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August, 2004 : Review:

Short Fiction Reviews, August 2004

You would think this would be the time to catch up on all your reading. It's the height of Summer! What better time to lounge out in the sun with a stack of magazines, a pitcher of lime water, and a notebook for scribbling your idle thoughts?

Besides, who is going to publishing anything heavy in the Summer issues? It'll all be fluff. Brain candy and other pulp for the imagination.

Not so. There was a ton of challenging stuff this month, and I barely got halfway through the stack. Each story would leave me pondering. Cryptic scrawls fill my notebooks, and the margins of my magazines are filled with exclamation points, stars, and quickly-jotted observations. It felt more like studying for a difficult exam than ripping through a bunch of science fiction magazines.

But, you know, a fun exam.

The Reviews

ASIM: #13

ASIM: #13

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (#13)

Andromeda Spaceways is always chock-a-block full of science fiction from the fun to the absurd, and this issue is no exception. Despite the fact that threre are eight stories in this action-packed issue, one story—"The Whole of the Law" by Stephen Dedman fills a good half of the magazine. Although a fine story, it did have the general feel of an episode of television sci-fi. Some of the shorter stories made for excellent entertainment, especially "Urban Transit" by Marion Schweda, "The Truth About Alternate Dimensions" by Robert Marsh, and "WD40 Versus the Three Laws of Robotics" by Darren Goossens. The story that, for better or worse, got me thinking was this one:

"Sambilly's Impractical Noodle Machine" by David Hoffman-Dachelet

It's an astonishing thing: in the age of intercontinental flight, one man has invented... a machine to make noodles! Is Sambilly a genius of historical proportions? Or are there political forces at work to keep noodle-making a labor-intensive operation?

This may sound like the premise for a comedy, but that's not the way Hoffman-Dachelet plays this.

In fact, we don't learn about the intercontinental flight until well into the story. The opening scene is a competition between Sambilly's newly invented machine and Auntie Firstrose who makes a pretty fine noodle herself. With all the stylings of an olde-tyme Chinese fable, you might think this is going to be a meditation on what is gained and what is lost in the process of industrialization. I immediately began thinking of Richard Foss' "The History of Chan's Journey to the Celestial Regions".

This thought was mistaken, perhaps because Hoffman-Dechelet was holding the true nature of his world in reserve.

When the true nature of the world is revealed, it undermines most of the early story by rendering both Sambilly's pride in his invention rather absurd, and by making Auntie Firstrose's motivations in the competition practically nonsensical. The theme shifts from questions about the implications of industrialization to the economies of monopolistic cooperation.

Eventually, however, Hoffman-Dachelet returns to the original theme, and I don't feel he treats it with quite the honesty it deserves. The idea is well understood: automation of manual labor puts people, and sometimes very noble human activities—perhaps including noodle-making—out of business. As Sambilly slowly comes to grips with the implications of his noodle-making machine, and contemplates the consequences, he—and the author—finally cop out. The ending may be summarized like so: "Well, I like making machines, and I like handmade noodles, so I'll just go make some other machine instead." But this is a cheat. Hoffman-Dachelet doesn't tell us what that machine might be, so we can't empathize with the zen of human activity that he will destroy.

Hoffman-Dachelet clearly has the chops to do this theme right. He understands the love of engineering, and he understands the love of human skill. He understands the pacing of storytelling, and how to build a good story resolution. Unfortunately, I don't think he puts all the pieces together with this story.

Asimov's: September

Asimov's: Sept., 2004

Asimov's (September)

This issue features a mini-reunion of the Clarion West Class of 2002, with short stories by Lynette Aspey and Y.S. Wilce. Toss in a new novella from Charles Stross, a couple of fascinating stories by David Moles and Paolo Bacigalupi, as well as new works from Maureen F. McHugh, Meredith Simmons, and Matthew Hughes, and this turns out to be one of the strongest single issues of Asimov's in memory. It's these latter three I'm not going to discuss in detail, but that's not because they lack merit—it's just their misfortune to appear among such incredibly discussion-worthy companions.

