Some of these reviews may be a tad bit late owing to scheduling irregularities. This time around, I give the top Tiltonian props to F&SF for the January issue, which carries my first-ever Highly Recommended fiction rec. Readers who prefer their fantasy more on the literary side than the generic might want to check out issue 11 of the small press zine Zahir.
Repeating the reminder: while I can not always review everything I'm sent, I do give preference to the publications who take the trouble to send it.
- F&SF, January 2007
- Asimov's, January 2007
- Strange Horizons, October-December 2006
- Realms of Fantasy, December 2006
- Interzone, December 2006
- Jim Baen's Universe 3, October 2006
- Helix SF #2, Fall 2006
- Clarkesworld #2, November 2006
- Clarkesworld #3, December 2006
- Lone Star Stories 18, December 1, 2006
- Shimmer Volume 2, Issue 1, August 2006
- Zahir Issue 11, Winter 2006
F&SF, January 2007
A great deal of the story-space in this issue is taken up by the novella by Bruce Sterling, and a fine use of the space it is. The issue is worth it just for this piece alone.
Kiosk by Bruce Sterling
Borislav is a vendor of stuff. His kiosk is a success because he always understands what the people want. Borislav can spot a trend before it happens; he can even sometimes create a trend, on a small scale. Then, one day, Fleka the gypsy makes him an offer: a fabricating machine that can copy anything and recreate it from black carbon nanotubes. The people definitely want this, but the trend Borislav inadvertently creates is on no small scale. It's a Transition.
Selma scowled and lifted her kid-gloved fingers. "Listen to me. Transition number one. When communism collapsed. The people took to the streets. Everything privatized. There were big market shocks."
"I remember those days. I was a kid, and you weren't even born then."
"Transition Two. When globalism collapsed. There was no oil. There was war and bankruptcy. There was sickness. That was when I was a kid."
Borislav said nothing about that. All things considered, his own first Transition had been a kinder time to grow up in.
"Then comes Transition Three." Selma drew a breath. "When this steadily increasing cybernetic intervention in manufacturing liberates a distinctly human creativity."
"Okay, what is that about?"
"I'm telling you what it's about. You're not listening. We're in the third great Transition. It's a revolution. Right now. Here."
The neat thing about Sterling's fiction is the way he focuses on how things work—how societies work, and how they alter under the stress of technological change. On Transitions. This is the beating heart of science fiction—not simply the future, but the process of the future coming to be. I have to wonder if Sterling didn't decide to write this story when thinking of Star Trek's replicators, and just how far the TV show failed to think this transition through. It is the difference between fake science fiction and the real thing.
The Darkness Between by Jeremy Minton
A long-lost human colony suddenly finds strangers come among them, men they call Magicians because of the technological marvels they have brought. These newcomers, as the reader knows but the people of the settlement do not, need to mine metals to repair their stranded space ship, and they have convinced the locals to assist.
The Hawk Star shone alone in the sky, scoring the heavens with its ancient, rapid glide, but all thoughts of beauty were cast aside as we looked at the slag heaps and the squalid tents, the iron railroads stretching into the desert. There was not a man among us who did not quail at the sight. No one could look at what had been done to this land and believe that anything virtuous could grow out of such ruin.
It was the Magicians who had done this with their steam and iron engines. I hated them for it, but the hate had been abstract, theoretical. Since then, the things I had suffered at their hands had given me an infinite number of reasons to make it personal. I had seen people beaten by weariness, broken by carelessness. I had seen my father worn by useless rage, seen my brother seduced by lies. Most of all, I had seen the stupidity and indifference of this man, Merrison, and the trouble it had brought.
Now a group of local workers including the narrator, Brand, and his family have fallen into the deep tunnels beneath the mine, and there seems to be no way out. Worse, they discover that the tunnels are inhabited by a strange, deadly species, making the need to escape more urgent. But the trapped men have begun to fight among themselves, pitting those who hate Merrison against those who believe he is the only one who can lead them out of the tunnels to safety.
This general scenario is a common one in SF, but it is told here from the less usual point of view of the locals. It is a complicated telling that begins in the tunnels but spends much time in flashbacks and double flashbacks, as we learn of the arrival of the Magicians and the growing hostility towards them, amounting to a murderous fanaticism. Brand realizes he must weigh the evidence for himself, to decide whether to trust his father or Merrison, but I would have preferred Brand to discover the answer more by his own efforts, instead of Merrison revealing so much of it.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman
Enn is jealous of his friend Vic, who knows how to get girls. "You just talk to them," Vic advises. "They're just girls, they're not from another planet." Except that, at this particular party, yes, they are.
"Are you from 'round here?" I asked the girl.
She shook her head. She wore a low-cut silvery top, and I tried not to stare at the swell of her breasts.
I said, "What's your name? I'm Enn."
"Wain's Wain," she said, or something that sounded like it. "I'm a second."
"That's uh. That's a different name."
She fixed me with huge liquid eyes. "It indicates that my progenitor was also Wain, and that I am obliged to report back to her. I may not breed."
"Ah. Well. Bit early for that anyway, isn't it?"
Gaiman's imaginative descriptions of the different alien girls make this piece entertaining, but the real charm is in Enn's naive acceptance of their stories——the fact that girls in general are so alien to him that he can't quite recognize these girls as not human.
The Strange Disappearance of David Gerrold by David Gerrold
Sent as a letter to the editor of this magazine——the sort of letter you send Just In Case you disappear, to let someone know what has happened and where your body might be found. As Gerrold tells the tale, he is driving north from LA, planning to exorcize his seasonal depression by spending a week writing in some isolated wilderness cabin. But his trip is marred by several unsettling episodes before he finds himself on what appears to be a road through a private hunting preserve.
As I came up a long shallow slope, I saw an incongruous flash of color directly ahead—a sparkle of blue and turquoise. At first I thought it was a T-shirt caught on the wire, then maybe a scarecrow or a dummy—I took my foot off the pedal to let the car coast—and then I was standing on the brakes, screeching to a frightening stop. It was a boy, barely a teenager, slender, almost petite. He was caught between the wires of the fence, frantically struggling to free himself. At the sound of the brakes, he raised his face to mine, he was painted in green and blue camouflage to match his skintight costume. He looked like—he had a surreal quality, like an animated painting. For an instant, I wasn't sure what I was seeing. But I could tell he was injured and in pain and frightened—
The epistolary format here works well enough for the reader who can make it through the first rambling few pages. The tone conveys the impression of a man who has encountered sinister powers, not at all supernatural. I strongly sensed the image of Dick Cheney in cammo gear as a shadowy presence behind the scene.
X-Country by Robert Reed
A puzzling tale of a strange man—handsome, healthy, successful—who moves into town and joins in the local running events. He decides to stage his own x-country race, offering substantial prizes to the winners. But Kip's racecourse proves almost impossible to follow:
The racecourse was shown as a thin red line lain over the photocopy of a topographic map. Four times, the runner would move out to a distant station, pick up his Popsicle stick and then come back again. The race headed upriver and then came back again, the second leg following a snaking tributary. Then it returned again, taking an entirely different path upriver; and down it came again, the final station waiting on the outskirts of Enderville. The entire course created a long, flattened X. And what impressed me was how exceptionally complicated every leg looked: I was sitting there, calm and rested. Yet I was having trouble following all the loops and side loops and the dozen or so places where trails crossed one another.
After the race is over, Kip disappears. But for the few runners who did manage to finish his course, things are never the same.
The story remains a mystery at the end. The explanation that Kip gives the narrator is no explanation; all he knows is that Kip intended things to turn out exactly as they did. But how? And why? The narrator comes to realize that he will never know, yet he believes in the results, and that is what matters.
