It's finally happened. I've received more magazines here this month than I could manage to review, several of them new to me. Not that this is a complaint! But I thought I'd say something here about the way I choose which zines to review—or not.
This column is for readers, so my priority is for the venues most readers are most interested in. This means the traditional prozines, then the major semi-pros, both print and electronic. When I first began the column, people asked if I was going to look at the small press zines, as well. So far, I have tried to review as many as I can, but it's clear that I can't cover them all. Since IROSF is a review of SF, I give priority to zines that concentrate on publishing science fiction and fantasy. I am always willing to take at least one look at any new zine, but I don't guarantee to keep reading if the stories are disappointing. I see no use in my covering publications where the fiction isn't up to a professional level. I don't have two sets of standards—one for professional stories and another for second-level work. Not only do I not believe readers would enjoy substandard stuff, I would be doing nothing but pointing out its deficiencies. I prefer to read stories I can recommend. And finally, before I can read any magazine, somebody has to send it to me.
The magazines I found to have particularly successful issues this month were Analog, Weird Tales and Electric Velocipede—each, of course, in different ways.
F&SF, September 2006
This is an unusual issue. First, the highlight is a lengthy nonfiction piece: Dear Starbear: Letters between Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr. edited by Julie Phillips—an excerpt from Phillips's new biography of Tiptree. For any reader with the slightest bit of interest in the history of our field, this is a must-read: Le Guin and Tiptree both growing into their mastery of SF as they trade pleasantries, confidences, concerns and the heartfelt admiration that each had for the other's work. Writers in particular will pause in astonishment to read that even Le Guin and Tiptree sometimes had trouble selling their work, and exclaim: So editors were still fatheads, even then!
Prologue to the Endeavor: Luck be a Lady Tonight by Harlan Ellison®
This mini-anthology is what Ellison has called an Endeavor, a challenge set to three different authors in the form of a story germ:
Lady Luck is wending her way through a gambling venue. . . .
She is wending, touching one guy, then another, letting the men win a hand or a roll or a spin. Nothing much. She's doing her job.
But then, a guy comes in, sees her, and is "struck by the hammer," à la The Godfather. He is smitten beyond measure. . . .
The only problem is, he won't leave her alone. He dogs her, sycophantic and smooten. She cannot get rid of the guy.
And the other, uh, small complication is:
This guy is the biggest loser who ever walked the Earth.
I cannot say that this particular story idea is one that would have filled me with great enthusiasm, had I been one of the authors selected to develop it, and this perhaps accounts for the fact that I couldn't get up a whole lot of enthusiasm for any of the three resulting stories. What I do find of interest is seeing the different ways the authors have developed the idea into a story—the elements they have all taken from the premise and the ways they have altered it.
Señora Suerte by Tananarive Due
The narrator is Gilberto, stranded in a nursing home after a stroke, at the end of an existence blighted by the loss of everything he has ever loved. The administrators have introduced bingo games to help the residents pass the time, and though Gilberto says he hates the games and never wins, he is always the first one there and the last to leave, hoping that she will appear again. To everyone else, she is only a nurse named Rosaria, but Gilberto can see her true; he knows she is the Orisha Oya and hopes that one day he will be the fortunate one she chooses. Unfortunately, the author gives away her ending too early in the story, leaving the reader knowing what will happen, with only the question of when.
Poor Guy by Michael Kandel
Kandel posits a new religion of miracles based on karmic balance, founded by George Gumby, a locus of misfortune with a multitude of past lives steeped in wrongdoing.
In Trondheim, as a guard dog, George looked the other way, allowing the theft of hush-hush electronics that, in renegade hands, retrochronally led to the sinking of Atlantis, the dieout of the dinosaurs, and—earlier and with ever-increasing momentum—the destruction of Calyx, hands down the loveliest planet in the Solar System, leaving an unsightly and unsafe swath of rubble between the paths of what are now Mars and Jupiter.
In Ilium, as a woman, George plunged two nations into a long and costly war (forget the Nicean barks of yore) by shamelessly leaving her husband to run off with a man half her age.
And so on.
"So what am I supposed to do?" George asked, a chill in his gut.
"You have to pay it back," answered the tűradiologist. "Like everyone else."
But George's determination to reverse his karmic balance sheet founders on the shoals of infatuation, when he encounters Lily Lu. All George's efforts to expiate the sins of his former lives are swept away by the formidable power wielded by this avatar of good fortune.
Kandel's over-the-toppitude provides entertainment and there are moments when his karmic philosophy of tu almost seems to make actual sense, but the frame story holds less interest.
If You've Ever Been A Lady by Michael Libling
Denny Flett is a conventional life-long loser, a salesman who finds himself fired during his company's sales conference in Vegas. But Denny doesn't even care because he has seen her. Lady Luck, on the other hand, does care about her job performance and Denny is making her look bad. I found this story picking up interest after the opening scene, which could have been cut to good effect.
Libling's take on Lady Luck is the one that hews closest to Ellison's premise, set in Vegas, with Luck touting the slots. Of the three versions, two are humorous and one downbeat. Due and Libling both make a point of Luck's mutability: the protagonists are unique because they alone can see through the disguise to her true form. It's interesting that Due and Kandel see Luck as an aspect of religion, and not a totally benign aspect. As an Orisha, in Due's story, Oya is the guardian of the gates between life and death, but she is also associated with violent winds, and with war. The monks in Kandel's religion decide that Lily Lu is a Satanic force, sent to lure George away from the True Path by seducing him with good fortune. This is fitting, as Tyche always was a mercurial and tempestuous goddess. Ultimately, however, I could not judge any of the three versions as entirely successful.
The rest of this issue contains typical F&SF fare: a novelette and two shorter pieces.
The Song of Kido by Matthew Corradi
Here is a somewhat complicated piece, punctuated by flashbacks. Jax Ridimon considers himself under a curse, but he is actually the victim of a war crime, subjected to a process of psionic amplification to enable him to interrogate the souls of the enemy dead. Ever since, he has been haunted by ghosts, by the cries of the dead in his mind. Now, seeking an end to it, he has come to the planet Kido, which is haunted by the Song that dwells in its swamps.
Ridimon felt the pull of the Song each time he and Phidrik dropped below the Canopy into the swamps, and it was a struggle to resist. What exactly was the Song? The absolute locals in Qidrit had laughed at the question. Perhaps it was the blood of the planet coursing through twisted trees, they said, or whimsical swamp spirits teasing gullible souls…. But where there was Song there were kigrin, and legend claimed that the kigrin of Kido held knowledge beyond the comprehension of man. Maybe they even knew of a cure for Ridimon's curse.
Yet knowledge was not without danger, for the Song of Kido sought to lay bare your soul and consume it whole.
The story begins as an adventure, a hunt for the dragon-like kigrin, but the complications build. The kigrin are not what they seem, nor is Ridimon's guide. And in the background there is interstellar war and conquest, while the gates between the worlds are failing, because the Imperium has exterminated the race that originally built them.
Though there is a great deal of interest here, I couldn't help thinking that it was too much for the size of the story, too long a history pressed into too short a time period, and too many questions left at the end. (And there are too many names beginning in K.) I would have liked to read more of this history, however, in some longer work.
