Final Staff

Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan


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Publisher: Bluejack

April, 2008 : Review:

March Short Fiction

A typical lineup this month, though I saw more printzines than netzines. One of them was new to me, the second volume of the science fiction magazine Escape Velocity. Most of the stories there left me less than enthusiastic.

The prize for the month definitely goes to May's F&SF.

Zines Reviewed


Asimov's, June '08

Asimov's, June 2008

A rather lackluster issue, with no stories that really set off fireworks for me, and a disappointing offering from a favorite author, Ian MacLeod.

The Hob Carpet by Ian R. MacLeod

In this alternate history, modern humans migrate north from Africa and encounter a race of pale-skinned neandertaloids that they enslave. The narrator grows up in profligate luxury with hobs to perform any conceivable task. But he is curious and observant, and he comes to reject the basic assumptions of his world—its Gods, its priesthood and their constant need to sacrifice hob blood, its static view of the immutability of life, as ordained by the Gods. What he discovers is evolution, and the fact that the hobs are near kin to his own race. But news of his hob-loving heresies reaches the ears of the priests, who decide he must be held responsible for the alterations in the climate that are eroding the foundations of their society.

The fatal flaw of this narrative is hyperbole. This excess is of course intentional, it is at the heart of the story, but the author carries things so much too far that the reader eventually has to stop and ask the deadly question: Does all this make any sense? Where, for instance, do all these hobs, who seem to outnumber the humans by hundreds or thousands, whose blood is the lubricating engine of the human universe, come from, since we never see them breed or bear young in captivity. The hobs are simply there. In this passage, which gives the story its title, the author has broken his leg.

I was intrigued by the complexity and variety of the process by which the hob retinues bore my newly disabled self along. As our house was as rich in mirrors as our garden was in ponds, I was even able to study the strange manner of my progress as if I was watching someone else. There was the simple half-crouch, wherein two or three hobs would position themselves almost as if they were sitting as we humans do. I would recline on the silks and cushions that they had arranged upon their bodies, whilst four or six other hobs beneath that top layer would contort their backs in a variety of postures to provide the necessary motive power and support. For stairs and slopes, there was the position that I called the rolling back, during which a dozen or so hobs, more if necessary, would lay themselves face-upward across the ascent, and push the rolling knot of upper hobs which still actually supported me up or down. Then there was hands over arms for the steeper ascents as the hobs formed something like a stairway of limbs, and, most strange of all, what I thought of as the hob carpet in which, once I had signed that I was weary of being seated and wanted to stretch my still-functioning limbs, my tumbling, ever-changing retinue would briefly contrive to convey me upright as though I were walking, yet still supporting my splinted leg as if it were not broken at all.

Fantastic excess, but excessive excess, to the point where it begins to work against the story.

Call Back Yesterday by Nancy Kress

Caitlin sees people in her mirror.

Briefly, for just a second, the woman with the baby on her hip looks outward and her gaze meets Caitlin's. The woman shows no recognition. The boy in the purple garbage bags has disappeared, but a man in a silver brocade waistcoat, knee breeches, and elaborately tied white cravat strolls into the mirror, calling over his shoulder to someone hidden in mist.

The staff at the mental institute call it Cathcart Syndrome and claim that the images are projections of her own mind. But Caitlin doesn't trust them and refuses to admit that she sees any projections. She isn't sure why she does this, just as she can't quite remember anything from Before. Then one night the power goes off and Josh, Seena and Caitlin manage to escape, only to find themselves, not in Manhattan but a mutant rainforest. Something else has been going on while they were being lied to.

Kress presents us with a fascinating SFnal problem—with two of them. But the ease with which Caitlin comes up with the answer disappoints.

The Auctioneer and the Antiquarian, or, 1962 by Forrest Aguirre

1962, when Kennedy was President, simultaneously leading the nation towards the moon and war in Cuba. Haydon White is thirteen, and he has cancer; he is undergoing experimental chemotherapy. His father is dead, and he lives in the trailer park with the two old men who are constantly quarreling with each other—Joe McCarthy fan Lenny, who is convinced the aliens on the moon are deflecting US spacecraft, and liberal, skeptical Simms. Both of them know that Haydon will need more than medicine to overcome his disease. He will need the will to live. The help that Lenny offers is a sci-fi placebo.

Navy blue, matte gold, and bright red blocks drew his eye from spot to spot—blue on the right half, gold on the left, and three red bumps, one on either ear and one on the top of the helmet. It could have been a jet pilot's helmet, given the blue-glass visor that fit over the wearer's eyes. But the three red protuberances, surmounted by glass cones, each encrusted by a three-ring-encircled antenna, gave it a bizarre, otherworldly air, though "air" seemed to Hayden to be the wrong word.
"The H4000," Lenny said proudly, handing the helmet to the boy.

This story is rather like old Lenny's junkyard, crammed full of 1960s memorabilia and trivia, from Buck Rodgers to Kruschev. Aguirre is too young to recall first-hand the Cold War drills when schoolchildren were taught to hide under their desks from nuclear fallout, but he evokes the anxiety that pervaded the era, the sense of living on the edge of doom, when there was not really so much difference between cancer, nuclear war, and alien invasion.

