More stuff from the printzines than usual this month, as I catch up on a few of the small press publications. More to come from the June reading period.
Asimov's, July 2007
This issue's reading has much food for thought, but a minimum of action.
Fountain of Age by Nancy Kress
When Max Feder was a young soldier, he met the one love of his life; when he came back after the war to find her, she had disappeared. Now he is an old man, waiting to die, with nothing left of Daria but a few strands of her hair in a ring. But when his grandsons accidentally lose the ring, Max goes into action to get part of Daria back. He knows now where Daria is—the wife of a very wealthy man and the heart of a rejuvenation center for the very rich. Max is now rich, the result of a stock tip passed him by Daria (in a rather improbable scene) and a lifetime of corporate crime that once put him into prison. The feds are still following him, and he will have to outwit them in order to get what he wants.
This is a story about love and obsession, and getting what you wish for. Max's obsession with Daria has not left room in his life for loving anyone else: not his wife, not his son.
Children. They tie you to the present, when sometimes all you want is the past.
In the end, though, Max surprises himself and discovers he may have a future, after all. It is the character, with all his flaws, foibles, and crotchets, who carries this story.
The Trial by Brian Stableford
Tom Wharton is a doctor conducting a clinical trial of a promising new drug targeting an enkephalin that inhibits the function of neurons in Alzheimer's patients. One patient, William Asherson, has a dramatic response to the drug; most of his cognitive functions are restored almost immediately, but he still exhibits some confusion, as well as a fanatical conviction that he needs a second dose, regardless of the protocols of the drug trial.
"Wrong assumption," Asherson said, in a blithely patronizing manner that he must have honed to perfection in the classroom. "You think it would be a bad thing to clear out all the CAG-repeat protein, because some of it must be performing some function that determined the selective value of the gene, albeit less efficiently than the normal version. That's not a danger. I need a second dose, Dr. Wharton. You have to give it to me.
This story, pure science fiction, raises a number of fascinating issues about memory and the mind, and the value of being able to forget certain events. Unfortunately, it is rather heavy with biochemistry neep, suggesting an effort to cram information into a story space too small to hold it all comfortably.
Roxie by Robert Reed
The narrator, a science fiction author, is faced with impending death of two different kinds, from two different sources: his dying dog and the near approach of an asteroid to Earth. The one is inevitable and personal, the other uncertain and universal. The message:
Whatever the reason, we move slowly into the pines, down where the long shadows make the grass cool and inviting. I am crying again. I'm thinking about everything, but mostly I am telling myself what a blessing this is, being conjured out of nothingness, and even when the nothingness reclaims us, there remains that unvanquished honor of having once, in some great way or another, been alive. . . .
It seems that most of the story, with the exception of the comet, is a fictionalized account of real events in the author's life, which makes it a heartfelt tribute to a good friend, from which the science-fictional element could easily be lifted out. But it provides an additional layer of depth and a different perspective on the matter of life and death.
The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson
An episode from early in Roberson's alternate history, when the Chinese Empire is planning the conquest of Mexico. Cao Wen, a bureaucrat in the Department of War, has discovered the existence of an old man, imprisoned for many years, who once journeyed to Mexico. He would certainly have valuable information, if only Cao Wen could get him to reveal it. But Ling Xuan has his own priorities, and if the Bureau of Suppression and Soothing had not been able to make him confess, it is not likely that Cao Wen can succeed by using force. Properly persuaded, however, Ling has much of value to reveal.
"The Mexica, as clever and bright and ferocious as they may be, are still blinded by their faith. The most learned among them honestly believes that the world is but a few hundred years old, and all evidence to the contrary is merely a test of their faith. We of the Middle Kingdom, I would argue, cling with as much tenacity to beliefs and superstitions no more grounded in reality than that, but with one notable difference. Ours is a culture that can produce a mind like Cui's, a mind that challenges received wisdom, which questions the foundations of knowledge itself. If we manage to produce only one like him in every dozen generations, we will still manage, in the fullness of time, to conquer the universe. Like the fraction of worlds of the fraction of stars in the great immensity of the heavens, that ensure that we are not alone, just one small spark of genius in the vast sea of complacency will mean that history does not stand still."
The heart of this tale is Ling Xuan, a wonderful character in all senses of the term—fascinating, maddening, cryptic. Cao Wen is not the fool he first appears to be, and provides a satisfying conclusion. Roberson's Forbidden City is a well-realized setting for this tale.
Bulletdance by John Schoffstall
In a world full of terrorists and other perils, Clio has been visited throughout her childhood by a pair of deathgods who teach her the bullet dance.
We know there is a bullet coming toward you. We know it must not hit you.
Clio is a good study and perfects the bullet dance, all the while knowing that adults will not believe her story. Eventually the gods leave her, their task completed, and as Clio begins to grow up, she is no longer convinced that her experience was real. Until the bullet finally comes, and Clio learns that deathgods may tell the truth to a child and be deceiving her at the same time.
It would be taking this story too literally to object that the gods might have fulfilled their purpose in some much simpler, more direct way than spending years teaching a child to dodge bullets. There is too much myth here for that, and years mean nothing to a god. Clio's journeys into the different realms of death are interesting, but the theme here is trust and deception, and the cruelty of growing up.
