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February, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, February 2009

January was a very bad month indeed for short genre fiction, as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction announced that it was moving to a bimonthly publishing schedule and Realms of Fantasy announced that it was shutting down entirely after the April issue, now at the printers as I write this introduction. The annual reprint volume Year's Best Fantasy and Horror was also terminated. Wheatland Press has announced a year of hiatus. Rumors of yet more bad news to come are floating through the aether.

Cherish your favorite printzines while they still exist, for the Angel of Death stalks the field.


Asimov's, Mar, 2009

Asimov's, March 2009

A wide variety of settings makes for interest in this issue.

Act One by Nancy Kress

In defiance of the laws against human genetic modification, an underground "terrorist" group is determined to improve the species, whether it wants improvement or not. The improvements might be considered benign, as they produce heightened empathy and nurturing instinct, but the Law of Unintended Consequences is not so easily evaded.

An aging actress named Jane Snow wants to do a film exploring a future where such genemods have prevailed.

Some of the interviewers and avatars needled her, but she stuck to the studio line: This is a movie about people, not polemics. Future Perfect is not really about genetic engineering. It will be an honest examination of eternal verities, of our shared frailty and astonishing shared strength, of what makes us human, of blah blah blah, that just happens to use Arlen's Syndrome as a vehicle. The script was nearly finished and it would be complex and realistic and blah blah blah.

To prepare for the role, Jane contacts members of the underground group for an interview, which at first seems harmless. Only later does she discover that they have infected her and her manager, Barry Tenler, with the illicit genemod. Barry, the narrator, is an achondroplastic dwarf who once attempted to genemod his unborn son so that he would share his dwarfism; the procedure had unintended consequences and caused his estrangement from his wife and son. Barry is now bitter, crippled, and suffering from unrequited love for Jane. The cast also includes twin girls whose genemod abilities make them almost superhuman—in some respects—but with sharply different personalities.

Kress has assembled a volatile mix of characters and circumstances in order to play out some of the possible variations in the balance between nature and nurture. The story does not come down with a simplistic answer to the ethical questions of genetic modification; benefits and drawbacks are both possible, but unintended consequences are certain. Kress is clearly saying that these processes will never be wholly deterministic; free will and individual differences will always be as important as chromosomes in influencing human behavior.


The Long, Cold Goodbye by Holly Phillips

Alternate history fantasy, or some combination thereof. The setting appears to be the fin of the last century in some world parallel to our own, with gaslights beginning to give way to electricity and silver airships ferrying passengers. The arctic has long been settled, with the indigenous people either forgotten or assimilated, but some of them still remain: Berd, Sele, and a few cousins. Now the ice is coming, and it seems that the indigenes may have had something to do with this. Most of the people have fled south, though a few remain to pass their last days in bacchanal before they freeze to death. Berd wants to leave, but first she has to find her love, Sele, and he is not making himself easily found. As she searches for him, she is haunted by doubts and by the frozen presence of their cousins, walking motionlessly onto the ice.

The story, as it follows Berd through the frozen city where it is hard to tell reality from hallucinatory visions, has less to do with a plot and more to do with its prose, with the imagery it evokes.

It was so quiet she could hear the groan of tide-locked ice floes, the tick and ping of the iron railing threatening to shatter in the cold. She looked over, careful not to touch the metal even with her sleeve, and saw the shape the suicide made against the ice. No longer a cross: an asterisk bent to angles on the frozen waves and ice-sheeted rocks.

Of which much of it is quite nice, as above, though there will be some disagreement among readers as to when it might go a tad bit too far.

Getting Real by Harry Turtledove

China calls in the debts of the bankrupt and deteriorating US, taking over some of its territory and working to spread addiction to virtual reality chips called Real, which is a lot more appealing than reality, about which a large cast of characters on both sides bitches endlessly. This one is a prophetic dystopian vision of times soon to come, heavy with ironic references to times past, when imperialistic western nations invaded China with their opium ships. Things come around.

Intelligence by R. Neube

Aaron is a chronic loser who somehow gets a job as a "chatterer" talking with the AI called Bob. The idea is to advance its social development. But Bob is prone to conspiracy theories, as well as highly persuasive—a bad combination.

"Do you really think our project's initial programmers were carpooling by accident? That their fatal wreck was an accident? The government knew how easy it was for them to hide backdoors among the millions of lines of code in this project. The only way to insure they would never use the backdoors was to kill them."

Humorous illustration of the proposition that intelligence is not the same as wisdom.

Slow Stampede by Sara Genge

Raj is a bandit, young, ruthless and ambitious to be the next Chief. His village makes its living by raiding the caravans of Swamp Elephants that travel through the Swamp where they live.

From the distance, they looked like Jesus-bugs skimming the mud, but Raj knew that they stood taller than the sequoias that anchored their roots hundreds of yards under the surface. The swampiphant's legs pierced the upper layers of silt, finding purchase further down as the mud served to stabilize their tremendous height.

But the hungry Merfolk also live in the Swamp, and must be reckoned with.

Colorful and imaginative worldbuilding makes this one entertaining.


Whatness by Benjamin Corwell

Mistakes were made. Someone accidentally deleted the universe, and only two consciousnesses could be retrieved—the one calling itself Jim and the one Jim calls his dog, Boo. The narrator wishes to make amends by creating a mockup universe for them to dwell in, but it's hard to figure out just what kind of universe Jim would want.

