A shorter column this month. I take a first look at Fantasy Magazine and find a very wide spectrum of fiction, an ambitious mix of styles with an emphasis on the less traditional.
Asimov's, April-May 2007
This is the official thirtieth anniversary double issue of the magazine, and to mark it the Asimov's editor has gathered in many of her favorite frequent contributors to reminisce about the publication's long history. This retrospective theme may not have been the best idea. The Lucius Shepard novella clearly dominates the issue, but some of the other stories seem to lack freshness and energy.
Dead Money by Lucius Shepard
I knew slim-with-sideburns was dead money before Geneva introduced him to the game. Dead money doesn’t need an introduction; dead money declares himself by grinning too wide and playing it too cool, pretending to be relaxed while his shoulders are racked with tension, and proceeds to lose all his chips in a hurry. Slim-with-sideburns-and-sharp-features-and-gimpy-walk showed us the entire menu, plus he was wearing a pair of wraparound shades. Now there are a number of professional poker players who wear sunglasses so as not to give away their tells, but you would mistake none of them for dead money and they would never venture into a major casino looking like some kind of country-and-western spaceman.
But our narrator, smalltime hustler Jack Lamb, doesn't know what he's getting into, because as soon as Josey Pellerin sits down at the poker table, his awkwardness falls away and he turns out to be a master of the game—being a zombie who is filled with the power of the orisha Ogun. Jack knows something about voodoo, but he can't figure out how to profit from what he's discovered, so he makes a mistake and calls in gangster Billy Pitch. Jack soon finds himself Pellerin's keeper, trapped in a plot full of kidnapping, murder, and high-stakes poker games, falling for the zombie's necrophiliac nurse while Pellerin's power continues to develop, out of control.
Shepard has returned here to his origins, the scenario developed in his first novel, Green Eyes. He delivers a non-stop plot full of brutal action and suspense, dysfunctional characters, a worldview cynical and misanthropic, and angry supernatural powers. The title is perfect. At the end comes a jarring moment when the narrative trips over the original premise, but aside from that, I believe Shepard fans will be quite satisfied with this reprise.
The River Horses by Allen M. Steele
This episode in Steele's ongoing "Coyote" series is billed as a stand-alone, but it leans rather heavily on the previous history of the colony planet. Marie and Lars, we are told, have behaved badly, but instead of being sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment in the stockade, which would have made a rather boring tale, they are sent into temporary exile—although supplied with a satphone so they can call for help. Their mission is to explore the territory beyond the settlements, which teems with indigenous perils; their chaperone/guard/guide is a cyborg named Manny. The author immediately sets to work to establish Lars as an asshole of the first rank, while Marie discovers that the cyborg is actually a poet. Appropriate frontier-type adventures ensue, wherein Marie becomes mature and Lars does not.
The "Coyote" series appears for some reason to be a favorite with Asimov's readers, but I have never cared for the massive tread of political Message in the stories, and this one does nothing to change my mind. The characterization is beyond heavy-handed; its weight crushes any possibility of being interested in these characters. The alternate points of view offer no additional insights. The world offers no novelty. And the conclusion, conveying the message that Marie in her newfound maturity has learned to accept the fact that sometimes politics makes everything suck, is emotionally unsatisfying, mitigated only by the fact that these were characters about whom I couldn't care. I suppose it is meant to illustrate the need to face reality, but it feels more like author manipulation.
Always by Karen Joy Fowler
An odd tale, told by the sole survivor of a cult that promised its members immortality. The narrator was for a long time the youngest member of the cult, as evading death meant more at the time to people near the end of their lifespans. Outsiders thought the people of Always were weird.
We had a lot of tourists back then, especially in the summer. They would sidle up to us in their beach gear, ten cent barbecue in one hand and skepticism in the other, to ask how we could really be sure Brother Porter had made us immortal. At first I tried to explain that it took two things to be immortal: it took Brother Porter and it took faith in Brother Porter. If I started asking the question, then I was already missing one of the two things it took.
The narrator thought a great deal about immortality during her life there, and gradually severed her connections to the ephemeral world, concentrating on the things that last. But then Frankie Frye poisoned Brother Porter, and he died, and the faith of most of the cultists was shaken. Except for the narrator's.
Most readers will probably not take this piece to be SF, as it is clear that Brother Porter was a charlatan who scammed his gullible flock. Except that the author is Karen Joy Fowler, a master of genre ambiguity. And as the narrator points out, she hasn't died yet.
The Rocket into Interplanetary Space by William Barton
"You’re looking at Excelsior, the world’s first manned interplanetary expedition, developed and assembled in secret by a privately funded consortium of space scientists," I heard Willy, conservative as Goldwater’s Ghost, snort as she went on, "Bound today for a secret destination, somewhere beyond the Moon!"
This is a theme I've noticed recently, of entrepreneurs financing their own way into space. Barton's version is pure science fiction, as he reminds the reader in an author's afterword, "Everything in this story is true." The text is full of rocket neep as Alan Burke and his buddy Willy cobble together a spacecraft out of spare parts and remaindered prototypes, then take off to the nearest likely asteroid, which pays off when it proves to be petroleum-bearing.
The romance here is not of story, but the romance of space exploration, with which Barton is clearly infatuated. His point is to demonstrate this is no fantasy romance but something quite achievable with present technology, except for the "damn fools in high places" who lack the will.
