All posts by EricJamesStone

Tor.com — October 2013

We have a varied collection of stories this month. Some are exceptional while others—I can’t imagine how they made it off the slush pile. Read and decide for yourself.

“The Rain is a Lie,” by Gennifer Albin, is a story about a 9-year-old boy, James, set in a weather-controlled city with, oddly enough, steam locomotives for commuter rail transport. It’s scheduled to rain tonight, but, with an election soon, James’ parents worry that rain could mean mud during such an important event. James is given the privilege of shopping with his mother today. While waiting to catch the commuter train to go meet his mom, he sees a leather-jacketed man scratch a message on a bench. The rain is a lie, it says. Various mundane shopping activities ensue, James sees and talks with the man who tells him not to forget. James’ mother gets upset about James talking with the stranger. They go home. That night it rains and thunders, and James runs into the rain to feel it. The next morning there is no mud, and no one remembers that it rained, except James. End story. Pointless and mostly filled with details of boring daily life. I would guess that this story has meaning in the larger world in which this author has written several novels. But, as a stand-alone, it seemed nonsensical to me.

Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages’ “Wakulla Springs” paints a compelling snapshot of small, backwoods town life set in the early 1940s before electricity had yet arrived. A short drive south of Tallahassee, Florida and nestled against a national forest that’s part pine woods and part swamp, Wakulla Springs is where Mayola grew up, all 15 of her wise years. African-American, she struggles against the conditions of ignorance, segregation and economic depression that shadow life here. She wants to go to college and saves every nickel and dime (literally) she can. Then her friend tells her of an opportunity to earn a whole $3 dollars a week being a maid at a new whites-only resort built but 3 miles away. Not long after starting work there, Johnny Weissmuller and a Hollywood film crew encamp upon the Wakulla Springs resort to shoot a new Tarzan movie. Mayola is amused by all the film crew furor and disgusted by whites dressing as Africans instead of just hiring locals. But these are Jim Crow times, and blacks and whites don’t mix. Until Weissmuller, a one-time Olympic swimmer, catches Mayola by the edge of the deep-water springs one night and encourages her to go swimming with him, transporting her into a fantasy experience she could never have imagined.

The scenes are so exquisitely crafted that I felt like I sojourned alongside Mayola wherever she went, whether journeying through the woody swamps to get to the resort or nestling in the shade of a tin roof at the local Mobilgas station after buying an ice-cold five cent RC Cola to cut the brutal summer heat. For example, “Mayola could feel the thin cotton of her dress sticking to her back, damp as if she was laundering it from the inside out.” Her need to find a way out of the grinding poverty of her existence comes through in everything she says and does. She doesn’t consider herself better than her friends and neighbors, just driven to do more with her life. The movie shooting scenes are representative of the way movies were made in the 1940s, and the portrayal of Weissmuller made him privileged yet likeable. I relished every paragraph and felt a bit cheated when the story finally ended–I just wanted more. Highly recommended.

“Slayers-The Making of a Mentor,” by CJ Hill, is a YA story with uninteresting characters and a highly contrived linear plot. True, the author’s claim-to-fame are her romantic comedies and YA novels set either in time-travel dystopian worlds or dragon slayer fantasies. Consequently, this story may make sense in the author’s broader slayer universe. However, here, it fell flat, badly.

Jamison returns to his home on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena after a year at Oxford. He misses his girlfriend, Bianca, and worries that the local rich kid, Brant Overdrake (Yeah. Really. Overdrake.), has been making inroads on his relationship with her. Jamison’s younger brother, Nathan, confides in him that he’s been developing superpowers and it’s all due to things he’s discovered on the Overdrake ranch. But Jamison discounts Nathan’s claims and refuses to go with him at night to see. All his overbearing father does is grouse about the cost of college. Jamison plans to meet Bianca, until Brant pulls family strings to pressure Jamison’s father into ordering Jamison to return to his one-time job at the Overdrake ranch. Then the story flails along until Nathan is killed. Jamison’s convinced that Brant’s father has killed Nathan for what he’s found on the ranch, so, stupidly unprepared, charges off to get revenge. He discovers dragons in a giant, underground storage building, films them and then blithely gives the film to the chief of police. More stupidity since the entire island is economically dependent upon the Overdrake’s ranch. The police jail him for breaking-and-entering and confiscate his film. He’s rescued by a deputy sympathetic to the slayer cause and learns from his father all about the history of Overdrake, a dragon-lord, raising dragons with plans to invade and conquer America. Evidently, his dragons can screech EMP pulses, evade supersonic missiles and are stealthed to radar. Fifteen years later, Jamison’s wife (Not Bianca, of course. That love story was obviously doomed from the start.) gives birth to a slayer son and they begin the long preparations to protect America from the coming dragon apocalypse.

Yes, this is a fantasy, and a whopper of one. But supersonic dragons? Able to invade and occupy 3 million square miles of America with a few dozen dragons and a non-existent massive army against the world’s most heavily armed populace and a military with EMP-hardened communications???? Okay. Delete any credibility. Next, I found nothing about any of the characters compelling. Jamison’s modus operandi was mostly stupid, thoughtless actions and his fruitless efforts to “win” Bianca so very predictable. All the characters are flat and uncomplicated, with limited personality variations and no internal struggles to overcome. I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. I’d rename this story “The Hardy Boys meet the Dragonlord,” but then I think that would do disservice to the Hardy Boys.

Jason Vanhee’s “Come back to the Sea” is a story of Yukio, a young woman being trained to master her skills over the sea. She lives in Spring House, an ancient, sprawling, towered structure overlooking the ocean, where many of the kids who don’t fit in with the grinding peasant existence throughout the region go. Yukio has been hearing a man call to her from the sea and increasingly feels the need to go. Her younger friend, Ami, also with the talent to control the ocean, urges Yukio not to tell their proctor everything she has heard and seen. Still, Yukio shares some with her proctor who warns her to not listen to the call. More and more often Yukio wakes to nightmare visions of being surrounded by flood, battered ruins and the drowned corpses of her fellow kid residents. Finally, she and Ami decide they need to make the sea stop calling them. They go to the beach together and call the ocean, and Yukio’s existence is changed forever. Very surrealistic, more dream-state than adventure. This story has potential.

“Freeze Warning,” by Susan Krinard, is a story that’s only a beginning, not a complete tale. Frustrating, for there’s just enough here to intrigue with the characters and the plot before it . . . just . . . stops. Mist is a Valkyrie tasked by Odin to protect the Gungnir, Odin’s weapon, filled with his life, after Ragnarok has destroyed Asgard and the gods. For centuries she diligently pursues her task, living on Earth (Midgard). Now she lives in San Francisco and contemplates burying the Gungnir in the depths of the ocean, believing her task done. While trying to save a woman from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, a stranger, Eric, comes to her aid, for the woman is unaccountably more than Mist can handle. Eric’s winsome smile and light-hearted nature slowly thaws Mist’s centuries-old funk until at last she begins to feel again. Then the dreams begin to haunt her sleep, and the story stops. Bummer.

Paul Cornell’s “Ramesses on the Frontier” is a story told from the mummy of Ramesses I point-of-view. He expected to have to journey through the afterlife, but finds himself trapped in a 20th century Niagara Falls museum. Fortunately, he eventually encounters the god Seth who tells him that America is the afterlife through which he must travel for it is the land of opportunity. I liked the 3rd person limited POV for there shouldn’t be much about 20th  century life that Ramesses would understand. However, I would have appreciated more people and place descriptions so that as a reader I could better understand what it was that Ramesses encountered in his journeys. Then I could share in the humor of his unique interpretations of what modern humankind so readily understands. More stories like this can be found in the upcoming mummy anthology, The Book of the Dead.

Unidentified Funny Objects 2, ed. Alex Shvartsman

Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

A diverse and wonderfully entertaining arrangement of humorous SF/F that should find the funny bone of most any reader. Two of the stories are reprints: Mike Resnick’s “On Safari” (Gateways, 2010) and Robert Silverberg’s “Hannibals Elephants” (Omni, 1988), which has undergone minor revisions since its first publication.

When God wishes to save a planetary colony from extinction by rat in “The MSG Golem” by Ken Liu, he must convince a nonbeliever of Chinese heritage, Rebecca, that she should intervene on his behalf before the cruise ship reaches its destination. Rebecca must in turn convince her parents and the ship captain that she is neither insane nor marauding as she hunts down the hidden infestation with the dubious help of her mud golem. The text demonstrates a refreshing awareness of real life Judeo-Christian beliefs and history, which makes it all the funnier when Rebecca dives into her new role with a studiousness that her mother wishes she would apply to her schoolwork.

“Service Charge” by Esther Friesner follows two assassins on their mission to explode the dragon Naptheena’s head through sheer aggravation. The structure of this piece provides the dramatic buildup needed for the punch-line ending that almost makes you feel sorry for Naptheena.

“Item Not As Described” by J.W. Alden takes the reader through the email exchanges of a disgruntled customer of an online auction, except that in J. W. Alden’s world, enchanted blades actually exist and customer service possesses unique methods of follow through. This story is for any one who has ever wished that they could send a magic fireball through their screen.

“Stranger Vs. The Malevolent Malignancy” by Jim C. Hines is the extremely irreverent account of superhero Stranger’s battle against his own cancer while attempting to capture his arch nemesis for the good of mankind. Somewhere in the layers of painful bathroom humor and the desperation of the dying, this story shows us that cancer’s no joke, unless of course, that cancer can talk. Well crafted narrative, pacing, and structure help make this story possible for those who can appreciate dark humor.

In light of the sudden development of pyrokinesis in toddlers around the world, “How To Feed Your Pyrokinetic Toddler” by Fran Wilde should prove quite instructive. For those readers who have never wrestled a toddler into a highchair, this piece will make you grateful for that fact.

“A Stiff Bargain” by Matt Mikalatos follows Isaac van Helsing, supernatural detective – and, yes, vampire – as he takes on a prank call case that is much more dangerous than he expects. Thankfully, his foe’s sense of humor may provide him a way out, though the other villagers may not end up so lucky. Lighthearted and quirky, this story pokes fun at urban fantasy tropes as much as it utilizes them for a laugh.

