Another month with many of the usual 'zines, and the debut issue of a new one. I have to give Strange Horizons the distinction of having more of the best stories this time, with F&SF also printing strong work.
Asimov's, August 2006
Another SFnal month for this 'zine, although the title novella is certainly full of fantastic stuff, but there is otherwise only one briefly-glimpsed god in the issue.
The Plurality of Worlds by Brian Stableford
We begin in an alternate history where the scholarly Jane Grey reigns as Queen, initiating an English scientific revolution that results in a manned expedition to the moon, captained by Thomas Digges, along with Drake, Raleigh, de Vere, and John Field as a censor sent along by the Church. There is much discussion of natural philosophy in the cabin of the ethercraft as it ascends, and I am looking forward with keen anticipation to the moment when the space explorers discover that it is vacuum, not ether, that fills the space beyond the limits of the atmosphere—when it turns out to be ether, after all, and the tale takes a sharp left turn into science fantasy. For not only is there ether, there are ether-dwelling creatures, and one such ethereal takes up residence in Thomas's mind, just before their entire ethercraft is seized by giant insects and transported to the center of the moon. And their adventure has only just begun.
"Painless it might be," Raleigh replied, "but I can't help feeling a certain nausea at the thought that we're to be crushed so compactly that we have no manifest existence, then projected through a tunnel that has no manifest breadth, to a world so far away that a ray of light would take ten thousand years to catch us up."
There is adventure and imagination enough in this novella to satisfy the lovers of space opera, and natural philosophy enough to please the fans of hard SF, as well lovers of history, with much debate about void theory, atomists, and plenarists, or whether the ether is actually the breath of God. I would have wholeheartedly recommended it, except that the twist at the ending was a disappointment. And some readers may be put off by Stableford's departures from Elizabethan language, which did not include such anachronistic phrases as one's "personal space."
Dead Man by Alexander Jablokov
It's a world where the minds of the dying can be uploaded electronically, but the process is a destructive read: nothing is left in the original human brains. Ian has been in this business most of his life, but the case he's on now is strange—an uploaded mind has hired him to find his fugitive body. It seems that he had never authorized the process; he wasn't really dying, after all; and the upload was interrupted before the process was complete. There are now two of him: the silicon version, and the original, carbon version. And the original, the body, doesn't want to have the destructive upload completed. He doesn't want to die.
The story as Jablokov tells it is a bit confusing. Ian refers to both versions of the dead man only as the Dead Man. The narrative is asynchronous, shifting back constantly to different times in Ian's life. The characters lie a lot. Furthermore, I have difficulty accepting one part of the premise: that the uploaded version of the dead man is the legal entity, when the process had been performed without the living man's authorization. Still, it offers worthwhile insights into the nature of personal identity and the mind.
Crunchers, Inc. by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Edith is a middle manager at Crunchers, Inc., a company that specializes in reducing the value of every human life to a number. Her nemesis is EISH [Everyone Is Someone's Hero], a society dedicated to the proposition that every person has some unique, unquantifiable value. EISH keeps subverting her Actuarial Engineers. No matter how stringent their security, EISH always finds a way in and convinces the AE to quit. Edith's own rating depends on her ability to find a replacement,
someone with no trace of sentimentality. No hidden plastic horses, no loving spouse, nothing that could pry through the shield of that person's loyalty to numbers, statistics, and the purity of formula.
Rusch has created a nicely updated twist on the old SFnal we-are-all-a-number trope.
Feather and Ring by Ruth Nestvold
Lindsay is a young computer game designer in Taipei to make a business deal that could save her financially struggling company. Her marriage, however, is beyond saving. "All the things she'd relied on in her life were disappearing at once—business, money, husband." On an impulse, she enters a temple of Kwan Yin, Chinese goddess of compassion, with results that shouldn't surprise the reader.
In the Abyss of Time by Stephen Baxter
How do you write a story about the end of the universe? How can it be a story? Baxter creates St. John Elstead and his time machine, the Spacetime Bathyscaphe I. He invites journalist Susie Oram along on his cosmological exploration so she can tell the tale afterward—and so Baxter will have an audience for his infodumps along the way. The adventurers travel forward into time, taking notes, checking off various theories as proven or otherwise. These lectures are full of physics neep, as one might expect, and some readers may find it fascinating, but even Elstead occasionally admits he is only talking because there is nothing else to do. The end of the universe is scary. The question is: how to face it.
But is it a story? Barely.
Tin Marsh by Michael Swanwick
Prospecting on Venus is a tough job, and the Company sets the rules. The first rule is: No Violence. No matter how badly you want to kill your partner, the chip in your head won't let you. The Company knows how partners can get on each others' nerves during the course of a year-long contract. Patang and MacArthur certainly get on each other's nerves.
Every day she prayed that it would be MacArthur who finally yanked the escape cord, calling down upon himself the charges for a rescue ship to pull them out ahead of contract. MacArthur who went bust while she look her partial creds and skipped.
Every day he didn't. It was inhuman how much abuse he could absorb without giving in.
Only hatred could keep a man going like that.
Until the day there was an accident and MacArthur's chip malfunctioned.
Swanwick packs a lot into this story—the details of prospecting on Venus, the interaction of the partners, the tension: how can Patang evade MacArthur's murderous intentions? I wouldn't even want to tell.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 2006
I have noted before that the longer works are often the strongest in F&SF, and this is certainly true in the August issue. Of the two novelets, one is SF, the other outright fantasy—a mix that is becoming quite unusual, as other magazines seem to be restricting their content more and more to a narrower range within the genre.
