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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.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 3 edited by Lavie Tidhar

August 15, 2014 3 comments

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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.

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.

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment

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I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus (Apex Publications, 2013) Apex Voices: Book 2 gives me pause for a slightly nonstandard reason. Some years ago, I ran my own small press. For reasons which need not concern us here, it was not a great success but, rightly or wrongly, I believed in the authors and their books. It would not have occurred to me to publish something that I thought poor or second-rate. I note with some degree of derision, the emergence of a new breed of small press publisher who sees crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as removing the risk from their decision-making. Instead of backing their own judgement with their own money, they raise the necessary cash from future customers. This does not apply to Apex Publications. They have the confidence to put their own capital at risk. My apologies. I’m diverting from my theme. This collection of two stories from Maurice Broaddus contains a somewhat ironic pair of effusive panegyrics as to the author’s worth. Why ironic? Because the shorter piece is titled, “Pimp My Airship” and these two prefatory pages are implicitly titled, “Pimp My Author”.

Anyway, this excess takes nothing away from the actual quality of the two stories, the first of which is the longer “I Can Transform You”. We’re immediately pitched into a noir science fiction police procedural in which Mac Peterson, an on/off police detective is called in when his ex-partner has taken a dive off one of the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood. Like Icarus, she did not make a soft landing. Sadly, she’s one of a growing number of people who have taken their leave of the world by this extravagant swan-diving and no-one has been able to come up with a convincing explanation for this aberrant suicidal gesture. His boss, Hollander, introduces our hero to Detective Ade Walter who’s to take lead on this case. On top of the building, there are signs of a struggle and she has trace amounts of DNA under her nails suggesting defensive action on her part. This sets the plot in motion.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

Mac is, of course, a man with a past. He was ousted from his role as a full-time detective because he busted a ring of paedophiles with connections to the rich and powerful. He’s retreated into the demimonde as a problem-solver or PI if you want to dignify what he does for cash to fuel his increasing dependence on the drug called Stim. Just about holding himself together, he sets off to ask questions of the “gang” of desperate homeless people who had connections to this latest “suicide”. As a piece of noir science fiction, it’s similar to Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star and the rather better Bone Wires. In this type of story, our hero finds himself forced to work outside the formalised law enforcement structure in a world suffering environmental damage to investigate the activities of a shadowy “organisation”. He may or may not be augmented or, as in Guy Haley’s Omega Point, he may have a cyborg as a friend. As a basic plot, it’s not very original. What saves this version to some extent is the quality of the characterisation. There’s some heft to the protagonist but, in comparison to Clean by Alex Hughes which also deals with a consultant to the police (he’s a telepath) struggling with addiction in a future noir dystopia, Broaddus is a little thin.

The shorter “Pimp My Airship” is a political steampunk allegory in which the American revolution failed and Britain retained control. The colony prospered by exploiting the free labour force and building on the backs of the slaves. The status quo of corruption and racism would have continued, filling the coffers of the British masters, but for the arrival of automation. Since machines, once deployed, are easier to manage than slaves, the newly redundant were ghettoised and left to their own devices (sic). Pacification through opium was the norm, with imprisonment for any who chose to speak out against the racial oppression. This story sees a very public blow being struck for the practical emancipation of the ex-slaves. It initially requires a group to be freed from imprisonment rather along the lines of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille. For this purpose, an airship is required. The Afronauts fly to their destiny and the appropriately named “Sleepy” must decide where his loyalties lie.

In the confines of a short story, it’s a challenge to develop beyond broad brush strokes. The problem with this particular vehicle for mirroring modern racial discrimination is the lack of an economic context. In contemporary America, the racially oppressed groups are maintained in a state of dependence with just enough earning capacity to sustain life, doing the work the racially advantaged consider beneath their dignity. In time, this will change as the better paid jobs dry up and the bare subsistence jobs are all that are left. But for now, the potential for revolution is lacking. The oppressed have been brainwashed into apathy, convinced they are powerless to effect change. In this story, there are no low paid jobs for the poor to fight over. They have been condemned to slum wastelands. So who feeds them and provides shelter from the elements? If automation replaces all the low-pay, no-pay jobs, the elite should be thinking in terms of eugenics and a final solution, rather than picking up a bill for charitable works and free opium for all (cf “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson).

