To be honest, this issue was a disappointment. It was shorter than usual and a higher percentage of stories were ho-hum though there were a couple of bright points from two of the magazine’s old reliables.
I’m afraid the two newcomers don’t distinguish themselves.
Cynthia Ward’s “Six Guns of the Sierra Nevada” is actually a reprint of a story that first appeared 20 years ago in Pulp Eternity Magazine #1. It belongs to a time travel theme running throughout this issue. Carl Rhein seems to have been sent back in time by a shadowy cabal from the future in order to poison future American race relations by wiping out the Robin Hood Gang composed of all blacks. You have to be really good to get me to care about yet another story centering on what I’m told is the cause of all evil – racism, and this story isn’t, and its ending is a trifle murky.
There’s some racism in Paul J. Carney’s “The Warden of Chaco Canyon”, but it’s main problem is just that it’s kind of bland. It takes place in an alternate American West where prospectors have been hunting meteors with “star iron” – sought because of its use in protective amulets and bullets that will penetrate anything. However, the strikes have petered out after five years and prospector Hewitt wants to know why. He falls in with an Indian shaman who has his own ideas about what to do with “star iron”, and there are the ghosts of the town wiped out in the first meteor strike. Continue reading →
Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrowing the scope of this blog and, as I put it, reading more like a normal person. In other words, reviewing less of what I read.
I’ll probably continue to do the weird western stuff though. It gets a moderate amount of interest, and it’s an area not a lot of other people cover
Review: Science Fiction Trails #12, ed. David B. Riley, 2017.
In 2017, David B. Riley gathered the posse for another ride in Science Fiction Trails.
That magazine’s successors, Steampunk Trails and Story Emporium, didn’t generate a lot of interest, and Riley wanted to still provide an outlet for writers of weird westerns.
Counter to that was Riley’s perennial problem in even getting enough submissions for the magazine.
So, it’s no surprise that all the members of the posse are old reliables from previous issues.
Not only this is a shorter issue than regular, but it’s even got a couple of reprints.
First up is “Belfrey’s in Your Bats!” from Aaron B. Larson. There is nothing wrong with the story. It gives a hat tip to probably one of the most popular weird westerns of all time, the tv show The Wild Wild West (the other being, perhaps, the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter). But it’s not the best of the stories collected in that powerful parcel of weird western fiction: The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones which I’ve reviewed at length elsewhere. Continue reading →
In 2015, Science Fiction Trails publisher David B. Riley experimented again with the annual magazine he put out. The weird western tales of the defunct Science Fiction Trails and the steampunk of Steampunk Trails were combined into Story Emporium.
A lot of the usual contributors to Science Fiction Trails’ publications are here and a lot of those writers continue their long running series in the magazine.
But let’s start with the writers new to me.
Dan Thwaite’s “The Duel” is bit Sergio Leonish in its ever-slowing pace and repetition of details as the climax nears. But it’s not very effective. A gunfighter come to town. His high noon opponent is a clock in a tower. He shoots it but dies. I suppose this is some kind of metaphor about how time and death catch up to us all.
K. G. Anderson’s “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” is a secret history and a good one at that. Jewish magic and the Kabbala are spliced into the conventional history of Billy the Kid. It’s narrator, a woman named Shulamit, flees her home to escape an arranged marriage to a man she never met. With her, in the trunk on the stagecoach, is a golem made by her grandfather. Others want the golem, and Billy the Kid intervenes to save Shulamit when an attempt is made to steal it. Continue reading →
Like its predecessor, it has an article, “Tumbleweeds: Western Icon or Martian Invaders” from editor Campbell. It looks at the hardy tumbleweed aka Russian thistle, an invasive species into the American West.
Beth Daniels, an author I’ve never read, offers an interview on writing steampunk, advice that can also be found in her Geared Up: Writing Steampunk.
This being a Science Fiction Trails publication, there’s a dog story. Here that’s Campbell’s “RCAF (Royal Canine Air Force)“, inspired by the cover illustration. It’s a slight story with dogs and cats dogfighting in the air, and the dogs blasting a factory. Airships, machine guns, and plasma cannon included.