The Dark Boy by Marta Randall
Nancy's partner Ginny has died, and Nancy feels cut off from life and other people, painfully alone in the world. Ginny's children have sent her on this trip to Mexico, a kindness, and Nancy has signed up for a whale-watching trip, as Ginny would have loved to do. But she hates it when the local children come swarming up to beg, and one dark boy in particular, who is too persistent. She almost feels he is stalking her when he comes on board her boat with the guide, but instead he offers her a small miracle.
The guide scanned the sea, his hand tight on the rudder. The outboard muttered and died.
The dark boy met her eyes as though he had been waiting for her. His right hand stretched out over the water, palm up, fingers taut and spread. The kids, oblivious, disagreed over the whales, the colors of their backs, their spouts.
"¿La señora quiere mas?" the boy said, moving his hand a little as though presenting the sea to her.
She narrowed her eyes at him, outraged that he would take credit for the whales. He turned his hand. Water shifted and murmured and the great mammals surfaced, so close that the raft bobbed. The kids shrieked and went silent, awestruck. The whales blew and the stench of it filled the air. Waves slapped against the boat.
Nancy clutched the ropes along the Zodiac's side. "You didn't do that," she whispered.
Nancy's reaction is perhaps too predictable, and Randall's depiction of the college students on the boat trip is closer to that of younger high school-aged kids. The strength of this story is in the author's close and careful description of her scene.
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Asimov's, January 2007
Uncharacteristically, I enjoyed the shorter fiction in this issue quite a bit more than the longer works.
Safeguard by Nancy Kress
Near the end of the war, the enemy created a new terrorist weapon—four children genetically modified to be the vectors of a deadly, swift-spreading virus. Dr Katherine Taney has to use the threat of publicity against the villains in the government who want to destroy them for reasons of prudence; the children (three of them, at least) are very appealing. An impenetrable dome is built to contain them, but when a massive earthquake cracks it, the children make their way out into contact with the population, with fatal consequences. Taney knows she must find and destroy them before the virus spreads to wipe out most of humanity, but can she bring herself to do it?
This story's moral is in a way the inverse of "The Cold Equations", and it is one that I can not really approve. Taney is rewarded for making the wrong choice—by any rational measure—merely because she cannot make herself do what is, in effect, her clear duty. The lesson seems to be that compassion will be rewarded, but Taney can have no reason to expect this outcome, and by showing compassion for a few appealing children, she must have expected that millions more, equally appealing, would suffer for her choice, with only the hand of the author reaching down from the scenery to save her from the deadly consequences of her decision.
The Hikikomori's Cartoon Kimono by A.R. Morlan
Masafumi is now working in an American tattoo parlor after suffering an existential crisis over his career as a kimono painter in Japan. Here he is attracted to another artist, the tattooed Harumi, who uses a tattoo gun to inject patterns of colored flavorings into trays of tofu.
Morlan has likewise infused this work with a great deal of exotic color, using the kimono as leitmotif and symbolic structure, but unfortunately she has gone overboard, cramming so much of the results of her research into the text that the reader comes to think of it as "more than I ever wanted to know about tofu."
Trunk and Disorderly by Charles Stross
Charles Stross is not P.G. Wodehouse. When Wodehouse's feckless unhero Bertie Wooster blathers on about his adventures and tribulations, it is extremely amusing. But in this case, I felt more wearied than amused as I attempted to force my way through Stross's overwrought prose in search of traces of a story.
Jeremy was Fiona's pet dwarf mammoth, an orange-brown knee-high bundle of hairy malevolence. Last time I'd looked after Jeremy he puked in my bed—under the duvet—while Laura and I were hosting a formal orgy for the tsarevitch of Ceres, who was traveling incognito to the inner system because of some boring edict by the Orthodox Patriarch condemning the fleshpits of Venus. Then there's the time Jeremy got at the port, then went on the rampage and ate Cousin Branwyn's favorite skirt when we took him to Landsdown Palace for a weekend with Fuffy Moran, even though we'd locked him in one of the old guard towers with a supply of whatever it is that dwarf mammoths are supposed to eat. You really can't take him anywhere—he's a revolting beast. Not to mention an alcoholic one.
The narrator is a Woosterish sort of drone, complete with Club and oppressive Aunts, whose avocation seems to be some sort of orbital freefall surfing competition. Various hijinks ensue. Eh.
Poison by Bruce McAllister
An American boy lives in Italy where the other boys have warned him about the local witches. When his cat is poisoned, he knows it was done by a witch, and his righteous anger gives him the power to confront her. But matters are not what they seemed to be, and the truth is more fantastic, more mysterious than he could have imagined.
McAllister's nameless protagonist displays depth of character and understanding, and his witch, as well.
"Then why did you put what you loved—and what loved you—in a bog?" she was asking him, holding it but not looking in it.
He made himself find the words he had practiced.
"Because I wanted you to see it."
"Because I was angry."
"Because I knew that someone poisoned her. I saw the hand that did it. I wanted the person to see what she had done."
It is in the end a story about the power of love.
Café Culture by Jack Dann
When suicide bombing becomes the latest Trendy Thing.
Max's was directly across the street from the cathedral ruins, and Max had his contractors cement the shards of stained glass from the exploding cathedral into the floors and ceiling of the café. At night, lights strobing, Max's would glitter like an old psychedelic dream.
Dann shows us a world where horror is trivialized through familiarity.
Battlefield Games by R. Neube
The battlefield encounter of a human soldier with a sentient enemy missile, illustrating the old military adage that the real enemy of soldiers on both sides is the officious superior officer.
So, of course, Command buzzed me. The listening post to the west had reported my encounter with the enemy. Major Thurinsten seemed quite amused, granting me permission to play chess with any enemy missile, artillery shell, or land mine that came my way. Then she told me I should get comfortable because I was spending the rest of the week in my foxhole.
Cleverly entertaining, with a sharp touch of truth.
Gunfight at the Sugarloaf Pet Food and Taxidermy by Jeff Carlson
Julie Beauchain is a Fish, Wildlife & Parks officer stationed in Montana, where her campaign against poachers is not a high priority with the local law enforcement. Her specialty is the robotic decoys she manufactures in her taxidermy shop. But she isn't prepared for the arrival of a very non-local character with an Uzi in the back of his sports car, who blows away her decoys. This isn't the usual poaching case, but Julie isn't about to back down.
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Strange Horizons, October - December 2006
SH's infrequent offerings of science fiction usually hold surprises, but this ezine's usual fare remains the fantastic tale that rework older tales and legends.
High Windows by Lavie Tidhar
This piece is dedicated to the poet Philip Larkin, but I think the SF reader is instead going to cry out with recognition: Delany! What we have here is a Delany pastiche, or, more respectably, a homage: from a narrator who is only known as Kid, to a close fascination with ragged, close-bitten fingernails, to explicit scenes of homoerotic activity. Above all, a romantic/noir view of sexually-liberated youth, so reminiscent of Dhalgren:
I remember the nights. They were manufactured just as much as back home but they had a different taste. A different feeling in the air. A different buzz. We used to lie on our backs, me and Marija and Ivan, and stare up at the dome and watch the lights play in the skies. I kept searching for a meaning in the language of the clouds, trying to interpret them as secret messages that were meant only for me. If there was a message I was unable to decipher it.