Surprise Party by James Patrick Kelly

Mercedes Nunez is a woman of the past. In her youth she was an innovative, sexy neuro star. Now, she lives in the house her last lover left her when he died, and tries to keep working. Today, on her birthday, her friends are throwing her a surprise party. To them, her fading celebrity is still exciting.

You've lived here almost two years now and you're still our number one request at the neurocom. The demand was there so I've bought pretty much everything you've done."
"Really?" Mercedes had never accessed the library's neurocom. "The artsy stuff ? Suit of Clay? BlueSkin?"
"All of them, although I've put warnings on the sexy material and restricted access. You're our local celebrity, Mercedes. You've won Oscars."
"For Achievement in Neurological Special Effects." She snorted. "The ones they give away in the afternoon ceremony."

But Mercedes gets a surprise she never anticipated.

This day-in-the-life gives us an interesting character, but no more than that.

Burgerdroid by Felicity Shoulders

A horror story. What could be worse than having to work at the burger joint? Working as a fake robot at the Burgerdroid, inside a robot suit.

"Here is your receipt," I said. "Thank you for visiting the Restaurant of the Future!" For most people, this was the payoff—the metal fingers pressing the receipt into their hand. Cold round fingertips, hard for pressing buttons, brushing their palms. For the parents, we do something else. I bent towards the little girl. "Small customer! Would you like a Burgerdroid sticker?"

Like Chaplin's Modern Times, people caught in the capitalist cogs of commerce.

Beneath Sunlit Shallows by Derek Künsken

When the human colonists arrived after a thousand-year journey at Epsilon Indi, they discovered the system so full of meteoric debris that their only safety was beneath the ocean of the world they called Indi's Tear. It was necessary to engineer their next generations to be an aquatic species adapted to the deep sea floor. Vincent is the best-adapted individual to this environment, but Vincent hates the inhuman thing that he is and believes that mutation is too high a cost to pay, even for species survival.

"The people who made us sacrificed everything human just so we could exist. We're human brains living in alien bodies that don't connect right. There's no beauty, no attraction, no love. We don't have parents. We don't have children. We don't have family. Humans on Earth and on other colonies, even the most worthless exile or prisoner, can taste food, see and feel sunlight, look in the mirror and not frighten themselves."

The author makes a strong argument in Vincent's name, but I am not convinced that such creatures would miss so strongly what they had never known, nor experience such revulsion at what they had known all their lives. In fact, Vincent's story contradicts his claim, because he once had a friend, and despite her hideous [he claims] appearance, Vincent loved her.

Gabe's Globster by Lawrence Person

Gabe is a beach bum, misanthropically content carving driftwood on his island when he encounters a vast, gelatinous glob washed ashore on the beach. A glob with ominous properties.

A fiddler crab scurried slowly across the sand toward the glob, presumably the first of many scavengers to start pecking at it. He wondered how difficult the gelatinous flesh would be for claws to rend. But as it reached the mass, the thing's "skin" seemed to ripple again, flowing over and encasing the crab in its translucent embrace.
Gabe watched to see how it struggled, but all was still, the crab now entombed in the thing, unmoving.

A horror story, with a protagonist perfect for such encounters.


F&SF, May '08

F&SF, May 2008

A lot of F&SF regulars in this issue, a development that I view with some misgiving, as when a magazine begins to rely too much on the same too-familiar names. Most of the stories I really enjoyed were from authors I have seen here less frequently.

Thrilling Wonder Stories by Albert E. Cowdrey

It starts out as Yet Another Tale of a 12 year old boy growing up in the 1950s reading sci-fi magazines, but is soon revealed as horror. Farley is convinced he was fathered by a man from Mars, not the man he has always called Papa, who looks nothing like him. In reality it was a car dealer from Opelousas. When Mama leaves Papa—and Farley—for her old lover, the monster that has been lurking beneath the surface of Farley's mind [a teacher once called him a "goddam psycho"] breaks loose.

It is an ambiguous fantasy; the voice of the monster that Farley hears is very likely the product of his own imagination than a real entity. This is probably the more disturbing alternative.

Rebecca's Locket by S. L. Gilbow

The Eternilocket probably seemed like a good idea at first, downloading a dying person's mind to a piece of jewelry that could be worn by a loved one. And Jerry certainly thought so as he commented on his own funeral. But his wife Rebecca doesn't think it's going to work out.

Not an original premise, but a somewhat amusing take on it.

Firooz and His Brother by Alex Jeffers

Firooz is a young man traveling with his uncle's caravan between Samarkand and Baghdad when he and his hound follow a deer into a strange country.

