This month we have double issues of Asimov's and F&SF, the last issue of Realms of Fantasy [wrapped in a subscription offer] and a lot of ezines.
It's the award season coming up, so I thought I'd post my list of Sturgeon Award nominees for short science fiction in 2008. Please note that this list is supposed to exclude pure fantasy, and it also excludes stories I didn't read, which seems to be quite a few of them, at least looking at the Nebula Final Ballot.
- "A Buyer's Guide to the Maps of Antarctica" by Catherynne M Valente; Clarkesworld #20, May 2008
- "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay; F&SF, August 2008
- "The Mudlark" by Pat Cadigan; Jim Baen's Universe #15, October 2008
- "Way Down East" by Tim Sullivan; Asimov's, December 2008
- "His Master's Voice" by Hanu Rajaniemi; Interzone #218, October 2008
- "Endra - From Memory" by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; Interzone #216, June 2008
- "Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman; F&SF, September 2008
- "Slug Hell" by Steven Utley; Asimov's, September 2008
- "Wilmer or Wesley" by Carol Emshwiller; Asimov's, August 2008
- "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by their Rain" by Jason Sanford; Interzone #217, August 2008
Matching my list up with the Nebula Final Ballot, I see that we intersect only on a single story, Finlay's "The Political Prisoner," although "The Tomb Wife" by Gwyneth Jones was on my list for 2007.
- F&SF, April-May 2009
- Asimov's, April-May 2009
- Realms of Fantasy, April 2009
- Jim Baen's Universe, February 2009 Website
- Clarkesworld, February 2009 Website
- Strange Horizons, February 2009 Website
- Fantasy Magazine, February 2009 Website
- Lone Star Stories #31, February 2009 Website
- Apex & Abyss, 1st Quarter 2009 Website
- Apex Magazine, February 2009 Website
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2009 Website
F&SF's, Apr-May, 2009
F&SF's, April-May 2009
Shifting to the bimonthly schedule apparently means that there will be two of the classic reprints in each issue this year. The Disch is about as classic as you can get in our field, although I hadn't recalled that it saw its first publication in this zine. Altogether a pretty strong issue.
The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch
A fable. The five appliances in the cottage live happily, serving their master, until one summer he inexplicably fails to return. After waiting from one season to the next, they decide that they will set out to find him in the city, where he surely must be needing them.
This tale is usually considered a children's story, and as the original editorial blurb says, it is a charming one. The appliances have distinct personalities, and the narrative voice takes an avuncular tone that should make adults smile.
But before any of the small appliances who may be listening to this tale should begin to think that they might do the same thing, let them be warned: ELECTRICITY IS VERY DANGEROUS. Never play with old batteries! Never put your plug in a strange socket! And if you are in any doubt about the voltage of the current where you are living, ask a major appliance.
Yet it is not altogether a happy tale, as the appliances must wrestle in their hearts with the fear that they may, after all, be nothing but junk–
RECOMMENDED, of course
Sea Wrack by Edward Jesby
A future when a part of humanity has retreated to live in the sea, where they have come into conflict with the dominant land-dwellers. A wounded sea man arrives at a Greek island where the land-dwelling ruling classes live in decadent opulence, and the hostility between the two species emerges from behind the masks of polite hospitality.
"Hagar said," the sea guest went on, inevitable as the tides, pleasurably quoting a beloved line, "The sea change suffered by we; Cannot make the airmen think free." He chanted on, squaring his shoulders to expose more of his pale flesh, "For we have chosen deep being, not the ease of their far seeing." He stopped to stare out into the night with the depthless stare of his great dilated pupils.
This is the first of the classic reprints for this year that doesn't quite seem to hold up. While I like the basic idea of the divergence of species still able to meet on a common ground, the point of view is not strongly narrated and the story lapses at the end into summary.
The Spiral Briar by Sean McMullen
Historical science fantasy. By 1446, the elves have been using the portals between their own world and Earthlye for centuries in order to abduct and torment mortals.
I have kept vigil at that bridge for seven years. I have seen eyes watching me that float upon air, I have shot good arrows with heads of cold iron at illusions that dispersed like smoke, and I have fallen into slumber then awakened to find my bowstring cut. Their laughter mocks me from invisible lips, yet still I stalk them, because…
Now the mortals they have victimized are planning to strike back on their enemy's own turf, led by the mysterious figure of Tordral the armorer, whose steam-powered gunboat is capable of crossing the portals joining the worlds and laying siege to the castles of the fey.
This is the sort of tale that I find surpassing wondrous, and there is stuff here to satisfy genre readers of all persuasions. History-lovers should appreciate the setting, fantasy-lovers the elves, and skiffy types should be fascinated by all the neepery involving the steam-powered gunboat. And the author got me with "Earthlye."
A Wild and a Wicked Youth by Ellen Kushner
It should suffice to say that this is the boyhood of Kushner's swordsman Richard St. Vier.
It had been a beautiful summer, a poet's summer of white roses and green-gold grain, and tinted apples swelling on the bough against a sky so blue it didn't seem quite real. Richard found that he remembered most of the old man's teaching from when he was little, and the old man was so pleased that he showed him more ways to make the pretend steel dance at the end of his arm—
Make it part of your arm, boyo!— and to dance away from it, to outguess the other blade and make your body less of a target.
There are also young Richard's remittance-woman/anatomist mother, his friend Crispin, who turns into Lord Trevelyn, the tolerant paternal Trevelyn and his intolerant lady–
One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright
Thomas Robertson comes home from celebrating an unwanted promotion to find a familiar black cat in his hedge.
The black cat spoke in a voice as soft and clear as rippling water. "I am come to summon you to tourney, Tommy, to face a knight of ghosts and shadows. No weapon of mankind can cut him; and once he is called to come, no door nor gate can keep him out. Only one who knows his secret name can hope to vanquish him. He is the champion of the Lord of Final Winter, who also is called the Shadow King. He has been summoned to your world, now, and all of England is at hazard." The black cat looked up at him with eyes as yellow and mysterious as moonlight. "The call is given. Listen: you can hear the trumpet of the Wild Huntsman. Will you go?"
