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

Kaleidotrope #7, October 2009

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“Remember” by Lindsey Duncan
“Albatross Ghosts” by Joanne Anderton
“How Antkind Lost its Soul” by Bill Ward
“The Beekeepers” by J. Alan Pierce
“Fortune” by Alberto Chimal
“The Vigilant” by Jason Hinchcliffe
“Please Share my Umbrella” by Jean Heuts
“The Clay Men” by C.L. Holland
“Lock and Key” by Alyssa Fowers
“Chamberlain McLaverty” by Sean Ruane
“Duma of the Valley Kifaru” by A. Kiwi Courters
“Intuo” by Dale Carothers
“What Bear Skull Holder Taught Me” by Jeffrey Meyer
“To  Put Away Childish Things” by Aaron A. Polson
“Star Over Babylon” by John Walters
“Horseshoe” by Stacy Sinclair

Reviewed by KJ Hannah Greenberg

As a community of speculative fiction readers and writers, we are fortunate to have access to Kaleidotrope. Whereas many readers rightfully admire the standard of work found in places like Asimov’s Science Fiction or Analog Science Fiction and Fact, many of us have had to economize this past year. Likewise, whereas many writers aspire to publish in venues which grant credit toward membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, such as Cemetery Dance or such as Strange Horizons, only a few individuals, at any time, can occupy those limited spaces. Besides, readers who crave new voices and writers who want to take risks merit fresh instruments. For all of these reasons, plus many more, it behooves us to read or to write for Kaleidotrope instead of or alongside our usual favorites.

Kaleidotrope’s 7th issue is studded with all manner of speculative fiction. Some of the stories are horrific. Others spin on knowledge of natural science. Some have earned their pages because of amazing character development. Others are wondrous in their actualization of plot. No matter, Kaleidotrope 7 makes a cozy read for a winter night or a weekend morning.

In this issue’s first story, “Remember,” Lindsey Duncan crafts lyrical prose as nimbly as a skilled glassblower might work a parison. Duncan’s sculpted passages bring to the fore a tale in which an emissary from a drought-stricken village must overcome the rigors of harsh terrains, including and especially desert and mountains, in order to call forth energies capable of transforming his arid homeland into a fertile valley; the main character must summon the “Storm-bringers.” The cost of intruding on such powerful beings is his sanity, but the only way for him to return home is for him to keep a little bit of his head. In the least, the protagonist is conflicted.

At first glance, this piece is a prose poem about overcoming adversity. Read closer, though, this story sets up the relative cost of choices and questions whether or not it is worthwhile to sacrifice one’s self to serve the greater good. Sagaciously, Duncan posits that either response brings secondary problems and that in most cases, no matter the route we follow, we will remain unable to know our choice’s merit.

Next, in Joanne Anderton’s “Albatross Ghosts,” a waylaid star sailor laments his role in an intergalactic war. Unlike the civilians around him, including a pretty young woman, who uses hot food to buy his time and his alleged insights, the protagonist can see and can palpate the spirits his gunnery brought into the world. Cruelly, such manifestations of his former mêlée literally hang from his psyche and swirl around his throat much like the dead albatross that haunted the Ancient Mariner in the ballad of similar name. Further, in Anderton’s story, akin to Coleridge’s poem, the hero seems immune to the fatalities suffered by those around him, yet endures worse both because of his causal isolation and because of his culpability for bringing tribulations to his people.

While this short work is a nice tribute to Coleridge’s classic, I would encourage Anderton to apply her talent to riskier projects. She has a nice touch with foreshadowing and with other sorts of innuendo and would do well by expanding to more creative storylines.

Although rape and pillage, historically, are elementary to war, the main character, Black Beetle, in the subsequent tale, “How Antkind Lost its Soul,” by Bill Ward, renders those brutalities in a comparatively sophisticated way. That malevolent trespasser, who successfully destroys his rivals, utilizes the comforts of the innermost chamber of an ant hill to: arrange for the murder of the ants’ bravest combatant, to impregnate the ants’ queen, and to aid the ants’ natural enemies in annihilating that otherwise almost entirely resilient insect species. By the story’s end, few original ants are left and all of the newer ants, both by dint of their genetic material and because of their altered environment, are less formidable than were their forefathers. Warrior Coleoptera wins.

My hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs and I are big fans of anthropomorphism, so just by giving his critters some human qualities, Ward made me smile. Although his story’s moral, that evil will have its way unless we unflinchingly protect against its insidiousness, lacks a bit of veracity, I did enjoy Ward’s inoculation-like descriptions of Black Beetle’s viciousness. In addition, as I read, I found myself considering whether or not I, too, would have succumbed to that insurgent’s adept rhetoric.