Congratulations from the Future! by Michael Swanwick
The editorial note with this one warned that it was not really a story. It is instead a sort of SFnal in-joke about the future of the science fiction of the future, commemorating the magazine's 30th anniversary. A sample:
2014: Aliens Invade Earth. Revenues soar at Asimov's as countless tentacled monstrosities subscribe in order to bring themselves up to speed on our planet's history and culture. Subsequently, human defense forces have little difficulty subduing the aliens, who have somehow acquired an exaggerated opinion of the complexity of human society and the superiority of our technology.
F&SF, July 2007
A novella by Lucius Shepard anchors this issue.
Stars Seen Through Stone by Lucius Shepard
Strange events in a strange town. Years ago, the narrator and his wife found themselves washed up in Black William, a mill town subject to periodic manifestations of an eldritch phenomenon perceived by the residents as odd-shaped stars. Vernon started up a business as a music promoter, and now he has taken on a new performer, a repulsive character named Joe Stanky who seems to show some promise. But when Stanky arrives in Black William, he begins to exhibit more than promise; his new songs have a touch of genius, including the eponymous song about the strange visions of stars.
I glanced back at the library and saw two white lights shaped like fuzzy asterisks. At first I thought they were moving across the face of the building, that some people were playing with flashlights; but their brightness was too sharp and erratic, and they appeared to be coming from behind the library, shining through the stone, heading toward us. After ten or fifteen seconds, they faded from sight. Spooked, I noticed that Stanky was staring at the building and I asked if he had seen the lights.
Stanky is not the only one effected by the phenomenon. Other residents of Black William begin to exhibit newfound abilities and bursts of uncharacteristic creativity. Vernon and his ex-wife find themselves again attracted to one another. But the effect of the stars is not always benign: suicides in the area increase, and a young man suddenly becomes a serial killer.
The revelation, when it finally comes, has a strong Lovecraftian tone: strange powers from another dimension come to feed on human minds. Unfortunately, I am reminded of horror films in which the menace is chilling as long as it remains offscreen, but looks kind of cheesy when it turns out to be a guy in a monster suit. This seems to be one of those cases where an implicit horror is more effective than an explicit description. However, the strength of this story does not depend on the details of the horror so much as in its effects on the characters, who are strongly described. Vernon begins his narration in an interestingly mannered voice—
This led to that, that to this, Andrea and I grew apart in our obsessions, had affairs, divorced, and, before we realized it, the better part of a decade had rolled past. Though initially I felt trapped in an ugly, dying town, over the years I had developed an honest affection for Black William and its citizens, among whom I came to number myself.
—but it drops away after the first page or so.
Daughters of Prime by Lawrence C. Connelly
This one does not begin too well, as the author seems to find it necessary to tell us four times in detail that Cara Alpha and Cara Gamma are communicating via neural implant—which is not a particularly novel SFnal concept. It is a non-intervention story—also not a novelty. The cloned copies of Cara are assigned as observers of a sentient species on an unexplored planet; they falsely believe the natives are not aware of their drone, until it falls into the forest, coincidentally at the exact time the village is due to be visited by a native-devouring monster. Cara must now decide whether to use her advanced technology to destroy the monster and save the village.
There is nothing much here to compensate for the story's lack of originality, and the character is rather thick-headed if she believes there can be only a single such monster on her world.
Car 17 by P. E. Cunningham
The tale of a cop and his car. Officer Will and Car 17 were partners.
According to him, cop cars didn't come off the lot; they ran wild, in herds, and you had to rope and ride your own and break it like a bronc. Like the Texas Rangers, he told the littler, gullible kids. You and your horse are buddies and ride the range together, looking for outlaws. We use cars now, not horses, but it's the same thing.
But that wasn't all, he went on. You want a car that won't break down or quit on you in the middle of a high-speed chase, or when the lead starts flying. You want a car you can trust your life to. So I put a spell on mine, he said. He related how after he brought 17 in off the range, he soaped her up and hosed her down in an empty parking lot under a full October moon, to wash all the bad stuff out of her, then rubbed on two coats of wax, to seal the good stuff in. Then he put his hands on the borough seal they'd put on her driver's side door, and spoke the magic words of the police department: to protect and to serve.
Then the homicidal green car came to town, and Officer Will and Car 17 took it on. A fresh and charming urban fantasy, with overtones of a tall tale.
Powersuit™ by M. K. Hobson
Marshall Graig depends on his AIgent to advise him in his climb up the corporate ladder, thwarting the ambitions of his rival Drock. But Graig retains a certain degree of independence and eccentricity, wasting time, as Buddy puts it, composing song lyrics in the style of Frank Sinatra. "I'm wasted on you," the AIgent complains.
This light piece may remind readers of the interaction between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, although Jeeves is more reliable and more wise than Buddy.
Cold Comfort by Ray Vukcevich
In a nation where even the appliances are programmed to report suspicious activity, a freezer calls in to report the possibility of a cut-up body being stowed away inside it. But the program on the other end of the call may not be a program at all—and the freezer may not be a freezer.
It should be obvious that what we had here was a double case of the Turing Test—that famous procedure that determines so much of life these days. It's simple enough: some thing is on the other end of the line. You get to ask it anything you like for as long as you like. In the end, if you cannot tell if it's a person or a program, you have to conclude that it is intelligent no matter what it is. In other words, if it passes the Turing Test, you had to consider it a person, and persons had one or two more rights and responsibilities than devices. The freezer was trying to use the Turing Test on us. We would, of course, turn it around on her, because it was now clear that someone was trying to pull a fast one on the Company, and it would be our job to get to the bottom of things.
A very short, somewhat surreal conversation.
