Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

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

Copy Editors

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

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

September, 2009 : Review:

Short Fiction, September 2009

Another one bites the dust. With this month's issue, the editors of Jim Baen's Universe have announced that the ezine will cease publication after the April 2010 issue.

This is an unhappy development. While I do not believe that this publication lived up to the promise of its first issues, it posted some good fiction along the way, such as Pat Cadigan's recent The Mudlark. It successfully obliterated the 5000 word ezine ceiling and proved that, yes, entire novellas can be published online. In quantity, at least, JBU was a good value. It offered a lot of fiction in every issue—always a lot more than I reviewed in this column, which omitted the serialized novels and reprints.

Of course, it makes sense that JBU would have wanted to please its reader base rather than some random reviewer. And the zine did have an actual reader base.

In announcing the closing, editor Eric Flint stated that "we were simply never able to get and retain enough subscribers to put us on a sales plateau that would allow us to continue publishing." What I find interesting is that the zine did begin with a subscriber base in the members of the Universe Club—a base comprised of readers and fans of the publisher. And according to Flint's editorial, this base accounted for only half the zine's income.

I can't help thinking that quite a few zines would have been very happy with this level of paid readership. Of course, JBU's costs must have been higher than the typical ezine, given the sheer volume of words published and the high rate at which they were paid. But it's rather discouraging to discover that even a venture with such a built-in readership base still cannot realize sufficient sales to continue.

Fiction prize for the month goes to Asimov's.

Zines Reviewed

F&SF

F&SF, Oct-Nov '09

F&SF, October-November 2009

This seems to be an anniversary reminiscence issue, as the selected authors, mostly long-associated with F&SF, recall their introductions to the zine. There are a whole lot of stories here, most of them pretty good. And a Feghoot. A meta-Feghoot, even.

Halloween Town by Lucius Shepard

A typical Shepardesque journey downstream into darkness, although not, this time, as far as damnation. The setting is intrinsically fascinating:

Halloween, the spindly, skinny town that lies along the bottom of the Shilkonic Gorge, a meandering crack in the earth so narrow that on a clear day the sky appears to those hundreds of feet below as a crooked seam of blue mineral running through dark stone. Spanning the gorge is a forest with a canopy so dense that a grown man, if he steps carefully, can walk across it; thus many who live in Halloween must travel for more than a mile along the river (the Mossbach) that divides their town should they wish to see daylight. The precipitous granite walls are concave, forming a great vaulted roof overhead, and this concavity becomes exaggerated near the apex of the gorge, where the serpentine roots of oak and hawthorn and elm burst through thin shelves of rock, braiding their undersides like enormous varicose veins.

This is Neat Stuff—inconsistent, but a setting with definite promise. To this place comes Clyde Ormoloo on a quest for shade and sanity, since a head injury has given him the strange and unwanted ability to discern the chaos in the human minds surrounding him, and strong light makes the problem worse. Clyde is accepted as a probationary citizen of Halloween, but there are secrets in the place that he has not been told, most of them involving the fact that Halloween is actually the property of a malicious ex-rock star named Pet Nylund, whose ominously-named Mutagenics corporation has rendered the river south of town teratogenic and worse. Clyde has the misfortune of beginning an affair with Nylund's ex, which pisses off the boss and sends Clyde, literally, down the river. The place had the dire atmospherics of a wicked fairy tale, a secret grotto poisoned by the presence of an evil spirit, and the early morning light held a pall that seemed a byproduct of the pungent odor (Clyde thought he recognized the base smell as cat shit, but doubted that could be right). Fat insects with wings like fractured blades of zircon wobbled drunkenly from shrub to shrub, giving the impression that the work they did was making them ill. This is the sort of vividly ominous description that readers have come to expect from Shepard. Yet while the fantastic is here, and evils, I think I would not call this one horror. The evils are mostly mundane, the product of warped human character; there are no real demons or Old Ones lurking at the bottom of the gorge. The cat-eaters [highly imaginative creations] are Not What They Seem. Rather than sinking into damnation, Clyde reascends at the conclusion into the mundane hell of the light, where the rest of us exist.

The story, as a story, is fine. What bothers me are the copyediting errors and inconsistencies in the text. Some of these are simply typing things. But if the gorge is spanned by a forest as dense as described, the sky as a crooked seam of blue would not have been visible at all from the bottom. Further, the sole export of the town is walnuts, walnuts presumably grown on walnut trees. Yet we are told that a stunted willow is "the sole tree in all of Halloween." I can't imagine that no one noticed inconsistencies of this magnitude, yet there they are, impossible to ignore.

The Far Shore by Elizabeth Hand

Philip, an injured and aging footsoldier of the corps de ballet, finds himself cast of out his job and the milieu that he has always loved. An old friend offers him a refuge at the slowly-dying summer camp where they both spend their childhoods before Philip turned wholly to the world of ballet. The camp is located on Lake Tuonela, a cerulean crescent that could, in seconds, turn into frigid, steel-colored chop powerful enough to swamp a Boston Whaler. This time of year there were few boaters on the water: an occasional canoe or kayak, hunters making a foray from a hunting camp. The opposite shore was a nature preserve, or maybe it belonged to a private landowner—Philip had never gotten the details straight. He dimly recalled some ghost story told around the campfire, about early Finnish settlers who claimed the far shore was haunted or cursed. Philip is enjoying the solitude when he literally stumbles upon the naked body of a young man who seems, at first, to be dead.