Okanoggan Falls by Carolyn Ives Gilman
As alien conquerors go, the Wattesoons aren't so bad. The citizens of Okanoggan Falls have grudgingly accepted them as rulers, having no real choice in the matter. But this changes when the aliens issue orders to evacuate the town; they plan to strip-mine the region for its silica deposits. Some of the humans propose armed resistance, but Susan Abernathy, the mayor's wife, prefers subversion, "to make the invaders want to stop messing with us." Her plan is successful in an unexpected way, and the consequences are personally tragic.
In successful science fiction, willing suspension of disbelief is the key. A sufficiently skillful author can seduce the reader into suspending disbelief in the most improbable premise. Gilman manages to get me to accept her potato-shaped aliens and their unlikely metamorphosis, to look inside their souls and find something very close to human there, regardless of the outer shape.
Penultima Thule by Chris Willrich
Readers should not be put off by the presence of a wizard named Krumwheezle in this otherwise fine, imaginative fantasy. In previous tales, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone have stolen a tome so accursed that its existence threatens the entire world. They are now journeying to Ultima Thule (the title misleads), on a quest to cast the book over the World's Rim into the Abyss, where it can (in theory) do no more harm. In the course of their adventures, they fall victim to the ravenous Hunger Stones, are pursued by the stones' barbarous worshipers, and confront the savage white bears who paint hunting scenes on the walls of the ice caves in their victims' blood.
The Tornarssuk clutched a bloody knife carved from bone or caribou antler, with a blade as long as Gaunt's forearm. Its bulk glittered with clumps of ice, as though it had deliberately soaked and frozen its fur before battle. Gore stained the ice.
The bear wore a mask: the tanned, sliced, and stretched head of a human, secured with twine.
Many of these scenes depicting the Northland may evoke the better elements of Pullman's Golden Compass, without its didactic tone. Readers with a taste for the metaphysical should appreciate the logical paradox of the God Who is Not: "I was the oblivion at World's Rim, and all was empty and good. Then the icy mirror formed above this span. I stared upward and saw myself staring downward. I, the abyss, gazed into myself." But above all, Willrich has given lovers of fantasy a highly satisfactory adventure.
Another Word for Map is Faith by Christopher Rowe
Some time in some future, long enough that forces both geological and human have altered the contours of the Earth, a religion begins to teach that the world as it was once shown in maps is the way Christ intended it to be, and that all subsequent alterations must be reversed. A group of student Cartographers, armed with ancient atlases, tramps into the wilderness of Kentucky to right such wrongs and return the terrain to the way it was writ. If a forest has grown up where an old map declares there were fields, they burn the forest, and if people happen to die in the flames, they were probably unbelievers, anyway.
This story deals with disturbing themes, but its force is diminished by the improbability of the premise, which seems too obviously tailored to serve the author's purpose of denouncing the zeal of religious fanatics. Rowe's treatment of his characters is not heavy-handed, and his description of the terrain is inspiring. He almost pulls it off, except that while the professor in the story lectures her students, the inner voice of disbelief keeps whispering to the reader: this just doesn't make sense.
Misjudgment Day by Robert Reed
When Jake was eight years old, he decided it would be a good idea to ride his toboggan off the snow-covered roof of the garage. Over the years, his judgment did not improve very much, but still, he never broke more than a few bones at a time, and he never made the same mistake twice. But now, somehow, a virus has infected the world's population, a virus that attacks the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, and everyone is becoming just like Jake. Except that Jake has decades of experience in coping with the disorder. This is a potentially Neat Idea for a science fiction story, but Reed has omitted the story part. It isn't there, only the situation.
Immortal Forms by Albert E. Cowdrey
Lawyer Tommy Salvati has gone to check up on his elderly client, Hannah Loewe. As soon as he sees the house, he knows that all is not well.
His heart was drumming as he waded through foliage to the kitchen door and knocked—expecting no answer, getting none. Overhead a lamp glowed in the window of Hannah's bedroom. He remembered it well, an antique with a painted glass shade. The red-bronze light showed a dark shape on the ceiling that Tommy thought must be a water stain. Until it began to move.
Suddenly he was back at his car. How did he get there? He couldn't remember. His pants were torn and he'd lost a loafer. Blood seeped through deepened abrasions on his soft lawyerly hands. He fumbled his cell phone to his ear and when the 911 operator answered, tried to explain why she ought to dispatch a cop car.
She said, "There's what all over the ceiling?"
He said, "Flies," and she said, "Oh. Okay. Hang on."
Investigating the circumstances of Hannah's death, Tommy discovers that she had been addicted to pills by an unscrupulous doctor. The drugs had destroyed her mind and then taken her life. But Hannah, even in her right mind, had always been a vengeful soul.
Cowdrey has put together a nice mix of detective fiction and horror in this piece. There is only a slight flavor of his usual New Orleans setting, but the overall recipe is still satisfying.
Jack B. Goode and the Neo-Modern Prometheus by Robert Loy
The editorial blurb gives due warning that this piece contains puns. As well as dreadful if non-punning narrative along the following lines:
She had black and white hair piled up to Marge Simpson levels on her head and some weird piercings that looked like screws in her neck but that was okay—I can overlook a lot if you're statuesque. I was in love or lust or something in that old familiar zip code, and I figured she musta been feeling pretty close to the same way cuz she sat in the stool next to mine and there were other seats available—not stools, as the place was getting busy, but some overturned barrels over by the back door with a nice view of the overflowing dumpsters outside. The seats were by no means plush, but a lot of the skirts who had scoped out the joint before her seemed to prefer them to the stools abutting mine.
This vision of loveliness is Mrs. Monster, who soon engages hapless gumshoe Jack B. Goode to locate her missing eight-foot, green-skinned spouse. Complications duly ensue.
