Due to circumstances beyond the reviewer's control, this is actually the May/June short fiction review, and in consequence twice as long as usual.
Asimov's June 2006
A 100 percent SF issue this time, presenting a variety of possible futures. Some enjoyable fiction here, but overall not up to the very high mark set by the May issue.
The Leila Torn Show by James Patrick Kelly
The Leila Torn Show is in trouble. She has been struggling against declining ratings by introducing a number of gimmicks, including the addition of the devil to her cast. In the latest, most desperate move, she has killed off her longtime lead, but the replacement is clearly not going to work out. The show begins to wonder if she has made a fatal mistake. "Had she betrayed herself just to eke out a few limp last episodes?" As she contemplates failure and cancellation, the devil intervenes to offer her a proposition.
I did not enjoy this story. While it offers a number of novelties, including the show itself as the protagonist, they mostly seemed to be gimmicks. But the main problem is that The Leila Torn Show itself seems to deserve its low ratings. It isn't the kind of show I would enjoy watching, with its lame, aging comic, its mismatched elements of comedy and crime drama, its scene-stealing actors; and it isn't much fun to read about, either.
Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead
The world has come to an end. Only a dying remnant of humanity has survived the nuclear holocaust, as it seems to have been, but alien Tourists have contained the city of Seattle within a Preservation Field, as an exhibit. Life there exists forever in a continual looop, just as it was for the twenty-four hours before the final explosion, for the benefit of the Tourists who come to visit this museum of lost humanity. Kylie has come to Seattle from the devastated world outside the field on a mission to destroy it. "The Old Men called it an abomination. Kylie didn't care what they said. She was here for her mother, who was dying and who grieved for the trapped souls." But what Kylie finds within the eternal bubble of time is not what she had expected.
Skillingstead offers a nice appreciation of life and the possibility of love, even if its moment must be brief.
The Tiger in the Garden by Scott William Carter
Regence is a underdeveloped world, so poor that even a local Constable, like José, can not afford the basic technological tools of law enforcement. José hopes one day to leave Regence, to be hired by the Unity Worlds Defense. Accordingly, he hopes for a good report from the Unity Agent who has just arrived to arrest a notorious terrorist. But José is disconcerted to learn that the terrorist in question is the gardener who befriended him when he was a child at the orphanage. Even worse, he discovers that old Henry's mind has failed as a consequence of disease; he is not capable of understanding what is happening when the terrifying alien Agent places him under arrest. Yet if José tries to help his old friend, this will end his chances for advancement, for leaving the squalor of Regence.
Neither this dilemma nor its resolution are particularly original, though the solution José discovers is a pretty neat bureaucratic trick.
Eight Episodes by Robert Reed
Reed makes the point that actual reality on TV is not the same as so-called Reality TV. The reader understands that the eight episodes of the program Invasion of a Small World are reality, although this seems to escape the critics of Reed's world, who fault the dialogue and plotline. The show features the discovery of a miniature spacecraft in a sample of Permian rock—from before the age of dinosaurs. It is canceled after the fifth episode, but copies circulate, and ongoing scientific study later confirms several points that could not have otherwise been known at the time the program aired. It eventually becomes evident that "By means unknown, aliens had sent a message to earthlings, and it took the form of Invasion of a Small World."
But what was the message? For everyone who views the show, the message is different. Aliens exist, but humans will never meet them. The universe is full of life, but it is vast, cold and empty. The aliens told the truth, or the aliens lied; and if they lied, it was to deceive humanity, or to lead them to enlightenment.
This is an odd, thought-provoking work, that raises more questions than answers. Sometimes, we never find the answers.
The Ninth Part of Desire by Matthew Johnson
Raf designs emotions; Naomi is a tester, whose high emotive quotient makes her perfect for evaluating the new lines of emotifiers. Together, they are a star team, until Naomi is afflicted with Prospero's Disease, the inability to feel any emotion at all. Overuse of recreational emotifiers is the usual cause; emotifiers are the only known treatment. But Raf is determined to find a real cure for Naomi's condition, at any price.
Johnson has developed an interesting premise: a condition in which a person is unable to want, to desire.
There was nothing whatsoever wrong with Naomi's mind: like most people with Prospero's Disease she was able to remember, once she had been trained to, that you were supposed to be happy when your husband came home. It was just that for her that meant selecting happy from the menu in front of her and receiving a five-minute burst of emotifiers to simulate the feeling. Raf knew exactly how happy she was. He had designed the juice himself.
This tale raises the question whether happiness can be worthwhile if it is not real, and if we can not tell the difference. As so often is the case, it is the question that really matters, more than the particular answer the characters manage to find.
The Edge of the Map by Ian Creasey
There will soon be no more privacy, nowhere the nanocams are not constantly watching, recording. In Zaire, the last remaining Blind Spot is shrinking away as helicopters converge with their cargo of nanocams, scattering them over the landscape. There are many for whom this is cause for regret. For reporter Susanna, whose career has been spent out in the field, getting exclusive images, it is the end; frontline journalism is redundant now that the nanocams have already seen everything. But if the end of journalism is going to be the last story, she intends to be the journalist who covers it. Ivo's mission is more idealistic. He is fascinated with the mysteries of the world, the unknown, the unexplained, the weird: the yeti, the Loch Ness monster. He is convinced there are things still on Earth that resist being recorded, that can barely be glimpsed, and that they will have retreated to this last unobserved place. If this is true, then this will be the last chance for any of them to ever be seen, and he has taken Susanna along as his witness.
This is a somewhat spooky tale, evoking the spirit of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Readers whose tastes run more to science fiction than Weird Tales will recognize it as a case of the observer effect. And I could also not help recalling the philosopher Berkeley's pronouncement: "To be is to be observed." Creasey's story suggests that there are beings for whom the opposite is true, that cease to be the moment the camera switches on, or they are dragged out into the cruel light. As Ivo, or someone with his voice, says: Lift not the painted veil which those who live/Call Life-
Chu and the Nants by Rudy Rucker
Chu is an autistic child with a savant's ability to learn computer code, Nektar is Chu's mom, and Ond is his father, an engineer working on the development of nants: "bio-mimetic self-reproducing nanomachines being developed in the Nantel labs." Nantel has been working on a scheme promoted by President Joe Doakes to seed Mars with nants, which will transform the planet into a gigantic "quakkaflop quakkabyte solar-powered computer." Ond is skeptical about the project, as it soon proves that the nants intend to turn the entire Earth into a Dyson sphere to improve their computing power.
It took two years for the nants to munch through all of Mars, and the ever-distractible human news-cycle drifted off to other topics, such as the legalization of same-sex in-vitro fertilization. President Joe Doakes—now eligible for a third and fourth term thanks to a life-extending DNA-modification that made him legally a different person—issued periodic statements to the effect that the nant-sphere computer was soon coming on-line.
This story is gonzo speculation carried beyond the borders of the absurd, including pointed commentary on some particularly absurd figures in political life today. I wish the author had given his characters names that would have made it easier to regard them as real people, with a problem, rather than cartoons.
A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange by Beth Bernobich
In an alternate world that reminds us of the turn of our last century, twins Simon and Gwyn Madoc are mathematics prodigies, but Gwyn has gone mad from too many numbers, obsessively reciting a litany of primes as if they held the key to some crucial mystery. There is another mystery: students in Awveline University's mathematics department, fellow-students of Simon, are being murdered. The police are questioning Simon, as if they know something about him that he does not. And Simon, too, seems to be going slowly insane, losing track of time and his actions.
About the time the reader, though not yet Simon, begins to grasp what might be happening, the story picks up excessive speed, rushing toward a conclusion that is not fully comprehensible. It is hard not to wish the author had expanded this work into the novella that it seems to want to be, letting the complexity of the plot unravel more slowly and making the concluding revelation more clear. But the strength of the story lies not so much in the plot as in the worldbuilding, which seems to extend far beyond the borders of this particular setting.
