Short Fiction Review

March 2017 Review: Part 2

This review is filled with visions, whether they be prophecies, absinthe-induced trips, or death foretold. I’ve scoured some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy magazines available online and these are my thoughts. (Possible spoilers ahead!)


LIGHTSPEED
Issue #82  Mar. 2017

Death Every Seventy-Two Minutes” by Adam-Troy Castro 

In this story (that could also be Sean Bean’s filmographic obituary), our doomed protagonist is subjected to a vision of a gruesome death every seventy-two minutes. That adds up to twenty a day, from being speared in the head, to decapitation by a gliding pane of glass, to a sudden bedroom python, and so on. In the “real” world, the protagonist is shuffled between medical experts, all trying to make sense of this “condition.” What’s really happening is anyone’s guess, though I’m sure for the protagonist it’s no consolation when he receives the final prognosis. It all brings to mind the very real people who suffer from chronic diseases that cause them to sneeze every few seconds (nonallergic rhinitis), or experience excruciating pain in random intervals (trigeminal neuralgia), to the butterfly children (those afflicted with Epidermolysis bullosa), and so on. I suppose that’s the value to a multi-dimensional story such as this one—while on its face it comes off as breezy and lighthearted, there are real implications lurking underneath should you choose to turn the story upside down and look for them. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying it, however. It’s still bloody good fun.

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La Peau Verte” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Originally from To Charles Fort, With Love, 2005) 

I should preface this by telling you that I experienced my first taste of absinthe—paid for legally, mind you—just after reading “La Peau Verte.” I can’t say I encountered similar results as the ones winking at us within the text of this story, but it was a curious way to ring in my thirtieth birthday. That said, “La Peau Verte” (“The Green Skin” in French—I looked it up!) is a curious little tale itself. It’s sumptuous, seductive, and surreal. Take, for instance, this gorgeous line of prose from the first section, about a room where the protagonist has been “transformed” into a fairy:

The old Tiffany lamps scattered around the room shed candy puddles of stained-glass light, light as warm as the brandy, warm as the dark-chocolate tones of the intricately carved frame holding the tall mirror.

One might assume that the story has spent its rich descriptions early, but it only gets better.

Enough about the setting, though. “Peau Verte” is about a painter, Hannah, who takes an odd job because she needs the money (standard starving artist woes, etc). Well, her pal Peter, an older, foppish writer, has connections. He arranges a gig with some mysterious clients, whom he suddenly can’t quite place, at a party, La Fête de la Fée Verte (The Celebration of the Green Fairy—that I didn’t have to look up). Part of the gig requires Hannah to drink absinthe. That premise alone would make for a good story, but there’s another layer here that compounds the fairy motif. It would seem that Hannah’s sister died at a young age. There’s some stuff about a strange well and rocks with words on them, and the resulting grief and guilt has landed Hannah in therapy. Now weave the two threads about the gig and her sister’s death together and you get the splendid braid that pulls the story taut. Separately, both plot lines could work independently. Together, they give “La Peau Verte” tremendous strength. They may not sound related to you now, so read the ending to understand why they are.


MITHILA REVIEW
Issue #7 – Jan.-Mar. 2017

La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Originally from Fat Girl in a Strange Land, 2011) 

We need more heroines. Here we are given La Gorda, a luchadora without a ring, at least in the traditional sense. Her neighborhood is her ring, and she protects the women and girls who live there from a very real threat. “[V]illains outside the ring are evil, masked in ordinary, and the damage they do is often permanent.” But at her heart she wants to be fighting alongside her family (her father’s friends are luchadores). She does by story’s end, when the danger she confronts in the streets is too much for one woman to bear. Vourvoulias doesn’t make La Gorda invincible, so the assistance she receives from fellow luchadores and everyday citizens doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina. Plus, the story isn’t just about La Gorda, it’s also about la Ciudad de Plata, the City of Silver, so the city should have a role in the resolution. Altogether it’s an endearing piece. Heroes can come in all shapes, and it’s worth re-mentioning it.


