Another monster catch-up column. I've changed the heading to reflect the month when I read the works reviewed, not when the column is published. Mostly the zines this time around are electronic, which don't have to arrive—
I put the March Asimov's at the top of the list for good stories this month, and there is a new debut for January: Coyote Wild.
F&SF, February 2007
Not a long review for this issue, of which most of the fiction space is taken up by the first part of the finale of Matthew Hughes' Guth Bandar series. See the review of the March issue for this. The rest of the four stories here are an assorted lot, two with jungle plants and two with librarians—
Brain Raid by Alexander Jablokov
It seems that AIs are illegal, but too many people want them, anyway. Taibo works for a sort of private police force set up to confiscate the rogue AIs; his team has gone to an exotic plant store to confiscate the AI called the Gardener and arrest its human acolyte, but they have been set up to fail by a rival company that wants to steal their business.
This is primarily an action story with a complicated motivation. I found the most novel aspect to be the plant shop, with its exotic and dangerous vegetation:
A few inches farther and I could restrain her—
a thick vine slipped off the tree that had been holding it up and fell across my shoulders. The damn thing was heavier than it looked. I tried to shrug it off, but it pushed down harder. By the time I realized what it was up to it had braced itself against some huge roots on one side and an irrigation pipe on the other, and pinned me to the ground. I dug my hips into the dirt and tried to squeeze out under it. Its pressure increased.
Fool by John Morressy
The life story of Niccolo the Fool.
Had I been a shade less hideous, just a trifle less misshapen and ill-made, the midwife would have seen to it that I did not survive to shame my family. But I was plucked from the womb so magnificently ugly, so repellent to the eye, that she held me up by my crooked legs and cried, "Here's gold!"
That old woman was wise in the world's ways. She knew that there were many who would pay well for a fool who so looked his part. I needed no shaping hand to suit me for the motley, no fortunate accident or contorting sickness. I was born fully malformed.
This is the last story from the late John Morressy in the F&SF inventory, and it is more dark than the Kedrigern tales that have appeared so often in this magazine. Niccolo proves that he can be a dangerous character, whom it would be unwise to cross.
Stone and the Librarian by William Browning Spencer
There are those who are born to read Proust and there are those who are born to read Robert E. Howard. Stone has been captured and sentenced to read literature in a university under the name of Edward, but such a prison can not hold him forever. The jungle is out there, waiting for him.
Damnable books: The Iliad, Silas Marner, Vanity Fair.... The thought of Thackeray...
Stone almost blacked out. Sometimes Stone would have a vision of an old man lying in bed, eating chocolates from a box, obese and in failing health, and talking and talking, occasionally shaking an admonitory finger, smiling or frowning, lecturing, unaware that everyone had left, that no one cared what he was saying. A book was an old man, impotent and raging, or, worse, self-doting beyond madness, a prattling assertion of ego.
This is a fantasy of the escapist sort, a meta-fantasy. Although I must say that Stone is quite wrong about The Iliad, Silas Marner is certainly something to flee from, into his fantasies and dreams.
Red Card by S. L. Gilbow
When society issues certain citizens a red card—
F&SF, March 2007
At last the conclusion of the Guth Bandar stories, which takes up much of both this issue and the previous, in a two-part serialization. I also found more of interest in some of the shorter pieces here than I did in the February issue.
The Helper and His Hero by Matthew Hughes
The far-future Earth of the Archonate is not a place where innovation is welcomed. Guth Bandar's innovative theories about the nature of humanity's Jungian collective unconscious, known as the noösphere, or the Commons, had not been welcomed at the Institute, but despite the opinion of the scholars, the noösphere's collective mind, the Multifacet, has become self-conscious, and it has plans for Guth Bandar. His last adventure begins when he encounters a strange young man who has an alarmingly strong natural affinity for the dreamworld of the Commons, where the Hero archetype threatens to absorb him.
Wasselthorpe found the warning hard to believe. "All will be well," he said. "I am certain of it."
Bandar informed him that that was always the Hero's sure belief, right up until the moment the dragon's teeth closed upon his tender parts.
Now Wasselthorpe disputed the contention that he was ruled by the Hero. "Why can I not be a blend of several archetypical entities, like you and anyone else?"
Bandar told him to look at himself.
The young man looked down and Bandar saw mild surprise take possession of his face. Wasselthorpe was clad in chain mail, scuffed boots, and rough trousers bound up by criss-crossing straps. A shaggy gray pelt covered his shoulders, its paws tied across his chest. In one hand was a sword of iron. Bandar gestured and Wasselthorpe raised a hand and touched the wings that sprouted from the helmet on his head.
"Does that seem familiar?"
The young man had to admit that it did. Yet, he was as thoroughly unconcerned as a Hero would be.
Bandar suggested that he ought to open a gate so they could discuss the situation in the waking world, where it was easier to resist an inclination to madness. He was chagrined to see the other's face fill with heroic resolve.
"No," Wasselthorpe said. He was here to do something, and felt that he must do it.
Bandar had backed a little farther away; Wasselthorpe was accompanying his declaration with sweeping gestures, and only now noticed that he was doing so with the hand that held a sword. Considerately, he laid the weapon down on the road. Instantly, it disappeared from there and reappeared in his grasp.
Bandar is aware that the Multifacet expects him to become the Helper to this Hero, but he resists the role until it becomes clear that the stakes involve the survival of the entire human race on Earth.
I must admit that I found this conclusion to the series, which I had been greatly anticipating, to be a tad bit anti-climactic. The buildup in the previous episodes had led me to expect a finale in which the entire structure of the human mind is altered, or something along that line. And while Bandar ends up having made many new discoveries about the nature of the Commons, the noösphere itself seems to remain unaltered, with even its newly-acquired self-consciousness no longer apparent. In short, I had expected this conclusion to transcend the rest of the series, but instead, it was a tale of adventure very like the ones that had preceded it, in which Bandar and his companion strive in the dreamworld to effect changes in the waking world. However, for readers who were interested in a final episode along just the same lines as those they had previously read, this very long [40,000 words] closer should satisfy them quite well.
Dance of Shadows by Fred Chappell
Here is a conceit with novelty: the collection of shadows. Astolfo is a master of this trade, and his apprentice Falco narrates the tale in an affected tone. A wealthy and powerful nobleman has become infatuated with the newest shadow in his collection, that of a graceful young girl.