All around them, the autumn day continued, serene and lovely. A half-dozen balloons drifted across the skies, their motors silent at this distance—blue messenger craft heading across Éireann's Sea to neighboring Albion or the Anglian Dependencies. Grand air-yachts in silver and emerald. A single red balloon floated above them all.
Surely a world as meticulously detailed as this one must contain other stories, some perhaps featuring the detective who so closely interrogates Simon, Commander Adrian Dee. If so, I expect that readers will be eager in seeking them out, for it is always a good sign in a story that we regret leaving it too soon.
Asimov's, July 2006
Again this month, every story has a SFnal flavor. In fact, several of these pieces would not have seemed out of place in Asimov's sibling zine, Analog. Is Asimov's shifting its editorial direction and giving up on non-sciencefictional fantasy?
The World and Alice by L. Timmel Duchamp
The editorial blurb correctly calls this novelette a sad story. Alice has always felt that she doesn't belong in the world. "She thought of her lack as one not of soul, but of heft. Of gravity. Of placedness. Her self, simply, possessed no proper place in the world." As she grows up, she sometimes experiences a sort of fugue state in which she finds herself momentarily elsewhere, in some null-world that might be the place she actually belongs. Yet it is a place so desolate that she has no choice but to continue her life in the world where she is sure she should not have been. On some of these occasions, Alice encounters herself—either her older self or herself when younger, but she is never able to offer herself any useful advice for coping with her situation.
While the temporal paradox is the SFnal engine of this story, its real heart is a woman's life, reflected back at itself in the mirror of her own experience. Yet I have a hard time seeing what the author and the protagonist keep telling me about Alice. She may insist that she feels misplaced in the world, yet she has a secure place within her family—her grandmother's strong presence when she was a child, her mother's dying need when she is an adult. Alice has a profession; she makes friends, she finds and keeps a husband. In all these things, she belongs to the world. If it were not for the occasional meetings with her older or younger self, the reader might suppose her fugue experiences were seizure episodes—and seizures are a part of the way the world is. There doesn't really seem to be that much else wrong with Alice, except that Alice believes there is. Until the end, when the concluding revelation comes with devastating suddenness. Now I see! the reader ought to be exclaiming. Now I understand why Alice is the way she is! Yet I still can't really see Alice as the way she says she is, and thus the solution comes where the problem never succeeds in establishing itself.
The Djinn's Wife by Ian McDonald
"Once there was a woman in Delhi who married a djinn." Not the beings of fire created by Allah, but a being of electrons, an autonomous AI named A.J. Rao. This is a sort of Cinderella story. Rao is an admirer of traditional dancer Esha Rathore; his courtship of her is like a fairytale prince's.
And as he speaks, a wave of transformation breaks across the garden, sweeping away the decay of the twenty-first century. Trees break into full leaf, flower beds blossom, rows of terracotta geranium pots march down the banks of the charbagh channels which shiver with water. The tiered roofs of the pavilion gleam with gold leaf, peacocks fluster and fuss their vanities, and everything glitters and splashes with fountain play.
But their relationship is followed closely by the authorities, increasingly nervous that the higher-level AIs are becoming too powerful. And Rao works for an enemy state. Their marriage, like Romeo and Juliet's, is thus subject to great political stress, but it suffers also from the strains of any mixed match when the partners are not able to fully understand each other.
This novelette is another outtake from McDonald's epic novel River of Gods. The exotic setting, novel-sized, almost overwhelms the story with its wealth of detail. In this respect, it is a magical read that evokes the fairytale world of the 1001 Nights. But the story itself, the doomed romance between two different sorts of being, is overtaken at the end by the politics of the novel, by larger events which are happening offstage but are not fully developed in this shorter, partial work.
There is one other problem I had with this piece, in which the setting is so thoroughly backgrounded, so rich with details. The Arabic "djinn" is the collective form of the noun; the masculine singular is "djinni." Yet McDonald employs the opposite usage. This not only bugs me, it sets loose a worm of doubt to gnaw at the foundations of the author's authority, his worldbuilding; what other details here might be wrong? But then, I am a notorious pedant, and for readers who are not obsessive nitpickers, this tale is
Nano Comes to Clifford Falls by Nancy Kress
When the municipal nanomachines are installed in Clifford Falls, just about everyone runs to put in their orders for the food, clothing and even luxuries that they are now entitled to, free of charge. Just about everyone quits their job, as well—why work when the nano can provide everything you want or need? But Carol holds out—something about the nano just seems wrong to her. And indeed she is right, when the local economy promptly breaks down from excess and society devolves into chaos.
This Cautionary Tale has a didactic libertarian tone which made me wonder if I were reading an issue of Analog instead of Asimov's. The plot is accordingly predictable. It is immediately clear that the self-sufficient Carol has the Right Attitude, and those who are quick to grab something for nothing will come to a Bad End.
You Will Go to the Moon by William Preston
The narrator's parents first move away from their old hometown to Arizona, then to a senior citizens' complex on the moon, thereby severing his ties to his childhood home. He wants his parents to remain always the same, in the same place. But they have dreams of their own, and he is a man with a wife and children of his own; it is time to grow up.
This is not a story with a lot of originality, and despite the scenes on the moon, where the narrator has a panic attack at seeing Earth so far and unreachable, in terms of psychological distance there is not much difference between the moon and Arizona.
Bitterseed by Ted Kosmatka
A deadly rivalry with his brother results in Marc being stranded on the surface of an monocropped world, lost within a nearly endless forest of the miaza plants he has developed in his job as a crop geneticist. He must struggle to live long enough to reach a human settlement, and of course he reaches self-understanding on the way, in the usual way of such stories. But the real interest here is the adventure/survival tale.
It was on the morning of his eighth day among the stalks that Marc found the grub. It revealed itself in a slight yellowing of leaves. Marc stopped and considered the miaza plant carefully. He blinked, looked again, and the plant was still a slightly different shade than its neighbors. The scientific part of his mind ran through the list of possibilities: mutation, disease, parasite. He noticed the hole then. It was small, slightly larger than his finger, and it descended into the soil at the base of the yellowing plant. A root parasite?
Marc fell to his knees and dug. The grub pulled free from the soil in a writhing mass of ciliated legs. It was pale and mushy, approximately the circumference of his wrist, and about half a foot long. Marc didn't hesitate, didn't pretend there was a choice to make.
Eeeeeuuuuwww! And effectively so.
Impossible Dreams by Tim Pratt
Pete is a movie buff who encounters a strange video store where no store used to be—clearly the result of a side-slip between universes. The store has wonderful films that no one has ever seen: the director's cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, O. J. Simpson as The Terminator, Kubrick's own version of Artificial Intelligence. Pete has to see these films, but his credit card is no good there, even his money is wrong, and when he finally manages to get the discs home, they don't work in his equipment. Worse, he knows that soon the order of the universe will restore itself, and the store will be forever out of his reach.
This is a story that has been told many times before, this time explicitly for movie lovers. But it is also a pretty neat love story. I suspect it would make a pretty neat movie, too.
Snail Stones by Paul Melko
When Edeo and Haron follow the nasty jeweler Fruge, they discover that he has one of the giant, sentient native snails imprisoned in an abandoned warehouse. The snails are almost extinct because of the jewels they grow on their shells, and when the boys see how Fruge is mistreating it, they resolve to free the creature.
Much of Melko's work has dealt with young people and their coming of age against novel obstacles. This piece seems to be meant more for younger readers, but Edeo and Haron are appealing protagonists who should please readers of any age. I have to point out, however, that the author, if not the boys, should have considered the problems in setting the snail free if there is nothing to prevent another unscrupulous villain from capturing it again.
Fireflies by Kathe Koja
A woman, a scientist, is dying, and her old lover comes to comfort her. They speak around the subject, in metaphor: the fireflies, the poplar trees, and all the ways that life perpetuates itself, the ways it finds to keep going on. Resisting the pull of gravity, of entropy, of death.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 2006
The issue begins with a strong measure of horror in Laird Barron's novella, and despite the light tone of most of the shorter pieces, the dominant note is still dark.