The hound had her eye on a particular animal she must have sensed to be weaker or more confused than the others. She pursued it relentlessly, leading Firooz farther and farther from the caravan, into a broken country where strange spires of jagged rock thrust up through the loose soil, twisted little trees clinging to their flanks. All the other deer had vanished. The young buck they followed cantered nimbly among the spires and towers and bastions. Steep shadows fell from tall spires and scarps, filling narrow passages with dusk. Springs and streams flowed here, watering the soil and nourishing seeming gardens of wildflowers in bloom, more lovely than anything Firooz had seen since leaving Samarkand. There were trees as well, protected from the winds of the plain, tall and straight and broad, and lush stretches of green turf. If he had not been intent on the deer's white rump and the hound's feathered tail, Firooz should have been astounded.

Coming to a clearing, Firooz discovers with regret that his hound has killed a smaller dog that was guarding a baby. He adopts the child as his brother, Haider, declaring that he is unmarried and too young to be a father. Both grow to manhood, marry, and become leaders of the caravan, but although Haider is blessed with children, Firooz' wife miscarries every time she is with child. Out of love for his brother, Haider gives him the gift of a son.

This is a fine, original fantasy with a bit of the tone of the Arabian Nights, full of miracles and magic and wonder.


Immortal Snake by Rachel Pollack

An exotic tale, a historical fable of a mighty empire with a ruler always known as Immortal Snake. In a variation of the old tradition that "the king must die for the land", the priests of Written in the Sky read God's message in the heavens that tells them when the old ruler must shed his mortal skin and be renewed, in order to retain the blessing of God. Upon the ascension of a new Immortal Snake, neighboring rulers send tribute, and the tribute of the Empire of Mud and Glory is a storyteller, a slave named Tribute of Angels. The stories he tells cast a spell that no one can resist, not even the Readers of the heavens.

The tales that Tribute of Angels tells are old, familiar ones that the author gives a fresh shape. This is a story that appears to be heading toward a neat but predictable wrap-up, but it moves past that point to a different, darker ending. There is a lot of exotic, fantastic invention here, as in the description of Immortal Snake's ritual death:

When he had eaten the entire dish he would begin to vomit. All his insides would pour out, even his bones, which the food had turned to brightly colored jelly. When nothing but the skin remained the Readers would drape it over a wooden cross they then would carry through the city back to the vaults underneath their observatory. And then, from the directions written in the sky, they would choose a new Immortal Snake. And everyone would celebrate.

The author's endnote, informing us that this tale derives from an ancient legend of a land that today's readers will recognize, doubles the impact of the conclusion.


Reunion by Robert Reed

A small high school in Missouri had a graduating class of twenty-three. Of the twenty-two survivors, twelve—the Golden Twelve—have gone on to extraordinary success. April is the daughter of the one deceased graduate, and she wants to know the secret. Now it is the class's thirty-year reunion, and April has wangled her way into the gathering.

This one suffers from an truly obnoxious main character. April has not really come to discover an answer; she has already figured it out and only wants to browbeat the others into acknowledging her. I'm surprised they didn't toss her out the door.

Traitor by M. Rickert

Alika's mama is in the Resistance. She is probably what we would call a terrorist. She thinks Alika doesn't know what she does in the red room, but Alika does. Alika isn't supposed to remember where she goes, what she does when Mama sends her, but Alika isn't stupid. She has seen all the photographs in the red room, the photographs of all the dead.

[Pauline] walks over to stare at the wall of the dead. She looks at each photograph and says, "I remember." They smile back at her in shades of black, white, and gray. Sometimes she is tempted to hurry through this part or just say a general "I remember" once to the entire wall. But she knows it isn't her thinking this. Resistance begins in the mind. I remember. She looks at each face. She remembers. It is never easy.

The story is told primarily from Alika's point of view, so that the truth comes very slowly into focus, until we recognize betrayal everywhere.


Circle by George Tucker

Billy Black knows why the Circle construction project is behind schedule—the local spirits have cursed it after anthropologists excavated the tribal relics buried there. Billy's own problem is money. He needs to buy the land in the Everglades where he buried his grandfather the shaman, when it was still a national park instead of a development zone. But the shaman business doesn't pay. Until Billy manages to convince the head of the development company that he is the only one who can lift the curse.

This take on the ancient Indian burial ground curse has its entertaining moments, though the author pushes too hard at the end for the happy conclusion.


Analog, May '08

Analog, May 2008

Ashes of His Fathers by Eric James Stone

This story was inadvertently left out of the table of contents for the May issue of Analog. I had already considered it one of the better issues of this zine that I can recall, and this addition only confirms my opinion.

Mariposa Hernandez is a customs agent for Earth when a ship approaches the space station from the distant colony named Jeroboam, founded by a religious sect. The ship holds the ashes of all the colony's founders. Their belief is that those born on Earth must be resurrected on Earth. But Mariposa's AI boss declares that Jeroboam is at war with Earth and thus can not be allowed to land. The ship's pilot, Shear-Jashub Cooper, is dismayed; the long-ago declaration of "war" was only a religious curse on the Earth that rejected the sect. It is his sacred duty to deliver the ashes to Earth before the turn of the millennium, and time is growing short. Mariposa is sympathetic, but she can not overrule the AI.

