A couple more good little zines announced this month that they would be closing: Lone Star Stories and Talebones. I have reviewed both regularly in this column. One was a printzine, one an ezine, but the publishers of both always took the trouble to send me either a review copy or a notice when a new issue was available; they did their best to get their zines into the hands of readers.
Predictably, the blogosphere reacted to this news with cries of doom, to which other voices reacted in turn with scoffery. But what I found most telling about all this discussion was the fact that, universally, the reactions I saw were decrying the demise of markets. Not venues where readers could go to find good stories, but places for writers to sell their fiction.
Fiction magazines should be about reading stories. They should exist for readers. Not writers. I don't believe that a magazine can thrive when its readership is comprised entirely of writers trying to be published in its pages. Yet it seems to me that this is increasingly the case in the field of SF short fiction. I think we are coming to the point where we will have no readers, only a circle of writers feeding on themselves.
If SF short fiction is dying, the reason lies in the fact that everyone seems to be mourning the loss of the markets, not the places where stories could be read.
If anyone out there is reading, my award for best fiction of the month of June goes to F&SF. Reviewed here for the first time: tor.com.
- F&SF, August-September 2009
- Asimov's, August 2009
- Analog, Spetember 2009
- Strange Horizons, June 2009 (Online)
- Fantasy Magazine, June 2009 (Online)
- Clarkesworld, June 2009 (Online)
- Lone Star Stories 33, June 2009 (Online)
- Jim Baen's Universe June 2009 (Online)
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2009 (Online)
- Zahir, Summer 2009 (Online)
- Tor.com, Summer 2009 (Online)
- The New Yorker April 20 2009 (Online)
F&SF, Aug-Sept. '09
F&SF, August-September 2009
Tales of dragons and human sacrifice in this superior issue, more fantasy than SF. Also necromancers.
The Art of the Dragon by Sean McMullen
Art history PhD Scott Carr is celebrating his new degree with a trip to Paris and is recording the Eiffel Tower when a two-mile long dragon appears and begins to consume it. It then moves on to the Louvre. As a witness to the event, Scott is debriefed by the authorities, and when he is the first to point out that the dragon is devouring the world's great art, he is elevated to the position of expert. After the military fails to destroy the dragon, the cultists take over and worship it, creating great bonfires of art in sacrifice. Then they move on to the artists.
Concentration camps, supposedly for the protection of artists, were established in the countryside near where the dragon lay dormant. Each of these had PROTECTIVE ENCLAVE FOR ARTISTS written prominently on every roof and above the gates. Nobody said as much, but this was clearly to encourage the dragon to have a country picnic rather than cause destruction in the cities, should it decide to go on the rampage again. Pictures of the camps and large maps were projected onto huge screens before its face, but it did not so much as twitch.
Here is a great premise, a great beginning, but there is a downward trajectory of interest as the characters are reduced to trading theories about the dragon, and the ending, frankly, disappoints.
A Token of a Better Age by Melinda M. Snodgrass
The birth of a legend. In Diocletian's empire, a dragon is ravaging Cyrenaica. But the dragon is in fact an Old One from a different universe, and the narrator, who is more than a military tribune, has come to eliminate the threat.
Out in the street the night was lit by waving torches and a full moon. I choked and coughed, but not from the smoke from the torches. The air reeked like burning oil and sulfur. The Old One flew across the face of the Moon so I got a very good look. It had way too many legs. I lost count at around thirty. It was also the size of the pleasure barge Iíd once sailed down the Nile. Each beat of those scaled wings sent gusts of the poisonous air washing through the streets of Apollonia.
If there is anything that will suck me into a story, it's Roman historical fantasy, although some might call this one SF. It is more than that, though, with a hint of Lovecraft as well as a maybe-angel posing as a slave, who invents Christianity in an attempt to wean humanity from violence and the worship of the Old Ones. We suspect this will not quite work out as intended. Neat skiffy revision of an old legend.
The Bones of Giants by Yoon Ha Lee
After the sorcerer conquered the Pit of death, the rimland became a country of ghouls and necromancers.
"I was reared by the undead," Tamim said. His mother, a woman with a brilliant smile and an aristocrat's long, slender hands, had given him into the care of a company of ghouls, reasoning that it would prepare him to survive in the rimlands and eventually take up her cause. But one by one his caretakers had fallen apart, rotting teeth and decaying eyes, a toe here and a loop of shriveled intestine there.
While attempting suicide, Tamin encounters a girl necromancer, Sakera, who solicits his help in overthrowing the sorcerer—
This is a wondrous and imaginative dark setting, and Sakera's method of necromancy is fascinating. One of the giant skeletons seems to be a dragon's.
The Others by Lawrence C. Connelly
In a previous story, the Gamma copy of Cara Prime has been stationed on an alien world learning about the native species and coming to admire them. But the sentient species she knows best is now threatened by invading predators. Cara has been injured in the course of defending her village and become disconnected from her control in orbit. Now additional Cara copies have been sent to deal with the crisis, but only one is planned to remain alive, the arrogant Epsilon. Cara finds herself resisting the idea of her expiration, convinced that Epsilon is the wrong person for the job.
