Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

July, 2008 : Review:

May-June Short Fiction Review

A lot of interesting stuff. I want to particularly recommend Interzone 216. They have put together a Mundane SF issue with an intro by Geoff Ryman as guest editor. Asimov's has a strong issue for August, and the May Clarkesworld features a story by Catherynne M. Valente that made me swoon in ecstasy.

Zines Reviewed

Interzone, June 2008

Interzone 216, June 2008

The Mundane SF issue.

The term "Mundane SF" seems to be a contradiction. "Mundane" generally connotes the everyday, the commonplace. To SF fans, a mundane is a person of clay, whose eyes are closed to the uncommon and the imaginative, while SF is the wondrous, the transcendent, the literature for those with starry eyes. Thus the notion of Mundane SF sounds suspiciously on the face of it like robbing the genre of the wonder at its heart, rendering it dull and colorless and boring.

Geoff Ryman's introduction to this issue says less about what Mundane SF is than what he would like it to be. His point "about what we didn't want"—those skiffy premises that roam beyond the limits of scientific possibility as it is now understood—seems to be that reliance on such shopworn old tropes of the genre as FTL has caused much recent SF to be flabby, lazy stuff. What he proposes to remove from the genre is the fantastic, and as such, it would seem to be an attempt to restore SF to its original form, or the form that I have sometimes called Real Science Fiction—SF as opposed to fantasy.

To me, this is a particularly interesting notion, as my own definition of SF is as a subset of fantasy, a definition that covers at least 99.9% of all the SF-labeled stuff out there. Fantasy, as I conceive it, is the entirety of the contrary-to-fact, including possible futures. I was therefore quite interested, upon opening this issue, to see just how far the Mundane SF as presented here would be congruent with my own views of the genre.

However, I must say that I found Ryman less than convincing when he speaks of Mundane SF as "best-possible SF." I don't see any reason why "best-possible SF" must necessarily exclude the fantastic if it is an original, freshly-imagined fantastic; nor do I find any reason to suppose that simply excluding the fantastic in SF will necessarily result in superior fiction. The novels of Iain M. Banks, to take one example, are pretty "best-possible" in the way that Ryman describes it, yet Banks makes extravagant use of FTL and other such fantastic skiffy devices.

What I did find in the stories filling this issue was that they were anything but dull, gray or boring. The settings were strongly, colorfully exotic, most of them filled with well-realized wonders of the attainable future. If this is the sort of fiction that Mundane SF will bring to the genre, I think the old sensawunda will not be lacking, and readers may find that they don't miss the fantastic quite as much as they might have supposed.

RECOMMENDED

How to Make Paper Airplanes by Lavie Tidhar

A story of contact with the Other, on a setting as strange and alien as any extraterrestrial planet, but which in fact exists right here on Earth. On a remote Pacific island, the narrator and a handful of Western researchers spend the long days and nights drinking kava and ruminating on the distance between this island existence and the alien Western world from which they have come. Yet contact between worlds always involves some exchange, and from exchange can come contamination.

As a demonstration that mundane fiction can be as exotic as anything the fantastic can deliver, this piece succeeds. But it remains to be asked—is it actually SF? I must say that it is only metaphorically so, a metaphor of alien contact. SFnal stuff, but not SF itself sensu strictu.

Endra—From Memory by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Again, a world as strange, as foreign, as fantastic as any in the genre, but it is a future Earth after global warming has melted the polar icecaps and drowned much of the land. It is possible on this world to circumnavigate the globe, not only west to east but north to south. This is the voyage that Captain Endrea YuiduJin has undertaken on her splendid ship the Empress FahrenDier out of Sui-Kan-below the Dam. Melizan kem Gishcar-Shwy, the Trading Monitor of Lavrant City, is smitten at his first sight of the dashing, daring mariner.

She came to the top of the gangplank and stood, the wind snapping at her while she smiled; unlike her crewmen, her clothes were made of Taksteppe silks, and they glowed as if lit from within.

But while Endra is willing enough for a dalliance in port, her real love is the sea and her quest for the lost, legendary city of Simoon.

Delete the few slight references to Earth's fate, and many readers would undoubtedly think this the setting of a fantasy. The effect is created by the seeming absence of new technology [unless you look closely] and even more by the tone of the author's prose, her use of strange and imaginative names that evoke the sense of a world different from our own and the feeling that there are new and undiscovered lands to be found beyond the horizon of a yet-charted sea, new myths and legends to be told—all elements that readers tend to associate with fantasy. And if it had been some other world, after all, the effect in the end would not have been much different; it is a world that could actually be, in either case.

RECOMMENDED

The Hour is Getting Late by Billie Aul

Cyberfiction. In a future world of instantaneous popular feedback, Jessica Mason of VirtSat Videocasts is broadcasting the Woodstock 2044 festival, a virtual recreation of the original event. Jessica's problem is that her ex-husband, the charismatic performer Jaykwees Leonard, is using his performance as a public platform to propose re-marriage to her, and Jessica does not want her own career as a critic to again be overshadowed by his. Yet in the end, it is her ratings that matter—certainly not the insignificant events that are going on at the same time in the Real, in the world where the people who don't matter and don't even have access to the Virt go about their futile lives.

The technology here is interesting and well-conceived.

She switched on her headset and was immediately overcome with the golden fuchsia tie-dye she heard. What had seemed in Real to be mere hippie feedback guitar was instead a radical experiment with MelodyHue, the new sound-distortion technique.

But this is more importantly a piece of social commentary on a world where celebrities can be worshiped merely for being celebrities, not for anything they actually accomplish, a world in which people have trouble entertaining themselves, and live vicariously through the celebrities they never actually see in reality. A world in which all attention that matters is on the artificial recreation of past events rather than the creation of anything new, while the events in the Real are ignored as inconsequential. Lyrics from the 60s contribute to the impression that into this artificial, shallow world, "a hard rain's gonna fall."

Remote Control by R. R. Angell

In a not-so-distant-future United States, the military has figured out how to guard the border from infiltrators and make a profit at the same time. Every 100 meters along the border is a perimeter station armed with a Web-Cam-Servo Rifle. The stations can be operated by remote, and, for a fee, anyone can log in and control one of the guns for a few minutes.

A carpet of dirty sheep was surging across the desert border like the Kansas City Chiefs swarming over a virtual first-down line. The Johnsons were up and ready, locked and loaded, ready for action. And I could feel them all, like some sort of cyber-salivating multi-conscious force hell-bent on just one thing.

It was the perfect deterrent for runners. Except these were sheep, and they didn't have a clue until the first three feet of wool erupted in blood.

This is the most conventionally SFnal of the stories in this issue, a brutal satire on the issue of border control, whether as combating "terrorism" or illegal immigration. It is unfortunately also the closest to current reality. The story would have been much more effective, however, if the author had not blunted the impact of the scenes of carnage with crude jibes at the military bureaucracy.

The Invisibles by Élisabeth Vonarburg

The narrator of this story only identifies herself at the end, when she reveals that she is a Diverter, that she has diverted her two subjects, Tybald and Gisèle, from the programmed course of their lives. In this future world, cities are enclosed by domes, and the population is shuttled from one place to another automatically, through programmed chips embedded in their fingertips. Yet the cities are not absolutely identical, and when the subjects discover themselves unaccountably in a different place, in the wrong place, it is greatly disconcerting. The Diverter explains herself, that part of what she does is recruitment.

But perhaps you will be one of those who, to the best of their means, open isolated windows onto the invisible cities. You love puttering around in your leisure time, Tybald. And, Gisèle, when you were little you liked to draw —perhaps you will decide to rekindle that lost, raw talent.

This tale is a lesson in the necessity of some randomness, some innovation and experiment, even in the most rigidly planned of societies. A fountain appears, a bench in a new style—perhaps it is accepted by people, perhaps not. Change still occurs. Must occur. Some diversion is necessary. Yet I can not help thinking that poor Tybald waited so long for that doctor's appointment, and now he has missed it, thanks to some entertainer's whim. In this world, both order and randomness are imposed on people, and real freedom is not possible.

Into the Night by Anil Menon

Future shock/culture shock. Kallikulam Ramaswamy Iyer is eighty-two years old, too old to change his ways, too old to adapt to the new. He does not want to adapt to the new, but his wife has died and he is now too old to be on his own, so he has made the long journey to the South Pacific island where his daughter now lives. But his daughter is strange to him, and he is strange to her, and their ways are so different.