There is much to appreciate in this story, which considers such problems as the difference in thought-processes between humans and AIs; the reaction of a civilization that has outgrown religion to an encounter with religious fanaticism; the way a bureaucrat must try to balance personal feelings with adherence to the rules. Mariposa's solution is both drastic and sensitive, a decision only a human could have made.



Analog, June '08

Analog, June 2008

Another issue with no serial, but not quite up to the quality of May. The theme for this month seems to be AIs in space.

Brittney's Labyrinth by Richard A. Lovett

Brittney is Floyd's sentient AI implant. Owing to events in a previous story, Floyd has been hired by a rich dude called Rudolph to guide him on an exploration of Iapetus and the nearby minor moons in the Ring. Rudolph correctly suspects there is a big lode of black diamond at the center of one of the moons, but once he finds it, he has no more need for Floyd. It is up to Brittney to get them out alive.

For a novella, this one reads rather short, and it begins confusingly with reference to the previous story. The plot here has little in the way of action or suspense, is mostly just an event-framework on which the author hangs a lot of neep about space exploration—some of it rather interesting- and a travelogue of Iapetus.

Iapetus is a weird moon, looking as though something a long time ago squeezed it hard. The pressure squirted up an enormous ridge right around its equator, so tall that on Earth an equivalent mountain range would jut all the way through the stratosphere with a lot to spare. That's where the biggest of the big mountains tend to be.

There is also a lot of stuff about the growing relationship between Brittney and Floyd, centering around the question of why Floyd decided to crawl into the moon-cave given his claustrophobia. The problem for the reader coming new to this material is that most of this relationship comes from the previous story, so it is hard to get emotionally involved in it. However, it is likely that most readers of this zine have seen the earlier installment and will find it fulfilling their expectations.

Waterbot by Ben Bova

A boy and his spaceship. The waterbot is JRK49N, an ice-mining ship in the asteroid belt. 49 is automated, but this is Yet Another of those stories where ships come equipped with a single human pilot to serve as narrator. When he finds the ship's AI practicing tactical maneuvers and orders it to stop because pirates never attack waterbots, we know that a pirate attack is imminent. As life-support on the damaged ship runs out, 49 tries to talk the narrator out of committing suicide, because it doesn't want to be left alone.

For the most part, the unoriginality here is stunning, though the conclusion redeems it a bit from deadly cliché with a nice cynical comment on one pilot's insignificance in the greater schemes of the universe. Alas, it closes on a more predictably sentimental note.

Demand Ecology by Craig DeLancey

Galactic civilization has discovered Earth and holds humanity in low esteem because it exterminated most other animal species on the planet. Still, humans are now beginning to expand beyond their own system. Virgil is the science guy on an expedition to the world Purgatorio, where they plan to mine a substance called matryoshka, "buckyballs wrapped in many nested layers of carbon network spheres." The problem is that a species called the Greet are also present and have laid claim to Purgatorio.

Virgil repeatedly warns the Captain to take the Greet claim more seriously, but the Captain regards his warnings as a threat to his command authority. In case readers might doubt that the Captain is going to be the cardboard villain of the piece, he also mocks Virgil's ecological concerns and spouts a human-supremacist line. His warnings ignored, Virgil decides he has no choice but to sabotage the planned mining project.

I am pleased to see a story in the pages of this magazine that takes ecological concerns seriously. And the conflict between the humans and the Greet is well worked-out, offering much potential interest. Alas, the author has sabotaged his own work by opening with the aftermath of Virgil's mutiny, totally deflating any possible tension. Nor did it help to spend so much time on moralizing backflashes where the narrator's daughter rakes his conscience over the coals on account of the extinctions. Too bad, because there was the seed of a good science fiction story here.

The Late Sam Boone by Bud Sparhawk

Humor. Sam Boone is the moderator in negotiations between the murderous Sith (with names like Ripgut and Flenser, who politely greet their guests with the wish that they might dine on the steaming entrails of their enemies) and the sweet, cuddly Arasoes. It seems that the Sith are religious fanatics determined to spread the cult of the Great Egg, and have given the Arasoes the ultimatum to convert or die. The Arasoes, however, seem blithely unconcerned by this prospect. After a number of misadventures that include his own demise, Sam learns the reason why.

Manic mayhem.

Back by Susan Forest

Alan and Victor are partners in the attempt to build a working time machine. They know that they will succeed, because on the day they rent the warehouse they are going to use for their experiments, a note appears on a desk: "It worked!" Over the years, they succeed in sending various objects and then organisms back in time, but the real test is in returning them to the present. They train chimps to activate a return switch, but while the chimps disappear, they never come back. Sensing failure, their backers pull out, their reputation is ruined, and finally Alan and Victor have a falling-out. But both, in their own different ways, are determined to solve the problem.

A clever look at an old SFnal problem.

Finalizing History by Richard K. Lyon

A complicated plot in which mystery author Earl Stanley Gardner, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Ronald Reagan, Edward Teller, and Jackie Kennedy all have the same dream: they meet with an alien who tells them that he is going to be finalizing human history, and they must make a fatal decision.

