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Editor-in-Chief:
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Dave Noonan

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  • Bluejack
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Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
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Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

November, 2008 : Review:

Short Fiction, November 2008

Houston, Houston, some of our zines are missing!

This month, most of the reviews are of the fiction from online zines, as many of the usual printzines have not shown up in the reviewing queue. I cover the debut of one new ezine of "literary adventure fantasy"—Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zines Reviewed

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 1–2, October 2008

This new electronic venture is dedicated to what the publisher calls "literary adventure fantasy." Specifically, secondary-world adventure fantasy. The zine's mission statement points out that there are now a number of venues devoted to literary fantasy and a smaller number for adventure fantasy; BCS is meant to fill the perceived void in outlets for literary adventure fantasy.

Which raises the question: What is literary adventure fantasy? What is "literary"? This is a question on which there is little consensus, but the publisher of BCS has offered his definition: fiction that employs

literary devices such as tight points-of-view, round characters, unreliable narrators, discontinuous narratives, and many others. This sophisticated level of craft has made fantasy short fiction more powerful than ever before.

This definition of "literary" seems rather minimal, and I am not sure that it would be universally accepted, but it does suggest that the zine is attempting to rise above the level of cliché that has often characterized adventure fantasy. I consider this a Good Thing and a worthwhile goal; I would be quite happy with a zine that offered no more than well-written adventure fantasy. From the look of the first two issues, it appears to be off to a pretty good start.

The editorial information states that they intend to publish two stories per issue, every other week.

[Although I do have to wonder about the title and what it would mean for a sky to cease; if the phrase "ceaseless skies" evokes anything, it would seem to be fiction set on the plains or steppes, not the secondary worlds of fantasy. But I quibble. Of course.]

The Sword of Loving Kindness by Chris Willrich

I have for some years been reading the adventures of this author's serial heroes Imago Bone and Persimmon Gaunt, which have been appearing in various markets here and there, but I suspect that I must have missed at least one episode, as I seem to recall that they had at last succeeded in disposing of their accursed spellbook by dropping it into the abyss at the northernmost edge of the world. But we enter here in medias res as the dauntless duo are breaking into the tower of the Pluribus, attempting to place the perilous tome into safe storage. Like the cat, it seems to have come back. The Pluribus, however, charge high fees for storage, so in exchange they set a Bone and Gaunt a task: to deliver the eponymous sword to the pain-loving city of Maratrace. The sword's power is niceness, and it proves to be a great inconvenience on their journey, but Maratrace is not a nice place at all.

The stories so far in this series have been uneven [I can't help wondering if the weaker ones had been stored in the author's trunk since he wrote them at age 17], but the best are quite good indeed. This is one of the best. The action is nonstop, the settings inventive, and the prose is lively and witty.

An aching haze cleared at last, and Bone awoke upon perhaps the most comfortable chair ever placed within a torture chamber. Later, despite painful associations, the memory of that chair would taunt him. It was vast and velvety and perfectly supported his long-abused frame. If the thief ever retired to a cave in the mountains, he must plant such a chair in the center of his loot and doze in sight of the jewels and gold and easily-transportable paintings. The lords of Maratrace knew their furniture.

Is this "literary"? I wouldn't really say so. Is it well-written? I do say so. Is it an entertaining adventure story? It is. Do I call it...

RECOMMENDED

I do.

Sun Magic, Earth Magic by David D. Levine

The Sun-worshipping empire of Novarra has conquered the Earth-worshipping Uncians, and the Most Holy Sorceress Shira has been sent to represent the Sun in the newly-annexed region. On her journey, she is called upon by the locals to rescue a boy trapped in a cave-in. Shira agrees to help, but the task is difficult, as the cave is more properly the domain of the Earth Mother, not the Sun.

This is a conventional fantasy, but not a badly-done one. Shira grows and develops as a character in the course of her failed attempts at rescue, and she learns a conventional lesson. Literary? Not at all. I do have to wonder why the priest of the Earth could not have done more to help the boy; his excuse is pretty lame, leaving me to suspect it was more for the convenience of the author.

Architectural Constants by Yoon Ha Lee

The city is the unique design of its architect, the Spider [who is not an actual arachnid], but now the design is unraveling; cracks are appearing in the urban fabric. The Spider is on her way to repair it. Three different citizens are caught up in this event, a librarian, a guard, and a convicted murderer.

This is what I would call literary fantasy [on the grounds that I am pointing to it]. The author's prose is poetic and allusive. The imagery is striking. As the librarian attempts to capture an elusive line of prophetic poetry among the graffiti on a wall,

To his astonishment, the words flared white and gold, and whistled from his grasp, leaving him holding an inky afterimage. Eskevan swore. Fumbling one-handed, he opened his capture tome and pinned the afterimage onto the page. It seethed before settling into dark, angry spikes.

RECOMMENDED

Analog

Analog Jan-Dec

Analog, January-February 2008

The winter double issue continues the Sawyer serial, but also lays on a couple of novellas and a number of shorter works. The overall quality falls short of the superior but shorter December issue, but the Rusch story is particularly worth readiang.