Indeed, stripping the Delany references away until only the plot remains, all we have is a teenager with no job skills who uses his ass as currency to escape his boring home in Saturn's orbit and eventually find a home in Jupiter's orbit. That he does finally acquire a marketable ability is owing not to honest effort but very dumb chance. Being old, cranky, and a veteran parent of teenagers, I am chary of this romanticism and tempted to view the story as a Cautionary Tale: Before you leave home, for God's sake, learn word processing! Or auto mechanics! Anything!
Dead Man's Holiday by Nicholas Seeley
When the Whole Big Thing happened, and the dead started rising, the first thing we realized was most of 'em didn't really get that they were dead. They just tried to get on with whatever they were doing. Get another carryout meal. Shag their girlfriends. Find a lipstick that matches their complexion. (Corpse is the new black.)
Every day there were more of them, wandering around and slowly falling to bits. Who knows how. People just started wakin' up dead. Pretty soon they were just about the only ones left. But everything kept going, just as if it didn't matter at all.
Yep, it's another zombie story. These zombies aren't as hungry as the usual sort, so the narrator, who is still alive, can go about her daily life without having to worry too much about being devoured. Her problem is that with most everyone else dead, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of reason to go about her daily life. This story is meant to raise the question whether there ever was much reason for living, even before the Whole Big Thing. Whether there is really much difference between the narrator's life and the dead.
At the end of this story, I remain unconvinced. I know I'm not supposed to be, I know that the author has concluded, as authors do, with an epiphany that is supposed to make me believe the narrator has discovered some reason for her existence, but it is more of an epiffley, giving me no particular reason to care. An editorial note states that this piece is a reprint, which suggests that the SH editors found it especially worthy, but perhaps they hadn't read as many zombie stories as I have.
Pockmarked Cement by Kaolin Fire
A massive swarm of self-replicating biomechanical locusts is devouring the countryside. Dharma Shankar, PhD, watches the swarm approach his farm where perhaps the corn has been genetically modified. Or perhaps it is Dharma's own flesh that he has nanofied—the story is not explicit on this point. But when the locusts consume it, something will happen, a change will take place, Shiva the Destroyer will become Brahma "—his bits eating their bits, becoming a swarm, becoming new consciousness, birth from death—the constant, change." Or so he hopes.
The reader is left having to guess about several points. Was Dharma himself involved in engineering the locusts? What was the point of it—terrorism? Is Dharma cracked in the head, or is there a hidden meaning in the dance he does in the field, the dance of Shiva? The author's imagery is striking: "They push the wind before them, and it cools the sweat on his skin. A thousand legs descending, his flesh dancing in their teeth, nanoflesh dancing in their bellies; gestating." But as to what will happen next, and why, we can only wonder.
Body, Remember by E. Catherine Tobler
The narrator is a Pythia, one of the women who inhaled the sacred vapors at Delphi and uttered the prophecies of Apollo. She has filled this position for thirty years, but now the god has deserted her and she has been making up the replies she gives to the suppliants; she knows she can not go on this way.
The water in the basin moves as my tears break the surface. If I remain unable to speak for Apollo, my time at the temple will be short. I could remain and tend the eternal fire, but flames are nothing once one has been filled by a god.
She has other alternatives. The husband she left to serve the god would like her to return, and she also feels the call of Poseidon, god of the sea—the call of death. This is the story of her choice.
Tobler's prose is pretty though a bit overdone emotionally, and there is little real tension behind the narrator's decision.
Smoke and Mirrors by Amanda Downum
Jerusalem Morrow ran away from the circus five years ago, back to her dying grandmother's house. But now the circus has come to town again, and someone there wants Salem the witch back, needs her help. Jacob—or so he calls himself here—has to contend with a formidable adversary.
"These days he's a train man—conductor and fireman and engineer, all in one. He runs an underground railroad, but not the kind that sets men free." His left eye glinted as he glanced at her. "Have you, perchance, noticed a dearth of spirits in these parts?"
Downum adds a new layer of depth to this version of the duel-with-the-devil story by casting the figures from myth [hint: who has one eye and a pet crow named Memory?]. Her descriptions of Salem's witchery are also intriguing. I particularly like the central image of the bottle tree, the ghost trap:
Cats drifted through the shadows in the back yard as she put out food. The bottle tree—her grandmother's tree—chimed in the October breeze; no ghosts tonight. Glass gleamed cobalt and emerald, diamond and amber, jewel-bright colors among autumn-brown leaves. Awfully quiet this year, so close to Halloween.
Magnificent Pigs by Cat Rambo
Aaron, pig farmer and tattoo artist, is raising his orphaned younger sister Jilly when she comes down with cancer.
The spring before it happened, I went upstairs and found my ten-year-old sister Jilly crying. Charlotte's Web, which we'd been reading together at bedtime all that week, lay splayed broken-backed on the floor where she'd thrown it.
Jilly, of course, is upset at Charlotte's death, suspecting what Aaron will not tell her, that she is dying. Aaron does everything he can to make his sister's last days happy and filled with hope, allowing her to adopt an entire litter of pigs, instead of only the runt. But he persists in denying her the truth.
I am always dubious when encountering a kid-with-cancer story, as it is likely to be too sentimental—particularly if Charlotte's Web is involved. This one is no exception. It is sort of neat to see how Aaron tattoos the pigs, but the fantastic conclusion is only appropriate to a children's fairy tale.
Isolde, Shea, and the Donkey Brea by Ursula Pflug
A conquering army has been ravaging the countryside for some years—looting, killing and raping, in the usual manner of armies. Now, however, the soldiers have at last withdrawn, so...
More than anything, we wanted to see something other than our own fields, our own woods, the faces of our own townsfolk again. We set out: myself, Shea, and the donkey Brea, to look for the secret library.
Huh? This seems a somewhat strange decision for the characters to make following their liberation from a military occupation. And what is this secret library supposed to be? And why does Isolde want so badly to go there? The author does not say. She is secretive and sly—these are secrets. We must follow along on the trail, waiting for the moment of revelation. But not knowing why we are going, it is hard to feel any urgency or concern for the outcome of the quest.
There is a great deal in this tale to irritate the reader, besides the author's secretiveness. Isolde, likewise, continues to withhold information from her lover, while informing us, more often than I cared to hear, how beautiful Shea is. Beautiful and wise, perhaps, but evidently thick as a brick, if she hasn't managed to figure out in the last five years that Isolde has changed her daughter into a donkey to save her from the rapacious soldiers—despite the fact that she has given the donkey almost the same name as Bree. The conclusion is cloyingly sentimental; the characters may love each other, but they have given me no reason to love them.
What is frustrating here is that hidden beneath the author's text is a story I would have liked to read. About the victims of the invasion, so much in fear that they would kill their own daughters rather than let them fall into the hands of the conquerors. About the desperation of a mother who would turn her daughter into an animal—and the different sort of fears this transformation would give rise to. About the mother's panic when she realizes that she can not reverse the spell. About her desperate urgency to find the hidden library of spells where she might find the key to reversing it. All this is called motive—yet the only motive the author tells us about is some vague desire to see new faces again. And why should we care about that?
Love Among the Talus by Elizabeth Bear
Bear begins by telling us her princess is not kept in a tower, which is a reminder of fairy tales, which this tale is not. Nilufer's mother is the reigning Queen, which Nilufer will become in turn, but the princess resents her mother's overbearing rule and would rather become a Witch than a Queen. Their Eastern realm, not exactly either China nor Mongolia, is wealthy with minerals and gems produced by the talus, "living boulders with great stone-grinding mouths." This wealth attracts enemies, both bandits and the Khagan, who conquered the region before Nilufer was born. Now that she is grown, both the bandit chief and the Khagan covet her as a bride, while the Queen schemes to dispose of her daughter to her own advantage.