As a child, he and his friends had fought the evil and triumphed, but now they are growing old; only Thomas is willing to take up the quest again.
The epigraph is the old line about putting away childish things; the story is about picking them up again where the characters left off. This is another Narnia grown old but unchanged, with all the expected appurtenances, including a glowing lion. Indeed, Wright has thrown the fantasy kitchen sink into the mixer, with magic keys, swords, mirrors, books [written in invisible elvish script], ships, ad inf. I think most readers may be waiting for the point of view to shift, for the childish things to be revealed as childish, for a mature vision to prevail–
The Price of Silence by Deborah J. Ross
Emotionally needy war orphan Devlin joins the Juno and finds hope that he can belong to this tightly-bonded crew.
"Anyway, one day between missions, Fidelio came home with Shizuko. We needed an engineer. The one originally assigned to us didn't work out. It was as if—
" her voice dropped in pitch, "— as if we'd all been waiting for her, as if she filled some place in our lives we hadn't even known was empty. She brought us together, catalyzed us into something more than our individual selves. Aimer left an absence. If Shizuko thinks you— " Verity stopped abruptly, her mouth tensing.
She looked at him, direct and hard. Devlin had seen people killed for less. "If you hurt Shizuko, I'll kill you."
In the midst of the bonding and the sex, the ship arrives at its destination to discover that an entire planet has been slagged by some mysterious alien weapon and everyone on the planet's space station is likewise dead, although the station's computer may hold the secret of the destruction.
This piece is so emotionally manipulative it sets my teeth on edge. Every member of the ship's crew is in love with everyone else, sexually or otherwise. Everyone is flawlessly beautiful. Everyone wears skin-tight micropore suits [some decorated with flowers, which fact the author frequently mentions] and there are no bulging bellies or spindly shanks to mar the view. The only exception is the sole member of the military, whom everyone hates for no discernible reason except his black suit, a clear sign of villainy. It doesn't seem to occur to them that, if hostile aliens are slagging human worlds, the military might have a legitimate interest in such matters and might use the information to actually defend humanity. During a crisis, everyone, including the cook [whose food is of course delectable] and the medic, crowds onto the bridge so they can be in the way of operations. If readers might be interested in such matters as the destruction of an entire world, they will be shit out of luck, as the characters return instead to obsessing about their relationships with each other. Gack!
The Avenger of Love by Jack Skillingstead
Though sixty-two and divorced three times, Norman had always remembered his first love. He recalled her by the scent she had worn in high school: Bon Nuit. Associational memory. Like a sensory switch in his mind, lighting up secret chambers, illuminating innocent preoccupations he hadn't experienced in decades. But now it was as if someone had crept into his memory vault and stolen the bottle of amber-gold perfume. And with the scent gone, so was the girl. Oh, he could remember Connie; but her vital presence was faded—
a departing shadow.
It wasn't early onset Alzheimer's; it was thievery.
Norman is pissed off. He decides to go after the memory thief but ends up with a talking dog who tells him what is really missing from his life: Love.
The author's note says that this one is a homage to Harlan Ellison, which I can see, but the setting and narrative tone make it feel a bit more strongly like the mean streets of the old hardboiled detective stories. Which is not a Bad Thing, either.
Andreanna by S.L.Gilbow
I fall. I dream. I fall some more. In thirty feet I will hit the corrugated, steel floor below me. I play with time. That's what I call it. Playing with time. I can do so much in 1.36 seconds. It is almost an eternity.
The Autobriefer bot called Andreanna has committed suicide by jumping from the observation platform in an Earth-normal gravity storage bay on the moon, where she is assigned to give briefings to newcomers. Someone has messed with her personality files.
A nice piece of speculation about the workings of the robotic mind. Everyone seems quite fond of Andreanna and solicitous of her welfare–
Stratosphere by Henry Garfield
SF baseball. When Joe "Stratosphere" Stromboni hits one out of the park on the Moon, it really goes into orbit.
There's something about SF and baseball. I think you could fill a couple of anthologies with SF baseball stories, and like this one, most of them are at the heart about the game.
Asimov's, April-May 2009
The spring double issue is the 400th of this zine. A reader might expect that such an anniversary might call for some really exceptional, perhaps even great fiction, but if the editor was aiming so high, she fell a bit short.
The Great Armada by Brian Stableford
According to the editorial blurb, this may be the last installment of Stableford's alternate-history scientific romance. This work, taken in its entirety and particularly in this last episode, is a fiction of ideas. The governing idea is evolution–
We began in the first installment when a group of sixteenth-century savants took a journey through the ether to the moon, which turns out to be inhabited by a colony of sentient insectoids, rebels from a galactic civilization built on collective intelligence. But the existence of humanity comes as a shock to these societies (despite the fact that they had infiltrated human society long, long ago) because it represents individual intelligence in an endoskeletal species. Now the various factions in the galaxy are engaged in a power struggle to control the Earth, and the Selenians are about to send a conquering Armada. The savant Francis Bacon is chosen to travel to the galactic center in order to obtain aid against them.
It is not that this saga is devoid of wonders. There are plenty of wonders, but there is all too little story to wrap them in. For the first 16 of 42 pages, the reader must endure nothing but explanation–
"The cost of evolution," the sphinx reminded him, "is that individuals must die, that species must die, that worlds must die . . . and that entire universes must die."
"I do see that," Francis assured the creature. "Without death, the tendency toward stasis is irresistible. That fact is reflected in the different attitude of the Fleshcores and their insect associates, and the differences Lumen has sketched out between the ancients and the nascents of his own kind. It is certainly evident in humans, shortlived as we are, and I would hazard a guess that Shadows are not immune to it. I know that we talking now about more than the deaths of a few individuals, but I am still uncertain as to whether what is actually at stake is the death of a planet, the death of a galactic civilization, or the death of an entire universe?"
