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War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak

September 6, 2014 6 comments

war stories

War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak (Apex Publications, 2014) begins with a thoughtful introduction by the editors and then reprints “Graves” by Joe Haldeman which is as good a war story as you could hope to find (it did win the 1994 Nebula Award). It’s always pleasing when the editors say something interesting. It’s also incredibly daring of them to put “Graves” out front as a yardstick against which measure the success of all the new stories.

The book is divided into four parts, each with its own illustration to start. This is a pleasing design choice. I like to see an artist’s take on the content. Part 1 is titled Wartime Systems and it explores the various practical and ethical problems when creating different ways of engaging in combat. One trend is clear. Telefighting is the preferred option. Warriors are too valuable to waste in direct combat. It will be much better if they are sequestered away somewhere safe. If a human must go, he or she must be cocooned in metal the better to escape the bullets and explosions coming their way. “In The Loop” by Ken Liu is an ideas story that comes over a little cold because of the need for a significant amount of exposition to get started. It holds the interest but the emotional impact is not as sharp as it could have been. “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson is a rather beautiful story which again deals with the relationship between a human and a machine. This time, we have the aftermath of a war in which operators could sometimes become close to their drones. “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow continues the theme of a human and machine, this time with a reanimated body at the heart of a cyborg. It comes slowly but there can sometimes be hope when the extremists on all sides leave the field of action. “Contractual Obligation” by James L. Cambias reaches a nicely ironic conclusion as the link between automated units and the human commander is reconfigured in the light of exigent circumstances. “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen is slightly polemical, but it does convey the age-old truth that you can fight a war and never achieve a victory. “Non-Standard Deviation” by Richard Dansky gets the balance exactly right as we enter a simulation intended to teach soldiers how to fight only to discover that the AI doesn’t do war no more. The result is a delight.

Part 2 is titled Combat, but instead of this referring to major battles, we’re either dealing with local engagements or the role of individuals in situations where they have to fight. “All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is an elegantly told story of a girl assassin and her intelligent gun as they pursue targets and aim to survive in a threatening environment. “The Valkyrie” by Maurice Broaddus finds the Church Militant out to exterminate the atheists and heretics. There’s just one problem. Inflicting so much injury and death take a toll on the mind of long-surviving soldiers. Sometimes, they crack. “One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer is a fascinating future history of a world without fossil fuels in which the rich literally take to the air and leave poverty behind them on the ground. Except, of courser, technology is not infallible and accidents happen. When a sky city crashes, the poor come to scavenge. This story wonders who will fight over the remains and why. Then “Invincible” by Jay Posey invites us to consider the difference between invincibility and invulnerability. A crew of highly-experienced soldiers kills a group of “pirates” who have taken a ship. Some people die. Others survive but not necessarily in exactly the same form. It’s quite good but feels as thought it’s a part of a longer piece. “Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata pursues the discussion about a human’s machine interface with combat armor and the extent to which this might affect the mind. Humans, as the title suggests, have minds filled with light and shadow. What happens if something disrupts this delicate balance?

Part 3 is titled Armored Force and begins with “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee. This sees us in a distant future where war has been ritualised into a series of trials by combat. Whichever group of champions prevails wins the designated territory. It’s all a matter of scale. Dragons may be unstoppable, six-legged antagonists and the two-legged dream of their defeat. The question, as always, is whether the dreams of the human inserts will affect the armour that carries them into war. “Suits” by James Sutter has both exoskeleton fighting machines and cloned technicians to keep them in repair. As for all soldiers and those who support them, the question is always whether the cause is just. If it is not, what are the options for conscientious objection? “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr asks what heroism is when the human is enclosed in a suit that effectively makes him or her invulnerable. For some, the answer would be the ability to overcome fear, but the real question to be answered is whether the mission itself is worth dying for. “In Loco” by Carlos Orsi wonders about the man inside the armour. Does he still have the cojones to go mano-a-mano when he has a chance for freedom?

Part 4 is titled Aftermath with “War Dog” by Mike Barretta an outstanding story which strikes the perfect balance between emotion and the hard world in which vets find themselves when the fighting is done. The threat left for the civilian population to deal with is genuinely innovative. “Coming Home” by Janine Spendlove is a PTSD story which shows a decommissioned captain trying to adjust to life after serving with the marines, while explaining the operational background of her flying the wounded out of the battlefield when the threats were hot. “Where We Would End a War” by F. Brett Cox takes a different view of PTS (it’s bad PR to describe it as a disorder) and wonders what returning vets might do for kicks if they found the world too boring. “Black Butterfly” by T.C McCarthy demonstrates a completely coldblooded way of fighting an alien race. There’s just one problem. It takes rather a long time to work. “Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman is a touching story of a soldier’s return. She thinks she will resign and return home but, as seventeen years have passed, things may not be quite as she remembered them. “Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee is a desperately intelligent and yet sad story of the man left behind when the man goes to war. Because their experiences are not the same, they change as people. Perhaps love can transcend minor differences. Perhaps not. “War 3.01” by Keith Brooke is a completely delightful way to end the war to end all wars just so long as you believe what you read on the internet. Put all this together and you have a superior anthology with one or two genuinely outstanding stories. That said, none of the modern stories are as good as “Graves” which captures a moment of horror on the battlefield in a way that has only rarely been equalled. This is not to take anything away from the modern stories, but simply to reflect on the editors’ decision to include a yardstick against which to measure how far we’ve progressed in the fiction writing stakes over the last twenty years.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran

August 20, 2014 1 comment

ZombiesMoreRecent-600

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins with a fairly robust defence of the subgenre which, for better or worse, seems to have become essential to modern culture through The Walking Dead and other television series.

