Reviewed by Stevie Barry Continue reading Apex #60, May 2014
Reviewed by Wayne Harris
“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” by Matthew Kressel is an excellent story of a single huge creature, the Eye, roaming the universe with its story telling companion, The Meeker. The Eye is capturing stars as it goes. In their wanderings they come across an ancient artefact containing enough information to re-create a human woman called Beth. She has an interesting story but, before she is able to tell it, she dies. This story intrigues the Eye and it recreates Beth again and again trying to find out the end of the story and each time Beth dies before she can reveal it until, after billions of attempts, the truth starts to appear.
This story is very entertaining, right from the start. You get a strong insight into these odd creatures with huge life times and some hints at all sorts of interesting cultures they have come across. The ending is excellent although the final telling is a bit clumsy compared to the excellent writing before it. I recommend this story – it’s definitely worth reading.
“A Gift in Time” by Maggie Clark is a tale of Mouse, who wants to be noticed and even loved by his boss, Ezra Levitz, but as his name implies, he is a timid person. But Mouse is also a time traveller who rescues items, both ancient and recent that have been lost at some time or another. Mouse has presented a copy of Beowulf in the original Anglo Saxon to Ezra, but it has not aged and hence Ezra believes it to be a forgery. Similarly, Mouse presents Ezra with an original film he has rescued from a blaze at Fox Studios in 1937, but Ezra is still not impressed, so Mouse takes even greater risks to retrieve yet another item.
This story is interesting enough but the style of writing is somewhat dense and a bit confusing in places. There are several indirect references to people in the speech and sometimes these make it hard to follow exactly what is happening. But the presentation of time travel is interesting and quirky and the story has an appealing innocent air to it.
“Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” by E. Catherine Tobler is the story of an unnamed woman wandering in a post apocalyptic world full of bunkers, some containing dead people, some empty but with evidence of death, and where lights appear in the sky with some sort of link to the disappearing people. She moves on from each bunker, never staying for fear of losing her own life. At one point she sees someone in the distance. She follows but when she gets to where they were standing she finds a footprint but nothing else. Later, she comes across another man who also disappears as she gets closer.
This is not the usual story based on the plot of overcoming the monster. Instead it is an atmospheric tale of a journey. The story itself is well written and compulsive, especially at the points where she sees another person, but the ending leaves many questions open and so not to everyone’s taste.
Reviewed by Louis West
Ephiny Gale’s “Wrecked” is an interesting read about a journey towards self-realization, regardless of the obstacles. Veronica is a self-confident leader who’s been trapped on an island for five years with dozens of others after a shipwreck marooned them. Except Veronica is not Veronica, but Kerry, who’d agreed to participate in the ultimate of reality shows and had her personality altered before being put on the island. For five years she believed herself Veronica. Now back in her original persona, she no longer likes being Kerry. “Kerry doesn’t have a tribe, or any power here, or people in love with her. Kerry doesn’t have a lover. Kerry doesn’t have a sense of doing something meaningful with her life.” Ultimately, Kerry decides there is only one solution—to become the person she really wants to be, Veronica.
“The Stain on the Lake,” by Matthew J. Morrison, is a horror story about love become jealousy and the resulting unintended consequences. An old coal mining town is plagued by the ghosts of the Bergmann Sisters, who take their pleasure of whatever man they desire. The women of this town know better than to interfere, for these ghosts are violently jealous of their prey. Into this town saunters Emma, svelte and golden from hiking across 11 different countries. She captures the hearts and minds of everyone, bringing sunshine into the darkness. The story’s narrator, a barkeep at The Lamp and Lodestone, falls for Emma when she comes looking for work. But their friendship never becomes the romance the barkeep wants. Then Jackson, the village rake, steals Emma’s heart, and the barkeep is heartbroken. So much so, that he refuses to warn Emma when he spots the Bergmann sisters stalking her and Jackson, a decision that costs Emma her life and affects the entire town.
Nice steady tension build and compelling characters, especially the ghosts. Several times, however, the POV unexpectedly switched from the first person narrator to Emma and back, causing me to pause and figure out what was going on. Otherwise, I enjoyed the tale. Recommended.
