To the dismay of all lovers of great speculative short fiction, the Summer issue of Subterranean Magazine is its last. This magazine was notable not just for the quality of its fiction, but for its willingness to publish short fiction at the novelette and novella lengths. The Summer issue ably demonstrates just what we’re going to be missing.
The magazine begins with Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Pushing the Sky Away (Death of a Blasphemer).” The first person narrator is in desperate straits, her water and morphine gone, lost in a building of endless hallways, caught in a dispute between the Djinn and the Ghûl. Yet despite the fantasy setting, science has a place in this tale, as Cesium isotopes and radiation poisoning play a role. Kiernan’s language is chosen carefully, turning parts of this story into veritable prose poetry. For all its short length, it’s a complex tale that rewards rereading.
Alastair Reynolds, widely known for his lengthy space operas, is the author of “The Last Log of the Lachrimosa” — a shorter space opera. Captain Rasht operates a salvage operation with two crew members and a monkey. On this particular mission, as told in the first person by Nidra, an information broker directed them to a reportedly juicy salvage opportunity that turned out to be a complete dud — except, perhaps, for whatever remains on the surface of the planet around which the empty spacecraft they came after is orbiting. The entire crew heads for the planet, where there is, in fact, a shuttle. But something about the planet makes Nidra uneasy, and the diary of the pilot of the crashed shuttle makes her uneasier still. The tale gets darker and spookier from there, as the crew continues to move further and further into an environment that seems dangerous for a whole host of reasons, driven on only by their greed. Reynolds handles his complex and frightening plot with a skill that keeps it in the realm of science fiction when it could turn to fantasy or horror — a nice trick, considering the places this planet takes us. I’ve never read one of Reynolds’s novels, but I’m now quite eager to.
“The Very Fabric” by Kat Howard is about Viola Black and her brother, Benjamin, who experience something terrible coming from a tear in the night sky. Viola is asked to help mend the tear in this fantastical tale of strange and horrible beings trying to rip their way into our reality. I’ve read several works of short fiction by Kat Howard in the last few years, and approach her tales eagerly. She writes eerie stories with brilliant imagery, with moments that make me wince with horror, and with sorrows that drive me nearly to tears. This tale contains all of those strengths.
Everything K.J. Parker writes is thoroughly enjoyable, and “The Things We Do For Love” is just that: great fun. The first person narrator is doing everything he can to get himself killed to escape from his wife; after all, despite the fact that he has just killed her, he knows she’ll be back; after all, it’s not the first time he’s done it, or even the tenth. It’s a long and meandering story, certainly not the deepest tale Parker has ever written, but one that succeeds in keeping the reader smiling. Parker has a distinct and friendly voice, a friendly one that makes you feel her narrator is sitting beside you in a quiet bar and telling you the story of his life with great finesse and humor. But watch out for the sting in tail!
Jay Lake left us on June 1 this year, much too young and at the height of his power as a writer. “West to East” makes that evident. It the story of a man stranded on a planet, but needing badly to transmit his final logs and survey data to the crew waiting in orbit above him. He finds a way to boost his signal above the planet’s interference. It’s impossible to read the story as anything but a tale of a man defying certain death, refusing to give in, demanding that he enjoy what he can before he must give it all up; autobiographical, yes, in the best possible way.
Maria Dahvana Headley is another writer I’ve seen frequently as I’ve made reading short fiction my special beat, and another I look forward to reading. “What There Was to See” is about the Abendroths, who have a daughter, Beate, whom they believe is not sane since she had a severe fever when very young. For despite a caul over the cornea of each eye, she sees things — things that aren’t there. They cause her to do all manner of harmful things to herself and others, setting things on fire, tripping about outdoors. As a last resort, the Abendroths take their daughter to a physician who believes he can replace one of her corneas with a rabbit’s, and restore her to vision and, perhaps, to mental health. It’s an imaginative set-up with some basis in fact — an historical note appended to the story tells us that “The early history of corneal transplants and cures for blindness is nearly as strange as it is in this story” — but Headley writes a history around the history that is full of ghosts. Headley keeps the reader intrigued throughout this long story, as it switches viewpoints among the various characters. The story might have benefited from some judicious editing, as it drags in portions, but it is nonetheless an engrossing tale.
Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jeté” is the highlight of this issue. It is about Mara, a 12-year-old child who is dying of cancer, her father, who loves her very much, and the android Mara’s father has built that mimics Mara in every way, right down to her thoughts and feelings. It is an amazing technological accomplishment that Mara’s father sees this as a gift to his daughter. Mara, however, sees it as a replacement for her, a confirmation of her fear that she is going to die. The story is about the complex relationships between Mara and her father, the android and each of them, Mara and her dead mother, and the android and Mara’s — her own, as it feels — dead mother. After the initial revelation of the android, the tale is mostly one of small occurrences in the daily lives of the three of these characters, and how they adjust to one another. The story is told through such incidents as a trip to the butcher, a Shabbat dinner, watching videos of Mara’s mother’s performances as a prima ballerina. The emotions are raw here, and edged; this story will make your heart hurt. It is beautifully told, and with brutal honesty.
“The Black Sun” by Lewis Shiner is another highlight of the issue, a tale of an alternate history. It is a novella that starts when Ernst Adler, known as the Amazing Adonini, a Paris magician in his seventies who has asked twelve of his peers to join him for an evening. After swearing them to secrecy, he unfolds a plan to stop Hitler using all the techniques and close timing of stage magic. The story shows how the magicians execute the plot, detailing split second execution of complex plans. I will tell you no more, leaving you to discover the intricacies of this well-plotted tale for yourselves. It’s an exciting, entertaining tale full of incident, reversals, good fortune, determination and good will.
The last issue of Subterranean Magazine ends with a sentimental favorite, Harlan Ellison®, in a tale called “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes.” Ellison tells us up front that the story is about a man in Fremont, Nebraska, who cheated an honest old lady, who sought but could not achieve justice for more than forty years. One day, she told a friend of her problem, and the story follows. Or else the true anecdote follows. Ellison won’t be specific as to which it is. The next thing we know, a man in a New York has been threatened in his bed by a man holding a potato with a razor blade embedded in the end of it; and by a phone call demands that he answer questions or suffer whatever the potato man will deal out. A string of further events, most of which appear unrelated to this telephone call and its consequences, follows. It’s a puzzling but oddly fascinating story, dedicated to Ray Bradbury.
I’m very sorry to see Subterranean Magazine go. It was one of the best sources for excellent short fiction out there. This double-length edition demonstrates exactly why the loss of the magazine is so great. Enjoy it, and then go and read the back issues; you deserve it.