More steampunkery is supplied by the heist/rescue story “Shell Games: A Hummingbird and Inazuma Con” from Peter J. Wacks. It, as the title implies, involves a couple of conmen and seems to be part of an intended series. Inazuma is a “brilliant swordsman” (though he’s not called a samurai). Hummingbird is a gunfighter. The story takes place in Canton, China, but, of course, a steampunk alternative. Here the technological divergence is the invention of the “airjunk” in 1890. There are the usual iconic sorts of things like “clockwork carriages”. Hummingbird herself is a cyborg with a “clockwork right arm”, specifically a smaller variant of the one used in the West. It uses acupuncture needles connected by steel threads to serve as musculature. Hummingbird is accomplished at tai chi. Our two con artists are sent on a mission to retrieve the kidnapped daughter of the police commissioner. There are some historical figures here. The villain is Grigori Rasputin. Winston Churchill shows up too as a lieutenant in the police force since this section of China is occupied by Britain. Hummingbird and Inazuma’s con is complicated and precisely timed. The bits with Churchill were nice. Rasputin is set up to be a running series villain, but I wished he was on stage more.
Another story that reads like part of a series is Jessica Brawner’s “Bad Altitude”. The story has a great opening with our naked heroine falling from an airship over Paris. The ending doesn’t entirely explain the villain’s motives for wanting her airship. Still, the stuff in between is entertaining enough. This is set in a 21st century world where Douglas Adams is a “great philosopher of the last century”.
And, speaking of clockwork, there’s O. M. Grey’s “The Clockwork Heart”, a nicely done story which metaphorically puts that imagery to use in something of a feminist tale. It’s told by one woman and relating the story of another “woman”, Eleanor. Eleanor is a clockwork woman, but she used to be a regular woman as evidenced by the scars around her wrists (a suicide attempt) and neck and chest. The latter seem to be surgical scars from her one-time lover, Dr. Clague. Another woman, Penelope, is Clague and Eleanor’s daughter though the two were never married. Eleanor has been revived after her suicide attempt to hang about the house as a governess for Penelope. Emotionless during her second round at life, she wants to feel again, and Clague helps her have emotion again. Just in time to experience them when another man enters her life.
Lyn McConchie does no harm to her reputation as a reliable contributor to Science Fiction Trails publications. Here it’s with “The Steam Powered Camera”. The fantastic element here is slight. Was it really necessary to have a steam powered (in effect, a movie camera) with a wide-angle lens instead of just standard Victorian-era photographic equipment? Probably not, but it’s a fairly clever horror story in which a photographer doing psychic investigations comes across an impetuous youth, also with a camera, who mocks his equipment.
Lesbian lovers seem to be (or, at least, were back in the heyday of steampunk and judging by Amazon browsing) something of a steampunk cliché. Jeffrey Cook’s and Katherine Perkins’ “Opening Night” features two. Cliché is doubled by making one a warrior babe. The story intercuts between Emily’s stage performance as a clockwork doll (her own body has damaged limbs encased in mechanisms and she’s missing an eye) and Luca foiling an assassination attempt in the opera house.
The rest of the stories are kind of amalgams of steampunk and weird western.
Henry Ram gives us another installment in the life of Potbury the Necromancer in “The Courtship of Miss Henrietta”. The rich and dying Mr. Seven has his airship Azincourt parked above Name Pending, Wyoming. He’s hallucinating from products of “advanced science” put in his body and brain, and he needs Potbury to do his resurrection thing on him. Potbury says that’s not possible. Seven’s already been resurrected once. Another time is going to be technically difficult. Seven, not taking no for an answer, starts to threaten Miss Henrietta, the former local prostitute Potbury is in love with. Another engaging entry in the series with appearances by regular characters like the rapacious and two-faced madam Mrs. Broadhurst and worthless town marshal Wainscot.
I liked Liam Hogan’s “Horse”, a first person tale about a 15-year old boy and his mechanical, steam-powered, intelligent horse inherited from a beloved professor killed in a faro game. What the boy finds in a town — a gunsmith interested in the horse, local bullies, and a prostitute — makes an interesting story, but it’s not a coming of age tale.
“The (Almost) Entirely Untrue Legend of John Henry”, from David Boop, starts in 1855 with John Henry being sold for a 20 year period to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad. The story then shifts to the end of the ballad – John Henry pounding away at the end of a mountain tunnel. However, the mountain collapses on him since they tunneled through to an unmapped mine. John Henry and several men are trapped. We then get a different version of the famous John Henry vs. the steam drill story with a lot of exotic machinery. A nice bit of steampunkery and secret history.
Eric Aren’s “A Cure for Boundary Pirates” is set in a vaguely defined Old West of airships (with helium no less) and electric rifles where trade seems to be prohibited between the natives of the west coast and the people of the plains. A portion of the Great Plains has been turned into “the Colony” for those suffering from tuberculosis. The Colony forbids alcohol and tobacco. Simon, a pharmacist, smuggles “airflower” (seemingly marijuana given its analgesic properties) to the Colony. He’s been blackmailed by a couple of airship pirates who live in the Boundary (aka Rocky) Mountains into helping their smuggling. But the relationship is getting troublesome, so Simon takes steps.