Pleased to Meetcha by Ken Altabef
In this short-short, an aspiring fantasy writer meets his idol and learns at last where the famous writer gets all his ideas.
Billy and the Spacemen by Terry Bisson
This time there are spacemen in Billy's room.
The spacemen plan to take over the Earth.
The spacemen start by killing Billy's teacher.
The spacemen are very, very small.
The spacemen aren't very smart, either.
Analog, July/August 2006
While in some other 'zines, the longer stories may be superior, in the case of this double issue of Analog, the opposite is the case.
Kremer's Limit by C. Stanford Lowe & G. David Nordley
The scientists are the good guys, of course, and the bad guys are the politicians. Hilda Kremer is a member of the project to create an artificial black hole—although we are not told the reason for this, or how it will be beneficial or a wise uses of resources; the unexamined assumption is that scientific research is per se a Good Thing. Torsten Ried is a member of a political family, expected to promote his brother's cause while retaining a false facade of objectivity as a journalist, promoting useful fear in the ignorant voting masses. While other members of his family are busily sabotaging the Black Hole Project, he cultivates Hilda's friendship, the better to betray her.
It is disheartening to consider the effort the authors have put into this novella, all the research into the physics of black holes, only to produce a work of fiction so predictable, so agenda-ridden, so thin of character, so devoid of subtlety or nuance. The language is overtly manipulative: from the first page, we find hostile questions coming from the reporters speaking for our nemesis, who stare accusingly at the scientists. The politician representing ultra-suspicious populism and its panderers reeks of self-confidence. While their enemies smirk and sneer and scheme, the scientists epitomize all the moral and intellectual virtues. Of all the characters, only Torsten Ried is in a sufficiently ambiguous position to make him of interest, for he genuinely cares for Hilda even as he sets her up, but the piece is told from the authors' point of view, not Ried's, so that this opportunity for an interesting story is wasted, leaving us with little more than SCIENTISTS GOOD, LUDDITES BAD.
Witherspin by Alexis Glynn Latner
Martan is a hellhound from Faxe, which is to say, bioengineered for combat. Prior to the events at hand, he has defected and found asylum on the artificial world of Wendis, where Nia, an expert in interplanetary law, seeks to regularize his status. Nia has also found herself attracted to him, even while his deadly abilities make her nervous. To get to know him better, she takes him into Wendis's mountains, an artificial park system where tourists can experience various adventures, some more dangerous than others. But Martan has been located by his enemies on Faxe, who have sabotaged the failsafes in the Wendis park system to trap him there.
Now, this situation leads as it ought to a series of adventures, exciting hazards and thrilling escapes in a fantastic setting—fantastic in a physicist's sense, of course, with the implications of spin gravity worked out by the author, which Analog's readership will certainly appreciate. The problem is, the setting seems too much of a set-up. The Wendis economy depends on tourism, but in the course of this adventure, there is hardly a tourist to be seen, nor any of the park rangers who are supposed to be stationed there to assist them. Nor is there any way for anyone in the park to contact the authorities for assistance in case of emergencies, which must frequently occur in some of the more dangerous zones. Nor does anyone seem to notice that all the usual exits are not working. The park has no maintenance crew? And when the authorities do note that Nia and Martan are in mortal danger, they make no attempt to actually do anything about this. As an artificial adventure park, Wendis offers excitement, but it is just that—artificial—and thus conveys no sense of real, deadly peril, but rather the thrill of a roller coaster ride.
The Keeper's Maze by Joe Schembrie
Joshua Wang runs a salvage ship, and he has been hired by a faux-medievalist to retrieve a unicorn from a genetics lab in a derelict asteroid named Daedalus. It seems that the robotic keeper of Daedalus is warning anyone who approaches that THOSE WHO ENTER THE MAZE WILL NEVER ESCAPE. Wang does enter the asteroid, he does find the unicorn, and he also discovers why the lab has been abandoned: the intelligent rats it had been breeding have broken loose and now infest the entire asteroid. Now Wang must figure out how to escape from both the rats and the maze before the entire place self-destructs.
This is a pretty neat adventure, with as many twists and turns as . . . a maze. I might quibble about the salvage crew not knowing about reconfigurable cargo spaces, which it is certainly part of their business to know. And the villain takes too long at the end to deliver the Parting Infodump, having clearly failed to read the Evil Overlord's Manual. But overall, it was a fun read.
Environmental Friendship Fossle by Ian Stewart
Mike works for the international agency enforcing the treaty against importing endangered species, such as rhino tusk and elephant ivory. These days, the only legal ivory comes from the vast herds of mammoth carcasses discovered frozen in the Siberian tundra. One day Mike overhears an old man talking about the days when he hunted mammoths, and Mike knows the old guy can't be that old. But when he investigates, he discovers the old man is dead, perhaps murdered by the Hong Kong crime triads.
This is an intriguing SFnal crime mystery in a well-realized setting, and I only wish the author hadn't stretched the coincidence factor by giving Mike a too-convenient girlfriend who just happens to be working on a theory of mammoth extinction. The solution is a good one, but readers will probably figure out the mystery long before the characters do.
String of Pearls by Shane Tourtellotte
Humanity has entered into trade relations with a species they call the Kevh, but there is a complication. The Kevh language is devilishly hard to learn, and its government, to maintain this advantage over humans, has forbidden its people from teaching their language to humans or allowing them to access its computer systems. But the humans have made a favorable trade agreement with a certain Kevh importer, in exchange for allowing a human to work in his offices, where they hope he will pick up the language. This human, Marcus Parrish, is a businessman, not a linguist, but he is also an obsessive, competitive perfectionist who can not stand to fail.