The Return of the O'Farrissey by John Morressy
The wizard Conhoon might think his apprentice Kate O'Farrissey has a sharp tongue on her, but while he would never admit it, he would hate to see her gone. He is therefore not happy to discover that Kate's feckless sire has shown up at his house, long after abandoning the girl to join the fairies, who have now sent him packing. For if Kate has a soft spot in her heart, it belongs to her undeserving Da. Fortunately for Conhoon, Kate has a fairy godmother, who knows how to set matters right.
I like Conhoon more than the late John Morressy's wizard Kedrigern, the Irish wizard being more irascible and curmudgeonly, as a wizard ought to be. The problems facing both of them, however, are still rather too easily resolved.
Perfect Stranger by Amy Sterling Casil
Gary Gill's son Denny was born with a potentially fatal heart defect. Fortunately, gene therapy was able to repair the damage. Later, at the insistence of Denny's mother, he has had gene therapy to improve his ability at math and to cure his acne—until Gill looks at his son and realizes that, genetically, he is a stranger.
This is a story with a moral, a cautionary tale in which the father's heartbreak is made somewhat unpalatable by the author's portrayal of his wife as a hostile, aggressive bitch. It also overlooks the fact that adoptive parents manage to look at their children and not see perfect alienation; there is more to parenthood than genes.
Analog, September 2006
At last, Edward Lerner's serial has come to a conclusion, and I can now report that my anticipatory misgivings about silly aliens, inspired by the awful illustrations, were unfounded. The serial's conclusion has left room for only three shorter pieces in this issue, and the longer two of these were fairly good reading as well.
A New Order of Things by Edward M. Lerner
Over interstellar distances, it is easier to send data than physical objects, so that up until now, trade among our solar system's United Planets and its nearby neighbors has been limited to information. An interstellar spacecraft requires antimatter fuel. Earth has been developing antimatter on a secret facility on a Jovian moon, but as yet has no interstellar drive; the K'vithians have neither, but the Unity now has both. A Unity spacecraft sets out for K'vith, but unfortunately the Unity species proves psychologically unsuited to prolonged space travel, so they make the crossing on autopilot, in suspended animation. The undefended spacecraft is captured by a rogue K'vithian clan, which takes the hijacked ship to Jupiter in an audacious and elaborate plan to seize Earth's antimatter. The K'vithians claim that their onboard antimatter production facility was damaged by an asteroid strike in transit, so that they now require emergency refueling. But several humans, including primary protagonist Art Walsh, are suspicious. There are inconsistencies in the K'vithian story.
So begins Lerner's SF thriller, which continues through a twisted plot complete with conspiracies, alien psychology, antimatter physics neep, AI spies, and plenty of shooting action at the end. Lerner's close attention to the physics is typical of Analog, but he has unfortunately lapsed into a number of plot clichés also typical of this zine, such as the Blithering Bureaucrat whose sole purpose is to obstruct the Competent Scientist. And I do not find it credible that if Art Walsh could so easily suspect the K'vithians' purpose, UP's paranoid security would not have also realized the threat to their top-secret antimatter facility and taken stronger measures to secure it. There was also one jarring moment where I was thrown out of the story by the intrusive mention of a contemporary political figure. But the aliens were not silly and I think the zine's readers should find this a pretty good read.
A Pound of Flesh by Richard A. Lovett
It is a world much like our own, except that contracts are enforced by nano-infection: fail to keep up your payments and the nanos in your body begin to exact their preprogrammed vengeance. This development has not been good for lawyers and former attorney Alex Copley is now trying to make a living as a PI. Enter a client who wants him to find her missing business partner; their firm has developed a valuable new nano that works as a lie detector, but Trevor has gone missing and taken his lab notes with him.
There is a good detective story here, as Alex and Megan track the elusive Trevor down and follow him into the wilderness; there are ethically interesting consequences. There are also pages of unnecessary infodump, as Lovett explains at length the sort of information anyone in Alex's world would already know and which any science fiction reader ought to be able to figure without it. I also have doubts that this system of contractual enforcement could have become so universal in the short time that Lovett suggests.
A Million Years and Counting by Rajnar Vajra
Dan the Can is a robot who was found abandoned on the moon, where evidence suggests he had been for at least a million years. Not even Dan knows why his alien builders made him or left him there. After twenty years of being studied by the army, he was judged harmless and released to lead an autonomous existence as a minor celebrity. But Dan is having some strange experiences lately, exhibiting some abilities he never knew he had. He saves a child's life. He tries to mediate a breach between his human mentor and his daughter. And for no reason, his head falls off. Soon Dan comes to realize the real reason for his existence, but by then the army has decided he might not be as harmless as they had originally believed.
Dan's point of view as a narrator is unique and gives this story a fresh slant, not without humor.
Kyrie Eleison by John Hemry
Generations have passed since the crew of the Verio was stranded on a remote, inhospitable world and in this time, the Officers have established a quasi-feudal society with themselves at the top and the exploited, starving workers at the bottom. At last comes rescue and of course, the Officers believe that they will be the first to be saved. Of course, the readers understand otherwise from the moment the rescue ship touches down, but the author proceeds to flog the message home for several more pages before finishing it off with a moral lecture, in the unlikely event that anyone had missed the point.
Interzone #205, August 2006
The strongest stories in this issue deal with war. Unusually for IZ, two of the stories are not at all SF.
This Happens by David Mace
An instant of war, played backwards in slow motion. This is powerful stuff, written in the heat of rage, yet Mace maintains total control of his scene. It is not SF; it is almost more journalism than fiction, taken from real and recent events, but despite this it is Recommended.
However, the editors of IZ made the infelicitous choice to print this piece in white type on a black ground. They do this sort of thing a lot, doubtless to make the pages of the zine look spiffy and kewl, but five successive, unrelieved pages of it, particularly in such a small font, is far too much to ask any reader to endure. They have made their layout a barrier between the reader and the story and that is a damn shame.
The Measure of Eternity by Sean McMullen
"Majestic amid eastern mountains of the desert was Ubar, city of many towers, city of eight walls, and city of the silver frankincense trees." Fantasy? No, this is historical fiction. The legendary city of Ubar was recently located by archaeologists. McMullen has made it the setting of his tale, in which a beggar sits in the marketplace crying out, "I have nothing!" This is the discovery of zero, which revolutionized computation and made Arabic the universal font of mathematics. But McMullen tells it in a storyteller's voice, making of Ubar a place of wonders that lovers of fantasy should enjoy, although I would have preferred an ending that was less anti-climactic.
In the River by Justin Stanchfield
The River is artificial, the vast spaceship of the aquatic aliens who call themselves the Theid triss. In order to learn the secrets of their mathematics, the key to controlling zero-point energy, the human researchers have transplanted alien tissue into Jenna's brain, but living among the Theid triss, she has forgotten who she was. Now returned to humanity, she finds herself cut off from both species, able to return fully to neither.
Jenna tried to frame her thoughts, but without her olfactor, with the thousand subtle expressions of taste and smell, she could not describe what she instinctively knew. She tried again, but failed. Cold sweat broke out on her face, and she felt herself becoming ill. The room seemed to draw in, the light flickering in nauseating pulses.