Bear's prose is deliberately restrained, suggesting Nilufer's outwardly rigid control of her emotions, yet it rings with lyric tones:
On summer evenings, seeking mates, the talus crept from the mines to sing great eerie harmonies like the wails of wetted crystal. Nilufer, if she was not otherwise engaged, could hear them from her tower window.
Sometimes, she would reply, coaxing shrill satiny falls of music from the straight white bone of her reed flute. Sometimes, she would even play for them on the one that was made of silver.
Both tale and imagery evoke the fantastic world of Chinese wuxia films, where history and legend fade together into story.
Heroic Measures by Matthew Johnson
Although the author is coy and does not name the names, we know that it is Superman in the hospital, dying of old age, while his wife Lois sits at his side, mistrusting the ability of the hospital to cope with her husband's unique condition. For his body's powers will not release him to death, trapping him in a perpetual state of dying. And Lois knows of only one possible solution.
This story plays the comic book characters straight, in a situation that is very human—an unusual take.
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Realms of Fantasy, December 2006
My favorite story in this issue is the tale by Leah Bobet, offering a tantalizing glance at a world where wonders seem to be hidden just out of sight.
Lost Wax by Leah Bobet
"The magic is in the wax." The carvers make the wax models, the potters form the clay molds, the casters pour the molten metal. They are all adepts, authorized to work the magic. Simon, who sweeps up the discarded scraps of wax, is not. The penalties for illicit magic use are severe, yet Simon is obsessed by it. He steals fragments of used wax, he tries to carve spells into it, but in vain, for he has no magic of his own. Yet something hears his yearning, the voice of wild magic, calling out to him:
We have been looking for some time, it says, pondering and sweet, for a vessel, a mold, a thing well designed and willing. Are you willing? it asks, and he draws in a breath.
And magic happens, but it is not what Simon had in mind. Magic is dangerous stuff.
The magic Bobet creates here is fresh and original. She hints at secrets untold and wild powers, in strong and evocative imagery. My only quibble: her apple tree is too young to bear such fruit.
In the Lair of the Moonmen by Jon Hansen
Varkez is a minor princeling and officer on guard at the city gates when a strange wizard shows up, claiming he knows the secret of defeating the piratical Nightmen. At the wizard's advice, the king subsidizes the construction of a large hot-air balloon, in which the wizard proposes to reach the lair of the Nightmen on the moon. Varkez, in hopes of advancement in rank, volunteers to accompany him on the expedition. Adventures ensue as expected, as Varkez discovers once they reach the moon that the wizard has not been honest about his intentions.
This tale has a retro sensibility, with strong suggestions of John Carter on Mars and other fantastic sword-and-planet adventures from days of yore.
Echoes of Me by Michelle Thuma
The narrator literally embodies the notion of being trapped in her own past. Since her husband's death, she has been living in her house alongside the phantom ghosts of her past self, repeating the same routines over and over, all for the sake of reliving the moment every night when she encounters her beloved's ghost.
'A routine wears ruts into the fabric of time like a river wears ruts into the fabric of the earth.' Time is less elastic than it used to be. If I don't behave myself I'll get stuck in my own rut.
This conceit is potentially interesting, but the author does not add any tension to the situation, any doubts that the narrator will be able to walk away from her past.
Of Swords and Horses by Carrie Vaughn
A mother raises up her daughter in the image of a heroic princess, giving her fencing and riding lessons. Then, at age seventeen, the daughter disappears, gone off to be a heroic princess in another world. The story is the mother's, as she tries to come to terms with her loss.
They will have children, my grandchildren, and I will never see them.
"I want you to be proud of me, Mom. I'm happy, with him. I need you to be happy for me."
You try to be supportive. All I want to do is scream. But I nod.
The Valhalla Job by Sandra McDonald
Reality show goes to Odin's house. To get the gods to toss out their accumulated clutter, they stage a yard sale competition between Odin and his wife. "For every moth-ridden fur that Frigg clung to, Odin claimed a broken spear." Someone else may find this one amusing.
Shelf Life by Thomas Seay
The life of a book, from his early reader days to his teenaged years as Hardy Boys 27. An interesting and novel concept, realized with a touch of wit.
Only a strange, silent tension at the annual Christmas book fair hinted that something wasn't quite right—that Hardy Boys 27 had rewritten his text for stylistic innovation in his sleep.
Infants in the Lake of Fire by M.K. Hobson
A tale of afterlife in Limbo. One day, as she plays with the other children, Jill hears someone screaming. She follows the sound to the Lake of Fire, full of people burned black and screaming, and Jill learns about pain. A fable of moral responsibility and choice that raises an intriguing question: if there is an afterlife, can dead children grow up there and reach maturity? Can we change after death?
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Interzone #207, December 2006
A mix of different science fictional settings with one surrealish fantasy, all but one of this issue's stories are told by first-person narrators—not always the best storytelling decision. The one that is not is outstanding.
The Purring of Cats by Dave Hoing
The flawed protagonist of this long (maybe too long) story is state psychological counselor Patrick Jans, who is assigned to determine if there are mitigating circumstances in the case of a young woman, Nikki Teorson, recently convicted of having sex with an alien. This is against the law—almost everything seems to be against the law in this repressive future state, and it is at war, as well, with another alien species that seems to be coming uncomfortably close to winning, though the government denies this and continues to conduct business as usual, expending its resources in spying on the private sex lives of its citizens. In fact, everyone here is in denial, including Doctor Jans. He is starving for intimacy while he and his wife avoid each other's presence, and his sympathy for his patient soon moves beyond the proper bounds of a professional relationship.
The cat of the title is the only creature that Jans can freely touch in affection, though he recalls that a cat will purr both when it is happy and when it is in pain. In the case of his patient, he proves unable to distinguish happiness from pain. As his tragedy takes its inevitable course, the background of the war news is a constant reminder that his current problems are likely to soon be meaningless in comparison to what is to come, yet the characters determinedly ignore the growing threat. What Jans calls "perspective" is actually denial: keeping intimacy at a distance. He has gone both too far and not far enough.
This same emotional distance flaws the story, for Jans as the narrator keeps events remote from the reader. The world he inhabits seems disconnected. How have all the intrusive, restrictive laws come about? How has the presence of aliens changed the society? The setting seems all too familiar, as if these science fictional elements could drop away and leave us with nothing unchanged.
Spheres by Suzanne Palmer
Ginder's sphere ploded while I was sitting to meal, sending junk fly all over Underside. Tinked on my own hull, did, but no pits or scratches lucky me. Darea, who hangs above Ginder, had hull shrapnel wicked. Looks to have fegged her stabilizers no end too.
This is the voice of our narrator Irvil, and I can't say that his dialect provides interest sufficient to make up for the loss in clarity. The mystery is not so much why Ginder's sphere exploded, for it is clear from the beginning that Chelou did it, in order to take over Ginder's space. The characters all live a rather insecure existence in the Tangle, individual habitats tethered to the underside of a larger space settlement that barely tolerates their presence. There is no law for this community to appeal to; they must deal with the threat of Chelou on their own.
The real interest of this story is in its setting, both physical and social, as Palmer explores how people might actually live and work in such an environment. Aside from the dialect, the only real problem I had was a seeming contradiction: if the Upside law takes no interest in Underside crime, why did Chelou have to go to so very much trouble and risk to occupy a spot where his smuggling could go undetected by the authorities? I expect that readers of Analog, fond of both libertarian schemes and physics, would enjoy this one very much, and the absence of that zine's typical didacticism make it likely that most other SF readers will enjoy it as well, if they make it through the dialect.