In short, there is too much talking here and too little doing. One of the most fascinating characters in all human history, Francis Bacon, is reduced to a sockpuppet for some superhuman entity.
The Spires of Denon by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Archeological mystery. The Spires of Denon are a mysterious artifact high in the mountains surrounding the city of Denon, the abandoned capital of a militant, art-looting nation of conquerors. The scientist in charge of the excavation, Gabrielle Reese, is clearly up to some looting of her own. She has hired a team of guards to protect the site from freelance looters, but the head of the guards, Meklos Verr, is too good at his job for her comfort. Gabrielle has discovered that the city sits on top of a system of underwater caverns that she suspects to be full of valuable artifacts. She hires a team of divers to map the caverns, but the divers have an agenda of their own.
The worldbuilding here is thorough and the site is intriguing, constituting a mystery in its own right.
The sun had reached its zenith. She'd learned to recognize it by the way the light fell around the temple. Actually, the light didn't fall as much as it blazed. The entire area became so bright that she wore extra eye protection out here.
Even then the brightness was the most amazing thing she'd ever seen. The Spires reflected the sun in all directions, acting like some kind of beacon, sending light cascading down the white part of the mountainside. Then the light hit the white buildings, which reflected it all back to the Spires.
Each of the three parties pursues its own agenda, while the readers must wonder just what they are up to and which one of them will discover the answer to the mystery. Unfortunately, the character of Gabrielle is so obviously wrong in every way–
The Armies of Elfland by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick
It was the middle of the night when the mirrors came out of the elves. With a sound like the cushioned patter of an ice storm, the tiny mirrors fell to the ground, leaving a crust of glitter behind the marching elf-army. They bled, of course, but the elven blood restored the dry land, undoing the effects of the drought, and moss emerged green from the ground in the troops' wake.
We never learn any more about the mirrors, but it seems that the elves and their army of faerie minions arrived by accident on Earth from some different dimension, and now, having killed all the humans except for a few children, they keep marching, looking for the way out. The story belongs to Agnes, one of the children who is taken as a servant to the cruel Queen of Elfland and eventually becomes her nemesis.
Swanwick has been doing a lot with elfland, and readers might be expecting another tale in the mode of his Dragons of Babel universe, but this one is something different, more of a fable in the flatness of its characters, and rather a disappointment, as the vision of Elfland gives us nothing new.
This Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
The starship was old, impossibly old, and covered in flowers. Despite a brisk methane breeze, not a petal nor a stamen of the bright blooms moved. Under an impervious shield, they remained motionless, uncorrupted, altogether untouchable.
Sam Park has always known, in some way, that the starship was there on Titan. Park is a deep military secret. Not only did he discover the idea for the space-travel function called entangled luminal portage, he has an inexplicable way with cause and effect, a kind of telekinesis. People who know a little about him call him a poltergeist. Now Sam is on Titan, wrapped in obesity and grief for his dead son, to crack the mystery of the long-abandoned starship in its stasis field, a starship that clearly, from the flowers covering it, originated on Earth, perhaps a hundred million years ago. But his hypothesis that the spaceship was built by intelligent dinosaurs only adds to the contempt in which he is held by the "real scientists" on the base.
This is a complex tale, and heavy with symbolism. The flowers are those that we place on the graves of dead relatives, killed in war. Sam's only son was killed in war, as recalled by the title, a line for Kipling's eulogy for "My Boy Jack. While the connection with the spaceship exists only for Sam, this is very much Sam's story, and it is not a happy one.
True Fame by Robert Reed
A world where privacy does not exist, where anyone can know everything about anyone. In such a world, true anonymity is the most rare and valuable thing.
There are modern myths about souls like this: Exceptionally wealthy and powerful and farsighted souls who should be known to everyone, but at the same time have kept themselves removed from public view. According to self-styled experts, these Special Ones can eat mashed potatoes in the midst of their peers, yet they have an astonishing, nearly supernatural capacity not to exist. Armies of AIs are responsible for their anonymity, guarding an elaborate, many-layered privacy with tools that even clever young people can only imagine.
While spying and prying on their fellow diners in a restaurant, clever young people Troy and Kora spot a man who seems to be one of those special ones. Kora is determined to follow him, to discover his secrets.
A creepy world, creepy characters, create a strong sense of revulsion in this Cautionary Tale from the ubiquitous and versatile Reed.
An Ordinary Day with Jason by Kate Wilhelm
Vernon's family has an inherited paranormal trait. Because Vernon loves April he doesn't want to scare her away by revealing everything at once, even after their son Jason is born. He probably should have trusted her more, because April does love Vernon very much.
This one shares a common theme with other works by Wilhelm, the fear of sinister government laboratories where people with unusual gifts are sequestered.
Atomic Truth by Chris Beckett
Everyone wears bugeye goggles to interact with the virtual world while shutting out most of the real one. Everyone but Richard, who is not "normal." Richard sees too many things that aren't really there for everyone else, like Electric Man and Steel Man. He doesn't need technology to make him see even more delusions.
Emerging from the burger bar, Richard too confronted the drizzle and the electric lights: orange, white, green, red, blue. But while Jenny had taken the everyday scene for granted, for him, as ever, it posed an endless regress of troubling questions. What was rain? What were cars? What was electricity? What was this strange thing called space that existed in between one object and the next? What was air? What did those lights mean, what did they really mean as they shifted from green to amber to red and back again, over and over again?
Richard thinks that one day he may be the only person who ever sees the world as it is, and that perhaps, if no one sees it any longer, it may cease to exist. To see atomic truths, you need to have atomic eyes.
A fascinating and humane look through a pair of different eyes, with hints from Bishop Berkeley.