Doctor Alien by Rajnar Varja

The narrator, a human psychiatrist working for NASA, has been assigned as a medical consultant to the aliens called the Traders, who have captured/rescued three different creatures alien to them. The Traders claim these creatures are mentally deranged. The narrator is not sanguine about his prospects of success in curing them, and the heavy gravity on the Trader station makes his task harder, but he shows up his doubting hosts, who have been making book on his failure.

This is a talky piece, as the narrator insists on telling us too much about his personal phobias, the technical details of his AI, and other matters of little interest or import. The aliens, especially the Traders, are imaginatively conceived, but it is hard to be impressed by the narrator's accomplishments, as we know that the author has set up the problems in advance with these solutions in mind. Having a giant ferociously-clawed tiger-lizard loose on a space station might have made for a tense and exciting situation, but here, it is only part of the puzzle that we know the narrator will solve as soon as the author hands him the clue card.

The Recovery Man's Bargain by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Haddad Yu is a Recovery Man.

Yu's recovery policy was simple: He never asked the client for proof of ownership for an item he went after. He always assumed the client owned the item and somehow misplaced it. Such a defense had worked when he'd had a run-in with authorities, most of whom couldn't touch his clients—either because the clients had too much money, too much clout, or weren't Alliance members.

But one deal has gone very bad, leaving him deeply in debt, so he makes an even worse deal in an attempt to cover his losses, to kidnap a woman scientist wanted by the alien Gyonnese for killing sixty thousand of their larval children.

Rusch has constructed a disturbing psychological SFnal crime thriller, set in a universe where powerful corporations and individuals can twist the laws to their own profit. Haddad Yu is a well-realized and complex character who has always prided himself on his integrity, within the limits of his profession; until now he has never failed a client and always kept his side of a bargain, but desperation has put him in a position where there are no clean choices left to him. The setting is full of interesting details, such as the glowing fidelia flowers. At a couple of points my disbelief was aroused, but overall this one is a worthwhile read.

RECOMMENDED

Zheng He and the Dragon by Dave Creek

A tale of the famous Chinese admiral and his most fabulous encounter, never before told. Once Zheng He captured a dragon.

Zheng He told me he would never forget the smallest detail of the dragon's approach—it must have ceased breathing flame the instant he looked up, he insisted, because its smoke trailed behind in such a way that it gave the illusion of discharging from the beast's dark blue belly. And he wondered why the dragon's wings, also blue, remained spread wide, without flapping even once. He perceived one more detail—the dragon's snout seemed altogether too blunt. He wondered if the dragon had somehow suffered an injury to its face, because Zheng He looked in vain for evidence of its pointed ears or even of its eyes.

After the mother dragon plunges into the sea, its egg floats to the surface and from it a smaller dragon emerges. Zheng He learns to speak with the dragon, which proves to be an intelligent being, but he is concerned that it will not make submission to his Emperor, to whom he means to bring it as a gift, whether the dragon is willing or not.

In many ways, this is an entertaining tale of misunderstood First Contact in a historical setting—a classic SFnal trope. The central character Zheng He is always quite interesting in his own right as one of history's greatest adventurers. The conclusion comes with a satisfactory punch. A quibbler, however, might be inclined to mention the fact that Chinese dragons are not generally fire-breathers, despite Zheng He's constant fears of being flamed. Furthermore, in Chinese myth dragons usually have celestial associations, so that, far from the dragon acknowledging the sovereignty of the Emperor, it would seem more proper for the Emperor to acknowledge the divinity of the dragon.

To Leap the Highest Wall by Richard Foss

The guys at Mission Control in Houston are fuming because it looks like the Soviets may be about to win the race to land the first men on the moon. Unexpectedly, they receive a message from the Soviet spacecraft, asking for possible emergency assistance in landing on US territory. What will prevail, common humanity or Cold War hostility and rivalry?

What would we do if the first men on the Moon landed here on their way home? Shoot 'em, arrest them for trespassing, or give them a parade and send them home in first-class style? I can't predict it myself, so it's darn sure that they don't know. They may be scared. If it was me landing in Russia after twisting the bear's tail, I'd be pretty pessimistic about my welcome.

This story has a highly retro Cold War Space Race sensibility, and I suspect it could have appeared in the pages of this magazine forty years ago, without a reader blinking an eye. It strongly evokes the scenes of those days, which I am old enough to remember, but while the conclusion is not unanticipated, the climax is more crudely jingoistic than I can credit. This is a disappointment, as the scenario had the potential to generate a much better story exploring the ethical problems suggested by the quote above.

Small Business by Edward M. Lerner

The Syndicate has a monopoly on the nanotechnology for making diamond-hull spaceships. A band of free-trade revolutionaries is bent on infiltrating their systems and liberating their secrets, and they recruit Jason Grimaldi, a grad student in microengineering, to build the spybots with which they intend to steal the information.

This piece reads as if someone had chopped up a much longer work and pasted together random bits, from which the reader must infer the entire story. We are supposed to take for granted that the Syndicate is Evil because they are monopolists, and thus its chief executive must be a villain who would be twirling her mustachios if she had them. Jason, introduced as 100% apolitical nerd, somehow switches into a speech-giving libertarian champion without any intervening character-altering scenes. The woman introduced as if she is a central character turns out to be mere Jason-bait and disappears. The deepest characterization here is bestowed on the microbot, and the setting is glimpsed only in isolated bits, as through the limited lens of the microbot's camera. Somewhere, a novel in imitation of Ayn Rand is missing a few ripped-out pages. Here they are.