It's a tale steeped deeply in Finnish myth, perhaps via Sebelius. Even those readers not familiar with this mythos will doubtless know what really lies on the far shore. It ties into the transfiguration legends of swans as they have become a part of ballet, and there is also a brief and chilling glimpse at a very menacing guardian of the world of the dead. But while the myth may be dark and cold, the story is a warming tale of surcease and the fulfillment of unvoiced wishes—told in lovely prose.

Recommended

Bandits of the Trace by Albert E. Cowdrey

Professor Keyes, third-rate scholar at a third-rate state school in Bonaparte, Mississippi, has been stalled in his work on a pair of murderous bandits who once infested the nearby Natchez Trace. His real interest is in the coded key to the location of the bandits' treasure. A student, as lazy as he is but more intelligent, undertakes to solve the mystery after reading Keyes' account.

For bandits, opportunity beckoned. No single haul was enormously rich, but the Trace yielded good, steady, dependable profits for enterprising scoundrels willing to shoot their victims down, gut them like fish, fill their carcasses with gravel, and dispose of them in God's own wet graveyard, the eternally flowing fourth-largest river on Earth, so conveniently close at hand.

Of all Cowdrey's works, I prefer his historical mysteries and ghost stories set in the vicinity of the Mississippi Delta. This one makes good use of its setting and gives us some strongly debased characters, although the frame, while providing narrative symmetry, gives rather too strong a hint to the solution to the mystery. The excerpted monograph does also lack the characteristically turgid tone of an academic work, but as it is printed entirely in italics, it proves more difficult to read than it otherwise would have been in some more friendly typeface.

The Way they Wove the Spells in Sippulgar by Robert Silverberg

A Majipoor story. The narrator travels to the eponymous city to investigate the reported death of his wife's brother Melifont. Everyone always calls it golden Sippulgar. Now I saw why. Its buildings, which are no more than two and three stories high, are made from a golden sandstone, flecked with bits of mica, that gleams with a dazzling brightness when the sun comes up out of the southern sea. I was amazed by the intensity of that brightness, and by the lushness of the decorative plantings that lined the streets: a hundred different kinds of tropical shrubs, all of them unknown to me, whose blossoms blazed forth in orange and green and scarlet and blue and gold, with darker ones in maroon and even jet-black interspersed among them for contrast. They exuded such a wealth of fragrance that the air itself seemed perfumed. Small wonder this district is known as the Incense Coast. Sippulgar is also a city of religions, with processions constantly clogging the streets. After some difficulties with the local bureaucracy, the narrator's persistence is rewarded. He begins to suspect that Melifont, whose businesses had always failed, had been attempting to profit by establishing a new religion in Sippulgar; rumor has it that he and his partner unwisely summoned demons. But the narrator is a skeptic; he can not believe in demons.

This one is less a mystery than a journey—a journey through the wonders of the author's world and a journey of self-discovery by the narrator.

I Waltzed With a Zombie by Ron Goulart

In 1942 Hollywood, Hix is a "short, feisty, and unconquerably second-rate writer of low budget B-movies" as well as an amateur detective. His current project is a zombie screenplay that producers have rejected as crap, but things take an interesting turn when he learns that actor Alex Stoner died several months ago in the midst of starring in a big-budget movie and the studio brought him back to life. The studio is reluctant to have this information known, but Stoner's performance is beginning to fall short, causing speculation. Hix feels that he can use this information to his advantage.

Amusing stuff with snappy narration, but a weak ending.

Another Life by Charles Oberndorf

Revivication has been invented, but it is costly—growing a new body, transferring the recorded memories. For the military, it is an enlistment bonus. The narrator was a young man who enlisted, who then found himself revived, knowing nothing about how he had died but full of memories of his first and only love affair with a veteran soldier. He lingered on at the hospital after his recovery, hoping to find her there again. Now he is telling all this story to the woman he has spent several lifetimes with, who has always been jealous of this brief affair of his youth.

I hear the sadness in her voice. For decades and decades I couldn't mention Noriko to her; now, after all these years apart, she sympathizes. How different life would have been if so much separation wasn't necessary to erase whatever had made us bitter.

This is a story about love and how it makes life worth living, and worth leaving. It is a bit odd in some ways; we never learn who the narrator's lover is and only a little about the tie between them that has lasted so long, through such differences. For a long time, the story of his first love separated them; now it makes her understand him and helps him understand himself.

The Logicist by Carol Emshwiller

The narrator is a teacher in a state which reminds me of the Greek poleis during the age of hoplite warfare, except it isn't. He brings his students to watch the battle, but the battle cuts them down, and he learns that war is not what he had supposed or what he had taught his students.

Typical Emshwiller short anti-war story, pitting the personal against the partisan. A logical truth [either A or not-A] can be known with certainty, but the problem with a logical truth is that it provides us no information whatsoever about the real world. So the narrator discovers.

Blocked by Geoff Ryman

Channarith has become a man (it is not quite clear what he used to be) and taken over the casino business from his former boss. He marries a Danish woman who was deserted by her husband and has four half-Cambodian children; it is the children he loves, especially the youngest, Gerda, who is suffering from culture shock. He knows Anete has only married him for security, for the sake of a ticket down to the subterranean refuge where humanity is hiding from the alien invaders; she knows he is only with her for the children's sake and fears another desertion. But Channarith is a man of Kampuchea; he does not want to leave the living Earth for the artificial world below.