I might have thought these two stories published as I Can Transform You rather better if the book had begun without the broadside of unrelenting praise. Having raised expectations with a concerted sales puff of epic proportions, the actual stories were almost bound to disappoint. In American terms, the politics underpinning both stories is probably quite edgy. In European terms, it’s superficial and unchallenging. Though the writing style is above average, the substance is lacking for a European reader like me. Perhaps American readers will find more grist.

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

Appalachian Undead edited by Eugene Johnson and Jason Sizemore

September 1, 2013 Leave a comment

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Appalachian Undead edited by Eugene Johnson and Jason Sizemore (Apex Publications, copyrighted 2012 but not actually released until 2013) as the name should suggest to you is a themed zombie anthology. “When Granny Comes Marchin’ Home Again” by Elizabeth Massie is the souce story for the novel Desper Hollow and explains how the titular Granny came to meet her maker and then decided she’d rather stay with the rest of her family. Because it stops at a preliminary stage, we get all the wit and none of the rather curious view of the afterlife on display in the novel. This is a success. “Sitting Up With the Dead” by Bev Vincent is an unsentimental take on what it would be like when people recently buried in a small mountain community suddenly start heaving themselves out of the ground. Does there come a point when the reanimation of your mother, father or spouse gets too much to bear? “Company’s Coming” by Ronald Kelly pursues the trend of humanising contact with the undead. This time the zombies get caught up in the bad blood between an elderly black woman and the racist white family that lives in the valley. On this occasion, loneliness and sheer cussedness saves the day. “Repent, Jessie Shimmer!” by Lucy A Snyder demonstrates that zombie stories don’t have to be all doom and gloom as a witch and her familiar run into unexpected difficulties in a swamp. This is wonderful.

“Spoiled” by Paul Moore also succeeds but in a rather different way. The line between life and death is supposed to be uncrossable but, for these purposes, we accept the premise that the dead can reanimate. But this is not sentient life as we know it. Rather it’s a poor simulation. Movement is achieved and there’s a desire. It seems no matter how primitive the organism, hunger remains a motivating force. But there’s nothing that we would characterise as intelligent life. A different way of looking at this would be to see an infection, perhaps in the form of a virus, finding a unique way of replicating itself by using human hosts. Of course, there would always be one or two humans who were naturally immune. Although even the immune might have points of vulnerability. “Black Friday” by Karin Fuller is one of the best explanations for the start of the zombie plague I’ve seen in years. This is one for the conspiracy theorists to get their teeth into as the desire for the bargain is repurposed.

“Calling Death” by Jonathan Maberry is different tack produced by fusing a classic ghost story with zombie mytholgy. This is an elegant piece of spinning as the story thread stretches out into the night. You think it must fail or be snapped, but it beautifully suspends disbelief until you believe the story haunting the mountain to be true. “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” by John Skipp and Dori Miller is a pleasing idea as we confront the possibility of revenge and retribution all rolled up into one tasty morsel to snack on. “The Girl and the Guardian” by Simon McCaffrey plays with the idea of rescue. Of course, nothing on Earth can stand against the undead. Not even MONICA who might try to ride to the rescue in her Volkswagen Bug. It would need someone really special. “On Stagger” by G Cameron Fuller is another delightful joke as the school bully’s true nature is revealed and our hero refuses to back down in what is, for him, a rite of passage. Fortunately, at this critical boys-to-man moment, he can call on his grandfather for advice. That’s the strength of families.