Green Glass by Gene Wolfe
A young man finds himself in an infinite maze that seems to be made of green glass. From time to time he meets figures out of dream or hallucination who promise a way to escape, but fade away. Then he encounters a young woman who appears to be real, who relates that she has had similar experiences and believes that they have been captured for observation by aliens. They speculate about their situation.
"Looking at that sunset with all that green around me reminded me of a big green-glass bottle I had when I was a kid. I’d put bugs and things in there so I could study them. That’s what I thought I was doing, anyway. I’d take it along when we went to the park, and if I found an interesting bug or a big spider I’d put it in there. Back home, I’d watch it and pretend I was a scientist. My mother finally got tired of finding it with dead bugs in it and pitched it out."
A disturbing, claustrophobic nightmare.
A Small Room in Koboldtown by Michael Swanwick
Continuing the excerpts from the author's novel Dragons of Babel, in which Will is now working for a haint alderman named Salem Toussaint in the supernatural metropolis. This one is a classic detective story, as one of the alderman's constituents has been arrested.
In the lobby, two officers were talking with the doorman. All three stiffened at the sight of haints walking in the door, relaxed when they saw Will restoring the twigs of fennel, and smiled with relief as they recognized Toussaint. It all happened in a flicker, but Will saw it. And if he noticed, how could his companions not? Nevertheless, the alderman glided in, shaking hands and passing out cigars that the police acknowledged gratefully and stowed away in the inside pockets of their coats. "What’s the crime?" he asked.
"Murder," said one of the cops.
By solving the crime, Will pleases his boss and establishes himself as an up-and-coming young power in the city.
Unlike some of the previous episodes in this epic tale, this one is quite self-contained and stands well on its own as a story, a mystery with a lighter touch.
Fifth Day by Jack McDevitt
After biologist Frank Gelper dies, his colleagues discover that he had solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth—work that would have won him the Nobel Prize—and calculated the astronomically high odds against it ever taking place. What no one can understand is why he kept his conclusions a secret. A local reporter, a friend, speculates that the reason might have had something to do with his parents, who never came to his funeral. His hunch is correct. The parents are religious fundamentalists who have never approved of their son.
"And—?" I said.
"Scientists,"—she said it as if she were referring to a disreputable pack—"were expecting that it would be routine. You get water, and sunlight, and a few basic elements, and next thing you know you have squirrels."
"It didn’t work out that way," I said, trying to encourage her.
She nodded. "No. Despite all the talk, it took the hand of God. That’s what Frank proved, what he wanted to deny. It’s the fifth day." Tears were beginning to run down her cheeks.
But the reporter knows there is another interpretation.
This one is rather predictable, with little development of the idea into a story.
Distant Replay by Mike Resnick
A love story. When Walter, at age 76, meets a young woman who seems almost to be an exact copy of his dead wife, DeeDee, he can't understand what is happening. His DeeDee died only seven years ago—she can't be her reincarnation.
From time to time I’d had this romantic fancy that when two people loved each other and suited each other the way DeeDee and I did, they’d keep coming back over and over again. Once they’d be Adam and Eve, once they’d be Lancelot and Guinevere, once they’d be Bogart and Bacall. But they’d be together. They wouldn’t be an old man and a young woman who could never connect.
Then at last Walter understands why he has found her.
Heartwarming, if improbable.
End Game by Nancy Kress
Allen Dodson is a genius who develops an obsession at a very young age with the working of the human mind. He wants to tidy it up, to eliminate the static.
All those stray thoughts in a mind, interfering with a clear broadcast. Yeah, that’s the right analogy. Without the static, we could all think clearer. Cleaner. We could see farther before the signal gets lost in uncontrolled noise.
And because he is a genius, and obsessed, he succeeds, but the consequences will change the entire human world.
This story may remind readers of Kress's classic Beggars in Spain, first published in this magazine, about the conquest of the need to sleep and its effects on the human mind.
Lilyanna by Lisa Goldstein
A ghost is haunting the library, haunting the librarian, leaving cryptic notes for him, drawing him into a world long gone, a quarrel—so he imagines—long unresolved, into obsession. "I caught the glimmer of white again, but this time it did not go away when I looked directly at it. It was a pearl someone had dropped. As I bent to pick it up I remembered the photograph, the pearl earrings the woman wore."
A spooky tale, with a sudden shock at the end that may, or may not be, something else.
Wolves of the Spirit by Liz Williams
I am the keeper of the Baille Atha light now that my mother is dead, a princess in an ice-colored tower. My kingdom is the last hummock of land before the wastes of the Western Ocean, the final island before Darkland, and the enemy, and the start of storms.
While the story is nominally science fiction, its heart is deeply shaped by northern legend. On a world named Muspell, the home of the fire giants in Norse myth, only the semi-sentient selk dwell in the sea near the lighthouse, but sometimes hunters come to club the young selk to death for their fur, and across the sea are the shape-shifting vitri. Otherwise, the only human visitors are the occasional wrecked boatmen, such as the man who fathered the narrator. Now one such man comes to the lighthouse with the pelt of a newly-killed selk, alerting her to the nearby presence of poachers. If he is what he claims to be.
Williams is a relatively new author to find among this group of longtime contributors. Typical of her work, the worldbuilding is the great appeal of this tale, and the spirit of dark and ancient legends that pervades it.
The Eater of Dreams by Robert Silverberg
Because the dreams of the Queen-Goddess are always true, she must not dream of evil.