Earthside, you walk out of your door, you see birds fly. Just after the sun sets and the bushes bloom with bugs, you will see bats flitter, silhouetted as they neep. In hot afternoons the bees waver, heavy with pollen, and I swear even fishes fly. But nothing flies between the stars except energy. You wanna be converted into energy, like Arizona?

So we Go Down.

Instead of up.

Beautifully written, humane tale of human character.

Recommended

Mermaid by Robert Reed

Jake's secret probably isn't a mermaid. She definitely isn't human, although she resembles one. Mostly, she hides in the dark bedroom and Jake takes care of her, and the rest of his life has slipped away until there is little left. Then a car breaks down in front of his house and the driver, whom he takes as a meth addict, asks to use the phone. Jake refuses, but then he catches sight of the man's companion and knows what she is.

"She doesn't belong here. She's not yours to keep. You're in no position to take care of her, and she will need care. Believe me. Not today, but soon. Soon that creature is going to require endless devotion and all of a sober man's conviction and resources, and I don't think you can manage that trick for five minutes."

A case of "Do as I say, not as I do." The story is troublesome because we have no way to tell if Jake is right or wrong, not knowing exactly what his secret is, where she came from, what problems are involved in caring for her. Anything, really, except what she means to him—everything. But is it anything but selfishness?

Never Blood Enough by Joe Haldeman

Xenobiologist Travis Dobb is now the administrator of the human outpost on the planet Runaway, now being operated as a hunting preserve exploiting its large population of vicious predators. People disappear on Runaway, and they turn up dead, thus becoming Travis's problem.

She had three identical holes in her back, puckered craters about an inch and a half in diameter. One under each shoulder blade and one over the right kidney. Her back was stained dark red from the blood, but there was no "livor mortis," discoloration of tissues from blood settling after death. She must have bled out very fast.

This one starts out like a locked-room murder mystery, but it develops that Travis is actually the right guy for the job. The ending is simple but quite effective, bumping this one from SF mystery to SF horror.

The President's Book Tour by M. Rickert

When, in the course of the war, the President found it necessary to destroy all the vegetation, the result was drastic for the town's children, now grown to sexual maturity, who wandered from their rooms into night streets sweet with perfume, colored vaguely blue by the moon, and even with all the confusion of extra limbs and orifices, found pleasure, wantonly, selfishly, giving no border to the consequences we had never thought it necessary to mention. In the morning we found them, tiny blades of new grass stuck to their skin, streaks of dirt down their backs, hair tangled, faces pink with pleasure, drooling, cooing in their secret language. When the President comes to town on his book tour, he declares that the children represent the future and decides to take Syoon as one of his wives.

This is not realistic SF, and thus we know little about the war and how widespread was the destruction of the green and where the flowers came from that the President imported for the wedding. What we know is how the members of the community care for each other.

Shadows on the Wall of the Cave by Kate Wilhelm

Seventeen years ago, Ashley was playing with her cousins in a cave on her grandparents' farm when the light went away and walls disappeared. When she and Nathan finally escaped from the terrifying void, Nathan's little brother Joey was gone. Since that day, Ashley has been claustrophobic and Nathan made the scapegoat for his brother's loss. When Ashley thought of Joey, he was always running, screaming in the black void until he went mad and died. But when their grandmother dies and they return for the funeral, Nathan goes back into the cave with the result that every reader of this zine will have expected.

This is not a story about what happened to Joey, or about the physics of the anomaly that trapped him in the cave. It is a story about a family and the way they react to these events.

Asimov's

Asimov's, Sept '09

Asimov's, September 2009

A superior issue with an AI theme.

Broken Windchimes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The narrator [narrators rarely seem to give their names these days] is a castrato singer from a world where the alien patrons demand perfection. He was brought there as a young child, knows nothing else, became a star and then, with a single swallowed note, a failure. But he has once heard human music and wants to learn more, so he travels to a human station where he finds what he was looking for.

I was stunned by the depth and breadth of it. The mixture of voices fascinated me—female sopranos and altos, and unaltered male tenors and basses. I wasn't sure I liked the deep sound, but it entranced me nonetheless. Such freedom existed out there, away from Djapé, where this music was created.

A number of Rusch's pieces are informed by the love of music, and this is one of them. It is an emotionally positive story while not mawkish or sentimental, but there is little in the way of plot conflict, external or internal.

Soulmates by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn

The narrator, Gary, started drinking after he let the hospital pull the plug on his wife, and he is now in danger of being fired from his job as night watchman in a robotic factory. He is helped by robot MOZ-512, with whom he engages in extended discussion on moral issues.

"Then stay and talk to me until my head clears," I said. "Be Kathy for me, just for a little while."

"I do not know what Kathy is, sir," said Mose.

"She's not anything," I said. "Not anymore."

"She?" he repeated. "Was Kathy a person?"

"Once upon a time," I answered.

"Clearly she needed a better repairman," said Mose.

"Not all things are capable of repair, Mose," I said.

This one follows much the same scenario as Resnick's "Article of Faith"—an extended moral dialogue in which the narrator insists on the superiority and uniqueness of humans, while the robot counters all his assertions with logic. Talky and rather didactic, while insightful.

Away From Here by Lisa Goldstein

Liz is fifteen and trapped cleaning rooms in her parents' shabby hotel when a magic act checks in. The music, mostly trumpets, is louder, and I have a sense that the others are here too, watching from beyond the spotlight. The woman looks up. I follow her gaze—and the ceiling's gone, there's nothing there but the moon and the stars. The woman upends her pole and raises it up, higher and higher, until she hooks the moon. She draws the pole down, hand over hand, the moon still hooked on the end, the pole somehow collapsing as she brings it down. The music is full of trumpets and drums. Liz wants more than anything to go away with them, until she learns the truth.

A tale of fairy glamour and fairy cruelty, even if no one ever says the F-word.

Camera Obscured by Ferret Steinmetz

Victor Pino is determined to become the world's best at something in the Worldwork ratings. His quest has so far not been marked with success.In his quest to become the world's finest yo-yo player (highest ranking: 3,312,156th), he'd spent his entire seventh grade walking down the halls with his yo-yo, walking the dog on the way to class, rejoicing at the way his score jumped each day when the vlogs were compiled and the scores re-tallied. But eventually he'd realized that while it was easy to get to the top 1 percent of the worldwide rankings, shaving that final percentage point took a natural talent he did not have. By then, he'd had his yo-yo stolen four times by bullies and had acquired a hateful nickname, and he was sick of it. Now he has decided to win the title of World's Greatest Lover, and his research points to Rosemary Atkinson as the most likely place to begin. But things, as usual, do not go according to his plans.

Funny and warmhearted tale of growing up in a world where everyone is always on camera, always being judged.

Recommended

In Their Garden by Brenda Cooper

Drought has overtaken Oregon, but a small group of botanists have created a refuge in the old Oregon Botanical Gardens, preserving the native plants.

That's what I'm saving for your generation. The bamboo and the bearberry, the astilbe and the peony." He says the names of plants like a prayer, and I imagine him naming the others in his head. "The wisteria and the wild fuscia, the fiddlehead and the mountain fern. . . ."

Paulette's deceased father was one of them, but she chafes at living in confinement and yearns to know what is happening in the real world.

Not very original but a nicely evoked world.

The Day Before the Day Before by Steve Rasnic Tem

Time travel. As a child, the narrator's mother had him and his siblings say a prayer: "I may have made some terrible mistake the day before yesterday, and the day before that, but today I promise to do better, and fix what I can." Now he is part of a secret team that operates in his own past; while we are not sure what they are doing, we assume it is something along the lines of the prayer, to fix some terrible historical mistake. But the narrator can not escape the sense that he does not belong when he is.

This very short piece is highly effective in evoking a sense of wrongness, of being out of place/time.

Tear-Down by Benjamin Crowell

The house's new owners don't appreciate the value of its AI and plan to have it replaced, but these plans conflict with its directives.

Another amusing and interesting take on the robotic mind.

Her Heart's Desire by Jerry Oltion

Patrick bumps into a woman carrying her heart's desire in a glass jar, and when it breaks he finds himself with his own heart's desire fulfilled as a rock musician. But Michelle is distraught because the storefront where she purchased the jar has disappeared. "It's gone," she whispered. She looked back at him. "It was here just a moment ago. I swear it was. There was a handwritten sign propped up against an old mantel clock that said, 'Special, today only, your heart's desire.' " They work it out.

Twist on a very old SFnal trope.

Analog

Analog, Nov '09

Analog, November 2009

Beginning a new two-part serial with this issue, leaving only enough fiction space for four shorter works. Fortunately, they are well-chosen.

Amabit Sapiens by Craig DeLancey

We begin in a torture cell where Lyta Sumeran is being interrogated. She and her friend Allen Reed were children of extreme privilege brought up by parents with a project to save the world from human improvidence. They have been infecting the world's oil fields with bacteria engineered to consume oil and excrete hydrogen, to force a shift from a petroleum to a hydrogen-based economy. Some people do not approve. But what Lyta doesn't know at first is that she is the product of an experiment herself.

I alone seemed to recognize that we were trapped in a nakedly desperate, all-consuming now—in which everything was burned, devoured as quickly and as violently as possible—and after which we were obviously going to choke and starve.

This is a sequel, but the author has skillfully integrated the backstory and made it an asset to the ongoing tale. It is primarily a story of scientific ethics, centered around the question: Just because we can do it, should we? The spectre of Murphy and the Law of Unintended Consequences hover over the narrative, and we see how the plotters, for all their altruistic intentions, have used people and harmed them to further their greater good—which may well result in greater evil. Happily, the author makes us think about all these things instead of lecturing us on what to think.

Recommended

Joan by John G. Hemry

Kate has a thing about Joan of Arc. A sort of erotic thing.

If you were still in junior high school instead of graduate school you'd spend all of your class time practicing writing 'Kate of Arc' in your notebook.

She wishes she could somehow travel back in time and save her heroine from burning at the stake. Fortunately, one of the professors in her university has been working on a time-travel machine, and the author wastes little time spouting infodumpium before whisking the story back to 15th-century Rouen, where events do not fall neatly in line with Kate's plans to run off to the future with the object of her adulation.

This is not at all a hard science-fictional work of time travel but rather an idealistic and frankly hero-worshiping look at a historical figure. The author plays it straight with the history if slighting the temporal paradoxes.

