Shifting deadlines mean I may have missed a few magazines this time. My priority is to cover the regular monthly [or weekly] publications first, so I'll be turning to the rest of the current quarterlies next time around. This time my favorite issue is from Chizine. F&SF also had a superior issue, and the debut of Clarkesworld is quite promising.
Asimov's October/November 2006
The cover of this double issue is a piece of old pulp art from the defunct Jungle Stories, featuring a Tarzan-like hero saving a scantily-clad heroine from a swarm of toothy crocodiles. While it suitably illustrates William Barton's nostalgic novella "Down to the Earth Below," it also suggests a theme running through the stories here: the variety of relationships between males and females.
A Billion Eves by Robert Reed
Some time a couple decades from now, a failing physics student swipes a quantum ripper, parks it next to a sorority house, and transfers them all to an uninhabited parallel Earth where he becomes the first Father. He and his descendants turn his exploit into the foundation of a religion where the prime commandment is a variation on the biblical "Go forth and multiply." Young men are all driven with ambition to obtain a ripper and become the Father of an untouched new parallel world of their own, and many of them are not above kidnapping the wives they intend to populate it with. Living on one such alternate Earth is Kala, a young girl whose personal interests lie in preserving the fragile native ecology of her world from the competition of species introduced by intruding humanity. But her views make her a target for the less tolerant.
This is an idea story, and a fine, ambitious idea it is. I only wish the story part were more story-like and less didactic. Kala is more of a plot-token than a real character, a device to move the narrative from one aspect of the idea to the next. Section 1: Kala encounters a menacing prospective Father with a bus full of kidnapped girls. Section 2: background infodump. Section 3: Kala notices the effect of introduced species on the native environment. Section 4: Kala reads an alternative, unauthorized version of the background infodump. Section 5: A prospective Father tries to kidnap Kala. Etc. I can't help thinking that in a longer work, a novel, Kala might have had room to develop into a real person, instead of a plot device.
Down to the Earth Below by William Barton
Here is a fantasy, the wish-fulfillment fantasy of an adolescent boy, suddenly come true. Alan Burke (Burke the Jerk to the jocks at school) is Onol of Aceta with his friends, who base many of their games on the pulp sci-fi adventures of John Carter of Mars. One day, exploring an abandoned mine, the boys fall into a hole which leads to an underground fantasy world, complete with a goddess/princess upon whom Alan/Onol can focus his adolescent lusts. They have fine, rousing adventures, and Onol becomes the hero of his own dreams, but of course it must eventually come to an end.
Barton has been doing a series of these tales, all with different SFnal settings from the sort of story a boy of that day and age would have been reading, each describing a boy's coming-of-age. Here, the setting is overtly fantastic—there is an army of talking mice as well as warriors and pirates of several cultures, but the boys retain the attitudes and awkwardness of real life. It is this juxtaposition, along with the nostalgia factor, that gives the piece its interest.
I remember, in my fantasy land, I always wanted to see something like this. See it happen, fly on the wall.
Here and now, I changed my mind.
Struggled to get up. Gagged. Realized my nose was bleeding, that my ears felt wet, that I might have a fractured skull, might be very badly hurt indeed.
And now, you have to watch.
Good work, Burke the Jerk.
I acknowledge a distinct ambivalence regarding this work. On the one hand, it is an adolescent boy's fantasy, which inevitably must involve a high level of obsession with the mystery of the female sex. On the other hand, when the narrator as an adult recalls this fantasy as "a place where a man can be happy…and the beautiful women who are amazingly anxious to please," my inner feminist rises up to protest that the beautiful women don't seem to be getting the best of the deal. At the end of the adventure, the goddess tells the boys to return to the world and find happiness as men, yet the man is still looking back to Neverland.
Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth by Michael Flynn
The ferry Hyak leaves Seattle one morning, bound for Bremerton with nearly a thousand passengers, and disappears into a fog in the middle of Elliott Bay, where it is swallowed by a vortex caused by the Earth's magnetic field. Flynn's story documents the aftermath, collecting the testimony of witnesses and other concerned parties—the bereaved, scientists, fishermen in the bay—who all attempt to understand the event and the difference it has made in their lives. The first witness, a deckhand on a fishing boat that is almost drawn into the vortex along with the ferry, has perhaps the most profound vision:
I did not understand then what I had seen, but I have thought over it much since. The strange fog. The strange current. The great light and the shout. Even the birds that wheeled over the spot. How could such a large vessel vanish so completely and so quickly? I found the answer in the smile of a little child.
God had taken them all to Him, as a sign to the rest of us. That is why you will never find them or find the boat. That is why the girl smiled. All I was granted was the rainbow sign, but she had seen the pure light of heaven.
It is a story of life and of love, and the void that the disappearance causes in the lives of whose who are left behind. Each section is told in its own unique voice, underscoring the variety of personal experience. The whole is a moving memorial, yet with one odd flaw—Flynn describes the grief of those who lost beloved children, siblings or lovers, but there are no beloved spouses; every marriage described is dysfunctional, no lost husband is truly mourned.
The story's title is taken from 1914 by the World War I poet Rupert Brooke, sonnet IV, titled "The Dead," which one character quotes at the story's end:
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; love; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
1 is True by Ron Collins
Gordie is a skilled coder. Over a year ago, together with Stango and Yulani, he was successful at developing optical push, but then Yulani left Gordie for Stango, and now she is dead. The cops suspect him of the murder, for want of anyone else more likely, and Gordie knows Stango must have the key to the mystery. But Stango wants something from Gordie—Stango has a contract with DigiCorp to deliver full tactile push, but his code is defective and the deadline is breathing down his neck.
This is cyberpunk, more noir than chrome, complete with corporate espionage, code theft, and betrayal. Collins, an engineer, has updated the genre with slick new pseudoneep and laid it over a murder mystery. Fast-paced and gripping.
Biodad by Kit Reed
It is obvious that Mom is unbalanced. Her kids, who each narrate part of this account, are aware of this, but what can they do? She had conceived them using an anonymous sperm donor, but she has been trying for years to track the man down. Now she has left her job and is driving across the country to confront their biological father, planning to use the kids as a lure. But she is not ready for what she finds when she meets him.
