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Stacey Janssen

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Publisher: Bluejack

October, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, October 2009

The squeaky wheel gets more zines to review. I recommend fiction in Asimov's, Clarkesworld and Flurb.

Zines Reviewed


Asimov's, Oct/Nov '09

Asimov's, October/November, 2009

Got this double issue too late for last month's column. A strong selection, with good stories about people who can see what others cannot.

The Sea of Dreams by William Barton

A sequel of sorts, to a sequel of sorts–another in the author's series of alternate wish-fulfillment tales based on the skiffy daydreams of an adolescent boy of the 1950s, and possibly the last, as it revisits the various past versions. In this case, the narrator, formerly Alan Burke, is now a multicentenarian named Zed on a spaceship journey to Uranus in the company of his cloned sex slave. In Uranus orbit they encounter a fantasy spaceship and inside it a hyperdoor, through which Zed rushes into a primitive Tarzanian fantasy Venus inhabited by tiny jeweled men with swords and a spaceship. They turn out to be in an imaginary far future in which Machine Men like Zed are legends of the past and Zed himself a sort of god. They try to make their way back through space and time, during which, Boy's Own adventures ensue.

The adventures, highly self-absorbed, are of little interest, except perhaps to those readers who have been closely following this series of tales or who enjoy identifying the source material. The other part of the story is the relationship between Zed and his sex slave, a Body Double improbably created by his cyborged computer as a sex surrogate. Ylva's been studying me for decades, studying to make my life better, studying to make me what she thinks of as happy. She breeds them to match my hormones, to match my desires, to be specially responsive to me. This one was terrific in bed. This is an icky scenario, repulsively pornographic, a glitch that Zed recognizes as such even before the trip through the hyperdoor severs the Body Double's contact with her original and she begins to become a person.

The term "fantasy" is ambiguous, but in this piece several of its meanings converge, as in imaginary worlds and the fulfillment of idealized sexual desires. Our narrator reaches the epiphany that it's better to have the ideal female want to screw him of her own free will than because she was programmed to. Goody for him. What we don't ever see is the possibility that the ideal female, being granted her own free will, tells the narrator to go piss up a rope and keep his scaly hands off her. It has been a common theme throughout this entire series: the adolescent male has his wishes fulfilled, for better or worse, with adventures in the worlds of his fantasies, always accompanied by some more-or-less willing version of the sex slave. Here, at possibly the end of the story, the narrator is offered a choice between two versions of the beloved sex object, between the first love of his life and the starships. What I wonder is how he would react if given the following choice: to embark on an eternal journey of wondrous adventures, the fulfillment of his skiffy fantasies, but with NO NOOKIE. Would he go through the hyperdoor and embark on the starships if he knew he were going alone? Which version of the fantasy would he choose? Which dream?

Blood Dauber by Tod Kosmatka & Michael Poore

Bell works at a zoo where the pay is low, which his wife resents. Like the zoo, their life at home had been built on various pretendings. Pretending there might be gas money. Pretending they could afford to eat better, but chose not to. Pretending that Lin still thought it was important to have a job you liked. Loved. Whatever. While Bell loves his job, he knows that the animals hate their jailers. One day, a strange, oversized grub shows up in the assortment of stuff collected as animal feed, and no one knows what it is. Bell decides to find out.

The title suggests a dire outcome, but things work out for Bell in their own way. Still, it is not by any means a cheery tale. The narrative voice is intriguing, and the commentary on evolution insightful.

Wife-Stealing Time by R. Garcia y Robertson

Another sequel, more of SinBad's adventures on Barsoom. While on the way to Kaol to deliver a legal cargo (for once), he is stranded by an uncooperative wind near an encampment of the Crow during Wife-Stealing Time. He encounters Pretty Bottom, a fugitive wife, and they encounter a party of tourists come to hunt the sabertooth ba'aths, for which privilege Pretty Bottom extorts a fee.

Silver-wig looked hurt. "If you do not want us hunting, why did you give permission?"

"For raisins, shining cloth, apples, and a See-Me-Too." Offworlders often missed the obvious. Giving them the right to hunt did not preclude rooting for the ba'aths.
But it is the tourists who turn out to be the hunted. Adventures ensue.

Like the first in this series, a lot of mildly bawdy fun, but readers who've read the previous installment will find it less confusing.

Flowers of Asphodel by Damien Broderick

In the beginning, avant-garde composition student Isaac Hersch fell in love with a girl who claimed to be a Phoenician in a former life, and before that descended from the sun-kings of Mu.

She handed me an old book, pages of runes. Punic runes, maybe.

"You can read this?"

She shook her head sadly at my disbelief, began uttering the strangest, most unsettling stream of glossalalia I'd ever heard. Had she picked up some of it from my parents' Hebrew prayers? We'd gone to temple more than once, dutiful, or pretending— or perhaps, I wondered, she was tapping into something truly archaic, a pre-articulate bump in the pre-cortex.
Hersch incorporates the runes into a dissonant 11-tone composition about the fall of Mu, which inadvertently wakes the Glorious, who transforms them both into gods. Now Hersch's wife, aka Europa the Queen of the Dead, is planning the decomposition of the cosmos, which gives the authorities some concern.

The editorial blurb claims that this is intended as an homage to Zelazny, which is faintly discernable, maybe, but utterly missing the spirit, the charm, the wit of the master's work. I fear I was not moved.

Flotsam by Elissa Malcohn

As a child, Mercedes sees the high tide wash the deformed dead fish ashore, killed by pollution. Then she finds one still alive, but different.

Its gills fluttered on its neck above a flat, heaving chest discolored with bruises. Little arms fell limp at its sides. Instead of a tail, Mercedes gawked at a fin tapering to a single point, with skin pale enough to see through. She looked back toward the head and met startling green eyes. The creature's arms had risen. Now they waved and wavered in the air, struggling. Tiny, perfect fingers reached out to Mercedes, who dropped to her knees and thanked Jesús for the baby. When she grows up, Mercedes can't forget the sea baby, can't forget how its kind are being poisoned in the water just as the members of her own family were poisoned by the industrial pollutants where they worked. But no one will believe what she saw.