The first time he ate with his hand—thoroughly mixing the rice and buttermilk by hand, relishing every wet squelch, and licking the fingers at the end—it'd been impossible to ignore the long watchful silences, rapid blinks, the Flamingo's high laugh, and most hurtful of all, Ganga's startled expression. As if she didn't know. As if she too hadn't eaten the Tamil Brahmin way, his way, the correct way, once. As if she'd forgotten.

A sad story, and a true one. Change is inevitable, as death is. Ramaswamy can understand this, but he can not accept it. His life lies in the past.

Talk is Cheap by Geoff Ryman

In another artificial environment where life is as virtual as possible, the narrator is an exception, a Walker. He goes outside into reality and checks, for example, the level of the water in the river. Humans still need actual water, although little else that is real. For the most part, they trade information.

Nothing is simple, except for reality. Reality is a tiny white stable dot in the middle of all this info. Everything else, all the talk, is piled up sky high, prioritized, processed and offered back.

The narrator isn't good at that kind of thing. Jinny is. The narrator is in love with Jinny, but he doesn't see what she can see in him. But the narrator says things that have never been said before, rather than recombining and requoting the stored archives. Reality is a novelty now, and novelty has value.

This one is that rare creation, a near-utopia, full of optimism. Humans are more like plants than animals now, existing by photosynthesis, and conflict is minimal. "The future's good." Of course, having a negative attitude myself, I can't help recalling that plants are highly competitive, even if they don't fight wars. I also suspect that there would be no more open rivers in a society so advanced along the road away from reality, certainly not in a society with water shortages.

Asimov's, August 2008

Asimov's, August 2008

The themes of this month's issue are the definition of humanity and alienation, those members of human society who stand outside it, or are forced outside of it. A superior issue, one of the best so far this year, with an overall depressive tone that of course I prefer.

Divining Light by Ted Kosmatka

Quantum physics and epistemology join to redefine the human species. Eric Argus was a brilliant physicist until his breakdown, which left him poised between alcoholism and suicide. Now at a new lab, he decides to replicate Feynman's double-slit experiment, in which the presence of an observer collapses the wave function of electrons into particles. Eric's interest is the observer. Experimenting with different species, he discovers that only human observers can collapse the wave. He has inadvertently invented a test for humanity.

"The ability to cause wavefunction collapse is apparently a derived characteristic that arose in our species at some point in the last several million years."

"And before that?" I said.

"What?"

"Before that the Earth just stood there as so much un-collapsed reality? What, waiting for us to show up?"

Kosmatka packs a lot of Big Questions into the package, working at the junction of science and philosophy. It's fascinating and paradoxical stuff, and I can't help wondering if anyone has actually performed Eric's experiment in the nonfiction world. I also can't help thinking that the story would have worked just as well with a less melodramatically angst-ridden protagonist—but still, I call this one

RECOMMENDED

Wilmer or Wesley by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator, called Wilmer by his captors, was taken from his mother when he was a young child and raised as a research project. He is kept as an exhibition, and everyone thinks it is so funny that he is so human. Except that he seems to be, in every respect, entirely human. He has no idea what is so different about him, and neither does the reader, which is the point.

This is classic Emshwiller, tragic yet unsentimental, about The Outsider. The author shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which a society regards individuals as either "one of us" or "other," differences that can make all the difference to them, even if they can't be seen by us.

RECOMMENDED

Radio Station St. Jack by Neal Barrett, Jr.

In post-apocalypse Texas, Father Mac is a preacher and a radio DJ, playing the golden oldies—that's Ted Weems and Artie Shaw oldies, not the Beatles.

Mac imagined his listeners, spread across the flat, open counties of North Texas in a hundred small towns, in farmhouses ready for the night, the family gathered round the warm amber light of a battered radio; he saw them walking back through the late evening woods, shadows stretched long across their way, earphones ready for the Father Mac Show.

Life has been pretty good for Mac despite his unrequited yearning for Sister Mary Jo, but now Bob the Destroyer and his raiders are in town, and they mean to burn it all down. That won't do. Everyone looks to Mac for a solution but he knows that these raiders mean real trouble, rape and murder, not just a little routine looting and pillaging.

If this were simply broad humor or farce, it would be one thing. But when the author takes us for a walk down the street where the mutilated bodies of the raiders' earlier victims are hanging from poles, he introduces another tone of real horror and menace, very much at odds with the farcical. The mix does not work.

Lagos by Matthew Johnson

The ultimate Nigerian spam. Safrat is a poor woman from the countryside who has come to work in Lagos in a telepresence station, operating machines in the rich western countries by remote control. It is exhausting work, but honest. Yet the legitimate business of the telepresence station is the cover for an elaborate scam, in which the minds of the women operators are used as remote terminals to send spam messages. And now the women are beginning to talk in their sleep, in English, about Rolex watches for $30. Safrat knows that she needs to find an exorcist to drive the strange voices out of her head.

A clever twist, but also more—a commentary on exported jobs and outsourced labor, and the gap between rich and poor, exploited and victims, in tomorrow's global economy.

RECOMMENDED

Old Man Waiting by Robert Reed

Benton is a troublemaker. As the narrator, he doesn't exactly say this, but we know it's true. Now he's got the idea in his head that this old guy on the park bench is really an alien scientist, studying humans.

We walked up the block, and I spotted this fellow sitting by himself, filling up one end of a long bench, his left leg thrown over the right and his skinny arms crossed and that thin old face wearing an expression that almost fooled me. Almost. But then those big empty eyes glanced my way, just for a second. And I knew. Like that, I could see through him.

The old man's daughter tries to convince him that he is just an Alzheimer's victim, to leave him in peace, but Benton isn't buying it.

The real mystery here isn't the old man, but Benton. Reed leaves us guessing about his highly unreliable narrator.

Lucy by J. Chris Rock

Toltham and Elgin are successful nerds—for nerds. They run a robotic module surveying the great sea of Titan from their crummy apartment in Hell's Kitchen, where one of their demented neighbors is an old man who is constantly calling his nasty old dog: "Lucy. Loooooseeeeee!" Toltham insists on naming their bot on Titan after Lucy, but in the apartment building on Earth, things aren't quite as they had seemed to be.

A mechanical twin of the sub sits on the pedestal between our stations. It looks like a silver beetle trailing two black pontoons and is, in fact, about the same size as the vicious little dog. Sunlight is bouncing off its carapace. It seems like something that belongs in the light, shining instead of pushing through oily sludge. A couple of billion kilometers away, its sister bot floats on Mare Octagium. Even on the surface, the sun barely reaches it.

A rather depressing piece about human connections, another of the works in this issue exploring the questions of what it is to be human. Even nerds need to be part of the community.

What You are About to See by Jack Skillingstead

Brian Kinney is a torturer by trade, a man tormented by demons both personal and professional. He has been brought in to assist in the interrogation of a captive alien that they call Squidward, but Squidward is holding his captors captive. He can not only control their minds to a great extent, he can shift them into alternate realities. In this, he claims to be acting for the good of the human species, to prevent a worldwide genocidal catastrophe. But because in at least one possible reality, Brian has caused his death, it is Brian who holds the key to his release. Yet it is also Brian's release.

"What do you want from us?"

"From you I want to live," Squidward said. "We are bound until the death is allowed or not allowed, conclusively. I have perceived the occurrence of my expiration at your direction, unintended though it will be. Having access to all points of probability time in my sequence, I foresee this eventuality and seek for a probability equation that spares me.

This one is a close twin of the Kosmatka story, with another alcoholic, suicidal protagonist. The angst level is even higher, but the alienation is personal, even if there are a few faint hints that perhaps the human species might not be so deserving of redemption.

F&SF, Aug. 2008

F&SF, August 2008

This month, F&SF leads off with a strong hit: a sequel to Charles Coleman Finlay's 2002 "The Political Officer." Even if the rest of the fiction doesn't measure up, it still makes for a superior issue.

The Political Prisoner by Charles Coleman Finlay

Colonel Maxim Nikomedes is an internal spy. Ostensibly a political officer for the Department of Political Education, he is actually a mole for General Drozhin of Intelligence. Now the power struggle between the offices has intensified, and Max is caught up in the struggle and sent to a re-education camp to do hard terraforming labor. His only hope is that Drozhin will rescue him, but in order to be rescued, he must survive, must prove himself a "swimmer, not a drowner." No one knows the secrets of swimming better than Max, but even an expert can make one mistake.