Humorous short-short.


F&SF, Mar, 2009

F&SF, March 2009

The last monthly issue of this zine, as the publisher has announced it will be going onto a bimonthly schedule to save postal costs. So every issue from now on will presumably be a double one.

This month offers a smaller number of longer stories. This fiction is for the most part ambitious and engaging, yet I kept tripping over logic bumps.

The Curandero and the Swede by Daniel Abraham

Nested stories. The narrator is bringing his fiancée down south to meet the family, and they are nervous about the outcome. While Abby is cloistered with the women, the narrator is cornered on the front porch by Uncle Dab, who proceeds to relate a lengthy story with multiple stories embedded in it, all of them involving people who needed some sort of cure for some sort of supernatural affliction.

"You see what the curandero did, don't you? He couldn't bring back King, but he could change what it was to the Swede. Could trade out sorrow for rage. Black folks in America, even ones like the Swede, they got a particular kind of wound. Indians like that Sahkyo girl? They got one too. Hell, maybe we all do, but not like them. And they can't heal it any more than we can. All anyone can do is change what the wound means. That's what folks like the curandero and the queer can do. They can change what stories mean. That's why they've got power. You understand what I'm saying to you? You understand why I'm telling you this?"

Uncle Dab's complex story about wounds and healing is told in a compelling voice, and it is such fascinating stuff that the reader may suspend the question and just enjoy the storyness of the story. But then Uncle Dab himself asks the question, insisting that his tale is meant as a lesson to the narrator, who has no story to tell about himself and Abby—who have, as far as we know, no wounds to speak of. Gotta say, Uncle Dab, no, I don't, not really.

The Unstrung Zither by Yoon Ha Lee

Seeing the title of this piece, a reader might at first think of the late Edward Gorey's "Unstrung Harp," but this would be thinking in the wrong direction. The unstrung zither here is a Zen-like metaphor for the null dimension, the element of space—and probably other nullish things as well.

The general said, "In music, the ideal is a silent song upon an unstrung zither. Is this not so?"

Ling Yun drew the characters in her mind: wuxian meant "five," qin meant "zither." But the wu of "five," in the third tone, brought to mind the wu of "nothing" or "emptiness," which was in the first tone. The unstrung zither, favored instrument of the sages. The ancients had preferred subtlety and restraint in all things; the unstrung zither took this to the natural conclusion. Ling Yun had applied herself to her lessons with the same patient dedication that she did all things musical, but the unstrung zither had vexed her.

The plot: The Phoenix empire is at war, attempting to conquer the rebellious ashworlds, whose warcraft are in the form of mechanical-yet-more-than-that dragons. A group of adolescent dragon pilots on a mission to assassinate the Phoenix General has been captured by the empire, but their dragons have escaped and disappeared. Ling Yun has been summoned by the general to compose music reflecting the five pilots, which will, the general assures her, reveal the location of the hidden dragons and allow him to win the game of wei qui [Go] that he is playing with them, and thus the war. But the assassin/pilots, even in prison, may be a step ahead of him.

This enigmatic work is a puzzle. The puzzle is a mathematical one, involving the number of the elements and thus the dimensions, and so it is appropriate that Ling Yun solves it, as music is the heart of mathematics. It is an intriguing and appealing enigma for those readers who can accept its assumptions on faith, at the point where it all begins to seem like magic, and of course numerology is an aspect of magic. For those whose reading tends to be more literal, however, there is a whole lot here that raises obstacles of improbability. The notion, to take one example, that a musician could compose a work reflecting the personalities of five individuals she does not at all know, and who do not really seem to be children, although she thinks of them as such. Or that a veteran warrior could be so easily overcome by an untrained scholar. And to say there was not one of her but six – is back to the magic, or in more SFnal terms, handwavium. This is a story that I want to like more than I can, being too much on the side of the literal.

Quickstone by Marc Laidlaw

More adventures of Goren, the bard with the gargoyle hand. In this episode, Goren encounters the gargoyle whose hand he was cursed to carry, who has Goren's own hand of flesh in place of his stone one. This makes a bond between them when they descend into the deep caverns where the gargoyles carve themselves out of the living stone.

The first sight that stopped him utterly was a black stone arm, carved free almost to the shoulder, beyond that continuing up into the ripples of a muscular neck and the delicate curve of a long-lobed ear. The ear twitched slightly at his approach, listening; but that was less bothersome than the frantic groping of the arm, which patted and clenched at the air, struck futilely against the wall with a soft thunking sound, and seemed to be reaching, desperately reaching.

This piece is mostly a travelogue through scenes of wonder, as we are led by our guide through gargoyleland, which is full of Neat Fantasy Stuff. Goren himself, while the story is told from his point of view, is mostly just along for the ride; the real protagonist is his stone counterpart, Spar, who it seems will be his future companion.

