Despair not, gentle reader, we knew that a reviewer of Lois' caliber would not languish in obscurity. Henceforward, her reviews can be found at Locus Online. We all congratulate Lois for this transition, and look forward to her future efforts.
A little over four years ago, I took over the position of short fiction reviewer from Bluejack, and now, sadly, I find myself writing my last column for IROSF. In these few years I have noticed a number of changes in the genre, and one in particular: a deep and growing gap between two sets of short fiction periodicals. To a certain extent, but not entirely, it is a gap dividing electronic from print venues, fantasy from science fiction, even female from male authors. But above all it seems to be a generation* gap.
One set of magazines, most notably the "Big Three" digests, is regularly dominated by a group of authors I will call the Olde Phartes. The other set, most of them electronic periodicals, features a group of authors I have been known to call the Hot Now Things. In fact, these two sets of zines seem to be defined for the most part by the authors they publish. What I find so striking about this division is how exclusive it is, how little crossover there seems to be between the two groups, how few authors seem to publish regularly in both sets of zines.
Twenty-mumble years ago, when writers of my own generation first came into the genre, this observation would have had a simple explanation. The default career ladder for a genre writer involved ascending from zines that paid only in copies, then to the "semi-pro" level, and finally to the pinnacle of acceptance into the Big Three (or whatever the number was at the time). It would have been taken for granted that the authors appearing in the "semi-pro" zines were those who had not yet gained the lofty heights of Mount Pro, and upon reaching this exalted level, their names would cease to appear in the ToCs of lesser status.**
This is no longer the case. The old semi-prozines have been disappearing, one by one, as short fiction has moved from print to electronic media. But the top tier of these ezines today can not, by the usual measures, be considered "semi" professional or second rate. They often pay as much or more than the old digests, and their stories are just as likely to be found on the Year's Best lists and nominated for the usual genre awards. Their authors are just as likely to be selling novels to the genre's most highly-regarded publishing houses.
Why, then, do the HNTs so rarely appear in the pages of the digests and the other zines that typically publish the OPs? And why are the OPs so infrequently seen in the publications that feature the HNTs?
There are, of course, some well-regarded authors who can be found anywhere. Tanith Lee. Carol Emshwiller. But these seem to be exceptions. Most writers seem to be found on for the most part on one side or the other of the gap; this is what defines it. And too many of these authors are so well-regarded that it's hard to conceive their stories wouldn't be welcomed by the editors of any genre publications, that their work wouldn't be solicited. So what's going on?
One factor I've noted previously is the drawback of periodicals cultivating a stable of regular contributors. While this is doubtless beneficial to the authors so chosen and convenient for the editors, it can result in ossification, particularly over decades with magazines following the same rutted path, failing to attract the readers of new authors. Is this what's going on? Are the editors of the OP zines rejecting the HNT writers, the editors of the HNT zines disdaining the work of the OPs and forming their own ruts?
Or is it something else? Are the authors rejecting the magazines? Is it that the OPs don't bother to send their stuff to ezines? Do they still regard these new fiction outlets as "semi-pro"? Are the HNTs refusing to submit their work to zines they consider stodgy, ossified and out-of-date?
I've seen some evidence suggesting that this is so. That, for example, some members of the HNT generation have refused to send fiction to the digests because they don't accept electronic submissions. To my own Olde Pharte sensibilities, this is the height of foolishness; if a market has certain requirements, a professional author meets those requirements. IFF she wants to sell to that market. But writers who don't automatically assume that a sale to the digests is such a great deal may think differently. And an editor can't print a story if the author won't send it to the zine.
There may be other factors involved. Several of the traditional OP zines tend to prefer science fiction, while many of the HNTs are fantasists. Some authors may suspect, correctly or otherwise, that some editors of certain zines are prejudiced against writers of their own gender. Many ezines persist in restricting their word length to a point that doesn't interest the authors who prefer to write longer works. There may be other causes to which I remain oblivious.
One thing, however, I am sure of. This gap does not do the SF field any good, with worthy magazines cut off from fine authors and/or authors from magazines. It's time for bridges, before the field turns to stone.
Note: the analysis above is entirely based on my own subjective impressions of the field and on no systematic research whatsoever. I invite the comments of others who may agree or disagree with me or offer other insight into the situation. After all, this may be your last opportunity to tell me off.
* Generation in this sense does not refer to chronological age. Authors belong to the generation of writers who break into publishing at about the same time as themselves. [back]
** The next stage is for the successful author to land a number of novel contracts and abandon short fiction, except when invited into some A-list hardcover anthology. [back]
Now, for the last time at this site...
- Asimov's, February 2010
- Asimov's, March 2010
- F&SF, March-April 2010
- Analog, March 2010
- Analog, April 2010
- Clarkesworld 40, January 2010 Online
- Strange Horizons, January 2010 Online
- Fantasy Magazine, January 2010 Online
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2010 Online
- Apex Magazine, December 2009 Online
- Apex Magazine, January 2010 Online
Asimov's, Feb '10
Asimov's, February 2010
Anchored by a Stephen Baxter novella, this issue also includes stories from some of the Hot Now Things, a promising example of the bridge-building I advocate above.