“The Beekeepers” by J. Alan Pierce, too, is about bugs. This story explores the social significance of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism, its vehicle, i.e. a miserable type of insect, and the role that sentient beings have in perpetuating both of those life forms. In this story, the monster microbe became symbiotic with the parasitic insect. The latter’s larval form, in turn, caused misery to its host creatures, but gets retained, rather than eradicated because those carnivorous larvae, alone, can prevent their hosts’ demise from the fatal antigens spilled out by the intergalactic virus. Consequently, whereas the wasp and the cell-sized life form enjoy mutualism, the sentient beings hosting them suffer.

On the one hand, this tale can be read as a successful cautionary note about how we’ve become unwitting accomplices in our world’s ecological downfall. On the heels of a failed climate change conference, such a story is timely. On the other hand, this fanciful writing described too much leaked viscera for my full enjoyment. I would have liked to have seen more ontological implications of the intergalactic symbiosis, instead.

Alberto Chimal’s flash fiction, “Fortune,” reinforces the idea that it is not always advantageous to be possessed of answers to our questions. In this tale of human frailty, a wizard, Negora, is confronted by an angry, eager young man who demands to be shown the future. Momentarily sentimental, Negora conjures a response for his enraged visitor. Both he and his would-be client are shocked by the resulting revelations. The story ends with Negora bestowing upon the youth a compassionate gift, forgetfulness.

This tale is a translation; I would love to know more about the culture to which the writer belongs. I suspect it is a society in which there is a growing rift between the ideals of young people exposed to convergent media and the pragmatics of mature adults who know that no matter how many bells and whistles contraptions feature, if they don’t give milk, they’re not cows.  Hats off to Chimal for reminding us that simplicity, more often than not, is sufficient.

At a campfire shared with a starved stranger, the protagonist in Jason Hinchcliffe’s “The Vigilant,” discloses his childhood of emotional neglect and refers to his early adulthood, during which he suffered and then perpetrated gross abuse. His confidant, a gatekeeper of cosmic proportion, is neither distressed by his disclosure or by the inclement weather that swirls around the two of them as they talk. Rather, the listener seems possessed of the patience of eons and seems charged with strange energy. In fact, by the end of this tale, when some of the roots of those features have been exposed and when the gatekeeper is dead, the main character absorbs certain passions. In brief, he moves from slow cooking apathy to flash realizations about the general baseness of humanity.

I like stories such as “The Vigilant” because we are reminded of the frailty of human integrity, both historically and in a given instance.  I only wish that Hinchcliffe had been even more miserly than he was in his sharing of tacit images.

In the next story, a refreshingly demure tale, “Please Share my Umbrella,” Jean Heuts casts her plot around two rival soldiers. The first warrior has a small measure of rank and of experience, but is poorly equipped. As a result, she is taken into the custody of the second soldier, who lacks know-how but has more than ample provisions. Hiding together from a suddenly caustic environment, the couple discovers the truth that love and war have no parameters.

While this narrative was charming, I’d tweak it a little. Instead of precipitation with a pH high enough to burn through flesh, I’d bring the characters together using a less known vehicle. Also, I’d make those leads a little less comely so that more readers could relate to them. Most importantly, I’d encourage Jean Heuts to write many more stories about those, and other characters.

“The Clay Men” by C. L. Holland deals with a deluge not of acid but of mordant human behavior. In this fine case of horror, the death experienced by the story’s greater population and the death dealt to this story’s protagonist are, in a word, ghastly. While this tale is exceptional in its degree of grisliness, it is at least as notable for its fascinating suggestion about the origins of the funerary army of the legendary First Emperor of China.  

A disturbingly provocative tale, “The Clay Men” is suitable for history lovers, for armchair psychologists and for fans of mindful speculative fiction. This story, though, is not for the faint-of-heart.

Alyssa Fowers’ “Lock and Key” follows and is a delightful, carefully crafted prose poem about: a human who supposed he could kidnap the affections of an alien being, about his sister, who restored that alien to the alien’s natural environment, and about one of that alien’s sons, who expressed his gratitude to that sister via an adult sort of communication. Through these characters, Fowers both warns against coercing love and espouses the necessity of releasing unrequited affection.

The cadence and the presentation of the images within this story are wonderfully lulling. What’s more, Fowers makes generous use of inference to build her enthymematic conclusion. Hers is a tale that can be referenced for generations. Hers is a style of writing which ought to be published more often.

A self-absorbed landsman, who means to protect his holdings, especially to safeguard the fruit of his apple orchard, holds the focus of Sean Ruane’s “Chamberlain McLaverty.” In this story, in the process of achieving his goal, this contemptible main character injures one neighbor and smites a second. Meanwhile, all of his wrongdoings are highlighted by McLaverty’s inclusion of multiple black and white line drawings and of arcane phrases.

The pictures are so interesting as to inspire readers to search for more examples of period costuming. The words, though, get distracting. I’d love to see this piece executed in only one language style. If most of us could trudge, in high school, through Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I’d wager most of us could master a short work written in older English.