Frankie on Zanzibar by David Mace
Mace has given us a fine homage to the late John Brunner, one of the science fiction field's greatest masters. The future world where Fransi lives is a Brunnerian dystopia, with the population at the planet's maximum capacity of ten billion, climate gone amok and the seas rising dangerously. Fransi is a Frankenstein, a gene-modified supergenius being carefully raised by professional parents for the corporation that created her. But in this world are those who would enslave her and those who would destroy her, and Fransi knows the time has come when she must take her life into her own capable hands.
Mace's piece stands up quite well as a story in its own right, but readers familiar with Brunner will find it a trove of allusions to the master's work, beginning with the title.
Clocks by Daniel Kaysen
In which we are not quite sure which half of the story is the dream and which is the waking reality, rather like a vinyl record with two sides, one playing backwards and the other forwards. The narrator is harassed by "the ticking of the multiple clocks in my head—the baby clock, the marriage clock, the mortgage clock." She is pained by rejection, yet she shudders at the thought of "being tied to one man, forever."
This fantasy has an intriguing twist, but being a notorious spoilsport, I can't help thinking the narrator could have avoided a lot of her problems if she and her boyfriend had just tried staying sober for once, instead of taking the drastic solution of altering reality.
Stonework by Wendy Waring
The narrator is a sort of alien archaeologist who assesses the remains of alien architecture to help determine if a world is suitable for human settlement. A great, ruined, parabolic dome of stone exerts a profound attraction on him, but he cannot figure out its purpose or how it came into being in such a desolate region with no nearby quarry. The structure is a mystery he is compelled to solve.
Or perhaps, like me, the inhabitants of the place worshipped the perfection of calculation. Even with its gaping ceiling, I admire its aura of inviolable strength. If the temple were whole, it could stand in sublime perfection, and need no worshippers.
The story is short, proceeding at an inexorable pace towards its conclusion as a man might sink slowly into quicksand. Perhaps too slow a pace, with the redundancies of reminiscence. The ending is the sort that always makes me wonder: how could the narrator have written these last lines?
Jim Baen's Universe 3, October 2006
I was less than fully enthusiastic in my review of the second issue of this webzine, which seemed to be aimed primarily at the existing readers of this publisher's novelists; most of the longer stories were outtakes of some sort from the authors' longer works, and I preferred the standalone stories. But in this third issue there is a larger proportion of standalone fiction, including some stories I can recommend to any SF readers, not just those who like Baen novels.
Again, I am only reviewing the original short fiction, and I'm skipping the pieces that seem to be continuations of some other, longer work of the authors.
All the Things You Are by Mike Resnick
Gregory Donovan is working as a spaceport security officer when he witnesses a man unnecessarily risking his life to attack a group of armed robbers taking a child hostage. At the hospital, the dying man seems to be obsessed by one wish:
He could barely move his head, but he tried to look around the room. "She's got to be here this time!"
"Who's got to be here?" I asked. "Who are you talking about?"
"Where is she?" he rasped. "This time I'm dying. I can tell."
To Donovan, it seems that the man actually wanted to be killed, but he is more intrigued when hospital workers tell him this is not the first time this particular man has risked his life in such a way. Moreover, he isn't the only one. Donovan eventually learns what connects all these cases is the fact that they were survivors of a hardfought military action on an uninhabited world known as Nikita. He insists on traveling to Nikita to learn the secret for himself.
There is little in this mystery that will surprise SF readers, who will doubtless recognize the secret before Donovan catches on, despite the fact that it is precisely what he has come to find.
The Old Woman in the Young Woman by Gene Wolfe
A new Gene Wolfe story always arouses the highest anticipation, for even a familiar-seeming tale takes on a quality of strangeness when told by this author, and matters in a Wolfe tale are rarely what they might seem to be. The setting is post-apocalyptic, the characters have reverted to an ol'timey dialect, yet they have retained some knowledge from the ruined past. Miz Emily, the old woman of the title, is a medicine woman. She has held off death by cloning herself and harvesting the organs of her copies. Now young Emmy waits until she is old enough to contribute, tending the old woman until it is time for Miz Emily to be young again. Long Tom, who shows up at their cabin looking for shelter from the rain, objects to this plan.
"It don't seem right," Tom muttered, "puttin' the young woman in the old one."
"Ever'body needs Miz Emily, Tom. There's folks sick all the time, sick er leg broke er shot. They got to have her, an' she's got to have me."
This seems to be a simple tale, but the reader may notice that not everything on the surface of the story adds up perfectly. The exact relationship between Miz Emily and Emmy is puzzling. And not everything that Emmy tells Tom is necessarily true. As the dissonance grows, it becomes more clear that Emily has her own reasons for what she does, and this story takes on a new tone of horror.
Every Hole is Outlined by John Barnes
As the human species spreads out across the galaxy, ships continue to cross the distance, although the crews never know what cargo they are carrying, or whether anyone will ever want it. Time dilation makes their lives very long, as measured in slowtime, yet a ship might be much older than fourteen thousand years; many crewmembers have come aboard in that time. Xhrina is purchased as an apprentice mathematician to Mtepic, who introduces her to the ghosts that inexplicably appear sometimes in the operations center.
All round the mathematician and his apprentice, the ghosts worked their ghostly screens, seeming as unaware of each other as of the living beings. They went on working—laughing, cursing, pounding, all without a sound—until the gentle, sweet whistle of Second Shift sounded through the ship. Then they faded through the walls of the opsball, dimming to darkness, and the stars dimmed to nothing after them.
The story follows Xhrina as she becomes older and continues to take every opportunity to observe the rare appearances of the ghosts. It is a long, slow tale, told at a pace that may frustrate some impatient readers, who will wait in vain for anything like action, but one that reflects the prolonged, deliberate pace of the ship-peoples' lives as they weave their increasingly irrelevant way though the stars. Some of Barnes' earlier work has presented a bleak and negative view of humanity, so it is a pleasant surprise to find this lovely, humane and ultimately hopeful vision.
A Time to Kill by S. Andrew Swann
Time travel meets the law of unintended consequences, and Marine Lieutenant David Abrams is its victim. David has been sent back in time by his commanders to assassinate Osama bin Laden, in a desperate effort to alter a war with no other discernable way out.
They had beat him, stripped him naked, and thrown him in this cell wearing only his dog tags. They had his rifle, of course. And they had the gadget.
What was left of the gadget anyway; he had heard the casing shatter when the guards fell on him. The scientists had warned him that breaching the containment isolating the strange quantum mechanism meant it would collapse into the non-space from which it was formed...
This is a Cautionary Tale for those who might believe in simple solutions to complex problems, with a bit of irony at the end.
The Man Who Wasn't There by Gregory Benford
High-tech military action is the feature here, "an arms race of technologies," as agents of French intelligence attack the HQ of the Islamic Front in Paris.
Jean ordered the teams to open up. Soundless beams lanced instantly into the broad square of the compound. They were aimed at receivers, jamming the link.
The miltech here has a nice hard authenticity and the action moves at a good pace, once the author gets over his introductory infodumps. The point-of-view character is motivated by vengeance—besides his ideological opposition to the Islamic Front, he has a personal grudge, and he suffers no pangs of conscience for bending the law to serve his mission. Not a very pleasant person. This might have made for interesting characterization, but instead I find it disturbing that Jean seems more to be a sockpuppet for the author's own views.
Little Sips by Barbara Ferrenz
A medical mystery. Hydrocephalic babies suddenly cured. An epidemic of deaths from a loss of cerebrospinal fluid. Spinal fluid vampires? A cop and a medical researcher team up to find out.
The salt is a neat touch.