Foreign Exchange by Jerry Oltion

First contact. The plan: send the automated return vehicle to Mars ahead of the manned lander. The glitch: Tnaxis happens on the return craft and takes it back to Earth, leaving the two original astronauts in the lander headed for Mars with no way home. They decide to land, on the assumption that the Martians are sufficiently technologically advanced to operate the return vehicle. That's the problem with assumptions.

Clever short. Murphy in charge.

Thanksgiving Day by Jay Werkheiser

The human colony at Epsilon Indi is in deep trouble. First, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria died in the hydroponics tanks on the outward voyage; now, they discover that the soil on the colony planet won't support terrestrial life, and the supplies from Earth are almost exhausted. In the meantime, class divisions between the scientists and the "grunts" have divided the colonists.

This is the sort of problem story where the author has set up the scientific problem for the convenience of the protagonist. The real problem is the social one. Unfortunately, Werkheiser's title serves as a spoiler for those who might have doubted the outcome. Some people seem to get bothered about that sort of thing.

Baens Universe

Baen's Universe, Aug '09

Jim Baen's Universe, August 2009

Not so much fiction here as there used to be in the early days of this ezine.

Mouse Suits by Stephen Eley

The narrator is a human in an artificial human body working as a guide for aliens visiting the EarthParks. The guides call their idealized bodies "mouse suits," and the corporation is the Cheese. Tom Gaines, aka Melvin Seebanks in his mouse suit, is playing his role as an executive and secretly trying to contact another mouse in whom he has acquired a romantic interest. But his love life is complicated when the alien roleplaying his secretary signals that she would like a more personal relationship with him; his job is to please the guests. But he can't help recalling that her species eats its mates.

I nearly lose it for a moment when I picture her as an Eridani, ripping off one of my arms and eating it between moans of pleasure.

The aliens are skewed off-center just enough to make this amusing.

No Guts, No Glory by Edward R. Lerner

The narrator is an accountant whose latest client is a Nobel-winning physicist.

"Black holes?" I commented, making conversation. "Pretty heavy stuff. I bet you could even explain where all the mortgage money is disappearing."

An idea in a matrix of clever dialogue, not quite a story.

Ganny Knits a Spaceship by David Gerold

Starling lives with Gampy and Ganny out in the belt, on the whirligig. Gampy seems to be one of those polymathic geniuses so often found in fictional space. The way Ganny tells it, Luna got too crowded for Gampy's taste, so he hiked all the way out to the belt with a big roll of cable on his back, picked out the two biggest rocks he could find, hitched 'em together, and started 'em spinning. The whirligig is a transit point for cargo, but the new traction drives don't need transit points—they can go directly from Point A to Point B—so the future of whirligigs is dimming. So Gampy decides they need their own spaceship. But Gampy is suspicious of what Starling tells her dirtsider pal James about their plans, because dirtsiders are inferior and untrustworthy. Then Gampy dies and the backstabbing begins.

For a narrator who starts out insisting that starsiders only say what needs to be said, Starling says a whole lot. A whole lot. So much that I am prompted to contemplate how much JBU pays per word. Aside from the step-by-step instructions for building a spaceship, we learn that the dwellers in space are a race of übermenschen while the dwellers on dirt are lowlives who can only hope to steal what the native genius of their space-dwelling superiors produces.

The Blitz Experience by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

It has been several years since Tenesha last visited her grandmother in England, although as a child she spent every summer there. Now as a college graduate, she is herding a group of high school students around the tourist sites, but before she visits the war museum Grand gives her a small gold cross that seems to be emitting heat. When they enter the Blitz exhibit, Tenesha and her students find themselves inexplicably in an experience more real than they could have imagined.

This story displays a strong affection and respect for its setting.

Hennel says gently, "We walked past buildings that were more than three hundred years old. Burning buildings, some made from trees even older than that. We were smelling the great forests of England as they vanished forever."

Tenesha's grandmother could have been my Nana (who would have insisted she was English thank you very much, not British). Unfortunately, this proves to be one of those stories that carries on after it has ended, with lengthy explication leaching away the wonder. There is also an alternating secondary point of view character who is treated pretty unsympathetically.

Why I Live in the Silver Mine by Marissa Lingen

Sibling rivalry among the dwarves. Quartz Marie pretends not to be jealous when her sister Tourmaline goes off to the surface with a Tall Folk suitor, where she stumbles upon a fairy tale. "Some of us had mining to do and couldn't be chasing around the surface." Tourmaline brings a magic fiddle when she comes home to visit, but Quartz Marie doesn't trust it.

Delightfully mean-spirited.

Recommended

Dreams for Sale—Two Bits by Thomas Allen Mays

A flim-flam man. Stu Langley comes to town peddling snake-oil physics, the bridge to the multiverse where all good things have come true. I'm a quantum mechanic, on the road to fix broken lives in an uncaring multiverse. I'm the toll-taker on the bridge to denied destinies. You can't beat that! But in Edenton he meets a waitress who can see through him.

A surprise at the ending and a lesson, although not an overly didactic one.

Clarkesworld

Clarkesworld, Aug '09

Clarkesworld, August 2009

Back to brilliance this month with a story by Valente.

The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew by Cathrynne M. Valente

In this alternate universe, the Documentarian Bysshe travels to Venus to make her final masterpiece at the dead village of Adonis on the shores of a Venusian sea where divers once hunted the callowhales.