The ending comes somewhat out of left field, and its impact is weaker than it might have been if the author had been slightly more explicit about what Stan has done to the kids, what he intends. While it is true that it is often best to leave such matters to the imagination, Reed has given the imagination a bit too little to work with here.
After I Stopped Screaming by Pamela Sargent
The memoirs of Ann Darrow at age 90, and her retrospective thoughts on the giant ape Kong, who turns to have been Misunderstood. Some nice feminist irony.
The Small Astral Object Genius by James Van Pelt
The Peek-a-boo is a photo sphere the size of a softball, capable of crossing the vast distances of intergalactic space and returning in an instant so brief as to be undetectable. Or so the promoters claim, but Dustin's father insists it's a scam. Dustin refuses to believe him; he stays up all night, trying to get a picture of a new planet. This is something he can actually accomplish, when he can't get his own parents to talk to each other again. The computer, linked to the Peek-a-boo, is his refuge from the silence in his house.
The conclusion comes as no real surprise in this YA story, but the Peek-a-boo and its star photos are nicely realized.
The Seducer by Carol Emshwiller
After a childhood of being tormented by his older sister, who used to scare him with loud and unexpected shrieks, Merton has taken up the life of a seducer. Or so he declares, but I suspect he is less than a reliable narrator. His current object is a different sort of woman from those he has known before—taller and stronger than he is, a runner, a hiker. She invites him to go camping with her, but the wilderness at night is full of shrieks and ghosts.
This is quite a strange story, an equivocal fantasy that strongly suggests the ghosts are not real but only the spectres of Merton's imagination. I have the feeling that, rather than a seducer, he is only a man looking for someone strong to love and protect him.
Saving for a Sunny Day, or, the Benefits of Reincarnation by Ian Watson
Things have changed since the AI took over human affairs. The AI has barcoded individual souls, so that their reincarnation can be traced from one person to the next. Every individual's financial status is now inherited by the next reincarnation, and thus Jimmy is born owing a debt of nine million dollars. Fortunately, Jimmy is a genius, and there is always a way to make a deal. An unsettling yet amusing bit of speculation.
Foster by Melissa Lee Shaw
The narrator thinks she is cursed. She has just lost her dog, her cat, and her husband, and with them all reason for living. In an attempt to reconnect to life, she has signed up to provide a foster home for a homeless mother cat and her kittens. Then one of the kittens dies.
This is a truly disturbing horror story about an repellant, self-pitying personality. It begins rather mawkishly, and readers expecting to sympathize with the narrator will likely be put off, but the ending is not at all what such a reader will be expecting.
Asimov's, December 2006
The stories in this issue present contrasting views of the human condition—some depressing, some hopeful, but the pessimistic vision seems to predominate.
Lord Weary's Empire by Michael Swanwick
This novella is an installment in an ongoing tale, set in the same universe as Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993). The protagonist is Will, introduced in the 2004 novella "King Dragon." His story will continue after the events related here, and we must presume that these events will prove of significance to him in his further adventures. If it were otherwise, if the entire story came to an end at this point, readers might have cause for serious complaint when they reach the conclusion of this episode.
Harried by his enemies, Will seeks refuge in the subway tunnels of Babel, where he encounters the high elf Lord Weary and his Army of the Night—haints, gaunts, and other sorts of feys—the wretched refuse of the underworld. Will becomes the army's champion, earning a price on his head under the nom de guerre of Captain Jack Riddle. But Lord Weary inexplicably insists on initiating open warfare against the city authorities, a war he can not possibly win. Will is torn between loyalty to his liege—a loyalty that we perceive as magically coerced—and to his companions in the army who want him to challenge Lord Weary's leadership. But he discovers that the elf-lord is not what he has seemed to be, nor is anything else.
The serial tale has a long and honorable history in our genre, and I look forward to reading the completed version of this one when it is published. Will is a good-hearted hero who seems undeservedly singled out by a malign fate that I hope he will eventually be able to overcome. And this universe, where an elf-hero might ride a Kawasaki motorcycle into battle, is a refreshing alternative to the more usual strain of High Fantasy. So I will trust that Swanwick had a good reason for the way he concluded this episode, and that it will pay off by the end.
Yellow Card Man by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi is becoming the Dystopian Man of this decade in SF, and the dystopia he creates here—as part of the same universe as his earlier "Calorie Man"—takes the breakdown of society about as far down as any author has taken it. Malaysia has erupted in a genocidal frenzy against the Chinese merchant class, and Trahn is one of the survivors who fled to Thailand, where the refugees must struggle even to be exploited, and hundreds line up for the chance at a single job.
There was a time when he knew all the bio-engineered plagues that ailed them. Knew when a crop was about to fail, and whether new seedstock had been ripped. Profited from the knowledge by filling his clipper ships with the right seeds and produce. But that was a lifetime ago.
There is little to admire about Trahn and less to excite the reader's sympathy with his plight, despite the horrors he must endure. Trahn can not afford to think of anything but his own survival, or allow anything to stand in his way, so that he becomes a monster in a monstrous world.
Plausible by Robert Reed
A glimpse at a strangely wonder-filled world where humans live alongside other species as Cousins—the bull-buddies, native-giants, heaven-walkers—and they all march together in a parade to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The narrator is a boy who is going to have a very lucky day, a day he will never forget, but he has a boy's view of what is important and what is not so much so.
"Why don't you ride with me?" Lord Dullen said, reaching out with his empty hand. "Just for a little bit. Okay, my boy?"
My father had finally seen me, and he was chasing after the twelve-wheeler now. But the fat bull-buddy stopped him short and told him to go back. Dad pointed at me and said a few hard words, and suddenly the bull-buddy was angry enough to forget that he was fat and old. The two of them were shouting at each other, and I didn't want any part of that.
I climbed in beside my hero.
Intriguing and charming.
