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Publisher: Bluejack

November, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, November 2009

The month of the empty Inbox for your reviewer. In the zines, it seems to be Steampunk Engine Time.

Zines Reviewed

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Dec. '09

Realms of Fantasy, December 2009

I find myself pleased to see that the fiction here is all, essentially, secondary-world stuff.

Stories of the Sand by Dirk Strasser

Three pilgrims and their guide are journeying into the desert rymlands, a fantastic region where the sands speak and things that are lost might, perhaps, be found. Semchur is hoping to recover his daughter's sight; her eyes were put out to punish him for attacking her would-be rapist. Rathekin refuses to reveal the nature of his own quest. But this is less the story of the pilgrims as it is a Wondrous Journey; the landscape is the tale. Above us was a canopy of vermilion stars unlike any I had seen before. They burned like angry flames on the dark canvas, and when I wasn't looking seemed to shift to form new constellations.

An inventive and imaginative setting for a story in which a mystery is solved to the satisfaction of the characters, though perhaps a bit too pat.

A Road Once Traveled by Richard Parks

The author stands the fairy tale on its head when an old man sets out to seek his fortune. John Sinterhill is well-endowed with the common sense that comes from experience. If I make my fortune, then my twilight years can be spent at ease. Or if, as seems likely now, I get eaten by a troll, then again I need not worry about tomorrow. He encounters a fox who claims to be an enchanted princess, but John quickly uncovers the truth of the matter to set things straight.

An entertaining light fantasy subverting the standard formula.

Felicity's Engine by Sharon Mock

The Fairy city was destroyed by [humans?] with machines; now Cat and Dog live in the ruins of their mistress's house, guarding her body. That is, Dog guards her body, while Cat mostly hunts. Then Cat discovers a machine of the enemy that seems to want to be of service. He thinks to present it to the Fairy Queen in exchange for her favors; Dog agrees, on the chance that the Queen might be able to restore his mistress to life.

This is a cynical tale about the rewards of loyalty. While I did appreciate the ending, being a cat lover, the setting was annoyingly unclear. If the Fairy city was destroyed, where exactly is the Fairy Court and why was it likewise not destroyed? And why did the machine want to be loyal to the Queen?

In Time of Despair and Great Darkness by Ken Scholes

"My uncle, Mordecai Bach, found an old sword in the watery mud of a trench near Ypres at the end of the war." Now, that is a hook! We know, of course, what sword this is (and if we didn't, the illustration leaves no doubt), and what it means when it gets stuck in a rock again after Mordecai, having got religion, beats it into a plowshare. And when the mysterious strangers show up at the farmhouse, years later, we know they're up to no good when they try to cheat the Bachs out of their farm. But the strangers are pretty dense if they don't recognize the significance of the young narrator's name.

A pretty standard scenario of Good vs Evil. It's not entirely clear that the ending wasn't cut off in the printing process, as the last line seems odd and is not followed by the usual end sign.

Narrative of a Beast's Life by Cat Rambo

This story has the form of a 19th-century narrative of a slave's life, except that the narrator and the other enslaved creatures are Beasts—by which is meant not animals but sentient chimeras out of myth, such as centaurs. The narrator, Fino, is a centaur who is captured by slavers and taken in chains overseas to a land where humans consider that they have been given divine dominion over Beasts. The course of his history follows the typical course of African slaves taken to the Americas in the 18th century—the loss of his name, sexual abuse, mutilation, whippings, attempted escape, recapture and punishment. The narrative voice, likewise, imitates the language of an earlier century. Brutality was a common practice of the Human crew towards the cargo. They affected to despise the Beasts they conveyed, and yet they used us venially as they desired, particularly the ogre women. Few of the crew did not undertake such practices, either with each other or with the miserable captives in their care.

This is an interesting premise, but I am not really sure of the point in having the centaur's story be effectively identical to the historical fate suffered by human slaves in one part of our past. I don't see what is gained by the substitution, and except for the mythical nature of the slaves, these events are essentially historical rather than fantastic or even very fictional.

Baen's Universe

Baen's Universe, Oct. '09

Jim Baen's Universe, October 2009

Zine seems to be winding down. I note that there is no longer a section for the stories of new authors, which leads me to assume that this feature has been eliminated. I never cared for the practice of segregating the newbies that way, and I never found the fiction in that section of an overall lower quality as that from the Name Authors.