“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson takes us on an emotional journey as a nurse tours the camps where the infected wait to turn. She does her best to keep them healthy and, on her way back to the Ranger’s camp, she rescues a young girl from three who have changed. This is going to slow her down, particularly when the girl’s grandmother also joins them. At some level, we always do our best to care for those we love. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn (reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow) is one of these delightfully ambiguous stories which leaves us guessing where the musicologists “found” the music they recorded. “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey is a wonderful story that arises because the Religious Right insists on an amendment to the Constitution marking the start of life as the moment of conception. That means the innocent babies have to be rescued whenever their zombie mothers are killed. Well, surprisingly, some of them are and this is what happens when one of the rescued bonds with one of her jailers. “Pollution” by Don Webb may be set in Japan but it’s actually a universal story about the quality of life those more marginalised members of any society can expect. The zombie element is pretty cool as well with the virus and subsequent use of those infected having a macabre commercial logic.

“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin is short and to the point. It may be predictable, but it still manages to pack a bit of a punch with the last line. “The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh (collected in After the Apocalypse) gives us a prisoner who survives to learn a little about zombies and their lifestyle (tinfoil figures in this). In fact, they prove a lot more interesting than the other inmates and he can make them useful in his study of the zombies. “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane brings us news of an old outbreak and hope for a defence against the undead. Which brings us to “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss and the terrible contortions the guilty must go through to stave off the possibility of discovery. This has a surprising sense of humour as Maisie finally finds the right person to talk to.

“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones answers a question that’s been bothering baseball fans for years. If a ball hits a zombie and doesn’t fall to ground, is that a good catch and is the batter out? “The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney explores the old truism that the best thing that can ever happen to a rock star is that he or she dies. Record sales go ballistic as everyone remembers how good he or she was. Well, this is only a little different if slightly more entertainingly manic. “The Children’s Hour” by Marge Simon is a short poem to celebrate mother coming home. “Delice” by Holly Newstein is a traditional voodoo zombie tale of justice claimed when society had turned its eyes away. It’s good to see the old ideas stand up so well against the new. “Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton gives us the chance to consider why someone would want to raise the dead, and what qualities a person would have to have to kill both the undead and those who raised them. In entertaining stories like this, sometimes, you get a match.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky is an outstanding story of office life in which the religious zealot is confronted by evidence incompatible with her faith. When bell, book and candle fail to do the trick, perhaps she should resort to more extreme measures. At the very least, this should provide a better rug for the survivors to admire. “Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas gives us the chance to consider where the dead might come from. Of course, it could be from the past. But suppose, just suppose, it was from our future. Would that make any difference to the result? “Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Maka Tai Meh) transfers the threat to North America in which the old Indian ways give the chance of salvation, but the young have been corrupted by the White Man’s ways and so they will go to their doom. It’s surprising how much the change of culture and locale invigorates the plot. “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan takes us into Anglo Saxon times with one of these annoying bodies that just will not stay in the ground. “Jack and Jill” by Jonathan Maberry is a remarkably effective piece of atmospheric writing as the family on the not remote enough farm gets caught between a storm threatening to bring down the levee and a crowd of dead neighbours. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan nicely captures Gothic romance as the ever-inquisitive scientist seeks first death and then reanimation. Except there’s one small possibility he neglected to consider: that she may not have come back alone. “Rigormarole” by Michael A. Arnzen offers a slightly different way of spreading the infection. “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn has a gatecrasher at a party in Denver give Kitty a different way of starting the New Year. The most pleasing feature of this story is the tone of normality. Hey, perhaps, it’s a zombie. Let’s see what Google has to say.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genvieve Valentine shows a practical community way off the beaten track in the far north, recognising the value of good work and the need for people who can fit in. This produces a delightful story as the new gravedigger, a perfectionist, finds himself challenged. “Chew” by Tamsyn Muir is an effective tale of revenge best served cold with a dish of gum. “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey deals with the perennial problem faced by husbands who have buried their wives only to find them coming home again. Locking them in a cupboard is somewhat undignified, but when they are dead, who’s going to complain? “There Is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay gives us the perfect answer to the age-old question: what must a woman do when every fibre of her body wants to possess just that one man? “What Once We Feared” by Carrie Ryan challenges us to decide how long we would want to live if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the undead. What would be the point of surviving?