Hallucigenia by Laird Barron
Wallace Smith is a rich and powerful man newly married to a much younger woman. Life seems to be good until his car breaks down near the seemingly-abandoned Choate farm, and Helen takes the opportunity to explore the old barn. There, they encounter a rotting dead horse that is not dead, after all, and much worse things. Helen ends up with catastrophic brain damage, and Wallace is trapped into dependence on drugs and alcohol. Fighting back, he becomes determined to identify and destroy the evil that has made a home on the farm, but the evil turns out to be worse than he had imagined, and more powerful.
This is stark, unabashed horror, well-deserving of the warning in the editorial introduction. Barron's vision of evil is strongly evocative of Lovecraft's: there are malign, potent forces in the universe that humans should not dare to contact, out of fear for their sanity and their lives. Barron has updated the theme; his mad scientists speak of high temperature superconducting quantum interference devices, but the acronym, SQUID, still evokes the Great Old Tentacled One. On the other hand, Hallucigenia, the extinct worm of the title, seems out of place here; it was a harmless creature, though the name itself is appropriate for Wallace's nightmares. But the essential horror, the darkness at the heart of this tale, strikes true:
"I am a digger of holes, an opener of doors. I am here to usher in the dark." The odor grew more pungent. Glutted intestines left to swell in greenhouse heat; a city stockyard in July. Flies droned and complained. Flies were suddenly everywhere. "He lives in the cracks, Wally. The ones that run through everything. In the cracks between yesterday and tomorrow. Crawl into the dark, and there He is, waiting.…"
Animal Magnetism by Albert E. Cowdrey
After Herman Green's lover moves out, his sister advises him to get a dog for companionship. When the full moon shines, Trixie turns out to be more than just a dog, and she promises Herman to help him sniff out a more suitable lover than the recently-departed Clem. An amusing tale.
Counterfactual by Gardner Dozois
Cliff is a reporter who writes genre fiction on the side, including the popular counterfactuals. His current effort is a twist on the standard—what if the armies of the Confederacy had lost the Civil War and surrendered, instead of retreating to the hills to begin the long guerilla resistance that is still being fought by their grandchildren? Cliff's fiction meets up with current events, as his paper has sent him to cover the formal ceremony in which Alabama finally rejoins the Union. But not everyone, even sixty years later, is ready to accept the South's defeat.
In another timeline, an author named Lois Tilton used to write alternate history fiction and sell it to an editor named Gardner Dozois. So I can't claim objectivity here as a reviewer, but I read this story with great interest.
Terms of Engagement by C. S. Friedman
The narrator has been waging futile war on the roaches. She lives in graduate student housing in Georgia, where the roaches are abundant and well-equipped for the struggle to survive—and in fact they are winning. So she makes them a deal, and things are finally working out between them, except for one minor complication. A funny story, just slightly squicky if roaches do that to you.
Why the Aliens Did What They Did to that Suburb of Madison, Wisconsin by Tim McDaniel
And speaking of squick: Mary and Mark feel the need for something novel to revive the excitement of their sex life. Their needs for novelty in this area are extreme. When they see the flying saucer and discover the alien in their garden, it gives them ideas: "Mary was breathing hard. ‘It looks soft and hard all at the same time. Look at it. It’s quivering and pulsating! I think I can hear an eerie moaning sound!'"
The editorial blurb classifies this short-short piece with the cartoons, but this is an image that I am glad I didn't see drawn graphically.
The Protectors of Zendor by John Morressy
The king of Zendor has sent for the wizard Kedrigern on the grounds that his kingdom is threatened by enemies, but the real enemy is revealed to be the king's warmongering cousin, who is fomenting war against his neighbors. Kedrigern would rather be home, researching a way to reverse a spell that a malicious bog-fairy has placed on an infant, but first he must find a way to neutralize the dangerous political situation in the kingdom.
Readers who have enjoyed Morressy's work in the pages of this magazine will be saddened to learn that the author died in March at the age of 75. F&SF has more Kedrigern stories in inventory, but this will soon be the end of a series that has been a favorite with many.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2006
Again this month, the featured novella with its fantastic, colorful setting dominates the issue, very much fantasy, though most of the other stories are science fiction.
The Lineaments of Gratified Desire by Ysabeau S. Wilce
It is the festival of Pirate's Parade in the port city of Califa, when dangerous things are abroad—no night for a spoiled five-year-old to be out by herself, knocking on doors to demand candy from the householders, even if she is the granddaughter and heir of the Pontifexa. Hardhand must find his betrothed child bride before she can come to harm, but on this night, even an adept in magick like Hardhand might find himself facing forces greater than he can control.
This novella is full of exotic images, high and low—but mostly low, as Hardhand descends into Califa's perilous underworld and confronts its mysterious denizens. It is a festival nightmare, set in a darkly wondrous world of the imagination, conjured into being by Wilce's lush, unrestrained prose.
The Current is high tonight, very high. In consequence, the Aeyther is humming, the Aeyther is abuzz; the line between In and Out has narrowed to a width no larger than a hair, and it’s an easy step across—but the jump can go either way. Oh this would have been the very big whoo for the gig tonight; musickal magick of the highest order, but it sucks for lost childer out on the streets. South of the Slot is bad enough when the Current is low: a sewer of footpads, dollymops, blisters, mashers, cornhoes, and others is not to be found elsewhere so deep in the City even on an ebb-tide day. Tonight, combine typical holiday mayhem with the rising magickal flood and Goddess knows what will be out, hungry and yummy for some sweet tender kidlet chow. And not even regular run-of-the-mill niblet, but prime grade A best grade royalty. The Pontifexa’s heir, it doesn’t get more yummy than that—a vampyre could dare sunlight with that bubbly blood zipping through his veins, a ghoul could pass for living after gnawing on that sweet flesh. It makes Hardhands’ manly parts shrivel to think upon the explanation to Grandmamma of Tiny Doom’s loss and the blame sure to follow.
This is a tale in which much of the magic is in the telling, in the quality of the wordcraft. Wilce does a clever thing in employing the magickal Wingdings font as the script for her spells. If only there were not the minor irritation of the term "Pontifexa," which violates the natural order of the Latin and makes my eyes cross every time I see it.
Kansas, They Say, is the Name of the Star by R. Garcia y Robertson
Amy thinks she is on Earth, where girls are must be married when they turn thirteen. The night before her birthday, she wishes on a star for a way to escape, and the star falls from the sky. Taking this as a sign, Amy climbs down the drainpipe and runs away to find the fallen star. There she finds a Munchkin named Dorothy, who turns out to be an agent of the Peace Corps, and afterwards, things get stranger still as they attempt to evade the Bushwackers and find their way off the planetoid named for a children's fantasy.
The riffs on the Oz stories are clever, but they make it hard to take the story's situation as seriously as the subject matter calls for. It is neither humor nor hard adventure, instead falling into the gap between.
Billy and the Unicorn by Terry Bisson
This time, Billy has a unicorn in his bedroom.
The unicorn is even less nice than the fairy in Bisson's last Billy story.
The unicorn poops jewels on the floor.
The unicorn likes girls, but only when they take off their clothes. The unicorn has a dirty mind.
If Billy has a unicorn in his bedroom, maybe this means Billy is a fairy, too.
The Meaning of Luff by Matthew Hughes
Hughes' Old Earth setting has been compared to Vance's Dying Earth, but in this piece the echoes of the master's voice are clear. We meet Luff Imbry, to whom Welliver Tung owes a large sum of money. He discovers that she has used the funds to purchase a house containing mysterious object that can reveal an individual's salience—the meaning of that person's life.
"And thus your plan was to reopen the house as a venue for revealing the meaning of their lives to those who would offer a reasonable fee?" Imbry said.