"In less than a century, a ship from a nearby star will visit your solar system.... That will end the isolation of your race and make further improvements in your history impossible. That means your history must be finalized, and—Here you must understand—the Law of the Galaxy is that no good thing is completely free. Having gained great improvements in your history, you must pay a price in pain. You must make a small sacrifice so that what you gained will not be free.

Highly improbable stuff. I can not agree with a number of the historical arguments made by the characters.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, March 2008

This month's offerings are more sciencefictional than usual for SH.

All Talk by Will Ludwigsen

Short-short. Valerie and Colin amuse each other with their mental ability to make other people say the most outrageous things. But the trick works on each other, as well, which complicates their relationship.

Some things don't entirely change.

Kip, Running by Genevieve Williams

In this future Seattle, as in all cities, teenaged runners and trainjumpers race through the streets in a sort of high-tech version of hitching a ride on back car bumpers. It's sport, recreation, competition. It's illegal.

"Rules, you know 'em: no driving, no fares. No throwing the competition off a maglev, skyscraper, airship, bubblevator, or taxicab. You run or you freeride. No exceptions."

Kip wants more than anything to beat Narciso; she imagines that if she does, she will win the admiration of his girlfriend Lily.

Yet Another cyberpunk-influenced piece about the Kewell Kids of the future, who apparently dry up and blow away when they reach the senescence of sixteen. I tend to be impatient with this genre and think that Kip's mother ought to ground her. I wondered how Kip, who is by no means rich, had obtained all her expensive modifications. The story is mostly race action, fast-paced and slick, although I am not convinced that Kip could have made up all the time she lost by taking the wrong train. The ending reconciled me to this piece, however, with a good dose of common sense.

Linkworlds by Will McIntosh

We're not in Kansas, not on Earth, we're not even in our own universe. Tweel's universe is a sphere, containing worlds much smaller than our own.

But the most beautiful thing he told me was that the movement of the worlds makes music that we can't hear, and that the note each world sings as it moves depends on how far it is from the center of the universe. He showed me this on his model, by holding marbles tight so they didn't bob around, then plucking strings of different lengths. The strings made different notes when he plucked them. He said this was how propulsion works: we change the song our world sings by singing along with it, at just the right place, signing just the right songs, and this causes the world to move differently.

Tweel is an idiot savant with a perfect genius for geometry and pattern acuity. While the worlds had known how to link up one-to-one, Tweel sees how three or more worlds can link. This facilitates the spread of knowledge, but unfortunately it allows one belligerent world to attack and conquer many others. Now it is up to Tweel to discover the solution.

I love alternative cosmologies. I love the notion that this one was inspired by the Music of the Spheres. I don't love Tweel as a character very much, or the clichéd hairy-fisted villains, and I rather suspect that outside the soap-bubble universe there is no air to breathe.


Æon #13

Æon, #13

Love is the theme, the theme is love. Or so claims the editorial, but in fact while most of the pieces in this issue deal with love in some peripheral way, only a few of them can be said to be about love.

Pearl by Jeffe Kennedy

Obidion is a generation prison colony in space, although the Guards have not been back in a while and the prisoners carry on with maintenance themselves, as they have been encoded since before birth. Then Pearl, Tomas and some of the other young Techs discover the presence of Schnell, "the natural man," unencoded, who has broken in to Obidion in search of the Self-Encoding Device that was hidden there long ago. Schnell and Pearl immediately fall in love, and he promises to take her away with him from Obidion when he leaves to deliver the SED to other prisons.

His voice whispered across my cheek and hair. "No one is free," he said. "Everyone is in prison colonies, just as Obidion. Like you, they all believe their tale is unique, that they failed Civilization. The Guards go for so long because they have so many colonies to maintain. The Domestication Maintenance schedule is a lie. Everyone is encoded. Everyone imprisoned.

This is a promising first story from the author, with an intriguing premise of prisoners programmed to be their own guards, generations born into imprisonment. I like the colony name, with its blending of "oubliette" and "oblivion". But the arrival of the Guards, with chains and rape and blood, is at odds with the rest of the setting, farcical rather than menacing.

One Avatar, Hold the Anchovies by S. Huston Blount

Humor. A pizza guy makes a delivery to the god Ra, who is looking for a new priest.

The Dam by Daniel Marcus

Four towns were erased when the reservoir was created as a CCC project back in the thirties. Prescott, Alice, Machinery, Thor. If I had any more children, I would name them thus.
Several people refused to move when the time came. An old woman living in the house her great-grandfather had built as a newly-freed slave fleeing Reconstruction. A young man whose wife had died in childbirth the previous year, his daughter stillborn. An idiot. The town drunk of Machinery. I wonder if the waters rose slowly, ushering them gently into the next world, or if they looked up suddenly to see a wall of blue steel and white foam rushing down on them, bearing the weight of Judgment.

A Dragon, something evil, lives in the reservoir now. The people who live nearby are corrupted by its presence, body and soul.

It is the narrative voice that makes this short horror story effective, with the most appalling scenes of cruelty related as commonplace everyday events, interleaved with a precise set of chemistry lab instructions that some readers will probably recognize early on.