The interesting aspect of the story is in the nature of the cybernetic copies—
Three Leaves of Aloe by Rand B Lee
Amit, despite her technical education, works for an American call center in Mumbai when she learns that her teenaged daughter has taken her company cellphone and been in another fight at school. The only option to expulsion is for Meera to have a nannychip implanted. But at home, her uncle's wife Gloria tells her the secret that she was once fitted with a nannychip and reveals the appalling consequences.
This story is ostensibly about the necessity of feeling, but what comes through more strongly is a sense of living on the financial edge. Amit takes Meera to see the teeming slums where her dead husband once lived, so the girl can understand where her behavior might lead her.
They are not dead, child. They are resting, those who are not sewing garments all night for less income than the beggar outside our sweetshop makes in three hours. One and a half million persons living in a reclaimed mangrove swamp. No sewage treatment facilities. Uncertain electricity. Water of such poor quality that one considers oneself fortunate merely to contract dysentery from it.
Unfortunately, this comes across as derivative of Slumdog Millionaire, so that the story seems unoriginal.
The Private Eye by Albert E. Cowdrey
JJ's hometown of Bougalou, Louisiana, was once the obscurest of hamlets—
so quiet that when he was six, and the first stoplight appeared at the intersection of Main Street and Huey Long Avenue, he'd sit on the curb all day to watch the colors change. But then on- and off-ramps were built to nearby Interstate 12, truck stops appeared on both Main and Huey, and the air brakes and shifting gears of the big rigs hissed and gnashed at all hours.
In the usual way of progress, the Shore-Win Casino opened, where JJ first learned that he had ESP, prospering until he was banned for card-counting. His prospects seem blighted until Sarah Rapp, the twelve-year-old daughter of the town banker, is kidnapped and the Sheriff figures that the local psychic might lead him to her. Which, to JJ's surprise, he does. But that is not the end of the matter.
I tend to have a mixed reaction to Cowdrey stories, but I am generally pretty happy with the ghost and detective tales set in southern Louisiana. Here readers will find the usual sort of colorful narrative and eccentric local characters, carried by a plot serviceable for the purpose. Entertaining stuff. No obvious dragons, but Sarah could be considered a virgin sacrifice.
Esoteric City by Bruce Sterling
A Dantean journey to the Turinese section of Hell. Achille Occhieti is an automotive engineer become executive through the workings of necromancy. But tonight it's time to pay the price, and here is his spirit guide, the mummified Egyptian engineer Djoser, with a summons from the damned. It seems just about everyone is in hell for one reason or another, but the current fashion in sin seems to be industrialization.
Clearly, modern Italian engineers had been hard at work here in Hell. The casings of Hell's rugged tunnel, which closely resembled the Frejus tunnel drilled through the Alps to France, had been furnished with a tastefully minimal spiral staircase made of glass, blond hardwood, and aircraft aluminum...Glossy signs urged the abandonment of all hope in fourteen official European Union languages.
Sterling has been making fine use of his European settings, and Turin is full of wonderful esoteric material, ancient and modern. The prose makes this one a delight to read. But especially after Occhieti returns from hell, the characters prefer to talk rather than act, and Djoser in particular waxes dolefully verbose on the subject of damnation. Matters that were once black and white become muddled and ambiguous, and when it comes time for the ultimate choice, I suspect that the response might be the answer Djoser has for the sphinx: "That doesn't matter anymore."
You are Such a One by Nancy Springer
A menopausal woman about whom no one cares finds herself driving past the house she has visited every night in a dream. She stops. She knows the house is hers, that this is where her real life is, the only place where she is not a ghost.
Lying atop a linty chenille bedspread, you eye your cell phone, which remains silent. Your husband has not called. You will not call him. Many times he has made it clear that he does not want to hear about your "damn stupid dream." He will not care whether you are a ghost or not.
Told in the second person, a moving tale of loneliness.
The Hunchster by Matthew Hughes
A contemporary tale of sorts. The narrator is one of a group of card-players, losers from a loser town, where businesses briefly take root, offer the hope of jobs, then blow away. It is currently a for-profit prison that provides them all a living, except for one young man with "intuitive" mental gifts that make him mildly disabled.
Ask the kid what he was doing down there all day, you'd get an answer. Not that it made a whole lot of sense. He had some theory involving string. He was interested in "where new treenos went" and how they got there. "Temporary recapture," I thought he said once.
A depressingly true portrayal of human nature.
Icarus Saved from the Skies "Icare sauvé des cieux" by Georges-Oliver Châteaureynaud, trans Edward Gauvin
The narrator becomes embarrassed and withdrawn when he begins to grow wings, but his wife finds them sexually attractive; she harbors unrealistic dreams of his one day taking flight.
Quite short, almost a vignette about a seemingly-dysfunctional relationship.