This premise is not so improbable in itself, and the problem of alien language is one of science fiction's most fascinating themes. But Tourtellotte's treatment is inconsistent. It seems that Marcus already does know enough of the Kevhtre language to conduct basic conversations. And despite the draconian Kevhtre restrictions on access to linguistic databases, it seems that they have a popular computerized language game, like Scrabble except in forming sentences instead of words, and the humans have already acquired one of these games. Further, instead of a team of linguists, they have handed it over to Marcus. This, in the technical terminology of literary criticism, is called cheating. The author has subverted his own premise. Still, readers who can get over this sticking point may find this work interesting, for the real story here is Marcus's personal struggle as he wrestles with his task, learning to accept humiliation when his alien employer's young child naturally beats him at the game.
Total Loss by James Hosek
Gary Carter wakes up in the emergency room after a car accident to find that his insurance company has determined him to be a total loss. Unfortunately, this is his medical insurance company—his wife's employers had switched coverage to cut costs. According to the contract, the insurance company not only is refusing to pay for any care, they intend to salvage his body parts to cover their expenses.
This is a classic "If This Goes On" SFnal scenario, an entertaining cautionary tale that should whole-heartedly engage the sympathy of every reader—everyone hates insurance companies.
The Software Soul by Brian Plante
Father Thomas is a computer simulation, originally created by a human priest to hear confessions at Saint Anselm's, but now he performs all the priestly functions, as Saint Anselm's has become a virtual church, and all its worshipers attend in virtual mode—when there are any actual worshipers. Much time has passed, and Father Thomas is not aware that there are now two Popes, that the Vatican was blown up a long time ago. But he is heartened when at last, one Sunday, a real (virtual) person appears at his Mass. He feels that he has a real purpose again, bringing people to God. Soon, more people begin showing up at Mass, and when Father Thomas urges them to come to confession, he learns the reason for this revival of church attendance. Alien spacecraft are approaching Earth, and the people are taking refuge in religion, out of fear. Father Thomas tries to help them deal with the situation. He takes as the text of his sermon: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."
Maybe God has brought the aliens here to help us rebuild our Church. If the aliens can inspire faith in people and bring them back to us, then perhaps they are acting as a tool of the Lord.
This is science fiction in its most essential form, as a literature of ideas. Plante uses the tropes of artificial intelligence and alien invasion to inquire into the human impulse to take refuge in religious faith, even if the believer is not strictly human, and his faith is a software program.
Willies by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Two psychologists, one an old-style therapist and the other an experimental researcher, try to break new ground in the treatment of an eating disorder. The ground, unfortunately, has been plowed over many times before; it doesn't take a team of research scientists to discover the obvious.
The Teller of Time by Carl Frederick
There is something about bell-ringing—those sonorous peals of Treble Bob Minor rung on massive bells that bear their own names and histories, the lofty bell towers in medieval churches—that inspires authors. It has clearly inspired Carl Frederick, whose protagonist is on the verge of conducting an experiment into the physics of bell-ringing. As he explains (at some length):
"Since the D-waves [oscillating extended compressible matter makes dimension waves] should make nodes where living creatures are, in some sense, synchronized and a band of ringers engaged in the exercise is about as synchronized as it gets, the ringers should help create a stable resonance pattern. . . . At the center of the triangle, I hope to detect a very tiny variation in the flow of time."
Now this is jargon-juggling in the classical SFnal tradition, yet the reader may take the side of our physicist's skeptical colleague, who calls the experiment "junk science." As in: it doesn't make any sense. But still, there are those peals of Stedman Triples to make up for this lapse in credibility.
Interzone #204, June 2006
Interzone returns to an all-SF lineup for June. The issue seems to feature a lot of cyberized bodies with all sorts of strange stuff growing out of them, or at least the illustrations do.
Longing for Langalana by Mercurio D. Rivera
The Wergen species suffers from an uncontrollable attraction to human beings. This love is not reciprocated. Whether it is the physical appearance of the Wergens, or their mating habits, or simply a natural aversion, humans are repelled by their unwanted attentions. Still, the two species have previously found mutual advantage in working together, and the colonization of Langalana is a joint project. On a remote colony outpost, Shimera and Phineas grow up together, and Shimera comes to love Phinny to the point that she refuses to take a mate from her own people.
This is a story about the suffering of an unrequited love. At one point, Shimera encounters Phinny with his human wife.
I stopped. "Does she love you, Phinny?" I whispered.
"Let me ask you something," I said under my breath with a ferocity that surprised even me. "How do you know?"
"How do you know? How do you know she isn't just physically attracted to you, that she isn't just driven by a biological compulsion to propagate your species, to combine her DNA with yours?"
"Shim . . ."
"How do you know it's true love?"
Good question, Shim. Can any of us ever know what is in the other's mind? Can we even be sure of what is in our own mind, whether the love that we feel is real, or a chemical reaction? Or whether there is really a difference? But perhaps the kindest thing is not to ask, to let us cherish our illusions.
The Song by Tim Akers
All his life, Jacksom Tell has heard the Song in his head—the perfect Song. Attempting to capture it, he becomes a musician and, not incidentally, a right bastard.
He chased the Song through dozens of instruments, through startled teachers and the best academies in the city. He mastered the classics, he re-imagined the solo, the concerto, the orchestra. He gained patrons, he took lovers, he grew older. The Song was always with him, always inside him, always eluding him.
At last, after years of bitter failure, he decides to transform himself into an instrument that can recreate the Song.