Hit by Bruce McAllister

Anthony Pagano is a hit man for the Mob, hired to make a very unusual killing. He gets the assignment from an angel.

He announces he's an angel. I say, "You're kidding." He says, "No. Really." I ask for proof. He says, "Look at my eyes," and I do. His pupils are missing. "So?" I say. "That's easy with contacts." So he makes the butter melt on the plate just by looking at it, and I say, "Any demon could do that." He says, "Sure, but let's cut the bullshit, Anthony. God's got something He wants you to do, and if you'll take the job, He'll forgive everything."

Since Anthony has a lot that needs forgiveness, he agrees to assassinate the oldest vampire, the son of You Know Who. But the angel is lying, it's all part of a greater plan. Everyone's got a plan—the vampires, the Jesuits (who are all vampires), and even Him.

The writing here hits some clever spots, but the plot is excessively convoluted for the disappointing payoff. There had to be an easier way.

Little Moon, Too, Goes Round by David Dumitru

Evolution is out of whack after all the wars and the gene-splicing plagues. The potatoes bite, the skeletons crawl out of their graves, and a lot of people—all of them?—are hatched from eggs. The doctors are working on straightening things out. Out on the farm, KC Moss wants to mate with Eddie, who played Hamlet in the drama club production, but another girl got to him first, and the effects of mating on a male of Eddie's kind are drastic.

Habitat pressure. Right. There were only a few hundred free range hominids on the entire planet. The doctors kept tweaking the DNA and the DNA kept tweaking back. It could be thousands of years before there was a self-sustaining, breeding population that even remotely resembled homo sapiens sapiens.

There is a lot of imaginative stuff here, but not a whole lot makes complete sense for a reader looking for explanations, other than the fact that everything is a controlled experiment in breeding conducted by the doctors, and it isn't going as well as it might be, and some of the people in the story may be robotic constructs. Better just to accept this one for its entertainment value and not ask questions. Nothing's going to be fixed anytime soon.

Swimming Back From Hell by Moonlight by Marissa K. Lingen

Variation on the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, one of the few stories in this issue that deals overtly with the theme of love. The narrator's husband unexpectedly dies, and her life falls apart.

We were going to have gorgeous children together, and grow old and preferably cantankerous. We were going to drink gallons of herbal tea with clover honey and see dozens of old movies together. We knew how it would be.

When she sees the cave, she knows it is the entrance to Hell, and she does not hesitate to descend, to demand her love back. But the gods have had lovers visit them before, and they are not to be trusted.

I suspect that most readers, too, have seen this one before and won't find anything particularly new here, despite the intriguing title. The author's scenes of grief are effectively done, but her underworld is lackluster, so much that she seems to have felt compelled to graft another mythos onto it.

Misery Loves by Craig D.B. Patton

The storm made a hole in Misery's roof.

She rather liked it at first. Investigating what had made such a loud, rending noise, she stood in her attic looking up through the jagged hole that had formerly been a third of the ceiling. Snapped beams were jutting skyward like broken ribs. Moss-covered shingles were flapping in the wind. Rain was soaking the jumbled piles of boxes that contained memories she did not care to remember. Bits of wood and shingle were everywhere. It was spectacularly awful. Added a whole new dimension of dreariness, really. She wondered why she had not thought to do it herself long ago.
Her opinion changed in the morning. Sunlight was pouring through the hole. Bright, warm, unconditionally pleasant sunlight. It made the attic unbearable.

So the roof must be fixed, but who is to do it? Honesty suggests Love as a handyman. But Love can't help himself, he has to try to make her love him in addition to fixing her roof.

Amusing, with a nice light sting at the end.


Clarkesworld, March '08

Clarkesworld, March 2008

In which sinister, powerful figures crush lesser mortals.

The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black by Jay Lake

This is one heavy title. It would take quite a story to live up to it, a story of vast cosmological significance - the cosmological significance of the color blue, of a very particular shade of blue, "the color of the end of the universe, when even the light is dying."

There is a very special color that most people will never see. You have to be out in the Deep Dark, wrapped in a skinsuit amid the hard vacuum where the solar wind sleets in an invisible radioactive rain. You can close your eyes there and let yourself float in a sensory deprivation tank the size of the universe. After a while, the little mosaics that swirl behind your eyelids are interrupted by tiny, random streaks of the palest, softest, sharpest electric blue.

The narrator was once a spaceman, out in the belt, where float millions of small ancient alien artifacts—now named caltrops - like four-armed jacks. The caltrops are useless now, but once there was a device that might have enabled humans to use them as their makers had intended. The narrator, for reasons we are not told except that they were not noble, destroyed this device. Ever since, his life has been less than worthless. He has bought the protection of a gangster named Huang, but he must work for his keep and the expiation of his crime, painting the shards of broken caltrops blue, with radioactive blue paint, to convince the purchasers that they are genuine—even though genuine caltrops are gray.

