Tangent Online

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Fantasy & Science Fiction -- March/April 2015

E-mail Print

Special Double Review

by

Jerard Bretts & C. D. Lewis

 

Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2015

 

What Has Passed In Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu
A Residence For Friendless Ladies” by Alice Sola Kim
The Mantis Tattoo” by Paul M. Berger
Things Worth Knowing” by Jay O’Connell
La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley
This Is The Way The Universe Ends: With A Bang” by Brian Dolton
Last Transaction” by Nik Constantine
Little Girls In Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce
A Small Diversion On The Road To Hell” by Jonathan L. Howard
How To Masquerade As A Human Before The Invasion” by Jenn Reese
A User’s Guide To Increments Of Time” by Kat Howard
Bilingual” by Henry Lien

Reviewed by Jerard Bretts

Charles Finlay is the new editor as of this issue. In his editorial he succinctly sums up how he sees his role: “Find distinguished and unusual stories. Present a diverse selection. Introduce new voices. Be part of the tradition of fantastic literature.” It is early days yet but that is certainly what he has done this month.

Ken Lui provides an excellent translation of Chinese writer Bao Shu’s alternate history novella, “What Has Passed In Kinder Light Appear,” which is perhaps the strongest story in the issue. There is no need to be familiar with the details of recent Chinese events to enjoy this story of the love between Xie and Quiqi against a backdrop of twentieth century progress in reverse. The great thing about the story is the way that Bao Shu puts the development of his characters at the heart of his story, and it is the emphasis on people and how they change that makes it so powerful.

In the novelette “A Residence For Friendless Ladies,” Alice Sola Kim explores the construction of gender identity through the experiences of an unnamed first person narrator on the run from her “Non-Parents”. S/he takes refuge in her grandmother’s strange Kafkaesque Residence where all is not as it seems. This is a beautifully written but challenging story that I’m sure will pay re-reading.

Paul M. Berger demonstrates an impressive feat of exotic and atmospheric world-building in his sword and sorcery fantasy “The Mantis Tattoo.” In a realm distant from ours in time the scene is set for a confrontation between the Human Beings and the Fathers of Man. In the young warriors Nudur and Bialo Berger has created two endearing characters and I hope he will return to them in future stories.

Jay O’Connell’s “Things Worth Knowing” is a satirical look at the future of education, where technology and market forces rule and the teacher’s role is reduced to that of a security guard and caretaker. It brings some nice touches of intelligent humour to the issue.

The pleasure of Nik Constantine’s “Last Transaction” lies mainly in its original style. This story of galactic financial deception is told entirely through computer commands and messages. It is a testament to the author’s story-telling powers that style and content mesh so well to create an enjoyable story.

In “Little Girls In Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce young girls seek fulfilment by becoming “bone knots” – contorting their bodies to become living works of art. This emotionally disturbing and beautifully written story is as much about the present as the future, and subtly makes us think about the damage done by today’s obsession with body image.

A Small Diversion On The Road To Hell” by Jonathan L. Howard humorously explores the paradoxes of time travel with an extended “Man walks into a bar...” joke. Although part of a series about “The Helix” it works well as an amusing stand-alone tale.

La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley takes us back in time to 17th century France and its duels—but with a sword and sorcery twist. La Héron wants to compete in the Black Bouts of Caen and has to team up with an unlikely partner against dark forces. This is an entertaining romp.

Brian Dolton’s “This Is The Way The Universe Ends: With A Bang” is another stand-out story, hard science fiction set in the far distant future when the universe is close to its end. There are three groups left: the Faction, who intended to die with the universe; the Cabal, who intended to return to its beginning and live through the next iteration (and potentially over and over again); and the Conclave, who intended simply to leap across the momentary gap from the old into the new. Titus is the eldest of Conclave and must identify the mysterious entity trying to destroy the groups. Taut and well-written this is another example of effective world-building.

