Here's the way it works. Mr. John Frost has graciously given me permission to use this space once a month to call your attention to the most discussion-worthy short fiction being published. Last year, on my own site, I read and reviewed everything from a certain selection of publications. This year I am casting the net more widely, but choosing a smaller percentage for critical consideration. Fortunately for those interested in comprehensive coverage, Tangent Online seems to have survived a difficult fall, and is on its way back to reviewing all short fiction.
The goal here is to identify the best, the most interesting, the most important, or even the most noteworthy of the flawed. This month we have a bit more in the inbox than some future months, simply because last month was focussed on the whole of 2003.
If there is an important venue that the net still isn't bringing in, use the forums to let me know what else I should be covering.
- Analog (Jan-Feb)
- Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (#10)
- Asimov's (Jan)
- Asimov's (Feb)
- Challenging Destiny (#17)
- F&SF (Jan)
- F&SF (Feb)
- Realms of Fantasy (Feb)
- SciFiction (Jan)
- Strange Horizons (Jan)
The year both Analog and Asimov's move to having two double issues each year. This is Analog's first double issue of the year. It's a massive issue, with more stories than some original anthologies, including offerings by last year's Hugo Award Winner, Robert J. Sawyer, and Analog favorites such as F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Kyle Kirkland, Stephen L. Burns, and Grey Rollins.
"Weapon of Mass Distraction" by Richard A. Lovett
Those of us on the political left are well-acquainted with the phrase Lovett adopts for his title here. You can't listen to NPR very long without hearing some activist or pundit calling the mainstream media or the actions of the Bush administration "Weapons of Mass Distraction."
Lovett puts a slightly different spin on the concept, but his purpose is delightfully satirical, and many ways, more to the point.
We begin about 20 minutes into the future, with color-coded security flags placed on the records of "suspicious" persons. If you have the misfortune to be so tagged, your life becomes a living hell of bureaucracy, false arrest, and restricted rights. At first it just seems like the usual case of government incompetence doing a predictably lousy job at what is undoubtedly a difficult task.
Good, honest Americans grin and bear it (as we are all doing). After 9/11, there need to be some sacrifices, after all... (Never mind that it may well be Democracy itself we are sacrificing.)
But things goes from inconvenient to absurd, and Lovett eventually reveals that it is not just governmental incompetence, although there is some of that. Rather, the terrorists themselves manipulating our own counter terrorist efforts, turning America into a jittery, paranoid, angry, frustrated place without ever having to set off another bomb.
And in a world where British Air flights are routinely cancelled based on "intel chatter" and the suspects hauled off airplanes as suspected terrorists turn out to be five year old children, this is not so wild a fancy as one would hope.
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (#10)
ASIM, as it is called in the newsgroups, is one of several semi-pro magazines coming out of Australia. Since it is the only one to send review copies our way, it's the one we're reviewing. More or less quarterly, ASIM doesn't limit itself to the science fiction its gimmicky title might suggest, and nor does it limit itself to Australian authors.
"Faith and Fortune" by Margaret Pearce
Reminiscent of Golden Age stylist Cordwainer Smith, Pearce crafts an amusing and satirical tale of a world whose primary religion is the lottery.
A group of corporate executives find the people marvelously content, perfectly willing to work for low wages, and the local government prepared to negotiate away all taxes, tariffs, and so forth. Sounds like heaven to the corporate mentality. Sounds like the perfect place to relocate ones intergalactic headquarters.
Read straight, there are logic holes you could drive a fleet of UPS trucks through, but that's really not the point here. In a addition to a short, sweet joke story, there's a darker satirical element that quite rightly demonstrates the fact that big business is often little more than a bunch of shifty guys gambling with other people's money.
Along the way, "Faith and Fortune" has a few observations about the use of lotteries as economic pacifiers in our society. However, Pearce takes the craze a step further, providing justice (or at least randomness) for all.
As I write, Asimov's has been attacked by some podunk television station in Grand Rapids, MI, accused of selling smut to children. The degree to which this television station distorted the facts suggests some bizarre vendetta against science fiction. (See the editorial for more information.)
The offending story is neither in this January issue, nor in the February issue, so you'll have to come back next month for a response to the actual fiction.
