In this “slightly spooky” early fall edition of Asimov’s, Stephanie Feldman’s “The Witch of Osborne Park” carries that theme well. You would have to stretch your definitions to find any SFnal elements though; the story is a straight supernatural drama. Elizabeth moves to upscale Osborne Park with her husband Roger and 3-year-old daughter Abby. The neighborhood has everything they want, but Elizabeth becomes concerned when Dorothy, the older girl next door, starts a subtle bullying campaign against eager, naïve Abby. As Dorothy becomes more aggressive, a series of unusual phenomena occur in and around their home. Feldman does excellent, effortless work establishing character, setting and tone and allowing her story to unfold from there. Its depiction of myriad parenting anxieties is spot-on. Elizabeth knows it’s absurd for a grown adult to engage in a personal feud with a 5-year-old, but oh how she wants to smush the little shit. And one can sympathize. The prose is pensive and insightful, balancing the sinister and the sentimental. Ruminating on her protective instinct, “Elizabeth thought of an article she once read – how an unborn baby’s cells remain in its mother’s body after it leaves for the bright world, how they linger for years, even decades. Maybe they’re slow blooming. Maybe they need the right angle of sunshine, the right breeze, the scent of morning lilies growing in the shadows of an iron gate.” The bait-and-switch plot twist is predictable, though the denouement still satisfies.
Erin Roberts has a nice streak going, with her excellent futuristic orphan tale “Sour Milk Girls” and her dark horror story “Snake Season” among my favorites this year. “The Grays of Cestus V” is a superb blend of the former’s psychological astuteness and the latter’s air of creeping menace. Laila is a miner and an artist on the frontier world of Cestus V, where the grays seep into everything, making the world and its people appear drab and colorless, a reality reflected in her paintings. The Pioneer Commission invites Laila to the planet’s much livelier central hub to speak about her art and her life on the frontier. The interview goes off-track when it becomes clear just how much the gray has affected her state of mind. Laila conflation of her moral and aesthetic values leads her, and the story, down a very ominous path. It’s a crafty work of fiction, though somber in tone.
A few of the stories by big-ticket authors yielded mixed results:
In Greg Egan’s novella, Sagreda and Mathis are “comps”, sentient NPCs built from discarded brain maps in a virtual reality construct. They are searching for the titular mathematical paradise of “3-adica”, where they can live without fear of deletion for violating the rules. The story picks up with the Sagreda and Mathis feeling their way through a lurid vampire bodice-ripper called Midnight on Baker Street (each of the game‘s “worlds” adapt public domain novels). They are searching for a specific color to enable Sagreda to finish a painting that will port them into 3-adica. Along the way they run afoul of a vampiric Percy and Mary Shelley, which brings them the negative attention they are trying to avoid. That the story’s version of paradise resembles a Greg Egan novel is a tad narcissistic, though a forgivable indulgence. One cannot begrudge the author his Shangri-La. But it hurts that what had been an entertaining mash-up of hard SF and pulp horror turns into a dreary algorithmic fantasia that can only be not a complete bore if you really, really, really, love geometry. The story’s ending struggles to regain its emotional footing, and finishes with a whimper. There is an interesting correlation with Roberts’ story, in that both involve an artist searching for the perfect color, though the result is variable.
Robert Reed likes his allegories cooked well done in “DENALI”; too bad I’m a medium rare kind of guy. In this alt-history story, instead of voting for leaders, Americans vote for potential futures. Aliens known as CAUTIONS left a quantum device in Theodore Roosevelt’s possession that generates the elected futures, distilled into easy-to-explain choices like STRENGTH, NO WAR, and STATUS QUO. STRENGTH wins often, as you might imagine, with PROSPERITY sometimes topping the polls. The 16th Amendment decrees that a future only needs 20% of the vote to win the election, so the winner always leaves the majority unhappy. Reed goes into parabolic overdrive from the start and never eases up on the gas.
In “R.U.R. 8?”, Stout and its fellow robots hide from the ever-present threat of the recycler, but when its friend Rozum loses a limb, Stout risks venturing out to the scrap heaps to find a replacement. I haven’t read the classic Czech play that inspired Suzanne Palmer’s latest story but I presume that much of it is in-jokey and reverential. Though the plot and its post-apocalyptic setting are comprehensible without such familiarity, it still didn’t come together for me. I almost always find Palmer’s keen sense of humor appealing; this time it failed to work its magic.
“The Huntsman and the Beast” is Carrie Vaughn’s gender-swapped retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, the Prince and his huntsman, Jack, become lost in the woods during a storm, and happen upon the infamous cursed castle. The Beast lets the Prince escape once Jack agrees to become the Beast’s prisoner, and Jack’s perspective on the situation changes when he realizes the monstrous Master of the castle is in fact its Mistress. Vaughn gets plenty of mileage out of tying the characters’ motivations, and the readers’ expectations, to our presumptions about gender. Many of the authors A-list skills are on display: exquisite tension building, evocative atmospherics, incisive character moments. The rushed second half of the story relies on our familiarity with the source material to fill in the thematic blanks, and kept me from engaging with the romantic aspect. The finale works in a nice end-around to the humility the beast must learn to break the curse, allowing her to surrender to love without sacrificing her self-determination.
