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Editor-in-Chief:
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Publisher: Bluejack

February, 2008 : Review:

January 2008: Short Fiction

A new year, a new IROSF, a new batch of short fiction to read. Just a reminder: while this column covers the stories I'm reading in January, many of them come from issues of magazines dated March or April. That's the magazine publishing business.

I didn't have time to do a real roundup of 2007 short fiction, but here is my nomination list for the Sturgeon Award, my five favorite SF stories of the year.

  • Gwyneth Jones, The Tomb Wife
  • Ian MacLeod, The Master Miller's Tale
  • Bruce Sterling, Kiosk
  • Ted Chiang, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
  • Barth Anderson, Clockmaker's Requiem

Zines Reviewed

Asimov's

Asimov's, March '08

Asimov's, March 2008

This month's issue seems to have a theme of natural history, although in this case the natural includes the artificial, the alien, and the eldritch.

Following the Pharmers by Brian Stableford

Stableford's pharmer is a chemist; his produce is drugs. Daniel Anderson has cherished his isolation in the country, but one day the arrival of a strange, artificial winged organism alerts him to the unwelcome presence of a nearby stranger.

Whoever was producing plants with alate pollen-sacs, on the other hand, had to be an artist, an innovator of considerable daring as well as abundant talent. From the viewpoint of a small pharmer, artists qualified as loose cannons: mad, bad, and dangerous to have around.

Anderson is first concerned that the alate organisms might cross-pollinate his own carefully-nurtured strains of psychotropic flowers, so he pays a reluctant visit to Judith Hillinger, where he learns that she is attempting, very illegally, to alter the course of Gaian evolution. But what Anderson has discovered, tragically, is that when it comes to human brain chemistry, alteration comes with grave risks.

This is science fiction of the sort that has earned it the name "literature of ideas." The ideas are indeed interesting, but the narrator goes a bit overboard in lecturing both the other characters and the readers, which rather overwhelms the tragedy of the conclusion with verbiage.

Shuggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

Lovecraftian in setting though not in tone, this tale is set in the late 1930s, as the impending clouds of war and the Nazi persecution of the Jews darken the horizon. Professor Paul Harding is a rarity in those days, a Negro with a doctorate from Yale, come to the New England coast to study the shuggoths in the season when the vast, jelly-like organisms come out of the sea to bloom.

There are distinct species of shoggoth. And distinct populations within those distinct species. And there is a fossil record that suggests that prehistoric species were different at least in scale, in the era of megafauna. But if nobody had ever seen a dead shoggoth, then nobody had ever seen an infant shoggoth either, leaving Harding with an inescapable question: if an animal does not reproduce, how can it evolve?

But as the news from Germany grows worse, Harding's attention is drawn inexorably from the primordial mystery of the shuggoths to the immediate crisis of civilization.

Bear's depiction of race relations is finely-done, as we see Harding drawn towards conflict, reflecting the teaching of W.E.B Dubois. But even more evocative is her depiction of the naturalist's world of sea and coast and sky:

The boulders themselves are black, bleak, sea-worn, and ragged. But over them, the light refracts through a translucent layer of jelly, mounded six feet deep in places, glowing softly in the dawn. Rising above it, the stalks are evident as opaque silhouettes, each nodding under the weight of a fruiting body.

RECOMMENDED

Sepoy Fidelities by Tom Purdom

A group of aliens called the tucfra have taken over the Earth by employing human agents whom they supply with bodily enhancements. Many of these sepoys, such as Jason and Francesca, sincerely believe that the tucfra rule is better for humanity than the constant wars their species used to wage. But there are times when human emotions still conflict with tucfra orders. Jason has come to love Francesca, but he has been ordered to save himself before her as they carry out a daring attack on anti-tucfra revolutionaries.

The scenario here is a complicated one, full of plots and conspiracies, and the author gives readers little time to orient themselves or get to know the characters before plunging into an extended James Bond-like action scene that takes up most of the text, short-changing the psychological and emotional impact.

Master of the Road to Nowhere by Carol Emshwiller

The question that first comes to mind on reading this piece is: just what are these people? Aliens? Mutants? Is the world our own or some other, where evolution has taken a different turn? Yet it seems that the protagonists of this story are biologically-ordinary humans who have taken up a greatly different lifestyle.

Our ways are common to all herds. Common to horses, common to lions, and, in a different form, common to elephants. Even the beach master, lord of his beach, lives as we do. Even baboons. How did humans come to such unnatural ways?

Janeson is the adult male of his herd, its primary protector and provider, yet by no means its leader—this is the role of the grandmothers. He does his best, but times have grown harsh and they have been driven into inhospitable territory. And Janeson is growing old and weary; he knows it will not be long before another man comes to drive him away and take his place. He has begun to look forward to this retirement, but he has also been cherishing a heretical hope—that when the time comes, Rosalie will come away with him.

For most readers, I suppose that this will be a story about the human heart under circumstances different from our own, yet not so different as it might seem. Yet I find myself distracted by the theories of evolutionary biology. I want to argue with Grandma that there is a difference between a social species and a herd one, that there are plenty of examples of herd species which do not follow the matrilinear harem pattern, that other primate species, closer to humans, follow different mating strategies. I want to argue with the premise that humans would ever actually adopt such a way of life in sufficient numbers to make it viable. But I am not sure if I would be arguing against the story or with it, as Janeson does not find his promised land until after he has taken the other path.