If the Frame Fits by Mike Resnick

Murder mystery. Private Detective Jake Masters is reluctant to travel offworld to investigate a killing of a Tjanti diplomat at a peace conference, but he is persuaded. "Mr. Masters, you just became a security risk. Your license is hereby revoked, there are three security men outside my door waiting to take you to a detention cell in the basement for eventual questioning, which may or may not take place this year, and all your assets will be frozen within the hour." Partnered with a Tjanti detective, Masters deploys intuition and deductive logic to identify the killer, despite the obstacles placed in his way by diplomacy.

This is a series. The schtick of the Jake Masters stories seems to be that Masters works well with alien partners and doesn't get along too well with human authorities. As is the convention in such stories, Masters narrates in the typical voice of a wisecracking PI, producing a tone that is light and entertaining, but with a definite touch of noir.

A Thousand Words, A Million Adventures by Chet Gottfried

Morry Jansen is an interstellar travel agent. He stays in the office to handle the paperwork while his brother Howard searches out new worlds for tours. Howard's picks are not always the best choices. "Furthermore, Mr. Connors, I have to record this conversation to ensure that you understand the following warning: After a night of ultimate fun comes a magnificent wedding party with friends and relatives. Dressed in black, your Gorokan wife will kill and cook you on an open fire in front of everyone." Now a large group of Gorokans have pushed into Morry's office insisting that he is Howard Jansen and has recently married a Gorokan woman who now intends to kill and cook him. Morry has to think fast.

Silliness. And too many uneaten adult Gorokan males in the story to support the silly premise.

Canaan by Matthew Rotundo

Alternate worlds. In this world, the religious totalitarians have taken over and installed a repressive regime, but information is still sometimes smuggled in from more tolerant timelines. Eric Baines is the teenage son of a wealthy repressive preacher, who falls in love with a strange girl before she is arrested by Timeline Management [a branch of Homeland Security]. But she has left her passport behind in his car, and the black suits come to Eric's high school, searching for it. Eric is arrested and tries to protect her, assuming that his father's position will protect him. But there is something about Eric's father that he never knew—he came originally from another timeline where blasphemies like evolution were tolerated. "It's a poisoned world. And there are thousands—millions—just like it. This is the Promised Land, Eric. It's our Canaan. This universe. This timeline. It's the reward for the faithful. Here we can do great things. And we have."

A nice cross of time travel with dystopia. The setting is not a strain on the reader's credulity and the author avoids many of the obvious clichés. In fact, as far as we can see, this dystopia's repression is on the light side; the Reverend Baines is surprisingly tolerant, and Eric is free to conduct a computer hacking operation in the basement without interference, other than a nationwide curfew for those under 21. As heavy-handed oppression goes, this is pretty light.

New Jersey's Top Ghost Tours Reviewed and Rated by Sarah Avery

Jim Griggs is working hard to get his ghost tour ready for the reviewers as the fall season approaches. The ghosts don't work for free. Nobody, but nobody, appreciated how hard the current economy pinched the small businessman. Time was when the ghost tour's weekly take would allow Jim to pay some high school kid to catch the rats and endure the dirty looks from the tourists. Jim has acquired a new ghost for this Halloween tour season, a union organizer named Zelda Timmerman, but her demands are high and she knows how to lead a strike.

This is a fun read, as ghostly afflictions pile up on Jim Griggs.


Katie Birch by Sarah L. Edwards

Ida Wills lives in her old farmhouse with the ghost of her husband, John. She becomes concerned about a young neighbor girl, Katie Birch, whose drunken father does not seem capable of raising such a child. She learns that there is something about Katie that makes ghosts appear, but this is not a problem for Ida, who assures her that John welcomes her to their home.

Heartwarming tale suggesting that the love of the dead is fine, but the love of the living is better.


Clarkesworld, #37

Clarkesworld, October 2009

Two more strong stories.

Spar by Kij Johnson

After a collision in space that killed her partner, the narrator slowly loses her grasp on reality in the close quarters of an alien lifeboat with a slimy squid-like creature that forces her to copulate with it. Sometimes she watches it fuck her, the strange coiling of its Outs like a shockwave thrusting into her body, and this excites her and horrifies her; but at least it is not Gary. Gary, who left her here with this, who left her here, who left.

