Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
C. D. Lewis, Tangent Online
John D. Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Patrick Mahon, SF Crowsnest
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Editor, C. C. Finlay
Attachments • novelette by Kate Wilhelm ∗∗∗
Carbo • novelette by Nick Wolven
Big Girl • short story by Meg Elison ∗∗∗+
Stillborne • novella by Marc Laidlaw ∗∗∗
By the Red Giant’s Light • short story by Larry Niven ∗∗∗
Marley and Marley • short story by J. R. Dawson ∗∗∗
Water God’s Dog • novelette by R. S. Benedict ∗∗∗
Racing the Rings of Saturn • novelette by Ingrid Garcia ∗∗
Whatever Comes After Calcutta • novelette by David Erik Nelson ∗∗∗∗
Attachments • cover by Kent Bash
Down at the Goblin Boutique • poem by John W. Sexton
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books • by Michelle West
Cartoons • by Danny Shanahan, Bill Long, Nick Downes, S. Harris, Arthur Masear
The Science of Invisibility • by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
It’s a Wrap • film review by David J. Skal
F&SF Competition #94: “Explain a Plot Badly”
F&SF Competition #95: “Titles the Rearrange”
Index to Volumes 132 & 133
Curiosities: A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm (1912) • review by David Langford
Attachments by Kate Wilhelm is a traditional ghost story about an American woman visiting Britain. While she is visiting an old ruin with a friend, two ghosts attach themselves to her. Back in America one of them explains their different agendas:
He stood up, removed his hat, and bowed slightly to me. “Let me introduce us. I am Major Timothy S. Fitzpatrick. I succumbed to a heart attack on October eight, in nineteen aught one when I was seventy years of age. This person is Robert Moleno, who died in nineteen fifty-five when he was twenty-five years of age. And I repeat, we mean you no harm. But we do require your assistance.”
“I didn’t just die,” Robert said. “I was fucking murdered. Wade Orso killed me.”
“You started it,” the major said. “You pushed him; he pushed back and you fell down the stairs and struck your head. It was entirely your fault.”
Robert clenched his fists. I could see the knife under one of them. “Then he took Alice away. Making googly eyes at her, holding her hand up a little step, teaching her French, and she let him. She was my girl and she let him.” He looked murderous, glaring at the major, who ignored his malevolent gaze.
Robert turned to face me, a little more transparent than just a minute before, as if he were dissolving. “We were going to spend a couple of months riding our bikes, England, France, even Italy, and Wade butted in, invited himself along. Hot to trot with Alice. But she was my girl. You’re going to help me find her, teach her a lesson.”
“That’s all he can think of,” the major said. “Brutish revenge on a woman who is in her eighties if she’s alive.”
“She’s alive,” Robert muttered. “And she needs to be taught a lesson. Fucking bitch.” p. 14
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, needs a fortune dug up, and her help in liberating the other ghosts from the ruin. The rest of the story plays out entertainingly, with a stalker ex-husband in the mix. If there is one weakness it is (spoiler) the ending, where the remaining ghosts easily attach themselves to the cows driven through the ruin, after which they disappear. Why wouldn’t they have done that with the visitors over the years?
Oh, and in nitpicker’s corner:
According to the dashboard information panel, it was seventy-six degrees outside. p. 10
Unlikely. I haven’t been in a car in the UK that has had a Fahrenheit rather than Celsius display in years.
Carbo by Nick Wolven concerns a different kind of haunting: Jim’s AI-controlled car is hacked by a friend and later starts acting like an automotive sleazeball, informed as it is by the owner’s internet porn history:
I sat in the passenger seat, waving at the mapping interface, which as usual had become a geography of obscenities. Two hundred strip clubs were within driving distance. It was almost lunchtime, and there were three Hooters knock-offs nearby, and unless I shouted my override, Carbo would take the liberty of swinging by. Lingerie stores, modeling pageants, art galleries…if there was a naked lady within fifty miles, or a chance of looking at a naked lady, or even a chance of standing near a scantily clad mannequin, my car wanted to drive to it.
I couldn’t stop it. I could hardly control it. If I didn’t exercise constant diligence, Carbo would have turned my entire day into a round of lubricious possibilities. It wasn’t just the route-finder. Sexy commercials played while I drove. Carbo slowed down for salacious billboards. He insisted on photosnapping titillating attractions and filing them away for later review. p. 51-52
After various incidents (including what seems like a completely random trip to Mexico, which ends up with Jim and his friend being offered a radio pulse cannon by some dodgy dudes) his mother helps him purge the cars programming.