Powerful, centered on a strong and memorable character.


The Ghost Hunter's Beautiful Daughter by Christopher Barzak

It is Sylvie who finds the ghosts, Sylvie who can see them. Her father is only the exorcist, who banishes them to film with a Polaroid camera. It all began with Sylvie's dead mother, and her father didn't at first believe that she could see her. Now the ghost-hunting business has lifted them from poverty and made Sylvie popular at school. But Sylvie misses the company of her mother's ghost, and she knows that the ghosts populating the photo album are not really gone at all. Sylvie doesn't want to hunt ghosts anymore, but as always, her father won't listen to her. This is his living now.

But even though he's saying let's talk about it, Sylvie can see that her father the ghost hunter really means, let's get over it, let's you listen to what I have to say and do as you're told, let's just follow my lead, okay?

A fresh look at ghosts and their hunters. The moral question is kept ambiguous; it is not really clear that all the ghosts are worse off in the photo album, where they have the company of the others, who help them understand their condition. It is also clear that there are facts about ghosts that even Sylvie does not yet understand. This may be the beginning of something.


Where the Time Goes by Heather Lindsley

C&M Time Salvage, one of many such operations and not a very successful one, collects the wasted time from people in the past. Chambers and Martin are unfortunately in debt, and things are made worse when an equipment malfunction causes them to interfere unlawfully in the timeline of a young timewaster in 1983 Fresno. This requires a visit to the Godfather Paradox, who demands in exchange, a service, to be performed someday in the future. "That day may never come, but it will probably be May 15, 2367. Or possibly October 3, 1491. We'll be in touch."

Light skiffy humor.

Erosion by Ian Creasey

Winston spends his last days on a dying Earth before embarking with an expedition to a new planet. He wants to test the limits of his new bodily augmentations, so he journeys to the coast, where he has an encounter with the past and another with his own personal limitations.

This is a tale of self-discovery, but the descriptive prose also gives us a long, nostalgic look at a planet being worn away.

The Yorkshire coast had always been nibbled by erosion, even in more tranquil times. Now the process was accelerating. The rising sea level gouged its own scars from higher tides, and the warmer globe stirred up fiercer storms that lashed the cliffs and tore them down. Unstable slopes of clay alternated with fresh rock, exposed for the first time in millennia. Piles of jagged rubble shifted restlessly, the new stones not yet worn down into rounded pebbles.


Before My Last Breath by Robert Reed

Geologist Thomas Greene makes the chance discovery of a strange fossil in one of his company's coal mines in Wyoming. Throughout the years, the Graveyard and its importance grows, involving many other people as they speculate about who and what the dead had been, and why they had buried themselves in that place.

Thought-provoking look at the conflict between the quotidian and the eternal.

Deadly Sins by Nancy Kress

We know that Renata has killed the secretive researcher for whom she worked as a lab assistant. "You bet your digital ass I did. And I'd do it again." The question is why, and the AI interrogator can't guess.

The reference to the deadly sins adds some interest to this short-short murder tale that is not really a mystery.


Analog, Dec. '09

Analog, December, 2009

Part II of the serial again leaving room for four shorter works.

Formidable Caress by Stephen Baxter

A far-future world created from ruins and run by machines, a world where time is stratified, running slowest in the Lowlands and fastest on the Shelf, above. Telni lives between, on the Platform, where the machines have taken a particular interest in him since his birth. Your mother rebelled when you were born. That's very rare. The human community here was founded from a pool of scholars, but that was many generations ago. We fear that we may have bred out a certain initiative. That was how you came to our attention, Telni. There may be questions you can answer that we can't. There may be questions you can ask that we can't." The machines need Telni to figure out when and why the next end of the world will come, but Telni resents the way they control his life, the lives of all humans.

This one is a sequel, not only to the previous stories in this magazine, but the author's series of novels called Destiny's Children. The setting, in consequence, is complicated and not completely understandable to those who haven't read the previous works, but the story nonetheless stands fairly well by itself until the end, when Telni's life is connected to others in a way that only those readers familiar with the entire sequence will fully grasp. But such understanding is by no means necessary to appreciate the story of Telni's life or to enjoy the fascinating setting the author has created.


Wilderness were Paradise Enow by J.G. Stratmann

Another sequel. Previously, aliens have terraformed Mars and invited a pair of humans to take up resident there; the aliens have ulterior motives. Now they have given both Martin and Katerina superhuman powers, but the religious Katerina knows it is evil for humans to have the power to play god; she must now either redeem or destroy Martin, who thinks the new powers are nifty and insists he can use them for good. Demonstrations ensue and unintended consequences result.

On rare occasions, I turn out to like a sequel to a work I have previously not cared for. This is not one of those times. This one adds little to the earlier tale and is mostly an extended series of lectures and preachings. It does, at the end, become a bit more interesting, as it transpires that one of the powers possessed by the aliens is the ability to make people believe what is not the case, so that no one can be certain what is real. The virtue is that no one can be sure what lesson they should have learned from all the foregoing.

The Jolly Old Boyfriend by Jerry Oltion

Gina is in bed with her abusive boyfriend Todd on Christmas Eve, having misgivings about her upcoming wedding, when such a clatter arises from the living room. There in a Santa suit they find the ghost of her ex, Sergei, reportedly killed by a bus six months ago in Kazakhstan.

"I… I must have unfinished business," he said. "The last thing I remember is the front end of a bus coming at me. I'm dead, aren't I?" He sat down heavily on the hearth. The brass handles of the fireplace doors rippled in and out of visibility through his chest.

Amusing and emotionally satisfying in a sort of vengeful way.