"Embracing-the-New" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
More traditionally structured than some of Rosenbaum's other recent work, "Embracing-the-New" is no less subversive. A young man of an alien race with memories (and identity) inherited through symbiotic leaches of some sort is apprentice to a Master stone-carver and god-maker. Given the opportunity to carve a new God for his people, the young man creates Embracing-the-New.
Tension between the fairly repellant Master carver and the impoverished young man drives the narrative from the start. Why would the Master choose this least among his apprentices to carve the next God? Our picture of the old man does not make it seem likely that there is any spiritual insight that has led him to select his young apprentice over more skilled and more experienced journeymen.
Nonetheless, a genuine passion fills the apprentice. In the grip of divine inspiration, he makes a new God that will transform his people.
Rosenbaum's conclusion combines political and cultural satire with a marvelously appropriate ending, at once grim and—in it's own way—light. This is award-worthy material.
"Nectar" by Brian Stableford
"Nectar" may very will be Brian Stableford's bio-genetic answer to Charlie Stross' comp-sci Accelerando. Stableford imagines a splendid post-human utopia in which genetically engineered companion creatures, some the functional equivalent of magical illusions, are both fashion statement and art form.
They also help ease the pain of adolescence, which is already a pretty altered experience, since children rarely number more than one or two per town.
The difficulty of writing compelling utopias is that the more perfect they become, the less conflict there is to drive a story. Stableford's utopia has just this problem. Although there are some fascinating characters, the central conflict—a collection of misbehaving companion creatures—just doesn't have much oomph to it.
Moreover, Stableford seems to steer away from conflict at every turn. The ancientness of some of the characters, reaching back even into our own primitive day, might make for deep mysteries, or complicated interpersonal relationships, but every hint of this resolves into utopian pleasantries.
Ultimately, this story works better as a pretty picture than as an actual story, which is a bit of a surprise coming from Stableford.
February included work by Tom Purdom, Jack Skillingstead, Matthew Jarpe, and R. Garcia y Robertson. This latter may have inspired the cover illustration. By the standards of Grand Rapids, Michigan, several of the stories in this issue could have been considered smut, but I don't think the one that actually caught my interest was one of them...
"Travels With My Cats" by Mike Resnick
Although this was in some regards a frustrating story, it was also the most memorable.
Resnick's first person narrator, Ethan Owens, is a middle-aged man with not much future and not much past. But in his youth he picked up an interesting book: Travels with My Cats by Miss Priscilla Wallace. Miss Priscilla had led an adventurous life, exploring South America and Africa.
Now middle aged, and bored, he recalls the book. He picks it up, re-reads it, and becomes so enamored of Miss Priscilla that he tries to figure out what became of her. She's not easy to trace, however. Not until her ghost shows up on his doorstep, anyway.
Resnick sensitively evokes an experience that most avid readers have had: the strange bond across time with a writer who is long gone. Sometimes the personality shining through a page of prose is more vivid than any living person in our world.
The ghost—or temporal resonance, or whatever she is—of Miss Priscilla begins to work changes in our sedentary Mr. Owens, but although Resnick implies a transformed man, the ending is bittersweet, as perhaps it must be. For the only disappointment can ever result from falling in love with the memory of a life.
The reader may grow frustrated with Owens' lack of spirit, and the ending does not necessarily suggest that Owens' transformation in the story shows him learning the right lesson. But like any good ghost story, it has its own ability to haunt.
Challenging Destiny (#17)
Challenging Destiny, a digest-sized semi-pro from Canada collects a wide range of fiction from dark-fantasy to hard science fiction, from the serious and philosophical to side-splitting humor. It is the lattermost that struck me this month.
"Frank Among the Franks" by Brian N. Pacula
Occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, this is the kind of story you want to read bits of out loud to the people around you.
Frank from Fresno accidentally befriends an Angel, none other than one of the top Angels in the Principate of Anthropology, a divine being in charge of preserving dying human civilizations by sequestering them on other worlds where they can come to no harm. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough Angelic resources to keep track of them all, and Frank's new friend is thinking about using a few exceptional humans to help guide these far-flung cultures. He unwisely puts our hero in charge of a medieval Frankish tribe. His goal: to civilize them. Probability of success? Maybe this will give you a clue: "I was all over the idea... cause I mentored at my old high school a couple summers ago and the kids totally loved me (the school administrators didn't, but to hell with them)."