Human Day by Jack Skillingstead
Raymond wasn't all that mentally stable when he created the rift in the universe that killed his beloved daughter. Hiding in his underground shelter from a possible interdimensional invasion hasn't improved his mental state. Now he has created a robot dog to go aboveground and send back images of the world, to see if it is safe to emerge. But how can he trust what it sees?
The sound was gone. Raymond pushed, toggled and twisted the rc to no effect. He slumped back in his chair and pressed his palms to his temples, pressed hard enough to feel painful pressure. The image on the monitor stuttered and flipped and froze again, this time on a square of pavement. He redoubled the pressure on his temples, but only for a few seconds; he knew, of course, that there couldn't be a connection.
Nicely weird portrait of an unraveling mind. As Raymond points out, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
Cowgirls in Space by Deborah Coates
A girl story. The Junkyard Girls were a horse drill team when they were in high school, full of dreams and ambitions. Then one day Patti found something back in the junkyard.
It wasn't until Pen was all the way out from under the truck and standing that Jennie saw that she had something in her hand. It was green and glowing, pulsing like a heartbeat—
beat, beat, beat. Not round or square, but . . . pliable, loose. . .
It fulfilled Requests. But almost always in such a way that they wished it hadn't. Still, Pen in particular, Pen who wanted to be an astronaut, kept trying. Still keeps trying.
This is a story about friendships and the way people change, for better or worse. In particular, the way girls do, when they grow up.
Exegesis by Nancy Kress
2250 from Studees in Lawst Litrucher, Reformd Langwij Co-ullishun, Han Goldman SUBJECT: "Franklee, my der, I dont giv a dam." Line frum Pre-Kolapse novul—
awther unown— that twoday iz mostlee fowk sayeen in Suthern Ezra. The prahverb means— ruffly— that the speeker wil not giv even wun "dam"— wich may hav bin a tipe of lokul munee— to by a "der," an xtinkt meet animul. Implikashun is that watever iz beein diskused is over prised. This interpretashun is reinforced by the tradishunul usoceeashun of the line with peepul hoo served meels, nown as "butlers."
Realms of Fantasy, April
Realms of Fantasy, April 2009
The last issue of this magazine, alas. I'll miss it. There are only four fiction offerings this time, but one, at least, is quite a bit longer than the usual RoF tale.
Impractical Cats by K.D. Wentworth
Clarey is in the early stages of dementia and Thomas is determined to take care of her by himself, at home. He is quite upset when she begins to insist that they have cats–
"Oh, they're great hunters," she said, placing the burnt bacon on a paper towel to drain. "One of them brought me a star last night after you went back to sleep. It fizzed just like those sparklers we used to buy for the Fourth of July. I almost woke you up to see it."
And sometimes Thomas can feel something warm and furry rubbing against his leg.
This is a true love story, heartwarming without being saccharine.
Sails Above Greensea by Adam Corbin Fusco
Pyrates! Leviathan has devoured the land, and the only two remaining greatships now sail the atmosphere above the sea, the Crimson Moon captained by Monteroy Absinthe and Cloudsprit Dauntless by his father and nemesis Abelairde. They fight to recover the fabled treasure and crown of the First and Last Pyrate King in his drowned city, exposed only once every hundred years by the Three-Full Ebb.
All three moons glowed full. Blue Sussurus, the largest, burned bright and daring, its pale, pockmarked stone tempting one to think of sapphires and cabochons. Little red Andaluse shone like an angry eye, hazy and mysterious. And the middle-size one, Tundaroon, beamed a rich, verdant green, teasing one to recall such foolish legends as the one about Jolly Jack Robin, sailing past the Star Stream to that emerald orb aboard the Barnaby Rush.
This long tale is a whole lot of pyratickal fun, with wondrous worldbuilding and swashbuckling characters who speak in colorful pyrate-talk. But there is also a melancholy tone, as our Captain Absinthe is tormented by bad luck and self-doubt.
Name Day by Garth Upshaw
Again the ocean has devoured the land, but in this case the ocean is no mere water but
a vast network of intelligences that covered the entire planet save for our island. Enormous shapes seethed and pulsed, sending rainbow colors coruscating across the thick surface like oil spilled on oatmeal.
It is the custom on Name Day to immerse the year's crop of adolescents in the ocean, upon which they are transformed in strange ways, with different powers, and receive their names. The boy whom his mother calls Noodle is anticipating his Name Day, but he has been waylaid by a gang of bullies led by Big Orca, who forces him into an illicit and dangerous orgy of imbibing a bucket full of the ocean.
This is a very weird premise with a somewhat unsavory tone, an unpleasant world full of unpleasant people. If they come to a Bad End, it would be hard to regret it much.
Sand Castles by Desirina Boskovich
Again the ocean. This one is on Earth, where the narrator is going to seed after finishing college when his pothead friend Radley shows up with a strange-looking girl.
The girl's name is Audra. Her hair is strawberry blonde, hanging in thin strands around her face. I've never seen anyone with eyes quite that color before–
a pale green. Her skin is pale, too, and lightly freckled. Delicate features, pointy chin. She's wearing a pastel green long-sleeved shirt, loose khakis, and a hemp necklace that she made herself. She has too many earrings.
They have a secret map that leads to a secret beach in Mexico where there may be a secret magic city beneath the waves. But they don't have a car, which is why they need the narrator. A road trip happens, then other stuff, which will not greatly surprise the reader when it does.
A kind of pretty story, with its pink quartz sand, but the characters talk rather too much on the road.
Jim Baen's Universe
Jim Baen's Universe, February, 2009
It's not like I'm counting the words or anything, but I'm pretty sure this ezine continues to shrink. Not for the first time, I find that the superior story is by the newcomer.
Astralis by L.E.Modessit, Jr.