It is the milk the divers are after—nearly everything produced on Venus contains callowhale milk, the consistency of honey, the color of cream, the taste something like sucking on a dandelion stem caked in green peppercorn… Certain artists have created entire murals from it, which looked upon straight seem like blank canvases, but seen slant-wise reveal impossibly complex patterns of shades of white.

In this text we see the few surviving scenes of her documentary and speculate upon the mystery of the callowhales.

Steampunk is generally regarded as an alternate genre, usually alternate history. This, I believe, must be an alternate steampunk, one further step removed from the mundane reality with which we are familiar. Strange—wondrous strange—poetic, fantastic, mythic, visionary cosmology.

Highly Recommended

Advection by Genevieve Valentine

A world running out of water, where it has all been captured and sequestered for human use, allocated according to status. A few rebels attempt to generate wild rain, and the narrator, who harbors an illicit plant, becomes fascinated by one.

"What were you doing all year?" I imagined him in a cave, drinking condensation, blowing up reservoirs, blowing up Atmos with people like me in them. My voice shook.

The choice of title here makes for an interesting metaphor. Advection is part of the process of the hydrological cycle, which in the story is no longer operating freely. Likewise, the social cycle is no longer free; the flow of goods and privileges is towards those of rank, which is determined as the flow of water is.

Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons, August 2009

Tales dark and lite, pretty evenly divided between SF and fantasy.

Salt's Father by Eric Gregory

Dystopian SF. The old man's son is a messianic warlord in a post-apocalyptic world. The old man has recently and secretly taken in a cyborg refugee, although his children consider it an agent of the enemy.

He still couldn't tell if it had been male or female in life; its flesh was so deflated, its protruding bones were so tangled with wire that the thing seemed pre-sexual, a sort of ur-human on perpetual life support. Its skin was pale, its eyes sewn shut, fingers long and greedy.

A moving glimpse of life in hard and desperate times, and the strains that war places on human ties.

Recommended

Finisterre by Maria Deira

More dystopia. People are desperate; "everyone's mad." Paz believes she has no future and decides the gangs of kids who beat her up are werewolves; she decides to be a werewolf hunter.

Non-fantastic vignette about bad times.

Origin by Ari Goelman

Superhero pregnancy. Power Man assured Fire and Ice that they couldn't get pregnant. He was wrong. He's being a shit about it, too.

"I mean. Sure, I'd like to have a child," Carter says. Something in the way he's talking makes me think he's practiced this speech several times before trying it on me. "But it's selfish. What if one of my enemies—one of our enemies—tries to hurt us through the child?"

And something about the whole situation reminds her of Dr. U, even though he claims to be in supervillain recovery.

Lite humor.

Charms by Shweta Narayan

Some time ago, Edith applied to study magic at the university, but her acceptance was rescinded when she was discovered to be a woman. Now she deals in spells and charms—women's magic—while a younger woman has broken the academic barrier.

This very short piece strikes me as a mix of Hogwarts, Earthsea and Dorothy Sayers. The opening is rather unclear as to what the story is about.

Fantasy Magazine

Fantasy Magazine, August 2009

As many misses as hits for this month's fiction.

Playing With Spades by Mari Ness

A woman is a member of a pinochle club whose members are not her friends, but the Queen of Spades avoids her. When she deals, as she must, the hands she deals no longer contain any Queens of Spades. Instead, game persists with an extra queen of diamonds, an extra queen of clubs, extra jacks, extra kings, extra tens. This throws off the entire play, but no one else seems to notice. She attempts to discover the significance of this, but fails and finally decides it doesn't matter.

This metaphorical piece seems to be saying that the players are worth more than the game.

Golden Lilies by Aliette de Bodard

A young girl raises a dead ancestor on the eve of her wedding because she fears her unbound feet will eventually cause her husband to be unfaithful. The ancestor, hungry for more offerings, complies with her wish.

Gently, I bent the broken toes backwards, until they touched the arch of her foot—five brief, fiery bursts of pain, and then a growing discomfort as I bent the foot in half, bringing the front and back slowly, lovingly together—there was a snap like a twig when the arch broke, and then she started screaming, and struggling to withdraw from me, begging me to stop, but she didn't mean it, she knew it would ruin everything if I stopped…

The revenant ancestor is sinister, a vampiric creature consumed by a hunger that can never be fulfilled. She died young in childbirth, never having experienced the pain of a failed marriage, and does not seem to know that a husband may be unfaithful no matter how small his wife's feet are. In fact, there is a hint that he may already have been seduced and the marriage corrupted before it is consummated, which shifts this tale over the line into horror.

The Vigilant by Dirk Strassler

For centuries, Antar has kept a nightly vigil, watching for breaches in the membrane between the universes, where evil elementals might enter. It is a lonely existence, as he tries to make minimal contact with the inhabitants of this world. But the hooker currently stationed at the corner seems to want to make friends.

This one uses Arabic monster names but otherwise there is no real sense of this culture. For a veteran vigilant, Antar doesn't really seem very good at his job. Again and again, the monsters come close to defeating him with very little trouble. There seems also to be an inconsistency in the basic story logic, which rests on the principle that something on the inside must invite the elementals, or they can not pass through. But the shaitin at Sasha's apartment breaks the window to enter without any kind of invitation. At one point, an extended exchange in three voices takes place with no speech tags, which is a bit confusing.