In the next story, “Duma of the Valley Kifaru” by A. Kiwi Courters, intrigue among foreign kingdoms fills the pages. Two betrothed royals work to overcome the traitorous work of soldiers in their employ. That one of those leaders is a warrior princess and that the other is a prince of fair demeanor adds texture to this tale, in which trained combat elephants and dangerous snakemen are featured in the skirmishes.

Although I wish Courters would make her writing as streamlined as her protagonists’ battle clothes, I do enjoy reading about a female lead who is anything but frilly and about a noble young man. The ideals of chivalry are made attractive and accessible in this tale.

“Intuo” by Dale Carothers speculates about a specific, magical way to make children. It seems that in the mountainside community of Bulver, newborns’ births and deaths supply an extraordinary midwife with means by which to gift the townspeople, temporarily, with infant golems. These substitutes for flesh offspring effectively comfort women suffering pregnancy loss and capably elevate women who choose to avoid pregnancy’s pain and mess. However, like a cake minus baking powder, the protagonist’s creations lack an essential ingredient. As a result, her partnering of excited mothers and clay babies is always short-lived.

I applaud work that promotes the value of children, that gives credence to the hardships of labor and childbirth and that celebrates the prowess of senior women. Conversely, I am uncomfortable with idolatry, either implicit or profound.

The next story, “What Bear Skull Holder Taught Me,” by Jeffrey Meyer, is about a tribe of hunters and gatherers. In this ecological narrative, the main characters respect the plants, the animals, and the very earth upon which they tread. They regard, as well, the apexes of birth and of death as difficult, but natural, moments in a more significant span.

While it is revitalizing to read about other cultures’ aspirations, especially at a time when we are seeking alternatives to our own ethnocentricity, it is disconcerting to have such narrative framed in overly simplified language. Meyer has the potential to write like Jean M. Auel, but must first divorce himself from any unwitting prejudices he holds about the cognitive ability of indigenous people.

Santigo of the salvage yard is the altruistic main character of the next tale, “To Put Away Childish Things” by Aaron A. Polson. This somewhat wizened oldster creates, out of an auto wreck survivor’s remnants, a cyborg offspring, which Santigo means to serve as a replacement for the live child kidnapped from him decades earlier. Named Manolin, i.e. “bright shark,” Santigo’s synthetic scion walks and talks, but lacks important human attributes such as compassion. In the end, the little mechanical man offers up his Geppetto-like father in sacrifice.  Apparently, somewhere along the way, the mechanized human misunderstood the aspect of love that is surrender.

“To Put Away Childish Things’ provides some remarkable observations about the nature of humanity. I like that Santigo’s former lover, who was also the mother of his genuine child, aids his attempt to create a man machine. I like that she is intimate again with him, for her needs, as much as for his. I don’t like, though, that as a middle-aged woman she is portrayed as undesirable; as I taught one of my feminist sociology classes, “even Granny does it.”  Regardless, Santigo, too, opens up vistas in his iconization of the human need to hide in debris and to make small profit from waste’s salvage. Had he not been murdered, I would have gladly read an entire novel about his experiences.

Another story I would appreciate seeing expanded is “Star Over Babylon” by John Walters.  In this tale of a history that could have been, a sophisticated voyager locates Alexander-the-Great after that Greek is no longer a ruler and is no longer superlative. Rather, Alexander-the-peasant instructs his visitor, the time traveler, that yet greater beings, celestial perhaps, alien certainly, intervened to the extent that Alexander abdicated. In exchange for Alexander’s humble anonymity, those others spared Alexander the torture of his having to live the deaths of all of his millions of victims.

It’s fun to consider the possibility of an alternate history in which a sophisticated tourist gets one-upped by more powerful intercedents. It’s not fun, however, to witness those mediators kill off one of the important characters.

What do you get when you animate the ghost of Elvis-past-his-prime, add in a frightened, aged gymnast, insert a world-weary tattoo artist, and attach an overcooked sideshow hawker? The answer, provided in the last story in this issue, “Horseshoe,” by Stacy Sinclair, is given through both a flash of hands and natural wonder. Against the backdrop of Niagara Falls, the aforementioned characters, plus oodles of tourists, one bright morning, learn some mysteries ordinarily confined to the night.

The actors in this story were at once easy to identify with and attention-grabbing. The setting, per se, loaned itself to the plot. The surprise ending added joy to what was already a pleasurable reading experience. I hope to be able to read more of Sinclair’s work in the future.

The 7th issue of Kaleidotrope has supplied this humble critic with enough graphic images and far-fetched suppositions to grant her nightmares and inspirations until the next issue comes out. If you, too, groove on vivid depictions as well as like your writers served up fresh, I encourage you to read this publication.

Kaleidotrope is published twice a year (April and October) and can be found here.