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory takes us into a world of fortified cities surrounded by a wilderness of zombie bears, wolves and humans. Here one man suddenly sees the chance to have a real life outside the walls. All he has to do is die according to city records. “Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti sees a parallel between past and current events as a medical student dissecting a body finds himself at the centre of what may be a zombie outbreak. Perhaps his research can show how best to respond. “I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart sees a B-movie scriptwriter with an impeccable record get the inside dope on how to complete a movie when your star lead has died. Except his eyewitness account is just not quite up to the minute and he’s pre-empted by the real news. This is great fun. “Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill is thoughtfully brilliant. If time and space permitted, I would write a lot about it. “A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater gives us a different way of reinventing the undead so they have some degree of social utility even though, as the title suggests, they have no more intelligence than sheep. “The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman is the day you sit waiting for that call.

“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo is very elegant high fantasy in which a sorcerer reanimates a great general to serve him for as long as he desires (which might be a very long time). “Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace makes a nice point about the tense authors use to tell their stories and then fast-forwards to the moment of sacrifice. “The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale changes the biter-bit trope into the shooter-shoot trope as a couple try to work out their marital problems. And then comes the payoff. At least he might have thought it worth waiting for. “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross has us on a starship with the crew in slowtime when the power fails. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, particularly because the crew have just been exposed to a big burst of radiation. When it comes to triage, the dead are the last in line for treatment. They are not going to get any worse. But if any were to wake up, they would be hungry.

I admit to being overwhelmed by this evidence of my own ignorance. Here was I thinking the zombie story was dead and buried, only to find this anthology full of stories of such range and quality. And most of these stories are only a few years old. There’s still good work being done on old and trusted tropes. So thank you Paula Guran. The pennies have fallen from my eyes and I can now shamble forward to seek out more stories such as this for intellectual nourishment. Zombies: More Recent Dead is great value for money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar

August 15, 2014 3 comments

worldsf3

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications, 2014) is an anthology of stories running from science fiction, to fantasy, to horror. Some are translations from Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Swedish, and the rest were written in English. It’s appropriate for me to climb on to my pulpit for a moment because books like this are desirable. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to find people who had never left their small community to travel the few miles to the nearest city. They were the epitome of physical parochialism, choosing to live their lives in the same place. Even then, this was strange to me because, from an early age, I’d been travelling outside the parish, even if only to see what was to be seen.

Today, there’s a literary parochialism which seems just as strong. Readers find themselves most comfortable with the familiar. This may be always looking for work by authors they have enjoyed in the past, or buying from publishers whose editorial taste most closely matches their own. As a result, many have never read books from different genres or written by people who are not cultural matches. In this, there’s often an element of prejudice at work. Such readers prefer to avoid exposure to books which might threaten their worldview or give them information which might induce uncomfortable emotions.

It’s therefore appropriate to herald this third in a series of anthologies featuring short fiction from different cultures. It should be on everyone’s reading list, if only so they can be satisfied there’s nothing frightening or overly challenging about these stories. They are, as most of the best British or American short fiction, well-written (even in translated form) and thoughtfully provocative. What’s particularly fascinating is the degree to which the stories written in English show significant differences in vocabulary choices, syntax and attitude from North American norms. That’s as it should be. Language reveals much about the authors and differences are to be celebrated. As we enter the second decade of a new century, we should be dismantling the borders between different types of fiction and focusing on reading good fiction, regardless of its source.

“Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew was the first story she published back in 2012. Through rather beautiful prose, she introduces us to a first contact situation where locals are visited by people who, out of a sense of altruism, feel they should conquer the locals for their own good. Needless to say, this does not go down well and produces a robust response albeit not one without losses. Not only is the language itself fascinating, the approach to the alien invasion trope rather blurs the line between science fiction, fantasy and romance (which is not the conventional two-gendered monogamous norm of our culture). “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia (translated from Chinese) challenges preconceptions about what a ghost story should be and how such stories relate to science fiction as we try to define what “real people” are, particularly when the metal spiders come along.

“Act of Faith” by Fadzlishah Johanabas is a rather pleasing variation on the robot trope in which we are encouraged to ask whether we would accept a machine as a fellow worshipper. The answer here is wise, but not necessarily realistic, as you would expect in a science fiction story, carefully avoiding the sentimentality that would have taken the edge off the quality of the ideas. “The Foreigner” by Uko Bendi Udo is a delightful story of inheritance denied under Nigerian law. In default of evidence, the obvious heir takes on intestacy. Just think how embarrassing it would be if another claimant appeared with the technology to extract the evidence of dishonesty. “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (translated from Chinese) describes the life of a human cog in the internet world of the State. He functions properly even when he has a headache, and lives within the framework approved for him by the State until he’s accepted as a member of a forum. The story then segues nicely into a form of revolutionary semiotics in which our hero explores the extent to which language can enable him to be free. “Planetfall” by Athena Andreadis gives us a generational overview of what happens to a group of human settlers who modify themselves to be compatible with their new world. The problem is that it takes time for a genetic change to become socially integrated and for positive patterns of behaviour to emerge. “Jungle Fever” by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzar (first publication) is a simple, linear horror story in which a slightly different form of zombie emerges after a chance encounter with some local vegetation.