Immunity by Susan Forest
Trine is the sole medic for an outpost orbiting a distant planet when there is an outbreak of deadly disease. She has a treatment, but the drug is in limited supply, and a new shipment will not be arriving soon. Trine must establish protocols to determine which patients are most vulnerable, which should be given the medicine. Inevitably, there are deaths, but Trine holds firm to her protocols, determined to be objective and not swayed by sentiment or personal appeals from relatives or friends. Then her own daughter becomes sick, and she is over the age limit that Trine herself has set to be given the drug that may save her life.
Here is a straightforward, old-fashioned science-fiction problem story, and also a human character study. Trine is rigid and can not acknowledge any weakness in herself. "No. Not two separate sets of rules—one for Trine, one for everyone else. When you lose integrity, you lose everything. You lose yourself."
Safe! by Brian W. Aldiss
Raff Darnley, one of two astronauts sent by Earth on the long journey to Ganymede, kills his partner and then rejoices in his total separation from the human race. He broadcasts back to the homeworld: "The human species is just a farce." Earth doesn't appreciate his opinion, but there is little they can do about it, so Darnley proceeds in his solitude to develop a great theory that will banish the element of farce from human affairs. But farce turns out to have the last laugh.
Aldiss's tale is itself a farce, an odd sort of story where Earth sends spacecraft to the outer planets but still seems stuck socially in 1950. Characters have names like Monty Rastus Pennyfeather. Their behavior gives weight to Darnley's negative judgment of his native species. While it does not seem likely that Darnley's theory will effect any great improvement in the nature of humanity, it could hardly make it much worse.
A Dying Fall by Christopher Priest
Marcus Birch, in the long-suspended moment of his imminent death, experiences a final illuminating vision, a memory and a mystery. "Why should this be the last thought of his lifetime?"
"You cannot prepare for death," the author informs us, addressing us directly. "Death struck [Marcus] unavoidably, an appalling accident with an inevitable outcome." Yet in the final moment of suspended time, as many authors have told us before, the human mind may try, regardless, to alter the inevitable, to divert the course of events so as to save itself. A vision, a memory—what might it mean?
It is a rare treat to find a short story by this excellent author, and this one rewards expectation with its fine and subtle craftsmanship.
The Golden Record by Ian Creasey
The record of the title is the golden disc sent out into space in the Voyager 2 space probe, as a greeting to any alien races that might encounter it. In Creasey's future, no aliens have come along, the World Polity has overtaken the United States, and Andrew Pitt is out in the far reaches of the solar system, trying to salvage the derelict Voyager for the Spaceflight Museum before scavengers can get to it. Unfortunately, once he gets it home, the relict USA in exile sues for the return of its property. What they really want, it transpires, is the Golden Record, rumored to contain a hidden track in which Carl Sagan had preserved the secret of some great secret scientific breakthrough. And the exiled USA isn't the only party trying to get its hands on the record.
This might have been the material for a thriller, but after the space probe is retrieved there is no real action; instead it turns out to be a light and humorous piece, on the optimistic side of the divide.
Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2006
This one is a superior issue, and it has a Christmas story, too.
Bye the Rules by Matthew Hughes
Continuing the adventures of Guth Bandar, who has been singled out by humanity's collective unconsciousness to assist it in bringing change to the stagnant future Archonate. Dismissed from the Institute as the result of the Multifacet's manipulation, Bandar has taken a mundane job with his uncle, but the collective unconsciousness is relentless; it makes it clear to Bandar that unless he submits to his new role, his uncle will suffer. Bandar initiates a lucid dream to determine what he must do, and finds himself in the middle of a range war in the old West, in the role of a rancher's son whose cattle are being stolen.
The other two henchmen had moved closer. One of them, a skinny man with a thin mustache, sneered and spat a stream of brown liquid, while the other, heavyset with a week's stubble on his jaw, said, "Sure, kid. We're scared to death."
The one with the rifle said, "Tell your old man if he's got anythin' to say, he knows where to find Mr. Strayhorn. He'll be waitin'."
Bandar could see where this narrative was heading. It was a Situation, probably a variation on the motif of Resisting the Despot. This Strayhorn would be a Principal in this Location, a local Tyrant imposing his will upon a Suffering Population that was too timid to revolt and overthrow him. His host's father was probably also a Principal, the Hero of this tale, and the sequence of events would climax in a confrontation between the two, from which only one would emerge alive.
Guth Bandar's world, where Jungian archetypes act out humanity's primal conflicts, is a fascinating one, and I am following this series with great interest. Hughes manages to include enough of the quite complicated backstory to enable a reader unfamiliar with it to grasp the essentials; as always, his narrative voice enhances the enjoyment of the tale. This episode is a particularly straightforward one. Guth is now becoming resigned to his fate, admitting that the old rules of his life no longer apply, and it remains only to discover exactly what events the scheming Multifacet has in mind for the next time.
The Christmas Witch by M. Rickert
Rachel and her father have moved to the small town of Stone [somewhere near Salem] after her mother's death. The children of Stone collect bones and tell Rachel that almost everyone in town is a witch. She soon begins to collect bones, as well.
Her father turns out the light and kisses her on the forehead before he leaves her alone in the dark. All of a sudden Rachel is scared. She thinks of calling her father. Instead, she counts to fifty before she pulls back the covers and sneaks around in the dark of her room, gathering the bones, which she pieces together into a sort of puzzle shape of a funny little creature, right on top of her bed. She uses a skull, and a long bone that might be from a fish, the small shape of a mouse paw, and a couple of chicken legs. She sucks her thumb while she waits for it to do the silly dance again.
Then people begin to be hurt. Soon Rachel realizes that things are out of control, and the bones are not her friend.
Holiday issues of the digest zines are always problematic, due to timing. While this is the December issue of F&SF, I read this story of witches and ghosts in mid-October, closer to Halloween than Christmas. But this is no problem, for the story is an unsettling horror tale, and the presence of the fantastic is unequivocal—it is not just a mouse making the noise in Rachel's closet. Yet even more frightening are the powers of the social workers, who refuse to believe the truth. Rachel is trapped in a strange world at the mercy of forces she does not understand, unable to make things right no matter how hard she tries.