Great Minds by Edward M. Lerner
A physicist, greatly honored for his work on the many-worlds hypothesis, discovers that the theory implies many alternate versions of himself, all jealous of his success.
Lerner supplies the reader liberally with hints as to the physicist's identity, but I admit that I do not recognize him. No matter—it does not harm the tale, though I am sure I must have missed some nuance. While the prose in this short-short is not fresh, the punchline is apt and clever, reflecting the title.
The Power of Illusion by Christopher Anvil
The author starts out with bullshit: Colonel Valentine Sanders (did Anvil really think through this choice of character name?) is trying to sell his superior officer a load of the stuff, but his effort is entirely unnecessary, as the colonel has a perfectly acceptable reason for wanting to intervene in a war among the natives of a technologically-undeveloped planet. So why the load of bull, which serves only to bore the reader? After this unpromising beginning, we are dropped across the stars and into the war, stationed at the side of the local chief as his fortress is assaulted by the Bad Guys. It is a fine, desperate defense, but quite lacking in the tension it ought to have, as we are already clued to the fact that intervention is on the way. The day having duly been saved, we return to headquarters for debriefing and a lecture by the general on the importance of following the rules.
Aside from its heavy-handedness and predictability, this piece presents another source of frustration: the warring natives are considered aliens by the bureaucracy, but it is clear that they are in fact humans, the homo sapiens sort, the product of evolution here on Earth. Yet there is nothing to suggest how they ended up on some other world, in a universe where actual aliens do exist, and none of the characters seem the least bit interested in such a mystery, which seems to me far more interesting.
Baby Girl by Jon Skovron
A duel-with-the-devil story. Cobalt is a hoodoo man who can't resist an appeal for help when it comes from the dead spirit of a former slave. John's ghost wants him to retrieve his wife Salome from hell, and he sends Cobalt on a wild quest.
'Twon't be easy. Ya gots to light nine candles and pray fer twelve hours so as to prepare yerself, then ya gots to travel upriver blindfolded holdin' a mixture of salt, white mustard seed, and cayenne pepper in yer mouth."
"Uh," Cobalt winced.
"An' don't fergets ta bring a baby coal-black heifer for when that ole Eagle gets hungry."
"Wait, what eagle?"
John hasn't been entirely honest about his previous dealings with the devil, as well as a few more details—such as Salome being the devil's daughter.
Devil stories tend to be a version of the tall tale, and this is true here. Skovron mixes folklore and a dash of myth with a lively storyteller's voice. An entertaining tale, and if Colbalt is a recurring character, as it appears, I wouldn't mind reading more of his supernatural adventures.
Femme Fatale by Jason Wittman
Another tall sort of tale, with a touch of 1940s noir in the author's tone. When Tommy Gabriel is orphaned at age fifteen, he takes his dad's trumpet and hits the streets of Minneapolis, where a guardian angel or goddess named Molly Flammare keeps order and deals out justice. Molly saves Tommy from an ambitious crime boss and gives him a job playing at her club, where Tommy begins to learn just what kind of being she is, and what it costs her to be a savior of humans. The only thing I have to wonder is how any crime boss ever even got started in business with Molly around.
Gnome Improvement by Rebecca Lickiss
My first reaction: oh-oh! Puns! But this story is instead about the Gnome Spa, where faded and weary yard gnomes can be "refreshed, renewed, and revived." Marty and Lisa send their gnomes to the spa for treatment, and the improvement is, literally, miraculous. A sweet and heartwarming piece, and save for the title, happily pun-free.
A Hire Power by J. Stine
Another pun in the title of this ostensibly humorous piece about the Inhuman Resources Director of a corporation in the business of hiring wizards.
"Eliminate all résumés that have not graduated from an accredited hundred-year wizarding college," she decided. "I want archmaster-level experience with large distributed divinations, WIZ-XP, QuikFetish, GolemPublisher, oh yes, and twelve years' experience with that time-travel cantrip that's going to be released next month."
The Men in the Mirror by Steven Ray
A time-machine paradox story. Charles Robbins has been contacted by his future self, who has acquired an alien time machine and intends to use it to set himself up for a life of prosperity. He has recruited a gang of his other selves from different points in his life to assist with his scheme, but it is the present-day Robbins who has to do the initial work of stealing the machine from its current owner, and murdering him in the process.
The plot as it unfolds is a thriller with some neat leaps over the paradoxical hurdles the author has placed along the course. While this is fun, the conclusion turns on the point of morality, and here I have to say that if Robbins were going to develop scruples, he would have done better to acquire them before he bashed in the back of the machine owner's head.
Songbird by Jeremiah Sturgill
A Master and Disciple story. The Master in this case is a singer, a particular kind of singer called a vasya whose song is not words but sound, the sounds one can only hear by sitting in silence. The boy comes to the Master to be taught and the Master says No, but the boy perseveres, sitting in waiting as the Master sits, listening, sharing their silence. "Here, in my hut, I listen. Only when it is appropriate do I accompany the world in its never-ending song of joy and sadness and sadness...and sadness."
Devil May Care by Jason Kahn
Another devil story, this one more overtly humorous but less entertaining than the Skovron tale. Cornelius is a Tormentor in Hell, a lower-ranking functionary who only wants to do his job of punishing the wicked. But he has the misfortune to be caught up in infernal politics when a high-ranking demon sends him to bring in the soul of a powerful Seer in order to predict the success of her plot. Cornelius knows that Sandy belongs Upstairs, instead, but the penalties for disobedience in Hell are severe.
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Helix SF #2, Fall 2006
The second issue of this ezine devoted to works that have trouble finding a conventional publisher because they might be considered offensive. This time it strikes pay dirt with at least one selection.
Put Up Your Hands by Terry Bisson
Bisson has taken on a truly taboo subject, one that has roused the wrath of righteous indignation against authors as various as Mike Royko and Bill Cosby: black hip-hop culture. This piece takes the form of a script for the "Bling Bling Show" at Knee-Jerk Radio Theater, in which Pimpmaster Bling is interviewed.
BLING: Uncomplicated it. "Keep it street" means keep it simple. Look at us, SPELD FUNNE. We're number one on the charts and not a one of us can play an instrument, much less read music.
STRIVER: But isn't that the whole point of hip hop?
Bling, of course, blames it all on the White Man, that is, the colonel ("White meat or dark?"), which leads to a concluding chicken joke.
Bisson's satire is pointed and his barbs draw blood, but this is a polemic, not a story.
Forward by Doranna Durgin
Here we appear to have a story, but it is actually an extended narrative joke. Augie is the janitor at a historical time-travel facility where the staff have all been warned that it would be fatal to attempt to go forward in time; only trips back into the past are permitted. But Augie has never believed the warnings and he has secretly taught himself how to use the control interface. He has gone into the future and he isn't dead! Before long, he begins to bring back some of the wonders that the future has to offer. There is just one problem....
The punchline, when it comes, is a strong one—for a pun. However, it almost seems to belong to a different story, for it is entirely disconnected from the warnings against futurewards time travel. Nothing here is really offensive or out of the ordinary in SF.
The Padre, the Rabbi, and the Devil His Own Self by Melanie Fletcher
No, they don't go into a bar. This one is definitely a story, although a humorous one, in which a rabbi and a Catholic priest find themselves kidnapped by a family of stereotypical rednecks.
The banjo theme from "Deliverance" went though Ray's head, and his butt muscles clenched. "I swear, I never even looked at an altar boy," he pleaded.
The problem turns out to be that Grandma MacKay has got herself possessed by a demon, and the family wants it exorcized. This is supposed to be a job for Father Ray Marotta (the bubbas made a mistake the first time, getting the rabbi), but Grandma MacKay has different plans.