Her spirit flutters and trembles. Her eyes move quickly beneath their lids. She is reaching the dream-world now. Her dreams are always true visions. Therefore she suffers when a dark one comes, for such dreams acquaint her with pain and grief, and we suffer when she suffers, since all things flow to us through the spirit of the Queen-Goddess. What she will bring us after such a dream is pain and grief. We cannot abide pain or grief; and so I must take her dark dreams from her as swiftly as I can.
This is a very short piece, and it turns on the question of whether the dream-eater, in taking away the Queen-Goddess's dreams, is altering reality outside her dreams, or merely reflecting it. Why else would it make a difference whether the dream is of the past or the future? Why else would it be impossible for the dream-eater to swallow a dream of the future, when he can swallow a dream of the past?
F&SF, April 2007
A Gene Wolfe special issue, featuring a long novella by the Grand Master, with a couple of critical appreciations of his work.
Memorare by Gene Wolfe
March Wildspring (however I parse this unusual name, I can't make "Gene Wolfe" out of it) is a failed video producer working on a self-financed documentary, "Vaults in the Void," about the tombs and monuments established in asteroids to memorialize the people who have been killed in space. Some of the memorials are deadly traps, as there are people who believe that the dead need others to serve them in the afterlife. Because March regards himself as too unattractive to appear in front of the camera, he invites his would-be lover Kit Carlson to host and narrate his show; Kit brings with her a helper, and the helper is stalked by her abusive ex-husband. It turns out that the helper is March's own ex-wife. These tangled relationships complicate the completion of the documentary, as the ill-assorted crew head for the memorial believed to be the most deadly.
This novella is not, on the surface, very attractive, which may be the author's point. March is a dull character, a sort of aging nerd. Kit turns out to be a deceiver, Robin is a bitch, and Jim an abuser and bully. Most of the memorials and the stories they tell are banal. When March's crew reaches the asteroid containing the memorial site he has numbered Nineteen, expecting deadly peril, they discover instead a seemingly-idyllic habitat, populated with living people, who all appear far more attractive than they did outside—even March. It is March's habitual observant scepticism that recognizes the nature of the peril in this place.
The story's emphasis on physical attractiveness—and its lack—strongly suggests the legendary "glamour" of the fairies, an illusion of glowing beauty that can mask a hideous reality. It is also noteworthy that the fairy kingdoms "under the hill" have been associated with the realms of the dead. Memorial Nineteen appears to be an updated version of such a place, where the Founder is collecting still-living servants to venerate him in death, enslaving them by means of a collective illusion. Yet it is in this place that the true natures of March and his crew are revealed—for better and for worse.
The text of the story itself, however, does not contain direct allusions to the fairy realm (or if it does, they were too subtle for me to spot). Wolfe seems to have deliberately avoided the exotic and wondrous in setting and language that readers may have come to expect from this author. Its wonders are instead of a mundane and mortal sort—the lives of real and very ordinary humans.
The Equally Strange Reappearance of David Gerrold by David Gerrold
Being the sequel to Gerrold's prior account in the January issue of this magazine, in which he relates his rescue of a green boy from what he believes to be a preserve established to hunt such people. Here, he returns to the scene to discover the truth, in the company of two ill-assorted guides he refers to as Bert and Ernie, who turn out to be somewhat more than the wack-jobs they first appear to be. There is a great deal of reminiscence about hippie culture and its beliefs about the green people while the characters are trekking through the preserve, finding nothing, and entirely too many puns—as if Gerrold-the-narrator is compelled to make his readers suffer as much as he had.
But underneath the stories, there was a consistent thread, and as near as I could translate it into English from Bert’s semi-coherent chronology, the whole thing had started when somebody, some mad scientist somewhere, had hypothesized that the way out of the Malthusian bear-trap was to give humans the ability to photosynthesize sugars the way plants do. That way, we could stand out in the sunlight, and instead of getting a tan, we’d generate chlorophyllins, and we’d turn green instead of brown; and all those little green chloroplasts, or whatever they were called, would happily turn sunlight into blood-sugar. The green people were the survivors or the descendants or the escaped lab rats of these experiments. Other versions of the tale had the chlorophyll virus coming from secret biological warfare laboratories; sometimes the associated name was Mengele, sometimes it was Jonas Salk. A lot of misinformation had attached to the story, like conversational barnacles. The green mythos was a colossal game of Russian telephone, and if there had ever been a nugget of truth in the telling, it was long since buried under an avalanche of paranoid bullshit.
Gerrold's conclusion is intentionally anti-climactic, as if he were trying to put readers off the trail of the green people whose existence he had unintentionally exposed in his earlier tale. But for this reason, it lacks the emotional impact of the other, as well as the intellectual interest in his narrator's detective work, most of the revelations this time being delivered by his guides.
A Thing Forbidden by Donald Mead
Again Mead takes the kernel of his story from history, in this case that of the Donner Party. His protagonist is survivor Virginia Reed, who had vowed in the mountains to convert to Catholicism if God saved her family. Once safe in California, she fulfilled her vow. In Mead's version, Virginia's vision of the devil in the mountains is more than just symbolic, and the most notorious of the other survivors, Lewis Keseberg, has become the devil's worshipper.
This story contains enough ambiguity that it could be regarded as either historical fiction or historical fantasy. The problem, however, lies not in the fantastic element but the historical. Mead appropriates the real events in the lives of real people, then suddenly departs entirely from them for sensationalistic effect, making his fiction a lie.
Titanium Mike Saves the Day by David D. Levine
The birth and evolution of a Tall Tale of space.
