Despite gloomy words about the state of the short story from those who watch the business side of the business, every month proves that in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, the short story is a thriving art form. Innovative, important, enjoyable stories continue to expand and extend the range of the genre, and evolve within the space. Gardener Dozois occasionally gets on stage and thunders: "This is the golden age of Science Fiction." I, for one, couldn't agree more.
Speaking of Mr. Dozois, breaking news reports that he has announced his intention to step down as Editor in Chief at Asimov's. I don't know exactly how big a change this will actually be for the magazine, but it feels like a major change. This is the Dozois who has won 14 Hugo awards for best editor. Sheila Williams, currently Executive Editor, will take the helm, but her first issue will not be until January 2005. We'll observe closely to see what, if any, changes seem to take place next year. In the meantime, congratulations to Gardner for what must have been a very difficult decision. He states a desire to focus more on his own writing. He already has two Nebula awards for short fiction, so let's all hope we see his name even more frequently in this column, if in a different role.
- Analog (April)
- The Liberators by Scott William Carter
- Analog (May)
- Andromeda Spaceways (#11)
- My Father's New Wife by Shauna Roberts
- Asimov's (April-May)
- F&SF (April)
- Gas by Ray Vukcevich
- F&SF (May)
- SciFiction (March)
- The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel
- Strange Horizons (March)
- Rapture by Sally Gwylan
- The 3rd Alternative (#37)
Dr. Stanley Schmidt shows no signs of tiring (or re-tiring) as editor over at Analog, and the April issue shows him keeping fans on their toes with stories as diverse as "Tea With Vicky" (Pete D. Manison) -- a complex, emotional story involving parallel universes -- and the dark side of organ donation in Brian Plante's quirky, but ultimately moral tale: "Dibs." Less surprising are tales time travel ("The Aztec Supremacist" by Sheralyn Schofield Belyeu) and alien communication ("In Spare" by J. Brian Clarke, and "Misunderstanding Twelve" by Carl Frederick). Most interesting, in my opinion, was:
"The Liberators" by Scott William Carter
There's one rule in the interstellar liberation force: you never take off your helmet. Even if the atmosphere of whatever planet you are liberating from the vicious aliens does happen to breathable, there could be any number of lethal viruses or microbes. The body armor and comm equipment is first rate, and the aliens seem to be on the run. Then, one day, a soldier is forced to take off his helmet to survive. The consequences are disastrous for the liberation force, but it is no toxin, virus, or microbe that infects the military: it's the truth.
Carter starts us off in familiar terrain. "The Liberators" opens like a Starship Troopers knock-off. There are a couple of contemporary updates on the powered-armor concept, but nothing startling. The main character is not-entirely sympathetic: like King David in the Old Testament, he sends a rival (romantic, not political) off to probable death in an unnecessary tactical maneuver.
At first, we don't know exactly what happens to the rival when he is forced to remove his helmet, but a subtle shift overtakes the story, and soon events are hurtling in a new and surprising direction that concludes as a powerful and moving metaphor for the difference between the patriots who fought in World War II and the missions our military are asked to undertake today. Even if you do not think our current military engagements are entirely corrupt, Carter's warning about how military might be used in the future stands undiminished.
The correlations to Karen Fishler's Mission Memory, reviewed below, are impossible to ignore. It's a grim, grim time when the cultural zeitgeist is trying to come to grips not just with war crimes, but with the responsibility for committing them.
Yet another story of alien (mis)communication this month in "Honor is Golden" (Suzette Haden Elgin) -- apparently quite a popular theme with Analog readers. Also a couple of science fiction in the medical field with "Damned if you Don't" (Jerry Oltion) and "Elixir" (James Gunn). Stronger still, I thought, were:
"Promises" by Richard A. Lovett
Lovett's narrator is a man of aging years who has, all his life, loved hiking in the wilderness. On the first trip with his nephew (a brash, hi-tech young man), he finds himself forced to come to terms with choices he made decades back -- and has regretted ever since.
