"The Waiting Tree" by Stephen Higgins
"Mating Habits" by Sacha Davis
"The Glass Woman" by Kaaron Warren
"Worm Song" by Naomi Hatchman
"Love Sick" by Anthony Morris
"Dance of the Murran-Ji" by Colin J. Ponting
"End Game" by John T. Stolarczyk
According to its cover, this number of Aurealis deals with the thematic issue "Birth and Rebirth." The stories within take a decidly dark approach to the topic, with death and death-inspired transformations predominating.
In "The Waiting Tree," Stephen Higgins presents a rambling story of sociological SF. Fleck, the human protagonist, is a translator on an alien world. The native Drini have a tribal culture and no technology, but they are capable of transforming the mud of their swampy world into a hard, stony substance. The humans want the secret of the stone, which is bound up in the native religion, with its emphasis on the land, the river, and the strange, iron-hard local trees. What ensues is a cautionary tale of colonialism, of the kind found in mainstream literature from the turn of this century, although it is rather heavy-handed in presenting the theme. Unsettling jumps in time mar the flow of the story.
Sacha Davis follows with "Mating Habits," a blend of horror and speculation told from the viewpoint of a spider-like alien, Myranymr. She rejects, kills, and eats several would-be suitors, until one of them overcomes her defenses and mates with her. Now she awaits the birth of her children, who will eat their way out of her body. Ever the hunter, however, she finds a way to thwart this sure death. An odd little lesson in spider feminism, which is ultimately weakened by the lack of any motivating factor for Myranymr's rage. Something truly unusual informs
Kaaron Warren's "The Glass Woman," a darkly sensual fairy tale, heady and atmospheric. A master artisan fashions a woman from glass, and she strangely excites the men who come to see her. In a setting reminiscent of a peepshow, they pay money to watch her eat, drink, and move through the light shining in her cage. More a situation or a word-picture than a story in the conventional sense, this text speaks knowingly about the fascination of the grotesque.
"Worm Song" by Naomi Hatchman offers another alien POV. The protagonist, Krilli, is one of a race of sentient, telepathic, worm-like creatures. As she and her sisters bore through the ground in pursuit of a mysterious telepathic Voice, they discover the secret of their origins. Though well-written, the story treads on (or, rather, burrows through) familiar ground, dealing with themes from the Cold War era.
It's back to the well-worn future in "Love Sick" by Anthony Morris, yet another story of petty criminals in a cyberpunk setting. In order to keep his girlfriend Helen alive, part-time scam artist and full-time loser Czery allows himself to be inoculated with cancer. He hopes to wrangle enough prescriptions of a new anti-cancer drug both to cure himself and to cash in on the black market. In order to maximize the payoff, he witholds the treatment as long as possible, and his increasing illness mirrors Helen's long slide into oblivion. When faced with the decision of continuing to pay for her care or buying a VR simulation to replace her, he makes the obvious choice. A comfortable story, but hardly a challenging one.
Xenobiology again provides the setting for Colin J. Ponting's "Dance of the Murran-Ji." Sex and mating are here as well, when a human tourist on an alien world witnesses the dance of the Murran-Ji and learns its dark secret. The story telegraphs said secret well in advance, and the final paragraph beats the reader over the head with it.
The final story in the volume, appropriately enough, is "End Game" by John T. Stolarczyk. In a dreamlike fantasy world, a man named Hallows-a target of assassins, and possibly an assassin himself-confronts shadowy forces in an odd game of chess. Like "The Glass Woman," the story is a vignette of situations, appealing in the skillful way it unfolds those situations but frustrating in its lack of context.
This issue of Aurealis demonstates how difficult it is to fashion a story that is both challenging and engrossing. The well-plotted stories navigate familiar waters, and the intriguing ones squander strong characters on weak situations. None of them offer a birth into a better, larger world.
Jeff Verona's most recent fiction sale was to Aboriginal Science Fiction. He teaches courses in Science Fiction Literature and Creative Writing at Brookhaven College, and currently he lives in Fort Worth with his wife, two cats, and two computers.