The Goddamned Tooth Fairy by Tina Kuzminski
This classic reprint is a heartwarming story of two people who have to decide whether to place a bet that they can have a future together. A little supernatural advice makes the difference.
Snowfall by Jessie Thompson
An abused young girl escapes into a snowy dreamworld of foxes. Why foxes? Perhaps this one seemed more original when it was first printed.
Asimov's, August, '09
Asimov's, August 2009
A lot of familiar futures.
The Qualia Engine by Damien Broderick
It seems that some time during the Cold War, someone did some experimenting with human genes and produced the small group of Atom Kids. Saul is part of the next generation, bonded to his age-mates as they all move towards adulthood in different directions. Saul is at first contemptuous of non-superior humans, but life teaches him several lessons as he becomes an adult. His experimental machine is meant to capture the mind's qualia, the elementary particles of emotion, of feelings. It is not quite clear, even to him, why he is compelled to do this, but the results demonstrate that the essentially human elements of the mind do not reside in the cerebral cortex.
Broderick helpfully supplies his own critique.
My predicament is that I don't really know whom I'm writing this for. Is it my peers—
hi Janey, Marius, Mom, Dad, you other Homines novissimi? Not for Maxine, long gone, nor for Andrea, sad-eyed lady. To the memory of Ruthie? Not really. I'm hardly the group's archivist. Perhaps for some later generation who wasn't here and now? I suppose, eventually. As an explanation, an Apologia pro vita sua, to H. sapiens readers, sometime soon, or maybe not for years? I guess that's the audience I've had in the back of my mind all along.
The story is, as the narrator admits, fragmented. I also doubt that the Atom Kids were in fact the beginning of a new species, for it is clear from the text that they can not breed true.
California Burning by Michael Blumlein
The narrator's father is sent to the crematorium, but his bones refuse to burn. His mother doesn't want a burial, and the narrator ends up with the bones in a box under his kitchen sink. A pair of strange men show up at his door, pretending to be health inspectors or federal agents, insisting on seeing the bones. Until the narrator begins to believe that his father may not have been quite entirely human and wonders how well he had known this man, his father.
The bones were a perfect example of his stubbornness: their resistance to being burned really shouldnít have surprised me at all. When Dad didn't want to do something, he wouldn't do it. The more you tried to get him to, the harder he'd dig in. If he does have a spirit, it's a good bet that it resides in this: the hard-headed, infuriating, refusal-to-budge persistence of his damn bones.
The author adds symbolic depth to the story by setting it in the middle of the California wildfire season, where ashes drift across the landscape. The prolonged exchanges with the mysterious visitors threaten at times to reduce the scene to farce, but at its heart it is a sincere examination of human relationships and what we mean to each other, no matter where we come from.
Creatures of Well-Defined Habits by Robert Reed
We know this is not our own world when the narrator informs us that the Old are all quite wealthy. Hogan was one of the Old, well over five hundred years old when he was killed in a freak accident. Hogan has now returned to his old habits in the form of a machine holding his memories, but everyone knows it is not the real Hogan.
But the new Hogan insisted on pretending that nothing had changed. He was the same, in essence. His stories were the same. And even when his audience shrank to the odd souls and a few wary faces, he continued to arrive and hold court and then leave again, riding his rebuilt bicycle as often as before, never betraying even a shred of well-earned fear.
The narrator decides that Hogan needs some new stories and that he, himself, had fallen into a rut of old habits.
The narrator refers to a Change but, unlike lesser writers, says nothing more about it. Yet we learn that the narrator is a multispecies chimera, as many of this word's inhabitants seem to be, and, while not Old, of sufficient means to be able to spend years and an unknown sum of money engaged in what must be described as a practical joke to benefit a man he admits he wasn't as close to as he had imagined. This is Change indeed, but Reed's attention remains focused on his story, which is about the ties of friendship as well as the necessity of change.
Blue by Derek Zumsteg
Hard SF. Sigurd and Rivka are the quarreling survivors of an ill-fated mission to observe the black hole Sinca-177.
"Black holes are supposed to be black," Sigurd told the void of unwinking stars, watching the indistinct Sinca-177. He shook his head and stood, feet latched to the ship keeping him in place. Every breath rebounded paprika, cumin, and oregano back to him. "I'm going to die in a blue hole."
They now have to figure out how to escape the event horizon before they are either cooked by radiation or crushed by gravity; this may involve jettisoning the ship's module where the remains of their dead are stored. In the meantime, they get on each other's nerves.
The author has fun with the head games, although it can get a bit irritating to watch a couple of people being irritating all the time. The author also cheats by clearly implying at the beginning that Bruce is still alive and discussing things with Sigurd, when he tells us only towards the end that Bruce and all the rest are dead, although we have long since figured this out.