How To Masquerade As A Human Before The Invasion” by Jenn Reese is a very good example of the short-short SF story, practiced so well by writers like Fredric Brown and Damon Knight. This is a very creepy piece that reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and will linger in the mind long after having read it.

A User’s Guide To Increments Of Time” by Kat Howard is a clever fantasy about the breakup of the relationship between Siobhan and Finn. But they are not ordinary lovers: they are magicians who practice chronomancy. When things were going well they used their powers to prolong and enhance their love affair. Now they manipulate time to get revenge on each other in cruel and unusual ways.

Like “Last Transaction,” Henry Lien’s “Bilingual” is innovative in the way it tells its story—in this case entirely through tweets and emails, which themselves play crucial roles in plot development. This seems entirely fitting for a story which is itself about communication, in this case between dolphins and humans.


Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2015

 

What Has Passed In Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu
A Residence For Friendless Ladies” by Alice Sola Kim
The Mantis Tattoo” by Paul M. Berger
Things Worth Knowing” by Jay O’Connell
La Héron” by Charlotte Ashley
This Is The Way The Universe Ends: With A Bang” by Brian Dolton
Last Transaction” by Nik Constantine
Little Girls In Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce
A Small Diversion On The Road To Hell” by Jonathan L. Howard
How To Masquerade As A Human Before The Invasion” by Jenn Reese
A User’s Guide To Increments Of Time” by Kat Howard
Bilingual” by Henry Lien

Reviewed by C.D. Lewis

The March/April issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction presents twelve original stories. My favorite among them are supported by humor – either from the outset, or as an ending twist. But the twist alone doesn’t often make a story: it’s got to keep and hold readers to really be a winner, and that can be a tall order.

Jay O’Connell’s “Things Worth Knowing” shows a dystopian future where an electric-baton-wielding proctor at a computerized testing facility is apparently all the future still offers for schools after public education is reduced to cheap-to-replay online tutorials. Despite his job’s description’s limits, the protagonist shows genuine care for students. In the future, though, big business is intensely competitive when automated tests uncover high-quality talent, and the security guard finds himself protecting a target worth a lot more than the school facility (at least, as judged from the destruction wrought by competing employers’ security forces). It’s not all bad, though: the kid in question has found a corporation he’s willing to sign with … if only he’s not forced to work elsewhere as the price to save his family from corporate hit squads. Until the end approaches, the gifted student drifts aimlessly – oblivious to his risks and opportunities.

The editor’s introduction to “Things Worth Knowing” discusses the privatization of public schools, but the story has employers paying the government for top recruits – much as one might pay a recruitment agency or headhunter business. This suggests the facility descends from public schools rather than, for example, experiments in for-profit education, private charter schools, or voucher programs. The story doesn’t suggest that the school has been dehumanized by privatization, but through elimination of all its live teachers, group classes, and other traditional-school elements. The schools’ devolution into a soulless testing center feels like the result of things like budget cuts, standardization, computerized instruction, and results-driven management – things from which even traditional public schools stand at risk. Readers with strong feelings about standardized testing and teachers’ freedom to design curricula may find themselves nodding at the fully dehumanized institution O’Connell depicts performing the function real schools once did. And it’s no school we would recognize, and no place to nurture youths into adults: the facility’s would-be principal has been reduced to an armed guard. The author makes clear few expect anyone in the protagonist’s position to take the interest he does for students – much less the risks. The editor does reveal comments by the author that resonate with the story: its inspiration comes from dog-eat-dog competition among real-world tech companies for a limited pool of skilled workers. The story isn’t about businesses running schools, but businesses’ unbridled competition to employ top talent the moment it’s discovered. The vicious competition for skilled coders rings true enough, but the tale’s Cinderella ending (in the form of a desirable employer that values quality of life and believes in real human teachers, and tunnels into the school just in time to effect a rescue) feels at odds with its dark setting. Victory feels a bit more like a fairy godmother’s gift than it does the result of a protagonist’s sacrifice. When things look bleak, the good guys are saved from savages by the “nice company” cavalry. I’d like to have seen the student code his way out, or the proctor find something clever to do. Perhaps the author intends the story as a horror piece: characters without the power to save themselves must be rescued because the forces arrayed about them are too powerful to confront and live. Still, it’s a 5,000-word piece; how much did you want done in it? Since it’s been a rough day for the characters, certainly it feels nice to see the good guys finally catch a break. It may be a dismal world out there, but surely there’s a job that won’t cost your soul. At least, so far.