While this set-up has the potential to be amusing, the payoff comes as a disappointment, predictable and over-done. Furthermore, there are some elements of society—Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, televangelists—whom we expect to be the objects of this sort of satire; some targets are just cheap shots.
Real North by Jay Lake
Stories from the edge of the world:
Even though there's mountains beyond mountains, walls of ice two miles high, waterfalls frozen diamond bright and knife-sharp, the world does end there. Stand on the south side of the stele, you're so far north the suns ride the horizon like magnets on an Oelian gaming table. So far north the next day's sun can be seen coming from the infinite east before the last one has vanished into the infinite west.
There have been times when it can be considered heretical to speak of what is so, or what is not so. Depending on where and when a person has lived, it can be dangerous to say that the earth is flat, or that it is round, that the world is growing warmer, or that it is not. People are in jail because they have spoken the truth, and because they denied it. Galileo was condemned for looking through his telescope and making the true observation that the planet Jupiter has moons; according to the official guardians of the truth, it is better not to look through the telescope at all, for fear of what we might see.
I think Lake's deliberately enigmatic story is about that sort of stuff, more or less. Or maybe it isn't, but that is what it made me think about, when I read it. I understand that it is set in the universe established by a longer work, which might have suggested more in the way of clues, were I familiar with it. I liked it anyway.
Port Custodial Blues by Vera Nazarian
This is one of those stories set at a spaceport populated with a lot of crazy-looking aliens with silly names, which normally is a peeve of mine, but at least Nazarian's aliens have a point in this story, which is a mystery of sorts. The narrator is Teal Wade, a custodian whose job it is to clean and maintain the facilities for the disposal of bodily wastes. Now a crime has been committed and the evidence disposed of with the waste in question; it must be recovered.
Bodily waste is gross—though not a taboo on the level of religion and race relations—and references to it can indeed be subject to censorship by the uptight, which makes it clearly appropriate for this venue, and a somewhat amusing read.
Captive Girl by Jennifer Pelland
A love story, in a perverted way. After their colony has been attacked by unknown forces, three young orphaned girls are modified to interface with a surveillance program to search the skies in case their enemy ever returns to complete the destruction. Alice lives behind a metal mask and depends entirely on her caretaker, Marika, for all her bodily needs; their relationship has become sexual, though the authorities disapprove. But the human cost of the program eventually proves too high.
"They didn't know the details. We didn't tell them. They never would have let us do it if they'd known that we were blinding, deafening, and crippling little orphan girls."
Now Alice must learn all over again to be human, without her mask, to see and hear and walk again. Now, more than ever, she needs Marika, but it seems that it is only the mask that Marika really loves, the helpless cripple.
This is the sort of material that people tend to call "disturbing," and it is appropriate to find it here in this zine. I can suppose that some other SF magazines might have feared to publish it for that reason, but they also might have found the details of the SFnal setup too improbable, as I did.
Tonino and the Incubus by Peg Robinson
The term "gigolo" seems too crude to describe Tonino, who is so dedicated to the art of love, to making his ladies feel that they are loved, even if they are old and wrinkled.
He did what he did for love, and took the gifts he was offered as a God takes prayer and sacrifice: unasked for, though as his due, and always with a gentle grace that rewarded the smile of the little lace-maker in the market as generously as the gold of the high-born Soras in their mansions. And, one and all, they all adored him.
The only female who fails to appreciate Tonino is Prieta Safina, the Renunciatta, who suspects him of causing the deaths of his old ladies, even when Tonino protests that the evil is being done by an incubus taking his shape. But the incubus, once revealed, is not so easily dealt with.
It is hard not to feel that there is something blasphemous here, although the gods in Robinson's story do not belong to any religion now practiced on Earth, so that it is hard to see what is being blasphemed. Nor is the idea of a god of love unheard-of. Or perhaps the unacceptable idea is that of old women still wanting to be loved, still wanting to feel that they are capable of arousing love. That it might be better to die of an excess of love than wither away in the living grave of untouched flesh.
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Clarkesworld #2, November 2006
The Moby Clitoris of His Beloved by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia
Salaryman Yukio is obsessed with the desire for whale clitoris sashimi—that is, obsessed with the notion of consuming such a rare and expensive delicacy, the product of a public relations campaign. He devises a scheme to take a diving woman as his lover so that she can bring him a whale clitoris, but the real diving women are not what the public relations campaign has depicted. Yukio, being resourceful, moves on to Plan B.
Obviously a woman's clitoris couldn't possibly taste as wonderful as a whale's, yet what if cloned human clitoris could be marketed profitably enough so that the genius who thought of this became rich enough to afford to eat whale clitoris?
This satirical piece is funny in an over-the-top way, if readers can overcome the strong sensation of eeeuuuuuuwwwww.
Lydia's Body by Vylar Kaftan
Be careful what you wish for. Lydia, trapped in an isolated frontier cabin with only her father for company, wishes for escape. But her spell is not true, and instead of switching bodies with Amanda Barnes, a woman from her future, she traps Amanda's mind with her in Lydia's body. And Amanda is not a child, and Lydia's father is not Amanda's father. She can not think of him as her father.
He'd come home at night, with a dead deer or even a bear. Amanda marveled at how he slung the corpse around, the meaty weight under full control. She sometimes watched him working shirtless, as he smoked meat in a hickory fire or planted potato seeds. When he split firewood, the log cracked on the axe's downstroke—almost before he touched it, like the wood opened itself for him.
Kaftan effectively evokes the madness of isolation from Amanda's point of view, but the story turns more remote when it switches, jarringly, to Lydia's.
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Clarkesworld #3, December 2006
Urchins, While Swimming by Catherynne M. Valente
A Rusalka tale. In Slavic legend, these were women who drowned themselves and became undead creatures, dwelling in the water and often seducing men to their deaths. The narrator's mother became a Rusalka and her daughter inherited the curse. She now attempts to live a normal life as a human woman and even to find love.
Valente's fiction is often drawn from myth and legend. This is a rather atypically direct and linear narrative from her. More typically, it is tragic, as befits the source material. Her prose is lovely and poetic:
There was no sound but the tinkling ripple of water and the stars dripping through the window-sieve. I closed my mother's eyes and tucked my head up under her chin. I pulled her arms around me like blankets. And I sang to her, while the bath beaded on her skin, slowly blooming blue.
The Other Amazon by Jenny Davidson
This being not the river but the bookstore. Davidson's narrator discovers the ability to go online to an alternate Amazon and order books that do not exist, such as the unwritten novels of Jane Austin.
I am reclusive at the best of times, and also somewhat secretive, and though I couldn't explain it (well, if you've ever read a fairy tale, you can imagine what was going through my head) I had a feeling that the strange gift I had been given, my access to this other Amazon, could be taken away just as easily as it had been visited upon me. That exposing it to the cold light of reason—or to friends' skepticism and mockery—could do no good. Wary at first that the books I received from the other Amazon might be as addictive as the Turkish delight Edmund gets from the White Witch, moreover, I soon consoled myself with the thought that books from regular Amazon or from the library continued to captivate me as well. In other words, I was already addicted to reading.
A bibliophile's wishful-thinking fantasy.
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Lone Star Stories
Seasonal Work by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
A young man works at the gift-wrapping counter for the holidays. This short-short has a real bite.
You Do Not Know What Slipstream Is by Lon Prater
A writer sitting in Chuck E Cheese and trying to write a slipstream story while his kids play Skee Ball, despite not knowing what "slipstream" is, so it turns out as a metafictional Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.