Too-long titles are proper for tall tales, and Sarah McGill’s western whopper “The Day Beth Leather Shot the Moon, as Told by Rosemary Bonebreak” fits the bill in that regard. Beth Leather is a “traveling librarian” who passes through White Horn from time to time, relating her outrageous adventures to Rose and her older sister Darlene. Over the years, Beth romances Darlene while Rose pines for Beth in secret. As Darlene matures, she grows tired of Beth’s wandering ways and Beth turns her attentions to Rose, promising to shoot the moon out of the sky for her. I enjoyed the droll tone and gaudy visuals of “Beth Leather”, and the mythic quality of the prose. Despite being among the shorter works published by this novelette-friendly venue, McGill’s story drags a bit in the middle. It builds to an exciting climax, though, as shooting the moon out of the sky goes about as well as you’d expect. I think my biggest issue was that I never connected with Rose’s longing for Beth; it is expressed in concrete terms, but doesn’t permeate the prose the way romantic longing should, especially when the narrator is the one doing the longing.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Cold Ink” is a sci-horror novelette set in the industrial steampunk dystopia of Dean Wells’ Clockwork Millennials story cycle. Uninitiated readers shouldn’t have too much trouble jumping right in but should be aware Wells doesn’t waste much ink explaining things. The story follows Hester, whose feelings for casual flame Verity run deeper than she’s willing to admit. When Verity comes to her for help after a long absence, Hester risks everything to help her, even as Hester’s friends are getting killed off one by one. Wells has a talent for the macabre (the demonic ink of the title is used to chilling effect) and the world-building is deep and intricate enough to sell new readers on the other stories. “Cold Ink” is a little long, but still an entertaining, suspenseful story, with a gut-punch of a turn at the end.
Justin Howe’s “Periling Hand” also has a sci-fantasy feel but runs straight into the trap Wells’ story avoids: it’s brimming with exposition, leaving the story – about a man trying to acclimate to his new bio-integrated wooden arm – with little room to breathe. A compelling emotional core is hiding here somewhere, but is so buried beneath ceaseless infodumping I couldn’t get invested.
The bleak, frosty atmospherics of Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Ancestor Night” lend its spectral premise extra bite. On the longest night of the year, the villagers trek through the deep snow to Memory Lake, where their departed loved ones will rise to the surface of the ice. Once there, the living relatives sing a prayer asking their ancestors to wake or stay asleep. Paolo and his siblings lost their parents a year ago; after singing the Ancestor Night prayer, his beloved oldest sister Jasna admits she caused their deaths. Their father wakes, and whispers something only Jasna can hear. “Ancestor Night” is a resonant documentation of an imaginary ritual, though a little too crisp and aerial to be more than an effective mood piece.
I love the way Maria Haskins lets images and emotions guide the structure of her stories, building them the way people reflect on the narratives that define them, rather than ordering them in a clean, linear fashion. Ten years of reflection, a journey from age 7 to 17, guide young Susanna in “It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, as she treks into the woods with her beloved dog, Brother, to the witch’s cottage to keep an old promise. Haskins’ prose offers a striking balance of harshness and delicacy. As a child, Susanna tells her parents she lost her little brother in the woods: “Even at the age of seven, the lies felt smooth and true upon her tongue. And Mama wailing like she’d ever cared for him, and Papa’s face gone hard as rocks and iron, as if he’d ever once held him close.” The writing is expressive, but taut, like a slow turning lever tightening a vise.
I adored the cover for this month’s issue of Fireside so much that I felt the cover story, Annalee Flower Horne’s “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, had to work hard to live up to it. Horne’s near-future SF depicts a world where smart homes have only made policing the behavior of young women easier. Teenager Sandra’s over-protective mother has their smart house programmed to watch Sandra’s every move; she can’t even walk out the front door without the house ratting her out. This doesn’t apply equally to the boys: her older brother Kyle can do whatever he wants, and Kyle’s friend Jack once manipulated the house to hide evidence of his sexual assault of Sandra. Sandra’s best friend Tish is a hacker, and the single line of code from which the story gets its title can get Sandra out of the house without her mother knowing, so they can go to a party where Tish’s crush, Ian, will be. In a disturbing but not altogether surprising twist, Ian isn’t much different from Jack, and his own smart house does his bidding. “CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL” is a timely story, considering how “guard the door” rapes at high school and college parties are part of the biggest news story of the moment. It’s also, unfortunately, timeless: the news story in question happened over thirty years ago. Horne’s near-future version just removes the need for an actual human to do the guarding. If not for Tish’s magic line of code, the end of this story could have been a lot more horrifying. The unsettling undercurrent of the story shows how women are conditioned from a young age to cope with sexual assault, and to tolerate the persistent presence of their rapists as a normal part of life.
I enjoyed Beth Goder’s satirical “How to Identify an Alien Shark”, a faux-university lecture meant to delineate the difference between actual sharks and an alien species known as the Tucabal-Gor, who live in the ocean and look a lot like sharks and who you definitely don’t want to get into an argument about economic theory with. It’s more of a long form joke than a story, built by adding piece after piece of outlandish but internally consistent logic to set up its punchline. “How to Identify and Alien Shark” may be plot-free, but it’s a fast and funny read. Also, I’m glad I don’t know any economic theorists.
When the Dragonflies first landed on Earth seeking refuge from the destruction of their home world, frightened humans reacted with violence. The unnamed narrator was one of those reactionaries, but now she tries to make up for her ghastly behavior with extra kindness. She makes kites (which the aliens cherish), and when a Dragonfly named Tove comes into her shop, she wants to please him. But political and cultural realities complicate interactions between humans and Dragonflies, and continue to make it dangerous for Dragonflies to call Earth their new home.
This is one of those stories where agreeing with its basic positions (refugees need help, Nazis are bad, etc.) doesn’t translate to a positive response to the story. There are too many conveniences, and few real stakes, built into the premise to generate any dramatic tension. Everything feels staged; characters seem only to enter the scene to fulfill their function then exit when they are no longer useful, their motives telegraphed and unconvincing. Also, the narrator’s behavior toward Tove comes across as unwanted harassment, which soured my opinion of her. Intentional or not, the story does not address this issue satisfactorily.
“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story
“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story
“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story
“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story
“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story
“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette