More Heat Than Light • novelette by Charlotte Ashley ♥♥
Last of the Sharkspeakers • novelette by Brian Trent ♥♥♥+
The Nostaligia Calculatro • short story by Rich Larson ♥♥
Coyote Song • novella by Pat MacEwen ♥♥
The Great Silence • short story by Ted Chiang and Calzadilla and Allora ♥♥♥
Caribou: Documentary Fragments • short story by Joseph Tomaras ♥♥♥+
Steamboat Gothic • novelette by Albert E. Cowdrey ♥♥
Ash • short story by Susan Palwick ♥♥♥♥
The Secret Mirror of Moriyama House • short story by Yukimi Ogawa ♥♥
The Long Fall Up • novelette by William Ledbetter ♥♥♥+
The Stone War • novelette by Ted Kosmatka ♥♥♥+
The Stone War • cover by Max Bertolini
Cartoons • Bill Long, Arthur Masear, Nick Downes
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by Elizabeth Hand
F&SF Competition #91: “It’s All Relative”
Competition #92: Updated
Curiosities: Twilight Stories, by Rhona Broughton • essay by Paul Di Filippo
This month’s fiction leads off with More Heat Than Light by Charlotte Ashley. This novelette is set ‘in a parallel world where the French Revolution has come to Quebec and revolutionaries take up arms against the English in the monster-ridden wilderness’. After an initially promising start that involves the capture of an English officer by Davy, one of the revolutionaries who is a woman disguised as a man, she (spoiler) falls foul of internal revolutionary politics and leaves the camp to exchange him for ransom. This is interesting enough for the most part but the ‘monsters’ aren’t ever really explained or integrated into the piece: for instance, there are dire-wolves and huge bears—the latter of which seem impervious to rifle fire—but there is also a flying beast called a Culloo that is never sufficiently described. It is also rather open-ended, so no doubt we will find out more in due course.
The second of five novelettes is next. Last of the Sharkspeakers by Brian Trent is part of the author’s ‘War Hero’ series but is a self-contained story that tells of porcupine-like human mutants who are captured by ‘normal’ humans as they attempt to steal from one of the human ‘voidsharks’. These are organic flying creatures that can transport humans and cargo internally. The mutants are subsequently taken to the human city, at which point they find out they are living inside a vast asteroid, and they and the rest of their group are given food and medical treatment. In return the humans want the pod to communicate with an ‘icari’ voidshark. The icari are enemies of the humans and the icari voidsharks, unlike the human ones, can travel in space.
This is all narrated by the ‘alpha’ of the group, who subsequently finds that not only is communicating with the captured voidshark difficult, so is determining the humans’ true purpose.
This is a vivid and immersive adventure but I have two minor criticisms: first, the initial skirmish could be more clearly described; second, I could have done with a bit more detail about the internals, size and appearance of the voidsharks. I hope we see more of this series.
The Nostaligia Calculatro by Rich Larson is the first of the short stories and is about a man who monitors nostalgia and notices that waves of nostalgia are coming in exponentially decreasing waves….
For most readers the fun in this rather slight piece will probably be in the telling:
The nostalgia calculator was waiting for him, display thrown up on the wall, showing all the squiggling waves of low-rise jeans, Cheetos, neuro-linked iPods, beehives. The status lights blinked soft baby blue, like always. Noel pulled out his Slate, which was loaded with the hack-app he’d bought off Casey late last night, and plugged it in.
“Download, motherfucker,” Noel said, because it was jazzier to say it than tap the screen.
“Did you say, mother of her?” the voice-reco buzzed. Noel pursed his lips and tapped the screen.
It took all of thirty seconds to put the entire recorded history of nostalgia onto his phone, and all of thirty-five seconds for security to arrive. p.66
Coyote Song is a novella by Pat MacEwen that gets if to a pretty good start with a CSI-style investigation of the death of a young Vietnamese man:
The body lay in a shallow grave behind the garage. Someone had wrapped it in an old shower curtain with a tropical-island motif—clownfish, tangs, and dolphins swam among squid and translucent jellies. The contrast between the bright colors and the contents was stark, and a little bit weird. At the near end, the plastic was torn and a foot poked out. It was missing three toes on account of the neighbor’s pit bull, which had broken through the fence on my left when the body began generating enticing aromas. It was the dog’s owner, horrified by his pet’s grisly snack attack, who’d called it in. Otherwise who knows how long it might have taken to find the remains?