This tale of regret and memory really story struck home. I am sure everyone holds certain private regrets in the recesses of memory. But regret in the form of an independent, auburn haired beauty, well, that's a particularly tough one. The psychological portrayal is particularly acute: "How often... had I allowed inertia, fear, and commitments to be my guides through situations that could have been... life changing opportunities?" Hello, brother. Welcome home.
Using an intriguing sfnal device -- direct, experience blogging -- Lovett imagines that his character finally gets in touch with the real state of mind at the time of the pivotal encounter with the beautiful young woman he didn't choose. Reliving the first experience, he finds that the motivations that brought him to make this terrible 'mistake' were, if anything, more complex than he has imagined them to be over time, and that the whole experience was not the craven foolishness that his hindsight had built it to be. Lovett challenges the quick escape from romantic mistake that Hollywood romantic comedies so often offer.
Ultimately, I had only one qualm with this story. I, frankly, couldn't accept the fact that the narrator had obsessed about this young woman all his life, and yet had never once loaded the experience blog of the encounter. Given everything we learn about him, the troubled marriage that did take place, the inevitable and ugly break-up, the long years of loneliness -- if this guy was really running alternate history fantasies in his mind, I am pretty sure he would have gone back to the source. I think the author could have achieved the same effect by having had the character obsessively reliving that one moment over and over in the years following, before putting it away. Perhaps after therapy, perhaps he recognized it as something destructive and addictive. Only when, in this a moment of weakness (or perhaps, new strength) does he return to what he thinks he knows by heart and discover the new nuances in the original recording.
"Harpoon" by G. David Nordley
Erikka Nilsdotter commands a save-the-whales sailing vessel. She had predatory whalers seeking to destroy her ship on the one side, and would-be martyrs throwing themselves into the sea on the other. But in the end, her biggest concern is neither her enemies nor her friends, but the possibility that saving the whales may not be the noble defense of sentience in the sea that she thought it was -- and for a very surprising reason.
I love the central theme of this story: the revelation that a moral certainty, an absolute conviction, has been executed in exactly the wrong way, and that a total reverse direction is required -- even if it completely compromises the 'cause.' Additionally, I think Nordley did a tremendous job of capturing the psychology of Greenpeace-style activists, both for good and bad. My reading of the story was probably not entirely typical though: I was under the apparently false impression that sperm whales only eat plankton! When I got to the end, then, I harumphed at what I took to be bad research... but thanks to alert reader Mike Brotherton, not only does the story improve dramatically, but I am one smidgeon less ignorant.
Andromeda Spaceways (#11)
Andromeda Spaceways calls itself "Australia's Pulpiest Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine." I can't say for sure whether I agree with this or not, having only an incomplete sampling of Australia's offerings. It is, however, a fine venue for new voices from many nations. Issue number 11 is chock-a-block with short stories, my favorite of which was:
"My Father's New Wife" by Shauna Roberts
Our narrator has lost her boyfriend to the stinking Orilians and their rotten tentacles (actually, they smell quite pleasant, and the tentacles are both solid and useful). Nonetheless, when her father takes up with one, our narrator sets her will to breaking it up. She'll get Mool drunk on horse-radish, use her father's famous miserliness to founder the romance on rocks of finance, poison her with octopus. Fate, however, has other ideas.
This is an utterly charming tale, both in the essence and also in the particulars. It was a pleasure to read, and comes with an absolutely first-rate conclusion. Although pleasantly light throughout, Roberts manages the tricky task of using first person to (a) portray a vicious, scheming, and completely unfair character in her own voice; (b) portray that same character sympathetically; and (c) resolve both the situation and the character's internal tension in a completely convincing manner that up-ends the story. The final paragraphs, which made me laugh aloud in a public place, brings in a dimension that any alert reader had to be thinking about on the from the beginning -- and yet it's still a delightful surprise! Language that seemed perhaps a little naive in the opening returns full-circle on our narrator, demonstrating that Roberts had complete command throughout.