The Consciousness Problem by Mary Robinette Kowal
Clones. You might suspect there's a problem with your work when you have to move the project to a country known for its lax ethics rules. TruClone had already perfected the bodily duplication and is now near success with the memory transfer. But Elise has recently had an accident and her mental recovery from the concussion is slow. Sometimes she thinks that she died in the accident and her husband Myung had her cloned, imperfectly. But now Myung reports complete success in cloning himself and wants Elise to test whether she can tell the two apart.
This is a poignant and sensitive look at problems of identity and relationships, as well as scientific ethics. Elise's mental lapses are particularly well done. The characters have clearly not thought through the implications of their project.
Myung loved her the same as before—
what had changed was that now there was a version of him that missed her all the time. Elise stretched under the covers and the cotton caressed her body like a lover. "I am the forbidden fruit."
Two Boys by Steven Popkes
Neanderthals move into town. Alice goes nosing around to meet them. They are different in more than the obvious ways. They tend to work as negotiators and mediators.
"Countries love us—
we have no allegiances. We have no historical axe to grind with any one group. And we donít have a human point of view. We can come into a situation absolutely clean— better than the Red Cross or the United Nations, since we canít be accused of being a tool of the constituent country."
This is told from alternating points of view—
Turbulence by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A frequent-flying businessman rediscovers the fear of flying. An effective demonstration that peace of mind is fragile and easily destroyed.
Analog, Spetember, '09
Analog, September 2009
The conclusion to the serial takes up much of the fiction space, but the pair of novelettes offer material of interest.
Evergreen by Shane Tourtellotte
Andrew Crawford was frozen by his parents into a child's body, which leads to complications as he tries to live the life of the adult he is. He becomes somewhat of an activist for frozen people. He meets a frozen woman with more positive views on the subject; their relationship encounters some bumps.
"Being half a man for twice as long is no bargain to me. I guess you're different."
"I guess I am. A longer life, a youthful body, an agile brain: I think those things compensate, but you turn your back on them for nothing."
"Because I never had a choice. Because this was imposed on me before I was born, and for all time, no matter what I might want. If I resent that, thatís my right."
The plot here is very low-key, mostly involving Andrew's relationship with Alice but also in his workplace and with his friends and with himself. In essence, we are shown what kind of life such a person in a state of perpetual physical childhood would lead. This scenario seems familiar, but I have a hard time figuring why anyone would think it could be a good idea, despite the various excuses given by the parents.
The Last Resort by Alec Nevala-Lee
Helki is a naturalist who has become resigned to working for the environment within the system. She has been called to investigate an unusual sighting of snakes near a crater lake scheduled for development into a resort, and on her way she encounters a group she suspects might be involved in ecoterrorism, attempting to disrupt the development. The consequences are far more than anyone could have expected, leaving Helki to reassess her own position.
His words reminded her of what had brought him here in the first place. Russell was a fanatic, perhaps even dangerous, but he lay at the far end of a continuum that included Helki herself. She could reject his methods, but not his cause, especially when the alternative was a virtuous sense of helplessness.
This one starts out with too much lecture from the environmental activists, but it develops into a scientific mystery—
From the Ground Up by Marie DesJardin
When Carrie was a child, she saw a spaceship crash on her aunt's farm, but the entire impact crater was no larger than a basketball. She told no one then, though the incident inspired her to become an astronaut. But now NASA has made new cuts, and Carrie needs to return to the site of her original inspiration, to see if she was wrong.
A short piece with somewhat childlike magical thinking. There really is no reason to restart NASA just because mini-aliens are flying around.
Attitude Adjustment by Eric James Stone
Someone has sabotaged the lunar tourist ship, and pilot and passengers try to brainstorm a way to adjust the vessel's attitude so it doesn't crash into the surface.
"What if we all got on one side of the ship, made it unbalanced, and then you turned the main engine on?" said Maddy. "Wouldn't that make it curve around?"
Another short problem-solving piece with a tone rather too much like a Heinlein juvenile.
Strange Horizons, June 2009
Somewhat of a return to fantasy in this month's offerings.
A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, as Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc -or- A Lullaby by Helen Keeble
The professor writes in his journal that has successfully captured a living mermaid, along with her eggs.
Quick as a cat with a goldfish, we snapped her up with the catch-nets, and though she thrashed like a net-full of herring, the brave seamen managed to wrestle her under my direction down to the hold and into the waiting specimen jar.
But the professor has mistaken the true nature of his captive, and vengeful merpeople are pursuing the Ocelot.
The contrast of the two voices—
Second-Hand Information by Jennifer Linnaea
With his parents, Aaron moves to the world Anim, where all the natural objects are animate. He makes friends with the boulder in his back yard, but one day he finds that the boulder has "gone in".
But one day, a few months later, I go out and the rock is silent. I can't hear it, clear as anything, in my head anymore. For days I beg and yell and make promises, trying to get it to speak to me. The rock is mute. Like an Earth rock, dumb and silent.
The native people of Anim also go in, which disturbs Earth children who can no longer play with their friends, even though the seemingly-catatonic condition is temporary. But people from Earth, like Aaron, will never understand what it is.
A short glimpse at the alien. I like the Anim distinctions in information: first-hand, second-hand, etc.
