the fan spray turned a deep and permanent brown down the gravity well.

They gave Venus cancer in an attempt to terraform it (no, I don't know what this means) and transformed the population of Mars into immortal zombies in an attempt to conquer it. Now Rabbit, who was one of the soldiers zombified for the Mars campaign, is approached by a man called Skinhorse; it was his skin that metastasized on Venus. Now he wants Rabbit to take him to Mars to retrieve a bit of genetic material that, he claims, can cure Venus. (No, I don't know what this means.)

This is a story strongly driven by its prose, by its energetic and evocative language. The pace moves so rapidly that there seems to be no time to stop and wonder–what does it mean to say that

Venus is kind of interesting these days, if you're into a 12,000 kilometer ball of cancer. Last probes said the planet's skin was approaching two thousand meters deep. Nasty thing it is, too. Probably smarter than the entire human race put together, but that monster stays home and broods.

Is it a metaphor? Is it literally true? If so, what the hell is going on? Are we told? No, the reader is just supposed to hang on for the ride with eyes closed and not ask questions. Lose the momentum, like a bicyclist, and it all falls down.

[a ghost samba] by Ian McDonald

Rubem de Castro:

Columnist reviewer commentator blogger pundit radio-wit and professional idler: the last of the Real Cariocas. All those little things a man must do not to be seen to be trying too hard. If you met me you'd hate me. I'm the guy on the music forums with so much cooler recommendations than yours. At a party I'll sneer at the host's unforgivably populist playlist and tell you who you should be listening to now and where to find them.

He lives for the music, the music of Brasil. And for him the holy grail is the lost last album of the legendary Seu Alejandro. Now, at great cost, he has obtained the hard drive that holds the music, the hard drive that the musician died trying to save from the fire. . De Castro has listened to it. He loves it, but he knows the album is unfinished. There are holes and drops out and incomplete tracks. And de Castro can't help yearning for the music as it might have been if only Seu Alejandro had lived to finish it. His buddy Captain Spooky, the quantum physicist, has the answer: there are a multitude of alternate worlds in which the album was finished. His quantum computer can deliver it.

There are a multitude of stories about the multitude of alternate quantum worlds. It is a SFnal trope that risks being a cliché. The difference is in the writing. McDonald's prose has created a flawed, intensely driven character in de Castro. His setting is vividly drawn: the vibrant, sensual city of Rio, city of the Samba. And the reader can't help feel a little of the yearning for the brilliant Seu Alejandro, a little of the loss for the music that never was.


An Article of Faith by Mike Resnick

Reverend Morris gets a new janitorial robot for his church, but this one is too logical; it takes the premise of religion to conclusions that the reverend is not prepared to accept.

"I wish to become a member of your church."

"But you're a robot!" I blurted.

"If God is the God of all things, then is He not also the God of robots?" said Jackson.

But faith is not a matter of logic, as Reverend Morris should have known.

This is a tragic tale that some readers might consider a bit sentimental, yet it asks some very apt and pointed questions about religion. I find the unanimous reaction of the congregation to the presence of a robot to be a bit extreme–or rather, a matter for which the setting has not prepared me. We see nothing of the place of robots in the society outside the church; most of the story is a dialogue between Morris and his robot.

Legolas Does the Dishes by Justina Robson

Elizabeth is in an institution for the insane after killing her mother and stabbing a number of other people–perhaps as a deliberate demonstration of her insanity. She may or may not have certain psychic powers; sometimes she pretends that she does, but it is a question whether she believes this herself. Her nemesis, Nurse Driver, likes to taunt her by calling her a "savant."

It went without saying that Driver and every right thinking rational person like her had as much faith in fantasy and savants as they had in alien visitations, tax-cut promises on election night and the vows of preachers to save their souls from the pitch black tarry pits of hell. So when Driver said savant she gave away the game and I realised this was her idea of a different kind of Waterloo—one where she hoped I was going to sink like a rock.

Driver's latest game is to introduce Elizabeth to the new dishwasher who, Elizabeth claims, is actually Legolas the elf. The new dishwasher is certainly as attractive as the elf is supposed to be, and as lost in his own way as an elf might be, if he had taken a job as a dishwasher.

It is characteristic of stories featuring the insane–or the possibly insane–that reality becomes a shifty, mutable thing, depending on subjective perception. Thus it is fruitless to attempt to discover whether our narrator Elizabeth is reliably telling the truth; the truth is what she is telling us. Nurse Driver's version of the same events might differ. Readers will probably be reminded of Nurse Ratched; this story offers another look at the relationships of power in such an institution, although I am not sure I am convinced that Elizabeth could possess quite the power that she does.

Sumptuous Dress: A Question of Size at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock

Wherein we revisit the End of Time and certain of its bored Dancers, notably the Iron Orchid. Chaos is in the ascendant, and its Engineers are active in the multiverse, switching people and worlds from one track to another, all for the purpose of amusement. A lost alien shows up, looking for the Second Ether.

"Well, this comes as a shock if you're not prepared. Theoretically, there's a third, fourth and so on ethers. Nobody has any idea how many and it's hard enough moving between ours—this one—and the other—the second. It's all to do with the multiverse. And cats, of course. Then there's the Martian Scaling Station. . . ."