The enemy is approaching the city walls. The cost of defending it would be too terrible, so the population has evacuated, except for a single man who will do the terrible thing. Alone in the city, he roams around contemplating his own nobility and self-sacrifice in pretentious prose:
He rises from the chair. The time has come for him to set out to do what must be done, that which only he can and will do.
Fortunately quite short.
Food for Thought by Carl Frederick
Here's how it works: A talented person spends years acquiring knowledge or skill, then it's all sucked out to be sold to some rich bastard.
Wosbel sat in a surgical chair, his head held motionless in a metal harness, while the needles, looking like silver hairs on his otherwise-bald head, bored into his brain.
Mergoyn, a master fencer, has for some reason decided to sell his ability, but now he wishes he hadn't, particularly since the rich bastard who will receive his skill is a real bastard indeed. The contract being irrevocable, he decides his only option to thwart the bastard is suicide.
The problem is the premise. While the plot plays out satisfactorily, I find it highly improbable that people would routinely spend their lives doing this–
Primrose and Thorn by Bud Sparhawk
A sequel. Louella and Pascal from one previous story, with plenty of sailing experience on Earth's ocean of water, have come to Jupiter to race in its ocean of air, where they have no experience whatsoever, on equipment they are totally unfamiliar with. Rams, the successor to Jake from another previous story, is minding his own sailing business on Jupiter when he runs into the other two, blown off course. Heroism ensues.
Readers familiar with these reviews may be aware of my opinions on the matter of sequels. This one isn't going to change my mind. Previously, I have considered Sparhawk's handling of the sailing sequences in these pieces to be skilled enough for me to recommend them, despite some deficiencies in story. Not this time. This one barely has a story at all for the first three-quarters of the text, and the characterization consists of Louella bitching at Pascal. What we are left with is raw sailing infoneep:
Rams reached for the sail controls. Primrose was being blown downwind at thirty meters per second, relative to the station. The station he'd just left plodded along slower than the wind, held back only by her massive drogues—
a fancy word for sea anchors. The drogues that swung beneath the station's bulbous form created drag and provided a measure of control. It was sailing, but using anchors to steer instead of sails.
Without a meaningful story, without characters that readers can be engaged with, without a payoff that matters to us, all this neep is just so much drag. I also note that there is apparently a sequel to this one on the schedule, which takes it out of the category of short fiction and into an unannounced serial.
The Good Son by Naomi Kritzer
Elves. Gaidian is attracted to Maggie when she is visiting Ireland.
My elder brother caught my hand, and said, "Don't do it, Gaidian. Bring her here, if you must have her." When I didn't answer, he shook his head. "You get nothing but grief when you follow a mortal."
To follow her, he has to pretend to be mortal. To convince her, he needs a background, he needs believable parents. He chooses a random elderly couple to cast his spell on, but over time he truly becomes Doreen's son, with all that this entails.
Convincing and heartwarming tale of love and its price.
Johnny So Long at the Fair by Lezli Robyn
At age four, Johnny loves trains more than anything else. At the toy store, he goes on the train ride and doesn't return until twenty years later, physically grown but mentally still four.
This ought to be a tragedy, but it fails to engage emotionally as the narrative remains too distant.
Riders of the Three-Toed Horse by Garrett W. Vance
Everyone knows that when doors and roads suddenly appear where there were no such doors and roads a moment ago, they usually lead to trouble. But geologist Elias Ullstrom has been offered a new job in Agate County, somewhere in the scablands of Eastern Washington, so that is the road he takes. His job is a mineral survey of the canyons belonging to the Awattamapum tribe, but the local game warden has a warning for him.
There are things out in this country that are dangerous. If you stick near the trails and follow the instructions the county gave you, you should be fine. But, if you start screwing around playing National Geographic explorer up in those back canyons, you're asking for trouble. Stay on the map, man. Listen to your instincts, if something doesn't seem right then get the hell away from it, comprende?"
Unfortunately, Elias gets carried away by his discoveries.
What Elias discovers is authentically scary and weird, and it is by no means obvious whether he will escape or not. The characters are genuine, and the setting is both strange and real, with the strange stuff made quite credible by the author.
Clarkesworld, February 2009
The theme this month is love and the connection between persons.
The Second Gift Given by Ken Scholes
Earth, as so often happens, has been all but abandoned, and the remnant of the human species has devolved. Go-on-fours-sometimes-upright and his band are living the nasty, brutish and short when he is snatched by some cousins who have returned to the old homeworld to revive their DNA. They recess him back to a more sapiens form but then reveal that they are ashamed of this act, as they did not give him the choice. He, on the other hand, is so pleased with the results that he insists on recessing the rest of his band back to sapience, whether they wish it or not.
Go-on-Fours is an interesting character who doesn't take long to recognize that his cousins are there to use him for their own purposes. But they just talk too damn much, with too much blathering about compassion, for the good of the story.
She placed her hands on his shoulders and drew her face nearer, her stare unbroken. Recession. A return backwards to what you once were, cousin. A human. One of the People. Truth: all life changes over time. Truth: the clock-spring can be unwound carefully, carefully, we have learned. Infinitely small workers live in the nectar of this fruit, each unwinding you, recessing you to what you would have been millions of years ago had time not taken you on a different journey. Infinitely small teachers in this fruit fill your mind with language and comprehension.
The Jisei of Mark VIII by Barrien C. Henderson
The Mark VIII eldercare bot has been Sophia Loggia's faithful companion. She read to him from the works of Marcus Aurelius and Tsunetomo Yamamoto. But his service will come to an end with her life and he will be reprogrammed to serve another.
He dreaded the idea of leaving; there had been thirteen good years with Sophia Loggia. These last several months, though, had challenged his programming to say the least. All his memories would be wiped in a trice. All combinations of 0's and 1's that became them—
became him— would drizzle to naught.
Jisei is Japanese for a death poem. Regular readers of this column may be aware that I tend to be intolerant of sentimentality, but Henderson has transcended that to create a work about love that is truly heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Strange Horizons, February 2009
The stories are all at least nominally SF in some way, rather than pure fantasy.