I didn’t like anything about this story: the narrative is rambling and baggy; it is unconvincing; the narrator’s porn consuming behaviour is puerile; and, finally, the idea of getting your AI-expert mother to sort the problem made my skin crawl. I have no idea what this tone-deaf piece is doing in the magazine.
Big Girl by Meg Elison starts with a great hook:
The girl woke up with a sore neck and three seagulls perched on her eyelashes. As her eyes fluttered open, the startled gulls flapped away. They squawked in alarm, but continued on in the gray predawn light.
She shook her head a little, still not fully awake. She blinked a few times, and the men on the fishing boat saw a chunk of yellow sleep-crust the size of a bike tire fall from her eye and splash in the water beside them. As she stepped into the water, the boat rocked as if it were passing through the wake of a much larger ship. She blundered forward, slipping and falling to her knees. The impact registered as a 3.1 on a nearby seismograph, and the wave pushed the boat out to the end of its anchor chain. p. 67
The story continues with various print and social media commentary:
SFGate.com Reports are coming in that a huge inflatable sex doll has been spotted floating near the Richmond Bridge. Tweet sightings or pics to @SFGate. p. 67
@3librasalad: hey @USCG is approaching #baybe right now. Image: a U.S. Coast Guard vessel pulls in front of a light-brown calf, kneecap visible above ship’s antennas.
@USCG: All vessels and individuals steer clear of #baybe phenomenon until further notice. We are assessing the safety of the situation.
@SFExaminer: The #baybe is a real girl! Sources have identified Bianca Martinez of East Oakland, age 15. sfexnews/1gt5hjY p. 67
. . . and at one point there is even a piece of internet amateur porn fiction.
Her continuing growth and the oppressive media scrutiny cause her to wade out to sea and she eventually takes refuge on a deserted island. The (spoiler) tragic ending has her eventually shrink back to her normal size and then, ultimately, to nothing.
Apart from being a story about “women never being the right size,” it is equally an acid look at the response of the internet and media to these kind of phenomena, and her objectification by society and the establishment.
I imagine we’ll be seeing this one in the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.
Stillborne by Marc Laidlaw is the ninth entry in his ‘Gorlen Vizenfirthe’ series.1 One of Gorlen’s hand has been replaced with “the stone paw of a gargoyle named Spar, who is reciprocally afflicted,” and they are both searching for the mage who did the exchange.
The story opens with a desert caravan which has on it a new series character called Plenth. She is a bard like Gorlen, and is heading to a once in seven years pilgrimage to see the hatching of the Prophet Moths. En route the caravan comes upon Spar and Gorlen, who seem as if they are slowly being devoured by clouds of insects. Sister Quills is ordered into action by the Abbess, and she disperses the insects with fumigant. Later, as Sister Quills is attending to their wounds, she offers some unsolicited advice to Gorlen:
“You’re lucky you stepped on that gnaggot nest in daylight, when most of ’em are out gathering carrion. At dusk, you’d have had ’em in your mouth and throat. They taste all right, a few at a time, but in such numbers they make breathing difficult.”
“It never entered my mind to eat my way through the swarm!”
“Might give it a try next time,” she said with a shrug. p. 102
The stories in the series have occasional humour.
Gorlen and Spar join the caravan, and it becomes clear that Plenth is the young woman mentioned repeatedly in the earlier series stories, the one whose virginity Gorlen took years ago, thus stymieing the plans of priest who subsequently punished him by performing the exchange of hands. The rest of the story has two strands: the first is the pilgrimage to the Prophet Moths, and the second is Gorlen and Spar’s backstory.
After they arrive at the pilgrimage site Spar eventually realises that the Prophet Moths are slowly being wiped out by the massive numbers of people who are now flocking to see the moths hatch. The eggs the moths lay in the roots of giant cacti are used by the local businessmen to produce an alcoholic, euphoric drink for the pilgrims called shu’ulk-ilk; this aids the pilgrims’ desire for visions or physical healing during the moths’ flight. Spar manages to communicate the danger to the moths after the first night of their hatching: the latter is a lacklustre event that ends in the first few that fly failing to mate and dying.