Strange Horizons, May 2007
May seems to have a theme of strange places on Earth.
Fella Down a Hole: Unlikely Patron Saints, No. 2 by Amy Sisson
Sarah Anne has fallen down an old mine shaft, which is easy to do in Coober Pedy, Australia, as this is an opal mining town, hot, dry and desolate, "where shafts mark the landscape like so many tunnels down to hell." Sarah Anne wants to leave the place, and she has her ticket out, a chance-found opal. But perhaps because she is only fifteen, she is still there, carrying the opal around in her pocket, when she falls into the hole and begins to hallucinate the voice of a departed teacher (teachers never remain long in Coober Pedy).
The evidence of fantastic content in this very short piece is slight, but it suggests that perhaps Miss Ames, also, once fell into a hole, and it is her ghost speaking to Sarah Anne. Coober Pedy itself might seem like a SFnal setting, but the place is real, here on Earth.
The Hide by Liz Williams
Another fantastic place is the region of Britain near Glastonbury, sometimes called the Summer Country:
...named not for cowslip meadows or hazy warmth, but because it only appeared in summer, when the waters had retreated towards the Severn Estuary and the marshes were dry enough to be negotiated on foot. During all other times of year, this land—gleaming wet marshes, dense beds of dull golden reeds, and groves of alder and unpollarded willow—was the haunt only of ducks and herons, and the small people who lived along the causeways and in the lake villages.
This region, so evocatively described, is a common setting for fantasy, for Arthurian legends and Celtic myth, and such a spirit pervades the atmosphere of this tale, so that it seems the cormorants observed by the narrator must be flying in or out of the open gates of the Otherworld, leading captive souls to some Celtic hell. Yet Williams' tale does not seem to be based on any particular myth, and in fact at the end the narrator rejects the myth-line, leaving the mystery in the reeds unexplained and somehow even more sinister for it.
Brownman by Carol Scavella Burrell
Florida, sometime early in the last century, when new towns are being carved out of the swampland and the trees, and Little Charlie is fascinated by the ghosts that haunt the place.
I worried all down the road, pressed against Uncle and putting as much space as I could between me and the trees on both sides. Whoever people [sic] lived in the swamps before city people got here cutting roads and clearing bush, they would have died in there too, wouldn't they? The oldest vault stone in the graveyard, sunk low and pulling ground down around it like a fat man in a lumpy bed, wasn't more than thirty years old. Where were all the people who came before? Anyplace could be a graveyard and full of ghosts.
But what is haunting Little Charlie is not any ordinary ghost, it is the brownman, the ghost of the swamp itself, and it comes as a tempter.
The setting is the thing in this tale, the time and place with its verdant swamps and trees, its pervasive magic, the tension between the old century and the new. Little Charlie is curious, forward-looking, eager for the future yet strongly rooted in her people's past. Little Charlie is no fool to fall for the tricks of a devil.
Ex Machina by Margaret Ronald
In a post-apocalyptic world, Judith is the leader of a band of tinkers, a group with a genetically-based innate understanding of advanced technology. They view themselves as a Chosen People with a mission.
"'And the people said, We fear that our knowledge may be lost. And One said, Do not fear, for I will choose among you certain of your folk, and give unto them machines of the blood, that they may know the lightning's path, and the mysteries of light, and the knowledge to heal that which was made and not born. For learning fails, and inscriptions weather away, and records molder, but the blood carries on.'"
Now One has given them a Call to journey to a repository of toxic waste, to ensure it is contained and neutralized, but a sudden storm in the mountains has forced them to take shelter in a militarized energy generation station, where the commander is greedy to take full control of the power there, but he can not access the control system, set up long ago. He takes Judith's followers hostage to force her to crack the system.
The story here doesn't live up to the potential of the idea. The moral universe is flatly black and white, and the author hands Judith her solution without making her work for it. And it does not seem credible that a group with the advanced technological ability that the tinkers possess would not have been able to build themselves a vehicle or aircraft so they could fly to the new site with their equipment, rather than trudging there on foot through a snowstorm.
Private Detective Molly by A. B. Goelman
A Molly doll can come out of the generator in a number of different personas. Dorothy wanted the Debutante Molly, but the generator keeps producing the P.D. model, instead. So P.D. Molly's first job is to figure out why. The answer is sordid. Social Agent Hanover gets paid for finding ways to reduce social benefits, and Dorothy needs a very expensive operation.
If weasels wore cheap suits, this is what they'd look like when they got their heads in the chicken house. He's got a narrow, pointed face, with dark hair slicked so close to his scalp it looks painted on. His smile is as artificial as the kind my plastic-mold ancestors wore. "Ah, Dorothy. I wanted to make sure my little gift to you is working properly." He looks directly at me.
In short, P.D. Molly has been set up to be a snitch. Now she needs to find a way to help Dorothy retain her benefits, despite her programming that requires her to disclose all her findings to Hanover, Dorothy's legal guardian.
The premise here is not very believable. And while there is some interest in the notion of a hard-boiled detective as a doll, P.D. Molly's excessive fear of mice is a distraction from the primary mystery.
Gift of Flight by Nghi Vo
A variation on the swan-maid story set in contemporary America, where the human husband abuses his wife, who can not leave him because he owns her swan skin. The title, of course, plays off the dual meanings of the word "flight."
This piece has all the requisite elements of such tales, but is such standard SH fare that I can't work up a lot of enthusiasm for Yet Another abuse story narrated by a child listening to the sound of slaps from the dark sanctuary of her bedroom.