There is a great deal more of in this vein, which finally reaches a resolution of sorts, in that everything has been an illusion, although there is no indication that reality, whatever reality is, constitutes any improvement. Like a universe made entirely of candy, eventually absurdity begins to cloy and the reader becomes desperate for something, anything, to make some sense. The real question is whether the reader is familiar with Moorcock's previous work in this end of the multiverse, which will probably determine whether this piece will be met with fond recollection or appalled confusion.

Paul McAuley Special Section

Not content with packing a whopping 383 pages of fiction between these covers, the editors of PS 15 have also made it a special author showcase issue for Paul McAuley, featuring an essay, an excerpt from his novel The Quiet War, and four additional shorter works, as follow.

A Brief Guide to Other Histories

One version of America has discovered how to access other versions of history and is now mounting military expeditions into these alternate timelines to straighten them out. The American Bund timeline had begun to follow a fascist course in the 1930s; the expeditionary force has eliminated their Dear Leader, but an insurgency fights on against the occupation. In the course of a raid, the occupation squad discovers the dopplegänger of one of the soldiers, Ernie Wright. The Guidebook issued to the soldiers explains such phenomena.

[Ernie Wright] was holding the pamphlet in one hand, his forefinger marking his place. ‘You are what you do, and what's done to you. The sum of all your experiences. Him and me, we've had such different lives we aren't even like brothers.'

One of the repeated themes of McAuley's work is war, in which actions are so much more intense and mark people more deeply. The soldiers in this story have a heightened consciousness of the infinite possible consequences of each of their acts–the things they have done, the things they have failed to do, the different lives that come to pass as the result of each step they take in a given direction and not in another–so that the government has had to issue them a guide. I am not sure, however, that it was a good idea to model the scenes of war and occupation so very closely on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, as it serves to distract reader attention away from the setting at hand.

Searching for Van Gogh at the End of the World

Tourists from the turn of the Third Millennium arrive in London for the end-of-Second-Millennium celebration. They are there to win a bet for their master, but they are not very well prepared.

"Our costumes are not appropriate? You see, Fifteen, I warned you about the wardrobe thing. It has a sick mind."

"Your girlfriend's Emma Peel, and you're Sherlock Holmes. Right? Except you should have a deerstalker, not that top hat."

There must be something about the end of time that produces absurdities, all for fun and amusement.

The Thought War

Zombies have invaded the Earth. Except they aren't really zombies. No one knows what they are, but they imitate the human form, more completely now than when they first appeared.

[His face] was dead white and broken. Like a vase shattered and badly mended. My first thought was that he'd been in a bad accident, something involving glass or industrial acids. Then I saw that what I had thought were ropes of matted hair were writhing with slow and awful independence like the tentacles of a sea creature; saw that the tattered raincoat wasn't a garment. It was his skin, falling stiff and black around him like the wings of a bat.

In attempting to defend themselves against the zombies, the nations of Earth have turned against each other and destroyed each other. Now the surviving humans are fugitives, as the zombies take over everywhere. But the narrator has a theory, a strategy, based on the fact that the physical constants of the universe are being altered. If the universe is only the creation of the observing mind, then the zombies are altering reality to fit their own observations. The narrator wants humans to alter it back, but first he has to determine who is really a human and who is really a zombie in disguise.

This is a "told" story, in which the narrator repeats all this history for the benefit of some unknown individual he is addressing. The theory is interesting–a sort of different take on the observer effect, which has inspired more than a few science fiction stories. But there is nothing that the reader can see, besides the zombies themselves, that indicates any such alterations in the physical constants of the universe. We have only the narrator's word for it, based on the theories of a nineteenth-century physicist. The element that I find more potentially interesting here, how the nations of humanity turned on each other instead of uniting against the common enemy, is given rather short shrift.

City of the Dead

Just after WWIII, an alien race showed up on Earth and offered to trade a bunch of used worlds for a lease on the Solar System. Thus Marilyn Carter is now the constable of a desert town on First Foot, where she strikes up a friendship with the eccentric scientist Ana Datlovskaya, whose project is studying the hive rats. Ana has synthesized the pheromones that inform the hive rats that she is not a threat; without it, they would tear her to pieces. But there is more to Ana's work than just the hive rats. Inside the rat colony is the remains of an alien spacecraft, a secret for which many humans would be willing to kill and die. It is up to Marilyn to make sure the killing and dying are done by the proper parties.

This is a cracking good action story with a protagonist seriously cool under fire.

Jet barked and lunged forward, and Frank Parker reached behind himself and jerked a pistol from his belt, Marilyn shouting no!, and shot Jet in the chest. Jet dropped flat and slid down the slope, and Frank Parker turned to Marilyn, his eyes widening behind his sunglasses when she put her Glock on him and told him to put his weapon down.

‘Do it right now!' she said, and shot him in the leg when he didn't.

The villains are appropriately villainous, the local characters appropriately colorful, and the hive rats a well-conceived alien species.