The other strand will be of much interest to those that have been following the series as it consists of several flashbacks that focus on Spar’s role in Gorlen’s past, beginning with what happened the night where Gorlen and Spar’s fingers were exchanged. We also learn about the threat that Gorlen was dispatched to defeat:
Spar’s vigil through the second half of the night was held atop the temple’s highest tower. From here, he watched the whole of Nardath spread out sparkling like a rumpled quilt set with dark gems; but what always drew his eye in the small hours were the stars and constellations, which gyred all night about the central void known as the Crypt. That starless region was steady and unmoving; long had it offered steadfast guidance to sailors at sea, to wanderers of the plains. But this permanent fixture of the night had lately begun to expand, to creep. The stars at its edges had snuffed out as if a pall were spreading. None knew its cause. Few worried. Spar supposed that it, like most cosmic phenomena, had nothing to do with him. But on that night, it became central to his life…as did Plenth and Gorlen. p. 110
Goren learns of the menace later on:
The priest raised his own untouched, original finger to the heavens, pointing out the Crypt. “It spreads,” he says. “It is contagious. A Darkness from the deep of space comes nigh. He’s found a mistress here on Ique, and in order to claim her as his bride, he must extinguish every star, and finally our own sun. You must prevent this consummation. You must disappoint his bride. You must send that great lord back into the Crypt, or else our world will die in darkness, devoured by the spawn of their unhealthy union. They are filling black jars with their ilk already, like caviar that only await the wedding day to hatch.” p. 113
There are then a number of episodes where Spar watches Gorlen and Plenth together as the former goes about his task of vanquishing the Crypt but, exasperatingly, this is sketchily developed and perfunctorily resolved for such a major story arc (spoiler: Gorlen essentially sleeps with the Crypt’s would-be bride).
After both these story arcs have played out (spoiler) most of the pilgrims are dead, the moths are saved, and the three of them decide to go to the wood that is home to Spar’s dryad lover from Songwood (F&SF, January-February 2010). Plenth is pregnant (earlier in the story she reveals that she has been pregnant for over a decade with what appears to be both Gorlen’s and Spar’s child). It seems the quest for the wizard is, for the moment, over.
While I enjoyed this I don’t think the novella is a satisfying whole. The flashback episodes should have been a separate origin story, preferably one that provides a convincing narrative arc for those events. The pilgrimage story could stay the same, with possibly more of a subplot about Plenth’s pregnancy, perhaps tying it to the reproductive trials of the moths.
By the Red Giant’s Light by Larry Niven concerns a near-immortal human on Pluto in the far future. There is an asteroid heading towards the planet, so she tries to co-opt a robot that is on an observation mission to help her alter the course of an asteroid. However, the robot thinks its mission to watch Mercury flying through the photosphere of Earth’s now red-giant sun is more important.
This is a lucid and economical tale (and one I would have used to lead off the issue) and a welcome return from the well-known SF writer.
Marley and Marley by J. R. Dawson is an interesting addition to the ‘go back and meet yourself when you are younger’ time-travel sub-genre. In this case it involves a 28-year-old woman going back in time to foster her orphaned 12-year-old self. The woman is under strict instructions not to do or communicate anything that will change the course of history but under the onslaught of her 12-year-old self, and the aftermath of her husband’s recent death, she eventually begins to wonder about whether it is possible to influence events without the Time Law Department noticing.
All the above notwithstanding the story is not really plot driven, and is more of a slow-burn meditation (perhaps too much so) on what our younger selves would think of the lives of their elders, and how the latter should perhaps be as intolerant of the outcome as the former.
Water God’s Dog by R. S. Benedict is a fantastical tale of a priest who serves a water god called Ganba in a society that is starved of water. The only way to fill one’s cistern is to make offerings at the god’s altar. Ganba tells the priest to gather three items for him: the first two are a knife and a strip of ox hide; the third turns out, after some searching, to be a boy. The priest takes all three to the temple where they find a young woman making an offering:
Waterskin woman drapes a length of fine cloth across Ganba’s altar. Even at a bit of a distance, I can see her work is beautiful: threads of blue and gold woven together to depict Him blessing our fields with water and seeds in planting season.
But He is not impressed.
He accepts her offering. Stone splits, swallows her cloth. Water trickles down Etemenkigal’s slope, down through a maze of canals and pipes, down to her cistern. But it’s hardly more than a mouthful, barely enough to fill a drinking-jug.
Still, she kneels and thanks Our Lord, and waits until she’s a good distance away from His altar before she lets herself frown. Then she sees me.
“Ur-Ena!” she cries. “Can you tell me what was wrong with my offering? You saw it. It was good cloth, wasn’t it? Ganba used to love my weaving. I don’t understand it.”
God tells me nothing. Still I say, “Your design was beautiful, but it might come across as begging. You shouldn’t look desperate.”
“But I am desperate,” she replies. “My cistern is drying up. My children are thirsty.”