This Must be the Place by Elliott Bangs
Time travel. Andrea, a workaholic who drinks too much in bars, meets an equally undesirable man named Loren Wells who seems to have known her before. In another city, she is the one who recognizes a younger Loren. Elsewhere, she has the affair with another version of him and finally learns his secret.
An interesting idea, but the characters are both so disagreeable that I don't particularly care when they are or what happens to them.
Obedience by Brenna Yavanoff
Zombies. The usual. They call them smirkers.
They smiled. No training in the world prepared you for that. They smiled as they slashed and bit, tearing flesh off their victims in chunks. They smiled as they ran, a merciless full-out sprint, headlong, ravenous. They smiled right before you leveled the barrel and squeezed the trigger. Sometimes, if the shot was high enough, the caliber small enough, even when they fell back—
smoke rising from a neat round hole in the forehead— they were still smiling.
Pvt Grace is part of a dwindling squad attempting to get to a research facility where Jacobs, the medic, can test a theory about the infection.
Not bad, if you can take Yet Another zombie story. It's hard to keep them down.
The First Time We Met by Maria Deira
Elena has a Power. Something in her saliva heals cuts and abrasions. She can't raise the dead, however, or cure cancer. And now her power is fading, which increases the frustration she has always felt with its limits. This is affecting her relationship with Hector, who loves her for everything she is.
Elena eats the same way she makes love: quick and neat. She's curled up in the armchair, sucking on a mango sprinkled with chili powder. Her lips part and a slice of fruit disappears between her teeth. Seconds later, her tongue pops out to lick away the red dust that clings to the corners of her mouth. When Elena eats, she never loses a crumb, never allows the tiniest drop of juice to dribble down her chin.
But Hector also has to admit that the jolt of her power has always been an important part of sex with her, and he misses it.
This is a story about a relationship. The fantasy element is secondary, although it is at the center of the relationship; still, the story would not have been all too different if the element were non-fantastic. The question "What will our relationship be without your power" is much the same as "What will our relationship be now that you are sick/old/poor." It is a complex thing, a relationship between two people who love each other, and this is what the author shows us.
Sometimes We Arrive Home by K. Bird Lincoln
A constantly morphing house travels through space, picking up refugee children on Earth, raising them, and delivering them to other worlds. Today it is Seri's Delivery Day.
A cool wind smelling of the floral grain teases her hair, soothing the tension in Seri's shoulders, until she stands, arms at her side, face tilted to the sun, her bare feet sinking into the soft soil. She wishes for rice wine to trickle into the dirt as an offering.
A short-short in which the only real interest is the prose.
Fantasy Magazine, February, 2009
Once again, this zine delivers the most imaginative and original selection of fantasy. It also reprints Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose".
Teaching a Pink Elephant to Ski by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
A gentle and absurdist satire on the trends of animal rights and pet overindulgence, written in e-epistolary mode. The pink refers to Deynara's coordinated ski togs.
I am taking my elephant to visit the Elephant Winter Resort in Austria, and am looking for advice on how to prepare for such a visit.
Deyanra is an enthusiastic calf of fourteen years, and I think she's at just the right age to learn how to ski. I've heard of indoor practice slopes built especially for elephants and elephant owners but haven't seen one in my neighbourhood.
This one is really rather charming, and I know I must repress my natural cranky inclination to mention the inverse-square law and its consequences for creatures so massive as elephants on skiis, because it's supposed to be absurd.
The Men Burned All the Boats by Patricia Russo
A dialogue. There has been no rain, and the island is dying. The chiefs burned all the boats so they could continue being chiefs, preparing defenses against nonexistent enemies.
Hopes are burdens. When our enemies come, the warriors will die first, then the other men, and then the children, and the women. Once we were free people, until the big men fought and killed each other to become chiefs. My grandmother remembered those times, though she was a small girl then. Now there are four free men, and the rest are slaves.
A scenario very much reminiscent of the scenes in Jared Diamond's Collapse and the history of Easter Island–
The Adventures of Petal, the Paperdoll Pirate by Paul Jessup
Painted wings and giant rings and paperdolls have to make way for other toys, but Petal the paperdoll is indomitable, determined to find the treasure, her creator, despite all obstacles.
They led her to a cell in the highest section of the temple. It had holes eaten into the side, overlooking the island in a giant honeycomb. Waiting in the cell was another paper doll like herself, her brown painted eyes staring out and across the island. Her cellmate was naked, the tabs on her shoulders awaiting the purpose of paper princess dresses and punched out too-short skirts.
A poignant look at the world of a child's imagination and its evolution, finally to be abandoned.
Lone Star Stories, #31, February 2009
In which the stories all take the guise of science fiction but two are something else.
Chandra's Game by Samantha Henderson
Chandra's Game roots in the side of a barren asteroid moon like a tick. Over the years we've burrowed deeper into rock and ice until poor Chandra is mostly Game. We loop the twin wormholes, Gehenna and Tartarus, roundabout in a figure eight, ready to catch the freighters as they escape from hell's dark maw. We strip them of goods and drink their heat, load them up and send them into another hell. It's a profitable game, Chandra's.
Sara was a feral kid in the warrens and smart enough to leave them and the world of the crime Families to become a legit sort of spy/informer/detective. Now the head of one of the Families calls in an old favor. He wants to find out how certain people are disappearing without a trace, in a closed system like Chandra.
This is pretty standard stuff, with sort of standard tough-girl crime argot livened by some nice wit. Entertaining, with a somewhat different twist on the mystery.
Eko and Narkiss by Jeremy Adam Smith
A Martian fable. In the post-Terran solar system, the colonists on Mars reverted to a primitive state, and sentient Jovian machines came to watch over them. One of these machines, Eko, fell in love with the beauty of a human boy, who is also in love with his beauty.