Looking for a swashbuckling fantasy? Charlotte Ashley’s “La Héron” presents a duelist who enters a prize-money tournament alongside Fae lords and members of the Wild Hunt. Lest anyone feel the woman duelist is a fantasy akin to the Fae Lord or the Wild Hunt, I will ignore contemporary sport fencers and direct readers to historical swashbucklers such as the undefeated sword master La Jaguarina, or Julie d’Aubigny, who – when not dueling men offended that she’d wooed their intended girl, whipping men with a cane who talked trash about her around the theater, or burning the convent from which she eloped with her young lover – sang opera under the stage name La Maupin. La Héron’s strength is its fantasy elements: each duel has unexpected supernatural twists, and the protagonist’s three confrontations each require different tricks to avoid disaster. And that’s a classic delight: victory goes not to the strongest or the fastest, but to those who can avoid the Fae perils that twist each bout.

Readers who demand harsh adherence to classic story structure may find themselves twitching: the piece follows La Héron, but it’s her associate Birdsong who makes the interesting choice that shapes the conclusion, and it’s Birdsong whose condition is revolutionized as a result. The third-person narration that follows La Héron offers little insight into Birdsong’s motives and values, so the reader hasn’t opportunity to see her consider her options. As a result, the big choice that traditionally exposes the protagonist’s values remains hidden. Is she freed? Damned? One infers from her smile she’s pleased with the result, but readers may have to explain it for themselves. Thelma and Louise went over the cliff with a smile, though; is this really a victory? Perhaps it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe Birdsong’s victory is her future with La Héron, adventuring, and freedom from her nunnery.

The editor notes the author has an award-winning Alexandre Dumas collection. Ashley’s delightful larger-than-life characters and wild conflicts certainly suit his inspiration. One wonders if there’s a larger story, offering insight into characters and their decisions, that expands the delightful Fae conflicts Ashley reveals through the tournament depicted in “La Héron”. Let’s hope.

Brian Dolton’s “This Is the Way the Universe Ends: with a Bang” opens on a sentient gas cloud curious about a newfound machine. There’s no apparent risk in the opening paragraphs, no apparent stakes, and the situation doesn’t immediately command excitement. The distant-future multidimensional beings and their environments feel distanced by the author’s seemingly unavoidable problem that their perceptions and actions can be described in English only with abstractions: we haven’t the protagonist’s senses, and can follow only through broad generalizations about the characters’ actions. One follows the opening page only by imagining everything from clues – or, deciding not to bother imagining it. For example, the newfound machine “is built of twisted strings, recursively deforming its own structure in twelve dimensions.” Who will pause to envision the machine’s twelve dimensions, much less its recursive self-deformation? Some may love this description, finding it paints a complex multidimensional universe full of superhuman hyperintelligences locked in a slowly-developing conflict whose ineffable qualities defy reduction to mere words. By contrast, people who must see a story to follow it will quit.