“Yet you still have a household, and a cistern, and children,” I remind her. “Many people don’t. Be grateful.”
Before she goes, waterskin woman bows, barely bending her waist. No wonder Ganba dislikes her. No respect. May her cistern fill with mud. p. 193
After this, the priest and the boy are taken by Ganba down into the depths of the temple and pass through a series of gates. Each chamber is different: the first holds all the offerings given at the altar above; the penultimate one has a huge lake. They eventually end up in front of Ganba and his two servants, and the boy undergoes a weird ritual.
The story has an ending that doesn’t really match up to what has gone before (spoiler)—the elderly priest goes back to the surface but no longer hears the voice of his god anymore; the boy reappears, and it initially appears as if he is the priest’s replacement. Instead, he gathers men to dig a shaft down to the lake, to free his people from Ganba. Probably best read for the journey and not the arrival.
Racing the Rings of Saturn by Ingrid Garcia is a debut story that is, for the greater part of its length, about a race round one of the rings of Saturn. It focuses on a racer called Tsarki and a rival called Smouck. The sub-plot is about a planned uprising against the rulers of Jupiter and their puppets on Titan. These strands come together at the end.
This one didn’t entirely grab me. In parts it attempts a Zelaznyesque swagger but comes over more like a brash comic book (at one point the hemaphrodite (?) resistance leader strips off and makes a victory speech in the nude—no particular reason is given); also, the detail about the race either doesn’t entirely convince (the ring-dwellers’ predictive software) or makes it sound rather boring (but then again, I have a dislike for Formula One racing). This all makes it sound much worse than it is; it isn’t, but this racer is only firing on three cylinders. Compare and contrast with the Niven story.
Whatever Comes After Calcutta by David Erik Nelson has an unusual beginning where the central character, a public defender called Lyle Morimoto, discovers his wife in bed with a police detective (“Good Cop”). At which point his wife shoots him in the head. Although this doesn’t kill him, he has a bullet crease in his cheek and an ear hanging off. As he lies on the floor, and before he passes out, he hears them planning to go to a cottage the couple own. Once he regains consciousness he superglues his ear to his head and decides to follow them. He is not particularly annoyed about any of this but thinks that events merit an explanation.
Things get weirder. While he is on the road he sees a woman in the process of being hanged from a tree. Morimoto stops his car and rushes to pull her down. He proceeds to slacken the network cable from around her neck:
He finally got the knot to budge a single gasping inch, and then another, and then they were yanking the cord freely. She immediately rolled over and crawled blindly away on elbow and knees, hacking and grinding like an engine full of sand, one arm still bound. Lyle had a single panting moment to notice how clean the soles of the woman’s feet were, soft and seashell pink as a toddler’s, before he heard a throat clearing behind him.
“Pardon me?” someone asked. “No offense or nothing, but what the heck do you think you’re doing?”
Lyle rose slowly, sliding his hand into his jacket pocket as he did so, finding his pistol and the “Good Cop’s” badge. The owner of the twang was clear-eyed and amiable. He wore a filthy mesh-backed Marlboro cap and a similarly grimy work jacket, the cuffs black and chewed up from long years spent elbow-deep in engines. EARL was embroidered over his heart in red floss.
There was a crowd of very surprised people behind Earl, standing or sitting in lawn chairs shaded by the collapsing barn. To Lyle’s eye, they were prototypical rural Ohio: white people, men and women, mostly dressed like they’d just got off from work, mechanics and Subway sandwich girls and schoolteachers and farmers. There were even a few kids, seated cross-legged on a wide, flat board to keep their pants clean.
The youngest looked confused by what had been — and was still — happening, but the older kids were keenly, sickeningly thrilled, both by the spectacle of the hanging of the woman and by the action-hero antics that had interrupted the show.
Lyle immediately understood how he’d managed to miss the spectators: He’d been focused on the woman fighting the strangling line in the blazing light of the sunset. They’d been sitting quietly in the barn’s deep shadow, as quiet and watchful and unobtrusive as birds on a wire. He glanced at his watch. Fewer than five minutes had passed since he’d looked up from his car radio. Behind Lyle, the woman hacked and retched, dragging her breath down her throat like a blade scraping a dry whetstone.
“You could have killed this woman,” he panted.
“Well, yeah,” Earl said. “Duh. If you hadn’t messed it up. Now we gotta start from scratch. She ain’t even a little dead.” p. 239-240
From this point on the story gets exponentially more surreal and loopy, and at points you are unsure whether this is going to turn out to be a crazed militia story (the group are heavily armed and insist they are “sovereign citizens”), a supernatural horror (they had subjected the hanging woman to a common law trial for witchcraft), or both. The last section impressively ties the Wife/“Good Cop” and Hanging Woman subplots together in an unexpected way.
