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Editor's Choice: Short Fiction Reviews
by David A. Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has been reading science fiction and fantasy for forty years. For the past four years he has edited TANGENT: The Only Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Fiction Review Magazine. It was runner-up for the 1997 Hugo Award. The intent of this column is to present reviews of selected short fiction that strike Dave's interest as his reading for Tangent continues. If you would like to read more short fiction reviews, try Tangent as it reviews every original story in all American, Canadian, British, and Australian professional SF & F magazines (as well as many others).

For more of David's opinions, we've put together a table of contents for other Editor's Choice columns.

For information on the contents of an issue or for subscription details, you can try the following sites:
Asimov's Science Fiction
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
On Spec
Cemetery Dance
Tomorrow SF
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1998
Dale Bailey "Night of the Fireflies"
Lynn B. Coulter "The Singing Thing"
Steven R. Boyett "Current Affairs"
Nina Kiriki Hoffman "Gone to Heaven Shouting"
Sheila Finch "Reading the Bones"
Editor's Choice:
"Night of the Fireflies" by Dale Bailey
Dale Bailey captures the best of both early Ray Bradbury ("There Will Come Soft Rains" Collier's, 1950), and George Orwell (1984), in this deftly executed seven page homage -- not to mention a necessary and ever-so-timely reminder. Framed within a Bradburyesque pastoral, high-tech future where row upon row of identically crafted 'suburban' homes are outfitted with "liquid crystal walls" which serve as interactive entertainment centers, and mechanical mice tend immaculately manicured lawns by night, it is also against the politically criminal "First Principle" to write a novel (or anything else of a fictive nature) where the author is the only one to choose which direction a story will take (shades of Orwell). As the protagonist is reminded while being apprehended following his betrayal to the authorities by his best friend (à la Bradbury and Orwell):

"[You are] a content provider, Mr. Hollis [not a writer]."

"The men and women and children, the fathers and mothers, the sons and daughters who day and night gaze transfixed into the liquid crystal walls -- let them choose.... What gives you the right? ...[There is] no place anymore for a story to be told."

Kudos to Bailey for wrapping Orwell's stinging commentaries on Big Brother and its contemporary step-child, Political Correctness, within the deceptively soft and poetic folds of one of Bradbury's classic landscapes.

A goodly measure of the brilliance of this short story lies in its brevity. No small feat for Bailey (or anyone else!), who, as a relative newcomer, has made his critically acclaimed early mark in the field at the much longer novelette and novella lengths. This is a breakaway story for Bailey in terms of theme, subject matter, and length, and deserves attention.

Editor's Choice:
"Reading the Bones" by Sheila Finch
This is the fifth in Sheila Finch's Guild of Xenolinguists series of stories, the first four being "A World Waiting" (F&SF, August 1989), "Communion of Minds" (F&SF, September 1996), "Out of the Mouths" (F&SF, December 1996), and "A Flight of Words" (F&SF, February 1997). This is by far the best. Due to the fact that "Reading the Bones" is a lengthy novella, and not a novelette or short story (as were the previous stories), it is more fully realized and complex by its very nature.

Each of the (otherwise unlinked) stories recounts an adventure of one of the members of the Guild and relates how one of its "lingsters" overcomes some mystery in communicating with an alien lifeform. Communication, as we discover, takes many and varied forms. The simplest of which being the elementary unraveling of an alien written language -- no small feat in and of itself.

"A World Waiting" is a bizarre story where a lingster must communicate with the dolphin who has been implanted with the fetus from her dead sister in order to bring it to term, and the frightening discovery of an alien virus which impacts the process, with horrible consequences. Near the end of the tale there is a chilling echo of the late Judith Merril's classic first story, "That Only A Mother" (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1948), which only adds to the power of this hard look at an attempt to colonize a seemingly barren world.

In "Communion of Minds" we find another lingster from the Guild aboard a rescue ship which has answered a distress call from a doomed colony outpost. They find that the entire colony, save one, has been wiped out. One by one, they too succumb to the deadly alien symbiote. All but the lingster, who, though having ingested the alien, has because of her mental training as a linguist been able to overcome its influence. This is a gritty, desperate tale, where the will to survive takes several forms, cannibalism among them.

"Out of the Mouths" is the 'softest' of these tales, dealing more with the theory of language than anything else. It tells the story of two babies, one human, one alien (but very close to human in many respects), who are raised together. The rationale provided in the story being: "Raise a human child with an alien, and she'll have the other's language in her head from birth, as well as her native tongue. A chance to interface between languages without the programs, the drugs, the implants that lingsters normally use to forge understanding out of chaos." This is a risky experiment however, for if it fails, then the decimating war between the alien Venatixi and ourselves may go on forever, attempts at communication having failed to this point. No horribly mutated babies or cannibalism in this one; the violence of war between alien species is tucked neatly into the background.

"A Flight of Words" features a linguist assigned to the planet New Tlok, her job is "to forge an interface between the language of the rulers and that of the native race displaced by the recent immigration of the Tlokee." The lingster soon discovers that she is but a pawn of the Tlokee High Mother, and that she is needed only to interrogate an indigenous prisoner who has been maimed and tortured. Against all of her training, and the strict oaths of the Xenolinguist's Guild to which she has adhered her entire life, she helps the prisoner to escape. Her life in the Guild is over, but her new life among the native Inxsienga takes on new meaning as she is revealed to be The Protector spoken of in their ancient myths. Though evincing the characteristic violence of the first two stories, this one ends predictably and left this reviewer cold.

Which catches us up and brings us to "Reading the Bones." Lingster Ries Danyo is a drunkard, hooked on the narcotic beverage zyth. He is not given choice assignments by the Guild anymore, and finds himself on the low-priority world of Krishna as naught but a glorified interpreter for the Deputy Commissioner's wife, as she spends most of her time in the bazaar buying baubles and trinkets from the native Freh, the primary race. Soon enough, however, Danyo finds himself in the middle of a bloody 'civil' uprising. The Deputy Commissioner and his wife have been murdered and he is charged with protecting their two young daughters.

Fleeing to the outland forests, Danyo encounters the second race on Krishna, the Mules, who are responsible for the uprising. What he learns while witnessing their brutal sexual encounters with the Freh, forms only part of the intriguing puzzle he must solve in order to not only save the children, but unlock the strange key to the Freh language. A language, it must be noted, that is a spoken one only. It has not evolved to the point where it has become written. And it is this fascinating element (just what are the forces leading to a written language, and what critical threshold must be overcome before abstract symbols and verbalizations can take on meaningful visual form) which frames the bulk of this novella. Danyo and the children's capture by misshapen Freh and their subsequent imprisonment in a subterranean cave system only pique the interest of the reader. They soon become not only onlookers to a grisly ritual they cannot fathom, but Danyo finds himself a willing participant in same, and by so doing redeems himself. At quite a cost.

"Reading the Bones" combines the best elements of the previous Xenolinguist stories. From the theoretical and abstract elements of linguistics to the characteristically brutal and savage violence marking several of the earlier pieces, all emotionally and artistically capped by the powerful denouement involving the redemption of the main character, Ries Danyo.

"Reading the Bones" is a solid, satisfying read.

Copyright © 1997 by David A. Truesdale

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