Kallakak's Cousins by Cat Rambo

Kallakak has problems. His wife has left him; a couple of litigious and belligerent characters are contesting his right to the prime location of his store on the space station. And now his wife's feckless, freeloading cousins have shown up on his doorstep. These three have a history of wrecking everything they touch, but Kallakak can't turn them out—not Akla's cousins.

This is an amusing light piece that almost manages not to be silly [Jellidoo is one slip]. Kallakak makes an appealing character, just human enough and just enough alien.

World Within the World by Steven Utley

One of the monitors on the space station keeps beeping. No one knows why. Some crew members think the station must be haunted. A discussion ensues between some of the crew and their passengers, including a physicist who has an intriguing theory:

Cutsinger made an amused sound and said, "Perhaps I can contribute to this body of speculation. Let's say that for all ghosts all eternity is crammed into the same nanosecond. Or perhaps some kind of charge builds up and all those echoes of people and things keep coming back into existence and doing whatever they do. Living out lives just like the original people, doing the same things, thinking the same thoughts. Or perhaps the scenes replay themselves with minute or not-so-minute variations, but all variations on the same theme. And always the ghosts believe they are the real thing. Then they pass right out of existence again, until the charge builds up again. Repeat and repeat, world without end. A whole world created and extinguished in a nanosecond, and it makes just enough of a disturbance to register on that monitor." "Just enough of one," said Summers, "to send a chill down my spine."

Then comes the punchline. This very short piece takes a typical bit of SFnal speculation and gives it a twist into a humorous dimension. The brevity here is the soul of the wit, as any more infodump would weight it down and smother it.

This is How it Feels by Ian Creasey

An interesting premise: traffic violators are given brain implants holding the memories of the survivors of accident victims. Nathan was convicted of speeding, and now he is haunted by grief for a little girl named Jenny. The implanted memories intrude into his life and keep him from driving fast enough to make his many appointments on time. His boss is not sympathetic. Nathan considers desperate remedies.

I like the situation here, though it does not seem that the authorities have taken into consideration that it may be as dangerous to drive too slowly as too fast. The ending, however, comes across as pat and moralistic.

Spiders by Sue Burke

The narrator and his family are part of a colony settling an alien world. The narrator is a hunter who loves the native forest and the way its creatures camouflage themselves, both hunters and prey. He wants his son to love the world as he does, but the boy's mother teaches him to fear the forest, particularly the animals they call spiders. And on today's expedition into the forest, there seem to be spiders everywhere.

Burke's descriptions of her world's creatures are charming, and her scenes evoke a genuine sense of affection and wonder between father and son.

"How about that, there on the tree trunk? That's lizard poop for sure, right?" "No, Daddy. It's not." He had me figured out. "Right." I reached out and nudged it. It flew away. He shrieked with delight. "A poop bug!"

You've got to like a poop bug.

F and SF

F&SF, March '08

Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2008

A haunted issue, full of ghosts and spirits of the past.

The Boarder by Alexander Jablokov

The editorial blurb calls this a piece of historical fiction, but dealing with material close to SFnal hearts: the space race of the 1950s. The narrator reminisces about his acquaintance with a Soviet refugee who boarded in his house when he was a boy.

Vassily had worked on the Soviet space program, and had, in fact, worked on the first Sputnik. He built a mockup of the satellite for testing separation from the spacecraft. His first model had been a cone, the initial design, but Korolev, the design bureau chief, wanted a sphere. It was an aesthetic decision, not an engineering one. He wanted a gleaming sphere, with the antennae thrown back as it galloped through the sky.
Vassily was reprimanded for his work, a humiliation he still felt over a decade later. Some of the welding on the test sphere was less than perfect. "But it is a test, Sergei Pavlovich," he said. "To test separation."
"This test sphere, all these things, they will be in museums!" Korolev shouted. "Do you want your grandchildren shaking their heads over your drunken welds?"
Vassily fixed it, and said that he was careful to be perfect from then on.
He only defected after Korolev's death.

I do not know if Vassily is modeled on some actual individual, but he is certainly a memorable character. As a story, however, this is more of an extended reminiscence, a detailed collage depicting the era in which the narrator is coming of age, when space flight was becoming less the material of the science fictional imagination and more of a mundane reality. The central iconic image, however, is still the adolescent boy poring over a magazine—whether it is Playboy or Boys Life.

Rumple What? by Nancy Springer

An irreverent revisionist version of this fairytale, in which the characters are seen in a less flattering light, except for the eponymous little man.

I was not particularly amused by the anachronistic language:

"Moon Unit? Dweezil? Madonna? Rosencrantz, Guildenstern?"
"No, no, no, no, no."
And so it goes all that day and the next. Kasper, Melchior, Balthazar, Schwarzenegger, Engelbert, Humperdinck, ad infinitum and ad nauseum; wearisome to the max for all concerned, especially the little man. He nearly decides not to show up for the third day, but he grits his pointed teeth and reports to the queen's chamber.