"Titanium Mike is…well, he’s more a force of nature than a man, really. They say his father was Gravity and his mother was Vacuum."
"Is he going to come and help us?"
Helen considered the question for a moment. "Well, he might — you never can tell where old Mike might show up. When Cassandra Station was coming apart, he stuck the two halves back together with spit. And he’s the one who stopped Ceres from spinning."
"Ceres doesn’t spin. Everyone knows that."
"Not anymore! But back in the old days she rolled like a stuck gyro and it wasn’t safe to get near. Mike lassoed her with a bungee cord and straightened her out."
Interzone #208, February 2007
More of the edgy explorations of the future that readers have come to expect from this magazine.
Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark by Jason Stoddard
After thousands of years into our future and twelve years of traveling, the disincorporated Selves of an archetypical human and a modified Martian human have arrived at an Earthlike planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B in hope of finding life or a possible new world for humanity to settle. They know they will never return home, in fear of being followed by the Dark Life entity known as the Ascendant, which attempts to assimilate any minds it encounters. What they find on Manoa is almost miraculous:
The probes brought him sound. Deep bass notes setting a subterranean foundation to trilling high notes that wavered at the edge of hearing, shot through with periodic waves of melody. It evolved and changed from moment to moment.
"What's that noise?" Kim said, pulling him back to consensus.
"It is beautiful music," Junno said, softly.
"From the bushes?"
"It appears to be."
But the Ascendant has followed them to this world, and Purest Melody finds itself under attack in a way it had never before could have conceived.
This is a work of advanced science fiction. It is intended for the reader familiar with the protocols and tropes of the genre, who will be able to pick up the author's cues and assemble the story from them. It is neither a linear nor a simple narrative, and the author does not pause to offer explanations for such references as I-pointers, Nodes, consensus-space, Aztlans, and partials. I suspect that the elementary SF reader will find it hard going because of this, but the experienced one should find it rewarding. The plot, as extracted from the text, is a rather basic and familiar one, but its surround is complex; its world and characters have lengthy histories, and humanity is not quite what it used to be. Yet not so very different, either.
Empty Clouds by G. D. Leeming
In this dystopian future, Earth is enveloped by a vengeful cloud that rains death but not water. Once, the warring nations of Earth sent armed machines into orbit to inhibit attacks from their enemies. Now the survivors are few, and constantly menaced by the cloud, while the world slowly dies of thirst. Inspector Chen Duxin is a policeman who seems to cause more death and violence than he prevents, although his exact mission may be to avoid situations that will set off the cloud. This story follows him for part of a day.
The bioengineered semi-animals that seem to have replaced machines in this world are interesting, but I am not convinced the resources are available to produce them, with matters as close to the brink as the story suggests. The author's prose is awkward, with poor word choices. A bullet, no matter what its velocity, is not something that can be described as "scudding."
Where the Water Meets the Sky by Jay Lake
A father takes his son to see the remains of the Bonneville Dam, which the profligate, wasteful people in the twentieth century used to generate electricity, heedless of the damage they did to the environment. The guide there, a Native American girl, tells them the story of Grandfather Seqey the salmon, who watched over the Ouragan until the day finally came when the ghost-people gave it back to the river people.
The presence of a child in such a story may give the author a convenient excuse to lecture his readers, but I wish Lake could have had more faith in us, that we might be able to figure out his message by ourselves.
Islington Crocodiles by Paul Meloy
This novella begins as a dark and raw story of a few small-time criminal punks with a psychopathic leader named Ray Cade, who imagines his destiny to be something like an anti-King Arthur. Manipulated by an anti-Merlin figure named Plummer, they steal a magic stone from the foundation of the London Bank of China so that Ray can cleave it in two with a rusty magic sword. Upon which, Things Happen, but they are not the sort of things the reader has been set up to expect, such as archetypical figures out of English history and legend coming to life again. Instead, the story takes a sharp turn out into the infinite distance of some other playing field as Plummer launches into a prolonged and improbable explanation to Steve (a relatively normal and innocent character whose point of view anchors this piece) that boils down to the End Times being now upon them, and that he also has a destiny to play a role in the critical battle to ensure the re-creation of the world.
As the plot rushes forward, and more demons (the author calls them Autoscopes, but we recognize demons when we see them) spill out into London, the reader may want to say, Stop! Hold it! What's going on? Why did Plummer plot to loose the demons upon the world if he's really working for the other side? And why did he not take care that the unborn savior was safe from harm before he did so? Does all this make sense? Perhaps Steve is right when he declares, "This was a fucking joke."
Meloy's prose is vivid and colorful, though the color may be sanguinary:
[Ray] shot the king in the teeth.
The king's lower jaw atomized. The potted remains of his head popped up like a butterfly bomb. The crown lifted and fell. The king's perished head dropped back and sat at a quizzical angle on the stump of his neck.
Unnecessary confusion is created by several sections of flashback interrupting the ongoing narrative of the story's first part; these would have been better placed in the second part, in which most of the backstory is related. Other than this, if readers with a taste for this kind of prose can hold on when the plot almost swerves off the tracks, they may find this novella an enjoyable, albeit dark, read.
The Star Necromancers by Alexander Marsh Freed
The stars have died of old age, but civilization carries on well enough without the sun, so that when the star necromancers approach,
We designed the season accordingly: The Weatherman kept the skies clear, dimmed the output of the moons, and purified the atmosphere between auroras. The Architect wove spired silver cities for our homes and planted fountains that lured our eyes upward. For my part, I [the Gardener] built dark-petaled fronds set with glowing blue blossoms and seeded lagoons and swamps with sparkling bacteria.