Rocks by John G. Hemry

The evolution of weapons technology, from rock to rock. Not exactly a story, more of a short illustrated history.

Excellence by Richard A. Lovett

The narrator, an aging former competitive runner, is offered a chance to try a new experimental drug that would boost his performance.

There's only one catch: there wasn't any guarantee the process was safe, either. If humans were like rats, you'd peak in a year and stay there for eighteen months. Two years, if you were lucky. After that? Well, once the rats had started to decline they'd done so rather precipitously.

Being essentially a loser, he agrees, and makes it into the Olympics, but eventually the predicted decline begins. Question: was it worth it?

The author leaves this question as an exercise for the reader. A refreshing choice, without a facile answer.

Interzone

Interzone #218

Interzone, #218, October 2008

A Chris Beckett issue, with three stories and an interview by this author, whose works express a strong sense of living the last days of a doomed planet. This sets the tone for the rest of the issue, in which all the fiction is set on some version, happy or sad, but mostly sad, of a future Earth.

By Chris Beckett:

Poppyfields

Angus, an ineffectual male dominated by his cold and manipulative wife (as most of this author's males seem to be), takes advantage of her absence for a weekend to go birdwatching on a tract of wasteland slated for development. At Poppyfields, nature has taken advantage of momentary human neglect by colonizing the tract with life.

And when the August sun shone down at midday, Poppyfields' larks twittered—on and on—in the big blank blue of Poppyfields sky while mirages shimmered like the apocalypse over the concrete slabs which had once been the floors of the industrial units but were now the home of lizards and wolf spiders, with seedlings of buddleia already taking root in the cracks.

Into this scene pops a feral teenage fugitive from a nearby parallel world, who manipulates Angus into giving her shelter for the night, despite his terror of his wife discovering her presence.

While the author seems to be suggesting that Angus is finally motivated by the fact that Poppyfields is a portal to alternate worlds, the story's true miracle is the unconquerable determination of life to find any niche and propagate itself while it can, wherever it can.

Greenland

Global warming has turned the population of most of the world into refugees, swarming into the few habitable countries remaining, where the citizens set up machine guns on the beaches to discourage them. First the Africans fled to Spain, then the Spanish fled to Britain, and now the British are attempting to reach Greenland. A few scientists are attempting to colonize an even more distant refuge, if they can perfect the replication of humans to send them into space. Volunteers are needed to test this yet-imperfect technique, and Juan is desperate enough to take the offer.

Beckett's scenes of the desperation of the refugees are grimly realistic.

I took whatever work was going, just as I'd done in the last famine-ridden days of crumbling Spain, grateful to have a means of earning a living, grateful to have money at all and something to buy with it. I filled sandbags round the offices of the Provisional Government, I killed rats, I sprayed stagnant pools with insecticide. Once I even had a job pulling corpses out of the Thames Marshes.

There is a logic flaw, however, in his treatment of the replication process. It is the copy of the individual sent to space that would be considered the legitimate person, not the original abandoned on Earth.

Rat Island

The narrator is looking back at an incident from his childhood, when his father, an emotionally distant man, suddenly decided to reveal to his eleven-year-old son the secret that human life on Earth has passed the tipping point, after which there is no possibility of saving it. The son must now find a way of coping with this unwanted information and live with the burden of the secret he dares not reveal.

Snap. Here is a boy called Douglas teasing me. He's calling me dozy. He's saying I'm mental. I didn't answer him. I took this picture instead. That angered him. He would have smashed my camera if a teacher hadn't come by.

The author effectively contrasts the narrator's depression with the image of his younger sister Clarrie, innocent of the secret that crushes father and son, representing the mass of the population that carries on as usual, in the naive belief that there will be a future.

IF by Daniel Akselrod and Lenny Royter

It seems that someone had the bright idea to implant young children with an Imaginary Friend chip as a sort of cybernanny. Dicky's IF is a camel named Mr Fuzzy. Unfortunately, it was discovered too late that when the chip is removed at adulthood, the IFs remain, sharing the minds of their hosts. Dicky's life project has been to develop a way to expunge the IFs.

"Dicky, are you missing a hug?" Mr Fuzzy asks again. He's using that annoying, kids-show voice on purpose. He knows I hate it when he does that. "Dicky, let's sing a song together."

"Fuck off," I offer in singsong. "I'm working here."

This is the most light-hearted work in the issue. While the subject matter is a medical experiment gone bad, the authors treat the consequences as amusing, not tragic, even if Mr Fuzzy keeps Dicky from sexual success.

His Master's Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi

In a far future full of miracles, people have learned to replicate their minds, to make copies of themselves. As the world filled up with these plurals, their creation was forbidden. One of the pioneers of the process retreated to an oil platform in the ocean, where he believed the only law was his own. As companions, he made the dog and the cat, whose minds became greatly enhanced. But their Master was wrong about his sovereignty, and the forces of law have cut off his head and put it into a necropolis. The dog and cat plan to set him free.