“Long Days to Come” by K Allen Wood is a cut-down version of the story which appears in the chapbook, Mountain Dead. This is much closer to the original Night of the Living Dead model and, consequently, less effective in these more sophisticated times. “Hide and Seek” by Tim Waggoner is a science fiction approach to the origin and invests our creatures with an interesting set of abilities. Although the human hunters are pretty formidable, you can’t always keep a good boy down. “Sleeper” by Tim Lebbon offers us a glimpse into the process of despair. You fight to survive, keeping the flame of hope alive. But then come the challenges and the reversals. How can anyone persist when all about them is falling apart. This is the time we might all wish to cease upon the midnight with no pain. “We take Care of Our Own” by John Everson is a classic example of altruism in our highly charged capitalist world: an employer that has nothing but the interests of its staff at heart. It should be an inspiration to us all.

“Miranda Jo’s Girl” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a genuinely tender story, somewhat unusual for the zombie trope. If a mother’s love isn’t strong enough, then the leaders in the community must step forward. It’s obvious something must be done to help the little girl. “Being in the Shadow” by Maurice Broaddus is the story of a cop who screws up. With his reputation shredded, all he can do is go after the perp responsible, even if it means gong down into Shadow Hollow to get his man. “Almost Heaven” by Michael Paul Gonzalez is another story with a nice sense of humour, blending the inevitable fear of the unknown with a chance for a game of cribbage with some new friends. “Twilight at the Zombie Game Preserve” by S Clayton Rhodes is a nice idea but I’m not wholly convinced by the ending. “Hell’s Hollow” by Michael West continues the note of levity with a Weird West Revival story. It’s strange to think how dependent a town might become on tourism, particularly with Hell as part of its name. “Brother Hollis Gives His Final Sermon” by Gary A Brainbeck thinks about how faith can be tested but, if you believe, truly believe, then you can be saved (for a little while, anyway).

I usually shy away from themed anthologies these days. Over the years, I’ve found too many of them are monotonous — even if not individually, then through the sheer accumulation of variations on the theme in question. Zombies are usually very limited so I confess to approaching this anthology with some degree of trepidation only to be ambushed by some outstanding stories. All credit must go to the editors in dragging originality out of the authors — or having the patience to wait until enough really good stories came in before publishing. I’m therefore in what is to me, a relatively unusual position. The jaded old guy is actually recommending a zombie anthology.

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

Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas

July 31, 2013 2 comments

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When reviewing, you sometimes have to bite the bullet and use technical jargon to get the message across. Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013) revives the urge to dive back into critique. Prepare yourselves. This anthology is “fun”, using the word in its most technical sense, of course. Thematically, we’re partying, on occasion in disco or roller derby mode, so be prepared for some culture shock. It’s also quite sexually liberated so brace yourself for diversity. There’s also occasional bad language but where in this life is safe from the undeleted expletive or three? Overall, there’s considerable irreverence on display although there are moments of seriousness. Put this together and you have one of the most enjoyable of anthologies of the year so far. And, at the end of the day (or night) depending on how long the party lasts, isn’t that what fiction should be all about? Yes, there’s a space to be held for the white-knuckle and wow-factor stuff — actually the kind of stuff that’s often held up for praise when it comes round to award time — but we should all be allowed to celebrate reading for the sheer pleasure of seeing words used well to make us smile, or think (just a little — too much thinking can overload the brain’s computing power).

It all starts with “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” by Christopher Barzak, a pleasingly subversive fairy story in which twelve princesses discover a secret passageway that takes them to an infinity of parties through time and space. All they need do to escape the dreary grind of life in the palace is to touch the floor, open the door and go down the steps. The freedom is intoxicating so long as it lasts. “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz has to be the ultimate roller derby event where the challenge is not to win, but to avoid being beaten by a new record amount. Just remember, when the sergeant major says, “Jump!” you do it without hesitating. “With Her Hundred Miles” by Kat Howard let’s suppose each sleep really is a little death and the dreams that are born during that short stay in the afterlife are fatal to whatever you were dreaming about. Then dreaming about birds in flight would mean you wake up and find your bed surrounded by dead birds. But suppose you dreamed about people?