"Elector" by Charles Stross

Stross reintroduces his post-singularity whatever-it-is to readers by means of a FAQ that reads like the introductory passages of a complex video game.

Once again, Stross takes on the impossible: imagining a world in which identity is fluid, corporeality just one choice among many, reality as casually interchangeable as dream. Stross combines rich imagination with sophisticated use of complex concepts and delightfully geeky technical metaphors.

Sometimes, it's the little ideas that work best in Stross—the vividly articulated moments, such as when one character remarks to another: "Was it you who performed that amazing dissection of Wittgenstein's cognitive map? The one with the pre-verbal Goedel string in it?"

This is the kind of expression that is at once utterly meaningless, and yet ripe with profound potential, just beyond the grasp of our limited pre-singularity imagination.

"Elector," like the previous installments of the Accelerando is thick with these moments. The net result is a very dense text that is fun (for some) to read.

At one point, some character or another remarks: "The fox has many ideas—the hedgehog has only one, but it's a big idea." Stross' big idea, the story here, lacks the vividness so strong in the text, paragraph to paragraph. Perhaps this is because in a world where characters can fork copies of themselves at will to explore alternate possibilities, there is really no sense of mortality; without mortality, there is no danger. But even so, one would think that this exploration of the foibles of Democracy would have more power to readers in this time when Democracy is showing its limits. Somehow, the big idea gets lost in the sea of wonderful details.

In fact, reading Stross is a bit like playing a video game—a beautifully constructed video game where every frame is rich with imaginative detail. Crouching before your game terminal, you ooh and aah, perhaps with pleasure, perhaps with awe, but you are always aware that these are just bytes. We can roll back the scene and start over if we want. The characters are just arrangements of polygons, moving through exquisite scenes, evoking sensawunda at each new room, but never coming alive as flesh-and-blood. "Cool!" is a thought that surfaces over and over. "Uh oh," however, never comes up at all.

"The Third Party" by David Moles

My first thought on reading this story was, "I want the novel."

I don't know if there's a novel surrounding this or not, but it feels like, say, Chapter 7. There's quite a universe of characters here, and they all seem to have history with each other and with the worlds they are acting in. There are social, political, economic, and historical forces at work, and one senses that the author knows where all this is coming from, and where it's going.

Moles certainly doesn't fall into the trap of over-explaining the universe he has imagined, but he did leave this reader somewhat adrift attempting to piece together a context that is larger than the story.

As for the story: Cicero and a host of fellow missionaries all named for figures from ancient rome (is this time travel? alternate history? or just a game they are playing?) are on the run. They believe they are fighting for the soul of a new planet, working against their enemies, the Dealers. Turns out there are multiple forces at work (thus the eponymous "Third Party") and it looks like either Cicero himself, or else his love for the brilliant Leah must be doomed.

"The Pasho" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Raphael is a Pasho, but he is accepted back into his community with faint enthusiasm. He has spent too many years among the water people, they fear he has grown soft, been tainted by the ways of their enemies, perhaps even eaten of their fish.

They may be right.

This is a complex and subtle story that resonates against the ideological conflicts of our own age in a way that Stross' story didn't quite pull off. It tastes a little like a muslim sci-fi future pitting desert people against water people, old ways against new ways, capitalism against Caliphism, war against peace, progress (and profit) against tradition, education against wisdom, urban against rural; the oppositions are drawn with such a delicate hand it is impossible to reduce this to a simple "message." Each side is contradictory; each position has merit; each character is sympathetically motivated; each character is a villain.

All this and a fascinating story, too. A real gem from Bacigalupi.

"The Biography of a Bouncing Boy Terror!" by Y.S. Wilce

Before his name was feared and revered, Springheel Jack was just Jack, oldest child in a poverty-stricken brood, all at work making matches just to scrape together their weekly meal. He's a good boy, an obedient boy, a responsible child. But he dreams of colors, and when his mother is abed with the sickly prickles, he is called upon to take the weekly make of matches to the factory of Zebulon Quarrel & Dau. As you may expect, on his way home with his pocketful of coins, he is tempted not by the usual moldy cheese and squashed pie but by a color. Indeed, a pair of bright red boots:

"Heels high as heaven and toes as sharp as salt! Gleaming stove pipe uppers greaving tall and slick, and on the tip of each pointy toe a snake's head leered, spitting tongue and bone-sharp teeth."