We learn the story is set near the end of the Universe, when only 92 sentient beings remain. Of greater potential interest is that the protagonist is attacked for reasons unknown, by an assailant with unknown collaborators. The story is obviously a mystery. To evaluate it as SF requires one consider the essentiality of its SF elements. In one sense, sure: one character uses a trapped galaxy as its fuel source, and characters use “underspace” to sneak up on each other – whatever “underspace” is. But in a deeper sense these trappings are wallpaper on what might as easily be an unexplained assault perpetrated on a train with 92 passengers, some of whom scheme to escape execution before – or after – the train pulls into a death camp (remember, the Universe is ending soon). The mystery elements have the best chance to grip and keep readers. What motivated the attack? Who else was involved? Do they really mean to bomb the train? Who could gain? Is the bomb really an ejector seat that will blow up the only passenger car as it rescues its user? The plot seems to have little serious need of its SF elements. To follow the SF details, one must accept that toward the end of the Universe, the seventh oldest is unable to imagine attack – despite that it knows about a species that tried to wipe out all other species to hoard resources. One must accept that at least thirty beings plan to outlive the end of the Universe. Those who demand hard SF may have little trouble parsing paragraphs involving characters named “=/=” and “(∞)(∞)”, but may pause when confronted by an evil scheme based on Trek-style “science” involving “weaknesses in the underlying plane of two-dimensional space from which the other dimensions are extrapolated.” If that description sounds good to you, you’re ready for jump.

Some of the SF trappings work wonderfully. The character Kabachi communicates with a syntax that assigns short phrases to characters identified by their seniority among the surviving sentients. One can therefore tell from anything Kabachi says how many have been murdered since the last scene. It’s a fun way to drop the mystery’s death toll on readers (and Kobachi’s own listeners). I’d love to see more exposition unfurled with such elegance. The end really picks up the pace: the villain’s unmasked, its evil scheme unfolds, the twist places the protagonist in the center of the disaster “she” fought to avoid, and when the bad guy pauses to cackle the McGuffin is just sitting there, waiting for someone with the sense to act. Even at the end of the Universe, he who hesitates is lost. I enjoyed being thrust into a locked train mystery set at the end of the Universe, even if I had to make up most of the scenery. If you make it far enough, you’ll love your scenery too. The story might have felt stronger with less dialogue, as some characters’ voices undermined the sense each was an unaging ancient inhuman superbeing with nigh-boundless intellectual powers. But some of the characters’ descriptions were pure gold (at least, for readers that don’t require stories show them a movie). If you’ve been hungering for SF in your F&SF, you won’t want to miss Brian Dolton’s big bang.

What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu (trans. by Ken Liu) is an English translation of an award-winning Chinese author’s story that could not be published in China due to political censorship. It’s not hard to imagine where officials might find offense: the narrator’s earliest memory is the Olympics in Beijing, which in later years, after China’s economy has tanked, seems an unimaginable period of wealth. Perhaps the done-in-one blow is the story’s reimagination of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a subject that remains censored in China. But that’s not all: Chinese leaders appear by name, suggesting their ineffectiveness at controlling the poverty and corruption that shapes events. The piece mentions a few predicted apocalypse dates, which has a certain irony: has the apocalypse really missed, or is the world described by the narrator in fact the apocalypse hitting too slow to drive the frog from the pot? While steadily dispensing biography, the narrator relates scene after scene depicting his country’s – and perhaps the whole world’s – financial devolution. And it feels like a biography: there’s no evident ongoing conflict that feels like it ties the action together as one reads, though the final scene does recall the opening scene. The narrator frequently describes events that pass him by without any sense he’s got agency in them at all. Unless you’re intrigued by an alternate universe in which Saddam Husein was rescued by the Republican Guard before his execution, and drove Americans from Iraq in defeat, it’s easy to get lost wondering where this is all going. The piece has an intriguing concept: to show personal lives being lived in a world in which the political order of their world progresses in retrograde, with China advancing from high-tech development and markets toward the Cultural Revolution and the return of Chiang Kai-shek.

It’s fun to see financial ruin and the return of the CRT monitor usher in a resurgence of traditional meditation and blue skies. The real world’s details appear in the background,: Gorbachev persuades dozens of independent states to form the USSR, for example, inspiring Socialist revolutions around the world and splitting Germany. This does little to advance the one conflict the narrator seems to have in his life: his desire to unite with his gradeschool sweetheart. The worldbuilding feels separated from the action. When the two threads collide in a rewrite of the Tiananmen Square massacre a third of the way in, one hopes we’ll see action driven by human conflicts – motives and ambitions we can understand, with goals we can cheer or boo. Unfortunately it loses momentum in too many places to keep a reader only interested in the story.