 

The Overseer by Albert E. Cowdrey

In the year 1903, Nicholas Lerner is nearing the end of an eventful life, through slavery, the Civil War, and the reconstruction years, that has left him prosperous, yet partially paralyzed, addicted to laudanum, and entirely dependent on his valet Morse, who believes himself to be Mr. Nick's bastard. Now he has begun to write a memoir—more accurately, a confession of his many sins, most of them guided by the malign ghost of Monsieur Felix, the murdered overseer on his father's plantation, a ghost that continues to haunt him.

Of course nobody was standing behind him. A trick of his old eyes and the brown shadows of his bed chamber with its single door, its barred and ever-darkened window. Or maybe a result of talking about Monsieur Felix, whom he would always associate with mirrors, fog, winter darkness, summertime mirages—with anything, bright or dark, that deceived the eye.
"Ah, you devil," he muttered, "I'll exorcise you with my pen. Then burn both you and the damned manuscript!"

Like most of Cowdrey's best work, this tale is set in the vicinity of New Orleans, and it offers readers a revealing look at the history of this fascinatingly corrupt old city. But more than a story of a place and time, it is the study of a character who too willingly yields to the temptation of evil, then finds himself unable to escape it.

RECOMMENDED

Exit Strategy by K.D. Wentworth

The Church of the Second Life matches up people who want to leave their lives with people whose bodies can't sustain their lives. Airheaded Charlsie decides for the usual adolescent reasons that life isn't worth living any longer and heads down to donate her body. The officials of the church, well aware that she doesn't mean it, enroll her in their acolyte program, but her parents, predictably, freak when they find out.

This piece is not really humorous, but it is too light for a serious look at the subject matter of life and death. Its solutions are too facile and depend too much on coincidence to be credible.

The Second Descent by Richard Paul Russo

Raphael does not know how long he and his companions have been trying to climb down off the mountain, but the terrain is always shifting, blocking the way.

Once they'd traversed the glacier, the descent became familiar again, though he'd thought this portion of the route had actually been much higher up on the mountain. But when they came to the nearly vertical face just below the Bamboo Col, they discovered that the tens of meters of fixed rope they'd set on the ascent now hung in shreds, split and frayed and swinging listlessly in the cold breeze or lying scattered in pieces on the snow and rock at the bottom of the face. Sabotage was suggested, or some freak and violent storm, but when they inspected the ropes they found that the fibers appeared worn and rotted, as if the ropes had been hanging on this mountainside for decades.

It soon becomes evident that the climbers are dead, though it is not clear whether the mountain is a form of purgatory or hell, if there will ever be an end to their descent. From time to time they see a shining city on the mountain, and while they know they will never pass through its gates, sometimes still they make the attempt to reach it, only to have it disappear from view.

This is a haunting metaphorical journey through an eternally frozen landscape of the soul.

RECOMMENDED

A Ten Pound Sack of Rice by Richard Mueller

Nathan Roullon can feel the end coming. He's ready for it, eighty-eight years old and filled with the memories of aerial combat during WWII. He knows that

The day of Revelation was not figured on the same calendar used to sell Firestone Tires or fish from Boudreaux's. It was coming and Nathan knew the signs. He would have some warning as to when, though he could not begin to know why, or how, or even how much. He could just see the beginning of the end, like an ink line at the borders of his vision, or a shadow on the horizon. There would be visitations and signs, and then it would happen.

So it does, with a visitation from the devil, in the form of the young Japanese gunner Nathan had killed in the war.

It would be better world indeed if cats could talk and the devil gave us a do-over at the end of our lives, but things aren't usually that easy in reality.

Analog

Analog, April 08

Analog, April 2008

Much of this issue is taken up with the conclusion to a Joe Haldeman serial, "Marsbound." Alas, I can not review it as I have not seen the prior installments, but I surmise it is probably the outstanding piece here. The ToC also lists a Jerry Oltion story, but it was not included in the files I received. Perhaps I will review it in a later column.

Amor Vincit Omnia by Craig DeLancy

Allen Sumaran sits in his office. A visitor arrives—a menacing visitor attempting to track down the children with whom Allen grew up in the orphanage. Then the deceased director of the orphanage shows up as a computerized "ghost" who Explains Everything:

The ghost leaned toward us. "No one, not a single geneticist in the world , sought to enhance our species into morally superior individuals. This fact is a testament to the stupidity of humankind. No one sought to better us, to make our children the kind of people that would have prevented global warming or mass starvation or the death of the oceans. But I did it. And you are that people," the ghost said, managing a passionate emphasis. "You are something superior : a race of people that cares more, that can care more, about the future."

This premise, while not original, could have made an interesting story. The problem is, nothing happens here; there is almost no present action. Everything has already happened in the past, and the story consists in the characters telling each other what has already happened. We do not even have the excitement of discovery, only the after-action report.

The Beethoven Project by Donald Moffitt

We have time travel to alternative timelines, and Marketing has taken full advantage. The geniuses from Divergences, Inc. have decided to go back to 1824 Vienna and offer the deaf and deteriorating Beethoven a commission for a Tenth Symphony—an offer he can't refuse. Except that he does, refusing to come to an agreement until the agent from the future offers him a cochlear implant.