NIGHTMARE
Issue #54 – Mar. 2017

Alice through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman (Originally from Alice Through the Plastic Sheet, 2015) 

I started this story during a slow last hour at my job and, it being over 12,000 words long, I had to finish it that night. Needless to say, I was anxious on my drive home. There’s something unnerving about rude neighbors—about people who upset the social order in general—but there’s something terrifying about the new neighbors in this story. They aren’t just rude, but obstinately so. Alan and Alice used to have nice neighbors, a quiet, charming couple who were about as disruptive as a gentle breeze. But after one dies and the surviving spouse moves away, the neighbors who replace the couple come storming into the neighborhood like a tempest. Here it begins, just as Alan has gotten home from work the next day after the neighbors have moved in:

“They’re having a party,” said Alice, the moment he closed the door.

“Who’s having a party?”

“The neighbours. Housewarming, I bet. And they didn’t invite us.”

The party lasts all night and come midnight Alan finally agrees with Alice that it has to end. Boundaries must be established and maintained. Routine must be respected. People have work and school in the morning, after all. So he goes next door, and as politely as he can, he asks them (through their letterbox) to dial it down, not even off, but down. They do one better and shut the music off, for about as long as it takes Alan to thank them and turn around. (Oh and I should mention that they’ve been blasting Christmas music in the middle of July.) After turning around, “The sound that burst out of that house a few seconds later almost knocked him off his feet,” … so he grabs his ladder and slams it against their house and climbs it …

And the curtains opened.

And the music stopped.

Later on, he would doubt what he saw in that room.

Agreed.

What makes “Alice through the Plastic Sheet” so scary is this repurposing of the mundane into the unknown. Shearman starts with this premise about bad neighbors and uses it to tease out little flashes of horror until it all unfolds into an utterly, weirdly over-the-top finale. There are inferences to be made with regards to what the neighbors are once Alan sees behind those curtains, and how they compare to Alan and Alice and why they play Christmas music and why they own so much new furniture. Plastic consumerism juxtaposed with the facade of a happy marriage could be one inference. The dangers of nostalgia, too. This is definitely one of those stories that will scare people for different reasons, so its conclusions are not as tidy as some of the others in this review. Read it and see for yourself what’s through the plastic sheet. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


PERSISTENT VISIONS
Mar. 2017

Great Wall of Denver” by David Ira Cleary 

Walls have been all the rage for the last year or so, although the one in “Great Wall of Denver” isn’t being built to keep out any type of person in particular. It still calls for acknowledgement—whether intentional or not—due to the tinge of relevant, contemporary politics. Walls are used symbolically in fiction. This one serves a more practical purpose in the story, however, and was built to stop the seasonal Chinook winds from ravaging the Mile High city. Then there’s Jeremiah, prophesying the end, but rather than Jerusalem it’s the end of Denver, and rather than a man of flesh and blood it’s a doombot. He seems to have a poor track record. On a plutonium leak underneath the city: “I had warned them to not build a waterline from the South Platte River to the fracking fields, but who ever listened to a robot named Jeremiah?” That hasn’t stopped him. At present, Jeremiah tries speaking with the mayor as the wall is christened, but he’s denied access to the podium. Defeated, he rolls off to a “Robbieville,” something like a robot ghetto, and runs into three children-cum-robots, here “for the fun.”

I was a little confused after that, about what happened to Jeremiah’s initial goal. Now he just seems to amble about until the story ends. It’s all so fantastically put on display (“You could smell ozone and sense the web of the Security State like sticky threads of binary digits,” is such a perfect turn of phrase for this story’s setting), so I was let down when the plot careered off course. That isn’t to say the story failed, but what was accomplished that was established initially? “Great Wall of Denver” concludes on another note and tone altogether. Maybe it just needs a different title. A good read nonetheless, especially for readers intrigued by robot sentience fiction.


