"A Little Learning" by Matthew Hughes
"Zero's Twin" by A. A. Attanasio
"Faces" by Joe Haldeman
"The Zombie Prince" by Kit Reed
"By The LIght Of Day" by Arthur Porges
"Glinky" by Ray Vukcevich
"After The Gaud Chrysalis" by Charles Coleman Finlay
Editor Gordon Van Gelder takes a trip into the psychedelic this month with two stories centered on a mutable reality. Toss in a wicked short short and an epic fantasy and you have the makings of a great issue.
Matthew Hughes likes to work on a big canvas. His setting in "A Little Learning" is the entire human noosphere, the realm that consists of every archetypal event, landscape or situation that has ever existed or ever will exist. Guth Bandar is an apprentice noonaut on a non-corporeal journey through the noosphere, on a quest to prove his worthiness as a full member of the Institute of Historical Inquiry.
But Didrick Gabbris, a fellow apprentice and a competitor for the cherished Colquhoon Bursary, has broken the rules and altered the reality of an event before Bandar can arrive, preventing him from proceeding further along the Institute-defined path. Rather than let Gabbris win the race, Bandar decides to strike out on his own on a path of his own making.
As you might expect, all does not go according to plan, and Bandar has to rescue himself from one mishap after another. In devising his clever escapes, Bandar distorts his own projected physicality in comedic and raunchy ways.
Hughes exhibits a wild imagination that really benefits from the freedom of his setting. Bandar is a delightful mix of carnality and intellectualism, of wit and foolishness. Hughes' conclusion seems to suggest we won't be seeing more of Bandar and the noosphere, but I hope he finds a way to bring both back. Overall, a story well worth your time.
The focal character in A. A. Attanasio's "Zero's Twin" reminded me of Guth Bandar, at least in spirit. "He looked a lot like a donkey, with a head much too big for his body and bristly hair blue as ashes. His long rabbit face and big teeth appeared almost friendly, except for those devilish eyes, narrow and wickedly tapered."
But Attanasio's character has none of Bandar's earthy physicality. A mathematician obsessed with the intersection of infinity and zero, Attanasio's character is austere, intellectual and cold. The one love of his life first visits him in a dream. She is not human although she takes human form; she is his creator, and he is hers. This makes sense in a world in which time and space are one.
The riddle of what it means for space and time to be one, or what it means to be human and to try and grasp that conundrum, is the question at the heart of this story. It's a fundamentally intellectual story, which is unconvincing when it leaves the airy realm of pure thought and touches down in human emotion. Without a convincingly human story, it felt both long and inconclusive.
Joe Haldeman's "Faces" exert a mystic attraction over John Denham and Whoopie Marchand, an odd couple of inductees exploring the planet Lalande at the behest of the Earth-based Confederacion. Actually, the faces, three Mt. Rushmore-like monolithic alien sculptures, exert an equally mystic attraction over machinery, inexorably drawing vehicles, people and aliens near.
This is a problem for our intrepid heroes, since they're dependent on a limited supply of bottled oxygen to survive the toxic atmosphere. When they're told the solution by two natives, it seems to have been concocted by a meddling, ancient, alien yenta.
Although there's fun to be had in this story, in the end it felt like meringue: all fluff and emptiness.
"The Zombie Prince" by Kit Reed is (to torture the metaphor) the polar opposite of meringue. This is a dark tale of love lost and the undead oblivion of emotionlessness. Dana Graver is a woman spurned by the man she thought would be her husband. Alone, bereaved, wishing for an end to the pain, she is terrified to find her wish granted in the person of a zombie, a beautiful, perfectly perserved, and perfectly still man waiting in her bedroom.
At first she imagines that he is the cinematic zombie, ready to rend her limb from limb. But she calms down, and even grows envious, when she learns that to be a zombie is to embody emptiness. To be free of the pain of life, because what the zombie takes is not the body, but the soul.
There's a danger, though, if you're a zombie that you will get too close to the living. If you take more than just a soul, you may end up with the fire of your former life burning in you, and burning you up.
Dana's zombie falls into this trap, and so does the writer. In telling the zombie's story, Reed destroys the mystery that made the zombie prince compelling to begin with. In explaining how the zombie was created, she makes mundane what seemed to be almost elemental.
Tormenter-In-Chief Tyke Timborru must devise a unique and horrible torture in two weeks, or he will suffer the tender ministrations of his emperor, Slavoor the Cruel. When the time comes, an unexpected celestial event changes everything, or does it?
Arthur Porges' "By The Light Of Day" is a very funny short short with an edge.
"Glinky," or maybe Danny Boyd, is an extra-dimensional traveler edging into our world and pushing reality aside to make room. Karl Sowa, or maybe Chuck Sorrow, is a private investigator, or maybe an action figure, hired by Jane Boyd, or maybe Urbana Fontana, to stop him.
Reality ain't so real in Ray Vukcevich's story. It twists and mutates and becomes something different even while you're still looking at it. It's kind of like taking acid while watching The Three Stooges. The result is a bit dizzying, but a whole lot of fun.
Charles Coleman Finlay is one of my favorite short fiction writers (I even bought his story "The Factwhore Proposition" for my website, Futurismic). "After The Gaud Chrysalis" confirms my opinion: he's a writer with broad range and an active imagination. How can you not like a story that begins with the phrase, "The nun in the lizard-skin robes…"?
The nun in question is Sister Renn, formerly known as Elizeh. Kuiken and Vertir have come at the behest of the Dynast to enlist her help in a dangerous mission down the Rifft River to the dead city of Khorpis Kharn, where a gaud chrysalis has been found. If the gaud chrysalis falls into the hands of the Bey of Desmee, a new and terrible age may begin. Kuikin, Vertir and Renn are charged with killing the new gaud before the Bey can find it.
This is an incredibly dense story, with hints of a vast and elaborate history in both the characters' lives and in the larger world. It is actually the second published story about Kuikin and Vertir, and the fact that I have not read the first one might explain my one complaint about this story, that it is too dense. It took a second reading before I really understood what was happening.
Even so, it was worth the second reading.
Between "A Little Learning" and "Glinky," I feel I've slipped a little further away from the bounds of consensus reality, and that's a good thing. Overall an excellent issue.
Jeremy Lyon is a freelance writer, tech industry cube farmer and the publisher of Futurismic, a site for people interested in the future and the effects of science and technology on the present, now featuring original fiction.