Apex, #3 Autumn 2005

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“The Karst” by M.M. Buckner
“Accountant: Life on the Streets” by Bryn Sparks
“Big Sister/Little Sister” by Jennifer Pelland
“The Meateaters” by Sue Lange
“Heroes, All” by Steven Fisher
“Upgrade” by Artie Nolan
“Human Resources” by Christopher Stires
“Trees of Bone” by Daliso Chaponda
“Little Black Boxes” by Barbara Geiger
“Alexandria and Nebs” by William R. Eakin
“Within the Darkness” by K. A. Patterson

It’s time to gather round for another storytime, with spooky tales and adventures in the far future.  Put down your toys, forget about those accounts you’ve been working on, and turn off the TV (hey, you, over there!  I said turn off the TV).  It’s time to see what the folks at Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest have come up with.  This is the third issue of this up-and-comer, and things are looking good.

In the first tale, “The Karst,” by M.M. Buckner, things have not gone well for the Earth.  The surface is not a place you’d want to be, with no water, tornado winds, poisons, and heat.  Not that any of that is part of Deiter Sucher’s day-to-day life.  He’s a civilized man, living the good life in Greenland, but to make a name for himself, he travels into the underground caves of Kentucky, looking for a mineral deposit to exploit.  The people there are simple, understanding little of the world.  They are hicks, eking out a living by selling toys to Greenland.com.  But maybe, just maybe, there is more value to their way of life than Deiter realized, and the last thing they need is Dieter to bring the eye of the corporation to their karst.  Well written and engaging, though in third person present (a form I’ve never been comfortable with), “The Karst” doesn’t have a complicated plot, nor a new one, but it is workable for its length.  It is a brief morality play, with an interesting look at post-apocalypse Kentucky civilization.

Next comes Bryn Sparks’s “Accountant: Life on the Streets,” which is the money story.  What is a “money story”?  Well, a bit of thought on other genres should answer that.  But if not, well, in any anthology, collection, or fiction magazine, there’s going to be a few works you’ll find mildly amusing, and a few that you would never spend a penny on and feel a little uncertain about having invested your time.  So, for you to be happy with your purchase, there needs to be one money story, the one you remember afterwards, and leaves you satisfied.  Here it is.

This is a cyberpunk story about a tough, anti-social, streetwise…accountant.  Yes, I said accountant.  Now that’s an idea.  Tell me you’ve read a story about a street accountant.  And the accountant lives in a world of genetically altered laborers, brutes with tiny pinheads, who are looking for sexual release.  Sparks has created a vivid and wonderfully off-kilter world with characters that fit it perfectly.  This one’s a keeper, folks.

For Jennifer Pelland‘s “Big Sister/Little Sister,” let me meander for a moment.  You see, I’m a movie guy.  Brought up on the golden age SF writers, I am at least as obsessive about genre film.  Over the years, I’ve tilted more toward film, writing reviews, running a festival, and pretty much burying myself in cinema.  I have put a concerted effort into viewing the films thought of as the most extreme and most terrifying, and I have found nothing as visceral, as disturbing, as “Big Sister/Little Sister.”  They could never make a film of this.  It would be savaged by the MPAA and never get distribution.  This is one sick puppy of a story.  And in case you hadn’t worked it out, that’s a good thing.

You see, Big Sister has a problem.  Her mother loved her deformed twin better.  Much better.  Big Sister wasn’t allowed to have friends, see boys, or develop outside interests since she was required to rush home to spend time with Little Sister.  Then her mother did something horrible, to make sure that Little Sister would have a good life, and Big Sister would have nothing.  But now, her mother has died.  And after an unspeakably bleak childhood, and a worse young adulthood, she finally has the ability to make a decision, a decision about herself and Little Sister.  Her problem?  After so many years of torture, how do you set things right?  It isn’t pretty.

This one will make you uncomfortable for a long time.  So many like to label this story or that one as horror, but few live up to that name.  This one does.

Still with me?  You haven’t tried to slip back and finish those accounts?  Good.

Sue Lange‘s “The Meateaters” looks at three women who work on the slaughter line.  They disembowel animals all day, then head out to the pub for some vodka and a live goldfish.  On weekends, they pop off planet to a nightclub where the meat is even fresher.  But one of them wants something wilder.  She notices their boss never joins them on the weekends.  Obviously, the boss must be into something bloodier, something illegal, and she wants to join in.  “The Meateaters” can be taken as a complicated metaphor about how we live, or a simple one about what we eat.  Either way, it hits you in the face with a few truths that most people try to dodge.  It’s a thoughtful story that both entertains, and will make you gag.      

