Bleak Horizons, edited by Tarl “Voice” Hoch – book review by Fred Patten
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Bleak Horizons, edited by Tarl “Voice” HochDallas, TX, FurPlanet Productions, March 2017, trade paperback $19.95 (338 pages), e-book $9.95.
Tarl Hoch states on Amazon that he “is a Canadian writer of primarily horror, mythos and erotic fiction”, with stories of his own in several non-furry horror anthologies. Bleak Horizons is his second book for FurPlanet. His first was the 2014 Abandoned Places, a furry horror anthology. Bleak Horizons is also a horror anthology; “fifteen stories about what horrors lie waiting for those who look to the future.”
Ha! To me, the horror is that most of these fifteen are just funny-animal stories that might as well be with humans. But they are all – well, fourteen of the fifteen — good s-f technological suspense stories.
“Adrift” by Kandrel distinguishes fear, terror, and panic through Evan, an anthropomorphic cat passenger on a starship with his wife Mia and his young son Sammy. There is a disaster:
“The hall is blocked by a family of warthogs trying to drag luggage with them. Stupid, he thinks. You can’t bring luggage into the life pods. There’s no room. This isn’t a time to worry about your things. Leave them. The burly male shouts something as Evan leaps over shoulders and uses the wall to get height. With a bound, he climbs over the unfortunate’s head. A hairy fist swings wildly but misses. He spares no more thought for the warthogs. They’d probably be too slow anyway.” (pgs. 10-11)
Evan, Mia, and Sam make it to the life pod and launch into space. But something goes wrong. Evan wakes from cryosleep in the faulty made-by-the-lowest-bidder life pod while his wife and son are still frozen. Can Evan fix it, or must he watch his wife and toddler die? There are references to Mia’s long horns and muzzle before it’s revealed what she is, but obviously she’s no cat (so what is Sammy?). There’s a plot point to Evan and his wife being different species, which makes “Adrift” more than a funny-animal story.
“4/13/2060” by Franklin Leo, is narrated by Sara (fox), a technical writer working independently with Dr. Walter Burns, a computer scientist (described as both a stoat and a weasel). They have gotten to be close friends. The story opens with Sara and a police officer looking at Burns’ gorily murdered wife, Alice, whom he loved deeply.
“The retriever sighed, his one cyber-eye whirring and glowing silently against his auburn fur. I felt like I’d ruined his entire day.
I turned to look at Mrs. Burns’ body one last time; a white sheet stretched over her with blood spattered where her head should have been. […]
‘I’ve got one more thing to show you. It’s upstairs.’ The dog gestured with his paw, letting me out first. I nodded and got out of there as quickly as I could.
‘That’s my name,’ I said. ‘Why does he have my name scrawled everywhere?’
‘We thought you could maybe explain that for us. We followed his trail downstairs, so we’re assuming that he had this all done before he killed his wife.’” (pgs. 31-32)
The story alternates between the present, 4/13/2060, and the near past to show why the initially-friendly Dr. Burns becomes more and more withdrawn and paranoid, and Sara finds herself in more and more danger. The ending of this story may remind readers of a famous s-f movie, but “4/13/2060” is still original and well-told.
“Hardwire” by Ton Inktail opens with a line from the narrator that all red-blooded male furry fans should like:
“‘I love you, Master. Won’t you fuck me?’” (p. 55)
Vix is a vixen sex robot, built to have only one purpose, with a human Master.
“‘I missed you, Tod. I love you. Won’t you fuck me?’ I swish my tail and smile.
‘Not now, Vix. I’m looking for the spare dishes. Having a party tomorrow.’
What is party? Or dishes? But he doesn’t like it if I ask too many questions. I perk my ears forward and part my lips. ‘After you find them, then will you fuck me?’” (p. 56)
Vix tries to learn more to please Tod more. She learns too much.
“Hardwire” is a good story, but depressing rather than chilling. The ending is somewhat unconvincing. If Vix is a store-bought sex robot, surely the manufacturer would be aware of its robots’ abilities to learn more, and the resulting consequences.
“The Ouroboros Plate” by Slip Wolf: Imperial Prime Agent Vix Pon Hallord (weasel) arrives at an isolated space station inhabited by only research scientist Doctor Lisker (another weasel) and an Artificial Intelligence. Hallord is on a routine visit to check the progress of Doctor Lisker in developing a top-secret invention for the Predet Empire to use against its livestock rebellions. Hallord finds the Doctor dead and her space station only hours from irreversible self destruction. Can he find what killed her and stop the space station’s destruction in time? This is less horror than a detective puzzler – until the climax.