The guards with shockguns opened the gate and herded the prisoners into the bus. They shuffled past the civilian's body, sprawled facedown on the rock. Professionally, Max admired that detail—it worked on so many levels: it showed the men that if civilians weren't safe, neither were they. And if Adareans could be killed, and if civilians could be killed, it made the prisoners identify more with the men with guns.

The use of Russian-sounding names helps evoke a strong sense of the Stalinist purges and the gulag. Jerusalem's origin was as a fanatical theocracy, but doctrinal disputes have by now been replaced by raw power struggles. While Max is the consummate pragmatist, a man who can tell the boss he is betraying, "Sir, if you want me to be disloyal, I will be," yet there is an idealist at his core; he can not help thinking that even this purge may ultimately be for the greater good, if not his own. A fascinating and complex character in a well-drawn scenario where the struggle for survival tests humanity to the breaking point.

RECOMMENDED

Childrun by Marc Laidlaw

Wandering bard Gorlen Vizenfirth comes upon a walled and suspicious village where he hears the sound of children, though there is only one child to be seen, a grossly bloated, toad-like creature who seems to hold the entire population in its thrall. When he learns that all the rest of the kids are believed to have been abducted by strangers come to town, he senses danger and attempts to escape, only to fall into a fortuitous trap.

This one works as sort of a hybrid between the Pied Piper and the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life." Unfortunately, editorial assurances that the bard will be appearing in future issues drain a certain amount of the tension from the situation and trivializes it, in case anyone supposed that Gorlen might not escape.

Another Perfect Day by Steven Popkes

In his reality, Sam Prokofiev is beginning another day of not-composing when a time traveler named Wilson suddenly materializes to stop him from killing himself after the death of his wife. But the target of the time traveler is a different Sergei Prokofiev whose wife died more recently than Sam's—it looks like Wilson got the wrong universe.

"What happens if I go into the past and change it: I change my present—possibly enough to prevent me from going into the past in the first place. Therefore, my Prokofiev isn't the closest Prokofiev at all. It's the only Prokofiev that's, in fact, infinitely far away. I can never reach him. I can only find Prokofievs that can't paradox me."

Interesting though infodumpish speculation on the uses of multiple worlds and the paradoxes thereof, as well as the pitfalls of hero worship.

"But Wait! There's More!" by Richard Mueller

Screenwriter Cullin McSherry, in the midst of a dry spell, accepts a generous offer to write TV infomercials for the Devil, who is starting up a new operation to buy souls [as in, "Operators are standing by"]. This does not prove to be the best possible career move in the long run for Cullin.

An interesting twist, though the story might have benefited from trimming out some of the lectures.

Bounty by Rand B. Lee

Hunting pervs for fun and money, while being very careful not to give anyone else reason to hunt you.

Not real subtle.

An Open Letter to Earth by Scott Dalrymple

From the aliens. Not altogether an apology.

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the anal probing. For the longest time, we swear we thought those were data ports. We meant no harm, and hope that you will, like us, try to forget this unfortunate chapter in our history. In retrospect it was simply a bad idea.

Somewhat silly, although not as silly as some.

Analog, July/August 2008

Analog, July/August 2008

Double issue with serial, the first installment in a three-parter by David R. Palmer that appears to be a continuation of the story of Candy Smith-Foster, as immortalized in his Emergence. Aside from the serial, there is not much more here than a normal issue's worth of short fiction.

The Exoanthropic Principle by Carl Frederick

It is becoming a fairly regular feature of this zine to pair a work of fiction with a nonfiction treatment of the same scientific problem—in this case, the anthropic principle, which I have always considered a case of question-begging. In the words of one of Frederick's characters, it is defined as:

"The idea that the probability of a livable universe developing by chance is essentially zero. The idea that only God could have created such an unlikely universe."

Colin is both a mathematician in a nest of physicists doing SETI work and a believer in a nest of nons. He shows up on the job just as they receive signals from an alien intelligence, the usual sequence of prime numbers that aliens send in such cases. The aliens are clearly on the hunt for alien intelligence, and they put the humans through their tests rapidly. In the midst of all this activity, Colin blusteringly attempts to defend his faith in God, a faith he had adopted at an early age to give meaning to his own life. But the final message they receive from the aliens is a disappointment to believers and nonbelievers alike.

This is a highly neep-heavy work, in which the characters explain basic matters to one another at great length. It is Yet Another case of the narrator remarking how his auditors' eyes are glazing over, while the author fails to take the hint. Given the audience for this zine, I doubt if many readers will much mind the math neep, though it seems to be rather standard stuff. Added to the cosmological and theological disputes, however, makes for quite an info-load, with the actual story only peeping out briefly when it finds a bit of room.

Tenbrook of Mars by Dean MacLaughlin

The life story of a hero. Don Tenbrook—the man who saved the colony when the skein to the Mars Synch collapsed and stranded them there with less than a year's worth of supplies—is back from Mars. Don doesn't think he's a hero. He only did what had to be done—as did everyone else, in order to survive. But that's what real heroes always say about themselves.

He'd figured the size of greenhouse needed according to average terrestrial crop yields. Dumb. Production was nowhere near that mark. More greenhouses had to be built. That, though, meant men had to work outside, first to quarry stone and gather the other materials needed for glass and caulk, then for the actual construction. It meant also more energy needed, or the greenhouse couldn't be kept warm enough for anything to grow. Homemade photoelectric panels couldn't do the job, so try metallic mirrors to concentrate sunlight; but to be effective they had to be kept turned toward the Sun as it crossed the sky, same as the photopanels. That meant manual control, mechanical systems, and consumption of energy. Efficient? Depends what you mean by efficiency. Do it regardless.

But officially, he's a hero, which is what the op edders want, so the government has sent a minder to brief him on the questions they'll ask when he arrives. The story of Don Tenbrook unfolds through this briefing.

There is a message in this story, but it is delivered by the story itself, by the character of Don Tenbrook, rather than tedious lectures by the author. It is a message about the kind of people who get things done, people who unselfishly do what needs to be done for the good of the entire community. It is clear that the author does indeed regard Don Tenbrook as a hero, as a model for us all, and we could have a worse one than Tenbrook of Mars.

Sand and Iron by Michael F. Flynn

The cargo ship New Angeles has broken down in a desolate region of space, and members of the crew have gone planetside to mine them the materials to make repairs when they discover an alien artifact. Visions of wealth immediately seize the crew, but they soon find reason to suspect that the makers of the artiface didn't want their creation to be exploited by anyone who happened across it.

While the story is otherwise standard space opera, the wonders here are fascinatingly inexplicable.

His four crewmen stood before the first pedestal, upon which a single, jet-black egg the size of a clenched fist balanced precariously.

It seemed made of glass, but glass so deep that light could not make it to the center, for it appeared much thicker than its size would warrant. Myriad pinpricks gleamed within. Perhaps light had tried to penetrate the blackness, had given up, and scattered into its component photons.

Neat stuff there, though the story itself is a bit prosiac in comparison.

Shotgun Seat by Paul Carlson

Truckers of the future. Claude Dremmel is an experienced trucker who is assigned a young trainee—who happens to be female and attractive. But sinister forces are developing robot truck drivers, threatening the extinction of a noble species of humanity.

This novelette doesn't really seem to contain a novelette's-worth of story. Most of it can be summed up as "the education of a trucker," which is fine but not very SFnal. While the characters are agreeable, I can't help thinking that if Alice had been Albert, the text could have been cut by a third with no significant loss.

A Plethora of Truth by Bond Elam

Dueling televangelists go hi-tech.

Reverend Jim gave him an encouraging nod and slipped off his wire-rimmed glasses, leaning across the desk on one elbow to squint resolutely into the camera. "FCC rules still won't let me tell you the Intelligent Designer's real name, but there's no doubt about it, Willis. We've finally put the lid on Darwin's coffin!"

Satiric attacks on this target is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unoriginal.

Let the Word Take Me by Juliette Wade

A contact story. The human colonists on the Gariniki world have run out of time; if they can't conclude an official treaty with the natives, they will be evicted from this world. However, they have not been able to negotiate a treaty because the Gariniki will not speak openly. Speech is sacred to them. Young Gariniki use signs. Adults utter only set phrases. Yet somehow, linguist Arthur Linden and his son David have managed to learn their language, which they have never heard spoken in its proper form. In his desperation, Arthur abducts a native and takes her into orbit, where she takes the sight of the McKinley Nebula as the Mouth of the Heavens and speaks, inviting David to speak before the Elders in the one place that actual speaking can occur.