"At first," Tung said. "Once it became the vogue to discover one’s salience, I intended to charge a quite unreasonable fee, out of which I would repay what I owe you, plus a substantial bonus."
"A good plan," Imbry said. "It requires only one small emendation."
Tung stiffened. "I think it is perfect as it is."
"You lack the perspective," said Imbry, "of someone with two weapons."
Her shoulders slumped. "I have made a considerable outlay from my limited resources to acquire this house."
"From my resources," Imbry corrected her. "Thus it shall be a joint venture. I shall take eighty parts; you will have twenty. But, out of gratitude, I shall write off the five thousand hepts you owe me."
"This seems unjust."
"It seemed no less unjust to me that my five thousand were put to work without my consent. I know several less indulgent persons who, in the same circumstances, would now be arranging to remove two corpses from these premises."
It is this voice that is the attraction here, rather than the plot, which stripped to its naked essentials would be a rather thin thing. But again, it's all in the telling.
Just Do It by Heather Lindsley
Alex is an underground agent of an activist group with the goal of liberating people from the tyranny of corporate chemical dependence. In this world, paid snipers roam the streets shooting people with dart guns that give them an intense craving for the sponsor's products. To obtain information, Alex is dating the head of CraveTech, the company behind the darts, and he is eager to demonstrate his latest development.
Kind of silly, kind of fun.
Republic by Robert Onopa
Narrated by one of the few survivors of an interstellar survey ship that lands on a planet inhabited by an intelligent, humanlike species, this is a rather brief story of contact, of beings much like humans in some ways and unlike in others, and how things can go wrong. Told another way, it might have been an interesting tale, but the narration renders the events too remote to have any emotional impact on the reader, or to hold any surprises.
Holding Pattern by Steven Popkes
There was once a dictator named Tomas, who committed terrible crimes. Facing capture, Tomas copied himself, either six or seven times, onto the bodies of other men and transferred his memories to them. Now, none of the men who remember being Tomas know whether they are copies or the original, innocent or guilty. The other nations of the world do not know, and they are reluctant to execute an innocent man, so they follow every Tomas with a flock of armed drones and surveillance devices, in case any of them somehow reveal the truth. Now one of the Tomases has come to the others, announcing that he is the original, that he is the guilty one. Yet, how can he know this? How can he or anyone else be sure?
"Tomas was a genius. He staged us all to make it seem as if he were hiding among us. But think: such an arrogant egomaniac as Tomas, which you and I can clearly see for ourselves better than anyone, would never erase himself merely to survive. He made us up to be him and then disguised himself and left. After all this time, the Americans have never found him. Then, the time comes and you repent and somebody in Washington says, ‘Maybe we were wrong. Maybe Tomas did hide a pearl among pearls. At long last, he repents of his crimes. Could he be the real Tomas?’ And another, more powerful and wiser man says, ‘Even if Tomas escaped, he is old and surely near death and cannot hurt us.’ And perhaps an even more powerful and still wiser man says, ‘It does not matter for this is the Tomas we have. Let us release him to seek his fellows and watch what he does.’ So, Tomas. You’ve seen us all. What shall you do?"
A fascinating and original conundrum.
Memory of a Thing that Never Was by Jerry Seeger
For some time, Nash has been an agent in a very supersecret war against a small group of aliens who have come to Earth to subdue the human population. Only a very very few were qualified to fight in this war, and of the small elite force that Nash was a part of, there are no other survivors. Now a man sits down next to him at the table of his favorite cafe and orders a glass of wine, and Nash knows that he has only eight fingers on each hand, and eyes that can not see the red color of the wine.
"My name is … Smith." He had debated telling me his real name, but decided against it. It didn’t matter; I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it anyway. "How long have you been coming here?" Smith asked.
"A few years, I guess. My name’s Nash."
Smith nodded. "I thought so. We accounted for all the rest."
"I thought we got all of you."
Smith looked at my newspaper. "But you weren’t sure."
A strongly understated war story, in which we see no shots fired, only the scars.
Analog, June 2006
Again this month, a serial installment takes up much of the magazine's fiction space; judging solely from the illustrations, which feature silly-looking aliens, I am not sure this is going to prove such a good use of the pages. Most of the shorter fiction is satisfying, however.
Puncher's Chance by James Grayson & Kathy Ferguson
Mars has been colonized, but as usual in such stories, beancounters on Earth have cut funding for maintenance of the spacecraft connecting the two worlds. When a toxic substance gets into the colony's water supply, the only ship available to transport the antidote to Mars is the ancient McAuliffe, with almost-as-ancient David Longrie volunteering to pilot it, along with a small crew of redshirts. A high-ranking representative of the beancounters insists on joining the mission in order to gather information to support her case for shutting the colony down. Naturally, disaster overtakes the ship, and the two end up working together in order to survive, contriving emergency spare parts out of baling wire and duct tape, in the best tradition of space engineers.
When Analog readers open their copy of the magazine, a story just like this novella is probably what they are looking for. Of course the support of space colonization is a given, and the opposition of short-sighted bureaucracy as much so. But Grayson and Ferguson bestow unexpected personal dimension on their characters as they interact in the face of the emergency, and the didactic element that often overtakes stories of this sort is minimized. The only really false note is in one redshirt character, a cardboard ass, but he is disposed of before he can do much harm to the story, leaving the two antagonists to work out their differences or die trying.
Original Sin by Richard A. Lovett
The narrator is a college track coach looking for a way to motivate a talented athlete. He mentions his problem to an old friend, who comes up with a mind-recording/replay device contained in a pair of headsets. The headsets are effective; they allow one person to completely experience another's sensations, and Coach's runner improves as a result. The two old friends speculate idly on other uses the headset might be put to, but Dylan, the runner, is ahead of them and begins to produce thrill chips and porn with the device—first, to amuse his friends, then, as word spreads, for sale. But when word spreads as far as some Unsavory Characters, Coach realizes he has a serious problem.
This story has invention and suspense, but it hangs on a premise I find too improbable: that a sole inventor, in just a few months, could devise and perfect a mind-recording device ex nihilo when nothing remotely like such a thing seems to exist in the story's world. Just to help an old college buddy read his athletes' minds. The guy's name isn't even Tom Swift.
Preemption by Charlie Rosenkranz
One day, aliens appear and begin to attack the Earth. It seems they have concluded that dogs will some day become sentient and a threat to other worlds, so they are preemptively exterminating the canine genus.
This is one of those pieces that consists of a SFnal Neat Idea wrapped in the thinnest possible tissue of cardboard, with the talking heads of so-called characters reciting the plot. Except that in this case, the idea in question is more Stoopid than Neat.
The Door That Does Not Close by Carl Frederick
The aliens have returned to Earth. They had come once before, during the Roman era, but the expedition caused so much trouble that they retreated and thereafter adopted a policy of noninterference with other peoples. They have advanced scientifically since that time, and are now interested in discovering artifacts of their previous expedition, particularly an ancient codex written by a Roman author, with his account of alien contact. In order to avoid notice, the aliens send an android in the form of a young boy who calls himself Roger. Roger's human guide, Thorvald, is able to lead him to the ancient temple in Romania where the codex is believed to be hidden, but Roger warns Thorvald not to read it. The scientific knowledge of the aliens would be a door that does not close, knowledge that can not be un-known, that would inhibit humanity's own incentive to learn. Even just knowing that such knowledge exists, Thorvald says,
"I'm not sure I could return to science now. At least not for a while, and not with the same passion. Your people know physics that I could never hope to discover. And if I did make discoveries, I'd feel as if I were just reinventing the wheel."
Frederick's solution to Thorvald's problem is quite fitting and natural, yet it is one that characters in SF stories rarely seem to make, and should maybe make more often. Despite my doubts about Frederick's Latin,
Realms of Fantasy, June 2006
With most of the other magazines apparently turning their backs on fantasy these days, many of the good stories seem to find their way to Realms. The theme of this issue is legends retold.