The first of the two double issues, this April-May issue is enormous: two strong novellas (one reviewed below, the other the next installment in Allen M. Steele's Coyote series: "Incident at Goat Kill Creek"), three strong novelettes (one reviewed below, and also William Barton's ambitious account of the end of the world, "Moments of Inertia" -- which the cover illustrates -- and an equally ambitious tale, "Tracker" by Mary Rosenblum). Then there are five short stories! Again, I review one in full, and wish I had space to devote to the others: Robert Reed's "Wealth" -- in which money itself is a character; Judy Klass's "We'll Have Manhattan" which could almost pass for a prequel to the glorious Kurt Russell masterpiece Escape from Manhattan; Larry Niven's "Chicxulub" which brings a slightly different interpretation to the meteor that hit the Yucatan peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous period; and also William Sander's "Sitka" an alternate history (or, perhaps, parallel universe) involving (Vladimir) Lenin and (Jack) London!
"Arabian Wine" by Gregory Feeley
These are the decades following Venice's role as superpower of Mediterranean trade; an age in which -- much like contemporary America -- those who profited from the previous industry are continuing to profit by smart investment of their money, but not by any actual innovation or visionary business practices. Matteo is a younger son in a trading family, watching the slow decline of Venice's prominence. He is afflicted with a terrible case of sea-sickness, making his dreams of being a great trader impossible. But he continues to dream of greatness. With his friend Gaspare he is pursuing the use of steam: at first to build a water pump, and with the ultimate goal of an engine. He is also convinced that the Arabian bean Caofa could be a major new source of profit for Venice (and his family): a new commodity that will sweep Europe by storm. Fate, however, does not plan to deal lightly with Matteo.
Some readers have felt this was perhaps not speculative enough to count as speculative fiction. Admittedly, it is more the might-have-been of historical fiction, than the might-have-been-if of alternate history. However, it is also a story that is very much about science (in this case, the steam engine), and it also speaks strongly to contemporary social, political, and economic trends.
It's also a great story. Matteo is a very engaging character, and one dreams with him. As he struggles against the change-averse forces both within his family and within Venice, the reader agonizes over how close he comes to success. Feeley does an absolutely outstanding job creating characters that are believable, likeable, an imperfect. He also demonstrates a very mature view of his subject matter: the psychological differences between trader and tradesman, between engineer and bureaucrat, between secular and clerical officials all come through with inspired clarity and wisdom. Like any great work, it is impossible to summarize either the story or the thematic material without losing an enormous part of the richness. Although this is not a short novella, it could scarcely have been written in fewer words: it is its own tightest explanation.
"Leaving His Cares Behind Him" by Kage Baker
Lord Ermenwyr seems to be a classic rake. His daddy has cut off the money, the creditors are tailing him, and the women are starting to wonder if he's as trustworthy as they thought. Perhaps it's time to move on. Perhaps even back to the parental estate in the boring rural regions.
Once again, Kage Baker shows her outstanding command of the storyteller's art. Just when you think you know exactly what kind of a punk little Lord Ermenwyr really is, everything changes for the weirder and more wonderful.
The story is a pure delight, start to finish. When Ermenwyr is revealed as a more complex character than he initially seems, it kicks the whole story up a notch, and the characters of his larger-than-life parents, and the demonic nursery maid (gives a wholesome new meaning to 'Succubus'), and the courtiers, and ultimately, his brother -- all are fabulous characters painted in rich colors.
If there are any deep meanings or important metaphors here, I missed 'em. I was too busy devouring this wonderful tale.
"The Dark Side of Town" by James Patrick Kelly
Talisha and Ricky are getting by, but that's about it. The apartment is small, and they can't afford luxuries. So when Talisha finds some very expensive, very perverted designer nano-tech pornography in Ricky's underwear drawer, she's doesn't only suffer the usual concern about emotional betrayal, she's irate about the sacrifices she has been forced to make for Ricky's habit. And yet, she thinks, maybe, she still loves Ricky. What's a woman to do?
In the introductory blurb, we are told that Kelly found this one of his harder stories to write. I'm still not sure he's gotten it right.
There's no question, Kelly's talent is up to the challenge here: his initial characterizations of Talisha, of Ricky, of their life bring everything immediately and vividly to life. His depiction of Talisha's devastated response to her discovery is delicate and convincing. Still, the central theme of the story seems divided against itself.
