Gardner Dozois, Locus
Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Rich Horton, Locus
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
John D. Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Jason McGregor, Tangent Online
Patrick Mahon, SF Crowsnest
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Editor, C. C. Finlay
Evil Opposite • short story by Naomi Kritzer ∗∗
We Are Born • short story by Dare Segun Falowo ∗∗
Leash on a Man • novelette by Robert Reed ∗∗
Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast • short story by Gwendolyn Clare ∗∗∗
The Care of House Plants • short story by Jeremy Minton ∗∗∗
The Hermit of Houston • novelette by Samuel R. Delany ∗∗∗
On Highway 18 • short story by Rebecca Campbell ∗∗∗+
Hollywood Squid • short story by Oliver Buckram ∗∗∗+
Still Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Working Day • short story by Amy Griswold ∗∗
Bodythoughts • short story by Rahul Kanakia ∗∗∗
Riddle • short story by Lisa Mason ∗∗∗+
Children of Xanadu • novelette by Juan Paulo Rafols ∗∗∗+
The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County • short story by Tina Connolly ∗∗∗
Starlight Express • short story by Michael Swanwick ∗∗∗
Starlight Express • cover by Maurizio Manzieri
Cartoons • by Danny Shanahan, Nick Downes, Arthur Masear, S. Harris
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Books • by James Sallis
Vanishing Act • science essay by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
On Finding Her Inner Kaiju • film review by Kathi Maio
Curiosities: The Great Demonstration, by Katharine Metcalf Roof (1920) • review by Robert Eldridge
This issue begins with three stories of average quality.
Evil Opposite by Naomi Kritzer actually gets off to an engrossing start with its tale of a post-graduate and his dislike for fellow research assistant Shane. The latter not only irritates the narrator constantly but has also managed to get a position working with their professor. While the narrator is trawling through the latter’s research papers he comes across an undeveloped paper on a ‘quantum viewer.’ He builds this, and it lets him observe other-world versions of himself to the point that his absorption in this process adversely affects his life. However, these observations, and the deductions he draws from them, eventually lead him to a better path in life and, in particular, he manages to avoid one particularly calamitous action involving Shane.
Unfortunately this promising piece rather peters out, and I also didn’t buy the narrator giving the machine to Shane at the end.
It would be unfairly reductionist to describe We Are Born by Dare Segun Falowo as a ‘golem’ story, but that label gives you an idea of what is happening at the start of this story. A village sculptress in rural Nigeria, who has previously lost three babies, forms a child from the Earth:
The earth, softened by pattering raindrops, fell away beneath her fingertips as she pulled the entrails of the land to the surface. Red mud, soft and thick; brown mud, dour and fragile, no better than a leaf sucked dry by harmattan; pink mud, heavy like raw meat. These formed a discolored hill around her, and as she dug deeper and deeper, rain fell harder.
With a lunge that thrust her shoulder-deep into the hole she had dug, she hit it with aching fingers — clay, off-white and exuding a warmth like it had been waiting for centuries, holding sunlight in itself. She had never seen it in all her time sculpting the medium, but she knew it would be there and she knew it would give her what she needed as it pulsed in her fist with life.
She scooped it up and began to work. Rain fell harder but the mud did not run. p. 21
Subsequently, however, the story unfolds its own myth of storm-borne spirit children.
I found this story a little overwritten and consequently slow-moving, but it has an effective last section.
Leash on a Man by Robert Reed is narrated by Porous Mirth, a genetically modified guard who works in a future Earth prison. They receive a young woman called Constance who has killed every person on an L4 habit called Crystals. It takes Reed about ten pages (of thirty odd) to get to this point in the story, and this is followed by a murky plot about the warden plotting to have Constance murdered.
I couldn’t work out the warden’s motivation for this, or fathom what happens during the sequence (spoiler) when she escapes. I also did not like the frequent passages where not much happens, nor that they are told in a stilted and telegraphic style. Take this passage about Porous encouraging one of the cons to greet the new inmate:
“When are you going?” I ask.
Russell looks at me. It takes him a few seconds to figure out my question, and that’s when he looks away.
“What are you talking about?” he asks the empty street.
“She’s been here a few days,” I say. “You should go to her front door, give her your warmest and best.”
“Yeah, well,” he says.
I’m having a little laugh.
He looks at me again, hard as he can. “You think I want to get some of that.”
“You’re our resident stallion,” I tease.
He would normally relish that description. Smile and kind of fling his head to the side. But not today. “I couldn’t get in the mood with that. You know?”