The Ice Line by Stephen Baxter
Alternate history from the journal of Ben Hobbes, formerly an associate of Robert Fulton, now caught up along with their joint invention, the submersible Nautilus, in the naval warfare between Napoleon's navy and the British. As an American and rather a coward, Hobbes has no loyalty to either side, but he hasn't counted on the presence of the alien ice creatures called Phoebeans, who seem to have set up a base on Mars, which the British are determined to oppose at the same time as the invading Napoleonic army. He is pressed into action by the British Admiral Collingwood to complete the spaceship begun by Fulton for a Martian invasion. "You fear that Mars is the Phoebeans' Boulogne! That they are massing forces to jump to Earth!" I tried not to laugh, but failed; the grave figures gathered around the campaign maps looked on me as if I had giggled at a funeral. "The Phoebeans have Jupiter and Uranus! What would they want of little Earth, where they cannot live anyhow?"
This one is more purely alternate-historical than the preceding episode, and despite the nineteenth century spaceship, the tone is not steampunky. More interesting to me is the alternate Napoleonic war, with its rousing sea battles and a victorious France occupying America—although Ben's accounts of these events is a tad bit overly prolonged. In most respects, the history rings true, and the annotations of Ben's text by Collingwood's daughter Anne are an amusing, clever device. However, I do have a problem with the proposition that, at the very moment the French invasion of England is underway, one of the most senior British admirals (Nelson is dead) would be assigned away from the action on such a seemingly non-urgent mission. Baxter manages to unify these two disparate parts of the story more successfully than I might have supposed possible, but without completely settling my misgivings on this point.
Stone Wall Truth by Caroline M Yoachim
A wall of clear glass is a relic of the Ancients, now a place of punishment where important prisoners are flayed open to expose the darkness within them, so that the people will know they were unworthy. Njeri is the surgeon who opens the victims, then sews them up again.
She placed the tip of the blade on Bahtir's breastbone, and leaned into it with all her weight. His breastbone split in two. She pried his ribcage open and revealed his shadows. They crawled like slugs from the core of his being, leaving trails of black slime behind them. This was her vindication, her proof that the punishment was just—
The central image here is highly disturbing, powerful and strange, intriguing. Stronger than the lesson Njeri learns from it, which is the least credible part of the story.
The Woman Who Waited Forever by Bruce McAllister
When Brad was a boy, years after WWII, his father was stationed in a small town in Italy where there was an abandoned German military hospital; a statue of a sad woman stood in the grounds. There wasn't really any way to cut directly from the dirt path through the olive groves to the hospital. There were old walls—
This is unambiguously a ghost story, although this element takes up only a small portion of the narrative. The author announces his theme as love, but I believe it is more accurately kindness, or at least the love of all humanity. And it is a story of war, in which kindness can often be lacking. The inner story is a tragic one, very moving. But I wish the author had not played the Nazi card as he did, suggesting an essentialist determinism that dooms some characters as irredeemable, just because of their ancestors. And the woman of the title didn't wait forever, but only about ten years.
The Wind-Blown Man by Aliette de Bodard
Shinxie is Abbess of the White Horse Monastery, a prisoner in charge of prisoners. She was sent there to separate her from her lover the Sixth Prince, and the other students are likewise troublemakers who might disturb the peace of the imperial realm. If the students learn to transcend desire, they can ascend to a higher realm beyond Earth, but Shinxie's desire for her old lover is too strong to be transcended. Until a former student descends from Heaven, returning to the monastery, a thing considered impossible and perhaps subversive.
His second-skin was metal-cold, as if remembering the frosty touch of Heaven—
This is a tale of rebellion and liberation, but at its heart it is about desire and the perils of being offered what you most wish for.
Dead Air by Damien Broderick
Homage to Philip K Dick. Earth has become crowded and strange, saved only by an orbital sunscreen. Everyone's electronic devices have been hijacked to display only the mysterious images called "thetans," ghostly figures pleading for help. In disbelief, Jive glanced up past the rim of his Brooks Brothers tropical pith helmet. By the living lord Harry, it was a safe plunging toward him, or a plausible simulation. No, light winked from the front of the thing. Leaping back, terrified, Jive tripped on the curb, fell full length. With a splintering detonation, the thing flew apart into shards of broken glass, trailing wires, microcircuitry from the previous century, plywood, and tasteless veneer. Another damned TV set, hurled from an upper window by a cit driven to despair.
I think it may take a Dick fan to totally appreciate this one. The prose is dense with strangeness indicators that are often, taken in themselves, rather more boring and off-putting than intriguing. Jive tries manfully to be a character, to make this a story, but this is hard to discern amidst the jargon throughout most of the story, until the mass hysteria and madness rise high enough to sweep him away.
The Bold Explorer in the Place Beyond by David Erik Nelson
The editorial blurb fails to inform readers that this one is set in the same world as the author's celebrated "Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate" from the late Paradox magazine. In this one, drunken Dickie Tucker tells himself (or perhaps the hidden narrator) a drunken tall tale about a Bold Explorer of a squid who decided, defying the received wisdom of elder squids, to build himself an air-diving apparatus. "He'd tell 'em, of a thin place up above and beyond the world, a searing place of blinding light, of roars and shudders, of helpless flopping and hopeless incomprehensibility." The tale is a lesson to young Seth Everett, who has been hiding in the hedge hoping to catch a glimpse of the local dancehall girls.