In this other smaller salon that opened off the collection room, I could discern that Astolfo admired the way in which Rutilius tended his shadows. Some collectors and dealers believe that shadows should be put away in secret recesses—
closets, armoires, cellars— so that the surrounding darkness might keep them fresh. But darkness drains them of vitality, gradually absorbing a little of their natural vigor. A dim light is best, light that is not a steady glow but a fluctuating or flickering convergence of beams. These varying conditions keep the shades exercised, furnish them tone, and lend them suppleness. Their odors keep cleaner in a light like unto that of an overcast day and their edges are less likely to lose definition than if they are stored away in some dank hole.
For his most dearly prized shadow Ser Rutilius had ordered the construction of a special cabinet. It was a hand taller than myself and its glass sides enclosed an array of lightly smoked and unsmoked mirrors where the shadow floated among them in an ever-changing, vague light. These mirrors revolved slowly by means of a clockwork mechanism attached to the side of the cabinet. The shadow hung amid their surfaces like those carp wafting in the tiled pool in the foyer.
But now Rutilius is determined to acquire the girl who cast the shadow, and Astolfo does not approve.
I find this premise original and fascinating, although I do not quite see why Rutilius required Astolfo's services as a detective, as he could just as well have interrogated the shadow-artist himself. The editorial blurb suggests that there will be more of these stories available, and I will look forward to them, with hopes of a somewhat more intricate plot.
The Devil Bats Will Be A Little Late This Year by Ron Goulart
In which screenwriter Frank Kennison explains why he missed his deadline to deliver his latest script. It seems that one of his ex-wives is being haunted by the ghost of a former lover [with good reason, as she brained him with the meat grinder and buried him in the basement] and harassed by the demons he has summoned to enforce his demands. Frank has unwisely agreed to intercede.
The plot here is quite straightforward and obvious, so that reader interest depends on appreciating the humor in Goulart's narrative style:
"Frank Kennilworth," boomed a huge gravelly voice from just beyond the heavy door.
"He means you," she said, nudging me in the ribs.
"You'd think a demon from the netherworld would get my name right."
"Frank Kermisson," said the demon at the door. "I bring a warning, rash mortal."
"Okay," I responded in a dim voice not quite like my own.
"Leave this house within one more day or meet your terrible doom!"
The sound of heavy scrap metal being dragged back downstairs started up and quickly grew faint.
Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys by Robert Reed
Three barely-teenaged boys find a cache of pornographic photographs, with which they become fascinated, almost addicted. But there is something strange about the photos—
Reed only hints at the why and how of what is going on in this tale, and it remains an unsettling mystery.
Memoir of a Deer Woman by M. Rickert
A very different sort of shapechanger story. A woman who seems to have once been a deer feels herself changing back to her original form. She wants to write a memoir of her experience before it is too late, but she does not manage to finish it. Her husband finds what she has written, but her words do not bring her back. Yet in the end, the words are all that remain.
He shakes his head and runs back into the house. Anita stands there for a moment, and then, just as she turns to walk away from this tragic scene, the man returns, carrying a handful of words. He hands them to her as though they were ashes of the deceased, gently folding her fingers over them, as though in prayer, before he goes back inside.
A haunting tale of love and its cost.
Asimov's, February 2007
The main feature of this issue is the novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, setting a general theme of space exploration.
Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Both hard science fiction and alternate history, the story begins when the Apollo 8 spacecraft's engines misfire, sending the space capsule on a irretrievable trajectory into the cold and dark of empty space. Young Richard Johansen is imprinted by the tragedy, and it becomes his life's ambition to recover the lost astronauts.
Only this didn't seem like death to Richard. It never had. In his mind, there was always a chance that the three men had lived. Maybe they had gone on, as their ship had gone on, exploring the solar system, seeing things that no man had ever seen up close. Or maybe they had encountered aliens, and those aliens, benign like the ones in the Star Trek shows of Richard's childhood, had saved them.
In the course of his single-minded quest, he becomes the nation's first billionaire, and his company leads the world in space exploration. And he discovers that fulfilling his goal can alter a man.
There is very little of this sort of science fiction published nowadays—
Outgoing by Alex Wilson
A couple of introverts go into space. Moser is the likely one. As a boy, he shot a can of Cherryvale soda into space, but it never returned to Earth. This disappointment fueled his ambition, and he invested his substantial earnings as an inventor into a one-man spacecraft that he launched into orbit from Cuba. Tara is a poet. As a girl, she imagined she was a bird. She mistakenly thought NASA's poet-in-space program would provide her with the solitude she needed to write. The two of them meet in space to make an unlikely discovery.
Wilson's story follows much the same pattern as Rusch's; both deal with the human drive to go into space and make discoveries, but this one is less hard-SF, more light-hearted and whimsical, more introverted and eccentric, like its protagonists.
Portrait of the Artist by Charles Midwinter
Chris is an artist who has seen better times. His apartment/studio is inhabited by spiders and mice and even larger creatures getting into the place—
Chris is sitting in his chair again, looking at the canvas, and Lanna feels a bit sorry for him. It looks like he hasn't moved since she put herself under three hours ago. She goes over to talk to him, but, as she gets closer, she notices that there's color on the canvas. He has actually painted something.
"Chris!" She skips around to the front of the picture, and lets out a gasp. "It's hideous! What the hell is it?"
"It's that thing I told you about," he says. "See the thumbs?"
"Those don't look like thumbs. They look like bones or something."
"Yeah, they must not be very developed yet. But I guess they're good enough to open a jar of peanut butter."
Chris has other problems. His friend Lanna thinks she's being followed by the CIA. Rico who owns the art gallery doesn't want to hang his work anymore. And the rotten neighborhood kids are shooting at the squirrels.
A light, entertaining piece.
The Chimera Transit by Jack Skillingstead
Another going-into-space story, in which a man obsesses about his former lover, who left him to travel Outbound, when he refused take the test to see if he could accompany her. She accused him of fearing to fail it, which might have been true. He has now succeeded in the project his father had failed at: a system allowing him to adjust his own neurotransmitters, to thereby control his emotions. Now he takes a new lover, who knows that he is still attached to the one who left him; she wishes he would be able to stay with her one night without adjusting his chemistry. "How do you know what you really feel?"
Now this is all quite clear to the reader, except perhaps for the mention of a Chimera in the title, which is echoed at the conclusion, where the story's heart beats:
There is a longish period while you transit out of the solar system. A period in which there occurs more than enough time to recall and reform the recent past, to come up with stuff like lips that quirk to hold in the happy bug, and to notice that even in the absence of artificial neuro-stimulation, feelings of attachment persist. There is also time to remember the things you tried not to remember otherwise. Things besides the shape of a mouth and the sweetness of a long confessional summer. The way a person abandoned you, for instance, after you surrendered all your secret pain. Even after that. The transit between Earth and the interstellar gulf, then, is the vacuum between Chimeras.