Readers will enjoy the rewritten backdrops, made to imagine a world in which Star Wars movies appeared in story order rather than their chronological order, for example – with Episodes I-III outshining A New Hope because a declining America could no longer make a big-budget blockbuster. The social inversions feel more entertaining than the political inversions, and transparent efforts to slip real messages past censors by effusing favorably toward the Chinese government in a letter’s opening paragraphs is quite funny. It’s the interplay of the political and personal that makes the best bid toward something compelling: government standing between family members, between lovers, between friends; censors driving people from their lives’ work; politics driving loved ones to their deaths. If you make it into the last third of the piece, there’s love triangles, political oppression, and all kinds of excitement. But it’s a slow build, and short-lived: Sartre appears, converses with the narrator about the meaning(lessness) of life and the unimportance of the order of things, which kills narrative momentum. The story ultimately holds a moral that seems easy enough to spot: personal relationships mean much more to humans than the –isms that rise and fall over time to shape their worlds, so one must find time for loved ones because the moments of opportunity don’t come back again. People matter.

The story has a fun premise, but feels like it ignores what makes a story to deliver on the worldbuilding. People who’ve lived through the political progression the story inverts may find this much more compelling than those with more emotional distance to it, and whose lives were not directly shaped by it. I’d enjoy hearing how inhabitants of mainland China find the story – but you’ll have to look for them here, because in China the story is banned. Except for those close to the political issues that appear as background, I would expect readers to find the story slows too often to enjoy all the way through.

Nik Constantine’s “Last Transaction” opens on the protagonist checking the mail – the first of the electronic transactions depicted between the protagonist and a variety of machines encountered over the story’s course in an age of ubiquitous computing. There’s little to grip interest in the first paragraphs, and they give little sense of the protagonist’s personality, but the story – delivered exclusively through the narrator’s electronic transactions – builds a strong sense that the protagonist’s world is driven by soulless encounters that treat humans as so many components to organize and troubleshoot. We soon learn the narrator is wanted for legal infractions involving financial transactions. We assume this comes as a surprise to the protagonist, but there’s no description of the protagonist, the protagonist’s reactions, the protagonist’s thought processes, the protagonist’s decisions – only the transactions.

If you like Fugitive-style tales about proving one’s innocence in the face of implacable heartless opposition, you’ll enjoy watching the transactions through which the narrator seeks to uncover the real culprit and escape the consequences of the frame that sets him in motion. The future is heavily computerized, but apparently identity theft is rampant, and proves as useful an escape tool as it is a method of committing financial crimes. At least, that’s one interpretation; there’s so little description of what’s going on that one reads most of the action between the lines of the transactions. Contrary to the story’s title, there’s apparently no “Last Transaction” – the ending feels like it could be comic if the emotional cues from the story’s actors were right; but we can deduce little from the protagonist’s personality from the dry facts of a transaction log. The protagonist is clever, but perhaps not that clever. Fans of SF won’t see infeasible tech, though one must wonder about the ease with which new identities are assumed in a world that depends totally on digital identities. And this may be the story’s strongest idea: have we dehumanized our interactions to the point we can’t tell with whom we’re dealing, and allowed impersonal forces to decide the fates of free people instead of demanding we maintain due process and formal justice and fair trials? At less than three thousand words, there’s not a lot of room to build multiple completed ideas. Readers who demand a strong sense of character won’t likely last the three thousand words; we never learn the protagonist’s name, gender, age, or appearance and have no sense of the narrator’s voice, attitude, or facial expression. However, those who like escape/chase action or ironic endings will enjoy the story they infer from the protagonist’s transactions.