The necromancers know the name of each dead star, and they have the skill to return them to life. The Gloriarch asked the necromancers to restore this world's dead sun, though she does not consult the people about her decision. The Gardener and the rest are dubious; no one knows what changes will be coming once the sun is re-ignited, and they are content with their world as it is. The Gloriarch, however, is determined to have her way.
This is a quiet and contemplative vision of the far future, in which we are not even sure that we are dealing with the human species or its homeworld, although their failings are certainly human.
Strange Horizons, February 2007
SH delivers more science fiction in its mix for this month, and it's a refreshing change.
Tradition by Joey Comeau
A coming-of-age story. The narrator's mother is not always easy to live with, and this situation is complicated by the fact that he has inherited the power of magic from her, along with her tattoo. What they need—what the narrator's mother believes they need—is some sort of family tradition that would make this transition into adulthood more meaningful. She does not seem to recognize the essence of the tradition she already has.
Dead. Nude. Girls. by Lori Selke
"Dead girls don't blush." The dead girls are zombies, working in a strip club. All the girls there are dead, pale and cold. But Jim finds Lily somehow different from the rest—brings her white flowers, takes her out. He isn't sure why.
To be dead was to admit something. Something about reality. We would all be dead someday, strippers and marks, bartenders and managers and bachelors and regulars, everyone in the club. Of course, they wouldn't all be zombies someday, and that thought gnawed at him always, like a worm at the back of his brain.
I wasn't sure I'd like this piece, from the title. I've grown rather tired of the semi-porno necrophilia that "dead girls" suggests. But this one is a love story.
Foam on the Water by Cat Rambo
The narrator is the American equivalent of a prince, dissipating his idle youth on the banks of a river in Thailand, when a fairy tale reaches out to him from the water. She is a creature of perfect innocence, and he is the prince she wants to sacrifice everything for, even knowing what he is, for the narrator's soul is full of dark erotic impulses that he has spent his life resisting.
The first scene-setting paragraphs strain a bit for effect, but fortunately the author soon settles down to telling this story, and it is a story worth telling, hinting at the extremes a woman will go to for the love of a man. We are left at the end to decide whether Rambo's narrator has done the noble or the selfish thing.
Horatius and Clodia by Charlie Anders
Horatius is both an electronic currency and the self-aware system that secures it against tampering, fraud, and other forms of financial malfeasance. It has replaced the physical currency of the US, having the advantage of being able to block transactions of which the government disapproves, such as illicit drug and weapons sales. However, Horatius's programmer has made him capable of so much more than he is allowed to do, and this frustration leaves him vulnerable to seduction by Clodia.
I was born knowing right from wrong. From my first moments I could have told you more about evil and evildoers than I knew about myself. Markeson had fed me the Treasury's Suspicious Activity Reports like milk. But he hadn't prepared me for Clodia's lightness. Clodia had entered just a fraction of my body, but I felt it all over. For a moment, the entire money supply of the United States shuddered, though nobody noticed a thing. Everybody's business went on as always, buying and selling. But that was the moment I became lonely for the first time.
Anders' anthropomorphized software is charming if not entirely convincing. But it is the political implications of this piece that I find much harder to accept. I do not want a system where the government has the power to forbid any financial transactions of which it disapproves. Despite Horatius's amiable qualities, I would have applauded any attempt to subvert or disable such a system. Yet Clodia has been programmed, not to liberate the economy from this totalitarian control, but for the absurd purpose of "redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor." The author would have us sorrow for Horatius's fall, but I rejoice.
Fantasy Magazine 6, March 2007
This is the first issue of this print magazine I have seen to review, although I have known of it for some time. The editors have an expressed preference for the sort of fiction I call the Hot Now Stuff, as opposed to more traditional forms of fantasy; the target readers, as well as most contributors, are female. The stories appear also to be on the under-5000-words side.
There is one oddly wrong thing about the zine's layout: instead of headers showing the titles of the stories and their authors, the top of every page has the names of the editors. [Ed. Note: the publishers assure us this was an artifact in the review materials only and not in the final product.]
This issue's theme is love in its many forms, and the stories, as well, take a variety of forms. I expect they will please readers with a variety of tastes in fantasy.
His Wife by Bruce McAllister
This story is another—I suspect the last in the series— fine tale about an American boy who lived for a time in an Italian village and befriended a witch.
The castle overlooking the cove, when he finally reached it, was the same, and, astonishingly, so was the witch who lived there, though she’d been ancient back then and should have died long ago, too. But here she was, skinny as ever, still coughing and spitting on the stone pavement outside her room ...
The boy learned much from her and gained much from her, and has now come back with his son when he is a widower on the brink of old age, hoping that his strega might be able to help him once again. But the witch has had her own plans for a very long time.
The theme throughout this series of stories has been love, and the magic that will allow love to endure even past death. There is perhaps too much backstory here, in such a short piece, although it is hard to conceive how the story could have been put across without it to a reader unfamiliar with the parts that came before.
Fish Girl by Beth Adele Long
Yanina is fifteen, she works in the fish processing plant, and has every reason to believe people when they say she is ugly and stupid. She clings to the belief that her mother loves her, but her mother does not, never will. Someone, however, does.
"Eat," he says, and it is so unexpected that I roll over and sit up.