Dec. Asimov's

Asimov's, Dec 08

Asimov's, December 2008

The center of this issue is a rock music novella by David Ira Cleary.

The Flowers of Nicosia by David Ira Cleary

Downtown Dharma is a less-than-successful Grunge Revival band whose wacked-out drummer is inspired after a terrorist attack interrupts their European tour.

"Dude, you're not getting me. I had this flash in the police station. I had this Saul of Tarsus thing. Why keep playing these clubs like Virgin Records is ever going to sign us? Why not do something meaningful? Why not take Nirvana to Islam!"

Where they end up is Turkish Cyprus, where the local terrorist have a new bioweapon called Amanita; its victims break out in brightly-colored fungal growths. Complicating matters is their local guide/manager and his broken relationship with the local promoter's sexy guitar-playing daughter; she seems to be hitting on Dharma's drummer in order to piss off Ali.

This is a colorful work–colorful characters, colorful prose, colorful setting. Colorful fungus growing all over people's bodies. A lot of stuff going on nonstop, perhaps too much at once; things get rather frantic at some points. Fans of The Kurt should be pleased by the homage to their hero. One problem - I'm not sure how far a crowd in Turkish Cyprus would be moved by lyrics in English.

Way Down East by Tim Sullivan

It seems that an alien from Gliese 581c has come to Earth and is now residing in the penthouse of a hotel in Maine, under the protection of the Feds. A couple of old lobstermen hear that the Gleezer would like to take a boat trip and they figure it would be a good way to earn some extra cash, so they offer to take the visitor on a day's excursion. It is a short trip, but it changes Donny Doyle profoundly.

It was one thing to see a picture of the Gleezer, and another thing to see it for real. It was only four feet away from Donny, and the sight of it made him want to jump into the drink.

He stood on the lazily yawing deck, his beloved Bay all around him, the early morning light dazzling on the dappled water. He looked away from the Gleezer and toward the sunrise until it hurt his eyes.

"You get used to its appearance," Towson said.

"I don't think I ever could," Donny said. "It's ugly."

This is a low-key story without much in the way of action, one of those stories that rest on a character's epiphany. What makes it effective is the characterization. The scenes all have a fine, clear ring of reality. The story is ambiguous about whether Donny's change of heart comes in part from the alien's telepathy, but it is impossible not to feel for a sentient creature alone so far from its home and familiar surroundings, where the automatic reaction to it is revulsion.


In Concert by Melanie Tem & Steve Rasnic Tem

Inez has always heard other voices in her mind, voices that came unbidden. Now, when she is very, very old, a new voice comes, a voice saying it is lost. Inez finally identifies the speaker as the Lost Astronaut, and we learn that while he is officially believed to be dead, his ship is apparently accelerating out of control, out of reach, into some strange part of the universe. Inez is his only contact, and she begins to receive visual images from him as well. She is so very frail that it is hard for her to distinguish past from present, hallucination from genuine communication. At any moment we expect her to discover she has died or slipped into some terminal coma, but Inez is stronger than we think.

This is a strangely uplifting tale of tragedy, where people find a way to reach across the universe to comfort the one who is lost. Inez is a frustrating character, as she sometimes seems to drift away into reminiscence or vagueness, but in the end it is her courage and determination that comes through.

Welcome to Valhalla by Kathryn Lance & Jack McDevitt

Richard Wagner, on the eve of the first performance of the Ring, receives a disturbing visitation, warning him of the effects his excessively nationalistic music will have on future events.

"And the Norns? What have they to do with me?"

"They know of the effect your Ring operas will have. And they know that this will lead nowhere but to disaster."

"That's rubbish!"

"Is it? Ask the Norns, Herr Wagner. I know what they have read in the skeins of your future, and I think you should know of it too."

While the vision in this very short work is predictable, the striking part of this story is the image of the egoistic Wagner's deep infatuation with his own work.

Perfect Everything by Steven Utley

An expedition to search for the source of mysterious transmission has discovered nothing, no aliens, and the ship is now on the way back home. Offwatch, Maitland retreats from the tedium of the journey into the perfect world of his dreamball, where he and his lover Kimma carry on a perpetually idyllic affair. Then he is suddenly and brutally awakened by reality when they arrive home at the Polephemus base to discover it has been slagged by some unexplained attack. And Maitland's dreamworld, too, has been cracked to expose the uncomfortable truths from which he had been hiding.

Because this piece is so short, the events seem rather sketchy - the destruction of an entire world and perhaps the human species, the possible presence of genocidal aliens, all taking second place to an illusory love affair.

Still on the Road by Geoffrey A. Landis

Hitching a ride to Arcturus with the Dharma Bums, who haven't changed a whole lot over the millennia.


Analog, Dec '08

Analog, December, 2008

A serial installment from Rob Sawyer takes up a lot of the fiction room for December, but the remaining space is well filled by the shorter works.

Misquoting the Star by David Bartell

An asteroid has killed Earth, and the refugees on the moon face a struggle for survival until, or if, they are able to return and rebuild. Amidst the loss, there is hope that they will be able to create a better world the second time around. Netty Washington is the administrator of one lunar community, and she discovers that one man, Oscar Izaaks, managed to slip through the medical screening by assuming his father's identity; not only does he have tuberculosis, he has AIDS. Now Netty is faced with a choice made more painful because she is personally attracted to him.