This is a scenario that, in the hands of a more capable storyteller, could have been entertaining. Instead, we have tedious scenes at the time travel company's offices, where the agents insist on lecturing characters and readers on what they already know. The story of Beethoven, potentially interesting, is given short shrift, brushed off to make room for a snappy punchline.

Guaranteed Not To Turn Pink in the Can by Thomas R. Dulski

Our narrator is a private detective hired by a rich old guy to get the dirt on the slimeball who's messing around with his daughter. The daughter is a chemistry PhD who has suddenly started writing books, supposedly under the influence of the slimeball, about space aliens abducting medieval heretics. Our detective gets on the case, digs the dirt and discovers what the slimeball is up to, which is to say, no good.

Dulski does know how to write a snappy detective. But he has larded this narrative with impenetrably thick layers of eye-glazing, mind-numbing infodump. Much of it is related to the enigmatic document known as the Voynich Manuscript, that supposedly, in this story at least, is alleged to be proof that space alines once abducted a group of medieval Cathar heretics, now returned to Earth. Now the Voynich Manuscript is a real and fascinating document indeed. My suggestion to readers is to go to the website and read up on it. Then you can skim through the infodump sections of this story, enjoy the detective parts, and realize that the slimeball's plot is rather far-fetched and probably too complicated to have worked.

Righteous Bite by Stephen L. Burns

This one starts promisingly as military adventure. Benny and Spike are counter-terrorist special forces troops, operating behind the lines to take out a terrorist bomber. Benny is the neo, Spike the veteran; Spike obviously knows something he is not telling Benny—something bad. As the pair reaches their objective, "Benny was scared. Excited. Eager and full of dread. This was one of the baddest of the bad guys, he told himself. His death would mean countless innocent people might escape death and disfigurement. That was a good thing." Poor Benny. We already know he's doomed.

The story's action sequences are competent, but the foreshadowing of a twist ending is heavy-handed, reducing the natural tension. Jarring errors of syntax do not help.

Into That Good Night by William Gleason

Fusion tech Harry Lamb is the new guy on the high-gravity planetary base, and while he is being checked out on the operation of his powered suit, the other workers razz him about his hard-assed boss, Bob Roberts. Suddenly there is an explosion and Lamb, in his suit, is the only one left standing. Then Roberts comes onto Lamb's com link to tell him that he is the only person available to fetch a replacement component needed to avert a nuclear explosion and save the entire human population of the planet.

"Just before the alert there was an aborted discharge from the jump-gate generator. I know it's supposed to be impossible, but I'm guessing there was an energy backlash. Probably fried every coupling between there and the station. That explosion you felt had to be the main junction, which means the railroad is no longer running! Load the relay on a flatcar if you can and push it as far as there's track. After that, you'll have to carry it."

Even in the power suit, it taxes Lamb's strength beyond his limits to drag the replacement relay as far as the reactor plant. But he discovers that others have made even greater efforts.

This is a tale of human courage, thickly wrapped in SFnal neepery. The technical jargon may confuse some readers more than it enlightens them as to just what is going on here, but this is a story where what matters is not the details of what was done but the perseverance of the characters in doing it.

Realms of Fantasy

Realms of Fantasy, Dec. 07

Realms of Fantasy, December 2007

It's been a while since I had a copy of this magazine for review, but little seems to have altered in the interval. The magazine continues to offer a variety of fantasy fiction.

Still Point by Graham Edwards

Extravagant grotesquerie in a world populated by private eyes, angels, zombies, Fools, landlords, and the behemoth, who is the only one remaining of its original primordial kind, having eaten the rest. The behemoth wants to eat the detective, or at least some of its tongues do, but as they are trapped together in the labyrinth, they spin out the time instead, Sheherazade-like, telling each other the stories of their lives. There is a sort of plot to this piece, involving the Still Point of the Turning World, which some want to get their hands on and some want to protect. But mostly it is all about prose like this:

He materialized from the shadows, cloak hanging low, feet moving but never quite touching the ground. The space inside his hood was as black and empty as ever, but his cloak was hanging wide open. All the woodwork that held him together was in motion: pawl dragged ratchets; cams spun like hunchbacks; sprung levers twitched and twanged.

Over-the-toppitude in the New Weird mode.

Hot Water by Richard Parks

A Lord Yamada story. Yamada's friends do an intervention after he has been drowning his sorrows in sake for too long, and they take him to a remote mountain temple to dry out. There is a hot spring on the grounds, and Yamada is enjoying a soak when a sudden torrent of boiling water rushes down the mountainside. He barely escapes the pool in time. The monks believe this is the work of a demon and prepare an exorcism, but Yamada is familiar with demons and has seen that it is instead the kami of the mountain, angry because the Buddhist temple has replaced her ancient shrine in the hearts of the worshipers.

This is not the intricately-plotted mystery that readers have come to expect from Parks' Yamada stories, but it expresses the same deep appreciation of medieval Japan, almost like reading an ancient woodcut.