“The Girl With the Dagon Tattoo” by Josh Vogt shows us that it’s not so easy to get a powerful religious tattoo when the tattoo artist is cynical and adept at verbal sparring. In fact, the entire story is dialogue-only, leaving the reader with an appropriately short scene where god-like powers are bartered about as if they were average street grub.

“Improved Cubicle Door” by M.C.A. Hogarth is a wonderfully enveloping tale of an office manager who must discover why his employee has fortified his cubicle with an attacking vine door and who knows what else. Dilbert meets D&D in this unusual comedy adventure, complete with a climactic end-boss style magic battle and a well-thought-out setting where even paperclips can make you laugh.

Two sales reps believe that they have won a relaxing vacation in “On Safari” by Mike Resnick, that is, until they meet the AI safari vehicle tasked with protecting them. Their well-intentioned guide and string of bad luck put the characters in a delightful panic in the tradition of Douglas Adams’ absurdism.

“How You Ruined Everything” by Konstantine Paradias is an engrossing second person tale showing just how badly everything can go wrong if your average, self-absorbed and overly confident Joe steals a time machine. Paradias takes the unspoken rules of time travel and turns them inside out in this piece, which could easily be re-imagined as horror. The crafty second person perspective accomplishes a tone which separates this piece from that of an amateur.

“Insider Information” by Jody Lynn Nye follows Sergeant Dena Malone’s investigation into an apparent suicide with the default help of her alien symbiont, K’t’ank. The plot is a little predictable and the humor relies on the life-or-death tension that poor Sergeant Malone must face.

In the “The Haunted Blender” by K.G. Jewell, our hapless protagonist must follow dangerous rituals to exorcise the violent spirit from the blender handed down to him by his grandfather, hopefully before his girlfriend’s book club attempts to use the kitchen. Jewel serves up an entertainingly improbable urban fantasy world where haunted appliances are an every day life-and-death nuisance.

“The Retgun” by Tim Pratt brings us two time traveling vigilantes wielding a memory altering gun, a gun that the seemingly all-powerful Prime Army has decided to wrest away for their own purposes. This tale of redemption comes with a healthy dose of interdimensional travel, intricate lies, and a seemingly hopeless situation.

“The Diplomat’s Holiday” by Heather Lindsley takes the reader to an intergalactic hotel where Diplomats can be their violent, sadistic selves without the well being of a treaty hanging over their heads. The text favors setting over plot, throwing a few interesting SF tidbits at the reader while reveling in the theme of repression turned wild.

In “Congratulations on Your Apotheosis” by Michelle Ann King, life coach Abby Fowler gets more than she bargained for when she goes against her own advice and summons a being who can predict her future. When this being takes on a more active role in Fowler’s life, the life coach finds herself envying the everyday problems now dwarfed by the presence of her supernatural visitor. Readers will be torn between sympathizing with Fowler and laughing at the obtuse scope of the problems she’s brought down on herself.

“One Thing Leads To Your Mother” by Desmond Warzel follows space officer Yates in his race against time to save the rest of the ship’s cryogenically frozen crew. All he needs is to enter his access password, which he hopes the ship’s AI psychologist can help him remember, if only the AI will stop prying into his perfectly healthy relationship with his dear mother. This story highlights the folly of human nature and places it opposite a well-rounded AI who is understandably frustrated with its limited ability to help.

“Class Action Orc” by James Beamon is told from the perspective of an incarcerated orc, Angelwood, who happens to be more clever than the rest of his species, but no less evil, landing him the task of defense lawyer for an enigmatic wizard who has made a lot of money convincing farm boys that they could be the Chosen One. Beamon makes it surprisingly easy to root for a character who, in a more reverent fantasy setting, would be the antagonist and enjoy it.  Angelwood also appears in a previous story by James Beamon, but the two stories are sufficiently independent of each other.

“The Wiggy Turpin Affair” by Wade Albert White takes us on a twisted who-dun-it escapade where a heartless assassin, Ms. Wackrill, serves as detective for an old college acquaintance, accompanied by her trusty robotic butler, Humbert. Heaps of violence drive the epically ridiculous plot in a way that your inner psycho can appreciate.

“Hannibal’s Elephants” by Robert Silverberg shows us what happens when enigmatic aliens land in New York, but don’t mount an obvious attack or even attempt to communicate with the human population that observes them in awe and fear. Meanwhile, our protagonist pursues his extramarital affair and philosophically compares the largest alien arrivals to Hannibal’s Elephants. Dryly post-modern, “Hannibal’s Elephants” dares the reader to take the characters seriously despite the comedic undertones.


Michelle Ristuccia enjoys slowing down time in the middle of the night to read and review speculative fiction, because sleeping offspring are the best inspiration and motivation. You can find out more about her other writing projects and geeky obsessions by visiting her blog.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #133, October 31, 2013

“Pheth’s Aviary” by Matthew Kressel

Under the former monarch, King Ashmedai, Pheth had painted frescoes on the palace walls. The new ruler, Queen Mashit, has different ideas and now Pheth is responsible for cooking birds for her. Though he is a demon, Pheth abhors the fact that he has become a slaughterer. To make matters worse, his poetic soul makes him an excellent chef. The hardest part of the job is killing the birds, brought in through magic portals, himself. Each flock offers their necks for him to break and leaves behind a chick. Thus starts the aviary which Pheth must keep secret from all the other demons and, of course, her majesty. Even for a demon, this is hell. The humorous tone adds just the right touch of levity to a story that offers a few surprises to go along with some of the unanswered questions. Despite an ending that brings the story full circle, the tale seemed to be missing something.

“Not the Worst of Sins” by Alan Baxter

The first few paragraphs here heap on revelations that take this from a standard Western to a speculative story about a young man travelling with a ghost, both of them seeking revenge on the same man—the boy’s father. As the story progresses and the two travel toward their goal, they encounter a Sherriff who jails the eighteen-year-old for murder. After killing a preacher and breaking out of jail. The youngster and his ghost friend also meet a fat bartender who seems to have their best lead yet. Following up on that lead, the two come across a small prospector camp. Determined, based on nothing more than name recognition, that one of the prospectors is, in fact, the person for whom they’ve been searching, the boy confronts the man. The ending twist is a head scratcher that leaves one wondering whether there was ever a point to the story.


Cyd Athens indulges a speculative fiction addiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.

 

Lightspeed #42, November 2013

Sean Williams‘ “Death and the Hobbyist” is a poignant and well-told tale about a woman in a technologically advanced world dealing with her “crazy” mother who thinks fabricators (fabbers) give you cancer and matter transmitters (d-mats) age you prematurely. Eventually, the Luddite forbids her family from using the d-mat, which allows her daughter to travel instantly from Africa to North America to visit her mother. Instead, Juliet says she will visit them. But in a world that no longer has freeways or airlines, it’s a nearly impossible task. In time, the old woman is shipped off to an assisted care community, but hope is found in a hobbyist, a man who rebuilds old machines. In the end, Juliet teaches her daughter that it’s about the journey, not the destination. “Death & the Hobbyist” takes place in Williams’ Twinmaker universe.

In “The Turing Test” by Beth Revis, 18-year-old college freshman Elektra Shepherd participates in a Turing test. Her task is to converse with two subjects, Red and Blue, and determine which one is the AI. The story is clearly derivative of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the doctors administering the test are named Richard K. Phillip and Andrew Deckard), and as such you don’t need to be a precog to foresee the twist ending.

Kelly Barnhill‘s “The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story” follows The Insect, a hyper-intelligent but lonely creature, as he travels to a far-away country to find the Astronomer, a mysterious man who “has never been alive.” “The Insect and the Astronomer” is a wonderfully odd, though at times overly written, love story.

“Sleeper” is the second episode in Matthew HughesKaslo Chronicles. The first, the novelette “And Then Some,” appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction last year but was reprinted in Lightspeed in September. In “Sleeper,” we find confidential operative Erm Kaslo returning to his home planet after an assignment. He only wants to play in the space liner’s casino and catch up on his reading, but after the captain picks up a “sleeper” in deep space, Kaslo finds himself with another job. The world-building slows down the plot, with much of the story devoted to explaining things like integrators and sleepers (which are small containers “scarcely larger than its occupant” that allow people to travel through space cheaply). This is most likely the consequence of writing such a short (3600 words) story set in such a big world. Two more episodes are set to appear in Lightspeed.


James Aquilone is a writer and editor, mostly of the speculative ilk. Visit his blog at jamesaquilone.com.

 

Lightspeed #35, April 2013

Reviewed by Cyd Athens

Once upon a time, as Karin Tidbeck relates in her story, “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain,” there was a theatre troupe. Its members were so obsessed with their performances that nothing else matters to them but the play. Of course, what is a show without an audience? A single spectator to watch them perform endless variations of events that they claim actually happened is enough to thrill the players. There is a sex scene here that felt gratuitous. Not until the end does this story reveal its speculative fiction bona fides. This is horror light. Readers who enjoy speculative tales about the theatre might enjoy this.

Anaea Lay’s “The Visited” is a prosaic eulogy in the form of anecdotes, interviews, quotes, and song lyrics. It celebrates the life of Manuel Black, a talented musician who, during his tempestuous life, served as a lightning rod through which the population could grok the Visitations, presumably by otherworldly beings, that occurred several times in Black’s lifetime. Despite his birth circumstances, Black grows up to become rock-star famous and charismatic in a way that makes people want to hang out with him just because. This is an artistic commemoration of an artistic life.

“It was a crystalline morning in early June, and the sky was wide as a saucer.” What a wonderful first line for Desirina Boskovich’s “Deus Ex Arca.” This is a story about magic, how it touches our lives, how simple it can be, and how little we understand it. Jackson Smith, the hero here, is our tour guide, showing us how little we know when he unwittingly forms an attachment with a benign-looking box he finds at a neighborhood farmers market. A wonderful story with a great opening line, an excellent cast of characters, and an unusual box.

“Deep Blood Kettle” by Hugh Howey is about an imminent meteor crash as seen through the eyes and experience of a young boy. The boy’s teacher, Mrs. Sandy, informs her class about the coming event. The boy’s Pa, however, doesn’t believe in things he can’t see. Scientists and television anchors are discussing the meteor daily. Soon, even Pa has to admit that something bright and shiny in the sky is getting closer all the time. A fast read with many farming metaphors.


Cyd Athens writes, edits, and reviews speculative fiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.

 

Analog — June 2013

Reviewed by Louis West

In Mark Niemann-Ross’ “A Cup of Dirt,” soap-opera aspects of life intrude into a space station where hot-blooded Russian sisters alternately intimidate and entice the men they’re interested in, while Enzo, an Italian station worker, laments his absence from his beautiful wife and his family’s farm. One of Enzo’s fellow workers proclaims that hydroponically grown tomatoes are “processed urine in red skin” and “lack the soul of real tomato when plant seed in fertile earth.” Enzo’s ancestral conditioning takes this as a challenge. On a space station where dirt of any kind is forbidden and the Captain rules with a smile that terrifies, Enzo must somehow create fertile soil. But he doesn’t know enough and recruits help, a circle of conspiracy that grows until virtually everyone on the station knows. Then the Captain finds out from the Captain of another station. A delightfully entertaining story. A definite read.

“In the Green,” by K.S. Patterson, is an interesting story of self-discovery that reminds us that “not normal” people have their own very good reasons for being the way they are. Luna often takes care of her brother, Ben, an autistic savant who can speak, but usually prefers sign language, and rarely looks anyone directly in the eye. Their mother generally doesn’t acknowledge Ben’s condition, but their grandmother loves to see them. They live on Petra II, an Earth-colonized world where the wildlife is large and aggressive. Safety requires staying in the Green, but Ben hears the inaudible sonics that keep the wildlife at bay and prefers the, to him, greater comfort of the Yellow, just next to the dark. When Luna accidently stumbles out of the Green into the dark, she has to come to terms with who she really is before both of them are able to find their way back to safety.

David D. Levine’s “Wavefronts of History and Memory” is a tale of self-discovery and broken-hearted love between a human and a cyborg. Kell is a radioarcheologist who excavates radio signals instead of dirt to understand the past. To accomplish this, she’s been augmented to enable her to merge with an interstellar exploratory ship, to become the ship in order to use its extensive sensory capabilities to study mid-20th century ancient Earth’s Tojo Shogunate of 9,000 years ago. It’s taken her eight years to return to her studies after Kell’s great love, Aleá, left her. Now she’s back with better equipment, back where Aleá and she loved and parted, immersed in her work to try and forget. The new equipment allows her to discover amazing details about the events of the 20th century. But the signal is corrupted by an overlay noise that turns out to be radiation from Alea’s personal diary from their last time in this area of space. Should Kell invade her ex-lover’s privacy, and is she willing to pay the cost of what she learns when she does?

David Levine is an accomplished author with over 50 published SF&F stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed Kell as a cyborg-augmented radioarcheologist. But Kell’s transformation at the end of this story pales in comparison to the trauma she endures when she learns the true reasons why Aleá left her.  

“Hydroponics 101,” by Maggie Clark, starts with a scene where Farmer deals with a swarm of spiders by snapping off their legs, piling their husks up and then drinking their bitter innards. Ewww! Loved it.

MudderTree tech is a form of rehabilitative therapy successful with the autistic and disabled, but also used as a form of life sentence for the criminally violent. The MudderTree is a nanite-construct highly sensitive to other’s thoughts of violence. Farmer’s sentence for mass-murder imprisons him in a huge glass sphere, a sealed hydroponic garden in which there is just him and a stalk of MudderTree. He has to learn how to make it grow and thrive. In return it feeds and sustains him, even achieving a calming bio-luminescence, as long as Farmer keeps his thoughts pure. Farmer succeeds far beyond his caretakers’ expectations in his rehabilitation and is offered transfer to a medium security facility. But he would have to give up his MudderTree, something that would rip away the peace he has attained.

Excellent. Highly recommended.

Linda Nagata’s “Out in the Dark” is another in her series of award-winning Nanopunk stories. This one explores what it truly means to be human in a civilization where a person can live forever by growing precise physical incarnations of themselves. But these aren’t clones per se, for the Commonwealth only allows one consciousness for a person to be legally considered human. It’s the law, rigidly enforced, and failure means death of the illegal copy.

Zeke, of the Commonwealth Police, has been assigned a case regarding possible police collusion in manufacturing a new identity, Shay Antigo. Shay had been brought back by an asteroid miner, claiming she’d been born and grown among the rocks. She didn’t exist in any Commonwealth databases and, after passing all the required tests, had been granted legal existence. But Zeke didn’t believe it. He was convinced that the local Sato Station watch officer must have accepted bribes to allow Shay to skate through the tests, and that she had to be an illegally-engineered clone. However, the more he probes, the more certain he becomes in the watch station officer’s innocence. What he discovers, instead, challenges his very beliefs that a legal human should only have one consciousness.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking tale, consistent with the rich, hard SF detail of the author’s other work. Highly recommended.    

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Louis West. Sub-atomic physics, astronomy, biophysics, medical genetics and international finance all lurk in Louis’ background. He’s fond of hard SF, writes reviews for a variety of Speculative Fiction publications and volunteers at several New England SF&F conferences. His own SF writing embraces both Nanopunk and Biopunk genres.

Tor.com — March 2013

Reviewed by Jared L. Mills

“Terrain”  by Genevieve Valentine

A Shoshone woman in Wyoming relates the struggle of her and her associates’ struggles with the inevitable expansion of a trans-American railroad. They were all escapees from a Mormon school, but that part of the story is only hinted, as most of the story is a dance around anything concrete. They are messengers that ride “dogs,” mechanical vehicles that are a cross between a motorcycle and a horse, but their land and way of life are threatened by the railroad. Valentine’s writing is wispy and mercurial, never giving away enough to satisfy the reader. What could be mystery and alluring in moderation is made a slog. It’s hard to get caught up in the story when hints about the nature of the characters is hinted at, but never revealed, in a story that is only several hundred words long.

“The Hanging Game” by Helen Marshall

A modern fable about a group of children who play a dangerous game with a noose that gives them visions of their futures. In this modern fable it’s not long before something goes terribly wrong, though it’s unclear what lasting repercussions this game will have. There is great imagery and texture to this story from the tall pine trees holding up the sky to the pungent stench of bear piss.  It’s a haunting story that disturbs with its simplicity, similar to the best stories from authors like Flannery O’ Connor and Shirley Jackson. 

“Running of the Bulls” by Harry Turtledove

A Hemingway homage about the titular activity as experienced by our unusual protagonist who is unusual because he’s a dinosaur. It’s alternate history that really has very little to do with science fiction other than humans are dinosaurs in form only, not psyche making the whole thing a little redundant. Turtledove crafts some truly lovely scenes and interesting characters, but the science fiction part is a silly distraction from what could have been a fine short story in and of itself. This story needed more Frederik Pohl and less Hemingway. 

 

Asimov’s — April/May 2013

Reviewed by Bob Blough

This issue of Asimov’s has just about something for everyone. All are well written. Which of them will be your favorite is truly according to taste.

The issue begins with a space opera adventure by Neal Asher. “The Other Gun” is a part of his continuing series of novels and short fiction set in the Polity(human)/Prador(alien) universe. It concerns Tuppence, a member of the Polity and his sidekick Harriet, a human being changed to resemble a dinosaur. They are in search of sections of something called the farcaster.  They do this on the desire of the Client, who is a member of a third race that has been mostly destroyed by the Prador.  In the course of this adventure we go through various set pieces of adventure and violence until the truth of the client and the search for the farcaster are revealed in a nicely detailed story.

To my mind this story was much like a Michael Bay movie in a space opera setting. Violent (but exciting) set piece after set piece with just enough connective matter to explain what is going on and keep us guessing about what will be coming. It is an excellent piece of pop culture cotton candy.

With “Writing in the Margins” by Joel Richards we are on Earth just slightly in the future. The only difference is that previous lives have been scientifically proven to be true. Each of us have a varied cast of past lives and will continue into another life when we die. This has surprising complications to the life of Tim Marchese, a cop in San Francisco. Death becomes an option and if you don’t like your life you can rob a bank. You either get away with it or you die and move on. If caught, you plead for death. The protesters have changed sides in the death penalty question with conservatives wanting lifetime incarceration and the liberals fighting for the death penalty.

The stage is set to tell a story about a rape and murder that occurred 7 years ago. A 7 year-old girl remembers her past life as the murder victim in the unsolved case. The action follows from that premise. But the whole story is wrapped around the personal life of Marchese and his wife, a paraplegic caused by a robbery at a bank.  Nice work by a writer that is new to me.

Colonists on an alien planet is the central trope in “Julian of Earth” by Colin P. Davies.  Tarn Erstbrauer is one of the colonists on Niselle V. He runs a tour that is based around the legend of Julian who was “the legendary imperial soldier who would not accept the war had been over for a decade…continue to fight against the revolutionaries.” Julian supposedly lives in the jungles of Niselle V and is helped by the rarely seen native species. Tarn was kidnapped as a child by Julian and retells his story over and over as a guide. A trio of wealthy documentarians engages his services to see the places that he visited during his abduction. This unveils secrets (from the documentarians as well as Tarn) as to the truth of the story.

This one is a solid piece of extrapolation with very human characters that keep you reading.

This next entry had me baffled by the end. “Spider God and the Periodic Table” by Alan Wall  concerns a cop researching the death of a scientist who is killed by having only his lower (or crocodile) brain turned into crystals, and with an unknown type of polymer incised on his forehead. This leads the cop to other scientists to find out where these two totally impossible things came from. There is a love story but when it gets into Egyptian Gods I got lost. I like fantasy and SF together but I could not follow this one.

Tom Purdom’s “Warlord” is the third in a series started in 2010. It concerns an alien planet that had two major species before humans established a colony. In past stories the colony has been taken over by a sociopath and three people have escaped to the alien species. These aliens fight each other, but to fight the human presence, Harold (one of the expat humans) brings these warring species together (in one city at least) to fight. This story is about the combined strength of the aliens, and knowledge of the advanced humans who are aligned with them, as they fight against the soldiers of the human colony. It has fast and furious action – more on the reality side of things with tactics and strategies being important, rather than just scenes of mayhem as in the Neal Asher story above.

This held my attention and was well done but it’s not particularly a favorite subject of mine.

Linda Nagata, who has made a welcome return to SF in the past few years, gives us “Through Your Eyes.” It concerns a young man in a very near future Earth. James Shelley has “been wired for almost two months and love[s] it. My cousin is a cybernetics engineer and he set me up with the prototype system I’m wearing made up of the overlay screens in my eyes, audio input and output in my ears, and a dual antenna of two fine lines tattooed at the back of my jaw. It’s like God’s vision.”  The story involves this new prototype as James meets with his girlfriend, then meets a biddy and gets involved in a protest march. The characters are well drawn and the prototype seems just around the corner. If I have any problem with this it’s even though it’s a complete story, it feels thin. Perhaps I just need more of this one.

My favorite story is “Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker. Karl is a very new author who has written excellent stories and this one is no exception. It is a scientifically sound work about a girl bioengineered to now sport wings. While on a winged race she crashes into a very poor country and is nursed to health by a local young man. It is poignant and illustrates in a subtle way the differences (good and bad) between the haves and have-nots. This is short but powerful – the best kind of short story.

“The Wall” by Naomi Kritzer is in reference to the Berlin Wall. It is a time travel story beginning in 1989 when a college student is visited by her future self to get her to visit the wall the night it comes. Many obstacles are placed in her way – not to mention her disbelief – but parental problems and money cause her to set the idea aside. Her future self makes many visits to try to convince her. If she goes to Berlin and why her future self wants her to go are two enjoyable reasons to read this story.

Leah Cypress portrays an interesting idea in “Distant like the Stars.” What happens when quantum doors are found that can make literally the whole world your back yard? Is it a boon to the community or a strangulation of variety and privacy? Sylvana is one of the few who can open doors to other places. The ability runs in her family. There must be two doors, one at either end, but once built it takes a person like Sylvana to open them for the first time. She has left Earth on a spaceship to get away from this situation but now the colonists are insisting on a door between the colony and Earth. Sylvana’s background is nicely sketched in and her decision to open this door or not brings about an intriguing solution.

The last story is by the ubiquitous Ken Liu. “The Oracle” is set in a near future. The Oracle allows each person to see into the future to the defining moment of their lives. Many see themselves happily surrounded by grandkids or in nursing homes. However, those that see themselves in jail for murder are rounded up long before they can murder whoever they will eventually murder and are jailed. Penn Claverly is one of these pre-criminals. He is visited by a young reporter, named Monica, who had difficulties with her minute of looking in the future as well. Mr. Lui discusses the various protests around this situation while weaving a delicate relationship that grows between Penn and Monica. This is an example of Ken Lui at his best. He takes one change and discusses many of the reactions to such a change while grounding it in the relationships of his characters. I liked this one very much.

Aurealis #58, March 2013

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

Australian fantasy and science fiction, to me, conjures up images of the DreamTime, of aboriginal men and women gathered around a small fire, the tiny light dwarfed by the light show of the billions of stars wheeling around the sky above. Yeah, I’m pretty much living on the stereotype of Australia. Throw in a dingo and a boomerang, maybe a shrimp on a barbie, and we’d have the whole Magilla.

That stereotype, however, isn’t on display in the fifty-eighth edition of Aurealis, which came out in late February and bills itself as Australian fantasy and science fiction. Two writers, one from Australia and one from Tasmania, gather together under the Aurealis banner to tell two very different stories.

Springing from the keyboard of Steve Simpson, we get to read the story of “The Apartment on Copernicus Street,” a tale of a very odd alien invasion of Brazil and the rest of the world.

The aliens arose from the center of our solar system, the sun, and rode magnetic waves to crash upon the surf of Earth’s magnetosphere. At which point the nations of the world promptly shot nuclear weapons to the locations of the nine alien ships, which promptly vanished.

It was only months later that the world began to notice something a little different about life on Earth. Cells began to generate more and more energy; eventually, multicellular life would create so much energy that it would spontaneously combust, translating to a brilliant blue flame that shot up towards the heavens. So it was with bees. So it was with all the humans on Earth.

All the humans except for Aldona, a mechanic at Damasco Auto. Just before the invasion began, the magnetic grapple with which she was lifting a Passat, overheated and a wave of phantom electricity washed through her. And somehow made her immune to the color humana, which translates loosely to the human touch, to warmth. In this case, a much more literal interpretation than would normally be given.

Aldona lives in an apartment on Copernicus Street with her companion, Xavier, a specialist in solar flares. When he is given a job in Argentina, he leaves Aldona for a year, only for her to find that separation will last much longer as the number of intense blue flames shoots ever higher.