Humanity had been amputated too, and she had believed that everyone left was a true gem. Yes, there were jewels; but there were also people who improperly screened refugees, people who left shutters open, administrators who broke down under stress, quack doctors, cat smugglers, and a man with AIDS.

This is a story about leadership. Netty Washington is a well-realized character, complete with human flaws–which reflects the story's theme that humanity would not be human without its flaws. Bartell makes a good case, a human case, for Netty's decision; yet I must strongly disagree with it. I would like to make the case for my position, but then I would have to explain what Netty's decision was and be carped at for spoiling the story's ending. The editorial note says that the story of Oscar's arrival on the moon was told in last year's March issue of this magazine, which I did not see, but I suspect I would have disapproved of this decision, as well.

Moby Digital by Joe Schembrie

The narrator is a software simulation troubleshooter for Real Life Technology, called in when a Moby Dick simulation malfunctions, trapping three people inside. It seems that an autonomous virus has taken refuge in the program, intending to keep the simulation from shutting down, which would force it out. The troubleshooter must find a way to end the simulation before the lifesupport systems fail, and this means playing out the story to its foreordained conclusion.

I slapped Harpoon Guy's arm. "Quikwa—Quakwee—"

"Queequeg!" the girl said.

"Queequeg! Throw! Throw now!"

He wordlessly and grimly nodded. He faced the onrushing whale. He cocked his arm back. Barely in time, I pulled the grenade pin. Then he loosed the shaft and it sailed smoothly and hit the whale dead on the forehead. Flame and smoke belched and the concussion rocked me off my feet.

The trapped-in-VR story is hardly original, but this one uses the Moby Dick scenario to make it pretty fresh and interesting. I am rarely convinced in these stories that the operators couldn't just bodily drag the trapped participants out of their VR suits, and the collapsing membrane device here is less convincing than some others. But for readers who can swallow this premise, the story is an entertaining one, with a bonus for English majors who love the whale story.


Where Away You Fall by Jason Sanford

The developed nations on Earth have blockaded free access to space above 80 kilometers, so poorer nations have been making use of high altitude balloons - aerosats. Dusty is an aerosat pilot whose job is to repair malfunctioning balloons, but as she is engaged on her current job, she begins to suspect she is being used in a plot by a fanatical member of the religious cult to which she belongs, which opposes the development of space. But Dusty has always believe that her own destiny was in space, even though a balloon has been as close as she was ever able to come, until now.

Beatrice rose through an overcast sky, the wind blowing slightly, the mists beading on the windows. Then the ship cleared the clouds in an explosion of sunlight. We continued to climb, and within minutes the blue of Earth's atmosphere hung below me.

There is a lot of complicated plot and backstory crammed into this short piece, and I can't help thinking the story would be better for trimming a lot of it away. The scenes where Dusty is working on the aerosats is quite compelling, full of fascinating details, once we get past the background clutter.


Strange Horizons, September, 2008

Another month with stories having a more SFnal flavor than fantastic.

There Once Was a Fish by Brandon Myers

Milvia's mother has brought her along to the homeworld of the Pavonians, an alien species more advanced than humanity. She has come to study them, but now she has gone into a secret valley and won't or can't come out. The Pavonians won't let anyone else go into the valley to find her. Milvia is distraught at the prospect of losing her mother, but her AI nanny is useless, and Strel the pilot doesn't seem to understand how much Milvia needs her mother.

[Strel] paused again and this time looked at Milvia.

"She's gone up the valley. I asked if we could move the ship to reach her, but they won't let us fly in there. So what we're going to do is go to the other end of the valley and wait for her as long as we can. I'm sorry, Milvia. Pavonians tend to overwhelm some people. I don't know why. That was one of the risks."

"Why won't she come back?"

"It's just something that happens. To some people."

Milvia decides to take matters into her own hands, and Nannynoo surprisingly helps.

The story here is slight, and it seems of less interest to the author than his speculation about the evolution of intelligence and the role childhood might play in this.

The Future Hunters by Christopher J. Clarke

A post-apocalypse tale. Four thousand years after the collapse, the Australian settlement is run on Gaian principles that have attained the status of a religion. But Kale the scientist argues that their population is no longer viable; disease and a lack of genetic diversity will doom the settlement unless they discover more people. She convinces the Council to send an expedition north, but secretly fears that her population may no longer be able to breed with any humans they discover.

This is a story that calls out to be told at greater length. There is the germ of an exciting adventure novel here, with many "what happens next?" moments. Clarke's powers of description are strong.

They entered the river as rain fell in heavy drops, drumming hard on the catamaran and churning up the water. Kale stood on deck with the others and turned her face skywards, letting the warm water run into her mouth. In the early evening, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing mud banks and mangroves, and further upstream a dense rainforest. A mist of steam, full of the scent of warm wet earth and rotting vegetation, the breath of decay, drifted across the murky river.