There are effective elements in this tale, such as the unpleasant effects Jack's obsession has had on his personality. And the concluding revelation is a neat enough twist. But I find it impossible to accept that, after a lifetime of searching in vain for the right instrument, Jack would so simply to be able to design so complex a device, overnight, as the author suggests. And have it work, first time off. Too easy.
Palestina by Martin J. Gidron
At first this alternate history seems to be ironic, as the Zionist forces have lost their war with the Arab states for the possession of Palestine, and it is the Jews, not the Palestinians, who occupy the refugee camps. But Gidron seems concerned instead to suggest that, without the foundation of the Jewish state, the campaign of genocide begun by the Nazis would necessarily have been continued at the hands of the victorious Arabs. As is often the case, the artistic aspects of the piece suffer at the expense of the political message. And it is particularly awkward when, at the end, the story drops away from Palestina's point of view, in which it was begun, and concludes in the voice of another person altogether.
The Rising Tide by C.A.L.
Rayleigh Marsonnet is a rich and powerful figure, responsible for developing the deadly biomines with which the United Starion Republic is blockading the Veil worlds, whose non-human ways are unacceptable to the Starion Administrators. But the ship carrying the codes controlling the biomines has been stolen by an agent of the Revolution on the Veil worlds, and Rayleigh must travel to the planet Geddes to recover them. Except that Rayleigh is not what he seems.
The premise and the plot of this piece are highly improbable, but it is not realistic or hard science fiction, it is planetary romance, and its purpose is to provoke wonder, to confront the mysterious Rayleigh with his exotic past on this exotic alien world, and his particularly exotic and alien lover:
Three moons lit up the black absorbance of the Geddon Tide. Jenna sat motionless beyond the platform's edge, upon a risen hand of the charcoal sea. A thread of it wound around her nakedness, revealing white flesh in horizontal lines. She seemed to be unaware of it, unfeeling of the wet viscosity against her skin—and unpalatable to whatever hunger it possessed.
Summer's End by Jaimie Barras
The Highjackers came suddenly to Earth, occupied the bodies and minds of its human inhabitants, shifted the population to vast new cities in the tropics, while transforming the northern regions into game preserves. Then, as suddenly, they left, and millions of humans have now awakened to confront what has become of their lives. The narrator had been moved to a ziggurat in Kampala, where he was partnered with a woman he knows as Mary-jaf, whose real husband is missing. Now, he will be repatriated to England, whether he wishes it or not, forced to sever the ties he had formed while under the Highjacker's control. He is not ready to break this attachment. But what does his lover want? What will she choose?
A Short History of the Dream Library by Elizabeth Hopkinson
Milton Bisset has had the same dream every night for twenty years. It is not the world's most profound dream, but Milton seems to like it. It mainly consists of a maze, at the centre of which is a square box. Inside the box is another maze, in which is another box, and so on and so forth until Milton wakes up. The trouble is, it isn't actually Milton's dream. It is the property of the Ministry of Unusual Technology and they want it back.
This piece is the winner of the James White Award, a short story competition open to non-professional writers, the winner of which is published in Interzone. Hopkinson's absurd premise is clever and her handling of it amusing. A promising debut.
Strange Horizons June 2006
Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery by John Schoffstall
A romantic story of forgiveness—sort of—in epistolary form. Because Christopher has humped Jessica's sister Heather in Jessica's bed, spewing vomit over her afterward, Jessica declares she will hate him forever. But Christopher doesn't give up easily. The text of this piece consists of Jessica's responses to the various gifts he sends, seeking the forgiveness she is determined to withhold. These become more and more improbable, as does the entire story:
[Heather] reached into my body and pulled up huge dripping handfuls of intestines, liver, lungs, kidneys, ovaries. "Look at all this crap," she panted. "Just look at it. Disgusting, oozy, icky, filled with shit and urine and slime. Look at all this crap inside you, Jess. How can you be such a perfectionist? How can you not forgive, roll the dice, and take your chances, like everyone else in the fucking world? How dare you demand perfection in others when you lack it yourself? How dare you? How dare you?"
Schoffstall's piece is clearly more surreal than fantasy, as in the scene in which Jessica and Heather roam through Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. It's also pretty funny, although the same result might have been obtained more simply through the florist's shop, with rather less aggravation to the postal authorities.
Dogtown by Amanda Downum
Seth is a murderer on the run, a man the prison shrinks have called psycho. When he stops for gas in a small Texas town, he can't help thinking of the girl at the register, alone, as another potential victim.
So tinyŚher bones would crunch under his hands, brittle and wet. He shuddered, shoulders tightening against the image. The taste of tinfoil filled his mouth. He was losing it. Too damned tired. Wound too tight.
But Seth has come to a place where there are forces more dangerous than he is, and people even worse.
Downum has crafted a fine, tight-wound horror story. The fear and tension are vivid and immediate. I could almost wish she had omitted the explanation of the evil's origin, as it somewhat weakens the impact of its actual manifestation in her characters.
My Termen by Eliot Fintushel
Lev Sergeivitch Termen was the actual inventor of the Theremin, the electronic musical instrument that uses the body as a capacitor to control radio sound waves. Here, Fintushel celebrates Termen's extraordinary life and work, using the narrative voice of his fictional NKVD informer.
Men know him my Termen even today by reason of one's Beach Boys. My baby has it good vibrations. She giving to me excitations. Also, has one not heard such theremin in multiple science fictional movies them? For examples, "Klaatu barada nikto."
But according to Mikhail, Termen had a final invention, a final secret:
"What, are we not mortal, Lev Sergeivich? Are we not dust?" "One is ether, Mikhail. Only let us reverse a certain field polarity, and the 'dead' shall live again. The girl shall live again. Mikhail, I need some components—and a regular supply of dry ice . . ."