Eventually, Aldona is left to wander the streets of Viamão, bereft of all life but hers, missing the movement of anything not driven by the wind. She is alone, awaiting the return of the alien ships that must be waiting to collect the planet as their own. She is all alone, but for the strange shadows she sees cast on the wall of her apartment. Shadows which seem to be . . . moving of their own volition?

Told in a languid manner, “The Apartment on Copernicus Street” manages to wring from its slow pace a feeling of quiet desperation. Even though cataclysmic events are happening all over the world, we see almost none of that in this story. Aldona faces the coming extinction of life on Earth with a sense of the inevitable riding on her shoulder. Almost everyone she meets gives off that same sense of quiet acceptance.

It’s an interesting stylistic choice on Simpson’s part. Instead of the loud hysterics I’d think would accompany an alien invasion, followed by a deadly change to the laws of physics, Simpson gives us a quiet story of acceptance and, possibly, hope. The story is well-written, but for a distressing tendency to use passive construction, but I’m willing to give that a pass as I’m thinking it’s probably there to reinforce the feeling of passivity arising from the story itself.

The story is a somewhat engaging tale that, while a different take on an old trope, in the end, doesn’t really do enough to distance itself from those stories that came before.

The second story of the issue is called “The Red House” and it comes from author Chris Large. If “The Apartment on Copernicus Street” was full of a detached lassitude, this story is probably it’s exact polar opposite.

Filled to the brim with vivid description, anger, blood and hate, “The Red House” tells the story of the rise of a madam at a house of ill repute somewhere in a Weird West where zommies think and eat brains, where dogs look just like people until the right phase of the moon changes’em and smokes come and haunt as they please.

And a young girl called Wendy, a fine-looking little thing, is trying to make her way as a nameless little whore for Jake, the zommie who runs “The Red House.”

Wendy is a girl who knows what she hates – zommies, dogs, and, most of all, smokes – but has very little idea of what she loves. Or even likes. Growing up a naïve little farmer’s daughter out in the sticks, the girl who would be called Wendy fell for a line o’ bullcrap laid out by a smoke named Gold Pan Pete.

The smoke told her she could fly with him to a place filled with magic and treasure and all it would cost her was her name, and that for only ten minutes or so. Gold Pan Pete lied ‘bout most of that, but did tell the truth about taking Wendy to a different place. He sold her to zommie Jake the drunk. Wendy made a tiny life for herself at The Red House, mostly content to live with the devil she knows.

When Gold Pan Pete took her name, he also stole knowledge of her from everyone else in the world, including her mommy, who did nothing as Wendy done got dragged away. With no place to call home, Wendy figured, it made just as much sense to stay in The Red House, if only to avoid the vicious beatin’ Jake kept handing out to the whores who didn’t do what he told ‘em.

All that changes when Wendy decides to do a favor for a good-looking woman name of Dorothy. Wendy doesn’t charge Dorothy for a roll in the sheets and finds herself in a bit of a relationship, but it’s one that Jake doesn’t approve of since Wendy didn’t get paid none.

Things come to a bit of a head when Dorothy appears in Wendy’s bed a few nights later, even though Wendy done locked her door and there ain’t no way Dorothy could of got in without her bein’ a smoke.

Right up until the last little bit of the story, Large seemed to be telling a story that had been told pretty much before. Don’t get me wrong, Large told the story with a bunch of new things added and told it in a way that really kept me rushing from one sentence to the next, but it seemed like a bit of a tired plot.

Right up until the end, when Large twisted the story up a bit into something different, but also something that, on further reflection, should have been obvious from the start. That’s a good trick. And certainly one I appreciate.

“The Red House” is a bit of a dense start, in that you have to get used to the narrative style. Very little is out-and-out explained, but I found that to be a nice aspect of the story, working out what was what on my own. The prose style was more than a little infectious, as you might have guessed. All in all, Large is a writer I intend to follow.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #117, March 21, 2013

Reviewed by John Sulyok

 “Armistice Day” by Marissa Lingen

What happens to soldiers when the war ends and they have nothing left to fight? What happens when they don’t have a home to go back to, because they were conjured out of thin air? Who do they trust when most people would see them simply unsummoned and magicked away? The sergeant-turned-cook in Marissa Lingen’s story has to face the plight of her people and understand the true meaning of armistice.

“Armistice Day” is written with a simple, straightforward style. Most of the plot takes place in dialogue that is pleasant enough. If anything, there isn’t enough conflict beyond the philosophical question of what it means to have a right to exist, though it is a novel approach to the genre.

“Blood Remembers” by Alec Austin

Prince Anton is concerned with “biblioclast and anti-Pope” Immaculate XII’s influence over the people. Books are burned and people are left uneducated masses. Anton takes matters into his own hands and uses questionable magic to fight back. What price is worth freedom? Any, if Anton will have his way.

Alec Austin creates some curious characters and an immersive world, but it feels like this story belongs in a longer piece. There is a lack of conflict that would put the main characters in any real danger, and so there is a lack of concern on the part of the reader. The story plays out, no twists, no turns. This story needs a little something more.