[The cat] gives me a mildly offended look and dons its armour. The quantum dot fabric envelops its striped body like living oil. It purrs faintly and tests the diamond-bladed claws against an icy outcropping of rock.

There is a lot of interesting stuff here, generating much skiffy Sensawunda with a world where virtual immortality is taken for granted. This one is a fun read, with a lot of high-tech action. There is also a different interest in the narrative voice of the dog, who never loses his doglike faith in his god the Master, and never forgets the ball he played with when he was no more than a dog.

RECOMMENDED

The Corner of the Circle by Tim Lees

The narrator flees an abusive home to stay with his aunt in New York, where he is befriended by her friend Imogen, who claims to be pregnant by her alien lover Adrian.

"He's from out there."

"Out . . . ?"

She gestured, a great sweep of her bony arm, as if to take in the whole universe. "Out there. There. I tell you something else, as well, you promise to not breathe it to a soul."

Aliens are fairly common in New York, on the streets and in the vast ships that come through the Sheepshead Portal on a blast of frozen wind, but Adrian seems to be invisible. Or perhaps imaginary. Or maybe not.

For the most part, the story is about the impact of a forceful and memorable character on a young person's life, and this being the case, it does not so much matter whether Imogen's visions are genuine or hallucinatory, or whether the colorful characters on the New York streets are actually aliens from other worlds. Yet this one does share with Beckett's "Poppyfields" the image of other worlds pressing up against our own, close enough sometimes to touch, or to pass through.

Helix

Helix, Fall 2008

The editors have announced that this will be the last issue. Too bad. I appreciated the zine's original intention of being a venue for works deemed too risky for mainstream zines, and recent issues in particular have put up some pretty good stories. But . . . sic transit. The zine at least is departing on a high note with this selection of stories.

The Original Suicide Artist by Jeff Crook

Jake Horne is hit by lightning while playing golf on a business trip. He is surprisingly unscathed, but the strike seems to have given him strange powers over electronic devices, powers that he doesn't consciously control.

Jake gathered his things and stood by the door as the Tube hover-slipped toward Freedom Tower Station. He looked at his watch and saw that it was 8:27. He'd entered the Tube at 8:27. His watch had stopped, but he didn't know when. Maybe he was later to work than he thought. Maybe that was why the Tube was empty.

State Security, however, seems to think he is a terrorist, a rebel from the Eugenics Wars. They may be right.

A Kafkaesque, or perhaps Matrixesque, nightmare of an individual caught up by strange forces that he doesn't understand. But there are matters we are not meant to understand. This one shifts smoothly from the surreal to the fantastic.

RECOMMENDED

Plot Device by James Killus

A tale of temptation. Moss discovers an old program disk in a bin of obsolete software.

Hello! Welcome to SCHEMATON! SCHEMATON! is an expert system for the application of the principles of game theory to ordinary life situations. Although the applicable problem set is limited to zero and less-than-zero sum games, many practical problems may be solved by the application of SCHEMATON! software.

The program is highly effective. Using its advice, Moss becomes successful and wealthy. He meets a woman he desires more than any other. She is married. The program tells him how to acquire her by eliminating her husband.

This one reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, one in which the devil takes some seemingly-innocuous form with which to seduce the susceptible. The story of Moss's slow descent towards damnation is chillingly credible.

RECOMMENDED

Tragically, author James Killus died on September 23, just a week before this issue came out. I do not know if this was his last story, but if so, it makes a fine capstone to a too-short career.

Prometheus Rebound by Elissa Malcohn

The god Prometheus remained behind with his human creations when the rest of the gods departed Earth [although not irrevocably]. Now he makes a living by reenacting the punishment meted out to him by Zeus, charging viewers to see the eagle devour his liver every day. Prometheus loves his mortal wife and half-mortal daughter, but Christine has a case of Munchausen by proxy, which compels her to harm their daughter. It takes divine intervention to convince Prometheus to do something about it.

Christine's skill at wielding the instruments of life and death at work hadn't satisfied her. What mother didn't want to be a savior to her child? How could she snatch Lydia from pain if no pain existed? The hospital doctors were modern-day gods and Christine had married a god, so wasn't it only natural that she should yearn to become one, herself? Each time Lydia was rushed to the hospital, Christine had managed to make everything all better, descending like a Fury on her bosses.

The notion of Prometheus as an extreme performance artist is inspired, but I can't say the same for the part of this story that involves a dysfunctional marital relationship. It is never clear what hold Christine has over Prometheus or why he allows her to get away with abusing their daughter.

The Super Secret Origin of She-Man by Michael H. Payne

It isn't easy being She-Man. Even the other superheroes at Justice Central consider hir a freak. On the first anniversary of hir transformation, s/he is planning to drown hir sorrows in vodka when s/he happens on a chance mugging on the way back from the liquor store.

"As a matter of fact..." She-Man slowly took off hir hat, tossed hir head so they could see the blue cascade of hir hair in the glow of the streetlight. "I was looking for something to take my mind off my troubles." Just as deliberately s/he removed the overcoat, dropped it, took a stance that s/he knew would let them see all hir bulges: muscles, breasts...and otherwise.