The Universe Beneath Our Feet by Carl Frederick

First contact. The society of the lifeforms on the ice of Ganymede has stultified and stagnated into a rigid hierarchy governed by a priesthood that suppresses innovation and dissent. The priests insist that the grinding sounds coming from below the ice are the signs of an ice demon. But K'chir rejects the priests. First, he tries climbing to heaven. Then a newer and better opportunity arises, literally, from the ice.

Nicely-conceived aliens.


Interzone #224

Interzone #224, September/October, 2009

The way I figure, either the ink used by Interzone's printer gives off some sinister fumes that blunted my mental acuity when reading this issue, or a lot of these stories are damned obscure.

Sublimation Angels by Jason Sanford

Over six hundred years ago, a human expedition accepted the invitation of a more advanced alien race to travel on their planet to their home system. Things have not gone as planned, and many people, such as Chicka and his twin brother Omare, have come to believe that the aliens deceived them. The Aurals refuse to communicate with them, and the planet where the humans are living was supposed to swing back towards Earth a hundred years ago. But the expedition has devolved into a caste-based tyranny where asking questions isn't healthy. Omare had immunity for a while because he was the Aurals' chosen one, the only human they have approached ever since the expedition left Earth. But eventually his defiance of the rules led to his demotion and death, leaving his brother to carry on the struggle and mobilize the "low kids" to revolt.

Here we have one of the standard old SFnal scenarios, not made any more interesting or palatable by sadistic enforcer goons straight out of the Sci-Fi Catalog of Stock Cardboard Characters. In addition, this is one of those stories where no one ever knows what's going on and we never find out all the answers, despite a great deal of dialogue spent speculating. There are some neat and original elements, however. There are the aliens: Above us, a red and purple Aural lit multiple tracers as it blossomed into a flower of light, creating the rainbow petals of six brand new Aurals. Then there is Omare, who seems to have been "reborned" and frozen in the ice, "glowing from foxfire etching every pore of his body."

No Longer You by Katherine Sparrow and Rachel Swirsky

Fresh from a breakup with the woman he loves, Simon encounters Aviva, who contains multitudes. Aviva's face and body transformed a hundred times. Her posture changed to make her seem tall or short, narrow or heavy. Innumerable entities examined me through her hazel eyes. Aviva wants to meld with Simon; she has in fact tracked him down to offer a sort of communal immortality.

This one strikes me as full of contradictions, and I have to wonder if perhaps the collaboration was pulling in different directions. Aviva seeks out Simon because of his dancing and seems to suggest that melding with her will let his art endure. But Simon must abandon his body, the instrument of his art, and after the meld he says that the sense of dancing is now gone for him forever. Aviva also seeks out Simon because he is Jewish, telling him that her kind was created as a way to keep Jewish culture from being dissolved in assimilation. But what is the melding process but the ultimate assimilation? I also wonder that the collective consciousness within Aviva seems to contain no toxic personalities, no abrasive or nasty people; everyone gets along. It seems rather too good to be true.

Shucked by Adrian Joyce

Techno-horror. Kevin seems to be some kind of software engineer working on a spam blocker, working late. He experiences an apparition, a virtual dog in nonvirtual space. The night watchman sees the same apparition, which attacks him and takes over his body, then goes to attack Kevin. At the same time, spam breaks through into every electronic device, even the espresso machine, in massive quantities.

At one point, Kevin asks himself, What is it with dogs today? This is a good question, and I'll be damned if I know what dogs have to do with spam attacks. Here is where I start wondering if my mental acuity has been impaired, or if this piece just doesn't make much sense. But since the characters are little more than objects upon which the horror is visited, I don't particularly care. Some of the spam messages are amusing, particularly the inventive names for the male sexual organ.

The Godfall's Chemsong by Jeremiah Tolbert

In the depths of an ocean dwell the pods, a mother and her subservient broods of daughters. Life here is fraught, food is scarce, and not all will survive. Muskblue is the weakest and last of her sisters, hovering at the edge of Mother's chemical scent, near starvation until she catches the nearby scent of food. It is forbidden to feed without permission, without telling Mother the location of the food. But Muskblue is desperate.

A cluster of broodlings brush past, taking bites from her without fear. She shudders in pain. Even the stupid broodlings know her lowly status. Muskblue has no broodlings of her own to protect her, no joined mate with which to create them. She is too weak from hunger to even form a small protective chem in the cellular factories that run along her long, emaciated flanks.

Muskblue is an appealing character and her story gives us a fascinating and clearly understandable look at alien lives in an environment where only the strong can survive. But above the ocean are the heavens, where events are taking place that are less clear. It would seem that a human expedition has arrived at this world and is in conflict with some native species that the sisters of the pods call Gods. While on the one hand, this element adds another dimension to the story, it also raises more questions than it answers and some readers may find it extraneous to the more appealing tale of Muskblue.

The Festival of Tethselem by Chris Butler

Devesh has come to Tethselem's arts festival to steal the famous ancient statue, the Figure of Frozen Time. There is a longstanding rumor to the effect that if the statue is ever stolen, it would be as if it had never existed. No one is exactly sure what this means, but some suspect it would undo all of history. This is Devesh's goal, to expunge the recent war which caused so much suffering. But the truth is rather different from what Devesh imagines.

But the tense used in the scriptures, and the viewpoint of the sentences, they're confusing. The notion that the Figure will never have existed is particularly troublesome. It's almost as if its never having existed is linked to some kind of penance or sacrifice.

This story involves some interesting philosophical speculation about time and causality. I wish the prose were less flat and more effective at conveying a sense of the wonder of the thing.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Oct '09

Realms of Fantasy, October, 2009

At last a look at the new iteration of this zine under its present management. Physically, the appearance is much the same, except for a bit of red ink in the text. The cover is an innocuous flying sailship, doubtless intended to avert the attention of people with too much time on their hands. And the fiction seems to have been carried over by the previous editor, so that no great changes should be expected at this time.

Flower Fairies by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The narrator is a funeral director, continuing a family business. She is also somewhat afraid of the flower fairies, who can be both powerful and capricious. She is disturbed when a very young flower fairy shows up to create a floral display for the funeral of an old woman who has outlived all her friends. Young flower fairies are even more dangerous than the adults.