Interzone 210, June 2007
Readers may find the cover of this issue a bit misleading, as it features in large type the names HARLAN ELLISON, Stephen Baxter, and Steph Swainston. None of these names, however, are the authors of the fiction here. Author names appear only in the small type at the bottom of the cover. They deserve better.
The Final Voyage of La Riaza by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Subtitled A Circumstance in Eight Parts, this one is a rousing airship adventure on the high seas of space, under the command of a captain driven by dark demons of the mind. La Riaza is the grande dame of the Brazos fleet, and First Mate Diego Brazos is a son of the owner. The elderly Capitan Ancira feels he needs to learn to be less harsh with the crew, but when Ancira is killed in a battle with pirates, Diego takes command of the damaged ship, and nothing will stand in the way of his determination to make La Riaza airworthy again.
Among the charms of this science fantasy is its cosmology:
A large circle representing Cibola anchored the center of the map. Around Cibola were broken concentric circles representing the paths of the daughter worlds: Ary and Asay, the two innermost offering nothing but slow, painful death; the four living worlds of Marlino (which they were currently departing), Ansuly, Cyodene and Jaysos; and barren Vra, airless and unreachable beyond the Cielo Mar [the Heaven Sea].
Heartstrung by Rachel Swirsky
In which the hearts of young girls are taken from their chests and sewn to the sleeve of a sweater, which they will apparently wear for the rest of their entire lives, now that they are women. This is obviously a metaphor for the social process by which women are not allowed their own emotions. As Pamela's mother sews her daughter's heart,
The flare of emotion flicks past her eyes, which remain dry, and past her lips, which stay smiling. The anxiety travels through her bloodstream into her arm, down the plaid sleeve of her sweater, and into the heart which is sewn on her own cuff. The heart absorbs it, as it has absorbed all her strong emotions since she was sewn at thirteen. Only a dull, polite echo of the anxiety remains.
As a metaphor, this is a powerful one. It is impossible to read this description and not recall the process of genital mutilation that women in some other cultures have inflicted on generations of their daughters, cutting away not their emotions but their capacity for sexual pleasure. But it is also impossible at the same time not to read this scenario literally, to wonder how the mother removes her daughter's heart from her chest, and what happens if the girl outgrows the original sweater? Such doubts are fatal to the suspension of disbelief that enables the metaphor, and the image then appears to be absurd, and not in a good way.
Tearing Down Tuesday by Steven Francis Murphy
A post-apocalyptic word, in which Audrey, the Tinkerin' Woman, keeps a bunch of old robots running, more or less. One of the robots running less well is Tuesday, who befriended Kyle when Kyle was a child and being abused by his father. Now Kyle is an orphan, rejected and blamed by the town for his father's death, and his only real friend is Tuesday. Then Audrey declares she's going to sell the robot for parts. Kyle's only chance to buy his friend and save him lies with creepy pedophile Reverend Robinson. But Kyle doesn't understand what Tuesday really wants.
This is a message story of a coming-of-age, and a bit on the emotionally manipulative side.
Dr Abernathy's Dream Theater by David Ira Cleary
Our narrator, former Professor Jaromir Stavan, consoles himself for his professional failures by lapsing into addiction. Or as he tells it,
It is therefore incumbent upon the man of science that he spare no effort to operate efficiently.
To that end, I have recently found that a tincture of kuuf, using an aqueous base, sparkles the wit, combats fatigue, and increases concentration.
At an otherwise boring dinner party, Stavan meets a mysteriously appealing young woman, who introduces him to Dr Abernathy's Dream Theater, in which a mechanism projects the dreams of sleepers so that they can be recorded and analyzed—a method she insists is purely scientific. Stavan is pressed to serve as a subject, but as he is under the influence of kuuf at the time, his experience in the Dream Theater is atypical and offers great psychological insights, upon which Stavan may base a new career. Or maybe it's just the kuuf.
An odd world, suggesting an alternate 19th century, and an odder narrator with a particularly mannered voice make this quirky portrait of self-delusion quite interesting.
Preachers by Tim Lees
Another post-apocalyptic world—this disaster of unknown origin, but there is a strange wind blowing change across the farms where the narrator lived as a boy with his unpredictable Dad.
The wind put thoughts into your skull. It made your mind run off in strange new ways—it drove you mad, so people said, or next best thing. I'd seen a man fall to the ground and babble in a language no one knew. I'd watched a whole town just down tools and walk away across the fields, leaving their homes, their livestock—all because the wind had put some notion in their heads and they'd neither the power nor reason to resist.
And the wind has spawned a new religion, with Preachers calling for blood sacrifice. The narrator's father is one of the few who can resist the call, but he was always a misfit to begin with, and can find no place in this new world.
Dad is a fascinating, warped character, the heart of this story, and I would have liked to see more of him.
Toke by Tim Akers
Another tale set in this author's city of Veridon, which may remind readers of Mieville's New Crobuzon—perhaps too closely in this case. There are nonhuman species in the city, and a disturbed street kid one day persuades some of his buddies to help him kill a scarecrow and smoke its grasslike vines to get high. His buddies, including the narrator, are always ready to get high, though they are not so sure about the killing part. Yet it is clear that for Barber the motive of the deed is bitter revenge on the species, whom he holds responsible for the deaths of his family and his own disfigurement. But Barber is fatally ignorant about the true nature of the scarecrows.
Disclaimer—I workshopped an earlier draft of this story.