Robin of the Green by A. C. Wise
Reworking old legends is one of the mainstays of modern fantasy, and Robin Hood has often been cast as a Pan/Puck figure, a mythic trickster. In Wise's version, there is something of the faun about Guy of Gisborne, as well, when Robin meets him as a boy:
Over the face, a mess of dark curls hung tangled and falling into eyes as green as summer grass and magnified by tears. There was a look of the puck about him, almost fey, and Robin imagined he could nearly see budding horns beneath the dark curls and the hooves of a goat hidden within the boy's leather boots.
The two become friends, rivals, and, it is strongly suggested, lovers. But matters between them change when Guy becomes betrothed to a maid named Marion.
This version of the legend doesn't really work on its own terms—one Robin Goodfellow is fine, but there is no need in the story for two, and Guy as an adult shows no puckish traits. Nor does it work with the original material related to Guy of Gisborne, from which it has wandered too far astray.
Pavel Petrovich by Daniel Hood
The modern mythos of the Russian gulag meets the tribal legends of the taiga in the person of Pavel Petrovich. He is from the far, far beyond, tribal country, and his survival skills are almost superhuman, which earns him respect and a unique place in the camp. But he refuses to give in and become a member of one of the gangs that rule there, and in the brutal environment of the camps, a man can't survive unless he joins a gang, not even a man like Pavel Petrovich.
This is a strongly evocative story. Reading it, I recalled my first encounter with the work of Solzhenitsyn, the world of the gulag. Hood uses the prison tattoos to link the two worlds of Pavel Petrovich, to whom joining a gang would be joining a new tribe. In the camps, a tattoo says who a man is, who he belongs to.
"I will not be painted. That's dangerous magic." He shuddered. "It changes a man."
For among the tribes from which he comes, a tattoo also determines who a man is, and it is strong magic indeed.
Undine by Catherine Krahe
Most fantasy readers probably know that an undine is a female water spirit who sometimes mourns her lack of a soul. Krahe has taken this legend and endows the undine with the power to steal not a human's soul, but her body and life. The human victim then becomes the water girl in her turn, recalling her lost life as she waits for the next person to reach into the water. In this tale, the human is Nadine, a swimmer who has suffered a devastating injury. She can no longer swim as she used to be able to, all hope of the Olympics is gone, Nadine no longer feels her life is worthwhile. She knows what she is doing when she calls to the water girl.
I like the way Krahe has depicted the undine—"Her skin was wet quartz and her eyes held slippery sunlight on the lake floor."—but I can't say the same for Nadine, in all her self-pity. Furthermore, I think the author has greatly overestimated the devastating effect of a knee injury on a swimmer [although I grant her the weakness on the starting block], which works against my ability to sympathize with her character.
Sister of the Hedge by Jim C. Hines
After the Accursed Hedge grew up around Sleeping Beauty's castle, a religious community grew up outside it, dedicated to the care of the martyred princes trapped in the thorns. When Talia finds herself impregnated by her incestuous royal father, she seeks refuge in this place outside her own kingdom, hoping for anonymity. But Talia is not used to practicing humility and unthinking obedience.
"This is the life you've chosen. A life of blood and filth and servitude before God. Are you certain this is what you want?"
Talia shrugged and rubbed her bandaged arm. She thought of the babies in her womb. Why should she serve a God who had turned his back on Talia so long ago? At that moment, Talia's sympathy lay with the fairies who had left princes like Jerome to suffer.
This fairytale sequel has a neat twist, though not a very light hand with the contrast between good and evil.
A Better Place by Josh Rountree
A generation ago, the sandman came and took Clayton's brother away from their West Texas cotton farm. But rather than simply tell this story, the author moralizes about it.
Schwarze Madonna and the Sandalwood Knight by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake
The Black Madonna, despite her place in the title, only shows up in this heroic fantasy for the first few paragraphs before she loses her head to one of her numerous enemies. But this is time enough for the young farmer named Robert to lose his heart to her. It is a time of war, when ruthless armies roam the countryside, burning and looting. Robert's farm is laid waste, and he comes back to the grave he once dug for his lady knight.
There was a sword buried in this grave, her sword. If he could not stay and keep her company, he would go into the world to find the Red Knight who took her life, and her head for a trophy, and in his vengeance make her whole.
In the course of this quest, Robert's path is paved with miracles. He acquires a large following of ghosts, who name him the Sandalwood Knight, and in due course he becomes a hero.
It is easy to imagine this piece expanded into a darkly epic fantasy novel, it is so full of story. But it is probably better in this concentrated form. If there is a single flaw I can't forebear to mention, it is that Robert is too good a farmer to let his shovel get so rusty as the authors describe it.
Ice by Patrice E. Sarath
You know you have slipped into fairyland or dreamland when the snow begins to fall and will not stop.
It dropped on the wide avenues, filled street corners with sculpted drifts, and filigreed railings, grates, and trash. The dark subway entrances were closed. In the grand concourse of the train station, snow spilled in from the street, cascading over the marble stairs and glittering in the dim light of the ceiling's heaven.
In this case, it seems to be some of both. Delacour, a hockey player, has a chance encounter with a sleigh carrying the members of a ballet company performing Giselle. But soon it seems that he has become part of the balletic legend, trapped in either a magic spell or a waking nightmare.
This is a strangely dreamlike piece, and readers who are familiar with the ballet may find that it evokes the ghostly wilis in their white costumes like snowflakes, as well as its theme of betrayal and love.
Strange Horizons, April 2006
Love stories, mostly, this month. The Marks piece is presented as a two-part serial, but as such it is a short one, and I was glad I read it in a single session instead of installments.
The Los Angeles Women's Auxiliary Superhero League by Elana Frink
Camille is working for a Hollywood publicist when she discovers her power of invisibility. In Hollywood, the stars prefer that everyone else be invisible except themselves. When Camille tells her friends Sharla and Jane about her newfound superpower, they reveal that they, too, are superheroes; now that there are three of them, they can establish a League and fight crime. It is Sharla who makes up the League's name (Auxiliary???), but Camille who decides to quit her job and hire her old boss, Ari, to do the PR for them. Camille is finally taking charge: "Sharla and Jane turn to stare at her, but neither contradicts her assertion that the League is available for the fighting of crimes great and small in the greater Los Angeles area."
I do have to wonder why Sharla pretended to be jealous when Camille first came out to her as a superhero, if she and Jane had already decided to include her in their League. SH has been doing a number of superhero stories recently. This one is not quite up to Leah Bobet's "They Fight Crime!" but it is fun, albeit silly stuff.
Every Angel is Terrifying by Nia Stephens
Reese McGowan is a fallen angel. It is not clear if he took on mortal flesh willingly, but the presence of a scar suggests that he might have been cast forth from heaven by someone wielding a fiery sword, perhaps in punishment for some sin. Reese is now an artist, and he lives entirely for his work—aware, perhaps from the beginning, that his time is limited. His friends, including the narrator, insist that no one can be too busy to make time for love, but he replies that time is one thing no one can ever make; and of course angels are not capable of carnal love, which is what the narrator wants from him.
There are direct and indirect ways of telling a story. Stephens' way is the indirect; her text takes the form of ongoing discussions between Reese and the narrator on the subject of imaginary, nominal angels: the Angel of Accidents, the Angel of Penury. At no point does she ever directly declare that Reese is a fallen angel, so that his angelic nature might be taken as a mere metaphor, but the evidence of the text is too strong, too unambiguous to allow such a conclusion. Reese is physically perfect, Reese has scars where his wings have been excised, Reese knows how the clouds must appear from the vantage point of heaven.
"I do believe in angels," I said. "Sort of. I mean, I believe that there's something out there that's interested in human well-being."
"That's not the same thing as believing in angels."
"And what about you? Do you believe?"
"Then why do you argue with me over every one? What sort of angels do you believe in?
"The angels I believe in have no interest in human well-being."
"Then what are they interested in?"
"Getting their work done."