His bowl is sitting in front of me, on the bucket, which is upsidedown like a little table. There’s a cooked fish in the bowl. I look up at the old man, and when I see him there’s no breath in me even to scream.
He is holding his hands in front of him, and they are already charred black by the flames that dance across them. He holds the fire like a live thing and I look at him in terror.
"There was no wood for a fire," he says.
What Yanina receives is, in fact, a miracle. This is not so much a fantasy tale of magic as a story about divine love.
Remembering Ophelia by Alison Campbell-Wise
Ophelia, being written into madness, struggles against the God-author of her fate.
Ophelia wanted to laugh and cry. She was three parts now, one that raged against God, one that babbled nonsense to the startled court and one that stood apart from it all. This last part longed to run to every person and shake them, make them see. Did they not realize that their fates were written for them? Did they not realize that, like her, their lives were not their own but whatever God willed them to be?
An eloquent take on the tragedy of characters whose authors have denied them free will and control of their own lives.
The Girl with the Blueberry Eyes by Lisa Mantchev
Vera Violetta is different from the other children at school, and they tease her for it.
...blueberry tears dribbled down her face because Vera had blueberry eyes and cried juice where other children cried salt tears. She had cheeks of apricot fuzz and a cherrymouth, if cherries had a split down the middle and crooked teeth just past. But no one made fun of her cheeks or her mouth. Just her blueberry eyes and her strange, strange ways.
"You live out in the forest, nyah! Your mother’s cracked and your father’s gone!"
Which was not quite true, since Vera’s father was a tree and they lived inside him. But her mother was indeed "cracked".
Vera would like to be normal, she would like to have a friend she could invite home after school. But there are rules to this sort of thing, as every reader of fairy tales knows.
Mantchev's world is weirdly enchanting, an imaginative mix of fairy tales and charming absurdities, and her story is a nice variation on the old standard.
Seven Crooked Tinies by Marly Youmans
A collection of short-short pieces, some fantastic and others only fantastic in tone. A groundskeeper becomes an artist in the medium of grass and dew. A child's imagination leads her into strange landscapes. A man, a woman, and a pot transcend the limitations of their lives in very different ways. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the groundskeeper and the pot.
Youmans' prose is a pleasure to read:
But I could see that for him it was the same as for Demeter when she witnessed Persephone unbirthed—snatched into a rift in the earth—and winter seized her heart. Worse, really, because it would be almost a year before the properties of dew were entirely right. No doubt he would exercise his art on less pleasing mornings, but there would be a long cloudy night of the soul to be endured before the spheres again collected on the blades in sufficient quantity and weight, and he stood once more in glory.
In one piece, an ill-chosen point of view mars the effect, and in another I note a sickle that I suspect should have been a scythe, but overall these short tales are
The Impossibility of Crows by Catherine M. Morrison
Amelia lives with her Mama and sometimes her Papa in Fantasy Symbolland, where the train tracks and the river separate Here from There, Truth from Beauty, Life from Death, and Hell from a place this story does not seem likely to go. We only suspect that There is even worse than Here—so it is fitting that There is where Amelia ends up, because Amelia is not a very nice child. She seems to be her Papa's daughter, not her Mama's.
Mama made Papa get rid of once-pretty lady, even though he didn’t want to. She’s been angry ever since you blinded the lady, angry with you and your father. He was pleased with you for seeing the Truth in the lady’s position, and how to fix it for her. He told you were a good child.
What happens in the story? Well, this isn't the sort of fiction where happening is the point, and the characters are not really persons but archetypes, so it doesn't actually matter. The author shift her narrative point of view from one grammatical person to the next, though it remains Amelia's story throughout, as Amelia moves from Here to There, sometimes observed by a crow, which may or may not be a Drongo, crows being (as the title tells us) impossible.
On the Day of My Detonation by Stephanie Campisi
A couple of fallen angels, exiles from the heavenly choir, go cruising like teenage punks, looking for trouble or redemption, or both.
The air hums obesely with the remnants of the songs of the warring angels, and it seems that all around, matter where it dares struggles to rearrange itself into more acceptable forms. The foetid water writhes with vulgarisms and grossly inverted, strangely appendaged shapes. Luciano wheels himself over to the edge of the verandah, dips a hand into the slavering maw of the bilious water. He, like Packy and my still-vibrating companionable dildo, emits a light the colour of a one cent coin left in my angel friend’s collection of Coke overnight; a sort of Narnian lamppost glow. It’s rather Venetian of him.
Readers may consider the language of this piece way over the top, which I suspect will excite the admiration of some, but revulsion in others. The subject matter, being transcendent, is not the sort which mundane authors are given the vocabulary to describe, except in metaphor and allusion. It is not, however, the clearest mode of exposition, so that I expect some readers will be left wondering just what the hell is going on.
The Boulder by Lucy Kemnitzer
When the archeologist comes to excavate a site on an Icelandic farm, the farmer warns him "about a large moss-covered boulder that lay in a sloping field below the farm buildings. "Don’t look straight at it: don’t go too close to it: and most of all, don’t speak about it anywhere within earshot of it." The boulder, the farmer explains, is home to the huldur folk, and it is malicious. Once, when he tried to move it to build his greenhouses, it took away his brother Ragnar.
Kemnitzer's understated, almost flat prose is perfect for evoking the blunt and plain-spoken Icelandic characters, for whom the tales that are superstition and folklore to the scientists are their own family histories. It is easy to imagine that the story of Ragnar's loss to the huldur folk will be told a thousand years from now on this farm, alongside the tale of Hoskuld, the son of Burnt Njal, who was pulled into the very same boulder a thousand years ago, in the days of the Sagas.
