The second half of my February review concludes with monsters of the deep, alien plant invaders, a killer field mower, and more bees. I’ve scoured some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy magazines available online and these are my thoughts. (Possible spoilers ahead!)
BENEATH CEASELESS SKIES
Issue #219 — Feb. 16, 2017
“The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County” by Jeremy Sim
Black Jonas, the hero of “Dinosaur Rider,” enters town just as he leaves it, on the heels of catastrophe and on the back of his pleesaur, Essie. When he arrives in the town that he hasn’t seen in twenty years he has one thing on his agenda: find the man named Doone and take what’s owed from him. Wherever this town is, it’s not attached to the continent, at least not by solid ground, and Black Jonas needs money to take a floating steam train to the mainland. I cannot stress how fantastic that premise is. It opens up so many avenues for conflict: Who else might Black Jonas encounter while he’s in town? What will happen when he finds Doone? And none of that even scratches the surface of Black Jonas the character, who simultaneously is a bit of an outsider and has a marred history with these folk.
The youngster wags a finger. “I swear, you look an awful lot like a body named Gentle Jonas. Notorious feller, back in the old days. Real ace with a gun. Skipped town, wanted for sixteen counts of murder. Or so they say.” He says the last part a little nervous-like, as if he’s just realized who he might be talking to.
Read it to find out why. My only complaint about “Dinosaur Rider” is that it’s too short and too understocked in the dinosaur riding department, but, as the name might suggest, I should have seen coming.
Issue #125 — Feb. 2017
“How Bees Fly” by Simone Heller
When I started “How Bees Fly,” I thought I’d fallen into a bowl of Future Speak soup. They come early and fast: not just skin but stormskin, not the sky but the leaden sky, not a storm but a chemstorm, etc. Regardless, the novelette was moving along nicely and the multitude of concepts actually played into the plot rather than serving as science fiction wallpaper. “Bees” is about an unnamed race’s reaction after they encounter a pair of demons in their territory, which when discovered are supposed to be purged, down to the bones and the very fields they walked on. Salpe, the community’s midwife, is the first to see the demons and approaches them accidentally. She’ll be forced to bear the consequences of not only having met the demons on the road but also for not exterminating them herself. It’s a thoughtful consideration of community, outsiders, and the quite literal demonization of others. If you’re comfortable with a steep learning curve and total immersion in a futuristic setting, give this one a go.
“Rain Ship” by Chi Hui (translated by Andy Dudak)
You can’t go wrong with a story about intelligent rats in space. Especially a story with the amount of worldbuilding and mythology built into “Rain Ship,” so much information in fact that the author had to separate some of it out into footnotes. Originally, I wasn’t even aware that I was reading a story about the intelligent descendants of rats—the opening is somewhat deceptive in that way. You don’t find out they’re rat-like until you hit the second footnote. An interesting choice but it worked. There is some danger in the footnote approach, however, because it relies on the reader actually reading the footnotes chronologically during the story. Had I skipped jumping back and forth between them, I would have missed pivotal information about the story. (There’s even a near duplicate: footnotes 11 and 16 convey the same thing just reworded.) Whereas the footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury 2004) are added flavor, the ones in “Rain Ship” were necessary for a complete story.
That aside, Chi Hui has given us an intriguing view of the future. In this timeline, humans have been superseded by the Rudera. In fact, humans are an extinct race, represented only by the artifacts and structures left behind. One such structure is the Rain Ship, a mysterious spacecraft that every Rudera this side of Hill Four wants to get their paw on. Our protagonist Jin gets pulled into a dust-up involving fellow mercenaries, archaeologists, and space pirates. She’ll have to sort out the mess after jumping portal to the Rain Ship, and what she discovers there isn’t just the answer to one of the most terrible crimes in recent Rudera history, but another revelation with implications that reverberate across the universe. It’s a well-detailed novella with echoes of the writer’s home, China, throughout, and a must read for anyone with a penchant for pint-sized critters conquering space.