In these days of sexual equality, “Star Dancer” by Jennifer Pelland supplies the Women in Black I’ve been waiting for. This story is definitely WiBbly and sometimes WoBbly (that’s Women on Blue Kisses) when the dance music plays and we all get as high as an elephant’s eye. “Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane” by Cat Rambo reminds us we can change our appearance and act out roles wearing different clothes, but underneath, we stay the same. “Sooner Than Gold” by Cory Skerry is a delightful story about possibilities. Who knows what excitement lurks on the other side of a closed door? Whatever it is, keep it close to your chest! “Subterraneans” by William Shunn & Laura Chavoen takes the idea of wife swapping to a new level. Think of it as a kind of megamix when you choose between the red and blue pills to Marvin Gaye’s “Lets Get It On”. “The Minotaur Girls” by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a thoughtful story of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, wanting so desperately to be old (or skillful) enough to be allowed into the “club”. In just a few pages, this contrives to say something interesting about the ties between the generations of the young as they take years off their lives in the pursuit of the unattainable. “Unable to Reach You” by Alan DeNiro in these days when everyone expects you to be connected 24/7, it’s important to get to the source of any problem and assert control. “Such & Such Said to So & So” by Maria Dahvana Headley plays a neat game with the language of drinking and partying, suggesting no-one should get to like their drinks too much or the dog will leave its hairs when it bites us on the ass. While “Revels in the Land of Ice” by Tim Pratt finds poetry in the eye of the beholder if you go to the revels to see what it reveals.

“Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar is nicely surreal. Life passes by this pair of partying girls and death fails to keep them down as they keep the celebratory mood going. “Blood and Sequins” by Diana Rowland gives us inadvertent police officers in a major prostitution and drug bust as the zombies rescue the butterfly. It all makes perfect sense when you read it. “Two-Minute Warning” by Vylar Kaftan gives us a nice SFnal twist on a paintball party upgraded to more lethal levels as people who live for the thrill of it all encourage those grown more timid to get back into the spirit of things. “Inside Hides the Monster” by Damien Walters Grintalis wonders how sirens would fare when modern music replaces the simple melodies she prefers. The problem, of course, is that if she listens to this modern music, might her own music be tainted. Yes, that could be a real problem. “Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire gives us the real inside dope on roller derby when the girls with aptitude come out to play. Of course this is all wonderful so long as they play fair. No-one gets hurt (too seriously). But what would happen if one decided to cheat? “A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar wonders what people might sacrifice if the need was great. It’s all a question of relative values. The more you want, the greater the sacrifice you might have to make. Of course, as the process approaches, you might suddenly realise what you propose to sacrifice isn’t meaningful enough. That would be an unfortunately discovery to make. “Just Another Future Song” by Daryl Gregory considers the problem of identity which might get a little lost if you can upload yourself into different bodies. The challenge, of course, is to remember just enough, whether in the brain unit or the gut, to make the best transfer to the next body. “The Electric Spanking of the War Babies” by Maurice Broaddus & Kyle S. Johnson returns to another SFnal disco groove as the Star Child looks for the mothership to give the Funk to the people, whether they want to receive it or not. “All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky is a very amusing metafictional rant against the idea of fairy stories and the stereotypical women who defer to their Princes so they can become mindless Princesses and live unfulfilled lives forever after.

Put all these hints together and you have a highly enjoyable anthology.

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

Desper Hollow by Elizabeth Massie

June 1, 2013 4 comments

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This review contains a major plot spoiler so if you prefer to read the book without preconceptions, do not read this review.

It’s always interesting when an old and often jaded reader meets something new. It forces a sudden braking manoeuvre. The smooth flow of word consumption is momentarily stilled. The brain is engaged. Thought begins. So Desper Hollow by Elizabeth Massie (Apex Publications, 2013) has a feature that gave me pause. As is always my habit when my prejudices are involved, I now remind my readers that I am an atheist and leave it to you to judge whether you feel this unfairly colours my opinions of this book.