“To Follow the Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar is a delightful insight into the mind of an artist who has developed the skill of catching a dream in a stone or crystal. All is developing well until she catches sight of a woman who, for some unknown reason, inspires her. This is high class fantasy. “Ahuizotl” by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (translated from Spanish) takes us in a Lovecraftian direction with a sister in search of her brother’s body. The report of his death was quite specific about the condition of the body. This leaves her unsure what conclusion to draw but, when she arrives, things become less unclear. “The Rare Earth” by Biram Mboob offers a very different view of how a possible second coming might put God’s representative on the Earth and what such a person might do. “Spider’s Nest” by Myra Çakan (translated from German) is a form of fantasy horror story set in a post-apocalypse world. The few who survived the collapse find some solace in a drug-induced retreat from reality. The question, of course, is what happens when the drugs run out?

“Waiting with Mortals” by Crystal Koo takes us into the world of ghosts who have yet to cross over. Some ride the mortals as passengers, displacing the living whether by force or consent — there are different deals available. In each case, it’s for the ghost to work out what holds him or her on the mortal side of the equation. “Three Little Children” by Ange (pseudonym of Anne and Gérard Guèro) (translated from French) is a terrific revisionary fairy story. Here we get the truth behind one of the rhymes told to the young in which the titular children find themselves in the lair of the ogre and wonder whether their lives will be forfeit. “Brita’s Holiday Village” by Karin Tidbeck (translated from Swedish) plays with the idea that memories of family and friends can sometimes be triggered by events. When our narrator who’s staying at the holiday village to get some writing done, begins to flesh out two of her possible plots, the presence of the strange hanging pupas somehow inspire her to take the stories in a completely different direction. The results are pleasingly affective.

“Regressions” by Swapna Kishore is an outstanding story which uses the time travel trope to explore the dynamics of gender relations. We could, of course, take the sterotypes as somehow set in stone, but suppose it was possible to build a more equal basis for interaction between the sexes. No, such would be the stuff of mythology. Mars and Venus, and their parallels in all the different religions and cultures, have always tended to be antagonistic. No matter what was tried in the past, the result would always be the same. . . “Dancing on the Red Planet” by Berit Ellingsen is a delightful way to bring this anthology to a successful conclusion. The moon may just have been one small step for mankind. How many steps could they do when emerging from the Mars lander at one-hundred-and-twenty beats per minute? This is a moment of sly humour on which to end.

Taken overall, a couple of the stories tend to run a little long, but the quality of the ideas is undeniable and the language in which they are explored is fascinating. Lavie Tidhar is to be congratulated on pulling together so many excellent stories, and all credit to Apex for publishing the Apex Book of World SF Volume 3. It’s an outstanding anthology.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

June 18, 2014 3 comments

Black Wings III jacket

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Publishing, 2014) “Houdini Fish” by Jonathan Thomas is a wonderful way to start a Lovecraftian anthology with an obsessive archaeologist and some of his students digging up an old machine of unknown purpose. Curiously, it gives off a glow despite being left in pieces. Having satisfied himself the parts are not radioactive, he begins to assemble them and fails to connect this activity with the rather strange appearances and disappearances about town. Academics never seem to see beyond their noses even when rubbed in it. “Dimply Dolly Doofy” by Donald R Burleson uses an original trigger for the arrival of this particular threat. This is a particularly interesting idea, but it then falls into very predictable territory. Similarly “The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin is a story built around an impressive central image that it doesn’t quite sustain interest over its length. “Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W H Pugmire is a very traditional story you read for the quality of the prose which is pleasingly poetic without being excessive. So often, stories like this wander off into detail. This avoids redundancy, cuts quickly to the meat, and then deals with the consequences. “Spiderwebs in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer is delightfully wry as it charts the growing friendship between a bookseller and a customer who randomly comes and goes. It seems this interloper has looked back in time to discover these two men are to become fast friends so, of course, he popped over and made it so.

“One Tree Hill (The World as Catalysm)” Caitlin R Kiernan (also appears in The Ape’s Wife) is another story that delights in the ambiguities and inexactitudes of language as we meet the science journalist who fears the lake and adjacent cemetery. but won’t be deterred from walking up the hill. Put it down to perversity or destiny as you will. He’s going to climb that hill no matter what. The result is elegantly inconsequential. “The Man with the Horn” by Jason V Brock is a story with an uneasy balance between Erich Zann or comparable musicians, and other deities or mythological creatures who play horns. Although it builds a good initial atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty, what we see from the halfway point on is not sufficiently Lovecraftian. Similarly, “Hotel del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson is one of these single experience stories that fails to resonate when the man finds an unexpected hotel as he crosses a desert landscape.

 S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Waller” by Donald Tyson is an outstanding story which perfectly captures the essence of the Mythos and then goes somewhere interesting with it. The title refers to people who literally fall through alley walls and find themselves in a different world where one part of their bodies is prized. Our hero contrives to avoid initial capture and then shows remarkable toughness when put to the test. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb is equally fascinating as history poses a question. Way back when, humanity was into megaliths and stone circles. Then all-of-a-sudden, we stopped. Putting aside the question of the benefits of stopping (like ten thousand years of wars and pestilence, and a few years of peace), what would happen if we started building these henges again? At the end, we’re left to decide whether the outcome is an improvement. “Down Black Staircases” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr takes a man with a mission on an unexpected detour into Kingsport where he’s forced on the run. Barely managing to escape, he’s then pursued by natural paranoia until he can run no more. This has a frenetic pace and energy about it that commands attention and nicely captures the fear of the pursued.