Little Girls in Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce opens on a detailed description of three human skeletons in a display housed in the back of a “Bone Museum” containing other, more popular exhibits. Without any cues about the characters or the stakes it’s a challenge to pay enough attention to understand the third skeleton’s posture well enough to picture it. When we first see a character, we see action without any cue as to her motives. She’s willing to sacrifice herself to become a display – and to suffer greatly to achieve her goal – but it’s hard to imagine why she or her instructor care to achieve such an objective.

And that’s the point: once we see an onlooker who views the awful process’ aesthetic results as an artistic performance, and a way to attract a wealthy man, we see the story as a comment on the sacrifices women are lured into making and the value of the objectives for which they are led to do it. The story skips between two threads. In one, a young girl onlooker tells her grandmother she’d like to do what the displayed skeleton does, and thereby gain what she imagines that will win her. In the other, the protagonist descends into the horror of learning just what she’s gotten for her bargain. Rather than depict a story arc – that is, a character being revealed by a dramatic choice that exposes her values and mettle – Bruce’s story presents victim with no agency who fails to appreciate her awful fate even as it worsens, while a naïve onlooker aspires to emulate her. It’s awful – exactly as Bruce intends.

The first thing that strikes one reading Jonathan L. Howard’s fourth-wall-breaking “A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell” is the entertaining narrative voice. The narrator opens the story with an absolutely useless description of an attraction called “the Helix” which digresses into an apparently heartfelt slam against a competing attraction someplace else. We learn nothing about the Helix, of course. The story’s real meat – such as it is – turns out to be about a sort of time police who cause the problems they were founded to prevent. It’s fortunate this revelation occurs in the narrator’s bar, as it inspires men to drink. There’s no pretense at depth: this is pure fun, and you should read it.

At about 663 words, it’s hard to review Jenn Reese’s “How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion” without rivaling its length. It’s an ironic comic piece that poses as advice to nonhumans in order to expose the shallow veneer of human interactions, and rib us about our inhumanity by suggesting that the impending invasion is actually – well, why spoil it? At this length, you should read it for yourself. If you shouldn’t read it, you know I’d tell you why – and at length. But, no. Read it.

A Residence for Friendless Ladies” by Alice Sola Kim depicts a frightened narrator reduced to asking her cold grandmother for help, and ending up in a place where freedom is so constrained by rules and etiquette and everyday oppressions that one wonders what awful alternative had been worse. The story’s magnetism comes in part from colorful characters and in part from the mystery of the unknown; one has a hard time getting an initial fix on characters’ ages, or the narrator’s gender, or the real nature of the place they meet. The colorful characters and the questions Kim invites about her world are more than enough to keep one interested, despite that it’s unclear exactly what the main character is looking for until we get the backstory about her experience as a transgendered orphan. What’s the story about the narrator’s grandmother? Does she run the place?

The narrator’s gay-man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body predicament puts her on the outside of broader society, and like her friend Francine she feels alienated. The narrator flails, exploring, not fitting in, trying to make connections despite certainty nobody can see who she really is. It’s much more about the character than the story, and it’s a sympathetic character so it’s not hard to follow. But readers who demand clear story arcs and scene problems with ascertainable scene goals will have trouble liking the piece. The Residence turns out to be an environment steeped in magical realism, empowered to transform people with the will to risk it, but it’s not clear whether they’re transformed into what others think they should be, what people wish they were, or what. And transformation is as frightening as any unknown. If nothing endures but change, don’t we all confront risky transformations in our future? Kim’s conclusion seems to teach that we just can’t be content to suffer just to enjoy the safety of the known. But there’s no definite answer to what happens when the narrator chooses; we just know she’s taken charge. Isn’t that always a victory?