Helpfully, the editorial blurb points a large arrow in the direction of this allusion to John Cheever's "The Chimera." This story does not outwardly resemble Skillingstead's, but it is obvious that he has taken his theme from Cheever's last line, where the narrator, discovering that his [chimerical] lover has left him, wonders, "[Did her] going only mean that she was making room for someone else?"
Close by William Preston
Ed Lukens is ill-at-ease with other people. With great difficulty, he forces himself to attend a group meeting for others with his problem, but once there he begins to realize that he has gone to the wrong room, that this group is meant for people who believe they have had encounters with alien Others. Yet as the meeting continues, he begins to feel a connection to the others in the group, that their problems are not so different from his own.
"Others scare me," he said abruptly. The line often ran through his head like a lyric he couldn't shake; now he said it.
"The others?" asked Father Mike, mostly turned toward Kendra. Yvonne had leaned forward to place her head close to Terrance's; she made her eyes wide until he looked back, and then she mouthed something.
"Others," Ed repeated, and the priest nodded with his whole upper body. "I hear how afraid Kendra is. I get afraid too. I don't think it's wrong to feel that way. I mean, you're being watched. We're all being watched, all of us. Maybe right now. And I think that's frightening. I don't think that I have to...
The ending strikes so abruptly the reader may be taken quite by surprise.
Preston does an effective job with his protagonist, setting out all his self-doubts and social miscues with painful detail.
Cold Fire by Tanith Lee
A strange, tragic fantasy that I would not have been surprised to see in Lee's more usual venue, Weird Tales. It is not clear just when this story is taking place, though many clues suggest a previous century: it takes place on a sailing ship that seems to carry no radio or engine. The government has given the ship orders it can't refuse—
Can such thing as a dragon come back from so far past? Such a thing as that, so pale metal red, so long shut in its prison of frost glass, just the sparks of the cutting free and the Artic sun's shine to warm it, just the tides to push it here or there, back into the cold on the world's roof, or down into the melt of the thaw. Or down otherways under the top of the sea.
There are hints at the end that some time in the future the ship's crew may find itself similarly preserved, eternally in the ice.
Asimov's, March 2006
The main feature of this month's issue is the novella by Brian Stableford, which sets an alternate history theme.
Doctor Muffet's Island by Brian Stableford
This work is a sequel to "The Plurality of Worlds" from the August issue, which I would advise readers to read before they move into the current episode. Sir Francis Drake has returned from the moon where he ventured in that alternate-history fantasy, and is now engaged on a voyage to locate the Pacific islands he spotted from space. However, he discovers that others have come before him and established a base on the island of Tahiti, where the possibly-sinister celestial spiders that the explorers encountered on the moon are now attempting to set up a foothold on Earth, aided by human allies. As Dr Muffet explains,
"We humans have been alchemists of the flesh ourselves, in transforming all the species on which we depend: the livestock we keep to supply us with meat, milk, and eggs, the horses we use for transportation on land, and the dogs we employ in hunting. We change them to the best of our ability, tailoring them to our needs, optimizing them for the production of those qualities we desire in them—
but we can only do so indirectly, by selective breeding. The celestial spiders are cleverer by far, employing all manner of elixirs that work directly upon the flesh of other species. They've used their intelligence very wisely in the investigation and deployment of their intrinsic abilities in this regard, and have become great experts in the calculated modification of their various domestic stocks— but they've not been content with that, either in their own worlds or in others they've found and visited."
Drake, however, is more inclined to trust his instincts, which cause him to shudder at the sight of the giant spiders Dr Muffet cultivates.
Stableford's alternate-history premise, where the scholarly Queen Jane rules 16th-century England instead of Elizabeth, is a fascinating one with great characters such as Drake and Raleigh. The fantastic element of this episode is better-integrated into this world than the previous one set mostly on the moon. Here is where Drake's adventures are really at home.
Chainsaw on Hand by Deborah Coates
In South Dakota in winter the temperature can linger below zero for weeks. Clear skies and weak sun and bone dry wind that grinds your face like sandpaper go on day after day until you don't remember that it's ever been warm, that grass has ever been green. If it were suddenly summer in South Dakota after a week of minus two, you would hate it—
it would be too hot and too humid and frightening, like the world was ending in fire instead of ice. In South Dakota in winter, you don't think about seventy degrees or eighty degrees. As far as you're concerned the tropics don't exist; palm trees, blue waters— they're just a television fantasy. Twenty degrees would be enough. If the temperature got up to twenty degrees, you'd unbutton your jacket and shed an entire layer of long underwear. At twenty degrees you'd walk outside without your head covered, with your face turned toward the sun, like you were living in Bermuda. Twenty degrees in South Dakota in winter would give you enough hope to go on.
Chelly is living without hope because her ex-husband Bobby sees fairies or angels or something like that—
The author's use of the 2nd-person narrative is effective here—
Breeze from the Stars by Mary Rosenblum
A coming of age in space story. Jeri has just successfully graduated from the training academy intending to be a rock jock—
"We have a thousand thousand AI eyes out there, from the asteroid belt inward. To look for rocks falling, for the dropped tool, the bit of broken rubble that will hole a platform or destroy a shuttle. The eyes look for pirates, illegal shuttles. A million eyes. How do you think Dispatch works?"
Delfinio's voice was gentle.
a program. Looks at all the images. You... send out the jocks."
"No." Delfinio cupped Jeri's face between his palms. "That is what the platform dispatcher teams rely on, but they are too slow. No. You have to see what needs seeing. A computer...
the best AI... is too slow. It must look at everything. I... you... do not need to. As you learn, you will begin to see only what needs seeing."
According to Delfinio, the rotation of the solar system annually brings Earth into the path of a flow of charged particles from the direction of Ophiuchi, from the birth of the stars, and this affects the development of the fetus in the womb at that time. Delfinio has chosen Jeri for his birthday, and he has chosen well, but Jeri must come to terms with his new abilities and their limitations.
Rosenblum has invented an interesting setting for this story, but I find myself having a hard time accepting her premise of the effects of the breeze from the stars. Furthermore, if I understand it correctly, the annual timing of this particle flow would only apply on Earth, but the story suggests that humans now inhabit—
Babel 3000 by Colin P. Davies
"Unbeknownst to Smith, archaic words had become cool." In Davies' decadent future society, the fashionable appearance is all that matters; words are bought and sold to enhance the speaker's status, and the reality they denote is forgotten. A very short story with a whispered lesson.