Asimov's, Mar '10
Asimov's, March, 2010
More skiffy, less fantastic for this generally superior issue.
Helping Them Take the Old Man Down by William Preston
For some time, Lanagan worked as one of agents for the mysterious and powerful figure known as "the old man," about whom many fantastic tales have been told. He always assumed they were working for good, to save the world. Some time after 9/11, he is contacted by a government agent seeking his help in tracking down the old man, whom they suspect of having had information in advance of the event. This provokes a crisis of loyalty. I told myself: Of course he had escape routes. Of course he had alternate plans. Of
course the old man could fashion a thousand ways to escape. Because surely he'd
known they were coming—
This is a skiffy work, challenging the reader to identify the secretive and enigmatic "old man." It is also a political work, exposing the US descent into a police state over the last decade. When the guy from the agency without a name asks Lanagan if he has reason to distrust his government, the reader knows the true answer is, "Hell, yes." But even moreso it is an ethical work. Lanagan must take an existential leap of faith, to challenge his assumptions about the man he has always revered. In the end, it is by their works that we must judge them.
Blind Cat Dance by Alexander Jablokov
A world engineered so that humans and wild animals can share the same space. A cougar prowls a coffee shop but its brain has been rewired so it doesn't perceive the human customers; the tables and counters seem to the cat to be boulders and trees. This is the work the narrator does as a Trainer, but he is now working for a wealthy man whose wife wants to work with wildlife. As the wife develops her genuine ability in the field, the Trainer is falling in love with her, while being spied on by the cougar he has trained himself.
It is a different, very intriguing but enigmatic world that might at first seem utopian but gradually reveals sinister aspects. If animals can be manipulated so that they only see what they are programmed to, perhaps the same has been done to humans. Perhaps this world is an illusion and no one can really trust the evidence of their senses. The cougar raises its head. Something about the open space of the meadow is bothering it. The mule deer think they have moved off to another high valley, as they do when a predator appears, but there is actually no room for that here. They will circle the dining area and reemerge exactly where they were before.
The Tower by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Time travel thievery. The Portals corporation wants to field-test its new equipment, Neyla wants to be in on the discovery of the remains of the Princes in the Tower, and Thomas, impersonating a member of Neyla's crew, plans to steal some minor Crown Jewels. So off they go to 1674, where Thomas's plans threaten to ruin Neyla's.
History is fascinating, but historical fiction can get bogged down when the author goes on and on about details that never really matter in the story. So it is here, and when all the infodump is cleared away, what we have is a rather slight crime caper and the revelation that the past is really a long time ago. Not enough.
Centaurs by Benjamin Crowell
Teenage dating in the Neptune Trojans. Ginny and Serge go exploring an abandoned mine. Trouble ensues. Her hand was cold. She looked at her glove, and in the light from her helmet she saw her own skin through a millimeter-wide hole in the fingertip. She must have torn her glove when she pulled it loose from the ice. But surviving a suit leak is easier than navigating the course of teenage love, or so the author suggests.
Standard problem story.
Ticket Inspector Gliden Becomes the First Martyr of the Glorious Human Uprising by Derek Zumsteg
The aliens have come to take over Earth and introduce order and efficiency. But Ticket Inspector Gliden is still determined to enforce the rules in the Berlin U-bahn, even for high-ranking alien officials who purchase the wrong ticket. If you've lost Berlin subway riders on an argument for efficiency and process, that's it, he thought. Get on the next ship home, and take your treaty proposals, some souvenir worthless currency, and your canceled BC two-zone stub. Which really says it all.
The Speed of Dreams by Will Ludwigsen
An 8th-grade science experiment. Does time run faster in dreams? Do you get more time to live the more you dream? But how to measure the speed of dreams?
This one starts out in an amusing way as a tale of teenage angst but turns unexpectedly darker at the end.
F&SF, Mar/Apr '10
F&SF, March-April 2010
Some very good reading in this issue.
Amor Fugit by Alexandra Duncan
Myth. Ourania is the daughter of Day and Night, whose parents are cursed never again to meet. Dusk tastes sour honey sweet. Sweet because the fading light means my father is making his way to us through the far-off wood. Sour because my mother will snuff out her lantern and leave me alone as soon as he comes into sight. On their farm, life goes on much as it always has since the Bronze Age, but in the world outside time is rushing past, bringing changes and wonders and the possibility of love.
A nice mythic variation. It seems incongruous that Ourania would be studying Latin and math and Darwin while leading an apparently archaic lifestyle, but her parents must bring these things to her from the outer world, during their time away. I decided not to let it bother me.
Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History by Albert E Cowdrey
Horror. An account of the happenings at Fort Clay near the end of the Civil War, when a skeleton force of sixteen Union soldiers was left to man the fort. They were holding one prisoner, a simple character called the Headsman, suspected of a series of beheadings upriver in New Orleans. But it was summer, season of yellow fever and also of hurricanes. Water entered the first floor of the barracks, forcing the decreasing number of men who were still well to carry everything—
Regular readers of F&SF are certainly familiar with this author, who appears in its pages almost as frequently as Robert Reed. Cowdrey's output is varied and of uneven quality, but this tale exhibits all his strengths: supernatural evils, the darker history of the region around New Orleans, the vivid sense of place. Prime Cowdrey.