I do wonder at the author's grasp of time. When at one point the expedition finds the huts of a deserted village standing, they speculate it might have been deserted for a hundred years. Aside from such quibbles and the awkwardness of Kale's unspecific reference to "the ecological disaster," this one is


Cowboy Angel by Samantha Cope

A road story illustrated by the trumps of the Tarot. Roxanne reads palms and the cards at fairs, she drinks too much and fucks too much, and the day she sees Nick with his guitar onstage she is immediately smitten with lust. Even though he denies being her cowboy angel and she reads death in his palm, she joins him on the road, always trying to get behind the mask he wears. Until he starts to hit her.

This is a minimal fantasy. There is some suggestion that Roxanne's readings are inspired by more than natural sight; there is some suggestion that both she and Nick are telepathic, although this does not help them understand each other. Otherwise, the story is essentially a mundane one of relationships. I find it a bit overwritten and overly portentous, particularly with regard to the figure of the cowboy angel, which may be Death, which in the Tarot signifies endings and change. Yet certainly the Tarot is full enough of symbolism on its own without adding cowboys.

She was thinking about the cowboy angel as she laid her hands flat across the hard ridges of his ribs, and felt them breathe, and put her mouth on his neck, and tasted salt. In the end, the cowboy angel brought your death; he took you to the gates of Eden.

Kimberly Ann Duray is Not Afraid by Leah Bobet

Kim works in a race-change clinic. She believes in the work, she believes it will help bring about a race-blind future. But the clinic is under constant threat of terrorist attack, which causes her a lot of stress and stresses her marriage. While her husband Colin tries to be supportive, he can't help believing it would be better to eliminate race prejudice than race differences. He challenges Kim–how many of her clients want to change their race to black, from her color to his?

This one pushes the balance between Story and Message pretty hard. The Story is one of an interracial marriage, the problems of making it work. But the marriage is also a medium for debating the issue of the Message.

I wanted proof.

That I wasn't talking a line of bullshit about what we did at work. That I'd married Colin because of him—not because he was black, not in spite of him being black—because of him. Because he was clever and serious and cracked bad jokes when he got drunk, and met my eye and talked with courtesy, and all those other things that made a person underneath the melanin I tinkered with and the social constructs I fucked around with every single working day of the year.

References to the Black Panthers and Huey P. Newton are jarringly anachronistic; I thought at first that this was historical fiction, not future SF.


Fantasy, September, 2008

I found this month's offerings to be uneven in quality, but the best is very good indeed.

Original Gangster by Jim Hines

Jaybird is a gangbanger and proud of it. She strongly resents the white chick named Robin who thinks she can just step up and join her gang.

Jaybird grabbed a pair of dice from her pocket, changing tactics. "You want to run with the LTs? Whatever number comes up, that's the number of guys who get a turn."

"And how many of these good fellows did you take?" Robin smiled. Her teeth were bleach-white and perfectly straight.

"None." Jaybird pushed up her other sleeve, showing the small double-sixes tattooed on her arm. "They jumped me in like a man. Twelve minutes I stood there, letting them pound the shit out of me."

But things change when the rival gang kidnaps Jaybird's baby and Robin is the only one who offers help.

This is one of those stories that rests on a final Revelation. The author does an adequate job in setting us up for this, but I still have a hard time buying the connection.

A Foreigner's View of the River by A.M. Muffaz

Sandy and Irene, the wives of westerners in Saigon, pretend to be westerners, too, but are actually of Chinese origin. They have nothing better to do than gawk at the city and spend money.

So they sipped hot tea as they waited for the ferry to move. Lotus tea had a sweet smell with just the barest hint of mud in the afterglow. It was an acquired taste, neither as tea-like as oolong nor as flowery as chrysanthemum. The bittersweet flavour could've been the earth itself, from the roots steeped in the death that remained here. Vietnamese soil was fertile, blackened and rich with blood and bone. But the River Saigon was not so lucky. Its skin brown waters were sewer line and trade route, a spittoon for the city it plied.

Everyone and everything in this ambiguous fantasy is distasteful -- the women, the husbands, the city, the food, the river. Everyone and everything is for sale. The women are mostly prostitutes and Sandy feels herself different from them only by being fat. At one point, Sandy takes a shower and spits out something nasty; the reader may feel the desire to do the same.

Nora by Becca De La Rosa

A witch lives in the forest. A girl named Bowl comes to her as her apprentice. Bowl is full of water and gives birth to a daughter named Nora, who goes to live in a pond when she grows up.

The editorial note says that the author dreamed this story, and it has the quality of dreams that even the most surreal events are accepted as a matter of fact, which is also the quality of the author's prose, which delights throughout in unexpected ways.

The witch had many visitors. Customers came to her for her good advice, and for bundles of dried herbs, plant clippings, bead necklaces, recipes, cloth pockets of stones and good wishes. Sometimes customers came and asked for love or respect or revenge. The witch sat them down, gave them chamomile tea and oat cookies, and told them to stop being so self-centred.


In This City by Brian Dolton

A fable. There is a city. A reclusive young architect lives in the city, shutting out its flawed reality behind his closed blinds, obsessed with his plans to remake it according to his own vision of perfection. Ghosts also live in the city, and one of them appears in the architect's apartment, forcing him out into reality where he learns his Lesson.