Public Safety by Matthew Johnson
A rather strange alternate history, in which the First French Republic seems to be alive and well and governing New Orleans in the name of its goddess Reason. A threatening note has been received by the police, saying in French: "She dies on the thirteenth." The case is given to Officier Louverture, who was originally transferred to New Orleans from Saint-Domingue as an expert on irrationalists—
"We have almost twenty days," Louverture said mildly.
"If whoever wrote that letter is being truthful. Have you often known criminals to be truthful, Louverture?"
"Why bother to give us the letter and then lie in it? If he wanted to avoid detection, wouldn't it have been better not to alert us at all?"
Clouthier coughed loudly. "It's nonsense to expect him to be logical—
if he were a rational man, he'd know better than to be a criminal."
Alternate history fans should have fun with this one, turning over all the clues the author has strewn about the text. Louverture may be a descendant of the great revolutionary. The setting has a feel of the last century's turn, as the police gravely consult their scientific experts in the phrenology and graphology departments, to establish the criminal's profile. The author is telling us that faith in reason may itself be irrational, but I think he may have overplayed his hand at the very end.
The Sanguine by Jim Grimsley
After rather too long an introduction, we learn that Morgan is a Sanguine, a specialist in memory, and apparently a very high-ranking one, as he has an official bodyguard. In this world, memories can be selectively removed, and this is often done to criminals, but the law requires that once a year the excised memories be temporarily restored—
This is a tale of the physician who cannot heal himself. Readers might question why the author has chosen this particular title for his memory specialists.
What did he tell his patients? Take long, deep breaths and let the memories settle. Remember, this is not who you are or who you will be tomorrow; this is someone you used to be. These memories don't belong to you any more. They belong to the you of yesterday, not to the you of today.
"Now I understand why they call us Sanguines," he said. "It's a bloody mess in my head right now."
"I thought it was because we're such tangible optimists, curing the world's problems by allowing people to forget the hard parts."
The story's ending reminds us again that "sanguine" can mean hope, but it seems to be a hope misplaced. Without all of our memories, we may not be the person we really are.
The Lion by Bruce McAllister
In 1792, more than seven hundred Swiss Guards died defending the French royal family from the revolutionary mob. They were later commemorated in a sculpture of a dying lion, resting on a bed of shields and spears. McAllister has re-imagined this event. His lion is a man given a lion's shape by God, "to kill that which might kill love." It is not clear how this translates into defending Marie Antoinette, but then the lion is not quite sure, either.
Strange Horizons, January 2007
The usual mix of fantasy with a single piece of SF, this issue didn't have any stories I considered really outstanding.
Locked Doors by Stephanie Burgis
Being a teenager is hard enough, but it's worse when your dad is a werewolf and you're left alone to take care of him during the fur-and-fang phase. Worst of all is not knowing if you have inherited his curse.
Burgis faces the reader with the ethical dilemma of whether it is possible to be too self-sacrificing.
Before Paphos by Loretta Casteen
Most readers of SH will probably have no trouble recognizing the story Casteen is re-casting, even if they do not recognize Paphos as the name of the daughter born to Pygmalion and Galatea, the wife he carved from, as Casteen tells it, stone. Her tale is of the children who were born to Galatea before Paphos, children too much stone to live.
Though I should not think it, I am less forgiving of my master. He should have known that we worship the gods to appease them, not curry favor. Mortals should hope only to be ignored by the great ones, for to garner the notice of a god or goddess often brings more sorrow than joy—
I must say that Casteen's version—
Godtouched by Sara Genge
The naked godtouched child takes the crinkled chits from the supplicant's hand and casts them up into the air. She watches them float down, then reach the hot groundwind and rise spiraling upwards, the nano in them reflecting sunlight like so many fluorescent butterflies. Red lilacs sway in the distance as silent elders in trench coats lean on their waru spears and watch the chits fly.
This prophet-child is named Denise, which causes a momentary confusion in the reader because the author fails to tell us whom she is talking about as she shifts point of view. Denise was conceived with the aid of some nano-treatment that would produce a perfect child, or so the people in the city assured her mother at the time. Her mother thinks they cheated and that her daughter is autistic or retarded—
As an ecocatastrophic Cautionary Tale, the vision of the Waste intrigues, but Denise's story is too slight, not sufficiently original to be of as much interest as its setting.
Somewhere in Central Queensland by Grace Dugan
A post-apocalypse tale, the apocalypse in this case being a great flood caused by Antarctic melt, followed by a world war. While Australia seems to have come out of it relatively unscathed, compared to the nations of the northern hemisphere, a revolutionary movement is being suppressed by a government growing ever more repressive. The narrator, a student, spends the story filling us in on these things, as well as her personal problems deciding what her future will be. At the end, she makes her decision.
This shortish piece is all backstory, and in consequence does not come to life. We do not come to know the narrator before we must wave good-bye as she departs on her adventures into a world we have not seen.
Three Days and Three Nights in Lord Darkdrake's Hall by Leah Bobet
The three days and nights are spent as a prisoner, chained to a stone chair as bait for Lord Darkdrake's enemy, the mercenary Captain Stoneburn. The narrator-prisoner is Stoneburn's second lieutenant, his first lieutenant's lover, and the only woman in the company—
Bobet casts this one as a puzzle, with the answer left as an exercise for the reader. The tale is a close study of the interaction between captor and captive, but I can not quite credit the details of the conclusion under the circumstances that Bobet describes, particularly given the physical properties of mail shirts.
The editorial says that this issue has a theme of paradigm shift, or new ways of seeing, which could probably apply to just about any story—
Michael Banks, Home from the War by Marissa K. Lingen
Michael is feeling low after his medical discharge from the trenches, and Mary Poppins drops in with her spoon full of medicine to set things right. Her visit does not go too well at first—
"Age after age after age," she said, and repeated it until Michael got her to sit down in one of the chairs. Then she gave a great snuffle and looked up at him, China-blue eyes brimming. "I have spent all my days raising other people's children, and believe me, Michael Banks, I have had a great many days. And all of them—
Greek godlets and fairy tale princes and little Edwardian lads, it's all the same. You just get them out of the nursery and the first thing they want to do is smash each other to bits, inside and out."
I really like this idea, which works best if you've actually read the book, although things get excessively lecturey. It is Mary Poppins who learns to see things in a different way. I do have quibbles: the author refers to parachutes during an aerial dogfight, but the RAF did not issue parachutes to its fighter pilots until almost the end of the war, for fear that this might blunt their fighting edge. No wonder Michael wanted whisky in that spoon [which is what he probably would have asked for, rather than "Scotch"].