Reviewed by Lillian Csernica
“The Temple of Celestial Pleasures” by Adam-Troy Castro
Jin is a dedicated hedonist. Rich enough to spend his life doing nothing but pursuing every kind of pleasure imaginable, he has become jaded, bored, and restless. The Temple of Celestial Pleasures is a legend whispered among the world’s top pleasure seekers. Jin is on his way to find it. En route he abandons his last concubine in a manner quite considerate by his own standards yet totally self-centered and cruel. On the way to the Temple Jin reviews his hedonistic history, a record of exploitation and satiation. When he finally reaches the Temple, he finds himself no longer master of his personal universe. He can accept the terms offered to him by Rhaji, the silver-eyed alien who represents the founders of the Temple, or he can leave. This is where the nightmarish aspects of the story begin.
If Scheherazade had added science fiction to her repertoire, it might well have come out something like this story. Mr. Castro is a writer of great talent. His style, his imagery, his utterly believable characterization of the corrupt, decadent, arrogant and clueless Jin make for a rich reading experience. The story arc struck me as an unusual version of the punishment plot. I find it hard to comment on the ending because while Jin thinks every bizarre aspect of his time at the Temple is just a means to the end he seeks, the story itself is more about the journey than the destination.
“This is How I Die” by Damien Angelica Walters
A nameless young woman seeks out a nameless male artist with the intention of having him remake her, piece by piece and organ by organ. The process begins with sketches and conversation as the artist gets to know her and gathers material for his design. The procession of surgeries is suggested rather than shown, preserving the gentle introspective tone of the story. The contrast between the external reality of amputations, replacements, extreme modifications with the internal narrative of the young woman is effective. The meaty elements aren’t the point. It’s the transformation of the person, the personality, that’s a greater priority. I confess some disappointment over the one concrete view of the young woman’s backstory. Dysfunctional home life, trying to survive on the street, the horrors of prostitution. This is too common and ordinary, too everyday for the strange world inside the artist’s cabin. It threw me out of the story. I did like the choice the young woman makes at what serves as the climax of the story.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur
A young elf flees a death sentence at home to a different sort of death sentence in a twisted, steam-and-sorcery-tinged New York in Fred Van Lente‘s fantasy “Willful Weapon.” To Cellach mac Rath, New York is a fresh start, is freedom, and yet when he arrives he finds an oppressive mix of racism and social injustice waiting for him, and he quickly learns that in his new city it’s kill or be killed, become a member of the feared gang the Willful Weapons, or become a corpse. It’s a life he accepts, at first grudgingly but with growing eagerness, until he receives a geis, a prophecy of his own mortality. Faced with the prospect of death, Cellach tries to flee, tries to take control, only to find everything circling back around, escalating with each crime he commits, each life he takes. The setting, a mix of early industrial America and fairy tales, is dirty and corrupt and original, but might not be for everyone with its abundance of violence and whores. And despite some interesting twists in the story, I felt the ending and its message were a little rushed, a little unfinished, and ultimately that kept me from fully enjoying Cellach’s tale.
The line between woman and machine is blurred in “Selfie,” a time travel science fiction story by Sandra McDonald. Susan, tired of taking vacations back in time with her father, opts to send a Selfie, a robotic replacement that contains her personality, whose memories can be re-uploaded later, in her stead. When her “real” self suffers an accident, though, and is put into a coma, Susan’s father tries to cope by continuing to take summer vacations with the Selfie. Unable to retain memories year to year and unaware of the accident, the Selfie starts to suspect something is wrong, and finally pieces everything together, confronting her father about what he’s doing. At turns fun and tragic, the story paints a touching picture of Susan’s relationship with her father, and explores the role of the Selfie once Susan is incapacitated. And, ending on more of a question than anything, it left me wondering after answers long after I finished reading.
Matthew Hughes continues the trials and adventures of Kaslo and his master Obron in the post-apocalyptic, sword and sorcery fantasy “The Ba of Phalloon.” Having taken Phalloon’s castle, Kaslo sets about trying to organize the survivors of the great catastrophe into something like a village while Obron continues in his studies of thaumaturgery, the world’s magic. Even as he attempts to bring structure and order to the broken land, though, Kaslo begins to suspect that there is another force at work in the world, one darker and more powerful than Phalloon. Desperate for information, Obron sends Kaslo into the Underworld itself to question their fallen foe. When Kaslo returns it is with new clues, but it is also to discover that most of the villagers have been abducted by new and strange creatures. An installment in a much larger series, the story flowed easily enough, and I never felt wholly lost despite not having read the other parts. Still, it was less than satisfying to be given only one part of the story, and not the beginning or end, and I’m not sure what I read piqued my interest enough to pursue the other parts.