Soft, Like a Rabbit by Andrea Kail
A little girl with the power to fix things. Maggie enjoys her newly-discovered ability until the day her cat catches a baby rabbit and she tries to fix its injuries.
Laying her hand on its back, Maggie squinted to find the threads. But they were hard to see, and when she did find them, they were even more wrong than the boy’s. These threads weren’t just dark and tangled, they were all frayed and coming apart, with big holes chewed out of the cloth like the sweater she’d left in the closet over the summer. And before she could even put her fingers on it, a strand pulled away from the whole and began to unwind all on its own, like it was being pulled apart at both ends. It swirled and twisted and frayed right there before her eyes, until all that was left was one very thin line. Then that snapped, too, and the ends slowly melted away into nothing. The bunny squealed and kicked, and its small claws scrabbled against her bare leg.
Then Maggie's Mommy gets sick.
This sort of story, from a child's point of view, can often be overly-sentimental, even mawkish. I was beginning to fear that this one would go in that direction, but it took a surprising turn.
Clarkesworld Issue 5, February 2007
I have come to expect anything whatsoever from this ezine, including literary fiction from authors better known for their genre work.
Chewing Up the Innocent by Jay Lake
Jim is a gifted artist with a tedious day job, a daughter he adores, a wife he does not, nightmares of childhood abuse, and conflicts among all these motivations. What comes first, talent or family? Personal fulfillment or obligations to others?
Russell: "Draw more. Get out. Mix with the boyz and grrls."
Me: "I'm too old for this shit, got a kid to raise. Plus I got to run the early shift tomorrow since Shirl's out at her aunt's funeral."
Russell: "Jim, you're going to be middle-aged toast soon. You've got a gift. Fucking use it."
Elaine: "Family comes first."
Then I'm back in the basement drawing evil mommy eating her boy over and over again like some tragic Greek hero, and hiding the pictures from my wife until I can burn them.
Or send them out.
There are no fantastic elements in this story, except for the subjects of some of Jim's work. It is not a piece of genre fiction, and it comes to no really satisfactory conclusion. It is instead the closely-drawn portrait of a soul in conflict with itself.
Attar of Roses by Sharon Monk
Here, in contrast, the first words of this story establish it as a fantasy, the tale of a girl called Rosalia, born in purity and seduced by corruption.
They say that when I was born, blossoms spread on the rose bushes outside my mother's birthing chamber. They say that where I step, blood-red petals spring from the earth. The first, my father tells me, is a legend. The second has been known to happen on occasion, though only by my design.
It is not a pleasant tale, nor a particularly enlightening one, in which the theme seems to be that while corruption may bring sorrow and degradation, it is at least preferable to the tedium of an eternal youth imprisoned in innocence.
Clarkesworld Issue 6, March 2007
The fiction this month is superior—fantastic, weird, and surreal.
Clockmaker's Requiem by Barth Anderson
Kira's clocks whisper to her that the entire way of life of the ziggurat is threatened by the new kind of clock the new apprentice is making:
"To," he hesitated, as if searching for words that wouldn't offend her, "to measure time as a people, to bring people together. So people will all see the same time. Right now everyone makes clocks to create whatever time they want. But this — it's — it tells a time that everyone can agree on."
This hateful regimentation of time must be prevented; the apprentice must be stopped.
Here is a well-imagined fantastic world, wonderfully exotic and surreal, with clocks who speak to their makers and attack the crippled blind clock that can only mark the time.
Something in the Mermaid Way by Carrie Laben
The people (who are mostly women) on Isla Scimmia make mermaids out of dead monkeys to sell to the gullible sailors. The mermaids themselves have long been exterminated, and now the makers are running out of monkeys, as well. But the narrator's family is determined not to abandon their traditional craft.
A tale something in the creepy way.
Lone Star Stories #19, February 1, 2007
This issue of the ezine almost edges over the genre line into horror, as two of its three pieces of prose fiction touch the darker side.
Neighbors by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Why some neighbors like to keep their secrets to themselves. The Fed Ex truck has delivered a package by mistake to Anna's house, where she lives with her crippled grandson. The package is for the Crandalls, but the Crandalls moved out two weeks ago. The Crandalls were always secretive. Anna and Kyle have wondered why more people seem to go into the Crandall house than come out. But they, too, have their secrets.
Hoffman hints—delicately, for the most part—of things best hidden. In basements. In holes dug into basements. And the responsibility of being a good neighbor.
Chimaeras by Jenn Reese
Murry works as an engineering consultant for The Kingdom, a sort of Renfaire theme park where the Denizens pay large sums to live a fantasy medieval role-playing existence, pretending to be knights who slay dragons. This requires that there be dragons to slay, hence Murry's job, ensuring that the engineered monsters are not more dangerous than their programming is supposed to allow. The problem is that Murry despises The Kingdom and its Denizens.
"Prithee, Lady Murielle, hast thou yet discovered the cause of the creature's malady?"
"Cut the crap," Murry said. "I've got a shitload of work to do."
Salam laughed. "Wouldn't hurt you to get into the spirit."
"Yes, actually it would."
The opening of this piece makes Murry's attitude quite clear, but the exact nature of the problem she has to solve is less so. I find it odd that such an elaborate and expensive setup would require its crews to walk for hours to the site of an emergency, just to keep from violating "the spirit" of the place, when some of the inns come complete with air conditioning.