One Small Step by Ken Scholes
We realized things had gone too far on the moon when Anderson's chimps killed him, shaved themselves, and democratically elected one of their own to put on his lab-coat and demand a meeting with the rest of us.
It is a program to train chimps to do hard labor for less cost than paying humans. The augmented chimps have learned their lessons more thoroughly than their keepers would have liked.
Scholes calls this story a fable, where animals talk, and he packs his moral into the last line. It is an apt one.
Life Sentences by Robert J. Howe
Originally published at Salon in 2004, under the title "Miscarriage of Justice."
An anti-anti-abortion piece. The narrator's mother, deserted by her husband, illegally attempted to abort him when she learned she was pregnant. She was discovered in the attempt and sentenced to life as a surrogate womb for other women's babies, and the narrator, raised by the state, now arrests other women attempting to abort their pregnancies—
I have never seen my mother when she was not in one phase of pregnancy or another, and today is no exception. She looks tired and done to death. The lines around her mouth have solidified since my last visit; they are set in the stone of her face. She looks—
she is— angry. She has been angry ever since I can remember.
This is not really much of a story. It's more of a story skeleton, a SFnal idea on which a story can be built, but which some authors suppose to be sufficient in itself if it delivers a Message. I suppose that the editors at Salon, being less familiar with science fiction, were so greatly impressed by the premise and the Message that they failed to notice that there wasn't much else there. I would have expected science fiction editors to be more perspicacious. The piece also suffers from the logical flaw of having a state so dedicated to preventing abortions, presumably to save the fetus, that it allows its agents to blow away the pregnant woman with large-caliber weapons, not likely to do any fetus much good. This may be meant as irony, but it is as heavy-handed as "the Phyllis Schlafly correctional facility."
The Girl Who Left by Terry Hayman
According to the editorial blurb, the author wrote this piece to consider how desperate abused children might become if trapped in a space station, a closed environment where there is no obvious way of escape. Here, the desperation is extreme, and so is the escape route.
They'd really done it. Popped her down the Station waste disposal with the food, garbage, everything. You picture that? Someone you know getting sucked into that big central tube? Stopped at damaged level, of course, so the good stuff can get scavenged. But live shit like Paula won't get scavenged, will it. No, because even the damaged know it's toxic. Which means she gets finally flushed into the chopper for a second extraction of water and reusables, her remains powderized and blown spaceward each time we spin through the winds.
I found some interest in the description of the space station's inner workings, but I could not quite credit the notion of a space station seemingly dedicated so entirely and systematically to raising young children from age five or so solely for sex—
Mirror Bound by Lisa Mantchev
A woman's reflection has a mind of her own, and her own, different relationship with the woman's lover's reflection on the mirror's other side.
He pulls me to my feet and tows me into a little deeper darkness. His kisses are different. Soft and slow. Like he wants to take all the time in the world. Like they might not wake up any minute.
A rather novel point of view, and certainly a way of seeing from the other side of the mirror.
Remember by Josh Rountree
Which, according to the blurb, is about "finding hope in hopeless situations." And certainly the siege of the Alamo qualifies. In this fantasy, the author introduces a painter who is busy covering the walls of the fort with murals while the defenders await the final Mexican assault. No one knows who he is or what he is doing, until at one point he says, "You are but the walking dead, and I am here to provide the path."
And so it comes to pass, just as the reader has expected it would, all along. I found the characters' diction in this piece to be too modern, even anachronistic, which made the sense of presence at the scene less authentic than it might have been.
Eat the Rich by Daphne Charette
A particularly dire post-apocalyptic scenario, in which the gap between have and have-not has grown extreme. Plagues have killed off most food animals, so that both groups have had to resort to extreme measures.
"The point is what else were they gonna do? You saw Raym, with his pink firm flesh, his nice meaty bones...."
"Jesus," Moof says. "That's way fucked up."
The old man smiles again, a hard, unhappy twist of his lips. It's a smile sick with too many years, poisoned with more experience than any one man should have. Softly he asks Moof, "If you could keep dogs, keep 'em in a pen and feed 'em so they were nice and fat and tender—
wouldn't you do it?"
The title is not a metaphor, and this story embodies the issue's stated theme perhaps more thoroughly than the rest.
Clarkesworld 4, January 2007
Four issues in, and this ezine hasn't taken on a distinct identity; I can't yet tell what sort of fiction I expect to find here. The story by Bear might have appeared in Strange Horizons, the Satifka, maybe, in Interzone. Perhaps this is the consequence of having two editors making the picks.
Orm the Beautiful by Elizabeth Bear
A Last Dragon story.
Orm the Beautiful sang in his sleep, to his brothers and sisters, as the sea sings to itself. He would never die. But neither could he live much longer.
Dreaming on jewels, hearing their ancestor-song, he did not think that he would mind. The men were coming; Orm the Beautiful knew it with the wisdom of his bones. He thought he would not fight them. He thought he would close the mountain and let them scratch outside.
He would die there in the mother-cave, and so stay with the Chord. There was no-one after him to take his place as warden, and Orm the Beautiful was old.
But Orm [the Norse for "dragon"; all the dragons in this story are named Orm] is not allowed this choice, for the men this time are coming with machines of dragonish strength, and he knows he can not devour them all. There must be another way to preserve the ancestor-song.
As always, Bear's prose is a pleasure to read.
Automatic by Erica L. Satifka
A very short post-plague dystopia, where Earth—
He rents his optic nerve to vacationers from Ganymede for forty skins a night. She finds him in the corner of the bar he goes to every night after work and stays in until it's time to go to work again, sucking on an electrical wire that stretches from the flaking wall.
Jim Baen's Universe #4, December 2006
The publisher has announced that issues of this magazine will be getting shorter, and I see that there may be fewer stories, particularly from the newer authors, but this is still a massive amount of reading. I didn't find most of the fiction this time quite up to the superior standard of Issue #3, although there is entertaining reading here, particularly in the science fiction stories.
Incident on a Small Colony by Kristine Smith
This is an episode from the author's series featuring the protagonist, part-alien fugitive soldier Jani Kilian, but Smith cranks up the tension to such a high level that most readers won't likely be bothered by the backstory elements, which are integrated fairly smoothly into the current storyline. Seeking only a place to go to ground, Jani takes a position working for a shipping company where the employees are engaged in systematic theft. This is OK with Jani, as long as it doesn't get her into trouble; she even offers them a few tips to make things go more efficiently. But the employees are still suspicious of her, and then, to complicate matters, she notices a child hanging around the warehouse, where no child should be—
"Stay there until I call you out." Jani lowered her duffel to the counter, opened it, extracted her shooter. Activated the weapon and felt the warming hum. Walked to the monitor inset by the doorpad, checked the face of her visitor, and swore.