The alien sex is likely to revolt some readers and others may consider it gratuitous, but I believe it is essential to the story, to show the extremes of what the narrator has come to regard as normal. On the other hand, maybe the slime-sucking scene might have done as well for this purpose. The author plays a lot with words, particularly with the Ins and Outs. The title also has a double meaning, suggesting both the sexual match between the characters and the wreckage of a ship to which the survivors cling.

Of Melei, of Ulthar by Gord Sellar

Melei is a dream-flyer. By day she lives in warm, cat-filled Ulthar, but at night in her dreams she flies to distant lands (worlds?) where she has a different name. Melei is the name that keeps her in Ulthar, but the other name, spoken aloud, would call her away, never to return. So that awake, by the lengthening hours of that slow, still-warm autumn endlessness, Melei stalked the cozy, jumbled streets of Ulthar. Listlessly; suffering through a sunny afternoon as faraway gleam of dreamt flames in darkness, and the tempo of faint faraway cries and chanting, haunted her waking mind.

There is nothing here that one could really call a plot, but it's not much missed. What we have is description of the places and cities that Melei sees, both waking and dreaming. Descriptions fantastic and wondrous.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 2009

It seems that this is the first anniversary of this ezine and thus the issue for October 8 (#27) comes with twice the usual number of stories.

The Mathematics of Faith by Jonathan Wood

The narrator has been immured in his house for blasphemy. "Because I dared to speak the truth. Because I recognize the imperfection in our bodies and would perfect them. Because I would not turn to worm-food as my Pater did. Because I seek a way to stop the slow decay that holds us all prisoner. Because I seek to never return to the earth, but to live immortal. Because of that." I slow my breathing. "Because of that." While he continues his experiments in his prison, he also watches some old filmcards and becomes obsessed with one particular story, which seems to be coming to life before his eyes, although at first he denies it. He and the woman he sees in the film projector fall in love, although she is a woman of faith and he believes only in the evidence of his senses.

The setting has tones of the fashionable steampunk, although it is definitely fantasy. Despite all the narrator's scientific protests, only suspension of disbelief can account for a woman's image on a static medium communicating with a man watching it. There is also a great deal here to ponder regarding fate, predestination and free will.

Of Shifting Skin and Certainty by Justin Howe

An eskya is a skin-changer, apparently something like an actor in this world. When the real king dies in the middle of a military campaign, an eskya is called upon to wear his form. I rode doubly armored, once in steel and once in another man's flesh, and discovered a fear never known to myself before. There is terror in being fixed to one identity, and history forms its own prison.

A short tale of identity and self in an imaginative setting.

The Pirate Captain's Daughter by Yoon Ha Lee

A world in which the sailing of ships is motivated by poetry. For the little fisher-boats that never ventured far from shore, a scrap of chant handed down from parent to child might suffice. For the dhows and junks that ventured into the sea's storms, cobwebbing the paths of trade between continents, more sophisticated poetry was required: epics in hexameter, verses structured around jagged caesuras; elegantly poised three-line poems with the placement of alliterating syllables strictly dictated.The pirate captain's daughter has no name because she has no poem. The sea has rejected all her attempts at versery. It is becoming clear, now that she is grown, that she will have to leave the ship.

This one reminds me rather too much of an Erin Hoffman story published earlier this year in this zine, yet another tale of a pirate's daughter needing to earn her name. In this one, the premise is more fanciful and the piracy effaced—we see the hold full of exotic loot but not the bloodshed spent obtaining it. The plot is rather unremarkable, but the author's prose makes it a delight to read. I note, however, that it is entirely prose— in a story so much about poetry, there is none in the text.

Songdogs by Ian McHugh

A not-Western. This is either some other world or ours, drastically changed by the arrival in the sky of a False Moon. Lifeforms are hostile. The wait-a-while patch rustled as they passed, although there wasn't much breeze. It looked like wild wheat, but its ears were full of fishhook barbs. Hidden beneath were leach-mouthed creepers that'd slither up out of the ground and into a person's clothes. Agnieska is a bounty-hunter turned Sheriff, enforcing the rule of a corrupt authority against rebellion. She has collared a rebel and is taking him across the desert, on foot because horses have turned carnivorous; they are being followed by both a pack of vicious songdogs and the rest of her prisoner's gang.

For all that is ostensibly different—the lifeforms, the spellcasting, the politics—this story is extremely familiar, as the bounty hunter is forced to confront the morality of her actions. Readers will immediately recognize it from a dozen movies.