“China Holiday” by Peter Cannon continues the theme of paranoia as an American couple go on a holiday to China and he discovers, to his amazement, that the beings who may once have lived in the waters off Innsmouth, may have taken up residence in the newly created waters now controlled by the Three Gorges Dam. Or perhaps he’s just dreaming more vividly and worries to much about using the primitive Chinese plumbing. Either way, the story takes slightly too long to get going. “Necrotic Cove” by Lois Gresh asks the always pertinent question about two best friends, one a man-trap who acquires wealth through marriage, the other physically deformed and alone until her friend comes back from the latest marriage. Their relationship endures but, as the one who’s deformed develops cancer and is approaching death, they make one last trip together and discover a new aspect to their relationship. Ignoring the Lovecraftian overlay, this is an impressively insightful story about the two women. “The Turn of the Tide” by Mark Howard Jones is a rather affecting story in which a young woman struggles to decide whether she wants to share her life or to find a different place in which to seek happiness. Again, this says something potentially profound about young people and the choices they must make about family and relationships, particularly when it affects where they might decide to live. “Weltschmerz” by Sam Gafford shows a man whose daily routine commuting to work in a bank where he works as an accountant, defines his world-weariness. Then one day, a new “runner” who delivers internal mail, breaks into his bubble of routine and exposes him to a different view of reality. Needless to say, things are never the same again. “Thistle’s Find” by Simon Strantzas is one of these “tooth and claw” stories in which a young man who’s down on his luck and needs somewhere to hide, remembers the kindness shown him by a neighbour when he was young. However, this memory proves to have unexpectedly dangerous consequences but, as they say, “any port in a storm”. Which leaves us with “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford. This nicely matches the opening story with a machine enabling people within its sphere of influence to see more than they were expecting. It’s a very good way to bring a superior anthology to a successful conclusion. That there are a couple of duds is to be expected. A perfect set of stories is a rarity, particularly in the Lovercraftian universe where most ideas have been worked and reworked. On balance, Black Wings III maintains the excellent overall standard of the series and is recommended.

For a review of the two anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

January 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Old-Mars-350773-86a859b3e2edd6690e9e

Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books, 2013) is introduced in “Red Planet Blues” by George R R Martin. The editors are of an age to have grown up with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other early fictioneers who preferred the idea of our solar system’s planets being full of life just waiting to be discovered. Venus was a jungle world enveloped in mists and full of potentially dangerous life forms. Mars was the world of canals and a dying civilisation. And so on. There was a great deal of romance in the old-fashioned sense of the world as magic and science merged in simple, linear story lines of daring-do. By modern standards, the majority of these stories are badly written. So simply to recreate stories in a long-dead style would be a pointless venture. If people really want to read the supposed classics of this period, they are fairly easily obtained for a few pennies on the secondhand market. Consequently, this anthology is aiming for a retro feel with enough substance and, if appropriate, postmodern whimsy, to appeal to modern readers. For some of the authors, this proves to be a challenge too far. For others who are old enough in the tooth to have supped wine from the cups of pulp, the updating is something of a triumph.

 

“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele shows the strength and weakness of this theme. The set-up is genuinely interesting albeit not very original in trying to prove a scientific hypothesis. We happily pursue the plot hoping for something new or interesting. Perhaps there will be a twist we haven’t seen before. But when the end comes around, there’s no resolution. Instead of solving the problem and potentially preventing the outbreak of violence between Earth and the aborigines of Mars, all our hero has done is kick the can down the road. Not quite the return we expected for the predictable cure he administered. Although perhaps we’re supposed to think the genie was out of the bottle once the question had been asked back on Earth and that, sooner or later, someone would try again. “The Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes seems to be a better balance between the old fantasy feel of Mars and more modern sensibilities. This time an archaeologist infiltrates a mining operation as it begins work to dismantle an old Martian town. He’s the stereotypical egghead surrounded by roughnecks in a place of wonder the miners can never appreciate. The question then becomes what represents the value of understanding a past culture and leaves us wondering what the swan will look like.

George R R Martin

George R R Martin

 

“The Wreck Of The Mars Adventure” by David D. Levine is a classic rerun of a science fantasy trope in which an adapted sailing vessel crosses the void between Earth and Mars, and then recovers from a crash landing to begin its return journey. It’s delightfully wacky as the sailors struggle with unexpected problems in navigating using the solar winds and then learn to trade with Martians for materials with which to rebuild the ship. “Swords Of Zar-tu-kan” by S.M. Stirling is a pleasing piece of noir set on the red planet with a kidnapping requiring tracking and extraction — not too difficult with an optimal canid to follow the scent trail and a Coercive to back up the human in the rescue mission. It flows nicely because it presents the extraordinary as ordinary and not needing explanation.