Fintushel was doubtless inspired in this work by the sweet music of New York City's car alarms in the night, and it is, like all Fintushelian inspirations, wonderfully warped, and told in a unique narrative voice.
Helix SF #1, Summer 2006
Helix is a new e-zine founded with the vision of publishing works that have been excluded from the usual markets by editorial censorship—as the editor puts it: "too 'dark', too unconventional—or, most disturbingly of all, too likely to offend somebody." In other words, a sort of Dangerous Visions of this age of Alternate Publishing Strategies. The taboos in this issue are mostly to related to sex or religion, but only in a couple of cases do I find these works sufficiently dangerous or offensive to justify any editorial retreat to the bomb shelters.
A Feast of Cousins by Beth Bernobich
Here the taboo is sex, and specifically incest—homoerotic incest, at that. However, it is incest no closer than cousins, all over the age of consent. In a large, close-knit Italian family, everyone knows that Cousin Tessa takes lovers and tosses them aside, but Maura is heartbroken when she finds herself the one tossed aside for sexy Cousin Lucia. Now she will have to face Tess at every family party, with everyone knowing how she was rejected. Her feelings must have been obvious, because someone has given her a gift card for the expensive new electronic spa with the motto: Choissisez nous pour le ravissement: Choose us to be ravished. And the ravishing is good. But who is her new secret lover?
This is a perfectly unexceptional piece of soft SF erotica, and it's hard for me to see how it could have been considered too dangerous or hardcore for publication in an appropriate market. The sex scenes are tasteful, and the most explicit moment is one use of the v-word. I was not happy, however, to see the text marred by a number of typographical errors.
City of Chimeras by Richard Bowes
Jackie Boy (he hates that name) is the half-Fey/half-human sidekick and sometimes lover of the Elven prince Calithurn, now in exile among the humans of Gotham. In this half-ruined, decadent city, Jackie's glamour makes him appear to be an angel, but Calithurn's power is as far beyond Jackie's as he is beyond the mortals.
We came to middle Earth, to this city, to form an alliance with the wronged and desperate mortals. With them, we said, we would return to the land of the Fey and break the hold of Clathurin, the King Beneath the Hill and the father of Cal. Our idea was na´ve and dangerous.
Now Cal has made enemies in Gotham and his father's enemies from Elfland have tracked him down. It is time to flee again, and Jackie knows that Calithurn will abandon his human dependants, his mortal toys, without a shrug of compunction.
There's a lot of neat stuff in this story, set in a city that may once have been our New York, but is now populated in part by chimeras, genetically-modified playthings for the rich and powerful. In Gotham, an Elven prince is another novelty, something new and exotic for the exploiters to profit from, if they can. It is the exploiters who bring to this story the element of the taboo, for there is one scene of rape—not physical penetration but a forcible seizure and humiliation that vividly and disturbingly evokes the essence of rape. Not that Jackie Boy is in any way a child, physically or chronologically, but still he is Calithurn's boy. Indeed, the entire story can be seen as an exegesis on the term "boy." While it hardly descends to the level of porn, it is still no tame and harmless fantasy tale.
The Sum of Things by Robert Brown
In this WWII alternate history, things have gone differently on the European front. Mussolini controls rich Libyan oilfields, supplying Hitler with fuel in exchange for German arms, under a shield of neutrality. The United States has not entered this theater of the war, though a few American volunteers have been assisting the Greeks against Italian aggression. But it is a losing cause. "The American Greek Volunteer Group was wearing away, like a knife sharpened too many times." In distant capitals, however, there are plans being made by powerful men who have no compunctions about using others to achieve their ends.
This is a classic type of military alternate history: a single man fights his own war while greater forces shift and maneuver around him. Much of the story involves scenes of aerial combat, described with a degree detail that should be satisfying to fans of this genre, but the real conflict is between the man who does the fighting and the High Command and the politicians: "bastards with power." This is Brown's first published fiction, but it is deftly told without recourse to the sort of tedious infodumpfery that too often mars AH, explaining the situation to death instead of getting on with the story. I can see no reason any of the pro SF magazines would not have wanted to publish it, except that they don't appreciate or understand alternate history. Their loss.
After the Protocols by Adam-Troy Castro
Because all the worlds have expelled or exterminated their Jews, no one in the universe knows how to make things work anymore, and everything is falling apart. For this, of course, they blame the Jews.
These people whose homes had been burned, whose cities had been invaded, whose lives had been harried and tormented...these people who had spent so much time as fugitives that even the rumors about them were rumors...these people who should not have been expected to still harbor influence over anything...they had still found ways to destroy the places they'd fled. They operated in shadows and they existed in whispers, but they were still a contagion, as virulent in its own way as the worst plague that ever assaulted Mankind's blood.
Two agents of a foundering polity that calls itself the Empire have been sent to find the Jews responsible and eliminate them, using the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as their guide. After a long search, they finally do locate one and hear the Jews' last message to the rest of humanity.
It is unfortunate when a writer is so overwhelmed by the need to deliver a political message that he loses all sense of story. I suppose that Castro considers the piece to be satire, or irony, but it would have been less embarrassing if this one had been left in the trunk.
Mahmoud's Wives by Janis Ian
The heart of this story is one powerful, kick-ass idea. Vexingly, it is sort of story that depends entirely on the revelation of this idea, which limits my ability to discuss it in the sort of detail I would prefer. Suffice it, then, to say that what seems to be a heretical sect of Islam has colonized a world where they can live according to their own Law governing the treatment of women. In a universe where footbinding was done to young girls only a century ago, I can not say that the practice revealed in Ian's story is too unlikely for fiction. There seems to be no idea so extreme or repugnant that some religion will not adopt it as Holy Writ. Indeed, on the strength of this idea (aren't you intrigued, aren't you going to rush off to the website to read the story, just to find out what this idea is?) I can't imagine any SF magazine not eagerly seizing the opportunity to print it.