Damascus by Daryl Gregory
The title refers to the vision of Jesus that Saul of Tarsus saw on the road to Damascus. Paula has a similar vision, and like Saul, it has transformed her life. She was once a vindictive bitch who punished her daughter for still loving her father, now divorced from Paula, but things changed when the women in the yellow house befriended her, brought over home-made bread and casseroles, and infected her with a prion disease that brought on visions of Jesus. The women are missionaries, passing on the infection of salvation to a chosen few initiates. But Paula now wants to take their mission to a higher level, to spread it world-wide.
Like the Rickert story reviewed above, this one is concerned with the visions of things that others can not see, except that in Paula's case, we suspect her vision is hallucination. The question remains: even if her vision of Jesus is false, is she better off believing in it, or as she was before? The doctors refer to bioterrorism, causing us to reflect upon the certainty of belief that terrorists, missionaries, and fanatics often share.
Dazzle the Pundit by Scott Bradford
In which Dazzle the dog is offered a guest lectureship at a German university. He is quite popular with the students there, as it seems in this future that the high culture has been superseded by the low, with the exception of one student in Abstract Philosophy. A female student explains Heinrich's deficiencies as a date to Dazzle:
And every time you try to change the subject to something interesting—such as your long-unconfessed ambitions to win the Euro-Vision Song Contest, or the latest episode of Friends—he just scowls terribly, as if you have hurled hot pasta in his face. He begins spouting Nietzsche or Hölderlin, and raving about the mindless herds of contemporary culture. Pretty soon it's nothing but "bourgeoisie-this" and "bourgeoisie-that," and he's not even looking at you anymore, or noticing how much trouble you went to with your hair.
The professorial canine solves the problem and soon Heinrich is just as banal as the rest of the students.
The piece is yet another example of F&SF offering up as humor a work that strikes my ear with a dead and hollow thud. Perhaps it was my years as a student of philosophy that warped me.
Pills Forever by Robert Reed
The narrator has spent his extended lifetime keeping decrepitude at bay with exercise, popping pills, anti-oxidants, and undergoing a variety of rejuvenating treatments that altogether take much of his time and income. His surviving companion is his cat, Louise, whose lifespan has been likewise extended beyond the normal feline allotment of years. Now Louise has developed a medical problem, and the only treatment is both uncertain and beyond the narrator's means. Now he has to decide what is best for both of them.
Two sisters and a brother. My parents and uncles and aunts. Three wives and one girlfriend who was as good as a wife, and half a hundred other important, much loved people who hadn't been as large in my existence for half as long as this one crazy-ass cat has been.
A contemplation of death, immortality, and love.
John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner by Susanna Clarke
Many summers ago in a clearing in a wood in Cumbria there lived a Charcoal Burner. He was a very poor man. His clothes were ragged and he was generally sooty and dirty. He had no wife or children, and his only companion was a small pig called Blakeman. Most of the time he stayed in the clearing which contained just two things: an earth-covered stack of smoldering charcoal and a hut built of sticks and pieces of turf. But in spite of all this he was a cheerful soul—unless crossed in any way.
Thus begins Clarke's outtake from her acclaimed novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a tale of the magician Raven King who, while hunting, tramples the charcoal burner's clearing. The enraged man, not knowing this vandal is the king, demands and receives restitution and revenge from the holy saints.
It is one of the charms of Clarke's work that she tells her history with a perfectly grave and straight face, complete with scholarly annotations. This sort of tale frequently appears as a note in the novel, and it is a perfect piece of fairy-telling, even if, as the author notes, "many scholars have argued that it has no historical basis."
Analog, November 2006
A satisfactory amount of enjoyable reading in this issue, besides the serial that takes up much of the space.
The Good Kill by Barry B. Longyear
This novella seemed to drag at the beginning, but it wasn't too long before it picked up the pace and became a very intriguing SF detective story, despite the absurdity of the SFnal premise: with the use of recorded engrams, minds can now shift from one body to another, and a number of humans now occupy "meat suits" in the form of animals. Thus Detective Inspector Jaggers find himself with a new partner who happens to be a talking duck. The case they are assigned to investigate is the death of the master of a very fashionable and profitable foxhunting establishment, half of which is owned by the fox, a former actor now occupying a vulpine meat suit. While the local constabulary has fingered the deceased's wife, all evidence points instead to the man's horse—who is actually a horse. From that point, thing begin to get very complicated.
With a flap and a hop, Shad was back on the end table. He took a slurp of his tea, sat down, and said, "We know the ability exists to remotely implant images that can trigger off a homicidal nightmare, and it's pretty clear something like that was done to Champion when the horse killed Bowman and when he tried to kill us." Shad looked at me. "And?"
"If we can find out where the image implant device was located when it triggered Champion in his stall, we might find a trail that we could follow to our killer. I haven't looked at your burrrow map. Any of those burrows come near the stables?"
Longyear has packed a lot of Neat Stuff into this one—an intricate plot, a lot of whiz-bang detective gizmos, and red herrings by the barrel. It is detective fiction Lite, not Noir, and if readers can get over the duck, they are in for a twisty fictional chase.
Where Lies the Final Harbor? by Shane Tourtellotte
In this future, FLT navigators are the specialists with neural links to a ship's computers that enable them to traverse interstellar space. They earn their considerable privileges; their work is difficult and mentally draining, and it makes them a secretive, tight-knit group. Now navigators seem to be mysteriously disappearing, and they refuse to talk about it. This piques the curiosity of freelancer reporter Chloe Roberts, who is determined to dig out the secret, and she encounters a moral dilemma when she does. Interesting enough, but my inner feminist, previously roused to attention, was slightly irked by the author's repeated insistence on Chloe's "natural charms."
Prevenge by Mike Resnick & Kevin J. Anderson
Kyle Bain is an agent of the Knights Temporal, whose mission is to use time travel to retroactively prevent murders. He is assigned to the death of an unpleasant industrialist and soon discovers who the murderer is, but fails repeatedly to prevent the killing. The problem I have is this: in his investigation, Kyle discovers a previous murder that motivated the killer, but he decides it is too unimportant to prevent. Not only is this failure to act morally suspect, without the motive of this previous murder the murderer would probably not have been driven to act, thus Kyle's mission would have been fulfilled. His decision is clearly made for the convenience of the authors, who wanted a different sort of ending, making a different ethical point. But I can't respect an ethical point made at the expense of such a plot hole.