There are some drawbacks to living among the Franks: "I asked their king or chief or whatever, whose name the Prince said was "Chlogio," which sounded like a brand of drain cleaner to me, to come forward.... all the while thinking: this man smells like a urinal full of spoiled beef."
But once Frank gets Chlogio's beautiful daughter cleaned up, he thinks things are going to take a turn for the better.
After a few mishaps, however, Frank's friend in the Principate shows some concern. "What's the problem, Francis? Dr. King has already brought his Scythians gender equality, democratic rule, Judeo-Christian ethics, and germ theory."
Needless to say, things go from bad to worse.
Ghosts and Wizards and Sci-Fi standards fill this issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The cover illustrates Nancy Etchemendy's "Nimitseahpah."
"Welcome to Justice 2.0" by George Tucker
A simply marvellous snippet of satire. The entire text is the screen output of one Alan Peabody using MS Justice to defend himself in court. The court, mind you, is accessed by Internet... no actual humans are involved.
Sometimes it's hard to comment on humor. Either you laughed or you didn't. But Tucker does a number of very skillful things with "Justice 2.0."
In the first place, his text will be as acceptable to the technical as to the non-technical. A number of little jokes and humorous details along the way will bring a smile to the lips of any geek, but even those with minimal experience of computers will still get a kick out of it.
Even more interesting, however, is the fact that these three pages embody the essence of a courtroom drama, without one single detail of the crime actually being made known to the reader. This short sequence and its implied variations embody a significant percentage of prime-time television with remarkable clarity. Tucker delivers the Platonic form of Story in one short, entertaining account.
"The Seal Hunter" by Charles Coleman Finlay
Finlay is one of those 'promising young writers' who has been steadily contributing intriguing short fiction to F&SF and other publications. "The Seal Hunter" turns a corner, however. This does not feel like the work of a promising young writer at all, but rather the complex, difficult fiction of a master of the form.
Not that this is hard to read. It reads like an everyday emergency-in-space sort of sci-fi story: miners or something in the asteroid belt are getting low on food, and their equipment is breaking down, and the last supply run didn't show. They don't know when relief will come, and they need to survive.
Like any good near-space sci-fi, the details are rich and well-lighted; the darkness and dismal reality of low gravity and cramped quarters and deprivation evocatively portrayed. But Finlay has a darker, stranger side to him, and he's starting to let it out in his mainstream stuff.
Broadnax works on one of these asteroids, they're digging a new farm tunnel. Sheila-sue is 'a few good years past puberty' and it 'wouldn't be too long before she wanted to have a baby.' Broadnax already has a family himself, but he invites her to a private little space jaunt, and the implications are clear.
Or, they seem clear at first. But nothing stays clear. Broadnax has a mature appreciation of work, and short patience for incompetence. If he was planning on putting Sheila-sue in an awkward position up there, alone, in an undocumented jaunt into space, her exquisitely portrayed teenage ways may put him off it. It's hard to tell, because Broadnax keeps his cards close to the vest. Too close for the reader to definitively ascertain motives; too close for Sheila-sue to quite read his intent.
Despite hints of a dom-sub power balance, and a highly erotic subtext, the very character traits that make each of these people fascinating pull in different directions, leading to the rescue-in-space story that one would not be surprised to find in Analog.
Although Finlay does not push this story as far as it will go, I think we are seeing his work on a curve of increasing authenticity.
February is a standout issue of F&SF. In addition to the two stories I consider here, Robert Reed's "River of the Queen" shows another dimension of the imaginative Nebraskan's creativity. Albert E. Cowdrey invents more New Orleans-style mayhem, and Daryl Gregory considers an allergy treatment that's out of this world.
"The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalupi
There's been a lot of writing about post-humans, lately. Bacigalupi puts post-humans in an entirely new context: a post-ecology.
Infested with symbiotic nanotechnologies that protect us from our lethal environment, humans (or our semi-biological heirs) are just about the last living thing on earth. We're stripping the planet down for the last of its wealth. We eat sand and mud; we wade through toxic sludge; we break bones for the pleasure of the rebuilding; direct nuclear strikes are about the only way to guarantee death, and we don't shy away from that solution.