Me, I don't believe in metaphors. That is, I don't believe that it conveys any literary superiority upon a story if the fantastic elements are given an ambiguous status, so that the reader might be to able read them as not literally true. By taking the indirect approach, Stephens casts Reese's story into the narrator's point of view; we see him through the narrator's eyes, and through his desire. This is one way to tell it, but it leaves much to the reader's imagination, untold. However, we must take the story as the author has given it to us, and not as we might, with our unreconstructed preference for the unabashed fantastic, have preferred it. Hence,
Love Goes Begging by Bennet H. Marks
Gifted with the acquaintance of the gods, Kell receives a present from Cupid [not Eros?] on Valentine's Day: a love potion with a one-day expiration. Kell's first thought is to spike the drink of Carlisle, the current object of his lust. But his considerable vanity protests—surely the attractions of his own person are enough to win Carlisle without resorting to such unfair means. And there is also the complication of Jaime, Kell's current live-in; how could he kick such a sweet man out of his house, just to make room for another? What to do, what to do, in possession of such a potent gift?
This is the sort of story more often found in the gay fiction section, in zines such as Christopher Street, than the fantastic genre. While the presence of the gods in this setting might seem gratuitous, the love potion is very much at the center of the story; even if we never see it work, we share Kell's confidence that it will. This is definitely a fantasy.
It is also quite definitely humor, not realistic fiction, and thus Kell appears to be a gay caricature with his witty repartee, his fawn woolen slacks, and his job as an art dealer, ogling the waiter's pearly-pink nipple "while Carlisle is still turning heads in the head, wielding his magic wand like a Hamelin symphony conductor." Yet while he might be self-absorbed, a veritable Narcissus of vanity, Kell is not really selfish, nor does he dismiss the rightful claims of love.
If I have a complaint about this piece, it is not directed at the author, but the editorial decision to split it into a two-part serial. The first half, in particular, barely sets the scene before the to-be-continued point is reached. It would have been better as a singleton, and not at all too long.
Strange Horizons, May 2006
A month of great variety in the fiction, even slanting towards the SFnal side.
The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons by David J. Schwartz
Spring asks the Water-Poet to write "a fog sestina, a dozen sudden downpours, and forty-three cool showers." The other seasons come in their time with their own commissions for precipitation, and as the cycle of the year passes, so pass the seasons of the Water-Poet's life.
This piece is not so much a story as a prose poem, a warm and bittersweet meditation on the cycle of life and the shape of an artist's career. Schwartz's reimagining of the "Water Poet" is original, and his personifications of the seasons are fresh and charming.
We are Never Where We Are by Gavin J. Grant
The narrator is a revolutionary, an agent of change, part of a small group of immortals who travel [through time?] to the world's trouble spots, trying to make a difference.
Now we're all about tools and allocation: satellite-linked phones and laptops, video cameras, education, and anything we think might be the trigger for change. Comics. Skateboards for girls. It's not about teaching people to fish; more demonstrating that fish isn't the only food.
But sometimes they assassinate, and sometimes they can even be killed. And there are times when they wonder if it is all worthwhile.
The narrator's immortal angst reminds me of vampires—but then, just about anything can remind me of vampires. The author, however, seems to be more concerned with mutability, not immortality. The characters change with each new place, apparently to avoid discovery. They change even their sex. In consequence, there is no permanence in their existence. After so many changes, the narrator "doesn't remember how to feel like me." The narrator has a partner; the two of them have been together for almost two centuries, and the partner is the only real constant in the narrator's life, yet sometimes the partner seems to be a stranger: "Whoever you are, I always wake up next to you."
Which brings me to the fact that this piece is written in the problematic second person. The so-called second-person point of view is usually a narrator addressing either the reader or some other person in a one-sided dialogue. In this case, "you" is the narrator's partner, lying asleep—or so it appears. But this only raises the question: why tell the partner all these details of their lives together, which the partner must already know? It seems to be that they have both changed so often that neither can be quite sure they are the same person. This subject is one that Grant has addressed in other works: how people can be altered by a change in their surroundings, whether it is possible for an individual's identity to persist throughout such changes, to retain the part that is "me." While the question is interesting, the particular circumstances in this case are weighed down with a sense of futility and ennui. Worse, the reader has no sense of who these people are and who they have been in the past, so it is not possible for us to see whether they have changed or not. In the place of characterization, all we have is a list of place-names, where they have been.
Cinderella Suicide by Samantha Henderson
Some time in another ninetheenth century, an object from space struck the Australian outback.
Scattered all about, like Father Christmas tossing pennies, rare earth, yttrium and scandium in luscious ashy chunks. And soon there are Magnetic Clocks, and Automatons, and Air-Cars, and good Queen Vickie trulls about in a Magnetic Carriage like everybody else. But still there is cess, and ever will be, pretend as they might at home, so still the slithies are transported.
Now a trio of these transported ex-convicts journeys into the desert to locate the extraterrestrial Source of the magnetic field by which many of the technological wonders of the age are powered.
So, in summary, goes the plot of this alternate-history Victorian cyberpunk adventure, but it only hints at the complexity of the setting and backstory—for one example, how Cinderella Suicide got her name. In fact, there is so very much of this complexity of detail that it rather overwhelms the story, as if the text we have here had been drastically cut down from some much longer work in which all this stuff had sufficient space to unroll itself. As it is, I fear that some readers may be confused by the number of unexplained details, particularly at the beginning.
There are also several points at which my suspension of disbelief undergoes severe strain. For one thing, while the exact timeline here is unclear, I can't accept the state of electronic cyberenhancement that seems to be so widely available in what still seems to be the nineteenth century—no matter how alternate. Or that ex-convicts at the lowest stratum of society would have been able to afford the enhancements described. Even more improbable is the notion that Her Brittanic Majesty's Government, well-aware of the value of the Source and its general location, would not have immediately mounted an official expedition into the badlands to secure it, rather than leaving this task to motley bands of criminals.
Of course it is possible that in the much longer version of this story these apparent improbabilities would have some reasonable explanation. In which case, I would have preferred to read that version.
Fortune's Food by Kit St. Germaine
Poor Tosca Zanni, at age twenty-six, is trapped in servitude to her demanding blind father. Fortunately for Tosca, the new parish priest is a saint and her neighbor is a witch—which amounts to essentially the same thing. Warmhearted humor.
Textual Variants by Rosamund Hodge
There are many worlds, and in each world the myth takes a different form, but there is always a choice to be made between life and death. The girl named San is the one whose destiny is to make the choice. She travels from world to world, to see them all before she must choose, while the Warders pursue her, because her choice will mean death—to some, if not to all. San does not want this destiny, does not want to choose, but in this, she has no choice.
"Think of all the tales you've heard. They can't all be true. All the worlds you've seen. They can't all be real."
"What if there is something that's true in all worlds?"
The hallway ended in a wooden, brass-knobbed door exactly like all the others. Tsuitya turned. Her pupils had swallowed up her eyes. "Refusal is a choice. Open and choose."
San laid a hand on the knob, shutting her eyes. In every story in every world, the gods had disputed death and lost. But they had always tried to bargain with it.
The title says it: this piece is a metafiction. Hodge's myth, in all its variations, has the texture of real myth; her gods engage, variously, in the primal struggle between life and death, mortality and resurrection, salvation and loss. Yet at the conclusion of this tale, the protagonist unifies the disparate shards of the myth and steps beyond them, completing and defeating her destiny at once. This is fiction, not myth. Hodge, in addition to giving us a metafiction, has told us a real story, a fantasy story.
Lone Star Stories #14, April 2006
This issue of the webzine is notable for the presence of authors whose names are becoming well-known and well-regarded in the genre. Two of their stories here are quite fine. The best issue of this zine I have yet seen.