I was just happy it wasn’t high summer yet. In California, the Central Valley sunshine bakes everything to a crisp from late June into mid- September. That dry heat can mummify or skeletonize a body in a couple of weeks with the help of local wildlife, insects, and pit bulls. With this guy, it wasn’t that bad. The maggots hadn’t really gotten started.
It soon turns into something more sinister when another man in the family is found dead—and in the autopsy it appears as his heart has been cooked, as if it had been microwaved…. The narrator’s Native American ancestry and magical knowledge starts coming to the fore as does her colleague’s Voodoo skills. Their suspect would seem to be the Vietnamese grandmother but she insists the killer is the ‘Angel of Death’.
Up to this point the fusion of the three magical traditions works quite well but at the half way stage there is an incident which stretches credulity a little. The story still worked for me past this point but in the climactic scene the explanation of who did what and why doesn’t really convince. So, overall, this one is a bit of a mixed bag.
One minor point about that final scene is that there are too many people and/or entities talking to/at each other, and a related criticism is that the narrative style is sometimes too garrulous, which is particularly noticeable during action scenes:
Something—the droplets my tortured nose put out, or some herb or chemical in the powder, hell, maybe the pure power in the stuff—flew out of me along with that sneeze. When it hit her—well, it stuck. Like a million points of glitter, it sparkled, all colors, but mostly red, and the points made a picture. You ever seen that kind of Impressionist painting? All tiny dots and tidbits of color? No real lines at all? What’s his name did that. Seurat, maybe? Van Gogh, too, sometimes. I’ve seen ‘em in the museums my Irish gran used to haul me through, trying to civilize my ass.
Pointillist—yeah, that’s what they call it. p.128
I would suggest the second part of that needs some trimming. That said, this story has an interesting idea and some good sections of narrative, and other readers may find its deficits less problematic than me.
The Great Silence by Ted Chiang and Calzadilla and Allora is a short story that grew out of an art installation created by the second and third ‘authors’. Ted Chiang says:
One screen would show footage of the radio telescope in Arecibo, while another would show footage of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. They asked me if I would write text that would appear on the third screen. p.134
It is short, affecting piece—told from the viewpoint of the parrot—about communication, speech and extinction.
Caribou: Documentary Fragments by Joseph Tomaras is a gritty political story about the sexual torture of terrorist suspects and a biological memory wipe administered to those who have done the torturing:
The interrogation method was simple enough. Bring in a female MP, preferably big chested, wearing the tightest cut of uniform. You pop open the top two buttons of your shirt to show some cleavage, then rub yourself all over the detainee, talking dirty as hell. The detainees were fully clothed in their prison-issue. The point was not to fuck them, it was to fuck with them. None of us was hot for hajji. Even with the clothes on they were rank. By the time the interrogators brought us in they’d been denied showers for weeks, smelled like camel ass.
I don’t know exactly how many I did, but it was a few. After the wipe, what’s left runs together in my mind. p.139
The story plays out as a compelling series of interviews conducted for a documentary. I found it gripping.
The next of the novelettes is Steamboat Gothic by Albert E. Cowdrey and, as with Charlotte Ashley’s story, this also gets off to a good start but tails off later. It concerns a ‘pragmatic’ Louisiana sheriff who has to deal with the multiple murder of a visiting film development crew in a gothic mansion and it is told in a colourful and readable style. Unfortunately, (spoiler) the plot of Satan murdering the crew is developed in the most perfunctory way and not really explained at all, or not in a substantial way at any rate. At the end of the story the focus is on the Sheriff’s family ties, casual corruption and business arrangements. Also, although this is not the fault of the story, it was an editorial mistake having another CSI/supernatural-type tale in the same issue as the Pat McEwan novella.
It has one good amusing line though (if you are not from the state in question):
Louisiana was fortunate in possessing many more people who could write books than people who could read them. p.171
I hope the author owns a tin hat….
Ash by Susan Palwick is a lovely fantasy and the story of the issue. It starts with a woman, Penny, who has been forcibly decluttered by a house-fire. She decides to build a smaller replacement house and stay downsized. However, the autumn/fall after her new house has been built the nearby rowan tree not only produces berries but several items she lost in the fire:
Penny stared. She stood. Straining on tiptoe, she reached for the earring; she had to tug to free it, although it came away cleanly. And now she saw, among the red berries the tree always bore, other things that shouldn’t have been there: flashes of gold, the gleaming edge of a favorite coffee mug, a square of paper with blurry blotches she suspected would resolve into a photograph, like a Polaroid developing in the air. p.175
She rationalises that the tree is somehow recycling the ashes from the fire and the tale proceeds onward….