The whole thing reminds me of the liner notes to The Crystal Method's Tweekend:
As usual, Bacigalupi hits his notes dead on: hooking with a wild chase scene in which the superhuman abilities of our post-humans comes slowly into focus, amidst a landscape of total devastation. The object of the chase turns out to be something totally unexpected. A natural, unenhanced dog.
How the poor thing survived off the wasted earth is a mystery, but what to do with it is an even bigger one. They debate over whether to eat it or not, but in the end decide to try to keep it as a pet.
It's a difficult and touching story, which steps pretty far outside the box to examine our relationship to pets, and to nature. At every stage, Bacigalupi gets it right.
"Metal More Attractive" by Ysabeau S. Wilce
I first got to read a version of this story in the Summer of 2002. I was at Clarion West with Ysa, and over the course of the first week she brought in the first scenes of this story, eventually completing a full draft during the workshop.
In any Clarion, there are outrageously creative, smart people to challenge your conception of yourself as a smart, creative person. In some Clarions there is someone who just blows the rest of the class away. Stories of Nalo Hopkinson's stint at Clarion still reverberate.
Well, Ysa was our Nalo. We knew from the get-go that she had it, and "Metal More Attractive" puts it all on the table.
As both storyteller and stylist, Ysabeau S. Wilce creates absolutely compelling, memorable stuff.
"Metal More Attractive" explores the pivotal moment in the life of the young Hardhands: "So, here we have Hardhands in a bar. It's not exactly entirely a bar, but then he's not exactly entirely Hardhands, either, at least not yet. At this moment, he's only fifteen years old and his hands are still white and tender, so too is his conscience. Both hands and head are soon to get much tougher, but right now he's still rather sweet."
In fact, he's plotting the murder of his dear Grandmama, in order to avoid a forced marriage to a three year old cousin that he believes would cramp his style as a rock star and a budding adept in the occult arts. So, he's not that sweet.
Ysa manages to create magical fantasy that is at once entirely original, pure page-turning pleasure, and an inspiring introduction to a world we all will want more of. There are just a few writers who can compose a story such that when you come to the end, you close the cover, take a deep breath, and say: "Yes!"
Realms of Fantasy (Feb)
This is the second issue of Realms in a row with a Lord of the Rings Cover rather than a provocative chicks-in-chainmail centerfold shot. What's the world coming to? (I guess Lord of the Rings is coming to an end. What will they do next year? No, no, don't tell me: Harry Potter.)
"Rattler" by Gene Wolfe and Brian Hopkins
The intro blurb was perfect. I don't know whether this came from the authors or Realms staff: "Who says you can't teach an old Dodge new tricks?"
Although it's just good old-fashioned fun, this story has a lot going for it. It's not just another tale of a sentient automobile. Wolfe and Hopkins do a beautiful job with dialect, and bring the reader such delightful aphorisms as "It's bad luck to hear a fool cuss."
Framed as a conversation overheard in a diner, the authors use a very light touch on the structural overhead—it's just enough to make you wonder if they really did overhear the tale somewhere.
The central conflict: a man's pickup truck learned to hunt raccoons from his dog (now deceased), and it's causing his cousin (the fool targetted by my new favorite adage) fits of jealousy, because he can't seem to teach his truck to do anything other than roll over.
A lovely little piece, and very nicely illustrated as well.
SciFiction publishes a new story every week as part of the Science Fiction channel's SciFi.com website. SciFiction, Ellen Datlow editor, is probably the highest paying market for short fiction, and she gets some of the biggest names and the best stories. Best of all, it's totally free.
"Inside Outside" by Michaela Roessner
Frankly, if I hadn't been reading this for review, I probably wouldn't have finished it. Much is explained at the end.
She explains: "I never would have written this if it hadn't been for Richard Butner. A few years ago he wrote a wonderful short story that he said he'd constructed by stringing together jokes and hilarious anecdotes."
In fact, "Inside Outside" did feel like a desultory collection of incidents in the life of a group of friends who call themselves "The Worshipful Order of Serendipitous Pursuits, Executed with Fiendish Ingenuity."
One member is alpha male, and has basically co-opted the group to assist him in his own pursuit, which is designing miniature golf courses. There is only a little background tension arising from the mild dissatisfaction some members of the group feel at having their own Pursuits sidetracked by miniature golf.