Jim Baen's Universe, April 2007
A stronger issue this time. The offerings labeled fantasy provide the best reading for April, even when they are science fiction.
Crawlspace by Dave Freer and Eric Flint
A light mystery with military flavoring from these Baen regulars, in which the Marines have taken over a mining asteroid to hold it against the enemy that had occupied it previously. Captain Rebecca Wuollet has been ordered to take charge of civilian affairs:
This is about the fact that we have fifteen thousand humans, mostly civs, God knows how many rats, about three hundred bats, and some fifteen other liberated races on this rock, which is under military control for the duration of the siege. We need some sort of security, and you're hard-assed enough to do it.
The civilians, mostly miners—human and nonhuman—aren't any happier about the martial law than Rebecca. Her most urgent task is to find out who's been murdering the joy-girls from the Last Chance saloon and whorehouse, but this requires negotiating the tangled multispecies local politics. Complications ensue, and the crime is solved mostly by the efforts of the cyber-uplifted rats and bats.
The readers of JBU should find enough twists and turns packed into the plot and setting of this one to make it an entertaining read.
Newts by Kevin J. Anderson
Newt means neutered. Rex Hollings is a eunuch, one of a caste created by his father, leader of a cult of fanatics who call themselves the Worthies, set on creating a perfectly ordered society in the rings of Saturn. Besides diminished testosterone, an implant keeps him calm and unemotional, and he accepts his role as a drone within the hive, contributing to the greater good of the society. But now most of the intact males have been killed after they attacked a peaceful exploration force from Earth, believing in their fanaticism that they intended to take over the colony. Can the newts take their place and repel the retaliatory force from Earth they know is on the way?
This piece is heavily clichéd, way beyond the point of stereotype, and instead of plot most of the narrative is infodump. Entirely without merit.
Chance of Storms by Edward M. Lerner
The narrator has moved to an isolated cabin far from civilization to avoid the problems that come when he is near other people, but reporters pursue him there to hound him for his story. They think it is a form of telekinesis or perhaps clairvoyance, but they learn otherwise.
A joke more than a story, with a punchline that will probably satisfy most readers.
Dinosaur Egg $6 by Chet Gottfried
The $6 is not to buy the dinosaur egg at the roadside stand, just for a look at it. The egg is not a fossil. The old Navaho who runs the stand is raffling off chances to guess when it will hatch, and Ted Albright is feeling lucky.
All along, I was sure that there was a twist or a punchline coming, and I was not wrong.
The Ten Thousand Things by Mark L. van Name
Yukio's father is dead, and now he is the head of the Fugiura Corporation, the heir to his legacy. But Yukio's father never had time to talk to him while he was alive, and Yukio has undertaken an experimental project to download the dead man's memories—for the sake of the company, he tells himself. But Yukio is not his father, and he has never loved what his father loved; running the corporation is only a duty for him now.
This work is greatly reminiscent of the technology in the Robin Williams film The Final Cut, but this is a more thoughtful and coherent story.
Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz go to War Again by Garth Nix
Sir Hereward is a vain and foolish young knight, while Mister Fitz is "a wooden puppet given the semblance of life by an ancient sorcery" with a habit of lecturing his companion.
"The newspaper in Rhool spoke of an alliance against Shûme," said Mister Fitz carefully, in a manner that confirmed Hereward's suspicion that didactic discourse had already begun. "It is likely that Lettique will be one of the towns arrayed against Shûme. Should the townsfolk discover we ride to Shûme in hope of employment, we might find ourselves wishing for the quiet of the fields in the night, the lack of mattresses, ale and roasted capons there notwithstanding."
But the pair are also god-slayers, and the god of Shûme is on the proscribed list. The task must be done.
This one has all the elements for an interesting fantasy adventure in a well-realized world. The author does not carry the affected tone of his narrative too far to be annoying, and Sir Hereward turns out to be something more than the twit he first appears.
Midnight at the Quantum Cafe by K. D. Wentworth
Wentworth's grim and pessimistic take updates the trans-dimensional saloon, where an infinity of possible words meet, and an infinity of possible selves—with drastic consequences.
"You was beginning to look a bit soft around the edges," she said. The biting wind whipped her orange hair across the scar on her cheek. "Means 'nother you is close. Not good to hang out in there too long. Lots of you scattered through all them worlds. Spend too much time in that damned cafe, one comes along and—bam! The two of you might overlap like old Jaeko."
Rafe keeps coming to the cafe in search of his ex-wife Marissa, as well as trying to escape from his brutally degraded world. But there are worse worlds, and worse Marissas.
It was surprising to see this one listed with the fantasy stories, as this setting is usually considered science fiction. Perhaps the editors were trying to genre-balance the issue, but I still call it one of the better science fiction stories here.
Redemption of Nepheli by E. Sedia
Twenty years ago, Shai imprisoned the warlock Nepheli and exiled the rest of the sorcerers from Tavrid. Now the city is helpless against a sorcerous assault, and Shai, as mayor, is forced to bring Nepheli out of the dungeons and ask for his help.
Shai tried to reconcile his memory of Nepheli twenty years ago with the twitching, stooped, grey-haired creature in front of him. He remembered a tall, commanding young man who never flinched as the pommel of Shai's sword broke every bone in his hands—Shai had feared him then and cringed as he ripped the red crystal, the source of the warlock's power, out of his left eye socket and shattered it upon the stones of the guild's hall. That terrible red glow of the warlock's eye had fallen across Shai's sister's face, like a bloody streak on her white skin, and claimed her. It still chased Shai in his nightmares.