I liked this as much as Nelson’s previous story here a few months ago, i.e., a lot. This is a piece of modern horror as good as anything Fritz Leiber did, and definitely one for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.
The cover for Wilhelm’s story Attachments is a flat, amateurish-looking affair, not helped by the dull background. I was surprised to see it was by Kent Bash, an occasional contributor. If you lay this issue beside the last, which features Manzieri’s cover (also a portrait) the difference in quality is stark.
Down at the Goblin Boutique by John W. Sexton is quite a good poem about a coat of sand, and the potential perils of wearing it.
There are the usual Books to Look For and Musing on Books columns, and my usual moans: scattershot selection in the first, over-synopsising in the second.
The Cartoons are by Danny Shanahan, Bill Long, Nick Downes, S. Harris, and Arthur Masear. I cracked a smile at Long’s ‘Falling Rocks’ warning sign (stone gargoyles defecating from a high building), and at Danny Shanahan’s ‘Rip “Power Nap” Van Winkle’ one.
The Science of Invisibility by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty is really an essay about human sight and not what the title suggests but, as usual, an interesting one. As ever it is full of interesting snippets:
The distribution of rods and cones in the retina explains a trick that night watchmen and astronomers use. To spot an intruder in a dark warehouse or a dim star in the night sky, they never stare directly at what they’re trying to see. Instead, they look slightly above or below the object of interest. Try this trick yourself when you are trying to see something in dim light.
When you stare at something, you are focusing its image on the fovea. In daylight, that’s great: The densely packed cones in the fovea give you a very detailed, colored view of the world. But when your cones aren’t functioning, staring directly at something you want to see is a rookie mistake. Since the fovea lacks rods, it’s virtually blind in the dark. When you look just above or below something, the image falls outside the fovea, on the periphery of the retina, where there are more rods than cones, giving you a much better view. p. 179
Sadly, the essay is followed by a short note reporting that, as the issue was being compiled, Paul Doherty passed away from complications due to cancer. A sad loss for the magazine as well as family and friends and colleagues.2
It’s a Wrap by David J. Skal reviews The Mummy movie, and gives an interesting account of Universal Studios involvement with horror over the decades.
F&SF Competition #94: “Explain a Plot Badly” has the results of that contest, and F&SF Competition #95: “Titles the Rearrange” starts the next one. I think they are beginning to struggle for competition ideas.
There is the usual Coming Attractions, and the annual Index to Volumes 132 & 133.3 The latter shows no prolific fiction contributors (I think Robert Reed sometimes had five or six entries in some years): a number have two stories this year, but none have three or more.
Curiosities: A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm (1912) by David Langford looks at what sounds like an interesting collection of Xmas parodies, including ones of Kipling, Hardy and Wells. These three at least are fantasy or sf.
There are a number of solid stories in this issue, and it is worth getting for the Nelson story alone. ●
1. I don’t normally read any previous series stories otherwise these reviews would take twice as long as they do (which is too long). However, in this case I didn’t particularly want to jump in at the last story in a cycle, and I’ve quite enjoyed a couple of recent Marc Laidlaw stories, so I made an exception and read the previous eight. I’m glad I did given the content of this issue’s story, but also because they are an entertaining bunch ranging in quality from good-but-minor to very good (the standout story is Quickstone (F&SF, March 2009) which, surprisingly, did not feature in any of the ‘Best Of’ anthologies or short lists for the year, according to ISFDB. My other favourites include Songwood (F&SF, January-February 2010); Rooksnight (F&SF, May-June 2014; and Bellweather, (Lightspeed #40, September 2013).
2. Paul and Pat’s article is here, with the obituary note at the end.
3. Seeing as it is the end of the F&SF publishing year here are my Hugo Award nomination choices from F&SF (I’ll probably only have read F&SF and Asimov’s SF in their entirety before the initial ballot so this is a bit unfair on the other magazines. That said, these two magazines were woefully under-represented last year, probably because their fiction is not online for free.)
My English Name • novelette by R. S. Benedict
There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House • novella by David Erik Nelson
I Am Not I • novelette by G. V. Anderson
Whatever Comes After Calcutta • novelette by David Erik Nelson
C. C. Finlay for Best Editor (short-form).
This is just the tip of a quality iceberg, with about a dozen stories close behind. I may add more if I have any picks left after getting around to some of the other magazines. ●