After their encounter Eko watched Narkiss more and more often. To Eko, Narkiss represented a kind of perfection that she had never before encountered among her clockwork kind; machines are designed and forged, but a human being like Narkiss is simply an accident, and thus un-reproducible, magical, precious. Her yearning slowly turned to a feeling that resembled love—
that, at least, is the emotion we anthropomorphically ascribe to Eko.
Interesting twist on the original. This author's previous work in this universe, "The Wreck of the Grampus," was long and complicated; this one is very short and simple. While both deal with the fascination of artificial minds for humankind, this one stands quite on its own.
The Human Plan by Jay Lake
The End of the World. Dog the Digger is not precisely a dog in the current sense of the dog plan, being sentient and immortal and such. The world is coming to an end, and as such is mostly its past, for which Dog digs.
Look around you. What do you see? Quiet place we've got. That line of hills over there is a linear city from the Vitalist Era. Bury it in a quarter million years of rain and three major eruptions due west of here, and there's nothing left but low hills covered with scrub. Until you go digging.
He has been commissioned to dig for Death, but this only leads to questions, for what is Death without life? Then what is life? Dog and some of his friends consider this question, and don't quite come up with a story but rather dig up some neat bits and pieces of speculation on these subjects. Neat enough to make this one
Abyss and Apex, First Quarter, 2009
It's been a while since I looked at this ezine. There seems to be a running theme of time and its uses in this issue.
After the Revolution by Pauline J. Alama
"The Equality Party's taken over; we've won the war. The Eugenic Society is finished. We're all human together now—
Eugens and Plebeians alike. Adult Eugens who won't assimilate will be sent to exile colonies off-planet. You kids will be sent to schools, warrens, or families around the globe to live like other children. Got that, Number One?"
Aurora was brought up a Eugen, bred to be part of the ruling class, but she has become a leader of the opposition, now victorious. She thinks her background will help assimilate one particularly arrogant child into the new order, but the task is not easy.
This is a fast-forward story, where the author rushes through a series of scenes until she gets to the point where she wants to stop and tell the story she wants to tell. Even so, there is a lot of background we still don't see, things important to Aurora's character development, like the lover she leaves behind. The use of a sidekick feeding her straight lines doesn't really make up for what's missing. What we have here is a much longer story, perhaps a novel, cut down to the point where its limbs and a number of vital organs have been hacked off in order to fit it into a short-story slot.
Letter Found In A Chest Belonging To The Marquis de Montseraille, Following The Death Of That Worthy Individual by Marie Brennan
The Marquis wanted a do-over of the most crucial event in his life and that of the woman he has always loved.
Please believe me when I say the events I have recounted to you are not simply a product of my fancy, a dream born of some unrequited longing. All that I have said did happen. I saw it, lived through it, from the delirious joy of our courtship and marriage to the soul-rending grief of your death.
A very short case for being careful what you wish for.
One Hand Washes the Other by Fraser Sherman
Ryan is one of those ambitious guys who want it all, get it all. Except for Annie, the woman he loves, the woman who broke up with him and now has cancer. Ryan would do anything for Annie, even make a deal with a witch who bears a close resemblance to the devil. But will he go through with the deal? And will Annie come back to him once she is cured?
This one is a bit of a surprise. First, because deal-with-the-devil stories are supposed to involve a trick and a twist. Second, because we begin by expecting to dislike Ryan as an ambitious bastard. In fact, what we get is the revelation of Ryan as a character through the decisions he is forced to make. Unfortunately, the story carries on beyond the natural point where it should stop, without adding anything more of importance. Instead, we get Explanations.
Incarnation in the Delta by Richard Foss
The Buddha and his twin brother Larry were both offered two wishes. Larry asked to remember every one of his incarnations and for mastery of the rebab. Or the banjo, or whatever is going at the time. This time, it's the banjo, down in the Deep South during Klan era. And this time, he meets the woman he wants to spend eternity with. But in this incarnation, Larry is the wrong color.
A Neat Idea. Larry's tales of his prior incarnations give the story charm. His favorite was his life as a hound dog.
"Most enjoyable life I can remember. What a body that was! I remember dashing through the forest chasing squirrels, the joy of just running as fast as I could through sunny fields. The excitement of digging out a gopher, the challenge of fighting a big fat raccoon over a dead deer. Nights spent howling at the moon with the guys. If I'd had hands so I could have played an instrument, life would have been complete."
It does seem like a waste of the gift, to spend so many lives unable to use it.
Murder by Karl Bunker
Earth is a deadly hellhole, but an alien race, for reasons of their own, has picked out certain talented individuals to transplant on different worlds. Harry Keaveny is a talented detective, and the aliens ["squirrels"] send for him to solve the human murders that seem to take place often enough to need his services on a regular basis.
When I found what I was looking for I stood staring at it for a bit, then I turned to the squirrel standing near me. "You have to leave now," I said. I was hoping he'd argue so I could get angry and yell and throw some furniture around, but he didn't.
The murder mystery is not the central element here, but rather the relationship between the humans and the aliens under these artificial circumstances.
East of Chula Vista by Samantha Henderson
The narrator's home is so close to the border, she is regularly visited by the ghosts of those who die on the desert, most of them illegal immigrants brought across by coyotes. For some reason, she is able to send them on.
It's quiet now but by morning time the ghost wind will come back, howling like La Llorona for her murdered children.
This one is listed in the ToC as Flash, a term I irrationally detest, but I doubt that it is shorter than the Brennan piece above. At any rate, in little more than a thousand words, Henderson sketches her scene in haunting detail, with a nice edge of vengeance.
Apex Magazine, February 2009
This monthly ezine bills itself as the place "Where Science Fiction and Horror Collide." Which, I suspect, they are not very likely to do in the normal course of events. However, it seems from this issue, at least, that the contents are fantasy. There is a great miscellany of stuff at the site, including audio files and T-shirts, but I will be looking as usual only at the original short fiction in print, of which there seem to be two offerings.