She's young, and if young fairies are anything like young humans, then she must be bored. If she's bored, she'll either sleep or she'll cause trouble. I'm hoping for sleep, but part of me expects the worse.

This is not the exercise in twee that might cause some readers to cringe at the mention of flower fairies. Baby flower fairies. It is a sensitive, beautiful and heartwarming tale of honoring the dead. Yet I am not quite convinced by the narrator's extreme fear of the fairies, whom she has known all her life, and who give no real evidence of maliciousness, even inadvertent.

Tío Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts by Ben Francisco

It must be known that James is gay, and also a would-be stand-up comic. Because he finds New York oppressive, he decides to spend one summer vacation with his uncle Gil in San Francisco, in his haunted house, "five stories high, a rundown warehouse refurbished in a coat of bright purple paint, like an old woman dressed up for a night on the town." It seems that when Gil was young, he and twenty-seven of his friends bought the building as a kind of commune, but the others all died, one by one, perhaps from AIDS, and now only Gil is left. Gilberto says he's upset I'm not spending more time with him and the ghosts. He feels I'm using him just because he has a house in the gayest city in the world. I don't spend much time with Gilberto and the ghosts because I don't like Broadway show tunes, and I don't like old movies, and I don't like audiences I can't see or hear. But Gilberto knows more about life than James wants to admit, until he wakes up one morning in an ominous sweat.

Light humored tale of the importance of human connections, with a memorable character in Gilberto.


Nell and the Devil by S.E.Ward

Retelling of the Cinderella tale. In this version, Stepmother owns a whorehouse in Restoration London, where Nell works the "haypenny seats," taking on the poorest clients. One of her clients claims to be the ghost of Stepmother's husband, although she calls him the devil. But the devil turns out to be Nell's fairy godmother. Of sorts.

I like the historicity of this one, substituting the Duke of Monmouth for the usual anonymous prince, but the exact nature of Robert Sly is never quite clear.

Red Dirt Kingdom by Jay Lake

A tall tale. Artemisia Cleminshaw was a goat-roper who would have needed a beauty operator and two pounds of stage makeup to look half as good as forty miles of bad road. Her face would scare a blind coon dog, not to put too fine a point on the affair. She was a shambling gal, with a body could have been sewn together from a couple of football linemen with a librarian thrown in for good measure. The patched-up overalls and wifebeater shirt she wore only emphasized her unusual proportions. But when the Proverbial Stranger shows up looking for the Art Cleminshaw who happens to be the rightful heir to the secret Red Dirt Kingdoms of Texas and Oklahoma, he is forced to conclude reluctantly that Artie must be his man.

Starts out as a typical overtold tall tale, ends up surprisingly with a Rightful King.

Bob and the Mermaid by William R. Eakin

Not a tall tale. In Redgunk, Mississippi, Bob Delashmit leads a life of squalor and commitment to a wife who still survives in a way after "seven surgeries and five major cancers," even though his friends, like the narrator, advise him to cut loose.

If I'd been him I'd have been down at Burly Bob's every firggin' night, I guarantee you, drinking a hellof a lot more than just one beer.

Then Bob finds the mermaid, tired and lost, and nurses her back to her normal condition of profound desire. And she wants Bob, wants him to go away with her.

A story set in a place called Redgunk, Mississippi, a place where rednecks guzzle beer at Burly Bob's Bar and Grill, is a story that readers expect to be the broadest sort of farce. To place into this farcical setting a tale of lifelong devotion and commitment, of love and redemption, creates an incongruity that jars, badly. The Lake story begins in a very similar way, but it transcends its setting by working with it; this one never manages to reconcile its two halves.


Clarkesworld, Sept. '09

Clarkesworld, September, 2009

Two tales worth reading.

White Charles by Sarah Monette

A tale from the Parrington Museum. When an old crate full of books of unknown provenance is opened, something leaps out, something resembling a huge white spider that proceeds to haunt the museum.

Was it a sign of insanity that I assumed from the moment I saw it that it was not natural? I do not know. I do know that discovering it to be a gigantic albino tarantula would have been an overpowering relief, and by the very magnitude of that imagined relief, I knew it was no such thing.

It is not too hard for the narrator to discover what it is, but harder for him to understand what it wants.

Readers familiar with this setting should react with anticipation, and it is not likely to be disappointed. The mannered diction and the archaic sensibilities are more than just a veneer; they inform the story in important ways by revealing the race and class prejudices of the times. Mr Booth, the narrator, learns a lesson about making assumptions that is not limited to supernatural albino not-tarantulas.


Non-Zero Probabilities by N.K. Jemison

Something is wrong with probability in New York. Anything that can happen, does. Adele is aware of the problem and takes precautions, is irritated with others who don't.

They should have known better. The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.

But now there is a mass movement underway for a giant prayer service, and who knows what the results will be?

A story about taking chances in life.

Fantasy Magazine, September 2009

An alteration to the weekly fiction schedule this month.

The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall by Jerome Stueart

Yumi is the wife of a much older man, whose marriage is drifting apart. He started scolding her for her behavior—she laughed too much, too loudly, that she was in her thirties, and should act more like a lady. He didn't approve of her short skirts, her white school-girl tops. He didn't want her moving with the fashions. His tone of voice at the mirror in the morning sounded more like her father than her husband. Matsui is a maker of piku-wines, that evoke a particular image or memory when drunk. He believes his own work is important; he believes that Yumi is too young and shallow to appreciate its importance. But Yumi is convinced that the image of a geisha who appears in his signature wine means that he is in love with that woman, with the past and not with her.

This is a fine portrait of mutual misunderstanding between two people who truly care for each other in different ways. The prose is strongly evocative at times, but the opening paragraphs are unclear, full of unattached pronouns and an incident that means nothing until much later in the story; it is an anti-hook.