#24 — Feb. 1, 2017
“The Avatar In Us All” by J.D. Carelli
Can we live without our physical forms? Technically, no. But can we exist after we die? Pictures, words, and music survive their creators, and as vestiges of their creators’ lives, continue to exist for them on their behalf. Think of the avatars from this story in the same way—they’re a digital archive of our existence, and in the case of the protagonist’s daughter, Chrissy, the avatar in the story serves as a proxy for the real thing in lieu of her presence. The protagonist lives across the world from her: him on the west coast of the United States and her in Guangzhou, China. She speaks via the avatar to her father—imagine Skype or FaceTime but broadcasted over a physical manifestation of the daughter. It looks and sounds like her, at least when she’s actively speaking. When the daughter is away, the avatar taps into the archive of Chrissy to mimic her speech, even down to tone of voice. But it’s still not her. The protagonist can see it in the eyes: “Her face is her mother’s, but when I look for my eyes, all I see are the blank, grey eyes of an android.” Carelli captures the strain that this kind of long distance relationship can cause between father and daughter, made even worse because the aging father refuses to travel and also refuses to let his daughter come to him due to her commitment to her work in China. His by-proxy relationship with Chrissy’s avatar is indicative of the connections that we maintain currently, where the people we know at a distance are seemingly trapped inside the devices that we carry around with ourselves. But even with its somber ending, the story is a reminder that these avatars are a technology to be praised, for while they can never truly replicate the real thing, they serve a fundamental purpose at preserving the ones that we can no longer be with. Meditative and enduring. If you’re into VoIP technology, this one will stick with you.
Issue #81 — Feb. 2017
“Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare” by Seanan McGuire (originally from Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs Aliens, 2014)
Plants from outer space are not a new idea in the science fiction genre, but when you read “Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare” you’ll be hard pressed to come up with a more entertaining and devastating example. Our anti-heroine Lady Antheia is an alien plant who’s taken over the body of a servant and in doing so intertwines herself with the servant’s household, namely Sir Arthur Blackwood, botanist to the queen. How fruitful, then, that Lady Antheia came upon this predicament, which allows her to get herself into all sorts of trouble. I don’t want to spoil it by digging too much into the plot, but let’s just say that Lady Antheia’s alien form is not of the olive tree variety. As indicated by the anthology that originally printed this story, it’s one of steampunk and sci-fi, although it’s never too heavy on either, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on the reader. I for one found the mix just right. The tempo, characterization, themes, and action all work splendidly in this quirky little tale, which surprisingly is almost as long as a novelette, but it’s so snappy and light on its feet—er, suckers—that you’ll hardly have noticed the time. A less talented author might have let the whole thing go to seed. Instead, McGuire nurtures this one to a blossom.
“The Last Garden” by Jack Skillingstead
I had a lot of fun reading this story. In it, main character Casey is stranded on Earth after an inexplicable virus has swept across the globe and wiped out a good portion of humanity. Nuclear war finishes off the rest. Casey was part of a crew that was orbiting space when Earth-side humans went extinct, and even though the last communications from Earth told all spacecraft not to return, they were forced to land in order to resupply. Unfortunately, only Casey survives. It would seem Earth is abuzz with drones and turrets still trying to defend the planet from the humans that no longer exist, and her shuttle is shot down. Enter the Surrogate, a saucy and at times cheeky robot (“Apologies. Our relationship has caused a symbiotic evolution of my algorithms. It is by design,”) that hitches itself to Casey in order to protect her. For now, she’s relatively safe, but Casey wants to retrieve the embryos of Important Persons held in cryostasis inside of a vault buried under the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. These embryos are the last vestiges of humanity, except their only hope appears to be at the end of her rope. But she must survive in order to incubate the fragile embryos: she is the titular last garden. The story moves quickly and is actually fairly short but still manages to be packed with action and entertaining banter between Casey and the Surrogate. The plot is simple and exciting, although I would have liked to have seen a stronger emotional punch surrounding Casey’s revelation. But don’t let that hold you back from getting your fingers dirty in “The Last Garden.”
“The Elixir of Youth” by Brian Stableford (originally from An Oasis of Horror, 2008)
This novelette could have been half as short and still as effective, nevertheless it’s a fun romp that combines the title’s eponymous artifact with something more sinister. It’s difficult not to spoil the whole story by reviewing it, so here’s just the setup: In the Duchy of Aquitaine, Frederic Paschel is virtually unrivaled in his winemaking enterprise. He has two sons: Gilbert and Benedict. Gilbert is rebellious and won’t take up winemaking. Instead he decides to go adventuring in Arabia and Africa. His younger brother, Benedict, is more subservient to his father and bears the brunt of manual labor at the winery. He grows resentful of this and confronts his father one day, asking for a share in the profits. Frederic rebuffs his son and reminds him that the hard work, and by extension the winery’s success, will produce a hefty inheritance. Benedict agrees begrudgingly. Everything changes when the older brother Gilbert returns from his travels with—you guessed it—the elixir of youth. Needless to say, Gilbert tries to strike a deal with Benedict, but its Benedict instead who ends up striking Gilbert. A body ends up in a barrel—a body filled with the elixir of youth. The wine poured from the barrel is eventually tasted and declared phenomenal:
Corentin had already begun to frown before he set the cup to his lips, in preparation for the customary battle over price, but as soon as he took a sip from the cup his expression changed. He had earlier been very scrupulous about spitting out at least half of the wine he had tasted, lest the expertise of his palate be confused by intoxication, but he swallowed this mouthful entire, and followed it with another that was considerably more generous. Then he looked down with evident disappointment into his empty cup.