Y.S. Wilce is a joy to read for any enthusiast of stylistic excess.

As a reviewer I find myself tempted to simply offer a sampling of the most delightful sentences and let the reader draw her own conclusion. However, what constitutes a "most delightful sentence"? I jot down this one and realize that the next is just as wonderful. And the one after. And then the next one.

There's a little Brothers Grimm here, a dose of Edward Gorey, perhaps a colorful dash of Ziggy Stardust, but the irrepressable spirit of Y.S. Wilce is something utterly, delightfully new.

"Sleeping Dragons" by Lynette Aspey

Annie's little brother Ryan isn't like other boys. In the first place, they have to keep him secret. In the second place, he hatched from a golden egg her father brought back from Viet Nam. Annie's dad always warned her that someday someone might come for Ryan. But when that day finally arrives they pile into their car Elsie with Yellow Dog and Dino: are they running away from the invitable? Or to it?

Good short stories are like small gifts: but each gift may be different. This is a well-written, gripping story, enjoyable to read, satisfying in its conclusion, but the real gift here is the promise of something more. I couldn't read this story without thinking of the best novels from Tim Powers—contemporary fantasy that succeeds both as magical fantasy and as mimetic literature. One can't help but connect on a sensory level with the plight of the characters, and with that connection comes the desire for more.

This is the kind of short story that you want to sink into for the duration of a long plane ride, or a day at the beach. Sadly, it doesn't last nearly that long.

Analog, September, 2004

Analog: September, 2004

Analog (September)

Once again the issue is dominated by Mary A. Turillo's novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl, which remains strong. The novellettes caught my attention this month, and in addition to the longer stuff there were only two short stories: "The First Martian" by Joe Schembrie, which explores the public-relations side of the first Martian exploration, and "Unbound" by Dave Creek, which might best be described as one part A Clockwork Orange and two parts Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

"Trophies and Treasures" by Jerry Oltion and Amy Axt Hanson

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are on Mars, competing in a camel race to the top of Mons Pavonis. (Actually, it's Winthrop Magnus Wellington III, or Welly, and Bentley, his manservant.) Needless to say, Welly is a pompous bore, and Bentley saves the day.

This is not just Wodehouse in space, although at the start it certainly seems that way. Bentley has a sharper edge to him (as well as a way with the ladies), and unlike Bertie, Welly actually experiences some personal growth over the course of the story.

Of note to those interested in the technical side of writing: Oltion and Hanson plant a particularly good hook at the outset. The opening paragraph manages to set the tone for the story, introduce the main character, clearly depict the setting, and introduce conflict. It leads smoothly into the next paragraph, which extends character and lays the groundwork for backstory. Before the reader can lose the sense of urgency the story opens with, the conflict returns. Very nice pacing!

This is juvenile fiction, in the best sense of the word. Fun stuff for teen readers, without a false step along the way. There's a quiet moral to the story: the wealthy—once woken from their sheltered dreams— can still grow as people, too. It's a Mars adventure, with vivid characters, that leaves the reader hungry for more.

"Viewschool" by Rajnar Vajra

Bill is given six of the most unteachable problem kids in the country. He's also given a preview edition of ViewNet—the hottest virtual reality environment available—to host his classroom. The children are a challenge he's afraid no one could live up to, but the problems of teaching become the last of his worries when signs begin to surface that one of his students has hacked ViewNet.

The characters of the students—and their problems—help this story reach for something more than the fluffy bit of cyber-crime that comprises the action. It is the possibility that young people can be brought back from beyond the edge that gives us hope; but it's the fear that some cannot that really drives the story.

A lingering story; as someone who has failed at teaching difficult kids myself, I have to read this as pure wish-fulfillment, and yet it's this kind of wish fulfillment that every teacher needs—and, perhaps, sometimes it even happens.