Twenty years imprisonment has diminished Nepheli's powers, and he is no longer a match for the enemy sorcerers. As they work together to save the city, Shai must confront his own motives as well as the unintended consequences of his earlier acts.
The humane perspective and an interesting take on magic raise this one above the level of a stereotypical sword-and-sorcery production.
Common Ground by Mackey Chandler
A first contact story. An avian sentient shows up at the space station, learns English (of course) in a day or so, then invites himself to visit Earth. He charms the President, sees the sights, casually gives away the technology to build a star drive, then takes his departure. A pleasant visit for almost everyone. Then another alien ship shows up a few months later, and with it a punchline almost Feghootian in its impact. If this piece had not been so entertaining, and so clearly an entertainment, the unsubtle libertarian tone with its moral black and white might have rankled a bit.
New Moon by Mike Barretta
An alternative history of the Apollo 11 mission, in which the lunar landing module fails on attempting liftoff from the moon, and Armstrong and Aldrin both die there. In consequence, the US exerts an even greater effort to conquer space. The narrative then jumps in time to disclose what actually happened to the module, and why.
A bit of space-boosterism, setting up heroic martyrs to advance the cause, more didactically than I would prefer.
Both these SF stories from newer authors, segregated in their own section, suggest that the authors have spent a lot of years absorbing the fiction in Analog.
Clarkesworld 8, May 2007
Readers of this month's Clarkesworld may have to do a bit of head-scratching to figure out what's going on. Neither of the two pieces feature a straightforward conventional plot.
There's No Light Between Floors by Paul G. Tremblay
It is the nature of the human mind that, deprived of sensation, it creates its own. This is the situation of the narrator, trapped in the wreckage of a collapsed building with one other person. Neither seems to have a clear memory of anything that has occurred beforehand, but their imaginations create hypotheses.
She says, "There are gods moving above us. I can hear them."
I listen and I don't hear any gods. It horrifies me that I can't hear them. Makes me think I am terribly broken. There's only the sound of my breathing, and it's so loud and close, like I'm inside my own lungs.
She says, "They're the old gods, and they've been forgotten. They've returned, but they're suffering. And despite everything, they'll be forgotten again."
Maybe I'm not supposed to hear the old gods. Or maybe I do hear them and I've always heard them and their sound is nothingness, and that means we're forgotten too.
Since the gods, or whoever is above them, do not come to rescue the pair, they manage to crawl from the "no-room-womb-tomb," into a scene of desolation that makes their erstwhile prison seem comforting in comparison.
Deprived of explanation, the imaginations of the readers may create hypotheses: perhaps the scene will remind them of the aftermath of 9/11, or perhaps the womb-imagery may suggest that the tale is a metaphor for the human condition. As the narrator did with his picture frame, we make our own images and our own stories from whatever input we are given.
Qubit Conflicts by Jetse de Vries
Quantum theory can be understood either as mathematics or as metaphor. Here, de Vries uses math as part of a metaphor to tell the story of the evolution of quantum artificial intelligence into a solipsistic singularity.
265536 = 2,0035 x 1019728
fractal thinking shell, end point
or holding pattern?
Clarkesworld 9, June 2007
Fantasy for this month.
The Oracle Spoke by Holly Phillips
We seem at first to be in the British army, sometime in our twentieth century, but this is a different universe and it is a civil war going on in the countryside. Cassandra (a too-obvious choice of name) is a Voice of the Oracle. She had fallen into the hands of a leader of one faction in the conflict, and now she is taken from one captivity to the camp of a general on the other side, only a slightly more comfortable captivity. At first, she tries to conceal what she is, but the Oracle insists on speaking, and Cassandra, as always, has no choice in the matter. Both sides want the same thing from her.
"That [is] how the Oracle always speaks. In words like shadows hiding blood."
"You make it sound like it has a purpose."
"Of course it has!" she hissed scornfully. "When did you ever know power without some purpose of its own?"
The rain patted the canvas roof, dripped musically in puddles of its own making at the corners of the tent.
"God preserve us," Caldwell said.
"What amazes me is that no one—no one, in all these centuries—has ever questioned what that purpose is, or whether the Oracle, even in its twisting way, actually tells the truth."
This is a fine story indeed, with a chilling atmosphere and a devastatingly perfect ending. The author depicts her setting with almost flawless detail, and does not waste the reader's time in tedious explanation. Everything we need to know is in the story.
Moon Over Yodok by David Charlton
A fantasy set in a North Korean prison camp, where the Oh family was sent to slowly starve for unspecified disloyalties. As she is dying, Hae-Sik's grandmother keeps telling his sister the story of the rabbit in the moon; Dal-Soon is called Little Rabbit because of the zeal with which she tends the camp's rabbits, which the starving prisoners are forbidden to eat. Readers will obviously be expecting some sort of lapine miracle to take place, and it duly occurs.
In stark contrast to the Phillips story with which it is paired, the author of this one starts off by cramming as much background and backstory into the text as he can, burying his characters under the dreary and repetitive message that people in Korean prison camps are starving. Really starving, you know? Like, dying of starvation. Really.
Paradox 10, Winter 2006-2007
The last time I reviewed this history-oriented zine, there were a couple of really outstanding offerings. None of these quite reach that level, but the best are quite worth reading.