This is effective stuff, and Jenna's transition between the River and the human world is well-done. The ending, however, seems to be an afterthought, and the actions of the aliens make no real sense.
2+2=5 by Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson
A couple of old retired guys with time on their hands decide to break the record for counting to the highest possible number. But Jack has an ulterior motive: he's out to find the numbers that don't exist—the numbers that don't count because they aren't there. Silly stuff, as one would expect from these authors.
Blue Glass Pebbles by Steven Mills
In a world where water has become a tradeable commodity, Western Canada, led by radical politician Joan Arnot, has declared itself sovereign, forcing the rest of the nations to pay for its water on its terms. The transnationals reply with force in the form of an armed invasion. But JoJo has a backup plan, a doomsday plan, and she is ruthless enough to carry it out.
This novella reads like a condensed technothriller and is told from the multiple points of view of the people JoJo has used all her life: her son, granddaughter and oldest friend. Unfortunately, it is too condensed, too heavy on backstory, with long sections of italicized reminiscence and too little forward motion. Every element here screams to be expanded, to be told directly instead of in flashback. In short, this story needs to be uncondensed and it would have been a pretty good technothriller, if it had been done at novel length.
Realms of Fantasy, August 2006
I found the August RoF to be a disappointment after the superior issue in June. No standout stories here and nothing I can recommend with unalloyed enthusiasm.
Grand Mal Reaper by Scott William Carter
The narrator suffers from seizures, which seem to be triggered by the psychic call for help from dying people. During the episodes, he leaves his body and appears incorporeally at the scene of the death, but he can do nothing to save the victim. This affliction has made him depressive and socially withdrawn, but meeting Rita seems to offer him a chance for a real relationship—she was once married to an epileptic, she seems to understand. Yet it is hard for him to trust other people.
The ending of this story comes with a strong emotional punch, but the author weakens it with an overlayer of "message."
Of Metal Men by Ken Scholes
One annoying effect of RoF's habit of getting creative with layout is that it's sometimes hard to figure out just what the real title of a piece is supposed to be. This one is headed: "Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise," which I like, but perhaps it was too long for the table of contents.
The Knowledgeable City of Windwir, home of the Androfrancine Order and its Library, has been utterly destroyed. General Rudolfo of the Wandering Army has come upon the ruins, where he finds a single survivor, one of the Androfrancine's mechoservitors, who believes he has brought about the disaster himself by uttering the words of a curse he discovered in the course of his research for the Androfrancines. Yet his memory of these events has been wiped, and Rudolpho suspects the metal man was used as a tool by some enemy of the city.
A pop, a clunk, a gout of steam. The metal man looked up at Rudolfo, at the smoke-filled sky and the blackened horizon that was once the world's largest city. He shook and shuddered. When he spoke his voice carried a depth of lament that Rudolfo had only heard twice before. "What have I done?" the metal man asked, his breast ringing as he beat it with his metal fist. "Oh, what have I done?"
This is effectively done, in a colorful epic fantasy with an interesting protagonist and nice touches of irony here and there, though it is a tad heavy-handed in the portrayal of its villain. I was enjoying the story, ready to recommend it, until the spell was shattered for me at the point where one character spits out the pit of a fig—which is a fruit with a zillion tiny little seeds; a date has a pit, but a fig does not. Yes, I know, it is a minor error that does not ruin the story in any other way except for weakening the author's authority. But a copy editor should have spotted this, a copy editor should have queried that anomalous fig, so the magazine's readers aren't left wondering: what else is wrong here? Does this author really know what he's doing?
The Cold Drake by Renee Bennett
My father was a cold-drake; revenge and malice flowed through him as blood through a lesser being. He stole the only daughter of a high-mage from her walk along the cliffs of Hightower and sprouted his seed with her womb, then tore the babe—me—from her dying body. He named me Kamorr, which means "the cold death" in the speech of the cold-drakes, then cast me into the sea to live or to die.
The narrator is caught in a fisherman's net and taken to shore, where she learns about the human half of her heritage.
Despite the promising opening, there is something wrong with this story, so much so that I had to wonder if the electronic text had been mangled at some point. Too many aspects of the plot make no sense. "The apprentice" is in the fisherman's boat when he nets the cold-drake's daughter—the fisherman's apprentice, I assume. But no, he turns out to be the mage's apprentice. But why was he in the boat that day and why does he have with him in the boat the mage's daughter's old dress? Was her capture somehow planned, the consequence of a spell? But neither the mage nor the apprentice seem to have strong enough magic to resist the cold-drake, or cast such a spell, and if they had, then why wasn't the girl taken to her grandfather instead of left with the fisherman's wife? The cold-drake's daughter is inexplicably and unbelievably stronger than her father. There are pretty images here, but not a coherent story.
The Hero by Darrell Schweitzer
The script at the head of this story seems to read "The Hero Spoke." What is the real title? It is a short piece, told by the hero's companion, who now wears the hero's armor, who bear's the hero's burden. It is the story of a lie, but a hero cannot lie, cannot commit treachery, so how can it be true?
The mythos here seems to be Greek, but the classical tone is not strong, nor does it seem to be a real philosophical paradox.
True North by K. D. Wentworth
In Carly's universe, people hear the Call once in their life, when they are in their teens—the Call that compels them to go North, into the wilderness for a kind of spirit quest, a mystical coming of age. Most return transformed in some way, some die there, but no one who returns can ever quite articulate what has happened to them. Carly hears the Call at age fifteen, she goes, she has various experiences and learns various lessons which she is never quite able to articulate in her turn.
This YA piece is rather too didactic for my taste, rather too full of lessons. Nor do I find this world [it is Earth, but not our own] too credible. There are contradictions: the teenagers on their quest seem to have the protection of the law, but Carly's parents are still legally able to restrain her from going.
Indigo With Distance by E. Catherine Tobler
The narrator, a classical scholar, is in Japan to translate certain valuable old [but not ancient] books for a wealthy aristocrat. The aristocrat has a daughter, Min, who seems at once to be attracted to the translator. They begin a love affair, but it ends tragically and the narrator realizes too late that she has been used.
This is another tale full of pretty images. Tobler uses a lot of color symbolism:
The room was simple, wild birds making their home in the blue and yellow flowers that grew beneath her window. Min's bed was draped in lemon-colored cloth, pillows embroidered in scarlet. There was a sprig of evergreen at her bedside and I picked it up.
It smelled of the wet forest, of the night we had kissed.
But it takes more than colors to create a character and Min remains inexplicable, her behavior abnormal to the point where I find it strange that the narrator does not wonder about it. The fairytale romance about the princess that she is translating also seems out of place, a rather forced and clichéd bit of symbolism.
Strange Horizons, July 2006
Another good month for SH, with more traditional fantasy than they ususally offer.
Waiting on Alexandre Dumas by William Davis
As the narrator is the only staffer at Rosie's who speaks French, she is the one who waits on the ghost of Alexandre Dumas when he calls to make a reservation for dinner, even though her nominal job is bussing tables.
"Why? Why not let the guy enjoy a night out without bugging him? It's not like he's haunting the place. He just came in for dinner. Just let him drink his wine and eat his food and molest that escort. We don't need to pry into his personal life. Afterlife. Whatever."
Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore a message from Hell, when it comes with such authority.
A warm, nicely understated ghost story.
The Welsh Squadron by Margaret Roland
We are in the desperate days of the Battle of Britain, and Nate Holyrood's 188 Squadron is down to three battered Hurricanes. It seems almost a miracle when replacements show up, but Nate immediately has the sense that these new Welsh pilots and their leader Idris Gruffydd are not what they seem.
And the Hurries before him wavered, there one moment and gone the next. Something else stood in their place, like crude child's versions of chariots, reeking of grease and iron.
I must admit that I have a fatal weakness for the romance of this sort of story: iron-age Celtic warriors transmuted across time into WWII fighter pilots. There are strong echoes of myth, and ancient heroes, and the legend of the eternal warrior—this is a straightforward, old-fashioned fantasy. Roland avoids the obvious pitfalls of cliché, although I rather wish she had omitted the Arthur references; the explanation that Idris finally gives to Nate is a much better fit.
Silent Blade by Leah Cypess
When Danis was eight years old, her beloved older brother was stolen to be trained as an assassin. She has waited five years for his return, for she knows that the Silent Blades set a final test for their apprentices: to kill their own families.
This one carries its punch in the conclusion.
Minty Bags a Squidboy by Michael Hulme
A tale of prejudice and low self-esteem. Not to be outdone by her friends in outrageousness, Minty starts dating Kevin, the squidboy she meets in a squid club "on the very wrong side of town, somewhere the nice girls just don't go." Of course Minty doesn't actually like Kevin.
When Minty and Kevin get down to fucking, she only lets him do her with two condoms, from behind. She can't bear to see his round, death-grey head thrusting up and down above her, his mandibles swaying from side to side like dancing snakes.
And she is too shallow and self-absorbed to consider that when she dumps him, it will break his heart.
This is a short piece, which the author ill-advisedly interrupts in the middle to explain the unexplained origins of the squidpeople. It dilutes the impact of the otherwise unrelenting unpleasantness.
Weird Tales #340, June 2006
Reviewing the last issue of this venerable magazine, I expressed my concern that WT might be switching its traditional emphasis on dark fantasy for a more contemporary mode of horror. I need not have feared. Not only is the overall quality of the stories high, I suspect that many of the pieces in this issue could have been printed in the first one without readers raising their eyebrows much higher than usual.
Arthur's Lion by Tanith Lee
When the narrator's uncle Arthur was a small boy, he was traumatized by a gruesome illustration of Christians being devoured by the lions. Ever since, he has been haunted by a lion in his dreams, and the terror of it has blighted his life. Because they mocked his fears, he has been estranged from his family since he was a young man, but now he has invited his nephew to visit his home. The narrator, too, is unsympathetic at first, until he realizes the nature of the leonine phantom.
Lee's story seems to come from the previous century, from perhaps the 1920s or 1930s, before there were child psychologists. The tone of the narrator's language and the world he describes, now passed away, are quite perfect:
Once in the smoking-room, a silence drifted down. We sat in armchairs, and Arthur stared long into the fire. And I thought, by now highly apprehensive myself, any minute and he'll come out with it. Whatever the hell it is.
No Such Thing As An Ex-con by Holly Phillips
Emily Lake was railroaded into prison almost four years ago, when she began to have dreams about the victims of a vicious serial killer. The cops assumed she had to be an accessory to the crimes—how else could she have known all those details about the dead women's murders? Now, when she is trying to pick up her life as an ex-con, the cop who put her away has started harassing her again. Except that it seems there is another serial killer around and this one is targeting kids. And the cop wants to know if Emily has been having more dreams.
This is a disturbing work, less for the details of the murders but for the injustice dealt out to Emily.
Small Magic by Jay Lake
Alain has taken an oath to serve the Duke of Bourne as a soldier, but it seems that the Duke has forgotten about the remote outpost where Alain's company is supposed to be guarding the frontier. Still, an oath is sacred, an oath has a magical force, even against the greater magics possessed by the shamans of the savage Ice Tribes.
This old-fashioned fantasy tale reminds me of Kipling, of tales of the last Roman legions left on guard at Hadrian's Wall against the Picts. The setting is different, but the spirit is much the same.
Chinese Whispers by Rick Kennett
This is the game otherwise known as Telephone, when a phrase is passed from one person to another, mutating as it is repeated. The monthly dining club is about to play the game during the convivial hour after dinner, but George, a new member, objects: the game is dangerous. It can reveal truths people would rather keep concealed.
Here is another story told in a tone that would not have seemed out of place in the Weird Tales of three hundred issues ago.
"The words seem to hang there in the air of the classroom like something on display that should have been decently buried. There was a long silence, broken only by a sharp tap of the chalk falling from the Headmaster's hand."
A Taste Sweet and Salty by Douglas Smith
A man wakes up each day in the body of one or another of the people in a certain town, bearing the burden of all that person's sins and crimes—both those he had committed and those he had been accused of. By the end of the day, he has been killed for the sake of these crimes, only to wake again the next morning in yet another person's body. This happens over and over, day after day. It does him no good to protest his innocence, and he has discovered through experience that he cannot leave the town, or escape his fate. Perhaps he is in hell, sent there as the consequence of his own sins, yet he cannot quite recall his own life, before it all began, except for one faintly tasted memory.
This is an fascinating fabulist premise, even if the conclusion proves a bit of a disappointment, in that it drops the intriguing mystery of the man's situation. I did note a contradiction: in one scene, the man's wife is described as being short, yet later, when he meets a young woman described as "tall and shapely," the sight of her recalls memories of this same wife.
Girl With the Golden Lute by Sarah A. Hoyt
While Don Alfonso is away at the Crusades, a penitent pilgrim comes to the castle seeking a bed for the night and is kindly received by the absent lord's daughter. When the old man leaves the next morning, he whispers something to the girl, who immediately becomes withdrawn and devoted to prayer—not to the Christian God, as her mother supposes, but to an ancient goddess who had once been worshiped there. Hoyt contrasts this tale with a later, greatly embellished version of it, in which the girl is locked with her golden lute for seven years in a tower where she is fed by the angels, one must suppose as a demonstration of her innocence.
The author's note informs us that this metafictional piece was based on an obscure folk tale, but which version is it? Is the one that Hoyt tells us the original story, or the later, embellished one? The latter tale, with its angels, its tower, its golden lute, remains obscure to us and we can only guess its shape from the author's hints. Why a golden lute? What role did it play? And what conclusion are we supposed to draw from the contrast between the two versions? That tales alter in the telling? This is trivial. That the earlier telling is Authentic and the later one Debased? But on the face of it, angels hardly seem less authentic or probable agents than deceased Egyptian goddesses. And the reader has to wonder—on what authority do we have this supposedly earlier, truer version? From the pilgrim himself? Then why does he carry with him the book with the false version, with the golden lute? Why should we trust him, or for that matter, the author?
Snow Blind by Kiel Stuart
A vampire detective story. Patrick Hillbrandt is a relatively young detective with the Pinkerton Agency when he is handed the case of a dangerous serial killer who has been targeting the Agency's operatives. He is also given a vampire as a partner. Patrick is blinded by his prejudice against vampires and the partnership does not begin smoothly.