Russell is throwing out the impotence card.
I say, “You’re scared of her.”
“Yeah,” he says. No bravado, just blunt agreement.
So I say, “I’ll go with you.”
“You need backbone and I’ve got enough back for three men. So you can be the residents’ official greeter and I’ll be your chaperone. How’s that?”
Russell licks his lips when he’s thinking hard. Which doesn’t happen often.
“Okay,” he says finally. p. 43
My considered response was: ‘Get on with it.’
Reed used to be a reliable and prolific producer of short fiction, but I can’t recall anything recent of his that I particularly like. This one isn’t bad, but it is barely okay.
Tasting Notes on the Varietals of the Southern Coast by Gwendolyn Clare has an introduction from editor C. C. Finlay where he says “she writes a whole world into existence in just a few short pages.” He is not wrong: in short order the author conjures up what would seem to be an alternate Roman Empire that is waging a plague war on the Qati for their territory, vineyards and wine. The highlight is the narrator, a master vintner who only cares about the latter:
In Rambekh there is a body floating in the mashing vat — gray and bloated and utterly disgusting, though I could not say whether from the plague itself or the putrefaction after death. Such a waste, eighty or ninety gallons in total, all of it ruined. The whole harvest from the west-facing slopes above the city, if I had to guess. p. 65
The Care of House Plants by Jeremy Minton is a tale about two enforcers from a future biotech company looking for an employee who has absconded with samples from the lab. They arrive at a house overrun with modified plant growth:
Beyond the door it was humid, dark, and dusty. It smelled of overripe life and moist decay. I rubbed my hand through my glove, praying the skin was unbroken. Something had slashed me while I groped for the door handle. NuGenera retune my B-cells once a week, so theoretically I was safe from anything here, but it was a theory I’d rather not put to the test.
Trails of foliage threaded the verdant wall. Some plants I recognized — honeysuckle and roses, briar and devil’s ivy promiscuously pressed together with no respect for season. More looked unfamiliar. Beneath the broken floor tiles I saw scurrying bugs.
Fat-leaved violets spread across surfaces, coiling fleshy heads around stove burners. Saucepans and spice racks almost disappeared beneath elephant’s ear and peacock plants. A book poked sadly from the window sill: The Care of House Plants. p. 70
In the sitting room they find an old woman, the employee’s mother. An effective piece of SF horror.
I wasn’t particularly looking forward to The Hermit of Houston by Samuel R. Delany as I’ve never really liked (or understood) much of his work (probably because I read most of it too young) but I got on with this one okay. That said, this future slice-of life is not what you would call an easy read, especially the first few pages which has a rambling narrator give a garbled account of a future history.
After that it settles down to an account of a strange male-only society, although some of the characters are referred to as she (a product of the gender fluidity that seems to be either culturally or surgically available). The unfolding narrative (there is no particular ‘story’ here) centres on the narrator’s relationship with another man called Cellibrex and, alongside the account of their relationship, we learn about their world. This involves (another) data-dump later in the story when he visits the Hermit, where he is told a number of things, one of which is that the male society he inhabits is part of a population control plan. There are various other snippets of background information throughout the story, such as the mention of an (occasionally) brutal post-Facebook, post-Handbook society where the discussion of certain ideas will get you killed.
If you get the sense that I am struggling to synopsise the story then you are correct: it is one of those discursive and rambling pieces that would probably reward a second reading, although that rather begs the question of why the writer didn’t make it clearer than it is. Perhaps this is a deliberate choice to let the reader sieve out information one their own, or this may be an early draft of a longer work in progress. While it is more opaque than the kind of fiction I normally enjoy, I liked how Delaney creates a convincing world and some of the ideas touched upon. I think this short passage may illuminate what the story (or possible longer work) is at least partially about:
It works so much better now that we’ve separated the sexes and mixed up the genders — given them their proper dignity along with that of the ethnicities. All you have to do is dissociate them from where someone actually comes from and how they got here. Then you can do anything you want with them . . . p. 124
Before I finish up with this one, there is this at the end of the introduction to the story:
As readers of “Aye, and Gomorrah…” or Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand might expect, this new story would get an NC-17 rating at the movies and is not appropriate for younger readers. p. 105
If you forensically examined each issue of the magazine I suspect you could find a lot that is not appropriate for younger readers: violence, immoral behaviour, drug use, etc. Why a couple of briefly described episodes of gay oral sex calls for a specific warning I am not sure, especially in what I assumed was a magazine with a sophisticated readership. I note in passing that there is no warning about the sex with an alien in the Kanakia story (see the quote below) or the sex with cat-like sphinx in the Mason story.