Hekaba's Demon by Sarah Prineas
The brigantine Hekaba is on its way to China with an illicit cargo of opium when it takes on a new passenger. She originally calls herself Daevas, but after the ship is underway, Daevas appears in the form of a man, calling himself Davis. Acting captain Griffin recognizes him as a demon, but at first his greatest concern is for the demon's influence on another passenger, the attractive Miss Emily Goforth. He soon has more urgent things to worry about, as the ship comes under attack by a more powerful demon from whom Daevas is attempting to flee.
This story has its roots firmly in myth. It is no wonder that a demon would choose to take his passage on a ship named for the Greek goddess of the dark underworld. From hell, it is only a short sail to the Mysterious East of the nineteenth century, where smuggling ships are crewed by superstitious Chinamen and Lascars, and a demon can be just another paying passenger. But a demon may also be a god:
The Shining One paused in her passage to spare us a glance. The waves boiled around us and the wind howled through the shrouds. A flaming hand descended, picked up Hekaba and shook her. Finding nothing she wanted, Angra Mainyu flung us down again and went striding on through the night of flame and darkness, leaving us to battle the storm that raged in her wake.
A satisfying, well-told tale.
The Secret Life of Dave Driscoll by Jeff VanderMeer
Dave Driscoll has always wanted to meet Philip K. Dick and Sam Peckinpah together, perhaps because he is a nutcase who enjoys scenes of violent gunfire. Knowing that these two heroes of his did meet once in 1973, at a Berkeley, CA bar, he constructs a time machine, arms himself with two revolvers and a shotgun, and materializes on the scene, with results that are less than satisfactory.
But then, one has to wonder what the crazy bastard expected in the first place.
Thread: A Triptych by Catherynne M. Valente
In the myth, Ariadne gives Theseus a thread to guide him out of the labyrinth after he kills the Minotaur. He sails away with her from Crete, but abandons her on the island of Naxos where she is seduced by Dionysos, then dies giving birth. Valente takes this material, unravels it, and reweaves the story, sending Ariadne to Chicago under a different name, as a bride from the old country. This version of Theseus does not recognize her, but the ancient story repeats itself, for he abandons her again after she has borne him sons, and again Dionysos comes for her, in a different form.
Valente's prose follows its own path through the labyrinth of the narrator's mind, a stream of consciousness that seems to fall in and out of dream. It seems quite irrelevant to wonder whether Annie/Ariadne is insane, or exiled in time and space, for both answers contain truth, on their own terms.
But he wrote me down as Annie anyway, wrote me in his great black book which must be a book of the dead, and he Charon on a raft of red wood, with a punting pole of ink, and he wrote my name in his book, he wrote my name among the other dead women crossing over the water, and I was Annie and not Ariadne, I was Annie now and some broad-shouldered man’s wife in a city called Chicago, and not Ariadne at all.
This is a fine piece of mythic imagination, slightly marred, however, by the out-of-place reference to a golem in the first paragraph. It comes from a different mythos, and its presence bugs me a whole lot. Still,
The editors call this a Valentine's issue and declare their theme to be love, in its variety of forms. The variety in these stories is quite wide, with a lot of original ideas.
Midnight Folk by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar creates an homage to the Beat Generation. Sal Paradise has came to London "looking for nothing more than a refuge, a safe-house, a place where I could be alone and where my past could be safely filed away in the great sweaty tumbling reams of paper that were left behind me in New York when I fled my old life." Except that Sal is really Jack Kerouac, who has literally left this life, but clings ghostly to the shadow of it in the person of the protagonist in his most famous novel. His posthumous existence as a private investigator is drab and grey, but as he says, "It's a job." Until the moment that Dean Moriarty shows up from the novel, calling on his old friend to hit the final road.
"I’m a class-A substance in a third-rate burg," said this glowing apparition with the utmost sincerity. "I’ve come to dig this crazy place you’ve made for yourself, this make-believe London spread in front of us like a rippled broken shattered mirror, this fantastic metamorphic fanciful dream of yours. Sal," his voice once again took on the sweet and dreamy tones of utter self-belief of this conman madman hustler lover that I knew so well and have ached for so much.
Readers' ability to dig Tidhar's recreation of Kerouac's world and his prose will depend on their familiarity with the original work, except for some who may be old enough to have lived in the Beat era. Me, I think I just heard a distant riff of bongo drums.
Another Kind of Glamour by Richard Parks
Titania and Oberon have quarreled, and in consequence the existence of Fairie is endangered, for the glamour which surrounds and protects this world is fragile. Now it is up to Puck Robin to make things right between the two monarchs, for their marriage is the central truth on which Fairie is founded.
This is a philosophical tale, in which Parks illustrates the distinction between the coherence and the correspondence theories of truth. As Puck explains to his liege:
"The fact is that the world you see beyond our borders is what’s real. That is a world that can be measured, counted, weighed. A world of facts. Unlike Fairie, which has none of these properties."
Oberon nodded. "A lie, then, as I said. That is what we are."
"No, Majesty. The fact is the world we see beyond our borders. The truth is that there are borders. That the writ of facts does not run here. The truth beyond our borders is whatever the humans choose to make of those facts that surround them, but here in Fairie the truth is what we collectively say it is. We are not built on a fabric of lies, Majesty, despite what glamour makes to appear real. We are built on truth. A shaky, fragile truth, I will grant you. But truth nonetheless."
Or to put the matter in more mundane terms, a husband may think he is speaking truthfully when he answers the Eternal Question: "Does this dress make me look fat?" but in his heart, Oberon knows that the right answer is: "I have seen Titania in all her bare glory and, frankly, compared to that, a gown of sunlight and moonbeams is pretty much redundant." An experienced husband, that Parks.
The Brotherhood of Trees by Michael Jasper
Matthew and Fred are a couple in late middle age, their relationship drifting into staleness. One day Matthew goes running in the woods near their home and encounters a strangely compelling young man, who turns out to be a dryad. But Fred is the one who figures out how to help him.
It is a bit jarring to encounter a male dryad, but he seems to be what Matthew and Fred needed to find. Jasper's characters have a real-people quality which keeps this piece from being too predictable.
East of Eden, and Just a Bit South: Being a True and Accurate Account of How Cain Found Himself a Wife by Ken Scholes
As Cain tells the story, he and his brother were living with their parents in a trailer somewhere outside Eden when the Lord came around on a project to get the world populated. He wanted Adam and Eve to beget the boys some sisters for them to father children on. Cain and Abel didn't think much of this notion, so they decided to make themselves girls out of clay, the way the Lord had done it.
In the end, near as we could figure, all we needed was a goat’s head, a fat dead rat, and a six pack.
We headed west and just a bit north. Most of you all know that the Lord put an angel and a big fiery sword in the way of the Garden. What you most likely didn’t know was that the angel’s name was Bubba and he was bad-ass.
He was also dumb as wood.
He was stretched out napping in the sun when we got to him.
"Hey fellas," he said with a yawn. It was a powerful hot day.
"Hey Bubba," we both said. Then we offered him the six pack.
It's a good plan, but there are complications, particularly the fiery sword, and the boys end up having to concoct a story to explain how Abel had been separated from his head.
This is funny stuff, and it sure makes no less sense than the other version.
Things We Sell to Tourists by Marissa K. Lingen
This piece is a group of vignettes with the common theme of the odds and ends that people pick up and keep on their way through life. Or as one character calls them, souvenirs: items that recall where we have been. There is the T-shirt that the family buys Granny in the shop of the Twentieth-Century Museum, which gets everything from that era wrong. There are the artifacts that the boy from the floating city above Venus trades with the girl from the hollowed-out asteroid. There is the souvenir from the Turing shop dedicated to robot tourists, who revere Turning as their forefather. There are the aliens who collect strange infections. There is the souvenir from Mars owned by an old woman, the only thing she had kept after she survived the disastrous collapse of a Martian city's dome. An interesting group of snapshots.
Virulence by DJ Cockburn
The narrator, Tony, is a tolerant, multicultural-positive epidemiologist from Britain, sent to the Philippines to identify a rapidly-spreading new disease that turns out to be a form of influenza. He notes that influenza pandemics have historically been followed by the rise of xenophobic, intolerant mass movements. His lover, an Asian immigrant to Britain, has discovered a similar effect in rats after exposure to the influenza virus. Tony speculates that it seems to be a sort of immune response.