Man, Descendant by Carl Frederick
Typical of Frederick's work, this one is loaded with physics neep, which will certainly not displease the readers of Analog. Alien beings have translated the text of a journal discovered in a derelict human spacecraft. The journal's author, Conrad, was participating in a time-dilation experiment, having anchored his ship near a black hole discovered orbiting the sun. But when his engines failed and he fell further into the gravity well, the time dilation became extreme. It is left to the aliens to discover his eventual fate.
Despite the physics emphasis, it is a humanistic hard SF story, in particular from the point of view of the aliens, whose culture is aesthetically-oriented. They are quite capable of sympathizing with the doomed human's plight.
"I go dark for him," signaled the Keeper, "even though if it had worked, I assume we'd never have gotten the journal. But still, I grieve."
The Librarian emitted a field of shared empathy.
The ending, however, may prove a surprise to everyone concerned.
Interzone, October 2006
A pretty good issue, overall, with a variety of visions of the future.
The Beekeeper by Jamie Barras
The narrator is a child, born on a boneship carrying a small group of humans on a mission of exploration. The garden they are searching for is an artificial, self-replicating biological factory, and its fruit, its children, have complex information encoded in their genes. What the explorers hope to find growing here is the secret of faster-than-light travel, and they have brought with them a swarm of specially-bred bees to search for it. "Acheron's geneticists had programmed them to 'taste' everything in the garden in search of the marker for the FTL-quipped child type." But the human explorers have been searching the abandoned gardens for three hundred years with no success, and they are running short of likely sites. The world where they have landed now is dangerously close to the territory of an enemy species, and they can not give away their presence.
What gives this story its interest is the garden and the metamorphosis of its children, an ecologically complex and unique piece of worldbuilding.
The trees and ferns, fungi and moulds, were the factories that produced the seeds from which the children grew, but it was in the lakes and rivers that those children started to develop, and where they spent the first part of their lives. All the watercourses that we could see were dark with organic matter: humus and vegetation, yes, but also neonatal children spawned from seeds carried into the water by the wind.
Distro by Tim Akers
The narrator here is part of a group mind shared among several independent bodies, when someone begins to murder him/them. He soon finds himself alone, as just Frank, in a desperate race to find whoever is trying to kill him before they can finish the job.
I was offline, and that worried me, especially the bits of me that weren't actually Frank. In an arrangement like mine, the personalities get mingled, blurred into a single thinking organism. Even so, there's some individuality left, a tiny plot of self that thinks it's Frank, or Helen, or Teef. Not entirely accurate, really. Even though I, this body, was offline, some analog of my personality was running in Helen and Teef. If they were still alive, that is. And here, in my skull, bits of those other two were panicking about their parent body, trying to reach out across the Net, hoping that they were all right. Strange, talking to yourself about yourself.
This is a tight-wound thriller, with violent action, edgy and dark, and a strong cyberpunk sensibility.
The New Chinese Wives by Will McIntosh
You eat much bitterness when you're old. So Hai's grandfather used to say, and now Hai knows it for the truth. His son is marrying a video projection—China's desperate solution to the shortage of women caused by the one-child policy of the previous century. It is illegal not to pretend the New Wife is real, but the situation is making everyone in the household unhappy. Hai decides it is up to him to solve the problem, to be wise, as his own grandfather had been.
Despite the improbability of the premise, Hai's concern for his family is human and real.
The Ship by Robert Davies
Unoriginal fable. A ship appears in the sky above Earth. It remains until the last human on the planet dies. It goes away.
The Nature of the Beast by Jae Brim
The ruthless founder of a financial empire is cloned after his death, so that his copy can be raised to succeed him. The project is even more successful than its supervisors know.
It is impossible to read this piece and not recall C. J. Cherryh's masterwork Cyteen, unless you are one of the readers unfamiliar with the earlier work, in which case this one will be quite satisfactory.
According to the editors, the theme of issue eight is authenticity, or finding one's true self. I was pleased to find a definite strain of alternate history in the mix, as well.
Echo Beach by Daniel Marcus
The narrator was hiking in the Himalayas, about to slip off the mountain and fall to his death, when a strange alien made him an alternative offer. Now he is the resident bartender at the end of the world, serving the tourists who come from other times and other planets to observe Earth engulfed in a nova wave, night after night in an infinite loop. And he has begun to regret his choice.
This is a story about choice and its consequences, about learning from our mistakes before and after it is too late.
Playing Dice by Ron Savage
An alternative life of Albert Einstein, in an alternative world—which he did not believe in. Savage uses Einstein's own theories to illustrate his scenes.
There are always regrets, of course, no escaping them. Nobody leaves this life without regret. This is a life he wishes he could rearrange, redo. Then the old man remembers a saying he once read, or maybe he said it himself: "...perhaps in some other time, in some other world."
All of Me by Liz Holliday
A brain-damaged young woman, working a menial job in a restaurant, meets a visiting alien with the power to heal her.
Palaces of Force by Martin McGrath
A chance encounter brings Mohandas Gandhi and Roger Casement together in a visit to the 1889 Paris Exposition. This secret history has perhaps more force as a Neat Idea than as a story, for in the end nothing momentous comes of the encounter, neither character is noticeably affected by it, and destiny remains unaltered. The two merely harangue one another, with their ideas clashing but their minds never quite meeting. Yet: what an encounter! At what a place and time!
Foxwoman by Stephanie Burgis
A Viking gives up the sea to settle as a farmer with a wife he considers dull, but the wife turns out to be a fox, and runs away. As a fox, she is irresistible to him, and he contrives a charm to trap her.
Every night for the past week, I've camped outside, caught between wavering hope and dark despair. I've chanted the incantations the old men of the village taught me, tossed their herbs of summoning into the fire. The flames burn hot, with a scent like the bittersweet beginning of autumn.