Humorous and warm-hearted.

Les Lettres de Paston by Steven H Silver

Alternate history. An English agent in medieval France conspires to overthrow the present king of France and replace him with a pretender, if the pretender can meet the English king's price. As always in such cases, there are difficulties.

"We may be a triumvirate, but our goal is not to usurp the reins of government, merely to ensure that, whoever is king following this adventure, we are all positioned to make the most of the outcome," Paston said. "To go with our tripartite conspiracy, we have three kings who may wind up on the French throne. Naturally, I am partial to Stephen. I gain nothing if Robert retains his throne and I believe that Louis's gratitude will vanish once he wears the crown. Even if he does prove grateful, his twit of a son thinks he ought to rule by God's grace."

Students of history will readily recognize and appreciate the alteration in the course of history that led to this scenario. The story at hand, however, does not require any particular understanding of these past events to be enjoyed, and the author's discussion of the historical background is more likely to confuse than enlighten readers unfamiliar with the events in our own timeline. The situation facing Paston is one of power and advantage, and very little would be altered by changing the names of the dynasties. Some things remain much the same.

Jim Tuckerman's Angel by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Jim Tuckerman wanted to see angels more than he wanted anything else on God's green earth.

He couldn't easily explain why. When his friends or family would ask him what was so goddamned special about angels, he got tongue-tied and awkward, but would eventually, with the proper coaxing, manage a few fragmentary sentences about how glorious God's own messengers must be, and how wonderful it was that God sent them among ordinary folks.

Jim is a sort of Holy Fool, a Forrest Gumpish simpleton who says his prayers and sees the benevolent hand of God everywhere, even in the US Congress. And he sees more than that.

The conclusion is not meant to come as a surprise to readers, who will certainly recognize the name of Jim's angel companion when he does not. The only question is when Jim will catch on. I do have to wonder why he assumes he is bound for the bad place, as he doesn't seem to dwell on many sins. But it is rare to encounter a good character, and one who is played as straight as Jim Tuckerman.

Baen

Baen, Oct 08

Jim Baen's Universe, #15 October, 2008

Several of the stories in this issue are either serials or reprints that I have already reviewed, cutting down drastically on the number reviewed here. Some of the remaining short fiction offers some pretty good reading, however, for a net gain over the last few issues.

A Date with Patti Pleezmi by Chuck Rothman

It was a long time ago, when she was young and too trusting.

Reid was my first serious love—you know, the one who makes you feel all the crap they write songs about. One day, without my knowing, he recorded our lovemaking. Then he took my image, computer-enhanced my tits, and animated the result into a porno queen. Patti Pleezmi, he had called her.

Now she calls herself Tricia, runs a bar on Luna, and nobody dares call her by that old name. Until the day Reid shows up again, wanting to install interactive porno booths in her bar.

A light lesson in the good and bad of human nature, with a good measure of frontier justice.

The Rings of Ragnaran by J. Simon

"Why is the sky exploding?"

"Evil ravenous space lizards, sirs. Their entertainment programming appears to have the effect of igniting our atmosphere."

"Huh. Pretty. What about the purple stuff?"

"Missiles from evil ravenous space fungi, sirs. They've made no effort to communicate, just bombarded us with lethal spores. Tens of millions of Ragnaronians are now enraged super-zombies thirsty for nectar."

And more in this same vein. Some people may like this sort of ridiculous nonsense. Anything is possible.

The Mudlark by Pat Cadigan

The narrator's elderly mother has disappeared during their trip to London. She has been missing for days when the narrator discovers her mudlarking—picking out ancient trash from the muddy banks of the Thames. And she refuses to leave, refuses to have anything to do with her daughter.

She talked over me. "—I've been missing for twenty-five years." Those faded brown eyes had turned hard. "It wasn't until ten days ago that you finally noticed I was gone."

The police, the paramedics all refuse to help when the old woman appears to be competent. But the daughter refuses to give up.

Painfully compelling story of a woman slowly unraveling, unable to accept the obvious truth that her mother knows exactly what she is doing, that her mother wants nothing more to do with her, that her mother has found another path where her daughter can not follow.

RECOMMENDED

Soul Survivor by Matthew Joseph Harrington

Kevin Ridler is a survivor of extreme trauma, a war veteran, and a man of great ingenuity. When he decides to rehab an old, haunted estate, his methods of keeping the news parasites off his property are highly effective, if drastic.

The first six gas grenades went up the draw to the cabin. They were canisters of EP gas, a "humane" weapon the UN had used in Katanga before America had begun cleaning up their usual mess. EP stood for Extreme Peristalsis. (In the Army they'd been known as rocket igniters. Everything from the back of your throat on down ended up in your pants, quite soon.)

Kevin soon comes to be on very good terms with the non-malevolent resident ghosts of the estate, but with wealth and success, he begins to miss the challenge. Kevin thrives on challenge.

Highly inventive entertainment, a fun read for those who don't mind a certain level of grue in their stories. Kevin's adventures and exploits are fascinating, his methods creative and extreme. The author also accomplishes the unusual feat of mixing up libertarian philosophy into his story without turning it into a dull and didactic screed.