“The First Viewing” by Corgi W is narrated by a nameless lioness art student interviewing Doschehov, an arrogant tall brown otter artist. He has a private gallery in which he exhibits his works of Neuro-art.
“‘Is he attached to a simulation?’ I asked, not knowing if I wanted to hear the answer.
‘He was a God-fearing wolf,’ Doschehov said. His grin widened, pushing up the fur and skin on his face. It set his beady black eyes deep within heavy folds of fur. ‘So, I came up with a suitable reality to immerse him in: Every one of his virtues is being broken down as we speak. I have simulated what he believed to be hell.’ He paused.” (p. 93)
To reveal more of the plot would be a spoiler. “The First Viewing” could be easily rewritten to make the characters human, but it’s undeniably successful as a creepy futuristic s-f horror tale.
“Clicking” by Ianus J. Wolf: an exploration spaceship (one of many) from no-longer-habitable Earth Prime is searching the galaxy for new planets to colonize. Acting Captain Marco Shane (ram), xenobiologist Robert Maceone (green iguana), xenobotanist Anna Corman (pigeon), and security officer Nathan Higgins (rat) are the forward team who go down to 67 Manticore d, a jungle planet, to check it out.
“‘Have you found the one [life form] yet that keeps making that clicking noise?’ Anna asked while gathering another floral sample from a bloom she hadn’t seen before.
The three of them looked at her quizzically. Marco hadn’t heard any clicking in their entire trip. Anna noticed the look and stared back at them. “What?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Maceone said, genuinely curious. ‘What noise?’” (pgs. 113-114)
Science-fiction has a long tradition of exploring an alien world that seems safe for colonization at first, only to have things slowly turn deadly. There is a reason for the four explorers to be a ram, an iguana, a pigeon, and a rat.
“Blink” by James Stone is a time-travel story. Commander Rhett (tiger) is leading a squad in an interplanetary war against the blinks. The blinks are described only as fast-moving things with tentacles, suckers, and teeth. Rhett and his troopers are in individual enclosed battle armor with time-jump capability.
But Rhett may be time-jumping too often. “Why do I remember combat when the rest of you don’t?” “Are you real, or am I hallucinating?” (pgs. 143 & 144) Troopers are only supposed to jump one second, but Rhett suddenly finds himself alone on a planet except for the blinks. What went wrong? Where is everyone? Almost all time-jump stories get complex and confusing. “Blink” is no exception.
“Pentangle” by Ross Whitlock is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever read. Five alien seed-things come to Earth and destroy civilization. They eat all metal and merge all people into blobby clusters. Two-people clusters become a Snake-Eyes. Three people become a Coven. Four become a Groat. Six become a Sestina. Eight become a Tarantula. Clusters of twelve become an Apostle, the ultimate (they claim); the rulers. But there are no five-person Pentagles. Pentagles are cursed. Pentagles are evil! Pentagles are to be killed on sight!!!
“Pentagle” is about five people who become a Pentagle amidst the clusters in the tent-city around what used to be San Antonio, and what they-it does about it.
Talk about funny-animal stories where the characters absolutely do not need to be furry instead of human! I won’t say what anthro-animals Pettybone, Stantz, Lakshin, Ciel, and Bishop used to be. It Doesn’t Matter! (But talk about stories that you won’t forget…)
“Starless” by Searska GreyRaven: the merchant spaceship Caliban is infected by an electronic virus that fries most of the ship’s computers and the crew’s cybernetic enhancements. The ship and its crew – Captain Carmine (stoat), navigator Fritz (cocatiel), pilot Ellie (goat), weapons officer Ila (hyena), and others – are thrown off-course into an empty area of the galaxy where there are no stars, no planets, nothing … except … an opera house? Except for the interstellar setting, this is a very effective, old-fashioned Haunted House thriller, with something stalking the Caliban’s crew, one by one.
“This Way” by Frances Pauli is a standalone story in Pauli’s Star Spiders series. (See her The Earth Tigers; Gastropod Press, February 2017.)
“The breeze that rattled the jungle canopy also vibrated through the tips of Dotar’s velvet toes. He heard it in the way his bristles danced, in the soft thrumming of the world beneath each of his eight feet. A gentle wind. A whisper of weather beneath the mesh of jungle that only let scattered patches of sunlight through to warm his carapace.