But then, about halfway through, the story takes a serious science-fictional turn. The quietest member of the group tentatively reveals the Pursuit she has been working on to the main character, who has previously spurned her.
Miniature golf and quantum physics make for some weird bedfellows, and in the height of the "Inside Outside" portion of the story I leaned back from my monitor and said to myself, "Man, this is like talking to Ken Wharton." I really did.
Imagine my astonishment, therefore, when I read Roessner's afterword, which also noted: "Thanks are also due to all the folks who attended Walter Jon Williams' Rio Hondos writers' workshop this year for their constructive critiquing —especially Ken Wharton, who navigated me across the perilous waters of quantum physics.
My severest disappointment with the story came at the ending, when the most interesting character—the physicist chick with a passion for N-dimensional golf courses—disappears from view and the main character reveals his own secret Pursuit, and proceeds to fall in love with someone we didn't meet until the very end.
Kudos to Roessner for experimenting with structure and trying to push her fiction outside the formulaic, and also for getting the quanto-babble sufficiently persuasive to convince me she knew what she was talking about. Ultimately, however, I am not sure Butner's unstructured string of anecdotes is necessarily the best way to put together a compelling, satisfying story.
Strange Horizons (Jan)
Strange Horizons also publishes weekly, and is also free. They tend publish a more literary multi-culti sort of fiction. In January, one novelette spanned two weeks, and certainly caught my attention as a discussion worthy story.
"St. Ailbe's Hall" by Naomi Kritzer
This is a brilliant idea. The execution, however, is mixed.
Kritzer takes an idea that is not entirely original: the enhancement of intelligence in animals (Brin's "Uplift" concept) but explores the religious implications in a manner that was, to my great delight, infused with a real understanding of, and sympathy for, Christianity.
One thing that I find consistently disappointing in a great majority of science fiction that deal with religion at all is the knee-jerk characterization of Christians as ignorant, small-minded televangelists. Fundamentalists may make good villains, particularly if you are coming from a strictly atheistic world-view, but it simply fails to capture the rich tradition and tremendous diversity within the existing faith.
In "St. Ailbe's Hall" a young woman brings an enhanced dog, a husky, to church. At first the other church-goers are mildly scandalized. Church is no place for a dog, they say.
It turns out, however, that in actuality, the dog was bringing the woman to church. Lisa Erickson had grown up in the area, but had fallen away from the church during college. Later, she met the Siberian husky, Jasper, while working in a factory. Jasper, like many of the enhanced animals, was being used for menial labor, and treated very much as a slave. Lisa rescued Jasper, taught her to read, and got involved in the underground devoted to freeing enhanced animals from adverse conditions. And it was Jasper's idea to come to church. Not just to make a statement: Jasper had become a believer. She wanted to be baptized. To take communion.
When the congregation and the media get wind of what's really going on, things get ugly. The priest, Father Andrew, is uncertain, at first. The church doesn't approve of enhanced animals in the first place, and is politically and socially unlikely to support baptism. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating theological question, exactly the sort of thing science fiction is ideal for exploring.
Kritzer becomes more involved in the conflict between animal slavers and animal-rights activists, however. She touches on the theological issues, and makes brilliant use of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, which are themselves Christian allegory making use of talking animals. But the topic could have sustained far more thoughtful examination.
Kritzer's biggest mistake was the same one that anti-Christian writers make: it was entirely one-sided. Those against animals in church were portrayed as ignorant savages, villains without any purpose or motivation other than to torment animals, and the people who love them. Now, I am fully on the side of the enhanced animals, here, and would be were this fact, rather than fiction. But few congregations of any contemporary church are going to instantly turn into a single slathering mob, intent upon perpetuating ignorance and violence. Even those who take the "wrong" position are likely to do so for good, or at least comprehensible reasons.
Kritzer's portrayal, then, is not very realistic, and it weakens the story. Had there been someone making a passionate and heartfelt argument against Father Andrew's position—rather than simply throwing bricks through his window—the story would have had more intellectual and emotional tension.
That said, there's a lot of meat here, and this feels like a prime candidate for expansion to novel length. I hope Kritzer considers it, and in the execution, finds a way to bring more than one point of view into the narrative.