I thought this was going to be about pornography. And at least some of it is about what porn can do to a relationship. What it does to the man; what it does to the woman; what it does to their connection. But mid-story, the whole business is recast by new developments that -- in my reading -- don't quite fit the characters and seem to leave some pretty big holes in the plot.
Ricky, it turns out, isn't tropistically following some hormonally driven compulsion. He isn't slave to some hardwired fetish, the prisoner of some neural loop that is impoverishing both his imagination and their joint checkbook. Instead, the story becomes something of a paean to the value, and virtue, of fantasy. The tale ends up exploring the necessary role an active fantasy life can play in confrontation with circumstances that are too limited for the living mind. But this is not at all about sexual desires or compulsions. Which turns out to be good news for Talisha, but a puzzler for the plot.
To get to this point Kelly is required to transform Talisha from the fury of the jilted woman to a still-loving wife, but this transformation simply doesn't ring true for me -- at least, not in this text. Secondly, it doesn't end up making any sense for Ricky to have kept his nano-tech virtual-reality pills as a dirty little secret from his wife -- since there turns out to be not dirty little secret. Most importantly of all, since we have been convinced that this porn-habit is bankrupting them, the final resolution that this fantasy is a good thing never answers the question of how they are going to pay for it. In fact, it seems that if they had enough money to afford the fantasy pills for them both, they would also have enough money to actually build the life they want.
The beauty of fantasy -- of real, ordinary, unenhanced fantasy -- is that it's totally free. Human imagination is unrestrained by social convention, unlimited by any economic or political restriction, and as powerful as any magic bean. I think Kelly has some important material here, both with regard to Talitha's approach to what she thinks is a costly pornographic addiction, and also with regard to fantasy in more general terms, but I don't think this story puts all the pieces together in the most effective manner.
On message boards, I noticed a number of people picking the cover story, "Dancer in the Dark" by David Gerrold as their best-of-issue. In fact, there was so much diversity in this, with alien-contact science fiction ("The Ocean of the Blind" by James L. Cambias), traditional fantasy ("The Unpleasantness at le Chateau Malveillant," a new Kedrigern story by John Morressy), dark, contemporary fantasy ("Silent Echoes," a seriously weird change-of-pace from Albert E. Cowdrey, and "The Seventh Daughter," an even weirder piece by Bruce McAllister), dark science fiction ("The Forest on the Asteroid" by Robert Sheckley), and a good old retelling of one of the Grimm's brothers lesser known pieces ("The Millstone" by Kate Mason) -- I don't see how anyone could compare the stuff in this lot! I will, however, confess that the story I enjoyed the most was:
"Gas" by Ray Vukcevich
Jack is crazy for Lindsay, but he knows something's up. She's making more of this concert by famous floutist Aloysius Mann than strikes Jack as reasonable. And it's a strange concert, what with the secret location, the hard-to-find tickets, the password at the door. And the gas masks. Still, Jack is willing to go through it all because he truly loves her. It's as if he was made for her. Which, it turns out, he was.
There is something untamed about Vukcevich's prose. He builds this story detail by detail. His view of classical purists willing to don gas masks for a concert -- and yet still outraged by a whispered comment is dead-on. Even as he co-opts old-school pulpy portrayals of aliens, he affectionately uses them to craft a timeless, beautiful love story. There is nothing new about this story, except for everything Vukcevich has done with it. Delightful, uplifting, inspiring, beautiful.
May brought a mix I just couldn't ignore. Lest this article become truly interminable, however, I will have to skim over "How it Feels" by Robert Reed (a magnificently cryptic story of what might be alien invasion), "So Good a Day" by Sheila Finch (a supernatural take on the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940), "The Long Run" by John Morressy (something of a variation on Stephen King's The Long Walk), "Jew if by Sea" by Richard Mueller (alternate history in which the Nazis won WWII), and "Serpent" by James Patrick Kelly (back in the Garden of Eden, God has made a second attempt -- and a Serpent's work is never done).
"Quarry" by Peter S. Beagle
The narrator of this novelette is the eponymous quarry. On the run from mysterious forces, tracked by terrifying beasts, things seem beyond hopeless until he meets an old man travelling the Queen's Highway in a dung cart. Perhaps two can flee more efficiently than one, if they can trust each other, which it soon turns out, they cannot.