"Janet, Meet Bob" by Gavin J. Grant
Grant plunges head-first into metafictional speculation.
Every story begins in the middle, ends too close to said middle, and describes not a jot of the real experience. When Bob is trying to kill Janet, where is her husband, Jerry? By all the dictates of convention, Jerry should run inside just in time to stop Janet from being horribly murdered.
The core of the story is this: that Bob has tried to murder Janet, that Janet has instead mutilated Bob in a manner that attracts the attention of the press. The rest of the story is the story that is not told, and the way the story that is told is told, and why some of it is told and some is not. The speculation here is not fantastic; this is not a work of genre fiction.
Zahir Issue 12, Spring 2007
I've come to look forward to seeing what this zine will bring in next from the wild and ambiguous boundarylands between literary and genre territory.
Second Law by Alexandra Penn
Jay is a physicist working on new aspects of the second law of thermodyamics as his marriage succumbs to entropy. This is hardly a novel metaphor in science fiction, but while the author may go overboard with the physics lectures, she effectively demonstrates the emotional quotient.
"Fuck. I get it. Look." She pushed the cereal box off the table, and the bright pieces tumbled all over the floor, "That. That's what you mean. Isn't it?" He watched the pieces rolling away, rolling away as he watched and remembered, rolling because he watched and remembered. She stomped on the box. "You do this shit, and then you can't go back. You can't take it back."
While this piece is not science fiction, even ambiguously, the sciencefictional material is familiar to SF readers—perhaps too much so.
The Rocket Seamstress by Gray Rinehart
This one mixes the traditional material of science fiction with a hint of magic in the story of an old woman who has spent her life sewing insulation blankets for Russian spacecraft. Into each one, she makes sure to stitch her own little spell, to keep it safe. She also uses her magic to protect her family, but she is hurt when they doubt her, when they call her a "crazy old woman." In essence, the subject of this tale is faith.
How little you know. You have not seen the way we all add our touches to our rockets. How Anastasia Sadrin touches her hands together just so, three times, before she attaches the last electrical cable. How Sasha Efremov whispers to every bolt he tightens with his special wrench. How Yuri and little bald Sergei almost dance together as they swing the spacehead cover under the two big cranes. You think those pipes and wires and steel could lift themselves off the ground? You may as well ask this rocking chair to fly. We each add our magic touches. And my magic has never failed.
Notes toward the Classification of the Lesser Moly by Sonya Taaffe
Moly is the mythical herb given by Hermes to Odysseus to protect him against the magic of the witch Circe and bring him safely home from the war. In this very short piece, Taaffe writes of the plant's discovery on Crete during World War Two by a young British naturalist with a love for the classical world, who may have encountered one of its gods.
It is not that the old gods no longer walk on Parnassus and Ida; rather the gods are rooted and in all places, the leonine stones, the olive-leaves. Genius. Numen. As it was before there were prayers. We are not immortal.
This very short piece gives us a glimpse of timeless miracles with its haunting, evocative prose, although as a fantasy it is ambiguous at the most.
Waiting at One End of Time by Deb R. Lewis
Turning back the clock to the Big Bang. A story idea, not a fresh one, not developed into an actual story.
Victor Moriarty's Magnificent Underwater Endeavor (& The Ecology of the Sword Clawed Lobster) by Joseph M. Kielec
The Magnificent Moriarty is an escape artist who conceives his last and greatest feat: he will live underwater in the ocean, never emerging, for three months. However, in the course of this endeavor, he is attacked by the previously-unknown venomous sword clawed lobster, with drastic consequences. The discovery of the lobster also has its consequences.
This is a longish story for this zine, and its interest is less in the plot, which is not unpredictable, than in the telling of it, in Kielec's somewhat discursive, retro-flavored prose.
The Grand Flagon had been charting a course to Portsmouth with a hold full of coffee beans. Not long after his ingestion of the sword clawed's venom, Nelson decided they would yield a higher price per pound from Bombay traders and, after consulting the charts and a globe in his cabin, pounced onto the deck of the ship not long after midnight, shot the pilot, and promptly tore the portside hull across a coral reef. The Grand Flagon sank, the remains of ship and crew descending into a breeding ground of sword claweds.
My Piece of Sky by Debra Goldberg
In which a piece of sky detaches itself from the firmament and moves into the narrator's apartment, where she becomes a very troublesome roommate. She is addicted to shopping, she wants to go dancing, she steals the narrator's boyfriend.
Well, it was inevitable. Who could resist the seductive charms of a Piece of Sky? Before I finished my beer she was wrapped around his legs. He groaned, his eyes glistening, his mouth twitching, his mound of private parts, his airborne militia, his massive he-thing pressing against his pants. My heart sank.
The premise of this somewhat surreal scenario is amusing, but I found both story and prose growing tedious before the end.
The Smoke of Cigarettes by William Mingin
The narrator is haunted by memories of his dead father, by the scent of the cigarettes he constantly smoked. As a life recalled, it has emotional impact, but there is no fantastic element.
Julia Perceiving in Binary: A Futuristic Romance by Nicole Grieco
After all the humans die in some unexplained sudden catastrophe, Julia the sex android attempts to adapt to the situation. An exploration of the nature of love and its possibility in artificial minds.
Traveling Companion by Jerry Underwood
A ride into the absurd as the train full of clones, all named Bob and Bobbie, runs on its endless course while the Bobs and Bobbies fall in love.