This is one of those stories that is mainly about admiring its own prose.

In this city, there are buildings made of woven silk and mirrorwood. They fold themselves around one another like lovers, and their passionate sighs are the wind in the subway.

This is pretty, but what does it mean? What does it really tell us about the city, about the imperfections that the architect sees in it? Aside from the author's concluding moral, what are we being told?

The Annie Oakley Show by Ari Goelman

As a young teenager from an impoverished family, the child who would become Annie Oakley spent two years in abusive servitude as a farm worker. In Goelman's version of events, she shoots the farmer, who attempted to force himself on her, and buries his body. But his ghost continues to haunt her even after she is free, earning money with shooting exhibitions at fairs. When the showman Frank Butler offers her a partnership and a successful future, Annie knows she has to rid herself of the ghost or succumb to drug addiction in her attempts to drive it from her mind.

Goelman's version of events fits plausibly into the historical account of Oakley's life, and we get a good idea from the ghost what kind of a man he had been.

Tell me," he says, "was I worth it? Was I worth going to Hell over?" I ain't in hell yet, I think, though summer in Cincinnati is near hot enough. I don't say nothing. As always, that don't stop him from talking. "What are you gonna tell the Lord? That you were mad? Where's it say you can murder someone when you're mad? Show me." He holds up his Bible.

And Annie's solution is unexpected as well as seemingly effective. My only quibble is with, as usual, the copyediting, as Mr Gillie's name is inconsistently spelled.



Clarkesworld #24, September 2008

Two very different ways in which things are not as they seem.

Worm Within by Cat Rambo

The narrator is the last human on Earth, hiding, pretending to be a robot in a world of robots pretending to be human.

I walk in the park. Where did all these robots come from? What do they want? They look like the people that built them, and they walk along the sidewalk, scuffed and marred by their heavy footsteps. They pretend. That's the only thing that saves me, the only thing that lets me walk among them pretending to be something that is pretending to be me.

But there is a malign, alien presence inside her–a voice that hates her flesh, trapped in it, wanting release as she wishes release from it.

This one is like a matryoshka doll, secrets inside secrets. The revelation may come as little surprise to readers, but the revelation is not really the point of this portrait of terminally confused identity. And besides, there may well be yet another doll inside what seems to be the last. A dark vision.

Can You See Me Now? by Eric M. Witchey

Doing history in the future, when Los Angeles lies two miles beneath the sea. Lori's job is to recreate the life of a typical Angelino of ancient times, so she shuffles in her hard suit along the submerged highway to her twenty-minute stint of welding–all the work time that the ancients were allowed before they had to begin the homeward commute.

No matter how many times she read the old texts, data from laser-etched, polymer, digital disc fragments discovered in the silt, she couldn't really imagine millions of people. Nobody could really imagine millions of people on the highway in hard suits, bumper-to-bumper, stretched up and down the highway heading off to serve in the major industries of the time: making films, drilling wells, making wars, and selling drugs. It was her job to represent all of them.

But Aaron keeps intruding himself into the script, and Lori has to improvise to keep from messing up her job. Lori is good at her job.

Readers of the present may suspect that the future historians have gotten a few details wrong. An amusing glimpse in both directions.



Zahir, Summer 2008

Some gems in this issue of this little printzine.

That Thing by Jane Lawless

There is a thing that comes into the narrator's room at night and sleeps underneath her bed. It terrifies her. She can't stop it from entering her room, and she has nowhere else to sleep, as a series of misfortunes has left her poor and friendless.

A short and well-felt study in loneliness.

Roaring Seraph, Singing Thunder by Daniel Brugioni

The narrator and his wife once promised each other that they would never forego any opportunity to travel. Thus they found themselves accepting the offer of the Reverend Benjamin Garza to be his companions in his Equatorial Africa mission, deep in the jungle at the edge of the Mbini River. But instead of the Reverend, they are met with a note: "I am restless and blind. I sing! Death sings within my very depths."

This is an ambiguous fantasy, as the narrator who sees the ghosts of the local boatmen is blind. If this were science fiction, I would question how the disease has spread so rapidly in a region where it is supposed to be near eradication, and how it could have killed so quickly. Only on the assumption of madness does any of this make literal sense, but the images, in their madness, are compelling.

"The boatmen glow, and at night they float like gnats up from the river to peer through my portieres. You should see them! How they dance!"

Ariadne's Awakening: The Sacrifice by Sarah Odishoo

A standard retelling of the myth, mixed with fairy tale bits that make it a little bit interesting and pretentious quotations that make it dull.

Snowmelt on Ice by Jeff P. Jones

In 1925, a last surviving regiment of the White army was retreating into the frozen Pamirs, pursued by the Bolsheviks. They found temporary refuge in an ice cave, but the cave was already occupied; in the resulting confusion, everyone is killed. Ever since, Ermolai has haunted the glacier, waiting.