Offerings by Stephanie Burgess

A witch sometimes finds offerings left on her doorstep, and her duty is to place them on her altar and cast the appropriate spell. But she is perplexed by the most recent offerings, not able to tell who has left them, or why. Readers, however, will be able to see the clue quite readily.

Light humor, effectively presented, but I would have expected to find this one in Strange Horizons, not here.

BCS

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, August 2009

Lessons—effective and otherwise.

Blighted Heart by Aliette de Bodard

Metlicue's heart is sacrificed to the corn god to give him the power to call the rains and bring the harvest. But because she was no longer a maiden her heart was not pure, and her impure heart poisoned the corn god; the harvest fails. Metlicue, heartless, bears a son, but she is stalked by the failed corn god, who believes that her son's life will restore him.

"You came to me bearing him. He is mine as much as he is yours."

"No," I said, knowing that if I surrendered Paletl to him I would acknowledge, once and for all, that he had won, that my heart was truly gone, and that all that remained was a pitiful husk kept alive by spells and potions.

This tale, like many from this author, has its roots in Aztec history and myth. Here is a society based on sacrifice. The social contract requires that individuals be sacrificed for the common good; without it, everyone is doomed. Metlicue's son, justly, is dying because of the failure of the corn crop caused by her tainted heart. Yet despite her guilt, she selfishly refuses to pay the price for the harm she has caused. I contrast this with the story of Oedipus, whose sin likewise brought death upon his city, although it was done unknowing. Oedipus, knowing he was unclean, put out his own eyes, yet his blood was still not sufficient to purge him of his sin; he exiles himself from Thebes, lest the taint of his presence bring down more harm on the city. Metlicue, whose sin was deliberate, attempts to save only herself and her son. Any other city where she goes to take refuge would be well-advised to drive her off with stones.

The Prince's Shadow by Emily M.Z. Carlyle

Daria was born blind and fostered by a religious order that ignored her prophetic visions and dreams.

While I was born with eyes as blank and useless as a pair of pebbles, my first act in this world was to squall so loudly and insistently that a peddler found me abandoned beneath a frozen hedge before the feral dogs could get at me.

The king's sister Alys, who is considered a witch, brings her to the palace as companion to the young prince, and the two become loyal and inseparable friends, although never lovers. But one day they stumble upon a secret that Alys did not want revealed, and she proves that she is a witch indeed.

Based on a legend of St Brigid of Ireland, although its focus is secular, not spiritual. The characters are strongly realized, but I do wonder if Daria gave up too quickly; she was supposed to be tougher than that.

Between Two Treasons by Michael J. DeLuca

Carnivorous centaurs hunt and devour humans. When very young, Periphas was adopted by the centaurs and became loyal to their leader, Eurytus. He has now been sent on a trek of human sorcerers across a desert; the purpose of the trek is unclear, though Periphas's purpose is to betray them to the centaurs. But contact with a young female of his own species strains his loyalties.

He slept where he had fallen. He dreamed of riding half-awake on a centaur's back, as he had so often as a child: arms wrapped tight around a torso streaming sweat, his face flicked by a long mane streaming in the wind.

The setting is one the author has used before in this publication, an odd future in which the semihuman creatures of Greek myth have enslaved most humans; the rest of the species seem to have devolved to a primitive tribalism. While I am still not fond of it, I think the scenario works better this time; there is less of the gratuitous sadism. The author drops us into the desert with no explanation of the improbable details of this world, but the story still has a strong sense of urgency, and the ending deliberately defies conventional reader expectations—a thing I always like.

Oil Fire by Kate MacLeod

As children, street urchin Puabi and noble Enanatuma were both temple dancers and became close friends; Puabi used her access to steal scrolls on sorcery from the temple, while Enanatuma practiced a sacred form of martial art forbidden to women. But Puabi fell in love and used her power unwisely to secure the safety of her lover, warping the lives and memories of all the people close to her, even her own.

Ten years ago I had not appreciated that magic raged like an oil fire. If one were not careful it would grow too hot too fast, and trying to douse it would only spread it more.

As a Cautionary Tale, this one effectively shows how Puabi becomes more and more tangled in her own web of deceit. However, her original mistake was an act so unlikely that it defies credibility. The author spends more time on her setting than her characters, which diminishes the impact of what is, at the end, clearly discernable as a tragedy.

Sorrow's Blade by Rita Oakes

As punishment for kinslaying, Meurig has been exiled from the ferryshen [ackk!] to the human world, in an outwardly human body, bearing his companion Rhiannon in the form of a sword. Again he put his hand to the rowan bark. He felt so lost and the tree was a solid, soothing presence. A shower of leaves fell upon him, brown and sere, where before they had shown a healthy green. Alarmed, he sprang back. This world was not the same as his, and now he had unwittingly harmed the tree.

"I am fit for nothing but destruction." First he was Kinslayer, now Blight.
He takes refuge in an abbey, where he seeks redemption.

The enchanted sword amounts to a fantasy cliché and "ferryshen" is almost unforgivable, but this highly moral tale makes a good argument for forgiveness.

Father's Kill by Christopher Green

The werewolf's children wait behind the locked door while their father goes out at night to hunt for meat.

When the night fades and the light returns, Father does not come back to us. I wait, watching the second lock count the time away, and the light beneath the door grows stronger. Just inside the doorway there is a torn claw and curls of wood shavings amidst a spill of melting snow.