 

“Shoals” by Mary Rosenblum is a modern story pretending to be retro. None of the pulp writers would have been interested in a young man who could interact with Martians in a fractionally different dimension overlaid on the reality humans can see. Because he can interact with these beings, he can protect his human community but also plan an eternal life. It’s a rather beautiful story. “In The Tombs Of The Martian Kings” by Mike Resnick is a wonderful pulpish story of two adventurers who accept a commission to find the tomb and then begin a whole new negotiation. The sardonic humour of the piece elevates it to a higher level. “Out Of Scarlight” by Liz Williams is something of a curiosity. It’s a high class, high fantasy story of three different people tracking down an escaped slave, but I see nothing to require the reader to place this story on Mars. It could have been set anywhere. “The Dead Sea-bottom Scrolls” by Howard Waldrop is another delightful story but not at all pulpy.

Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois

 


“A Man Without Honor” by James S.A. Corey again sees eighteenth century ships of the line suddenly dragooned into service outside Earth’s atmosphere. This time, it all comes down to the word of an Englishman. Can he really be relied on to act as honour dictates? “Written In Dust” by Melinda Snodgrass is a standout story about a family out in the Martian boondocks next to the only remaining Martian city. The tragedy in the human relationships is all too recognisable. It’s a shame people make such problems for themselves through their inflexibility. “The Lost Canal” by Michael Moorcock is an author just having the greatest fun possible with two likely lovers going underground to save the world and have a drink of water. “The Sunstone” by Phyllis Eisenstein is a surprisingly sentimental story in which the notion of what it means to have a home is explored. Obviously, it could just be a physical place where you hang your hat, or it could be membership of a wider cultural construct. “King Of The Cheap Romance” by Joe R. Lansdale plays the game well with an implacable monster in pursuit of the resolute girl as she hurries to deliver the vital vaccine across the Martian ice. It touches all the bases of dead Martian culture as our hero takes a whistle-stop tour of a previous battle site while fighting her own. “Mariner” by Chris Roberson preserves the pulpish feel by engaging in matters piratical as a misplaced human sailor takes command of a Martian ship with interesting political repercussions. “The Queen Of Night’s Aria” by Ian Mcdonald produces a great wave of irrepressible fun as we rerun the oft-forgot Space Opera by Jack Vance with an Irish tenor playing Mars and winning in the final act. I’m not at all sure H G wells would have approved of this continuation of his great conflict, but it’s a rousing way to bring the curtain down on this anthology. Albeit slightly uneven in tone, Old Mars nevertheless represents very good value for money.

 

For reviews of other anthologies by our top editorial team, see:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Songs of Love and Death and
Warriors.

 

For an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Book of Apex Volume 4 edited by Lynne M. Thomas

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

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The Book of Apex Volume 4 edited by Lynne M. Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013) is an anthology of thirty-three stories from the first fifteen issues of the Apex Magazine edited by Lynne M Thomas — it’s now edited by Sigrid Ellis. This is a completely eclectic collection of stories, avoiding genre classification with the stories often ignoring traditional limits.

“The Bread We Eat In Dreams” by Catherynne M Valente is a rather delightful tale of a demon who, for reasons made clear at the end, gets kicked out of Hell and has to put up with the uncivilised humans who appear on her doorstep to start a town. She thinks them uncivilised because they burn her as a witch. Foolish humans. As if fire would trouble a demon. “The Leavings of the Wolf” by Elizabeth Bear wonders whether marriage is like a wolf that can as easily bite off your hand as lick a wound clean. So when a marriage ends, the wolf does take a final bite and leaves nothing but grief behind. That’s something that would challenge even a god. “The 24 Hour Brother” Christopher Barzak fulfills the old adage that you wait nine months for something to happen and then, almost before you’ve had a chance to draw another breath, it’s all over. “Faithful City” by Michael Pevzner is nicely ambiguous. This may be the last remnants of humanity holding out when the rest have achieved posthuman status, or the city may be completing the eradication of humans in this post-apocalyptic scenario. “So Glad We Had This Time Together” by Cat Rambo is a great joke, naturally extrapolating the current trend for reality television shows and wondering if the network would go for a version of Survivor in which some human volunteers have to live in a distinctly haunted house without dying or becoming a vampire or walking around like a zombie.

“Sweetheart Showdown” by Sarah Dalton provides a completely different way of becoming Miss Congeniality in this version of a beauty pageant. To the victor, the spoils, the exfoliations and the disfigurements. Or should that be the other way round? “Bear in Contradicting Landscape” by David J Schwartz is a metafictional fantasy in which an author may have written his ideal woman into his life only to find a bear has chased one of his characters back into the real world where the cats eat the rabbit (or something). It’s entrancing. “My Body, Her Canvas” by A C Wise is a provocative story about the inherent quality of submission in relationships. Where there’s reasonable equality, the compromises to enable people to coexist in peace are usually positive. But when there’s imbalance, the degree of dependence may mean the loss of one partner means the end of the other’s world. “A Member of the Wedding of Heaven and Hell” by Richard Bowes is, for me, a slightly rare moment of Christian fantasy in which one of God’s agents in the multiverse has to decide whether to compromise on dogma or take a hardline against evil in all its forms. “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love” by Mari Ness is an engaging slightly more traditional fantasy tale in which the youngest child of a human woman and a raven survives to become a blacksmith. “The Second Card of the Major Arcana” by Thoraiya Dyer pits the sphinx against a modern computer and riddles flow elegantly forward into the future to keep humanity safe.