Another End of the Empire by Tim Pratt
The Dark Lord Mogrash receives a prophecy:
"A child dwells in the village of Misery Chin, in the mountain provinces to the east. If allowed to grow to manhood, he will take over your empire, overthrow your ways and means, and send you from the halls of your palace forever."
But Mogrash isn't his daddy's style of Dark Lord. Instead of slaughtering the innocents, he subverts them and alters the sense if not the terms of the prophecy.
Rather gentle satire, amusingly told.
Fantasy Magazine, June 2009
Timepiece by Gay Partington Terry
The household clock is succumbing to malfunction, and the denizens of the house fear that the warping of time will sever them from the outside world. Then the dogs chew off the clock's hands.
Thinking back, there had been signs of impending canine betrayal. They'd taken their position weeks before the event. Daily, they lazed at the foot of the clock with looks of boredom and innocence, quietly observing our movements.
A very short and slightly surreal metaphor of time and its keepers, not particularly original. I am not sure how the clock can be said to be "covetous" of a role it already possesses.
People of Leaf and Branch by Jay Lake
The woodkin are a dying people. Originally born of the trees, they had lived for generations on the wall of the stone city, but now the ancestors outnumber the living.
The ancestor's faces were long gone to slick and sticky leather. Their eyes were sewn shut with thread twisted from the tendons and guts of shrikes. Their mouths were stuffed with the remains of dried fruits and tiny taelsaem scrolls of wisdom both earthly and otherworldly. Each ancestor had a copper plate of pale soil and a wooden plate of tiny stones before them. She had no joss sticks to burn, no feathers to offer, so Maribel could only offer her own small efforts and a wide-armed bow.
Maribel considers it her duty to visit the ancestors in the deserted houses and to keep up the old ways, shunning the attractions of the stone city below. But she isn't expecting the first mother of Shrike House to decide to come back to life.
While readers may recognize the setting of this tale, it is quite self-contained, and the woodkin are an original creation, less human than they seem to appear. At the conclusion, it occurred to me that Maribel could have taken many other ways of embodying the first mother, most of them more straightforward and sensible. But they might not have taken her down to the city streets.
Superhero Girl by Jessica Lee
The narrator is dating a superhero. This creates complications.
She received her mission briefings in birdsong, in radio static, encoded in every third word backwards from a breaking news bulletin on the televisions in a specific store window. She saw battle plans drawn out for her in cloud patterns, coffee cup rings, the movement of players on a soccer field. During these moments she would stand frozen in mid-motion, her head cocked to the side, listening intently. Then she would drop—
literally drop— whatever she was doing and dash away, calling apologies over her shoulder.
The narrator keeps Ofelia's secret. When her friends offer different excuses for her behavior, he believes they are trying to hide the truth about her. The narrator has faith.
Ambiguous fantasy. The author is deliberately playing with reader disbelief.
Woman in Abaya with Onion by Ruth Nestvold
Haley is a grad student doing research for her dissertation in Egypt, where she falls for an Egyptian tour guide whose mother does not approve of her son's inappropriate infatuation. And who also seems to be a bit of a witch, since she afflicts Haley with visions into the past where women are murdered for violating local customs. While the primary point of view is Haley's, we get regular snippets from the mother, in which she expresses platitudes that are supposed to be profound.
My son tells me she studies the old way of writing, the hieroglyphs, that she can read the lives of those who are long dead in this valley. His voice is full of life when he says this, his eyes glow and his hands move more quickly. He thinks that means she understands us, understands him, can share more with him than a woman who wears the veil. He does not see that the symbols and their language are there to hide behind, not to reveal.
This one seems to do little else than inject snippets of history into the common cliché about Arab men and western women. Haley seems unrealistically naive, not to be aware of this cliché and wary about such contacts, while Ahmed's behavior is unrealistically free from the restrictions of local customs, even for a westernized student. I can not understand why the snippets from the mother's point of view are partly in italics and partly not.
Clarkesworld 33, June, '09
Clarkesworld, June 2009
I miss the exciting experimental fiction that this site used to offer. Not much to be excited about here.
Walking with a Ghost by Nick Mamatas
He recorded almost everything he did or thought in his letters, after all, and we have nearly all of them. What ice cream he liked, how it felt to catch the last train out of South Station how he saw the colors scarlet and purple when he thought the word evil.
Her first interactions with the AI seem to go well, but when she makes her public presentation of Lovecraft to her professors and a group of fans, his image disappears from the screen and the AI from her control.
The reader is being asked to accept quite a lot, and accept it on faith. The technology of creating AIs may be commonplace in this world, but this ought to mean that the problem of keeping them from escaping into the wild have also been addressed. It isn't clear why the Lovecraft AI, who had been reportedly adjusting well to its/his new existence, suddenly freaked out at the public presentation.
The Giving Heart by Corie Ralston
The latest fad is cutting out your heart and presenting it to your lover on your wedding day. Coleman knows that Sandra wants to get married. But the price is almost more than he can pay.