In Seth Dickinson‘s “A Tank Only Fears Four Things,” a military, alternate-history science fiction, a veteran yearns to overcome her fear, and in doing so briefly becomes a tank. Tereshkova, a woman who served in war as a driver, finds the return to civilian life paralyzing. And when her love and fellow-veteran Yorkina asks for her help, Tereshkova opts for experimental surgery to overcome her own fear so that she can help Yorkina deal with hers. The experiment, though, changes her into a tank, not literally but mentally, curing her of her trauma and allowing her to give what she thinks Yorkina needs. When she discovers that fear was not what was keeping them apart, though, but what might have brought them closer, to a place they both wanted and needed, Tereshkova must decide whether life as a tank can replace the intimacies of humanity. Told concisely and respectfully, the story deals with some very serious subject matter in a way that is emotional, creative, and with an ending that hits like a missile, precise and powerful.
Charles Payseur lives with his partner and their growing herd of cats in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where companionship, books, and craft beer get him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared at Perihelion Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and is forthcoming from Wily Writers Audible Fiction and Dragon’s Roost Press.
Reviewed by Wayne Harris
Aurealis is an Australian, online magazine published monthly from February through to November via Smashwords. It usually contains two stories, an article that might be humorous and several book reviews. It is edited by Dirk Strasser.
“The Electric Itch” by Richard Viskovic is an interesting idea but not told in a compelling way.
Stian is a programmer in a large but nameless corporation. He has a neural implant that enables him to communicate directly with the hardware. He also has a chip in his arm. The doctors have assured him that he should not feel these devices but, despite this, he finds that they itch constantly.
He is a brilliant programmer but he has a thorny personality possibly close to some sort of autism. He is exceptionally good at programming but likes to pick and choose his assignments. After yet another disagreement with a fellow worker, and as a test of his ability to cooperate, his boss assigns him to what is perceived as one of the most boring tasks in the company. He must fix the numerous problems with a major piece of code named Yggdrasil which has been patched so many times with inappropriate code that it is dying in a metaphorical sense. In parallel to its mythic namesake Yggdrasil is represented in the virtual world as a tree.
Stian solves the problems but the solution has unexpected consequences on his own life.
This story is well written and the use of subtext is good. Stian’s flaws come across well, especially the parallels between Yggdrasil and his personality but, ultimately, it is just a story of a person struggling to cope with intrusions on his boundaries. There is not a lot to engage the reader until towards the end when Stian does seem to be threatened but the story builds too slowly and the impact is lost.
“It Came From a Party Supplies Store” by Mick Spadaro is humorous and light, an enjoyable read on a lazy day and a wonderful reference to the science fiction movies of the 50s and 60s.
The narrator of this story, Al Price, is hiding on a deserted back road in mid-western USA wearing an alien costume in order to scare his grandkids (as you do) but, instead of meeting his family on the road he stumbles across a car of armed idiots. The occupants of the car scream in terror and shoot at him so, naturally, he runs away. As his adventures continue the suit is damaged so that he is no longer able to take it off or speak clearly through it. He then comes across another guy wearing an alien suit. Except that this guy has some unusual devices and his alien suit is exceptionally realistic.
Al is chased back and forth by some dumb rednecks and eventually captured, all whilst still trapped in the suit as the situation becomes gradually more absurd.
The story is well written and humorous but I would not say laugh out loud funny. The writer cleverly leads the reader into the bizarre tale with just the right balance to make the unbelievable credible and funny. I think this story is worth the price of the magazine on its own.
Wayne J. Harris would like to be a successfully published author (but wouldn’t we all?). He hopes to resurrect his twitter account soon and start posting blogs, but he’s too busy writing reviews like this one.
Reviewed by Chuck Rothman
Clarkesworld’s April issue features four new stories, all with concepts that are out of the ordinary.