Homo Sylvanus by Amber D. Sistler

DNA manipulation is commonplace but controlled by a church that is fundamentally opposed to it. A ship is carrying colonists to a new settlement where no manipulation will be allowed. Onboard is captain's husband, a renowned biologist whose own genes reject the longevity treatment; he is afraid that their daughter Tamsyn may inherit the defect, and he allows a church official to conduct an illegal DNA manipulation on her.

The author has attempted to cram so much information into this piece that there is little room left for story, and certainly not character development. It is also loaded with inconsistencies and contradictions. In a society where even children practice DNA splicing, an expert in DNA is ignorant of what secrets his own daughter's genes contain, even when he knows she might have inherited a serious defect. While they are spending the trip in stasis, Ewan's parents are at the same time obsessively monitoring his computer use. Although practically immortal, the captain spends most of her existence in stasis, missing her only daughter's entire childhood. Too much stuff here just doesn't make any sense.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, October, 2008

SH continues to be more SFnal, as only one of this month's stories has an overtly fantastic setting.

Swan Song by Joanne Merriam

A fantasy epidemic. Afflicted victims dream of an airplane ride, seeing swans flying alongside the aircraft. Or perhaps it is angels—something white. Not long afterward, they turn pale and die, willingly, content. The narrator notices the early signs of the epidemic because her job is sorting claims for Medicare. Then her lover buys her white calla lilies because they remind him of a dream.

"A dream?" I set the lilies on the kitchen table in front of the window. I slide the ribbon off of them, and they fall a little to rest against the porcelain sides of the vase. In the slanting evening light, their curled tops go pink with embarrassment.

The author hints briefly about a possible cause, but there is otherwise little activity here, only the disease taking its course. What makes the work worth reading is the author's prose, clear and descriptive, with a bit of refreshing tartness.

The Lion and the Mouse by Kaolin Imago Fire

A fable updated to the future. Lion is some sort of warbot, relegated to the scrapyard, where humans sometimes come hunting for fun. Mouse is . . . not a selection device, but something else that is not quite clear; Lion calls it "little master." Together they take on the human hunters.

The role-reversal of the original fable is lost here, as Mouse is never prey for Lion; they are natural allies, with no animosity to be overcome by gratitude. In fact, as we do not know exactly what Mouse is, the tale loses much of its point. Several phrases are unclear or awkward: "He fed directions to Lion, instructing Lion of levers and buttons."

Just After Midnight by Christie Skipper Ritchotte

A dystopian world where plagues have afflicted much of the population. Elsie's brother Joey has been rendered simpleminded by one such disease, and she sometimes thinks he might be happier not understanding the truth.

A short-short in which the purpose is to reveal at the end What Happened.

Nine Sundays in a Row by Kris Dikeman

A Deal With the Devil story. Here, the aspirant at the crossroads is a girl, and what she wants to master is the deck of cards, not the banjo. The devil keeps his collection of souls in mason jars in an old cupboard, where "there's always room for one more." And the narrator is the devil's dog, whose job is to keep watch over the girl for those nine Sunday nights she spends at the crossroads, waiting.

This one shows that you can always make the oldest tale fresh by telling it from a different point of view. The dog's voice is convincingly suited to the setting, and his concerns are convincingly doglike.

The Dark Man, he loves Red Rooster, and I'm not allowed to chase him, or bullyrag him, or nothing.

RECOMMENDED

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, October 2008

Some ambitious fiction here this month. Some of it successful.

Yell Alley by Nicole Kornher-Stace

It is a hotel room, a motel room, an inner-city squat, a cot in a hostel where the water won't run, a hunter's platform in a pinewood, a forsaken tree house, a root-cellar beneath a ruined country cottage, a hut perched on one hopping chicken foot, a boathouse in a campground, a sheet-tent in a graveyard, a park bench, a phone booth, a tool shed in suburbia, a window seat on a cross-country bus, an aisle seat on a midnight train, the backseat of a station wagon scrapped and dissolving in a junkyard; a lean-to, a storefront, an entryway, a box.

In short, the characters move around a lot. Wherever Anna and Eve go, Anna puts out the welcome mat that says YELL ALLEY. Anna has a thing about palindromes. Anna gave herself and Eve their palindromic names. Anna claims to be on a quest to find the real Yell Alley, or for it to find her. She believes that palindromes are the key, making two halves into a whole. But Eve has moments of doubt.

This piece is fantastic in the sense that a dream is, and dreams feature prominently in the narrative. As in a dream, there is no way to know what is real and what is not, but I come down on the side of not. Primarily, it seems to be a situation that allows the author the freedom to indulge in runs of prose like the above.

The Banyan Tree by Jeannette Westwood

At the beginning of things, there were wishes living near the roots of the banyan tree, until one day a goblin began to capture them. The goblin kept the wishes hidden in bottles inside the roots of the tree, until the day another goblin saw them and lusted for them.

The goblins never used the wishes. The bottles grew dusty, and the wishes grew restless in their glass confines. The banyan tree became used to the goblins, used to their hands against its roots, used to the shaping and the bending and the twisting.

The goblins stayed, year after decade after century. The possibility was enough, staring at the wishes day after day was enough, and the goblins killed each other for it. The banyan tree learned about the taste of blood.