A metaphor taking on a life of its own. The premise is creepy and original, but the rest of the story all too predictable.
Lone Star Stories 33, June 2009
Alas, it seems #33 will be the last issue of this bimonthly ezine. It ends on a nice note with this selection of parables from a group of familiar names.
Parable Lost by Jo Walton
On the beach, a man finds jellyfish washed ashore and throws them back into the sea. A woman sees him doing this and considers whether she ought to help, but overthinks the situation a bit.
What do you know about the lifecycle of jellyfish anyway? How do you know what helps them, really? Maybe they're trying to crawl up onto the land to evolve. What if someone had helpfully kept throwing the lungfish back in?
This is one of those things that can be called a fiction but not a story. The real point of view is the narrator's, who admits she has more questions than answers, which are left as an exercise for the reader. Very short, as these things ought to be.
Pranks by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
A Halloween story. A trickster spirit takes the form of a child to make mischief on the night of trick-or-treat.
Jack, the name the flame child had decided to call himself, moved up a step and gestured toward the witch. He set her tall pointed hat on fire. "Trick," he said.
This begins as if it might be no more than a scary kid story, but it eventually becomes apparent that it is something more malevolent than just a few tricks, and that things aren't going to turn out just fine at the end. Hoffman is in total control here, taking readers right to the edge of something that isn't quite evil but certainly harmful.
The Parable of the Shower by Leah Bobet
An inconveniently-timed angelic visitation.
Thou sayest unto the angel: I am in the shower.
The angel saith: I care not.
Thou sayest: I am naked.
The angel saith: Nakedness is nothing before a servant of the LORD.
Well it is something to man, thou repliest, and place thy loofah before thy shame.
The angel wants the narrator to bear a miraculous child, but the narrator stands on her free will and demands to speak to his superior.
This is cute and clever and a fun read, and the thous are clever at first, but I found them a little bit wearying as they went on.
Baen's Universe, June, '09
Jim Baen's Universe June 2009
A reminder to readers that there is more fiction available at this site than I review in this column, which is exclusively the original short fiction, not reprints or serialized longer works. The stories in this issue tend to be on the shorter side than usual.
Gorilla My Dreams by David Brin
Ostensibly an Uplift story; in fact, self-mockery by the author. This kind of thing really annoys me. Is it too much to suppose that something pretending to be an Uplift story might actually be an Uplift story, instead of an excuse for lame jokes, egregiously bad writing and puns? Readers expecting (hoping for?) the real thing are only going to find themselves jerked around, although the title clearly gives away the fact that no one could be expected to take this piece seriously. The author fortunately provides his own meta-condemnation:
"There are so many notorious self-indulgences. Each author could be tried, convicted, and sentenced for countless of them. It is, I am afraid, a very immature profession."
Leopard by Jay Lake
On what seems to be an artificial microworld, someone must take the role of a were-leopard in order that the people can know fear. Mattie has now been chosen to wear the leopard mask and skin, but he hates the killer that now shares his life and wants to destroy it.
The hunter must know the hunted, Leopard told him. The killer grieves for his prey.
This story is fairly short, leaving readers intrigued about what sort of seemingly-improbable world this is and how it came to be, as well as wondering about the outcome of Mattie's rebellion.
The Resident by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
The house at 94 Twining Lane is reputed to be haunted, and certain real estate agents have considered that the only way to sell the property would be to burn down the structure. Ian Werther considers an unsaleable house to be a challenge, but then he discovers that the house is not haunted—
At his feet was a human skull, but not merely a human skull. Issuing from its mouth and fanning out onto the walk was something that looked like a cross between a starfish and a giant sea bass with an impossible set of crocodile teeth arranged within its broad, flat mouth. A mouth quite capable of snapping his foot off at the ankle, Ian would have said.
Amusing short piece.
In the Halls of the Sky-Palace by Nancy Fulda
The Sky-King has defeated all his enemies, including death. His most treasured acquisition is his troupe of dancers, all women taken as trophies in the course of his many wars. But now the heartfires of the dancers are being extinguished, one by one, and only Aesva seems to realize that her mother and the others are dead.
The Sky-King straightened in his chair. He seemed to Aesva to be two men locked within the same body. One was old and weary, with eyes lined by too many duties, scarcely able to look farther than his dancers and the triumphs they represented. The other was… vibrant, but disoriented, like a man reaching for a reflection and distressed by his inability to grasp it.
The situation facing Aesva is an interesting one, but she finds the solution much too easily.
Adam, Unwilling by Gary Kloster
Amar comes back to life knowing he has just been murdered. He is part of the crew of a sublight starship on an interstellar voyage, where everyone is integrated into a virtual reality system. The entire crew is bored, and cliques and factions have become divisive. A crewmember named Morgan has been diverting system resources for a project of his own, and Amar has been asked to investigate. Morgan strikes first, but Amar has secrets of his own.