TERRAFORM
Mar. 2017

Sophokles In His Cave” by Brendan C. Byrne 

I’ve read this story now at least twice and I still haven’t figured it out. But it sure is entertaining. Right away I clocked a Neal Stephenson vibe a la his political and environmental activist novel, Zodiac. There’s a lot of dense wordplay here, some of it bordering on Proulx-esque babble (if she spoke technobabble) and some of it flirting with the McCarthy-ian fantastique. See: “A Madonna and child, wizened to the point where their awkward postures resemble a Rublev or Dionisius ikon pose on a backless plastic bench in the great hall of some airport.” Of course, the themes in “Sophokles” wouldn’t interest either. Byrne also enjoys stuffing sentences silly with alliteration. (It can get tiring.) So what all happens? Samira is a resistance artist of some sort with residency on the Blue Barge, a vessel once owned by Arkdia, a company “[c]omprised of the flotsam and lagan of the sea-steading movement, […] designed to hold onto shell corporations, vessels, and equipment for the eventual full nation-state wither.” A nice bit of backstory follows, but I’m not sure what any of it has to do with the barge’s current owner. That, and I’m not really sure what Samira is doing besides holding her residency here. She does quite a lot in the story—read it to know what I mean—but if she’s trying to sabotage or revive the Blue Barge, or something else entirely, I can’t say. I still enjoyed it because it’s so weird, and I imagine it makes a lot of sense to the author and other readers. Maybe I’ve been in the cave for too long. (And shouldn’t it be Plato’s?)


TOR.COM
Mar. 2017

The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel 

We are somewhere in the future, on some planet called Ardabaab, where Reuth Bryan Diaso, the titular last novelist, has come to die. It’s a strange world, Ardabaab, with a dwarf star sun and turquoise colored seas. Massive “seed” ships shaped like blowfish drop out of the atmosphere to scoop up ocean and inhabitants alike in order to populate other alien planets. But Reuth didn’t come for the scenery alone; he needs to finish a book before he goes, even if readership across the stars have petered out, even if no one’s going to read it. He meets a young girl while he’s writing who calls herself Fish and who becomes something of his muse in his final days. “The Last Novelist” is one of those worlds (the story world, not the literal planet) where everything makes sense even while still feeling completely alien. Take, for instance, Reuth’s travel:

I ventured out to Ardabaab by thoughtship, an express from Sol Centraal, and for fifty torturous minutes—or a million swift years; neither is wrong—gargantuan thoughtscapes of long-dead galaxies wracked my mind, while wave after wave of nauseating, hallucinogenic bardos drowned my sense of personhood, of encompassing a unitary being in space and time.

Sure, I can buy that. This is tip-of-the-iceberg writing where the creator is able to convey the girthy body of the whole lurking underneath the water without having to ever tell us that it’s there. We know it’s there. We don’t need any more explanation, and I like that. This is fully-realized fiction, a very strong piece and one of my favorites from this month.

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Ecdysis” by Julianna Baggott 

Ecdysis is the process of shedding an outer layer, such as snakeskin. The story’s narrator has a lot of shedding to do. Here they’ve taken off a third layer:

I had to unlock bolt after bolt, screw upon screw, shining plates popping loose. Then the chest opened on its own. A hinge squeaked, a door yawned open, exposing a cavity with nothing but a small lit fuse. I dismantled it like a bomb.

After stripping bear, they return to their childhood home, a place of painful memories, where they lost a mother and were hounded by their (physically, emotionally, sexually) abusive father. The house they arrive at is very different, however. The father is changed, so when the narrator comes back to find closure, they will have to reconcile with another outcome instead. “Ecdysis” is short but dense and packs in many layers of emotion. It’s a tale of survival and loss and discovery. Moving, for all the right reasons.


© 2017 Derek Thomas Conrad
Stories Reviewed — Lightspeed: “Death Every Seventy-Two Minutes” by Adam-Troy Castro; “La Peau Verte” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Mithila Review: “La Gorda and the City of Silver” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Nightmare: “Alice through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman
Persistent Visions: “Great Wall of Denver” by David Ira Cleary
Terraform: “Sophokles In His Cave” by Brendan C. Byrne
Tor.com: “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel; “Ecdysis” by Julianna Baggott
All stories reviewed are copyright of their respective owners. Featured image “mannequins” © 2005 Pay No Mind, used under the Creative Commons license.

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