Six Seeds by Sara M. Harvey

It begins as a sort of steampunk, with the protagonist a young girl working in her mother's brothel, not as a whore but tending the mechanical Dollies that provide the establishment's services. But she becomes fascinated by one client, Mr H -----, who is described as "a rogue scientific philosopher, claiming to have cracked the code that binds soul to body, and therefore body to life." In short, a mad scientist. Or so it seems, until the reader realizes what story this actually is.

This is one of those pieces that is about the ending revealing itself, so I will limit myself to saying that I thought the idea was kinda kewl. What bothers me is the Dollies, who don't really seem to fit into the story as it evolves.

To Kiss the Granite Choir by Michael Anthony Ashley

This is not simply an intriguing title, it truly reflects the story's heart. Imre Usaym Balgas is the exiled prince of his clan, in flight from his enemies, when he arrives in the Silici Archipelago, ruled by the Baremescre clan. Mistaking the local customs, he intervenes when it seems that a local thug is molesting a young woman, but when he kills the thug, he finds himself enslaved as payment. The Baremescre are part stone; they carry stone blades that grow from their own bones, and they live for armed combat, which they call song. Maestro Bellico's skin was the color of bronze, his features hawkishly angled, his movements lithe. He and the challenger, a stranger to Imre, circled each other with the patient deadliness of warships in deep water, until by some silent agreement they lunged, stone blades colliding with a thunderous report. Thrice more they crossed with rat-a-tat speed—bark and crash and clack—until a sudden red mist wreathed the challenger, and he sagged to the ground in a heap. But Imre himself is not entirely human either, and he insists on challenging the Baremescre on their own terms.

Here is a richly fantastic setting, a work of high creativity. Imre is as fascinating a character as the Baremescre, from a background even more exotic and alien. Fantasy action at its best.


Great, Golden Wings by Rachel Swirsky

A young cinematographer brings his invention to court, hoping to find patrons who will support his films of dragons, but he finds instead ridicule and the hostility of the magicians, who dislike the thought of competition for their illusions.

The story here is all in the last couple of paragraphs, following a lot of redundancies. That comma in the title bugs me.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, October 2009

Back to the pattern of mostly fantasy with an occasional piece of SF as diversion.

And Their Lips Rang with the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar

In a city that worships the Sun, the temple dancers are its glory. See how swift and clever are their feet, how their lips are sewn with tiny golden bells, how their very breath chimes and shines, the better to spell out the hours of the day in brilliance worthy of the Sun! One day the dancer named Lam, named from the letter on her brow that marked out her destiny, catches the eye of a stranger in the plaza, dressed all in black. She follows him and discovers the dark, hidden temple of the Moon and its robed singers; they make love. But Lam does not wake in time for the morning dance, and so the Sun can not rise.

It is hard to resist such a title as this one, not to wonder what it means, and the author's prose creates exotic imagery, a setting familiar yet different enough to tantalize, inverting the usual gender identification of sun and moon. The story, too, follows a traditional path, but it is rewarding for being well-told, with enough originality to keep the reader's interest.


The Second Conquest of Earth by L.J. Daly

Alien invasion. Nasty aliens conquer the Earth. The Kus's crocodile teeth are bloodied, flecked with gobbets of white and gray. The smell of his fresh meal ferments in the summer heat. That blood, that gristle were someone's child. The Kus eat their meat live. The narrator is a fortune teller who uses a new, electronic version of a Tarot. The alien has come to her with a secret problem, but he will not tell the fortune teller what it is.

The author has gone overboard with the aliens, so that the scenario of cooperation and integration seems unlikely and contrived. My disbelief never got off the ground. The prose has a number of clumsy expressions, as for example the smell fermenting above.

The Regime of Austerity by Veronica Schanoes

The regime has almost entirely forbidden the use of color, except for a meager ration. In consequence, the world is gray, and children are growing up not knowing that there was ever anything different. Stella used to be an artist, and she yearns to complete a painting; illegally, she hoards color from her workplace, the few drops remaining in the bottom of the vials.