In his trembling hand, the protocol chip gleamed. The crucial link between their anarchic brain simulations and the orderly system, it was custom hardware that had to be created for each individual mind, irreplaceable out here.
While this one gets off to a sort of slow start in the extended flashback, it turns into a tense and drastic confrontation with a man revealed as a dangerous psychotic, willing to sabotage the entire ship to advance his megalomaniac scheme.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2009
Again, most of the stories are dark in tone, and they all involve combat of some sort.
Wolf's Clothing by Renee Stern
Garold is a Finder on the trail of his dead cousin Terrel. But Garold is more than a Finder, and so was Terrel; their clan is shapeshifters, werewolves. And Terrel in dying has left a dangerous legacy that it is Garold's responsibility to confront.
I slid back into man-shape half-asleep, chasing a dream of Terrel where we ran and wrestled together under the round moon as we did as boys. We shifted together in the dream, and my last sight before I tensed awake was his face, lips mouthing words of apology and gratitude.
It is a measure of the author's skill that a flock of were-sheep is genuinely menacing, rather than ludicrous. There is nothing twee in this setting; every character is deadly purposeful, with survival at stake.
Thistles and Barley by Kamila Zeman Miller
The war is over. Erylis was a female warrior, a commoner, a troublemaker, an affront to respectable women. Merald was a knight who fought alongside Erylis and fell in love with her. Now they work together on Erylis's farm, where Merald is content, but Erylis is restless.
I want to talk to my comrades in arms. I felt like I belonged among the soldiers, as much as Iíve ever felt I belong anywhere. Are they restless in peacetime like me?
But her yearning to travel again risks the bond she has made with Merald.
This is an ever-after story, after the heroes return home and life goes on. It is also the story of a relationship, a marriage between two people of different classes and backgrounds. While Miller spends some time looking back at the war and its politics, her primary focus is where it ought to be, on two people who have to decide what their lives together will be from now on.
Mansion of Bones by Richard Parks
The two ghosts appeared with the rising of the moon. At first they were nothing but mist, each hovering over the pile of stones on either side of the path that marked where the gate towers of the Fujiwara compound had once stood. Large sections of crumbling wall remained, but the gate itself had long since fallen.
Thus begins this tale of the medieval Japanese detective Lord Yamada, who has been sent by a descendant of the Fugiwaras to retrieve a relic from the ruins, which have for over a century been guarded by the vengeful ghosts. But there is a also demon guarding the object and a village full of bandits, descendants of those who had originally destroyed the mansion, very interested in the treasure.
Previous stories in this series have appeared in different venues, most often Realms of Fantasy, but while there are hints of backstory in the text, this one stands well alone. A dark tone of melancholy hovers over the scene, making it a perfect setting for a ghost story. One of the stronger tales in this series.
Havoc by A.C. Smart and Quinn Braver
Marcoen the bard has lived through interesting times. He rode with the heroes who tore down the Adamanatť empire, but that campaign is successfully over. Marcoen goes where the stories are, and the stories are now about the guerilla leader called Havoc, whose daring raids across the border are the stuff of legend. But Marcoen is under a curse particularly bitter to a bard:
The gods spoke to me once, long ago. "Only your silence can preserve whom you most wish to apotheosize," they told me. In the brashness of youth, I discounted the geas. Then The General fell, and for five years I sang only of the dead.
If Marcoen sings about Havoc, it could destroy him, but what is a bard if he can't sing of heroes?
There is too much stuff crammed into this one, and a cast of too many—
Zahir, Summer, 2009
Zahir #19 Summer 2009
Some nicely-told stories in this small printzine.
Brace by Deirdre Coyle
A brace of very different young women go to a rock concert with high expectations, in alternating chapters. Audrey is dreamy and vaguely impractical, with notions of magic.
I felt sure that everyone could see the sparkling inside of me, the stars I stuck in my skin on the drive over. I could feel those lights flickering in my veins;
Becka has adopted the persona of a tough bitch, contemptuous of Audrey while feeling responsible for her. Audrey leaves the concert and encounters a young man who claims that he can see her stars, who casts a spell over her, which isn't hard in Audrey's case.
The title is gratuitous wordplay; Audrey is wearing an impractical corset, which she calls a "brace of bows." The notion of the story seems to be the contrast between the two girls, but Audrey is too passive to be credible and Becka, while realistic, isn't an attractive or interesting character.
The Cowboy's Wife by Cassandra Clarke
A young man goes to Mexico and brings home a bride, but he has wearied of life in his dying town so he has left for work on a distant ranch, from which he sends back money to support her and their son. She does her best to raise the boy on her inadequate allowance, but one month the envelope does not come.
This is a hauntingly affecting tale. Maria epitomizes quiet desperation.
Maria sits at her place, watching Felix slurp the soup from his spoon, greedily, and it occurs to her that he is hungry; not hungry the way she would be hungry sometimes back in Mexico, when she skipped breakfast after sleeping in, but genuinely hungry, muriendo de hambre, dying of hunger.