“Love is a Parasite Meme” by Lavie Tidhar celebrates all that would be lost in an apocalypse. The few survivors could forget language once they had found each other and decided whether they could love each other or remember what happened at the end of detective novels. “Decomposition” by Rachel Swirsky tells a story of revenge by causing the disappearance of his enemies two girls except, in the midst of his victory, he finds himself caught up in quite different emotions. It’s a completely satisfying ending. Tomorrow’s Dictator” by Rahul Kanakia is a radically different human resource management story which takes simple spousal manipulation to a whole new level while also offering fringe benefits to a whole community. Perhaps being a dictator is something you start off doing out of love. . . “Winter Scheming” by Brit Mandelo continues the themes of revenge and manipulation through a fascinating ghost story which sees an abusive person forced to pay an unexpected price. “In the Dark” by Ian Nichols slightly changes the emotional edge from the darkness of jealousy and fear of loneliness to understated heroism when rivalry in love might get out of hand. “The Silk Merchant” by Ken Liu takes a different view of the nature of love, seeing sacrifice and loss as implicitly a part of true relationships. These six stories represent an outstanding core for this anthology.

“Ironheart” by Alec Austin plays a very elegant fantasy game in reinventing the horrors of trench warfare using a reanimation process to continuously recycle the soldiers as zombies. What kind of place is this to send a loving brother and sister? “Coyote Gets His Own Back” by Sarah Monette is a different take on revenge when a coyote does what she can to protest what happened to her. “Waiting for Beauty” by Marie Brennan is what the Disney fairy story fails to warn aspirant beasts. Sometimes, patience on its own is not enough. “Murdered Sleep” by Kat Howard also nicely subverts the notion of the fey with their eternal dance that never changes and the hunt that, in paradox, kills that which never changes. “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine takes a cold hard look at how people relate to a strange phenomenon on their doorstep, and wonders whether privacy comes at the price of humanity. “Sexagesimal” by Katharine E K Duckett reflects on the nature of memory and what it might be like if, after death, the memories of our lives sustained us (assuming, of course, that our memories were reliable).

“During the Pause” by Adam-Troy Castro interrupts the program to bring us an important announcement. Forget defcon and the Russians or Chinese, this is serious end-of-the world shit. We wonder whether you could do us a favour. We know it’s a lot to ask. . . “Weaving Dreams” by Mary Robinette Kowal is outstanding as an exploration of faerie lore on American soil, well, some of the time anyway. “Always the Same. Till it is Not” by Cecil Castellucci is a zombie story tinged with redemption and the possibility of an afterdeath life. “Sprig” by Alex Bledsoe confirms fairies are real and are on Facebook. Whatever! “Splinter” by Shira Lipkin warns us an other world experience can spoil our appreciation of this world when we come back, if we come back that is. “Erzulie Dantor” by Tim Susman finds a modern setting for a traditional voodoo tale. “Labyrinth” by Mari Ness creates a marvellous sense of ritual as family, friendship and tradition struggle for ascendancy in a setting where the hierarchy is inflexible. “Blood from Stone” by Alethea Kontis continues the idea of rituals, this time with a rather different end in mind and we see a rather unexpected price paid as a result of a sacrifice. “Trixie and the Pandas of Dread” by Eugie Foster wonders whether godhood is all that exciting a lifestyle. After all, even the most patient of people gets a little wearied of being wrathful all the time. “The Performance Artist” by Lettie Prell finishes with a download, or should that be upload? It’s all in the eye of a beholder or art critic, particularly if she becomes a florist. It’s all magnificently ephemeral.

Put all these snippets together and they should tell you there isn’t a weak story in The Book of Apex Volume 4 and several are genuinely outstanding. I confess to being somewhat remiss in following what’s good in the short story field. If you’re like me, this is an excellent book to read. It enables you to catch up with old friends and pick up many new names to watch out for.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow

December 5, 2013 1 comment

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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2013) sees our experienced anthologist trawling the oceans of short stories with a net mesh set to catch only the best.

“Nikishi” by Lucy Taylor is one of these elegant stories which tantalises the reader as to which of the protagonists will be the biter bit. Set in a desolate part of Africa, it deals with the raw emotions of fear, greed and love, producing an entirely unsentimental way of arriving at the undoubtedly correct ending. “Little America” by Don Chaon* is a very ingenious and rather affecting zombie story. Somewhat unusually, the zombie is sympathetic albeit completely at the mercy of his hunger, making this a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford* is also about choices and the penalties people must pay for selfishness rather than trust. Perhaps people only show their true nature when in extremis. “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson is a slightly experimental piece reflecting on the habit of some female of the species to eat the males during or immediately after impregnation. This says a great deal about the sexual imperative of the males and the need of females to provide suitable food for their offspring. “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski is another highly original zombie story, speculating on what would happen to zombies if a cure was developed. Would this cure be given to every zombie who could be saved or would there always be some who, despite their involuntary consumption of the living, we would not want to save?