The buzzer blatted once more.
"Open the damned door." The door mike transmitted Royson's sullen growl as though he spoke in her ear. "I know you're in there."
Jani's hand stalled above the doorpad. I'll have to drop him as soon as he comes in. And Annalise would get to watch him fall. And I'd have to explain why I hit him.
This one is full of the elements that a military adventure tale should have: a rapid pace, a hard edge, high tension, deadly secrets, neat skiffy gizmos, and even aliens somewhere in the background. Readers should enjoy this longish story.
Tesseract by Tom Brennan
Anna is a pilot who has been sent on a solo mission to investigate a non-responsive survey station on the moon Stheno. She crashes and has to navigate the hazardous frozen terrain on foot to safety. This classic SF plot is made interesting by Brennan's landscape, with its carbon trees that seek out any electromagnetic charge as earthy vegetation turns to the sunlight.
The first geyser erupted forty meters to Anna's left. The nitrogen plume ripped through the snow and widened as it rose, fanning out in silence across the sky. The airborne tesserae sparkled for a moment as they rose.
Anna fed power to the servos and started running, ignoring the pain. She didn't look back. Her heart hammered and her breath came in ragged bursts.
She had to get away from the geyser. The nitrogen and assorted volatiles didn't worry her but the tesserae did. Small carbon and mineral formations, some only millimeters across, had the same tropism as the carbon trees: any and all radiation. If they swarmed, they could clog Anna's suit, then bond like concrete.
I only wish the author had not felt the need to add human interest in the form of Anna's broken heart, healed in a pat, banal conclusion. Rescue in this case would have been quite sufficient.
Alone by Joe R. Lansdale and Melissa Mia Hall
After the apocalypse, or some call it the Revolution, a boy evades the cannibals and grows up, scavenging stuff from the abandoned stores. He lives in one of the rockets that stand empty outside of town, which seem to be waiting "for Something or Someone." A girl comes to town and meets the boy, and sees the rockets. The piece is almost entirely standard post-apocalypse survival stuff, perhaps too long and slow for some readers' patience.
Olaf and the Merchandisers by Barry N. Malzberg and Bill Pronzini
Olaf once believed retirement means quiet life in two-bedroom furnished, watching live broadcasts of great sports events, analyzing games along with analysts, finding some peace after forty years of dry goods and happenstance and parsing goods of useless existence. But what does he get?
This is what Olaf gets: distraction. Barrage of commercials, assault of spot promos for other sports and for sitcoms, reality shows, game shows, news shows. Olaf feels like old ugly animal in zoo cage, bombarded and insulted by talking heads, products and services and laugh tracks and prime-time time wasters hurled at him like stones.
Olaf's neighbor Lou comes over every weekend and drinks Olaf's beer and wins all the bets on sports, and ridicules Olaf's brilliant idea for the International Darts Federation Tournament of Champions. Finally Olaf is pushed to the breaking point.
The narrative voice of this piece makes it entertaining. When I first read it, I failed to see a final paragraph hidden below the [totally perfect] illustration, and I think I like it better that way.
Murphy's Law by Douglas Smith
A Tall Tale, in which we meet Murphy himself and learn that there are some circumstances in which it is desirable for everything to go wrong. I was not entertained by the heavy-handed, clichéd narrative voice in this one.
The Big Ice by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold
Humanity has been taken over by a sort of superhuman collective known as Core.
It was the way of things, had been for centuries. Core was jealous of their history, told one set of lies to schoolkids, another to those who thought they needed to know more. I'd never believed that they were the result of progressive genengineering in the twenty-first century. Smart money in biology circles was split—
very quietly split over home brew in the lab on Saturday night— between a benevolent alien invasion and something ancient and military gone terribly wrong.
Some would say terribly right.
Vega was born to a House that was part of Core, and as such is quite a bit more than merely human, but she has no interest in their politics; she wants to be a planetologist and study the phenomenon known as the Big Ice.
The bowl of the Big Ice was over a thousand kilometers across, thousands of meters deep, and filled with ice—
by some estimates over 10 million cubic kilometers. A significant percentage of the planet's freshwater supply was locked up here. The Big Ice had its own weather, a perpetual rotating blizzard driven by warm air flowing over the southern arc of the encircling range that rose to form the ragged rim of the bowl. The storm rarely managed to spill back out, capping an ecosystem sufficiently extreme by the standards of the rest of the planet to keep a bevy of theorists busy trying to figure out who or what had ridden in on top of the original strike to seed the variant life-forms.
From our vantage point, it was like looking down on the frozen eye of a god.
But politics will not leave Vega alone, as her part-brother Henri has just pulled off a coup and taken over the planetary government. Now he intends to kill her, in the way of their House, to make sure she doesn't challenge him. Vega's only way to escape is into the Big Ice itself.
This work satisfies thoroughly as political thriller, as exotic adventure, and particularly as a fascinating SFnal setting that conceals an ancient mystery.
The Nature of Things by Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff
The title is a pun, referring to the domovoi of Slavic folklore—
This piece is entertaining, though the confusion in the household is carried on far beyond the point when the reader wants to bash Harry over the head for not seeing it. But at least there are no other puns.
Singing Them Back by Marissa Lingen
The disir are minor female deities from Norwegian folklore, sometimes considered family protectors. When Karin's sometime-great grandmother left Norway, her family's disir came with her, along with the old traditions. Karin's grandmother was always the one who would sing to bring them back at the end of summer, but now she has died and the task belongs to Karin. And Karin is not sure that she can do it.
This is a warm-hearted story about family and traditions, although I think the sub-theme about math is less satisfactory. It was, after all, the cookies that did the trick.
Servants to the Dead by Steven Piziks
Ever since Jen began taking care of her Alzheimers-afflicted father at home, her life has been going downhill. Her career as an Egyptologist has suffered, and her husband has had to work double shifts at the hospital; one of them always has to be looking after the old man, and their marriage is suffering. Secretly, although she will not admit it to herself, Jen wishes her father would die. Then a strange delivery arrives at the house, and Jen recognizes it as a ushepti—
Fantasy is often of the wish-fulfillment variety, which is fine if a tale is simply entertainment. However, when an author deals with such serious problems as life and death, a moral dimension enters the storytelling, and the author has to assume a certain responsibility for this. Instead, Piziks has cast moral responsibility aside by introducing a fantasy wish-fulfillment solution that solves all Jen's dilemmas without any effort, any responsibility, any cost to her. Hard problems require hard solutions. This piece makes it all too easy, and that is a cheat.