So it's about that blue. Now, SF depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and I am willing here to suspend mine and accept that the blue at the end of the universe and the blue you see in space when neutrinos burn their way through your eyeballs are the same blue—Cherenkov blue, the story suggests. And I am reluctantly willing to accept that the people who want to buy authentic alien caltrop shards believe the shards have to be that very same blue—although I see no reason why this would be so. But that the paint would have to be radioactive to achieve that precise shade of blue? Nope. No way. Disbelief suspension cancelled. Particularly because the purchasers of the caltrop shards would be persons who have never been into space and thus aren't personally familiar with this precise color blue, who would not be able to distinguish it from a slightly similar, nonradioacative shade. Nor is the point that the shards must be radioactive to sell—the story makes clear that this is a bug, not a feature, and Huang has reason to be concerned about the resulting liability. No, the only reason the paint is radioactive is for the sake of the narrator's expiation. But despite the author's lyricism on the theme of blue, it just doesn't make practical sense.

Teeth by Stephen Dedman

The narrator, a Hollywood mogul, is the world's most prominent collector of Poe memorabilia—ever since, it is suggested, he murdered his most prominent rival. Now he has been offered the dead poet's teeth, a relic of dubious provenance. "But if they were real, the idea of them belonging to someone else was unbearable." Being conflicted, he consults the works of the poet himself for guidance.

The Poe-like dilemma here is that of certainty—how much will a person bet that a given prize is real, not fake? His life? Yet the atmosphere of this tale lacks the dark and brooding mood of the genuine Poe, the excruciating tension of uncertainty, tinged with madness. It gives us instead the crude violence of Hollywood.


Shimmer v2:no 4

Shimmer, Volume 2, Issue 4

Subtitled The Art Issue, as many of the stories were inspired by the illustrations. Could also have been subtitled The Bird Issue, as most of the stories include winged creatures, some of whom manage to fly. As usual in this small fantasy printzine, most of the tales are quite short.

Penny Wise by Kurt Kirchmeier

Ellsy is a penny mage afflicted with parents trapped in the usual dysfunctional marriage. Her gift is not enough to make them love one another again, but she is sure her friend Harkyn could do it, if he were a real quarter mage.

This is the cover story, but to my mind one of the weakest in the issue. The descriptions of the penny magic have some charm—

Into the fountain her penny had gone, but rather than sink to the bottom to join with the rest of the change, it instead sprouted copper-plated fins. It began swimming in widening circles, and Abraham Lincoln-shaped turds trailed out from behind it.

but otherwise this is a very ordinary problem story in which Ellsy is taught a lesson about the nature of relationships.

A Very Young Boy with Largely Clipped Wings by Michael Livingston

This one melds the Sandro Castelli illustration with Garcia Márquez's tale of "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," in a kind of sequel. Kind-hearted Pelayo finds the naked boy in the mud with nothing remaining of his wings but bony stumps. He takes him home, but when the boy persists in trying to fly, he moves him to the shed where the old winged man has been living.

I'm not so happy with the literal way the author interpreted the illustration, making the boy freakish. Magic realism is not about explanations, but this raises unanswered questions that seem unnecessary to this tale.

Within the City of the Swan by Aliette de Bodard

In which we find ourselves in the last chapter of a novel we haven't read, as the invading army has just overwhelmed the city of Vareia. It seems that the city is protected by the Swan, which once, Prometheus-like, stole the light from heaven, and was imprisoned by the Prophet in the maze for its protection. Now Jaya, descended from the Prophet, has come to Vareia to protect the Swan, except that the Swan hasn't done such a good job of protecting the city, which Serwen has destroyed in order to reach Jaya and destroy the Swan . . .

And all that just the backstory, a thick lump of it, which we learn in the end is a lie, but it is hard to care much about a story when all we can read is the ending.

Even Songbirds Are Kept in Cages by Josh Vogt

The narrator's mother has left the family, and now his perpetually-angry father has bought a mockingbird lady, clipped her wings, and caged her in the attic to sing for the family. This is supposed to benefit the family in some way that we are never told. But the mockingbird lady never sings—as mockingbirds only sing what they hear around them, and she has been locked away alone.

This is a striking metaphor of familial dysfunction, which is another of the themes of this issue.

Monologue with Birds and Burin by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

An old woman lives alone on an island. In her persona as the constructor she makes life-like mechanical birds, which her alternate persona, the deconstructor, tests and dismantles when they fail to fly—an unending daily cycle of creation and recreation.

The old woman seems in many ways to be a senile Gaia, creator of all the world's creatures, including those she has forgotten. But her role here is that of Daedalus, imprisoned in his tower, except that instead of flying away herself, the old woman wants her birds to fly back home to her, bringing their children. Recreating, perhaps, drowned Icarus? The story is enigmatic, but full of wonderful images of the cluttered, disordered workroom:

Books were piled, strewn and mounded on the table. The deconstructor plunged in. Dust and downy feathers erupted into the rays of morning sun. Coughing, the deconstructor yanked out a volume, flipped it open, read in two places, harrumphed, and tossed the book back.

The images in this piece are created only from words, but I consider them the most successful ones in this issue.