F&SF, Sept., 2004

F&SF: Sept., 2004

F&SF (August)

Fiction I'm not going to explore in depth was "I am the City" (a story of ancient myths come to life in the ruins of war-torn Baghdad); "Peter Skilling" by Alex Irvine (unabashed political satire); "Falberoth's Ruin" by Matthew Hughes (more fun stuff in the Henghis Hapthorn series); "Rain from Another Country" by Mark W. Tiedemann (fairly standard sci-fi tropes mixed with the motifs of a ghost story to tell a story about death and closure); and "Gasoline" by J. Annie MacLeod (which, to be frank, I found a tiresomely literary take on shapeshifting). Stories I will spend some time with are:

"Sergeant Chip" by Bradley Denton

Captain Dial and Sergeant Chip should have been an ordinary K-9 team, but unfortunately, they were a little too good at their jobs. Dial was made Captain of D-Company, in a place not unlike Iraq. But things in the field are not like training. The problem is not the enemy: guns are confiscated, explosives detected, harm prevented. The problems are bad soldiers and bad orders.

War, narrated by a faithful, loving dog.

The editors have the usual bland points to make in the introduction. This is Denton's most recent story after too long an absence... Memorable narrater... blah blah blah. A more useful introduction would be: "WARNING! Don't read this on the bus or in a bar unless you're comfortable with tears streaming down your cheeks in public."

Bloody, awful, treacherous war, narrated by a smart, loving, faithful dog. Sergeant Chip is a good dog, but more importantly, he's a good soldier. He follows orders, even in complicated, ambiguous situations. A dog, however, has loyalty not to the nation, but to the pack. In this case that means D-Company and Captain Dial. So when these entities no longer exist, Sergeant Chip follows his last orders to the best of his ability.


A science fiction story that's worth the price of the magazine, particularly if you're even slightly a sucker for faithful dog stories.

"Designing With Souls" by Robert Reed

In Madame Zane's Designing with Souls, new homes are built with a collection of ghosts collected from exotic locales—all for prime time TV. But when one banal young couple request their grandmother be installed, Madame Zane may have met her match.

Robert Reed takes on contemporary television fads in this clever little ghost story.

In most successful stories, the fortunes of the hero wax and wane, creating a sense of tension on the part of the reader. In this story the question of who is hero and who is villain shifts this way and that, and the resulting tension is palpable. These ghosts, reduced to quantum imprints, scientifically definable remnants of human presence, are hardly frightening: and thus the desire to incorporate them—by re-use of significant old building materials—in new structures. With various technological amplifiers, practically any old beam or flagstone can be made to yield some significant presence.

Reed uses an idea that is apparently making the rounds among science fiction writers (see Richard Parks' "A Hint of Jasmine", Asimov's, Aug. 2004) and applies it directly to the psychology of contemporary television morality.

Paradox #5

Paradox: Issue #5

Paradox (Issue #5)

This is the first issue of Paradox I am reviewing, and I must say it is with disappointment that I reflect upon the editor's introduction in which he states that the magazine is scaling back to two issues per year. Paradox bills itself as "the Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction"—and that pretty well sums up the contents. All the fiction in here is historical in nature, but there's enough time travel, alternate history, and magic to satisfy the "Speculative" several times over. "The Wailing on the Water" by Paul Finch tells the story of a young Scottish man who begs the blessings of the spirits on his role in the attempt to "restore" Bonnie Prince Charlie to the British throne. "Restoration" by David J. Sakmyster is future history on a grand scale: thousands of years in the life of immortal humans. "The Moon Shone on My Slumbers" by C. Mitchell O'Neal is a horror story that is part Edgar Allen Poe, part contemporary monster horror, and all about an apprentice in Edison's laboratories. "Cleopatra's Needle" by Karen L. Kobylarz explores the history of Cleopatra's children, and their uneasy alliance with Rome. Where there is history, here, it tends to be particularly well researched, and well rendered. The three that most inspired my thinking were:

"Servant of Iblis" by Howard Andrew Jones

Mukhtar the moneylender has been threatened by an Efreet who wants to reclaim an amulet that has been in the family for many generations. Mukhtar goes to Dabir for help; and Dabir—with his faithful sidekick Asim—takes the case. There are villainous nephews, brilliant daughters, and Efreeti, both real and imagined.