“Passage of Earth” is about Hank, a backwater medical examiner whose ex, Evelyn, shows up in the middle of the night with a corpse to autopsy – an alien corpse. It is a mysterious wormlike being, and Evelyn is coy about everything about it. The story starts out like a CSI autopsy episode, but halfway through takes a turn into strangeness. Michael Swanwick has a good eye for character and has portrayed in a realistic manner and alien race that is more than it seems at first. I also liked the pun in the title.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew is next with “Autodidact,” set on Srisunthorn Station which turns dead stars into intelligent spaceships. Nirapha is there after his planet is destroyed and volunteers to help with the training of one of the ships, Teferizen’s Chalice Principle. The two, along with the soldier Mehaan, begin to develop a relationship that helps Nirapha to deal with his situation. It’s a very imaginative concept, but I found the execution too talky and found it hard to really sympathize with the characters, since their backgrounds had too many pushbutton emotions.
“Water in Springtime” by Kali Wallace features a young woman with some out-of-the-ordinary powers. Alis travels a barren land with her mother, who is something of a healer, and who introduces her to her ability to have her consciousness merge with water to travel and see places where the water flows. The story is one of discovery and revelation, nicely done, but a bit too subdued to really engage me emotionally.
“The Cuckoo” is set in a world where transporters are the main method of travel and is primarily the description of a mysterious April Fool’s Day prankster who plays tricks on people who use the device that day. It sets off memes and speculation that slowly begins to reveal itself. Sean Williams manages to make a story of pure, dry description of events interesting and with some serious points about the development of intelligence. I even found the ending – which featured something I rarely like – very satisfying.
Reviewed by Cyd Athens
This issue is a homage to Isaac Asimov.
In Richard Zwicker’s “For Tomorrow,” humans have been dead for hundreds of years. The robots that remain have sought out other planets in hopes of finding life as we know it. Meeting no success, they drill into Earth and find one man, Jason, a mountain climber who died in a climbing accident, whom they resuscitate. In a few billion years, our Sun will become a red giant. The robots have decided that they need human input to offer options for survival that may not have already been considered. The story feels incomplete and ends abruptly.
“Electric Hatsuyume” by Deborah Walker concerns a robot that is helping its mistress prepare for an Ōmisoka party. While the mistress yammers on about her dreams and expectations for the New Year, the robot has desires of its own. This tale is more evocative of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? than it is of any of Asimov’s works.
Tackling the theme from a legal perspective, “Bluegrass and the Third Law of Robotics” by Peter Wood addresses the “what if” of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. What if the laws were, in fact, legal contracts rather than just programming limitations? Cecil, appointed as a Public Defender to a robot accused of a crime—running a Three Card Monte scam in Boone, North Carolina—is in a quandary when the robot, Roy, suggests that since the Three Laws of Robotics don’t apply to humans, maybe human laws don’t apply to robots. Unfortunately, the story feels bloated by taking on Cecil’s relationship with his wife, Roy’s love of bluegrass music, and the relationships Roy has with others.
Training one’s replacement for a job is one thing. William R.A.D. Funk takes this to a new level in “Replaced.” Here, Yin Tong is a worker who solders parts all day. His current project requires 400 parts. As we begin the story, he is working on part 378. After he finishes part 379, he is called into his supervisor’s office and given the opportunity to retire. Insulted, he refuses and goes back to work determined to work harder and faster so that his advanced age is not seen as a weakness. He increases his pace and finishes all 400 of his parts before once again being summoned by his supervisor. This time, there is no option; he is told that he is to be retired. Worker Three-Seven, a robot to which Yin’s 400 parts contributed, is to replace Yin—the last human worker in the factory. The tale marches toward an inevitable ending that makes Yin’s final insight seem pointless rather than poignant.
“Robot Mothers” by Adam Gaylord is a tasty morsel that broaches the issues of how robot procreation is or is not in keeping with the Three Laws of Robotics. When a robot reports to the International Robotics Corporation (IRC) because its two mothers, who had become outmoded, expected it to, Mr. Nash, Mr. Klein, and Ms. Holand are not sure what to do with the robot. An interview with the robot does little to help them decide. Of the stories in this issue, this fun tale has the most Asimovian feel to it.
Cyd Athens indulges a speculative fiction addiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.