At times during a night storm, when the moon rises occluded but bright, its light captures the snowflakes as if falling from the stars, and they appear not as crystals but as thousands of men, soldier, hurtling through the sky, spinning, grasping for each other, clumping in groups, and driving, locked together in wounded spirals, into the mountain.

Now at last his wait is over, the seekers have come, and the secret Ermolai has guarded for so long will finally be revealed.

Bleak and haunting.


What the Redmond Men Found by Matthew David Brozik

Charles Redmond and his son Carl are hiking in the forest, passing the time with a puzzle: "Three people are found dead in a cabin in the woods." They discover what appears to be the wrecked fuselage of an airplane, which seems at first to be the answer to the puzzle. At first.

This piece puzzles me. Charles Redmond does not seem to have known of the presence of the wreck in the woods, so how can he have predicted its discovery with his puzzle? The ending is incongruous; it has nothing to do with the puzzle at all.

This Year's Nettle Wine by Peter Higgins

An idyllic landscape where gods doze in the hills and the stones reach out to change human lives. The magic in one stone loves Alison Tatters, a middle aged artist living in retirement after disappointments in life and love. The magic sends her old lover back to her, worn out by his exertions, but his presence isn't entirely welcomed by Alison.

As he grew younger week by week, she became more aware of her own ageing and softly collapsing body, the grey in her hair, the psoriasis patch on her leg. She wasn't fat, not really, but she was . . . comfortable. It couldn't last much longer.

Beautifully told, a warning to be careful what you wish for, even if your wish is benevolent.


Aristeia by Rob Pritchard

In an alternative future where the false myths of science have been eliminated, a hunter pursues a figure called the Khalkanthropos. Both of them are alien in this world where myth is alive once again, and the signs given by the stars are identical for both. They are two figures, Janus-faced, and the narrator can kill him "no more than you kill your reflection."

It might seem to help in understanding this one if you know Greek, because you then know that the name of the quarry means "man of metal" and that "aristeia" is the excellence of the warrior. What the reader may believe is the hunter's excellence is considered by him as weakness. There is still a lot here that is enigmatic, though–more than a little surreal, although the vision of the far future is fascinating, even so.

The Captive of the Slaves by Loreen Niewenhuis

A tale of ants. The little red ants are slaves of the black warrior species, but they are mostly content until one of them catches the scent of "jama," the sweet beetle's intoxicating urine. They capture the beetle and make a home for her in their masters' nest, and soon they discover that the jama has given them unusual powers.

This one is a pretty neat idea, but the charm of the fable is somewhat marred by the persistent niggling objections that the worker ants should be sisters, not brothers, and the author's inconsistent pluralizing of "larva" and "pupa."

Space and Time

Space and Time

Space and Time #104, Summer/Fall 2008

104 issues of this venerable zine, now coming out semiannually in a full-size format. We should all live so long! A lot of professional writers got their start here, and some of them can still be found in these pages.

Moso by Harry Turtledove

Alternate natural history, in which the saber-toothed cat has survived into historical times. Tshingana is an adolescent cowherd on the African steppe when he encounters this fearsome moso devouring the carcass of an elephant it has killed. He runs to tell his village. The incident increases his status in the tribe at the crucial moment when he is supposed to become a man, but he has to cope with his half-brother's jealousy.

This would be a pretty effective coming-to-manhood story, except for the surprisingly amateurish insistence of the author on making sure readers notice his research.

The clansmen murmured approvingly. Shamgwava said, "That is very fine, son. You will have a shield to make even an inDuna, a subchief, jealous."

But as for the natural history, I have serious reservations. It is not that a giant saber-toothed cat could not kill a lone elephant. But, first, elephants are herd creatures capable of collective action in their defense. And second, it does not seem likely that a solitary hunting cat would choose such dangerous prey when easier targets, such as teenaged cowherds and their cattle, are right at hand. The story itself is an excellent illustration of the reason.

Memorial by Ruthanna Emrys

It was the sort of epic quest typically celebrated in fantasy fiction, and now that it is over, there is a sole survivor, hailed as a hero in the ceremony honoring those who fell. But the survivor knows the truth.

This very short tale has a sting, but until the very end, we have no sense of the real nature of the danger the heroes faced, or the fate they saved so many from, so it comes as a bit of an anticlimax.

Out of the Pool by Todd French

Horror. In the middle of the heat wave, Mike retreats to his pool, his pride and joy. It is the sort of neighborhood in Orange County where pools are commonplace. He is irked at first when someone seems to have thrown an odd sort of black ball into his pool, but the reality is far worse.

There is no explanation for this horror; the author leaves his character to confront it alone, with no real resolution or catharsis, and in the end it is a rather conventional bloodbath. For those to whom spoilers are anathema, the nature of the surprise is given away by the illustration on the first page. I must say that I was irked exceedingly by the repetitious use of "bar-b-cue".

Katoey by George Guthridge and Blythe Ayne

As a young boy in Thailand, Sasa was sold into prostitution by his parents, who unfortunately had no daughters to sell. He is now working as a maid in Dubai, pretending to be a woman, but his employer's nephew, Abdul, has become attracted to him. Sasa fears Abdul's reaction if he learns the truth about his true gender. Sasa is also consumed with fears of being possessed by a Phii Pob, a type of spirit sometimes considered vampiric.