This is essentially a Sherlock Holmes story. Dabir uses deductive logic to discern misdirection from true motivation. Asim is no Watson, however: he's a lethal warrior ready to deal with any enemy, supernatural or otherwise.

Jones could give us a little more to work with in the vividness in the setting, but the Persian theme works, overall. The characters of the players are signalled well in advance; there's little in the way of surprise here. That's a drawback for the Holmes angle.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of story that could turn into a very entertaining series. Despite the many differences, this is the kind of duo that inspires one to think of Fafherd and the Grey Mouser, Holmes and Watson, or Aubrey and Maturin. This story inspires more in its potential than in its essence, but the text is certainly entertaining.

"1923" by C. Kevin Barrett

If you could travel in time, what would you do? Maybe go back and kill Hitler while there's still a chance? Well, guess what? You wouldn't be the only one.

Time travel seems to be an inexaustable source of inspiration for sci-fi writers. I have seen variations on this idea before—that travellers from the future, gone back to observe some moment of the past, accidentally cause it. But Barrett's execution is delightful, and his punchline is the kind of dark humor that makes you laugh against all your natural instincts to recoil in horror.

The execution is not flawless, however. It's kind of hard to make the claim that a time travel story shouldn't have any anachronisms, but when Hitler compares something to a transistor radio, it's worth noting that the first transistor radio was invented in 1954. If this is a lapse, it is a rare one in Paradox, which seems to focus on historical accuracy wherever possible.

"The Ill-Fated Crusade" by Charles Coleman Finlay

The year is 1187. Simon and Sir Gilbert are making their way across the wastelands toward Constantinople, to bring the news of the fall of Jerusalem. You might think that this is the Crusade referred to in the title. Naturally, you would be wrong.

Along the way, Simon and Sir Gilbert meet crusaders of a different sort: enlightened aliens come to bring a message of peace to a war torn land. Sir Gilbert takes these beings for angels. Simon is not so sure.

Finlay has fun with the standard UFO imagery, including the Wheel of Ezekiel from the Old Testament. Even more fun, however, is the escalation of conflict between all-powerful star-traveller intent upon bringing a divine message of peace and the ignorant, savage, medieval man who just wants to get back to Hereford where he hopes his beloved Matilde is waiting for him.

SciFiction, June 2004

SciFiction: June, 2004

SciFiction (July)

In July, SciFiction went long and deep. Long stories, that is, with a lot of un-Summerish depth to them. Two novelettes and two novellas, and all very strong. The two I am neglecting are "Jumpers" by Mary Rosenblum, a challenging story that combines thickly metaphorical language with the science fiction of alternate universes and genetic engineering to craft a cryptic, but moving tale; and also "Volunteers" by Alex Irvine, an intriguing story of mad aliens, mad humans, interstellar colonization, and the badness of high school in the fifties. The two I am not going to neglect are:

"Leviathan Wept" by Daniel Abraham

Renz is an agent in an anti-terrorist cell. This is the future, a future sufficiently advanced to permit highly networked—almost telepathic—interaction between teams of agents. It is a future sufficiently close that the war of terrorism between Islamic fundamentalists and western militaries is still the biggest news story of the day.

Renz' wife is also dying of some ailment in which an overactive immune system destroys the body that houses it.

Despite some Hollywood, spy-thriller moments, and its sophisticated interleaving of story threads, Abraham aims at a very traditional science fiction idea: transcendent intelligence.

He makes the requisite use of everyone's favorite buzzword, the Singularity. However, Abraham is not exploring Stross' "Rapture of the Geeks." Rather his view of transcendence hearkens, in theme if not in scientific underpinning, to Gaia-mind notions of transcendence and collective consciousness.