Shadow-Below by Robert Reed

The continuation of a very long-running serial. A dwindling tribe of Lakota descendants has survived underground into a future where much of North America is being returned to wilderness. A boy named Raven was growing up to become the tribe's next shaman when he was forced out. Now he is living with his uncle, Shadow-Below, who has likewise left the tribe and is making a living as a wilderness survival guide. This installment is Shadow's story, as he takes a small group of billionaires on a canoe trip through the territory where he grew up. But there are ordinary billionaires and there are mega-billionaires, who are planning to change the world on a different scale than most people can comprehend. Although the reader may not realize the precise nature of this threat, Shadow does.

Reed does a particularly good job integrating the extensive backstory into the ongoing events, and a particularly good job filling in the character of Shadow, who has not appeared at great length before in the ongoing story. Indeed, this seems to be the primary purpose of this episode, which in terms of plot is a place-holder, standing between past events and a future full of perils and portents. It is clear that Shadow and Raven will play important roles in times to come. So much portends, but in terms of actual events, excessive story space is given over to a flirtation with Shadow carried on by a billionaire's wife unfortunately named Ginger.

That Hell-Bound Train by Robert Bloch

This time, editor Van Gelder has picked one of the true old classics for the month's classic reprint. As with last month, it comes with an introduction by the then-editor who selected the story for publication in the zine, the incomparable William Tenn.

The Hell-Bound train is of course a Deal With The Devil story and also a Tall Tale as well as a Train Story. Bloch's narrative voice is one of its primary charms.

The clouds were thick overhead, and the field mists rolled like a cold fog in a November midnight. Even so, Martin should have been able to see the headlight as the train rushed on. But there was only the whistle, screaming out of the black throat of the night. Martin could recognize the equipment of just about any locomotive ever built, but he'd never heard a whistle that sounded like this one. It wasn't signaling; it was screaming like a lost soul.

In the unlikely event that any reader is unfamiliar with this one, it is of course



Analog, Mar, 2009

Analog, March 2009

The conclusion of the Sawyer serial leaves not much room for shorter fiction, which seems to deal mostly with communication and its failures.

Cavernauts by David Bartell

Rick, Bart and Colleen have always been a team on Callisto. They call themselves cavernauts; their job is to guide the geologists around the Callistan caverns. Rick and Bart had been away from the moon on leave when Colleen called requesting their help, so of course they came back right away, even though Rick's wife is having a baby at that very moment. But upon arrival, Rick learns that all activities on Callisto have been shut down and that Colleen has gone down into the caverns and not returned. Of course Rick and Bart rush down to rescue her, which gives us a rousing adventure tale about space caving, full of agreeable skiffy neep and conflicts between Rick and Bart, who find themselves no longer the same team without Colleen.

A beep and a flash of my readout stopped my feet and jump-started my heart. "Telemetry?"

All I got was the alert, not the data.

"I read it!" Bart said. "It's a suit transponder!"


"Can't tell. It's dropping packets. But it's moving! Colleen, is that you?"

No answer.

"I've got a fix." Bart moved around me.

"Lead the way," I said, though he had already started.

But there is more going on. Colleen subscribes to the theory that shards of a valuable kind of diamond from Jupiter's core had broken off and fallen onto Callisto, where they might be found. Her last trip into the caverns has obviously been in search of these diamonds. But Bart is aware that she was up to something more, something that now poses a deadly danger to Rick and himself, and he does not mention this to Rick. In fact, it seems that a whole lot of other people knew about her secret project, except for Rick.

So I'm trying to figure out what bugs me so much about all this. The secret ought to make the story more interesting, upping the danger level, the tension, and the conflict between Rick and Brad. And so it does. I just can't help thinking that Rick ought to be a lot more pissed-off than he seems to be, that he ought to be cursing that bastard Brad every step of the way through the last half-dozen pages. Or maybe that's just what I would be doing, and Rick has a less vengeful nature, being more prone to Concluding Epiphanies. But that Brad is a real bastard. Somebody ought to kick his ass.


Madman's Bargain by Richard Foss

A dialogue on the nature of artificial intelligence. The cybers are going insane, catatonic. No one understands how to cure them, although some humans have attempted misguided cures, which the cyber named Allis considers worse than the problem. The narrator discusses these issues with Allis.

You cannot make us perfect by changing the way we communicate. It would make us more like you, but we would have your weaknesses without your strengths. We are inferior to you in calculation and always will be, but we are more adaptable, because we need to be. The instincts that kept us alive in the savannas ten million years ago are still in use, and will be needed as long as humans are humans.

Sort of a non-story story, although it provides a number of intriguing things to think about - more about the nature of humans than the nature of AIs, whom we cannot really know at all, since they do not, after all, exist. But that's why they call this speculative fiction.

After the First Death by Jerry Craven

Trying to get to know the Clicks, on their own planet. Initial attempts are not going well. Claybourne has been sent to find out what happened to the initial explorers, and he discovers that they have turned into alien parrots and trees. Also, that he is beginning to change into a tree. The Clicks claim that this is the first step to immortality, but Claybourne has doubts. He is either right, or he is wrong.

This one seems to offer a couple of interesting questions, but they don't really go anywhere, only into pseudo-mysticism and an ambiguous ending.

Lifespeed by Carl Frederick

Robert is a chemist whose ambition is to make the Olympic fencing team. One of his opponents is unnaturally fast, and Robert, finding the other man's used towel in his own bag, has an analysis done that reveals genetic anomalies. The other man's lifespeed is naturally much faster than normal. But the variant neurotransmitters can be artificially duplicated. After testing them on rats, Robert injects the artificial neurotransmitters into himself. The effects are mixed and leave him with an ethical problem.