On Highway 18 by Rebecca Campbell is about the disintegrating relationship between two teenage girls:
This was how it used to be. You are both sixteen. You will be an actress. You will be a world traveler. You will direct great films, or write epic novels. You will fuck a million beautiful men. Just for now, though, you’re lying together on an air mattress in a backyard and listening to a mix tape you have listened to a thousand times already and which has been distorted by all those listenings and by the cheap cassette deck in the car, and by the heat of summer. For twenty years afterward you will keep the tape, and when you listen to it, and hear the familiar distortions that time and repetition make, it will break your heart a tiny little bit. p. 138
They live in a town where a couple of dead girls have been found, and ghosts with knowledge of the future appear. This is an atmospheric tale with some convincing description.
If Campbell’s story reminded me a little of C. L. Grant, then Hollywood Squid by Oliver Buckram reminds me a lot of Ron Goulart. The story is about a washed up Hollywood director and an alien squid pitching a cop/squid buddy movie. Apart from the project’s unusual pairing, another script plot twist is that the Oscars are used to smuggle diamonds, which turns out to be dangerously close to the truth.
Still Tomorrow’s Going to Be Another Working Day by Amy Griswold is a short piece about a kid being repossessed as the mother hasn’t kept up the payments to the fertility clinic. It is a promising notion, and well enough done, but the writer doesn’t go anywhere with the idea.
Bodythoughts by Rahul Kanakia is about a young alien on Earth who becomes infatuated with a captain who was held prisoner during an interplanetary/interspecies war, During the latter’s captivity he had sexual experiences with the aliens:
And after those long talks, they embraced him, and he touched them in their deep-inside places until they spurted their smelly ink at him. And he wasn’t forced into doing this. No! Even now he could admit he’d done it because he liked it! Liked how it relieved him from feeling guilty over putting them in danger. Because if he could give them pleasure, then somehow the risk was squared and became even. p. 171
The story is told from three points of view: the young alien George, his three progenitors, and the Captain. It is an offbeat story whose last image helps make it.
Riddle by Lisa Mason establishes its jilted artist protagonist in a gritty urban background quickly and effectively, before having him meet a strange creature in the alleyway where he lives. He initially thinks it is a woman needing shelter, and lets it in to his house:
The overhead light never shed much illumination on his studio or his life. But he sees the curve of her rump, her haunches with knees thrust forward, golden fur ruffling her rib cage. Her tail twitches, knocking over his pottery wheel.
Edwin could accept that — a puma downtown. Why not? With a lair on Telegraph Hill where the cliff falls too steeply to build condos and the weeds grow thick. A puma could account for lost pets and lost children.
She’s not a puma.
The furred rib cage sweeps up into smooth shoulders. The spine of a big cat arches into a woman’s spine. Her skin is pale as milk, her biceps like a body builder’s. The human arms, elbows flush on the tabletop, are nude-smooth. Each outstretched human finger is tipped with more of those long, glistening nails. Or claws.
She smiles at him. Golden hair springs out around her face in disheveled tufts. Black pupils expand in her silver eyes. Her nose slopes long, her mouth full and wide. She licks her lips, the pink flick of a tongue.
In a husky voice, she says, “It has legs, but never runs. What is it?” p. 186-7
The story then details his sexual relationship with the creature, the constant riddles it poses him, and a later encounter with his ex-partner, Nikki, and her boyfriend. The story is a very good one till that point but I rather wish it had gone in a different direction thereafter. That said, it is still a strong piece.
Children of Xanadu by Juan Paulo Rafols is a resistance story set in a future Chinese hegemony. The latter aspect of the story is initially made clear by a striking passage at the beginning of the story, when the narrator is sailing to the offshore hi-tech city of Xanadu:
My presence was tolerated on the viewing deck where, fortuitously, I was left alone. The other passengers were bureaucratic functionaries, offduty military, and their related families. Those who did notice me assumed I was one of the serving staff.
While on the viewing deck, I noticed that the vessel was off-course. Instead of following the general contours of Palawan to the southwest, the ship cut into choppy sea. The afternoon sun was at our back and the green of distant slopes faded to blue. I tugged on the sleeve of a passing sailor and asked about our destination.
“Sightseeing.” The sailor’s teeth flashed. My stomach knotted in realization. Of course hydrofoils to Xanadu would be made to take this detour.