“Now that,” he said, forgetting his prepared script, “is a truly excellent wine.”
Well, the duke himself ends up getting to taste the wine, along with his son and his son’s soon-to-be father-in-law. They can’t get enough. More bodies end up in barrels. There are a lot of rats. You’ll have to get the rest for yourself.
As I mentioned, the story could have been shorter and just as effective. Would it have been just as enjoyable? Maybe, but Stableford is a fine writer and none of the scenes dragged in “The Elixir of Youth,” so unlike a village drunk who’s gorged on wine, I wouldn’t consider this bloated. And anyway, the occasional rambly passages are at least appropriate to the time period the story is mimicking. In all, the darker elements add a tinge of suspense while the overall bouquet is one of connivery, greed, and the unquenchable thirst for what we want, but what we shouldn’t have. I’ll have another cup, please.
Issue #53 — Feb. 2017
“The Dying Season” by Lynda E. Rucker
The unease sets in quickly in this delightfully dark and disorientating tale. “The Dying Season” starts with Sylvia on the run—a morning jog—but as we read later, that isn’t the only reason why she’s running. Sylvia is staying in a leisure resort with her partner, John. Trouble is, she’s having a hard time keeping the resort straight in her head. The cabins are all similar and she loses her way among the gravel paths. During her jog, she encounters an odd couple who “both had jet-black hair, were thin and slight and poorly dressed for the weather.” She’ll run into them again—one will stop by asking to borrow milk and both will show up while Sylvia and John are out for drinks. There’s something off about them but Sylvia can’t quite figure out why. As a reader, it’s up to you to figure out why, too. The whole story is seductively creepy (the cabin next door? that thing in the couple’s bedroom? freaky!) and lacks any big scares or dramatic set pieces. Instead “Dying Seasons” relies on the smoldering spookiness of feeling trapped, and then the uncertainty of what happens next.
“Youth Will be Served” by Andrew Fox
In this thoughtful piece, the universal human condition, death, is put under a magnifying glass. Death comes quicker to some than others, like Janey, the protagonist’s thirteen-year-old niece who suffers from a rare disease that affects about only one in eight million. But Janey isn’t the only lens with which the author examines death: he considers it with regards to the very old, particularly a group of elderly women living in Miami Beach.
The women have struck a bargain with something, as our protagonist, Samantha, discovers after a little detective work of her own. It seems the group of women keeps odd habits at the beach and as they slowly begin to trickle down in numbers, Samantha must know why and how. What happens in the story isn’t that frightening, unless you consider the central theme of Death. However, my pulse did quicken when Samantha goes swimming—although I think the collective trauma of Jaws is to blame for that one. Check this one out if you’re looking for a subtler sort of scary.
(☆) “Word Doll” by Jeffrey Ford (originally from The Doll Collection, 2015)
“Word Doll”, like the other horror pieces in this review, is one of those scares that sneaks up on you. It reads like King at first, starting with a writer’s reflection about his habits. It’s told in plainspoken prose and never dawdles, though a lot of the story takes place in dialog, which can turn off some readers. Still, a good story is a good story no matter how it’s told.
The protagonist (also Jeff Ford) decides to stop at the Word Doll Museum after finally seeing what was written on the sign he passes on his way to work every day. The museum’s operator is flabbergasted. No one’s stopped to visit, let alone inquire, in twenty years. Well Ford is intrigued, so he follows the operator, an anthropologist named Beverly, to the museum (a falling-down barn by her house). Not knowing anything about word dolls, also known as field friends, Ford listens as Beverly explains their significance to the local culture of the county. The dolls start out innocently enough: they’re essentially hand sewn companions for the children who work in the fields. However, when Beverly begins to talk about a boy named Evron and his word doll, the quiet thunderstorm on the plot’s horizon rumbles into the foreground. As relayed by Beverly: “Some of the folks I interviewed in the sixties knew this boy, grew up with him. He’d told more than one of them that his field friend was Mower Manc, a straw hat brim covering his eyes, a laborers shirt and suspenders, calloused hands, and a large sickle.” Read the story to find out what happens to Evron, Mower Manc, and that sickle, though you may have to come up with your own conclusions upon arriving at the end. This one is chilling yet restrained. Also to note, Nightmare‘s editor John Joseph Adams gave it a shout-out in the honorable mentions section of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Highly recommended.