Star-Crossed by Tim Sullivan
A sequel. It's Wolverton's turn. Nozaki has come back to asteroid LGC-1 at a time before they got lost in the temporal discontinuity. In fact, there are now two of Nozaki, and Wolverton loves at least one of her. Unfortunately, a giant alien strip-mining machine has now arrived and is chewing up the asteroid, including the human base camp. Their only hope is to hitch a ride on the alien temporal displacement bubble that brought the digger, if they can catch it. Wolverton jumps for it.But when he was briefly in position to see the asteroid below him, everything had changed. It was pitted with craters, unlike the smooth surface he'd seen while coming down in the hopper when he'd first arrived on LGC-1. He rolled again, and this time the asteroid and the sun were gone. "Nozaki!" he called. There was no reply. Skiffy adventures ensue. Or rather, continue, as Wolverton and Nozaki find themselves in the middle of a war over the asteroid's mineral wealth.
The editorial blurb declares that readers don't have to have read the previous story to enjoy this one. Um...no. This story is shorter and rather less packed with inexplicable alien wonders, but the characters and underpinnings are the same as established in the earlier episode, and readers familiar with that one will have less trouble now.
Make-Believe by Michael Reaves
A ghost story. The narrator recalls a sinister and inexplicable event from his childhood. The problem with inexplicable events is that, absent explanation, they may not seem credible. So it is here.
Waiting for the Phone to Ring by Richard Bowes
The narrator reconnects with his youthful past when he was a street kid in the East Village and fell into the hands of a predator whose needs were unusual. The narrator later used this as material for a story. "The Man held the Kid's fingers to a lighted candle and told him, 'I'm teaching you as the one who taught me did. He brought me to the point where I could meld with certain other minds and I can do that with you. He would have taught me more but he was taken from me. I will not leave you until you can go into every mind and meld with anyone.'" The Man had once found and lost an apt pupil and was looking for a replacement. Later, that pupil returned, and later still, many of the people involved with him died. Now the survivors are coming back into the narrator's life, waking old memories.
The fantastic element here is definitely present though dimly discerned through the narrator's remembrances from the periphery of events. At the story's heart, however, are persons seeking controlling power over others by any means, fantastic or mundane. Sometimes, the periphery is the safest place to be, even if it doesn't provide the clearest view.
Epidaphales and the Insufficiently Affectionate Ocelot by Ramsey Shehadah
The wizard Epidaphales has a dream about a king spurned by his pet ocelot. Misunderstanding, as usual, the situation, he sets forth to liberate the imprisoned feline maiden. Absurdity ensues. She turned and followed his gaze to a thick blanket of vultures in the distance. The vultures were overtopped with goblins, and undergirded by what appeared to be a lavastorm. All of which was making its way steadily toward the capital city, with a tiny gray speck scurrying down the road at its vanguard. Silly and pointless.
The Frog Comrade by Benjamin Rosenbaum
After the revolution, the princess's only friend is a radical frog who denies being a prince and is opposed to kissing. "Kissing is romance, and romance is just the kind of silliness the new system has gotten rid of. Romance makes people think princes and princesses are better than everyone else, and distracts us from working to make everyone healthier and happier." The frog goes into politics, which does not work out well. More absurdity here, but with a point.
The Fairy Princess by Dennis Danvers
After banishing all emotion from her life, the narrator is working the night shift in a screwbot factory, reprogramming the bots for morning delivery. Many of them are designated as Christmas gifts. But one bot in the warehouse is not listed in the inventory. He must be some kind of misplaced special order—
A rather heartwarming tale, as one expects from a Christmas story.
Blue Fire by Bruce McAllister
A miracle, when the child Pope Boniface XII meets the youngest Drinker of Blood. The youngest Drinker is convinced that he is damned, yet he wants the Pope to give him the sacrament as a way of being certain. But Boniface is entirely certain that he will return to God. I sometimes think that they were the first words I truly spoke as Pope; and by that I mean that they were the first real words of the Holy Spirit speaking through me; and that, had the beggar child who drank blood for reasons I did not understand not appeared before me that day, I would never have truly become Pope.
McAllister has successfully created a saint. When Boniface speaks of God's love, he is entirely convincing, and it is easy to believe that the Holy Spirit is indeed speaking through him. More, the author has created an equally credible alternate world where an eight-year-old can be elected Pope, where the army of Darkness attacks the Vatican, and Light is triumphant. Even more, he has redeemed the image of the Drinkers of Blood as the creatures of damnation that they were meant to be.
Class Trip by Rand B Lee
Alien intercourse. Pink goes to visit the D'/fü Shiphome to find a partner, and finds her destiny.
This is one of those stories in which the author, attempting to make the aliens as alien as possible, makes everything in the story as incomprehensible and tedious as possible. Everyone consoled now? Vlìbit? Swùkilip? Áñadhu? Blopèllüz? Yùtha? Pwèmmad? Very well, let's begin. We will proceed, as we have begun, in Brenglish. Sorry? Yes, Pwèmmad, there will be other languages, too, in our story. [Note to self: We may have a budding zhüdhvu here in Pwèmmi; let Borm know.] This is intended to be charming, but I found it more like excruciating.