Horror. A child's worst nightmare realized.

Recommended

Apex

Apex Magazine, August 2009

Two short pieces plus a longer reprint.

Kenny 149 by Brad Becraft

Kenny is on the battlefield talking to the mud. He joined the Marines when the Luminari first invaded Earth, and he's been on the battlefield ever since, although he's accumulated a few upgrades. His survival astonishes the Docs, but they're the ones who've made it possible.

"I recognize you now," the mud muttered. "Long time no see, buddy. Not in the best shape today are we?"

He felt up and down his body, trying to find some wound or injury his extras had missed and stopped when he reached the side of his face. A large section of the right skull was absent and he felt the soft tissue of his brain along with thin strands of wire and plastic exposed and open to the elements.

Effective look at the use and abuse of humans in war.

Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus

Alternate history/steampunk. America is part of the Albion Empire and slavery has been abolished but "those of an African bloodline" have been relegated to the drug-pacified undercities, where Sleepy and Knowledge Allah are involved in a plan to liberate their imprisoned brothers, led by an inventive co-conspirator, Deaconess Blues.

A poor simulacrum of a person greeted them with the smooth manner of a well-rehearsed marionette. Its inner workings whirred—pistoning brass and steel gears—over the gentle hum of whatever powered it. Its face—dull, unpainted metal—held no expression and little attempt at humanity. Wondrous and intricate, a flawless design, it projected a knowing discomfort of the other. Sleepy suddenly grew terrified of the mind of its designer.

Entertaining mix of steampunk and revolutionary rhetoric, evoking the bygone days of the Black Power salute.

Recommended

Abyss and Apex

Abyss & Apex #31, Third Quarter 2009

Tales of fates, most of them unfortunate, and how people cope with them.

Section III by Caren Gussoff

For the last five years, Allison has been Client Services Manager at the Department of Providence. People dissatisfied with their fate come to her office; everyone, it seems, is dissatisfied with their fate. The clients fill out Sections I, II and IV. Allison's job is to fill out Section III with the shape of the clients' lives.

Some lives are like the punch line to a joke. Some are like a military campaign. Some seem spurred on by the same migratory restlessness driving birds south for the winters.

This one has charm, particularly Allison's relationship with Vinnie, the Venus Flytrap she can not quite manage to keep healthy. The author, however, may be a bit too much charmed by her own similes.

Carpe Mañana by Richard A. Lovett

When Drew Sweetland's refrigerator went bust, he had it replaced with a stasis closet. The box has had the unexpected advantage of allowing Drew to manipulate time to enhance his performance at work. This does him little good, as his bitch of a wife promptly spends everything he makes, and his daughter Tabitha hides from her life in the stasis box. Things are not going well.

This piece features an unsettling indictment of today's business climate: You might as well just take out an ad saying you don't need to make partner because you're not bothering to spend everything they're paying you now. It is clear, however, that Drew is evading the real solution to his problem, which would be something along the lines of burying Elaine in a different sort of box altogether, in a very deep hole with a stake though her heart.

Starlings by Michael J. DeLuca

Post-holocaust. We seem to have had global warming and electromagnetic pulse, but the narrator's laptop computer was still working until he ran out of batteries. His plan was to bury it as a time capsule, waiting until the power would eventually be restored. But a stranger comes to town bearing rumors that somewhere downstream there is a working generator, and the narrator sets off on a quest in the company of a man to whom restoration is an obscenity.

This is a sort of moral tale regarding our obsession with the artificial world contained in electronics, with the dead memories held there in contrast with the living, organic now.

Sifting through dead links on corrupted servers, devouring the last of the reserves of the reserves of power, in blind hope of avoiding for another few moments the unpixelated, unframed, real experience of crying over loved ones' corpses, lamenting the death of a civilization, and at last being forced to move on.

The ending suggests that the narrator's selfishness is tempered by a sense of commitment to his community, but I'm not sure I'd want to put it to a test. This one seems less about the ruined future than the obsessions of today.

A Hundredth Name by Christopher Green

Karim, on the space station Abraham, is haunted by the ghost of his wife, who recently committed suicide rather than face the pressure to bear children who could never perform the pilgrimage to Makkah from the station. Karim clings to the ghost, to the remaining traces of Mavda's presence, and refuses to take solace from religion. His obsessive grief and guilt are impairing his performance and endangering the station.

He presses his forehead to the ground. Mavda's right hand covers his left and she dips her head in prayer beside him. Though her prayer mat is empty, her touch is a cherished pressure that stays with him.

Karim prays alone.

The pain of loss is sharply felt here, though the conclusion is a bit sentimental.

Rainbows and Other Shapes by Patricia Russo

The narrator seems to have been physically handicapped from birth, but her mind is more than fully functional. She has a gift.

Anything I can imagine, I can make. Most of the time, almost all of the time, I don't pack the shapes hard. They are insubstantial—and invisible to most. But I know how to make them more solid, so they last for days, or weeks. That takes more work, and it makes me tired. It's also riskier. Make the shapes solid, and anyone might notice them. Now where did that thing come from?

Her younger sister Maddy has taken her into her home and cares for her as a duty, but what the narrator loves are the children, who smile at the shapes she makes for them.

A glimpse into a very sad life, a fate dismal and undeserved.


Copyright © 2009, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

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

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