“The Callers” by Ramsay Campbell plays a very nice game with the language of bingo calling. It’s surprising how much menace can be generated from the ritual of call and response when the women of a Lancashire town warm up for their traditional Morris dance about a chosen maypole (and the younger the better). “Mariners’ Round” by Terry Dowling is one of the best “horror” stories I’ve read in a long while. It offers everything I look for in a quest trope. No matter how young or old, we all have dreams. Some we realise, but life can be hard. It frustrates. It deals out pain. But just suppose there was a way in which you could realise your heart’s desire, you would take the risk, wouldn’t you? You would want to believe the magic was real. Here’s three young boys who’ve grown older. Perhaps they’ll take the chance to ride on this strange old machine. “Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files is an example of a stock plot rewritten most expertly. All the trappings are appropriately contemporary, but the biter bit by protective “other” trope runs along predictable lines.

“The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir* has a wonderfully mordant sense of humour as we navigate the tricky waters of a young girl learning the ropes of real magic from an “old” mage. Think of it as being like peeling an onion. Each time a new spell is mastered, the food intake increases to sustain the amount of energy required for the magic to work. At some point, major dietary changes may be required. “Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon beguiles with its simplicity. It economically explains the situation, pushes us forward in time a few hours, and leaves us with the imponderable decision of what should be done. “The House on Ashley Avenue” by Ian Rogers is beautifully paced as our investigative duo go their separate ways, the secrets of the house to explore. It’s a delight! “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn is the third zombie story and again takes a completely unexpected direction with a voice-over artist recording the track for a documentary about the music that emerged during the time when small communities were isolated during the plague. The hook lies in the rather delightful ambiguity as to the source of some of the music recorded by a musicologist as he travelled around the infested areas.

“Bajazzle” by Margo Lanagan* is a slightly disturbing story in which an extreme form of female display creates social difficulties — it seems without the police prosecuting the women who participate for public indecency — which is juxtaposed with the behaviour of an erratic and unfaithful husband. I’m not wholly convinced there’s real synergy between the two narrative threads, but the end result does highlight male hypocrisy on dress codes and criteria for determining the limits on behaviour, i.e. younger women are expected to wear sexualised clothing to show varying degrees of bare flesh while featuring covered breasts or other physical “attributes” for inspection by ogling men, but they are not supposed to flaunt genitals or act in a way men define as unseemly and provocative. “The Pike” by Conrad Williams is a melancholic tale of an ageing man who’s coming to terms with his own mortality while fishing in fact and in his memories for the ghosts of the past. “The Crying Child” by Bruce McAllister* is magnificently weird. It starts off as if it’s going to be a ghost story with a coming-of-age overlay, but it proves to be genuinely unusual both in concept and execution. Some of the imagery is quite startling as we move past the set-up into the big reveal. This is a stand-out story!

“This Circus the World” by Amber Sparks may only be two pages long, but it manages to provoke thought on the cruelties we inflict on each other and the hypocrisy that then taints our view of the outcomes. “Some Picture in an Album” by Gary McMahon is one of these deceptively simple stories. All it does it describe a few old photographs yet this litany of stored memories manages to evoke menacing responses. It’s beautifully done. “Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud* starts off in a conventional monster ate my friends mode and then veers off into the hinterland of broken people. It would be good if we could always come to terms with our own failures but many people find fear and despair too attractive to give up. They stay broken. “Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg plays a similar game to McMahon’s story, subverting the format of a multiple choice exam to explore why a marriage should break down and whether the monsters that came out of the sea were from a different dimension or had evolved on our own sea bed (or under her bed). “None So Blind” by Stephen Bacon shows us that even after the most terrible events, life goes on. It may not always be the most pleasant existence, but when you’re waiting for death, one finds a respite where one can.

“The Ballad of Boomtown” by Priya Sharma builds on folk stories, reminding us that traditional values of loyalty and respect are supposed to prevail. Yet underneath the veneer of modernity, raw emotions like lust and guilt sweep aside pretensions and leave the more primitive and destructive side of our personalities exposed. “Pig Thing” by Adam L G Nevill pursues the same idea of a landscape that has endured through time and resents the arrival of new people and the “modern” things they bring with them. Of course, you can give these interlopers a hint but, if they fail to leave, well they have no-one but themselves to blame. “The Word-Made Flesh” by Richard Gavin continues with the power of grief to distort intelligence and snatch away sanity. Here’s a tragic man who has lost his wife and son in an accident. He becomes obsessed with the idea of reclaiming them to the point where he, too, passes beyond life itself. “Into the Penny Arcade” Claire Massey is an atmosphere piece that builds pleasingly but ends on a slightly inconsequential note. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A Snyder** deals with a different type of hunger and, as transformation beckons, nicely leaves ambiguous whether the final thoughts are delusional or the emergence of a new being from the chrysalis of the old husk of a body. “Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron draws on his early life in the North to produce a riveting variation on the traditional theme of the Wild Hunt. It’s a perfect way to bring this rather fine anthology to a rousing conclusion.

*Nominated for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette or Short Story.
**First appeared in Dark Faith: Invocations and won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Story.

 

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

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