"They get very aggressive toward rats they haven’t seen before, but not toward their own social group. So much that some of the randiest males I’ve got chase off strange females in heat if they don’t know them. I’ve never seen the like of it before."
"Any idea why?"
"I think it’s some sort of behavioural mechanism to keep them away from anyone carrying the disease. I mean, if there’s a bug about, you want to keep strangers that might have it away from your wee ’uns."
Then Tony himself catches the virus, with consequences that are quite predictable, given the setup.
This is the sort of Neat Idea story in which the other elements of the story—plot, characters—are subservient to the SFnal premise. Cockburn's narrative talents render the situation interesting at first, but unfortunately his premise is too improbable and his setup too pat for the story's good.
Weird Tales, April 2006
Now returned to previous ownership, The Unique Magazine seems to be turning away from its trademark dark fantasy in this special expanded issue for April, which is almost entirely filled with classic horror. The trouble with reviewing horror is that the impact of the story often rests on the climax of the plot, about which it is considered best to say as little as possible.
So Coldly Sweet, So Deadly Fair by Gregory Frost
A couple of years ago, an anthology appeared in print, based on the life and legend of Abraham Van Helsing. This story by Frost, which leads off the issue, would have made an excellent addition to that volume. It takes place before the events of Stoker's novel, when Van Helsing's wife and child are both still alive. They have taken a cottage in the country for the summer—in part because the Van Helsings were concerned about their son's excessive interest in other boys. Sonja Van Helsing thinks her husband is oblivious to the signs of sexual perversion in young Willem, when in fact he knows but accepts. He is more concerned with other developments; a mysterious sickness has afflicted a neighboring family, and the cause turns out to be a vampire—Van Helsing's first and most tragic encounter with such a monster.
Frost has thoroughly grounded his account in Stoker's novel, and particular in Van Helsing's diaries, accurately capturing his voice. This earlier confrontation serves as a prequel to the better-known events that were the subject of Stoker's book, and it explains much about Van Helsing's personal motivation for his crusade to rid the world of vampires.
Birth by Michael Siefener
A Christmas horror story. Clemens finds Christmas depressing, so he has fled from his loneliness to a Pension in a remote village. There, his landlady importunes him to attend the service at the village church, where the liturgy is very different from the usual one. Not an original tale, it ends predictably.
The Waiters by Tony Richards
Kenny McClure, being broke, takes on the job of visiting an elderly great-aunt in her nursing home. Ivydene seems at first to be an exemplary institution, but Aunt Sarah is clearly terrified, and Kenny becomes convinced that Something Is Not Right.
Richards' characterization raises this piece a bit above the usual level of such tales, and he provides a satisfying conclusion that doesn't stint the horror or turn sentimental.
Venice—Rome—Direttissima by Charles Harness
The success of the Ravenna bullet train depends on speed and safety, but it is threatened by the sharpness of the curve required to skirt the hill called the Collina Tre Vergines, where the poet Dante, according to local legend, saw the three holy virgins imprisoning the devil. While the company owns the legal right-of-way, it knows that any attempt to cut through the hill would bring down a flood of lawsuits and injunctions from Vatican lawyers, for fear of releasing the Evil One. But Professor Malzi has invented a new mining technology based on dark matter, which is capable of tunneling through the hill in a single night, before any restraining orders could be issued. And of course as scientists and rational men, the railway engineers have no fear of the devil—only of lawyers.
It is the Dante connection that makes this story particularly interesting, the image of the very hill where the poet once stood at the gates to hell, as opposed to some demonic location with a lesser literary pedigree. It serves to distract the reader from the question whether cutting four minutes off the time of the Rome-Venice commute is really worth all this trouble.
The Dead of Winter by Stephen Dedman
Leah and Alan are researching ghosts, in particular the sort of ghost who repeats a pattern of behavior, such as the vanishing hitchhiker. Leah is reckless, willing to go to any length to get documentary proof of these ghosts' existence, and she also experiments to see how far they are willing to alter their behavior patterns. Alan is worried that she is going to kill herself, or him, in trying—for example, by racing the phantom motorcyclist on the back country roads. He wonders:
"Why are you really doing this?"
"You're interested in the past. I'm more interested in the future. I want to know what happens next."
I looked at my notes. "If appearing once a year at Justine's and asking for a lift home is the best we can hope for, I'd rather not know. None of these ghosts seem to be having a good time."
Dedman's exploration of ghostly behavior—and ghost-hunter behavior—has a compelling fascination, though the romantic sub-plot doesn't do a lot for me.
Fimbuldinner: The Last Supper by Kelly McCullough
Encountering a character named King Pudgewort on the first line of a story is not what I generally consider an Encouraging Sign. After a page or so, however, McCullough redeems this tale from the usual fate of stories with Stoopid Names and turns it into a bit of mythic humor. It seems that Eris, the cook of the gods on Olympus, wants to rent the king's hall to advertise her new restaurant. But it turns out that things are not in fact what they seem—as any reader who knows who Eris really is should readily be able to guess.
The Flight of the Angel by Cherith Baldry
Renier Spelladi is a Venetian merchant who has just delivered a package to the Doge's Chief Enchanter when he accidentally catches sight of the contents. Immediately, mysterious forces begin trying to destroy him. Renier knows it must be Ser Lorenzo behind the attempts, so he writes a denunciation of the sorcerer, but Ser Lorenzo is too powerful, and it is Renier who is arrested for making false accusations.
Baldry uses the setting of Venice to good effect, although I have my doubts that any Venetian shipowner would have named his vessel Serenissima. But there are also nice original touches of the dark fantastic that add to the atmosphere of mystery and menace surrounding the events of this tale.
"Ser Renier." The newcomer moved forward into the slab of evening light that lay in front of the open door. He was tall—taller even than the Chief Enchanter—wearing a robe of metallic mesh in shades of copper and gold. His face was covered by an expressionless golden carnival mask, with a headdress of metallic strips twisted into curls of flame and gold and copper. From his shoulders coppery wings curved down to his ankles. An angel, but a dark angel, glinting with the fires of hell. "I have a message for you," he said.
The Uninvited by Kelly A. Wilkins
The mean kids at school taunt the misfits and don't want to invite them to their parties. Wilkins brings nothing interesting or original to this tired old plot, and her mean-girl villain is not realistic—real mean girls are more subtle in their cruelty—so that the reader doesn't really have the satisfaction of rejoicing when she meets her predictable Bad End.
The Lost Room by Fitz-James O'Brien
In a nightmare vision, the narrator returns from a walk in the garden to his room, where all is altered:
Wherever my eyes turned they missed familiar objects, yet encountered strange representatives. Still in all the substitutions there seemed to me a reminiscence of what they replaced. They seemed only for a time transmuted into other shapes, and there lingered around them the atmosphere of what they once had been. Thus I could have sworn the room to have been mine, yet there was nothing in it that I could rightly claim.
This piece is a Weird Tales "classic" reprint; O'Brien was a contemporary of Poe, and his language is of that era. The tale is all dark, brooding atmosphere, with no real plot but more than a suggestion of madness.
The Grave of My Beloved by Ian Watson & Roberto Quigley
The narrator's beloved Mirabelle has died, and he purchases for her an eternal grave in cyberspace. Unfortunately, he is unable to keep up the payments, and the site begins to exert pressure on him.
By now the virtual grass had grown long and many ugly weeds had arisen.
One evening, as I watched, a mongrel dog wandered on to the overgrown grave—and shat, straining to produce a big white turd. Evidently the dog suffered from distemper. This made the mongrel and its excrement seem doubly unclean.
The absurdity of this situation is reflected in the language of the piece, an incongruous combination of dated diction with contemporary virtual reality. Original, clever dark humor.