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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Challenging Destiny #22

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"Acid Man" by Caroline Misner
"Heroes and Villains" by Steven Mohan, Jr.  
"Piñons" by Uncle River
"Heart-Shaped Hole" Marissa K. Lingen
"BehaviorNorm" by Sue Lange
"The Anabe Girls" by A.R. Morlan
"Eye Teeth" by Jay Lake

"Acid Man" by Caroline Misner takes place in a near-future where the topmost layers of the atmosphere have disappeared, leaving devastated wastelands on Earth such as the Sink Hole. Those wastelands are exploited for resources by miners, and the protagonist, Lila, works as a serving girl in a miner inn. She has never had cause to question her life until a strange man, Peter, walks into her bar.

"Acid Man" starts out slowly, taking the time to develop its post-apocalyptic future in many chilling details. This setting is, of course, a staple of science fiction, but Misner throws in enough unusual elements to make it feel very much real.

Sadly, the story does not live up to its promise. The ending feels rushed, mainly because we find out what Peter is moments before the protagonist makes her life-changing decision. Since this features heavily in her decision, it makes the story unbalanced.  What should be a heart-wrenching decision ends up glossed over, almost as though the setting were worth more than the protagonist. It's a shame, because Misner certainly shows much promise in her effortless handling of the daily lives of the characters. She made me feel for them, but stopped short of making this truly satisfying.

"Heroes and Villains" by Steven Mohan, Jr. takes on a subject familiar to comic readers: superheroes. What if superheroes and supervillains came from the future, from so far away the scientific discoveries of their times looked like superpowers to the denizens of the 20th Century? Charlie Strong is an ordinary boy in a far future, but he desperately wants to be a superhero. The narrator, who keeps his identity a secret, recounts Charlie's attempts by passing through a portal into 20th-Century Chicago.

I found the beginning of the story quite slow, and the narrator's dwelling on Charlie's motives mostly unnecessary. The real story starts when Charlie passes the portal, and then the narrator starts to zip forward too fast. The identity of the narrator was not surprising, and if the ending was again meant to be heart-wrenching, it suffered from two flaws: first, an inability to decide between focusing on the narrator or on Charlie. And second, the preaching in the last few paragraphs.  They spoiled the story by reducing what had so far been a whimsical tale to a piece of propaganda.

The idea that superheroes might come from the future is a spin on the familiar trope that some (like Superman) come from a civilization more advanced than our own. Usually, that civilization turns out to be aliens. However, Mohan's idea of making the superhero fully human is intriguing, but sadly the story does not do it justice.

In "Piñons" by Uncle River, gas and other resources have become so valuable that whole tracts of the country are virtually cut off from the big cities: any journey is too expensive to be justified. But the big cities are connected by magnetic trains, which run along preset tracks, and humanity has established a colony on Ganymede. The story follows Ray as he goes from his country house to New York, moving from places peopled by Native Americans who have reverted to their nomadic ways of life, to New York, where rent is prohibitive and food vouchers a hard commodity to get hold of.

"Piñons" is more a chronicle of life in this new world than a real story, but that does not lessen its power. It can be a bit slow going at times, but the picture River paints of this paradoxical society is engaging, and the numerous details of daily life make it shine. Well worth reading.

I was less convinced by "Heart-Shaped Hole" by Marissa K. Lingen.  The narrator is dying of pancreatic cancer. She chooses to go on a trip to Greenland, and unexpectedly find herself playing the part of shaman for an Inuit village, negotiating with the gods.

The mythology was compelling, and the lesson taught by the end certainly valuable. Storywise, though, it has its flaws. The plot meanders and sags halfway through. Although Ginny faces impossible challenges, I was never convinced she was in danger. It may be partly that her cancer makes her already indifferent to death, but overall this lacks the punch to carry the resolution through. The ending was too easily attained.

In "BehaviorNorm" by Sue Lange, Shoalie has employment problems. She has been through five jobs in as many years, and all the available jobs are either space explorers, which require specialized skills Shoalie doesn't have, or management jobs, from which Shoalie is barred because of a behavioral test. She now works for a mine in a backward planet, determined to keep her head down. Trouble is, the workers are planning a strike.

"BehaviorNorm" isn't particularly original, but it's an enjoyable read, and the conflicted character of Shoalie is engaging. The ending made me smile, wrapping this up perfectly.

"The Anabe Girls" by A.R. Morlan is a chilling look at fashion. The Anabe girls, Mrs. Stephanie Steele's models, have taken over the world of fashion. Thin to the point of skeletal, Steele's girls are hard-working, uncomplaining, and can make the worst of clothes look good on them—because they're so thin. Jacob is a hairdresser for a fashion show, and finally acknowledges that there is something beyond thinness to the Anabe girls.

This is a clever satire of the fashion world where people will do anything to look good, and where girls will starve themselves to meet impossible standards. The worst part is the nagging suspicion that if events in this story could happen, fashion designers would leap at the chance. It's not a pleasant thought, but it is a credit to Morlan's skills.

In "Eye Teeth," by the prolific Jay Lake, the narrator, Lorenz, is a clerical worker who finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the Ukrainian mafioso Big Yakov, and a quartet that may be more than they look.

The voice throughout the story is classic noir, cynical and disenchanted, something that's always appealed to me. Lake does a wonderful job of keeping the pace up throughout. There's nothing new about the quartet or Big Yakov, but the weird details (such as Shark, a hit-man covered in teeth, and the Eyes, in reality augmented organs that include an image processor) are what carry this through, combining to create a world that is familiar yet novel.