Dresses, Three by Angela Slatter

Cerridwen is a seamstress, a magician of the needle who can create a dress from anything—from peacock feathers, from butterfly wings, from words. She is passed from one wealthy woman to the next, and now has been given to Aurora De Freitas to make the dresses for her debut Season. But Aurora has particular plans for her Season, which involve her sinister uncle and his incestuous intentions on her.

There is much here that recalls the classic fairytale of Cinderella and the myth of Herakles' death. Of all the tales in this issue, this one best recreates its illustration. The frame, however, contributes nothing positive to the overall effect, negating its fairytale glamour.

Flying and Falling by Kazhai Manickavel

Ilango's daughter Muhil seems to be deformed at birth, with a strange growth on each shoulder, but he becomes convinced by a dream that they are the buds of wings and that Muhil's odd actions are her attempts to fly. He tries to help her fly, but his wife and the rest of the village believe he is only going to kill the child. The ending is tantalizingly ambiguous, while the overall tone is that of magic realism.


Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity #2

Escape Velocity, #2

The second issue of this zine, definitely on the hard-SF side of the genre bed, has about a dozen short—some very short, which the editorial guidelines unfortunately encourage - works of fiction interleaved with nonfiction and editorial features. Few of the authors are those I recognize. The fiction here is mostly of a single type—a typical SF scenario with a twist at the end. This zine is an ambitious undertaking, with a slick, full-color cover, but I think they would do better to print fewer, longer and more ambitious stories.

Testing by Kaolin Fire

Six men sit around a table, playing cards. A radio transceiver continuously emits a signal, "Testing, testing." From time to time, the signal weakens.

This piece is strongly reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode, complete with the creepy twist. I'd love to see this one broadcast with the transceiver switching to that TZ theme at the end, but it would take some stretching, even to fill a half-hour.

The Appliance of Science by Sheila Crosby

After becoming disabled in an accident, Josh finds himself with nothing to do but program his household appliances as AIs. They wander around the house and collaborate in musical compositions—and they nag him. Josh tells himself he needs to reprogram them so they won't be so bored, but he needs to take his own medicine.

Some entertaining witty dialogue here, making a moralistic conclusion a bit more palatable.

The Zozoian by Duane Byers

An alien is waiting in the rain for the bus. The rain is toxic to him.

Rivulets of the poisonous water crawled in serpentine tendrils down his clothes. His wet skin prickled and itched, a danger sign that the water had taxed his immune system to the limit.

Finally the bus arrives at the stop and the Zozoian gets on. But it is too late.

A flat summary of the plot of this vignette would be very familiar to genre readers, but the ending comes on an unexpectedly intriguing note.

Meeting Vanya by Viktor Kuprin

The Soviets explode a 50 megaton nuclear device—the largest in history. There are unexpected consequences.

This is one of those pieces that are not clearly fiction or nonfiction at first glance, and even at the conclusion it barely qualifies as a story.

Borrowed Time by Gustavo Bondoni

Humans are at war with a telepathic species they call Andreans. An outpost used as a POW camp for Andrean captives has been cut off from human space, and the leaders decide their only hope for survival is to destroy all vestiges of technology, lest these signal their presence to the enemy. And of course they must destroy the alien prisoners, as well.

Naturally, there are Unintended Consequences of this decision. There always are. This story is told in alternating segments from the point of view of the original leaders and their descendants from centuries in the future. I doubt if many readers will be surprised at what the ending reveals, or feel too sorry for the original leaders.

An Empty Kind of Love by Adam Colston

Suki the robot is concerned that her human companion, Peter, has exhibited decreased sexual response. She worries that she may be malfunctioning. Or perhaps she needs an upgrade.

A twist on the usual scenario.

Air by Michael Anderson

A sole-survivor story. The world's atmosphere has gone bad. The survivor, now an old man, lives sealed in a warehouse where once seventy-five thousand oxygen tanks had been stored. He is down to the last one.

And Yet Another twist at the end.

The Cost of Living by Shaun A. Saunders

The Carters are buried in the consumer economy, using one credit card to pay another. Fortunately, they have an insurance policy.

This one is pretty stale.

Cyber-Tooth Tiger by Dan Kopcow

The narrator moves to a new house to escape the ubiquity of Reality TV. But he can't help being intrigued with his crazy neighbor who constantly sets out food for the birds and squirrels. This one is pretty crazily entertaining and not at all predictable—and I like the title.

Silver by Derek Rutherford

We seem to be on a space station, and life there is so dismal that people will pay vast sums and take great personal risks for a breath of air smuggled up from Earth. But everyone is on the take.

The interest here is in the prisoners' dilemma faced by the smugglers—whether they should take a deal offered by the authorities and betray one of their own. A cynical, dystopian setting that readers may find hard to accept.

Mindreader by Nick Wood

In a society being overtaken by war, Sally is a student doing research into psychological drugs. But even psychotherapy is seen only in terms of its military applications, not the possibility of helping people.

I was not convinced that the author has a firm grasp on the realities of psychological research.

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.


Apr 18, 04:35 by IROSF
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