Steven Fisher puts a new wrinkle on time travel and alien invasion with “Heroes, All.”  The aliens have won, not that Earth could put up much of a fight.  An enslaved human population does as it’s told.  For fun, the aliens like to drag an important human from the past to the present, possess him, and experience his life.  But something has been going wrong.  Several aliens have died while entertaining themselves.  There’s no way the humans could be doing it, so what’s going on?  Walt is a guide, helping aliens through their trips.  This time, they’re “up-timing” Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame).  Unfortunately, the alien involved isn’t in it just for fun.  He wants answers, and is willing to shred Walt’s mind to get them. 

If there is a message in Fisher’s story, I missed it.  This is just good old-fashioned storytelling and an enjoyable read.                 

“Upgrade” is a short-short by Artie Nolan.  Something has gone seriously wrong with a drug bust, and now no one is happy, particularly the narrator.  There isn’t a lot to “Upgrade,” but then, it is less than two pages long so it isn’t as if you should expect the meaning of life.  For such a brief tale, the main character is quite developed.  On the other hand, the plot has less depth than might be expected.  If the ending is supposed to be a twist, it doesn’t twist enough. 

Christopher Stires’s “Human Resources” is a sound read.  Stires has an inviting style that took me into the life of Dave Barboza.  Dave’s been having a rough time and needs to find a job and find it now.  His last chance is an interview with a stress-management consulting firm, but once there, he finds the interview far more stressful than he could have imagined.

I enjoyed reading “Human Resources” but I’m not left with much now that I’m done.  Think of it as an amusement park ride.

The longest story in the issue is Daliso Chaponda’s “Trees of Bone,” a fantasy of the near future.  Katulo is a doctor, trained in western medicine, but he is also the only one who can remember the old ways.  He alone can perform a Waking, where he brings forth the ghosts of an event.  This is most often used at weddings to bless the bride and groom.  Katulo is old, and hopes he has enough time to pass on his medical knowledge.  He’d also like to pass on his more esoteric abilities, but he thinks that’s unlikely.  These concerns are ripped away when three rabble-rousers are attacked by Hutus from the nearby city.  Relations between the Hutus and the Tutsis have been strained, and this event could easily escalate to a bloodbath.   Katulo remembers the savagery of his youth, when members of the two tribes murdered each other.  He has to stop it from happening again.

“Trees of Bone” paints a believable Africa, torn by civil war, and complex characters that don’t fall into simple categories.  Katulo is likeable and an excellent guide to this world.  I cared what happened to him, and if I wasn’t sympathetic to many of the others, I could become involved with their problems through Katulo.  This story does what genre works excel at: allowing us to see real world problems in a new light.  There were a few moments, particularly at the end, when actions were taken not because they were what the character would do, but because they moved the plot along or had a greater emotional impact.  This lessened the overall effectiveness of the work, but left the main force intact.
Barbara Geiger brings us a darker alien invasion in “Little Black Boxes.”  The aliens have taken control of substantial portions of the country, and a few resistance fighters are desperately trying to stop them.  Told in a non-linear fashion, with the reader thrust into the middle, it takes several pages to get a grip on what’s happening.  However, the basic plot is not that complicated, and only the unusual narrative style creates any suspense.

William R. Eakin’s “Alexandria and Nebs” is less of a story and more of a poem, minus the verse.  Not a lot happens.  Instead, we are made privy to the sad communication of two very old computers.  They’ve seen everything, although only one remembers, but there isn’t much left for them.  Like a poem, it either grabs you with the images invoking emotions of loss and joy, and times long gone, or it doesn’t.  In my case, it didn’t.  

The Parting Shot is a short-short from K. A. Patterson called “Within the Darkness.”  The team entered the strange red pyramid without an escort and now most of them are dead.  I felt I was reading an account of a video game where the player was about to need a few quarters.  But strangely, it worked.  Death, blood, opening panels, monsters with sharp nails—that’s two pages worth of entertainment.

And that, my friends and neighbors, is that.  Storytime is over.  Go back to your games or projects or TV.  Or better yet, pick up Apex and read.  Goodnight.