Images of Anna by Nancy Kress

Ben Preston is a "glamor" photographer who doesn't usually get older clients like Anna, who tells him she wants a photo to send to a man she met online (Ben's ex ran off with a man she met online and Ben won't forgive her). She photographs well, but when Ben develops the film, he is surprised to see Anna herself is not in any of the shots. Anna's twenty-four pictures included three women about her own age, ten children, two teenage boys, and nine shots of the same older man. He was gray-haired, lean, and handsome, a brown-eyed Paul Newman. Ben is determined to discover the reason why photos of Anna always show someone else.

This one follows the formula in which a character–Ben - with a longstanding problem encounters a second one, resulting in an epiphany which casts light on both. It is Anna's problems that don't seem to make sense. To Anna, her problem is whether she should change herself for a chance at love. But we don't really see anything wrong with Anna the way she is. And nothing explains why the film shows the people she is thinking of instead of herself, as if her self were totally effaced. But if her own self is so tenuous, why is it such a problem whether she should change it?

The Girl in the Green Sequin Dress by Berrien C. Henderson

The girl is not a girl but an animated doll, which seems to be calling to Mark Day for help from the bin of one of those devices where you pay fifty cents to try to grab a prize. Mark is a teacher wallowing in depression after the loss of his family in an accident. The doll of course is a surrogate for his daughter.

I see that Fantasy Magazine is now looking for unpaid slush readers. Perhaps they ought instead to be in search of copyeditors capable of distinguishing such homophones as the "shitty breaks" of a log truck. And perhaps querying whether the author actually meant a "sequined" dress. The story is pretty unoriginal and predictable.

Tending the Mori Birds by Caroline M. Yoachim

Prem has a burden, a curse passed on from his father. He is the one who must read the names of the dying brought to him by the Mori birds, in order to release them. A Mori bird waited for him on the railing, its claws wrapped around the wood. The dying light accentuated the patch of red feathers at the base of its slender neck, the only color on an otherwise black bird. A bloody-throated Mori bird, harbinger of death. It smelled like licorice. Prem hates this burden. He yearns for life instead of death, for the woman he watches through the window and longs to touch.

Nicely-done short-short. Some readers may see the twist coming, but this does not at all diminish the effect of the ending.

The Good Window by Lisa Hannett

Ned and her Tantie seem to be refugees from some war, and after waiting a long time, they finally have passes to board a ship taking them, in theory, to safety. To Ned, whose vision of the world seems to have been circumscribed by the edges of windows, it is all quite wondrous.

An army of clouds began waging war on the ship as soon as it soared upwards. Yet the loss of sunlight didn't diminish the glory of Ned's good window day in the least. It added drama—it added flair!—to the pantomime being enacted beneath her. Tiny fires dotted the landscape below, shining like rubies scattered across a bed of smoking grey. Ned reached a hand out to the glass, tried to grasp one of the glowering embers between her fingertips.

Tantie knows better.

A wonderfully strange vision through the eyes of innocence. This is not our world but a strongly imagined place where the air is filled with clouds of words.


Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, September, 2009

Used to be, SH only ran four stories a month, regardless of the number of Mondays, but it seems that in 2009 there is sometimes a fifth. I take this to be a Good Sign for the zine.

Everything Dies, Baby by Nadia Bulkin

Recently-widowed Beth Wagner is not getting along too well when a coffin falls from the sky into her front yard. Someone in there seems to be kicking his way out. Beth ignores this at first, but when the dead man who is no longer dead comes to her door to use the phone, she takes him in as a substitute for her husband. They are getting along quite well, except for the ghosts who died in the crashed plane from which the coffin fell; they insist he rejoin them.

"Don't listen to them!" Beth's voice interrupted. "Hamzah, it doesn't matter! It doesn't matter what happened then! What matters is you're alive now!" She was fighting through the ghosts—they were getting thicker all the time. Janelle was curled up like a snail, an isolated little bundle of pink and blonde lying low under the passing storm. Her mother tried shoving one of the ghosts into the television, but her hands just went right through.

This one feels more surreal than fantastic, but I'm not sure if this is a feature or a bug. It lacks the tone of absurdity that makes readers aware that the scenario isn't supposed to make sense or be explicable–in the absence of which, we expect it to. Hamzah's resurrection is inexplicable, as is the front yard bursting into sudden bloom. And as he was never one of the plane's passengers, only cargo, it is not clear why the ghosts would insist on his rejoining them. The author's note says that the story was inspired by American Airlines Flight 96, and giving Hamzah, an amiable character, an Arabic name seems to insinuate that he was in some way responsible for the deaths. Is this fictional profiling?

The Yeast of Eire by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Two-parter. Red is a cook, chef of Prince Jocelyn's kitchen, and she sees the world in terms of food. If you knew all the food you'll never eat because it can't get past the front . . . I'll never taste draping rosemary again because of this war! What Red misses most is the special yeast used by the bakers of enemy Eire, and she is determined to obtain some, war be damned. But the yeast is dead; the bread refuses to rise. And now the war is taking more from her. Her protégé Amery, the son she will never have, wants to join the army and fight.

The intense descriptions of food I mention the goose (stuffed with a lemon, cornbread and sage and blood sausage and gibbets, soaked in a marinade of Lachlan's wine and my nutmeg, then slow-roasted for six hours over the fire with Amery doing most of the turning and Gisla and I taking turns basting from the drip; gods strike me dead if it wasn't the best goose any of us had ever eaten) make this one something special, as well as the close relationships among the characters. I wish, however, they did not ask each other if things are okay. Though the place-names misleadingly seem to come from our own world, it is an imaginary place and the story involves nothing else of the fantastic (although there is said to be some sorcery going on in the war, it is irrelevant in the kitchen).

And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth by Anna Feruglio Del Dan

Post-apocalypse. A very recent apocalypse that seems to have been the loss of electricity more than anything else; we aren't told. The narrator, like all London, is coping unhappily at a 19th-century level. One day I put my hand, supporting myself, on the long-dead light switch, and a pang of painful memory went through me. I suppose the naked bulb is still up there, but I can't see it right now, not even with the door open. Then, suddenly, fiat lux.