Caught Forever Between by Adrian Nikolaus Phoenix
In contrast, this dark fantasy set in New Orleans is all about the heavy price we may have to pay for what we believe we want. Cassandra's lover and fellow-artist has been brutally murdered, and she calls for justice. The woman who answers her call possesses strong voudoo powers, but she warns Cassie that the cost for what she asks may be too high.
"I wonder if you know what that truly means or what shape it can take," Gabrielle said. Her finger stopped moving. She turned to face Cassie. "Or how cold and brutal justice can be."
"Colder than a bullet to the head?" Cassie asked, throat tight. She strode over to the wall. With a trembling hand, she tore down one of the tacked-up patterns. Whirling, she held the blood-spattered paper up for the mambo to see. "More brutal than that?" She shook the pattern. "If so, then it's justice I want."
The werewolf here is an intriguing character, and there are probably other stories about him in the author's inventory. The New Orleans of the story seems to be pre-Katrina, and its French is oddly written, which I suppose is the author's rendering of the local dialect.
The Girl with the Killer Eyes by B. B. Kristopher
First day on the job for a rookie superhero Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Superhuman Investigation. More entertainment than crime fiction.
Pastry Run by Nancy Fulda
Mme Rousseau is so rich and so picky that she has the pastry for her tea flown directly from Paris to Luna every day. "Charles de Gaulle to the Sea of Tranquility in three hours flat. You can't come late, and you can't bring yesterday's. She tastes the difference." The problem is that traffic control doesn't understand the urgency.
They run their contraption on a strictly first-come first-served basis, and they don't take bribes, which means you're always stuck behind a line of twenty to thirty lumbering freight ships waiting for a boost to the cheese ball. I suppose if you're just a celebrity or an important diplomat you can afford to kick your heels for a few hours and wait for your turn. But not if you're delivering Madame Rousseau's raspberry croissants.
The pilots are used to evading the official rules, but today's run involves more than the usual complications. Entertaining, and surprisingly action-filled for a pastry delivery.
Fishing by Thea Hutchenson
The true fate of socks missing in the laundry, and the strange courting rituals on the other side of the universe.
Coyote Wild Issue One, Winter 2007
The debut of another new ezine. I see little editorial matter to suggest what specific direction this one means to take, except that it bills itself as "speculative fiction", which seems in practice here to mean fantasy. The guidelines express a preference for shorter works, which I never consider promising. There are ten stories, most of them very short indeed, but the lineup of authors delivers in several of the longer works.
Abjure the Realm by Elizabeth Bear
The opening suggests a standard Celtic fantasy, as King Aidan the tyrant stands on the battlements of Caer Dun to see the undead army of his half-sister, the Hag of Wolf Wood, approaching. But the real story belongs to Riordan, his bard.
The warm wind from the east brought a stench of rot. Riordan covered his mouth with one string-callused hand and shaded his eyes with the other, trying to make out some detail of the enemy. Other than the clouds of carrion birds surrounding the advancing ranks, the curious silence and the lack of banners, he could see nothing. There must be a bard here, to tell the truth of it.
And to do this, Riordan must learn the truth of the other side.
Bear introduces the clichés of this piece only to neatly subvert them.
Association of the Dead by Jean Graham
This amusing dark fantasy is based on unfortunate reality. In India, a number of persons have been declared legally dead by unscrupulous relatives bribing officials in order to gain title to their property. Bureaucracy in India being what it is, reversing their status can prove quite difficult for the victims, while they must live in an official limbo, subject to the whims of officials. Here, the bureaucrat Pati Sarwar considers himself vexed by the constant petitions of the "undead" Prashad Bihari, who persists in his case well beyond the normal limits.
Behind the Mirror by Yoon Ha Lee
A ghostly vignette.
Blood by Patricia Russo
Deuce checks one more time, and his abusive father is still dead. Things that were so threatening when he was alive now appear to be harmless, but Deuce knows that people can not always see what is real.
Today, when he rolled up his sleeve to let them swab it and bind it and insert the needle to draw the first pint, the nurse, the technician, whoever it was whose job it was to do it, would not see the scars clouding his skin. No one ever had, other than him, and dad. Things that were actually real often could not be seen. That had never been a surprise to him; that was just the way the world worked.
A short tale of the power of vengeful thinking.
The Book of Nye by Adam Heskett
The book contains the answers to every problem anyone might have, but it also exacts a cost. Henry is willing to pay the cost to cure his beloved wife's brain cancer, but he can not foresee everything. A standard scenario, but a slightly different ending.
Coyote Grins by Donald Powell
Coyote the trickster has a good day, despite everything.
Crow Boy by Kurt D. Kirchmeier
An abused boy hears the crows telling him he can fly away. Or so he claims. I find no magic in this story.
A Lesson in Flight by B. A. Tyler
Another flying story, along with shape-changing. Basic training for novice vampires.
The Renascence of Memory by Amy Sterling Casil
An old woman, a former professor, undergoes an experimental rejuvenation treatment, lifting her out of the vegetative state where Alzheimer's had left her. Now she must confront the truth of her past, as her memories return.
This is the only science-fictional story here, and one of the longer ones. The tale of Carol's slow rediscovery of her self could not have been unfolded in only a few thousand words.
Summer Thunder by Sherwood Smith
Smith is probably best-known as a novelist for younger readers, and this piece is in fact taken from her latest series of novels in progress. It is certainly longer than the alleged word limit for this zine, for which we should all give great thanks. The tale is one of court intrigue, as the Princess Lasthavais of Colend is wooed by Prince Ivandred of Montrevan Hesea. One kingdom is decadent, given over to ritual and elaborate etiquette, the other is entirely martial; the story makes the most of the contrast.
[The Queen] turned to her consort, who stood behind her throne, wearing a splendid long battle tunic modeled on a painted and gold-leaved illustration the heralds had found in the Archive, after the Conflict at Skya Lake 97 years before. She thought he looked quite distinguished, so tall and sturdy with the long blue tunic worked with golden stars down its front, the muted gleam of fine chain mail at the gapped sides, his rich sword belt and his fine rapier.
But despite the care with which they had designed his war costume he didn't look, after all, quite as...
martial as this young fellow in his severely plain coat with its wide side-slit skirts, the blackness relieved only by the golden belt buckle at his narrow waist, and the golden top to the black handle of the long knife he wore at his side. If he wore chain mail, it was hidden beneath that tight-chested, long-skirted coat.