Amante Dorée by Sarah Monette
Espionage in an alternate history in which Nouvelle Orléans is part of the Napoleonic Empire, and courtesan Annabelle St. Clair spies for Napoleon IV. One night, after she is visited by a young man who claims to be a Bourbon pretender to the throne of France, that young man is found murdered. This event sets up a frenzy of investigations, coverups, and doublecrosses by the agents of the various governments at large in the city, and Annabelle soon suspects that she is being set up.
This is a well-designed setting, rich in exotic characters and story possibilities. Annabelle has a personal secret of her own to add complications to her other professions and interest to an already-thickened plot.
For a moment, the kiss was perfect, their bodies pressing close together through the layers of their clothing. Then Quentin pulled back, his grip hard on her wrists, his eyes wide, dark, both shocked and intent. And then he moved, fast as a cat, pinned her against the wall, his hands clenching in the lace draperies of her bodice, tightening. He said, almost conversationally, "You are not a woman."
I don't know if this story is part of a series set in this world, but I would not be surprised to find readers interested in more.
After the Circus by Danny Adams
An alternate history in which the infamous Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen, has survived the first World War. In desperate straits, he meets an old flying buddy, Hermann Goering, who introduces him to a friend. But Manfred does not fall under Hitler's spell, even though Hitler promises him a chance to fly again.
This is a rather typical AH piece in which the scenario takes up most of the story-space. The author makes an effort to bring Manfred to life, but the other characters are only cut-outs from history books.
The Qualities of a Monarch by C. Kevin Barrett
The editorial blurb informs readers that this piece was the winning entry in the zine's Flash Alternate History Contest. I can only assume that the other entries were a dismal lot. Here, we follow Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn up a flight of stairs, with a pair of commentators who blather on about irrelevancies until the author makes his Revelation—a highly improbable one. Further, the author is crediting the wrong monarch, for the compromise and sacrifice as it is shown here could only have been decided by the King, not the Queen.
Marathon by Bruce Durham
A time-traveling researcher visits the battle of Marathon. The author does little original with this shopworn premise except for the twist at the end. But it doesn't make up for the tedium of following our boy around Athens as he drops names and is lectured by his nagging implant, which is constantly worried about causing a paradox through interference with "any person considered pivotal to history."
And here I will rant a bit, as this represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of history, which is a seamless web of events, not just the selected persons and events that have made it into our textbooks. History itself does not know nor care what the subjective judgment of historians considers "pivotal"; we can not know what changes may cause profound alterations in the course of events as we know them here and now—even, famously, the flutter of a butterfly's wings.
I am also highly dubious that our time-traveler could simply have plopped his ass down unannounced in the Athenian camp and gotten away with it. Defending the city was the duty of citizens—and only qualified citizens. A random foreigner would not have been accepted into an established mess as the author describes. The Athenian military system was not anonymous and amorphous; it was highly organized, and any stranger would have been challenged to declare his father's name, his tribe and deme, and kicked out of camp if they didn't like his answers.
A particularly egregious typo, symptomatic of Spellchecker Disease, stands in the text as an indictment of the zine's copyeditor.
The Duke of Bedford Prays for His Brother's Soul by Anne Sheldon
A tale of the Hundred Years War. Henry V of England thought he had conquered France, but after his death, his brother Bedford, as Regent, faced new opposition led by Joan of Arc. Here, we see the duke in torment, unable to sleep or keep down his food, haunted by ghosts and inner demons while the Maid is put on trial and condemned for witchcraft.
Hardyng moved to the duke's side and eased off his boots. The duke sighed, but his pleasure was offset by the cold weakness growing at his wrists and at the base of his throat. He loosened his collar. Taking a deep breath, he wrinkled his nose and peered under the bed. God, what a smell. A dead rat? No.
"Is there something wrong, my lord?"
"Be a good lad, Hardyng, and fetch the priest."
The author does a fine job capturing the late-medieval mindset of her characters, and the image that disturbs Bedford's sleep is a particularly strong one: a headless young mother with her baby still at her breast, who may or may not have been decapitated by the duke during the massacre in Caen, ordered by his heroic brother. War is hell, nor is Bedford out of it.
The Luck of the Irish by Brian K. Crawford
We find ourselves at sea with a trio of escaped Irish convicts from a British prison colony in Australia, just as they spot a sail on the horizon and fear pursuit. Now the nature of conventional story logic is such that we naturally sympathize with the fugitives and wish for their escape—indeed, we expect it, although stories do not always cooperate with our expectations. But just as our sympathies are engaged, the author throws in a kicker: for our fugitives murdered the original crew of this ship. Now our expectations change, and we are quite certain that the murderers will not escape justice, one way or another. The only question is how it will come about. In the end the author opts for the ironic twist.
Crawford's narrative is brisk, urgent, and full of authentic nautical neep, which should please this zine's readers. And even knowing that they are murderers and thus Doomed by the gods of plot, we still retain some of our original sympathy for their plight.
Somewhere, Sometime on the Nile by Stephanie Dray
More time travelers here, members of one of the many organizations in SF dedicated to fixing history and setting things right. In this case, the timeslippers' ability is innate; touching an object, they can shift to other times (and even places) where it exists. Maryam was born a Palestinian under the Israeli occupation. After she is recruited as a timeslipper, she is assigned to save Anwar Sadat from assassination in order to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt. But in the timeline that results, Maryam's baby son has never been born. In her grief, she vows to make such a change in history that the Hebrews will never become a nation, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam will never exist.