This is a weak story, with an implausible premise—not the vampire, but that the agency would assign the case of a killer so dangerous, one who frightens even the vampire, to an agent so inexperienced as Patrick and with no more preparation than tossing a file onto his desk. There is nothing original here and the conclusion is a cliché.
The Persecution of Artifice the Quill by John R. Fultz
Here is the exotic, the fantastic, the wondrous sort of tale for which WT is so well known. Artifice is the author of the best-selling book The End of Sorcery, which has made him rich and won him the enmity of the powerful sorcerers who control the city of Narr. Their enforcers, the faceless Vizarchs, come to arrest him and Artifice flees the city upon the back of a giant cargo-spider. But the sorcerer kings send demons after him and Artifice must rely on a sorcerous amulet for protection from them. He intends to keep writing, to spread his message about the evils of sorcery. The only question is how.
There is a lot of neat, imaginative stuff here. The silver-faced Vizarchs, the spider caravan, the elves with their wood-grained flesh. Fultz's prose is well-suited to express the exotic richness of this dark fantasy setting:
Artifice leaned back in the couch and watched the moonlit city recede behind him, the quiet expanse of ocean reflecting a multitude of stars. A wedge of silver spires, the First Divine Palace, rose above the metropolis like an icy mountain. He tried not to think of the hapless wretches languishing in the dark honeycomb of dungeons beneath those bright towers.
Paradox #9, Summer 2006
Paradox bills itself as "The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction," but all the fiction in this issue has at least a slight element of the speculative, or at least the surreal. There is no purely historical fiction, but there is alternate history and historical fantasy and fantasy with historical settings.
A Storm Over Cumorah by Richard Mueller
By the time the Nazis were rising to power in Europe, the Mormons had become the dominant religious group in the US. Accordingly, when the Reich sends envoys to seek a US alliance against Great Britain, the meeting takes place near the Mormon Temple in Rochester and includes the current prophet. An interesting piece of speculation, but this alternate history is more scenario than story.
Kitsune by Adam Stemple
The Japanese shape-changing fox spirit is a popular subject for fantasy authors. This time Stemple's detective Master Shichiro and his apprentice Ken'ichi are investigating reports of a mass murder at Lady Akihoshi's estate. The evidence seems to point to a kitsune as the perpetrator, but Master Shichiro always notices more than the obvious.
Stemple combines plot and setting with some nice banter between master and apprentice for an enjoyable bit of logical detecting.
The Last Race by Gene Spears
It is the last Olympic Games, now that the Christian Emperor has forbidden sacrifice to the old pagan gods. Even the great statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, has been vandalized. But the veteran runner Leonides of Croton still intends to try for a record sixth Olympic crown and he will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.
The historical errors here are too great to ignore. The prize at the Olympic Games was a wreath of olive leaves, not laurel, and women were not allowed into the stands as spectators. Indeed, these are such elementary facts, I had to wonder if the author were not making some subtle hint that the Christians had perverted the sacred rites. But I think his characters would have mentioned this if it were so, as they complain bitterly about most other changes in their world.
Proserpina's Curse by Lisa Jensen
This is not, as the title might suggest, a fantasy based on Roman mythology, but a revisionist account of the origins of Captain Hook, with Peter Pan cast as the monster. James Benjamin Hookbridge began life in Restoration England, during the heyday of piracy and ridiculous wigs, but bad luck in the wars led him to become a pirate in the Indies, where he fell under the curse of the title, to be stranded in Neverland where a small malicious god keeps pulling off his wings.
Jensen's inspiration to cast Hook back into his historical background is a neat idea, but I am not sure that the glue of her theme—the boy—quite holds the two halves of her story together as a unified whole.
The Archer of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon by Eugie Foster
A retold Chinese myth. Specifically, a work of syncretism. There are several different, incompatible versions of the legend of the Lady of the Moon, the Celestial Emperor and the archer who shoots down the rogue suns that threaten to burn the earth. Foster combines these elements into a single unified work that stresses the theme of Chang'er's profound compassion for all living things.
The Mouse and the Buzzer by Tom Brennan
This one is more retro science fiction than alternate history. We are in the early Fifties, with all the banality of this era, but here, as in a vision of Disney's Tomorrowland, every house is being equipped with its own atomic micropile to deliver as much clean, safe power as the family can use. Johnny, like the all-American boy he is, wants to know how the micropile works. His dad tells him there is a nugget of uranium inside and of course, it's all safe: "It's automatic." But Johnny wants to take a nugget of 'ranium to school, for show and tell.
The one thing that particularly bothers me about this one is a matter of temporal consistency. The author suggests that the power company is converting the entire town to micropiles, then moving on to do the next town. Yet he is also telling us that some houses have been converted long enough ago that one of the earliest micropiles has already rusted out—by the time of the Korean War. This inconsistency mars what is otherwise a subtly chilling cautionary tale.
Tea for Three by Ernesto Brosa
A sad, surreal trip into the mind of Edgar Allan Poe during his last years, when abuse of alcohol and drugs had eroded his sanity. The story supposes that the boundary between reality and his poetic vision was becoming blurred.
The ladies came to stand under the Harpist's hanging feet. Mrs. Hill pinched the big toes with her thumbs, took some backward steps—pulling the body back with her—and swung it forward to Mrs. Beacon. And Mrs. Beacon caught the Harpist's ankles and swung the body back at Mrs. Hill who pushed it back to Mrs. Beacon who pushed it back to Mrs. Hill who pushed it back. They played like this as they talked.
The Meteor of the War by Andrew Tisbert
Jacob was involved in the murder of Malcolm X and, in hope of redemption for this sin, he has agreed to be sent back in time to the 1850s to change the course of history and bring about the birth of a black nation. His task is to convince John Brown to wage an effective revolution instead of martyring himself at Harpers Ferry. Brown is a stubborn old fanatic, but Jacob's knowledge of the future sounds like a revelation from the Lord to him. As does the plan to import war elephants to serve as the backbone of the slave army he is forming. But Jacob has not counted on finding Ntambi, a slave from Africa who knows how to communicate with the elephants. Before long, he finds that he has helped create a myth and it has developed a power of its own to alter events. The white slaveowners will learn what it means "to see the elephant."
This is a lengthy and somewhat complex time-travel/alternate history. I'm not sure that all the elements here work equally well, in particular the elephants, which strikes me as a rather improbable scheme, and I have to wonder if the author wasn't overly influenced by the notion of the blind men and the elephant as a metaphor for the time travelers, unable to see the effects of their actions on history.
"And you are both blind men who only feel the part of the elephant right in front of you. Who knows how many times your Investors have tried to make their great Nation? Maybe somewhere they actually live in that great Nation.
"Maybe they must send men like you back again and again to ensure its existence."
But Jacob has other doubts. Once, he was used by the Nation of Islam to commit a terrible crime. Now, he knows he can't be sure of the motives of the mysterious Investors who have sent him back in time. "It was that same dread, that same dawning suspicion that he'd been used, that he was being used again." And again.