Analog, Mar '10
Analog, March 2010
I prefer the more serious stories in this issue to the lighter offerings.
Of One Mind by Shane Tourtellotte
If This Goes On. Lucinda Peale was a pioneer in creating the techniques of neural overlay, and after the nuclear terrorist attack on Washington, she was drafted. When she was brought here to help uncover the terrorists, she had helped overlay the remorselessly monstrous portions of his frontal cortex with patterns from a more placid and moral brain. Thus treated, Mohsen became eager, indeed desperate, to give up his co-conspirators. But the new president sees neural overlay as a way of brainwashing potential dissenters, and when Lucinda objects, she finds herself numbered among them.
A Cautionary Tale of stolen liberties, which closely recalls the latest restrictions imposed on travel by the current government in its war on "terrorism." In this case, its timeliness makes up for some unsubtlety in describing the totalitarian threat. The editorial note informs readers that it is a sequel to several previous works, but this episode does not suffer from it.
The Hub of the Matter by Christopher L Bennett
David LaMacchia, despite coming with absolutely no qualifications or experience from a backward planet Earth, is nonetheless determined to solve the mystery of instantaneous transport via the Hub. "I'm going to find the pattern. I'm going to make it possible to go anywhere in the Galaxy by choice, not just by trial and error." Naturally everyone in the Galaxy believes he's crazy. But if there is no solution to the pattern, then why is someone trying to sabotage his attempts?
The sexual harassment subthread, meant to be funny, makes this one more tedious than it might have been.
Narrow World by Carl Frederick
When the interstate highway medians develop their own independent ecologies. Unfortunately, a potentially deadly virus seems to have taken hold among the dwarfed median-dwelling rats of Route 81X. The authorities decide to sterilize the entire strip with poisonous gas. But Adrian, a college student busted for pot, has made a chance escape from a road crew and is heading north up the median to Canada. And a small group of boy scouts has decided to hike down the median—
A Neat Idea here, based on a real ecological phenomenon, and well-realized.
Encounter in a Yellow Wood by Bud Sparhawk
Engineers have had to design methods to deal with the many toxic landfills left from the wastrel twentieth century. Gus's specialty has been worker trees, with deep taproots that penetrate the waste and transform it to harmless compounds. The end phase of such projects is intended to be the harvest of the trees and mining the now-less-toxic waste, but the people have grown to love the artificial forest and don't want to see it cut down.
This is not a story, it's pure infodump. First, Gus argues with another engineer about a remediation technology that might be superior, if less natural than his trees. Then, he argues with his old girlfriend Daisy about cutting down the forest. The technologies do sound interesting, but a neat skiffy idea alone does not a story make.
Locked In by Brad Aiken
Troy Adams is CEO of a weapons development company, faced with an insurrection in his boardroom, a faction that wants to go ahead with a weapon likely to cause excessive civilian casualties. But before the matter can come to a vote, Troy suffers a near-fatal stroke. After a long recovery process, he is equipped with a computer interface and returns to the boardroom wars.
There is a story here, but it is slighted in favor of detailed descriptions of surgical procedures and therapy. The author tries to humanize his character by repeated reference to his deceased wife, who is a blank cipher to the reader and thus the reference mean nothing. What we need instead to see in Troy Adams is the fighter who will take great risks to win.
Dr Skenner's Special Animals by David A Simons
The narrator is a vet. When I opened my clinic, I'd planned to specialize in horses, focusing on the racing and equestrian communities of central Virginia, but my practice had taken an unfortunate turn. Minotaurs. Mermaids. Dragons. Genetically engineered and illegal, but all injured or ill, all needing medical attention. His problem isn't so much the treatment as evading the government agents.
A moral quandary, treated lightly. I'm not quite sure that the government agent doesn't have it right.
Analog, Apr '10
Analog, April 2010
Featuring an alternate history novella that should have appealed to me.
Swords and Saddles by John G Hemry
Historical world-slip. Captain Benton is leading his cavalry company back to Fort Harker in Kansas when lightning strikes, as well as something that feels like an earthquake. When they set out again, there seems to be something different about the terrain. He had ridden past this area at least a dozen times that Benton could recall, and the ground had never shown anything but the long grasses of the prairie, a few outcrops of weathered sandstone, and crossing it at an angle the ruts from an old northern section of the Santa Fe Trail. Now something else stood there, what seemed to be the sprawling ruins of a fortress that had once covered at least fifty acres, if not more. Fort Harker is no longer where it used to be, but there is a city nearby that seems to be under attack, both sides in the conflict wearing armor and using swords. Company B of the 5th Cavalry isn't in Kansas anymore*, not the Kansas of the nineteenth century or their own history. And there seems to be no way back.
One of my favorite subgenres of adventure fantasy, although it unfortunately tends to follow a familiar formula. Hemry's prose raises this one a bit above the level set by inferior authors such as David Drake, and the battle sequences, albeit sanitized, make tactical sense. But the plot hews so awfully closely to the formula that it loses interest, and the author is too earnest in ensuring that both the lost cavalry and their new allies are certified Good Guys. The narrative also loses credibility when the classically-educated lieutenant fails to recognize the language of a city called Aspera as a variation of Latin.