I can't help thinking that all of this chemistry lab stuff happened awfully fast. The rest of the story, also, went by rather rapidly. There are some good ideas here, and they might have been developed into a story at greater length and depth, but what we have here is more of a sketch. I might also add that speeding up an individual's metabolism generally reduces its lifespan, rather than increasing it, as the story suggests. Tortoises live longer than hummingbirds.


Analog, Apr, 2009

Analog, April 2009

Glory be! No novel serial! All short fiction, although half of it is longer short fiction. The longer short fiction is set in various colonies in our solar system.

Gunfight on Farside by Adam-Troy Castro

Jessie, a junior auditor for the Lunar IRS, has made a discovery: a small group of old-timers living as hermits on Farside are not only permanently exempt from taxes, they are subsidized by the government for being hermits. When her bosses stonewall her, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, particularly because one of the elderly recluses is the legendary Malcolm Bell, survivor of the only gunfight in lunar history. Jessie tracks down the hermits and, apparently, learns nothing from them; she has left Bell for last. Her demeanor impresses the old fellow, and he reveals the secret secret to her, after a warning that she, too, will one day end up a hermit because of it.

Now this simple summary might suggest a story of only a few thousand words, instead of a novella. But of course there is a whole lot of other stuff going on, which leads me to consider the matter of how sometimes this other stuff contributes deeper layers of meaning to a story and sometimes it just pads it out. This, for example, is not the first of Castro's tales of lunar settlement, and references are made here to at least one earlier story in the same setting, which will undoubtedly deepen enjoyment of this tale for those familiar with the previous, but this prior familiarity is not at all necessary. This is a good kind of use of other stuff.

On the other hand. Everything in the first half of this narrative, beginning with the title, leads the reader to believe it is in some important way about the legendary gunfight between Bell and the madman Destry. And on this subject, the narrator has a great deal to say concerning legends and their relationship to historical truth, using the figure of Wyatt Earp as a model for Bell's transformation into legend. This is interesting and thought-provoking stuff; I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Action holos set in the early days of lunar settlement . . . made that pioneering time, when the Moon's entire population was comprised of Ph.D.s and engineers, look like the province of murderers and sociopaths, pursuing blood feuds and exchanging gunfire in the tiny little outposts those early pioneers had dug into the lunar rock. It was, we're told, a time of outlaws, a time of heroes, a time when only the quick reflexes of a few brave men maintained the fragile order that allowed Luna to become a fit home for millions. Like most of the stories told about Wyatt Earp, it's total bullshit. The truth is that those early engineers were all subjected to exhaustive psych testing before they left the Big Blue. There weren't any outlaws or crazies among them. If they presented any danger at all to the colleagues who worked alongside them, it was in the very real likelihood that they'd bore each other to death with conversations that had already been recycled past all reasonable usefulness. There was, in fact, only one actual gunfight in the entire first thirty years of lunar settlement. Only one.

The reader is clearly being led [misled] to believe that the Wyatt Earp-like Malcolm Bell is the crucial figure in the story, that the gunfight was a crucial event, and that Jessie has come to discover some hitherto unrevealed aspect of it. It is rather jarring to learn that the gunfight is actually incidental to the real secret, and that it is not so much Bell who is the crucial figure, but the man he fought, Destry. And that, as intrinsically interesting as the lengthy disquisition on the subject of Wyatt Earp may be, it is actually more of a distraction than anything else—in fact, a red herring.

Unfortunately, once Bell has decided to reveal the actual real secret to Jessie, he reveals it at great length and greater length, until I found myself getting quite impatient [shut up, old man, I get the idea already.] It's not that it's a stoopid secret, but neither is it a secret that is going to send any science fiction reader back on her heels, gasping in awe and wonder. It's a secret we've seen before, which does not, of course, preclude a perfectly good story being made from it.

But here's the thing: the red herring stuff about legends and history and gunfights and Wyatt Earp was a lot more interesting. That was the direction I wanted to see the story take, and the kind of secret I was looking forward to being revealed. And it's just a bit annoying to have to reach the conclusion, in the end, that it was all quite irrelevant to the story I ended up with.

Steak Tartare and the Cats of Gari Babakin by Mary Turzillo

The Martian colony of Gari Babakin is infected with toxoplasmosis, spread by the colony's beloved cat population. The corporation that owns the colony is concerned that the infection might spread to the rest of the planet, and it would also like to be able to profitably export the colony's exquisitely engineered foodstuffs, if they were not also infected. Corporation scientists have developed a virus intended to kill the toxoplasmosis parasite, but the colonists protest: they fear the consequences to their cats, and they rather like the effects in themselves.

Lucile . . . continued, "We prefer to think of Toxoplasma gondii as a kind of beneficial symbiont."

"That is just outrageous!" said Dr. Hilda Wriothesley. "We've monitored your communications. Analysis shows that your men are paranoid, poorly organized, and braindamaged, while your women are—well, they're—"

"Stylish and attractive to the opposite sex?" Lucile purred. Her gaze traveled over the gaudy, shapeless coveralls the two women wore.