One of the most interesting passages actually works as a convincing refutation of Searle's Chinese Box experiment (see also "The Algorithms for Love," below): there can be no communication across between conscious entities and the entities that comprise conscious entities (either conscious or no). Just as we cannot talk to our neurons, so a transcendent mind of massively networked machines and/or humans cannot communicate directly with us.

But (the argument continues) just as we can influence our own health, emotional state, and accordingly the action of our neurons, so might a transcendent intelligence attempt to influence human behavior.

The question that remains is: what influence is being exerted? What is the goal of the hive mind? Is the punch of Islamic fundamentalists and the counter-punch of western militaries the indication that hive minds are warring up there? Or—and here Abraham makes particularly nice use of multi-faceted allegory—is this war the indication of disease in the transcendent entity?

Abraham expresses the sort of bafflement that one might expect in this day and age: "Are we soldiers? Are we cops? What the fuck are we doing out there?"

Later he expresses different approaches to the problem of terrorism and war: "With a disease you try to get better; with a war, you just want to win."

In the end, however, Abraham offers no solace, no conclusion, no moral. Just a grim, grim sense of doom.

"The Anatomist's Apprentice" by Matthew Claxton

Even before we understand what's going on here, Claxton signals that this is to be a dark and merciless story.

Molly lives on a shelf in the Anatomist's laboratory. Some evenings she is turned to the window, and can watch the world outside. She sees life going by: lovers at their courtship, laborers at their work. Hers is as bleak an existence as you would expect for the disembodied head of a girl, perched upon her jar of internal organs.

A picture emerges of an alternate New York, a New Amsterdam that's part Victorian London, part New Crobuzon, and perhaps inspired by the same hopeless poverty and limitless corruption that was behind last year's Gangs of New York. Whatever the sources, it is delightfully gruesome, and gradually moves into terrain more reminiscent of The City of Lost Children.

Yet, what begins as grim and awful slowly becomes an utterly charming (and improbable) love story. To bring in yet another film reference, this could be a touching and heartfelt rewrite of that ugly atrocity, Reanimator— instead of aiming for the base and the grotesque, Claxton uses the grotesque to aim for something pure and hopeful.

Strange Horizons (July)

Strange Horizons always enjoys playing in the boundaries between genres, and in July such stories as "Snow and Salt" by Genevieve Cogman, "Magic Carpets" by Leslie What (reprinted from Realms of Fantasy), and "Tracks" by Stacey Gruver certainly fill that bill. The story that caught my attention, however, was—at least superficially—more traditionally science-fictional in scope.

"The Algorithms for Love" by Ken Liu

"I love you too."

The predictable exchanges between lovers are driving Elena mad.

Well, something is driving Elena mad, but this story is interposed with the story of her great success—a series of dolls that provide increasingly sophisticated natural language processing algorithms that win her fame, fortune, and the CEO of her company for a husband.

Along the way, Liu does a nice job of sketching some of the early philosophical thinking about artificial intelligence, before approaching his ultimate theme:

If we do create a machine that can pass the turing test, does that mean we have truly created artificial intelligence? Or does that mean that we ourselves are merely artificial intelligences?

It's a nicely drawn story, with some sharp observations about human interaction, but I don't think this one reaches the essence of the problem. For a keener view of the problem of intelligence, see "Leviathan Wept" by Daniel Abraham, discussed above.

Although I think Liu oversimplifies a number of the elements pertaining to human (and machine) sentience it remains the most successful story in Strange Horizons this month, and an interesting and well-informed take on the meaning of the Turing Test.

Copyright © 2004, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


Aug 21, 19:57 by John Frost
Comments on recent short fiction...
Aug 23, 09:50 by Lois Tilton
Quite agree about the Moles story in the Sept Asimov's. I, too, would like to read the novel they cut this from.

Aug 23, 14:10 by Mike Bailey
Great reviews this month! I completely agree about Sgt. Chip, a story that I absolutely loved and would happily place on my personal "Year's Best" list.
This month was my first issue of F&SF (as bluejack already knows from the Nightshade boards), and I thought it was a great magazine, well worth my subscription.

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