*Alas, the author did not refrain from the obvious.
Snowflake Kisses by Holly Hight & Richard A Lovett
Julia has been researching the neurochemistry of love, attempting to make up for the absence of it in her own life, but now she has lost her grant and knows she will have to shut down her project soon. In desperation, she throws out all scientific methodology and ethics. I don't think you need a brain scanner to look for love the way Julia does.
The Robots' Girl by Brenda Cooper
Paul and Aliss have come into money and move into a new house where the nearest neighbors seem to have an unusually large number of housebots. But they are certainly not neighborly when Paul and Aliss come to introduce themselves. It turned a full 360, as if someone else might have snuck up behind it, and then said, "Please back up until you are off the property line." Further spying discovers the presence of a young girl who seems to be living there all alone with the robots. Aliss in particular becomes obsessed with the mystery.
The situation of Caroline is intriguingly sad, but the heart of the story is the relationship of Paul and Aliss. Cooper's prose shows them as real and attractive people who care about a lonely child.
A Sound Basis for Misunderstanding by Carl Frederick
Aliens. Roger is the new cultural liaison to the Chuff, where he wonders why the translation program keeps using terms like "poopyhead." Pretty contrived stuff, part of a series. Last issue's Frederick was much better.
Nothin' but Blue Skies by Stephen L Burns
More aliens. Kent is a used car salesman who gets a customer with a very unusual trade-in capable of instantaneous transport. Even better when he turns out to be an alien sales rep wanting to market the cars. But there is a catch."There is one point in our contractual agreement that may present some difficulty."
"And that is?"
"Buyers must swear loyalty to the Koomban Empire."
This one is kind of clever.
When We Were Fab by Jerry Oltion
Rick buys a nanofab unit for his convenience store, but it looks like the lawyers have outmaneuvered him. Rick checked his contract, and then he called a lawyer, only to learn that the distributors had him by the short hairs. He had the legal right to sell any "standard" product in the database, but nothing required a company to put new products in that database. Rick finds a way around the restrictions.
The Planet Hunters by S.L. Nickerson
Mei is an astronomy grad student hoping to win a postdoc for work on extrasolar planets. But his (?) observations uncover an anomaly: five different systems that appear to be nearly identical to Earth's solar system. "I thought first, perhaps I had observed the same solar system five times by accident? But that can't be. The solar systems all have different coordinates in our sky, I remember doing different levels of correction for reddening from varying amounts of interstellar gas between us and them. And their suns are known to be at different ages. These five solar systems have to be different, and yet they're the same." The odds are impossible. His thesis advisor insists he's made an error. But the truth is a revelation.
An overload of neat hard SF ideas. The astronomy neep is leavened with a perhaps too much about the gross personal habits of grad students, but the ideas will probably find great favor with hard SF fans. Particularly interesting is the way a close focus on a very specific set of data can lead to ignoring a larger picture–
Clarkesworld #40, January 2010
The Watts story has generated some controversy.
The Things by Peter Watts
Remake of the classic alien horror movie from the mind of the shipwrecked alien. The alien is an explorer of worlds, and this is the only one it has found where the cells of organisms are not infinitely mutable, capable of exchange and sharing. The alien attempts communion and is attacked rather than welcomed. It's the simplest, most irreducible insight that biomass can have. The more you can change, the more you can adapt. Adaptation is fitness, adaptation is survival. It's deeper than intelligence, deeper than tissue; it is cellular, it is axiomatic. And more, it is pleasurable. To take communion is to experience the sheer sensual delight of bettering the cosmos. But the alien is damaged, it has lost a great deal of itself, and in order to survive it must learn to understand these crippled organisms.
Neat point of view shift, retaining the original plot of the movie. The alien can get kind of talky at times, trying to explain concepts totally alien to it.
All the King's Monsters by Megan Arkenberg
It seems that the land has been invaded by a foreign king served by an iron monster. Miriam is a rebel; her rebel husband Uri was killed, and she now plots revenge in her prison.The monster in the cell across from me is Hunger. He is a young boy, brown and slight, with long crooked snatching fingers and thin greasy hair. All day, he plucks bits of straw from his mattress and digs them into the dirt floor or the flaking mortar between wall-stones. Sometimes he chews on them.
This is a far-fetched premise, hard to accept. The boy named Hunger makes me think of Dickens–
Strange Horizons, January 2010
The consequences of ideas that don't work out as originally intended.
Four Lies from the Mouth of God by Megan Arkenberg
More rebellion, this time counterrevolution. The story's title is that of a counterrevolutionary book written by Raimunde's rebel lover Juls, once her student. He is being hunted by the authorities; their young daughter has been taken and is now being used to pressure her to betray the fugitive. She strives to find reason to hope.
No student of history can say: "This is too far-fetched. Such oppression can never happen." It can. It has. It is still the author's job to make readers believe it has happened, that it could have happened. To avoid facile clichés and manipulative images. In this case, the revolution is just there for the sake of being evil. Its slogans are meaningless, and we have no idea what it had revolted against, or why. Thus scenes like this not as effective as they might have been. We'd reached the scaffold at last. Hermine had spread a blanket over the grass at its base, close enough that the noose's shadow fell across our legs. The soldiers surrounding it glanced down at us with approval; it looked good to sit so close to the action. I note that reading two such works from a given author one after the other will tend to highlight the flaws common to both.