The virus, alas, is effective, but the colonists believe that they have a cure.

Amusing, if more than a bit far-fetched. I suspect that, if I prodded, a few inconsistencies might be revealed, but this is not the sort of piece where making sense is a high priority.

Foe by Mark Rich

Jay Wirth is the newly-appointed Director of Efficiency in Dometown 26 on Mars, but he is not quite sure what his job entails, only that in the last thirty years it has been held by sixteen different people—most of whom have been fired. Jay begins to get the idea that the Face of Efficiency is never popular. And really, he would rather be a botanist. What, after all, is efficiency?

"The problem in answering that, I guess, is in figuring out what efficiency means," he said. "For engineers I figure it's clear-cut." "I'm not so sure about that, myself. Because look: mistakes aren't efficient. That said, though, sometimes I think an efficient system for people is one that lets them make mistakes," he said. "If you can't make mistakes, you don't learn. And what kind of efficiency is it, that won't let you learn?"

This is a humane story, and an idealistic one. Would that all social problems could be so easily solved as Jay finds them to be.

The Final Element by Eric James Stone

An obsessive collector has stolen the Soil Stradivarius, the finest violin in the world, and made an illicit nanofactory duplicate, intending to ransom it and keep the original for himself. The plot was foiled, but now Dennis Lombardo, troubleshooter for NanoFactions, has to determine which of the two violins is the copy, which must by law be destroyed. The problem is, by every test he can think of, the two violins are indistinguishable.

"How is that possible?"

"It shouldn't be." Dennis stepped over to the nanofactory and frowned at it. "Creating an unlicensed pattern is difficult enough, but eliminating the signature would require reprogramming the nanofactory, and that means our source code security has been compromised. The guy who stole your violin isn't a computer genius, by any chance?"

Clever detective story with SFnal flavor.

A Jug of Wine and Thou by Jerry Oltion

Young Michael, being a jerk, is trying to impress his girlfriend [with the goal of getting laid] when he runs his father's aircar into the face of a cliff. Now they have to hike out of the canyon back to civilization, and wilderness adventuring isn't exactly the strongest forte for either of them. But Michael does his guilty best.

Not really SF, despite the car of the future.

The Invasion by H.G. Strattman

I've been pretty pleased with the prose in recent issues of this zine, and that's because most of the stories lately haven't begun like this:

The president of the United States shivered, wondering if the next hour would bring salvation or destruction to the human race.

Hacking and slashing through the undergrowth of infodumpfery, we discover, if we manage to read that far, that scientists have detected alien transmissions from space, containing the blueprints for a tachyonic transceiver. This has now been built, and the time has come to switch it on. Or not. Debate ensues, the decision is made, but the message from space is distressingly familiar.

This one is theoretically humor, but the leaden quality of the prose crushes the life out of the joke.


Interzone #220

Interzone #220, February 2009

With all the recent dismal news about the publishing world, it is heartening to see that IZ is still in print and still attracting interesting authors, even if their stories sometimes dwell on dismal news.

Monetized by Jason Stoddard

Cybermarketing. Some time after the Big Dump [see today's financial section] the economy restructured itself around monetized propagation, which means in essence that everyone makes money advertising to everyone else. Mike Palmetto's mother was one of the inventors of monetized propagation, so Mike now spends his days spurning her money—except for some of it; his life as a rebel has its limits. His mother wants to get him involved in a scheme with a guy called the King of Brentwood, but Mike gets snooping around and discovers that the King is Up To No Good. Now the Feds are after his information.

The plot here is secondary to the setting. I'm not convinced by Stoddard's monetized economy, but it's a lively and fascinating world with more than a touch of satire.

The sky was canopied with aerostat movies, from big-dollar releases to pirate home-brew stuff, all fishing for eyeballs. Shops carrying AUTHENTIC HAND-MADE TODAY stuff never before propagated vied for customers with screens and displays and lightshows of their own. MakeMoMoola chanted revenue opportunities breathlessly until it decided there were too many offers to deliver via voice, and switched to a text scroll at the edge of my field of vision.


Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by Eugie Foster

A world of masks, where immortal individuals have no names or permanent identities, taking on new personas each day with every new mask. Even deaths are as temporary as the masks. The narrator is a consort of the Queen, but someone is attempting to unmask him.

This is a fascinating, baroque setting, sensual and cruel.

The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.

The tale is intriguing as long as it is mysterious, when everything is so strange that no questions really stand out in the reader's mind. Unfortunately, towards the end, the plot steps forward to reveal itself as predictable, and at last the author Explains All, leaving the reader attempting to fit the unmatched threads into the pattern and finding that they still don't quite fit.

After Everything Woke Up by Rudy Rucker

Newlyweds Jayjay and Thuy start to build their new home in the forest, which task would probably go faster if they didn't pause so often to explain to the reader how they can teleport and that every object and atom in the universe now has its own soul and identity.

"Those nice smooth rocks by the stream like us fine," said They. "Teep into them. See how eager they are to be in our foundations walls? They like the idea of being mortared together and of rising above the ground."

Somehow, I'm not really convinced.

This is apparently a sequel to Rucker's Postsingular, in which many wondrous strange things happen, resulting in the above state of affairs. As a story on its own foundation, it doesn't go much of anywhere.