Reviewed by Kris Rudin
The theme for this issue is “A Night at the Villa Diodati.” (For those who don’t know, the Villa Diodati was where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, in 1816.)
“The Firefly Girl” by Miranda Suri takes place in modern-day Venice, where Damien and our unnamed narrator are celebrating Damien’s bachelor party, with nights of debauchery and revelry. They arrive at a particular villa, where the ‘firefly girl’ holds court. No one really knows who or what she is, but seeing her will cost $5,000. Damien can’t wait to ‘bang her’. Our narrator is somewhat more reluctant. Suffice it to say that neither really knows what he is getting involved in. Suri does an excellent job setting the tone for the piece, and giving us insight into both Damien and the narrator without the need for much verbosity. It’s a tightly written story, with a suitably creepy ending.
“Death Warrant” by Michael Haynes is a nifty little story about a writer – a propagandist – who is penning his ultimate bit of prose. It’s a very short story, and not much more can be revealed without spoiling the delight of it. Suffice it to say that it is very well written and I enjoyed it a great deal.
“Gray Ebenezer” by Brynn McNab is the featured story of this issue, and it deserves this honor. In this story we follow the life of Chelsea, whom we first meet when she is just out of high school and working as a waitress in a diner. On this shift, a neatly dressed older gentleman has made a bit of a mess, which she has to help clean up. Through the following years, the same gray gentleman keeps appearing, and people keep disappearing, and Chelsea has to help him, repeatedly. The denouement of the story was extremely satisfying, in a horrific kind of way. It’s definitely a good horror story, in every sense of the word.
“The Skin Stealer” by Daniel Ausema imagines the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati with a little twist on what we know, historically. As Byron, Shelley, et al, are composing their monster stories upstairs, there is a true monster downstairs, on the kitchen staff. Ausema creates an interesting type of monster, but we don’t get any insight into why this monster must do what it does. This is the only drawback, however, so this is still a pretty darned good monster story.
“Servant of the Aswang” by Samuel Marzioli is set in modern day Manila. An aswang is a monster from Filipino folklore, similar to a vampire in its need to kill humans to stay alive. The method of killing is different, and this particular aswang has devised a way to even hide the deaths. But she is old and needs someone to help her lure victims, so she has ‘recruited’ an accomplice who is a young (former) university student. This servant knows she is luring people to their deaths, but she fears the consequences of refusing, so she cooperates. This is her story and I really liked it. I thought the aswang was an interesting monster, and the young woman’s dilemma was very believable and very moving.
Reviewed by Cyd Athens
“Perfect” by Haddayr Copley-Woods
Despite deviating from the classic forms, this tale is an ode. It contrasts the main character’s hatred for everyday people, places, and things with the perfection she finds in a complex equation. The speculative bits here are about the equation’s significance.
“Steel Snowflakes in My Skull” by Tom Piccirilli
In the aftermath of surgery to place three metal plates in his head, a patient is pushed around on a gurney by someone he cannot see. The metal plates become sentient and start talking not only to him, but also to other people along his endless route. Eventually he figures out where he is and where he is going. This is a story about the journey rather than the destination.
“The Cultist’s Son” by Ferrett Steinmetz
Even though the term is never used in this story, Derleth suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He has survived his crazy mother, a Quiverfull, who was constantly pregnant in the belief that she would birth the goddess who would destroy the world. Because of his upbringing, Derleth has no decent role models for how to have healthy intimate relationships with others. When he meets Gabrielle, the two of them must learn how to forge a path forward together. The speculative bits here are limited to those about the mother’s beliefs. Otherwise, this is simply a contemporary story about how people cope with having been abused.
“Repairing the World” by John Chu
Lila is working on her dissertation. She has developed a tape to mitigate intrusions from other worlds into hers. Bridger is her linguist. Here, the word means not only a talented multilinguist, but also a protector/bodyguard. Bridger is a same-sex loving man at a time when such things are frowned upon. As a result, he is reticent to discuss his dating interests. When his interest in someone splits his attention and hinders Lila’s research, the steps she takes to get Bridger refocused give her inspiration for her own project. This is a story about resilience and adaptation in the face of adversity.
Cyd Athens indulges a speculative fiction addiction from 45ø 29 30.65 N, 122ø 35 30.91 W.