The Blue Wonder by Chris Kammerud
The life and death of a superhero. Henry Givens was born with an electric heart and the power to fly, although it took him a while to figure this out. He read about superheroes in the comics and decided to drop out of college to become one. He had plans, but even the best-laid plans can fall victim to reality. It turned out, without super hearing or X-ray vision, it's hard to find any crimes to foil. Screams carry a lot less far than you think, and the majority of violence occurs indoors.
A story about a man who doesn't listen to his heart.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Theodora Goss
Actually, the daughters or creations of six famous fictional mad scientists, who have formed a club for mutual support. They all have inherited from their fathers/creators traits that set them apart from the rest of the world, but even the lives of monsters are largely mundane. There is no plot here, only a series of sketches. Some of us don't leave the house more than we have to. The butcher delivers, and Mrs. Poole goes to the grocer's. But not even Justine can stay inside all the time. Sometimes we have to just, you know, get out. Go to the library, or the park. Personally, I'm sorry that veils are going out of fashion.
An interesting idea, and as much as anything a sketch of the late nineteenth century, the heyday of the mad scientist, and the lives of females in that era.
Fantasy Magazine, January 2010
The Wing Collection by Eilis O'Neal
Jeffrey's mother dumped him at his aunt's house, where Emily has to be nice to him because Jeffrey's mother has never come back or left a forwarding address. Then they discover the store with the wing collection. They were wings without bodies, spread to their fullest extension and mounted in glass cases. On the walls hung massive wings in cases taller than Emily or Jeffrey. She had recognized a pair of snow-white swan wings, but those weren't even the biggest. That honor had been reserved for the black and white wings with huge long feathers at their tips. Both children are fascinated by the wings, but Jeffrey is inspired by them. He has a plan to go find his mother.
The wing shop is a Neat Thing, and Jeffrey's use of magic is done credibly, with a credible conclusion.
Above it All by Carol Emshwiller
The narrator is a licensed raptor rehabilitator who is given a lost bird girl to care for. At first, she puts a net over Birdie's crib and tries to weight her down so she can't fly off. But when she reaches her teens, she begins to weight herself down to be like the other girls, and the narrator knows she has to show her what she truly is. It's starting to get dark. We'll...I'll have to find a sheltered spot. I should head down into the trees, but I don't want to leave her up here by herself. Except what if she goes on, up and up and up, and never comes back?
The lesson any wildlife rehabilitator has to learn–
my mother, the ghost by Willow Fagan
For as long as he has been aware, Brian's mother has been a ghost. She never touches him. He never tried to touch her, or ask her about it, or speak about it. I became scared that if I told anyone, they would call a priest, who would come to my house and banish my mother to the afterlife. Or a scientist, who would conduct an experiment in our living room and prove that my mother did not exist. Now that Brian is away at college, he discovers that can talk about his mother with his girlfriend, Allison. But Allison, in her own way, is not there, either.
This is a sad tale about a child deprived of love, of a loving touch. While it is not an ambiguous fantasy, it can be read on both the metaphorical level—
After the Dragon by Sarah Monette
Megan is left crippled and disfigured after a dragon attack, feeding on her own bitterness, declaring that her life is over. But life goes on anyway.
A nominal fantasy, standard problem-solving variety. As the example of Louise demonstrates, the heart of this story would have been essentially the same if Megan had been a victim of cancer, instead of a dragon. Megan's self-pity doesn't make her a very sympathetic character. The tale is saved from banal mediocrity by the dragon, a wondrous creation, even when we never see it, only its geological remains. In death, a dragon reverts to the minerals from which it rises into life. Rhyolite, iron, bright inclusions of quartz, and—
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2010
In the Age of Iron and Ashes by Aliette de Bodard
While the kingdom of Rasmuri is beset by invaders, Yudhyana is ordered to capture a runaway slave girl. As a man of peace, not war, this mission bothers his conscience, but he learns that the high priest has ordered her capture because she is descended from the legendary Ilya, who founded the order of the Destroyer god; there may be power in her dance. But if there is, it is not the power that the priest supposes.
This one riffs off the Hindu myth of Shiva, who is iconically portrayed as a dancer. I am not sure why the priest believes that Chandi will agree to dance, or rather to dance for Rasmuri, from which she tried to flee to the enemy. As a tale of the fall of kingdoms it has epic resonance, but the moral is repeated too often, and we are too often told of Yudhyana 's angst and despair. On the positive side, it presents food for thought that might benefit those of us living in the final days of empire.
On the Transmontane Run with the Aerial Mail Express by B Gordon
Rookie Willow, with her chimpanzee crew, has to prove herself as a blimp pilot on her first solo run. Adventures await her, pirates and treachery. Inventive stuff in this adventure story with a plucky heroine who is also pretty clever. But then, we expected that.