Spy vs Spy by Neil Williamson

Short-short glimpse into a paranoid mind, driven insane by spending excessive time at social networking sites. The narrator is monitoring his enemy across the street, who is monitoring him, which the narrator is monitoring, and both plotting against the other.

The third window, where my webcounter stats are updating realtime, flashes red. I glance away from the street view and recognize his IP crawling systematically through my webpages. What's he looking for? What does he see there that makes him hate me so much?

I think I know some people online to whom this one applies.

Miles to Isengard by Leah Bobet

Dystopian SF. In a militarized America, a small group of underclass protesters steals a nuclear bomb from the factory in their hometown and drive cross-country in a rented semi to drop the bomb into the crater of a live volcano. On the way, they accidentally hit a fugitive child soldier and take him along. It's a hard trip, made harder because the bomb keeps taunting them, the voice of evil that they can't escape until they drop it into Mount Doom [St Helens?].

The story is the journey, and the parallels to Tolkien are obvious. The struggle is to keep going on and to fight back against the voice of the bomb, the Tempter.

The way we're going, it's thirty-five-hundred miles to the mountain, along the backroads, around the armed guards, taking dusty local highways almost all the way there. Almost two days straight of driving, so long as we never stop. We figured it'd take more like three, what with stopping to piss and change shifts, and stretch out so nobody's foot cramps on the gas.

The characters, however, are an ill-assorted group who never much differentiate themselves as individuals, outside of Sam, the narrator. The author never says which volcano is their destination, but if it is the most active, St Helens, I am not convinced that they could get a semi up the trail to the active vent. And the child soldier remains an enigma, seeming out of place. A world where there are checkpoints on the highways and bands of insurgents hiding in the national parks is not the same thing as a world where children are turned into orcs and sent into battle wired up to explode when they die. In a world like that, a factory making nukes doesn't seem like the worst evil.

Memory Dust by Gareth L. Powell

Once, Caesar found an alien creature on a dying world and turned it over to be tortured in the lab by human investigators. Ever since, he has felt guilty, so now he has stolen the creature back and plans to return it to its own world, to die if that is its fate.

This one feels tired and old. The elements are all too familiar. And it is hard these days to take seriously a science fiction scenario where the character jumps into his spaceship and takes off to cross the galaxy in less than a week.


Clarkesworld #28

Clarkesworld, January 2009

Two very different looks at space colonization.

Celadon by Desirina Boskovich

The narrator's mother was captain of the colonization ship when it discovered the planet she named Celadon, after the color of its vegetation. Then the colonists used nanites to kill all the native vegetation and life, to build an artificial world. To the narrator, she was a hero; to the universe, a xenocide. The narrator is determined to clear her mother's name, but she is also having visions of Celadon as it used to be/would have become if her mother had made a different choice; these may or may not be hallucinatory.

I took a sip, set the teacup down, and looked at the table. A soft layer of green moss crept across it. As I watched, moss tendrils advanced toward me, trembling like slick fingers. The moss rustled as it grew, swallowing the legs of chairs.

The window had become a stained mosaic of asparagus and emerald. A small white butterfly frolicked around me, then landed on the rim of my cup.

While the prose here offers many such delightful images, the narrator is unappealing and self-absorbed, fixated on the mother she childishly idealizes. She seems aware of the contradiction in which, in her imaginary visions, her mother is the center of the world she destroyed. Of course, as this is an ambiguous fantasy, it is possible that the visions are more than imaginary and thus it is unclear whether her mother's presence is some insidious revenge on the part of the native species, absorbing and coopting their destroyer, or merely sappy wishful thinking on the part of the narrator.

Teaching Bigfoot to Read by Geoffrey W. Cole

In contrast with the sappy idyllic vision of the previous story, this one is gritty and dismal to a fault. On a lunar colony where the authorities can cut off the water and would cut off the air if they could, the colonists lead lives of grim desperation.

Life on the moon sucks. Dad got home early from the air factory today and I wasn't done cleaning the dishes from breakfast so he broke my breakfast bowl over my head. Guess I'll have to eat out of his bowl tomorrow.

Life sucks in particular for Ace because his dad is a jerk who can't keep a job and spends his money on bootleg rum and skanks. Ace imagines what it would be like to have water falling free from the sky, and because he has no one else to discuss his problems with, he is sending a series of emails to Bigfoot, on Earth.

Ace's improbable choice of correspondent is refreshing, but there is no miraculous happy ending for him. I don't quite credit his father's reaction, however; redemption does not come so easily.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, January 2009

SH continues on its recent predominantly-SF course with some strong selections from both sides of the genre aisle.

Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew by A.C. Wise

Lucy was abandoned at sea as an infant but fortunately rescued by the nuns and taken to their drowned chapel of Our Lady of the Waters to be raised as one of them.

She polished the pearls in the eyes of the Drowned Virgin until they glowed with an eerie, beautiful light, and she kept algae from growing in the baptismal font. She tended the bright garden of anemones and kelp surrounding the chapel, and cared for the long, green-white bones of ships and unnamed sailors in the graveyard.

Then one day she hears the most beautiful song. It is a drowned man singing, and Lucy wants so badly to help him, but Mother Superior rebuffs her appeals; the dead are beyond their aid.