There is more than one way of not making sense. This premise is the sort of fantasy that we know is impossible, so we know not to ask how the regime of austerity came about, how the color was taken away in the first place; its message is symbolic, not literal. But even an impossible premise needs self-consistency, and this one lacks it. We are told that color is rationed, that hoarding color is illegal, that if Stella's painting were ever seen, she would be severely punished. Yet at the same time, it seems that color can be purchased freely, that people with enough money seem to have unlimited supplies of color. How, then, are there not wealthy painters? Why are they not punished as Stella would be? When we begin to ask this sort of question, the questions grow until the fact that none of this makes any sense begins to overwhelm the attraction of the symbolism.

Ms Liberty Gets a Haircut by Cat Rambo

Superheroines in identity crisis. Ms Liberty tries to become her own person while denying the person she was programmed to be. She isn't the only one in the group with problems.

I don't know if this was the author's intention, but this story mostly makes me think that the entire idea of superheroes has become really ridiculous. Superheroes as originally conceived operated in the real, human world. They defeated Nazis, they saved people from falling safes, they foiled the plans of bank robbers and rescued hostages. But this generation of superheroes exists in its own cartoon gameworld. They fight something huge and big and terrifying. That's par for the course. That's what superheroes do, whether they're programmed by three almost-adolescents in lab coats or by centuries of a culture's honor code or by some childhood incident that set them forever on this stark path. They aren't real persons, so their problems aren't real, their existential angst isn't real, and none of it engages my interest.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, October 2009

It does seem that FM is now presenting two new pieces of fiction every week, or almost every week, although there are an increasing number that aren't actually fantasy.

The White Part of the Apple by Emily Tersoff

A short, original reworking of the Snow White tale. In this case, she is literally a girl made of snow. Her face was white, covered in ice, and it frosted her eyelashes. Her lips were purple until one of them wiped her face with a cloth and then her lips were red, red like falling leaves, red like ripe apples, red like blood.

This seems to be a tale of abuse and love, as the unthawed snow maiden craves even the attention of the stepmother who is trying to kill her. But this interesting idea doesn't manage to coalesce from a series of images into a coherent story. There are scenes that cross over into the absurd, such as the snow maiden making spaghetti in the microwave, but they don't fit into the same fairytale universe where the stepmother is tortured to death in red-hot shoes. We see too little of the stepmother to understand or judge her, and even less of the seven [seven what? seven ice maidens?]. Are they too cold to comb her hair? I also think that October is a bit too early to find a snow maiden lying around.

Clockatrice by Tanith Lee

In 1594, Diana Sesby went out at night to the rather sinister garden for a rendezvous with her faithless betrothed Robert, finding instead the cockatrice, which turned her to stone. As her ghost complains, "No, you were not there. Instead the Devil came and opened his bony serpent wings in the tree. His scaled tail coiled all around the branches, just as we are told it did in Eden. Oh, Robert, I wish I had seen you before he shut me fast in stone. But all I saw was the red back of his throat, like the stenchy gape of Hell, and now I am stopped forever, and all forevers that may be." Centuries later, the stone figure still stands in the garden of the estate inherited by his descendant Robert Trenchall, who pays for its upkeep by hosting tourists and seducing some them. One jilted tourist, Dru, decides to take a bit of revenge on the cad, but she discovers that she has evoked something beyond her control.

This is dark dark fantasy, filled with haunting and retribution and unspoken curses. The depiction of the clock-cockatrice is effectively diabolic. The ties between the Elizabethan and contemporary milieus add interest; the cockatrice was a popular legendary creature in the sixteenth century, but the author makes it into something truly sinister and powerful.


La Mer by Simon Logan

Last year, when Daniel's wife Ceri was suffering in the grip of depression, he brought her to the shore and arranged for a local fisherman to bury her at the bottom of the sea. Now he is wallowing in grief and regret, returns to the place to demand his wife back. But the sea doesn't give things back.

There seems to be something supernatural in this scenario, something more than a mundane murder-for-hire, although it is not quite clear what. The fisherman is a dwarf and the narrator also calls him a troll, giving the scene a vaguely fairytale tone, so that it doesn't seem entirely absurd that Daniel would demand his wife's return. The prose sometimes strains a bit for effect: The skeletal grasses that grew at the edge of the sands leaned towards him in the briny wind, the industrial carcasses of desolate factories stamping themselves on the skyline Thus is it jarring to see something like "there was too many of them" slip past whatever passes for a proofreading process at this venue.