Whyte Boyz by Jay Lake
Behind, beyond, amidst the florid jungles of prose, we find the following story: the human species has moved into space, the better to complete the project of perfecting itself. Retained on earth's surface as a reserve gene pool is a feral, primitive population, red in tooth and claw and wireknife, white of skin—the hue of imperfection.
Whyte is the color of expendability, a casually roiling reservoir of potential, wild genes in wild dances recombining outside the bounds of taste, breeding, and predictability. Lines of dark heredity in orbit are managed across a dozen generations to the ensure the right hair, the most noble brow, the perfect beauty, but nothing can substitute for the brimming, boiling caldera of the race upon its own land—wild, fast life and bloody, swift death pushing the genes and their meat-wrappers ever closer to an edge of reality, competition, a hairsbreadth further away from failure, death, and species-crash.
So the Darkman and his folk celebrate, carousing away their undying centuries while down the gravity well the pot boils. Sometimes something crawls out of the pot, lifts its head, and looks like more potential than trouble.
In this case, the potential is discerned in a boy named Gayan, who has the power to see what is lost, even into the future. Darkman covets this gift and sends his agent Wire, a cyborged former whyte boy with a severe case of nostalgia for his lost, free humanity.
The race card here is a red herring, imparting nothing of value to the story beyond a faint taste of irony, present (I suspect) so that the author can drag the fingernails of his pluralizations-with-Z down the backbone of the reader's sensibility.
The Doom That Came to Smallmouth by Joe Murphy
There is in Mnar County a vast still lake fed by no stream, from which no stream flows. At least, that's what Old Man Ackerman had told Rusty's pa. Rusty had heard the old fart rambling about the tournament, and watched the gleam harden in Pa's eyes.
For Rusty's pa is a luremancer and fishing is his life. But the lake named Smallmouth (though the fish it holds seems to be a catfish, not a bass) is no ordinary lake and the Great Old Whiskered One who dwells in its depths no ordinary fish. So, the epic battle is joined. A tall tale, a fish story, a mythos transplanted from cold and dark New England to West Texas, where it seems to fit quite well.
Lupercalia by Rita Oakes
After they skinned him, Marcus shifted back to man-shape. He lay limp upon the grass in the peristyle garden, the stench of his own blood, pain, and urine thick in his nostrils. The moon bathed him with healing light. The agony of his stripped muscles diminished, from fire to a sting, and then to a shuddersome itch, like a million ants crawling over bare flesh. New skin covered him, blessedly cool.
Marcus is a mutaro, which means a shapechanger, a werewolf. He has been a slave in Rome since his early childhood; he knows no other life; he is loyal to his vicious mistress, who has ordered him skinned in order to satisfy her warped lusts. This is a story not about werewolves but about slavery, upon which the Roman Empire was based, about the corruption of one person owning others and possessing the power of life and death over them. Unfortunately, after the strong opening kick, it is an unoriginal story about slavery. The mistress owns another werewolf slave, an older and more powerful male who refuses to submit to servitude. Marcus is trapped between his natural tie to Julius and the tie of obedience to his mistress. The plot plays out in the way one would predict.
N + 1 by Stephen Couch
Cruelty is setting a convicted hacker back in the world after twenty years, but not allowing him access to a computer. The narrator can't resist the temptation. While he was in the pen, the Internet had come into being. Compelled to understand it, he starts to construct a diagram, a map of the Internet, but his map can never be completed because the Internet itself is always changing.
This story is most effective in describing the narrator's frustration in a world filled with computers that he isn't allowed to touch, as well as his growing obsession. The map itself, constructed of pipecleaners and toothpicks, is less convincing.
The Passion: A Western by Bruce McAllister
The Man With No Name dies for our sins. This is a story about movies and the symbolism in movies: the Westerns of Sergio Leone informed by Mel Gibson's Passion. An actor finds himself in a movie where he does not know his role, where he gropes for understanding of the script and the set with its statues that run with blood, where he does take after take to try to get the final scene right, discovering that each take is right in its own way.
McAllister writes that it was only when he saw Gibson's film that he understood about the blood. Perhaps if I had seen it myself, I might understand, too.
Ile of Dogges by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
As Master of the Revels in Queen Elizabeth's court, Sir Edmund Tylney's task was to forbid the productions of plays that might be seditious. Faced with Nashe and Jonson's satire Ile of Dogges he recognizes it as certainly seditious, which is a shame, since it is also a very good play. Though he has ordered all the other copies of the playscript burned, Sir Edmund cannot bring himself to destroy the only remaining one, thinking that perhaps the play might be salvageable if the authors could agree to edit out the most subversive scenes. But Sir Edmund discovers that he is not the only one with an interest in preserving the play.
This story is a delight, first for the verses that our authors have stolen from the famous lost play, for the Elizabethan setting with its historical characters and also for the neat use of the science-fictional element. Fans of the film Shakespeare in Love ought to find it particularly appealing.
Here There Be Humans by Ken Rand
The humans on Earth have long been extinct, the planet has reverted to jungle and the aliens have declared it good for nothing but a prison colony. When First Administrator M'lay goes missing, the authorities suppose that he may have been murdered by escaped convicts while off on one of his private expeditions in search of surviving humans, but Inspector A'com soon begins to suspect something else—that M'lay has gone native. That he actually likes it on earth.
This piece is most notable for its portrait of a logical detective, meticulously following the path of deduction until he is led astray against his will. Rand also has a nice touch with alien idiom in such phrases as "don't flash false color at me." But the repetitious apostrophed pattern of the alien names can be irritating.
Electric Velocipede #10, Spring 2006
This small (52 pages) printzine contains six pieces of fiction and I am pleased that two of them are novelette length. EV can probably be called a literary SF zine, one which seems to value a colorful prose style over story elements such as plot. The zine is all text, two columns of it filling every page—all story.
A Walking of Crows by Tim Akers
This first piece in the issue does have a plot: Jeremy Walking arrives home to find his house ransacked.
There was blood. Flecks of it on the walls, a thick smear on the kitchen table, drips and pools and tacky dried splotches in the living room. It continued out the back door, into the empty field by the river that ran behind their house. Jeremy found his father's body under a blanket of crows.
Attended by the crows, Jeremy sets out for the metropolis of Veridon, determined to discover who has stolen his father's life work. But he is young, not prepared to cope with the sinister and treacherous elements he encounters in the vast city.
Jeremy started screaming when the first brassy hair broke his skin, burrowing red and hot into his chest. He could feel them, all of them, digging into the meat of his muscles, lacing their way around his ribs. Fire burst into his lungs, his heart. The spider web sank deeper into Jeremy's flesh, leaving nothing but hot metal pain and fractured nerves.
Here is a compelling work of the dark imagination, vividly told. This piece tells me Veridon may one day take a prominent place among the great cities of the fantastic.
Jacket Jackson by Richard Bowes and Mark Rich
Here, the name of the city is Maxee, City of Infinite Epithets. There is an eternal battle being fought for the soul of Maxee, between stasis and change, between the Clockmaster and Seth Jackson, builder of the glass bridge across time, now embodied in his sentient leather jacket.
"Remember the Summer of the Raggle Taggle Girl?" the Flux-Agent said, lips pursed in amusement. "We had ground Seth Jackson to dust. All but destroyed the memory of his existence. Yet he returned. A bit of him, anyway. That Girl. She dashed in here wearing Jackson's jacket and left us with those Gardens."