This is a wonderfully charming and imaginative conceit, and Lucy's discovery of a way to help the dead man is ingenious.


Greetings from Kampala by Angela Ambroz

We are on board the refugee ship Rahu Ketu with Ghada, a pilot who is traumatized after going through the Big Drop [this being a sort of wormhole].

Ghada watched the cruiser stretch, expand, and then snap back into nothing. Oh Jesus, she was thinking. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, holy Jesus, don't let me die! The probability of a successful Drop here was a sickeningly low forty-two percent. That was fifty-eight percent death, forty-two percent life. The probability of psychological trauma just from the sheer Dropness of Dropping, the unnatural wrongness of human beings bouncing around the universe, was very high. And in that moment, sitting on the edge, the fear was sweeping through Ghada's body in an acid wave from toes to intestines to neck to goosebumpy scalp.

Ghada is a newcomer on the crowded ship, filled with refugees from both New Peshawar and China, who seem to be at war. At her doctor's insistence, she tells him of her recent flashbacks, which serve the author as an excuse to detail Ghada's previous affair with the man who is now the ship's captain, although forty years older than she because of time dilation in the Drops. Upon which, the session is over.

According to the editorial blurb, this is part of an ongoing series set on this ship, in which, presumably, we can read character sketches of the various persons onboard. Which would be fine if we had any reason to care at all about these persons. But if we have no previous acquaintance with Ghada and no reason to suppose we will meet her again, it is hard to get up a care.

The Shangri-La Affair by Lavie Tidhar

Cyberwar. War, as always, is on in Asia, and the nameless protagonist is some kind of spook on a mission to seek out the bio-weapon called Shangri-La.

And so, this flight inland, and he felt like some old-time missionary travelling into the unknown, though he was not here to convert anyone, not even corrupt; mainly to prevent what his masters back home called "an unfortunate probability of immobility—" immobility being that year's big buzzword for "peace."

Very edgy and unsettling stuff, best read to the Ride of the Valkyries and evoking a cynical world of spooks and black ops as well as a skiffy side of robotic and cyborg warriors and designer bioweapons, as well as the obligatory sexy Asian girl.


Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, January 2009

An enigmatic month for this zine, with the fantastic elements being mostly aliteral—ambiguous, metaphorical or psychological. The editors have also reprinted Poe's classic "Ligeia."

Leningrad by D. Elizabeth Wasden

During the siege of Leningrad, the composer Shostakovich is encouraged by his bust of Beethoven as he works on the symphony that will become known as the Leningrad. Fascinating setting, but despite the interesting hallucinatory scene from the Third Movement, not even ambiguously a fantasy.

The Moon, a Roman Token by Darren Speegle

The narrator, a psychologist/therapist of some kind, has come to the ancient German city of Trier with his former patient, now lover. Heike once suffered from multiple personality disorder; she was possessed by the persona of a young man named Kanz, or Constantine, who took an interest in the narrator. Now Kanz has been exorcized, but here in the old city the narrator is being followed or haunted by the figure of a young man in a toga, or perhaps a god.

This one is highly enigmatic, also poetic. While there are some explicit passages of brutality and cruelty, the prose for the most part evokes haunting images while only hinting at their meaning.

Air: in whose caress the garment stirs, wine murmuring on her breast. Goddess that she is, draped over the balcony railing against the backdrop of the bridge and the river and the Roman moon laughing down on all.

The Gnomes are Coast Guards by Chantel Tattoli

The narrator reminisces about her childhood idyll on Sanibel Island, where her grandmother told stories about her lawn gnomes and flamingos. As an adult she carries these fantasies into her life, with appropriate modifications.

Nessa, my gnomes are coast guards. The lawn gnomes ride my flamingos down to the beach. In pointed red hats, they guard the procession of infant turtles, as they trickle to the ocean of melted sapphires. They block the seagulls' sorties, and check the ghost crabs.

This is not fantasy but metaphor with a metafictional tone, about the value of stories and telling them.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2009

In which we learn that this ezine's biweekly publishing schedule will sometimes mean three sets of stories in a given month.

Most of these tales have in common some historical or quasi-historical setting and they seem all but one to be written by women, which may mean something or not.

Snake in the Glass by P.E. Cunningham

In a country where a campaign has been waged to destroy the mages and conjurers, Therese has retreated to hide in obscurity, but one day a peddler offers her a crystal globe with the spirit of a snake trapped inside.

Of course she could feel it. Now that it was out of the pack the snake flailed against the glass like a thing alive. Like a soul fighting for survival. Abruptly it stopped and fixed her with a stare like molten emeralds. She could almost taste its desperation.

That night, a shapechanger comes looking for his spirit, but Therese had sent it away with the peddler. Philemon tells her that some conjurer has been stealing the spirits of the shapechangers. He and Therese set out together to recover his spirit and hopefully to solve the mystery.

The shapechanger spirits trapped in the globes are a kind of Neat Fantasy Idea, but at the end the villain violates the Rules For Evil Overlords by pausing the action to explain the details of his Evil Plot instead of promptly dispatching his enemy.