Jews in Antarctica by Lavie Tidhar

The drawbacks of exposing children to religion. The narrator's father tells him that the messiah will come within five years and raise the dead from their graves. The young narrator, having perhaps watched too many zombie movies, is alarmed by this prospect and prepares a shelter.

"Is everyone going to rise from the dead when the messiah comes?" I ask my dad. He shakes his head. "Of course not," he says. "Only Jews will."

This is good news. It means I would a lot less to worry about than if everyone came back to life. I take my brother's air-gun when he isn't looking and put it in the shelter, and then I worry about the mitzvah that says do not steal, but I don't steal it, I merely borrow it, and he will thank me when the time comes.

This short, non-fantastic piece is humorous, but there is a serious vein in it as well. I suspect that it might offend some of the people the story is talking about; I suspect this may have been the author's intention.

Undocumented by Rachel Swirsky

The narrator is the child of illegal immigrants from Mexico, surviving at the bottom of the exploited class. When young, she used to make up stories about a fantasy island where everyone was happy and rich, ignoring the question of who does the laundry in utopia. Her fantasies die when her father is brutally assaulted. The next day, Jorge would raise a piece of glass against his brother, the glint in his eye an echo of the one that had shone in the pupils of the man who cut hatred into papa, setting these events into motion. My family would crack apart like the ground in an earthquake, leaving us grasping to stretch our fingers across the widening rift. At that moment, my mind did the same.

This non-fantastic piece of social commentary doesn't read very story-like, being essentially a moment of growing up as the narrator recalls the loss of her childhood illusions about the world.

Light on the Water by Genevieve Valentine

Forty-nine seems to be a sentimental office building who wishes he was inhabited by permanent residents that he could love. In his loneliness, he falls in love with the hotel across the river. She was all by herself on that side of the river, just her and the rocky shore and the long highway that wound in a ribbon far behind her, and she seemed always so lonely he wanted her to know she was not unloved. His love is requited, but eventually doomed by the forces of progress.

This seems to be a charming, sentimental fantasy premise, but something about it rings false. 49 was too easily consoled for his loss; it seems as if the hotel was only second-best in his heart.

In Dreams Tangible by Su-Yee Lin

From time to time, this ezine publishes fictions like this one, chosen presumably for their prose rather than their story. Here we have Laurel, who, we are told, is a dream weaver, but what else she is we are not told, except that she is Very Special. She is intangible yet tangible. One feels that if one touches her, she will dissolve into a puddle of soapy water like a wizard, or perhaps just disappear in a poof of light and smoke. Yet she is all too real, always there when you need her and always, always unattainable. Distant as a mountain's silhouette on the horizon, as close as the empty presence in the other chair. Untouchable. An assassin who isn't an assassin but a star, obviously Special as well, comes every night not really to try to kill Laurel, and when he fails one night to appear, she flies off to the rescue.

To say that this all makes no literal sense is stating the obvious. The point is the sort of fantasy-thinking common in daydreams, when we imagine we are as wonderful as we would like to be. The piece is a string of these images for anyone who might be interested, which I can not say includes me.

A Song to Greet the Sun by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Meso-American honor killing, partially in verse. A father kills his daughter because she was seen with the man she loves, a member of a conquered tribe. The priests disapprove, and the father fears the damage to his reputation could block his promotion.

The plot of this tragic love story is minimal; it opens with the killing, then moves on to the reactions of others—her mother, her lover:

His legs are long, lithe with unearned grace
His fingers dance like caterpillar legs
Over the reeds of his pipes
He hides from the sun
But the river hears—it loves him as she does.
She, the sun's daughter, by conquering fathers forbidden
To keep her heart in the basket of his reeds—
Fragile beneath the one-eyed god's stare.

I am not sure about the setting. It seems to be Mexica, but the author's prose gives it a rather contemporary feel, so that I wonder if it is an alternate version. Here again, it is the language that makes the piece, this time successfully.


Apex Magazine

Apex Magazine, October 2009

Two original stories and two reprints this time, all horror-toned in some manner.

A Poor Man's Roses by Alethea Kontis

Let's see. The Earth is disintegrating, most everyone has left, Kerri is imprisoned by her maybe-husband so he can drain her nano-enhanced blood, the byproduct of cancer treatment, and she is coming to believe that she is Patsy Cline, suggesting that she is coming unhinged. But the heart of the story is her relationship with her AI jailer, Stella, whom Kerri imagines as her daughter. It was Patsy Cline who kept her here, not Stella, not this android who might-have-sort-of-not-really resembled the daughter Kerri almost-maybe-never had. A daughter who played prison warden and stuck her like a pincushion and... She would not think about what perversions The Bastard did to Stella beyond that door at the top of those stairs.