It is a battle unconstrained by time and going back to the 1960s, the jacket discovers Chris Brown, a young poet who has visions of a city named Maxee. It has finally found its champion.
The plot of this one has to be coaxed out of the text and it is not entirely clear (to me, at least) whether Chris, the songwriter who eventually calls himself Jacket Jackson, is the son or the father—or both—of the story's Seth Jackson. But I don't think it really matters. The authors are playing with their material here, having too much fun to take it all with deadly gravity. It is their visions of Maxee, constantly changing, that matter, and the images like the story's opening epigraph:
I close my eyes and draw in
blue distances of smoky air
the coiling strands
of a City of No Time
The Way He Does It by Jeffrey Ford
Wherein Ford perfects the literary cock-tease. He writes of a man who "does it."
You've got to see the way he does it. It's pretty remarkable for a man his age. He does it with a cigarette jutting from the corner of his mouth and a look in his eye like there's nothing finer in all creation than doing it that way.
Of course the reader's first guess is that "it" refers to the act of sexual congress, particularly when the author refers to his subject as doing it to some other person. But even when it becomes clear that something more must be involved, Ford never does become more explicit, leaving us guessing up to the very end.
Il Duca Di Cesena by Alistair Rennie
Il Duca Malatesta is a nobleman so supremely rich and powerful that he has always escaped any penalty for his crimes. At last the cardinals of the Church, in their desperation, have sent for the narrator, an inquisitor and exorcist of The Secret Order of St. Machar, to determine that the duke is possessed by the devil, for so he must have been to have committed the crime that he did. Only thus can he be punished. But matters are not so simple, as the narrator writes at length to his superior in the order, explaining the decision he has made, and wherein the nature of Malatesta's crime is slowly revealed by the author.
If this were a story solely about its plot, this revelation would be a severe disappointment, as is it a crime well-known to history. However, what is important here is not so much the nature of the duke's crime but the exorcist's own reaction to it; thus the lengthy sermonizing upon the nature of sin and diabolic possession, which might begin, to readers more concerned with matters criminal than psychological, to seem tedious. But this being a piece in which the manner of telling is more important than the events told of, there are unfortunate lapses. More than once, the narrator actually declares to his confessor: "As you know, Father Gregory . . . " But why is he telling the good father what he already knows? Or more to the point, why has the author chosen this particular recipient for the narrator's confession, instead of someone to whom these revelations might not be already so well-known that they need not be told, except that the author wishes to inform his readers? And there is this passage, in which the author's prose reaches for heights of eloquence:
He was referring to the fountain, to the renowned and the dreaded fountain, to the fountain upon which a hundred thousand eyes had rested, upon which a hundred thousand hearts had dwelt, until a hundred thousand open mouths sighed heavily in awe.
But what of the hundred thousand eye patches, covering the other hundred thousand eyes—or has the author forgotten that these generally come in pairs? And what of the copy editor, whose job it should have been to catch such infelicities? In a story where the plot is what matters, such can be dismissed as insignificant lapses, but in a piece like this, what we look for is the quality of the author's prose.
The Navel of the Universe by André Oosterman
The narrator was born on Bali, but sent at a young age to be raised by foster parents in America. He returns as a biochemist, researching the possibilities for new anti-aging drugs. It is in the remote village where he was born, where he is no longer known and no longer knows the ways of the place, that the dead are laid to rest within the perimeter surrounding an ancient banyan tree. "According to local lore, the fragrance of the tree protects the corpses from decay."
The revelation here is not particularly surprising or interesting.
Travels Along an Unfurling Circular Path by Robert Freeman Wexler
With this sort of title, I always expect a story like a maze in which I will wander, lost and confused, and here this expectation is met in full measure. A nameless man walks along a path which seems to have no end. Some of the objects he encounters may have symbolic import. He may be dead; this may be his hell, a hell of his own choosing. He may have committed a crime—the author hints at this, but his hints are enigmatic. The man thinks, at one point, "that everything he had encountered, path, boy, oranges, these beings, existed only for him, unfurling as he drew near, dissipating on his departure." So it seems, but readers might wish that some of this significance extended to themselves, as well.
The sophomore issue of this rather oddly shaped zine, each page is a single column of text interspersed with an occasional color illustration. One of the blurbs suggests that its slant is toward literary SF, but I found it less so than, say, Electric Velocipede, with a wider range of genre types. Most of the fictions are short, and some are vignettes, too slight to be called stories.
Even Without Deceit by Marissa K. Lingen
Toni explains how her early marriage to Ian failed. It seems that her job as a sort of exorcist sent her to a women's shelter where the residents were being harassed by Deceit. Toni has a longstanding beef with Deceit, whom she blames for her brother's murder. So when Ian made reservations for them to go out of town together over the weekend, Toni insisted on working her case, instead.
This is a complete story, and the notion of personifying the moral qualities is a neat idea, if not an original one, but Lingen wrings much of the wonder out of it by talking about it, by having her protagonist trying to explain it to others. It isn't really Deceit that matters, but the fact that Toni chose her obsession over her husband. Yet when an incident like this one breaks up a marriage, it does so by exposing the longstanding cracks and fissures that have already weakened the relationship. In the end, we still have no real idea why Toni's marriage to Ian failed.
The Princess and Her Assailants by Bruce Holland Rogers
A retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the point of view of class privilege. Rogers is a master of the short-short form and here, his sense of irony is effective.
Song of the Mine-Born by Len Bains
A straightforward genre fantasy: the evil threll have defeated the mages of Highloft; and the last citadel of resistance has fallen. Now Nage has joined the mine-born captives in their labor underground, digging for the cobalt from which the threll forge their pain-runes. But Nage finally finds the courage to resist.
This piece struck me as misplaced and I have to wonder if the readers who might enjoy it are likely to find it in this particular zine.
National Geographic On Assignment: Mermaids of the Old West by Sarah Monette
A vignette: mermaids are captured and put on display, tricked out in costumes for the amusement of the vulgar masses.
Tulips by Will McIntosh
Earth has finally been allowed to trade with the aliens, but there isn't much interest in earth-made goods. Edward still intends to try, with unintended consequences, as the aliens ignore his carefully-selected antiques to go crazy over a lowly tulip.
A bit of fun, though the aliens are silly and the human characters one-dimensional, and it's obvious from the title where this one is going. I somehow think Analog readers might enjoy it.
Play Date by John Sunseri
It must sometimes seem to the stressed-out parents that their autistic child has been possessed by a demon. This vignette supposes it is literally true.
Sing for Me by Marie Brennan
The peasant girl named Ema is rumored to be a seer; in her seizures, she might reveal important truths. So Carichio, with an eye to his own advantage at court, takes the girl from her muddy hovel and brings her to the palace, gives her all the advantages of a high position. But Ema proves ungrateful, unwilling to endure the pain of the seizures. A heavily message-laden tale.
Supply Ship by Sara Polsky
Whatever happens to all the new school supplies a teacher buys in the fall? Polsky supplies an imaginative answer.