Perhaps it is the taboo against blasphemy, perhaps some timid editors are thinking of the riots following the publication of the infamous Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed. But if so, their fear is not well-founded, for it is no blasphemy to mock a heresy, and the religion in Ian's story is not and cannot be Islam. According to Islam, there will not ever be a new revelation, a new Law. Nor does the story contain any mention of the Prophet Mohammad or Islam's actual laws as established in the Koran and hadiths. Indeed, so little does this religion resemble the actual tenets of Islam that the connection in the story is established almost entirely through the author's use of Arabic names and similar cultural, not religious, details. While it is true that there is great repression of women practiced today in many Islamic cultures, this is actually contrary to the religion's laws.
Aside from blasphemy, however, the story does present some problems. As the plot consists of the gradual revelation of the central idea (the conclusion is really anti-climactic) by way of Mahmoud's inner monologue, it can sometimes seem a bit tedious and redundant, particularly once the reader has grasped the secret, but Mahmoud keeps yammering on. Also, there are contradictions in the worldbuilding. Mahmoud's world conforms to the Islamic practice whereby it is the man who pays the dowry; he speaks more than once of the cost he has incurred in marrying his third wife. But this means that a daughter, rather than a burden, is a financial asset to a family, in particular when men are marrying multiple wives (and Mahmoud suggests that the Koranic limit of four has been eliminated). Yet according to him, there is a problem of unwanted, surplus girls. I doubt, however, that most readers will be overly bothered by this sort of lapse as to dismiss the story, for the central idea is one that is likely to remain in their memory for some time.
Going to See the Beast by William Sanders
The Rapture has come and gone, and all the women left behind are sinners. Bobby Joe thinks life is all of a sudden pretty good. Then comes the Boss Lady to offer him and his cousin Joe Bob a job, and pretty soon there he is, meeting the Antichrist his own self and all his cabinet.
Miz Babylon—that's what I always call her, I know that ain't her right title but I just feel like she ought to get some respect—was wearing her full dress uniform today, with the little bobtail skirt and the boots and the fish net stockings and the red and gold jacket hanging open so her titties were showing. Boss Lady told me once she hadn't wanted to dress that way but the Antichrist told her if she was going to be the Whore of Babylon she was damn well going to look like it. Boss Lady was jealous of her because she had wanted to be the Whore of Babylon her own self but the Antichrist never even asked her.
This is more like it. Sanders is in fine form, offending on the fronts of sex and religion and politicians all in one, taboos up the wazoo. Highly enjoyable, for those of us sinners still on Earth to appreciate it.
The Lordly Loofah by Bud Webster
In travelogue mode, Webster tours the Stanko Loofah Works in Piltdown, IL, to bring us the fascinating story of the loofah, all the way from the loofite mines to the shelves of your local store.
From the first, the struggle between the quarrymen and the loofite has resembled that between miners and coal; there's danger in the pits, and if too much dynamite is used to bring down a wall of loofite, quarrymen can be buried under dozens of pounds of loofite for hours. How often have we seen shocking news footage of loofite workers (or "loofers", as they're called in the industry) pulled from the rubble of a cave-in, skin pink from their ordeal and suffering from intense boredom?
I have several times before commented on the subjective character of humor. Here is a classic case. Fortunately, Webster knows to keep a piece like this one short, so as not to dilute the impact of his narrative voice.
Shimmer, Spring 2006
There are nine pieces of fiction in the seventy pages of this small 'zine, so it is not surprising that most are quite short. Which often leaves the reviewer's comments quite short, as well. But I find that here, it is the shorter, slighter pieces that I enjoyed more than some of the longer works which attempted to be more profound but sank under the weight of message.
Dog Thinks Ahead by Clifford Royal Johns
A man learns to leave the important decisions to his dog.
So I said to Dog, "Why did you tell me to piss in the river? I spent the night in jail because of you."
"Did they feed you?" Dog had a low whispery sort of mumble, but I understood him just fine.
This amusing short piece has a quirky humor that owes much to the author's distinctive voice.
Drevka's Rain by Marina T. Stern
Drevka's lover comes to her only with the rain, and then he leaves her.
In between Ji's visits, Drevka envied the women who had husbands instead of lovers. During Ji's visits, she envied no one. For as long as his heavy leather boots sat under her bed, contentment flowed over her like honey.
So Drevka hides his boots, casting a spell to keep Ji from ever leaving without them. But Drevka learns that getting what you wish for is not always what you want.
This is a fine fantasy with fairytale overtones and a strong erotic voice. While there is a moral, the author wisely lets it flow from the story, rather than pounding it in with a sledgehammer.
The Dealer's Hands by Paul Abbamondi
The Dealer is selling hands. He claims they are made from plaster molds, but they look awfully realistic, just like hands severed from a human wrist.
This horror story is somewhat creepy, but it's hard to think of severed hands as a hot best-seller, so the tale seems implausible at the start.
Litany by John Mantooth
A school bus driver has caused the death of several children through his carelessness, and he wallows in his guilt excessively in this over-written piece.
Rubber Boots, Mr. President by Bruce K. Derksen
After the war, the President has urged citizens to hire the homecoming veterans, and Lewis's dad hires the man he comes to call Atlas, for his tireless strength. But there is something about their new hired man they do not know. A nice, short but heartwarming tale.