This is a very short piece, and I think it has the wrong ending. Therefore I will talk about the ending, which is almost literally deus ex machina. Yet we learn nothing whatsoever about the angelic beings descending, "enveloped in light." A miracle has happened, and the author's concern is with the reaction of the narrator and the others, as it should be. Yet the miracle is just as miraculous in the narrator's flat, where his computer has (miraculously) come suddenly back to life. And it would have been just as miraculous if the narrator had rushed outside to see an incandescent lightning bolt, a disembodied hand, a giant electric eel. For the purposes of the story, which cuts off at this point, it makes no difference whatsoever what has caused the miracle. What matters is the change that it will make in the narrator's life, returning–if indeed this is what is happening–to "normal." To me, the descending glowing beings are a distraction from the real story, derailing me from the train of thought I had been following, which led to Baghdad and New Orleans and other places thrust violently back into a world deprived of what we have come to depend on as necessities of life. If, perhaps, the narrator discovers that these glowing beings had turned off the switch to teach the world a lesson, then flipped in on again, they might have been relevant. Yet the author supplies no data to either support or reject this hypothesis. We are left in the dark, with an answer that is no answer at all.

A Safe Place to Be by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator, an old woman, feels an odd tingling in her feet that seems to portend disaster. Her cat seems to agree with her. They set off across country in search of a safe place, but of course there is no safe place.

This one has the delightful Emshwillerian voice and a touch of the surreal.


Ideomancer, Sept. '09

Ideomancer, September, 2009

This quarterly ezine has been around for a while. The fall issue has three pieces of short fiction, each labeled with its subgenre, a practice that only seems to invite questions. While the first two stories are pretty undisputedly science fiction as labeled, the third is pretty clearly fantasy to me, and I wonder why the editors felt the need to call it "slipstream," unless this is just the Hot Now Term for fantasy. There are also poetry and reviews.

I Don't Exist Without You by Eric Satifka

Melanie Zielensky is a member of the large future underclass [her son has been repossessed and frozen for nonpayment] who applies for a job as a personal assistant to the richest woman on Earth. She expects to be something like a cyborg maidservant, but what she ends up becoming is a surrogate for her employer.

To make it clear that Melanie's transformation is a Bad Thing and she has lost her soul, the author shows us how she becomes indifferent to her son, just as her employer has her own son eliminated when he interferes with her plans. The narrative voice here is the interesting partly-2nd-person narration, although I'm not quite sure why.

You are being served finger sandwiches and Earl Grey by a cyborg butler. "Would you like some sugar, miss?"

"No," says Melanie, says you. You like it plain.

Exit Wounds by Stacy Sinclair

Thompson, John works for a medical office as a Reaper, delivering the notice of imminent death to the incurable. It is not quite clear whether this is more of a sentence or a prediction; there seems to be an appeal process. But Thompson is also an ordinary human who once had an affair with a woman named Morrison, Mary, and now he receives her death notice. While regulations forbid it, he decides to deliver her Declaration himself, and his emotionally-suppressed existence is overwhelmed by her passion.

A colleague once asked Thompson: "After the amount of death you've been associated with, you really want to be close to somebody?"
This story shows the consequences of shutting yourself off. I found the inverted names annoying, also the layout glitch.

Miles Blows His Last by James L. Corner

Miles Davis opens his closet door and suddenly finds himself confronted with the ghost of Louis Armstrong, accusing him of killing jazz. The only way to resolve the problem is trial by combat, a blow by blow trumpet duel.

The author shows a great deal of affection and respect for his subjects and their music, and he waxes eloquent in his description of the music.

Armstrong blew all the way up scales that had not existed before, that were created by his playing them, scales so high that, like the positionless positions and massless masses of quantum mechanics, they created their own musical rules. He blew all the way up and then he blew all the way down again, streaking downwards like a falling rocket that burned.

It is in essence, however, a ghost story, which is to say a fantasy. I don't know where they got this "slipstream" stuff.


Flurb #8

Flurb #8, Fall-Winter, 2009

The editorial for this issue informs us that the editor is seeking literary short stories with realistic characters and a clear story arc. I don't believe him. I think he is seeking the most crazily imaginative fiction possible, and getting it, even if sometimes these pieces fall a bit short in storyness.

My Only Sunshine by Emily C. Skaftun

It almost never rains in Sunlight, Nevada, but it was raining when Lief came upon the wrecked car with the very pale man at the wheel, dying. Then the rain, like a masterless dog, followed Lief home.

It had been a week when Lief pulled back into his driveway, roadweary, missing his wife and the sun. The clouds in Sunlight were the patchy pink he'd come to expect when he and Arielle were both there, rain and sun fighting for control of the sky. It had been sunny and clear all week.

In the old comic strip L'il Abner there was a gloomy character called Joe Btfsplk who always had a black cloud over his head, following him everywhere he went. In Lief's case, the rain loves him, just as the sun loves Arielle, but it is a curse nonetheless, and it costs him what he loves. [Of course Arielle is just as cursed, except that she lives in Sunshine, Nevada.] Neat idea, nicely written, rather sad.


Henry's Penis by Charlie Jane Anders

Like any thirteen-year-old boy, Henry is worried about his penis. His brother Martin, who works for the nano-tech lab NONA, unethically gives him an experimental product to try. The effects are not entirely what Henry had expected. The kleenex wad vibrated a little, and then the little slick of Henry's semen separated itself and slithered across the floor while Henry watched. The little glob wriggled towards Henry's desk, then changed course and slid under Henry's dresser. And then it was gone. But it wasn't actually gone. It starts running around behind the walls of the house, driving his parents crazy. In the meantime, Henry has been teaching his penis to do tricks and having a lot of sex with Rachel, from which come Consequences.