At times this felt as if the author had written this story for me personally, and I suspect many others will have a similar reaction: a pertinent and at times emotional read.
The Secret Mirror of Moriyama House by Yukimi Ogawa is another fantasy, this time about a young woman who becomes involved with an elderly lady neighbour. Over a period of time, the woman discovers that the neighbour patches up dead people who come through a mirror she owns before they finally move on. Unfortunately this is lightly developed and ends up feeling a bit anti-climactic.
The last two novelettes close out the issue. The Long Fall Up by William Ledbetter is about a woman called Veronica Perez who leaves Jinshan station, an L-5 habitat, to have a baby—illegally—in zero gravity. Jäger Jin, one of the asteroid defence picket-ship pilots, is sent by the Jinshan corporation to kill her.
Initially, Jin is keen to do his duty (spoiler) but his attitude changes, partially due to events and partially due to comments made by his onboard AI, Huizhu. Eventually he decides to attempt a rendezvous with Perez but, although the AI is sympathetic, she is bound to carry out orders sent from the Jinshan corporation. That said, Huizhu works around direct orders when she can, such as when Jin tries to gain control of the ship engines:
You would have to cut these eight wires,” Huizhu said, and the lines crisscrossing the screen flashed on and off rapidly. My hands shook and I tried to memorize that entire circuit, just in case. “Using just the replacement-part printer, could you build me a manual control adaptor?”
“No,” she said. My pulse slowed and I steeled myself for doing it the hard way. Then she spoke again. “I have already designed the module and fed the information into the printer, but I can’t actually send the command to make it.”
“So that means—”
“I can explain the logic behind that limitation, or you can just go press the button.” p.222
I didn’t entirely buy the evil corporation or the childbirth laws—although I suspect the basis for these is the Chinese ‘one child’ policy—but if you can swallow these points the rest of the story is suspenseful and touching.
The final story is The Stone War by Ted Kosmatka. This is about a stone man who crouches in the hills and who is immobile unless he is attacked, whereupon he stands and kills the aggressor. The story details the hundreds and thousands of years that pass with various groups of people passing by and camping at the stone man’s location. Every now and then someone strikes at the stone man and pays with their life. Matters only change significantly when a war-mongering king learns of the stone man and comes to see for himself. Eventually (spoiler) this turns into a clever tale of mutually assured destruction. A bit slow to get going but ultimately a pretty good fantasy and one that’ll probably be in the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.
There is also the usual selection of non-fiction in this issue with interesting book review columns by Charles de Lint, Books to Look For, and Elizabeth Hand, Books. De Lint reviews, amongst other things Bookburners Season One, a serially published book, and the Nebula Awards Showcase 2015 by Greg Bear. In the first review he mentions not trying a similar serial book from the same publisher because ‘I’m on a budget’, which I found rather strange as I would have thought that they would have been delighted to give him a review copy for free if he had asked. When he comes to the Nebula anthology he says of one story:
Kenneth Schneyer’s “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” is told entirely in program notes, as the title suggests. They describe each painting and are accompanied by suggested discussion sessions. I didn’t quite get the story—it seemed to flit just out of my reach—but it’s a fascinating and somewhat eerie narrative that made me wish I could both see the paintings and know more about the artist’s life. p.75
If he doesn’t get it, what chance do we amateurs have?
In Alternating Currents David J. Skal reviews Amazon Video’s new series The Man in the High Castle, which I have already seen. He does a good job of looking at some of the sometimes necessary differences between the book and the TV show. Curiosities by Paul Di Filippo looks at Twilight Stories by Rhona Broughton. I suppose I should also mention this issue’s cover by Max Bertolini, which I don’t like for a couple of reasons: first, it has a limited colour palette that makes for a rather bland offering; second, I am not a fan of the blurry figure, which ends up looking like a production mistake. The Kindle cover version of the magazine once again has what looks like a mesh filter overlaid on the low-resolution image.
In conclusion, this is a strong issue. Not only do you get a memorable fantasy from Susan Palwick but there are also four superior novelettes. I’d also add that the stories that didn’t entirely work for me are worth reading for the parts that do, something you cannot always say about the less favoured stories in any given issue of a SF magazine.