While the author tells us this very short piece is based on Scandinavian folklore, its characters never come into focus; we don't see who they are. The narrator informs us he was a Viking, but there is nothing of this past in his voice; he might be Anyman, from anywhere; she is only a briefly-glimpsed pair of green eyes, and then the story is over.
Oxy by Will McIntosh
A strange far future dystopia where the atmospheric oxygen has been depleted, and creatures have evolved the ability to chew metal for its oxides, though some tribes have learned to break down water into its elements; they are the wealthy ones. Without sufficient oxy, the brain can not function optimally, and the more primitive levels take over the mind.
Monkey-mind babbled about nose hairs, lizard brain nagged me to kill some meat, or find someone to fuck.
It was worst right after a little oxy, like they'd been building up down there and now they were letting it all out. Funny thing was, I never got used to it. I hated not being able to think straight.
People will fight and kill for oxy, but the narrator wants to find a way to subdue the monkey and the lizard without resorting to the increasingly rare element.
McIntosh's world is a vivid and well-imagined nightmare, strikingly told. I found myself wondering about the evolution, thinking that it must have been engineered instead of natural selection, for which there has not been enough time, but this doesn't really matter to the story, if you can accept the premise.
Thinking by Lawrence M. Schoen
It's testing time for James, but he can't decide what his answer should be.
I am so screwed. This is everything. This test is my board score and what college I get into and what kind of job I end up with and who I'm going to marry and where I'm going to live and whether or not I'll be able to afford a mistress or a sportscar for my midlife crisis or purchase the supplemental health insurance policy so I can actually make a profit when I go in for that triple bypass in forty years.
Fortunately for James, the test itself has its own opinion. This is a clever, refreshingly subversive take on the subject of placement exams.
Strange Horizons, September & October 2006
More of the fantastic here, and less of even nominal science fiction. Some interesting, highly imaginative visions.
The House Beyond Your Sky by Benjamin Rosenbaum
In the gnostic tradition, the creator of the material world was of a lowly order; above him were greater divinities whose concerns were entirely spiritual. At the end of time, when the stars have died, when "Space billows outward, faster than light can cross it," and existence is cold and slow, creation has become virtual rather than material. Yet if an entity can say, "I am," then it is; and if an entity feels pain, that pain is as real for it as for any other being. Creation of conscious entities implies responsibility for them. Some creators, like Matthias in this story, may fear the responsibility; others may abuse the power, which Matthias tries to prevent. Fortunate the creature whose god is both willing and able to hear its prayers.
Still, the trouble with writing about matters that surpass all human understanding is that we can only describe them in metaphors. When we reduce god to an angry father, we end up discussing an angry father, not god.
Fairest by Brian Attebery
Attebery inverts the fairy tale and gives the concept of "the fairest" a new meaning. Here, it refers to the lightest-skinned among the slave women on the plantation, the one preferred by the Master, impregnated by him. She is set apart from the other slaves, who call her Highness in half-mockery, but she has a burden none of the others do, for the Master wants her fair-skinned child as his own. This story is not hers, however, it is Abel's, the slave boy who can't help watching her make magic in the mirror the Master has given her.
She held a piece of cloth, lace like froth on a pail of milk: held it high to catch the cascade of light. Then she draped the lace over the mirror and started speaking softly, so Abel could only hear the sound and not the words. At the end, she said, louder, "Let it be as he wants, for now," and pulled the cloth off the mirror.
Abel has a magic of his own, his heritage from his Creek forebears, and he offers it all to her. But will it be enough to save her?
This is not a fairy tale, and no one in it is likely to live happily ever after. They must be satisfied with smaller victories. The nature of the magic practiced is somewhat obscure. At one point, the woman suggests that the Master has given her the mirror to spy on her through it, but there is no other suggestion that he has such powers; the Master's magic is brutal force.
Sounding by Elizabeth Bear
A story of the sea. Allen Cullen is a fisherman, his wife Pen works nights at the hospital, yet even together they can't make ends meet. The sea has been overharvested by the factory ships; the profitable fish are disappearing. But the whales are coming back, protected now. Can a whale grant a favor to a fisherman?
Bear's prose is poignant and evocative:
Another whale breaches in the distance—one, two, a pod of humpbacks. They're everywhere, now that Cully's looking for them. Gray whales slipping along the surface not so different from dappled wave-tops themselves. The great pleased grin of a blue whale as it lifts its head from the ocean, blowing plumes of vapor into the perfect sky. Dolphins leaping among the tuna, a softer shade of steel.
But the conclusion is very unsatisfying. This, too, is not a fairy tale; indeed, I don't believe it is even an ambiguous fantasy. The whale does not speak to Cully; there is no bargain made between them, except in his mind. And if there were, the terms of it are not specified, which makes any contract invalid. He promises only to pay the whale back for its favor, but surely he has already done this when he keeps Morgan from shooting at it. Or if not, he could have made a generous contribution to Greenpeace, which would have done more good for the whale than Cully's action, which could be of no benefit to it whatsoever. [Notice how I carefully avoid revealing what Cully actually did at the end of the story, although this review would make a lot more sense if I went ahead and said it.]
Mayfly by Heather Lindsley
An interesting premise, treated with refreshing originality. A family of women have lives as brief as mayflies: two days from birth to maturity, three days to find a one-night stand and conceive a daughter—or often twins, no more than another week until all that remains is dust.
Some of my kind swear by mother dust, the way certain factions among the rest of the population swear by breast feeding. And there are benefits, whether you're still a kid with growing bones or an adult woman facing osteoporosis by the end of the week.
But my mother is not strawberry-flavored, so I opt for the shake.
There is no time in lives so short to learn, but these women are born with all the memories their foremothers have accumulated. The narrator feels the duty to add something of value to this pool of experience and to smooth the way for her daughters to come, so they need not waste too much of their short, precious time, yet she takes the time to write and address a stack of postcards to the rest of the family, to let them all know her line still continues.
It is perhaps best not to look too closely at the details of a story like this, since it leads to wondering if the daughters simply have to go naked until they are grown, as they would otherwise have to spend every moment changing out of too-small clothes. This would be to ignore its real merits—the way it makes us think how we would value every instant of a life so brief, or the poignancy of having to exist within a human society to which we could never truly belong.