This one should perhaps really be called "Henry's Nano-sperm." The author relates the story with a straight face, making me wonder if she has ever done a reading of it in front of an audience.

The Cog in God's Wheels by Peter Hagelslag

In the post-Clockwork Singularity solar system, all resources are devoted to the sacred monkeys in their hallowed hollow jovian world-cage. Scattered like clockwork over the carefully cultivated planetary surface, looming over the lush, square jungles and glassy transport tubes are the main structures: huge, round stadiums whose circular benches are work platforms for the furiously typing monkeys. Each stadium holds a million monkeys and a million typewriters. Spread over the planet's surface are a billion stadiums, so at the height of primate productivity a quadrillion monkeys trash away on a quadrillion typewriters. Here labors Charley, mining the text-lodes of primate production. But alas, Charley is a secret blasphemer.

The editorial note informs us unnecessarily that the author has a wild imagination. The actual story here is very slight, but the scenario is presented in a most entertaining way.


Interrogations in a Holographic Observatory by Howard V. Hendrix

The appearance of a prophet, a savant who is capable of calculating π to any decimal place, threatens the Established Order of the Observatory. The man is brought for interrogation, and lengthy theological [or theometric] debate ensues:

"The endless digits, on their endless numbers of sheets, in their endless numbers of map drawers, in their endless map cabinets, in their endless map rooms throughout the Observatory—‌all are in fact digits of the never-ending and never-repeating decimal expansion of a transcendental and irrational number. That number around which the Observatory is constructed has, from the earliest days of the Conjecture, been presumed to be p, the first discovered number of its class. And, just as p has a beginning, a Primordial Digit, so too must the Observatory also have had a beginning."

Now, I like a good cosmological argument as well as the next person and perhaps better than most, and the conceptual points here are interesting. But there are limits, and this piece exceeds them. The story/neepery ratio is weighted heavily against the story element, and it grows tedious after a time.

In the Beginning was the Machine by Martin Hayes

The end of the world. This one is mostly teaser carried on far too long for the sake of the punchline. I mistakenly thought the piece had ended when I reached the illustration, only to find two further anticlimactic paragraphs.

Paradise Afternoon by Gregory Benford

Robert and Fred are executives in a company that is successfully developing a longevity drug, but they are nervous about being bugged, as the authorities frown on longevity and its associated costs. "Bureaucrats rather like the idea that people should shuffle off this mortal coil on schedule."

The characters might be oblivious to the nature of the government surveillance, but I am sure that the readers will have figured it out from the first paragraph.

Bad Ideas by Rudy Rucker

As Bea and her husband Nils are watching TV, something happens. The television screen's image had become a whirlpool spinning inwards from the edges, absorbing her entire attention. She saw a vision. She was skiing though the woods at dusk, among totem poles that reached to the heavens, the graven faces watching her in solemn disapproval. The totems tell her she can cast out her bad thoughts and memories. They both cast out everything of themselves until they are entirely blank; then the mind parasites wriggle out of the electrical sockets and slither into their brains, filling them with new ideas.

After reading this one, readers may be uneasy about watching commercials on TV.

Songwriter to the Stars by Tamara Vining

Seven isn't actually a songwriter now, and the songs are coming from the stars. But they never stop, and she needs a break. But she says that almost every time she comes down from the mind-blowing, out of this world, fusion sound song trance she's been putting herself into every other day for the last six months, where she channels music that seems to come from the stars, as far as she can tell. What she needs is someone to take her place.

What this one lacks is any conflict, any obstacles between problem and resolution, which comes too easily to be very interesting.

The Retrodictions of Sumadastron the Time-Lost by Nathaniel S. K. Heller

A tale in verse.

Poor Sumadastron, time-lost fool!
The cosmos will reject
the least exception to the rule
that cause precedes effect!
So fact with fiction he would mix
for those with eyes to see;
born fifteen hundred and sixty-six,
died fifteen zero three.

Wildly delightful.

There is No Comte de St. Germaine for I am He by Brendan Byrne

The narrator does not claim to be the real Comte de St. Germaine, but he has used the name upon occasion. He is now waiting in the Bridge Bar in Manhattan for a man currently called Lazlo but who has sometimes been called the name that the narrator regards as his own. This pretender, he will not tolerate. He knows that Lazlo can not be what he pretends to be.

How do I know that he could not possibly be the Comte? Take a fucking guess. I know what it is like to live for four centuries. There is no joy left. There is no love left.

A bleak vision of immortality. While the V-word is not used, this portrait is a refreshing antidote to the current putrid plague of romantic revenants. I no longer drink alcohol. I no longer smoke hashish or tobacco. I no longer fuck.
That's more like it!


Bad Pennies by Carter Scholz

An unsettling testimony about the way the world is really run. Perhaps the details have been changed in small ways, to protect the guilty. The guilty always seem to prosper.

I mean, first of all yes it's a striking irony, if you want to put it that way, that Polemonium Assets actually propped up the government we meant to overthrow but after all Senator, by the time the central bank defaulted it was Citibank not Polemonium propping them up, and you're not going after Citibank, are you?


Apex Magazine, September, 2009

A post-apocalyptic issue.

Fungal Gardens by Ekaterina Sedia

Medical mystery. The narrator is a biologist specializing in fungi and his lover is a cop who has just encountered an interesting case: a death where the corpse's brain is infected by some kind of fungus. There are other cases worldwide and the CDC is on the job as well as the narrator, called in to assist on the local case.

The man's face was carefully blotted out, but the blue and purple streaks on his balding scalp spoke of decomposition, and there was an ugly protuberance emerging from the back of his skull. A long thin black horn stretched upward, like a leech doing a tail stand. I had to remind myself that I was looking at the actual picture of an actual dead person, so fascinated I was with the alien structure.

This story is a classic intersection of SF and horror, mirroring the zine's motto, in which the mystery intrudes into the narrator's complicated personal life.