A whole lot packed into this short piece that reads like a series of surreal impressions—too much and too short to let Kerri really come alive, to let readers understand the extent to which she is insane or just coping with her situation. I wonder about the nano-meds; if they are as miraculous as they seem, wouldn't they guarantee bodily immortality, immunity from dying? If so, the plot has some problems.

To Dream of Stars: An Astronomer's Lament by Peter M. Ball

Alternate history. It seems that aliens have taken over the Earth, or at least England, where they have built an Observatory. John Flamsteed longs to enter this tower, to study astronomy. But such study in this universe involves the intimately painful embrace of the Others, who seem to feed on the Astronomers in some sort of psychosexual intercourse. "Now," she says. His neck is stiff when she penetrates, the crisp point of her nail cutting through the taut sinew. The pain that washes through him is magnificent, a sweeping agony that leaves him with the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Something drips from his nose, making it hard to breathe. He grits his teeth and draws breath through them, waiting the pain out. The nail is removed, a swift withdrawal accompanied by the wet suck of flesh drawing closed.

It is not clear to me whether the intercourse with the Others itself involves the vision of the stars or if this is just the price of admission to the Observatory, where mundane astronomy can be done. Nor is it clear whether the Others themselves are gaining astronomical knowledge from these encounters. John Flamsteed was a real person, the first Astronomer Royal. His historical accomplishments were great, without the assistance of gratuitous aliens.


Zeppelin City, October 2009

It seems to be Steampunk Month at this site, with a theme of steampunk revolutionaries.

Zeppelin City by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn

In a world resembling the turn of our last century, the Naked Brains control the city from a fleet of zeppelins from which they look down upon humanity. Their regime is opposed by such revolutionaries as Rudy the Red, a humorless, single-minded "community organizer." What if Charles Chaplin—a man who respects the worker's dignity—had made this kinescope? There would be nothing funny about it: You'd weep for the poor fellows on the Brains' assembly line. As you should weep for Chico and Zeppo, whose dream of a life of honest labor and just reward has been cruelly exploited." The masses are kept entertained by the Game, in which planes and autogyros, with celebrated pilots like Amelia Spindizzy, engage in aerial dogfights overhead. But there is more than one revolution being plotted.

If this story were not so very entertaining, I might not have been willing to click through a ridiculous fourteen screens in order to reach the end. Fortunately, it is so very entertaining, a lot of retro revolutionary fun combined with elements of The Matrix and other sly references to our own milieu. My favorite scene is when Rudy engages in the Marxist analysis of Modern Times as made by the Marx brothers. Chico and Zeppo, meanwhile, kept working faster and faster as the line sped up. For them, this was grim business. To keep from falling behind, they had to employ two wrenches, one per hand. Sweat poured off them. They shed their hats, then their jackets, then their shirts and pants, leaving them clad only in voluminous underwear. Harpo, on the other hand, was feeling no pressure at all. He began drilling holes in his hat, then his jacket, then his shirt and pants. Fun stuff.


The Strange Case of Mr Salad Monday by GD Falksen

Steamypunk detective. Max Wilde works for the bureaucratic and capitalist police state of Salmagundi, which is always hunting down socialists, subversives and terrorists. The forces of repression have come to suspect the authors of pamphlets and broadsheets of plotting something or other, and Max is assigned to discover the identity of one who scribes under the pseudo of Mr Salad Monday. Wilde set the broadsheets aside and thumbed through the folder. It contained a number of obscure pamphlets and political chapbooks, all machine-printed on cheap paper. They had been bound with red ribbon, and each was plastered with a paper tab bearing the ominous statement "Forbidden!"

This is fun reading, though not without pointed references to certain social injustices that tend to be universal. Max is a jolly and agreeable character; it is not clear how he found his way into this repressive job or how he survives with his soul intact. Most amusing is the system of printed broadsheets that manages to recapitulate electronic blogging commentary, complete with threading. Ingenious stuff.

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.


Nov 8, 00:57 by IROSF
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Nov 11, 09:57 by Lois Tilton
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