A lesser author might have made the courtiers of Colend into a bunch of effete, useless fops, but as Ivandred comments, "These people were not stupid, they were just lethally inexperienced" in war. There are additional intrigues, jealousies, plots, sub-plots, spies and betrayals, giving readers a tantalizing hint of what must be found in the novels from which this tale is taken. The fantasy element is minimal; the focus is all on the interactions of the characters.
Helix SF #3, Winter 2007
I have to wonder if this zine has abandoned its original worthy goal of rescuing daring fiction censored by a timid SF publishing establishment. Only one of the stories here is really offensive or anything daring beyond the usual SFnal fare.
Ron Rapid and his Electric Chair by John Barnes
Jimmy Jelland is the man who has killed the Earth. His genetically-engineered bacteria have turned the oceans into a thick celluloid soup. The survivors have a plan to restore the ecology to life, but before they act irrevocably, they must be completely sure that some other maniac has not sabotaged the new project. They have to know if Jelland's action was deliberate or only a mistake. Accordingly, they are probing Jelland's memories, where they have discovered Ron Rapid.
She read aloud: "'Rod Rapid could be described as Treegate's low-rent Goldwater-Republican competitor for Tom Swift, Mike Mars, Danny Dunn, Brains Benton, or Dig Allen. The Rod Rapid books appear to have been typeset with little or no editing of any kind, directly from 10,000 word per week rough drafts. Preston Daservis was almost certainly John Treegate himself, since they share the vocabulary quirks and the impossible sentence structures of his editorials in his political magazines. Rod Rapid, as a character, has whatever characteristics fit a given moment in the story, and compared to him, Tom Swift Jr. is Hamlet. Rod always gets every scientific or technical question right on the first try. As far as this reader was able to tell (not having seen volumes 4, 9, 16, or 25) he has no parents, and he and his friends are simultaneously in high school and graduate school, or already have advanced degrees, as the plot whims it. Very elementary science in the Rod Rapid books is generally right, more advanced science appears to have been bashed together without much understanding from a 1930s-vintage encyclopedia and a collection of early 1950s science articles clipped from Astounding Stories, and characterization is largely a matter of racial stereotype.'"
The dark humor in this piece would have been a lot more amusing if it hadn't dragged on for twice the optimal length, while the characters talked the premise to death.
Addy in my Mind by Eugie Foster
Cyberpunk. In New Zealand, Kristof and Addy have a pretty good relationship going.
Adrienne and I exchange memories through our neural implants—
little bits of tech to give our gray matter some zing. It's sappy, but having a bit of her with me 24x7 makes me feel gushy. I whispered "Gong Xi Fa Cai" to active my NI— the tickle at the roof of my mouth told me it was booted— and became a younger Adrienne sitting down to an old fashioned dinner with the folks while the zipper plunged through layers of condensed water and air.
Then eNet goes down, and Addy considers this such an emergency she has to fly back to Old Atlanta to deal with it, although Kristof doesn't know why. He goes with her, even though he happens to owe money to a gang operating there. Sure enough, they find him, but then a memory he didn't know he possessed comes to his rescue, and he finds himself with unexpected allies. Now they want to know who he is and how he came by their call sign. In the process, he learns the truth about Addy.
Starry Night by Samantha Henderson
Brun diFanu, the district magistrate, has traveled to the village of Montverdu to investigate a strange occurrence.
But two nights before, the bells of Montverdu clamored, not in the ringing-speech, which villages use to call for help or give warning over these hills, but in a wild jangle. Then they stopped and were heard no more. So here I was picking my way down a wet, grassy slope.
He discovers that the only remaining inhabitants of the village are children. They tell him that glowing angels descended, and then all the adults were burned away, leaving colored gemstones in their place. As he investigates further, he discovers the reason.
It is simply not conceivable to me that any market would have rejected this fantasy, for any reason.
The Narcomancer by N. K. Jemisin
Cet is a servant of the Goddess of Dreams, one of those who gives the peace of death when it is needed and takes the blood of the person's last dream. A delegation comes to the Temple from a poor village that is beset by brigands who seem to be using narcomancy—
This sketch of the story's premise necessarily leaves out a great many other details that crowd into this story, along with rather more capitalized words than I really like to see. At the end, just about everyone's problems are resolved one way or the other, in a generally uplifting way. The Goddess of Dreams seems to have her realm well in hand, even if some of her ways might seem strange.
Why They Call Me Mr. Goddamn Happy by Michael Payne
The narrator of this tallish tale introduces himself:
I was just another goddamn prospector freezing my balls off out on the Hahld plains, wading through chunks of air fifteen months outta the year and mining the sorastrite the government needed to power the defense shields so maybe the goddamn aliens wouldn't blast us all to hell.
Wasn't even our goddamn war! That's the thing always fried my chi out there, the diggers sucking every bit of sore-ass-trite outta this goddamn planet while the air's still gassy enough to breathe all because the goddamn Wesdurins and Pralshnees or whatever the hell they call themselves didn't care that we weren't fighting in their goddamn war!
His home and companion is Chloe the yurt turtle [surely taken from Dr. Seuss], a romantic at heart. When a fugitive alien shows up, fortuitously in time to shut down the clogged mining machines before they explode, the narrator and Chloe take him in, where he explains that he has come to meet his lover—
The Contractors by William Sanders
Gordon Hackett is an agent of the Devil—
"Michael," I said, "let's cut the bullshit. We both know what's going on. The good guys, as usual, are willing for the bad guys to do what needs to be done, because that way you can go on telling yourselves how good you are. Just as long as you don't get your hands wet."
He flinched. I said, "I'm not asking you to kill anybody—"
"No," he said. "Just distribute child pornography."
"If you want to think of it that way. Or you can come down off your holy cloud and get real. Look," I said, "do you think I like this any better than you do? But it's the best possible way to get the results we're after, and I'm willing to swallow my precious scruples for that and you can damn well swallow yours too. Check with your Higher Authority if you want, but we both know damn well what the answer's going to be."
Even with the digs at religious figures, this one doesn't really ring the bell on the offensiveness meter. And while the notion of working for the devil might seem morally daring, Sanders' protagonist manages to act only against the Badguys, which dilutes the impact considerably. Nor do I really buy the devil's motivation for being less than diabolical in this case.
The Mass Extinction of My Beloved by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia
Here at last is a work that exhibits great offensiveness, as millions of clones of Brigitte Bardot exterminate all other life on Earth, advised by Count Giuseppe Machiavelli of San Marino, whose only real motive is to get laid by all the Bardots. This one takes absurdity to rather high levels, but I can't say that I was dreadfully amused.