‘Hurry up, daydreamer.’ The steady drumming of his partner’s toes brought his thoughts back to their mission. ‘We’re meant to be home by tomorrow.’” (p.207)
Dotar and Mifla are two of the large, intelligent spiders of their world, where spiders and humans live in symbiosis. They are on scouting duty for their city. Everything seems normal, until they come to a human village that has been recently deserted …
“Outlier” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is a good story completely different in detail, but too similar to “Clicking” as to its basic plot. Both are about an exploration starship coming to what seems at first like a perfect world. Then its furry crew start to die …
“Not Like Us” by KC Alpinus is very melodramatic, about a peaceful suburban community that experiences strange power outages, and degenerates from mild curiosity into panicked accusations and savage neighbor-vs.-neighbor fighting. Is it terrorists, or invading aliens turning everyone into zombies? Sorry, but I felt this story was ultimately unbelievable, mostly from unnatural dialogue but also several unconvincing details like making all animals and small birds anthropomorphized to the same size, a teenage vixen hoping Timothy Turtle will ask her out on a date, and errors like calling an Army Sergeant an officer.
Here is a tough Army non-com talking.
“‘From the homeless otter who was accidentally shot and left in the street like meat, to the mother who clutched her lifeless pup who died from drinking tainted water… The stench of fear and mistrust was everywhere, filling my muzzle and burning my eyes, making my heart race. Fear, kid, it changes people, and those poor otters were just reacting to a perceived threat. They couldn’t help it.’” (p. 244) – Do tough soldiers talk like that?
“Clear and Cruel” by Bill Kieffer: all humans mutate into anthropomorphic dogs. Or cats. William adjusts worse than most. He has to be taken to doctors, by the dog who might be his wife.
“As the dog he came with passed him off to the nurse, he tried to ignore the strange sensation as its … her small hand … (paw?) touched his back to steer him through the door. ‘Yvonne,’ he said as he opened his eyes.
Sharp teeth broke out all over her face, sending her deep brown eyes spinning across her face. The lipstick on her nose seemed a pretty shade of pink as she softly said, ‘Yes, Honey. I’m Yvonne. Let’s hop on this scale, please.’ He was childishly proud of himself. He wondered if he’d been growing younger since the aliens used Earth to break out of hyperspace or whatever accident that caused so many mutations across the world.
He forced himself to stop thinking about it.” (p. 267)
Or mummies. Or werewolves. Or monsters.
“Blessed Are the Meek” by Rechan features a whole planetful of lapens, anthro rabbits, who are building something to do with increasing atmospheric oxygen for the gods. When they are finished, the gods will return. L277, the protagonist, is ordered to take the body of R294 in a rocketship Chariot to the gods. It is so obvious what’s going on that you can probably guess from this synopsis alone, but it’s still a good, cynical story.
“Hollow” by Chris “Sparf” Williams: Liam Sams is a first-generation snow leopard colonist on Mars, along with a team of other snow leopards, malamutes, and others, led by Rottweiler Commander Mike Sloane. And twin-bodied Mitrians.
“Mitrians resembled arctic wolves from Earth by way of Fantastic Tales. Their muzzles were half-again as long, and an extra pair of golden-irised eyes rested just below and to the outside of where an earth wolf’s would be. Mitrian ears were batlike: furless and blue with sharp angles, and from the top center of their head jutted a single appendage like the antennae of a gigantic insect, but covered in short, thin fur.” (p. 296)
They are all inside a squat, domed satellite base while they explore and very slowly Terraform Mars to be livable for Earth settlers (and Mitrians); at least for those like Liam’s snow leopard ancestors in the rocky foothills of the Himalayas. When a large meteorite falls near the base, Liam and two Mitrians, Koresh and Selar, are sent in a rover in sealed envirosuits to examine it and the crater it makes. The meteorite turns out to be a crashed Mitrian spaceship. With its crew slaughtered. Has the galactic horror that has been killing Mitrians, that killed the spaceship’s crew, followed them onto Mars?
Bleak Horizons (cover by Kappy, possibly illustrating “Hollow”) is a good anthology of “creeping dread and the things that terrify people”, to quote from one of the author profiles. I may kvech about the funny-animal nature of most of the stories, which could Easily Feature Humans, but as s-f horror, these 14/15ths successfully deliver a chill up your spine. 14/15th is worth $19.95. (Or $9.95 if you get the e-book edition.)
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