Finally Lata, a human, kills the goblin and takes possession of the wishes, but when she takes one of them home with her, her sister happens to see it.

This is a Moral Tale, akin to Be Careful What You Wish For. The wishes are much like Tolkien's Ring, which has its origins in Fafnir's accursed horde of dwarvish gold, enthralling whoever glimpses it with a lust for possession—not to use the wishes, but to hoard them. Westwood spins a bloody tale in a mythic tone.

A Spell for Twelve Brothers by Erzebet Yellowboy

A retelling of The Twelve Brothers from the point of view of a witch who attempts to save their sister.

I flew as high as I could and then I saw them. I'd thought that when she plucked those flowers she'd pulled my spell as well, that fragile bit of love I'd planted in twelve hearts. But now I saw it; my spell had not faded with their petals as I feared it would. Instead it grew within their hearts for all those seven years and now they'd come in answer to their sister's silence. Into that void they flew as the flames approached her legs until they landed on the solid earth again. Seven years had passed, the spell was done.

There is little alteration here from the original fairytale, no really interesting twist in the story or new insight.

The Plagiarist by Alex Rose

The narrator is a literary sort of fellow who lives in an over-written world, whose life seems to be so empty that the stories he reads seep in to fill it. On the subway, he picks up a cheap pulp paperback crime novel that someone has left on the seat, and it absorbs him into its world, even while the analytical part of his mind continues to protest the clumsiness of the prose.

But through these near-miss descriptions emerges a kind of gamy resin between the words. Somehow this narrator, this first person, broad-shouldered and stubble-cheeked, a natural storyteller and unnatural writer, seems actually to exist here in the present. He is standing behind you, breathing warm wafts of gin-breath over your shoulder.

An ambiguous fantasy. We are not sure whether the book is actually magical—the very puzzle that the book describes—or the narrator is overly imaginative. The author effaces the narrator not only by the use of the second person, but by titling the mysterious mystery "The Mystery of Mister I." A recursive story about recursive stories, circling a void.

RECOMMENDED

(Although I must note that the copyeditor, that nominal entity, failed to notice the error in the Nabokov epigraph.)

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld #25

Clarkesworld, #25 October, 2008

Both offerings this month are uncharacteristically conventional, even prosaic. I hope the editors get over it.

Gift of the Kites by Jim C. Hines

Jesse's family is a happy one—he regards his Japanese step-father Kentaro as his real father; they fly kites together in the Japanese tradition. But when his mother dies after an attack by a supernatural black Buka kite, Jesse's biological father Sam takes custody of him. Jesse tries desperately to remain in contact with Kentaro, despite all that Sam does to forbid it. Then Jesse learns that Kentaro is hospitalized with terminal cancer.

The kite neep here is of some interest, but unfortunately, Sam is the clichéd Mean Parent and the plot follows the formula. Disappointing.

Passwords by John A McDermott

The security program at Max's office keeps bugging him to change his password. Again. Max doesn't want to do it.

He was sick of new codes. He'd worked for Bender Incorporated for seven years. A new password every four months (that's three a year, folks) and the total tally, so far: twenty. The one he refused would have made twenty-one. 21: the year of independence, the year of maturation, the password to full citizenship.

Max thinks he might not even mind his email being blocked. All it brings him is stress—from suppliers late with a shipment, from his boss demanding to know where the shipment is, from his wife insisting that he rush home to impregnate her. But the security program isn't about to take No for an answer.

A fairly light-hearted, amusing glimpse at the eternal conflict between man and the computer that makes his life easier—as long as he follows instructions.

Lone Star Stories

Lone Star Stories, #29, October, 2008

The Duncan story is the star of this issue.

The Toymaker's Grief by Hal Duncan

"Once far ago . . . and long away" a bereaved toymaker falls into an infinite regress of grief as he works to complete the dollhouse he had meant for his daughter.

This is not the sort of story meant to surprise the reader at the end. We see what is happening, we feel the toymaker's sadness, we admire the prosecraft with which the author constructs this short and simple tale.

RECOMMENDED

This is How We Remember by Jamie Lee Moyer

A young anthropologist, grieving the recent death of her husband, comes to a remote tribe to record their traditional stories. The tribe lets her share in their own memories as if she were one of them. This, of course, helps her heal from her own bad memories.

Anoi-mah led us all, swift as memory taking flight. She lifted her feet and skirts high and sang a song without words. Her voice wove a pattern of its own around the drumbeats, notes shining like moonflowers under the trees. Other women echoed her, blending voices like raindrops on the roof or wind sighing through the trees into the melody. Low and sweet, the song of the Myri took shape under the full moon, wrapping me in rhythm until there was nothing but the dance.

The author's prose is fine, but the story is predictable, unoriginal and sentimental.

Needle and Thread by Anne Leckie and Rachel Swirsky

The queen wants Leita to sew a dress to make her daughter beautiful enough to captivate a prince. A tall order, in the case of this princess, yet Leita is more than an ordinary dressmaker—but witchcraft is forbidden in the kingdom.