There is a mythic sense to this tale, as the Gariniki make quests for stories instead of visions. But it fails to make sense that the human linguists could learn a language if they have never heard it properly spoken, particularly when all they have heard are metaphors such as "Yahara-mudi's nest of palm" and "In the desert Herremi could not see her face." The author fails to make it clear whether David is an adult or a juvenile—a matter of significance in the Gariniki culture —and it is impossible to regard his father with any sympathy. There is also an extraneous section in the text from the point of view of the Gariniki captive, which suggests that the author was unable to say what she was trying to say using her chosen mode. Perhaps this story might have been more successful if told entirely from the Gariniki point of view.

Junkie by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

Matty Gurkow is a Trekkie stuck in a dead-end job on a salvage orbital —little more than a space-going garbage man. But he dreams of greater things, of the Fringe, of First Contact. In the meantime, though, he has a job to do and there isn't time to speculate about the anomalous radiation signature coming from behind the derelict space habitat the crew is taking onboard.

A bit of light irony.

Imprint by Kyle Kirkland

Giles Bailey was born deformed but very gifted. He now works as an electronic tech for an educational institution with dubious ethics. Somewhere on campus is a magnetic anomaly, but he can't get anyone to take him seriously when he reports his findings. More disturbingly, rumors are being disseminated about him, as if someone were trying to discredit his reputation. But Giles keeps searching and finally uncovers the secret that the authorities are hiding until they can figure out how to profit from it.

A glance at the dark side of academia.

Clarkesworld 20, May 2008

Clarkesworld 20, May 2008

When you only publish two stories in an issue, you're doing real well when one of them is truly outstanding.

A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M Valente

The story of a bitter rivalry between two Argentinean cartographers of the Antarctic region, told as entries in the auction catalogue in which their works are being offered for sale.

Lot 781A
Map of the South Pole (The Petrel Map)
Maldonado, Villalba, 1925
Significant damage, burns in top center portion

Landmass center, eastern Antarctic coast visible. Latitude and longitude in walnut ink, black tea, and human blood. Compass rose: a snow petrel rampant, her claws demarcating southeast and southwest, her tail flared due south, her wings spread east and west, and her head fixed at true north. Beneath her is emblazoned: Seal of the Antarctic Postal Service—Glacies Non Impedimenta. (Ice Is No Impediment.) Alone of the Maldonado maps, color of indeterminate and probably morbid origin have been used to stain portions of the interior red, differentiating zones of "watermelon snow," fulminating plains of lichen grown bright and thick, bearing fruits which when cracked open are found to be full of fresh water, more and sweeter than any may ask. The red fields encircle a zone of blue ice, frozen rainwater enclosing a lake of brine. Upon this rainwater mantle, explains the map legend, sits the Magnetic Pole, which is a chair made of try pots and harpoon-blades. The Pole sits tall there, her hair encased in fresh, sweet water gone to ice, her eyes filmed. Her dress is black sealskin, her necklaces are all of bone and skulls.

All I have to say of this faux-documentary work is praise. From the authenticity of the catalogue format to the wonderful imaginative imagery of Maldonado's maps, to the ending that reveals this is, indeed, a work of the fantastic.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Birdwatcher by Garth Upshaw

"I was poisoning crows the day the aliens arrived," announces our narrator, and we soon conclude that this activity is only one sign that Doyle is a disgusting creep. Then the aliens arrive with their gift, a device that allows anyone to go to the place and time of their greatest desire.

This very short piece is a character study of an unappealing character.

Clarkesworld 21, June 2008

Clarkesworld 21, June 2008

More of the kind of fiction you don't find in every other zine. Even when it doesn't entirely succeed, this stuff is interesting.

Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal

Jealousy and spite among the windup birds.

The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. But she did not mind. She pecked the floor when she was wound, looking for invisible bugs. And when she was not wound, she cocked her head and glared at the sparrow, whom she loathed with every tooth on every gear in her pressed-tin body.

The chickadee hatches a plot with the live mouse, but it's hard to believe that the sparrow would have been so foolish as to fall for their trick. I don't think the chickadee is very nice.

The Secret in the House of Smiles by Paul Jessup

Either everyone in this horror story is in an institution for the criminally insane, or it is an insane world. If it's an institution, they don't have very good locks on the doors. Jack used to be in the magic act where he sawed a girl in half. Into more parts than that. But something went wrong.

Queen of the House of Smiles. Cut up, wrapped in plastic. Each piece, each part. Crammed in. But some parts were missing. Some parts were always missing. He hated that. How could he remember her with all the parts missing? Sawed off and stolen. The trick that went south. The too sharp saw, grinning as it cut into her, and her all smiles the whole time, even in that pain, the audience applauding.

And then her asking him—Jackie—please, put me back together again. She whispered it as she smiled, teeth together. He wanted to stop sawing, that Jackie O did—he wanted to. Keep cutting as the crowd applauded.

Jack keeps cutting parts of girls out of magazines and posters, trying to put her back together again, trying to recreate what she used to look like, whole, so he can put her back together again. Alice tries to help, though she would rather watch vampires, to discover if they are living, dead, or in a quantum state in-between.

Ambiguous fantasy, where it isn't easy to tell the real horrors from the horrors of the insane imagination, but disturbing either way.

Strange Horizons, May/June 2008

Strange Horizons, May/June 2008

Not all the fiction in these two months was about relationships.

The Gadgey by Alan Campbell

An alien spaceship has crashed in the woods behind Craigmillar, and it's a good thing that Rab and Gordie were the ones to spot it, because they know all about aliens from watching TV and movies—Gordie in particular, because his Da, unlike Rab's, subscribes to satellite TV.

Rab picked his way down into the crater, holding his arms out, careful to show he was watching for disruptors. Beyond the woods, blocks of flats loomed up, grey against the grey Edinburgh sky, satellite dishes proudly on show, all pointing the same way—probably towards the Mogadon Cluster. He walked the length of the spaceship, looking inside the bubbles. Most were full of brown, sludgy liquid, but one smaller bubble was clear. He peered in. "Hey, Gordie, there's a wee bald gadgey in here."

There is a certain faint poignancy to the gadgey's situation, but it is overwhelmed by the absurd, as the residents of Craigmillar go through the usual alien-hosting protocols taught on Star Trek and like TV shows. The Scots dialect adds another layer of interest to these characters, for those of us to whom it is exotic.

The Refutation of Rosemont by Barth Anderson

A rejected letter to the editor of Antiquities Journal Monthly. Dr. John C. Miles takes exception to Jeremiah Rosemont's recent piece on the origins of the tarot. Dr. Miles appears to be somewhat embittered, as it seems he was denied tenure by Dr Rosenberg.

I don't break silence for much; I'm so happy I could wet my pants to be out of your world of Harrison Ford wannabes and curators who'd whore their mothers for national cred. But Jeremiah Rosemont's droning about capital-T "Tarot" to the Antiquities Journal Monthly in the last issue ("Debunking the Occult Origins of the Tarot," Antiquities Journal Monthly. Vol. IV; No. 2) made me howl like a dog with its leg in a trap. Consider this letter my own chewed off paw.

In the course of this screed, Miles claims to demonstrate that the tarot has as its origin the Etruscan rites of divination, as brought to Italy at the fall of Troy.

Another faux-documentary work. The interest here is less in the details of the myth and its continued presence in the lives of the characters than in the dark and bitter tone of the bile that drips from Miles' pen, the unrestrained acrimony and contempt for his rival/opponent/brother, the pedantry and vituperation wound up in each other. And this is a fine example indeed of both pedantry and vituperation.

RECOMMENDED

Tell Her by Rachel Kincaid

It turns out that going through six months of financial records is a fairly efficient way to recap the end of a relationship. I was looking for secret messages, gypsy fortunes from an automated telling machine.

Yep. After his girlfriend moves out, the narrator discovers that his ATM machine has been printing cryptic messages, like cookie fortunes, on his transaction receipts. Aside from this sole fantasy element, this is essentially a story about relationships and their going wrong and putting right.

No Love for the Middleman by Tony Frazier

A retired not-so-superhero tries to let the old life go.

These girls were out of my league ten years and twenty pounds ago. But it pisses me off when heroes bust in and do whatever they want just because nobody can stand up to them. Plus, it's really hard for me to quit. Lizzie says it's 'cause I have a pathological fear of losing, but that's not true. I've lost plenty in my time. It's giving up that I can't seem to learn.

A fairly original look at the superhero problem from the perspective of a normal human who tries to play the hero game—neither fish nor fowl.