A Serpent in the Gears by Margaret Ronald
Another blimp, this one in a fantastic steampunky setting. The dirigible Regina is attempting to cross Sterling Pass into the forbidden valley of Aaris, which is defended by automatic gun emplacements and giant flying hybrid-mechanical serpents. Many of the passengers onboard are spies claiming more or less truthfully to be scientists. The narrator, Charles, posing as Colonel Dieterich's valet, is a spy from Aaris. Something twinkled on the high peaks that marked the last mountains of the Sterling Pass, and I focused on it just as the captain's voice roared from the speaking tube. I had enough time to think Ah, so they did get my report on the Society's air capabilities before I realized that the guns had already fired.
Crammed full of Neat Steampunk Stuff, delightfully witty prose, and high adventure.
Bellwether by A C Smart
The narrator seeks justice after her sister is murdered. This is not a mystery, as it is too obvious who has done the deed, who is the virtuous one, and who is the jealous bitch. Complicating and confusing the narrative are too many irrelevant references to the local political situation and characters from a previous story in this setting.
Gizzard Stones by Garth Upshaw
The evil queen keeps the goblins imprisoned for reasons of her own that they do not understand. Sometimes, some of them are taken away. Nail escapes the goblin compound and learns the queen's secret, enabling him to free his people.
The premise here does not entirely make sense. The stones in the goblins' gizzards are a potent source of magic, which the queen seems to harvest from their bodies. But while the goblins seem oblivious to their magical properties, they remove the stones from the bodies of their dead and swallow them. Alternatively, the stones absorb the magic from the veya seeds the goblins consume, which would suggest they have no reason to swallow the stones. I also do not find it convincing that Nail manages to become so extremely adept at magic merely by once overhearing a wizard's spells.
Shatterach Gates by Paul Daly
Sword and sorcery. The narrator has been sent north by his Evil Ruler to conquer and open a rumored obsidian mine, this being in part punishment for his wife's refusal to submit to the ruler's Evil Lusts. But the narrator knows that even greater Evils lurk in the northland and how to invoke them.Armour. Corpses of men mangled together, like they have been flung from the Spire one after another into a pile and the entire sinew-knotted pulp of flesh hoisted up. The bodies of my men.
This is one of those first-person tales in which a narrator blathers to himself the entire length of the text. The author piles evil upon evil, employing pyrotechnic effects to create a sense of epic power, but my primary reaction is the wish that the narrator, who is clearly as insanely evil as his ruler, would just shut up.
Apex Magazine, December, 2009
Two stories of sacrifice for love.
59 Beads by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
After their mother dies of the rot, Pyn inherits the care of her younger sister. When Sienna shows signs of the disease, Pyn feels she has no other choice but to sell herself into slavery as a Dollygirl to pay for her sister's prolonged, expensive treatment. She undergoes painful surgeries to enhance her attraction as a sex performer.She had endured the awful sculpting of muscle and bone, borne the rearranging of the contours of her body to allow room for feeds to tap into her system. All through recovery, she had reminded herself that the renovations were only a means toward her goal of saving Sienna.
The premise is overly familiar, reminding me of Bacigalupi's "Fluted Girl," but the effect of all these alterations is not really shown; it is not clear what is so special about the enhanced performance. Since the reader does not get a chance to know Sienna, Pyn's sacrifice fails emotionally, and her relationship with her performance partner, potentially significant, fails to be realized.
Overclocking by James L Sutter
Ari Marvel is a drug hacker, or clocker, a successful one who knows you never start using the stuff. But he has a weakness—
More drug hacking neep than we really need. The story is Ari and Maggie.
Apex Magazine, January 2010
An issue celebrating the approaching end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar. A bit premature?
Wondrous Days by Genevieve Valentine
Post-apocalypse. The approach of the year 2012 brought out competing groups of disaster nuts and ecoterrorists, but one of these groups had decided not to leave the end of the world to chance. The narrator is one of the few chance survivors. It's the dark that does you in. It's the dark that slides over you worse than the ash or the wind, because you know that all the ways to keep back the dark are gone, that when your lighter is gone there will be no more fire without flint and sticks and admitting that there's no hope for anything better. He encounters another survivor, a woman much better prepared than he is to exist in this post-world, a woman who seems averse to any human contact. As they travel, he relates to the reader the events leading up to the cataclysm.
Many readers will compare the description of the devastated world in this piece to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was not a first-person narrative. The first person in stories like this one usually ends up failing because there is no way the narrator could have told this tale to its conclusion, nor is there anyone he could be telling it to, other than the readers. The post-apocalyptic landscape is well-realized, but the narrator's flashbacks to the days of doom that preceded it are annoying. We learn of a number of different groups with different names (Zero Point, the Darkroad Project) and different agendas, but the author rushes through a complicated history too quickly. The connection between the two halves, between the nameless woman and the project she was a part of, is never really made, and she remains a blank.
White Christmas by James F. Reilly
On December 21, 2012, Billy and Margot drive through a snowstorm to Billy's brother's rented chalet for Christmas. But the blizzard is much worse than anyone could have expected, and soon they are snowbound, while the weather forecaster talks of the end of the world. They lose power, then hope.
It seems odd to conceive of the end of the Mayan cycle as arriving in a snowstorm, and I am never convinced that the situation is so dire as the characters suppose. In the Valentine piece above, a deadly cataclysm has clearly taken place, but a blizzard, in itself, just isn't the end of the world or even, under the circumstances, necessarily life threatening. Humans, after all, have survived hundreds of Long Cycles under such conditions without the benefit of electric power.