Here again we have alternating viewpoints, but this time the characters are fully-formed and alive, even the cowboy, whom we know only in the second person, as he slips unthinkingly into desertion. Unfortunately, the author has chosen to announce the story's ending in the middle of it, a choice I consider unwise.
The Longest Hallway by Barbara A. Smith
The narrator has moved after a broken relationship into the city's narrowest apartment, from which he communicates with the world by notes that he passes in a bucket to the workmen on the roof, otherwise doing nothing but look out the window, imagining himself in the role of an immured princess.
A surreal, not fantastic look at a person grown out of touch with humanity, trying to find his way back. The prose is quite enjoyable:
How could these burly, booted men answer these questions? They are men of structure and industry. They have chosen a path that leads them away from frilly inquiries and towards the firm and tactile world of nails and bricks and bevels.
The Indian and the Fortune Teller by Richard Thieme
Bobby Jakus gets messages from aliens. He has been chosen by them, bred by them to be their messenger and tool. Bobby willingly accepts this role, but while the aliens make big promises, the payoff seems long in coming.
This is the sort of ambiguous fantasy in which we are given the option of believing in the character's illusions or declaring him insane. The author hints strongly at this possibility in the first sentence, but I think it is likely that the aliens are just stringing Bobby along, for his own good.
Darwin's Butterfly by R.I.Sutton
A man comes to terms with the tragedy of his youth when the family estate burns down; after his mother died, he was sent away to school. Now he comes to visit the ruins, bringing his young granddaughter for reasons he will not admit to himself.
He felt immeasurably tired, like a stronghold that had been under siege for far too long. He wished to surrender, to throw wide his gates and lower the drawbridge, but to what, or whom, he did not know.
A portrait of grief and denial, not really fantastic despite the concluding hints of a miracle.
Fataway by B Robert Corporal
Bobby Train (who is referred to throughout the text by his entire name, which gets kind of old) is a grifter who comes up with an inspired scam: Fataway Soap. He and his shady lawyer market the bogus product and meet with unexpected success for an unexpected reason.
Tor.com June 2009
The editor of this venue has brought it to our attention. There may be more recent stories somewhere on the site, but their presence is not obvious to me as the stories are indexed by author and title, but not by posting date.
The City Quiet as Death by Stephen Utley and Michael Bishop
Don Horacio Garrión has, during the course of his life, become increasingly reclusive and agoraphobic. He hides inside his house to escape the incessant noise from the stars, which torments him. When he half-jokingly asks his housekeeper to kill him and put him out of his misery, she is alarmed and calls in his friends the doctor and priest, whose professional services he rejects. But she also offers him a spherical locket, an heirloom from her dead husband, in which a fifteen-foot giant squid has somehow been compressed. Adelaida sees the locket as representing the magnitude of God's love for his creation, but her gift is ill-chosen, as Don Horacio's particular phobia embraces the vast and indifferent sea. He now feels the squid reacting to the signals from the stars.
It would boil in the drops of sea water in its diminutive amniotic sac, that is, the locket, until it burst from its prison, its eight arms and two tentacles inflating like slender balloons, filling all the space around him with murderous appendages, a Lovecraftian horror in his own house, bereft of the sea and thus instinctually enraged and venomous.
An ambiguous fantasy in the tone of magic realism. Don Horacio is a strikingly pathological character who can only find solace in literature, well-chosen for the insights it offers the reader. There is no question that he is insane; the question is whether the star-noise has in fact driven him to this condition. Imaginative and well-crafted.
(Illustration by Jon Foster)
The House that George Built by Harry Turtledove
Alternate history. On the eve of WWII, H.L. Mencken strolls down to a nearby tap, where the barkeep laments his near-miss at baseball greatness. This is a really interesting premise, given Mencken's particular elitist theories, reflected in the quotation:
There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the imaginations of poets. The one sound test of a Milton is that he functions as a Milton.
The New Yorker, April 20, 2009
A belated look at this story from a couple of months ago.
A Tiny Feast by Christ Adrian
To end one of their quarrels, Oberon brought Titania the gift of a human changeling, which she raised and spoiled and learned to love in her own way. But the boy is mortal and susceptible to the mortal disease leukemia, which only mortal medicine can address. So Titania and Oberon find themselves learning about hospitals and chemotherapy and its consequences. The drugs make the boy hungry, but he can't eat.
Titania sighed, wanting to run from the boy and his anxious, unhappy hunger, which had seemed to her, as the day dragged on, to represent, and then to become, a hunger for something besides food. He didn't want food. He wanted to be well, to run on the hill in the starlight, to ride on the paths in the park in a cart pulled by six raccoons. He wanted to spend a day not immersed in hope and hopelessness.
It is often said that the fay have no souls. What this story suggests is that beings of immortality and quasi-omnipotence would necessarily have a different sort of morality. Or, conversely, that human morality is necessarily that of mortals. Love, too, must be a different thing when its object is so transitory as a mortal life. Yet this does not mean it couldn't be, in its own way, real.