On the Eyeball Floor by Tina Connolly

Working in the cyborg factory. The Eyeball Floor is a metaphor. Robots install the eyeballs and print the irises, but Bill's job is to look into their eyes and awaken the life there, to bring them to sentience, to transcendence.

Don't blink on the eyeball floor, they say. That's the reason no one wants my job. No one wants to work the transcending. 'Cause they say, out there in the factory, that every time someone blinks, they lose a little bit of themselves and a cyborg gains a bit.

The cyborg called Clementine is defective, repeatedly failing to transcend. Bill makes her a special project. But at the same time, his real girl, Sue, is being stolen away from him by Tony, over in Grease.

Another one where the SFnal setting is cover for a story about human relationships. The blinking thing makes no literal sense, it's all about the metaphor.

Running by Benjamin Crowell

In the artificial world of a space habitat, air isn't free, and freeloaders aren't tolerated. After Joe had a fight with his marriage partners and they severed the relationship, he lost his home, his visa, his right to work, his right to breathe. The authorities want him out on the next shuttle, and the ration of air he's allowed until it takes off won't last if he exerts himself at all.

Somewhere in Mike and Kazuko's hearts, there were meters, just like the meter in the ring. Joe got mad and yelled, went out and slammed the door behind him; they took something off the meters for that. Punched the wall and put a dent in it: the meters went down some more. Finally, after that last fight, the meters had dipped below zero. Overdrawn. Undesirable.

This is more than a story about the marginality of space habitats and more than a story about marriage relationships. It is a story about how societies reject their surplus and superfluous members. But there is the value that society places on a person and the value a person chooses for himself. Told simply and directly, without loading the text up with angst and melodrama, this story packs in a lot.

RECOMMENDED

In Lieu of a Thank You by Gwynne Garfinkle

A young woman is abducted by a mad scientist who plans to use her for his mad experiments, but Miss Grand falls in love with the experiments. Her rescue does not come as a welcome event.

I let out a gasp. Did you see them, Charles? The canaries that swam in the aquarium? The cage full of tropical fish that flew, their scales flashing blue and green and purple? Or were you too busy rescuing me to notice such wonders?

This twist on the old standard is rendered less interesting by the author spoiling her own conclusion at the outset. The beginning is a bit awkwardly written, as the author is attempting the diction of a century ago, and it does not do a lot to draw the reader into this story. Only the butterfly wings intrigue.

Fantasy Magazine, May/June 2008

Fantasy Magazine, May/June 2008

The balance of story and style is more even in this batch.

The Stolen Word by Lisa Mantchev

Oh, oh! The naughtiness of you, now. Haven't you been warned time and again? You, with the dirty face. And you, with the ragged rip in yer smock. I'll trade ye to the Pins-n-Needles Man, I will.

And to make the threat more credible, Ol' Gran tells the tale of the first child she traded "for a pair of blue-ribboned bloomers and a bag of white sugar." But it was Pedlar Man who had the worst of the bargain, as did everyone else who came into contact with the filthy little monster.

The Ransom of Red Chief as a Cautionary Tale. I can imagine that quite a few fairy tales might have begun in this way, in an effort to scare the children into good behavior. I wonder, however, if this tale might not have inspired them to emulate the little beggar, instead, as she clearly comes out ahead, despite her awfulness. By sealing the pedlar's bargain with the word, "Evermore," Mantchev inverts the "happily ever after" of the fairytale ending with the more ominous echoes of the raven's cry.

Mirror Images by Rachel Swirsky

The narrator, after a nervous breakdown, loses husband, house and kids, but searches for lost self in mirrors.

Too-obvious symbolism in this unoriginal, non-fantastic piece.

The Small Door by Holly Phillips

A tale of disappointment. Sal's twin sister Macey is dying of some lingering disease. As she lies in bed, she watches the house across the alley, the weird old man who keeps animals in cages in his back yard; he takes them into the house, but they never come back out again. Macey is certain there is some sinister reason and she insists that Sal find out what is going on over there.

It is a mark of Phillips' skill that despite the increasing signs of the old man's benignity, the reader still feels Sal's fear that finally—in the house, down the basement, behind the furnace, some horror must be lurking. The tension holds right up to the final revelation, which happily avoids the facile miracle, the feel-good ending—a temptation that too many authors would not have been able to resist, with a fatally-ill child in the story.

RECOMMENDED

The Shadow in the Mirror by Miri Ness

More mirrors, more dead sisters. A ghost story. The narrator has been haunted by the shadow of his dead sister; the shadow has been trying to kill him[?].

In my dream, I fought, and watched the water shimmer, showing me my sister's shadow. It tilted its head at me, perhaps smiling, I thought. And then the shadow reached out through the water, and, solid in dreams, pushed me further down into the sea.

It was only the first time she would kill me in my dreams that night.

But the narrator traps the shadow in a silver mirror, and it is only by talking to it all night long —on Wednesdays—that he can have any peace.

This is one of those stories with a Revelation at the end that is supposed to make everything else make sense. Which, until the end, it doesn't make any sense at all. And even when we finally know what happened, we don't really know why. I am not sure that it is a sufficient payoff after wading through all the narrator's angst, his dreams and nightmares and shadows and overwrought prose.

On the Finding of Photographs of my Former Loves by Peter M. Ball

Deacon had affairs with other women before he met and married Lisle. He calls them "girls," but they were no such thing—they were deadly Greek immortals, and in their danger was their attraction to him. Yet it is not surprising, after such lovers, that he would be drawn to the harmless insipidity of Lisle. But she can not accept that he has had other lovers before her, even after he throws out all the mementos of his previous affairs to please her.

The only things I kept were the photographs, hidden behind the filing cabinet. A handful of memories shoved into an envelope and left somewhere secret in case I needed them sometime. Then I forgot the envelope as best I could, until Lisle found it and left it on the kitchen table as she prepared to walk out of my life.

The point of this tale is that even the most saccharine of lovers can be a monster, too, in her own way. I found myself quite feeling quite hostile towards Lisle, as if she were a real person and not just the character in a story—a sign of its effectiveness.

Sorrowbird by Sean Markey

The instructions for making and keeping a sorrowbird out of old love letters and dead leaves, in a cage made of briars that draw blood.

Place the next fleck [of magic] in a crevice of the crumpled paper, and hold the bird's shape in your mind. A mourning dove, you say, my sorrowbird. Lay the next bit of magic beside what will be the bird's head. You can do nothing more to make this work. If you've pursued happiness, only to have never touched it with outstretched fingers, if you satisfied the spell and built your bird with melancholy artifacts, then your bird will stand where the letters and leaves wrapped with cobwebs now lie in a heap.

This sorrowbird, a mourning dove, is made by a woman whose husband left her and never returned. We are not sure if he has died or abandoned her; she does not know. Into the bird she places her sorrows, one by one, until the pain of them is gone, leaving only the empty memory.

This sort of story is hard to tell without falling into bathos, but I think Markey has succeeded, adding small counterpoints of irony to overcome the tendency towards mawkishness. While the text is written in the second person, it is clearly the narrator talking to herself.

His One True Bride by Darja Malcolm-Clarke

The drawbacks of being chosen by a god. The Harper is not easy on his Brides.

Brides die doubly, they say. The first time is when the chosen one is married to Him, and He cleanses her by separating her out from her body. He puts her ghost back in again, newly impervious to the pollution of flesh. It is the greatest honor any would-be vesta may have.

Margetta has been chosen. The miracles announcing this are undeniable. But she does not want to be shut up in a stone cell or to die in some dramatic way as a sign of the god's devotion. She suspects he has gone murderously mad.

The author writes that she was inspired by the accounts from medieval mystics of their ecstatic possession by God. Yet the first association that came to my own mind was Bluebeard. This is not entirely inapt, as there is some connection between the Bluebeard tale and the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Indeed, if there is anything the Greek gods are noted for, it is their habit of raping mortal maidens, who often suffer as the result of these divine attentions, much as Margetta does. It is also noteworthy that, sometimes, the maidens manage to escape their divine pursuers. Syrinx, in particular, comes to mind upon reading this story.

RECOMMENDED

My Greedy Plea for Help by Ted Prodromou

Gaming the wish system. One of those flash things. This one is basically a metafictional cheat.

Subterranean Online, Spring 2008

Subterranean Online, Spring 2008

I admit that I don't quite understand how Subterranean Press operates. There seems to be a print Subterranean Magazine, which comes in an expensive version and a not-expensive version, and then there is Subterranean Online, which comes in a free-to-view version and has different content. As far as I can tell. Not all the contents online seems to be posted at the same time, but there is a Spring 2008 issue posted on the site, and the fiction there is what I am reviewing.