The sidhe had taught her embroidery magic, though they exacted their price. They'd found her as a young mother, sitting among the crocuses outside her cottage as she sewed a new spring gown, her stitches eager and unpracticed. Leita's baby girl lay in a basket at her feet, but she forgot her daughter amid fey promises of beauty and magic. "Come a little way with us," they whispered. "We'll show you wonders."

Several different fairy tales and legends are combined in this one, with fairly original results. There are actually two new tales here—Leita's and Aina's, which is given shorter shrift.

Zahir

Zahir #17

Zahir, #17, Fall/Winter, 2008

A number of the offerings in this issue seem to have a rather didactic tone, with the characters determined to make sure we have grasped the moral, where a more subtle touch would be appreciated.

Pendulum by Julie Stielstra

In the Pantheon in Paris, LeVieux the night watchman keeps the Earth rotating by making sure Foucault's Pendulum remains in motion. He also hosts a small salon for the ghosts of the great Frenchmen entombed in the Pantheon, who are drawn from its cold majesty into the warmth of his office.

Hugo shrugged. "I don't know. There was this slow pulse, a sort of great sweeping heartbeat, and I just woke up. And found myself in the basement of this dreadful place. I always hated this damn building . . . so pretentious, like an enormous stone sponge cake."

A bit lecturey, but a strong portrait of LeVieux as a man who is far more important than he knows.

RECOMMENDED

Turning Point by Karin Gastreich

Grad students find a fairy in one of their insect capture traps. Their supervisor advises them to preserve him in alcohol, keeping in mind that in such cases it is important not to risk the chance of tenure.

Ruth does not insist. She would not risk her reputation by reporting a fairy, though I suspect she might enjoy seeing me crash and burn trying.

This brief encounter with the magical, weighed against the mundane, has a magical charm of its own.

Written in Stone by Julie Cox

An old fairytale lives on into the modern world, even while the traces of the old world will soon disappear. "Whatever monstrous thing she had been, she had been a part of the Other world, like him, and he mourned her."

While the prose of this very short piece is evocative, I can not sympathize with the viewpoint character, who is taking sides against all that he is, for no good reason at all. The Revelation at the conclusion will probably not come as a surprise.

Of Fire and Time by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, two young men are given the mission to preserve the most sacred poems of their people. Alvaro de Navarres mistakenly believes that this book holds the secret of lost gold, and his greed proves stronger than death as he pursues it through the centuries.

This piece has all the elements for a fascinating tale, in particular the skull that speaks, but somehow it fails to convince. Alvaro seems too unexceptional a character to be able to simply will himself into immortality. Centuries are given short shrift, characters are not given time to come to life, and in the end the tale becomes little more than its Moral.

Dennis by Keith Proctor

A man and a woman, and the woman's son Dennis, who was born with the head of a fly and seems to share a fly's moral standards. The man and the woman attempt to use each other; the presence of Dennis is not always convenient. Dennis does not consider the man's presence convenient, either.

The man is woken up by a small hand tapping his shoulder. He rolls over. It's Dennis, who coughs up acid onto the man's face. The man jumps out of bed screaming. His face is peeling off in long globby drops. Dennis raises his fists in triumph and lets out a vicious hysterical laugh.

A weird and surreal look at dysfunctional step-families.

Pond Scene by Eilis O'Neal

The narrator encounters a man who was changed into a frog by a witch, who is also a heron. Now he is a man again, but he is obsessed by concern for the tadpoles he fathered. In a parallel development, the narrator's mother is deteriorating with Alzheimer's, and she is forced to put her into a care facility.

Parents, they're supposed to take care of their children, not the other way around. It upends things, make the world wrong somehow.

This is another piece where the author sets up her point too explicitly, not trusting the reader to grasp the symbolism.

Love Bites by Mithran Somasundrum

Alex is a sort of idle bore who spends his days observing the world and telling us at great length about his telling us. What he has to tell concerns an unpleasant acquaintance, Jameson, who has been having an affair with a vampire. Jameson knows that the vampire is slowly killing him, but he can not break off the relationship; it is the only true thing he has.

It's not just sex, Al, it's the quiet moments afterwards. I'll talk and she'll listen. And maybe she'll drink a bit. And we're together.

Alex believes he is exposing Jameson's defective character, but in fact he is revealing his own, for he is a greater creature of self-deception, pretending that his existence has value to the world in which he does not participate. Jameson, in the end, found a sort of love; Alex never will. But the problem with a boring narrator is that he renders the story itself boring, until we wonder, why should we care?

Zero Day: Roswell by Richard Thieme

Another tedious narrator telling us what he is telling us. This one, dying of cancer, is making a Revelation. He has been an agent of the Secret Masters who manipulate the great mass of the population, concealing the fact that the important technological developments of recent decades, culminating in the Internet, have been derived from alien technology.

What you thought you had lived was seen in a parallax view. It makes you dizzy to realize this, I know, so you recoil into a saner, more comfortable place. It is going to take energy for you to listen to what I am saying.

In fact, what the narrator actually has to say could be summed up in a paragraph, and the longer he pleads with us, "please listen," the more inclined we are to stop our ears and walk away—not out of dizziness, but boredom with the way the author is padding out the story. Unlike the case of the Somasundrum story above, there seems to be no other point to it.


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.

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Nov 4, 07:56 by IROSF
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