Spinning Out by Jamie Barras
We were ten days out from Batavia when we ran foul of the Scaly-Jacks. It was a little after dawn. The Constance Marie was running northwest before a good wind one degree off the quarter; carrying very little canvas but still making five knots easy—really showing her pedigree. An hour earlier, Cap'n Macintyre had ordered the weather wheel spun to bring the ship out of the path of a tropical storm. That had brought us to an earth where the horizon was clear in every direction and the sea ours alone. Our holds were full of Indies spices and we were only a few days' good sailing from the markets of the Carnatic. Everything was right with the world.
A sea story, a rousing adventure tale with a SFnal twist. The entertainment is non-stop, except for the moment when Barras puts his action on pause to deliver an infodump explaining the origin of the weather wheel.
It is annoying that the SH editors chose to split this one up into two very short installments. I always wait until a story is posted in its entirety before I begin it, but this practice leaves the SH reader starved for fiction that week, and there is definitely not two weeks-worth of fiction in this short tale.
Winnowing the Herd by Carrie Vaughn
A hungry werewolf is forced to attend a boring after-work office party where the refreshments are vegetarian, and she begins to fantasize about which of her co-workers she would eat first. Which, of course, she would never do. Not really. This vignette presents an interesting new look at office dynamics.
Lone Star Stories, October 2006
by Jay Lake
A correspondence by letter between steam-engine inventor George Stephenson and a representative of the Crown.
The nub of the problem presents itself in the matter of locomotive performance. As you know, the Reverend Doctor Lardner, one of England's pre-eminent experts on steam engines, has stated unequivocally that high speeds are not possible, as the induced vacuum will deplete the breathing air of the passengers. Preliminary experiments conducted by the Royal Navy, the Greenwich Observatory and selected Fellows of the Royal Society working in confidence have initially verified the substance of the Reverend Doctor's prediction, with a speed of approximately twenty-eight miles per hour being sufficient to introduce partial vacuum in a well-enclosed railway carriage. This would lead to the asphyxiation predicted by the Reverend Doctor, as well as various unpleasant physical effects on the corpus of the departed.
The ingenious Stephenson transforms what seems a fatal disadvantage to high-speed rail travel into a formidable ballistic weapon.
Lake's tale, told with tongue in cheek, belongs to the little-seen subgenre of alternate physics.
The Lady and the Tiger by A.C. Wise
The lady is a were-tiger of sorts, and the narrator's love for her is a thing of deadly peril.
That night I dreamt the child Mara, but with her woman's voice. Her eyes were gold fire, like the molten gazes of the tigers, pacing restlessly behind their bars. Her lips were red, the color of my fresh blood and I knew there were claws, as black as night, secreted beneath her skin. I awoke, shadowed by a cold fear I could not name and the wind seemed to speak it for me. Mara.
The author strives for the poetic image, but this comes at the expense of clarity. Everything happens behind a veil of dreamy vagueness. The setting seems fantastic, vaguely Arabic, and perhaps of the nineteenth century if it is of this world at all. The narrator/lover is only an anonymous voice, with no clue as to his or her identity or place in the tribe, except a hint that she might be Mara's sister, though it seems unlikely. The events, such as we can make them out, also seem unlikely, certainly exaggerated. And I believe the author is wrong to say that tigers can not purr.
Being Real by Sherwood Smith
It's the chance of a lifetime—Lys's family has been chosen to be on RealTV's top-rated Home Show. As long as their ratings hold up, the cameras will record their lives for the TV audience. The potential reward is worth the loss of privacy. Finally, everyone can have what they've always wished for—as long as it isn't breach the barrier between the Homeland and Corporate castes; they can spend the money, but not invest it. Of course, the last thing a reality show wants is reality.
Two weeks later, "Your ratings are dropping." He pointed at Lys and Jacob, who had been the most active with their imaginative vengeance on one another—but that got real tiring on top of homework and everything else. "You two need to update your blogs. Talk about your feud. And get the energy level back up!" He glanced down at his handheld. "Network says to remind you, if you can casually work in mentions of the sponsors of the shows, there's another point in the pay-level."
While there is a strong undertone of dystopia here, a political Cautionary Tale, the real heart of this story is the dynamics of the family: high-schooler Lys, her younger brother and older sister, as well as Mom and Dad.
Clarkesworld, October 2006
Another new online zine, though it is supposed to come out in chapbook form, as well. I always prefer a new publication to introduce itself to readers with some kind of editorial notice, the editors in this case being Sean Wallace and Nick Mamatas, but the only such thing I found was in the submission guidelines:
Clarkesworld Magazine is an online venue and chapbook series for short works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Each month, Clarkesworld will publish two pieces of fiction, one from a prominent author with one or more books available for sale on the Clarkesworld Books website, and one chosen from the rolling open call for submissions below. Anyone who has not been solicited and is not currently under consideration for the "prominent author" slot may submit.
The authors in this debut issue are Sarah Monette and Lavie Tidhar, but it is not clear which is supposed to be the "prominent author" and which the unsolicited, as they are both newer authors who appear about as often as the other in this sort of zine. There is also a strict upper word limit of 4,000 words, which is annoying, and in which I can see no virtue. In the fiction, however, there is much virtue indeed.
A Light in Troy by Sarah Monette
Of all fictional subjects, my own favorite is the Trojan War. Unless it is the sort of story with a contemporary setting that isn't really about the Trojan War at all, except as an allusion or metaphor—that makes me cranky (OK, even more cranky than usual). Monette's setting is not precisely the Trojan War, yet it almost might as well be, and her protagonist is very clearly Andromache, after she has been carried away to a life of slavery after the destruction of Troy.
She went down to the beach in the early mornings, to walk among the cruel black rocks and stare out at the waves. Every morning she teased herself with wondering if this would be the day she left her grief behind her on the rocky beach and walked out into the sea to rejoin her husband, her sisters, her child. And every morning she turned away and climbed the steep and narrow stairs back to the fortress. She did not know if she was hero or coward, but she did not walk out into the cold gray waves to die.