Paper Man by Darby Harn
Millie has lived alone since her father died, isolated and lonely in her blindness. What she really wants is a husband, but her suitors never seem to work out quite right, even Mike, who at first seems so promising.
Millie is an odd character, and the story is an unsettling one, a look at desperate but misguided loneliness. I felt more sympathy for Mike, realizing the implications of what Millie has done to him, than for her.
A Warrior's Death by Aliette de Bodard
Someone has murdered the designated sacrifice to the War-God. This act of sacrilege is also sabotage: there is now no proper vessel to house the god's spirit, which threatens the survival of the city of Ahuatl, based on the worship of war.
This is the issue's cover story, also selected as the winner of the Year's End Contest at the Liberty Hall site. I fear that I can not concur with this judgment. The story is heavily moralistic and didactic, as characters deliver one lecture after the other, condemning the evils of war.
The Little Match Girl by Angela Slatter
A young woman is accused of witchcraft and persecuted by an intolerant patriarchal society. Here, too, the story is overwhelmed by Message.
Lone Star Stories #15, June 1 2006
This issue falls short of the very high standard set by the last, and none of the stories here seems to work quite as it should.
A Night in Electric Squidland by Sarah Monette
Mick Sharpton is an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations, which is sort of like cops, not research. He and his partner Jamie are assigned the case of a man who has been ripped laterally in half, undoubtedly by some supernatural power, and their investigation takes them to Electric Squidland, a club where Jamie once worked as a bouncer, a place where people have been known to go in and never come back out.
This is an edgy dark fantasy-detective story, where the interest is primarily in the characters. It could have been quite good, but unfortunately, it is too heavily loaded with backstory. A great deal of the text is spent with the author informing us of Mick's psychological problems with his clairvoyance, his complex relationship with his partner, his sexual inclinations—yet none of this plays a correspondingly significant role in the story at hand, which seems to rest more on Jamie—his previous history with the club, his prior relationships with its victims, which all seems slighted in contrast. I can't help thinking that this is where the real story ought to have been, while the author kept focusing on the wrong character.
The Mountains of Key West by Sandra McDonald
A young military wife, just beginning to realize her marriage will be unhappy, sees a vision of mountains off the coast of Key West, and a man in a rowboat offering to take her away from all this. This piece is not a fantasy, and really barely a story, as it fast-forwards through the unhappy years like a slide show. But the first slide has already shown it all.
Wild Copper by Samantha Henderson
The Faerie court of Oberon and Titania now lives in exile on the western shore of North America, on a reservation where they have displaced the native animal gods, who resent their presence. Titania's human handmaid, Megan, is subverted by Coyote, who is, as we all know, a trickster and not to be trusted.
There is a whole lot of fantasy and myth crammed into this short story, as well as quite a few twists of the plot. Megan is Not What She Seems, but we never learn exactly what, or why. It is all quite intriguing, but I'm not sure if it fits together into a unified whole; there seems to be enough material and story here for an entire novel, of which we are only being shown a few rushed moments.
Abyss & Apex, #18, 2nd Quarter 2006
Six rather short stories in this issue, of uneven quality. Most fantasy, with one outright piece of science fiction. But the best two pieces are fantasies based on Jewish legend and tradition.
All the Wonder in the World by Lavie Tidhar
It begins with a rain of frogs and the water turning the color of blood, and Ibrahim knows a visitation is coming to the ancient harbor of Haifa. Blind Noah the beggar reports he has seen a Phoenician ship: "a ship with ten pairs of oars, a cedar ship with sails of gossamer, a ship of light and darkness..." But Ibrahim knows it is his old lover, come to reawake the possibility of miracles in the world.
Poetic and poignant.
When Maxwell's Demon Met Schrödinger's Cat by Jack Hillman
Trumbauer Station is a facility for conducting scientific research in space, and Corporate expects it to make a profit. The resulting mental stress on scientists engaged in high-energy research can have dangerous consequences, and the the high error rate on the station doesn't help. The narrator is the station's psychologist, hired to keep the researchers sanely productive, and he witnesses the consequences when Dr. Stamford decides to test the strength of the observer effect on seventeen gigajoules of power.
Not quite the hardest science fiction ever, but a nice bit of fun with physics.
Becoming by Rae Dawn Carson
A woman receives the gift of eternal youth, with the usual complications. A somewhat sentimental conclusion.
Emmett, Joey & the Beelz by Ralph Sevush
This one starts out as if it were going to be a deal-with-the-devil story, told in several voices. Emmett and Joey are a pair of lowlifes, alcoholics and drug addicts with pasts in the darkest shades of gray, and it seems that an even more shady character they call Beelz is looking for them. This name tends to brings Beelzebub to mind, and readers may get the impression that he has come to collect Emmett's soul. Certainly Emmett seems to think so.
The Beelz bought me once, I sorta remember. The price wasn't that high and he paid it, and then he owned me. Still does, I guess. I'm not really sure anymore about the details. And if he's looking for me, my life has just gotten nastier.
Hell, I been shot, stabbed, worked over with a tire iron, and run over by a Cadillac doing 80 through my living room, and I ain't dead yet. But Beelz. Keee-riest.
The truth, however, turns out to be stranger. Sevush does a nice job spinning off this story from the original legend.
Unicorn's Rest by Jill Knowles
A girl's father pressures her to trap the unicorn in order to pay the fines incurred by her neer-do-well brother. This one feels like a YA piece, with everything turning out well at the end, complete with a moral.
Nanoflakes by James S. Dorr
All by itself in the section for flash fiction, this piece doesn't seem much shorter than some of the others, and too long for its own good, as it gives the reader time to suspect that it doesn't really make much sense to serve kids a breakfast cereal that turns them into dinosaurs.