It is a common flaw in tales of this sort that the author is too much concerned with backstory; in this case, she is also cramming in a great deal of commentary on the current political situation. It all leaves less room for the story, and the characters here fail to get off the ground, so heavily burdened as they are with too much history. An apt metaphor for the prospects of peace in that region, but I could wish for less of the message and more story.
The editors of this small press printzine, subtitled Science Fiction and Horror, have conveniently summarized their type of fiction in this issue, the first I have reviewed: "The application of technology to create horrific or terrifying visions." And that does pretty well describe the majority of the tales here, adding that they tend to the short-short. The quality is mixed.
The Sum of His Parts by Kevin J. Anderson
The author informs us that this piece is an outtake from his collaborative novel with Dean Koontz: Frankenstein: Prodigal Son. It tells the stories of the dead men who contributed the various parts that the composite monster comprises: murderers, madmen, thieves and also their victims. Most of their tales are connected, and in the background of them all lurks the cold and sinister figure of Victor Frankenstein, intent on his gruesome purpose.
The End of Crazy by Katherine Sparrow
A story of insanity and the difficulty of telling delusion from reality. In this dystopian world, the cure for insanity doesn't really solve much. The formerly-insane must take regular shots of Sanify, and they are still stigmatized by society and suspected by the authorities. Now Allison is caught up in a new complication—she discovers she is at the beginning of a forbidden pregnancy, and of course abortion is entirely outlawed. She and her lover, also ex-insane, flee from the police they believe are after them; without the drug, they quickly fall victim to their delusions. Allison's voices tell her that she is actually telepathic; they warn her that the police are closing in on them, but it is impossible for either her or the reader to tell what is real and what is not.
The Gunslinger of Chelem by Lavie Tidhar
Deep Dreaming can create reality. A dreamer who calls himself the gunslinger has created a dream town.
"He called the place Chelem. The town exists even when he's awake. You could say he is stuck in the dream. And in the dream, he's the best gunfighter there ever was. Better than Billy the Kid, better than Doc Holliday, better than Jess James, better than—"
The problem is, other people are drawn to Chelem to fight the gunslinger there, and more than thirty of them have died. Now Raphael has to go into the gunslinger's dream and defeat him there on his own terms, but the job is going to prove complicated.
Original and amusing—one of the lighter-spirited stories in this issue.
Locked In by Mary Robinette Kowal
Although Samuel is entirely paralyzed by ALS, unable even to blink his eyes, he still retains the capacity to enjoy his life and the company of his family. Now his son comes to tell him of a new brain-computer interface that may allow him to communicate. Samuel rejoices—too soon.
Projector by Daniel LeMoal
This one has certain similarities in concept to the Sparrow story reviewed above. It seems that the second generation of addicts to a designer drug called Ursa Major have been born with the ability to project images onto other peoples' minds. This makes them useful to some criminal masterminds, but the projector named Keeney has displeased his evil boss, who has dispatched a group of other addicts, losers all, to knock him off. The narrator is one of these addicts, a fellow with a fine sense of self-loathing, who knows the nasty boss will not give him a choice in the matter. But the narrator, his unwilling companions, and his nasty boss are all in for a surprise.
The atmosphere here is dark, dystopian and misanthropic, every character repulsive and vile, with redeeming features scarce on the ground. If this is the world addiction brings, we are well-advised to avoid it, and this aspect of the story is quite effective. The events at the end, however, seem disconnected to what has gone before, and rather less interesting.
At the 24-Hour by William F. Nolan
A hungry predator comes to the all-night diner. The author suggests he may be a vampire. He is not.
An unoriginal and uninteresting take on this overused scenario.
Pyramus and Thisbe by Jeremy Adam Smith
The author states that this tale is inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and indeed the narrative style here is reminiscent of Calvino's. Long after the city has passed away, the tale is told how Pyramus the android came to experience the human marvels of Eusapia, where his kind were forbidden. There were two Eusapias, one built for the living and one for the dead. In the city of the living, Pyramus meets Thisbe, and they become lovers.
In the days and nights that followed, Pyramus found within himself the capacity for pleasure—both giving and receiving it—that had previously lain dormant in his psyche. It was as though the metal beneath his skin had melted to organs and bones, the mantle of flesh absorbing and transforming what it concealed. His disguise was so complete that even in greatest intimacy Thisbe did not guess.
But the confraternity that guarded the city discovers his identity, bursts in on the lovers and burns away Pyramus's artificial flesh. In horror at seeing what she has loved, Thisbe drowns herself, and Pyramus follows her to the city of the dead. But he, who has never lived, discovers that the dead are not what they were when alive.
Lovely and imaginative, beautifully told, this tale should not only remind readers of Calvino (who makes an appearance in the text), it is also an inversion of the original classical version, in which the ill-starred lovers are united after death.
Sufficiently Advanced by Bev Vincent
When Henry's space shuttle crash-lands on this unknown planet, he discovers that the natives, although primitive, are the masters of teleportation and other mental skills. But unfortunately for Henry, they have a distressing inability to comprehend advanced science and technology.
An ironic statement, but not really a fully-developed story.
Don't Show Your Teeth by Rob D. Smith
A man is obsessed with a set of used fake monster teeth, but his roommate/co-worker is even more obsessed with them.
I found the SFnal setting in an orbital colony somewhat more interesting than the rather standard horror tale.
Sonorous by Paul Abbamondi
Someone digs up an old flute, but it was never meant for human ears. A vignette that seems to have vaguely mythical overtones. Or maybe not.