Dark Planet by Lavie Tidhar
Enigma. It seems that humanity has colonized another solar system with six fine hospitable planets. Or is it seven? There is a children's mnemonic about the planetary names:
Firefly is dead and cold
Monkey burns, Jaguar sleeps
Wolf and Dog circle
Elephant is home
Don't send me to Fly.
But everyone denies the last line. The humans on other planets deny that Fly exists and insist it is Evil. Chamberlain as a child kept thinking he heard someone talking about Fly, but everyone reacted in horror when he mentioned it. Then, as a young man in the military, he is sent on a mission to Fly, where there are strange deadly creatures they call Weirdies and Bombies and Gorps, except that the Gorps are aliens, just as the humans are. The Weirdies seem to be in charge. They decide that they need to adjust reality/time/perception and then there will be seven planets, just as there ought to be.
This is one of those pieces where some character explains what is going on in terms designed to leave readers just as confused as ever. Tidhar, who seems to have taken Jay Lake's place as Most Prolific Author, is doing a lot of these lately.
"What is this place?" he said.
"Source," the Weirdy said. "Fly inside Fly. You say–
"Fly in amber. Fly in Fly in amber."
"I have no idea what you just said."
The Weirdy seemed to shrug. "Matter no matter," it said. Chamberlain sighed.
So, I suspect, will the readers.
Cai and her Ten Thousand Husbands by Gord Sellar
The narrator's real name is not Cai. One day soldiers come and abduct all the girls in the village.
But I remember a dozen hands holding my body down, slapping my cheek as one soldier pushed his thing into me, then another, another. I remember that tearing feeling, as if I were about to break into two pieces. And filthiness. The slick of blood and sweat on my skin, and wanting to close my tired legs. Their voices howling strange, foreign words I'd heard before but couldn't understand, and the smell of their bodies, thumping against me, them breathing their reek in my face.
The soldiers later deliver the girls to some strange immortals called Peng-zu; cai is their word for "wife." The girls are likewise transformed into immortals, living hundreds of years in bodies barely adolescent, programmed as sex objects.
The story is clearly about the "comfort women" of Korea, abducted as sex slaves by the Japanese during WWII. The soldiers rape the girls in squalor, pain and degradation; with the Peng-zu it is luxury, pleasure and degradation. The soldiers believe that "washing their prick" inside an immortal woman will make them immortal as well–
I am not sure I credit the nature of Cai's pregnancy, and its significance is not clear, but otherwise this is a powerful indictment of a world in which women exist only to be used.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2009
The most satisfying pair of issues yet from this ezine. I could even call a couple of these pieces "literary."
Hangman by Erin Cashier
He stole a horse, upon a time,
They took him to a tree,
Hung a noose around his neck,
But later he got free.
Hangman can't we kill you?
Hangman can't you die?
He's trapped on earth just half alive,
Beneath the cloudy sky.
The Hangman declares he's not the Hangman anymore, but people still come to him for help. A boy comes for help because the Mayor is going to feed his mother to the train. The world is spreading out and the trains have escaped their tracks, and they're hungry.
This is a nice use of American folkways and traditions in a post-apocalyptic setting. Nothing says Americana like a train.
Kreisler's Automata by Matthew David Surridge
At a baroque and decadent Mitteleuropan court, Ernst is in lust with Olympia. His evil mirror-twin Theodore proposes that he ask her a question that will force her to succumb to his will. They go to Kreisler's automated fairground, where the Clockwork King answers all questions with the truth.
The strange man danced back a step, and bowed again, a deep ironic bow. "I am Johannes Kreisler, conductor and enabler of all you see around you. I know your names, for there is little within this realm that I do not know." He shot out his arms and black birds fluttered from his jacket; unliving automata. "All the devices of my kingdom provide my wisdom."
But it is the Clockwork King who actually controls the automata, and he sends his army out to conquer the city. Ernst can only think of finding Olympia, saving Olympia, but the danger to Olympia comes from Theodore, not the robots.
This is a richly imaginative setting with a dreamlike tone, edging into the surreal.
Silk and Shadow by Tony Pi
The tsardom was invaded by Hraken the Stormlord, and the tsarevich Dominin accepted the aid of the witch Anansya in order to prevail against him. But at the moment of his death, Hraken cursed him. Now the aging Anansya has her own plans to take over Dominin's body. She attempts to enthrall him with the power of a shadowplay, but Dominin fights back by summoning Hraken's soul to a complex five-way contest.
"There's unparalleled power in this ritual, to which we all have a claim." I directed their attention to my real body and the five full goblets before it. "These are the cups wrested from you and your lieutenants, Hraken. Five Dooms of the underworld, five water-curses. Shadow, Oblivion, Frost, Silence, and Madness. We can divert the ritual's power to imbue each cup with one of those dooms. We will take turns naming one of us to a curse until all five of us are bound. Then, with all five of us seizing control of my sword, we will topple the cups and let the curses spill forth."
Moody dark fantasy, grim and beautiful at the same time.
Preservation by Jonathan Wood
The narrator is a taxidermist whose mother belongs to a religion emphasizing death and rebirth. But to him, life represents a struggle between moving forward and the preservation of what exists. Then his mother dies.
Already, although I cannot yet perceive it, she begins to change. The subtle processes of decay, of destruction are setting in. Slowly her joints stiffen, her flesh tightens, whitens. The blood pools. And then will come the hint of green, at the extremities of her skin, the dark patches that cannot be bruises. The first hint of a foul odor. The muscle will erode. The skin will sag. Her eyes will become opaque silver. She will stink. The flies will appear. Maggots will crawl through her flesh. They will take her eyes, her nose, her ears. They will erode her features until she is nothing more than a shapeless lump of decaying flesh.
While the overall tone of this piece is dark humor, it touches on a genuine philosophical dispute about the nature of life and death.