Histories by Samantha Henderson
The narrator is a musician who has become unwillingly possessed by beings from some other dimension. When she writes, when she plays, it is their words and their music that wants to come through.
Sometimes when it's so late the night starts to crack I take mercy on the sleepy and the horny and the barmaids and let their music creep in. It's always there, under the surface, but mostly I'm stronger than it, especially on rainy nights. Sometimes I can't help but let it come out and play, and dance between the steel and horsehair and rosin. People smile at first, because it's strange and sweet, but soon they shake themselves like rabbits waking up and wander, two by two, out the door.
This dark fantasy has an eldritch tone, almost Lovecraftian, as a human is trapped by forces unhuman and unknowable.
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Shimmer Volume 2, Issue 1, August 2006
This issue of the zine is horror-themed for Halloween. The stories tend to be quite short.
Halloween Night by John Parke Davis
A brief reminder of what Halloween was originally all about. "Halloween day is the best day in the year because everyone you ever lost comes back again to see you." But Halloween night is the worst.
Skeletonbaby Magic by Kathy Watts
A woman hesitates between the living and the spirit worlds when both her husband and her baby die. The culture, which appears to be Northwest Pacific coast, is nicely evoked.
Hope knelt on the cobblestone beach and hugged the tiny bones in her lap. She stroked the fur trim on the cedar strip baby blanket that sheltered the skull from the mist and surf spray.
"It's been a long time," she told the infant, "since you looked at me with your no-eyes, or ate at my breast with your no-mouth. You used to do those things."
Pray for Us, St. Dymphna by Bryan Lindsey
Jacob is an agoraphobic, imprisoned in his own room, but he possesses the ability to reach into the minds of others. From a brief, indirect contact with the girl in the room across the hall, he believes that she is planning to slit her wrists. But can he bring himself to leave his own safety in order to save her?
Jacob is an interesting character, not entirely pleasant, which imparts tension and unpredictability to this story.
The Angel Wood by Angela Slatter
The Angel Wood has always been the inheritance of the eldest daughters of the Woodville family, but there is a price to pay, and Susannah refused to pay it when her turn came. She fled the woods, but now she has returned, a widow with four children, and it is time for her own eldest daughter to make her choice.
This forest-god fantasy has added freshness and originality to the old tale.
Through the Obsidian Gates by Aliette de Bodard
A contest between love and death, based on Mayan myth. Sahague journeys to the underworld to challenge the Lords of Death for the return of her dead husband. She wins the game but finds the price more than she can endure.
I knew then that nothing could be created in that place without a sacrifice, and that something had fed the fire that had seared me. "They took something from me to make the ball," I said.
This is a nice melding of the Mayan mythos with the Orpheus story, very appropriate for a Halloween issue. I would have liked for the scenes set in the underworld to be longer, and I wonder if they were cut back to fit this story—one of the longest here—into the restrictive word length of this zine.
A Wizard on the Road by Nir Yaniv, translated by Lavie Tidhar
A mundane human is offered all the delights that a fantasy world has to bestow in this vignette.
Voices of the Gods by Monica Eiland
A world in which some people grow wings and some do not—"Blessing to man and curse to woman," for with the wings come the irresistible voices of the gods, calling the winged ones into the sky. Aire has never wanted wings and the choice that comes with them—to cut them off and remain on earth to bear children, or to fly.
This tale is told well enough, but I find the dilemma a bit contrived to fit the author's intended message.
King of Sand and Stormy Seas by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
A man's life comes full circle as he returns to his origins. When he was only a fisher boy, the sea had given him a gift.
The blade was blue with fine letters spelling conjures of protection. Once Lysander had taken the sword to a magician. He told Lysander the writing on the sword predicted that the man who wielded the weapon would become a hero. The magician, it turned out, had been a charlatan.
A nice depiction of the contrast between dreams and reality, and the pain of disillusionment.
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Zahir Issue 11, Winter 2006
This small zine, subtitled A Journal of Speculative Fiction, draws many of its authors from the ranks of literary publications. The tone of these pieces is often notably different from those in more typical generic fantasy zines, some quite surreal, some only vingnettes.
How the Swan Queen Celebrated Mother's Day by Kiel Stuart
The daughter is attempting to claim her own life after the oppressive mother's death, but the mother returns to take over the house and the daughter again, as if she had never died.
This is a strangely-told tale, where the magic twists and shifts as much as the protean house, "neither Colonial nor ranch nor bungalow. The daughter had heard the term Post Modern. Maybe that explained the odd way in which the house behaved, which had been problematical all along."
Monadnock & Bramble Jam by Peter Higgins
The narrator's father wanted to be a stone caller, but he failed and became a stonemason, instead. The stone of his native region is special.
In Grietsland you're always walking on the exposed bones of the earth and the roots of ancient mountains. If you stand on the beach at Griete Bay and look up at the low cliffs, you'll see the sinews of the world knotted in their long, viscid churn; and beyond the cliffs, rising over the land like huge cathedrals of rock, you'll see the three great hills, the Carns of Grietsland—Carnddu, Carnangel, and Pendrim.
Eventually the narrator must come of age and find his own calling.
This tale is beautifully-written, full of lovely, evocative names. The stone caller is a new and powerful figure of magic.
Divination by William Alexander
Subtitled: Alectromantia, Gyromancy, Necromancy & The Act Of Staring Intently At Small Pebbles.
The pitfalls of telling the future. Lena is a mantis. She can read the signs. She wants to know how long her sick sister has to live. Her act of divination has consequences, and the consequences spread like ripples from a pebble thrown into a lake.
He imagined that everyone in all the world was down underneath the lake water. They had all stopped sleeping, dancing, drinking, fumbling against the drawstrings of each other's pajamas at some signal, then turned, walked in unison to this pebble beach. They continued without pause or flinch into the cold, dark, lapping lake water, moving forward, down, underneath. Feet oozing into mud and muck, water seeped into ears and mouth, over unblinking eyes, and still they walked. Everyone but him.
Appearances by George Keithley
A series of urban vignettes in stalled traffic, encounters with ghosts—perhaps they are ghosts.
Young and old alike, they share a root-like pallor; a dim sheen of something that has dwelled not underground, literally, but out of sight. In the shadows of great buildings, perhaps.
Brain in a Birdcage by Christine Boyka Kluge
Instead of a vat. A surreal vignette.
Copperhead by Christine Boyka Kluge
Another vignette, more metaphor than fantasy.
She wore a black knit cap to hide the diamond shape of her brow. Her tongue grew as unruly as a grapevine. The tip split, pointing in opposite directions. She pierced it. Twice.
Beauchene Preparation of the Human Hat by Chris Gauthier
A preparer of bones for a medical supply house is chosen by a committee of skeletons and ghosts to shape a new universe in the course of mounting a skull.
"But why me?" There was a hint of desperation in her voice. "I've never even done the preparation before."
"Exactly. It will not be rote. You will feel your way through it, letting your spirit move you. We are not worried. Your work has always been solid and dependable."
A strange one, even for this zine.
The Ogress by Robert Hanson
The artist Jan van Eyck is chosen to paint the portrait of a special client.
Translucent stroke followed translucent stroke, and her true countenance, like a young frog rising slowly to the surface of a pond, began to emerge from beneath the layers of transparent paint.
A relatively straightforward, well-written fantasy.
Confessions of a Wallflower by Jon Wesick
Dad is a parapsychologist working for the CIA, Patrick is able to disappear into walls and eavesdrop on secrets, and stepsister Darla has a crush on Saddam Hussein, who has turned into a zombie. Darkly gonzo.