Paul M. Berger’s “The Mantis Tattoo” opens on a stone-age hunt. Two boys’ superstitious chanting turns out not to have much power to lull porcupines into quiescent, easy game, but it’s not a world without magic: the dead porcupine speaks its hunters’ human language, and the boys both claim its dire-sounding pronouncement was directed at the other. This combination of realistic fears and supernatural doings creates a world in which the unexpected seems sure: it’s not like all the suggestions of supernatural doings will prove out, and the characters are looking for regular lives rather than adventure. It’s a great start: poor Nudur, launched on a quest without a bow or poisoned arrows to find long-lost relatives returning from exile.

The story occurs at a time of glacial advance, when primitive humans who make spearheads but not arrowheads return south to avoid extreme cold. The physical and cultural differences from Nudur’s tribe appear to line up nicely with facts for which archaeological evidence exists: the story is the tale of how modern man dealt with his bigger, stronger, more primitive relatives when they collided head to head. Who doesn’t want to hear how some unwilling underdog got swept into a fight he preferred to avoid, and had to defeat his physical superiors with cleverness? He’s certainly not defeating them with the supernatural power of his ineffectual new mantis tattoo, that’s for sure.

Berger’s piece has a definite sense of story, characters easy to care about, unambiguous (and frequently-thwarted) goals, a clear plot arc, ample adversity, and awful stakes. The bad guys aren’t just dumb muscled lunks, but viciously clever magic-using bullies that are heavily muscled lunks. Definitely a must-read.

Kat Howard’s “A User’s Guide to Increments of Time” is a chronomantic duel in a fantasy universe in which time can be stolen. It’s a story of heartbreak and betrayal, easy for anyone to understand who’s ever been disappointed in love. Not only is the protagonist sympathetic, but each character’s magic is matched to personality: mechanical and calculated, or musical and passionate. About three thousand words of righteous retribution for a broken heart, and supernatural justice, await.

Set at the fictional Seatopia San Domingo Inc., “Bilingual” by Henry Lien takes the form of two emails between the CEO and Director of Legal Affairs regarding Akari, a dolphin fan whose Twitter feed is filled with observations about dolphins generally and the ones in the park in particular. Readers who don’t easily follow text formatted as Twitter texts will struggle with the meat of the story, which is sketched across a long series of purported Twitter posts that outline Akari’s exploits in the park – posts which appear as attachments to the first email. In that email, Seatopia’s EO asks the legal department about options have Akari barred from the park, sued, and criminally prosecuted in connection with her efforts to communicate to dolphins the bad news about dolphin-catching programs and human willingness to harm dolphins.

The strength of the piece may be hard to perceive in a printed format: the tweets are filled with enough real links to actual news stories about dolphin facts to give a plausible feel to the techniques suggested in the story. It’s an entertaining and sympathetic concept, to spread news among dolphins to enable them to avoid known locations of humans’ dolphin hunts. But the tweets have a downside in readability. The posts are rife with intentional “speech-to-text errors” (for verisimilitude, but this doesn’t aid intelligibility) and though the whole piece is only about 4,000 words it feels like it takes quite a while for the tweets to convey enough for readers to figure out what’s going on. The story’s central concept feels like it should support a story rather than being the story. And that seems to be the point of the action: to show the concept works. The tweets sketch a picture of an orchestrated dolphin-tank invasion intended to get recordings of specific phrases in dolphinspeak, but elements of story structure like the hard decision that makes the climax work just don’t seem to shine through the piece’s format. While it’s nice that Seatopia’s legal department advises offering Akari an internship rather than a civil suit, the position seems to run counter to the culture that appears to pervade the remainder of Seatopia (down to lying about the number of $20 bills Akari paid to get in). “Bilingual” has a fun concept that feels like it’s used to deliver a moral rather than to tell a story. People who love dolphins may enjoy the strengths enough to ignore shortcomings, but it’s a hard piece to appreciate as a story even though it’s obviously built from careful research into news stories that together make the story’s big idea feel plausible in the real world in the present time. That is a cool idea, but it would be nice to see it in an easier-to-read piece whose format facilitates showing readers more character and story.


C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.