The other passengers anticipated this, too, or else they had already known. They streamed on deck from their compartments — a parade of dress uniforms, airy cotton shirts, summer dresses, and straw hats. Mothers unfolded umbrellas, protecting the hue of their pale children. Pairs and families populated the railing.
They did not have long to wait. The first ruin could have been mistaken for a squat mountain of rock, jutting from the sea at an angle. Crawling vines obscured its contours; layers of kelp accumulated at its base, giving it the appearance of something melted. It was only when the hydrofoil fell beneath its shadow that one could clearly make out the shattered windows, the bent antennas, the bridge, and the metal twisted by impact. Waves became uncertain eddies as they passed over the slanted, submerged flight deck.
The wreck of the CVN Gerald R. Ford had been driven by current into the tablemount of the Reed Bank. Mist receded; what had appeared to be islands and shoals revealed themselves to be the remains of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. A flock of gulls spiraled about a gutted flight tower. Beneath, silver fish schooled amidst broken hulls. It was a graveyard for more than just ships. Tens of thousands of men fought and died here. Their remains added to the bedrock, buried by coral. p. 199-200
The narrator is a Filipino doctor who works on a eugenics program that uses children who are kept in virtual reality tanks and artificially aged before being disposed of. The results of the genetic research are used by wealthy Chinese to competitively equip their children to advance in the ruling meritocracy.
This is an impressive (and longer than normal) début which uses a variety of SFnal elements to produce a convincing setting, has a well-realised narrator, and a plot structure that works in conjunction with all these elements. l look forward to seeing more from this writer.
The Two-Choice Foxtrot of Chapham County by Tina Connolly is a short and original rural fantasy about an unmarried young woman who gets pregnant with a stone baby:
Suzie never was one for chasing the boys, that was the funny thing. She told me later she’d been sent to get a packet of tobacco for her da at the general store. And there was Tony, sorting out the threepenny nails from the fourpenny screws, and their eyes met over the hogshead fulla metal and that was that.
There’s only two choices if you’re gonna have a stone-baby, a course.
The first one, and best one, is you get the daddy to marry you, and if you’re quick enough, you can catch most of it in time. Sure, the baby’s born with a little flint toe, or a patcha marble back of her left elbow, but that ain’t too uncommon in this town. Mildred Percy’s got a whole swatch of granite on her skull, where the hair don’t grow. She combs it over and we pretend we don’t notice. Our fathers maybe give Mildred’s mother an extra wink in the grocery store, and we pretend we don’t notice that too. p. 241-242
Starlight Express by Michael Swanwick, according to the introduction, appeared in both Esli magazine in Russian and Science Fiction World in Chinese before its first English language publication here. It is set in the Rome of a future, post-peak Earth. One of the creations left from earlier days is the Starlight Express:
His apartment overlooked the piazza dell’Astrovia, which daytimes was choked with tourists from four planets who came to admire the ruins and revenants of empire. They coursed through the ancient transmission station, its stone floor thrumming gently underfoot, the magma tap still powering the energy road, even though the stars had shifted in their positions centuries ago and anyone stepping into the projector would be translated into a complex wave front of neutrinos and shot away from the Earth to fall between the stars forever.
Human beings had built such things once. Now they didn’t even know how to turn it off. p. 246
No one has arrived on the Starlight Express for generations, until one day Szetta steps off the platform and is taken in by Flaminio, the narrator.
The rest of the story details his infatuation with her and what is discovered about her origins. This story is on the slight side but works well enough; in particular (spoiler) the ending convincingly limns the ennui that can be caused by losing ‘the one.’
The cover, Starlight Express, is another superior piece by Maurizio Manzieri. There are Cartoons by Danny Shanahan, Nick Downes, Arthur Masear, and S. Harris, none of which did much if anything for me.
I got on with Books to Look For by Charles de Lint more than I normally do, probably because there is more contextualisation than normal, as well as a number of the titles which sound interesting (books by Seanan McGuire, A. G. Carpenter, and the Thorne Smith-ish Playing with Fire by R. J. Blain).
Books by James Sallis covers two titles, including The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, a review whose synopsis just left me confused.
Vanishing Act by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty is a short science essay about invisibility cloaks, which starts by examining the flounder (a fish that camouflages itself against the sea floor).
On Finding Her Inner Kaiju by Kathi Maio is an informative column about the movie Colossal and the work of its director Nacho Vigalondo.
Curiosities: The Great Demonstration, by Katharine Metcalf Roof (1920) by Robert Eldridge examines what sounds like an interesting piece of supernatural fiction.
A solid issue after a lacklustre start.