Everything was more or less as I remembered. The steaming waterfall fell with the same muted rushing sound that it had no doubt made for the last several centuries. The stone pool made ripples back and forth from the ebb and flow of the water before it flowed over the sluice and down the mountainside as it cooled and turned into a gurgling mountain stream.

 

The Fireman's Fairy by Sandra McDonald

An off-beat urban fantasy. Steven Goodwin is a brand-new fireman in a system where each fire company has its own supernatural mascot. The Supreme Mascot is a huge golden phoenix, and other outfits have dragons or Valkyries—ass-kicking mascots. But Steven has been assigned to Engine Company 14, whose mascot is Tinkerbob the fairy. While the rest of the station appreciates Bob's work, Steven find him nothing but an irritation. He kisses. He whistles constantly. He wears pink tights and glitter. Then Steven comes face to face with the reality of firefighting and the true size of courage.

McDonald does a good job balancing the humorous touches with the grim realities of her story—not an easy task, given a pink, glittery fairy to work with.

Transformations by David Barr Kirtley

This one is clearly derived from the Transformer toys, the sort where a car can be twisted and unfolded into the form of a robotic warrior. Carrus is such a warrior, stationed undercover on Earth, but the war has moved to a different front, leaving him and a few others with no real mission but to wait to be retrieved. "He has nowhere to go, nothing to do but cruise the endless roads." One day, Carrus carelessly strikes a small boy named Alex. He takes the boy home. They become friends. But Alex grows up and Carrus is recalled to his war.

The story is quite reminiscent in a way of Puff the Magic Dragon, but both Alex and Carrus grow up in this one.

On Tuesday it Rained Horned Toads by Joe Murphy

Times are hard on Jacob's West Texas ranch in the 1950s. His most grievous affliction is their autistic son Walter, and what the doctors have told them, that somehow his condition was their fault. But even Walter takes notice when a wooden girl comes up to the house and asks for a drink of water. A very well-mannered wooden girl, she is, and of course Jacob's wife Beth invites her to stay for supper, to stay the night.

She seemed likable enough—if a body could get past her being wood. Good manners meant someone had raised her right. Or, Jacob grinned again, at least built her right. She'd even apologized to Beth after adding a dash of Three-In-One to her biscuits.

It turns out that Sprokly has run off from her cranky grandfather, the wizard, and he comes looking for her to bring her back home. Thus the horned toads.

While this one may remind some readers of Oz, the solution is more humane than humbug.

The White Isle by Von Carr

The witchgirl has always lived in the white tower on the island, so long that the red witchflag, placed to warn passing ships of her presence, has disintegrated. One day she sees something new, and it tempts her to leave her tower, where she discovers the world. The thing that she saw was a man, who dies.

Something had come loose inside her and rattled in the surge of each breath. She did not know what is was, save that it involved the creature that had croaked at her and died on the rocks. It was unsettling. She wanted it to go away.
But the feeling did not depart, at least not entirely. The girl paced around her shrinking room, year after year, searching for something she could not quite articulate. In a different story, you see, she would have saved the sailor and he would have taken her back to civilization, and they might, after all, have been happy.

So the witchgirl watches and waits for the sight of another sail, for another shipwrecked sailor.

This is a haunting tale, beautiful and bleak, a work of original legend. From the beginning, we know that there will be no happy ending, unlike the usual fairytales, but the sense of doom is inevitable, rather than tragic.

RECOMMENDED

Interzone

Interzone #213

Interzone 213, December 2007

The editorial for this issue notes that it includes two stories with almost the same alternate-history premise: a world in which the Spanish did not discover the Americas and where the dominant, competing empires are the Chinese and the Mexica.

The issue as a whole is quite dystopian, with an American flavor. I was surprised to find no recognizable [to me] British authors in the ToC.

Metal Dragon Year by Christopher Roberson

The metal dragon in this alternate history is the rocket that will take the taikonauts of the Celestial Empire into orbit for the first time. Yusuf Ounaminou's title is Foreman, but he seems actually to be the chief engineer, a position he holds instead of the one he had always dreamed of, to pilot the spacecraft. The Ministry of Celestial Excursion insists on launching by the end of the year, before their rivals the Mexica can beat them into space. But the project is afflicted by bad fortune—an explosion on the launch pad has destroyed the Taikong One rocket and killed its crew. The pressure on Yusuf is now heavier, as the Ministry insists on meeting the original schedule. But unless he can discover what went wrong with the original rocket, he can not guarantee success.

It is always interesting to take another glimpse at this evolving history of Roberson's alternate Chinese empire's drive into space. His empire is well-detailed, and the imperial bureaucracy always gives the impression of authenticity. Yusuf's story, unfortunately, is slowed by the intrusion of a lot of static backgrounding, and the revelation of the mystery comes in the end as no surprise.

I pause now for Yet Another Rant about the unfortunate state of copyediting in these benighted times. Abdul-aziz happens to be one of the most common names in the Islamic world, but it is conceivable that a copyeditor might not be aware of this. It is not conceivable, however, that any copyeditor could fail to notice when the name is spelled "aziz" on pg. 7, "azis" on pg 10, and "asiz" on pg. 11. Even the stooopid spellchecker should have caught that one.