Of course, this being a Science Fiction Trails book, David B. Riley channels karl, the dinosaur sheriff to introduce a collection of flash fiction about fog making machines. Karl, in “Some Protection“, talks about meeting one H. G. back in the Cretaceous. H. G. thought his time machine’s fog generator would protect from the vicious local fauna.
Eric Aren’s entry “Victory!” is a rather confused entry about a war between Russia and Germany.
P. R. Morris’ “English Waters” is a grisly alternate version of the Boer War with the Boers trying to prevent Gordon from reaching Khartoum.
“Pressure” from Guy Anthony De Marco is just jokey and underdeveloped.
Sam Knight is a weird western writer I usually like, but his “A Pirate Fog” shows, at least here, flash fiction is not his thing with a slight piece of naval combat in the Gulf of Mexico.
“From the Editor”, J. A. Campbell — Brief statement by the editor stating how much she likes steampunk and the magazine’s commitment to articles and stories that capture the artistry and diversity of steampunk.
“From the Publisher”, David B. Riley — Publisher Riley’s brief statement that he had long seen steampunk stories of the western variety as editor and publisher of Science Fiction Trails and that he wanted to focus more on steampunk.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk Fashion”, Carrie Vaughn — An article by Vaughn about steampunk fashion in which she argues that, unlike most clothing we now wear, it is individualized and makes a statement about the character/persona of the wearer. I had no idea Vaughn was the author of a bestselling series until I looked her up. I’ve only read one thing by her.
“Karl’s Korner, by Karl, the dinosaur sheriff”, David B. Riley — Karl, the dinosaur sheriff, is a running gag in Science Fiction Trails edited by Riley. Karl ruminates on their energy needs and fragile bodies relative to the pterosaurs he knew. Continue reading →
This weird western anthology isn’t as good as its predecessor, but it’s full of acceptably entertaining stories.
I didn’t say I remember the stories as being good.
I finished this book in November, and, when I went back to make my notes on them, I found only three that I remembered.
But I had a lot going on in my life then, so that may account for my memory deficiency. I do remember the book being acceptably diverting at the time.
So, let’s start with the ones that didn’t stick in my brain after five months.
Vivian Caethe’s “The Feast of Hungry Ghosts” features Pinkerton agent Beatrice Jones dispatched to Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. (Yes, Rock Springs is a real place, but I have no idea how much of the background is based in history.) Like a lot of Pinkerton work, there’s labor problems involved. To bust a strike of railroad workers, Chinese laborers are brought in, and the workers kill them. That’s where the hungry ghosts come in. The story is a bit predictable in stereotypes. Displaced union members, evidently, get no sympathy when replaced by foreign scabs. And Jones is helped by a local Taoist priestess. The story is a bit too long though Caethe does some interesting things with the ghosts at the end. Continue reading →
I read a fair amount of weird westerns in 2017, and most were from Science Fiction Trails or its editor and publisher David B. Riley.
With every annual issue, Riley’s Science Fiction Trails magazine (at least starting with issue seven when I started reading them) packed an impressive variety into its literary saddlebags. Surprisingly, a lot of its stories didn’t go with the old store-bought plots of time travel and aliens.
Eventually, though, Riley couldn’t find enough contributors and the magazine went on hiatus.
Editor Riley has his usual gang of tried-and-true contributors here and some new hands too.
The work is sound, not really awful and seldom outstanding. But they’re all good enough to push you along the trail even though the destination is sometimes is a bit dry at that end.
Star performance went to Jackson Kuhl’s “Red River”. That’s red as in anarchists and red as in Martians. Kuhl has the Martian invasion, complete with tripods and red weed, of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds turning the trans-Mississippi American West into a war zone. The red weed seeks out moisture everywhere and that includes human bodies when it mutates to a lethal infection. The U.S. Army in airtight, modified Martian tripods wage war on the infestation. But that army needs money, supplies, and men, and the locals start to become real resentful about supplying them. It’s a dark, mosaic piece of different scenes and points of view that carom from killer plague to killer anarchists.
“Paradigm Lost” from R. A. Conine seems incomplete. If the subtitle, “Episode 1 of the Chronicles of Red Blade”, is a clue, that’s because it’s probably the first in a series of one about Sans Arc Sioux warrior Red Blade who finds himself whisked away from victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to a world where Indians and whites live at peace – because horrible critters from another dimension, the Dead, have wiped out most people in America and the survivors live in squalid bands. Blade meets the cause of this, and the story ends with him in yet another war in our timeline. Red Blade has, improbably, a degree in mathematics from Oxford though that’s of no relevance to anything in the story. Continue reading →