Advertising at the End of the World by Keffy R.M. Kehrli

It seems that some sort of plague has killed off all the humans except for Marie, who has moved to an isolated cabin in Montana where she grows vegetables to live on. Unfortunately, the humaniform advertisements have found her there and gathered in large numbers to pitch their products, as she seems to be the only living human they can locate. The ad nearest her window looked quite a bit like a tall, lanky teenager. It moved like one as well, and might have fooled her except that its forehead was stuck in price scrolling mode. Faintly glowing red letters crawled across its forehead from right to left. Some of them look too much like her dead husband Robert, and when she grows too lonely, she lets one of them into the house.

I find no real horror in this one. It seems instead to be a mixture of absurdity and sadness.

The Girl in the Basement by Matthew Kressel

Child abuse. In a post-apocalyptic world, a girl is kept imprisoned in a basement room by parents who tell her she is allergic to sunlight. The parents prostitute her as a way of feeding themselves, while pretending their actions are all for her own good.

"I'm sorry," Mother said later, stroking the girl's hair as the girl lay in bed moaning. "But I'm the one who brought you into this world. I'm the one who gave you life, who keeps you alive." She kicked the basement floor with her sandal. "Without me, you're dust."

While the cruelty in this one has a highly authentic touch, the SFnal element is minimal. It would be easy to imagine finding this story in the news reports today, minus the state of the world outside the basement.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, September, 2009

This website was down when I tried to read the second monthly installment of fiction.

The Alchemist's Feather by Erin Cashier

The Prince has commissioned the Alchemist to turn a girl into a phoenix, which has something to do with curing some sexual malfunction. The Alchemist has a wooden puppet–he calls it a homunculus, which I don't think so–that he uses to experiment on. The sticks I am comprised of bend and snap. They fold in upon me, pulling together behind my back, and I am covered in a wave of smoke, no, these, these things—they are feathers. Hundreds of tiny feathers grow. He also keeps a series of little girls for the same purpose. But the puppet has fallen in love with Maria and wants to help her, to help them both escape.

This is a fairly standard scenario, which might be more interesting if several matters were not deliberately obscured by the author–for example, why the puppet keeps losing and growing back fingers, and why it lives in a jar.

The Puzzle Box by Chris Tissell

A king has twin sons, and of course the heir, Orech, who has everything, is still jealous of the second son, Jarech, the narrator. Even as children he had to best me at everything. In our lessons with the Royal Magus he would answer first. When we danced the Water Dance he would pout or rage or give excuses when I made a successful strike. And he became fond of reminding me of all the ways in which I would serve him once he became king. It was a day I came to dread. On his deathbed, the King gives Jarech a puzzle box that he calls his most precious treasure, holding the secret to true happiness. But Jarech sees that his brother covets this inheritance, and as king, he demands it.

Another classic fantasy scenario, given a fresh turn in this setting, albeit a tad bit moralistic.


Tor, Sept. '09, September, 2009

Seem to be some new stories up at this site, which annoyingly chops the text up into very short segments that have to be nexted repeatedly. This one took nine clicks and increasing impatience to get through what is really a short story.

First Flight by Mary Robinette Kowal

Time travel. It seems that the time machine can only send people back to a time when they have been alive, so centenarian Louise Jackson is one of the few people who can be sent to film the Wright Brothers' first successful flight. This time travel was a marvel. Standing here as they fiddled with whatever it was on the airplane, it made her pity poor Mr. Barnes who couldn't travel back more than thirty years. What had there been to see in his lifetime that was like this? But a malfunction causes an abort on her first go-back, causing a young boy to witness her sudden disappearance. She wants to explain to the boy, but the bureaucrats are opposed.

A nice tale about the fact that people actually matter, and the SFnal premise is a neat one. But there is rather too much of Louise arguing with the stock bureaucratic bitch [it takes up two entire nexts]. It is also not clear how the first aborted time-shift has changed the historical time of the Wrights' flight.

Silver Linings by Tim Pratt

Neat Fantastic Premise: cloudships mine the clouds of their silver linings. Unfortunately, this causes the rest of the cloud to dissipate, resulting in drought; the author seems to believe that the clouds are stationary, and perhaps, in this world, they are. Jokum is working as a crew member on a cloudmining ship, but when a warship closes in on them, it is revealed that he is actually an absconded king–whereupon he parachutes out and proceeds to sketch in everything we have missed before the story started.

The scenario seems rather familiar, if not the backstory, but there have been a number of ships sailing the fictional clouds recently. However, a story needs to be told, and this piece is either chopped off before it rightly begins, or an episode, outtake, or teaser from some larger, novel-sized tale that has or will appear elsewhere. It certainly isn't here.

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.


Oct 8, 07:08 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 8, 14:57 by Tim Pratt
I very seldom comment on reviews of my work, but this line prompts me to do so:

"the author seems to believe that the clouds are stationary, and perhaps, in this world, they are."

Yes, in the world of the story, clouds are stationary -- which is why destroying them leads to drought for the areas below, as the story states.

The author is well aware that, in this world, clouds move.
Oct 8, 15:09 by Lois Tilton
The reviewer had no doubt that the author was aware of this fact. The reviewer thought that the stationary clouds were a noteworthy feature of this world.
Oct 8, 17:25 by Tim Pratt
I'd never stoop to defend a story I wrote, but I did feel moved to defend my own personal basic meteorological comprehension. :) Apologies if I misunderstood what you wrote.
Oct 8, 18:22 by Lois Tilton
As I mentioned in the review, I think the clouds are a neat idea, but it took a moment of mental gear adjustment when I realized they were stationary. The implications would be quite profound in such a world.

Oct 8, 23:16 by Tim Pratt
Yeah, that's actually part of why I wouldn't write a longer story (gods forbid a novel) set in this world -- it's such a goofy central conceit, and the implications become really bizarre, unwieldy, and improbable if you do any kind of sensible extrapolation. But I figured I could get away with it in a brief story of revelation (that is, a story in which the character doesn't change by the tale's end, but in which the reader's *understanding* of that character changes).

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