Molly and the Red Hat by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Molly's mama has thrown away her special red hat, and Molly wants it back.

So that night Molly brushed her teeth extra fast and got into her pajamas herself. When her mama was still struggling with Billy's teeth and toothbrush, Molly bounced on the special place on her bed and flew
        out the window
        and onto the pine tree branch
        and bounced
        over the roof and onto the top of the telephone pole
        and skated along the wires
        to the forest
        to visit the Queen of the Owls.

This children's fairytale about sibling rivalry is an unusual piece to find in the very skiffy IZ. The fantasy elements have an original charm.

The Men in the Attic by John Phillip Olsen

The attic is in Kyle Barrett's mind, and the men are fugitives, their minds downloaded into Kyle's while their bodies are hidden from the agents of a repressive government. Kyle wants to do his part to aid in the resistance, but now the authorities are closing in and he is becoming afraid. One man's body has now been discovered, and the resistance is pressuring Kyle to host an additional, more wanted fugitive. The mental effort is becoming more exhausting than Kyle had anticipated; his family is starting to look at him strangely; and a stranger is now coming around asking questions.

I am not convinced that the premise of hiding minds in one place and bodies in another is a great advance in the political fugitive business. But otherwise this story is an ominous reminder of the cost of freedom, and how close we may come to losing it.

The Best of Your Life by Jason Stoddard

The deal is this: you spend your first ten adult years as indentured labor, building up credit. Then you can begin your life, guided by a LifeStylist from a company like VerV that supplies it all: home, car, spouse, neighbors—all modeled on the ideal world of Leave it to Beaver. This is what Frank has been waiting for, but the reality of what his LifeStylist is offering doesn't quite match his dreams.

An unsettling, dystopian look at the corporate-grown trap where less and less of our lives is real.

Odin's Spearby Steve Bein

Namsing Lopje Sherpa and Rono Niyongabo are attempting the ultimate mountain climbing challenge on one of Jupiter's moons.

Callisto's Mount Gungnir was a mighty pinnacle reaching almost ten thousand meters above what on a warmer world could have been called sea level. Not even half as high as Olympus Mons, Gungnir still stood fully a thousand meters taller than the highest peak on Earth. Gungnir was a blade of ice, formed when two huge meteorites crashed almost simultaneously into Callisto's frozen surface.

But Rono's climbing suit has been damaged and now Nam has received a report that a meteorite strike is on the way, a strike that could obliterate the ice mountain. Over Rono's heated objections, he insists on making the ascent at once, solo.

Essentially, this is a climbing story—man against the ice and the altitude. The characters make much of using electronic devices in their climbing suits to artificially increase the gravity and restrict the oxygen to duplicate the conditions under which Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first climbed Everest. Yet at the same time, the suits artificially regulate their temperature, which seems to defeat the premise. Still, it is a fitting tribute to the heroic memories of Tenzing and Hillary—I am writing this review on the day of Hillary's funeral.

The Lost Xuyan Bride by Aliette de Bodard

In this alternate history, the prosperous former Chinese colony of Xuya shares the North American continent with the Mexica in the south and the former English colony in the east. Jonathan Brooks is an American exile in Xuya, trying to make a living as a private investigator, which the xenophobic, status-conscious Xuyan culture makes difficult. A wealthy businesswoman engages him to find her missing daughter. Despite evidence that foul play may have been involved, she is not willing to call in the legitimate authorities. Brooks believes this has something to do with the fact that the missing girl's fiancé is part of a criminal syndicate. It gradually becomes clear that she has fled to the Mexica to avoid marrying this man, who wants Brooks to retrieve her.

This is not a happy world. All three nations are full of prejudice, xenophobia, suspicion and repression. Both Brooks and He Zhen have been forced to escape their homelands, but exile does not offer either of them a much better alternative. Yet despite Brooks' claim that it is hard for an American to get by in Xuya, he seems to be remarkably successful at his job, which seems to require a great deal of integration into the society, or at least its computer systems.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, January 2008

I often think Strange Horizons may have settled into a comfortable rut, generating stories that are uniformly competent, yet cut from patterns that are getting rather worn.

Still Living by J. J. Irwin

SH starts out the year with a typical offering in this very short fantasy. Carlo and Alice were lovers; she is a photographer, he was an artist, now recently dead. But the pictures he had painted remain behind on the walls of their apartment, pictures of Carlo and Alice. And the pictures have lives of their own; the Carlos and Alices on the walls continue their love affairs while the flesh-and-blood Alice remains bereft.

While she makes a cup of tea, the kitchen Carlo pops a vivid Fauvist grape into his Alice's smiling mouth. When they see her watching, Carlo winks at her.
She stirs in sugar, avoids looking at the wall. Their laughter follows her out into the sunroom.

This is a poignant story of loss and bereavement. It seems at first to be an ambiguous fantasy, but we come to understand that the paintings, in some unexplained way, are literally alive. The question then arises, can they also suffer loss?

The End of Tin by Billy Kte'pi

An Oz story. Nick Chopper the Tin Man has grown weary of his tin existence in Oz. He spends most of his time staring at the mirror where his true love Maryann has disappeared, fallen into the world from which he had originally come. He longs to recover himself, his body, his lost heart.