Sand-Skin Man by K.C. Shaw

Simon Waters has become a soldier in order to take revenge on the lord who killed his father. He has apparently followed his enemy to a distant land called Daomi [read Africa] where he is saved from fever by a local werelion, who wishes to drive away the invaders from his land. The werelion is wise and noble and pacifist [a lion?], while Waters is rash and foolish and vengeful. And how he thinks there is the slightest chance in hell that he can stop his countrymen from invading the land of Daomi, I cannot tell from this story.

The prose has a nice clarity:

Whatever had been in the drink, it did help. Within an hour my fever broke. I curled on my side, drenched with sweat, and stared into the fire. "Mbuna?"


"Thank you. You saved my life."

"Not yet," he said. "Tomorrow night, maybe. The next night, yes, I saved your life."

But the author seems to be suggesting something analogous to the rape of America by the Conquistadors being prevented without killing anyone simply by telling them that the local people would rather they didn't and it's not nice.

Beneath the Mask by Aliette de Bodard

A supernatural mystery. Acatl is a priest of the Dead in Tenochtitlan who is approached by his childhood love, Huchimitl, to dispel a curse from her household. In his youth, Acatl chose the priesthood over her, and she married a warrior out of spite. Her marriage was unhappy, her son is unsuccessful as a warrior, and she is now a bitter woman who may have murdered her husband and who will not tell Acatl why she hides her face behind a mask. Only the servants in her house are forthcoming, but from a servant's story Acatl discovers the reason for the curse, which leads him again to confront the gods.

It had been a long time since my days in calmecac, a long time since I had learnt the hymns for every one of our gods and goddesses. I searched through my faltering memories, and finally said,
"I will offer You sheathes of corn taken from the Divine Fields
Lady of the Emerald
Ears of maize, freshly cut, green and tender
I will anoint You with new plumes, new chalks
The hearts of two deer
The blood of eagles—"

This tale is part of a series featuring Acatl in this Aztec setting with certain ahistorical inventions. The author depicts her society in great detail and from the point of view of an insider, avoiding the common revulsion often seen from contemporary authors confronting the bloodthirsty ways of the Aztec. She does, indeed, sometimes come too close to the line where research threatens to overwhelm story. Huchimitl comes across as a disagreeable character who doesn't deserve Acatl's sacrifice, but then, the ways of the heart are inexplicable.

Winterblood by Megan Arkenberg

Erotica. Leonide is the last daughter of the Sang d'Hiver family, of which the legend says:

"That the Lord of Winter himself comes on Midwinter of the eldest daughter's twentieth year, to drink her blood and turn her soul into a buttercup?"

"I heard it was a white rose."

So at the Midwinter masked ball, Leonide, having seduced the rest of the ballroom, turns to the mysterious young man in the costume of the Lord of Winter, with a white rose in his pocket. She is duly abducted and carried off to his castle, at which the reader might conclude that it is just what she deserves, and good riddance.

The author makes it clear that Leonide is an unpleasant person; this seems to be a feature, not a bug in her character. But Celeste loves her. Celeste is quite welcome to her and to any of the other disagreeably narcissistic characters.

Dragon's-Eyes by Margaret Ronald

Skald Six-Blade is an aging razorman, once a fighter, now the torturer serving Michel, the gang leader now in control of the city. Michel is suspicious of everyone and particularly regards the old class of nobility as a potential threat. Now he suspects the import of the jewels called Dragon's Eyes, because legend says that the old kings were descended from dragons. Michel sends Skald north to investigate the origin of the jewels. The wagonmaster is a woman whose teenaged daughter Keia is traveling with her, and Skald soon discovers that Nona and Keia may be of the old royal blood. He also learns that he hates what he has become, serving Michel.

She approached the dragon slowly, hands held out as if in surrender. It was nearly skeletal, skin stretched over long bones and tattered wings flapping like the gaunt-children in the midwinter parades. It looked up and blinked at her through milky, opaque eyes. "Hello," Keia said. "It's me."

The characters here are vivid and real, as is the setting. The conclusion is tragic, as romantic dreams are confronted with reality, without false sentimentality.


Of Thinking Being and Beast by Michael J. DeLuca

It seems that the centaurs have taken over the world, enslaved the humans and are now, in order to demonstrate that they are cruel and depraved, making beasts fight to the death in the arena. Nessus and Eurytus have a private wager on a bout between a minotaur and the monstrous creation of Nessus, the meat-eating Bull of Heaven.

It couldn't be a bull. Some kind of prehistoric buffalo. A uroch. It was as wide across as a locomotive. A human slave dangled impaled upon one of its horns. A dozen other slaves dragged behind it on tether-ropes, bruised and battered, nearing panic.

Boreas the satyr is the beastmaster. He loves his creatures [sometimes carnally, but he is, after all, a satyr] and does not like to see them slaughtered, but what can he do?

A crudely violent and unlikely tale, full of goreporn and liberal guilt.

Copyright © 2009, 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.


Feb 5, 04:37 by IROSF
February's Short Fiction Review
Feb 5, 18:03 by Gregory Benford
How about Baen's?
Feb 5, 18:22 by Lois Tilton
The December issue of Baen's was reviewed in the January IRoSF. The February issue will be in next month's review column.
Feb 7, 05:14 by David Bartell
Thanks for the nice review of Cavernauts, LT. I'm going to have to arrange it so you can come over here and kick some of my characters' butts.

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