Well, here we go with Granny Mustard in the Appalachian Mountains, once the best moonshiner in a fifteen mile radius but now no longer at her best. She was the matriarch of Beaver Dam which has been burned to the ground, apparently by another of the Mustard clan. Bobby Boo Anderson, a superhero in his own head, decides to visit the smoking ruin and makes the startling discovery that Granny may not have perished in the flames. He later disappears and his Aunt Dottie gets eaten by a bear (?). Meanwhile Armistead Ciel who had come into Beaver Dam as a hiker, is on the run but, despite his best efforts, he can’t outrun his jailor and is returned to the undead trailer where he’s been kept a prisoner. This gives him the chance to ponder weighty existential matter like who he is and what purpose he has in being. Kathy Shaw, the preacher’s daughter, avoids the flames by virtue of having left town. The best way really. Except she can’t stay away because a dead dog kills her mother but her mother disappears. All of which brings us to Jenkie Mustard who’s been learning some of Granny’s tricks and now has a trailer with four living dead humans and one dead dog, still animate. Except that’s a bit boring after a while. Just think how much more fun it would be if she could sell the story to the press, or television. This defeat of death is something the world should know about. This brings Jack Carroll of Check This Out fame and his cameraman into the mountains.

Elizabeth Massie in mountain zombie territory

Elizabeth Massie in mountain zombie territory

In a nutshell that gives you the ingredients of this less than wholly serious zombie novel. Taking a modern perspective, the traditional moonshiners continue to distill without permits and, not surprisingly, without paying taxes. If caught they face the prospect of years in jail which is why the Mustard clan police their part of the mountain with such enthusiasm. Their extended kin group has been making ‘shine for generations and they ain’t about to stop now. Somewhat ironically in the real world, there’s a moonshine renaissance with some distillers led by people like NASCAR legend Junior Johnson deciding there’s a market for legitimately distilled liquor. But not even the most powerful recipe around today can match Granny Mustard’s special ‘shine. This is the product of some powerful magic and it works as a great short-term reanimator. Not exactly what you need if, like Granny, you’re powerful afraid of dying. Short term doesn’t cut the mustard as someone once said. That’s why the pressure is on to make the ultimate elixir to confer eternal life after death if you’ll forgive the obvious paradox.

The potential good news is that, once we get past the setup and all the important characters are in place, this turns into a taut and very well-paced chase as relevant warm bodies run from dead bodies. This makes the last third of the book one of the best managed hunt sequences I’ve read for quite a while. Forget this is reanimated corpses doing the hunting. This is just flight from danger done really well. But I say this with two caveats. There’s a slight disconnect from the tone of the first third. In the last paragraph I said this was a less than wholly serious novel. There are some amusing moments and a general invitation to find stereotypical hillbilly antics inherently entertaining. I think the book would have benefitted from slightly more realism and malevolence from the outset. In the middle third, I suspected an explicitly Christian theme emerging and, as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear. I’m sorry to say that I think this completely undermines the effect.

There’s a certain expectation that zombies are driven by an insatiable hunger and will not stop until they get fresh meat unless their bodies sustain too much damage to continue moving. The idea that a higher power is disrupting this expectation undermines all the efforts to build and maintain tension. Once the reader realises God is watching and influencing events, we just sit back and wait for the miracle. So I’m sorry to say that I think the book’s excellent potential has been ruined. I understand the temptation for a Christian author to think about the status of zombies. If the soul has already gone on to its appropriate destination, the husk could become a vessel for evil. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we have a highly intelligent and articulate monster created out of dead body parts. This triumph of science fiction from the early nineteen century could still inspire modern authors who want to explore the balance between “good” and “evil” in a reanimated body. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether the cause of the reanimation is the magic of electricity or something more supernatural. All we need is for the body to start moving and then pause to wonder who it is and why it’s doing whatever it’s doing. So, for me, Desper Hollow defeats itself. It could have been an edge of the seat story of zombies rampaging through the mountains, but it throws away all the tension when you know God is already on the job.

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

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