Here, the conquerors are called locusts (and it seems that Monette has been more clever than I, for I can not discover what reference she intends by this name) and they are brutal killers, but this version of Andromache has her slavery on easy terms, for she is assigned to assist the fortress's blind librarian—who will some day write her story in epic verse? On one of her walks to the beach, she discovers a feral child, a survivor of a previous massacre, and a reminder of her own slain son. She befriends and tames this boy, though fearing the conquerors will kill him if they discover his existence.
A lovely, poignant tale, evoking the epic tragedy with subtlety and restraint.
304 Adolph Hitler Strasse by Lavie Tidhar
Several generations after the Final Solution, young Hanzi Himmler has a formative experience when he comes home early from school and discovers his grandfather with a prostitute.
Through the open door Hanzi saw Hauptabschnittsleiter Himmler crouching naked on the bed, his thin, wrinkled buttocks raised in the air. Above him stood a middle-aged woman dressed in the old uniforms of an S.S. officer, holding a riding crop in her hand. As she spoke she hit the old man hard against his rear, making him scream.
"What are you? I said, what are you, animal?"
"I'm a Jew!" the old man cried. "I'm a dirty Jew!"
Aroused by this scenario, Hanzi tries to discover what he can about the extinct race known as Jews. Eventually he comes to adopt the name Hershele Ostropol and publishes pornographic fantasies—Jewish/Nazi Slash—on computer bulletin boards. But fantasies aren't so much fun if they happen to come true.
The power of fiction is often rooted in truth, even when inverted. Hanzi/Hershele's monograph The Fetishizing and Eroticizing of the Jew suggests the way the visual symbols of Nazism have often been fetishized in our world, as the prostitute wears the SS uniform to arouse the old man. Tidhar reminds us that real Nazis didn't use safewords.
Chizine, October-December 2006
Chizine, contracted from Chiaroscuro, is an online magazine of horror and dark fantasy. Undoubtedly this is what inspired the site's designers to use a black background, and titles that creep and slither about on the screen instead of holding still for the reader's eyes. The fat white typeface for the fiction is at least more readable than some. Fortunately, these irritating infelicities of the design were not quite enough to put me off the fiction, for the three stories in this issue are all superior.
Spectral Evidence by Gemma Files
I almost did not read this piece, as the text was not posted on the site, only available as a PDF file—I suppose because of the formatting. I do not find PDF files easy to read on screen, and this one, with its numerous footnotes, was even more difficult. Finally I resorted to a printout.
The story is presented as an annotated set of photographs "found during a routine reorganization of the Freihoeven Institute's ParaPsych Department files, a little over half a year after the official coroner's inquest which ruled medium Emma Yee Slaughter's death either an outright accident or unprovable misadventure." Included are transcripts of notes jotted on the back of the photos, and the entire report is extensively annotated—indeed, it is through the footnotes that we come to comprehend the mystery presented.
22 To this last bit of commentary, Dr Abbott asks that a partial transcript of his most recent interview with
Freihoeven psychic control-group member Carraclough Devize—held March 4/06, during which he showed her what
are now tentatively called the Slaughter/Madach/Marozzi photos—be appended to this report:
Devize: (After 120-second pause) Oh, no. Christ, that's sad.
Abbott: What is, Carra?
Devize: That. Don't you…no, of course you don't. There, in that corner, warping the uppermost stains. See? You'll
have to strain a bit.
Abbott: Is that…an orb?
Devize: That's Emma, Doc. Face-on, finally. God, so sad.
Abbott: (After 72-second pause) I'm afraid I'm still not…
Devize: (Cuts him off) I know. But there she is, right there. Just about to take shape.
Abbott: Not fly-the-lights?
Devize: Emma had fly-the-lights, like mice or roaches, except mice and roaches don't usually…anyway. But Madach, and that poor little spoon-bender wannabe Barbie of his? By the end, what they had—was Emma.
Files' handling of this very complex material is masterful, from the descriptions of the photographs to the annotations scrawled on them, to the footnotes of the investigators. A subtle tone of wry humor adds to the enjoyment of this dark, psychic mystery.
Deer's Heart by Leah Bobet
It is the trend these days to re-set the old fairy tales in the contemporary world, to retell them in terms familiar to readers today. Bobet has taken the old tale of the sleeping princess in the opposite direction, backwards into the primal darkness of myth, with an overtone of the Fisher King. The forest is Russian, full of uncanny spirits and wolves, the huntsman is damned, and the prince is desperate in his quest.
He followed through the fields, down the roads, through the towns, into the Great Forest. He followed the trail of withered witchcraft, never knowing if he was doing the right thing, bramble-bitten and haunted with his shirt inside-out to keep him safe at night. And she is perfect inside the glass, young as the day she vanished. The smile lines he remembers are still on her face. His breath steams the coffin; his throat is dry with grief and victory. The queen is the land; the crops will grow again. He will wed and the floods will recede.
But the young Queen will only waken to her true beloved's kiss, and the prince is not the right one.
Bobet's prose is well-suited to this telling, which manages to be even darker and more bloody than the original fairy tale before it was sanitized for the consumption of children.
The Virgin Butcher by Brenna Yovanoff Graham
Adalet's mother, a whore, has abandoned her, and the girl can only turn for help to Farid the butcher, from whom her mother rented a room. She offers to work for him in exchange for a place to live.
Farid nodded, crouching beside the lamb. He said the killing prayer in Arabic Bismillah-Allah-hu-Akbar. In the name of God, God is great. Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself. Then he cut its throat so fast I barely knew where all the blood was coming from.
The lamb lurched and struggled in his hands, suddenly bright with its own gore. Rising, Farid hung it from a hook in the ceiling and it bled out onto the ground, smelling of salt and warm metal. I was not dizzy or sick. I watched the blood run down onto the pavement; the lamb as it twitched and trembled. Its eyes were not open and they were not shut. I touched its head between its soft ears and whispered the name of god so that it would not be afraid.
Farid's assistant Azim does not believe a girl can be a butcher, but Adalet turns out to have a particular talent for this work.
A compelling horror story, this one evokes the image of ancient rites, when the animal sacrifice came to the altar with a garland around its neck, nodding its consent to the knife.