Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, by Gregory Benford (Saga, January 2019)
Disaffected, middle-aged college professor Charlie Moment suffers what should be a fatal car accident in the year 2000, but instead wakes up as his 16-year-old self in 1968, with all his previous memories intact. So he does what anyone would do with a second chance at his adult life: he steals ideas for yet-to-be-made movies and becomes a rich Hollywood mogul. Along the way he meets other (famous) people who have had the same experience—including Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Albert Einstein, Casanova—and becomes enmeshed in a conflict between competing factions who want to shape history to their liking. Rewrite gives hard SF stalwart Gregory Benford the opportunity to revisit the premise of his most famous novel, Timescape, where scientists use faster-than-light tachyons to send messages about an impending disaster to the past, while trying to tip-toe around the Grandfather Paradox. At one point, Charlie meets with James Benford, the author’s real-life twin brother (who is the author of Timescape in this rewrite of history), seeking an explanation of how his own mind could transfer to his past self. At one point Charlie suggests that he would prefer to adapt Timescape without all the complicated scientific explanations, to which the physicist replies “Then what would be left?” The irony of this is, that in acknowledging its debt to similar “if I knew then what I know now” time travel stories like Peggy Sue Got Married and Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Rewrite posits that these plots work just fine when they hand wave past the science and focus on character and action.
On the downside, while the action and science in Rewrite work, the main character doesn’t. Charlie’s cynicism in his approach to reinventing his life—and the world—is not unexpected for a middle-aged divorcee, but the novel doesn’t bother offering any critical distance from it. Charlie steals ideas from actual creative minds and produces successful facsimiles without consequence as if the idea divested from its author is interchangeable with the original. This callousness infects every aspect of his life. With a satirical approach, Benford may have been able to get away with having such an unlikeable character as his hero. That’s not how it plays out. While Charlie learns and grows by the end and takes steps to correct his mistakes, I had little sympathy for him by then and no desire to absolve him of them.
Arkad’s World, by James L. Cambias (Baen, January 2019)
Highly Recommended – Baen Books often touts itself as a purveyor of old-school sci-fi, but James Cambias’ new novel is the first I’ve read in a long time that could actually pass for something written four or five decades ago. Teenager Arkad is the lone human on a diverse world populated by star-faring races from all over the galaxy. Arkad’s expertise in navigating the planet’s physical and cultural terrain comes in handy when four people from Earth show up looking for the ship Arkad arrived on as a child. They think the ship contains artifacts important to Earth’s resistance to an alien occupation force, and though Arkad’s memory of the ship and its location is fuzzy, he believes he can help them find it.
Cambias’ world-building is breathtaking in its depth and detail, right down to the unique psychological makeup of each alien race. With each passing sentence the scope of this universe expands from a planetary adventure to a galactic epic. The plot is episodic, with cliffhanger-style suspense and heroics, though it’s not as straightforward as it first appears: little inconsistencies and contradictions pop-up throughout, leading to a perception-altering twist. With its memorable characters and setting and lightning-fast pacing, Arkad’s World is the first great sci-fi treat of the new year.
Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen (MIRA, January 2019)
Mike Chen’s debut novel Here and Now and Then begins with a man out of time. Kin Stewart is an agent for the TCB (Temporal Corruption Bureau) who gets stuck in the late 1990s when his retrieval beacon gets damaged. It takes two decades for the Bureau to find him, and by then he’s broken their cardinal rule not to mess with the past by marrying his wife Heather and fathering a daughter, Miranda. Corruption to the timeline is negligible, so the TCB allows him to return to his job and agrees to let Miranda live, as she had little effect on history. Kin longs to know how his daughter’s life turned out, and the actions he takes when he finds out puts both their lives—and the world as he knows it—at grave risk. Here and Now and Then succeeds at all the fundamentals: strong premise, likeable characters, focused plotting, steady pacing. The novel takes few risks though. It ignores intriguing dramatic possibilities in favor of the standard action movie scenario of a father trying to rescue his daughter from certain peril, and there is minimal pulse-raising in terms of suspense and upping the stakes. It’s a pleasant and emotionally satisfying time-passer, if not very distinctive.
Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks (John Joseph Adams, February 2019)
It’s refreshing to run into a genre novel that carves its own path, and that’s what you get with Micah Dean Hicks’ debut Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. The novel’s setting is Swine Hill, a town so saturated with ghosts that literally everyone has at least one haunting them. Jane has a good relationship with her ghost, who feeds her the secrets others hide from the world. Her boyfriend Trigger is haunted by the ghost of his own brother, whom he accidently killed. And her brother Henry’s mad scientist of a ghost helps him create, Doctor Moreau-style, a pig person called Walter Hogboss, who ends up running the local slaughterhouse. When the company that owns the slaughterhouse creates more pig people to staff the place, the townspeople turn on their monstrous new residents, leading Jane to believe they must flee before the town overflows with violence.
Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is a surreal horror story about “economic anxiety”, which has been a buzzy media term the last few years. It doesn’t work as a political allegory but as an exercise in sustained dread, I found much to admire. the story unfolds with a captivating spontaneity, and while it sometimes felt unfocused this mostly works in the novel’s favor. Those looking for an offbeat read may find this rewarding.
Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon, October 2018)
Must Read! –Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fantasies swirl around in a nexus of dreams and memories and imagined realities, soaking through pages of pulpy detective potboilers and silver-age sci-fi brain benders. They are also intensely personal, perhaps none more so than his new novel, Unholy Land. The novel’s hero, a writer named Lior Tirosh, bears not only his creator’s initials but seems to have also written all his novels. This is typical of Tidhar’s metaphysics, where the truth of one reality is the daydream of another.
Tirosh travels from Berlin to the Jewish homeland of Palestina in east Africa, where he was born and much of his family still lives. Not long after he arrives, Tirosh finds an old schoolmate murdered in his hotel room. His niece also goes missing while protesting the construction of a wall meant to keep refugees out of the country. Tirosh, confusing himself with the low-rent detectives he often writes about, “takes the case.” His profession isn’t the only thing confusing him: this reality might not even be the only one he occupies.Palestina has real historical precedent: Tidhar’s introduction explains how the Zionist Congress had once surveyed land in British East Africa as a proposed solution to Europe’s “Jewish problem.” They found the land unsuitable, but many years later, one surveyor remarked that if they had established a Jewish Homeland there, the Holocaust may never have happened.
With Unholy Land, Tidhar slips into the role of Leguin’s George Orr, willing one solution to the disaster of history that, hydra-like, sprouts new disasters in its place. All the anxiety, horror, and heartbreak attending the endless cycles of injustice that haunt our world find vivid expression in his works, and Unholy Land may cut the deepest.
Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could fit into more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.
North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.
The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?
The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.
As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.
They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.
“Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]
Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.
“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!” “Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.” “You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!” Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”
“Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]
Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…
The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders. The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank. Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said. “Tomorrow,” said Jude.
Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.
Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.” “I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.” The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.
The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.
Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye. —what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!
One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.
Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.
Space-Based Science Fiction
Desert Island Pick
“Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]
The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.
The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched. We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.
The Best of the Rest
“Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]
Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.
The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind. The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star. Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.
“Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]
After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.
Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien. Their guards are human enough.
Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.
Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.
It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.
“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]
The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.
I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them. In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.
Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.
I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.
Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience. If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately. He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.
The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.
Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty. I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.
(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)
Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.
“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.” It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not? I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.” I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation. But it said, There are no humans here now. I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.