NA/578934 by Clare O'Brien
The title is the catalogue number of a piece of "library music" that makes a strange impression on the protagonist. She searches it out, copies it. "It became necessary to me, not merely a backdrop but part of the very fabric of my daily life." What she hears in the background of the music is a lost child, crying for help. This is an evocative story, though it ends on a sentimental downtone.
Butterfly Jesus Saves the World by Rahul Kanakia
I imagine that the author must have had a dream in which "For the Want of a Nail" mated with "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly," and this variation on the butterfly effect was the result.
The Call by Jennifer Pelland
Pelland contemplates the hazards of First Contact in this vignette.
Havermeyer's Ink by Peter Mackey
It's one of those totalitarian dystopias in which individual freedom of thought and action have been crushed by constant surveillance, and former professor George Adams has been reduced to a janitor. But someone keeps writing subversive graffiti on the walls of the men's room, and it won't come off. In fact, the ink seems to be writing the slogans itself. The dystopia is derivative, but the ink is a Neat SFnal Idea.
Another small (70 pages) literary speculative fiction zine, this one a miscellania, including poetry, interviews and illustrations, as well as some pieces of prose that are not stories. Most of the fiction is quite short, but imaginative and intriguing, even if not all of it is SF.
The Redaction of Flight 5766 by Eric Gregory
The narrator is one of those guys working for the TSA, poking and prodding hapless airline passengers when the rivets on their jeans set off the metal detectors. He's also one of those guys who thinks too much for his own good. He begins to notice something different about a few of the passengers, the ones taking Flight 5766 to Rome. He tells himself that he ought to contact the Security Office.
Gregory intrigues us with a mystery. Who are the redactors? Time-travelers? Aliens? What are they going to redact if and when they get to Rome?
Indentured Advertisements by Gary J Beharry
The guy in the liquor ad is really there, in the liquor ad, and you'd better look away if you don't want to get hooked.
A short-short that drops the idea on us, no more.
Six Questions About the Sun by Brian Conn
And you thought the sun was a giant flaming ball of hydrogen gas! Conn discloses the truth in a surreal catechism:
We are all creatures of the sun. Although it is not correct to say that we are part of the sun, the heat and light that sustains us and nourishes our food comes from the sun, and all the heat and light that is in us was once in the sun. Therefore, if we want to know ourselves, we must look directly into the sun.
So That Her High-Born Kinsmen Came by Yoon Ha Lee
The second-person narrative is particularly suitable for a tale of insanity, when you talk to yourself, when the stream of your consciousness flows uninhibited. The post-partum mind, swept away from itself on a flood of hormones, experiences the world in strange ways, but this is "how your mothers and grandmothers have told it," and how any mother will be able to recognize it, the sleepless hell Lee describes, with its distorted time, measured by the interval of the baby's cries.
Just as you will follow your mother, who brought you out of hell, following her mothers before her. The choice is no choice. "She's mine," you say, meaning all of them, all the sun's days and sin's days and the days in between, every wail and wet diaper, every blink, every hoarse bedtime lullaby."
It's What Isn't There by Lee Thomas
A child's insight into a parent's grief. On the sentimental side and the child's voice doesn't ring quite true.
How I Got Fired from the Best Damn Job in the Whole Wide World by Samantha Henderson
On the downside and the upside of playing Goofy at Disneylandworld.
This, I suspect, is a true story, or close to it. It certainly rings as true, even if the incident didn't really happen. But, being true, it isn't SF.
Holes by Paul G. Tremblay
This is the second piece of fiction in this issue about the things that aren't there, about something defined as nothing. In this case, the subject is the sinkholes that appear in the earth, which are nothing, which suggest nothingness, the nothingness of death, symbolizing the narrator's fear. And the narrator plays author with the holes, trying to form this symbol into a story about trying to fill the holes with something, but the story, or the narrator, or the author, breaks down in the face of reality.
This metafictional piece is in a way a story about it's failing to be a story, a text where a story isn't there. It may be philosophical, but it's not SF.
Farthing #3, May 2006
Another new zine, another small zine (60 pages), though the seven stories are mostly full-length. This one features actual science fiction, as well as other types of fantasy, and it is all traditional genre stuff, not literary or experimental.
Family Time by Harper Scott
On the complications of the use of time machines—an infinite regress. Sure, you can use your time machines to alter events, but then the other side can use their time machines to alter your alterations. Fun stuff.
Hobo by Clifford Royal Johns
A hobo is a small non-jump-capable spacecraft that illicitly hitches a ride on one of the big tugs as it goes through the jump hole. Keel would just ignore the hobo if he were captain, but he's not.
Keel envied hoboes. He'd considered riding the barges before he got his job with Transgenic piloting tugs, but then he decided to take the pilot job because he wanted to meet the Ghosts. He wanted to see their translucence for himself. He wanted to see one of them eat a Cool Bar, so he could watch it slowly flow through the alien's body, changing consistency along the way. Of course, he never got to. Only the captain of the vessel was permitted to interact with the aliens.
The humor is a bit more subtle here, in the constant tension between the inexperienced, uptight captain and the passive-aggressive pilot. The last line is a sharp rim-shot.
Common Time by Bruce Golden
All Willie Solman wants to do is play the blues, but he's been drafted into the astromarines to fight the aliens they call the "slugs." Escaping from the fighting, he hears music somewhere in the jungle and follows the sound to find one of the aliens playing a strange instrument. Willie plays along on his harmonica, until more human soldiers show up and start blasting. Years later, Willie has become a star with the alien instrument—all that was left of the alien after the firing stopped, but he can't stop thinking about the music he first heard it play.
A variation on the theme: make music, not war; this one reminds me more than a bit of Longyear's Enemy Mine.
What About the Plastic Race? by Greg Beatty
Dave gets a strange e-mail from his colleague Hiram's computer, but Hiram didn't send it.
This short-short piece would have been more effective if the author hadn't overdone the lesson in the last line. I have trouble thinking of computers as a race of plastic. The plastic is only the case; the soul of the machine lies in the chips and wires.
Labor Day by Amanda M. Hayes
[Evie] wore more rings than a gypsy, and there was never a day she didn't have a crystal hanging from her neck. Or some tattered gaming manual in her pack. Fantasy freak, girl geek, worst you ever saw, except maybe for me.
But Evie, really, really wants to be abducted by the elven princes and taken out of this world. So, when a strange red circle appears in a part of the woods where the ground smells foul, it's Evie who wants to jump through it, Pam who thinks it might be dangerous and they ought to run away.
I suspect many readers will sympathize with Evie, knowing how strong the pull of wishful thinking can be. A Cautionary Tale.
Change of Life by K. Tempest Bradford
Mom's kids are growing up and moving away and Mom is losing it. She always said there wasn't room for a pet with so many kids, but now every time one of the kids moves out, Mom gets another animal to take their place. Except that every time she gets a new pet, something happens to the real son or daughter.
The resolution to this problem is surprisingly mundane, but it works.
Problem, Child by Lisa Batya Feld
One of those stories told in the child's voice, from the child's point of view, which can be a bit too much. David is different. His parents are different, too, in different ways. His parents don't understand just how different he is. David understands too much.
I can't really buy the premise here, that shamanism is an inherited trait, and that if it were, these particular parents wouldn't know about it. And the voice really is a bit too much.