This is another kind of coming-to-manhood story, as Sasa comes to terms with his identity. Sasa's images of the Phii Pob are remarkably inconsistent, as it serves to personify his various fears and insecurity. Disturbing.

Modern Monotremes by Chet Gottfried

Because the distant colonies in space need to increase their populations rapidly, the female crew of the colony ships have been modified to produce eggs, which are transfered to the colonies on their arrival. There is a contest, with a monetary reward for the most prolific egg producers, and Arial Trellis is a strong contender for third place, particularly when, on the last morning of the contest, she manages to produce two eggs. Except that someone has stolen them! It must be one of her rivals.

This is a very unlikely premise–not so much the eggs as the notion that it would be the crewwomen on the ships who would be modified to produce them, rather than female colonists.

The Devil of Details by Richard Parks

Kyan has always been the loyal servant of Lord Danalos, whose ambition to carve out an empire has led him to necromancy. Now Kyan is the quartermaster in charge of an army of five thousand resurrected soldiers. He is not sanguine about the outcome of his master's campaign. The skeletal army is too literal-minded to be an efficient fighting force, but his loyalty and gratitude to his master has so far outweighed his misgivings. But he is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he may be about to commit horrible atrocities.

This one is an ethical problem story–how far should loyalty extend? Tymon the necromancer supplies the answer, but it is up to Kyan to put it into action. His decision doesn't really come as a great surprise.

Empty by Larina Warnoch

They cut Billy open. He tells everyone about it, everyone he meets.

"They cut me open," he repeated. "They peeled back my skin and pinned it to a rubber mat." . . . "But they didn't find what they were looking for."

Weird ambiguous fantasy. It's not just that Billy is crazy, it's that the rest of his family seems to be crazy, too. But the thing is, just because you're crazy doesn't mean they aren't really out to get you.

Álvaro's New Life by Sue Burke

A sudden mysterious pandemic that attacks people who have been smokers. Eleven percent of the population of Spain has already died. Álvaro was a smoker, but so far he hasn't died, although he doesn't feel very well. Still, he feels the responsibility to take care of the people in his apartment building, to locate the dead and help the living. The doctor tells him:

"There are people who have recovered from this fever. Believe that you're one of them. What you think about yourself matters. If you think you will be well, that can keep you well. Believe that you'll live."

How to say that he would be satisfied to die well, to die being useful, absurdly brave like bull in a ring, fighting against fate?

An interesting scenario, exploring how a person will continue to make plans for the future even when he is convinced he will not have one.


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.


Oct 7, 05:34 by IROSF
Express thoughts on the reviews or the stories here.

Short fiction review is here.
Oct 22, 19:26 by David Bartell
Lois, thanks for the thoughtful review. I'd be interested in your take on Netty's dilemma in "Misquoting the Star". Perhaps a demarked spoiler in the forum is okay. (Thanks for not giving it away in the review.) I myself do not necessarily agree with the protag's decision, BTW.
Oct 23, 15:43 by Lois Tilton
David: Netty frames her problem in terms of perfection/nonperfection. Oscar is imperfect, but then, so are we all, so Oscar gets a pass.

But in the circumstances prevailing in this scenario, Oscar is not merely imperfect, he is a deadly hazard. As I understand the situation, the entire human species is reduced to the population now on the moon, which is only a few thousand individuals. It is not clear that there is a viable breeding population, in fact.

Under such circumstances, I think it is criminally irresponsible to introduce an individual carrying at least two communicable diseases into the population. The risk is too great, regardless of the probability of spreading the diseases. The potential consequences are too dire. I think Netty is quite irresponsible, given her position, for not putting Oscar's ass out the airlock.

This is an extreme solution, but the scenario as you present it is an extreme one. It also seems clear that the level of medical technology that will be available on the postapocalyptic Earth will not be such as to be able to eradicate the diseases that Oscar might spread. Oscar's behavior, also, does not inspire confidence that he is aware of the risk that he poses.

The primary problem lies in the previous story: the decision, however it was made, to send Oscar to the moon in the first place. Netty is not responsible for this, but it is her responsibility to deal with the consequences by acting for the greater good of the entire population.
Oct 23, 19:21 by David Bartell
Thanks, very well said. I'm considering this deeply. Trouble is, given that we are all flawed, bad decisions are inevitable... And there is a difference between introducing a diseased person into a population, and dealing with one already present (on the Moon, at least.) We could not, today, dream of eradicating the diseased, nor even treat them like lepers. In my story, the extreme conditions might warrant a different ethic, as you insist. Point taken; I'm not looking for an argument.

As for the first story, "Misquoting the Moon", Oscar's father's decision to send Oscar is how the story ended, in a much narrower scope, and the mechanics of him getting to the Moon are not dealt with.

Going forward, I have one more story with Oscar, but then things go in a different direction.
Oct 23, 20:11 by Lois Tilton
Worthwhile stories are the ones that provoke these arguments, the ones that raise these questions.
Jun 26, 12:56 by
That was really helpful for me. Thanks


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