Air and Angels by Beth Bernobich

Early feminism. Stephen Eliot is a typical sort of vacant upper-class drone of fin de siècle London who finds himself fascinated by a very atypical young woman. Miss Eva Dubois is anything but a drone; she is constantly busy with mathematical calculations and astronomical observations, and she speaks longingly about her wish to escape into outer space. Moreover, she and her elder sister are planning to do exactly that.

DISCLAIMER: I workshopped an earlier draft of this work.

By the Liter by Ekaterina Sedia

The narrator makes the fortuitous discovery that the souls of the newly-dead are attracted to any large quantities of beer near the scenes of their demise. The memories of the deceased take up new residence in whoever drinks enough of the beer. Since the narrator is a Russian, he naturally imbibes a lot of memories.

If I were a dead soul, I supposed, I too would be drawn to the golden shine of the beer jug, I too would prefer it to the cold eternity of whatever awaited Ipatov as an alternative.

Because his own memories are so prosaic, the narrator begins to seek out more interesting ones from among the recently departed.

This piece is just absurd enough that its oddness is not so bothersome, and I do not wonder too much why the narrator is so eager to hold the memories of men who died from torture at the hands of racketeers.

Connoisseurs: A Lucifer Jones Story by Mike Resnick

Lucifer Jones is Resnick's version of the sort-of-lovable rogue misadventurer. Jones' distinction among this company seems to be that he is not very bright. This is exacerbated by the fact that his nemesis, the devious Erich von Horst, is appears to be omniscient. Von Horst easily entangles Jones in a plot to retrieve stolen emeralds, and Jones' predictable dishonesty is suitably rewarded.

The problem with all this is that Lucifer Jones is so hopeless and inept that it is not really very interesting to see him predictably foiled by the more clever criminal, time and time again.

Road Dogs by Norman Partridge

Glen Barlow is a hardcase who had to leave town after he threw his sister's abusive boyfriend through the plate glass window. Now his sister is dead, and Glen isn't buying the official story that it was an accident, that she fell while rock climbing and coyotes found her. To the local deputy, Glen is trouble at first sight.

Headed towards forty with the years starting to show. Bryce was real familiar with the type. A drifter—one of those guys who was wiry as a half-starved animal. And that might mean you were talking jackrabbit, or it might mean you were talking coyote. Sometimes it was hard to tell going in.

Everyone knows that Glen is going to go after Kale Howard for Kim's death. What they don't know is that Howard is a werewolf, and that Glen is walking into a confrontation that for once he can't handle.

Perversely, this one got less interesting once the werewolf showed up in the story. Until that point, it was a setting up a tense scenario of human conflict, charged with the hostility between Glen and the deputy Bryce, and with Glen's former girlfriend, now dating the deputy. The prose was spare and tight. But as the werewolf comes on the scene, so does cliché, as the prose sags under the weight of florid description and metaphor. Fortunately, Glen is just about badass enough as a character to save the story from complete collapse.

Stone Eggs by Adriana Campoy and James P. Blaylock

Max is house-sitting for his Uncle Jonathan, and after a few days he finds himself compelled to try on the old man's clothing.

The trousers fit him well, as did the khaki work shirt and suspenders that had been hanging in the closet next to them. They were old fashioned, but they suited the house, in which everything hearkened back to a lost age. A suitable suit, Max thought, smiling at his own joke and feeling somehow more at home now, like a hermit crab in a new shell.

It soon becomes clear that this metaphor is the literal truth, as Max finds himself recalling the details of his uncle's collection of natural history curiosities, as if they had been his own.

A strangely charming fantasy of reincarnation.

Your Collar by Elizabeth Bear

A story of the minotaur, told as a bondage fantasy. The queen is turned on by the minotaur in his heavy golden yoke.

"You are very strong." [The queen] placed a hand upon your collar. At the full extension of her arm, she could reach you comfortably. At the full extension of yours, you could have clutched her, dragged her close.

Which is sort of where the minotaur came from in the first place.

One of those intriguing notions that doesn't go much beyond the notional as a story.

Jim Baen's Universe, June 2008

Jim Baen's Universe, June 2008

I have this idea in my head that JBU should feature military SF, and when I don't find any in a given issue, I sometimes get cranky. But this time I have no grounds for complaint—a least on this score. The SF offerings, including a couple of jokes trying to pass for stories, greatly outnumber the fantasy, but overall the fantasy is stronger.

Last Plane to Heaven: A Love Story by Jay Lake

Allen is the leader of a band of mercs working in the Gobi desert, the sort of murderous wackjobs easily considered expendable by governments up to no good. So Allen concludes when a CIA-type spook shows up and informs them that he's bought out their contracts, as well as the only transport out of the Gobi. Their new mission is to pretend to train a certain individual, only to have that individual extracted a few days later by US troops. But the individual turns out to be a black-skinned teenage girl they pull out of a Soviet space capsule. And now the members of Allen's crew are getting premonitory headaches and suffering bad dreams. Something is not right.

In the end, this one is more skiffy than milfic, after a longish introduction meant primarily to let the reader know what a bunch of badass Foreign Legion rejects these mercs are. The lesson is an ominous one: that governments bent on world domination will take anything, no matter how wondrous, and warp it to their own malevolent use. Unfortunately certain crucial aspects of the story don't make a lot of sense. Like, how did the spooks know who/what/if anything was in the downed space capsule? Like, what was the use [besides the convenience to the author's plot] of the fake training mission? If the girl from space was so valuable, why risk losing her by putting her into such unreliable hands at all?

Quasi by M. Alan Ford

Pure military SF. Because humans want to fight wars without risking their own lives, they have developed quasi-human soldiers. John is H quasi terrestris, apparently an oversized version of a human, since there is no indication of animal genes in his makeup, as with the other sorts of quasis. His platoon is sent to fight on the moon, where the enemy is using an advanced type of quasi, engineered to function in the lunar vacuum. While John informs the reader more than once that quasis have no imagination or curiosity, he also mentions that they are capable of lying. But these are traits that worry their creators.

This is not a particularly original premise [I recall Gene Wolfe's "The HORARS of War"] and although it is competently told, I felt it overly long, with more infodump on the nature of the quasis than action. The phlegmatic attitude of the quasi narrator rendered the battle sequences less exciting than they might have been from a more emotional sapien point of view, but given the subject matter, this is probably more of a feature than a bug.

Ted by Tom Van Natta

One day at the company picnic, Sam won a life-sized white teddy bear. He put the bear into the front passenger seat of his van and named him Ted. It became a kind of harmless joke, until his bitch of a girlfriend broke it off with him because he went around with a teddy bear. Then the flying saucer hit his van—in the front passenger seat, killing poor Ted.

This is the kind of fantasy, only nominally science fiction, that the Mundane SF people seem to disapprove. But it's a bit of harmless, entertaining fun. My only disappointment was that Sam's eyes weren't opened to the fact that he would be better off without that bitch Marie.

Making Alex Frey by Marissa Lingen

A programming story. Dani lands a job creating an interactive simulacrum of a washed-up, egotistical pop star.

"What I want—what I need from you—is a simulation that can give concerts, interviews, parties, chats, anything. I want it to be a software product, not a hardware product, so that it can be downloaded into more than one server and can reach the people wherever they are—broadcasts at parties, handhelds on the subway, whatever.

But the original Alex has no more understanding of what generates popularity than he does programming, and this dooms the project to failure.

A rather cruel story of the transience of fame and the pitfalls of believing your own publicity. I think I feel a bit sorry for Alex Frey, egregious ass that he is.

One Small Step by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Since the days of Plato, it is been part of the common wisdom that any person who actually seeks public office is unworthy to hold it. Nyalou is the newest and youngest member of the Tranquility Base council; the council members serve as part of their community service, except for Liz Borra, who actually campaigned for the position. Liz's motive is quite clear, at least to readers: as a real estate investor, she plans to profit by developing the land that the Arrival Monument now occupies.

The Arrival Monument had been a part of Moon lore since the first colonists. The actual footprint itself was on a square patch of Moon dust that was protected by a case. Succeeding generations had built a stone floor around the case, and a building on top of it, with holographic recreations of the landing, ancient photographs lining the walls, and souvenirs from the early Earth missions. Nyalou didn't think she'd been to the Monument since she was in grade school, and even then she hadn't liked it. In fact, her comment during her first visit had been the same as Liz's not a few moments before.