The essential problem of first person narrative in adventure fiction is that the survival of the narrator is implicit. However dreadful the dangers may seem, we know that 'I' is somewhere, sometime, telling the story. Beagle's narrator, however, is in constant dialog with the events he is narrating: commenting on his own foolishness, his mistakes, casting forward references to the unpleasant consequences of ill-chosen decisions. We know he survives, but we also know that his flight is, to some extent, in vain. He will be caught; his companion is not his friend. Terrible things will transpire. It would take a reader with great strength of will to put this down without finding out how the narrator manages to survive, and what betrayals he must suffer along the way.
"Kissing Frogs" by Jaye Lawrence
"Single Green Frog seeks his princess. Do you believe in fairy tales? One kiss and it's happily ever after. No smokers, please. PETA members preferred." When Sarah read this personal ad, she didn't necessarily expect the frog to be quite so literal in form. Turns out the second latte she brought along isn't going to be needed. But if the frog wasn't quite what Sarah was expecting, turns out the frog is going to be in for a surprise, too.
This is a marvelously witty little tale. After reading the story, it behooves one to reread the personals ad one more time. Sci-fi sometimes goes a little overboard when it comes to punning, but this tale has heartfelt emotion and sly fun-with-words in equal measure. There was no Prince Charming here, and yet I found myself quite charmed.
"The Masked City" by Melanie Fazie
Venice must be in the air! This is the second story about Venice covered in this article (along with Arabian Wine), but what a different Venice it is! This story was translated from the French by no less than Brian Stableford, and is a reprinting from Emblémes no. 5: Venise Noire.
If you've ever been to Venice, odds are you've still never been to Venice. Melanie Fazi takes the reader on a tour of a city that is not, in any but the most superficial sense of the term, beautiful. The narrator is locked in a life-and-death struggle with the spirit of this dark, filthy, and ruthless city, and it is fairly clear who is winning.
The narrator is the main character, but the most memorable character is the city itself. Fazi's observations on the spirit of a city are exquisite; her descriptions are delightfully gruesome. A gem of a short story. Once again, kudos to Van Gelder for bringing international fiction to an American audience.
During most of March, SciFiction was putting out Severna Park's enjoyable novella, "The Three Unknowns." As fun as that tale of academic intrigue was to read, it was a shorter story by far that piqued my interest:
"The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" by John Kessel
There was a story in the fifties or sixties that this one reminds me of, perhaps someone will twig to it and share the reference in the forums. Was it Ellison's "Commuter's Problem" in which a man, lost in the labyrinth of passages below Grand Central Stations stumbles onto a platform he has never seen before and boards a train to another world?
In this story, Sid is just out of prison. Dot was never in. They pick up where they left off, rifling a vacation home on the rumor of $10,000, hard currency. They find a hell of a lot more than that when Sid finds a secret door at the back of a closet.
The details here are absolutely perfect. Beautiful turns of phrase abound such as: "Dot sat... with her purse in her lap, calm as a Christian holding four aces." The characterizations of Sid and Dot are concise, vivid, and marvelously distinct. Although they are both, to a degree, archetypes in the white trash set, Kessel suggests just enough individuality and personal history to bring them both to life.
The story, however, does lack a certain something in the end. The difficulty is summed up by Sid himself: "Somebody always has to pay." And yet, there is a disappointing lack of repercussions (not to mention explanations) for all that transpires here.
Strange Horizons (March)
Due to the shape of the calendar, March was a full month for Strange Horizons -- and most of it came in the shape of fables. "For Now It's Eight O'Clock" by Alex Irvine depicts a town terrorized by a child-stealing sprite. "Louisa, Johnny, and the North Shore Huldre" by S. Evans takes us to 1889 and a seductive spirit interfering with the postal delivery process -- not to mention, Louisa's husband Johnny. "The Grammarian's Five Daughters" by Eleanor Arnason, a reprint that originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy, is a post-modern fable all about parts-of-speech. But the story that I found most challenging was less fable-y and more philosophical:
"Rapture" by Sally Gwylan
It's the early part of the twentieth century, Chicago. Inspired by the workers' revolution overseas, radicals agitate for equality at home. For Anna, however, things take a frightening turn when her friends, and then her lover, are co-opted by a mysterious religious fervor. Investigating, she discovers that a strange powder has been used during the revival meeting to influence their minds. At first she strives to combat this influence, but ultimately she finds herself in a position to make use of it.