What they didn't tell him because they didn't know was that when he'd met Maryann, lost in the woods in her red cape standing out like a poppy amidst a dead meadow, the first thing he'd said to her was, "I bet you a nickel I don't fall in love with you." They didn't tell him because they didn't know that the next time he saw her was when he rescued her from one of the dire wolves that prowled the woods, freeing her from its maw by splitting it in half with his axe, which in those days was humble and mundane—that when her witchmother's mirror had shown Maryann's reflection instead, it was Nick whose kiss had resurrected her from the sleep of snow and glass—that her mouth was as sweet and mysterious as smoke from a gingerbread chimney. They didn't tell him because they didn't know that he'd lost his heart long before he was tin, which was why the Wizard's replacement wasn't enough to restore him.

Nick finds at last a means to find Maryann, but also discovers the old lesson that getting what you wish for isn't always what you want.

I am not a fan of the Oz universe, so the appeal of this one may be lost on me, but it appears that the author is offering a critique of this "undying land of children and ancients," where no one ever grows up. Nick finds that happily-ever-after can be found in neither the worlds of make-believe nor reality. A depressing vision.

How to Hide Your Heart by Deborah Coates

He's a hunter. And the things he hunts live in the shadows in every town he comes to. So he watches people and files them away and he's become an expert in who will help because he asks, who he can con or threaten into helping, who will help and never know they did it. And he never finds, in all those little bits of help that come his way, what he's forgotten he ever wanted, someone who knows the score and stands up with him anyway.

There are people who know what he hunts, there are people that he can get to help him, unknowing. Then, unexpectedly, he encounters a girl who both knows and who wants to help. But he has been alone for so long, he isn't sure he knows how to accept it.

This one reminds me a bit of the wizard who keeps his heart or soul locked away in some object, to keep it safe. Done well, but not very original.

Looking for Friendship, Maybe More by Corie Ralston

Light humor. Alien relationships on High Earth Orbit station become complicated, as reflected in the postings on the station's Personals page.

003.20:10.55 Re: Just One Night
dear research scientist
I am available for your amazing experience...do u have any special requirements? rates attached...
--can-do
ps...love your hunky holo...

Amusing stuff.

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld 16

Clarkesworld #16, January 2008

Both stories for January are extremely short, and, as often happens here, entirely different in style.

The River Boy by Tim Pratt

An old woman is unhappy that she has no descendants to carry on her name, which comes from the great river where she was born. So she travels back to the banks of the river and asks it to give her a son, even though she is beyond the age of giving birth. And the river complies, though at a price.

The old woman was amazed she could produce milk at all, though she supposed that was no more miraculous than the fact of the babe himself. But when he dropped his head down, sated, she saw a trickle not of colostrum or milk but of clear cold water from her breast. She shivered, rose unsteadily to her feet, and looked at the wide empty channel of cracked earth where the river had been.

This fable is beautiful, but bothersome. The river should have known better. The old woman did not compel it to give itself to her as her son—there is no suggestion that she has such power—she only made a request. While one might take this as an example of "Be careful what you wish for", the effects were grossly disproportionate to the lesson, and that was the river's fault, not the woman's.

Debris Issuing from a Supervortex by Brian Ames

An F4 tornado has destroyed Blake's home and his memory. Now in rehab, he is given a drug—or at least the author suggests that SD is a drug—to stimulate his recollection, the bad along with the good.

This extremely short piece is notable for the flashiness of its prose, which teases the reader to guess: What or who is SD? Secure Digital Memory does not seem to be the answer, however appropriate. But a large part of the enigma seems to be inadvertent, stemming from an ambiguous modifier:

Put yourself into the date that happened. Search for a clue. Find out why Blake's forgotten more than you've ever learned. Discover who this SD character is. Linger in a whorl of his fingerprint, suckle at the dugs of his DNA, worry through the pattern of his loss. Then you'll know. Then you can help him, too, as SD does, or tries to do.

 

Helix

Helix #7, Winter 2008

Suicide Drive by Charlie Anders

The narrator's father used to be something like the ruler Earth. Earth was in pretty bad shape. Twenty years ago, he sent a spaceship full of colonists/refugees to some other world, then locked himself into a bunker with his son to wait for whatever.

He didn't talk about it that much. I was like one year old when we moved here, and right until the end I never knew the whole story. I sort of knew my dad had been someone important, but mostly I thought it was just the rock-star thing. And I thought everybody lived like this. I didn't realize half the world was starving while we were in our little luxury compound disguised as a shack. In the fibrespecs we watched, people mostly lived like us. I didn't realize the stories were lies, just like our life.

Twenty years later, whatever time is here. The spaceship has arrived at its destination. Some sort of reporter has now contacted the narrator to get his reaction to the historic event, and also to elicit his views about his infamous father.

It is hard to make a monologue interesting. This one is no exception. The events the narrator relates are not without potential interest, but nothing actually happens during the course of the story, except for the narrator telling us what already happened, long ago. One can speculate about what will happen between the narrator and the reporter once they are sealed inside the shelter, but all we can do is speculate, as this story, too, remains untold.