It's just a footprint.

This story is rather heavily didactic, an Instructive Tale told in pedestrian prose. Liz Borra might as well have been wearing a coat of dalmatian fur, for all the subtlety of characterization. Her motivation is so obvious that it is impossible to credit that the council had tolerated her as long as they had, except that this served the author's plot.

Madame Pompadour's Blade by Tom Purdom

Fantasy of manners from the court of Louis XV. Madame de Pompadour, the king's mistress, has need of certain services. François, Comte de LechMutacque, has a hereditary magic sword. Unfortunately, the comte is a near-useless fop. It takes extreme measures on the part of his steward Geveaux to prod him into action.

For the most part, this one is a pleasantly entertaining historical fantasy, despite an awkward beginning and a bit too much in the way of historical infodumpery. But someone at JBU is not paying attention to their job. It was irritating when "François" was spelled without the cedilla on the "c", but there is simply no excuse, in what passes for a professional publication, for the substitution of multiple lines of markup code for chunks of the text—including, so it seems, the story's afterword.

Bella of Ghostsea is Dead by A. S. Fox

This one is stuffed so full of D&D clichés it ought by rights to burst, but it turns out instead to be surprisingly clever and amusing. Grak the half-orc is cursed to watch anyone he loves die in front of him. In consequence, it's been four hundred years since he last had a date. But he has figured out a solution: date someone who is already dead. Bella of Ghostsea fits his requirements in every way. She, too, is cursed as well as dead, and she's a damn good cook, besides. All Grak has to do to win her is complete a small task.

I can't say that the prose here doesn't miss a beat; there are unfortunately puns and some lame jokes, but there are also plentiful moments of wit. Max is a vampire:

The bar was dark and the barmaid wary. Max, as ever, drank something red.

I suspect this hits the beat often enough for the satisfaction of most readers, despite certain signs of the absence of a copyeditor.

A Thread of Silk by Eugie Foster

Historical fantasy. In Heian Japan, Taira no Masakado began a war to establish himself as the new Emperor and even slaughtered members of his own clan in his attempt to establish power. Taira no Sadamori vowed revenge. According to legend, Masakado had the blessing of the god of war, which made him invulnerable except for one Achilles-like spot. In this tale, Taira no Mae is Sadamori's sister, skilled in the arts of war.

Mae steadied her breathing as she nocked an arrow. She stepped into position and pulled the bowstring taut, sighting down the shaft's length. In her mind, a silk thread shimmered smooth and straight. The whimpers of the servants at her back faded to an insignificant buzz.

When she discovers that Sadamori is wounded, Mae takes her own vow of revenge against Masakado. But as a consequence of her own prayers, she finds herself trapped between the gods of war and love.

While this tale is grounded in the well-known story of Taira no Masakado, Foster skillfully slips this variation in between the cracks of the historical account and the subsequent legends, warping it in a different direction. The ending of the frame story delivers a strong final twist. The text shows slight symptoms of researchitis, but it is otherwise

RECOMMENDED

Cacophony of the Spheres by Jeff Haas

Sci-fi. Tim is sent by his editor to investigate the growing problem of the alien refugees sleeping on the Washington Mall. His assignment is to interview Borderline Bob, who is now running a bar at the edge of the galaxy but once was a renowned scientist, until he proved that the universe is collapsing at an exponential rate. Upon arrival, Tim realizes at once that Bob was right about the universe.

But the space station was a mere speck against the oblivion behind it. A massive cosmic maelstrom was slowly but incessantly moving toward the tiny space station, gobbling up stars and nebulae in its path. The red dwarfs looked like a couple of gumballs about to be swallowed whole. It seemed as if the maelstrom would engulf the space station at any moment, transforming it into dark matter like everything else. But it never did. Instead, the space station continuously inched away from oblivion. Kinahan had reprogrammed its navigation system based on his calculations of the collapsing universe.

But what can anyone actually do about it?

The sort of thing the Mundane SF people would definitely not approve. Pretty silly stuff.

Spamdemonium by John Parke Davis

Pete Hassell, divorced and solitary, has nothing much to do but hang around online. One day he receives a spam message: MYSTRIE OF TEH UNIVERSE, YOURS FREE!!!!! and is bored enough to answer it. The messages contain a code, which Pete manages to solve. Eventually he becomes obsessed, with consequences ensuing.

Not so bad, except that the title gives away the punchline.

Lone Star Stories, June 2008

Lone Star Stories, June 1, 2008

The offerings here are all horror, in different ways and to different degrees.

Death Follows Us to Restaurants by Vylar Kaftan

Death is named Tod. He has followed Maggie around since she was a child. It is not entirely clear whether Tod is Maggie's death or Death itself, but he has always been an annoying companion, not at all fun. Maggie has recently received a kidney transplant from her brother, who died of unexpected complications. Now she wants to change her life, to make a difference, to make it up for Colin's death, but Tod's negativity is always holding her back. Or perhaps it is Maggie herself who is holding her back.

One of those stories where the resolution is an epiphany.

Whatever Shall Grow There, Dear by Erin Hoffman

The orange grove owned by Annamarie's mother isn't doing very well. There is tension in the family; her father wants to sell the place. But Annamarie knows that there is a hungry place in the north grove. It eats things—and people. She knows what it wants.

Even a dirt road after a hard rain did not look so smooth after its mud had set. There were no pebbles, no sprigs of weed, just unrelieved brown like the back of a milk chocolate bunny at Easter, the kind that are hollow inside. It radiated waves of heat that twisted the air.

The imagery is striking and the dialogue fresh, but the story itself is very, very old.

No Leaving New Orleans by Josh Rountree

After even more disasters, there is now a Dome over New Orleans, keeping everyone from getting out.

It kept out the missiles and the dirty bombs and the subsequent radiation, rioting, and earth-scouring war. But it also separated people from their families outside the city, and took away any choice of ever leaving. Not to mention the fact that the night people had felt comfortable emerging from generations of hiding, and along with them the hoodoo men and street witches that made bodies dance and turned back alleys into blood brothels.

People are divided into status/occupation classes, and everyone sees everyone else through the medium of the grid, which projects an artificial holo-skin instead of their natural appearance. Bink is a member of the Tech class, who keeps the grid operating and the Drones programmed to fulfill their necessary functions. But Bink has had a visitation that claims to represent the City, and it wants him to shut down the grid, to restore New Orleans to what it had been, to what it could be. But Bink's vision of New Orleans is not what the city itself has in mind.

This one begins as dystopian SF but devolves into horror. It is not really possible to decide whether Bink has done the right thing, as we have only the city's word about what lies beyond the Dome, and the city is a deceiver.

Apex Digest #12

Apex Digest #12

Sometimes I have trouble keeping the small zines straight in my head, particularly all the ones with names that begin with A. Apex sounds like the name of an SF zine, but in fact its complete name is Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. What Apex really seems to be about is SF horror, which makes me think "Abyss" might have been a more appropriate title—but I guess it's been taken by some other zine.

Number 12 is a double issue, containing the conclusion to a serial as well as about a dozen pieces of short fiction. There is an interesting pattern of certain themes being repeated from one story to the next.

Death Comes for All by Brian Keene and Steven L. Shrewsbury

Rogan, a cranky old warlord in the viking mold, and his perky nephew Javan are shipwrecked on a non-desert island. As they face and overcome a series of deadly perils, Rogan continues to counter the boy's optimism with reminders that death is everywhere and impossible to escape. The ending comes with a pat and predictable refrain.

Standard Sword & Sorcery fare, written in standard S&S prose, it seems to be an episode in a series, although this does not keep it from standing alone.

The Heavy by Cherie Priest

Here we have an interesting character in Kilgore Jones, sometimes known as the Heavy for his vast size. Jones is a monster hunter, armed with silver bullets and Bible. Something has been killing Mark's goats, and they call in the Pro.

The blade sank deeply into the soft tissue between the beast's jaw and shoulder, and again Kilgore's ears rang with the monster's ferocious squeal; but now the squeal sounded wet. Something was broken, and something was bleeding. No cry should sound so choked and damp.

I like this prose, but the story is flawed by beginning with a scene between Mark and Josh, two inconsequential characters who could have been dispensed with entirely. If the author were planning to tell it from the point of view of Kilgore Jones, it would have been better to start there.

To Know How to See by Michael West

Science fiction horror. Spaceman Sean Corbett notices that the faces of his fellow crew members seem to be masks.