There is an intriguing moral and philosophical conundrum at the heart of this story. Gwylan textures the text very plausibly with the smells and sounds of tenement life; the voice in her narrator is convincing of the era. Even without the challenge at the core of this tale, it would be a very fine piece of writing.
But here's the question: if you are preaching the true freedom of the human race -- freedom from economic injustice, freedom from spiritual tyranny, freedom to choose your own way in life -- what do you do if the means to achieve your goal is something that manipulates the human mind? When the magic fairy dust is being used by the preacher for his own ends, Anna knows it is an evil. If Religion is the opiate of the masses, this fairy dust is crack cocaine. But when it accidentally falls into her hands, and turns all of Chicago in a surprising shift towards a worker's paradise, what does that mean? Has she furthered the cause of freedom? Or done irreparable harm? Is it good for people to believe -- and to do -- the right things even when it is not entirely their own unencumbered will making it so?
Gwylan's writing is graceful, her plotting smooth, her characters come alive. Her question, however, gets to the very essence of human freedom. She opens the moral tension between honesty and social well-being in a story that rivals A Clockwork Orange for philosophical and political relevance.
The 3rd Alternative (#37)
The only publication from Britain I currently see, The 3rd Alternative is usually infused with the flavor of that nation. This one, however, seems to have more of an American taste.
"You Will Hear the Locust Sing" by Joe Hill
When Francis Kay wakes up to find that he's a bug, you can't help but track the comparisons to Kafka. Francis Kay, however, is a bug for all the usual genre reasons: he's a misfit in school, and there are nuclear experiments being conducted over yonder. As a bug, Francis has just one problem: nothing tastes good. He's going to die of hunger if he doesn't figure out what his razor sharp claws are good for, and also that acid spray. Believe me: he does.
This is at once completely charming and unspeakably grotesque. Over the past year or so, we have seen a number of more or less successful attempts on the part of science fiction to come to terms with 9/11. This is the first I have seen to deal with Columbine. And it succeeds beautifully.
"Mission Memory" by Karen Fishler
Along with The Liberators, reviewed above, this is the second story that tries to understand the nature of the modern military conflict.
The drugs aren't working: Jonathan can't forget. Perhaps he's just 'disadapting' to the medicine, or perhaps he's finally killed one too many children, but he can't forget. They were raised together to be a tribe of killers; they are medicated so that the slaughter required of them doesn't break them -- either by creating impossible guilt, or turning into a fetish. Jonathan, then, is coming apart from his tribe, and yet what else does he have?
This is a more delicate variant on the Starship Troopers theme. Instead of bugs, there are just civilians. The war -- if there is one -- has no meaning. We are never apprised of the purpose of the killing, which is fine: for neither are the killers. Fishler does a fine job of creating an impossible tension familiar to many Americans these days: the unbearable pull between love of the tribe, and the sinking, certain knowledge that the tribe is desperately, terribly wrong.
"Terrible Ones" by Tim Pratt
The Furies of Greek Mythology are three broke-down women living in the Tenderloin (in fact, they remind me rather strongly of the Triplets of Belleville). Zara is an actress who occasionally does dominatrix work to make ends meet. Doug is one of her clients from this latter role who has taken their role-playing a little too seriously. Behind all these characters is a mysterious figure who has set everything in motion. From the outset, with the appearance of a rather shabby Greek Choir, we know that tragedy and violence are the inevitable result. The climax will be the opening night performance of Medea, in which Zara has the lead role.
Not only is this a highly entertaining story with some laugh-out-loud humor along the way, it also becomes a surprisingly moving paean to story itself. Even though you think you know where the story is going, Pratt turns the thematic material on its head in the climactic scene, sucker-punching the reader with a powerful philosophy of the importance -- and ethics -- of storytelling.