Seraphim by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

A mystery. Lee Cranfeldt is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1896, when a strange aircraft crashes into a nearby gully. Or so the man found in the wreckage claims. But the only working aircraft at this time are balloons, and this wreckage is no balloon; it is made from metal and it has wings. Then an officer from the Army takes over the scene of the accident, and the man who claimed that he had flown the machine begins to change his story and declare that it was all a hoax. Cranfeldt is suspicious—more so when he discovers that the Army has applied pressure to his editor to kill the story. But this only makes him more determined to dig out the truth, and he discovers that similar incidents have taken place all over the country during the last couple of years. By the end of the story he has the answer, but it is clear that there are still more secrets still unrevealed.

This is an intriguing SF alternate-history detective story and how things might have been different if heavier-than-air-craft were developed in secrecy by the armed forces, rather than openly by amateurs like the Wright brothers. It is not a difference that most of us would welcome. Readers may be uncomfortably reminded of the Manhattan Project, or perhaps Roswell. The echoes of today's attitudes sometimes have an anachronistic ring, however. Would an officer of 1896 really invoke secrecy with the claim, "National security"?

The Night of the Living POTUS by Adam-Troy Castro

The presidency as a cheesy slasher movie, complete with Concluding Moral. There is, indeed, truth to the punchline.

The Last Man's First Year on Earth by David W. Goldman

Kerry Molloy is the last man—the last adult—on Earth. He is the only survivor of a space expedition, revived from coldsleep to discover that Everything Has Changed. In his absence, a longevity treatment has been discovered, but it only works on pre-adolescents, so that now the entire world is now populated by very old children, in terms of their physiological development. This causes Molloy a number of problems adjusting to their society, particularly in terms of sexuality.

The basic scenario here is one of SF's most familiar, but Goldman has created an interesting variation on the theme, and it is easy to sympathize with Molloy's confusion. The world is well thought-through. Because it is clear that this future population has made great strides in biochemistry, I do not spend a lot of time wondering where the new children actually come from—a brief reference is made to a crèche. While the story is happily free from overt moralizing on the subject, readers may be left considering whether the population of this future has made a good exchange for their greatly prolonged lives.

RECOMMENDED

Salvager's Gold by Selina Rosen

Clyde's life has not met his expectations.

Fifteen years ago he'd been a young man with dreams. A salvager on a barge working under the command of Eric Rider, an icon of salvaging in their galaxy. Clyde was going places and doing things. He'd dreamed a young salvager's dream of one day commanding his own space barge and finding The Big Trash.

But now he's stuck cleaning out dumpsters on a space station, hating his wife and kids. The worst part of his job is when he finds a corpse in the dumpster—then he has to fill out paperwork. Sometimes, though, there are consolations, like the good watch he took off the wrist of the latest cadaver just before the cops showed up with the paperwork. But the watch holds a secret, if only Clyde knew.

Funny stuff. Funny enough that I didn't spend too much time wondering why, if the contents of the dumpsters are so valuable as recycling, that every passing opportunist stranger doesn't look in and skim off the good stuff. Or why the bad guys never noticed the watch before they dumped the body in.

Family Tree by Vaughn Stanger

Sarah is a teacher forced into early retirement after a successful career. All she wants to do now is cultivate the memories of her dead husband [literally cultivate, as memories can be downloaded into living plants]. She resents the friend who keeps trying to lure her back into teaching.

This is a sentimental piece, and the sentiment feels artificial and forced, overloaded with backstory and symbolism. The author is working way too hard to make me feel sorry for Sarah, but his efforts have yielded diminished returns.

Drooling Wizards by Laura J. Underwood

Humorous fantasy. The village of Upper Drooling has lost its idiot and needs to fill the position. Clod Hopper is on his way to take it up when he encounters another traveler, a wizard cursed by a spell of drooling.

Melthazar rolled his eyes. "I was until this curse was placed upon me by Gronda the Grievous of Upper Drooling. Now, every time I try to cast a fire spell, I drown it. Not to mention the embarrassment it is to make evil threats and slather your enemies in spittle. My reputation as a wizard has been ruined and now I am on my way to Upper Drooling to challenge Gronda and settle the score."

But when they reach the village, Melthazar is mistaken for the idiot on account of his copious drool.

This could not be considered subtle humor, and some readers may feel that the author carries it a bit too far for its own good. The story has a sound plot at its core, however, and resolves in a satisfactory manner. If some anthologist is planning a collection of children's stories on the gross side, this one would make a good addition.


Copyright © 2008, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. She is now reviewing the fiction of others.

COMMENTS!

Feb 19, 03:50 by IROSF
Have something to add?

The reviews can be found here.
Feb 19, 14:57 by Gregory Feeley
I need to read something by Albert E. Cowdrey; F&SF has been publishing him for years, and I haven't read past a page or two of any of them. (I have a recollection of not loving the prose.) Does "The Overseer" show him to particularly good effect?
Feb 19, 17:07 by Lois Tilton
I prefer his contemporary mysteries, but this one is not a bad example of his stuff. Prose may be on the overheated side.

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