"What's wrong?" Lee turned his head toward the cockpit window, as if expecting to see some stellar phenomenon occurring behind him. Finding nothing of interest, he turned back to Sean, the rip in his forehead now larger—a gaping, bloodless wound that ran from his hairline to his eyebrow.

Something moved in that darkness.

It remains to be determined whether Sean is correct in his surmise that aliens have taken over the crew's bodies, or if he is a raving crazy.

Standard stuff derivative of the Twilight Zone.

I Can't Look at the City by Jim Stewart

Just about the time NASA's robot probe discovered the remains of an advanced civilization on the planet they name Babylon, a neo-Luddite movement decided that all exploration and research is "inherently patriarchal, penetrative and exploitative." That was that. But now Robby is fascinated by reports that a guy named Archbishop Doctor Octopus is producing sculptural replicas of the Babylonian ziggurats while high on mescaline. How does he do it?

"I believe you're really tapped into some kind of a magic power line there, maybe the same one as the builders on Babylon. If I could see what you can, then I could write on the same wavelength. I guess that sounds weird, but I thought you'd understand."

But Bishop's actual method of producing his models of the ziggurats is stranger than Robby had imagined.

The romance and the perils of science. If this is SF horror, it is in the consequences of scientific exploration—a bit reminiscent of Frankenstein's monster. The neo-Luddites might have had a point. As readers probably have had a more thorough scientific education than Robby, they might find Bishop's explanation a bit overly prolonged.

PostFlesh by Paul Jessup

A trope of the previous story segues into this one. Again, we have human explorers discovering what appears to be the ruins of an alien civilization. But it is something else entirely.

Shadrim. It was a grave of space, a planet of bones. It was the endless all and everything. Shadrim. When we discovered it, we found it full of ruins and corpses. Shadrim. When it discovered us, it was thinking. Shadrim. It had sepulchral thoughts. Thoughts that only the dead could or would want to think. Filtering through the entire planet.

Broken down to dispassionate essentials, this planet and Stewart's Babylon are much alike, building structures on the corpses of organisms that have lived there before. But this version is more of a nightmarish poem, as the planet drives the explorers to dreams of insanity and beyond. Fantastic SF fiction horror, absent science.

Covenant by Lavie Tidhar

Yet another set of humans among the artifacts of an alien world. A sort of neo-Israeli colony has settled this world, making strange accommodations with the relics of the extinct beings they call the Nephilim.

While no skeleton was ever found of that vanished race, their buildings towered over humans. Their few dwellings had become places of industry, the commerce centres of the planet's small population. Not for the artifacts, though a trade in those curiosities did go on, but for the fungus. That grey, moist substance grew wherever the Nephilim once lived. It grew like moss, like weeds, on the sides of buildings and inside them and in the avenues of abandoned towns.

The settlers smoke the fungus and seem to survive on it through the medium of a parasite attached to the top of their skulls. But no one knows how this improbable way of life came about; the records of the early years don't exist. Miriam wonders why. She wonders at the visions she sees when she refrains from smoking the fungus. She and her lover argue about whether the Nephilim had a religion, and they put the question to the test in a very drastic manner.

I am very strongly reminded by this piece of an early work by C. J.. Cherry, Wave Without a Shore, in which humans find another extreme way of not having to confront the presence of the aliens among whom they live. While disturbing, the vision here lies not in the genre of horror, but is entirely science-fictional.

Broken Strand by Maurice Broaddus

A mad scientist story. Narrator visits old professor and daughter for whom he has always lusted. Professor claims to have discovered and cured the genetic defect that causes sin. Consequences ensue, none of them original or very interesting.

Feverish Solutions by Ryck Neube

Desperate situations. Millions of refugees from the dead Earth are crammed into converted space-going grainships, from which the citizens of the orbital poleis call them grainers, although some say Gypsies. Delta Nolana is a grainer.

"All I know about Gypsies comes from TV. I got the impression they wanted to be nomads. We're the homeless, flying the circuit from polis to polis to collect our charity while waiting for some miracle to give us a home."

Delta is a black marketer. Her grainship 474 has the Zebra plague spreading onboard, and they desperately need the serum to cure it before the orbital poleis learn about the epidemic and quarantine them. To pay for the serum, she has contracted to sell one of their members, a suicidal young girl, to a consortium of cannibals on Taylor Polis. But treachery and betrayal conspire to thwart her.

This must be my day to be reminded of old C. J. Cherryh novels—in this case, her seminal Downbelow Station. I think Neube may have actually contrived a situation more grim and pessimistic than the original. Real SF horror.

Clementine by Joy Marchand

Jones is an attendant in a ward for the catatonic—"bedpan washer & ass wiper." The patient known as C. is a mystery. Strange marks appear on her body, sometimes like letters seeming to spell out words. Jones thinks that C. is producing the marks herself, that she is conscious and aware, but Dr. P doesn't allow interference with C.

Dr. P took case notes on C. for 3 months about letters, then stopped. Says just mas hysteria & any RNs caught spreading rumors about C. & letters, to be fired.

While C.'s situation is certainly horrific, the story itself is too upbeat to be considered horror. The shorthand prose gives Jones an interesting voice.

Curve Balls in the Rift by Durand Welsh

The rift of the title is the Southern Chimera Rift. The rifts have torn apart reality, and on the other side lies a dreamscape populated by phantoms.

The cultists used to believe the chimera rifts were gateways to the Earth's death dream as her spirit died. The cultists are all gone now, mostly having marched in ordered lines into the chimera dreamscape. There's only enclaves of mean, scared folks like me left, awaiting the truth behind the rifts.

There is a fence separating the world of the rifts from the old physical world, and the narrator's task is to repair the breaches in the fence. But the force behind the rift has set a trap for him.

This story, we are told, is the winner [under a slightly different title that I prefer] of the 2007 Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest short fiction competition. I can't complain about the choice, though there are a few awkward redundancies in the prose and a bothersome problem with the point of view. It is told in the first-person present tense, yet the events at the end suggest that the narrator's waiting has already ended before he is telling us that he still awaits.


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!

Jul 1, 04:42 by IROSF
Leave a comment about the fiction or the reviews!

The piece can be found here.
Jul 1, 22:54 by Amy Sisson
I really enjoy the short fiction reviews, and am leisurely working my way through this issue's reviews.

I have a couple of questions about the formatting of the short reviews column. First, I assume that when "Recommended" appears, it refers to the story just reviewed, not to the following story. I was thrown, however, because it therefore would appear that Geoff Ryman's introduction to the "Mundane SF" issue of Interzone is recommended.

Also, I would note that it's very easy to lose sight of what magazine in which a particular story appeared. I found myself scrolling up and down, up and down, until I got to a picture of a magazine cover. I note that the little blue-ish bars that indicate a different magazine are not much different than the little blue-ish bars that indicate a different story within a magazine.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I just thought I'd mention this since perhaps there's a painless soluation of some kind.

Thanks for the reviews!
Jul 1, 22:57 by Bluejack
We can look at the formatting on that, Amy. I'm sure we can do something. Good suggestion.

With regard to the "Recommended" -- I took it as Lois recommending the entire issue, in that instance, rather than a particular story or introduction. However, if we misunderstood Lois' intent, I'm sure she'll let us know, and we can make that clearer. The nice thing about web publishing is it's never too late to fix a goof.
Jul 2, 00:18 by Lois Tilton
Yes, I was recommending the entire issue. I've never done this before, but I wanted to bring this issue to the attention of readers who might be interested in this "Mundane SF" thing. That's also why I commented at such length on the issue as a whole, including Ryman's introduction.
Jul 2, 03:44 by Ted Kosmatka
Lois, thanks for kind words on "Divining Light". You wondered in your review if anyone has performed such an experiment in real life. As far as I know, nobody has. I'm kind of hoping that somebody tries it now. Heck, I'd try it if I could get the equipment. Chances are good that the results would disprove my whole story, but it would be worth it to know the answer. Great site you have here by the way. Thanks again.

Ted

Jul 2, 14:39 by Eugie Foster
Lois, I was absolutely delighted that you enjoyed "A Thread of Silk." Thanks for the kind words and your excellent reviews.

Eugie
Jul 4, 13:55 by Anthony Trifiletti
Thanks Lois. Keep up the great work.

Anthony
Jul 25, 21:23 by Karl Bunker
Many kudos for the Short Fiction Review. I look forward to future installments, and hope you can keep up with the workload!
Jul 26, 01:23 by Lois Tilton
I hope for more good stories to recommend!

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